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Zero Hour by Megan Erickson

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 10th December 2017
Zero Hour by Megan EricksonZero Hour by Megan Erickson
Series: Wired & Dangerous #1
Published by Forever on January 30th 2018
Pages: 320
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three-stars

Hacker extraordinaire Roarke Brennan lives each hour - each breath - to avenge his brother's murder. His first move: put together a team of the best coders he knows. They're all brilliant, specialized, and every one an epic pain in his ass. Only now Wren Lee wants in too, threatening to upset their delicate balance. The girl Roarke never allowed himself to want is all grown up with sexy confidence and a dark past ... and she's the wild card he can't control.

Roarke might still think she's a kid, but Wren's been to hell and back. Nothing and nobody can stop her - especially the tatted-up, cocky-as-all-hell hacker. But when years of longing and chemistry collide, Wren and Roarke discover that revenge may be a dish best served blazing hot.

‘Zero Hour’ spoke directly to the geek in me. I blank out at many things technical, so hackers (whether they be black/white hats) written as heroes/heroines of romances are relatively new in this genre but so welcome.

I love the lingo, the geek side of things, the stuff that the deep, dark web is made of, most probably because I’ve never been able to get my mind around it. That Megan Erickson has jumped wholly on this subject has made me more than moist with excitement, with the underlying classic tropes of the forbidden best friend’s younger sister while a high-stakes hacker-style investigation into a murder brings it all together. There’s a lot of beguiling intrigue to be explored in this arena after all, and I’ve always wondered why not many authors have chosen to use this very contemporary setting along with the realistic and contemporary threats we face today to weave a pretty little tale.

Unsure as I was about how hackers would appear in this series, I was nonetheless surprised by the tattooed protagonists who sometimes acted more like members of an MC at times instead of thickly-spectacled people who were glued to their computers and surfaced bleary-eyed only for meals and sleep. Yet Erickson gets the anti-social, loner-types pat-down though, by introducing a varied, unpredictable put-together team of characters whose questionable histories are still veiled to us.

Roarke and Wren do have a hell of a backstory and a decade of separate lives that Erickson didn’t make too much of, except for the fact that pining (on both sides) went on while they moved on with others instead. Their sudden reunion—spurred on by the death of his brother and Wren’s own personal motive for revenge—however, felt almost like a coincidence, along with the hidden skills that they’d each picked up which didn’t seem to fit the hacker-skill set. Where had they had weapons training, for instance, at least enough that they would carry guns around? What sort of jobs had they done in the past 10 years that made them what they were today? Why did Wren only return now, at a time when Roarke sought revenge when the tragedy that she and her friend suffered happened years ago?

I think the questions that kept popping up dipped my enjoyment of the story somewhat and the brother’s-best-friend-to-lover trope was less convincing especially after knowing that Roarke and Wren had always wanted each other but never actively did anything about it. The ending, for all the gritty, edgy build-up, seemed a little anti-climatic with the rather convenient end of the mastermind, and the several loose threads hanging, while understandably left deliberately to set up the sequel, didn’t give the story a proper sense of closure.

In many ways, ‘Zero Hour’ reads like the establishing novel it is and while I did like how this narrative arc—the mesh of thriller and digital espionage really gets me going—seemed to be shaping up, I’m already eager to see how Erickson would explore the unstable dynamics of the ad-hoc group brought together by chance and the pairings that will come out of that.

three-stars

Falling for Mr. Wright by Robyn Neeley

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 3rd December 2017
Falling for Mr. Wright by Robyn NeeleyFalling for Mr. Wright by Robyn Neeley
Published by Entangled Publishing, LLC (Lovestruck) on December 4th 2017
Pages: 214
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two-half-stars

After being dumped two weeks before his wedding, civil engineer Ryan Wright’s not interested in love. Been there, done that, had the wedding deposits to prove it. Still, he can’t help lusting after the fiery redheaded executive assistant who’s stirring up feelings that aren’t exactly appropriate for the office. 

Sarah Leonard is determined to make the CEO fall in love with her. To execute her plan, she’s going to need a little help in the form of her lunch buddy, the 6’2” office hottie who just so happens to be their boss’s best friend. Who better to tell Sarah everything she needs to know to win the other man’s heart?

