Category: Advanced Reader Copy

Search and Destroy by Julie Rowe

Search and Destroy by Julie RoweSearch and Destroy by Julie Rowe
Series: Outbreak Task Force #4
Published by Entangled tangled Publishing, LLC (Amara) on 26th August 2019
Pages: 400
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three-stars

Dr. Carmen Rodrigues, CDC’s Outbreak Task Force director, is on the hunt for a killer–– an airborne virus spreading from Florida across the States, gaining traction with each passing moment. Although she’ll never forget her one night with sexy bodyguard John Dozer in Afghanistan, his protective nature is one distraction she doesn’t need right now.

Ex-Army Intelligence officer John Dozer will put his life on the line for beautiful, independent Carmen. Every. Time. Even when she pushes him away. And now, with her struggling to contain an outbreak likely triggered by domestic bio-terrorists, maybe even insiders at the CDC, she needs him more than ever. He lost her once. He’ll never let that happen again.

In ‘Search and Destroy’, Julie Rowe amps it up with a serious but sudden outbreak of measles, the mobilisation and the rush to contain yet another outbreak. In a straight, unapologetic continuation from the previous book (those who haven’t yet started from scratch might find themselves in a bind here), there’s finally a sense that something bigger and more sinister is brewing. Bioterrorism? Political wrangling? All of the above? There’s more than what meets the eye, but it isn’t all clearly laid out just yet.

What I did find questioning though, was the forced chemistry and sex between Carmen and Dozer very early on—all of which would have been alright, except that it left Carmen alternating between being a simpering wimp when it came to Dozer’s supposed masculinity and being the strong, take-charge boss as the action wore on. Dozer’s less-than-appealing alpha behaviour in contrast, made him walk a dangerously close line to being a possessive alpha arse, and oddly enough, a side player in the bigger scheme of things.

In fact, I thought Rowe put Dozer’s and Carmen’s relationship on the backburner along with the questions that the reader typically has in favour of the action, which I found more believable than their relationship. As a result, Carmen/Dozer was a questionable pairing despite their very, very brief history 9 years ago and that their reunion suddenly sparked off Dozer’s sudden need to only keep Carmen now (why not any time sooner despite all the regret?) was bewildering.

Instead, the memorable character that stood larger than life throughout the series turned out to be the Drill Sergeant whom I found hilarious but also charismatic the moment he appeared on the pages and that alone you could say, makes every book in the series worth reading.

This isn’t to say that ‘Search and Destroy’ isn’t smartly and well-written…it certainly is, even if it’s the rare book of Rowe that has gotten me a little more disappointed than excited. Rowe makes it very clear that the series has a mini arc within a larger narrative arc that will keep going for some time with the sequels to follow. Yet because of this, ‘Search and Destroy’ felt incomplete and particularly rushed with Carmen/Dozer’s relationship that went from zero to a hundred in a space of a few days, carved out in small pockets that frankly, did feel like blippy speed bumps in the otherwise pacey and thrillingly consistent storytelling.

three-stars

Arctic Heat by Annabeth Albert

Arctic Heat by Annabeth AlbertArctic Heat by Annabeth Albert
Series: Frozen Hearts, #3
Published by Carina Press on 23rd September 2019
Pages: 361
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three-stars

Owen Han has a fresh lease on life—he’s kicked cancer’s ass and is roaring through his bucket list. The former investment banker hopes to find his next challenge in Alaska, volunteering alongside park rangers and fulfilling his childhood dreams of snowy winters and rustic life. Of course, those dreams did tend to feature big strapping mountain men in vivid detail…

Ranger Quilleran Ramsey would like to be anywhere other than dealing with newbie volunteers. And really, the only thing he needs less than a green volunteer “partner” is the flirty attentions of a buff city boy who doesn’t look ready to last a week, let alone an Alaskan winter. They’re all wrong for each other, even if Quill’s traitorous body enjoys the flirting more than it should.

