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Stay by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Reviews/ Sports 14th June 2017
Stay by Sarina Bowen and Elle KennedyStay by Sarina Bowen, Elle Kennedy
Series: WAGs, #2
Published by Rennie Road Books on June 20th 2017
Pages: 259
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five-stars

Can you fall in love with someone you've never even met?
Hailey Taylor Emery has a hunch that her favorite client at Fetch--an anonymous virtual assistant service--is actually hockey star Matt Eriksson.
Although it's against the rules for her to check his file, she's 95% sure she spends at least part of each day texting with her lifelong crush and catering to his every need. Still nursing a wounded heart thanks to her recent breakup, Hailey is perfectly content with some harmless online flirting...until she has to meet her client. Face to face. Cue: utter panic.
Matt Eriksson is no stranger to heartbreak. He's still not over the destruction of his marriage, and it sucks to be the only guy on the team who knows the truth--that hockey and long-term relationships are a toxic mix. He barely sees his kids, and dealing with his ex makes him feel insane. The only person in his life who seems to understand is someone who won't show her pretty face.
But it's nothing that a pair of fourth row hockey seats can't fix. Hailey can't resist the offer. Matt can't resist Hailey. Good thing he doesn't have to. Fire up the kiss cam!
Warning: Contains rabid hockey fans, misunderstood dick pics, hockey players at the opera and exploding ovaries.

I hadn’t realised that revisiting the team and seeing how far all of them have come since Wes and Jamie got off their rocky beginnings actually made me somewhat wistfully nostalgic enough to want to re-read the entire series.

If I haven’t yet mentioned how much I loved the ‘Him’ and ‘WAGs’ series, then well, mea culpa. ‘Stay’ couldn’t make me love this particular group of people more.

Matt Eriksson is the older guy in the Toronto hockey team and with a divorce just behind him and retirement a few years down the road, still struggles with handling his twin daughters, a nasty ex-wife and a virtual personal assistant who somehow, knows what he needs. Little does he know that a call to walk the dog would lead to premier tickets for a hockey match and that the online relationship he’s always had with the person handling tiny details in his life would turn out into something much more than he can ever expect.

Yet he is still the all-round good guy who’s easy to love, juggling life post-divorce with a gruelling schedule and kids who are not often around enough. For Matt at least, the divorce is a big failure that has him second guessing himself and his ability to be a good husband and parent while being a professional athlete. It has also made him cynical and jaded and a little gun-shy about sharing that same kind of lifestyle with another woman whom he thinks would come to resent him for it.

There’s a ring of maturity and a kind of stuttering rhythm that mirrors real life going through Matt’s and Hailey’s story, which is probably the story’s strongest selling point. Too often, the protagonists go off wild benders (hookups, as it typically goes) in the wake of a bad breakup and turn a hundred-eighty into commitment-phobes because they can’t apparently, trust another member of the opposite sex as they’re now painted with the same broad brushstrokes that their ex-es are coloured with. In ‘Stay’, we get instead quiet doubts about failure, self-confidence and the fear of putting oneself out there once again that gives the story depth and heart. I loved above all, that Matt and Hailey aren’t characters who simply react to the heartache of divorce by sleeping around then pushing each other away but instead, struggle with their inadequacies in different ways that I can believe and respect.

Yet it’s also swoony, steamy and in parts, funny and deeply romantic. What more do I need?

five-stars

Burning Love by Trish Morey

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 12th June 2017
Burning Love by Trish MoreyBurning Love by Trish Morey
Series: Hot Aussie Knights #4
Published by Tule Publishing on June 12th 2017
Pages: 96
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two-stars

Caleb Knight’s ex accused him of being married to his firefighter job, and maybe she was right. He’s given up looking for happy ever after and finds what he needs between Ava’s scorching sheets. But lately, he’s wondering whether this thing with Ava might become more permanent…

Artist Ava Mattiske's ability to trust was shattered long ago. Her steamy fling with Caleb is perfect until he starts talking long-term. She puts on the brakes, but when a bushfire threatens her studio and Caleb is on the scene, Ava realizes that there is one man she can count on... But will it be too late?

Caleb Knight turned up in his twin brother’s book and it got me curious about how evasive he’d been with Dylan. But when Caleb finally burst onto the page, I found myself somewhat underwhelmed and maybe that was because I just couldn’t feel any particular investment in a couple that was simply making the difficult transition from temporary to permanent with several speed bumps along the way.

