Category: Netgalley

It Takes Two by Jenny Holiday

It Takes Two by Jenny HolidayIt Takes Two by Jenny Holiday
Series: Bridesmaids Behaving Badly #2
Published by Forever on 26th June 2018
Pages: 384
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three-stars

All’s fair in love and warWendy Liu should be delighted to be her best friend’s maid of honor. But after years spent avoiding the bride’s brother – a.k.a the boy who once broke her heart – she’s now trapped with him during an endless amount of wedding festivities. Luckily she’s had time to perfect her poker face, and engaging Noah Denning in a little friendly competition might just prove that she’s over him for good…

Noah Denning is determined to make his little sister’s wedding memorable. But it seems Wendy is trying to outdo him at every turn. Challenging each other was always something he and Wendy did right, so when she proposes they compete to see who can throw the best bachelor or bachelorette party in Sin City, Noah takes the bait – and ups the stakes. Because this time around, he wants Wendy for keeps. And when you’re fighting for love, all bets are off.

This series, as the name suggests, is built around weddings, bridezillas and how each pairing is cemented in this heightened time of blustery emotions spiking high and low…along with random crying spurts. Jenny Holiday’s ‘One and Only’ set the precedent. ‘It Takes Two’ continues it in a different way, and had me on tenterhooks for a while. Well, most second-chance romances do actually, because I’m always looking for a satisfactory explanation of the pairing’s history before I can believe in the way it all comes together in the present.

A ruined teenage crush that had been elemental in some ways and a man who’s nothing but oblivious to what he’d done—his mind was simply on responsibility and not much else—do after all, make for interesting reading. In this case, the best friend’s brother returns home and Wendy’s constant avoidance of Noah Denning—through the years—is no longer possible. That childhood, familial bond has since devolved into uneasy tension, layered over by sniping and oneupmanship that happens during a wedding that neither can avoid.

Wendy’s history with Noah is thankfully, not made out to be a something that she hasn’t ever gotten over, but rather, a hurtful and never-forgotten experience cementing a personality that solidified in the many years after Noah left. And because Holiday hasn’t made this momentous event akin to the most epic heartbreak of Wendy’s life, this is fertile ground for a so-called second-chance that I think I can get on board with. Still, blaming Noah for the entire change in her adult outlook on dating however, seems extreme, seeing as Wendy’s combative stance stemming from her (somewhat unfairly) padded memory of prom night when she’d deliberately remembered him as someone he isn’t.

The amount of self-reflection that Holiday writes into the story and the tightly-controlled amount of angst, I think, make this better than the average rom-com for me. There are odd bits though, that threw me off: the flashbacks that aren’t demarcated but pop into a scene unannounced, the somewhat awkward dance between Wendy and Noah that hops from taunting to a huge step into bed. But to the even more awkward and unbelievable realisation that the thing between them had always been love despite 17 years of separation and nothing but big-brother-type protection before? Gobsmacked doesn’t quite cover it.

In all, there were parts I liked and parts that caught me frowning. I would have preferred a more iron-clad HEA in a conclusion that seems more like a HFN here; this is, like the previous book, an abrupt one that leaves the couple standing at a precipice of change just as the credits start to roll.

three-stars

One Small Thing by Erin Watt

One Small Thing by Erin WattOne Small Thing by Erin Watt
Published by Harlequin Teen on 26th June 2018
Pages: 384
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three-stars

Beth’s life hasn’t been the same since her sister died. Her parents try to lock her down, believing they can keep her safe by monitoring her every move. When Beth sneaks out to a party one night and meets the new guy in town, Chase, she’s thrilled to make a secret friend. It seems a small thing, just for her.

Only Beth doesn’t know how big her secret really is…

Fresh out of juvie and determined to start his life over, Chase has demons to face and much to atone for, including his part in the night Beth’s sister died. Beth, who has more reason than anyone to despise him, is willing to give him a second chance. A forbidden romance is the last thing either of them planned for senior year, but the more time they spend together, the deeper their feelings get.

Now Beth has a choice to make—follow the rules, or risk tearing everything apart…again.

