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Exploited by A. Meredith Walters

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ New Adult/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 10th June 2017
Exploited by A. Meredith WaltersExploited by A. Meredith Walters
Series: Zero Day, #1
Published by Loveswept on July 25th 2017
Pages: 288
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four-stars

At first glance, I’m nothing out of the ordinary. I am a daughter. A sister. A friend. When you look at me you won’t see anything that warrants suspicion. I don’t look like a criminal.
My name is Hannah Whalen, but most people know me as freed0mov3rdr1v3, or “Freedom Overdrive”—one of the world’s most prolific and notorious hacktivists. My goal—my purpose—is to shed light on the evil that lurks behind the corporate and government lies we have been force-fed for too long.
My story begins with the best possible intention. Devoting my life to exposing the corrupt. The dishonest. The unethical. For that, they label me a cyber-terrorist. Wanted by the FBI, I’ve always been one step ahead.
Until I fell in love.
Because I’m sleeping with the man who’s hunting me. And he has no idea that I am his prey. Now I have to decide what’s more important: my freedom or my heart.

The romance ‘verse of hacking is a relatively unexplored one and diving into ‘Exploited’ was an absolute treat as I’ve always wanted a story that really dug into black hats, the mentality under which they operate and the scrutiny they face.

That said, I do like A. Meredith Walters’s take on vigilante justice and the shadowy line that hackers often cross. Unlike the books that delve into them, ‘Exploited’

is a raw, honest take about the power trips that hackers take they dodge the law and the huge amount of pandering to ego that we see, as much as for Hannah as it is for Mason. But ultimately, put a law enforcement officer on the tail of the hacker (and vice versa) and Walters has a cat-and-mouse game going that you already know can’t end terribly well.

The thing about ‘Expoited’ is that there’s this bleak, eerie melancholy that I can’t seem to shake off somehow. The first-person narrative here isn’t one that only brings you closer and into the characters’ heads; it suffocates you just as Mason and Hannah live their suffocating lives, twisted and burdened by tragedy and circumstances not of their own making. Anger and the burning need for revenge has driven Hannah to her double life as a hacker who doles our her own brand of criminal justice by being one herself; Mason’s own dysfunctional family has brought him down a road where he’s hemmed in both at home and in the office.

In an odd way, I found myself wholly invested in the intrigue and the characters by extension, though Mason and Hannah were a pairing that I could neither get into nor like. Mason and Hannah weren’t protagonists I could root for—the callous way they treated others around them for one—and the games they played felt more like they belonged in an erotic thriller like ‘Basic Instinct’ that has deceit underscoring the action both at work and in the bedroom. I couldn’t quite get Hannah’s connection with Mason, at least because the depth of her manipulation makes her a difficult protagonist to like, but I found myself fascinated with how she was going to twist her way out of her whole setup thanks to her mysterious hacking partner, whose motivations are equally suspect. Mason’s dalliance with a work colleague and that constant comparison to Hannah (his ability to jump between women so quickly) grated on me and that gullibility that he had with Hannah was sort of laughable.

In short, this felt more of a parody of a romance than a proper one, yet that was in itself, a fascinating layer to the suspense that kept the pages turning for me. I found that I could objectively look at two people on the opposite sides of the law playing each other and not quite have an affinity for one or the other while enjoying the tightening of the noose on Hannah’s neck. The pace-perfect cliffhanger ending is predictable though unsatisfactory and more than anything, I want to see how a HEA is even possible in the sequel to this book.

four-stars

Cover Fire by Jess Anastasi

Posted in Action/Adventure/ Advanced Reader Copy/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Speculative Fiction/ Syfy/ Syfy Romance 9th June 2017
Cover Fire by Jess AnastasiCover Fire by Jess Anastasi
Series: Valiant Knox #3
Published by Entangled Publishing, Entangled: Select Otherworld on June 19th 2017
Pages: 267
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four-stars

He'll protect her with his life...but who will protect his heart?

If the assignment is crazy, dangerous, or a little of both, Sub-Lieutenant Sebastian Rayne can’t help but take on the challenge. So when Command Intelligence tags him to fly one of their agents behind enemy lines, it seems like just another routine death-defying mission. Crash landing on the planet was a piece of cake, but the gorgeous agent he delivered safely to her meeting is now believed dead and he must return to retrieve her body.