As the weeks pass, the two snowbound men give in to temptation. But can their seasonal romance last until spring? For them to have a future together, each will have to trust the other…while hoping that the harsh elements and omnipresent dangers don’t destroy what happiness they’ve found in the moment.

There’s something I find compelling about Annabeth Albert’s Frozen Hearts series, but perhaps it’s the wilds of Alaska and the odd, accompanying sense of adventure and danger so far north that pull me in. Here, the urban-suave ex-investment banker and a grumpy, closet ranger come together in ‘Arctic Heat’, a pairing that is as unlikely as Owen Han and Quill Ramsey meeting under ‘normal circumstances’ had tragedy not struck in a way to make the former reevaluate his priorities.

And they couldn’t be more different, especially when the thought of such a pairing seems like a bad idea from the start. Owen is rocking what life has to offer after beating cancer, now exuberantly pursuing everything in his bucket list, Quill’s stoic, cautious and reticent in his approach to jumping into everything headlong despite Owen’s very obvious attempts in starting something between them. More so, because Owen’s place in Alaska is temporary—a pit stop in his journey towards ticking off yet one more thing in his list—while Quill is simply opposed to having his slow, steady life upended by an eager, restless puppy of a volunteer who just won’t give up.

But Albert works these kinks out slowly but surely, with action that is muted in favour of relationship development and a slow burn that’s mostly found in Owen’s small but significant inroads (literally and metaphorically) in Quill’s closeted and closed-up life and his overall bleakness on the relationship front. It’s a pairing that’s good for each other, I think, despite my finding Owen a bit too pushy for my liking, even if it’s meant to get Quill to let go of his regimented thinking a bit more.

Overall, ‘Arctic Heat’ is a gentler, more emotion-focused than adventure-driven sort of story, with an iron-clad HEA that Albert reinforces through lots of emotional affirmation. It did drag a bit and became somewhat predictable for me, but it’ll could appeal to those who like delving into head space with some adult angst.

three-stars

Dine with Me by Layla Reyne

Dine with Me by Layla ReyneDine With Me by Layla Reyne
Published by Carina Press on 16th September 2019
Pages: 205
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four-stars


Life never tasted so good.

Miller Sykes’s meteoric rise to award-winning chef is the stuff of culinary dreams, but it’s all crashing down around him. He’s been given a diagnosis that could cost him something even more precious than his life: his sense of taste. Rather than risk the very thing that defines him, Miller embarks on a last tour of his favorite meals while he still can.

But there’s a catch: he needs a financial backer to make it happen, and he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s sick.

Dr. Clancy Rhodes has two weeks to come to terms with putting aside oncology to work at his father’s thriving plastic surgery practice. When the opportunity to travel with a Michelin-starred chef presents itself, the foodie in him can’t believe it. It doesn’t hurt that Miller’s rugged good looks are exactly Clancy’s cup of joe.

As Clancy and Miller travel from coast to coast and indulge in everything from dive bars to the most decadent of culinary experiences, they’re suddenly sharing a lot more than delicious meals. Sparks fly as they bond over their love of flavors and the pressures of great expectations. But when Miller’s health takes a turn for the worse, Clancy must convince him he’s more—so much more—than just his taste buds. And that together, they can win a battle that once seemed hopeless.

‘Dine With Me’ is as much as a tribute to food as it is to romance: two weeks with an ailing celebrity chef (his self-imposed last rites, so to speak) and a foodie doctor on the verge of a career shift.

Layla Reyne takes a different direction with ‘Dine With Me’ and by turning to gastronomy, automatically helped keep the pages turning as I lapped up the descriptions of food as much as I did of the growing tension and stark differences between Clancy Rhodes and Miller Sykes—one with an unfailing optimism for human life and the other, with a fatalistic view of life as well…because of their work and what they love most doing. In essence, their chance meeting when Clancy signs up for the food tour becomes a slow burn of smouldering looks, helpless moans and tingly feels over gourmet dishes, with some (un)timely intervention of family and friends on both sides.

