Sunday, September 23, 2012

BLAZE (Phoenix Rising #2) by Joan Swan: ARC review + GIVEAWAY

Paperback, 400 pages
Expected publication: September 25th 2012 by Brava 
Genre: romantic suspense novel, paranormal
Rating: 5 stars plus
During a “bizarre” firefight mission, the lives of agents Keira O’Shay and Luke Ransom were altered forever.  Keira came out of that chemical inferno with enhanced psychic  abilities: ever since that warehouse fire, she is a clairaudient, a person able to communicate telepathically and hear distant voices and other people’s thoughts. Luke acquired the ability to deflect fire and bullets. Not only did they use to be a formidable match professionally, their new abilities intensified when they were together, connecting them also in a more intimate level. But when “family-guy” Luke asked Keira to bring their relationship to a deeper level of commitment , Keira, a woman with a  tragic past and a lousy childhood, decided to quit her job as a firefighter  and become an FBI agent instead. The break-up was inevitable. Luke is not a flexible man and tends to see the world in black and white…either with me or without me. Neither does Keira  clearly state the reasons behind her aversion to motherhood and her feelings of inadequacy. For a good part of the novel, Luke will be unaware of her dark past of foster-care child, abused and tortured, starved physically and emotionally. She may feel “historically, environmentally, genetically” inadequate for the role of mother, but it will be her involvement in a FBI mission as a SWAT agent three years after breaking up with Luke, that will prove how misled she is about herself. Two things will become clear in the  general  atmosphere of mystery and military secrets: with her generous and brave heart,  she has a natural mother instinct, and she cannot live without Luke. Another out-of-the-ordinary explosion in the Nevada desert, where a Russian cult leader is holding a group of kids hostage, will bring the two former lovers and a very special child  together, and from that moment on there will be no holding them from putting their lives and their hearts on the line of fire. The ”explosive” opening scene has a strong emotional  impact and an outstanding dramatic effect. The initial pages (as the rest of the book for that matter) read like a movie script, with highly accurate descriptions of time and space, the scenes unrolling in front of me with vivid details and fetching dialogues. Keyra’s emotional trial is palpable: an unexplained and deep connection with one of the hostages, and the conflicting emotions when she meets Luke for the first time in three years, make her “tight and cohesive world” fall  apart. Love and hate, attraction and resentment cling to the same corner of her heart. Anger and hurt still dwell in Luke’s heart too, but he cannot deny that “deep pang of pride for all  [Keira] has accomplished”. In the past three years she has found herself, becoming more mature, more savvy, and to Luke’s eyes, even more attractive.

I simply marvel at the way this author takes on the romantic suspense genre with the polished skills of a veteran novelist. In this brilliant second installment of the Phoenix Rising series, Joan Swan  will  engross the readers with her effortless craftsmanship and those smooth and seamless shifts of focus between action and romance that can rival even the most seasoned suspense writers. After turning the last page of this compendium of pulse pounding suspense and breath-taking romance, I am still not able to tell whether I was more affected by the emotional depth of the characters’ back-stories, or more taken with the mesmerizing intricacies of the storyline. To tell you the truth, I can’t even recall enjoying a “conspiracy-theory, paranormal mystery” this much since the days of the X-files tv series.

In Luke and Keira’s story, emotions intensify and the mystery thickens: together with the theme of ghost government agencies and their secret agendas, Joan Swans brings so many emotional issues to the table (the personal hell of an abused child, expectations and compromises in a love relationship) that spoke to my heart and lingered with me even after putting the book down.