After Agent Jenna Maxwell realizes her own people attempted to have her killed, she enlists the hot stick jockey’s help. His new mission? Sneak her back onto his ship to ferret out who wanted to get rid of her and why. But she fears her growing feelings for Seb have blinded her to his reckless insistence on helping her stay alive, and his rash behavior will cause them both to lose their lives.

Coming back to the Valiant Knox series is like peeking back into the lives of old friends through a small, open doorway. But it’s also plain fun to see how some of the loveable heroes of the fighter pilot force go down, sometimes literally, then wonder, how the hell they’d been so dumb to get themselves into such situations.

‘Cover Fire’ is one of those reads, as cocksure, flirty, impulsive but honourable-at-his-core fighter pilot Sebastian Rayne meets more than his match in intelligence officer Jenna Maxwell, never once believing that it would bring him down one of the most reckless paths he’s ever been down yet. But since he’s no stranger to going balls-deep into danger and finding every experience exhilarating, what’s one more hole in his belt to get that adrenaline going?

By and large, it has been a fun ride. It was amusing too, to see Seb lurching from disaster to disaster with nothing but wits (that fail at times) and reckless impulse, all of which ends badly for him when most situations call for skills he doesn’t have outside that of being a fighter pilot. And it’s a refreshing change as well to have Jenna as the competent one, or at least as the cool spy who knows what’s she doing more than Seb. The romance did seem a little rushed for me, and their penchant for having sex in inappropriate places and at inopportune times—in a cramped cargo hold of a ship, or while barely recovering from a bad injury— left me more incredulous than turned-on as I wondered how the hell Seb really got it up while injured and in pain.

Superman-tendencies aside, Seb and Jenna proved somehow that desire can trump pain and injury as they get their happy ending for now and a promotion to boot. I only wished we saw more of the crew working together instead of Seb/Jenna vs. the rest of them, but that’s merely a minor quibble as I’d always loved the team dynamics in the Valiant Knox anyway.

There’s such a strong visual element in Jess Anastasi’s writing such that reading every book of hers is akin to watching a novelisation of a fast-paced tv episode that’s a combination of a space opera and a summer blockbuster. And it rings every bell that I have and for most part, the action, intrigue and romance make me a happy camper by the end of it.

four-stars

The Legend by Donna Grant

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Military/Paramilitary/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 5th June 2017
The Legend by Donna GrantThe Legend by Donna Grant
Series: Sons of Texas #3
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on June 27th 2017
Pages: 320
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three-stars

A LONE STAR LOVER
Callie Reed doesn’t need a man to protect her. An expert sharpshooter and renegade hacker, this Texas-born spitfire’s got the skills and the courage to stand up to any danger―no matter how deadly. But when she becomes the target of a shadowy organization known as the Saints, Callie is forced to team up with the one man she can’t outshoot: the gorgeous, and infuriating, Lone Star legend named Wyatt Loughman…
A Delta Force Colonel with a rock-hard body and stone-cold heart, Wyatt has been teasing and tormenting Callie since they were playmates on his family’s ranch. Of course, he’s wildly attracted to the fiery, strong-willed Callie. But he’s always hidden his feelings behind a wall of Texas tough and military cool, even as he’s burning up with desire. Can Wyatt save Callie’s life―without putting her love in the line of fire?

It’s clear from the first few pages that ‘The Legend’ doesn’t function well as a standalone and because I’ve not read the first book and went through the second quickly, this third one left me all at sea as I struggled to keep up.

As far as I could gather, there is a bioweapon at large, a sinister group of powerful people all over the world infiltrating important government positions, and some crime family descending on a ranch to wipe out a ranching family that also happens to do black ops. And as exciting as the action could get at times, a lot of it feels very unfinished as well by the very end. It’s the end of a battle though not the end of a war as it gets increasingly clear, as the bad guy is diminished but goes free.

By and large, catching up was a hugely difficult task, yet I pushed on because the drama between Wyatt and Callie was compelling enough for me to want to know what really happened between them in this second-chance romance. Yet Donna Grant does balance the action with some character development though, so apart from my incredulity of a ranching family getting hunted meticulously by several groups, it was easy enough to suspend my disbelief as Wyatt and Callie raced through Texas trying to save each other.

