Category: Contemporary Romance

Cyclone by Jamie Crouch

Cyclone by Jamie CrouchCyclone by Janie Crouch
Series: Linear Tactical #1
Published by Calamity Jane Publishing on September 25th 2018
Pages: 280
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four-stars

The past haunts her. . .

Doctor Anne Nichols is only back in Oak Creek, Wyoming because she has no other options. She left years ago, broken and bleeding, without anyone really noticing. So she’s not surprised nobody here recognizes her as the stuttering, socially awkward girl she used to be.

Except Zac Mackay. The very reason she ran in the first place.

The present hunts her. . .

Zac’s years in special forces taught him the skills to stay alive in the most dangerous of circumstances. Now he has dedicated his life and built a company—Linear Tactical—to teach those same survival skills to others, so they don’t have to live in fear.

Then why is Annie, the last person he’d ever want to hurt, afraid of him?

Zac’s determined to wipe the fear from the eyes of the woman who has never been far from his mind. And fix the mistakes—his mistakes—that put that look there in the first place. But Zac's not the only one who's set his sights on Annie. Survival skills become much more than lessons when a predator starts prowling the streets of Oak Creek . . . and puts Anne in his crosshairs.

Reading ‘Cyclone’, or rather, getting into the first book of Linear Tactical, is strangely akin to seeing Janie Crouch freed of her writing restraints, and there’s no blunter way of putting it especially when it showcases the writing in fine form. ‘Cyclone’ is a full-length, more colourful, more explicit (hooray) story and simply a lot more compelling than the ‘tamer’ novellas Crouch has done for the Harlequin Intrigue/Suspense imprint in contrast, and begins with a huge misunderstanding and a painful event that neither of the main protagonists have quite gotten over.

Justifiably skittish, broken and gun-shy, Anne Nichols’s return to her small hometown brings her back into contact with the man she’d never wanted to see again, though Zac Mackay isn’t even aware of what exactly had put the rift between them that Anne wouldn’t talk about. And that’s where the pieces slowly come together, as I sat in with spiteful glee and got on the grovelling journey Zac took in trying to make up for his abysmal misdeeds 6 years ago, more so because I found myself sympathising and identifying with Anne’s insecurities, her wariness and even her quiet bravery and the strength that are so easily looked over. That she’s too forgiving made me a little outraged, even.

The element of the forbidden isn’t as strong as I thought here—Anne being the good friend of Zac’s long-dead wife, even if they’d known each other for a long time—and that Anne had always loved him yet tamped it down always made it feel as though Zac had a long way to go before getting up to speed with her. Apart from feeling that Anne was a little short-changed for the longest time, colour me surprised when Zac was able to move forward rather easily with her, as I’d expected some kind of accounting for how he finally had eyes for Anne when he never quite did before.

Still, ‘Cyclone’ is less angsty than I thought it would be, less drawn-out with the push-pull that happens between with a couple so weighed down by their pasts (this is not a NA novel after all), especially after the growing relationship between Anne/Zac is gradually overshadowed by the growing suspense plot that inevitably snares Anne in its trap.

Nonetheless, if ‘Cyclone’ is the standard-setting benchmark for the rest of the books to come—I was impatient to get back to the book each time my attention was called away—, then wherever or however Crouch might take this entire series is something I’m really looking forward to.

four-stars

Ache for You by J.T. Geissinger

Ache for You by J.T. GeissingerAche for You by J.T. Geissinger
Series: Slow Burn #3
Published by Montlake Romance on 6th November 2018
Pages: 362
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one-star

In this fairy tale with a sexy twist, she’s a penniless San Francisco seamstress. He’s the king of Italian couture. Who’s got designs on whom?

