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Saturday, November 30, 2013

S. J. Harper: FALLEN SIREN SERIES

Author:  S. J. Harper (pseudonym for the writing team of Jeanne C. Stein and Samantha Sommersby)
Series:  FALLEN SIREN SERIES   
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF), heavy on the romance 
Ratings:  Violence3-4; Sensuality4; Humor—2 
Publisher and Titles:  Roc
          "Captured" (novella .56/2014)
          Cursed (novel 110/2013)
          Reckoning (novel 210/2014)   
          "Forsaken" (novella 2.56/2015)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 7/14/15 to include a review of "Forsaken," the 2.5 novella. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the prequel novella and the first two novels.

                  NOVELLA 2.5:  "Forsaken"                  
PUBLISHER'S BLURB:
     Join Agents Emma Monroe and Zack Armstrong.She protected him. He loved her. They can trust one another with their lives, but what about their hearts?

     Special Agent Emma Monroe is a Fallen Siren seeking redemption. Thousands of years ago, she was banished from Mount Olympus by Zeus and cursed by Demeter for failing to prevent the kidnapping of Persephone by Hades. Now she’s working for the FBI, seeking salvation while searching for and finding the missing. Her partner, Zack Armstrong, is a werewolf with a grievance of his own.

     The former Black Ops sniper who once carried out a string of questionable assignments is atoning for his past. Ironically, Zack’s just discovered an important piece of his past has been magically wiped from his memory—an affair with Emma. It doesn’t matter she used the spell to save his life, that’s something he’ll never know. With trust eroded and love overshadowed by betrayal the only thing holding them together is the job.

     When the son of multi-billionaire Roger Maitlan is kidnapped and his babysitter murdered in cold blood, Emma and Zack travel to New York to work the case. They go undercover, infiltrating a playground of private dungeons where those who are rich and powerful can live out fantasies without consequence. What they find is a conspiracy born of a twisted mind and fueled by greed. The clock is ticking. Will Zack and Emma be able to find the missing boy and their way back to one another? 

MY REVIEW:
     The action picks up immediately following the events in Reckoning, and Zack is still furious with Emma as they fly into New York City to investigate the kidnapping of a billionaire's son. That billionaire, Roger Maitlan, turns out to be a long-time associate of Zack's who has pulled some strings to make sure that Zack is assigned to the case. 

     The plot plays out like a police procedural with a lot of twists and turns and a few magic touches. The partners are assigned to work with a New York FBI task force so they have to be sure to keep their supernatural natures hidden when they are not alone. At first the case appears to be a straightforward kidnapping, but then Emma and Zack learn that Maitlan is keeping some dark secrets that are coming back to haunt him. As they search for clues and deal with ransom demands, Zack has to rely on his werewolf form more than once, and Emma must let loose her Siren magic to make a suspect talk. One of the most enjoyable scenes is the one in which Emma goes undercover as a sexy dominatrix wearing a latex cat suit and carrying a riding cropquite a change from her usual mousy disguise, and one that really turns Zack on.

     This time around, Zack and Emma are on their own, with no interference from Kallistos Kouros (the Western Vampire King, Emma's former lover) or Demeter (the goddess who cursed the Sirens). That gives them a chance to work through their feelings for one another. Zack can't help but be angry that Emma wiped his memories, but he soon quells his outrage and attempts to accept that she must have done it for a good reasoneven if she won't tell him what that reason was. Emma loves Zack, but she can't act on those feelings because if she does, Demeter will kill him. Somehow, Emma has to make Zack understand her situation without spelling it out directlyquite a dilemma! To be clear, though, Emma and Zack's relationship problems have no adverse affect on their high voltage sexual attraction, and they manage to sneak away for several steamy interludes.

     This is another strong entry in a solid series with fully developed lead characters and consistently well-planned plots. The action subplot of each story is always suspenseful and original, and the romance subplot always sets new roadblocks in the way of their seemingly impossiblebut very hotromance. As we leave Emma at the end of "Forsaken," she is mentally repeating the phrase that keeps her going: "Redemption could be one rescue away," Perhaps if she finds just one more missing person, Demeter will set her free. She can only hope. Click HERE to read an excerpt from "Forsaken."

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of "Forsaken" is based on a free electronic copy of the book that I received from the publisher. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.

                  WORLD-BUILDING                  
      Set in San Diego, California, this is a world in which supernaturals exist among humans but keep their true identities and their powers hidden. In the past, supernaturals kept to themselves and limited their contact with humans, but in recent years, more and more are living and working with humans, and that is causing some dissension in the ranks of the older supernaturals. 

     In the U.S., vampires live under the control of four sovereigns, and they are not all in favor of the increase in human contact. The vamps in this series can day-walk if they take a certain medication called Protectus, and they generally subsist on bagged blood that they purchase at Blood Emporiums. Emporiums opened up a couple of decades ago, around the same time that Protectus was discovered….It's these two things that really sparked the mainstream movement. It started here in California and spread east, then into Europe and other parts of the world. (p. 104) Werewolves generally live in packs, under the control of their pack leader. In general, the vamps and werewolves in this mythology have the usual traditional powers. For example, vamps are strong and fast and can do memory wipes, and werewolves have the usual moon problem once a month.

