Grey & Darker by E.L. James

(NOTE: This may contain spoilers if you haven’t read the original trilogy.)

The release of the final Fifty Shades of Grey movie, Fifty Shades Freed, is upon us, and with the prompting of a friend, I decided to give Grey and Darker, the first two books in the Fifty Shades trilogy told from Christian Grey’s perspective, a try.

32024902E L James revisits the world of Fifty Shades with a deeper and darker take on the love story that has enthralled millions of readers around the globe.

Their scorching, sensual affair ended in heartbreak and recrimination, but Christian Grey cannot get Anastasia Steele out of his mind, or his blood. Determined to win her back, he tries to suppress his darkest desires and his need for complete control, and to love Ana on her own terms.

But the horrors of his childhood still haunt him, and Ana’s scheming boss, Jack Hyde, clearly wants her for himself. Can Christian’s confidant and therapist, Dr. Flynn, help him face down his demons? Or will the possessiveness of Elena, his seducer, and the deranged devotion of Leila, his former submissive, drag Christian down into the past?

And if Christian does win Ana back, can a man so dark and damaged ever hope to keep her?

First, I don’t know why, but I hate strongly dislike books told from alternative points of view, especially if it’s an entire book published way after the fact to capitalize on the success of the first. Why wasn’t the story told in dual POV in the first place? Does this character – a secondary character, really – have anything to add to the story? Alas, there’s a special place (a small, red room, perhaps?)  in my heart for Fifty and I gave Christian’s perspective a try.

Grey and Darker were impossible to put down. Much like reading their counterparts for the first time, I was immediately immersed into Christian’s dark world and it was kind of a pleasure to get a peek into his fifty-shades-of-effed-up head. However, Christian comes across less domineering and more damaged hero with his constant worrying and insecurities. I found them endearing.

My biggest struggle with reading Grey and Darker is you only get Christian’s perspective. Sure, it allows you to see some interesting things we missed in the original books (i.e. Christian’s fear and immediate attachment to Ana, what really went down when Charlie Tango crashed, and my personal favorite, what Christian’s mother said after finding out Mrs. Robinson and Christian’s secret.) However, I found myself struggling to remember what actually happened when Ana is “off-the-page,” specifically Ana with her Mom in Georgia and Ana and the gun-wielding sub in book two.  It made me want to go back and read the originals (even though I loathe re-reading), which I read years ago now, to get the full picture.

I did enjoy Christian’s perspective, but I wish these stories had been told side-by-side since the get-go, which goes back to my instinctual dislike of Alternate POV retellings. However, Christian’s nervous energy and fear would have taken away from his allure in Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s only endearing to readers after we get to know him and the end of his story.

My favorite part of Christian’s POV is the look into his past, specifically his “crack whore” mom and his early sub days with Mrs. Robinson. This really filled out Christian as a character for me and made his domineering, controlling ways more palatable. He became more of a person than a typical caricature of an “Alpha Male.”

I initially listened to Grey on audiobook, and the narrator did an AMAZING job, but I don’t think this book is conducive to narration because of all the email traffic and contracts. There is nothing more boring than listening to the narrator read the ENTIRE contract, especially when I skimmed through most of it the first time I read this story.

In the end, I give this story four stars because I couldn’t put it down and it was entertaining and familiar. I love these characters and their story, and I enjoyed being immersed back into their world. I couldn’t give it five stars because it can’t standalone. You have to read the original to get the retelling.

STARS: 4 out of 5

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Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I know what you’re thinking.

I’m late to the party. So late to the party, in fact, that the cleaning crew has already come and gone and I’ve shown up at the front door on a Tuesday with a cheap bottle of wine asking “Where’s the party at?”

I know, feel free to judge me. A few years ago, I tried to jump on the Outlander bandwagon but quickly jettisoned when I couldn’t get past the first few chapters. I was unimpressed with the married protagonist and the boring genealogy history lesson. Little did I know that if I’d only read a little bit farther, I’d have hit the mother load.

10964.jpgThe year is 1945. Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an “outlander”—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of Our Lord…1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten her life, and shatter her heart. For here James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire—and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

Outlander really begins when Claire falls back into 1700’s Scotland and she meets the highlander, Jaime. Typically, I dislike time travel novels (which probably affected my earlier decision to DNF), but there’s something about Gabaldon’s storytelling that kept me hanging on every word. As a book, Outlander is long and slow and so ungainly it’s hard to hold onto or accurately describe. But once I found myself stuck in the past with Claire, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to know what was going to happen. I didn’t care how many mundane scenes I needed to read before we got to the good stuff.

