Category: Advanced Reader Copy

Got It Bad by Christi Barth

Got It Bad by Christi BarthGot it Bad by Christi Barth
Series: Bad Boys Gone Good #3
Published by Avon Impulse on 18th September 2018
Pages: 384
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Kellan Maguire's on the run from the mob, living a secret life. The only bright spot is his U.S. Marshal handler. Yeah, he wants to handle her....a lot. And in spite of all the rules it would break, Federal Marshal Delaney Evans secretly fears she’d risk everything for one night with Kellan. Even though Delaney’s career, her entire world, could implode if she admits how important he is to her. And all that is before the biggest complication of all hits...

3 brothers, all in Witness Protection and their ways of coping with new lives foisted on them when they run into trouble with the mob: that’s what Christi Barth’s Bad Boys Gone Good series is built on. Not having read the entire series, ‘Got it Bad’ does take time getting used to, though it’s clear that Kellan Maguire has the hots for the US Marshal in charge of his and his brothers’ case, an attraction which starts just as he is forced into Witsec.

But the story went off the rails for me about a third through. I lost sight of the grander scheme of things in what felt like page-fillers about Kellan’s other activities in a clubhouse, the sudden number of secondary character insertions and pages of dialogue that seemed to go nowhere. Consequently, the slow-going story also felt as though it was pulled in several directions, apart from the secret affair Kellan and Delaney decided to have because they really couldn’t stand the constant pining/burning anymore (there’s a lot of repetitive talk about how their first kiss is making her panties wet), when I really wanted to read how the Maguire brothers finally got free of the mob’s hold on them.

As the youngest brother forced out of law school, Kellan’s first encounter with Delany Evans made me rethink whether the former could even be considered some kind of romantic hero—smarmy, cocky and oozing collegiate testosterone at the very start with a strong NA bent in his character which felt out of place here. Understandably, Kellan’s dissatisfaction and boredom with life prompted some kind of soul-searching but his level of maturity or lack thereof was somehow reinforced when he realised he could make a difference every day apart from law school—which sounded like a slogan for the education industry—or in the way he thought about women guaranteed to put out after a nice date or his constant thoughts of getting Delaney into bed. But these were also peppered with moments where he did feel ‘older’ in a way, more like an equal to Delaney when he had to be.

In short, the contradictory bits of Kellan threw me off and as one who doesn’t normally bother about the age gap between romantic protagonists, the one between Delaney and Kellan still felt marked anyhow, given the different stages they were at their lives, but especially in the way they both approached their careers (with the latter’s one not even started when he’d not even finished school). For the first half, this was what I’d gotten, which made it hard to buy into the pairing given this gap between them.

That said, ‘Got It Bad’ isn’t badly written at all; this is clearly a case of just me not being able to connect with the story and characters and a rating that reflects this admission.

Unspeakable by Elisabeth Naughton

Unspeakable by Elisabeth NaughtonUnspeakable by Elisabeth Naughton
Series: Deadly Secrets #4
Published by Montlake Romance on 20th November 2018
Pages: 304
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
four-stars

All his siblings have moved on from their troubling pasts, but Rusty McClane can’t leave his behind. Not even when his freedom is in jeopardy.

Legal investigator Harper Blake can sense a bad boy. She’s drawn to them—like she is to her mysterious and brooding new client. The police believe that Rusty is involved with the case of a missing underage girl. Harper’s job is to find evidence to defend him. But is her sexy suspect a predator…or something else?

If Rusty is guilty of anything, it’s of stirring something primitive in Harper. The closer they get, the harder it is to believe the worst of him.

But in an underworld filled with sex trafficking, kidnapping, and murder, Harper will need to be cautious about whom she trusts. Because Rusty isn’t the only one with secrets.

Elisabeth Naughton’s ‘Deadly Secrets’ is a series that constantly surprises me, and much of that has to do with how Naughton weaves stories built on the unrelated personal histories of each adopted McClane sibling’s varied pasts. ‘Unspeakable’ is an engaging suspense right from the start and one that quite pointedly starts out by shaping Rusty McClane first, as a questionable protagonist and then later, a gruff and compelling shiny knight in armour living a double life and is quite worthy of the romantic-hero-accolade.

