Review: MIA Case Files 3: Craving by K.C. Burn

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Rating: 2.75 stars

MIA Files 3 CravingAgents Brandon Ellison and his partner Oliver Cardoso were on a mission for the MIA (Metaphysical Investigative Agency) when it  went horribly wrong, injuring Brandon Ellison.  That mission and its aftermath ended Brandon’s career as a field agent due to his disabilities and broke up the partnership, both romantically and as agents.

Now seven years later, Oliver and his new partner, Carmichael, are on a mission when almost the exact thing happens again.  But this time, with more experience under his belt, Oliver and partner come through with minor injuries.  When they go to complain to the head of MIA’s Research and Development Team, they find Brandon Ellison in charge and unable to explain what went wrong.  But Oliver’s new partner doesn’t trust Brandon, and thinks Brandon is behind the malfunctioning sonic charge that almost got them killed. Brandon is equally distrustful of Carmichael as well as jealous of his closeness to his former lover.

When Brandon invites himself along on their next mission to investigate problems with the weaponry, fireworks fly once more between Brandon and Oliver as their rivalry and memories vie for dominance and old love starts to resurface.  With hundreds of lives at stake, old and new grudges must be put aside if everyone is to survive this latest mission.

I picked up this book by K.C.Burn without reading any of the prior books in the series and that has left me as well as any other reader confused from the start. Burn supplies the reader with no back history to explain the alternative world I found myself reading about.  Apparently a war is going on between the human world and Umbrae (?) with portals being opened by the enemy to let through all sorts of creatures, from werewolves, vampires,demons and more. Who the nefarious Umbrae are and why they are unhappy with the human race is never quite explained.   Unlike other books where you can gather enough information from the various story threads to piece together a vision of the world, the author just assumes you have read the previous books and carries on.

So I will just concentrate on those portions of the book the reader can understand, the characters.  I liked the character of Oliver Cardoso. A green agent when the first accident happens, now he is a seasoned field op of 43, older and greying.  Oliver is certainly the most layered character you will find here.  Burn does a nice job conveying his weariness over the job and the emotional isolation he has imposed on himself since the first mission.  Brandon Ellison is a harder character to warm up to .  For Brandon, everything has hinged around that first failed mission.  His disability and his loss of Oliver has consumed his life.  The fact that Brandon ended up at head of R&D seems like a fluke to both Brandon and the reader as well.  Hard to root for a couple to get back together when half of said couple just doesn’t feel real.  Harder to care about a alternative universe when the danger seems minimal, the action downplayed, and the calculated “aha” moments more on the level of a high school play.

The plot, how to explain a plot that doesn’t track?  People are getting infected, the MIA must stop the portals from opening up, wherever they pop up, let’s set off some sonic explosions, the infection is spread by bites and being gay helps.  There are quite a few flashbacks but the uneven timeline just works against the story instead of for it because of the jerky manner in which it is handled.  The flashbacks here just serve to break up any momentum the story had built to date. The narrative structure consistently diffused any sense of danger or dread in the events happening around the main characters, and any sense of being connected to the characters and their situation just dwindled away. Between the style of writing and the lack of exposition this story just comes across as one  sad mess.

Here is an example.  Two characters are having a conversation about being gay:

“Brandon shrugged. “Whatever makes us gay makes us better agents.” Oliver had expected a lecture about genetics and heredity and antigens.

Not only would such an explanation be lost on Luis, but Brandon had been pretty pissed when he’d realized gay men were better agents because they were more likely to recover from Umbrae bites without going mad, while having a greater chance for death when the portal closed if the possession managed to complete the three-day physiological transformation.”

*head desk*

That just makes my head hurt, especially the last, long sentence and the entire book reads that way.  I love alternative worlds and  zombies, werewolves and vampires? Bring it on but make it believable or at least entertaining.  Make me want to lose myself in the events happening on the pages instead wanting to put the book down unfinished.  In the end the fleeting promise of one character did not hold my interest for long and although I did finish the book, I won’t be going forward to explore this universe further.  I did it so you don’t have to, that’s my motto and I am sticking to it.

