After Hours by Lynda Aicher

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Erotica/ Netgalley/ Reviews 21st September 2017
After Hours by Lynda AicherAfter Hours by Lynda Aicher
Series: The Boardroom #1
Published by Carina Press on January 22nd 2018
Pages: 218
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three-stars

The Boardroom. After hours, it’s where Bay Area moguls indulge their fantasies. Ties are loosened. Inhibitions, too.

Assistant Avery Fast watched from a distance, mouth gaping, blood roaring wildly in her ears as she stared at the naked woman on the table before her. At executive Carson Taggert ordering a man to pleasure her. It made her feel guilty, embarrassed…and hot.

Carson watched and waited. Waited for Avery to notice him in the Boardroom. Waited for her to like what she saw. Waited to see what she’d do the next day. And the next. He couldn't let her go—not when she'd seen what goes on in the Boardroom. He couldn't stop thinking about the desire in her eyes, the flush on her cheeks, her obvious arousal.

Getting her to join was easy. But now Carson wants Avery all to himself.

‘After Hours’ is a curious read. It’s clearly erotica, where sexual exploration of any kind—where voyeurism initially plays a large part—is done in a boardroom, spearheaded by none other than the chief technology officer, under very strict rules that we aren’t exactly privy to until further on in the book.

It’s seedy and fascinating at the same time to see how something else darker and seductive comes out to play (and the upper echelon of the prestigious office do get busy) when the lights go out after the work day. At the heart of it all, the characters seem to lead double lives that are only unveiled as Avery Fast finally gains access by accident into this hedonistic playground where the garden of delights so to speak, is finally revealed to her. Part glamorous retro porn movie (or at least it seems that way in technicolor) and part noir-ish sensuality, I struggled to find my footing with the characters who seem more enigmatic than relatable.

I didn’t get the entire picture of what the Boardroom was supposed to be at first, though a lot of it seemed to be about commands, control and boundaries, which is probably the paradox of such sexual play just like in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’: freeing yet binding, open but secretive as hell, exploratory yet reined in, highly sexualised but devoid of intimacy. Bottom-line is, it still demands trust, more on one side than the other, until emotions suddenly get into play and rips apart the detachment required in the Boardroom as Avery goes on that twisty journey of sexual awakening.

Does love then, have a part to play in this, considering romance is supposed to underscore the entire story? At the very least, it’s about the various contradictions that Avery has about her own conservative brand of sexuality: the shame of not being able to be the person other than she’s brought up to be even though she’s far from virginal, yet wanting more than just sex with no limits through experimentation in the Boardroom that nonetheless, tethers her with its strict parameters. I don’t feel as though I know Avery or Carson very well by the end of it but the story does lapse more comfortably into the ‘romance category’ when it’s made clear that the Avery still wants the family and the picket fence as the very non-committal Carson finally falls prey to it.

As a result, Avery’s and Carson’s liaison is so far beyond the typical office romance that I’m unclear how to classify it, or rather, I’m still not sure how I feel about the book simply because erotica always keeps me unbalanced no matter how many times I delve into it. ‘After Hours’ does crystallise at the end with a very strong (and perhaps prescriptive) message, almost like the moral of the story that proclaims to all female readers who’ve always complained about the double standards in romance, that women shouldn’t be embarrassed about what they liked about their sexual preferences as Avery comes out of that experience unapologetic and supposedly more enlightened about her sexual self—thanks to Carson.

Stylistically speaking, ‘After Hours’ is well-written, well-paced and done with a deftness that I can appreciate. Lynda Aicher’s a new author to me, but as uncertain as I am about the subject matter and that defiant, feminist message that got me straight in the face thanks to Avery and a secondary character, Aicher makes a huge impression with her prose. It got me past my comfort zone in dealing with open relationships and it’s handled in a way that kept me off-centre the whole time.

three-stars

Mend Your Heart by Tracey Alvarez

Posted in Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Reviews/ Sports 20th September 2017
Mend Your Heart by Tracey AlvarezMend Your Heart by Tracey Alvarez
Series: Bounty Bay #4
Published by Tracey Alvarez on September 15th 2017
Pages: 247
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five-stars

An idiot’s guide to falling for your best friend’s widow…

Former rugby star Isaac Ngata was New Zealand’s golden boy until five years ago when a tragic accident took the life of his friend and team mate. Now he’s a pariah with a screwed up knee and a burden of guilt toward his friend’s wife and daughter. Best thing for him to do is sink into the anonymous safety of his hometown. An even better thing to do would be to stop picturing Natalie in his arms.

