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Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Author:  Hannah Jayne (pseudonym for Hannah Jayne Schwartz)
Plot Type:  Paranormal Chick Lit (CH)
Publisher and Titles:  Kensington
      Under Wraps (3/2011)
      Under Attack (11/2011)
      Under Suspicion (5/2012) 
      Under the Gun (2/2013)
      "High Stakes" in Predatory anthology (5/2013)
      Under a Spell (8/2013) 
      Under the Final Moon (8/2014)
      "Stake Out" in On the Hunt anthology (8/2015)

    This post was revised and updated on 8/19/14 to include a review of Under the Final Moon, the sixth novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first five novels.  

                     NOVEL 6: Under the Final Moon                     
     Breaking a long-standing rule for this blog, I'm going to begin this review with the back-cover blurb: "
     "Sophie Lawson may be a mere human with no special abilities except a strong immunity to magic. But the havoc she's wreaked on the supernaturals who come up against the Underworld Detection Agency have earned her plenty of enemies. Still, a girl can't freak out every time a horribly barbecued corpse is found with her business card in its hand. Or see a sudden glut of earthquakes, wildfires and three-headed dogs as just another day in California. But Alex Grace, her favourite fallen angel, is concernedor saying he is to see more of her. Getting Sophie to see all the signs of the Apocalypse is an interesting way to heat things up. Or maybe what's making everyone hot under the collar is the fact that all Hell is about to break loose…"

     This clip gives you a flavor of what the story is all about, and, unfortunately, you won't have a much better grasp of the plot once you've read the entire novel. The story amounts to an unconnected stream of catastrophes that happen to Sophie, or to people around Sophie, or to people who have her business card. Although the enemies that attack Sophie in this book don't seem much different than the ones in all of the other books, this time around everyone is convinced that Armageddon is imminent and that Sophie is at the center of it—all because her mysterious Dad seems to want to link up with her after decades of abandonment. Alex tells Sophie that "the Gates of Hell have been blown wide open." How, why, and when did this happen? Who knows? All the characters just begin saying it and believing it, so it must be true. (Kind of like FOX News.)

     For those of you who don't know Sophie's family, her human mother is dead and her father (aka Lucas Szabo) is supposed to be Satan—yes, THAT Satan. In order to protect the clients and staff of the Underworld Detection Agency, Sophie's boss, Pete Sampson, temporarily fires her. This, of course, makes absolutely no sense because if this truly is the end of the world, everyone will be dead anyhow, so where Sophie is on a daily basis has no bearing on anything or anyone. 

     As the story moves along, Sophie is attacked by a three-headed dog (aka Cerberus, aka Hellhound) and the Grigori, but there is no real resolution to either of those attacks. Who sent the dog? It was trying to kill her, so her father probably didn't send it because he wants her alive. We meet that dog only once early in the book and never see him again. The same is true of the Grigori—they attack and then seem to melt away. Meanwhile, there are fires all over the city that involve men burning up as they call out that they must find "her"—meaning Sophie. So…the plot consists of multiple fires alternating with various attacks. Sophie's reaction to each and every action scene is to burst into hysterical tears. In between these tear-stained segments, Sophie moons around her apartment eating box after box of cookies and trying to decide who she loves more: fallen angel Alex Grace or Will Sherman, her Soul-Vessel guardian. The worst plot hole comes late one night when a Grigori slashes Will through the guts with a large knife, causing serious abdominal damage and heavy bleeding, but then he is released from the hospital the next morning and heads back to his fireman job. Completely unbelievable.

     Series finales are always hard to write and to read, and this one is more disappointing than most. There is no real resolution to much of the action-based conflict, at least none that the reader is allowed to witness. Instead, it's like the author doesn't know quite how to tie things up so she just "tells" us what has happened rather than allowing us to follow along to see for ourselves. The only resolution that we actually get to see is the part that involves which lover gets to stroll off into the sunset with Sophie—and even that one is resolved via a note. The whole Soul Vessel situation is left up in the air. The reader is given some major information about what happens, but it's all second hand. 

