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TBR Challenge – On the Edges of Our Seats

huntinghuman It’s been a while since I read a paranormal that felt fresh. For that reason, I was especially happy to read Hunting Human as I dove into the paranormal side of “paranormal or romantic suspense” for this month’s TBR challenge. This book is a 2011 release from Carina Press, and after reading it, I was rather disappointed to find that author Amanda E. Alvarez has apparently not released any other books. That’s a real shame because even if Hunting Human isn’t perfect, I’d give it a very solid B. My romance picks don’t often haunt me, but this book both made me smile and made chills run down my spine.

The chilling part starts early as we meet heroine Lizzy Williams in eastern Europe with her best friend Rachel. As they leave a bar and head for their hostel, the sense of foreboding increases. The reader just knows that something horrible is about to happen to these two happy young women, but reads on, powerless to stop it. When several men they encountered at the bar kidnap the duo and throw them into a van, my heart sank. I was horrified, but also so gripped by the story that I just couldn’t turn away.

And then the action abruptly jumps forward in time. In a way, this is reassuring because we learn immediately that Lizzy (now calling herself Beth) is at least somewhat okay. However, I found myself wanting to know what had happened. Beth has started to create a new life for herself, living in Portland and working in a coffee shop. It’s obvious that whatever happened in Europe still haunts her, but the reader won’t know details until further into the story.

The story picks up as Braden Edwards comes into Beth’s life. He’s charming and after meeting Beth at the shop, quite determined to pursue her. One of the things that I like about this story is that it doesn’t entirely rely on the fated mates trope I find in way too many paranormals. Braden is certainly drawn to Beth immediately and knows that there is something different about her, but he tries hard to win her over and takes her out on dates. It’s a romance that’s actually romantic.

Of course we know from the beginning that Braden is a werewolf, and as the story unfolds we see that Beth has secrets of her own. In fact, those secrets from her past start catching up with her new life as her kidnapper, Markko Bolvek, finds his way to Portland. The suspenseful adventure that ensues captured my imagination completely. Alvarez does a good job at the beginning of pulling readers into the story emotionally, and this pays off as the action heats up because after those first few chapters, I felt invested in the book and really wanted to see what happened to Beth and Braden.

Toward the end, things come apart a bit as the various loose ends of plot get wrapped up somewhat abruptly. There’s also a moment in the story where Braden seemed a bit too quick to distrust Beth. It wasn’t a totaly dealbreaker for me, but I did roll my eyes a little. Overall, I enjoyed this one and just wish Alvarez would write more.

– Lynn Spencer

shadowlover The prompt for October in the Multi-blog TBR challenge was to read a Paranormal or Romantic Suspense – and I turned to the doyenne of the latter sub-genre, Anne Stuart. Unusually for me, Shadow Lover is a contemporary – or rather, it was when it was originally published in 1999, but that’s still “contemporary” by my standards!

At the beginning of the story, Sally MacDowell, matriarch of the wealthy MacDowell family, is dying of cancer and hasn’t long left to live. Sally’s ex-husband is dead, her only son disappeared eighteen years ago and is believed to have died, and her closest living relatives are her younger brother, Warren and sister Patsy and Patsy’s children. All are self-centred and wealthy and stand to be much more so when Sally passes as her large fortune will be divided between her siblings. Or rather, half of it will, because she has never altered the will she made when her son was alive in which he inherited half her money, and Warren and Patsy the other half between them. Given that Sally’s son, Alex, has never been found or declared officially dead, this means that Warren and Patsy face a lengthy period of probate (or whatever the American equivalent is!) before they will inherit anything.

Carolyn Smith, the young woman Sally had fostered from the age of two, but never formally adopted, has left her home and job to go to stay with Sally at the family home in Vermont, wanting to be with her for the last months of her life. Life plods along until one morning a stunningly gorgeous man appears at the house claiming to be Alex MacDowell. He certainly could be Alex (and I’m going to refer to him as such in this review). He’s the right age, bears a striking resemblance to the younger Alex and knows everything that Alex would have known up until he’d run away from home at the age of seventeen.