And it’s Rusty who shines, along with his demons, his irresistible vigilante persona—Stephen Amell as the Arrow keeps coming to mind—that he hides from everyone. However, I had my reservations about the disgraced ex-cop Harper Blake—her own shady history, her eagerness to work with Rusty and her personal agenda that she keeps from him—because for quite a bit of the story, the self-serving bit of dishonesty just to get her lost career back and her reliance on their sexual chemistry to get things moving kept nagging at me. With a quick-fire conflict-climax-resolution that was offered almost as an aside towards the end, it was admittedly, harder to root for a pairing as solidly as I thought I would after a spectacular beginning.

Danger and intrigue are present throughout which makes the book hard to put down once I dug in. There are brilliants scenes alternating between the gut-churning sex trade and the sultry heat that builds between Rusty and Harper, and coupled with a good number of players (and a series of ‘generational’ coincidences attributed to fate that might be a little hard to swallow) that Naughton juggles quite effortlessly.

So bottom-line here: my own quibbles with the heroine aside, ‘Unspeakable’ is a sufficiently complex, not too convoluted read and by and large, a pretty good addition to the RS genre that I’m always putting my nose in.

four-stars

Hidden by Rebecca Zanetti

Hidden by Rebecca ZanettiHidden by Rebecca Zanetti
Series: , #1
Published by Zebra on 25th September 2018
Pages: 400
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
three-stars

Hide. That’s all Pippa can do to escape the terror chasing her. But now that she’s off the grid in a safe house, she finds plenty of interesting things to watch through the window. Like her new neighbor, with his startling green eyes, killer smile, and sexy bad-boy tattoo . . .

Run. Malcolm West is fleeing the hell he unleashed in his last assignment as an undercover cop. A backwoods bungalow sounds like the perfect place to start over. Until he discovers he’s been set up . . .

Fight. Someone’s gone to a lot of trouble to bring them together. No matter how much he resents that, and his own driving needs, Malcolm will have to dig deep and let loose the banished killer inside himself, or Pippa’s fears could come true faster than the flip of a bolt in a lock . . .

When burnt-out, former undercover cop Mal West gets sucked into a strange unit, his first task with them is to investigate his seemingly sweet, innocent but squirrelly neighbour who’s hiding a deadly secret. But Pippa Smith is covering up something as well, and their paths collide in a way that’s unexpected and dangerous.

Told in a few flashbacks, we learn of Mal’s and Pippa’s personal histories that led them to where they are now; both are tortured in their own ways by memories too scarring for them to forget. First as neighbours, then later as lovers, both clearly battle the same crazies, though from different and opposing angles,.

As a grounding book that introduces the rest of the Requisition Force, ‘Hidden’ is a good hook in itself in pulling out the cracked-up, damaged unit that I can’t wait to see more of. Severely defective in their own ways (even the dog’s included in this) though it’s ripe for Zanetti to insert some humour here, there’re sufficient seeds planted here that makes me want each of their stories.

The frustration I have nonetheless, with such undercover stories simply lies with the deception that forms (in this case, on both sides) the foundation of a romantic relationship and becomes the major part of the conflict that you know is just coming because of this very thing that gets stretched longer than it should have.

The pitfall that typically follows is the use of sex that delays communication and disclosure, or some other event/circumstance that deliberately blocks this—which then forms a large part of the romantic pairing’s misunderstanding, with lots of running involved—along with some TSTL behaviour—because there just isn’t enough trust between the both of them to go around. It’s precisely because of this that I find the love/romantic connection between Mal and Pippa difficult to swallow, especially if trust and respect (apart from the scorching sex) are supposed to be foundational for their relationship.

