Category: (Sub)Genre

The Good Guy by Celia Aaron

The Good Guy by Celia AaronThe Bad Guy by Celia Aaron
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on 21st May 2017
Pages: 414
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two-stars

My name is Sebastian Lindstrom, and I’m the villain of this story. I’ve decided to lay myself bare. To tell the truth for once in my hollow life, no matter how dark it gets. And I can assure you, it will get so dark that you’ll find yourself feeling around the blackened corners of my mind, seeking a door handle that isn’t there. Don’t mistake this for a confession. I neither seek forgiveness nor would I accept it. My sins are my own. They keep me company. Instead, this is the true tale of how I found her, how I stole her, and how I lost her. She was a damsel, one who already had her white knight. But every fairy tale has a villain, someone waiting in the wings to rip it all down. A scoundrel who will set the world on fire if that means he gets what he wants. That’s me. I’m the bad guy.

Going into ‘The Good Guy’ was my own choice and doing of course; knowing that this was a ‘dark romance’ which clearly didn’t involve traditional ideas of love but rather of obsession and the funny way emotions (or lack thereof) work is entirely on me.

And I wasn’t surprised to find that this wasn’t quite my cup of tea at all, even though Celia Aaron does a pretty good job in portraying a Sebastian who wavered between childish bewilderment and cold, un-empathetic psychopath and the rather thorough unravelling of how he reacted to the world around him.

There were parts that I thought absolutely ridiculous – notions that went against my own ideas of love and need at least -, more so when I couldn’t quite imagine someone like Camille reacting to Sebastian the way she did after a while. Yet Aaron’s contrast between Sebastian and Link, if it was just to show the former in a better light or to show the different sides of villainy didn’t quite convince me either, because it merely felt like a trapped choice between bad (unfeeling psycho) and worse (sleazy cheating bastard) rather than opt for who might be the good, or in this case, the better guy.

But that admittedly, might be my own (possibly limited) understanding of normal’ relationships speaking when there are clearly other shades of grey that I can’t personally attest to.

That I found myself only softening towards Sebastian after he approached something remotely resembling normalcy – the kind of love he admits he has when it comes to Camille – probably shows that I’m still better off staying within the more conventional boundaries of what I personally define as romance.

two-stars

It Takes Two by Jenny Holiday

It Takes Two by Jenny HolidayIt Takes Two by Jenny Holiday
Series: Bridesmaids Behaving Badly #2
Published by Forever on 26th June 2018
Pages: 384
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three-stars

All’s fair in love and warWendy Liu should be delighted to be her best friend’s maid of honor. But after years spent avoiding the bride’s brother – a.k.a the boy who once broke her heart – she’s now trapped with him during an endless amount of wedding festivities. Luckily she’s had time to perfect her poker face, and engaging Noah Denning in a little friendly competition might just prove that she’s over him for good…

Noah Denning is determined to make his little sister’s wedding memorable. But it seems Wendy is trying to outdo him at every turn. Challenging each other was always something he and Wendy did right, so when she proposes they compete to see who can throw the best bachelor or bachelorette party in Sin City, Noah takes the bait – and ups the stakes. Because this time around, he wants Wendy for keeps. And when you’re fighting for love, all bets are off.

This series, as the name suggests, is built around weddings, bridezillas and how each pairing is cemented in this heightened time of blustery emotions spiking high and low…along with random crying spurts. Jenny Holiday’s ‘One and Only’ set the precedent. ‘It Takes Two’ continues it in a different way, and had me on tenterhooks for a while. Well, most second-chance romances do actually, because I’m always looking for a satisfactory explanation of the pairing’s history before I can believe in the way it all comes together in the present.

A ruined teenage crush that had been elemental in some ways and a man who’s nothing but oblivious to what he’d done—his mind was simply on responsibility and not much else—do after all, make for interesting reading. In this case, the best friend’s brother returns home and Wendy’s constant avoidance of Noah Denning—through the years—is no longer possible. That childhood, familial bond has since devolved into uneasy tension, layered over by sniping and oneupmanship that happens during a wedding that neither can avoid.

Wendy’s history with Noah is thankfully, not made out to be a something that she hasn’t ever gotten over, but rather, a hurtful and never-forgotten experience cementing a personality that solidified in the many years after Noah left. And because Holiday hasn’t made this momentous event akin to the most epic heartbreak of Wendy’s life, this is fertile ground for a so-called second-chance that I think I can get on board with. Still, blaming Noah for the entire change in her adult outlook on dating however, seems extreme, seeing as Wendy’s combative stance stemming from her (somewhat unfairly) padded memory of prom night when she’d deliberately remembered him as someone he isn’t.