In some ways, going back to NA/YA can be frustrating no matter the author, only because it’s hard to step back into a teen’s POV when your older self wants nothing but to smack these characters…though not before wondering if your younger self were ever this way. Teenage angst galore is what ‘One Small Thing’ opens with—an act of rebellion that turns into a hookup (the start of a familiar downward spiral) that in turn reveals a whole slew of ugly emotions and self-destructive behaviour with generous helpings of hate, guilt, misery and selfishness.

We’re thrown in the deep end from the start, only because Erin Watt doesn’t shy away from wading into the aftermath of a death that happened 3 years ago…and how people the closest to this tragedy deal with it. Elizabeth Jones, who’s smack in the centre of the hurricane is a difficult one to like, for this reason. Hemmed in by her parents, her subsequent lashing out is understandable but still cringeworthy, since it’s admittedly hard to read about a protagonist who doesn’t know her own mind for a large part of the book, who wavers in doing what she clearly knows she should do and whose self-absorption and naïveté make it hard to be sympathetic to her plight.

But character growth has always been imperative in such books, and Watt certainly offers a ton of it, if you can get past the melodrama that tends to accompany the usual dose of teenage angst. In contrast to the negativity that permeates so much of the book, at some point in time, forgiveness and redemption need to come into the picture and they do, as the lessons are learned from the most unexpected source.

Objectively speaking, the characterisation is well done, even if the story ends on a note that can’t really be classified as a HEA or a HFN. The teens act exactly how I expected them to, amplified with the kind of existential angst they face along with their identity crisis and there’s always the sense of a fresh new start (though somewhat abruptly done in the conclusion) and nothing but a blank slate down the road. Watt’s storytelling is compelling nonetheless, though I wasn’t as moved by this as much as I thought I would be.

three-stars

Imperial Stout by Layla Reyne

Imperial Stout by Layla ReyneImperial Stout by Layla Reyne
Series: Trouble Brewing #1
Published by Carina Press on 23rd July 2018
Pages: 268
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two-stars

It’s a good thing assistant US attorney Dominic Price co-owns a brewery. He could use a cold one. Nic’s star witness has just been kidnapped, his joint operation with the FBI is in jeopardy, his father’s shady past is catching up with him and the hot new special agent in San Francisco is the kind of distraction best handled with a stiff drink.

Kidnap and rescue expert Cameron Byrne has his own ideas about how to handle Nic, but his skills are currently needed elsewhere. The by-the-book FBI agent goes deep undercover as a member of an infamous heist crew in order to save Nic’s witness, break up the crew and close the case before anyone else gets hurt. Nic in particular.

Things heat up when Cam falls for Nic, and the witness falls for Cam. As the crew’s suspicions grow, Cam must decide how far he’s willing to go—and how far into his own dark past he’s willing to dive—to get everyone out alive.

‘Imperial Stout’ is me stepping out of my comfort zone when it comes to M/M fiction, though Layla Reyne isn’t a new author to me. Written in a fairly different style from what I’m used to, and not having read Reyne’s ‘Agents Irish and Whiskey’ series, this is me coming in as a newbie. So with a very busy first chapter that included not only an action scene but a load of history between the protagonists which sort of involved also a best friend’s partner and ex-flame, I was a little lost, though duly warned about the kind of romance this path would take.

Still, I found it hard to engage with this one with the convoluted way the plot was initially presented, not like the way I was engaged in Reyne’s ‘Changing Lanes’ series, with my attention constantly pulled between the intrigue, the brewery, the huge number of characters mentioned or dropping in and the romance that was supposedly building. The pairing—between a US Attorney and a kidnap and rescue specialist with the FBI—, while intriguing, seemed to fade behind the never-ceasing activity that kept going on and I never quite lost the feeling of trying to play catch up having walked straight into a tv-series mid-season just as the action was heating up.