Ryan agrees to help Sarah put her plan in motion, but he has no intention of helping her win anything. In fact, it’s time to show his office crush that he’s the guy she should be falling for…

Crippled by the fact that his ex-fiancée left him for another man years ago, Ryan Wright simply decided that this experience should define his entire dating life: anti-relationship and anti-commitment now rule his dating life, though it’s an office colleague who has the hots for his best friend finally gets under his skin. But this same woman has a never-ending crush on his best-friend and boss, and her recruitment of Ryan to get an ‘in’ with Logan twists him inside out. Torn between steadfastly holding that bachelor card and wanting Sarah Leonard, Ryan’s plotting takes on a desperate edge when things between his best friend and the woman he wants suddenly move forward in a way that he doesn’t need it to.

Despite the blurb, this isn’t quite a love triangle, which I’m utterly thankful for. And if I was initially wary of 2 men competing for a woman’s affection and another losing out along the way, well, there isn’t too much of that actually, because the third party isn’t even in the running for it.

‘Falling for Mr. Wright’ is in fact, a light-hearted, holiday-themed romance and somewhat low on the angst, if that’s the sort of easy read you’re looking for. It definitely has all the rom-com vibes along with all the seasonal feel-goods, though it could be somewhat cookie-cutter in its characters and predictability.

But there was where the problems began for me. It was fun at first to see the commitment-phobe guy being given a taste of his own medicine (the pining woman typically takes this role in many books) though it was harder to root for Ryan who seemed to be the perpetrator for the confusion and the messy emotions. His complete lack of communication, his inability to decide whether he wanted Sarah or the anti-commitment banner he’d been flying all along, and the heap of denial he had somehow fashioned him into the TSTL heroine that I usually take issue with.

Not only was he completely mute about his feelings, he’d adamantly sent out mixed signals to Sarah about not wanting commitment, so I couldn’t blame the latter at all for wanting to protect her heart when he acted like a wishy-washy, undecided fool. This was also where the story seemed to fall into a own trap of its own making: that Ryan finally admitted he’d loved Sarah at first sight in retrospect, then dated other women casually over that time while having the hots for her and not doing a thing about it simply didn’t push him up any higher in my esteem of him.

Sarah, on the other hand, seemed to switch the object of her affections so easily, just as she didn’t seem to question Ryan’s sudden own switch in wanting to give her his heart after all: did that mean the months-long crush on Logan simply disappeared or was that transferred to Ryan?

I think ‘Falling for Mr. Wright’ left me with more questions than answers that weren’t satisfactorily addressed, despite the festive cheer and the love-is-in-the-air kind of feels that the story wanted to create. So while it was a sweet and easy read, I wasn’t entirely able to believe the development of this pairing—cute as the circumstances could have been in bringing them together—not when both characters hadn’t convincingly shown that all they really wanted were each other.

two-half-stars

Pretty Dead Girls by Monica Murphy

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense/ Young Adult 1st December 2017
Pretty Dead Girls by Monica MurphyPretty Dead Girls by Monica Murphy
Published by Entangled: Teen on January 2nd 2018
Pages: 300
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three-stars

Beautiful. Perfect. Dead.

In the peaceful seaside town of Cape Bonita, wicked secrets and lies are hidden just beneath the surface. But all it takes is one tragedy for them to be exposed.

The most popular girls in school are turning up dead, and Penelope Malone is terrified she's next. All the victims so far have been linked to Penelope—and to a boy from her physics class. The one she's never really noticed before, with the rumored dark past and a brooding stare that cuts right through her.

There's something he isn't telling her. But there's something she's not telling him, either.

Everyone has secrets, and theirs might get them killed.

Imagine a group of privileged girls—all of whom sort of conform to the rich, aloof, snooty and somewhat mean stereotype—suddenly being swamped by a mysterious but vengeful serial killer who throws their ordered but small world into chaos. In the midst of them is the head cheerleader and a quiet, mysterious boy who find themselves in the centre of the maelstrom as the noose tightens around them while they play amateur detectives.

There aren’t too many of these sort of YA-thriller, high-school-centric books that I’ve read (or the kind of movies that I’ve watched) and it takes an adjustment every time I read a book like ‘Pretty Dead Girls’. Jumping into a YA book can be hard at times, not least because it’s a throwback into the mean, teenage girl mindset—where everything is exaggerated, pulled apart and then reacted to in an over-the-top fashion—but also because it’s one which I have the hardest time connecting with as well.