Like in Swan’s debut FEVER (Phoenix Raising #1, read my review here), the execution is spectacular and the language is vibrant and real. Funny and gritty dialogues set the lively pace of the narration, leading  the reader through a wide range of emotional responses. The romantic involvement of the lead couple, the scorching sensuality ignited by their mutual raw need, the elusive truth at the bottom of their super-powers are the cornerstones of this solid piece of fictional fabrication. The plot is so clever that despite the lack of closure as far as regards the big scheme of things, this page-turner can be enjoyed as a stand alone. The dangling plot threads, the breakneck sub-plots and the introduction of secondary cast that will surely rock the world of the Phoenix Rising in the coming sequel, fuel the reader’s curiosity and enhance the thrill effect, leaving us with the awareness that our endearing characters are more in danger than ever and that someone is diligently trying to hide the truth.

That truth will still be elusive even in the final pages, but the choice of a conspiracy theme is thought-provoking and allows room for theorizing. The characters are fully nuanced, easy to root for and relate to, despite their larger-than-life nature; the emotional dynamic between Luke and Keira is so engaging…the more they talk, the more they argue. They both share a personality trait that can place countless obstacles on the way to a smooth love relationship. They both possess an unforgiving, uncompromising, hard as granite temper, in addition to their psychic ability to read each other’s minds… hard to tell if this is more a blessing or a curse. When they finally unlock their hearts and understand that love is “about finding strength in the sum of our parts instead of fighting alone”, their release will be even more rewarding.  To tighten up the threads of this rich and imaginative series, Joan Swan revisits familiar faces (Teague and Alyssa from Fever, installment #1 in the series ) and introduces an ensemble of new characters that move around our lead couple with the loyalty,  the stealth and the precision of a SWAT team.

And then there is Mitch, Mitch Foster: “the dragon slayer” attorney, the man who gets things done with the power of a telegraphic phone call…there is no special force pilot, military helicopter, heavy artillery, or loyal bodyguards that he cannot obtain with a simple (and mysterious) call from his mobile…we will get to know his secret sooner or later. This character definitely deserves his own spotlight.

*Advance Reader Copy kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an unbiased opinion


The publisher would like to offer a copy of FEVER ( #1 in the Phoenix Raising series ) to a lucky commenter.  Stop by the blog, drop a comment about this review or any of Joan Swan’s books for a chance to win. The contest is open only to US and Canada residents.

When Dr. Alyssa Foster is taken hostage by a prison inmate, she knows she's in deep trouble. Not just because Teague Creek is desperate for freedom, but because the moment his fingers brush against her skin, Alyssa feels a razor-sharp pang of need...

A man with a life sentence has nothing to lose. At least Teague doesn't, until his escape plan develops a fatal flaw: Alyssa. On the run from both the law and deadly undercover operatives, he can only give her lies, but every heated kiss tells him the fire between them could be just as devastating as the flames that changed him forever... (read my review here).

Friday, September 21, 2012

A WOMAN MADE FOR PLEASURE (Promises Trilogy #1) by Michele Sinclair

Mass Market Paperback, 345 pages
Published August 7th 2012 by Zebra 
Genre: historical romance novel, Regency England
Rating: 4.5 stars
Bound by their common love of adventure, Millie, Aimee, and Jennelle decide to seal their friendship with a pledge: they will never get married unless they each meet a man who will accept, appreciate, and share their unusual interests  and spirit of independence.  Daughters of earls, they are uncommonly smart and bookish to be members of the ton, and they each pursue hobbies that good society doesn’t consider suitable to young women of their high station: to Millie, Aimee, and Jennelle, exploring a cave and reading a philosophy treatise seem to provide more excitement than the social gatherings usually attended by debutantes eager to land an advantageous marriage  and secure a respectable place in society. They will marry for love, or they won’t marry at all. Of The Daring Three, Lady Millie Aldon seems to be the most adverse to the idea of shackling herself into marriage, but when her childhood friend (and Aimee’s brother) Charles Wentworth comes back to his ancestral home after years of military training and war missions, Millie will need to revise her priorities…loving Charles, now a dashing man, will be for Millie the most daring and exciting adventure of all.