     All in all, this is a disappointing ending for a relatively mediocre, but sometimes humorous, series. The funniest scene in this book occurs when Nina tries her hand at making brownies and concocts her own cream of tartar from scratch (actually, from tartar sauce and cream). Although the scene is funny, it is somewhat illogical in that cream of tartar is not a common ingredient in brownies. It is generally used as a stabilizer in whipped toppings such as whipped cream and baked meringues. As usual, there were a number of other plot holes and inconsistencies, but if you've been reading the series, you're used to that by now. Also as usual, the cover art does not reflect the appearance or the demeanor of the heroine—not in any way, shape, or form. At one point Sophie herself points out that there's no way she can fit her body into leather outfits—mostly because of all those stacks of chocolate marshmallow pinwheel cookies she scarfs down during her angst-filled pity parties. Click HERE to read an excerpt from this novel.

     In this world, the supernaturals are a motley group that includes the usual vampires and werewolves as well as all of the lesser groups: gremlins, trolls, gargoyles, fairies, witches, dragons, minotaurs, banshees, zombies, pixies, hobgoblins...and many more. In this series, these supernaturals are all called demons. All of them masquerade in their human forms in the mortal world, but when they visit the Underworld Detection Agency (UDA), they revert to their natural forms. To maintain order, the San Francisco UDA keeps a registry of all supernaturals in the Bay area and solves all of the paranormal crimes

     The series heroine is Sophie Lawson, and as the series begins, she is the executive assistant (not a secretary, she points out again and again) to the head of the UDA, Pete Sampson, a handsome and sexy werewolf who is an object of Sophie's lust. Sophie is the only human employee of the UDA, and she's really not a normal human because she is immune to magic. She can't be influenced by magic, and magic can't be used to hide anything from her.

     Here is Sophie's description of herself: "I'm a plain, one hundred percent first-life, air breathing, magic-free human being. I don't have fangs, wings, or hooves. I'm five-foot-two on a good day, topped with a ridiculous mess of curly red hair on a bad day, and my eyes are the exact hue of lime Jell-O. My super powers are that I can consume a whole pizza in twelve minutes flat and sing the fifty states in alphabetical order. And that I'm alive. Which makes me a weird, freakish anomaly in an Underworld office that keeps blood in the office fridge and offers life insurance that you can collect should you get the opportunity to come back to life." (Under Attack, p. 3) Sophie's way of dealing with stress is to eat a stack of chocolate marshmallow pinwheels, washed down by a mug of chardonnay.

     Don't be fooled by the tough-girl urban fantasy cover art. This is definitely a chick lit (CH) series, and Sophie is more like Queen Betsy than Rachel Morgan. Not only is Sophie NOT a leather-clad, kick-ass fighter, she is just the opposite. For example in book 1, when she gets her first lesson in firing a gun, she shoots out the ceiling and has a hysterical fit when the bullet casing bounces off her hand. As a character, Sophie is a stereotypical chick lit heroine. She has lots of air-headed moments; she approaches life in a kind of late-adolescent manner; she seems to fall for sexy guys as soon as she lays eyes on them; and she helps her couture-obsessed roommate shop so that they can fill up a room-sized walk-in closet. The frenetic humor is textbook chick lit: lots of sarcastic quips, fashionista moments, and girlfriend bantersometimes way over the top. If you love chick lit, you'll probably be able to overlook some illogical plot loops and several inconsistencies and just enjoy the series as a light and fluffy read.

                     NOVEL 1: Under Wraps                     
     In the opening book, Pete asks Sophie to assist Detective Parker Hayes in the investigation of serial murders that have a supernatural connection. As they work together, Sophie and Parker begin to fall for each other, but then certain events cause her to doubt him. By the climax of the book (which is extremely violent), both Sophie and Pete are in grave danger from an unexpected source. 

