Category: Advanced Reader Copy

The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker

The Austen Playbook by Lucy ParkerThe Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker
Series: London Celebrities #4
Published by Carina Press on 30th April 2019
Pages: 400
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three-stars


Freddy Carlton knows she should be focusing on her lines for The Austen Playbook, a live-action TV event where viewers choose the outcome of each scene, but her concentration’s been blown. The palatial estate housing the endeavor is now run by the rude (brilliant) critic who’s consistently slammed her performances of late. James “Griff” Ford-Griffin has a penchant for sarcasm, a majestic nose and all the sensitivity of a sledgehammer.

She can’t take her eyes off him.

Griff can hardly focus with a contagious joy fairy flitting about near him, especially when Freddy looks at him like that. His only concern right now should be on shutting down his younger brother’s well-intentioned (disastrous) schemes—or at the very least on the production (not this one) that might save his family home from the banks.

Instead all he can think of is soft skin and vibrant curls.

As he’s reluctantly dragged into her quest to rediscover her passion for the stage and Freddy is drawn into his research on a legendary theater star, the adage about appearances being deceiving proves abundantly true. It’s the unlikely start of something enormous…but a single revelation about the past could derail it all.

Sometimes I pity Jane Austen and sometimes I think she’s got it all…a few hundred years too late. Think of the number of works of hers that so many have twisted, manipulated, adapted, lovingly massaged and downright massacred through the years and the poor gal should be turning in her grave, or exulting in her posthumous fame.

With a title like ‘The Austen Playbook’, you suspect you know what you’re in for.

Rife with Austen, classic-lit and pop-culture references (not to have Austen meta would have been a sin), I was tickled from the start with the parallel of Darcy’s dissing of Elizabeth as belly-gutting arts critic James Ford-Griffin unknowingly cut Freddy Carlton open in a noisy pub with his analysis of her acting—but that’s barely a hint of where the story will lead.

But the love-hate, actor-critic relationship gets a revamp when they are unwittingly reunited on Griff’s estate along with bitchy reality-tv-series-type drama, a rather mad discovery big-time plagiarism (the sins of the fathers) and unexpected lust/lust coming into play.

Parker’s writing is undoubtedly unique: assured, wry, quirky and with banter that is lofty, sneaky and full of high-brow snark. But admittedly sometimes hard to get through when all you want is straightforward talk minus the distracting character movements, turnarounds and exaggerated descriptions. For this reason, Griff and Freddy, like all of Parker’s characters, are eloquent, always know what to say and sometimes say the unexpected.

I loved the starting quarter, but my attention dipped when talk went deep into secondary characters, the protagonists’ relatives (don’t get me started on the convoluted history) then perked again Parker introduces the attraction between Griff and Freddy with hallowed tenderness.

There were some surprises by the end of it—veering sometimes into the unbelievable—but it was all fodder for entertainment, more so because Parker has made this book about acting, writing and celebrity gossip after all. Ultimately, there were parts of the story I liked and some not too much, but if you’re in because you like a particular writing style like Parker’s, then ‘The Austen Playbook’ should do it for you.

three-stars

Keeping a Warrior by Melanie Hansen

Keeping a Warrior by Melanie HansenKeeping a Warrior by Melanie Hansen
Series: Loving a Warrior #2
Published by Carina, Carina Press on April 22nd 2019
Pages: 264
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three-stars

Sometimes the only hope for the walking wounded is in each other’s arms.

Devon Lowe is a survivor.

A survivor of war. Of combat. And of a betrayal by men she considered her brothers-in-arms. But her trailblazing work as a Cultural Support Team member working alongside the navy SEALs is too important for her to back down now.

Fresh off a painful breakup, air force pararescueman Rhys Halloran recognizes Devon’s trauma for what it is—something that’s left her isolated but far from irreparably damaged.

With Devon’s trust still lying shattered back in Afghanistan, putting her faith in a man who’s nursing a broken heart isn’t easy. But she’s tired of people making her feel weak, and Rhys makes her feel anything but, sparking a heated attraction that was never part of the plan.

With all eyes on Devon to prove herself in a brutal man’s world, having it all will mean putting her heart on the line like never before. But when it comes to Rhys, it’s an uphill battle she’s ready to fight.