I loved Callie’s strength and determination, though wished she’d had enough gumption to turn Wyatt away when he clearly hadn’t done enough to deserve her, at least not the way he left her with deliberate words meant to scythe and hurt. That it’d taken 15 years and serious injuries before realising that his wanting to protect her from a distance was an argument never held water to begin with, it always felt as though Wyatt had a foot out the door, never being determined enough to stay for Callie despite the pages of self-recrimination that he seemed to undergo. It had to take Callie putting herself out there at every turn, right up to an obstinate declaration of love to change his mind, which was quite the last straw for me.

Frankly, I’m not quite too sure yet what to make of this book. Beyond the rather hasty, teaser-like wrap-up and the trail of destruction left behind, is this one of those endings where the couple in question finally gets together, but stare into the distance wistfully just as they prepare for war?

three-stars

Stranger: A Dark Stalker Romance by Robin Lovett

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ New Adult/ Reviews 4th June 2017
Stranger: A Dark Stalker Romance by Robin LovettStranger: A Dark Stalker Romance by Robin Lovett
Series: Dark Stalker #1
Published by SMP Swerve on June 13th 2017
Pages: 300
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three-stars

This isn’t supposed to be a love story. This is not the kind of book where a girl gets swept off her feet. Where the hero is her knight in shining armor. This is a novel about ruining someone’s life. But even the simplest plans for revenge can go wrong.

I like the way he watches me, this man I don’t know. It’s something I’ll never confess to, never tell a soul. But with one look of those penetrating eyes, I feel as if he’s unwrapped me, turned me inside out, rubbed away at my trust-fund-holding, good-girl exterior until I’m raw and exposed.

He looks like he wants to destroy me. Like he wants to obliterate me and my shallow, perfect life until there’s nothing left.
And once I meet Logan, the crazy part is, I want him to.

***

I hate Penny Vandershall.
I hate her money and her family and her privilege. I hate her innocence and her smile and her shine. I want to annihilate her lightness and consume her with my darkness, my anger, my red-hot rage until there is nothing left of her.
I know the truth about her, the truth that will make it easy to bring her down. To ruin her for good. But through the blinding haze of my hatred, my burning need for revenge, she's starting to get to me. She looks at me in wide-eyed fear, like a girl approaching the tiger’s cage. And yet she refuses to walk away; edging closer until she can meet the beast who wants to rip her apart.
And even though I set out to ruin her, she may be the one to destroy me.

‘Stranger’ quite boldly goes where many romances don’t go, with its questionable take on love (if anyone can even call it that) and revenge that comes in the form of blackmail with sexual gratification and revelation of information as the bartering currency. The subversiveness in the blurb appealed from the start and but it did cross some boundaries into the darker aspects of sex and ‘love’ while juggling some mystery and suspense, so it’s probably not for those who prefer cute reads.

’Stranger’ is a no-holds-barred version of lust, hate and destruction, that much I get and accept and even like because of how far this actually deviates from the enemies-to-lovers trope. Robin Lovett does write—believably—about the blurred boundaries between depravity, pleasure and despair, and how freedom, no matter how fleeting, can be found in the most unexpected places with the worst kind of people. Logan and Penny, for most part, are caught in this downward spiral of hate sex and denial and I did wonder how they were both going to come out of this drama created out of their own making, let alone find that HEA.

Instead, this cycle goes on for pages without really getting to the heart of the mystery and it ultimately proved frustrating. Disclosure were slow in coming and I had questions that weren’t ever quite addressed fully even by the end of the book, all of which contributing to the stuttering pacing that did weaken the story’s overall impact for me.

Why had Penny fallen so easily to Logan’s blackmail without even thinking of asking to see factual evidence of what Logan was accusing her dead father of—before agreeing to marry him just so he could have access to her trust fund? Why didn’t she call the police which would have been a natural reaction, it seems, for most people, when she realised he was stalking her? Was Logan’s endgame really only to get Penny’s money after years of plotting, despite his saying that it as to destroy her family and her too facile? And if so, why had he waited until her father died to exact his revenge?

