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The Wall of Winnipeg and Me by Mariana Zapata

Posted in Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews/ Sports 20th August 2017
The Wall of Winnipeg and Me by Mariana ZapataThe Wall of Winnipeg and Me by Mariana Zapata
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on February 28th 2016
Pages: 403
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four-stars

Vanessa Mazur knows she's doing the right thing. She shouldn't feel bad for quitting. Being an assistant/housekeeper/fairy godmother to the top defensive end in the National Football Organization was always supposed to be temporary. She has plans and none of them include washing extra-large underwear longer than necessary.

But when Aiden Graves shows up at her door wanting her to come back, she's beyond shocked.

For two years, the man known as The Wall of Winnipeg couldn't find it in him to tell her good morning or congratulate her on her birthday. Now? He's asking for the unthinkable.

What do you say to the man who is used to getting everything he wants?

I survived another Mariana Zapata book and am damned proud of it. The length of her stories are daunting, make no mistake, and to go through all near-500 pages of a wry, sometimes-neurotic, sometimes-hilarious female voice telling only her side of the story can and does take patience, though the experience isn’t necessarily a dull and colourless one. I do always think twice before embarking on a Zapata story however and length does play a significant role in this decision.

But honestly, I’m not too sure if this book could be shorter though and functioned just as well. The aloof, impersonal start of Van and Aiden and the gradual transformation of their relationship—years!—from trying-to-please PA to a begging Aiden (with a marriage of convenience thrown in after Van quits) rightly needed a slow burn and Zapata’s style of writing certainly suits this kind of plot line.

Instalove? Not in Zapata’s vocabulary. That bit is gratifying, particularly since there are too many gooseflesh-raising stories trying to sell the unbelievable with alpha, dirty-talking men falling hard inexplicably for a woman and want nothing but to ‘claim’ and ‘breed’ her.

In this case, (real) time is as always, Zapata’s solution to the answer for a relationship to turn, with gaps so painstakingly filled in, sometimes mundane, everyday scenes appear as though they’re randomly inserted that there’s no need for the byline ‘x number of years later’. That much I can appreciate, because the result is a multifaceted and real character (at least for Vanessa) that comes through the pages, though the single POV makes Aiden still somewhat of a closed-off ‘hero’ when all I can extrapolate of his brick-ish, stony personality is what Vanessa and other secondary characters say of him. Aiden/Van’s HEA is as well, unequivocally ironclad and that’s also a kudos to Zapata’s careful development of their relationship.

I’m not exactly an apologist for the excruciatingly long, slow burn, despite my defence of the justifiable length of ’The Wall of Winnipeg and Me’. I found myself absorbed for most part without my interest really slipping and for most part, it was so easy to like the characters in this book that it certainly wasn’t a pain to go on and on before the bed finally called to me.

It isn’t to say I wouldn’t take a deep breath before plunging into another Zapata book, because I will. I still look at the books by her that I’ve not yet read (there’s just one more that I want to tackle) and I still think that I don’t have the courage yet to take it on. But having just been brought on a satisfying journey with Van and Aiden, that day might be sooner rather than later.

four-stars

Turned Up by Erin Nicholas

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 16th August 2017
Turned Up by Erin NicholasTurned Up by Erin Nicholas
Series: Taking Chances #3
Published by Montlake Romance on August 29th 2017
Pages: 252
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three-stars

Dillon Alexander has been Kit Derby’s nemesis since third grade, when he beat her in the school spelling bee. They’ve been competing ever since, driving each other to be the best at everything from science fairs to bake sales. While working together one night during their senior year, they stopped bickering long enough to share an emotionally charged kiss. But a tragedy that same night left them both racked with guilt, driving Dillon out of town and leaving Kit determined to keep her distance.

Now an emergency room physician, Dillon has returned to their hometown of Chance, Nebraska. Soon he and Kit fall back into old habits, sparring in public while trying to stay out of each other’s arms. But when a blizzard traps them overnight at Kit’s grandmother’s farmhouse, the real competition begins: Who will be the first to give in to the feelings they’ve denied for a decade?

Erin Nicholas’s ‘Turned up’ is generally an easy, light read and while I hadn’t been invested in small town Chance for a long while, Kit’s and Dillon’s supposed enemies-to-lovers trope brought me back instantly to that simmering sexual tension that had to snap sometime.

