Risk the Burn by Marnee Blake

Risk the Burn by Marnee BlakeRisk the Burn by Marnee Blake
Series: The Smokejumpers #3
Published by Lyrical Liason on 27th August 2019
Pages: 168
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two-half-stars

A parachute jump gone horribly wrong nearly put an end to Hunter Buchanan’s smokejumper career. But with his body on the mend, the rugged firefighter is ready to get back to Oregon’s Redmond Air Center and his training. Except, while he’s conquered his physical injuries, he hasn’t been able to do the same for his panic attacks.

Enter Charlotte Jones, aka Charlie, the trainer who tames his tension like nobody’s business. It doesn’t hurt that she’s easy on the eyes. Or that she stirs a hunger in him to deal with just about anything in order to be the man she needs . . .   After four years of hiding from a violent man in her past, Charlie is ready to face the world again. She knows this has more than a little to do with the potent mix of strength and vulnerability she’s found in Hunter’s arms.

But when a dangerous encounter convinces her the worst isn’t behind her, she’ll have to decide if she’s strong enough to accept Hunter’s help—and his love . . .

That Marnee Blake has used smokejumping as the basis for this series has always intrigued me—well at least, one that goes a step further past the first-responder romance story is still sort of rare.

But if I did venture rather enthusiastically into the first book, ‘Risk The Burn’ turned out to be a middling read for me as Hunter Buchanan and Charlie Jones battle their own demons while falling into each other gradually. Hunter’s interest is Charlie is evident from the start despite the latter being somewhat reserved and coy, though it builds up to a rather tedious climax of Charlie using an old and overused excuse in the book when things start to come to a head: running away under the delusion that it ‘keeps everyone else safe’, then taking offence when she gets called out for it.
My disappointment also stems from the lack of adrenaline-filled scenes that typically comes from the firefighting action itself; instead ‘Risk the Burn’ feels more like a mildish romantic suspense with a red herring dangled in front of us and a twist that didn’t quite leave me gobsmacked.
In short, I didn’t dislike the story but neither did I get an emotional punch out from the pairing that could have been more memorable but wasn’t. Hunter/Charlie simply came, made a few footprints in the dirt tracks and left, without the spikes of burning highs and the dipping lows in their developing relationship which pretty much left me rather indifferent to it all by the end of it.
two-half-stars

Dom by Anna Hackett

Dom by Anna HackettDom by Anna Hackett
Series: Hell Squad #18
Published by Anna Hackett on June 17th 2019
Pages: 135
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three-half-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…

Squad Three berserker Dom Santora has an ugly past he can’t forget. Born and raised in the darkness, he spent his life before the alien invasion as a Mafia enforcer. He’s found some meaning fighting against the aliens with his fellow berserkers, but he knows his soul is too stained to ever find redemption. And there is no way he’ll ever deserve the quiet beauty of a woman like Arden Carlisle.

When the raptors invaded, Arden lost her husband and children in the first horrible, bloody wave of the attack. Since that terrible night, she’s survived, but she hasn’t been living. Hollowed out by her grief, she’s found a way to keep going as the comms officer for Squad Nine. But lately, color has started to seep back into her world, and the person she sees most clearly is the dark, handsome, and lethal Dom.

Dom and Arden are two damaged souls who find each other in the darkness. But the Gizzida are putting the final pieces of their endgame into place. The aliens want the Earth and to wipe out the human survivors once and for all. As Dom, Arden, and the berserkers work to find a deadly alien bomb, they uncover the true horror of the aliens’ plans. To have any chance at love, life, and survival, Dom and Arden will have to fight harder than ever before.

With Anna Hackett’s post-apocalyptic Hell Squad series drawing soon to a close, I can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel. Quite literally so, given the odder and odder paranormal elements coming into play (I think of Fright Night zombies, leeches and all other weird things that Hackett’s throwing in here) along with the dinosaur aliens who have overrun future earth.

But the secret weapon of a wisp of another alien whose actions are powerful enough to be the Deus ex Machina of the entire series—conveniently saving the characters and the day when all hope is thought to be lost—is Hackett’s chosen form of redemption it seems. Selena may yet save us all, though it’s starting to be a recurring pattern. But I digress, as much as I love that character and her long-awaited story with the head of the Berserker squad.

‘Dom’ is the penultimate novella here, even as Hackett’s willingness to stretch the series on can be somewhat frustrating. The latest to fall prey to love, so to speak, Dom is silent and tormented by the trajectory of his entire life, only to find it with a woman who’s also lost everything in the alien war.