Melanie Hansen is a new author to me and I hadn’t really known what to expect with ‘Keeping a Warrior’ when I got into it, only that it was heavily woman-focused, so to speak, despite it being touted as a military romance.

Much of this ended up being a story about Devon Lowe as a solitary woman in a testosterone-driven man’s world and in this role-reversal—her love ‘em, leave ‘em ways, her sometime-recklessness, her prickly behaviour, calling the shots and all—, Hansen eagerly showcases her capability in the military and how she can excel in every training exercise that all the men can do. There’s plenty of action, a close look at how the platoon trains, the SEAL brotherhood and the assumed places of men and women in the military, which can be quite engaging.

And it’s all written—uniquely, you might say—through the eyes of a woman and how she copes with all of it.

If it isn’t a nod to girl-power or the #metoo movement, I don’t know what it is. Cheering for the constant insistence on female equality aside however, I wasn’t used to, or frankly, wasn’t sure if I liked what I thought of as the role reversal, of an alpha heroine in the driving seat all the time and an admiring and smitten beta hero who mostly defers to her.

I’ve nothing but admiration for Hansen’s attempt to focus on sexual assault in the military and its impact on women in particular but the constant dick-waving and posturing got me tired, including—yes, shoot me for it—Devon’s every attempt to one-up the men in trying to prove herself worthy with a very slow-burn romance on the side as Rhys Halloran struggles with his own failed relationship and takes his own form of baby steps around Devon.

In fact, I liked the volatile, cutting sexual tension between Matt/Shane more than I liked the Devon/Rhys pairing. Even as a secondary, estranged pairing (I hadn’t read their story in the first book, which is making me want to check them out now), they were the show-stealers and every fraught moment between them made me want more. As a result, ‘Keeping a Warrior’ left me with very mixed feelings, especially since I was more invested in the secondary characters more than the protagonists.

three-stars

The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren

The Unhoneymooners by Christina LaurenThe Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren
Published by Gallery Books on 14th May 2019
Pages: 416
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three-half-stars

Olive is always unlucky: in her career, in love, in…well, everything. Her identical twin sister Amy, on the other hand, is probably the luckiest person in the world. Her meet-cute with her fiancé is something out of a romantic comedy (gag) and she’s managed to finance her entire wedding by winning a series of Internet contests (double gag). Worst of all, she’s forcing Olive to spend the day with her sworn enemy, Ethan, who just happens to be the best man.

Olive braces herself to get through 24 hours of wedding hell before she can return to her comfortable, unlucky life. But when the entire wedding party gets food poisoning from eating bad shellfish, the only people who aren’t affected are Olive and Ethan. And now there’s an all-expenses-paid honeymoon in Hawaii up for grabs.

Putting their mutual hatred aside for the sake of a free vacation, Olive and Ethan head for paradise, determined to avoid each other at all costs. But when Olive runs into her future boss, the little white lie she tells him is suddenly at risk to become a whole lot bigger. She and Ethan now have to pretend to be loving newlyweds, and her luck seems worse than ever. But the weird thing is that she doesn’t mind playing pretend. In fact, she feels kind of... lucky.

Christina Lauren’s pitch-perfect rom-com tickles the funny bone, not in the gut-busting way but it garners more than a few smirks. Even if ‘The Unhoneymoners’ leans towards more of women’s fiction—the kind that celebrates a female character’s growth and achievements, and catalogues her mistakes, no matter how many baby steps it might take.

Olive Torres, the queen of bad lack, rules the entire show, with a sometimes hysterical voice determined to win every argument and be cynical/negative about everything that passes her in life. Except that her sister and the new husband—along with the other wedding guests—start spontaneously throwing up on the wedding itself and this hands her a free pass to Maui, with the groom’s brother and her supposed nemesis, Ethan Thomas.

The journey from here is more of less predictable even if the fake-marriage, enemies-to-lovers-tropes aren’t: there’re tons of awkward moments, moments of unexpected bonding and heartfelt conversations between Ethan and Olive and moments when they discover neither of them are what they appear to each other.

