Category: Advanced Reader Copy

Tight Quarters by Annabeth Albert

Tight Quarters by Annabeth AlbertTight Quarters by Annabeth Albert
Series: Out of Uniform, #6
Published by Carina Press on 31st July 2018
Pages: 352
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four-stars

Petty Officer Bacon, a navy SEAL and ace sharpshooter, has been on the front lines of more than his fair share of dangerous ops. Yet when a minor injury relegates him to the beta team, he’s tasked with what may be his riskiest assignment yet: the silver fox journalist he’s babysitting is the hottest, most charismatic man he’s ever encountered.

Award-winning journalist Spencer Bryant may have been named one of Pride magazine’s most eligible bachelors of the year, but he’s not looking to change his relationship status. He’s a consummate professional who won’t risk his ethics or impeccable reputation by getting involved with a source. Even a sexy-as-hell military man. But while Spencer can resist his physical attraction to Bacon, he has less control over his emotions—especially when the mission goes sideways and the two men are trapped alone.

Getting out of the jungle alive turns out to be easy compared to facing the truth about their feelings for one another back in the real world. And whether or not they can build a future is a different story altogether.

It isn’t very often that I venture into M/M romance and Annabeth Albert is an author who’s new to me.

That the ‘Out of Uniform’ series has crossed my feed numerous times which I haven’t yet taken up is just added incentive to get into a military romance of this particular sub-genre. Coming straight into ‘Tight Quarters’ without having previously read the rest of the books in the series was no biggie; I had no problems catching up even with the small references to what happened before without the focus on Bacon and Spencer faltering at all.

A hot-shot journalist embedding with this particular SEAL team (which is, according to Bacon—I just had to have a laugh at his name because his real one isn’t much better) isn’t a scenario I’d ever envisioned, but this was something I was happy to take with a pinch of salt, or better put yet, a willingness to suspend disbelief for what I thought was going to be by and large, some kind of romantic suspense written into the story.

But it wasn’t quite one and because I dove in without expectations, everything felt fresh and new, from the not-quite action in the first half and the rather unusual conflict in the second that simply made it impossible to take sides.

The forced babysitting of Spencer Bryant, a plan that went inevitably wrong during a mission and the action that happened thereafter and the added element of the kind of craving attraction that Albert writes so well just made me a happy camper. The details of the mission itself felt as though they were deliberately left fuzzy, so it was akin to being part of the action but not being in the heart of it, which left the focus on the development of the relationship—both when Spencer and Bacon were together as well as apart.

Past the mission however, ‘Tight Quarters’ felt like a different book in the move from military to the party crowd that Spencer/Bacon got involved in on his leave. The different aspects of their characters coming out to play threw me for a bit when I’d been ready to pigeon-hole both of them as ‘journalist’ and ‘soldier’, in fact. But the thoroughness of Albert’s exploration of the tension between Bacon and Spencer—one that resulted in a slight lull in the first third of the book—was rewarding as a result, especially in the light of the slow, slow burn that was set up as hostile from the start.

By the time Bacon and Spencer talked their way through to their sappy end, I was impressed by Albert’s style—the emotional rawness that emerged later between this pairing—and her handling of gender fluidity. And then I wondered why I didn’t jump on her other books earlier on.

four-stars

Burning Up by Jennifer Blackwood

Burning Up by Jennifer BlackwoodBurning Up by Jennifer Blackwood
Series: Flirting with Fire, #1
Published by Montlake Romance on 8th May 2018
Pages: 256
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three-half-stars

Unemployed schoolteacher Erin Jenkins is back in Portland, the town she hasn’t called home for more than a decade. It’s not the way she wants to spend her last days of summer: in between jobs and avoiding her mother’s snooping by escaping to the ice-cream aisle. But when the opportunity arises for her to accompany her brother’s best friend—her lifetime crush—to a wedding, summer gets a whole lot more interesting.

Firefighter and single dad Jake Bennett has built a nice, safe wall around his heart—no romance, no getting burned. That doesn’t mean he’s ruling out a fling. Considering Erin’s visit is temporary, they’re the perfect fit for a scorching no-strings one-night stand. Or two. Or five. Until the worst thing happens: Erin and Jake are feeling more. Damn that four-letter word.