Only that I didn’t quite know what to feel about their complicated history that started in high school which Nicholas outlined, seeing as I was expected (and perhaps hoping for) more of a straight-up competitive ‘hate’ to love sort of relationship because those seem…hotter somehow. Yet, what it takes for them to move past the will-they-won’t-they stage is apparently some kind of disaster or a snowstorm, where dating, rather than occasional pent-up sex over the months and years will become the new norm.

But as most stories go, past the initial honeymoon stage, there’re always obstacles to flatten, some of which become the biggest thorn in the flesh that eventually lead to the pairing’s HEA. The format here isn’t too different, only that I felt emotional mountains were made of molehills that could have easily been solved by talking and some strategic and intelligent positioning so that Kit/Dillon wouldn’t have to listen to what everyone in a small town and what they had to say about their relationship.

I didn’t like how Kit gave credence to how the mayor’s wife tried to dictate the way Dillon’s and her relationship should go and that she did irked me, because it really looked as though they were getting into a whole new rhythm of their own before she starting doubting everything they had. Seriously? Worse yet, she’d started to believe that she could only be the best when Dillon was there to compete with her and push her to be better and that this eventually became the conflict in the climax seemed, well, annoyingly petty. Kit’s way of running to deal with feelings got tiring (and in some way, TSTL) as well, when her inability to face up to how relationships DO change people felt like an identity crisis that only teenagers rather than professionals should be worrying about. Thankfully though, that was brief enough, though sufficiently lengthy enough to trigger the personal peeve of mine when couples get together deliriously happy before someone suddenly shifts and turns tail because of an external influence and acts completely out of their depth.

And I’m going to say right here, that this is probably splitting hairs because of my admittedly short fuse when it comes to stupid behaviour. Yet that was the only downer—with enough push-pull that just didn’t convince me at all—that would have otherwise made this a very, very good read.

three-stars

Too Beautiful to Break by Tessa Bailey

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 15th August 2017
Too Beautiful to Break by Tessa BaileyToo Beautiful to Break by Tessa Bailey
Series: Romancing the Clarksons #4
Published by Forever on September 26th 2017
Pages: 320
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three-stars

A love of a lifetime . . .

Leaving Belmont Clarkson is the hardest thing Sage Alexander has ever done. From the moment they met, she knew Belmont was the one, and getting up close and personal with him on his family's epic road trip has taken her desire to a new, even hotter level. But there's no way she can go there---not without revealing secrets that could devastate them both.

Losing Sage is not an option. Belmont's heart is hers, has always been hers. He knows she's hiding something from him, but nothing will stand in his way of telling her just how much she means to him. Finding her is easy---saving her from her past could cost him everything.

‘Too Beautiful to Break’ closes out the Clarksons series where a road trip from the west to the east coast (that’s supposed to end in a dip in the cold, cold waters of the Atlantic) based on a mother’s journal heals rifts between siblings and gets them their own love of their lives as well. Each book chronicles each Clarkson sibling’s story and I have to say, it has been a ride as Tessa Bailey picks on the oddest of triggers for each of them to use as the very catalyst to lead them to their HEAs.

Bailey has left Belmont’s and Sage’s for last, and it’s their strange interdependency rather than any sexual tension throughout the trip that finally causes Sage to up and leave Belmont who needs her to calm the demons in his head.

That’s where the story begins—with so many conflicting and contradictory emotions that Sage broadcasted which frankly, confused me. Much of Sage’s bluster about needing to push Belmont away felt like the lady doth protested too much when she realised she had been using him as much as he has been using her instead. I didn’t like her wishy-washy sense of pushing-pulling away from Belmont and that he’d needed to chase her up the mountains and down the valleys just to get her to understand that he saw her as a woman (rather than someone he needed to lean on) didn’t sit too well with me when it was evident from the start that their relationship was really about support. In other words, they were using each other as crutches because they needed to lean on each other when it was bad. Yet I couldn’t quite see what exactly was so wrong with that, because that was what partly defined a relationship as well: people needing each other in so many ways, only that their need hadn’t yet turned sexual.

Only a writer of Bailey’s calibre can sharply highlight emotions and get deeply into her characters’ heads—this much I’ll always associate with Bailey’s books and exposition about her paragraphs of her characters’ state of mind. Yet here, Bailey tries to make a distinction between need and neediness that I basically couldn’t agree with—it was unconvincingly superfluous and one that split hairs—and in doing so, has her protagonists running emotional rings around each other because they find themselves unable to go to each other for comfort with the ‘wrong’ kind of motivation.

