Publisher: Avon Impulse

Virgin Territory by Lia Riley

Virgin Territory by Lia RileyVirgin Territory by Lia Riley
Series: Hellions Angels #3
Published by Avon Impulse on March 6th 2018
Pages: 131
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Practice Makes Perfect

Patrick “Patch” Donnelly has what it takes to be the best goalie in the NHL…if only he could learn to control his temper. When Coach orders him to get his head in the game with private yoga classes, Patch isn’t having it. There’s no way this tough Boston guy would be caught dead downward dog-ing his way to inner peace. But if he refuses, he risks his starting position and the dream he sacrificed everything for, including joining the priesthood.

Yoga instructor Margot Kowalski is over men. After yet another toxic relationship, she’s eager to forget love and focus on growing her business. Doing the Hellions head coach a favor by helping out a troubled player can't hurt, and it might give her career a high-profile boost. But free-spirited Margot is soon charming the pants off Patch. Literally. Her sassy combination of sweet and sexy proves irresistible to the goalie. Before Patch can give into temptation though, he’ll have to confess his biggest secret:

He’s a virgin.

But Patch is hiding more than sexual inexperience, and his dark past soon threatens to destroy his shot at true love.

I like Lia Riley’s writing—which strangely reminds me of the cocksure voices of authors like Kimberly Kincaid, Avery Flynn and a few others—and the self-assured tone that’s found throughout makes the reading process a breeze. And that was enough to request for an ARC of this book, though the premise of the story when I first read it, admittedly made me very wary of it, particularly when this thing called ‘virginity’ comes into question.

So this is all me, my own writerly and readerly hang-ups, that are being reflected in this review.

The imbalance of sexual experience, for want of a better way of putting it, isn’t exactly trope I like to read about; the role reversal here didn’t make much of a difference—the sexually-experienced woman and the virgin man, with the former going as far as to instruct the latter. And that makes me cringe, because reading romance novels has never been a tit-for-tat issue for me; I don’t purposefully go for books that deliberately try to turn the tables on supposed stereotypical gender roles simply because there have been too many manwhores and inexperienced women. While readers may crow about and love the role reversal here, my own reason deviates somewhat: I delve into romance to actually root for a couple that I think I can genuinely get behind and for a few hours of escapism from reality which good writing has the capability of doing, rather than for the purpose of gender shaming or the robust defence of one over the other.

Unfortunately, ‘Virgin Territory’ felt like that for me from the start—too much of it like a woman’s slamming rant against sexist men in order to reinforce what women should be allowed to do/believe in the 21st century. Like in ‘Head Coach’, there was a tad bit much of what sounded like meta-speak for women’s rights: why slut-shaming is wrong, why women should be free to have the sex they want, yada yada and it did come across as somewhat preachy at times…all through the mouth of Margot, whose repetitive, defensive insistence of it felt annoying after a while, particularly when it stemmed from a position of insecurity and loneliness.

There’s also the problem that seems inherent in ‘virgin’ romances, whether the virgin character is male or female—that a huge, huge deal is made out of it, or that it is either a huge stumbling block that makes people pause or that virginity is something pesky to be gotten rid of. Admittedly, that Patch’s religion had a part in this story, that he wanted sex to mean something and for once, I could actually appreciate how the church had been an anchor in his life, rather than the usual interpretation of toxic religion that much of romantic fiction uses as a crutch against love and sex. I felt for Patch, the difficult history he’s had, and the self-awareness he had of himself, which already put him far above many heroes I’ve read about.

Needless to say, for reasons that are clearly my own, ‘Virgin Territory’ was an excruciating read. I found that I couldn’t go on past the halfway mark, not because I don’t like Riley’s style, but because the subject matter put me off too much.


The Negotiator by HelenKayDimon

The Negotiator by HelenKayDimonThe Negotiator by HelenKay Dimon
Series: Games People Play #2.5
Published by Avon Impulse on November 14th 2017
Pages: 128
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Lauren Gallagher’s life changed almost three years ago. After her husband disappeared at sea, she was left with a failing pleasure boat company and more than a few secrets. Now, after years spent rebuilding the business and paying off the pile of debts, she finally feels in control. But when she finds her husband, actually dead, on the floor, she becomes the leading suspect in his murder investigation.