There is nonetheless, a thread of tension and wariness that never goes away by the end, although there is, to some extent, some depth of character that accounts for my rating of the story. Penny’s self-centered world of denial did shatter when Logan revealed his version of the reality she never could accept, though I would have liked it better if Penny had tried figuring out her own mind and emotions rather than constantly struggling and bouncing between her brother and Logan, whose aggression and dominance did seem too much for her. Yet I couldn’t help but feel Logan remained as shady as ever (his past was never really revealed) and all he seemed to be was a poor man of vengeance dressed as a beach bum, whose future was always in doubt, right up to the cliffhanger end which pretty much confirmed that the story arc was far from finished.

three-stars

Casey by Kelly Hunter

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 2nd June 2017
Casey by Kelly HunterCasey by Kelly Hunter
Series: American Extreme Bull Riders Tour #3
Published by Tule Publishing on May 23rd 2017
Pages: 145
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four-stars

Rowan Harper has traveled the American Extreme Bull Riders tour circuit with her stock-contractor father since she was four years old. She's seen the best rides and the worst wrecks. And then there's TJ who impressed her most when he didn't ride at all.

T.J. Casey walked away from his rightful place in last year's bull riding finals in order to bury his father. His sponsors are gone, but he's back to stake his claim. He wants the buckle, sure, but he also wants the woman who treats her bucking bulls like lambs.

Can T.J. really score the championship and the girl? Or will he have to choose between the two..once and for all?

T.J. Casey’s eye has been on Rowan Harper for a while, a woman who has only known bull-riding and breeding all her life, yet family tragedy has derailed him from pursuing her outright. It’s only when he’s back, comfortable in the saddle this time around that he asks her out, though not without more accompanying family drama that could threaten the happiness they have with each other.

Much of the story is told with wry humour and with deliberate pacing, building on bits of revelation of their lives and back stories that makes you appreciate the growing intimacy and the slow-burn that builds up over weeks between them. It’s certainly a change for me but one that is enjoyable nonetheless.

Casey’s and Rowan’s relationship is first clandestine, then public but deftly handled by Kelly Hunter in a way that leaves no space for excessive theatrics between 2 adults who really do know the type of behaviour that’s befitting their ages. It doesn’t hurt that Casey and Rowan are good together, mostly because they are distinct individuals—both of them not fitting in the stereotypes of characters typically populating the bull-riding circuit—who actually know what they want and aren’t too afraid to get it. Casey’s steadfastness and his encouragement of Rowan’s continued discovery of herself, starting with something as innocuous as going dress shopping is as appealing as Rowan’s unwavering determination to carve out a distinct career for herself in a place that she has been all her life. For these reasons, ‘Casey’ is an easy but unique read—more heartfelt than action-driven—but capped off with a fitting HEA that doesn’t feel trite nor rushed.

four-stars

Arm Candy by Jessica Lemmon

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 1st June 2017
Arm Candy by Jessica LemmonArm Candy by Jessica Lemmon
Series: Real Love #2
Published by Loveswept on September 5th 2017
Pages: 191
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two-stars

Davis:
I’ve had my eye on Grace Buchanan for a while now. Unlike the bubbly blondes I usually date, the feisty, flame-haired bartender both intrigues and bewilders me. Something about Grace—the tattoos? the nose ring?—makes every part of me sit up and beg. There’s only one problem: She hates me. Trading insults and one-liners has become our M.O. But when Grace bets me that I can’t get a date with a non-blonde if my life depends on it, I’m determined to prove her wrong by landing the ultimate non-blonde: her.
Grace:
I’m used to regulars hitting on me, and I’ve turned them all down, except for one: Davis Price. I like giving him a hard time, and he’s kind of cute in his suit and tie—if you’re into that kind of thing. Anyway, I don’t care how many blondes he takes home . . . until one of them sidles up to him in my bar. Nuh-uh. But after my little bet with Davis backfires, our first date lands us in the sack. So does the second. And the third. Neither of us wants more than the best sex of our lives. The trouble is, it’s not a question of what I want. It’s what I need. And what I need is Davis.

Jessica Lemmon’s sassy, confident writing is what had me requesting this ARC, though this turned out to be yet another chick-lit book that disappointed me with its predictability from start to finish, with main characters that are dime a dozen in the romance genre. 2 non-committal people make the (rather cynical) sex-only agreement, then find out they could be more thereafter, though it was an uphill climb to believe that genuine trust, respect and love could blossom out of chemistry in the bedroom and months of foreplay, as it always is when sex is done and out of the way so very early on in the story.