This is sort of a step outside my usual reading habits, but I still did have a good time in a way as a distant spectator would with teenage shenanigans, alternating between cringing at the sensibilities of the self-absorbed and petty girls (and wondering if I was as bad as them or worse?) and trying to do the whodunnit game that I normally do with the adult mystery-thrillers I sometimes read. If anything, Monica Murphy gets those behavioural traits pat down and pitches the story perfectly for teens, though it’s honestly difficult to like the characters you want to yell at to grow up before you realise they’re acting exactly their ages…and can’t be expected to do anything differently.

However, there are some questions that don’t seem to be satisfactorily answered, where secrets that you think are soul-destroying turn up to be mere storms in tea cups. Still, it was kind of a fun ride, given the unholy glee I felt when these girls had their comeuppance and almost wished the body count got higher just to up the thrill factor for my bloodthirsty and mean soul.

three-stars

Every Deep Desire by Sharon Wray

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Military/Paramilitary/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 30th November 2017
Every Deep Desire by Sharon WrayEvery Deep Desire by Sharon Wray
Series: Deadly Force #1
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on March 6th 2018
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one-star

He's taking it all backHis honor, his freedom, and the woman he loves

Rafe Montfort was a decorated Green Beret, the best of the best, until a disastrous mission and an unforgivable betrayal destroyed his life. Now, this deadly soldier has returned to the sultry Georgia swamps to reunite with his brothers, and take back all he lost. But Juliet must never know the truth behind what he's done...or the dangerous secret that threatens to take him from her forever.

It took Juliet Capel eight long years to put her life back together after her husband was taken from her. Now Rafe is back, determined to protect her at any cost, and it's not just her heart that's in danger. The swamps hold a secret long buried and far deadlier than either of them could have imagined...

I had a bit of a trying time with ‘Every Deep Desire’, though the blurb did given an indication that it wasn’t going to be a typical romantic suspense novel. The extent to which it was atypical however, came as quite a surprise.

And the setup is not unpredictable: after a 8-year hiatus, Rafe Montford returns to a marriage that he supposedly tore apart. Branded as a traitor and jailed for a few of those years, nothing keeps him from wanting his ex-wife safe after the cryptic notes that she has been getting—a sure sign of his past coming back to haunt him. The details thereafter, are hazy, with many hints that point at something, but that something big isn’t unravelling until you get deeper and deeper into the book.

This much sounds normal, yet the way the suspense is woven and written is in no way usual.

But as much as this odd tilt of literary (read: Shakespearean) and mythical (or Italian) undertones with Romeo/Juliet leanings that also reminded me of Dan Brown-type conspiracy theories made the story unique, it frustrated me in part because getting a grasp of the story, place, context and its characters—who go by a variety of codenames, to add to the confusion and secrecy—was basically a struggle. I couldn’t go on without feeling like there were a few missing vital jigsaw pieces that prevented the whole picture from coming together. The uphill battle to make sense of the whole setup went on for me for a quite a while—so call me slow and most unintuitive—and got exhausting as I tried to make sense of it.

There are brutal anti-heroes and then there are brutal anti-heroes, characters who stood on sides that made them both villains and heroes at the same time…and so difficult to root for. With the story’s greyed out boundaries, with drug-lords, mafia kingpins and arms-dealers given that mystery and glitz in that Baz Luhrmann Romeo+Juliet way (throw in military suspense into it as well), it pretty felt after a while, like stylish overkill.

I’m going to just say it’s not the book for me, though maybe those who like Shakespeare with a very huge twist can get into this a lot better than I did.

one-star

Absolved by Marnee Blake

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Magic/Paranormal/ Military/Paramilitary/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense/ Speculative Fiction/ Syfy/ Syfy Romance/ Urban Fantasy 28th November 2017
Absolved by Marnee BlakeAbsolved by Marnee Blake
Series: Altered #3
Published by Entangled Publishing, LLC: Embrace on December 11th 2017
Pages: 174
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Since a brain-altering drug killed most of Luke Kincaid’s town—including his father—and left him telekinetic, he’s determined to stop the fanatic who stole the drug to create his own super-powered army. That means working with scientist Dr. Beth Jenkins, whose graphic tees and beautiful smile are some of Luke’s biggest distractions.