Books in the series include:

Wolfsbane (MIA Case Files #1)

Blood Relations (MIA Case Files #2)

Craving (MIA Case Files #3)

Aria (Blue Notes #3) by Shira Anthony

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Rating: 4 stars

AriaPhiladelphia attorney Sam Ryan has never fully recovered from the death of his lover, Nick.  One night during yet another attempt to go forward, Sam goes to a bar and meets Aiden Lind, an aspiring opera singer.  One passionate week later, a fearful Sam lets Aiden walk out of his life rather than deal with his own issues of loss.  It is a moment Sam handles badly, hurting Aiden in the process.

Five years later, Aiden Lind is a successful opera singer, living with Lord Cameron Sherrington, a wealthy music patron.  But Cameron’s cheating ways lead to a painful parting and shortly after Aiden runs into Sam Ryan again.  Once more the sparks fly between the two men and they start a long distance relationship strewn with obstacles to overcome whether it is Aiden’s insecurity, Sam’s refusal to deal with his loss of Nick or just poor communication between lovers afraid to damage a new love.   As the demands of their careers puts new stress on an already strained relationship, Cameron returns to Paris determined to win back Aiden at any cost.  Both Sam and Aiden will need to take a hard look at themselves if their love and their relationship is to survive both themselves and their pasts.

I am such a fan of this series and Shira Anthony in general.  Blue Notes captured my heart from the beginning by seamlessly folding romance and love into the world of classical music.  Because of the author’s background, the love of music and her intimate knowledge of the world of the classical musician has provided the reader with a series that moves to the sounds of a cellist playing ‘Dvorak Cello Concerto in B Minor’ or a violin pouring out the strains of “Bach Sonata 2 in A Minor”.  Music is at the heart of this series as much as romance and the combination has proved to be as compelling and  potent any I have read before.  So I am at a loss here when I have to say that the one thing I am missing from this book is the one thing that makes this series so memorable – music.

Aria is Sam Ryan and Aiden Lind’s story and as a tale of a developing love between two opposites, it is both realistic and a little frustrating.  The story moves back and forward along the relationship time line of these two men.  It starts at the present day, then returns five years in the past in order for us to capture their painful beginnings and then back to the present where Aiden is breaking up with Cameron.  We switch from present day Aiden dealing with the stress of his job but mostly his unequal partnership with Cam to present day Sam who is still dealing poorly with the loss of his Nick.  At the beginning, this interrupted timeline did more to impede the reader’s involvement with Sam and Aiden’s relationship than it did to promote engagement with it.  You would just get into the flow of the scene and then it would break away to another year and stage in their lives.  But after Sam and Aiden agree to try a long distance relationship, then this format actually works to help the reader understand the frustrations each man is dealing with within the framework they have set up for themselves.

As Sam and Aiden get increasingly frustrated and stressed out over a lack of time spent together, so does the reader ride the same emotional currents with them.  The couple is not communicating at all with each other which puts additional pressure on their frail relationship. The constantly shifting locations mirror the same shifting stages in their love affair. One discordant scene follows another, each moving forward by months, an effective, realistic way to portray a romance in crisis.   But it is done without the accompaniment of music.

Aiden tells us he is to sing a certain aria but we never “hear” him sing or feel his emotions about the songs or operas.  We hear a little about the rehearsals or about the mechanics of the performance,but almost nothing of the heat of the moment, the feelings that the songs engender.  How Aiden is connected to his music, his profession is entirely absent.  In Blue Notes or The Melody Thief, we never questioned Jules or Cary’s passion or commitment to music, it had them in thrall.  Concertos and sonatas flowed through the passages of those books as blood does through our veins.  Where is that passion here?  Where is that feeling that Aiden would rather die than not sing?  It is missing and we feel its absence deeply.

At one point in Shira Anthony’s blog about The Melody Thief, the author gives us a link so we may hear Anthony singing Tosca,  It is clear from that recording that she loves singing and was terrific at it as well, the deep wells of emotions flowing out on every note.  Shira Anthony has blogged about the pain that was created when she chose family over her career as a professional opera singer.  And I wonder, was this subject too close to her heart to treat subjectively? With Aiden as a stressed out opera singer dealing with a long distance relationship, was the storyline too close to her own history? Was the material too painful to be able to relate to the reader by way of Aiden what it felt like to let the music flow through you like a vessel created for that purpose and that purpose alone?  I don’t know, only the author herself can answer those questions.

