Publisher: Amazon Publishing

Changed by T.S. Murphy

Changed by T.S. MurphyChanged by T.S. Murphy
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on August 1st 2018
Pages: 301
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three-half-stars

Kate McGuire has loved her brother’s best friend for years—an older guy who didn’t know she existed and whose smoking-hot girlfriend could punch her into next week. But now Kate’s eighteen and Quinn Haley is girlfriend-free and looking at her like she’s definitely outside the friend zone. Everything is working out perfectly—until a devastating medical diagnosis throws her life into a tailspin.

Quinn Haley has dealt with abuse and rejection his entire life, but when he finally breaks up with his cheating girlfriend while home from college for Christmas, he realizes his best friend’s little sister has always been there for him. Only now, Kate’s all grown up and frankly adorable. Definitely not someone he wants to keep in the friend zone.

Kate’s entire future will be a lifetime of no. No children. No sex. No Quinn. And when Quinn won’t take no for an answer, she fights him every step of the way.

All the way into love.

The premise of ‘Changed’ is beyond unusual, which certainly makes this more than an unrequited-love-for-the-brother’s-best-friend type of story and I dove into this, wondering how T.S. Murphy was going to tackle the major issue that seemed near insurmountable for many people. Not least, for a protagonist for whom, at the age of 18, everything is writ large with the hormonal teenage tendency to bring with it the ‘end of my world’ kind of vibes. I can only imagine, from the author’s afterword, how personal this must have been to write and that much gave me a greater appreciation for Murphy’s bringing to light an issue that I barely knew existed.

In many ways, ‘Changed’ is Kate’s rather rocky journey navigating love and life with a serious condition to boot, with people rallying around her. I did feel for her, even liked the rather realistic portrayal of her reaction and confusion, though not so much of the requisite push-pull, the moody lack of communication (expected but nonetheless frustrating) and the sudden inability to trust the closest ones around her, even Quinn, who’d been a good friend before. The shenanigans between Kate/Quinn are thankfully not a minefield to go through and Murphy does write as though they are both meant for each other, which makes the pairing easy to get on board with.

Context and premise aside, I did think however, that the storytelling could have been ‘tighter’, so to speak, with some meanderings here and there which laterally expanded (and dragged down) the plot instead of driving it forward. The detailed insertions of Kate and Quinn with their exes, along with scenes that told convoluted family histories felt superfluous at times; instead I wanted to see more vital bits between the couple in question elaborated on, which disappointingly weren’t. There were parts of the book when I was definitely less engaged than others as a result, diving back in only more enthusiastically when the storytelling got back to Kate and her condition—as well as her burgeoning relationship with Quinn.

Slow-moving as it was nonetheless, ‘Changed’ was eye-opening in some ways—all of which had nothing to do with the romance-front for one. In essence, Murphy’s honesty with Kate’s condition kept me glued to the pages—fictionlandia as this is however, the HEA by the end is still much, much appreciated.

three-half-stars

Happy Hour by Piper Rayne

Happy Hour by Piper RayneHappy Hour by Piper Rayne
Series: Charity Case #3
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on 12th July 2018
Pages: 306
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The perfect man for her is the one she hates most. #gofigure

Dating is hard. Dating in your thirties is even harder. Dating in Chicago is harder still.

I haven't given up on finding my happily-ever-after, but in the age of swiping right and Netflix and chill, I'm wondering if everything is as temporary as my marriage turned out to be.

Truth is, there is one guy I can't get my mind off of.

Roarke Baldwin has salt and pepper hair I've dreamed of running my hands through and I'm pretty sure that if I checked he really does have a six pack of abs underneath his suit. And I've always wondered what that stubble on his face would feel like between my thighs.

The problem? He's the one man I hate more than my ex-husband…

His divorce attorney.

The enemies-to-lovers trope is one that I really like and ‘Happy Hour’ is one of the few that I wanted to get into if only to read how a woman falls head over heels over her divorce attorney—one who helped her ex-husband screw her over (monetarily, at least).

Still, the sparks between Roarke Baldwin and Hannah Crowley have been hinted at for a while now and ‘Happy Hour’ is a story of a lost venue, a grudging turn to a nemesis and the subsequent build of a relationship that one has been hankering after more than the other.