The amount of self-reflection that Holiday writes into the story and the tightly-controlled amount of angst, I think, make this better than the average rom-com for me. There are odd bits though, that threw me off: the flashbacks that aren’t demarcated but pop into a scene unannounced, the somewhat awkward dance between Wendy and Noah that hops from taunting to a huge step into bed. But to the even more awkward and unbelievable realisation that the thing between them had always been love despite 17 years of separation and nothing but big-brother-type protection before? Gobsmacked doesn’t quite cover it.

In all, there were parts I liked and parts that caught me frowning. I would have preferred a more iron-clad HEA in a conclusion that seems more like a HFN here; this is, like the previous book, an abrupt one that leaves the couple standing at a precipice of change just as the credits start to roll.

three-stars

Manu by Anna Hackett

Manu by Anna HackettManu Series: Hell Squad #16
Published by Anna Hackett on May 6th 2018
Pages: 138
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four-stars

As the battle against the invading aliens intensifies, a group of bad boy bikers and mercenaries will stand and fight for humanity’s survival…

When former berserker Manu Rahia lost his leg on a mission, he was forced to leave his squad. He knows his new role as head of the Enclave’s firing range and armory is important, but hates that he isn’t still out there fighting face to face against the aliens and protecting his brothers’ backs. But then one woman catches his eye. A no-nonsense woman dedicated to her job as head of security. A woman who seems cool on the surface, but who Manu is convinced is hiding more under her business-like exterior.

Captain Kate Scott dedicated her life to her career in the Army. Now she works hard taking care of security for the Enclave and its residents. She learned a long time ago that she isn’t a passionate woman, and that she’s better off sticking to her work. But seeing one big, bronze-skinned, muscled man at the range every day has her hormones going into overdrive. She’s never felt like this and she’s determined to get herself under control.

But when the aliens launch a viscous new attack, right on the Enclave’s doorstep, Kate and Manu must join forces to stop the raptors before more people get hurt. Kate will fight fiercely to protect her team and the base, as well as her heart. But Manu Rahia is a man who knows what he wants, will walk through fire to get it, and what he wants is Kate.

Hell Squad’s into its 16th installment and going strong as Anna Hackett makes her way through the squads defending earth that has gone under in an alien apocalypse.

Here, Hackett pairs the eldest of the Rahia brothers—these brothers have been making way too many waves even when they’re secondary characters in the rest of the books—with a no-nonsense former Army captain and it’s a romance that’s unusual in several aspects: an older hero/heroine, with the former whom I’d never thought would actually get his own book.

Apart from the quick attraction between Manu and Kate and their even quicker slide into instalove, I did like ‘Manu’ for the return to this particular world of the Gizzida and the continuing fight against them, as Hackett invents newer and newer threats which are barely countered by the end of the book. The numerous action scenes are engaging (mind-boggling even, considering the length of the novella), the sex scenes scorching and the HEA that happens at the end just reaffirms that there’s more to come, just not so soon, sadly.

four-stars

Breaking Gravity by Autumn Grey

Breaking Gravity by Autumn GreyBreaking Gravity by Autumn Grey
Series: Fall Back, #2
Published by AG, Autumn Grey on 26th March 2017
Pages: 326
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five-stars

I've always followed my dreams with ruthless determination. My life was going well. Success was at my fingertips. Until it wasn't. All it took was three seconds to send my world crashing down around me, ripping my dreams to shreds. Then I meet her, with her large hazel eyes that slay me at first glance. And everything starts to make sense again. I try to keep my distance. To remind myself I am her mentor. That we can't be more, but every time I push away, I'm pulled deeper into her. The line between student and teacher is blurring. One kiss. One taste. They’re all it would take to cross the line.

Just like that, I ‘ship them.

The deliciously forbidden teacher-student romance is a favourite of mine but I have to say there’s none so well executed and so well crafted as ‘Breaking Gravity’, which was brilliantly enthralling from the very start. That it involved musicians and music was something else I adored.