‘Burning Love’ is unusual in that it takes place a year into Caleb’s and Ava’s casual arrangement with the story picking up from there, alternating between their hookup sessions, Ava’s art and Caleb’s job, though it’s a cycle that rinses and repeats until something gives. As a whore to her parents’ business to the time she has reinvented herself, Ava nonetheless lets her past dictate her future because of the scars that has left on her, convinced that she wants nothing to do with anything remotely resembling affection or love. Somehow Caleb gets beneath her skin and their agreement to just burn up the sheets in bed for the past year on a casual basis is something she uses against him when he finally wants more.

Apart from some parts that had the camaraderie of the guys on show, it was personally hard for me to get into a relationship that felt lopsided and unequal, made up of pull-push dynamic from start to end as Caleb finally grows past the casual hookup stage with Ava and pushes for more, just as Ava pushes him away in denial that gets rote after a while. The later part of their relationship is one made up of more of the same, except that Caleb spends most of his time trying to reaffirm Ava and rebuilding the shattered confidence that she’d lost in her youth. He’s a top bloke undoubtedly, but for most of the story, it felt like he was the one doing all the work while waiting for Ava to come to her senses—which she did only frustratingly, after a life-threatening event. His hard work pays off, though that much made me think of him playing the role of caretaker/therapist/lover all in one for a needy woman who hides a brittle interior.

I’d hoped that the wrap-up to this interesting series could have been better for me; sadly I never could quite get into this pairing as much as I could the rest.

two-stars

The Drowned Girls by Loreth Anne White

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 11th June 2017
The Drowned Girls by Loreth Anne WhiteThe Drowned Girls by Loreth Anne White
Series: Angie Pallorino #1
Published by Montlake Romance on June 20th 2017
Pages: 524
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three-stars


He surfaced two years ago. Then he disappeared ...

But Detective Angie Pallorino never forgot the violent rapist who left a distinctive calling card—crosses etched into the flesh of his victim’s foreheads.
When a comatose Jane Doe is found in a local cemetery, sexually assaulted, mutilated, and nearly drowned, Angie is struck by the eerie similarities to her earlier unsolved rapes. Could he be back?​Then the body of a drowned young woman floats up in the Gorge, also bearing the marks of the serial rapist, and the hunt for a predator becomes a hunt for a killer. Assigned to the joint investigative task force, Angie is more than ready to prove that she has what it takes to break into the all-male homicide division. But her private life collides with her professional ambitions when she’s introduced to her temporary partner, James Maddocks—a man she’d met the night before in an intense, anonymous encounter.
Together, Angie and Maddocks agree to put that night behind them. But as their search for the killer intensifies so does their mutual desire. And Angie’s forays into the mind of a monster shake lose some unsettling secrets about her own past . . .
How can she fight for the truth when it turns out her whole life is a lie?

There’s no doubt that Loreth Anne White writes excellent police procedurals in their gritty, brutal glory. Her angst-ridden characters, worn down by the nature of their work, are jaded and cynical with nary an ounce of optimism in them and as we tend to learn at the start of the book, wrestle with their own broken lives as they keep disappointing their families before they find some kind of equilibrium by the end of it. Their behaviours tend to mirror the nature of the crimes they’re investigating, stopping short of going past the grey areas into the forbidden and while the psychology behind it all is intriguing, I always find myself coming out of every White suspense read unsure, uncertain and strangely in need of a thorough cleaning.

Irascible, combative and abrasive, Angie Pallorino is straight out, a character difficult to like or side with, unlike a typical romance heroine for whom an author tries to get the readers to have an affinity. Everything about her, like White’s protagonists, can and does rub me the wrong way especially in the manner she uses people and men. But her tenacity is also what makes her a good detective and her career is probably all she has.  Like Angie, James Maddocks is running on his own fumes, rebuilding his life in a place where he can hopefully also rebuild his relationship with his daughter. They don’t get off to the best start: a one night stand that ends in coitus interruptus followed by a hostile meeting at the work place. But Maddocks is the upstanding, strong one who’s got his head on relatively straight in contrast and I liked that steadying presence he seems to provide throughout.