And by and large, it was a fun, sometimes cheesy, eye-rolling and cringy ride, and it made me think this warrants a close-to 4-star rating. Still, I didn’t have to put down the book and wonder if it’s taking a large chunk of my day and fret about it. Told in a way that made the pages fly by, there’s plenty of quirk, lip-pursing and amusing times to make it one of the most lighthearted reads I’ve had in a while.

three-half-stars

Mission: Her Defense by Anna Hackett

Mission: Her Defense by Anna HackettMission: Her Defense by Anna Hackett
Series: Team 52, #4
Published by Anna Hackett on 10th February 2019
Pages: 149
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three-half-stars

One former special forces Marine. One tall, handsome police detective who pushes all her buttons. One dangerous investigation that forces them to work together.

Blair Mason is badass to the bone. She’s no stranger to loss and barely survived the mission that ended her military career. Now, as part of Team 52, she never shies away from a fight to ensure pieces of powerful ancient technology don’t fall into the wrong hands. Unfortunately, she’s often forced to “liaise” with the team’s contact at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police. The tall, hard-bodied detective ignites her temper quicker than any man she’s ever known…and after a terrible massacre, she’s horrified to find that she and MacKade are being ordered to work together.

Detective Luke MacKade was born a protector. He takes care of his family, and as a dedicated homicide detective, he protects his city. He is less thrilled with his job of cleaning up after Team 52 after they tear through Vegas on a mission. Blair is a woman who sets him off just by breathing, but even he can’t deny the powerful attraction he feels to her strength and skill. When several cursed samurai swords are stolen in a bloody attack, it is up to Luke and Blair to get them back…before more blood is shed.

But others are after the swords and their hidden powers.

As Luke and Blair’s dangerous investigation intensifies, they face danger at every turn. Luke battles his intense need to protect the woman he’s falling for, a woman who neither wants or needs his protection. But as their desire burns white-hot, Luke will learn that the toughest defenses are the ones around Blair’s heart.

‘Mission: Her Defense’ starts off as Kill Bill on steroids as cursed Japanese swords find themselves in the wrong hands, thus necessitating the need for Team 52 to step in. Though since it encroaches on Las Vegas Metropolitan Police turf, it means that Blair Mason and Luke Kincade cross paths (and later, body fluids) once again.

It’s not quite a rivalry between them that’s been sufficiently explained, but Blair/Luke’s fractious relationship is one that has been building for some time and is rather similar to Darcy Ward’s and Alastair Burke’s rival-to-lovers tale in the neighbouring ‘Treasure Hunter series’. Blair straddles the line between being fearless and foolhardy—the definition of bad-assery doesn’t necessarily have to extend to impulsively jumping into every fight scene—and there were too many moments when I thought ‘Slow down, woman, stop pushing away and stop being stupid!’ needed to be her mantra.

The story does start off awesomely exciting, though. With more blood-lust than the usual action blood-spilling scenes, incorporating mythology from Japanese sword-making, I was absorbed in the setup immediately, though it went a little flat for me later when the plausible scientific explanation that Hackett gave for the strange phenomenon occurring became a little too thick to swallow.

As with the typical Hackett read these days, there’s more than a hint of a quick slide into love (or lust?) before before both protagonists really get to know each other…but perhaps, the brevity of every story she puts out has made every pairing inevitably so, unless it has been one that has been hinted at over the course of several books. Still, I can’t deny that there are bits about Hackett’s other series that I miss more than her latest books, even if her imaginative writing is as strong as ever.

three-half-stars

Overture by Skye Warren

Overture by Skye WarrenOverture by Skye Warren
Published by Skye Warren on 19th February 2019
Pages: 176
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Forbidden fruit never tasted this sweet…

The world knows Samantha Brooks as the violin prodigy. She guards her secret truth—the desire she harbors for her guardian.

Liam North got custody of her six years ago. She’s all grown up now, but he still treats her like a child. No matter how much he wants her.

No matter how bad he aches for one taste.

Her sweet overtures break down the ex-soldier’s defenses, but there’s more at stake than her body. Every touch, every kiss, every night. The closer she gets, the more exposed his darkest secret.

She’s one step away from finding out what happened the night she lost her family. One step away from leaving him forever.