     The series heroine is FBI Special Agent Emma Monroe, a Siren. At the beginning of the book, the authors provide this three-part definition of a Siren:
1. One of three sisters ejected from Mount Olympus by Zeus and cursed by Demeter for failing to prevent Hades from kidnapping Persephone (Demeter's daughter).
2. An immortal goddess bound to earth who, in search of her own salvation, saves others from peril. 
3. A beautiful and powerful seductress, capable of infiltrating the minds of others in order to extract truth or exert influence.
     Here is Demeter's decree to the Fallen Sirens—her curse: You will live as mortal, but love will be denied to you, and you will rescue girls until I, Demeter, think you have done your penance. I will be watching. Always watching. Cross me, your lover will die, and your penance will increase tenfold. All because you didn't save my daughter. (from Cursed, p. 284)

                  PREQUEL NOVELLA: "Captured"                  
      "Captured," which was published several months after Cursed, fills in the details on the initial meeting between FBI special agents Emma Monroe (Siren) and Zack Armstrong (werewolf), the series protagonists. You can read the two works in either order, because "Captured" is just a lengthy flashback that has nothing to do with the action plot of Cursed

     In this novella, Emma flies from San Diego to Charleston to serve as a consultant on a serial kidnapping/murder case. She is assigned to work with Zack, whose regular partner is unavailable due to a tragic family situation. Naturally, Emma and Zack are immediately attracted to one another, but Emma knows better than to let herself fall for him. She knows that Demeter wouldn't think twice about killing Zack if she thought Emma had feelings for him because that is the crux of the curse Demeter put on the Sirens centuries ago. (Read the World-Building section of this post for more details on Demeter and the curse.)

     Mostly, this is a police procedural as Emma and Zack work together interviewing witnesses and family members, following up on clueswhich are few and far between, and constantly reassessing the information they have gathered. Eventually, they break the case wide open, and then they have that one night of passion that is referred to in the opening pages of Cursed. Even though Emma knows that Zack is a werewolf, she can't let him know that she knows because that would lead to questions she doesn't want to answer about her own supernatural nature. She also can't explain to Zack why she insists on just this one night, with no follow-up phone calls, texts, or visits. So…it could be a great relationship if only Emma wasn't living under Demeter's curse.

     One fact about Emma that we learn in this novella (and I can't really remember if it was explained in detail in Cursed) is her glamour, which is supplied by Emma's best friend, Liz: “Liz works two spells for me—a reverse glamour to hide my true appearance and a dampening spell that diminishes both my innate powers of seduction and the nifty little side effect that makes me the most reliable lie detector ever.” (chapter 2) 
     The story is well-constructed and fast paced, and the lead characters have enough dimension for the reader to get attached to them, although I'm sure that my knowledge of their personalities from having read Curse first bled over into my reading of this novella. The only criticism I have is that excessive quantities of food and clothing details were shoe-horned into the story line. The clothing details were more frequent in the beginning and eventually eased up, but the food details continued right up to the vanilla gelato and Limoncello the couple consume at the end of their final meal together before Emma takes off for California, leaving Zack behind. In chapter four alone, they chow down on bacon and cheddar pancakes, scrambled eggs, honey-glazed salmon, salad, fries, pulled pork sandwich, baked mac and cheese, cheddar grits, coffee, and tea. Whew! I’m stuffed. 

     Putting the food and clothing over-zealousness aside, this is a nice introduction to the series that sets up Emma's predicament and introduces the man she is extremely attracted to but is afraid to love. I believe that this is going to be a solid series with a fresh take on the frustrations and dangers of being an urban fantasy heroine. In this series, it's not personal danger from the bad guys that worries the heroine the most; it's danger to her loved ones at the hands of a vengeful goddess. This novella begins and ends with Emma's mantra: "Redemption could be just one rescue away," which is the hope that keeps her going. Click HERE to read an excerpt from "Captured." 

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of "Captured" is based on a free electronic copy of the book that I received from the publisher. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own.  

                  NOVEL 1:  Cursed                  
     The title of this book refers to its heroine: Emma Monroe, who is a Siren. Emma looks as if she is in her late twenties, but she is thousands of years old. Demeter cursed all three Sirens to live their never-ending immortal lives without love. If they fall in loveor if a man ever falls in love with themthat man immediately dies. Emma found that out the hard way early on when she married a man she loved and then had to bury him three days later. Demeter has promised eventual redemption for the Sirens, but only when they have rescued enough women to atone for their sin. 

     As the story opens, Emma is shocked to learn that her new partner is Zack Armstrong, the werewolf she shared a night of passion with a year ago when both were assigned to the same case. Emma and Zack are both FBI special agents, and Zack has now been transferred to the San Diego office. Their first case involves a missing artist, but when more people go missing and when those cases turn out to be connected, the situation gets complicated and dangerous. 