There’s very little on the romance in White’s latest suspense books and this is no different. The multiple POVs and the doubts cast on each and every character does a good job of distancing you from them, bringing into focus instead, the complicated but excellent set up of the crime scenes. The search for justice and laborious police work are White’s focal points—along with the superb Hitchcockian suspense kind of writing—and her characters merely players as they try to untangle this web of brutal deaths. It’s packed with tons of details that makes it a difficult read in that sense, and heavy-going in a way gritty crime fiction can be, which naturally brings me to the question that I’ve always struggled with when it comes to romantic suspense that’s heavy on the suspense: is it possible to ‘love’ a read when it’s simply about the case (that’s fantastically set up, no doubt), even if there are characters you don’t exactly connect with or feel for?

Angie’s story however, is pretty much unfinished. ‘The Drowned Girls’ seems to end on tenterhooks, on a tipsy toast that hopes for a better tomorrow, but with the sequel in store, you just know it’s going to unravel once more, until you’re back down through the looking glass, as dislocated as the characters who themselves don’t know any better but to screw things up.

three-stars

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

Hemi by Anna Hackett

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Reviews/ Speculative Fiction/ Syfy/ Syfy Romance/ Urban Fantasy 7th June 2017
Hemi by Anna HackettHemi by Anna Hackett
Series: Hell Squad #13
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing, Anna Hackett on May 30th 2017
Pages: 115
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three-stars

In the middle of an alien invasion, a big, tough, tattooed former mercenary is finally going to chase down his woman.

Camryn McNab knows love is a lie. Okay, maybe not for everybody--her fellow soldiers on Squad Nine have managed to fall in love in the middle of a vicious alien attack. But it's not for her. She comes from two people incapable of love. For now, her life is about survival, fighting to protect others, and kicking some alien raptor butt. What she doesn't need is a certain wild, bearded, tattoo-covered soldier always underfoot, messing with her things, and driving her crazy. But no matter how hard she tries to outrun Hemi Rahia, she can't seem to shake him, and a terrified part of doesn't even want to...

A member of the Squad Three berserkers, Hemi knows his squad has a reputation for not following the rules and being a little wild. Former bikers, mercenaries, and...other less savory things, they fight hard and party harder. But Hemi has known for a while now that there is only one woman for him. One courageous, sexy, attitude-filled woman he wants to claim as his own. But he has to catch her first.

Tasked with a top-secret mission deep in alien creeper territory, Hemi and Cam will fight side-by-side to achieve their dangerous goal. Their chemistry is off the charts, but persistent Hemi wants more than Cam's body...he wants her heart and soul as well. As their battle with the aliens turns deadly, they will have to fight not only for their love, but for their very survival.

‘Hemi’ officially ushers in the Berserker squad and I’m glad we’ve come a way with this particular group of wild and rough-riding people. When they first appeared, they seemed to be a bunch of hairy things closer to grunting apes than humans who rode souped-up motorcycles that were used as mini-weapon-launching platforms to combat the aliens; which is sort of cool, but probably not quite the swashbuckling type of heroes I could envision. But Anna Hackett’s development of the squad is quite remarkable and I’ve come, over time, to see them fleshed out as individuals with even rougher and questionable pasts that are erased when the alien apocalypse happens.

Hemi Rahia’s and Camryn McNab’s story has been building for a while and make no mistake, that tension there beneath the pranks finally comes to fruition here. For every couple that Hackett focuses on, there is also a new, vile alien development that is specific to their getting together and it’s no different here. Hemi’s determination to win over Cam is as strong as her need to run away from him and this push-pull finally gives when forces bigger than them (read: disgusting alien parts that act as incubators) eventually show that couple disputes are more petty in the light of the fact that dying can happen any time. In the spirit of carpe diem, the action and the way the characters throw themselves into the fray, is fun with many shades of wild, rodeo-riding antics and good partying times.

As much as I enjoyed how fast-paced the action is, I thought that there’s also a bit more focus on Hemi/Cam’s personal drama here with several repetitive—and perhaps sweeping—lines about how men and women pretty much were into casual sex as a sign of the times, up until the point where they find the one they’re ‘meant’ for. While I did like Hemi/Cam and every little alien discovery the teams make, I think I would also have liked to see more of the big-picture, or at least some reference to a larger story arc that would show how war with the aliens is progressing and if there is an end (or some kind of HEA wrap-up for all involved), no matter how distant, in sight.

three-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
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