Boutique owner Kimber DiSanto has seen better days. She’s been dumped at the altar by Prince Charmless, her business went up in flames (literally), and now she’s stuck in Florence, Italy, with an ice-queen stepmother, to try to save her late father’s failing dress shop. Only one thing could make it worse: another man in her life. The arrogant Italian fashion tycoon offering to buy her father’s shop is as rich as he is sexy, and their attraction is off the charts. But Kimber’s not about to get burned again.

Women don’t say no to Matteo Moretti—and certainly not with Kimber’s stinging precision. With all the heat and fury sparking between them, Matteo can’t resist baiting the gorgeous American. His plan? Win her over one scorching kiss at a time.

Kimber tells herself it’s all just a game. That her broken heart isn’t in danger, and that Matteo’s touch does not make her Lady Land dance with joy. But sometimes it takes the fieriest of enemies to turn a fantasy into a real-life romance.

Down-on-her-luck Kimber—dumped by a wealthy fiancé at the altar—makes it to Italy, though not without more drama following her around, mostly in the form of another rich Italian tycoon. Only to realise that her dying father has remarried a calculative barracuda, left her with 2 stepsisters, and an evil stepmother.

If this rings familiar, that’s because ‘Ache for You’ is a Cinderella tale of sorts from riches to rags and riches again, only that it involves a truly unlikeable heroine and a mysterious Italian fashion magnate who somehow gets turned on by rudeness and a judgemental attitude.

Kimber’s tendency to overreact, her exaggerated hysteria and self-pity pouring through the pages from the start as she makes everything all about her and her misery had me wondering if I’d accidentally stumbled onto a bitchy reality series instead of a reconstructed fairytale romance. Gritting my teeth, I hoped it would get better as I read on but instead, it became more and more farcical to be believable. I just couldn’t get the connection between Kimber and Matteo—are sparks supposed to fly if the latter gets off on being verbally abused?

In essence, as much as fairytales are supposed to be much-beloved archetypes, I thought Geissinger’s own characters felt too ‘locked’ in their stereotypes (the rom-com, first person POV style of writing confirms this) to be anything more than caricatures flitting through the winding plot.

As much as I liked the first book in the series, which did actually seem promising, I’m unfortunately going to count this as a total bust for me: the signs couldn’t be clearer when I found myself simply more exasperated than enthralled just a quarter way through.

one-star

Tempt the Flames by Marnee Blake

Tempt the Flames by Marnee BlakeTempt the Flames by Marnee Blake
Series: The Smokejumpers #1
Published by Lyrical Liason on September 11th 2018
Pages: 197
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three-stars

Someone is bound to get burned…

Meg Buchanan is determined to prove she didn’t get the trainer job in Redmond, Oregon’s rookie smokejumper class because of her family’s long history as firefighters—or out of pity. But if teaching one of her own brothers isn’t challenge enough, she’s shocked to see Lance Roberts in the new class of recruits. Once her brother’s best friend, and her first, unrequited crush, he’s also the son of the man responsible for her dad’s death.   Lance is stunned to realize that this confident redhead is the stubborn girl he once dreamed about. There’s no way he can fall for her now. He needs to focus all his attention on his training—and uncover the truth behind the long-ago fire that killed both their fathers. But as the undeniable heat between them threatens to ignite, someone attempts to put an end to Lance’s amateur sleuthing—and his life…

Meg Buchanan and Lance Roberts have always been drawn into each other’s orbits, after being separated for a decade, they’re now reunited as assistant trainer and rookie with tons left unsaid and a good dose of suspense on the side. Throw the dangerous, adrenaline-fuelled world of smokejumping into the mix and that’s pretty much Marnee Blake’s new series in a nutshell, which I’m actually quite excited about.

As an establishing novel, ‘Tempt the Flames’ does a good job of introducing the smokejumper rookies around whom the series would presumably be written. And to jump straight in (pun not intended!) with the second-chance, best friend’s sister forbidden tropes with the weight of tragedy behind them is something that makes for a solid plot with tons to be resolved.