Reyne walks the thin line here when it comes to relationships; Clancy’s unusual—and frankly, rather unbelievable—family situation enables him to accept Miller’s own without difficulty. I found the circumstances and the plot a bit more conveniently serendipitous and a bit more far-fetched than I liked, and struggled with the small niggle bits that had to do with characterisation.

It is difficult to reconcile Clancy’s eager, enthusiastic puppy-dog demeanour with that of a 30-year-old doctor who’d seen too much in oncology, though it does play off nicely against Miller’s stoic and gruff behaviour as he wrestles with his own mortality. Still, it all comes to an end rather quickly where I’d hoped Clancy could have played a bigger part in Miller’s journey to recovery. Reyne focuses instead, more on food and the present rather than Clancy/Miller’s relationship changing past the tour, then hops to conclusion a few years down the road that tells more than shows the hard journey to their HEA.

Still, there’s a bit more poignancy and a lot more of the struggle for acceptance of change as the sobering thought of mortality lurks around the corner—it’s just slower-paced though, and if food’s the thing that revs your engine, ‘Dine With Me’ offers something unusual and different.

four-stars

Save Your Breath by Melinda Leigh

Save Your Breath by Melinda LeighSave Your Breath by Melinda Leigh
Series: Morgan Dane #6
Published by Montlake Romance on 17th September 2019
Pages: 320
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four-stars

Morgan Dane and PI Lance Kruger investigate the mysterious disappearance of a true-crime writer.

When true-crime writer Olivia Cruz disappears with no signs of foul play, her new boyfriend, Lincoln Sharp, suspects the worst. He knows she didn’t leave willingly and turns to attorney Morgan Dane and PI Lance Kruger to find her before it’s too late.

As they dig through Olivia’s life, they are shocked to discover a connection between her current book research on two cold murder cases and the suicide of one of Morgan’s prospective clients.

As Morgan and Lance investigate, the number of suspects grows, but time is running out to find Olivia alive. When danger comes knocking at their door, Morgan and Lance realize that they may be the killer’s next targets.

Melinda Leigh returns with one of the tightest, most cohesive crime-busting, lawyer-PI team in the Morgan Dane series—I can’t seem to get enough of Morgan Dane and Lance Kruger—and ‘Save Your Breath’ is yet another great instalment in this fantastic lineup.

I think I’ve said this in every review of the series, but written from a romance review’s perspective, I’ll need to say it again: the romance is slight and brought off-screen, given the established pairings, with slight touches and kisses and reaffirming words forming the basis of affection here. Lance and Morgan are grounded in each other and it’s always a joy to read about their mature relationship and how they get on in each new book, so ‘Save Your Breath’ furthers their relationship just a little more and probably gives them the short but needed HEA all of their stalwart fans want.

As much as I was hoping for a sharper focus on Lincoln Sharp’s and Olivia Wade’s romance developing along side Morgan/Lance’s rock-solid one, ‘Save Your Breath’ wastes no time in moving past their attraction, straight onto the meat of the story of Olivia’s disappearance and several seemingly unlinked cases.

There’s no doubt that Leigh always crafts a good suspense; this far into the series, the pacing, tone and characters are nuanced and pitch-perfect, though a mite bit predictable plot-wise, or even a bit of a let down when all’s revealed and tied up.

Still, it’s a smooth read otherwise, engaging and compelling and if this is really Leigh’s last in this series, I’ll be saying a very, very wistful goodbye.

four-stars

Saving Everest by Sky Chase

Saving Everest by Sky ChaseSaving Everest by Sky Chase
Published by Wattpad Books on 8th October 2019
Pages: 352
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one-half-stars

From the outside, Everest has it all, but there’s only one girl who can see him for who he truly is...and it changes his life forever.

Everest is the most popular guy in school. As the handsome and wealthy captain of the football team, he has the world at his fingertips, but he’s desperately unhappy. Unconvinced that he should live, he tries to take his life.

On the surface, Beverly’s different from Everest in every way. Quiet, shy, and hard working, she keeps to herself, focusing on her schoolwork and part-time job to distract herself from her less-than-perfect home life.