This was a good historical romance novel. It read smoothly and was enticing enough  to keep me turning page without putting it down too often. I always appreciate a certain degree of historical accuracy in a HRN and Michele Sinclair added her own touch of fictional fabrication (in reference to some real historical events) that sounded plausible and certainly helped structuring the plot and interlacing the romantic element with a solid thread of suspenseful mystery. The events unfold at a nice pace and the Sinclair’s writing style treats us to an elegant and historically consistent prose. Right from the start, the novel features an engaging plot, a good storyline structure, lively dialogues, sultry sensuality, and well developed characters, both main and supporting cast.

The characterization of the lead couple is effective and convincing: Sinclair delivers an interesting take on the friends-to-lovers trope, predictable at times, but enjoyable all the same, with a good balance of angst, light-hearted tones, and suspense. Millie is a spitfire of a young woman, and yet likable with her brave temper and good heart:

She had sworn never to marry, and of the Daring Three, she believed most strongly in her pledge. Or at least she had. Now, Millie wanted so very much to break it. Who would have thought a man’s kiss could ruin such a well-intentioned promise?

As for Charles (identified as Lord Chase most of the time),  his transition from the emotionally detached, poised, stoic personality of a born war spy to the man in love, passionate, protective and possessive beyond redemption, is believable, but I had to wrestle a bit with the idea of him exposing Millie to the dangers of his undercover mission in order to "protect" her and unveil a political conspiracy.
An engaging and gratifying read, A Woman Made For Pleasure, is the first installment in the Promises Trilogy. I look forward to Aimee’s and Jenelle’s stories.

*The publisher graciously offered a complimentary copy of this book in exchange of an unbiased opinion.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

New release alert! BLAZE (Phoenix Rising #2) by Joan Swan

BLAZE (Phoenix Rising #2) by Joan Swan

Paperback, 400 pages
Expected publication: September 25th 2012 by Brava 
Genre: romantic suspense novel, paranormal

When last March I read FEVER, the first installment in the Phoenix Rising series by Joan Swan (read my review here), I immediately thought I'd just hit a goldmine of imaginative talent. Swan's outstanding debut novel received enthusiastic reviews and her following self-published suspense novel INTIMATE ENEMIES (read my review here) is a further proof of her consistent talent and excellent writing skills. In about a week the triple RWA® Golden Heart finalist will hit bookstores and all major e-book retailers with the second installment of the Phoenix Rising series. My ARC review of BLAZE will be posted upon release date in combination with a giveaway, so stay tuned and don't miss this fantastic opportunity. Joan Swan is at the top of my list of favorite authors and best debut novels for this year.

The hotter they come, the harder they fall…

With a man like him, every mission becomes personal…
Ever since FBI agent Keira O’Shay started tracking a young boy named Mateo, she’s felt a connection even her empathic abilities can’t explain. She needs to save Mateo from the cult leader holding him hostage. Nothing can interfere with that—not even the reappearance of Luke Ransom, the hot-as-hell fire captain she’s regretted walking out on for three long years.

Losing Keira left Luke vulnerable—in every way. When they were together, the powers each possesses were mysteriously enhanced. But it’s the sexy, surprising woman beneath the tough exterior that Luke’s really missed. Even if she betrayed him utterly. And even if agreeing to help her uncover a government conspiracy means watching his life and his heart go up in flames again…

Available for pre-order

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

THE CHOCOLATE THIEF (Chocolate #1) by Laura Florand

Paperback, 320 pages
Published July 31st 2012 by Kensington 
Genre: Contemporary romance novel, women's fiction 
Rating: 5 stars

 “…she was just an average-looking young woman with a strong sense of herself…she might own a significant chunk of world business, in fact. But she didn’t own Paris. Not yet.”

“He had something she desperately wanted. His chocolate. Now he wanted to see if he could use that to make her desperately want him.”

 “She might have gotten in under a fake name and as a spy; but she was going to be working chocolate in a Parisian laboratoire.”