The subsequent 5 favours that Roarke asks of the gun-shy Hannah is sweet-amusing in some ways; they’re all non-sexual and non-demeaning, as part of the contract and it was by and large fun to see how Roarke desperately tries to manoeuvre Hannah to where he wants her. The journey onward is predictable as a result: the favours draw Hannah and Roarke together, catalysing what we as readers know and expect that it would all end up as time between the sheets. The conflict itself is just as inevitable nonetheless and it’s something that’s been done dime a dozen times—addressing Hannah’s skewed view of men, their purpose and the place they play in her life.

The conclusion proved unsatisfying as a result. I did think it was unfair of Hannah to write marriage off completely after her very first one, even to a man who’d gone to bat for her in the end because it seemed to show there were some obstacles that Roarke couldn’t overcome in her life still, this being one of them, so much so that it felt as though they were still living in a compromised state as long as Hannah didn’t open herself to that possibility once more.

In contrast, Roarke came off as the sweeter, more open and vulnerable of the two, unlike the corporate shark I thought him to be. Solely written in Hannah’s POV, thereby exposing all her thought-processes that turned neurotic and paranoid at times, I know I would have preferred a glimpse into Roarke’s mind as well, particularly what he’d been thinking ever since he stuck her with the 5-favour-contract.

Most of the time, it felt as though Roarke had an insurmountable mountain to climb when it came to Hannah (her idiotic and sometimes bitchy self-denials and her refusal to trust) and what made me hesitant about my own rating about this book was how Hannah used her her mistrust of men after her disastrous marriage to judge everyone else who comes after. That she knew and admitted it, yet acted stupidly about it, made me feel sorrier for Roarke’s efforts that were doomed to fail because of her insecurities.

So if ‘Happy Hour’ started happy for me, it degenerated into more eye-rolling as I read on, mostly because I was rooting for Hannah to rise above her past—to be that sort of heroine is the kind I ship—but never quite got it by the end of it all.

Imperator by Anna Hackett

Imperator by Anna HackettImperator by Anna Hackett
Series: Galactic Gladiators #10
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing, Anna Hackett on July 8th 2018
Pages: 206
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three-half-stars

Space station security specialist Sam has done one thing since her abduction by alien slavers…fight to survive. But now one strong alien gladiator stands at her side and Sam knows she is no longer alone.

Thrust into a lawless desert arena, Sam Santos has done terrible things in order to stay alive. As the Champion of Zaabha, she’s been fighting to find a way out. Everything changes when the Imperator of the House of Galen sacrifices his freedom to help her. The hard-bodied, fierce man has vowed to help her escape, but getting out of Zaabha is only the first deadly task they face.

Galen was bred to be a royal bodyguard and protect his prince. With his planet now destroyed, he’s grown powerful and forged his wealthy gladiatorial House on the desert planet of Carthago. All Galen knows is honor, service, and sacrifice. Now his life depends on working with one battle-hardened woman of Earth as they fight together to survive. But Sam Santos is not what he expected. Tough, yes. A brilliant fighter, for sure. But there is a softer side to the woman as well. And Galen finds himself irrevocably drawn to all of Sam’s captivating facets.

Then they uncover a devious plot by the Thraxians that could bring down the foundations of the Kor Magna Arena and all they hold dear. Galen and Sam will stop at nothing to defeat the evil alien slavers, even if it means war. In amongst the fighting, Sam may finally show a man who lives for everyone else, that he deserves more than just honor and freedom, but love as well…if they survive the coming battle.

‘Imperator’ closes out Anna Hackett’s Galactic Gladiators series, or at least it’s the end…for now, until the next House gets its own story as a spin-off in the future.

Opening straight from the end of the last book (best to read them in order at least), Sam Santos’s and Galen’s story is one that Anna Hackett has been promising for a while. The fight agains the mortal enemy in this world comes to a head in this book and it’s an exciting one, though it did get loopy at times, as if Sam and Galen went round the merry-go-round getting free from the Thraxians, only to be captured again.

Sam, the former head of security on a space station, is as much as a gladiator and imposing warrior in her own right—I keep imagining a very sweaty Beyoncé dressed in tight leathers constantly holding a sword and knife for some reason—and a perfect match for Galen. Uber-capable, super tough, straight-shooting and determined, it’s easy to root for a strong female protagonist that you wish would always grace the pages of adventure romance books—eclipsing even the stoic and ever-in-control Galen who’d always scoffed in resignation about his gladiators falling for earth women.