Pitting the steely-eyed, tortured (but swoonworthy) hero against a sassy but sensible heroine isn’t something unique, but Autumn Grey’s take on Nathaniel Rowe and Elon Blake won me over hook, line and sinker. In fact, Grey writes a convincing pairing in Nate and Elon, first drawing out the tragedy in their lives, taking so much time to shape each protagonist’s shattered dreams and hopes before building them up again, both individually and together…just as I loved them that way, individually and together.

In fact, there was so much that I loved about this book and this couple: the build of the electric, sexual tension, the hot and heavy attraction, the fierce loyalty between them, the lessons both taught each other, and the scorching, steamy scenes followed by the tender aftermath that helps gives this relationship a deeply romantic sheen.

There’s the prerequisite drama and angst that seem to accompany most N/A books, several small bits of moral philosophising about life and such (my only, tiny complaint is that it comes across trite at times), but the small element of serendipity that adds a touch of dreaminess to the pairing—Elon’s childhood music crush turned out to be her tutor and finally, the man in her life is a fantasy come to life—is the clincher for me.

five-stars

One Small Thing by Erin Watt

One Small Thing by Erin WattOne Small Thing by Erin Watt
Published by Harlequin Teen on 26th June 2018
Pages: 384
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three-stars

Beth’s life hasn’t been the same since her sister died. Her parents try to lock her down, believing they can keep her safe by monitoring her every move. When Beth sneaks out to a party one night and meets the new guy in town, Chase, she’s thrilled to make a secret friend. It seems a small thing, just for her.

Only Beth doesn’t know how big her secret really is…

Fresh out of juvie and determined to start his life over, Chase has demons to face and much to atone for, including his part in the night Beth’s sister died. Beth, who has more reason than anyone to despise him, is willing to give him a second chance. A forbidden romance is the last thing either of them planned for senior year, but the more time they spend together, the deeper their feelings get.

Now Beth has a choice to make—follow the rules, or risk tearing everything apart…again.

In some ways, going back to NA/YA can be frustrating no matter the author, only because it’s hard to step back into a teen’s POV when your older self wants nothing but to smack these characters…though not before wondering if your younger self were ever this way. Teenage angst galore is what ‘One Small Thing’ opens with—an act of rebellion that turns into a hookup (the start of a familiar downward spiral) that in turn reveals a whole slew of ugly emotions and self-destructive behaviour with generous helpings of hate, guilt, misery and selfishness.

We’re thrown in the deep end from the start, only because Erin Watt doesn’t shy away from wading into the aftermath of a death that happened 3 years ago…and how people the closest to this tragedy deal with it. Elizabeth Jones, who’s smack in the centre of the hurricane is a difficult one to like, for this reason. Hemmed in by her parents, her subsequent lashing out is understandable but still cringeworthy, since it’s admittedly hard to read about a protagonist who doesn’t know her own mind for a large part of the book, who wavers in doing what she clearly knows she should do and whose self-absorption and naïveté make it hard to be sympathetic to her plight.

But character growth has always been imperative in such books, and Watt certainly offers a ton of it, if you can get past the melodrama that tends to accompany the usual dose of teenage angst. In contrast to the negativity that permeates so much of the book, at some point in time, forgiveness and redemption need to come into the picture and they do, as the lessons are learned from the most unexpected source.

Objectively speaking, the characterisation is well done, even if the story ends on a note that can’t really be classified as a HEA or a HFN. The teens act exactly how I expected them to, amplified with the kind of existential angst they face along with their identity crisis and there’s always the sense of a fresh new start (though somewhat abruptly done in the conclusion) and nothing but a blank slate down the road. Watt’s storytelling is compelling nonetheless, though I wasn’t as moved by this as much as I thought I would be.

three-stars

Imperial Stout by Layla Reyne

Imperial Stout by Layla ReyneImperial Stout by Layla Reyne
Series: Trouble Brewing #1
Published by Carina Press on 23rd July 2018
Pages: 268
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two-stars

It’s a good thing assistant US attorney Dominic Price co-owns a brewery. He could use a cold one. Nic’s star witness has just been kidnapped, his joint operation with the FBI is in jeopardy, his father’s shady past is catching up with him and the hot new special agent in San Francisco is the kind of distraction best handled with a stiff drink.

Kidnap and rescue expert Cameron Byrne has his own ideas about how to handle Nic, but his skills are currently needed elsewhere. The by-the-book FBI agent goes deep undercover as a member of an infamous heist crew in order to save Nic’s witness, break up the crew and close the case before anyone else gets hurt. Nic in particular.