I could understand Sage’s and Belmont’s need to fight their own demons, only that I didn’t think at all that they should have insisting on doing it alone. For Sage, it was her impoverished roots with parents who only leaned on each other and forgot about her; for Belmont it was a traumatic childhood incident that he hadn’t managed to shake off at all. In any case, there’s a small town type feel in Louisiana that’s claustrophobic and stifling, with a villain that somehow manages to ensnare both Sage and Belmont when he finally comes to her rescue and tries to take on her burdens. I only wished that Sage fought harder for Belmont as he did for her.

In ‘Too Beautiful to Break’, it all ends blissfully happy for everyone, especially for readers who want to see how other characters get on after the end of their own books. The Polar Plunge cements the Clarksons’ siblings bond and with the retro-tint of movies past, the layers of all the stories in this series come together when everyone has their HEA by the time they shake the cold water off themselves.

three-stars

Under Locke by Mariana Zapata

Posted in Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews 14th August 2017
Under Locke by Mariana ZapataUnder Locke by Mariana Zapata
Published by Mariana Zapata on June 24th 2014
Pages: 496
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one-star

He was my boss, my brother's friend, a Widow, an ex-felon, and a man I'd seen casually with a handful of women. But he was everything that gripped me, both the good and the bad. Worst case scenario if things turned awkward between us, I could go somewhere else. I'd gotten over epic heartbreak before, one more wouldn't kill me. -- After moving to Austin following six months of unemployment back home, Iris Taylor knows she should be glad to have landed a job so quickly... even if the business is owned by a member of the same motorcycle club her estranged father used to belong to. Except Dex Locke might just be the biggest jerk she's ever met. He's rude, impatient and doesn't know how to tell time. And the last thing they ever expected was each other. But it was either the strip club or the tattoo shop. ... she should have chosen the strip club. -- "Babe, I've handpicked everythin' and everyone in here. I know what I want and I get what I want," he breathed. "And I keep what's mine."

Lordy, I had a tough time with this one.

I think it takes a special sort of day and strength to read Mariana Zapata’s intimidatingly long books. They go on so long on a slow burn that you feel torn between tossing it and wanting to just finish it for the perverse pleasure of saying you’ve triumphed over the convoluted plot which could definitely have benefitted from about a hundred fewer pages of inner monologues. I’d managed ‘Kulti’ and ‘Dear Aaron’ without too much trouble, but ‘Under Locke’ proved a huge challenge to say the least.

My biggest problem nonetheless, was my inability to like both protagonists consistently throughout the book. Frankly, I was so put off by Zapata’s characters that I still ask myself why I tried to finish the story as it became apparent that my struggle began about halfway through when the problems with the MCs turf war, Iris’s deadbeat father and her supposedly one-sided love for her dominating, unreasonable bastard of a boss started to dovetail.

Zapata typically only writes in the female POV, so that pretty much shunts what every male lead of hers is thinking. You’ll need to infer from what everyone else in the book says about the hero in question and what you think you might be able to glean from the unreliable narrating of the female lead. Which isn’t to say Zapata’s female protagonists aren’t likeable though; they are mostly very relatable, sometimes wryly funny and I definitely can see shades of the everyday (wo)man in these leads.

Yet I mostly vacillated between sympathising for Iris’s honest, stuttering, down-to-earth blabber and hating her spineless, rollover behaviour, while pretty much despising Dex for being everything I hate in a male protagonist…who, despite being a mega-prick, actually amazed me when he got the woman he insulted crudely and for generally existing as an all-round possessive chauvinist pig. Throw in the manwhore and virgin extremes here and that just derailed the reading experience for me.

I had to call it in, which is a pity because I do like Zapata’s writing style. But ‘Under Locke’ just wasn’t the book for me—particularly so when I felt relief to put the story behind me.

one-star

Twisted Twosome by Meghan Quinn

Posted in Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews 6th August 2017
Twisted Twosome by Meghan QuinnTwisted Twosome by Meghan Quinn
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on July 16th 2017
Pages: 251
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three-stars

Racer McKay is a broody bastard. From the moment I met him, he's been rude, irritable, and unbearable. And worse? He's broke. A contractor working to remodel my parents pool house for extra cash, he stomps around in those clunky construction boots with his tool belt wrapped around his narrow waist, and a chip on his shoulder. Racer McKay is also infuriatingly . . . sexy as hell. I want to take that pencil tucked behind his ear, and draw lazy lines slowly up and down his body all the while wanting to strangle him at the same time. We try to stay out of each other's way . . . that is until I have no other option but to ask for his help. But what I don't realize is he needs me just as much as I need him. I have money he's desperate for, and he holds the key to making my dreams come true. Our pranks turn from sarcastic banter, to sexual tension and lust-filled glances. Bickering matches quickly morph into slow burn moments. We're hot, we're cold. We push and pull. I need him, I don't want him. We're on the verge of combusting with an agreement dangling dangerously between us. Neither one of us can afford to lose one another and yet, we're finding it quite hard to decipher the line that rests between love and hate.