Admittedly though, the rating reflects a case of my liking a main character and intensely disliking the other—rather than the quality and style of Lemmon’s writing itself. Davis has had his heartbroken a few years ago and the default mode (as with most male protagonists in the romance genre, being cowardly and gun-shy after that) he goes back to after that wedding incident is being a manwhore about his dates and being unapologetic about deliberately living in an environment where he and the rest of the women can walk away after sex before anything can begin. It’s his way of ‘killing time’ supposedly, but no matter how Davis tries to rationalise it to convince himself that Grace is worth it, I couldn’t quite buy the fact that he wanted it all simply after a bet that Grace has impulsively taken up.

My own personal biases against such players do prevent me from liking protagonists like Davis, whose shallowness I couldn’t get over—the offering of the ‘Davis’ package then flaunting his hookups just to get Grace to take up a bet was quite the last straw which I found more sleazy than charming. It was in short, difficult to think of Davis as something other than a huge cliché whose background and personal history dictate his behaviour with women and his escort-like packages and frankly, it was more of a turn-off than anything else. Grace on the other hand, is as jaded as Davis and yet there seemed to be more nuances to her character, although her own fear of commitment—for different reasons other than Davis’s ones—certainly isn’t hampered by her falling prey to Davis’s charm.

In short, without a grounding belief that Davis and Grace could work together, the rest of the story was hard to follow through when I stayed sceptical of them throughout when both characters seemed at various points in time, to have a foot out the door because fear, as always, took control up until the very end. ‘Arm Candy’ was unfortunately, a story that left me frustrated and less than enthused, because it simply felt like another variation of 2 people getting invested in each other after getting the best-of-their-lives-smexy times.

two-stars

The Bet by Elizabeth Hayley

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Sports 29th May 2017
The Bet by Elizabeth HayleyThe Bet by Elizabeth Hayley
Series: The Players #1
Published by Swerve on June 27th 2017
Pages: 254
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two-stars

Jace "the Jet" Benning is a legend on the football field. And off. He has the arm, the charm, and the reputation of being the hottest player in the league.
Too bad Dr. Alessandra Mastrazacoma is not impressed.
With a busy schedule and a bruised heart, Alessandra doesn't have time to date, but when she is lured into making a friendly bet with her best friend, she finds herself agreeing to go out with the next guy that asks...and to give him three shots, three dates, before pulling the plug.
Jace also has a friendly wager with his friends going, and it involves making sure the slightly klutzy, but very pretty, doctor will be his date to the biggest night in sports. With two wagers and two hearts on the line, will Aly and Jace win or are they betting to lose?

‘The Bet’ is mostly an angst-free, light-hearted read of an accidental meeting between a doctor and a famous player (whom the former doesn’t know at all) which progresses mostly because of a bet between friends.

 

Alessandra Mastrazacoma (now that’s a mouthful) and Jace Benning are an unlikely pair and the whole story feels like a journey of the both of them finding common ground, apart from nailing sexual compatibility in the bedroom. Neither of them really pretend to be who they aren’t; Alessandra is outrightly blunt and in unapologetic for being so while Jace still struggles with his poor, smalltown roots but isn’t quite afraid to put everything on the line for her.

The ride isn’t fully of peaks and valleys – and this will probably appeal to readers who are tired of adult histrionics better confined to the high-school classroom – but is instead, one that catalogues each and every step of Aly and Jace getting into their relationship proper. The ending is a predictably neat wrap-up after some grovelling on Jace’s part, a HEA that pushes Aly and Jace into a happily committed relationship after that small hiccup.

As light-hearted and easy a read ‘The Bet’ is however, I found myself mostly uninspired by this pairing, which is probably a just a case of my bucking the trend again. I thought their chemistry rather non-existent as the move straight into the bedroom very early on eschewed any tension that could have made the anticipation more worth it. And as well and good the sex scenes may be written, I was bored (and skimmed those scenes) because I couldn’t find anything compelling about this couple. Consequently, it was difficult to follow the progression of Aly/Jace’s relationship as there just didn’t seem to be anything else to look forward to, except for the bet that Jace made with his buddies and the fallout that you know would come from it at the very end.

 

two-stars
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