     The book has two branches in its story line: the romance and the action. In the romance, Emma falls hard for Zack (and vice versa), but she knows that she has to end it to keep him from being murdered by Demeter. To complicate matters, Zack's ex-girlfriend (another werewolf) turns up in San Diego determined to win Zack back. Meanwhile, Zack is trying his best to atone for his past, which has included some wicked deeds that he tries not to think or talk about. 


     In the action plot, Emma and Zack discover that the missing persons all have a supernatural connection. As the intrepid pair follow the clues, they uncover a diabolical scheme that they must stop before more people disappear. Unfortunately, the scheme is so supernatural in nature that they have to keep their investigation on the down-low so that the FBI doesn't learn that supernaturals actually exist.


     This is a well-written book—as you would expect from these experienced and talented authors. The lead characters—Emma and Zack—are fully developed with haunting back stories that deepen their appeal. Even the supporting characters have depth, and that's something you don't always find in this genre. Near the end of the book, we meet a character who will no doubt form the third part of an emotional triangle with Emma and Zack. I don't want to say any more about him because that would be a spoiler. I'll just say that he is a very strong, flawed character who immediately amps up the plot progression and adds a satisfying—if discordant—note of dangerous excitement to the story. I'm definitely looking forward to the next installment. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Cursed. Click HERE to view a "Reading Guide" for Cursed.



                  NOVEL 2:  Reckoning                  
WARNING: This review contains spoilers for Cursed.


     First, let's get the romance out of the way (and this is where the spoilers come in). As the book opens, FBI Special Agent Emma Monroe has entered into a friends-with-benefits relationship with Kallistos Kouros, the Western Vampire King, even though she is truly in love with her werewolf partner, Special Agent Zack Armstrong. Because of Demeter's curse (see the World-Building section of this post for details), Emma had her witchy friend Liz erase all memories of the intimate actions that took place between Emma and Zack in the prequel novella and book 1 because Emma doesn't want Demeter to kill him. Although Emma is enjoying her sexual relationship with Kallistos, she doesn't love him, and he is beginning to become overly possessive in the way that studly vampires are wont to do. Meanwhile, Zack and Sarah, his ex-girlfriend, are living together, but that relationship isn't going very well either.

     Now for the action part of the book, which has several connected branches: As the book opens, Emma and Zack are assigned to a serial kidnapping case in which three teenage girlsall students at the same private schooldisappear one right after another over Labor Day weekend. As Emma and Zack gather clues and follow leads, this part of the story plays out like a police procedural. Eventually, they find a vampire connection, and that leads into two other story lines, one involving Zack and Sarah's former pack leader and the other involving a powerful vampire from outside Kallistos' territory.

     Eventually, the love triangle action flares up in several unexpected ways, leaving Emma uncertain as to her future with either man. The action plot ends with the requisite showdown scene that resolves the kidnapping mystery, but it leaves some important loose ends that will no doubt come back to haunt several of the characters.

     I truly enjoyed Reckoning, mainly because of the misery the authors keep dumping on poor Emma (and isn't that perverse?). Demeter is the true villain in this series, hovering constantly in the background, watching and waiting for Emma to show signs of fully falling for Zack, at which time she will sweep in and do away with himpermanently. Demeter is completely untrustworthy, a fact that Emma needs to remember, but keeps forgetting. The action parts of the plotalthough they are well written and fast pacedare there primarily as a framework for this tortured love affair. Kallistos, the third part of the love triangle, is a complex and fascinating mana vampire who never forgets or downplays what he is and a king who always acts first and foremost to protect himself and his vampire subjects. That latter character trait is what Emma has trouble understanding and accepting. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Reckoning

     According to the S.J. Harper web site, the authors have contracted for just two novels, and those books have now been published. As of this date, I have not been able to determine if more books are coming. I will update this post as soon as more information is available.

     In many ways this series reminds me of Richelle Mead's GEORGINA KINCAID series in which Georgina, a succubus, cannot physically be with Seth, her true love, because every time they engage in any sensuous activity (even kissing), she risks killing him because succubi are genetically programmed to automatically drain the life energy of any sexual partner, resulting in his death. Click HERE to read my overview of the GEORGINA series along with a review of the final book. Mead kept poor Georgina and Seth hovering miserably and frustratingly on edge for SIX books. I wonder how many books it will take for Emma and Zack to earn their HEAif, that is, they ever get it. If you haven't read the GEORGINA series, I highly recommend it.

Friday, November 29, 2013

UPDATE! Ashlyn Chase's FLIRTING WITH FANGS SERIES

UPDATE!


I have just updated a previous post for Ashlyn Chase with a review of How to Date a Dragon, the second novel in her FLIRTING WITH FANGS SERIES.

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the updated review.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tessa Adams: LONE STAR WITCH SERIES

Author:  Tessa Adams (aka Tracy Wolff, real name: Tracy Deebs-Elkenaney)
Series:  LONE STAR WITCH   
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF) with elements of Horror
Ratings:  Violence-4; Sensuality-4; Humor-1 
Publisher and Titles:  Signet Eclipse
          Soulbound (12/2013 )
          Flamebound (12/2013)  

     This post was revised and updated on 12/21/13 to include a review of Flamebound, the second novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of the first novel.

