For me, there is one known fact whenever I go to pick up a Shannon McKenna novel: I can never tell whether or not I'll like it even though I know her writing.
Why? It's all in her male characters. Writing in a similar vein as Lora Leigh minus the paranormal shroud, McKenna both hits and misses on her male leads. And in my opinion, it's her males that make or break her entire story. Without the protective covering of the sub-genre of 'paranormal' writing such super alpha males is hard to achieve without turning off the reader.
So why do some of her males work and not the others? Her males' characteristics don't waver too much. They are all very dominant, protective, possessive, and powerful. To the extreme. Hard language matches their hard bodies and wounded backgrounds. Then, what makes it a hit instead of a miss?
It's all in the moments between the dodging of the bullets, the sweaty sex, and the plot of deception. It's in the tender moments that makes that alpha male work instead of coming off like a jerk. Soft moments are hard to come by in McKenna novels. It seems that she's way too caught up in making the bad guy bad that those little moments between the couple, the glimpses of a slice of life, is cut out in favor of the gritty gruesome scenes. And her bad guys are gruesome. Underage sex slavery, graphic torture, and organ harvesting are story lines that are not uncommon for McKenna books.
But between the scenes that makes the reader want to grimace and turn the page, when the little moments crop up, it makes it all worth it. For instance, in Standing in the Shadows we have a tender scene between Connor and Erin in her childhood bedroom right before the shit hits the fan. Though Connor can be insanely brash and pushing the boundaries of his relationship with Erin, the thought of him loving her for so long makes his behavior a bit more excusable. The scene with them in her old bedroom, just the hint of tenderness between them makes up for all the harder scenes in the motel and at her apartment. But take McKenna's Hot Night. There is no real tender scene between the hero/heroine. It's all about the set up of the leads meeting, the danger, the deceit, and the downfall. There was no small scene, even for a moment before the very very end that we see tenderness between the two. The hero was way too hard all the way through and there even seemed to be a lack of internal softening of the character.
Of all McKenna's books, specifically the McCloud series beginning with Seth and Raine, it's Connor that takes the lead for me. Why? Because though he's just as rough as his friend and his brothers, there's not only an internal softening of his painful past, but outwardly as well. And not just the 'childhood bedroom' scene mentioned above. Even the little moments served its purpose. Just having Connor admit so early on that he was falling hard and quick for real this time was enough to belly the coarse language and motivations for Connor. The closest to come to Connor would be Sean, but the cliche plot of bitter lost loves was just too overplayed to make it really work.
All in all, while McKenna is a definite must read for me, the mood of reading such alpha males must be correct to even begin picking up one of her books. A reader must be looking for some gory scenes, arrogant heroes, and heroines that both need the protection of the men but still hold onto their internal strength to fight. While it's the male leads that make or break the entire story, their females must be written with a strong hand to make it all work. For Erin to be partnered with Connor was the perfect match. She was innocent yet strong. When he was a jerk, she told him. But, and most importantly, when it was needed, she showed Connor gentleness even when he didn't know he needed it. Though plot heavy, McKenna's characters easily swing her books either way.