When Everest returns to school, in more pain than ever, he’s discarded by his friends and girlfriend, and draws little empathy and too much attention from those who surround him. But when Beverly and Everest meet unexpectedly in a dusty corner of the library, together they discover how just how rich life can be.

Getting into a New Adult/Young Adult story always takes a bit of recalibration in all senses of the word, though I do go into a read like this from time to time.

‘Saving Everest’ got me curious and yes, it delves into the heavy angst bit that seems to be the pre-requisite of such books these days along with the weightier topics of depression and suicide, familial fractures and the difficult routes out of these states.

Essentially, there are no surprises in here: the blurb is as the story goes and while I can respect the way friendship and emotive teen issues resonate with YA readers, this didn’t do much for me at all.

I do have a tendency to get antsy with pages after pages of internal monologues or with scenes that might or might not lead anywhere plot-wise; flipping through the pages as Sky Chase builds a slow burn between Beverly and Everest got me frustrated only because I couldn’t get up the anticipation to what was coming. There is barely a buildup between the protagonists through a whopping few hundred pages—a very mild romance best describes the story of two young people helping each other grow and change—and sort of ends as it fizzles out unsatisfactorily. My mistake perhaps, then, was to have gone through this book thinking it was categorised as a NA or YA romance when it didn’t quite feel like one.

Again, ‘Saving Everest’ is in no way badly written or badly handled technically. My reason for finding it unremarkable has to do with my own expectations and the  literary distance that I’ve travelled since my YA days, where going back is more than a little difficult right now.

one-half-stars

Good Guy by Kate Meader

Good Guy by Kate MeaderGood Guy by Kate Meader
Series: Rookie Rebels #1
Published by Kate Meader on 30th July 2019
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three-stars

He's a Special Forces veteran making his pro hockey debut. She's a dogged sports reporter determined to get a scoop. She's also his best friend's widow...

Fans can’t get enough of Levi Hunt, the Special Forces veteran who put his NHL career on hold to serve his country and fight the bad guys. So when his new Chicago Rebels bosses tell him to cooperate with the press on a profile, he’s ready to do his duty. Until he finds out who he has to work with: flame-haired, freckle-splashed, impossibly perky Jordan Cooke.

The woman he should not have kissed the night she buried her husband, Levi’s best friend in the service.

Hockey-stick-up-his-butt-serious Levi Hunt might despise Jordan for reasons she can’t fathom—okay, it’s to do with kissing—but her future in the cutthroat world of sports reporting hangs on delivering the goods on the league’s hottest, grumpiest rookie.

So what if he’s not interested in having his life plated up for public consumption. Too bad. Jordan will have to play dirty to get her scoop and even dirtier to get her man. Only in winning the story, she might just lose her heart...

‘Good Guy’ combines forbidden attraction, hockey and a reporter desperately using anything she can to get a scoop on the latest (and oldest) rookie’s life, with a little bit of a twist. But Kate Meader is a near-auto read for me most of the time and this spin-off from her popular Chicago Rebels series brings them all together again, albeit a few years down the road on an unusual premise to start.

Much of the story deals with Jordan following Levi Hunt and the team around in order to get a read on him to get her article up; it’s essentially, her desperate bid to build her career that drives her efforts to get close to a man with whom she’s already has sort of history and a process that reunites them in an unexpected way.

‘Good Guy’ sits in the middle of a few intersecting tropes here and with Meader’s assured writing, it’s not a hardship at all, to go through all of it. Like many authors these days in romantic fiction (a genre written mainly by women for women), Meader shines a light on the issue of gender equality, workplace ethics, harassment and assault, especially in male-dominated fields like sports reporting. It’s also a thorny theme that drives characterisation, which in some ways, proved to be my personal stumbling block.

Jordan felt a little preppy and chirpy for my liking—I was surprised not to get the gravitas or the lingering sadness that normally surrounds a widowed heroine—and whose personality felt incongruous to the role she was playing in this romance. I didn’t quite her exploitation of her connection with Levi to get ahead, or how she pushed and needled her way into prying him open for the sake of her story: it did feel too calculating at times and I had a hard time trying to reconcile this picture of a cheerful, warm protagonist who had a manipulative side to her that she tried to ‘reframe’ in so many different ways which Meader valiantly tries to justify. That Levi had found himself grovelling quite a few times made her seem unfairly blameless when she clearly wasn’t.