             NOVEL 2:  Flamebound             
      With the perpetrator of Xandra's harrowing torture (in book 1) behind bars in a human jail, she is hoping that her life will calm down so that she and her soul-bound lover, Declan, can get to know one another better. After all, they have been together as a couple for only about a week, and she's already having second thoughts about falling for this dark and dangerous man. Xandra is also hoping that her compulsion to find dead bodies has also ceased; but that is not the case. 

     Early in the book, someone begins killing members of the Arcadian Council of Witches, and each murder forces a compulsion on Xandra, causing her to travelagainst her willto each murder scene and hang around until the body is removed. In addition to these serial killings, a little girl named Shelby has been kidnapped. Shelby is a neighbor of one of Xandra's friends (a passing love interest in book 1): Nate, a police detective who believes that Xandra is a psychic. The action part of the plot follows Xandra as she obeys her compulsions and also has visions (or dreams) about Shelby. This is something new for Xandra because ordinarily her  visions occur only after a person has died violently. But this time, she is able to converse with Shelby, who is still alive and begging Xandra to save her. The clues Shelby gives Xandra during their conversations eventually help her solve the case. 

    Late in the book, someone blows up Xandra's family's homewith all of the family members inside. At this point, Xandra doesn't know who to suspect of what. She has to solve the Council murders, Shelby's kidnapping, and the bombing. Could they all be connected? The identity of the book's villain is telegraphed early on in the action and more (very obvious) clues are dropped in several scenes throughout the story, so the final showdown scene has no surprises. This is one of the biggest weaknesses in the plotting: The actual plot is quite simplistic, with no twists and turns. The author just uses a familiar mystery trope and then drops clues (with a big clunk!) that the reader recognizes immediately, but that the heroine doesn't pick up on until the very last moment. 

     Most of the book (I would estimate at least 75%) consists of a long, drawn-out, angst-filled interior monologue in which Xandra waffles back and forth on whether she can and should maintain a long-term romantic relationship with Declan. Typically, these monologues go on for several pages and then explode into either a major pout or an argument with Declanwhich is immediately followed by graphically depicted make-up sex. This pattern is repeated at length throughout the book.  

     Most of Xandra's fears about Declan's dark side are related to the fact that he plans to take mortal revenge on the Council members who hired Kyle to torture Xandra (in book 1). Xandra is horrified that Declan wants to kill the people responsible for the deaths of four innocent women and the torture of his soul-bound mate: "I understand Declan's anger. I do. If someone tried to hurt him, kill him, I'd hunt the bastard myself. Take great joy in watching him rot in prison forever. But vengeance of the type Declan demands? Sanctioning violent, premeditated murder? Or doing it himself? That I can't understandor get behind." (p. 181) Even Xandra's friend, Lily, disagrees with her on this topic. When Xandra tells Lily what Declan plans to do, Lily says, "I knew there was a reason I liked that man." (p. 143)

     Once again, I have to say that Xandra behaves more like a 17-year-old  adolescent than a 27-year-old woman. It's a wonder that she (and the reader) don't suffer from whiplash as she changes her mind about Declan from one moment (or paragraph) to the next. For example, on one page she muses, "I know he's got my best interest at heart. No matter what he's doing, no matter how he's doing it, I know that what he really wants is to protect me." (p. 168), but several paragraphs later, she's thinking "How can I trust him when the shadows around him grow darker with each day that passes?" (p. 169) Following this mercurial flip-flop, she and Declan indulge in yet another gratuitous sex scene. This cycle of immature emotional fluctuation repeats itself over and over again to the point that I found myself just paging past all that angst. All the way through the book, Xandra worries that Declan's darkness is affecting her lightnessthat being with him will make her darker and that she cannot live with his dark side. Then, late in the story, she has a major epiphany, claiming that she realizes for the very first time that "we see things differentlymagic, the world, ourselves and each otherwill probably always see things differently." (p. 181) How in the world can she just now be realizing their differences when that is exactly what she has been whining about for the past 180 pages? Back on p. 143, Lily even points it out to her in no uncertain terms: "Declan's an eye-for-an-eye kind of guy. You didn't really expect anything different from him, did you?"

     Xandra always assumes that anything Declan thinks or does is motivated solely by his darkness, so when he explains his theory that a conspiracy connects some of the crimes they are investigating, she castigates him and accuses him of jumping to these dark conclusions without thinking things through. I have to tell you, it was a comedic moment (for me, anyhow) when Declan responded, "Don't lecture me in that prissy tone, Xandra." (p. 230) (Of course, Xandra is highly offended, but Declan is absolutely correct.)

     Another common theme in Xandra's interior monologues is her fragility. She frequently admits to herself that she feels fragile, but then she gets insulted when Declan worries aloud about her fragility. Speaking of Declan, he is constantly scooping Xandra up and carrying her around, washing (and conditioning!) her hair, and healing her many, many wounds and bruises. While she always reminds him that she is tough and independent and can take care of herself, she generally appears to be enjoying every bit of his over-protective attention.