     Supporting characters include Nina LaShay, Sophie's vampire roommate, and Nina's nephew Louis, who calls himself "Vlad" and belongs to a vampire group (the Vampire Empowerment Movement, aka VERM) that wants to go back to the old ways. Steve the Troll, who wants to be Sophie's boyfriend but acts like a stalker, adds some humor.

                     NOVEL 2: Under Attack                     
     As book 2 opens, Sophie thinks back on the events of book one: "While I had gone for more than thirty-three years with nothing so much as an overdue library book to raise my eyebrows, in the last twelve months I had become involved in a gory murder investigation, been kidnapped, attacked, hung by my ankles as someone attempted to bleed me dry...And I had fallen in love with a fallen angel who had the annoying habit of dropping into my life with a pizza and a six-pack when things were supernaturally awful, and dropping out when things shifted into relatively normal gear." (p. 5)

     As story begins, it is obvious that Sophie's hair-raising adventures will continue. Pete, who disappeared near the end of the previous book, is still missing, and a new manager, a vampire named Dixon Andrade, has been assigned to take his place. Unfortunately, Dixon thinks that it is inappropriate to have a human working for the UDA, so he forces Nina to fire Sophie in a heartbreaking, but humorous, scene. But the main action in this book revolves around the Vessel of Souls, a supernatural artifact that holds all of the human souls that are in limbo. This plot line kicks off when the long-missing Alex Grace (who used the false name of Parker Hayes during most of book one) shows up at Sophie's door acting as if he hasn't been a total no-show for the six months that followed their single night of passion (in book 1). Alex wants Sophie's help in finding the Vessel of Souls because of her resistance to magic. The Vessel is of particular interest to Alex because he once stole the Vessel himself. Unfortunately, it was then stolen from him, thus precipitating his fall from grace and the loss of his angel wings. According to Alex, "If the fallen angels get their hands on it they can take over everything: the angelic plane, the human planeeven the Underworld." (p. 13). Why the Vessel would allow its possessor to rule the world is not explained. If Alex can just track down the Vessel and return it, he will be allowed to return to Heavenhis all-consuming goal. Alex believes that the Vessel is in San Francisco because his former flame, the bad-girl fallen angel, Ophelia, is in town and she is also desperately searching for the Vessel. Before long, Ophelia tracks Sophie down, gets into her head, threatens her and her friends, and beats her up. The story line follows Sophie, Alex, and Ophelia as they all try to be the first to find the Vessel. By the end of the book, Sophie's life has changed forever, and many problems loom on the horizon.  

     In this book, Sophie has a reunion with her long-dead grandmother and learns some shocking information about her family history. She also picks up a Guardian named Will Sherman, who is just as hot as Alexand he has the advantage of being entirely human. As usual, Sophie is in jeopardy during most of the story, getting bruised, banged up, and bloody over and over again. Not surprisingly, she also spends a great deal of time dissolving in tears. Although Sophie manages to win a crucial battle, she is definitely not an urban fantasy heroine, contrary (once again) to the cover art. This book, with its many fashion references, girlie moments, and too-soft heroine, continues to keep the series firmly in the chick-lit camp.  

     The primary problem with the plot of Under Attack is that it makes no sense for Alex to ask for Sophie's help because all that does is lead Ophelia to Sophie. After that happens, Alex pretty much leaves Sophie open to Ophelia's horrific mental, physical, and emotional attacks without providing any protection for her at all. This guy is a veteran fallen angel facing off with another of his kind. Shouldn't he have been able to predict exactly what Ophelia would do to Sophie? Shouldn't he have made sure Sophie wasn't wandering around San Francisco all by herself? Alex comes across as a big wimp with his own suspicious motives, and the Guardian sure doesn't do much guarding. To me, it's not very entertaining when the heroine bears the brunt of the violence while the big guys just offer her a cup of tea (p. 251), argue among themselves about who's watching over her the best (p. 271), keep saying things like "Be safe" (p 117), and then leave her all by herself to cope with whatever violence comes next. Alex's main response to Sophie's many beatings is to keep telling her that everything will be be "okay." (pp. 116, 126, 128, 261, 289, and more) The whole thing just didn't work for me.