For someone who doesn’t know a dummy pass from a drop kick, Natalie Fisher just wants to keep her late husband’s passion for sport in the past. But their teenage daughter’s rugby team is in desperate need of a coach and the man she can’t stand to be around has volunteered. A long buried attraction flares to life between Natalie and Isaac, one they can’t run far or fast enough to avoid. Soon rugby fever isn’t the only thing heating up Bounty Bay. Crossing the line never had such high stakes…

I’ve somehow always hesitated to jump into Tracey Alvarez’s Far North/Bounty Bay series, but this is probably because I’m so attached to her Down South crew that I’m probably as possessive of them as Alvarez is. But ‘Mend Your Heart’s blurb sounded heartbreaking from the start and I knew immediately that I wanted Isaac Ngata’s story desperately as much as I wanted my next Down South fix.

The family-like bonds in every series is probably Tracey Alvarez’s forte, as secondary characters float in and out of the whole book while propping the whole narrative as well as the protagonists up with a sly yet subtle kind of humour I’d be hard-pressed to find outside of Australia and New Zealand. Alvarez’s writing is definitely no slouch either, though it can take some getting used to her style, as well as the references to a sport that can be rather obscure for those who live on the other side of of the Pacific ocean. But rugby is everything in Kiwi-land and I love Alvarez’s deliberate spotlight on the All Blacks who aren’t, despite popular opinion, the only famous thing about this place.

But I digress.

Back to the plot as we know it: Isaac’s professional career and reputation went up in flames 5 years ago in an incident that destroyed any kind of relationship between his (now dead) best mate’s wife and daughter, and that’s just the beginning of what we know. It unravels slowly from here onwards, with bits and pieces that come along with the truth that you know is contrary to what Isaac (and popular opinion) has claimed. Natalie and Olivia are in essence, too close and yet too far for this guy to find his HEA, though it’s clear that it’s high time for him to.

Isaac himself jumped out from the pages and became an immediate hero-to-die-for when it became clear what he did to protect people he owed nothing to. The grumpy facade, that shell he’d retreated into and the emotions he didn’t quite try to hide and run away from like almost every alpha book hero I know, made him a shining beacon among the thorny arses in romantic fiction. I loved every moment of his interaction with Natalie, Olivia as well as the all-girls school rugby team, just as much as I cheered for their HEA with their nosy but well-meaning mates in the background. For a few hours, I’d been happily part of their whanau and needless to say, I’d gladly leap back in when Vee’s and Sam’s story comes out of the works.

five-stars

Wolf Hunger by Paige Tyler

Posted in Action/Adventure/ Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Fantasy/ Magic/Paranormal/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense/ Speculative Fiction/ Urban Fantasy 19th September 2017
Wolf Hunger by Paige TylerWolf Hunger by Paige Tyler
Series: SWAT, #7
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on December 5th 2017
Pages: 212
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four-stars

Wolf shifter and SWAT Officer Max Lowry falls hard for she-wolf Lana Mason, but things spiral out of control when wolf hunters track her down, and Max realizes Lana has no idea who--or what--she really is.

When I first began Paige Tyler’s SWAT series some time ago, I did not expect it to take several turns which just didn’t resonate enough with me from book 3 onwards as SWAT members one after another, fell for their one and only mate in a blazing fashion that pretty  much meant instalove, instalust and an insta-HEA all rolled in one.

With ‘Wolf Hunger’ though, the series seemed to regain lost ground and the story was pretty much a savagely entertaining ride throughout. I’ve always wanted Max’s story and Tyler definitely delivered, especially after the listless reads from the previous books in this series that meandered a couple of times around the ‘been there, done that’ patch of grass, with a mythos that got less and less convincing as it wore on. But for this one, I jumped straight into Max’s and Lana’s story, only to get gut-punched by his tragic history, before getting reeled in by the thoroughly engrossing journey of Max finding his One (who didn’t know she was a werewolf) just as the werewolf hunters closed in on them.

There was some instalove involved still—the attraction between Max and Lana is written as iron-clad, set-in-stone and pretty much unshakeable from the beginning—but because both are generally likeable characters who don’t lurch into TSTL territory. Coupled with the fact that the instalove was also quite well-balanced by the suspense, I didn’t find it too hard to get invested in this pairing hook, line and sinker.