‘Imperial Stout’ is safe to say, probably more a book for Reyne’s stalwart followers of her previous series who want to continue into this spin-off in this particular world of whiskey, agents and lawyers. That said, while I still do like Reyne’s writing, I’m going to take a pass on this book and the series. I did try to get into Nic/Cam as much as possible, skimming the pages just to see how things finally fell into place for them, but ultimately, I just didn’t feel as though I made any headway into them at all. And without the base appeal of the main pairing in this romance, I couldn’t quite see the point going on.

two-stars

Ocean Light by Nalini Singh

Ocean Light by Nalini SinghOcean Light by Nalini Singh
Published by Berkley on 12th June 2018
Pages: 416
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four-stars

Security specialist Bowen Knight has come back from the dead. But there's a ticking time bomb in his head: a chip implanted to block telepathic interference that could fail at any moment--taking his brain along with it. With no time to waste, he should be back on land helping the Human Alliance. Instead, he's at the bottom of the ocean, consumed with an enigmatic changeling...

Kaia Luna may have traded in science for being a chef, but she won't hide the facts of Bo's condition from him or herself. She's suffered too much loss in her life to fall prey to the dangerous charm of a human who is a dead man walking. And she carries a devastating secret Bo could never imagine...

But when Kaia is taken by those who mean her deadly harm, all bets are off. Bo will do anything to get her back--even if it means striking a devil's bargain and giving up his mind to the enemy...

I’ve always had a soft spot for Bowen Knight, even loved his cause and his unwavering, determined fight for humanity in the Human Alliance (guess which one I belong to?)—the least of the three races it seems, in Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling world. My heart sank when Bo went down hard in ‘Silver Silence’ and just as I thought all hope was lost, ‘Ocean Light’ became my own (and Bo’s) salvation. This was the book I’ve always wanted ever since Bowen burst onto the scene, from the moment I learned that he had an immovable but lethal chip in his head about to detonate any time.

That Singh chooses to introduce Blacksea using Bowen’s story is an obvious shift away from the Bear changelings in ‘Silver Silence’, a mysterious group hinted at in the closing books of Singh’s “season 1” of her Psy-Changeling novels that focused solely on the cats and the wolves. Here, Singh opens yet again new pathways and original insights into her massive world-building that continues now deep down in the sea, so compelling in ways that it’s hard to turn away from the myriad of sea creatures and their personalities that populate this book. Half the book however, after the intriguing setup, comprises Singh’s languid, thorough exploration of the world Bo has found himself in, not least the slow unfurling and the slow romance between him and Kaia, before the pace picks up frantically again towards the end.

Written into Kaia Luna’s and Bowen Knight’s attraction is a conflict that’s drawn up against these lines: the bad blood between the humans the Blacksea changelings rather than just a personal feud that Kaia sets up against Bowen for the losses in she feels keenly in her life. Enemies-to-lovers in this context, might just seem a little too dismissive after all, too small a view to take in the huge world that Singh has written, though this is still a trope nonetheless, in romantic fiction which I like a lot.

Yet Kaia, a scientist-turned-cook (with maternal instincts and a soft, easily hurt heart that’s prone more to pulling away) in the Ryujin BlackSea Station, is the last person I’d expect Singh to pair with the hard security chief, who is as ruthless and emotionless as the Psy themselves without the telekinetic power. Coupled with the (somewhat unbelievable) bit of instalove written into a strong attraction—cue bodies hardening, arousal flaring—that strikes the both of them at first glance is perhaps also an attempt to humanise the hard-nosed image of Bowen Knight who is more a man of flesh and emotions more similar to the other alpha changelings than we think. I would have loved a stronger, harder, a more sword-wielding-type mate for Bo—the type that would have stood for his fight in the Human Alliance by his side with a weapon— but clearly this is my personal preference speaking for such heroines to materialise every time.

‘Ocean Light’ is satisfying on many levels, but I particularly loved the introduction to the Blacksea changelings and Bowen’s Knights. The threads of this incredibly complex arc that Singh has written are far from tied up, nonetheless. There are still too many unrevealed secrets here—things that Singh doesn’t choose to reveal—that baby steps seem to be the only way in which this juggernaut of a story can move on, which is both as rewarding and as frustrating at times.

four-stars

In Bed with The Beast by Tara Sivec

In Bed with The Beast by Tara SivecIn Bed with the Beast by Tara Sivec
Series: , #2
Published by Swerve on 5th June 2018
Pages: 304
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one-star

Living in her overprotective dad’s basement, shy Belle lives her life through books. Being a part of the Naughty Princess Club is the first adventure she’s ever had, plus she desperately needs the money to save one of her favorite places - the local library.