I know that the fourth book in the Blue Notes series, Prelude, has been written.  It’s main character is David Somers, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a foundation character who has supported the people in each book to date.  Now he gets his own story and that of crossover violinist Alex Bishop.

I am hopeful that with a return to the orchestra’s conductor and violinist, that the music will return to the series as well. I enjoyed Aria, the romance was realistic and well done but curiously devoid of music in a series called Blue Notes.  And where this story should sing, there is only silence.  I love this series and its music.  I can’t wait for its return.

Here are the series in the order they were written. The author has stated that each book can be read on its own.

Blue Notes (Blue Notes #1) – read my review here.

The Melody Thief (Blue Notes #2) – read my review here.

Aria (Blue Notes #3)

Prelude (Blue Notes #4) coming soon from Dreamspinner Press.

Cover:  Just an outstanding cover by Catt Ford, unfortunately it pertains more to the music than the story within.

Review of Dead Cow Pants (Torquere Sip) by Julia Talbot

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Rating: 4 stars

Shay has returned a changed wolf to the pack he left for the big city.  Shay is now painfully thin, and way too quiet for his best friend, Darius, who remembers his friend the way he used to be.  Darius thinks a pair of leather pants will do wonders for Shay’s confidence but Shay may just be the only werewolf in history to hate the smell of leather!  Shay believes leather smells like dead cows and refuses to wear any dead cow pants. But Dar has more than missed his friend and figures helping him rediscover his self confidence might just lead to something both have  wanted all their lives. Now if he can just get him to put on those pants!

How can you not love a short story about a werewolf who eschews wearing animals products?  Julia Talbot gives us an adorable story about two best friends reuniting and the unspoken love that has been there all along.  My only quibble with this story is that Talbot delivers such wonderful characterizations and then puts them in a plot that just begs for more backstory.  What happened to Shay after he left the pack?  Why is he so thin? What was going on with Shay to make him leave the pack to begin with?  The story left me with so many questions because I became invested in these characters from the start and loved what little I knew of them.  At any rate, terrific short story full of two intriguing questions and one author’s twist on the werewolf genre.  Great job.

Review of Poison (Lost Gods #4) by Megan Derr

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Rating: 4.75 stars

“Nine gods ruled the world until the ultimate betrayal resulted in their destruction. Now, the world is dying and only by restoring the Lost Gods can it be saved.”

It has been two years since Ailill, the White Panther of Verde returned home from Pozhar with the jewels needed for the ceremony of The Tragedy of the Oak.  He had been poisoned on his mission there and it had taken all the skill of Gael, the mortal avatar of the Unicorn, to heal him.  Verde has been ruled by the mortal avatars of their Lost Gods, the Unicorn, the Pegasus, and The Fairy Queen killed 900 years ago at the base of the Sacred Oak.  Every 100 years, the moment comes to right the wrong but is lost and the Tragedy repeats itself. Now all of Verde waits as the time for The Tragedy of Oak grows near once more. All of Verde hope that finally, after 900 years, the ceremony will finally be completed and their human incarnations of The Unicorn, The Pegasus, and The Fairy Queen become gods again.  But someone doesn’t want that to happen and the White Beasts of Verde are being poisoned, the people of Verde are becoming crazed as their White Beasts fall, and even their three God incarnations themselves are threatened.

Gael asks Ailill to investigate the poisonings and stop the person responsible before it is too late and the Tragedy starts all over again. As the people start viciously fighting each other, Vanya arrives from Pozhar.  Once a mercenary, now a noble, he has never forgotten Ailill and has come to see if their feelings for each other are the same after a two year absence.  Ailill too has been missing his mercenary and hates the lifestyle that comes with being a White Beast of Verde.   Ailill and Vanya’s  investigation leads to old secrets kept from the White Beasts by the reincarnations themselves.  Old lies and treachery must be revealed if they are to stop The Tragedy of the Oaks from happening again.