While the others accept him almost without question, Carolyn knows that this man can’t possibly be Alex MacDowell because she saw him die eighteen years ago on a deserted beach.

Alex and Carolyn grew up together and although in many ways, Alex had been the bane of her existence, by the time she’d reached adolescence, Carolyn had developed a massive crush on the handsome, charming, heartless and malicious hellion who would torment her one minute and show her a generous act of kindness the next.

To say much more about the plot would be to give too much away, but Ms. Stuart kept me guessing right up until the last possible moment as to the identity of the man claiming to be Alex MacDowell – and even then, it wasn’t as simple a case as one might think. She’d convince me he was an imposter, and then the story would take a turn which would convince me otherwise. Even in those moments when the reader is inside Alex’s head, we’re never quite sure of his identity – even he thinks and speaks of himself in the third person at times, and the way the author continues to keep the reader guessing is utterly masterful. And she does it in such a great way, too – not by planting clues, which would probably have driven me up the wall, but instead, by keeping everything perfectly plausible and perfectly vague until she was ready to let me in on the secret.

Alex and Carolyn have great chemistry, as well as a lot of shared history. Her heart longs to believe he’s Alex, because she never got over her youthful crush on him, while her head tells her it’s impossible and he’s just a con-man out to take advantage of a dying woman. Yet she can’t help gravitating towards Alex, no matter how much she tries to distance herself from him – and he knows it and doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of it, continually needling her and getting under her skin about her relationship with the MacDowells and the way they’ve treated her over the years.

The plot is superbly crafted, with a twist or two I certainly didn’t see coming until they almost ran me over, but it’s the relationship between the two principals which is the big draw. Alex is almost indecently sexy – handsome, charming and clever, but with a ruthless streak and determination to get what he wants which fortunately, falls short of true arsehole-dom. Carolyn at first comes across as a bit of a drip, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that here is a woman with real strength of character, but who has cultivated the art of self-preservation to a high degree and never lets anyone get too close.

The small cast of secondary characters is drawn with fairly broad strokes, and while the identity of the villain had been narrowed down in the last few chapters, I still wasn’t 100% sure as to who it was until the last moment. But it’s Alex who is the driving force behind this book – he’s sarcastic, single-minded, sexy-as-hell – in short, he’s utterly compelling, and while he certainly hasn’t led a blameless life, he’s not a cold, heartless villain either.

This is one of those times where the skill of the plotting, characterisation and writing all add up to make one terrific read. I’m not saying the book is completely without flaws – it isn’t, because nothing is perfect. But the storytelling is fantastic, the hero is gorgeous and the sex is hot. Honestly – what more could a girl ask for? – A

– Caz Owens
tillnextwemeet For the Back to School Challenge, I picked Karen Ranney’s Till Next We Meet in response to this prompt for Wednesday: Read an epistolary novel, or a book where letters, phone, text or email messages are relevant to the story.

Moncrief, a Colonel in the British army serving in Canada has, for some months, been writing to the wife of one of his officers – Captain Harry Dunnant – because the man can’t be bothered to do so himself. Catherine Dunnant pours her heart and soul into her letters and Moncrief is able to discern the loneliness that often lies beneath her words. This speaks to something deep inside him: Moncrief is a respected officer and commander, but he has been in the army and away from home for fourteen years, doesn’t have any strong family ties and is a very lonely man at heart. He tells himself at the outset that he will simply respond to Mrs Dunnant’s letter in order to allay her fears about her husband, but when she writes in response, he is unable to resist continuing their correspondence, even though he knows it is ill-advised. Months pass, and Moncrief comes to realise that he has fallen in love with the witty, generous and loving woman who shines through in the letters. The correspondence has to come to an abrupt end with Harry Dunnant’s death, and Moncrief believes that the letter he writes to Catherine, advising her of her husband’s demise, will be his last.