Now their hearts are on the line, and when their smoldering summer comes to a close, it’s going to be harder than ever to put out the fire.

If there’s anything to be expected of Jennifer Blackwood’s writing, it’s the hefty dose of humour inserted in straight from the start, or at least it’s what I’ve come to associate Blackwood with.

‘Burning Up’ began with a woman on the outs and her embarrassment all because of (wrong) timing—the usual thing that creates comedy—and the characters’ as well as the reader’s reactions to it were enough to bring me on board with it. For a firefighting book however, the burn between Erin/Jake was slower than I expected, with few sparks that flare here and there, interspersed with some firefighting action and the day-to-day scenes (some unusually funny) of the EMTs that I usually like reading about.

And that’s probably as far as I should get with the fire analogies before they start getting corny.

By and large, Blackwood’s jaunty, funny writing made it quite easy to sail through the forbidden brother’s best friend kind of story. There were however, some parts that were frustratingly dedicated to the push-pull decisions both protagonists made as well as the shady implication that Jake needed Erin’s brother’s ‘permission’ or approval to date her and that Erin seemed to constantly pick up the breadcrumbs Jake left for her even as he pushed her away repeatedly, unable to decide what he really wanted. Their HEA, left to the last minute, was an abrupt one, done to the extent where I flipped the page wondering if I’d actually missed something or accidentally ghosted a few paragraphs that would have helped solidify the ending.

In any case, ‘Burning Up’ reads like the establishing book that it’s meant to be: done with a setup of future pairings, the slight hints of the characters who will next get their story and the presence of a close community that help structure the context and the scene. It’s a series that I’ll be watching out for, even if it’s just for the sheer fun factor that Blackwood’s confident writing has.

three-half-stars

Savor You by Kristen Proby

Savor You by Kristen ProbySavor You by Kristen Proby
Series: Fusion #5
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on 24th April 2018
Pages: 288
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two-stars

Cooking isn't what Mia Palazzo does, it's who she is. Food is her passion . . . her pride . . . her true love. She's built a stellar menu full of delicious and sexy meals for her restaurant, Seduction. Now, after being open for only a few short years, Mia’s restaurant is being featured on Best Bites TV. To say Seduction is a wild success is an understatement. All the blood, sweat, tears, and endless hours of work Mia has put into the restaurant has finally paid off.

Then Camden Sawyer, the biggest mistake of her life, walks into her kitchen . . .

Camden's celebrity chef status is world-renowned. He's the best there is, and the kitchen is where he's most at home. He can't resist the invitation to Portland for a showdown against Mia for a new television show. Mia was in his life years ago, and just like before, he's met his match in the beautiful Italian spitfire. The way she commands the kitchen is mesmerizing, and her recipes are clever and delicious. He's never had qualms about competition, and this is no different. He can't wait to go head to head with Mia. But can he convince her the chemistry they share in the kitchen would be just as great in the bedroom as well?

As Mia and Camden face off, neither realizes how high the stakes are as their reputations are put on the line and their hearts are put to the ultimate test.

I’ve a love-hate relationship with the Masterchef series. Let’s just say when the conditions are right, I’m glued to my seat, salivating as I watch the magic that’s whipped up with the freshest ingredients, the  state-of-the-art kitchen and the creative ideas that the chefs spin out of thin air. Kristen’s Proby ‘Savor You’ has that sort of feel to it which I liked and would probably appeal to die-hard foodies—involving celebrity chefs and the fascinating world of gastronomy.

But as I soon found out, the pairing didn’t appeal to me at all. There is some heavy history between Mia and Camden, until you learn that she’d done something unforgivable a decade ago in here. Yet using trite words such as ‘I’m a horrible person’ couldn’t justify the weight of her actions enough to me, nor did they simply make it alright. That Cam merely accepted them like the history didn’t matter—without a hint of anger or a grudge—left me bewildered. But then, I’m the one imagining that time doesn’t quite heal such deep wounds without scars for you to remember them.