There were parts of the storytelling that seemed to falter, however: bits that dwelled too long in the protagonists’ head which slowed the pace (Meg and Lance, who pretty much spent the majority of the time dancing around each other, then prevaricating about whether they should be together or not), the sudden glut of events and twists happening towards the end that came out of left field before the rushed closure, and the writing of action scenes that didn’t quite get my heart into my throat as I’d hoped.

My quibbles aside, I do think that ‘Tempt the Flames’ is a good start to the series and I’m still eager to see how it all shapes out .

three-stars

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the time by Kylie Scott

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the time by Kylie ScottIt Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time by Kylie Scott
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on 7th August 2018
Pages: 185
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two-half-stars

Returning home for her father’s wedding was never going to be easy for Adele. If being sent away at eighteen hadn’t been bad enough, the mess she left behind when she made a pass at her dad’s business partner sure was.

Fifteen years older than her, Pete had been her crush for as long as she could remember. But she’d misread the situation—confusing friendliness for undying love. Awkward. Add her father to the misunderstanding, and Pete had been left with a broken nose and a business on the edge of ruin. The man had to be just as glad as everyone else when she left town.

Seven years on, things are different. Adele is no longer a kid, but a fully grown adult more than capable of getting through the wedding and being polite. But all it takes is seeing him again to bring back all those old feelings.

Sometimes first loves are the truest.

‘It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time’ is quite a mouthful, but it’s hard to put down with the wrenching pain of unrequited love being the driving factor here, given the somewhat forbidden trope of much older man and younger woman, who reunite after the latter pretty much blew up their friendship by making a pass at him 7 years ago. The stupid things teenage girls do when faced with their crushes are what I remember (cringingly fondly?) as well, nonetheless and this was the basis that kept the pages turning. That and that an age-gap like 15 years doesn’t bother me—so I was on it like white on rice.

But Adele’s and Pete’s history is inked in such a way that makes me question the age-gap issue: would a teenager really find a best friend in a 30-year-old man? (As a teen with a limited perspective, I simply remembered that anyone past 25-ish or so, to be naively considered middle-aged and didn’t have much to talk about with them apart from school and, well, nothing much else) How did Pete transition from seeing Adele as the ‘kid’ to a romantic partner and how on earth did Pete and Adele suddenly regress to being teenagers in their interactions when the former couldn’t seem to deal with something that happened years ago?

Adele comes across, as a result, as the more mature, thinking adult, and for some reason, so forgiving of Pete’s indiscretions and indecisiveness. Or at least, with the whole novella written in Adele’s POV, it is so much easier to see her own insecurities and flaws exposed while I felt too kept in the dark about what Pete is thinking. It’s also quite inconceivable that, as Adele mentioned herself, a man at 40 hadn’t seen the light enough to deal with his own abandonment and emotional issues to remain a closed-off player that he goes about it by blowing hot and cold numerous times…all of which suddenly gets shrugged off at the end.

I would have been probably more mollified however, without the ending twist that seemed to forced a happy ending for all involved—2 people hashing it out and dealing with what’s between them would have worked better, instead of the dependence on external circumstances to speed things along quite unbelievably. Honestly, it’s hard to rate this story like this, where I got through it effortlessly – Kylie Scott’s writing is pretty good that I could empathise mostly with Adele – yet detested the slide into the New Adult feel of it when I’d clearly expected the protagonists to behave their own ages.

two-half-stars

Check by Mimi Jean Pamfiloff

Check by Mimi Jean PamfiloffCheck by Mimi Jean Pamfiloff
Series: Mr. Rook's Island #3
Published by Paper & Silver, Inc. on 21st August 2018
Pages: 137
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two-stars

Mr. Rook, eccentric billionaire and owner of the most exclusive island resort in the world, has a secret. Hint: Legends say it can make you young again. But when he’s no longer willing to pay the dark price to keep eternal youth on the island’s menu, the very thing that once kept him young is now turning on him.