Sometimes a character surprises you in the best way, particularly when it’s a secondary character from another book that couldn’t be taken seriously at all. Racer was such a character in Meghan Quinn’s first book and I didn’t quite know what to make of him. In fact, I barely gave him a thought at all until ‘Twisted Twosome’ came out and then my reading world got squeezed through the rabbit hole of this rather complicated man.

But Racer is, no doubt about it, the shining star of the story, because he’s so much more than the front he shows, and damn if that front is hilariously obnoxious, unapologetically arrogant and deliberately crude. I had the laugh of my life especially when he pitted himself against Georgiana until their love-hate, antagonistic relationship turned into something else entirely as the jibes grew less mean and increasing like foreplay.

Admittedly, it did get a bit much sometimes, but overall, I liked what Racer represented and how real he was as a character was underneath the insults, pranks and the fuck-all, mega man-child front. Quinn does writes his grief—and all the desperate financial struggles especially after losing the closest person he’d ever been to—in such a tangible way that I couldn’t help but wish for something better for him as he lurches from a project to another just to get by.

Racer and Georgiana do sort of make a believable pair, but it’s one that is solidified by constant arguing and banter—if that’s what could be considered the cornerstone of a relationship, because along with the taunts, so does the sexual tension mount along with them. Yet I was still caught by surprise when they fell into bed, because I didn’t think they liked each other enough for it. That part happened somewhat suddenly, though the conflict between their ‘social class’ was something I could sniff out a mile away. And as a little too neatly wrapped up as the end was, Quinn did have me rooting for them after all, because I was mostly invested in the both of them from the start.

three-stars

Disorderly Conduct by Tessa Bailey

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Edelweiss/ New Adult/ Reviews 2nd August 2017
Disorderly Conduct by Tessa BaileyDisorderly Conduct by Tessa Bailey
Series: The Academy #1
Published by Avon on August 29th 2017
Pages: 384
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three-stars

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone…

Police academy cadet Charlie Burns can’t believe his luck when the gorgeous blonde he meets in a bar murmurs those magic words: “Nothing serious, ’kay?” Mind-blowing, no-strings sex with Ever Carmichael—it’s the holy grail of hookups for a guy who’s too busy following in his law enforcement family’s footsteps to think about getting serious. Charlie’s all about casual…that is, until Ever calls it quits and his world tilts on its axis.

Ever knows that when you control the relationship game, you can’t get played. But for the first time, she wants more than short-term satisfaction. Step one: end her fling with commitment-phobic Charlie. Step two: sacrifice herself to the ruthless NYC dating scene. Yet everywhere she turns, there’s Charlie, being his ridiculously charming self. No online match or blind date compares to the criminally hot cop-in-training, but they’re over. Aren’t they?

If love is a four-letter-word, why does the idea of Ever seeing someone else tie Charlie up in knots?  Now he’s desperate to win her back…and a little date sabotage never hurt anyone, right?

The bad? The ridiculous, cheesy cover. Also, the ridiculous name that is Ever Carmichael.

Everything else however, was pretty good, particularly since I found myself quite entertained for a sustained period of time. In a nutshell: woman stops a no-strings fling in order to get into a serious relationship. Unhappy and offended guy who has been booted out of this fling abruptly sabotages every effort of hers to do so, having been classified as the kind who wouldn’t commit.

Charlie’s panic about losing Ever as a friend-with-benefits is amusing precisely because he’s in love without having put a name to it yet. The ways in which he sabotaged her efforts to get into serious dating were funny and to a lesser extent, the sheer anxiety he’d had about finding every excuse in the book to throw at her about being friends. Operating on irony and what the readers know that the characters don’t, Tessa Bailey also gives it a twist by throwing the spotlight as well on Charlie’s own abandonment issues—he’s been screwed over by his own mother as much as Ever had—and the plot is as much about him as it is about Ever’s willingness to do what it takes to please her mum.