But when her new friends and new business gets her kicked out of her dad’s house, Belle is rescued by the surly Vincent “Beast” Adams who invites her to be his house guest until she gets back on her feet. Despite his attitude problem and long list of rules, Belle finds herself warming to the muscled man with a penchant for growling and starts seeing a gentle side to him that wasn’t there before.

Yet there’s a room that Beast keeps locked and Belle keeps getting hints that Beast is hiding something…can a nerdy librarian tame the beast or will their romance be over before it has a chance to blossom?

It’s hard to give the modern fairytale retelling a pass in my case—sucker that I am for all of spins and takes we can possibly have on them—which is why ‘In Bed with the Beast’ was one that I was eager to get my hands on.

In this case, it’s about a librarian and a bouncer, aka, Belle and the Beast, the supposedly shy librarian and the surly bouncer. Throw in the home stripping business that 3 women have started into the mix and I was beyond intrigued at this risqué proposition and take on the fairytale.

But this didn’t start off well for me, with characters generally behaving like hormonal tweens to the extent where I had to relook their ages. A smothered Belle, who was 25 and her father, who spoke like a man who’d regressed into childhood. Her friends, who didn’t behave much better, with exaggerated actions and reactions to every single thing you know can only appear in rom-coms and nowhere else.

In short, what I suspect was supposed to have been the book’s selling point—the craziness of the 3 good friends—grated on and fell flat for me. The humour and the liberal use of capital letters in the storytelling just made it feel a lot more juvenile than it should have been for characters well into their twenties: Belle’s hyperbolic inner monologues, the shrill petulance of her reactions, the spouting random facts just didn’t make me laugh at all; neither did the unbelievable antics of her 2 other friends which involved a bit of slapstick stuff and the overly dramatic behaviour that was more eye-rolling than funny.

In the end, I couldn’t find myself interested in these characters at all and only the mysterious, gruff Vincent Adams and his secret locked door kept me trudging (or skimming) on. But seeing as I couldn’t wait to get this over with, it’s clearly not the read for me.

one-star

Total Control by Jackie Ashenden

Total Control by Jackie AshendenTotal Control by Jackie Ashenden
Series: 11th Hour #2
on 26th June 2018
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two-stars


Once they were soldiers. Now they answer only to honor . . .

 
The 11th Hour is made up of men and women who are no longer deemed fit to serve their country, but still need to fight a war. They work in shadows, keep their secrets—and follow their hearts . . . 

Helicopter pilot Kellan Blake has always hated being told what to do, so being discharged from the army for insubordination doesn't come as much of a surprise.

What does surprise him is that when he joins up with the elite, underground 11th Hour squad instead, they send him straight home. The nest of vipers that calls itself his family is the next target for the team’s tech unit, so he’ll either have to brave their traps and deceptions himself—or watch his sweet, shy friend Sabrina walk into them alone . . .  

Sabrina’s no femme fatale, but since there's no one else with the tech skills to get the info they need, she’ll put on a party dress and take one for the team. But whoever decided she should pretend to be Kellan’s new fiancée hit a little too close to home. How can she concentrate on a dangerous mission when she's worried about giving away what she really feels for her loyal, passionate, smoking hot partner? At least she isn’t likely to blow their cover. Until she’s in the line of fire, and neither Kellan's demons nor his heart are hers to tame . . .  

‘Total Control’ started out fantastically, I have to say. The conflict was established early on, as Kellan Blake went all out to prove his father’s innocence when the 11th Hour crew had all but deemed his guilty of crimes too horrific to imagine. But it was the undercover mission involving him and fellow operative and best friend Sabrina however, that had things going completely awry for me, along with a set of revelations and corresponding behaviour that made me think twice about rooting for this pairing.

Combining the unrequited love, best friends-to-lovers trope here, Jackie Ashenden focuses less on the action and more on the drama surrounding both Kellan and Sabrina, though it’s the former’s intrusive past that has been brought to light in a very unpleasant way, overshadowing the original mission. And that was what spoiled the broth for me, so to speak. I wanted to see how Ashenden addressed his inability to see Sabrina for who she was given she was under his nose all these years, but this didn’t happen; instead, all I got was more of Kellan bulldozing his way through to proclaim Sabrina was what he wanted after 2 weeks undercover and several nights of hot sex.