Like many of the HS books, the pattern is similar: there’s a strong strain of instalove given the brevity of the work and the heavy focus on action that helps cement the pairing, a new discovery and a final mission where a near-catastrophic event happens…but we all live to see another day, bruised, battered and torn. Dom and Arden don’t exactly stray from this template, but it’s Hackett’s imagination and her ability to throw new developments that ultimately carry the story through.

‘Dom’ is certainly enjoyable throughout, but I’ll confess my heart probably lies with the finale that’s yet to come.

three-half-stars

Meant to Be by Nan Reinhardt

Meant to Be by Nan ReinhardtMeant to Be by Nan Reinhardt
Series: Four Irish Brothers Winery #2
Published by Tule Publishing on July 18th 2019
Pages: 193
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two-stars

Best friends since grade school, high-powered Chicago attorney, Sean Flaherty, and small-town mayor Megan Mackenzie have always shared a special bond. When Sean is shot by a client’s angry ex, Megan rushes to his side, terrified she’s about to lose her long-time confidant.

Upon his return to River’s Edge to recuperate, Sean discovers that his feelings for his pal have taken an undeniable turn for the romantic. While Megan struggles with an unfamiliar longing for Sean, she worries that he may be mistaking a safe place to land for love.

Can Sean help her realize that they are truly meant to be so much more than friends?

Scepticism is generally what I battle with the friends-to-lovers thing and ‘Meant to be’ was another cautious attempt at trying to see if this is a trope that will sit well this time around.

Not quite so, unfortunately.

Sean and Megan are lifelong best friends, separated by distance until an accident brings him home, though it suddenly seems as if Sean is now looking at the small town’s mayor with fresh eyes while the latter thinks that she’d aways unconsciously compared all her dates to him. It would have been well and good, had I read a version in which Sean and Megan were actively making their way back to each other as well, in the intervening years.

Perhaps it’s due to the lack of build-up as well that I couldn’t understand how their friendship turned into romance only now, like a switch had been suddenly flipped in Sean’s mind and he suddenly saw Megan as a woman that he loved only after his life faced an upheaval, which immediately went flush into a proposal. What gave? In fact, Megan’s argument about her being the safe choice after his chaotic run in Chicago made sense and whatever Sean did to counter that just wasn’t convincing enough to overcome that particular hurdle she threw his way. And if they’d always wanted each other unconsciously, would it really have taken them decades to realise it?

This far into the series, the parade from characters from previous books could be bewildering, not having read any of their stories. I was flummoxed at the number of group scenes and the characters whose history I knew nothing about. The focus that I felt should have been on the main pairing was spent on secondary characters and their activities instead—Megan actually dated someone different for a third of the book—, eclipsing a tentative, growing romance which disappointingly fizzled to embers by the end.

two-stars

Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex

Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth EssexAlmost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex
Series: The Reckless Brides, #1
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on 31st July 2012
Pages: 353
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four-stars

A Lady in Disguise
For generations, the Kents have served proudly with the British Royal Navy. So when her younger brother refuses to report for duty, Sally Kent slips into a uniform and takes his place—at least until he comes to his senses. Boldly climbing aboard the Audacious, Sally is as able-bodied as any sailor there. But one man is making her feel tantalizingly aware of the full-bodied woman beneath her navy blues…

A Man Overboard
Dedicated to his ship, sworn to his duty—and distractingly gorgeous—Lieutenant David Colyear sees through Sally’s charade, and he’s furious. But he must admit she’s the best midshipman on board—and a woman who tempts him like no other. With his own secrets to hide and his career at stake, Col agrees to keep her on. But can the passion they hide survive the perils of a battle at sea? Soon, their love and devotion will be put to the test…

‘Almost a Scandal’ was an automatic read because it’s got those gender-bending qualities that I love, or at least it’s has a Mulan-esque sheen of a woman dressing as a man to in a male-dominated field that somehow always pulls me in.

Yet strangely, Elizabeth Essex’s writing, so focused on Regency-period British naval supremacy, shines precisely not quite in the wonder of cross-dressing or gender relations, but in this, more so particularly if you’re interested in the intricacies of bringing a warship ship out and engaging in battle, though the sheer detail of every movement, every activity done on board could be tedious if you’re in it more for the romance itself than the setting. It’s well-researched, a little jolly for the tough conditions of war, perhaps, but delivers a breath of fresh sea-air.

Still, amidst the drama of the high seas, Sally Kent and Colyear’s relationship is one forged out of family history, hard-earned respect, battle-worn lines and sexual tension bursting at the seams. A slow burn, the many smouldering looks between them and the inevitable sense of mounting passion kept me engrossed and jittery, more so because Essex’s protagonists are generally likeable and never exactly fall over the rail in a fit of histrionics.