Above all, Tyler’s expansion of her werewolf universe certainly gave ‘Wolf Hunter’ more nuance and depth while melding a little humour with a ton of paranormal suspense. I liked that the introduction of the hunters showed the SWAT team’s vulnerability—that they do have enemies that can develop effective weapons against them—and I’m already hoping that Tyler works along this line for the next few books to come.

four-stars

Act Your Age by Eve Dangerfield

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Erotica/ Reviews 18th September 2017
Act Your Age by Eve DangerfieldAct your Age by Eve Dangerfield
Published by Eve Dangerfield on September 27th 2017
Pages: 356
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three-stars

Just because Kate ‘Middleton’ McGrath, wants a man to call ‘daddy’ in bed doesn’t mean—
Oh, you stopped reading. Cool.
Kate gets it. Kinks aren’t for everyone. Hell, they’re probably not for Mr. Henderson, her grumpaholic boss. She really shouldn’t have crush on him, but the man is just so goddamn stern. Sure, a lot of that comes down to ‘being her boss,’ but still, it feels like there might be something there.
Tyler Henderson is a golden boy who’s lost his shine. He’s old, his dream career is over, his fiancée’s left him. Now all the former firefighter is to try and bury his troubles in paperwork and hard liquor. He says ‘try’ because he can’t get Middleton out of his head long enough to wallow properly. He’s not going anywhere near the girl. HR issues aside, he’s done with sweetness and things don’t come sweeter than a cupcake-baking engineer who knits her own hats.
A case of mistaken identity causes Kate and Ty’s attraction to give way to blistering sex. They have more in common—and more to lose—than either of them realized. When it comes to unreasonable attraction you can rarely change your mind but can you act your age?

I’d initially thought ‘Act Your Age’ was more of an age-gap story from the blurb—with some doling out of kink—though to my pleasant surprise, it turned out to be more than just a young woman’s crush on her much older, broken boss who’s a pale shadow of himself after his ex-fiancée walked away years ago. Instead, this turned out to be a twisty tale of navigating personality quirks, kinks and broken pasts with issues so huge that ‘Act Your Age’ feels too nebulous to be classified as either just erotica or romance.

Details matter in a story like this and Dangerfield admirably fully unravels both Kate and Ty in what can sometimes be a rambly narrative, though it does present a kind of clarity into both their screwed up histories. Nothing is as it seems on the surface at all and that’s what you learn early on—that there’s quite a bit of depth and complexity in Eve Dangerfield’s characters and why they act the way they do. I especially like the complexity of Kate, whose odd strangeness, Lolita-esque background, daddy-issues and seemingly flighty exterior because of her disorder, can also hide a burning need for a measure of sexual deviancy that somehow fully matches Tyler Henderson’s. Kate’s infatuation or crush is well-documented and as a sub, pretty much gives Ty the keys to go whatever the hell he wants where she is herself, on unstable ground. At the same time however, it was much easier to feel for Kate throughout it all—I couldn’t shake the feeling that Ty was a prick for most of the book—than root for both of them as a pairing when a protagonist generally behaves more honourably than the other.

It does seem inevitable though, that Tyler and Kate step into a world where they explore and slake this side of their sexuality, seeing as Dangerfield fleshes Tyler out to be the unmistakable Dom to Kate’s sub with his own ‘alpha’ kinks to work out. Their role play is strangely compelling, steamy and alarming, crossing so many boundaries here that would normally make me uncomfortable but Dangerfield does (through her characters) clearly lay out the parameters and the limits to their role play through Kate and that made it infinitely easier to go along for the ride.

The long and short of it is, ‘Act Your Age’ challenged me at every turn. I had to get used to the idea that kinky sex (with degradation and humiliation as part of the play) actually shows vulnerability in all its ugly glory, which in turn, allows Dangerfield to delve into what strips people bare past the lust and the brutal sex. And all credit to her here, because Dangerfield doesn’t shy away from the rawness of it all, like skin scrubbed pink until it scabs over, barely healing before another blow comes. By the end of the book, I realised that I actually loved Kate (but stayed somewhat belligerently negative about Ty), wished she’d gotten someone who deserved her and pretty much cheered a heroine who has grown so much since page one.

three-stars

Cold Malice by Toni Anderson

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Mystery/Crime/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 17th September 2017
Cold Malice by Toni AndersonCold Malice by Toni Anderson
Series: Cold Justice #8
Published by Toni Anderson on September 12th 2017
Pages: 326
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four-stars

ASAC Steve (Mac) McKenzie is out to prove himself by leading a task force investigating a series of murders in the heart of Washington, DC. His undercover work in an antigovernment compound twenty years earlier is related—as is the sweet, innocent girl he befriended back then. Now that girl is a beautiful woman, and she has something to hide.