Things heat up when Cam falls for Nic, and the witness falls for Cam. As the crew’s suspicions grow, Cam must decide how far he’s willing to go—and how far into his own dark past he’s willing to dive—to get everyone out alive.

‘Imperial Stout’ is me stepping out of my comfort zone when it comes to M/M fiction, though Layla Reyne isn’t a new author to me. Written in a fairly different style from what I’m used to, and not having read Reyne’s ‘Agents Irish and Whiskey’ series, this is me coming in as a newbie. So with a very busy first chapter that included not only an action scene but a load of history between the protagonists which sort of involved also a best friend’s partner and ex-flame, I was a little lost, though duly warned about the kind of romance this path would take.

Still, I found it hard to engage with this one with the convoluted way the plot was initially presented, not like the way I was engaged in Reyne’s ‘Changing Lanes’ series, with my attention constantly pulled between the intrigue, the brewery, the huge number of characters mentioned or dropping in and the romance that was supposedly building. The pairing—between a US Attorney and a kidnap and rescue specialist with the FBI—, while intriguing, seemed to fade behind the never-ceasing activity that kept going on and I never quite lost the feeling of trying to play catch up having walked straight into a tv-series mid-season just as the action was heating up.

‘Imperial Stout’ is safe to say, probably more a book for Reyne’s stalwart followers of her previous series who want to continue into this spin-off in this particular world of whiskey, agents and lawyers. That said, while I still do like Reyne’s writing, I’m going to take a pass on this book and the series. I did try to get into Nic/Cam as much as possible, skimming the pages just to see how things finally fell into place for them, but ultimately, I just didn’t feel as though I made any headway into them at all. And without the base appeal of the main pairing in this romance, I couldn’t quite see the point going on.

two-stars

Aiden by Melanie Moreland

Aiden by Melanie MorelandAiden by Melanie Moreland
Series: Vested Interest, #2
Published by Moreland Books Inc on 7th May 2018
Pages: 237
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two-half-stars

Three young men meet in university and form a lifelong friendship.

Their pasts dictate the men they are, but their present shapes their future. What happens when these men meet the one person they are destined to be with? Can they fight their feelings and walk away? Or will they each succumb and learn the sweet agony of love?

Aiden

Haunted by memories of his past, Aiden plays the part of the happy-go-lucky friend. Always ready with a teasing smile or a joke, he is good at hiding his pain. Using his impressive physique as a shield, he keeps his past buried beneath his rugged exterior. Except, one woman sees through his façade. Her green eyes see too much, even as her body tempts him. Even as his heart yearns for her. Cami is determined to make him realize that he is worthy of being loved. He pushes her away at every turn, yet finds himself unable to keep her at arm’s length. Who will win this battle of love?

Melanie Moreland is a new author to me but the premise of the series did sound promising: 3 friends, a booming business and 3 women in their circle as they eventually pair up in 3 successive books.

Aiden Callaghan’s hiding deep pain—what exactly we don’t really know till much later, except that it’s so painful he won’t talk about it, gets rude and shuts people down when the slightest thing said reminds him of it. It’s hidden behind jokes and banter, but the guy’s got issues. Cami knows it, but wants to change his mind, wants him to think that her love would change them, or that their sex-only, hush-hush arrangement would shift once he gets deeper into it.

The surprise of surprises? He doesn’t.

It’s hard reading about a Hr who just ’took it’ and didn’t call out the H for behaviour I wouldn’t even accept from my friends, let alone from a lover who should have shown at the very least, some kind of decency in facing what he’d done. Instead, Aiden’s hot-cold behaviour gave me whiplash to the extent where I knew therapy and not Cami, would have done him more justice. But Cami behaved exactly like a kicked puppy, or a glutton for punishment and I alternated between admiring her for her big-hearted persistence and feeling appalled with her for being an easy and nice pushover.

The storytelling surprised me as well; the voices felt a little ‘off’ for what I expected to be a partial corporate romance but instead every chapter felt like a recounting of the day-to-day activities of the various characters that didn’t quite lead anywhere, except for the stalker problem Cami starting having. Which of course, proved to be the turning point where Aiden suddenly realised his foolishness and made the 180-degree flip about his opinions regarding Cami.

‘Aiden’ proved to be quite a frustrating mental exercise, akin to watching hits and misses or an oncoming train wreck. I’m cautiously awaiting ‘Maddox’, but not if it’s anything like this one.

two-half-stars