In most romances that I’ve come across, sex is never the problem for the couple in question anyway; it’s only what comes before and/or after that matters to me more because it shows the characters for who they really are and how well an author can pull together plot strings and character minus writing an nth variation of slotting pointy object A into soft opening B. Bailey’s sex scenes are a bit too over-the-top and porn-ish for me—it’s amazing how characters manage to speak and think in long sentences in the midst of a passionate tumble—but apart from this, I still liked her writing much better here. It’s more lighthearted, and pitched well as a rom-com with a (thankfully) less ball-busting, steamrolling alpha male who can apparently give their heroines a season ticket’s worth of rides on his orgasm train.

There is some (unnecessary) angst of the New Adult flavour, one might say, and the story could have been cut short had Ever/Charlie honestly communicated what really needed to be said.

But where would the drama be otherwise? Or the crazy antics you’d never catch an ‘adult’ doing? Along with the cringeworthy 80s-style cheesy grovelling, Bailey infuses into every page that sense of optimism and the nervous feeling of crossroads that most people in their twenties have and truth be told, I had a ball of a time reliving it.

three-stars

Benediction by Kelly Moran

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Reviews 27th July 2017
Benediction by Kelly MoranBenediction by Kelly Moran
Series: Cattenach Ranch #2
Published by Smashwords on August 8th 2017
Pages: 250
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four-stars

As a child, Nakos Hunt left behind the familiarity of his Native American Arapaho tribe for time on Cattenach Ranch. Now the foreman, he's happily settled into his life, but the girl who befriended him all those years ago suddenly has him twisted inside out. He craves stability and purpose, and Amy Woods is anything but a calming presence. Though she's unbelievably gorgeous and about the only person who can drag a laugh from him, he's never been able to understand her. Then a moment changes everything, and an urgent need to protect her rises inside him. And doesn't let go. So does an aching desire and a bond he can't seem to control, no matter how hard he fights the need.

She's no one's version of ever-after...

Amy's not a stranger to disappointment. She's spent the majority of her life pulling up her bootstraps and flipping Karma the bird. Once, she may have dreamed of things like happiness and love, but those were for other people. Nakos has never been someone she deserves, yet the attraction between her and the meticulous sexy-as-sin cowboy is undeniable. And too tempting to ignore. Not only is he strong, patient, and respectful, he's showing her a kind of romantic passion she didn't think existed. But the secret she's keeping could shatter their perfect bubble, and when an old nightmare comes crawling back from the past, she realizes losing Nakos will be the one thing she can't recover from.

From the beginning, I knew I wanted Nakos Hunt’s story ever since he burst onto the scene at Cattenach Ranch. He was for me, the guy who got short-changed, who had unrequited feelings that weren’t returned the way he needed them to be, and the one who got left behind. I did feel more than a little sorry for him when it appeared that he would be a rare breed of a protagonist—sensitive, intuitive and perceptive.

Yet I wanted to see how he got over the woman he had a thing for (apparently, for years) and how his feelings managed to flip at the turn of a coin when he sees his other childhood friend finally getting out of an abusive marriage. Nakos’s love for Olivia and his developing feelings for Amy Woods when he’d never quite looked that particular way at her before would have otherwise made me uncomfortable, had Moran not so articulately explained his acceptance of the fact that he and Olivia would never happen and the way he had to reexamine what Amy did for him.

The friends-to-lovers trope is a tricky one which isn’t always handled satisfactorily, but I do think that Kelly Moran makes a credible case that a person can fall in love with several people and not compromise the depth of their feelings for any person. I didn’t exactly buy into the idea that he hadn’t actually loved Olivia enough all along—the first book seemed to show otherwise—though that this story seemed to be trying very hard to justify how he’d always seen Amy differently. I was frankly, alright with how his own sentiments had changed and how unflagging and stalwart he became once he got it in his head that he and Amy were going to be a couple.

Alpha Nakos, when he actually came out to play, didn’t hurt either and that went a long way in transforming my idea of that guy down in the dumps because he didn’t go after what he wanted in the first book.

I had a harder time with Amy, but that’s just me here with my preferences for somewhat ’stronger’ heroines: she’s a victim in every sense of the word, who has perpetrated her own misery, caught in a cycle that she can’t crawl out of because she has never thought better of herself. Most of the book has her unable to face her deep-seated issues and while I would have liked her to be a bit more courageous when it came to Nakos, I could understand where her self-esteem problems stemmed from.

Moran has such a way with words that can slay, tear down and build up. ‘Benediction’ is an emotional ride throughout; there’s this aching slow-burn and the delicious build-up that finally burst with spectacular sparks, but the HEA that was initially denied Nakos in the first book clinched it for me.

four-stars
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