A curious mix of naïveté and a highly-developed sense of justice, Sally Kent is as capable, or perhaps even more so than quite a few men on the Audacious, while Col—intense, controlled, so dedicated and so brilliant until Sally unravels him—feels like the brooding, swoonworthy-type who oddly enough, generally lacks the off-putting, prickish vibe of the male protagonists in more traditional historical romances. It was no hardship to root for this pairing, maybe because it was easy to like them as individuals first.

But perhaps what Essex has done towards the end in not short-changing the reader into an abrupt conclusion but one that’s painfully drawn out to an ending that’s well-deserved is what really makes ‘Almost a Scandal’ a very memorable foray into a historical romance.

four-stars

The King’s Man by Elizabeth Kingston

The King’s Man by Elizabeth KingstonThe King's Man by Elizabeth Kingston
Series: Welsh Blades #1
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on 9th August 2015
Pages: 324
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three-stars

Ranulf Ombrier’s fame throughout England for his skill at swordplay is rivaled only by his notoriety as King Edward I’s favorite killer. Ranulf's actions have gained him lands, title, and a lasting reputation as a hired butcher. But after years of doing his king's bidding, he begins to fear for his mortal soul and follows his conscience away from Edward, all the way to the wilds of Wales.

Gwenllian of Ruardean, Welsh daughter of a powerful Marcher lord, has every reason to leave Ranulf for dead when one of her men nearly kills him. As a girl she was married by proxy to a man Ranulf murdered, only to become a widow before she ever met her groom. In the years since, she has shunned the life of a lady, instead studying warfare and combat at her mother’s behest. But she has also studied healing and this, with her sense of duty to knightly virtues, leads her to tend to Ranulf’s wounds.

Saving her enemy’s life comes with consequences, and Gwenllian and Ranulf are soon caught up in dangerous intrigue. Forced together by political machinations, they discover a kinship of spirit and a surprising, intense desire. But even hard-won love cannot thrive when loyalties are divided and the winds of rebellion sweep the land.

‘The King’s Man’ is in short, a mesmerising read. More so because I can’t even remember the last time I’d dipped a toe in one that’s past the 18th or 19th century. But undoubtedly, this is also a hard review to write, torn as I am between the superb writing and a lacklustre romance that sputtered out before it even began.

That Elizabeth Kingston managed to frame the story within the confines of 13th century Britain yet pull the smallest parallels to modern life makes this story heart-wrenchingly contemporary and frankly, impressive, at least in the way Gwenllian struggled with giving up her identity as swordswoman and a commander of the men in her keep the moment she was made to marry Morency.

In Gwenllian, we get a multifaceted and complexly drawn portrayal of an unusual woman of that time, with such wondrous strength of character and ferocious adaptability that it puts—or should put—many to shame. Forced into a role that put her squarely in a round hole of running the keep as a newly-married lady, and torn between warring factions and political intrigue, her ultimate decision to leave her former self and devote her life to being a lady felt like a bittersweet decision that is admittedly hard for a 21st century reader to swallow—a reminder perhaps, that such sacrifices in some form or other, still exist today even as strong women fight just as hard to have it all.

Kingstons’s characterisation draws no complaint from me, though the pairing left me more than a little wanting: there’s heat at nights, and muted remoteness between the protagonists by day, in a connection that never quite sparked given the lack of communication for most of it and for the repetitive lines of how much Gwenllian felt drawn to Morency and to her obedience to duty. And if I loved her spunk in the beginning, that merely flared as bright and as briefly as a shooting star before she’d determinedly shed her armour in a displacement that drew all the feels. In short it was a sacrifice I’d hoped never to read in the story, only to have it dug even more deeply by the time it ended.

I thought Kingston glossed over the fluidity of the concept of beauty despite the refreshing idea that not only beautiful women in romantic literature deserves a happy ending. Even for 13th century sensibilities about supposedly immutable gender roles, the unforgivable insults that Morency hurled at Gwellian in the early days merely made him a cruel and arrogant prick who never quite redeemed himself by the end of the book. I’d not seen enough of his vulnerability or his devotion to Gwenllian—nor of any active encouragement for her to be who she needed to be—to believe that he’d truly loved her and to this extent, ‘The King’s Man’ felt like a massive let down.

three-stars

Wolf Instinct by Paige Tyler

Wolf Instinct by Paige TylerWolf Instinct by Paige Tyler
Series: SWAT #9
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on 25th June 2019
Pages: 352
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three-half-stars

He's a wolf shifter.She hunts monsters.How can she be The One for him?
SWAT werewolf Zane Kendrick will do whatever it takes to take down the man who attacked his pack. His search takes him to Los Angeles, but when he meets Alyssa, the smart, sexy agent who comes to his aid, he's immediately interested in pursuing more than just the next lead. All his wolf instincts tell him that she's The One.