I’ll admit that this isn’t quite the series that I’ve been salivating over, despite the rush of romance, adventure and iron-clad HEAs that are guaranteed in Hackett’s books. With the same formula of pairing women from earth with alien mates, the last-minute miraculous rescues and the survival against all odds that’s found in all of the books, I’m guessing that I’m probably thirsting after some deviation…somehow, somewhere.

The world-building is nonetheless impressive—it’s why Hackett’s books primarily appeal, even if not always for the pairing for me at least—and the book’s easy enough to breeze through, which would make it a perfect escape for a couple of hours.

three-half-stars

Chaos by J.M. Madden

Chaos by J.M. MaddenChaos by J.M. Madden
Series: Dogs of War #1
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on June 26th 2018
Pages: 201
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three-half-stars

Aiden Willingham has lived a hard life. As a Navy SEAL, he agreed to take part in an ultra-secret government testing program. The company running the program, the Silverstone Collaborative, has produced a serum from an Amazonian plant that’s been proven to enhance physical abilities and mental fortitude. Problem is, men-- heroes-- have died during the testing, and it’s time for the company to be taken down before more men die needlessly.

Aiden, along with three others, have escaped the camp with evidence of the company’s horrendous practices. Now they’re in a race to expose them. They’ve already lost one of their team, and the Collaborative’s mercenaries are converging.
Angela Holloway knew the homeless man with sadness in his eyes was trouble as soon as she saw him hanging around the site of a murder.

Uncooperative, he stonewalls her investigation, but draws her in when the badge comes off. Aiden has scars, both internal and external, that make her heart ache. It’s a serious no-no getting involved with a suspect… too bad her heart isn’t listening. As details come to light about what’s going on in her city, she has to fight for what she believes is right, as well as the man on the wrong side of the law.

I can’t recall the number of iterations of the enhanced super-soldier I’ve gone through, but by now, it’s probably a lot. The conspiracy, the theories, the villainous cold-blooded woman (this pops up too predictably), the tortured men and the paranormal abilities they’ve developed because of the secret testing program…well, I can’t get past those enough, it seems.

‘Chaos’ is another version of these stories, so what really differentiates such stories from one another would then be the quality of the storytelling, which I’ve found myself subconsciously assessing on a personal scale.

As much as I loved the prequel, ‘Chaos’ plunges straight into the meatier side of it, this time with a romance on top of it, as the very sympathetic Aiden Willingham finally gets some due justice alongside a capable woman who does seem perfectly matched for him. Better yet, there aren’t the shenanigans of men behaving like growling beasts (both in and out of bed) then given the official excuse thrown out time and again for their inevitable actions.

So, by and large, ‘Chaos’ is a decent read, but I did think that J.M. Madden’s writing tended to get lost in several loops at times—too much of this, too little of that, but these are clearly my own gripes.

There’s a lot going on in here (sometimes too much I think), which might account for the rambling telling rather than showing: the recounting of past events, the conflicted inner monologues, the ton of information and context that Madden seems desperate to relay to the reader. Like the book’s title, some parts were chaotic though shrouded in mystery, and as a result, slowed the pacing in the first quarter of the book where I’d expected more driving forward momentum.

That said, I’m curious to see how Madden will take this entire narrative arc—I’m eternally grateful that Madden doesn’t deliberately leaving a cackling villain who survives until the very end just to draw out the good-evil conflict—and that black hole of not knowing what will happen next in this case, is a very welcome one.

three-half-stars

Genesis by J.M. Madden

Genesis by J.M. MaddenGenesis by J.M. Madden
Series: Dogs of War #0.5
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on June 20th 2018
Pages: 45
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four-stars

After a harrowing mission, Navy SEAL Aiden Willingham was approached to participate in a secret research project. Now he realizes the Spartan Project is a covert, multinational government testing program run by a private company called The Silverstone Collaborative. The company’s mission is to create super soldiers, men capable of recovering from horrendous illness and injuries, using a serum derived from indigenous plants in the Amazon rainforest.

The program is brutal and when the men object, they go from test subjects to caged prisoners overnight. The doctor leading the program is world-renowned for his cutting-edge cures, but Aiden sees only the madness in his eyes. The serum is producing results, but men are dying every day of testing.