Skye Warren’s daring forbidden themes have been my catnip for a while and I jumped on ‘Overture’ for this very reason. A warning caveat about the edginess of this story: Warren respects the consensual age limit, though the age-gap between guardian and ward along with the barely-legal, forbidden but very erotic vibe here however, would be a no-go for some.

Security-firm owner Liam North’s and music-prodigy Samantha Brooks’s slowly changing relationship is where ‘Overture’ begins—during a transition point that has established norms getting flipped on their ends, leaving both Liam and Samantha at a loss when it comes to behaving around each other.

Liam is understandably conflicted and resistant (perhaps rightly so, considering his position) about desiring and seeing Samantha other than a ward to protect, though his lack of staying power, his blowing hot and cold to the very end got incredibly frustrating. Yet their smouldering connection, built up slowly through a careful interplay of push and pull and several stunning, near-erotic encounters, was one that I found myself enthralled by and left wanting more than just the accidental, hurried sexual encounter at the end–Warren’s nuanced writing carries it all.

There’s an inkling early on however, that ‘Overture’ isn’t simply a forbidden romance where 2 people try to bridge the age-gap. What threw me off was the somewhat divergent plotline of Liam’s security business, the insertion of his brothers and their activities and the mysterious history surrounding Samantha’s early childhood years that intruded in separation that came at the end. So clearly, the under-developed plot and the unhappy, unfinished ending were the story’s biggest downer, even with the promise of more to come.

I do like Warren’s prose however, and the use of music and the multiple metaphors that you can draw from it as the bridging device drew me in from the start. Being left unsatisfied with the lack of a veritable HEA is how I finished this read nonetheless, though I’m counting on the sequel to rectify this.

Cold & Deadly by Toni Anderson

Cold & Deadly by Toni AndersonCold & Deadly by Toni Anderson
Series: Cold Justice: Crossfire #1
Published by Toni Anderson on 12th February 2019
Pages: 400
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four-stars

Hostage Negotiators can talk themselves out of anything—except falling in love.

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Dominic Sheridan is an accomplished expert in the Crisis Negotiation Unit. Practiced, professional, used to dealing with high-stake situations under tense conditions, Dominic is a master at manipulating people. Everyone, that is, but the headstrong rookie agent bent on destroying her fledgling career.

As a child, Ava Kanas put her life on the line when the mob executed her father. Now someone has killed her mentor, the man who inspired her to become an FBI agent—and she’s the only one who recognizes it was anything but a tragic accident.

When another agent is murdered and Dominic nearly dies, it becomes obvious a serial killer is targeting the FBI. Together Dominic and Ava search for clues in the investigation, all the while fighting a forbidden attraction that will complicate everything, especially when the predator sets their sights on Ava.

The marvellous Toni Anderson scores again. ‘Cold & Deadly’ is the latest incarnation or rather, the first of the spin-off books of her FBI agents series, and with it comes the same fantastic, faultless type of writing that reminds me why I love romantic suspense so much.

SSA Dominic Sheridan and rookie agent Ava Kanas find themselves embroiled what apparently looked like a simple case of a retired agent committing suicide, where soon it becomes clear that  someone is targeting the FBI agents themselves as Dominic soon finds himself in the crosshairs of an investigation that blows up beyond his imagination.

From the onset, it becomes clear that the case is a winding, gritty and absorbing one, so vividly painted—even with the sub-plot/diversion that was equally hair-raising—with the bleak but brutal shadow of violent deaths and the warped minds of serial killers. There’s no doubt at all that Anderson can write and does it superbly (I think I can’t say this enough about the quality of her prose), as her protagonists and secondary characters are so cohesively put together that any prerequisite knowledge of her previous books isn’t needed to get lost in this tale of grand revenge, edgy paranoia, spellbinding action sequences and unintended (or forbidden?) attraction.

Yet my only gripe, strangely, is about the romance, which I found sidelined amidst the rocking suspense. Dominic and Ava, pushed together incidentally, and their growing attraction is predictable though not without the amount of cold water each pours on the future of this so-called relationship. There’re so many reasons why this pairing wouldn’t work—Anderson herself provides these reasons in the protagonists’ individual musings—and I was left ironically convinced that ‘Cold & Deadly’ would still have been a brilliant (or perhaps, even superb?) read if the romance hadn’t been even included at all.