In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to find a more emotionally-manipulative and controlling ‘hero’ than Kellan, who uses every weapon in his arsenal to get his way (that includes sex) to railroad his best friend under the guise of wanting to protect her. His inability to see her as an operative, his unquestioning acceptance of the his sudden but inexplicable attraction to her despite the fixation on anything and everything else but her didn’t make him a protagonist deserving of a woman who was insecure enough in measuring her self-worth in terms of usefulness to him and whose only crime was to stupidly let herself be controlled by him.

The constant repetition of what Kellan did years ago grated on me—a character who made her presence felt without appearing nonetheless—made the story like a lopsided love triangle when that became the focus at the end instead of the mission that we started out with. The result was an ending scene that became an emotional mess and both Sabrina and Kellan tried different ways to rationalise what they’d done…until I failed to see any logic in their arguments.

In essence, the direction the story took was immensely disappointing, particularly after the pretty cool build-up from the start. And more’s the pity, because ‘Total Control’ could have gone down so differently for me but ultimately didn’t.

two-stars

Darkest Night by Megan Erickson

Darkest Night by Megan EricksonDarkest Night by Megan Erickson
Series: Wired & Dangerous, #2
Published by Forever on 31st July 2018
Pages: 320
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two-stars

Bodyguard Jock Bosh has one job: keep Fiona Madden safe. Safe from the men who've been hunting her. Safe from the bastard responsible for ruining her life. And with the attraction sizzling white-hot between them, that means keeping Fiona safe from him too.

Fiona has spent the past decade on the run. Her survival is the single greatest weapon she's had against the men out to destroy her. Until Jock. Now, with him by her side, she finally has a chance to bring them down. But when her enemies make their next move and Jock puts himself in the line of fire, Fiona realizes that there's more at stake than just her life-she's also risking her heart.

There has been drama. There have been words (some very virulent ones) that have been flung around. I’m sort of aware of the drama that has surrounded Megan Erickson in the past few months, but not having any involvement in the debate that had ignited the entire community (and pretty much blew up over the course of a few days) means that I’m still kind of bewildered over the whole thing.

But that really isn’t a disclaimer on my part in any case. I’ve been graciously handed an ARC and that’s what this is going to be about—an assessment of what I felt about the plot, characters and the style. This review is going to be just that: a book review and nothing more as all my reviews have been.

So off we got onto a start that felt somewhat abrupt where ‘Darkest Night’ left me flailing for purchase. With the barest of context alluded to about the history of Fiona Madden and Wren Lee, to the magical and mysterious appearance of a stoic bodyguard named Jock, I struggled for the first quarter for some kind of purchase. With too many questions in mind—how this was related to the previous book being the first and foremost—it was hard not to feel as though I’d come in late to the game where a huge chunk of the back story had been reduced to a few sentences of vague explanation that Jock provided for his presence as well as the danger that Fiona was in. For this reason I’m not entirely sure if ‘Darkest Night’ worked well as a standalone; needing to go back to the first book for details can be tiresome but the appearance of Roarke’s hacker crew and the story arc that seemed to be carried over in this half necessitated it.

There wasn’t the geek-heavy type of plot with hardcore coding and tech-speak that I expected with a first half slowly revolving mostly around Fiona getting used to Jock’s towering presence. With a more traditional take on the bodyguard-type (who also happened to be a hacker) story, Erickson focused on character building that came to a road block when both their pasts were brought into question. Still, Jock remained remote for most of the time, while Fiona trying her best to cut through his walls felt merely like an exercise in futility and this holding pattern (along with wildly vacillating emotions on both sides) made their connection difficult to buy into.

I could certainly appreciate the issues that Erickson wrote about—PTSD being the primary one—as much as I could ‘appreciate’ (is there a better word here?) how ‘Darkest Night’ was written around the problem of sex crimes and its victims. But having been left without solid footing for so long, along with the inability to read the protagonists or feel the depth of horror that these crimes normally elicit, I found myself more disconnected than invested nonetheless.

two-stars