Speaking of good stuff, most critics of this book will mention the “disturbing assault.” I went in fully prepared for it, expecting some kind of weird BDSM stuff, but it wasn’t that at all. And I was kind of disappointed because all the “assault” happens off the page and it’s clearly a construct of the age, not an abusive love interest. Now, it was enough to make any modern-day woman fume, but so did Claire. She fought back tooth and nail. So overall I’m okay with that part of the story because it’s a product of the time and the situation, not so much an unjust description of assault.

Anyway, my only issue with this book other than the slow-as-molasses pace is the confusing way Gabaldon presented some information. It was almost like foreshadowing but in the present — so present-shadowing? But the shadows were so thick, I didn’t fully get the author’s drift. I knew the author was trying to point something out, but I couldn’t see it. I didn’t know if it was because I just didn’t get it or if it was the writing. I muddled my way through, of course, but I wish it was clear one hundred percent of the time.

Overall, I was enchanted with the story. The relationship between Claire and Jaime is truly special, and the combination of Claire’s healing ability and Jaime’s badass highlander-ness, makes for an exciting story. I couldn’t stop thinking about it long after the final page had been turned and I quickly purchased the rest of the series.

I haven’t seen the TV show, but I can finally say that I get why so many women love this series.

STARS: 5 out of 5

Without Merit by Colleen Hoover

Without Merit by Colleen Hoover was an extreme disappointment.

33280872.jpgNot every mistake deserves a consequence. Sometimes the only thing it deserves is forgiveness.

The Voss family is anything but normal. They live in a repurposed church, newly baptized Dollar Voss. The once cancer-stricken mother lives in the basement, the father is married to the mother’s former nurse, the little half-brother isn’t allowed to do or eat anything fun, and the eldest siblings are irritatingly perfect. Then, there’s Merit.

Merit Voss collects trophies she hasn’t earned and secrets her family forces her to keep. While browsing the local antiques shop for her next trophy, she finds Sagan. His wit and unapologetic idealism disarm and spark renewed life into her—until she discovers that he’s completely unavailable. Merit retreats deeper into herself, watching her family from the sidelines when she learns a secret that no trophy in the world can fix.

Fed up with the lies, Merit decides to shatter the happy family illusion that she’s never been a part of before leaving them behind for good. When her escape plan fails, Merit is forced to deal with the staggering consequences of telling the truth and losing the one boy she loves.

I’ve been a fan of CoHo since I first read Slammed and fell in love with her insane ability to create real characters with tangible emotions. I was so looking forward to Without Merit. I read a sneak peek before it was released and almost passed out from anticipation and unreleased sexual tension. The excerpt was that good! But there’s nothing wrong with Hoover’s writing, it was the story itself that I had problems with. The plot was too…weird, strange, awkward? I don’t even know the right words to use.

This story was quirky but it wasn’t my cup of tea.

I don’t want to give anything away, but I feel like the theme of this book got the better of Hoover. It overtook the characters, overshadowed the romance, and in general, pushed the storyline off track until it was a spiral of characters with hidden motives and random details (A dog. A Jesus Statue. A marquee? These strange items had way too much screen time.). I wish CoHo would get back to the basics of romance without the added pressure of an underlying serious theme that was a little too “spoon-feed the reader” for my taste.

I didn’t like the protagonist so it was hard to connect. And after finishing the story, I think I wasn’t supposed to like the protagonist at first because of the overall theme. The romance with Sagan was also odd. I can’t say too much without spoilers but there was some misleading information that stayed misleading for way too long.

To be honest, I almost DNF’d this book. I’ve NEVER DNF’d a favorite author before. However, the introduction of the quirky and odd character, Luck, kept me reading even though he gave me serious stranger danger vibes. Then as the story progressed, I was drowning in red flags, hopping about sporadically like an insane flag dancer at half-time, hoping and praying the protagonist would get with the program. Throughout this story, I just wanted to shake my head. In disgust. In confusion. In w-t-f-ness. I still don’t know what to think.

Without Merit was a well-written novel with a serious theme. I applaud Hoover for taking on such an endeavor, but it became more about the social change and less about the story. I can see where people who enjoy Literary Fiction may love this, but for a romance reader, it fell short.

STARS: 2.5 out of 5

The Chemist by Stephanie Meyer

I’ve been a fan of Stephanie Meyer from the beginning. As a proud member of #teamjacob, I read all the Twilight books, but I also enjoyed her adult sci-fi novel, The Host, which I consider the best of all her books. With The Chemist, Meyer is writing in all-new territory yet again with this thriller/spy adventure, and it was bloody brilliant.

31176886In this gripping page-turner, an ex-agent on the run from her former employers must take one more case to clear her name and save her life.

She used to work for the U.S. government, but very few people ever knew that. An expert in her field, she was one of the darkest secrets of an agency so clandestine it doesn’t even have a name. And when they decided she was a liability, they came for her without warning.

Now, she rarely stays in the same place or uses the same name for long. They’ve killed the only other person she trusted, but something she knows still poses a threat. They want her dead, and soon.