“…he was hoping she would come back and steal from him some more.”

“It was those hands of his: they were exactly the fantasy she had carried with her ever since seeing that photo on his fabulously artistic web site…they matched perfectly the tall, sexy, dark-haired, passionate man who lived with all his senses…he was so delicious. How unfortunate that he was such a jerk.”

Cade Corey, heir to the Corey’s chocolate empire, has a grandiose business plan: fly to Paris and hire the best chocolatier to help her upgrade the Corey mass-produced chocolate bars to a gourmet line. But when top chocolatier Sylvain Marquis (the man who had immediately captured her interest during her market research) haughtily snobs her business proposal, she resorts to industrial espionage to steal the secrets of his craftsmanship. Insulted by Cade’s proposal to buy his artistry and reproduce it on a mass level, he decides to turn the table on her, but in doing so he falls victim of the same weapon he intends to use against her: seduction. 

The heart of the matter is that both characters are more than meets the eye. Cade is not a spoiled billionaire. She is a remarkably hardworking young woman, who’s totally committed to the family business even if that means sacrificing her personal dreams and her emotions. Her obsession for the handsome and arrogant Parisian chocolatier goes well beyond a mere business interest. On the other hand, Sylvain may appear snobbish and self-absorbed (after all he’s French), but what truly hides behind those disdainful looks is a very proud and wounded heart, yearning for love and acceptance, shaped by a difficult childhood and used to shield his vulnerability with that contemptuous attitude better known as “French politeness”. Our lead couple’s dialogues are engaging and charged with an undeniable sexual undercurrent. Their conflictual relationship enhances the drama and makes the “happily ever after” sounds even sweeter and more rewarding.   
I think I fell head over heels for this exhilarating and sensual romantic comedy. I loved every morsel of it: the hip and glam look of the cover artwork, the lovely choice of exotic setting and lush theme, the characters combination, the spicy and voluptuous sensuality, the light-hearted tone, the fairy-tale quality of the storyline, the witty dialogues and the humorous insights into the cultural gap existing between the “traditional” Old World and the “innovative” New World.
Heart-warming romanticism exudes from every page, seducing and inevitable like the extraordinary alchemy that transmutes the stimulants of the most exotic and sensual food into love endorphins, dramatic and sophisticated like the city that the author chose as a back-drop for our characters’ love thrusts. It’s a tale that will engage and please your senses. When Cade and Sylvain’s relationship shifted from a failed business bargain to an intimate connection that went beyond their explosive sexual chemistry, I felt emotionally fulfilled and gratified as if I had just devoured a bar of bittersweet chocolate! I just couldn’t resist the visual impact of Florand’s description of Paris' winter charm…the cobble stoned streets, the old buildings, the cozy restaurants, the walk by the river. I was completely mesmerized by the sensual tension building up, page after page, between Cade and Sylvain. I wouldn’t want to spoil any key element of this romance novel: suffice it to say that it contains some of the most sensual and romantic love scenes I’ve read in recent times…I’ll never look at a marble counter top or at a dim lighted staircase in the same way again! Great mood-lifter. I would like to thank the publisher for giving me the opportunity to review this book.

About the author
Laura Florand is the author of Blame It On Paris, and co-author of the Kiss The Bride anthology (All's Fair In Love And Chocolate) with Deirdre Martin and Christie Ridgway. The Chocolate Kiss (Chocolate #2) expected release date is December 24, 2012. To learn more about this author, please visit her website

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

DREAM LAKE (Friday Harbor # 3) by Lisa Kleypas

Paperback, 336 pages
Published August 7th 2012 by St. Martin's Griffin
Genre: contemporary romance, women's fiction, paranormal
Rating: 4.5 stars

They say that opposites attract. But what happens when one has been devastated by betrayal and the other is so jaded that his heart is made of stone? Enter the world of Friday Harbor, an enchanting town in the Pacific Northwest where things are not quite as they seem and where true love might just have a ghost of a chance….