     The story has several plot bumps, such as the fact that Xandra had no idea that the ACW headquarters has been in Austin (actually, under Austin) for over a century. She is a member of the royal family, so how could she not know this? Also, once again, Xandra has several TSTL moments when she takes off all by herself, going into dangerous situations in the middle of the night (and generally being rescued by Declan).

     This book is weaker than the first, mostly because there isn't much of a plot, and the outcome is telegraphed so loudly that the resolution is a foregone conclusion. This heroine really needs to grow up so that her emotions and her behavior reflect her chronological age. If it weren't for all of the graphic sex, I'd classify this as YA fiction.

             WORLD-BUILDING             
      This is a world in which witches, wizards, and warlocks live amongst humans but conceal their identities and their powers. These supernatural beings are governed by a corrupt (as is always the case) group called the Arcadian Council of Witches, Wizards and Warlocks (ACW). Here is one council employees' description of the group: "The Council is made up of twelve indomitable personalities, all of whom are convinced they are right one hundred per cent of the time. Which can be…challenging when they're at different ends of the spectrum and I'm stuck in the middle, trying to figure out whose orders I'm supposed to follow." (p. 91) And here is the heroine's view of the ACW: "I always thought of the ACW as this untouchable group of witches and wizards who don't actually care what people think of them since they're appointed to the Council for life." (p. 92) Members of the heroine's family believe that the ACW has taken a dark turn in recent years. In fact, the heroine's father refused to take his inherited seat on the Council for that very reason. In general, the American witches don't pay too much attention to the Council, because it is headquartered in Europe and has left the Americans alone for many years. That, however, is about to change. At one point in the story, there is a hint that other types of supernatural beings exist when a Council enforcer says, "The cats and fairies are particularly troublesome." (p. 175) The first book, though, includes only witches, warlocks, and wizards.

     One oddity about these witches is that they wear magic-infused, designer cowboy boots to enhance their powers. As one of them says, "My magic is much stronger when I'm wearing a pair of Luccheses." (p. 204)

     Set in Austin, Texas, the series follows the adventures of Xandra Morgan, the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter of Ipswitch's Royal family of witches. (Ipswitch is Xandra's home townnear Austin.) When Xandra was born 27 years ago, she was supposed to become one of the most powerful witches in the world, but instead her powers have remained latent, except for a few simple spells she learned as a child.

     On Zandra's nineteenth birthdaya milestone occasion that usually signals the onset of a witch's powersZandra once again failed to deliver. When she left her birthday celebration and ran off into the woods in despair, she met Declan Chumomisto, a powerful warlock to whom she felt a tremendous attraction. They spent the night in intimate conversation that included some passionate kisses, but then Zandra found a murdered woman in the woods and Declan disappeared, seemingly for good. Zandra has dreamed about Declan for years and has always felt that he betrayed her by accepting her trust and then abandoning her.

     As a powerless witch in a family of powerful witches, Xandra always felt like a failure and an outsider in Ipswitch. As soon as she was able, she turned her back on her family, went to culinary school, and opened her own coffee shop/bakeryBeanz.

             BOOK 1:  Soulbound             
     As the story opens, Xandra is enjoying her career, but not her occasional trips home to Ipswitch, where her mother constantly activates devious and dangerous plots to kick-start Xandra's witchy powers. One night, Xandra's roommate talks her into going on a blind datedinner and a magic show. The illusionist turns out to be Declan, and in the middle of the show, Xandra feels a compulsion that leads her out into downtown Austin all alone on a stormy night. The compulsion forces her to walk to a lake in a park where she finds the body of a brutally murdered woman. When Xandra touches the woman's body, she physically and emotionally relives the woman's dying moments. Her body becomes bruised and battered, and she feels the killer's knife slashes just like the dead woman felt them. After making her way home, she discovers that she has new sigils (magical tattoo-like marks) on her body that weren't there earlier in the evening.  

     The story follows Xandra as the compulsion hits her several more times (with a new body each time) and as Declan eventually reveals why she feels a strong connection between them. Unfortunately, Xandra falls into a number TSTL moments mostly because she refuses to ask for help and because she withholds information from those who could explain things to her. In several cases, she runs off on her own, which never turns out well for any urban fantasy heroine. The horrific murderswhich include rape and multiple stabbingsmake this more of a horror story than an urban fantasy tale. 

     Xandra's personality skews closer to late adolescent than to late 20s. Although she tries to talk tough, she actually comes across as fragile, needy, and barely able to hold her life together. Declan is the usual dark, moody, alpha hero who expresses a desire to keep Xandra safe, but on the other hand,  he doesn't share important information with her about the reason for her lack of powers until very late in the game.

     This novel has some strong points: an inventive mythology, a decent plot, and a nice depiction of a troubled mother-daughter relationship. What it lacks is a strong heroine who doesn't collapse into an emotional puddle and need to be rescued by a maleeither her brother or her lover.