With only hours left to live, the woman he loves is taken by the worst kind of man this world has to offer. Turns out she’s been keeping dark secrets of her own, and getting her back won’t be as simple as writing a check.

The cost will leave her broken hearted, hating him forever.

(Morbid?) Curiosity brought me here.

In ‘Check’, things do come to a head and with several twists and turns—this can range between absolute nuts and sort of believable if you squint—, somehow Stephanie and Rook break free of their curse, the bad guys miraculously get what they deserve and all’s well that ends well.

There’s no secret really, that I’ve found this series of Mimi Jean Pamfiloff’s a little too zany for me, but the odd licks of the paranormal and the mysterious here and there keep me coming back. There are tantalising ideas here—with part-gothic, part-supernatural vibes, with the sacred and the profane crossing so many times that this should be a sultry and deliciously forbidden read—but they aren’t fully realised or deeply explored enough given the novella-length stories in this entire series.

But ultimately, too much of this story I think, depends on having a huge suspension of disbelief here in the existence of the paranormal, which is all well and good. Still, Pamfiloff’s implicit insistence that some things should stay unexplained (skirting paranormal explanations by simply having the characters choosing to not want to know more for the sake of their own sanity) just might not be good enough when it comes readers like me needing a semblance of explanation for events that don’t entirely really make sense in a story because well, it still needs to be satisfactorily coherent and not cross the line into the ridiculous.

Still, what kept me on the back foot really, was also a ‘heroine’ whom I absolutely loathed by the end of the series. While Rook himself isn’t all that innocent, the self-sacrifices he made in contrast, simply showed Stephanie up as petty, vindictive, petulant and fickle by the end of it all…too small-minded not to grasp the bigger picture and made things all about herself and her own tragedy.

In any case, it’s been quite a ride. I’m not too sure still what to make out of this, but this series simply felt like it could have done much more and reached so much higher than it did.

two-stars

Water Under the Bridge by Lily Malone

Water Under the Bridge by Lily MaloneWater Under The Bridge by Lily Malone
Series: Chalk Hill #1
Published by Harlequin MIRA on 19th February 2018
Pages: 268
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three-stars

Ella Davenport hasn’t been in a swimming pool since a bad decision ruined her chance of Olympic gold. So when Ella decides on a new career selling property, she chooses Chalk Hill. The country town is a long way from the water, with no pool in sight. Perfect!

Jake Honeychurch doesn’t want to sell his Nanna’s house, but circumstances force his hand. Listing the property with the rookie real estate agent in town, and asking a hefty price means it shouldn’t find a buyer. Perfect!

But determination and persistence are traits Jake admires, and Ella has them in spades. After all, no one ever made an Olympic team by being a quitter.

When news breaks of a proposed waterski park, a local developer starts sniffing around Honeychurch House. Ella’s first sale is so close she can taste it, until a sharp-eyed local recognises her.

Between sale negotiations with Jake that keep getting sidetracked, and a swimming pool committee hellbent on making a splash, Ella has more to contend with than kisses and chlorine.

Can she throw off the failures of the past and take the chance of a new start? Or will her dreams of a new life be washed away again?

I’ll say something from the outset and that has to do with how much I normally love Lily Malone’s writing. It’s just ‘Water Under the Bridge’ that didn’t quite work out right for me, despite the wonderful setting of a part of Western Australia so little explored in rural fiction and the unique rhythms of life that Malone captures very nicely here.

There’s something so wistful and close to my heart here about Ella’s new career direction and her past trauma after all—a hundred and eighty degrees somewhere else, where all hopes are pinned onto having something noteworthy marked into a new career; in Ella’s case, the sale of an overpriced home which is listed by an owner out of grumpy pretence.