It didn’t help that I found Mia prickly as she waffled between self-pity and bitchiness, frequently prone to overreactions and pretty much in need of valium and a psychiatrist’s chair with her control issues and emotional fluctuations. My esteem of her dropped further after learning what she did to Cam years ago and this is the part that I feel, that Proby glossed through (or called it ‘moving in’) in favour of a fluffier, less-angsty and more sex-filled read, because it did seem what Mia did so long ago required more than just blithe and brief statements of regret and apologies. But her way of ‘righting’ wrongs was only done because of the work arrangement with Cam; otherwise, it seemed as though she had no intention of revisiting that part of her life and reflecting on the enormous mistake she made.

‘Savor You’ was ultimately a middling read for me that I quickly lost interest in without the emotional spikes and valleys I’d hoped to feel given Mia/Cam’s contentious history, so it’s probably clear that this wasn’t the book for me at all.

two-stars

Melt For You by J.T. Geissinger

Melt For You by J.T. GeissingerMelt for You by J.T. Geissinger
Series: Slow Burn #2
Published by Montlake Romance on 15th May 2018
Pages: 346
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three-stars

A wallflower gets seduction tips from a playboy athlete—until love changes the rules.

Socially awkward Joellen Bixby has a date every Saturday—with her cat, a pint of ice cream, and fantasies of the way-too-handsome Michael Maddox. She’d give anything to win over the unattainable CEO of her firm, but how can she when she blends in so well with her cubicle? The answer may be closer than she thinks.

Cameron McGregor is a cocky, tattooed Scottish rugby captain who just moved in next door. He’s not Jo’s type—at all—but the notorious playboy is offering to teach the wallflower everything he knows about inspiring desire. Though a lot of women have rumpled Cam’s kilt, Jo is special. Far from the ugly duckling she thinks she is, in Cam’s eyes she’s sharp, funny, and effortlessly sexy. Now, thanks to him, Jo is blooming with confidence and has the man of her dreams within reach.

Unfortunately for Cam, he’s just helped to push the woman of his dreams into the arms of another man—and now he’s in the fight of his life to keep this beauty from getting away.

Starting ‘Melt for You’ was quite an apprehensive step to take, I’ll readily admit.

Considering that I loved the spunk and the unexpected but fun retelling of Beauty and the Beast in J.T. Geissinger’s first book in this series (which made me request this ARC), the blurb to this one—so different from the first—gave me pause. The inexperienced woman vs. the experienced commitment-phobic womaniser CEO/athlete/military man etc. ranging from fun-loving to sleazy is one of the tropes all too common in the romance genre and one that I most dislike with a vehemence that rivals my hate for, say, bad public transport management.

I realise this puts me in the minority and I can’t count myself as one of those readers who claps and whoops for the uber-manwhore and feels triumphant that some lone woman finally manages to ’tame’ him even as it takes a process as elaborate and sensitive as sprucing up her self-esteem or image issues. That, pitted against how much I do enjoy Geissinger’s writing and the promise of the loose retelling of ‘The Ugly Duckling’ however, the latter won out…marginally.

‘Melt for you’ starts off with the kind of self-deprecating, smart-alecky talk of Joellen Bixby that rambles on about Christmas shopping to fatness and hair-colour, done in the uncanny style of Bridget Jones: a stream-of-consciousness type, neurotic mash of ageing fears and randomness manifesting as humour. Because of this, Cam obviously stands in sharp contrast to an awkward, thirty-six heroine who has far, far lower self-esteem than a bacne-ridden teen—cocky, obnoxious, and insufferable about his well-earned reputation with the ladies. The build here isn’t quite between 2 protagonists who have their eyes on each other; instead, Joellen’s fixation with her boss while Cameron McGregor with the panty-dropper reputation isn’t the most romantic setup that I can buy into, not when the weird love triangle goes on up until the last quarter of the book.

More disturbingly though, there were many things I found myself wishing. I wished Joellen thought better of herself, from the very start, because those issues of hers struck hard (and too close to home as a family member struggles with this) and made me somewhat heartsick. I wished she saw her own self-worth without the need of some help from a well-known player who’d actually spent the entire book playing reaffirming aunt.