Alex Nolan is as bitter and cynical as they come. One of the three Nolan brothers who call Friday harbor home, he's nothing like Sam or Mark. They actually believe in love; they think the risk of pain is worth the chance of happiness. But Alex battles his demons with the help of a whiskey bottle, and he lives in his own private hell. And then a ghost shows up. Only Alex can see him, Has Alex finally crossed over the threshold to insanity?

Zoë Hoffman is as gentle and romantic as they come. When she meets the startling gorgeous Alex Nolan, all her instincts tell her to run. Even Alex tells her to run. But something in him calls to Zoë, and she forces him to take a look at his life with a clear eye and to open his mind to the possibility that love isn’t for the foolish.

The ghost has been existing in the half-light of this world for decades. He doesn’t know who he is, or why he is stuck in the Nolans’ Victorian house. All he knows is that he loved a girl once. And Alex and Zoë hold the key to unlocking a mystery that keeps him trapped here.

Zoë and Alex are oil and water, fire and ice, sunshine and shadow. But sometimes it takes only a glimmer of light to chase away the dark, and sometimes love can reach beyond time, space, and reason to take hold of hearts that yearn for it…

I enjoyed this third installment in the Friday Harbor series. I was very eager to see how Lisa Kleypas would handle the magic realism after her first introduction to this genre in Rainshadow Road (read my review here). As I expected,  “those gentle touches of magic” that in the previous installment seemed almost superfluous, blend in the Dream Lake realistic world in a more organic way and play a major role in the storyline. Having said that, I still believe that historical and contemporary romance novels are Kleypas’ strongest suit: unless the next installment (Crystal Cove is to be released in early 2013 ) radically changes my opinion about the way she is  exploring this interesting genre,  I believe she should stick to those fields where she has achieved an unrivalled mark of excellence.

Now, whereas on the paranormal front Kleypas incorporates the magic element in the very fibers that make the canvas of Dream Lake storyline, from a sheer romantic  standpoint  Zoe and Alex’s love story blooms at a slow pace. This lead couple reminds me of some of the most beloved characters Lisa Kleypas has ever portrayed: Alex is a modern version of Derek Craven (for those who are not  familiar with the dark and tormented hero of some of her classic HRN, see my review of Dreaming Of You) and Zoe has the same vulnerable, sweet and yet strong willed and patient nature of Evangeline Jenner. The chemistry between the unassuming, shy, gentle-natured bombshell and the cynical  “human version of an iceberg” reminds me also of Devil in Winter…love when and where you least expect it.  It’s a pity though, that  Alex and Zoe don’t get together  at an earlier stage of the narration. Because of the very nature and back-stories of our characters, love doesn’t unfold as sweetly as we may hope:  every time things finally pick up speed and steam between them, a new obstacle will land on their way to happiness.

The few love scenes took my breath away…nothing puts me in the mood for love like a Lisa Kleypas novel. They are magical and emotionally charged, explicit and yet tasteful. I normally fall hard for her male characters: they are among the most charming, unforgettable, sexy and three-dimensional male characters out there. But in this case, I was completely taken with the female heroine. I have a huge fondness for Zoe: it really melts me to see how she pours her heart in her own creations, I adore her candid optimism when she tries to breach Alex’s emotional armor through his stomach.

Alex is a tad too cold and  cynical for me. It’s true that the more broken and flawed the characters, the more rewarding the love story, but Zoe is just too sweet, too generous, too selfless not to deserve an immediate act of faith and love from her man. She is extremely adorable and endearing, so easy to root for.

All in all, quoting a line from the next installment of the Friday Harbor series (Dream Lakes includes a brief preview of Crystal Cove’s first chapter), “a good happily-ever-after is worth reading more than once.” Lisa Kleypas remains my all-time favorite romance author and I will read whatever she writes with an open mind and an open heart.