Some months later sees Moncrief travelling back to his home of Balidonough in Scotland as the newly minted Duke of Lymond. On his way home, he cannot resist paying a visit to Catherine Dunnant’s home – and is shocked to find an unkempt and somewhat addled young woman still in the throes of deep grieving who is clearly being seriously neglected.

Returning the following day, Moncrief finds Catherine near death from a laudanum overdose. It’s touch and go but he saves her life – only to be accused by the local vicar of compromising her. Without stopping to question his motives too much, Moncrief marries her and removes her to Balidonough as soon as she is well enough.

Catherine is still in an agony of grief over Harry’s death and doesn’t remember her remarriage or, in fact, remember much of anything. She immediately senses that Moncrief is a good man, and finds his assertion that he married her because she needed rescuing to be somewhat disconcerting – but is not ready to surrender her heartache and make a new life for herself.

Till Next We Meet is a terrific story, beautifully told. Moncrief is a hero to die for – he’s already more than half in love with Catherine right from the start, and isn’t afraid to admit it to himself. Outwardly, he’s autocratic and rather severe, but we already know from his letters that inside, he’s tender-hearted and rather romantic. A third son who never expected to inherit a title, he takes his new responsibilities seriously, cares deeply about his land and dependents, and wants to make their lives better. One of the things I really enjoyed about the way the author portrays him is that we don’t get a physical description of him until Catherine starts to see him clearly, and then after that, that each time we see him through her eyes, she notices more and more about his physical presence and how absolutely gorgeous he is. (He’s the hero of a romance – it’s a given he’s gorgeous!) But of course, he’s gorgeous on the inside, too, and that’s the man Catherine fell in love with, sight unseen.

While Catherine starts out as rather a pathetic figure, a woman whose (misplaced) grief is so strong that she is careless of her own life, as she recovers and gains strength, both the reader and Moncrief begin to see once again the young woman who wrote those beautiful letters, so full of love and longing. I appreciate that the author doesn’t have her railing against her marriage and accusing Moncrief of all sorts of iniquity – she accepts the situation, and realises that sooner or later, she is going to have to make something of it. She does, however, have her own, subtle ways of letting her new husband know that she’s not ecstatic about their hasty marriage, such as continuing to wear her widow’s weeds, and the fact that she sleeps with “Harry’s” letters beneath her pillow. But as the story progresses, she begins to regain her spirit, and I was almost cheering at the point in the story when she finally snaps and tells some obnoxious guests and relatives where to get off.

There are hints throughout the story that perhaps Catherine’s near-death from an overdose had not been an accident, and later, an incident at Balidonough seems to suggest that either Moncrief or Catherine is in danger, but the author has kept the mystery element of the story very low key, giving priority to the relationship developing between her central couple. So it comes as rather a surprise – and one which I enjoyed – to find the tension ramping up in the later chapters as the plot and culprit are revealed.

The relationship between Moncrief and Catherine is beautifully developed and presented, with Catherine gradually coming to appreciate Moncrief’s sterling qualities and to value his company and his affection. The sexual tension between the couple builds slowly, and because Catherine has asked for time to get to know Moncrief better before consummating the marriage, it’s fairly late in the story before things progress from heated looks and touches. But when it does, the passion between them is almost uncontrollable, and it’s well worth the wait ;) My one criticism is that it took too long for Moncrief to own up to the fact that he is the author of “Harry’s” letters; he is given several opportunities throughout the book to fess up, but each time, he shies away from it for no really compelling reason that I could fathom.

Fortunately however, this is a minor niggle, because the rest of the story really is excellent. The characterisation is strong all-round, with even the minor characters being fully-rounded, and the author has created an atmosphere that is sombre without being depressing or gloomy. The loneliness endured by both Moncrief and Catherine is vividly evoked, and their gradual coming together is a true delight to read; they are so deserving of happiness in their lives that the pleasure and contentment they eventually find with each other feels as though it has been fully earned. A-

– Caz Owens

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