Tess Fallon spent a lifetime trying to outrun her family’s brand of bigotry, but someone is threatening her anonymity by using the anniversary of her father’s death to carry out evil crimes and she’s terrified her younger brother is involved. She sets out to find the truth and comes face-to-face with a man she once idolized, a man she thought long dead. As the crimes escalate it becomes obvious the killer has an agenda, and Tess and Mac are running out of time to stop him.

Will the perpetrator use a decades-old dream of revolution to attack the federal government? And will the fact that Tess and Mac have fallen hard for each other give a cold-hearted killer the power to destroy them both?

What begins as seemingly unrelated, cold-blooded murders appears to be an act of white supremacist leanings and at the heart of it would be a woman whose father was the leader of such a group, who also, twenty years ago, had been freed of that life when Steve McKenzie worked undercover at their complex. But 2 decades isn’t long enough apparently, for some ghosts to stay buried and this time, Mac’s reentry into Tess Fallon’s life is anything but coincidence when the resurrection of the dogmas of white nationalists begins with a rising body count of specifically targeted individuals.

I’m going to say from the start that ‘Cold Malice’ is a jaw-dropping, romantic-suspense-at-its-finest type of read. With multifaceted, fully fleshed out protagonists at its helm, the conflict around which the plot is centred has such chilling relevance for the times we live in, lending the whole story a believability that makes Anderson’s brand of fiction as large as reality. In fact, it’s so intricately plotted, so heart-poundingly intense and just so well done that I couldn’t put the book down, even when sleep was calling.

And where do I even begin with Toni Anderson’s characters? Tess Fallon in this case, had wholly won me over. She’s everything I love in a heroine: brave, loyal, protective and so strong as she fights a parentage anyone would be ashamed of. I couldn’t blame her at all for not fully trusting Mac for simply showing up 20 years with a different identity then demanding her cooperation; coupled with the fact that she had to pay for her family’s sins and run from a past that wasn’t even quite her own—compounded by the FBI who vilified her—felt like a massively unfair position she’d been put in. That she’d dealt with it the only way she knew how to—by protecting her brother, by keeping some walls up—was not only understandable, but justified.

On the other hand, it was harder to like Mac, whose own conflict about his job and Tess’s involvement in the case left him indecisive about her. Using their connection to further his investigations merely served to confirm how much of an arse he could be and there were numerous instances when I thought Tess deserved better for the crap she’d been dealt from all sides.

My only complaint (which probably seems like a petty one given how excellent everything else is) is that as a romance, the speedy conclusion seems to do a disservice to Tess, where Mac’s major grovelling session which I absolutely needed to see never really happened at all. I didn’t think he’d redeemed himself enough to earn back her affection when all he’d done was to put his job above her, with his doubts blindingly overshadowing what he really felt for her. With a fairly quick resolution, I felt that this important bit where broken parts of a relationship are repaired had been glossed over, leaving me with a pairing that seemed to have done their making up and talking behind closed doors.

Then again, it isn’t as if this should throw any shade on Anderson’s fantastic writing. ‘Cold Malice’ is yet another masterpiece of hers and I’m actually convinced that this author does RS so well that she’s actually suited to writing for the big screen. Needless to say, I’m already asking, when’s the next full novel coming?

four-stars

The Charmer by Avery Flynn

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 16th September 2017
The Charmer by Avery FlynnThe Charmer by Avery Flynn
Published by Entangled: Select Contemporary on September 25th 2017
Pages: 212
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two-stars

Hot, filthy rich, and usually irresistible, Hudson Carlyle just met the one woman in Harbor City who’s immune to his legendary charm. Nerdy ant researcher Felicia Hartigan is the unsexiest dresser ever. She trips over air. And she’s in love with totally the wrong man. Hudson can’t stop thinking about her.

His regular moves won’t work here. He’s going to need a new plan, starting with helping her win over the man she thinks she wants. And if in the process she ends up falling for Hudson instead? Even better. Step one, charm her panties off. Step two, repeat step one as frequently as possible.

But what if the famous Carlyle charm finally fails him when he needs it most? Or worse, what if she figures out the one secret he’s kept from everyone, including his family, and walks away for good?