Poison is the fourth and penultimate book in the Lost Gods series that began with Treasure.  As this incredible journey through all manner of Kingdoms and their Gods draws to a close, more of Megan Derr’s complex saga comes together as another large piece of the final puzzle is put in place.  Like one of those fabulous wooden puzzle boxes, each book puts more elements in place to solve the complete puzzle using elements and characters from each of the previous stories.

In Poison, one of my favorite characters, Ailill the White Beast of Verde becomes a central piece of the puzzle to the Tragedy of the Oak and the key necessary to open the door on the mystery of the deaths of Verde’s Gods. Previously a deliciously slutty being when we first meet him in Treasure, Ailill has evolved through all the stories, his character deepening, his gravitas, the seriousness of his mission, becoming evident even through the frivolous manner he exhibits. In Burning Bright, Iilill meets Vanya, the wolf of Pohzar, who along with his gang of mercenaries, helps Ailill recover Verde’s royal jewels.  In a short amount of time, both men strike up an affair of lust that quickly becomes something more than either ever expected to have, an affair of the heart.   Towards the end of the story, Ailill is struck down by a sorcerer of Schatten, poisoned by dark magic.  Helpless to heal him, Vanya must watch as Ailill sails for Verde and the hope for a cure from The Unicorn, Pegasus, and The Fairy Queen. Now events bring the two men back together again as the Lost Gods are returning.  This time it is the Kingdom of Verde’s Lost Gods time to be reborn and again a war is fought between Order and Chaos.  Vanya, a character I came to care about as much as Iilill, too has grown and developed since we last saw him.  All the skills he has acquired as the head of a band of mercenaries are now being employed as a Duke of the Kingdom of Pozhar to his and ours amusement.  I had hoped to see these two reunited and Derr does not disappoint here with the reclamation of their romance, their feelings for each other burning as brightly as before.  Whether Derr meant to or not, these two become the heart of the story for me and their love affair more important to me than the Gods restoration. I suspect that is part of the quibble I had with this book.

Many more characters become front and center here.  One is Noir, the Royal Voice of the Gods.  A young black panther whose deep love for Gael, the Unicorn is doomed to failure if Gael continues to keep their love secret, hidden from all at Court even from the other avatars.  Noir is endearing in his innocence and youth, a perfect foil for Gael, the mortal reincarnation of The Unicorn. Gael and his sisters, The Fairy Queen and Pegasus, rule Verde from an incestuous relationship that is taking its tole on its members.  We also meet all the other White Beasts that comprise the Court of Verde and are quickly swamped with character sketches and lightly layered beings.  After a while it was hard to keep track of cast.  Gael is perhaps the most fully realized of all of them which is not surprising as his relationship with Noir is on the same level of importance as Ailill and Vanya’s. As Noir watches the interaction and  outright displays of affection between Ailill and Vanya, the inequality of his own relationship with Gael is emphasized and Noir’s insecurities deepen.  Megan Derr does a great job with making all these relationships and their flaws seem realistic to the reader as the characters juggle their expectations with the reality of their situations as the City falls into flames as the White Beasts are poisoned.

I always keep in mind as I read each related story of the Lost Gods saga that even the smallest detail is of significance in the construction of the whole picture.  So I was dismayed that I realized who was behind the poisonings almost from the start.  It was the only person who made sense, as Vanya discovers later on in their investigation.  I also came to the right conclusion as to the methods used to conceal their identity from all the others.  That was unlike any of the other puzzles presented in the other books so I was a little stymied that I figured it out so soon.  The only thing I can come up with is that timing is everything and that it all had to happen exactly during the ceremony of The Tragedy of the Oak and Derr had planned on that character reveal early on to ramp up the anxiety and anticipation of the race to the end.  And perhaps the final piece will fall into place during Chaos, the last in the series.  It is not like her to give away plot points so easily unless she means to do it.  So color me a little confused here.  That’s my main quibble.

Don’t get me wrong, this is still an incredible book. The richness of her descriptions, the vivid portraits of the inner sanctum and gardens, the sheer grand scale of mythology building that is the Lost Gods is astounding. Was I happy and totally satisfied at the end?  Absolutely, just with some quibbles this time.  Again, the themes of sacrifice, reincarnation and forgiveness are played out but not exactly as they were before. Not all are forgiven, not all are sacrificed as the Gods return to Verde.  I suspect Derr is completing her stage upon which all the characters from all the books, along with new ones will converge in the final battle between Order and Chaos.   I cannot wait for it to start and the saga come to its convoluted end.  The Lost Gods saga is a real Treasure as I suspected from the start! Bring on the Chaos!