FBI agent Alyssa Carson has investigated some weird stuff lately, and finding missing people drained of their blood definitely falls into that category. When following a clue leads her to Zane, she agrees to work with him and his team. She's attracted to the gorgeous Brit, but she doesn't have time for anything but finding answers.

When Zane and Alyssa discover the sinister truth, it'll take everything they have to make it out of this mission with their lives―and hearts―intact.

This far down the series, you’d be hard-pressed to wonder what Paige Tyler has up her sleeve when it comes to expanding (slowly but surely) the SWAT universe. The holding pattern is admittedly still there: each books typically features a SWAT werewolf’s transformation, then his subsequent journey to finding his ‘One’ soulmate, as Tyler continues the pairing of Zane and an FBI agent who seems to have no problem swallowing that there is something supernatural around Zane and his team members.

Honestly, I’m a little indifferent to Zane/Alyssa’s lightning-fast relationship which felt a little lacklustre—having established the theory of ‘The One’ early on in the series by default sort of permits the author to justify some degree of instalove/lust—because the way the pairing is written doesn’t feel all too unique from the other pairs that came in Tyler’s previous books.
I was however, engrossed instead by the direction ‘Wolf Instinct’ took. What I didn’t expect was Tyler’s huge step into the paranormal with more creatures of the night joining the fray as the werewolf SWAT team gets more deeply embroiled in the whole hunter/werewolf fiasco, with some new and intriguing plot strands that do show some potential for future books. The ending left me nonplussed nonetheless, with a hurried and rather abrupt HFN that felt more inconclusive beyond the immediate acknowledgement that Alyssa was easily welcomed by the growing werewolf family in Dallas.
Still, as a standalone, ‘Wolf Instinct’ does work and the gift of Tyler’s writing is that she makes it easy reading for those who feel intimidated jumping straight into the ninth book of a series. There’s sufficient action and enough of a game-changer reveal, so to speak, towards the three-quarter mark that left me intrigued and curious enough about what Tyler might write about next.
three-half-stars

Savaged by Mia Sheridan

Savaged by Mia SheridanSavaged by Mia Sheridan
Published by Mia Sheridan on 28th May 2019
Pages: 349
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three-half-stars

When wilderness guide, Harper Ward, is summoned to the small town sheriff’s office in Helena Springs, Montana, to provide assistance on a case, she is shocked to find that their only suspect in the double murder investigation is a man described as a savage.

But the longer she watches the man known only as Lucas, on the station surveillance camera, the more intrigued she becomes. He certainly looks primitive with his unkempt appearance and animal skin attire, but she also sees intelligence in his eyes, sensitivity in his expression. Who is he? And how is it possible that he’s lived alone in the forest since he was a small child?

As secrets begin to emerge, Harper is thrust into something bigger and more diabolical than she ever could have imagined. And standing right at the center of it all, is Lucas. But is he truly the wild man he appears to be? A cold blooded killer? An innocent victim? Or a perplexing mix of all three?

Harper must find out the answers to these questions because the more time she spends with him, the more she risks losing her heart.

‘Savaged’ is an interesting read, to say the least, with an intriguing and a deliberately contextless start, but a slight, sagging middle that pulled the momentum of the plot development down a little. But Mia Sheridan has hopped on a trope that I like: the savage man and the civilised woman, so to speak and it wasn’t a hard decision to pick the book up despite some bad experiences I’ve had with her past books.

Jak’s story is told in fragmented bits, where past and present slowly come together in alternating chapters until it all gets caught up in the present. His meeting with Harper is serendipitous in some way, but made more so because of the rose-tinted sheen that Sheridan’s writing takes on particularly in ‘Savaged’: a mix of purple prose with long, long, descriptive inner monologues and descriptive paragraphs where star-crossed characters can almost mind-read others’ thoughts without much effort, sometimes to the point that it crosses into disbelief.

Honestly, it’s the kind of writing that I’m more familiar with in Sheridan’s arguably best-known work ‘Archer’s voice’ and in this respect, Jak/Harper’s story is a standout on its own because it’s just as unusual. As engaging as the early chapters were however, Jak’s background did feel at times, far-fetched (there’s just so far one can run with the social experimentation trope) and my scepticism often warred with the struggle to accept the plausibility of it.

But it’s clearly a case of ‘just me’ here when it comes to Sheridan’s writing style and the pattern of the storytelling and ‘Savaged’ still remains one of the better ones I’ve read from this author.

three-half-stars