And, as more men die, the experiments turn more deadly. What the research team doesn’t realize is exactly what the serum is doing…creating a psychic connection between four of the men. Aiden and his team have to break out of the camp before they’re compromised further. But getting out of the camp is the easy part. They know that actually living to bring the Silverstone Collaborative to justice is going to be the most difficult mission any of them have ever undertaken.

It has been so long that I’ve actually gone into a book without romance as its primary goal and this much I’d say: it’s a change, a subtle shift in re-looking the way I tend to evaluate romances…and perhaps a most welcome one after having gone through too many forgettable and mediocre reads. That also means the very freeing sensation of not having to nitpick through romantic tropes and analysing why they work (or not) for me and then rating the plot and/or the characters as disappointing/unimpressive each time. At least, that has been the pattern with me for a long, long time.

As the prequel J.M. Madden’s ‘Dogs of War’ series, ‘Genesis’ is the short but brutal story of captured soldiers experimented on and their daring escape—men bonded by torture and their emerging abilities—from a nightmare that they can’t seem to free themselves from. I barely remember Aiden Willingham at all from Madden’s other books, but the prequel takes care of it all, unravelling his past in a way that leaves no uncertainty or mystery (at least for Aiden as a character) in the next book to come. In any case, ‘Genesis’ is quite the exciting read: full of danger at every turn, with the thrills of these men’s desperate race for survival during harrowing flight for freedom (with a lick of the paranormal), proving a rollicking good start to a series which I can’t wait to see out.

four-stars

Unidentified by Anna Hackett

Unidentified by Anna HackettUnidentified by Anna Hackett
Series: Treasure Hunter Security #7
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing, Anna Hackett on June 10th 2018
Pages: 120
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three-stars

The Emerald Tear: ambitious archeologist Oliver Ward leads a dig in the wild jungles of Ecuador and collides with feisty, independent treasure hunter Persephone.

Oliver Ward loves getting his boots dirty on fascinating digs, and investigating strange ruins in Ecuador is no exception. When bandits threaten his team, a small, tough treasure hunter bursts into his world to save the day. He finds himself captivated by the bright, vibrant woman and sucked into a wild and dangerous treasure hunt for a lost Incan emerald.

Daughter of a con artist, Persephone Blake trusts no one and has a plan—find and sell artifacts until she can retire on a white-sand beach. But her plans are derailed when a handsome, smart, and stubborn archeologist pushes his way onto her hunt. She finds herself irresistibly tempted by Oliver, and as they trek deeper into the jungle, danger follows. And Persephone isn’t sure what is in more danger—her body or her heart.

The Emerald Butterfly: former Navy SEAL Diego Torres finds himself helping the one woman who drives him crazy—the DEA agent who boarded his ship and handcuffed him.

Injured and tortured on a mission, Diego Torres was ready to leave the SEALs and loves being captain of his salvage ship, the Storm Nymph. As he begins his vacation, he planned for solitude, late mornings, and drinking beers while watching the Florida sunsets, what he didn’t plan for was the gorgeous DEA agent who boarded his ship several months before. And he really didn’t plan for an underwater expedition in search of a shipwreck and a priceless Incan emerald.

Sloan McBride’s grandfather dreamed of finding the Emerald Butterfly his entire life. Now he’s dying and she vows to find it for him…even if she has to work with the hard-bodied ex-SEAL she got off to a very wrong start with. But as Sloan and Diego work side by side, dogged by dangerous black-market thieves Silk Road, they uncover a scorching hot passion. They will do anything to protect each other, including calling in their friends from Treasure Hunter Security, and they’ll risk everything to beat Silk Road to the emerald.

‘Unidentified’ is Anna Hackett’s double romance within a novella, so make that 2 very short vignettes tucked neatly into a normal ‘Hackett-sized’ book. I’ll admit that I have my doubts about the short length of each story, wondering how Hackett would juggle not only the action-packed adventure with the eroticism written in for both couples.