     Here is Sophie taking a look at the injuries resulting from her first beating by Ophelia: "...bald spot [from hair pulling] slightly visible, black marks already starting to blossom under each eye, blood caking and starting to dry at the corner of my mouth. I checked my neck and groaned at the constellation of tiny bloody pricks there [from strangulation attempt]." (p. 98) Moments later, Alex comes running in, takes one look at Sophie, and exclaims, "Are you okay? Did she hurt you at all?" (p. 100) Duh! Is this guy blind?

                     NOVEL 3: Under Suspicion                     
     As the story opens, Sophie is now the head of the UDAs Fallen Angel Division. Since no Fallen Angels show up in this book, I'm not sure just exactly what her duties are, but she spends much of her time running around with Nina to various shops and restaurants. The UDA is still under the direction of Dixon Andrade, Sophie's nemesis from book 2, and he is busy placing his vampire friends into positions of power within the agency. Even Vlad gets promoted.

     When Sophie's difficult dragon client, Mrs. Henderson, fails to keep her appointment at the UDA, Sophie goes to her home and finds a blood-spattered crime scene, but no bodies. Soon there are more crimes involving Sophie's clients. A banshee is mugged; a centaur is beaten and drowned; and Sophie herself falls victim to an attempted staking. Sophie, being the over-caffeinated, hysterical woman that she is, runs around like Chicken Little trying to get people to realize that someone is targeting demons for extermination. No one pays any attention at all to her cries of alarm—not Nina—her vampire roommate, not her boss, and not even her Will—her Guardian. They all think of excuses for the crimes and go on their merry ways.

     As Sophie becomes more and more upset, Nina meets a new man, Harley Cavanaugh, the author of a series of books in which he totally debunks the existence of vampires, faeries, werewolves, and all other supernatural creatures. The story follows Sophie as she tries to investigate the crimes but mostly just tags along with Nina as she pursues Harley and goes shopping. Alex is mostly a no-show in this book because he's off in Buffalo on a stake-out, so Sophie and Will establish a closer relationship while he's gone.

     Once again, the cover art belies the content of the story. This is not urban fantasy, folks, it's 100% chick lit (CH). And in this book, it's not even very good chick lit. The plot is not so much insubstantial as it is idiotic. For example, early on Sophie finds a clue that implicates Nina and/or Vlad, but never mentions it to anyone. In fact, after she finds the clue, she doesn't even include it in her never-ending interior monologues. She just finds it, looks at it, wonders about it for a moment, and then never thinks about it again until the end of the book (after the resolution) when she asks Nina about it. Totally illogical and just plain silly. At one time or another, Sophie suspects just about everyone she knows of being the perpetrator of the anti-demon crimeseveryone, that is, except the actual villain. 

     The series has always been lightweight, but this book takes it beyond kooky to idiotic and preposterous. Sophie has become a caricature of a chick lit heroine. She scarfs down endless marshmallow cookies (covering herself and her immediate surroundings in layers of crumbs); she is constantly either bursting into tears or retching in a gutter; and she has one TSTL moment after another in which she acts without a plan, or even a cautionary thought as to the consequences. 

     Here are some more absurdities: Sophie has been living with her vampire roommate for years, but every single time Nina makes a quick move (and that happens frequently), Sophie literally shakes with fear because she is terrified that Nina will attack her. They are supposed to be BFFs, and Nina has never hurt Sophie, so why all the drama? Here's another illogical moment: Will accompanies Sophie to a shop in Chinatown to track down some silver bullets, but he's absolutely terrified to enter Chinatown because he's afraid he'll encounter a Mogwaiwhich is the mythical creature that stars in the Gremlins movies. Will is a big, strong, well-armed Guardian, but he's terrified of a fictional movie creature? Is this supposed to be funny? Not! Make your own decision about reading this book, but don't expect much in the way or either humor or logic.  