When her former handler offers her a way out, she realizes it’s her only chance to erase the giant target on her back. But it means taking one last job for her ex-employers. To her horror, the information she acquires only makes her situation more dangerous.

Resolving to meet the threat head-on, she prepares for the toughest fight of her life but finds herself falling for a man who can only complicate her likelihood of survival. As she sees her choices being rapidly whittled down, she must apply her unique talents in ways she never dreamed of.

In this tautly plotted novel, Stephenie Meyer creates a fierce and fascinating new heroine with a very specialized skill set. And she shows once again why she’s one of the world’s bestselling authors.

My favorite thing about Meyer’s stories is her characters. She really spends time to reveal who they are, their fears, their dreams and what makes them tick. The Chemist is no different as we’re introduced to the main protagonist – a chemist on the run from the secret government organization that she used to work for. I’m typically one that gets bored easily with too many numbers and figures, but I really enjoyed the science in this book – the chemicals and drugs Alex uses to protect herself and interrogate others. The depth of knowledge in these characters required a whole lot of research and it gave this story the extra oomph that pushed it fully into the thriller genre.

I particularly enjoyed the strange relationship between Alex and Daniel. Saying they started off on the wrong foot is an understatement, yet Daniel’s optimism and Alex’s deep-seated need for companionship brought them together. The romance raised the stakes as Alex runs and then fights for their very lives. I was a bit disappointed with the fade-to-black love scenes, but that is so Meyer. (I’ll never get over the betrayal of limited information in Breaking Dawn.) However, I think it was fitting to the genre, and the romance took a backseat to the action.

The unraveling of the mystery of who is trying to kill Alex was exciting and I couldn’t help but sit on the edge of my seat as Alex fights for survival. The action scenes were spot on, and my favorites had to be the interrogation scenes at the beginning and the end. The progression of Alex’s relationships were endearing, and I turned the last page content in her journey.

I would be remiss to not mention the unexpected delight of animals in this story. I wish my dogs were so well-behaved, and they played such an important role in this story. If a dog can be kick-ass, then Meyer nailed it.

If you like badass heroines who fight with their brains, and action adventure with a splash of romantic tension, then The Chemist is for you.

STARS: 4.5 out of 5

Torn by Carian Cole

Thank you baby Jesus.

That’s what I’m thinking as I one-clicked Carian Cole’s latest novel, Torn. I devoured her Ashes & Embers series so I was oh-so-ready for her new Devil’s Wolves series.

28481104He’s loved me since the day I was born.
He’s taken care of me.
He’s awakened me.

Tor. My father’s best friend.
Fifteen years older than me, he’s always been my protector.
The one I should never, ever want.
But I was born to be his.

She’s always loved me.
She’s shattered me.
She’s healed me.

Kenzi. My best friend’s daughter.
I held her the day she was born, and I never let go.
She’s forbidden to me. But she’s the only one that really gets me.
We’re slowly being torn apart by everything we love.
Everything we want.
Everything we desire.

And now I want the one thing I can’t have… I want her.

I know what you’re thinking. A romance between a 32-year-old and an 18-year-old? That’s gross! But you couldn’t be more wrong. This book, at the heart of it, is two people falling in love despite external forces, age, societal expectations, timing, etc. It was so tastefully done. There was never a time I felt uncomfortable or my eyebrows raised in disbelief. The combination of Cole’s storytelling and these two wonderfully complex characters made for a whirlwind romance. I was hanging on every last word, the pages burning in my hands as the writing etched itself in my heart. I really frickin’ loved this book.

Tor and Kenzi’s love story was all about discovery and awakening and first love — for both of them. They had such a cute friendship that bloomed into a scorching romance. The obstacles they faced just to be together had my heart twisting. I was surprised at how sweet Tor was with the animal rescue he was involved in, and I loved the scene with their first kiss. It was beyond epic.

Cole does bad boys like no one else. They have the long hair, the tats, the bad ass attitude but they have hearts of gold and are gentlemen at their core. I loved seeing glimpses of my favorite characters of the Ashes & Ember series and I’m so looking forward to reading Tor’s brothers’ stories. The secondary characters in this novel are so real to me, and I want to hear their stories.

If you like bad boy romance, then you need to read Carian Cole.

STARS: 5 out of 5

 

Blood Vow by J.R. Ward

This is going to be a divided review because I’m split. Blood Vow, the second book in the spinoff Black Dagger Legacy series by J.R. Ward, was a love-hate kind of read. Let me explain.

29496208#1 New York Times bestselling author J. R. Ward returns as her thrilling, original spin-off series set in the world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood continues! When a brooding vampire warrior-in-training teams up with a quick-witted aristocrat to solve a deadly mystery, the only thing more dangerous than their mission is their undeniable attraction.