Above all, I wished I laughed more and took this less seriously like the rom-com it’s meant to be, but I couldn’t. Not with the deep-seated issues that I know go deeper than perfect physical appearance being the apparent answer to everything, a commonly-held hypothesis that Joellen was determined to get on board with. Not when I’m passionately against women feeling as though they need to do to extreme lengths so they get noticed by a man. Dour as this review is—which is influenced clearly by what I’ve seen happen to others—, ‘Melt for You’ if anything, throws this starkly into the spotlight and strangely, what mattered more than the HEA is Geissinger’s reinforcement of this past the epilogue.

three-stars

Top Shelf by Shelli Stevens

Top Shelf by Shelli StevensTop Shelf by Shelli Stevens
Published by Tule Publishing on April 17th 2018
Pages: 156
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two-stars

Burned in the past, Navy chief Brett Craven has sworn off serious relationships. But when he meets Kenzie McLaughlin, a gorgeous redhead with a fiery personality, his well-reasoned strategy is blown out of the water.

Years ago, a terrifying attack changed Kenzie’s life, making her trust only a few men, including her brothers and her father. After a sexy Navy guy waltzes into the family pub and doesn’t hesitate to make his interest known, there’s no denying the attraction between them. Can Kenzie let her guard down long enough to fall for Brett?

Shelli Stevens is a new author for me and ‘Top Shelf’ is my first attempt at the McLoughlin series which I can confidently say worked pretty well as a standalone.

Though that was probably as far as it went for me. If it started out well, with some kind of anticipation that built between Kenzie and Brett, that was all dashed away when it became clear that this was going to shape up to be a story about a man who behaved like a world-class moron (taking the romantic stereotypes a little too far here) and a woman who let herself be a pushover for over half of it.

For a story that’s this brief, I had frankly expected more from both protagonists, and felt disappointed when their moving forward was at best, a jerky start-stop before a metaphorical race to the finish. The hesitation to become a serious couple suddenly moved to marriage in a way that left me bewildered and incredulous, and that the book ended somewhat abruptly wasn’t that much of a satisfactory ending for me.

two-stars

Cyborg by Anna Hackett

Cyborg by Anna HackettCyborg by Anna Hackett
Series: Galactic Gladiators #9
Published by Anna Hackett on April 1st 2018
Pages: 156
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three-stars

Scientist Ever Haynes was shocked when she was abducted by alien slavers...but the last thing she expected was to find herself pregnant with a cyborg's baby.

Ever has been fighting for her life since her abduction, and the only good thing to happen to her was one heated night with a mysterious prisoner--a connection, a flash of light in the darkness. But then he was rescued and she was left behind. Now, weeks later, she's been saved by the House of Galen gladiators...and by the man she shared the hottest night of her life with. But cool, emotionless cyborg Magnus Rone has no memory of their night together and finding out that she's expecting his baby is a shock to everyone.

Created in a military program, Magnus is genetically and cybernetically enhanced--emotionless, ruthless, focused. He vows to protect Ever and the baby she carries, and despite his lack of memory, everything about tough, levelheaded Ever draws him in. All his life, his emotional dampeners and training have limited his ability to feel emotions...but one small Earth woman cuts through all that and leaves him feeling.

As they work together to hunt down the deadly desert arena of Zaabha and the final human woman trapped there, Ever and Magnus find a stunning passion neither can resist or ignore. But in the dangerous desert sands of Carthago, with the House of Galen gladiators by their sides, deadly enemies are closing in. Ever and Magnus will be dragged back into the darkness, and Magnus will do anything and sacrifice everything to keep her safe.

In Anna Hackett’s Gladiator universe, it feels as though anything is possible. And that much frees the narrative to range from far-flung sand-dune adventures to ancient Rome-type fighting for sport and commerce.

With a stoic, near-emotionless cybernetically-enhanced guy suddenly thrust into the emotionally-laden sphere of impending childbirth with a woman he’d apparently been kidnapped with, I felt a little lost at sea here after the sudden shift in focus from the House of Galen to the House of Rone—like I’d been thrust into a backstory that I had no clue about at all, only for it to have been narrated almost as a throwaway line.

Nonetheless, ‘Cyborg’ feels like the book that’s leading us to the edge of some precipice that Hackett hasn’t yet thrown us over…as though it’s the penultimate book of a series that has mainly dealt with the systematic rescue of more earth women from unscrupulous traders and aliens, as the House of Galen and the House of Rone fight to dismantle illegal fighting rings and stop the kidnappings. Magnus Rone’s book continues this similar storyline with a different couple so it did seem a bit repetitive for me, though it’s always great fun each time to read the new things Hackett comes up with when the action scenes finally roll around.