The pace and action do pick up after this though, which eventually made the story a lot more engaging. And even if Mal/Pippa do sort of work out their issues in a rush before the climax happens, I probably would have liked this a lot more if less time had been spent on deceit and the copious amount of sexual tension (and later on, raunchy sex instead of talking) simply taking up the first three-quarters of the plot.

three-stars

Mission: Her Protection by Anna Hackett

Mission: Her Protection by Anna Hackett
Series: Team 52 #1
Published by Anna Hackett on August 14th 2018
Pages: 154
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
three-half-stars

When Rowan’s Arctic research team pulls a strange object out of the ice in Northern Canada, things start to go wrong…very, very wrong. Rescued by a covert, black ops team, she finds herself in the powerful arms of a man with scary gold eyes. A man who vows to do everything and anything to protect her…

Dr. Rowan Schafer has learned it’s best to do things herself and not depend on anyone else. Her cold, academic parents taught her that lesson. She loves the challenge of running a research base, until the day her scientists discover the object in a retreating glacier. Under attack, Rowan finds herself fighting to survive…until the mysterious Team 52 arrives.

Former special forces Marine Lachlan Hunter’s military career ended in blood and screams, until he was recruited to lead a special team. A team tasked with a top-secret mission—to secure and safeguard pieces of powerful ancient technology. Married to his job, he’s done too much and seen too much to risk inflicting his demons on a woman. But when his team arrives in the Arctic, he uncovers both an unexplained artifact, and a young girl from his past, now all grown up. A woman who ignites emotions inside him like never before.

But as Team 52 heads back to their base in Nevada, other hostile forces are after the artifact. Rowan finds herself under attack, and as the bullets fly, Lachlan vows to protect her at all costs. But in the face of danger like they’ve never seen before, will it be enough to keep her alive.

Team 52 is Anna Hackett’s spin-off from her Treasure Hunter Security series, so expect the storylines to be written in a similar vein: adventure-driven with some suspense included as this mysterious team goes off the books to retrieve dangerous (read: as equally mysterious as the team that does it) artefacts and keep them classified. It’s got its feet fully set on earth, while prodding the mystery of advanced civilisations, crossed with some archaeological leanings, so Indiana Jones fans should be quite overjoyed.

Like Hackett’s THS books, expect the team to battle unscrupulous treasure hunters, crime syndicates and other badasses which can only be fought with more badassery. As a foundational book, ‘Mission: Her Protection’ lays out the direction in which the series appears to be going: a slew on books focusing on the team at work, with each member finding their better half along the way.

Rowan Schafer is the rather hapless heroine sorely in need of Team 52’s help in this story, though little does she know that Lachlan Hunter used to be the boy next door whom she used to take comfort in, all grown up and a badass in his own right.

The instalove here is somewhat disconcerting – I find myself constantly saying this with Hackett’s books in any case – and that a near-20-year-old memory of an early-teenage friendship seemed to be sufficient for Lachlan to change his mind about love and relationships within the span of a few days with Rowan.

The scepticism I have about the solidness of the pairing aside, ‘Mission: Her Protection’ does get off an interesting start in any case, though I’m crossing my fingers that this crossover would be more of a showcase of Hackett’s impressive imagination rather than a rinse and repeat of the THS series.

three-half-stars

Up in Flames by Jennifer Blackwood

Up in Flames by Jennifer BlackwoodUp in Flames by Jennifer Blackwood
Series: Flirting with Fire, #2
Published by Montlake Romance on 9th October 2018
Pages: 300
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
one-half-stars

Sloane Garcia has butted heads with Reece Jenkins ever since he was a colossal jerk of epic proportions on a night she’d rather forget. So what if he’s overconfident, ultramasculine, and hard muscled? When she finds out he’s on the auction block at the annual firefighter’s charity event, she decides to give this cocky firefighter a dose of his own medicine. Now that she’s won the hunk, he’s on call—to do whatever Sloane wants.

Sure, Reece and Sloane had a rocky start, but he had his reasons. None of that matters now that he’s the bachelor at her beck and call, tasked with granting her four wishes in four weeks. He runs into burning buildings for a living, but nothing will be as tough as dousing the flames Sloane ignites in him. What started out as just a game might end up with Reece losing the one thing he swore he’d never give up: his heart.