I don’t think I need to reiterate this if you’ve read my blog for any amount of time, but I’m a HUGE fan of J.R. Ward and her vicious band of kickass vampires. I love that her books can be so dark and dangerous but still include love and loyalty. Her vamps are kickass and the setting in Caldwell is a place I’d never want to visit but is real to me all the same. Blood Vow was a great representation of this kind of story. It had the right formula with all the sexy times and badassery that only Ward can provide.

However, I feel like Ward has crossed a line by intersecting her two series – the Black Dagger Brotherhood and the Legacy series – too deeply. For a spinoff, Blood Vow had too much Rhage and Mary – the same couple that dominated the last BDB book that came out recently. The main characters in Blood Vow – Axe and Elise – had less face time than the various other perspectives, and barely interacted with Rhage, Mary and the rest of the brotherhood. Another issue I had was this book wa sold in hardcover, where the previous debut spinoff was sold paperback. It basically made Blood Vow a Black Dagger Brotherhood book with a few new characters. It made me feel like it was a publishing stunt to gain more revenue for the series and totally diverge from the original purpose of the spinoff – to go back to the paranormal romance formula without the tangled web of storylines.

Now, I’m not exactly complaining because I love these characters and I want to read all about them, but I felt it was inappropriate for a standalone spinoff to include a storyline that has been books in the making from a different series. If I’d never read a Ward book before and I picked up Blood Vow, I’d be very lost since it picks up later on in Rhage and Mary’s progressing plot line.

Perhaps Rhage and Mary were implanted so firmly in the story because Axe and Elise’s story wasn’t the strongest. It felt hurried and quickly put together. I was excited for pages of tension and anticipation knowing that Axe was going to guard the female he was attracted to. However, the tension was cut too soon with a rushed physical connection, and quite honestly, one of the weakest obstacles to being together I’ve seen from this author. I mean, people usually die because there is a murderer on the loose or people have to overcome death to be with the one they love! The obstacle that kept Axe and Elise from one another was a very simple misunderstanding that was easily overcome, making for a quick Happy Ever After.

As you can see, I’m conflicted. As an avid fan, it was the Ward fix that I needed, but as a reader, it wasn’t the best story.

STARS: 3 out of 5

It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover

It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover is a book that should be read in one-sitting with no interruptions. I literally blocked off a whole day and locked myself in my library so I could read it in peace because it’s such a gripping story.

27362503SOMETIMES THE ONE WHO LOVES YOU IS THE ONE WHO HURTS YOU THE MOST

Lily hasn’t always had it easy, but that’s never stopped her from working hard for the life she wants. She’s come a long way from the small town in Maine where she grew up – she graduated from college, moved to Boston, and started her own business. So when she feels a spark with a gorgeous neurosurgeon named Ryle Kincaid, everything in Lily’s life suddenly seems almost too good to be true.

Ryle is assertive, stubborn, and maybe even a little arrogant. He’s also sensitive, brilliant, and has a total soft spot for Lily, but Ryle’s complete aversion to relationships is disturbing.

As questions about her new relationship overwhelm her, so do thoughts of Atlas Corrigan – her first love and a link to the past she left behind. He was her kindred spirit, her protector. When Atlas suddenly reappears, everything Lily has built with Ryle is threatened.

With this bold and deeply personal novel, Colleen Hoover delivers a heart-wrenching story that breaks exciting new ground for her as a writer. It Ends With Us is an unforgettable tale of love that comes at the ultimate price.

I’m a huge fan of Colleen Hoover. She has a way with words that’s a delight to the mind, and I give her full permission to name my firstborn child because her character names are always on point. I mean, come on, Atlas? Who thinks of such a perfect name as Atlas?

Everyone says readers should go into this book blind, and I agree. This will be a spoiler-free review but there are many reviews out there that claim to be and give a little too much away. I stopped looking at reviews after the first few because I didn’t want the book to be spoiled for me.

All you need to know is this story has a bottomless depth of pain, emotion and strength. It will have the romantic elements that you expect from Hoover, but it will cover a heavy topic that is as difficult to read as it is moving.

I didn’t cry with this novel, and I wish that I had because it really was a touching story. (It’s kind of like that one time I watched The Passion of the Christ and I didn’t cry. I’m not a bad Christian, I promise!) I think I didn’t get there emotionally because I agreed with the main protagonist’s decision. To me, it wasn’t that hard of a decision. I didn’t hold out hope as I suspect some readers did. Now, that’s not to say that’s what I would actually do if I found myself in the same position, but I hope that I’d make the same choice.

It Ends With Us is a deeply personal, moving story that was very unexpected. I didn’t know what to think of it when I turned the last page, but I found myself finding my husband after a while and giving him a long hug because it reminded me of the blessings I have in my own marriage.

STARS: 4.5 out of 5