In contrast, it was easier to like Levi, whose only crime it seemed, was wanting his best friend’s widow from afar. Past the gruff, stoic exterior, he seemed more highly evolved than many others, given that he didn’t deny his attraction for Jordan and the keen sense of right and wrong that he carried which made him easy to gravitate towards.

Different strokes for different folks, is all I can say in conclusion. Meader rarely goes wrong with a writing style that I can always get on board with, nonetheless, and I’m eager to know what this new story arc is all about in the Rebels finding their second wind.

three-stars

Bringing Down The Duke by Evie Dunmore

Bringing Down The Duke by Evie DunmoreBringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore
Series: A League of Extraordinary Women, #1
Published by Berkley on 3rd September 2019
Pages: 320
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three-half-stars

England, 1879. Annabelle Archer, the brilliant but destitute daughter of a country vicar, has earned herself a place among the first cohort of female students at the renowned University of Oxford. In return for her scholarship, she must support the rising women's suffrage movement. Her charge: recruit men of influence to champion their cause. Her target: Sebastian Devereux, the cold and calculating Duke of Montgomery who steers Britain's politics at the Queen's command. Her challenge: not to give in to the powerful attraction she can't deny for the man who opposes everything she stands for.

Sebastian is appalled to find a suffragist squad has infiltrated his ducal home, but the real threat is his impossible feelings for green-eyed beauty Annabelle. He is looking for a wife of equal standing to secure the legacy he has worked so hard to rebuild, not an outspoken commoner who could never be his duchess. But he wouldn't be the greatest strategist of the Kingdom if he couldn't claim this alluring bluestocking without the promise of a ring...or could he?

Locked in a battle with rising passion and a will matching her own, Annabelle will learn just what it takes to topple a duke....

Reading about fictional, historical women ahead of their time should well resonate with those living in this century, as far removed as we are from them, simply because the issue of equality among the sexes is still a highly contested one despite the leaps we’ve made.

Despite the levity of the cover, Evie Dunmore’s debut historical is rather compelling, with all the peaks and troughs of the historical romances that I turn to from time to time. There’s some sensitivity to the social and cultural constraints of the time and Dunmore shows that awareness in her prose and her protagonists’ behaviour—where they should step or not—while piling on the rising heat between a vicar’s daughter studying at Oxford and a blue-blooded, pedigreed duke who has the ear of the Queen.

Anchoring her story straight in the middle of a time where bluestockinged women were petitioning for their right to vote—a fundamental right so many take for granted these days—in Victorian England is sly and smart, as Dunmore weaves the politics of the day quite deftly with ideas of social standing, fidelity and the transactional nature of marriage in two protagonists who lie on the opposite ends of the ladder.

The slow burn between Annabelle Archer and Sebastian Montgomery is a believable one, more so because Dunmore writes Annabelle as a character who’s easily empathised with: as one who wants more, who yearns to bridge the chasm that gapes between her and her duke, but can’t. My only let-down was her own hand-wringing, her lack of conviction and her dismally cowardly behaviour towards the end in a supposedly self-sacrificing cruel move—cruel to be kind so to speak, and a stupid action—where it was left all to Sebastian to do the hard work and climb the mountain while she did nothing to fight for what she really wanted. Ironic, considering the passion she had for the suffragist movement.

If I thought Sebastian impenetrable and difficult to grasp, Dunmore’s rushed stripping away of his defences towards the end of the book made him a different romantic protagonist I wanted to get behind—one who almost deserved better than what Annabelle did to him.

These grumbles aside, Dunmore’s rather impressive debut is making me sit up and take note. It’s well-written, well thought-out and engaging. For someone with hands and feet firmly in contemporary romance, this is quite a feat.

three-half-stars