     I'll be updating this post very soon because the second novel is due shortly.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Leigh Perry: FAMILY SKELETON SERIES


Author:  Leigh Perry (pseudonym for Toni L.P. Kelner)

Series:  FAMILY SKELETON SERIES 
Plot Type:  Cozy Paranormal Mystery (COZ) 
Ratings:  Violence2-3; Sensuality2; Humor3 
Publisher and Titles:  Berkley Prime Crime Books
          A Skeleton in the Family (9/2013) 
          The Skeleton Takes a Bow (9/2014) 
          The Skeleton Haunts a House (10/2015) 

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 10/15/15 to include a review of The Skeleton Haunts a House, the third novel in this series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first two books. 

                       NOVEL 3:  The Skeleton Haunts a House                       
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     What holiday could bring more warmth to a skeleton’s chest cavity than Halloween? And when you’re a living skeleton who’s not supposed to be seen outside the house, it’s a welcome chance to get some fresh air and rub bony elbows with people. That’s why Sid doesn’t mind wearing a full-body dog suit and going as Scooby-Doo along with Georgia Thackery’s Velma to the Halloween Howl.

     Sid can’t wait to go through the Haunted House—but he gets rattled for real when a genuine dead body is discovered. Trapped inside as the police quickly seal off the crime scene, Sid makes no bones about dropping the dog suit and posing as an actual skeleton. This murder is a skull-scratcher, but as long as Sid is on the inside, he might as well case the joint to figure out who used the cover of darkness to commit the perfect crime.

MY REVIEW:
     It's late October in the college town of Pennycross, Massachusetts, and the campus is swarming with costumed students and townsfolk who are lining up to visit McHades, the college's haunted house fund-raiser. McHades is actually a long-empty former arts building called McQuaid Hallnamed for the family who initially endowed the college back in the 1950s. This year, Georgia's sister, Deborah, is in charge of McHades, and Georgia's daughter, Madison, is one of the "scare actors."

     On opening night, Georgia and Sid dress up as Velma and Scooby-Doo and head for McHades. Unfortunately, their visit comes to an abrupt halt when one of the customers stumbles across a murdered woman lying in a dark corner of the zombie party room. Deborah feels responsible for the young woman's death because she didn't insist that the McQuaid family give her money to install security cameras, so she asks Georgia (and Sid) to investigate the case.

     The rest of the book proceeds just like the previous books. Georgia and Sid search for clueswith Georgia doing most of the legwork while Sid does Internet background checks on all of the suspects. Every 20 pages or so, they come up with a possible suspect or a likely clue, but nothing really pans out until the final pages, when the completely improbable showdown scene brings the matter to a completebut, for me, unsatisfyingresolution. And don't get me started on the high school teacher who keeps a stuffed lion named Lance on her deska lion that somehow lets her know which students are to be trusted and which are bad apples. ("There are some students that I have no particular reason to dislike or distrust, yet on a subconscious level, I find myself getting anxious when they touch Lance." She goes on to tell Georgia that in the case of a particular student, "Lance didn't like her."

     In an earlier book, Georgia visited a traveling carnival to investigate Sid's history before he became a part of the Thackery family, and in this book that same carnival is set up across the street from the college. Members of the family that owns the carnival are important both to the main plot and to a subplot that brings romance into Georgia's life. 

     We also get to meet Georgia's parents, who arrive home unexpectedly from their lengthy European sabbatical trip. 

     Once again, the pace is leisurely, almost tranquilizing in its effects on this reader. Mostly, we watch Georgia and her family eat a LOT of meals—for example, breakfasts of pancakes, sausage, bacon, and/or omelets; lunches of sandwiches, salads, burgers, chips, and cookies; and dinners of spaghetti, chili, pizza, steaks, and Chinese-take-outeven deep-fried, high-cholesterol carny delicacies. It's probably best not to read this book when you're extremely hungry or after you have indulged in a huge meal. Almost every single meal is either mentioned in passing or described in great detail. This over-attention to food does nothing to advance the plot or provide insights into the characters (except that at one point Georgia resents her father's takeover of the kitchen, which has been hers all the while her parents were gone). Mostly this seems like padding to fill the book with enough pages to push it almostbut not quiteto the 300-page mark that generally separates a novel from a novella. Also contributing to the padding is a section dedicated to carny lingo. Perry drops this discourse on slang into the narrative in one big chunk and then goes back to the story. The information contributes nothing to the plot and slows down the pace even more. 

     In an online interview, Perry states that her book contract was for just three novels, so the future of this series is uncertain. Click HERE to read that interview on The Big Thrill blog. Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Skeleton Haunts a House

                       WORLD-BUILDING                       

     Every family has skeletons in their closets, but the family featured in this series has an actual skeleton—an ambulatory one—living in their attic. On her web site, the author explains how she got the idea for this cozy mystery series: "I was inspired by old TV shows like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir to write about a world that's pretty much like the real one, with one key difference. In this case: Sid." In an on-line interview, the author discusses how she came to place a skeleton at the center of her new series: "I think I was considering the idea that there have been some great vampire mysteries, wizard mysteries, werewolf mysteries, faerie mysteries…What was left in the paranormal world? Surprisingly, the field for skeleton mysteries was wide open." 