The shining light here however, was probably Ava Kanas herself. My perspective on her went from dour to admiring to uncertain, but what remained consistent was that Anderson had drawn up a pretty complex, passionate and multi-faceted protagonist who felt like a contradictory piece of work on so many levels, yet owned a big heart that made it impossible not to feel for her when push came to shove. Dominic Sheridan in contrast, felt like he was left a little paler in the shade: more remote, more like the poor rich boy who shunned commitment, who made a name for himself independently in law enforcement in spite of his rich family’s connections, suddenly questioning what he can commit to.

If length tends to become and issue of contention for several authors that I do like, ‘Cold & Deadly’, at around 400 pages, made me grateful that Anderson took her time to weave everything together with intricate detail. Surfacing from this a few days later, I’m just happy to say that I had a bloody good time.

four-stars

The Risk by Elle Kennedy

The Risk by Elle KennedyThe Risk by Elle Kennedy
Series: Briar U #2
Published by Elle Kennedy Inc. on 18th February 2019
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three-stars

Everyone says I’m a bad girl. They’re only partly right—I don’t let fear rule me, and I certainly don’t care what people think. But I draw the line at sleeping with the enemy. As the daughter of Briar’s head hockey coach, I’d be vilified if I hooked up with a player from a rival team.

And that’s who Jake Connelly is. Harvard’s star forward is arrogant, annoying, and too attractive for his own good. But fate is cruel—I require his help to secure a much-coveted internship, and the sexy jerk isn’t making it easy for me.
I need Connelly to be my fake boyfriend.

For every fake date…he wants a real one.

Which means this bad girl is in big trouble. Nothing good can come from sneaking around with Jake Connelly. My father would kill me, my friends will revolt, and my post-college career is on the line. But while it’s getting harder and harder to resist Jake’s oozing sex appeal and cocky grin, I refuse to fall for him.

That’s the one risk I’m not willing to take.

Enter the raunchy world of college hookups, the infamous laddish, cocky behaviours of manwhore athletes, competitive sports (typically hockey) and the bumpy transition from hormonal young adulthood to equally hormonal adulthood. At least, this is how I’ve seen Elle Kennedy’s college campus series shaping out to be thus far—I’ve not been wrong here—and ‘The Risk’ continues in this similar fashion as Kennedy milks the shallows of college life, only with a fraternising with the enemy vibe from the beginning.

Brenna Jensen and Jake Connelly play for opposing teams though the friction that comes when they cross paths is perhaps better summed up as ‘love and hate being 2 sides of the same coin’. There are too many reasons why the mutual attraction shouldn’t be given into, and god forbid that Jake should have any say at all in who Brenna chooses to hook up with. It’s a predictable journey thereafter; emotions develop after they get down and dirty, and along with their futures getting put on the line as well.

It always takes a bit of a mental adjustment for me to get into Elle Kennedy’s construction of her New-Adult world anyhow: there’re often bursts of selfish, juvenile behaviour and several moments of ’the world is bigger than me’ revelation, which also have my sympathies for the characters going up and down like a yo-yo. My reservations, perhaps have also got to do with the feeling that I’m reading about protagonists who simply don’t show enough depth despite the angsty teenage struggles they face…and that they’ve still not done enough of growing up by the end of the book.

And for that reason I can’t quite connect or root for them. Brenna/Jake weren’t exactly likeable protagonists at all—I did think they were selfish and immature in their own ways, even though their tussles were amusing at the very least. What was somewhat frustrating was the hint of unrequited love at the end—a pining best friend doesn’t get the man she’s always wanted, while said man goes for someone who couldn’t quite be compassionate about the hurt that this caused—and that the HEAs in the series are stubbornly about people who don’t always seem the best matched couple.

Given the glowing reviews about Kennedy’s Off-Campus series and the Briar U series, I’m well aware that I’m standing off to one side being sceptical of what pairing Kennedy will churn out next. There’s no doubt that she does tell an engaging story. I just wish I could have liked it more.

three-stars