Cover:  Another perfect cover from London Burdon to go along with the rest of the Lost Gods saga.

Review of Stolen Dreams by Sue Brown

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Rating: 3.5 stars

It has taken Morgan 5 years to get his life back on track after he derailed it by cheating on his best friend and lover. After finally climbing out of his drunken depression with help from his friends, he now owns a successful coffee house, has a great career as an assistant direction in the film industry and is happily engaged to Jason, a gorgeous up and coming movie star.  He has it all and then Shae Delamere comes back into his life.

Shae Delamere was Morgan’s best friend and lover all their lives, up until Morgan destroyed their relationship by cheating on Shae in a moment of weakness. For two years, Morgan held out hope that his phone calls and letters would be answered and then he gave up and moved on.  Now with Shae’s reappearance, Morgan realizes that he never stopped loving Shae, even with all that had happened to them both, even his fiance can see it. When it turns out that their friends manipulations that helped keep them separated, the pain of the betrayal combined with the love they still hold pulls them together once more.  But there are still so many lies still hidden and a geographical distance to overcome.  Will both men be able to overcome the pain and past hurt to have a future with each other?

Stolen Dreams is a very well written story of young love derailed by lies, lack of communication and the maneuverings of those closest to them.  Brown’s characters are all too human in their faults and abilities to self destruct.  Morgan is easily my favorite character and the one I empathized with the most.  Morgan made a mistake at 19 that destroyed not only his only love and their relationship but tore apart two families that had been close since the boys were very young.  At 19, the mistake he and Shae made (as Brown makes clear, there were relationship errors on both sides) was huge but it was a mistake grounded in poor communication, worse judgement, and a relationship  already on shaky ground, a fact neither man acknowledges until five years later. Brown’s story is strengthened by her wonderful ear for dialog and the depiction of the areas out there waiting to trip up any relationship that doesn’t have a firm foundation.  This holds true for the young that don’t have the maturity and skills necessary to maneuver the rocky shoals life hands one and make it safely to harbor.

Shae Delamere was a character that felt less authentic and therefore, much harder to like and empathize  with.  This is a problem as he is set up at the start as the main victim here and to my way of thinking ends up more the victimizer instead.  Shae is far too passive, he too easily accepts what others tell him even though he knows they have every reason to lie, he doesn’t follow through on his actions, he lies, he is constantly sorry etc.  Shae just doesn’t have the depth that Morgan’s character has. He seems more a reactive element here and that takes the entire story down a notch.

Another quibble I have with this story is that it is an examination of relationship dynamics but neither Morgan or Shae seem to learn from their mistakes in the past.  When lies continue to surface with the expected reverberations, do they communicate with each other?  No, instead they bury their problems under sex.  A realistic problem in some relationships true but even as Morgan raises the question of why that is their answer to problems, Sue Brown never gives the reader or her characters a satisfactory answer.  They continue to use that as a bandage right up to a devastating revelation that I did not see coming, a final lie that threatens everything that has come before.  This denouement also pancaked the ending of the story for me.

The ending is the final quibble.  Yes, it is a  HEA.  But for me it seems to be a bit self delusional for Morgan.  I could see the ending as a pragmatic and realistic way for Morgan to obtain what he wants but the author coats it all with a saccharine layer of immediate forgiveness for an almost unforgivable event and again a round of sex to blanket the real issues of trust, continuing lies and hidden agendas that plague Morgan and Shae’s relationship from beginning to end.  Morgan is understandably furious and hurt, then it is all glossed over in the name of love and HEA. It did not make sense given the amount of time Brown took to get her characters to a semblance of realistic actions and emotions.  So what started off to be a great book I was really enjoying metamorphosed into a story that ended up with me feeling as though I had stayed too long at a party held by bickering neighbors I never liked all that much.  What a shame.

Cover: Another beautiful sensual cover by Reese Dante.