A science prodigy, Beth works with the FBI and solves the toughest crimes, but she can’t figure out what caused her mother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The drug that ravaged Luke’s town is volatile, and the mortality rate is still high, yet Beth is convinced it holds the key to saving her mother, even if sexy and tortured Luke doesn’t believe it should be adapted for commercial use.

When bodies start to pile up, though, the two loners must decide if the goals that tie them together are greater the fears that would tear them apart.

Plunging into ‘Absolved’ felt like being hurled into the deep end of the pond and swallowing mouthfuls of pond water while trying to stay afloat, despite having read the first 2 books of Marnee Blake’s Altered series. The break between books meant that it was difficult to catch up on (and remember) what had happened during an apocalypse-like situation where a drug kills half the population and infuses the other half with telekinetic/mind-reading superpowers.

What I could figure out early on was that there were baddies to fight—bad guys with the notion that the drug responsible for the fall of the human race can help create a new world order—with a ragtag band of people to fight them, as was the growing push-pull tension between a scientist prodigy and a tortured computer guy trying to atone for his misdeeds woven into the whole story.

A prologue perhaps, or some insertion of context would have made ‘Absolved’ a lot easier to get into especially for first time readers; placing the scene or working out the back story out was an exercise in frustration because it was difficult to get to a point where pieces had to fall into place before I could get lost in the narrative without needing to re-read the first 2 books. That said, though it took a while for me to get into it, to sort out the details of what really happened before I could actually sit back and enjoy the story, ‘Absolved’ by and large, took off as soon as I fought my way through the bits that needed time to fall into place.

Clearly then, this isn’t a standalone, and as a YA/NA-type book, the sexual situations never quite went all the way, so to speak (as with all the books in this series) because the romance took a back seat to the rush to make the ruined world right again. Beth and Luke, like all the other pairings in the rest of the series, become the ‘heroes’ when hit by the drug, in contrast to the few who become villains because of it, but it was a pairing I couldn’t exactly get into.

Apart from the conflict that kept both Luke and Beth on opposing sides of the argument for most of the story, I found myself preferring ‘old’ Beth more before she was hit by the drug somehow—the problematic definition of what it meant to be heroic came into play for me here, though it’s probably nitpicking on my part or my rooting for the underdog—and was vaguely disappointed that she could suddenly achieve what she did and get past Luke’s feelings only when she had super-enhanced senses, which felt almost like a cop-out for the solution to her problems. Would a ‘normal’ person then, not be able to do what she did and help save the world, by this implication? Along with the change, the ‘new’ Beth became someone I couldn’t recognise and was frustrated with when it often seemed to be on Luke to fight that uphill battle to get back into her graces when it was clear he had demons of his own to fight—when she could seem to do no wrong in contrast.

Unfortunately, while I really liked Blake’s 2 previous books, I think ‘Absolved’ fell somewhat flat at all for those reasons above. I just wished I’d liked this one a lot more, but there just wasn’t enough for me to cheer for, not least the characters who went from push-pull to a rushed HEA that was hard to swallow.

Only You by Addison Fox

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 25th November 2017
Only You by Addison FoxOnly You by Addison Fox
Series: The Brooklyn Brotherhood #4
Published by Swerve on December 12th 2017
Pages: 304
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three-stars

Meet the Brooklyn Brotherhood: three brothers who escaped rough childhoods in Park Heights, Brooklyn who grew into fiercely loyal, sexy men – and who find love when they’re least expecting it.

Fender Blackstone has kept the world at arm’s length, with the exception of his adoptive brothers and Mama Lou, the woman who saved him. Fender is willing to do everything he can to support Lou, but he finds himself drawn to Harlow Reynolds: the daughter of the woman who could destroy everything Lou has worked for.

Even without the emotional turmoil between their families, why would a woman from the highest echelons of Manhattan society ever look twice at a kid from Brooklyn? As forbidden sparks flare between them, Fender and Harlow realize there’s something real forming between them. When Fender’s past resurfaces and threatens the life he’s built, can his love for Harlow survive the aftermath?

After reading ‘Forever Yours’ which was a complete bust for me, ‘Only You’ was in contrast, heart-felt and emotionally nuanced which made the story an even bigger draw as Fender Blackstone (whose story I’ve been wanting) finally finds someone who is his opposite in every way.