Somehow I feel as though I need this caveat, as always, before I begin this review. My expectations, when it comes to romantic fiction are tuned differently when when I read general fiction; better put, the very classification of the genre shapes what I naturally want to read of my protagonists, so their traits are looked at not just in terms of their social contributions (good soldier/cop/firefighter), or their generosities to their families, or how often they mow the lawn for their blind neighbours, for instance, which many authors love to highlight.

In contrast, I typically look at romantic heroism through the lens of other qualities, such as integrity, commitment, the care and concern because this genre is precisely one in which such things seem necessary for the guaranteed HEA that is its peculiar characteristic. I’ve been confronted with too many protagonists who fall out of this framework of late, and instead conform to stereotypes that have me rolling my eyes, which accounts for my inability to like a book more because of it.

Jennifer Blackwood’s ‘Up in Flames’ was unfortunately, yet another one of those for me. It’s certainly a story that will appeal to others: the rather light-hearted feel, the slight bit of angst to stir up some emotions about a backstory accounting for present-day terrible behaviour and the eventual but rocky road to redemption and a HEA.

What stood out for me was the very relatable Sloane, but then I’ve always liked seeing this sort of scrappy strength in a romantic heroine: somewhat bitter about a breakup but still digging in, hanging on in control, refusing to be vulnerable, with her brain turning to mush at the sight of Reece’s body being the only cringeworthy characteristic I found.

In contrast, Reece felt like too much of the clichéd, ego-filled, manwhore arsehole player for me—doing the rounds with eight of the nurses in Sloane’s workplace first made him beyond distasteful (armed with the usual excuse of having been hurt so long ago and thus is into emotionless hooking up from now onwards) in contrast to Sloane’s impressive sticking it through with her one and only long-term relationship despite it ending badly. Adding the fact that he’d always had a thing for her on and off throughout most of their lives, was waffling about the idea of ‘them’ up until quite literally the last few lines in the second-last chapter…well, I couldn’t quite find too much of a basis to even root for this pairing when there didn’t seem to be that much of an active push for both to be together.

The enemies-to-lovers trope is a deliciously cool one (which had me jumping on this) but with constant thoughts intruding about Sloane deserving way better than settling for what I honestly thought was a chemistry-less relationship, this is clearly not a book that worked for me.

one-half-stars

Beautiful Sinner by Sophie Jordan

Beautiful Sinner by Sophie JordanBeautiful Sinner by Sophie Jordan
Series: Devil's Rock #5
Published by Avon on 30th October 2018
Pages: 368
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
two-stars

Locked in with the town bad boy . . .

Most women would be scared, but Gabriella’s only worried about resisting Cruz Walsh, who’s even hotter than he was back in high school. Cruz was wrongly accused of the high-profile crime for which he was imprisoned; Gabriella’s desperate for the scoop that will get her career off the ground and get her out of Sweet Hill, where everyone still remembers her as “Flabby Gabby.” Being stuck in a supply closet with Cruz is the perfect opportunity to land an interview. What Bri doesn’t count on is Cruz taking “up-close and personal” to a whole new level.

If there’s a silver lining to the hell Cruz went through, it’s that losing his freedom put everything in perspective. Maybe starting over someplace new would be easier, but after years locked up, Cruz values his family—and his true friends—more than ever. So he’s back home, facing the gossip, dodging reporters . . . and face-to-face with Gabriella Rossi. They’ve both changed: Bri wants a story and Cruz just wants her. Another thing he’s learned? Don’t let a good thing slip away.

Sophie Jordan’s ‘Devil’s Rock’ series is not an easy one to pin down. I’ve been mixed on these books, but keep on going back because I like the premise of how her protagonists pick themselves up again after life kicks them down. And what best demonstrates this spiral than time in prison, where things can only go up from then onwards?

‘Beautiful Sinner’ is just that: a wrongly-accused man who’s free but who can’t escape his past, paired with a woman who happens to want him…and something from him. There’s little else, apart from a huge preoccupation with the heroine’s body issues, and pages and pages trying to ramp up sexual tension before Cruz and Gabriella fall into bed which then later turns supposedly into love, so much so that the story could have been cut in half and still been told satisfactorily.