     The skeleton's name is Sid, and he has lived in the Thackery family's attic for 30 years after following Georgia Thackery home from a carnival in which he had been serving as part of a haunted-house exhibit. Sid's first memory is seeing six-year-old Georgia in danger at the carnival and stepping in to save her. Before that moment, he remembers nothing, not even his name. (Georgia named him Sid.) Outside the immediate family, no one knows of Sid's existence.

     Sid is a magical, ambulatory skeleton: He can walk, talk, watch TV, read books, make jokes (mostly about bony body parts), and generally carry on like a normal human being. Unlike a human being, though, Sid's bones are not connected to one another, and he has the ability to allow them to fall into a heap and then to pull them back together again. If Sid (or someone else) removes his head, he can still talk and see and hear. Even if his head is moved far away from the rest of his bones, he can still control them completely. None of these extraordinary skeletal abilities are explained, so it's best just to accept them as magical and move on from there. Ironically, Sid doesn't believe in magic: "Call me a skeptic, but I'd rather believe in random chance than anything supernatural." (p. 115)

     Georgia Thackery, the series heroine, is a single mother of a teen-age daughter named Madison. Georgia's parents are university professors, and her sister, Deborah, owns her own locksmith business. Georgia became pregnant with Madison at the end of her final year in college, so she missed out on getting a tenure-track job in the years just after her graduation. For the past decade or so, Georgia has moved from campus to campus as an adjunct professora term used to describe academics hired on an as-needed basis and receiving extremely low pay with no benefits. Adjuncts teach the classes that tenure-track professors don't want to teach: mostly undergraduate introductory courses. As the series opens, Georgia has just about given up on ever getting a secure, tenure-track job. 

                      NOVEL 1:  A Skeleton in the Family                       
     As the first book opens, Georgia and Madison have moved into Georgia's parents' home in small-town Massachusetts while Mom and Dad are away on sabbatical. Georgia has snagged an adjunct position at McQuaid University, where her parents are tenured professors. Although Sid is glad to have Georgia back in the family home, he is still slightly hurt that she left him behind when she went off with Madison on her adjunct travels. Sid refuses to reveal himself to Madison, and his reason for this remains a puzzle until he explains it at the end of this book.

     When Georgia accompanies Madison to an anime-con, Sid convinces Georgia to let him dress up as the skeletal Shinigami from Soul Eater and come along on the outing. At the con, Sid recognizes a woman he knew back when he was alive. He doesn't know the who-what-when-where-why; he just knows that he has seen her before and that the sight of her engenders in him feelings of both guilt and fear. The primary plot follows Georgia and Sid as they use personal, professional, and Internet connections to figure out the identity of the woman and her relationship to Sid. When the woman is murdered early in the story, their urgency to solve the mystery increases.


     The mystery plot moves along steadily, but slowly, as the author spends some time settling Georgia into her new group of fellow adjuncts. That group includes an old friend, an old flame, a new flame, and a mean girl, all of whom have supporting parts in the solution to the mystery. The descriptions of an adjunct's pitiful existence are fascinating. Although I knew that being an adjunct isn't a bed of roses, I had no idea how depressing and debilitating life can be for these hard-working, long-suffering academic wannabes. Also fleshed out is the relationship between Georgia and Madison, which is much more friendly and loving than you'd expect, given that Madison has been yanked from one place to another all through her childhood due to her mother's ever-fluctuating job situations.


     Perry is a good storyteller, and her characters are well developed and sympathetic. I'd have enjoyed the story more if there had been some sort of explanation for Sid's magical abilities to talk (without vocal cords), see (without eyes), hear (without ears), and disassemble/reassemble at will. Perhaps a curse. Or an errant genetic trait. Anything would do. Without that explanation, my disbelief kept refusing to stay suspended. 


     Click HERE to read an excerpt from A Skeleton in the Family. The second novel will feature another murder mystery, this one involving a high school production of Hamlet, with Sid playing—of course—Yorick.




                       NOVEL 2:  The Skeleton Takes a Bow                       
     After decades of hiding out in the attic, Sid the Skeleton is finally going to get some public attention. Madison has volunteered Sid’s head for the part of Yorick (as in “Alas, poor Yorick…”) in her high school production of Hamlet. Madison carries Sid to school each day in an old bowling bag, but one night she forgets to bring him home. That night, as Sid is lying in his bag backstage in the school auditorium, he overhears a conversation between two men that ends in the murder of one of them. When Sid reports his experience, Georgia believes him but Madison does not. When no body is found, Georgia and Sid don’t have much to go on, and even though Georgia makes some anonymous calls to the police, they don't pay much attention because there is no evidence that a crime has been committed. The rest of the book follows Georgia and Sid as they attempt to figure out the identities of the two men and solve the murder case, all without blowing Sid’s skeletal cover.