But these 2 stories feel very much like side helpings in some ways, like a comet’s short burst of magical brilliance that’s ephemeral: full of treasure-hunting Indiana-Jones style goodness but thin on the romance (though copious on the sex). Oliver and Persephone Ward’s story made me do the side-eye look; knowing that they are the parents of the protagonists of the first 3 books in the series made me a little squeamish—akin to watching or reading about your parents having sex in the 70s porny style—about this couple and their romantic connection. I took to Diego/Sloan’s story somewhat better given their short but hostile(ish) history, yet finished the entire book with some scepticism about the ‘same-ish’ feel that this series has, seeing as it was a repeat about finding a treasure (the goal), beating the bad guys, and then riding happily into the sunset together.

In short, the fun times are there in ‘Unidentified’, especially if you’re looking for a short, short read with some thrills and can sort of brush off the instant-lust and love romance that’s formed in the heat of the moment.

three-stars

Pestilence by Laura Thalassa

Pestilence by Laura ThalassaPestilence by Laura Thalassa
Series: The Four Horsemen #1
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on March 20th 2018
Pages: 382
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three-stars

They came to earth—Pestilence, War, Famine, Death—four horsemen riding their screaming steeds, racing to the corners of the world. Four horsemen with the power to destroy all of humanity. They came to earth, and they came to end us all.

When Pestilence comes for Sara Burn’s town, one thing is certain: everyone she knows and loves is marked for death. Unless, of course, the angelic-looking horseman is stopped, which is exactly what Sara has in mind when she shoots the unholy beast off his steed.

Too bad no one told her Pestilence can’t be killed.

Now the horseman, very much alive and very pissed off, has taken her prisoner, and he’s eager to make her suffer. Only, the longer she’s with him, the more uncertain she is about his true feelings towards her … and hers towards him.

And now, well, Sara might still be able to save the world, but in order to do so, she'll have to sacrifice her heart in the process.

Now then, how’s this for a monumental twist of enemies-to-lovers? Saying that ‘Pestilence’ subscribes to this trope is like putting a pram’s wheels on a Ferrari. Or some other super car. Somehow Laura Thalassa manages it at least in the beginning half with a chilling and riveting start of 4 horsemen of the apocalypse riding through earth bringing death and destruction.

Particularly visceral is the trek down the famous highway 99 from Whistler to Squamish, a dystopic vision of a lone horse rider and his unwilling companion now superimposed on my memories of one of the most scenic routes I’ve ever been down. The extended time Pestilence and Sara spend together is in itself unusual: one filled with macabre curiosity and horrors, necessitating a slow, slow burn as Pestilence somehow finds a human side to get in touch with.

Yet what started as fascination turned into uneasiness, which then turned into pure disbelief. Issues of faith, religion and judgement—or at least what Thalassa presented—were never far from my mind running as meta commentary as I kept on reading, which Thalassa definitely succeeded in doing if this was always her aim.

As a romance however, it just became painfully obvious that Pestilence and Sara was a pairing that became harder and harder to get invested in as time wore on, the primary difficulty being reconciling the idea of the otherworldly Pestilence falling prey to human charms and human fallacies with the perpetual image I have of these perfect and deadly creature who always seem far above imperfections. To be laid low by a 21-year old who pretty much showed the ever-changing sides of a young adult (part-petulant, part-annoying, part-compassionate and part-self-righteous) who came close and pushed away repetitively? It just seemed somehow below an eternal being who’d never once wavered from his monumental task since time immemorial, who was now swayed too easily by a firefighter with a crude mouth and a penchant for not making up her mind.

What finally turned me off her however, came tragically at the end, where Sara’s own twisted rationale of love gave her the courage to walk away as she finally deemed Pestilence—who had a heavenly duty to fulfil—unworthy of her affections. Accusing Pestilence of judgement when she was guilty of doing the same, then having him crawl back to her was when I felt Thalassa had personally taken off the shine of what had made Pestilence so unique as an anti-hero, before imbuing him with the earthly loyalty of a teenage boy with stars in his eyes.

On the other hand, the constant vacillation of characterisation had me struggling with Pestilence, vague as Thalassa is with his origins and more so with his personality, the reasoning being that we mere mortals can’t ever hope to understand his higher purpose (it just made him frustratingly unknowable and too mysterious for all the millennia he’d been around).

With an ending that had me more baffled than happy, the story finishes on a grim warning and a rather uneasy HFN (to put it badly, considering Pestilence had somehow condescended to be human for the time both he and Sara will be around). I was still left feeling out of my depth as a reader, unable to hang on fast a pairing that took root but didn’t quite take off.

three-stars