                     NOVEL 4: Under the Gun                     
     Warning: Despite the dark and gritty cover art and the publisher's spine label, this book is NOT urban fantasy; it is paranormal chick lit. In point of fact, the model on the cover looks nothing at all like Sophie, the heroine, who has unruly masses of very curly red hair, carries a fish-scaling knife that she doesn't know how to use as a weapon, and never wears leather—not black or any other color. She explains that "the one and only time I wore leather pants they chafed so badly I had to see a doctor." (p. 16) I have no idea why there is a dragon image on the cover (upper left corner) because there is not a single dragon in this book. Even the back-cover blurb is erroneous, making some misleading statements and exaggerations about the content, scope, and drama of the plot. 

     In the opening scene, Sophie opens her apartment door to find werewolf Pete Sampson, her presumed-dead former boss, standing in the hallway. At first, Sampson doesn't give Sophie much of an explanation about where he's been, but he does ask her to help him hide out in San Francisco for a brief time. Sophie has always had a soft spot for Sampson, so she agrees to come to his aid. Meanwhile, as soon as Sampson arrives back in town, a series of mutilation murders begins, and Sophie and Alex visit one bloody crime scene after another as they try to decide if the killer is a human or a demon—specifically, a werewolf. The plot unwinds slowly as Sophie and Alex gather clues, argue about various topics (both personal and professional), and try to track down the villain.

     There are so many holes in this plot that it's hard to know where to begin. First, Sampson tells Alex right from the beginning that Alex has been helping him since he disappeared. He tells Sophie, "I needed to know when it would be safe to come back again. And the only way I could do that...was to have eyes out here." (p. 6) So...Alex has known all along that Sampson was alive and has been in contact with him, but he has lied to Sophie about it. Sophie is furious about Alex's deceit in the scene in which she learns the truth from Sampson, but she never mentions it to Alex—not once—even when (much later in the story) Alex rages at Sophie because she didn't let him know that Sampson was back. This is the first major plot pothole. Then, moments after Sampson confesses Alex's involvement, he demands that Sophie keep his return a secret from everyone—even from Alex. Why wouldn't he want Alex to know that he's back when he's apparently
 been keeping in touch with Alex on a regular basis. Why doesn't he go to Alex for help instead of the ineffectual Sophie? That's the second major flaw in the plot set-up. 

     A secondary story thread has Will (Sophie's human Guardian) leaving town to visit his mother in England—presumably because there's no room for him in this plot. A silly story line involves the fact that the weather in San Francisco turns very sunny, forcing Sophie's vampire roommates, Nina and Vlad, to hole up in the apartment for days. As a result, Nina gets bored and addicts herself to the TV, ordering mountains of schlocky consumer goods from the home shopping networks. Apparently this is meant to be extremely funny, but it's just an annoying interruption in the already thin plot. In one implausible scene, Sophie whips open the blackout curtains in the living room to enjoy the morning sunshine and then is completely surprised when Nina accuses her of trying to kill her. Sophie has been living with Nina and dealing with vampires for years, so why doesn't she know that sunlight can burn vampires to ash? Why on earth do they have blackout curtains on all the windows if not to protect Nina and Vlad from the sun? It's a big "Duh!" moment.

     In one odd scene, Sampson sends Sophie and Alex on a clue-hunting trip to visit Mort, a half-human/half-demon who immediately recognizes Sophie and then tries to kill her for absolutely unknown reasons. Mort shows up in just that one scene and we never hear any more about him. My guess is that he'll play some part in another book, but this is certainly an awkward way to introduce him into Sophie's life—whoever he is.  

     I'm still not entirely clear about the mythology surrounding Sophie's position as the Vessel for human souls. Nothing Vessel-related ever seems to happen to her, at least not in this book. At one point, she describes herself as a gateway for souls, but if so, where are all of the souls that are supposed to be going through her gate? 