The slight bit of a cliffhanger here is an excellent hook for the next book, though Hackett’s fans would barely need it at this point in time.

 

three-stars

Hooked on You by Kate Meader

Hooked on You by Kate MeaderHooked On You by Kate Meader
Series: Chicago Rebels, #4
Published by Pocket Books on May 7th 2018
Pages: 384
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three-stars

Violet Vasquez never met her biological father, so learning he left his beloved hockey franchise—the Chicago Rebels—to her is, well, unexpected. Flat broke and close to homeless, Violet is determined to make the most of this sudden opportunity. Except dear old dad set conditions that require she takes part in actually running the team with the half-sisters she barely knows. Working with these two strangers and overseeing a band of hockey-playing lugs is not on her agenda…until she lays eyes on the Rebels captain and knows she has to have him.

Bren St. James has been labeled a lot of things: the Puck Prince, Lord of the Ice, Hell’s Highlander...but it’s the latest tag that’s making headlines: washed-up alcoholic has-been. This season, getting his life back on track and winning the Cup are his only goals. With no time for relationships—except the fractured ones he needs to rebuild with his beautiful daughters—he’s finding it increasingly hard to ignore sexy, all-up-in-his-beard Violet Vasquez. And when he finds himself in need of a nanny just as the playoffs are starting, he’s faced with a temptation he could so easily get hooked on.

For two lost souls, there’s more on the line than just making the best of a bad situation… there might also be a shot at the biggest prize of all: love.

Kate Meader’s writing is always one that I look out for. There’s quirk, some humour and sometimes cheese, but it never fails to entertain. ‘Hooked On You’ closes Meader’s Chicago Rebels series and having come fresh off the scorching push-pull relationship of Cade/Dante, I really wasn’t sure what to expect with Violet/Bren’s story, even though this pairing had been hinted at from the very beginning.

A burly, surly Scot in trouble on so many fronts and a plucky, somewhat abrasive and determined-to-live-life-to-the-fullest cancer survivor? I took a breath and dove into a setup that was 3-books-in-coming and had my expectations exceeded on some fronts, especially when it came to Bren St. James.

As an alcoholic struggling with petulant pre-teens—the kind that swing between being difficult with everything and weird know-it-alls—I felt for Bren, his clawing back up into sobriety while doing everything he could to be a better man and a father. That Violet ended up as their nanny incidentally came as no surprise however, and I did enjoy reading how their initial rocky, contentious, sniping-type interaction smoothed out a little later on, held together only by sexual tension that Bren didn’t want to break for good reasons.

Meader’s exploration of what femininity might mean through Violet—having lost and reconstructed her breasts after the ordeal—was generally spot-on. With a hard front, a couldn’t-care-less, indifferent attitude that Violet put on, the shell of armour composed of sass, biting sarcasm and confrontational belligerence seemed too often like an over compensation for a vulnerable core. And I could, by and large, understand it. I got to grips with how fear could masquerade as courage and how the subtleties could be lost as Violet grappled with how she wanted to face life after cancer.

Still, while I understood Meader’s portrayal of Violet, I didn’t necessarily get to grips with her all the time. With a boatload of daddy-issues tattooed on her forehead and a chip on her shoulder a mile wide, I couldn’t help but feel that Violet was as easy to set off as a rocket, sometimes lashing out unfairly while taking on contradictory positions where Bren and his children were concerned. One moment she wanted to fight for Bren when his malicious ex-wife sauntered back into the picture, the next moment had her walking away with a dollop of self-pity because she’d assumed the martyr’s stance with him while assuming that he wasn’t ever going to put her first. For her immense courage in fighting the cancer, I did wish however, that she could have used that same courage with Bren (who truly had his hands full) when he needed it.

‘Hooked on You’ is nonetheless a pretty good read—Meader’s previous novella with Cade/Dante is probably my favourite—though honestly, I liked it more for Bren, who’s probably one of the best characters I’ve ever come across beneath the broody surface. There were bits that I thought lagged a little and parts where the back-and-forth got a tad tiresome, but overall, I’m still sort of wistful as I wave the Rebels goodbye.

three-stars