There’s also an intensely N/A feel to it, if that’s your thing: the flashbacks, the innumerable self-image issues that Gabriella faced, the inability to get past those teenage years with peripheral characters behaving like stereotypical mean-girls, the journey of self-discovery along the way…all of which had me turning the pages wondering if I’d fallen into high school or college drama without meaning to.

The baffling bit is a small bit of history over a decade ago that Cruz apparently can’t forget—a make-out session with a mystery girl who did a Cinderalla-move on him where she pretended to be someone else, before disappearing for a long time. Yet what tossed my suspension of disbelief out of the window however, was the painfully ridiculous notion that Cruz, at that time (even as a manwhore), couldn’t tell the difference between girls in total darkness (they’re not the same size!) as they made out. That this particular night was given so much weighty significance 12 years later left me incredulous (most people barely remember such things), because well, I’d thought that life experience and a myriad of memories in the intervening years would have long overshadowed that night that both apparently could never forget.

It’s also hard to deal with a heroine so insecure about her own body and so downtrodden in so many ways, seeking validation in every small compliment she can get. Even harder yet to deal with is the way Gabriella had made Cruz out to be the one and only man who could persuade her with sex so different and so out-of-the-world from her other boyfriends. (It certainly helps that Cruz only wants her type of body) Body-image issues are hard to deal with—this much I acknowledge. But to read how it becomes all-consuming where a heroine can’t believe anyone would want her, let alone a man with a smoking hot body pushes it too far even for me.

I think I was looking for more to this story but never quite got it, until way past the halfway mark when the conflict finally kicked in. It was only then when things got more interesting, though by which time, I was a little too ready to throw in the towel.

two-stars

What I’ve Done by Melinda Leigh

What I’ve Done by Melinda LeighWhat I've Done by Melinda Leigh
Series: Morgan Dane #4
Published by Montlake Romance on 18th September 2018
Pages: 336
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
four-stars

Morgan Dane’s new client has blood on her hands—and no recollection of what happened—as the #1 Amazon Charts bestselling series continues.

Haley Powell wakes up covered in blood, with no memory of the night before. When she sees a man lying in the backyard, stabbed to death, she has only one terrified thought: What have I done?

Agreeing to take the case as a favor to her PI friend Lincoln Sharp, Morgan must scale a mountain of damning circumstantial and forensic evidence to prove her client innocent. Haley couldn’t appear more guilty: her bloodstained fingerprints are on the murder weapon, and she has no alibi. But Morgan can’t shake the feeling that this shocked young woman has been framed.

Someone out there is hell-bent on sabotaging her defense, targeting Morgan, her partner, and especially Haley. Someone who will stop at nothing—and whose next move will be deadly.

Melinda Leigh’s ‘Morgan Dane’ juggernaut of a series goes on strong with no sign of abating and I for one, am glad for it. With little of the unnecessary (and sometimes over-exggerated) drama as her stalwart, arse-kicking protagonists who go from strength to strength, ‘What I’ve Done’ is another solid offering in which I was happy to get lost.

There’re slight developments in Morgan’s and Lance’s relationship which are always nice to read about, but by and large, they are an established couple, which frees Leigh to concentrate on the suspense. We’re plunged straight in, like any police procedural show: an establishing mystery which eventually turns out to be the complicated case that Morgan and Lance get involved in. The stakes are high; the evidence mounts against them in a near-indefensible case, but Leigh quite masterfully twirls the mess until it makes coherent sense with a satisfying resolution.

It isn’t often that I like the suspense overshadowing the romance—a hearty mix of heat and action is typically what I look for—but this series is one that I can’t help but want more and more of. In short, I was nonetheless riveted and engaged—when the case unravels to show that no one is truly innocent and the degree of debauched behaviour is just skewed towards who’s the worse guy.

Admittedly, the romance is subdued, the heat much less pronounced with a new kind of conflict brewing but Morgan/Lance’s chemistry and affection for each other—borne of months working seamlessly together—are obvious despite the very few scenes that concentrate solely on them. ‘What I’ve Done’ is nonetheless solid and well-written, closing with the sense that this growing partnership in more ways than one, is far from over.

four-stars