     Although the story is well plotted, it moves at such a leisurely and tension-free pace that I found my attention wandering. The clues come together very slowly and without much drama. In connection with the murder plot, the author weaves in a diatribe against the SAT tests with quite a few scenes that include mini-rants against the tests: what they do and do not measure, what colleges should use instead of the SAT to screen prospective students, and the problem with cheating. (Incidentally, I completely agree with the author's SAT stance.) At first, the SAT rhetoric is O.K., but it soon seems to be getting more emphasis than the murder investigation. Even though the SAT story thread eventually becomes important to the central murder plot, the testing debate slows the pace down to a crawl. 


     By scattering plenty of red herrings throughout the story, the author creates a likely group of suspects. One of the villains, though, was obvious (to me, anyway) from his first appearance, although his murky motivations are not clear until one of the final scenes. Eventually, there is a brief moment of danger for one member of the Thackery family, but you can be sure that Sid has his own bone-rattling way of handling that situation.

A Norman Rockwell
Thanksgiving
     In this book, the Thackery family is even cozier than in book 1. They represent an idealized, Norman Rockwell version of small-town America with their relatively comfortable (albeit budget conscious) life style, typically American diet (e.g., sloppy joes, spaghetti, chicken Parmesan), and an almost total lack of angst (except for Georgia's endless yearning for tenure and her constant need to sooth the "sibling" rivalry between Sid and Madison). Georgia is the mother every teen wants: patient, even-tempered, non-judgmental, and endlessly understanding. She is like a younger Miss Marple, if Miss Marple had a daughter and a walking, talking skeleton in her attic. If you are looking for a well-written cozy mystery series with just a touch of the paranormal (in the person of Sid), you’ll probably enjoy this book (and series). Click HERE to read an excerpt from The Skeleton Takes a Bow.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Kimberly Raye: JESS DAMON SERIES

Author:  Kimberly Raye
Series:  JESS DAMON SERIES   
Plot Type:  Chick-Lit Paranormal Romance (CH)     
Ratings:  Violence-3; Sensuality-4; Humor-4+ 
Publisher and Titles:  Montlake Romance
          The Devil's in the Details (10/2013)
          The Devil Made Me Do It (TBA)

             WORLD-BUILDING             
      The star of the series is Jezebel (Jess) Damon, a reformed succubus who is trying to lead a human lifeone that is devoid of the erotic escapades so common in her past. For the past two years, Jess has been on the sexual wagon, so to speak, trying to remain celibate until she meets "the One"the man of her dreams. In the meantime, she is pursuing a career as a highly successful wedding planner in Houston, Texas.

     What makes Jess different from the ordinary demon on the street is that she is demon royaltythe daughter of Lillith and the granddaughter of Satan himself. Lillith's demonic sisters (Jess's aunts) are Levita (aka Leviathan); Lucy (aka Lucifer); and Bella (aka Belial). Jess also has 36 female cousins, all with demonically devious personalities. When this family talks about going Down Under, they're definitely not talking about traveling to Australia!

             BOOK 1:  The Devil's in the Details             

     As the first book opens, Jess is in the midst of planning an oft-postponed wedding for a spoiled rich brat. When Lillith pops in for a visit, Jess is a bit nervous, but when Mom announces that she is getting married and that Jess will be handling all of the arrangements, our girl is completely stressed out. The story takes place over the two-week period between Mom's original announcement and the actual wedding. During that time, a mysterious entity warns Jess to stop the wedding…or else.

     To complicate an already difficult situation, there's a demon slayer after Lillith, and he demands Jess's helpor he'll do away with Jess for good with his mighty sword (and that's not a euphemism). The notorious Cutter Owens is legendary among members of the Legionthe organization that dedicates itself to killing every demon they run across. Here, Jess explains: "The Legion was an organization committed to tracking down and destroying demonic spirits. And I do mean destroying.…When a demon…dies at the hands of a Legion member, there's no coming back. Rather, said demon simply ceases to exist. Gone. Forever. After a somewhat messy explosion….Legion members are the ultimate threat to my kind." (p. 25) At this point, Jess makes a deal with Cutter: She will help him capture Azazel, the demon that stole his soul, if Cutter will agree to leave her and Lillith alone. She makes it a point, though, to omit the fact that she is the Lillith's daughter.

     In a side plot, Jess's best friend, Blythe Stevens (aka Blythagamamia Stephenolopolis), takes up with the caveman-like Agarth in an unlikely romance. Both are demons, but it's their love story that is the focus, not their demonic tendencies.

     The main story follows Jess through the next two weeks as she takes care of the outlandish wedding preparations (e.g., raw meat appetizers, literal Bloody Marys and lady fingers, chocolate-dipped rodents, a bat release to culminate the vows). All the while, though, she is daydreaming about Cutter's sexy body and about the single passionate kiss they shared. 

     If you are a fan of feather-light, forgettable chick lit with a sprinkling of hot sex (just one scene), you'll probably enjoy this series. Personally, chick lit is not my favorite genre, and this one is so over-the-top frenetic in its approach to humor that (for me, anyway) it ceased to be funny almost immediately. Don't worry about the wealth of improbabilities and the regular appearances of plot holes. This is just a frenzied fluff of a story featuring an unhappy succubus who tries to ignore her distressingly dangerous family as she longs for a good, "normal" life with her ideal man.