It’s evident from the beginning that ‘The Charmer’ is like a flip-off to the brother’s best-friend trope, a twist which is in itself, an interesting though tricky one. I don’t know why books that involve academics/geeks/researchers or brainy protagonists appeal so much, but they do. The moment I saw ‘Ant researcher’ in the blurb, I was quite sold on reading this, but was disappointed when it didn’t quite turn out the way I’d hoped.

Yet it’s somewhat slow going though and it was strangely hard to buy into Felicia and Hudson as a couple, particularly since there were several layers of deception, a ton of denial as well as instances of molehills being made mountains which, as staples of the rom-com, should have made me laugh but didn’t. Instead, both Felicia and Hudson were clichéd in the ways that define romantic comedy: the geeky, awkward woman with the tendency to say inappropriate (but apparently adorkable) things and the smarmy, cocky, smug manwhore millionaire who never needed help getting notches on his bedpost yet is strangely attracted to the ‘plainer’ one who is wary of him. Not only did I struggle to get past these stereotypes, I also found myself becoming as frustrated by Felicia’s inability to decide what or whom she really wanted as I was with Hudson’s inability to own what he does as well as his general dishonesty with Felicia—whom he’d never intended to end up with Tyler anyway despite his so-called help.

Their steamy scenes weren’t really the problem—Avery Flynn writes them scorching enough—only that those actually faded into the background and mattered less simply because the bottom-line was that I couldn’t get invested in Felicia and Hudson together with a whole farcical setup that was really leading nowhere for most of the story. I ended up skimming the last half of ’The Charmer’, interested only to see how it all blew up between them before the grovelling began. Unfortunately, I’m going to say that this isn’t a book for me at all.

two-stars

Broken Rebel by Sherilee Gray

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Erotica/ Netgalley/ New Adult/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 16th September 2017
Broken Rebel by Sherilee GrayBroken Rebel by Sherilee Gray
Series: Lawless Kings #2
Published by Swerve on October 10th 2017
Pages: 244
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one-star

They used to be best friends...but now, all they do is fight each other at every turn. She's loved him since he saved her from her evil stepmother all those years ago. He's sworn to never love her for fear of tainting her innocence with his criminal past.

What do you do when the one person you love is the one person you can’t have?

I’ll say from the start that I love Sherilee Gray’s writing, which is probably even harder to admit that the Lawless Kings series has been a sore disappointment so far. Gray’s prose is always easy to get through and her stories are decently plotted, so it was a huge surprise (or shock even) when I ended up with the problem of trying to get behind the protagonists and failing miserably.

‘Broken Rebel’ is in essence for me, a version of a toxic relationship—of enabling and needing—that presents a different definition of love that I find myself struggling to subscribe to. It’s something that the protagonists do acknowledge as well, which forms the basis for the screwed up relationship that they’ve always had. Having known each other all their lives and coming from broken pasts, Neco has always assumed the role as protector when she needed him. The years pass and Ruby appears to yearn for that status-quo, doing everything she can to get his attention back on her, which he rebuffs by doing every cruel and vile thing possible (including screwing a woman so that Ruby could see it) in the attempts to wean her off him.

I found it immensely difficult to even get on Neco’s side as he gives the (rather hypocritical and unbelievable) rationale that he is not good for her—having done unsavoury things—and is protecting her even from himself and his shady criminal past. With the idea that she’s forbidden goods, Neco’s repetitive justification of keeping her at a distance, saying hurtful things and screwing women while pretending it’s Ruby just didn’t sit with me at all. I got unhappier with page after page of the injustice he’d done to her, then suddenly turning up to ‘claim’ her as her man after she gets hurt badly and he wasn’t there to respond because he was preparing to get a blowjob in a strip club.

There were parts where I felt sorry for Ruby for enduring all that she had to endure just to get Neco’s attention, though her desperation for him made me cringe at times. Taking him back so easily after her short, albeit failed attempt to be the strong independent woman free of him meant she got him after all this time (with him reciprocating), though his obnoxious, protective and controlling behaviour even after this finally made me give up on the story.

Truth is, I’m conflicted about rating this book the way I have, all the more so because I know Gray has written books that I love. But the long and short of it is, ‘Broken Rebel’ doesn’t quite feel like a romance to me. Instead the ingredients for a ‘darker’ type of erotica are there, like the scorching sex, the alpha posturing, the overprotective ‘claiming’, but with Neco/Ruby having been caught in the game of hurtful push-pull for ages, the chest-heaving, angsty emotions that bled off the page merely convinced me that both these broken rebels might have really been better off without each other.

one-star
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