That much got me through a third of it, where I soon found myself flagging. Admittedly, Ella and her constant hedging about her son’s real parentage when I thought she owed it to Jake *and* her son to be open with them tested my patience sorely; that much reduced my enjoyment of the story which inched forward only because it became a test of Ella’s inability to be honest and open with many moments that seemed deliberately engineered to stop her from doing so as well.

Ultimately, it became an exercise in frustration because it was road block after road black of stubbornness rearing its head in so many places: Ella’s reticence and overreactions and self-pity, Sam’s obstinate acting out, Abe’s refusal to talk, and the list goes on. I’m usually out to root for the protagonists in romantic fiction—if I can’t ship a pairing, then it’s pretty much useless—but the difficulty I had getting behind a female protagonist who kept blowing hot and cold (and made it so effective such that inroads were just simply impossible) definitely deterred this.

So frankly, I’m not too sure how to place my own feelings about the book. There were parts which I was enthralled with, parts that I really didn’t like, yet I’m still eager for the next book in the series because, well, Malone’s writing isn’t something I can resist.

three-stars

Hot Winter Nights by Jill Shalvis

Hot Winter Nights by Jill ShalvisHot Winter Nights by Jill Shalvis
Series: Heartbreaker Bay, #6
Published by Avon on 25th September 2018
Pages: 384
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three-stars


Who needs mistletoe?

Most people wouldn't think of a bad Santa case as the perfect Christmas gift. Then again, Molly Malone, office manager at Hunt Investigations, isn't most people, and she could really use a distraction from the fantasies she's been having since spending the night with her very secret crush, Lucas Knight. Nothing happened, not that Lucas knows that — but Molly just wants to enjoy being a little naughty for once...

Whiskey and pain meds for almost-healed bullet wounds don't mix. Lucas needs to remember that next time he's shot on the job, which may be sooner rather than later if Molly's brother, Joe, finds out about them. Lucas can't believe he's drawing a blank on his (supposedly) passionate tryst with Molly, who's the hottest, smartest, strongest woman he's ever known. Strong enough to kick his butt if she discovers he's been assigned to babysit her on her first case. And hot enough to melt his cold heart this Christmas.

There aren’t many books that I know of that mix very, very light suspense with chick-lit, but it seems that Jill Shalvis is carving that niche on her own with the Heartbreaker Bay series, with stories (quirky cases and droll banter and cozy girl talks) that never get pulled into heavy angst and convoluted conspiracy theories with James Bond-like action but still manage to stay on the side of the light-hearted rom-com.

‘Hot Winter Nights’—possibly tailored for the winter season—takes a little getting used to when it’s being read when the sun shines too hot and bright still, but that’s a silly little quibble here.

The brother’s sister and fellow employee being off-limits is what Shalvis tackles, with a case that Molly Malone is itching to take on, sick as she is with paperwork and handling things from behind a desk. Lucas Knight is tasked to be her babysitter in secret and predictably, for two people who have been dancing around each other for ages, nothing quite good can come out of the attraction that zings around like mad.

My struggle however, lies with the similarities of the protagonists that are featured in this series: the men, many from Archer Hunt’s company, are cut from the same cloth, with the same (non)outlook towards relationships while the women stand out more in their differences and fight the men a little more with their own brand of sass.

And as with a typical rom-com, the tropes here—good friend’s sister and the fear of stepping out of line, the emotional dance between non-committal people play a major role—are played to their max, along with a small-time case that wouldn’t even make a ripple on the national stage.

In essence, there were parts that I felt more engaged in (the shady Santa business got somewhat boring) and parts where I had a problem feeling the connection between Lucas and Molly, the former of whom inexplicably suddenly seemed to want her (because she’s more closed off than him?) when all he’d wanted for years was not to get involved with any woman emotionally.

But ‘Hot Winter Nights’, like the rest of the books in the Heartbreaker Bay series, is a typical Shavis-read…even if it didn’t fully work for me, it isn’t to say that it wouldn’t be a good read for readers who like Shalvis’s patented style of storytelling.

three-stars