     All in all, this is a deeply flawed book in a series that is getting steadily weaker, both in its improbable, glitched-up plots and its shallow, one-dimensional characters. Although Sophie does pull herself together in the requisite showdown scene at the end, she is her usual useless self through most of the book. Here's how she describes herself: "In my life, I did a lot of crying. And sniveling. And falling down. For a girl whose CONTACTS list was loaded with the undead, the overpowering, and the often stinky, I didn't have a heck of a whole lot going for myself other than my near infallible ability to screw things up." (p. 12) For some heroines, this statement could be written off as just poor self-image, but in Sophie's case, everything she says is quite true, and these are definitely not the traits I'm looking for in a heroine. Why Sampson would even come to Sophie, rather than Alex, for help in the first place is a mystery to me.

                    NOVELLA 4.5: "High Stakes"                    
The following review is taken from my complete review of the anthology Predatory. Click HERE to read my reviews of all of the novellas in that book.

FIRST PARAGRAPH: "Some people were meant for big cities. And fabulousness. I'm one of those people. I'm Nina LaShay and one day, my brand will be everywhere." 

     The heroine (and narrator) of this novella is Nina, roommate of the heroine of the UDA series. Nina is a fashionista vampire who is one of three finalists in a fashion design competition. (Her clothing label is Drop Dead Clothing.) When Nina's competitors are murdered, one by one, she is the prime suspect. But there's another possible suspect: Pike, a sexy photographer who keeps hanging around. The plot follows Nina and Pike as they try to solve the murders and keep themselves out of jail. Of course, they are attracted to one another, but Nina tries to keep her emotions under control because there is no way that she is going to fall for a human—if he really is a human. 

     This is the weakest of the four novellas. It's also the only one with humor, but that humor is of the never-ending, snarky, chick-lit variety—my least favorite kind. The character development is nearly non-existent, and the "humorous" dialogue is frequently not very funny. You'll know almost from the beginning who the real killer is, so there's no real suspense. It's just one scene after another of sarcastic dialogue and TSTL moments for Nina. 

                     NOVEL 5: Under a Spell                     
     The entire key to the heroine's character is that she is immune to all magicexcept in this book, where, more than once, she falls under the spell mentioned in the book's title. So...why give your lead character a trait and then ignore it? The answer to that is not clear. 

     As this book opens, Sophie, the air-headed, not-too-smart, emotionally crippled hero of the series receives the dread assignment of infiltrating her former high school to find a coven. Naturally, Sophie overreacts, vividly reliving the horrible high school years during which she was constantly bullied by the "mean girls." In fact, she allows her fear and hatred of those "popular girls" to cloud her judgment in a most unprofessional and unsympathetic manner.

     Sophie's partner on this case is not Alex, but Will, her Guardian and wannabe lover. Alex is an unpleasant, sulking presence in this story, unwilling to explain his hostile interpersonal actions to Sophie, who thought that their relationship was finally on the right track after their brief sexual fling in the previous book. 

     The story follows Sophie and Will as they stumble cluelessly through their investigation, which really isn't much of an investigation at all. When someone starts throwing magical spells at Sophie, she is not at all immunefor whatever reason, and that's a major surprise to the reader. Another problem occurs when Will allows Sophie to go off alone on several escapades, during each of which she is severely injured. The scenes in which she is injured include horrific descriptions of the violence done to her body, but, oddly, she always winds up with just a few scratches. That doesn't add up. Will's failure to accompany Sophie on these dangerous adventures doesn't add up either. His sole role is to protect her, so why doesn't he do that?

    As usual, there are a few continuity issues, such as the scene in which the principal tells Sophie on her first day that her classes will not start until the afternoon. Then, a page later, she's teaching a morning class. Another time, she places quizzes on her students' desks, as if in preparation for a class, but then, moments later, goes off with Will because suddenly it's the end of the day. 

     All in all, this chick lit series (not urban fantasy, despite the cover art) is getting weaker instead of stronger, primarily because of its dim-witted, overwrought heroine; its thinly developed, one-note supporting characters; and its implausible plots. Not to mention the fact that, once again, the plot has nothing to do with Sophie's supposed role as the Vessel of Souls. When are we going to find out just what that involves?

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