‘Only You’ works as a standalone, but there is some history and a backstory to catch up on by the time we get to Fender’s story, all of which which are explained in the previous books and have been mentioned here. But I liked ‘Only You’ primarily because of the ‘adulting’ that’s mostly present in there: both Fender and Harlow acted their ages as they navigated the complicated waters of their relationship and the pages of dialogues and inner monologues did show that. Consequently, it was easy to like Fender for the solidness, and the self-awareness and perception that he displayed about his growing feelings for Harlow mostly—which I find sometimes blindingly lacking in heroes—as it was easy to like Harlow for her wanting to fight for the both of them and her way of doing so. Yet for all their communication, it got frustrating when I’d assumed Fender would come to his senses after spending most of the book being rather wishy-washy about wanting what he and Harlow had, including thinking about and eventually pushing her away—which was only unsatisfactorily resolved by a conflict in the closing pages of the book that made his mind up for him.

I thought the pacing lagged quite a bit in the middle, and I was able to put it down and pick it up numerous times (though without much difficulty) as both Harlow and Fender worked through the circumstances—not just the history between their parents but also a big issue in Fender’s past that he had to confront—that made being together very difficult. That said, there’s a neat HEA for all the characters involved of course, though I was left wishing I’d felt more for the series than I did.

three-stars

War Games by Jess Anastasi

Posted in Action/Adventure/ Advanced Reader Copy/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Speculative Fiction/ Syfy/ Syfy Romance 17th November 2017
War Games by Jess AnastasiWar Games by Jess Anastasi
Series: Valiant Knox #4
Published by Entangled Publishing. LLC (Amara) on December 11th 2017
Pages: 343
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four-stars

When one of her pilots is shot down behind enemy lines, Lieutenant Theresa Brenner will stop at nothing to save her before she’s captured and tortured, even if it means being part of the dirtside team led by Colonel Cameron McAllister. Bren might respect the way the colonel commands his men, but she’ll never trust Cam—no matter how charming he is—because he was responsible for her brother’s death.

Colonel Cameron McAllister has a covert mission behind enemy lines to team with the Ilari rebels and overthrow the bloodthirsty dictator who’s torn their planet apart. The last thing he needs is to get sidetracked searching for a downed pilot, especially since it means having Lieutenant Theresa Brenner tag along. Not only doesn’t the frosty pilot have the ground game to keep up with his seasoned group, she’s a potential distraction with all those gorgeous blond curls of hers—and she might be just like her brother, whose foolhardiness got his men killed.

‘War Games’ closes Jess Anastasi’s ‘Valiant Knox’ series and I’ve obviously been waiting a while to get my paws on it, ever since I sniffed out the tension between Cameron McAllister and Theresa Brennan in the last book. In a nutshell, mutual dislike best characterises Bren’s and Cam’s relationship for the past decade, for mistaken reasons that have them mostly avoiding each other when they can.

With a strong element of pride and prejudice working here means that they start off cool, distant and rocky, until a downed pilot pushes them into close confines and forces them to reevaluate their grudges. But Bren and Cam are likeable characters who don’t generally play games—hard to do so during war when more important things matter—; both have a core of compassion and integrity that I’ve come to associate with the standout protagonists of syfy-romance, so it isn’t hard to get into their developing relationship even as the pace amps up towards the end.

The enemies-to-lovers (with frenemies being the state in between) is one of my favourite tropes, but apart from that, ‘War Games’, like every other book that Anastasi writes, is akin watching an action-packed, hour-long episode of a tv series merrily chugging its way through the season, as a primary conflict specific to the episode plays out and is by and large, resolved by the time the end credits roll. That said, ‘War Games’ isn’t quite suitable as a standalone read, considering there’s a whole universe and a bit of history behind the warring factions, so it could be a hard book to follow if you’re starting straight here.

What I’ve always loved about the Valiant Knox’s series is that the books are very easy to read, or maybe it’s because I’ve been following this from the get-go, when I was still high off my syfy addiction. Anastasi’s books are typically pitched at a level I can enjoy and follow without getting too confused, which I can’t always say of the detail-suffused and complex worlds of several syfy or fantasy epics that I’ve tried to sink my teeth into.

Still, it’s always bittersweet to say goodbye to a series that I like very much, even when the curtain finally falls on every couple’s HEA several years later.

four-stars
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