Garrett McGrath wants Lauren in his bed, not his heart. He doesn’t do emotions, but every time he sees her, holding himself back gets harder and harder. When Lauren comes under suspicion for killing her previously presumed-dead husband, he knows he has to help her, any way he can.

But as the danger becomes more intense and Garret and Lauren grow closer than either planned, they’re in danger of losing everything…including their hearts.

HelenKay Dimon’s ‘Games People Play’ series is an odd one. Mostly about men who’d grown up disenfranchised, emotionally stunted but wealthy, their HEAs come in such unexpected ways that I don’t really know what to expect in each book. And that arguably, can either be the series’ selling point or its glaring flaw, because it hasn’t quite worked too well for me so far.

Having seen Garrett flit in and out of the series and from the odd, charming way he’d done so, I’ve known from the start that I wanted his story told. But ‘The Negotiator’ was however, a disappointing one—all the more so because I was hoping for a more heart-pounding ride—and I struggled quite a bit to get into it. I’m not too sure what it was, but there was something about the way the narrative—nothing with Dimon’s writing style really—unfolded that just couldn’t hold my attention. There were just insufficient spikes/drops and excitement to keep my interest in the story, a lack of driving focus slowing the pace down even, from the odd way it started to the way it developed with so many details and names stuffed into the first few pages.

I couldn’t finish the story as a result and perhaps it’s also time to say that this series isn’t one I’ll be continuing any longer.


Head Coach by Lia Riley

Head Coach by Lia RileyHead Coach by Lia Riley
Series: Hellions Angels #2
Published by Avon Impulse on November 21st 2017
Pages: 158
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Neve Angel’s life is all work and no play, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. One of Denver’s top sports reporters, she's fought hard to make it in a male-dominated world, and she won’t back down from a fight with anyone–not even the Hellions’ gruff head coach, Tor Gunnar. Her hostile relationship with the icy Scandinavian is the stuff of local legend.

Tor Gunnar hates dealing with the media; at best, they are a nuisance and at worst, a distraction. And no one distracts him more than the scrappy, sexy reporter who gets him hot under the collar. When he wins a not-so-friendly bet with Neve, he decides it’s high time they either kiss or kill each other, and invites her as a date to an out-of-town wedding.

But what happens when enemies become lovers? Will they be able to smother their sizzling attraction, or is it time to start playing for keeps?

‘Head Coach’ is a enemies to lovers romance—a favourite trope of mine—with a conflict built into ‘opposing’ careers: a sports journalist and the celebrity coach of a famous team who have certainly done enough egging and prodding each side over the years. So it was more than fun to watch that relationship flip on its head one weekend as Tor Gunnar and Neve Angel suddenly waded into uncharted but scorching hot territory.

Yet this conflict that had conveniently put them in opposing camps now worked against their relationship past that infamous weekend—I did cringe at how reactive Neve could get sometimes—though Lia Riley does get through it a little too easily before this rather short story closed on their HEA. But apart from the all-too-convenient resolution that seemed to come out of nowhere that made it all the more unbelievable as a quick resolution, ‘Head Coach’ was still an easy read with the angst kept at a minimum and the immaturity metre dialled to low.

I do like Lia Riley’s writing as well; it reminds me of the assured style of Tessa Bailey complete with the dirty-talking alpha males while her characters sometimes get into unexpected situations that came out of the blue.

‘Head Coach’ is my first Lia Riley story and it definitely wouldn’t be my last.


Bad For Her by Christi Barth

Bad For Her by Christi BarthBad for Her by Christi Barth
Series: Bad Boys Gone Good #1
Published by Avon Impulse on October 3rd 2017
Pages: 432
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Doctor Mollie Vickers loves the tight-knit community of her tiny Oregon town. But she’s not a fan of the limited dating options. Sleep with a guy who tried to copy off her in junior high? Pass. Mollie’s sex life is flatlining… until a deliciously handsome man she’s never seen before stops to help her fix a flat tire.

As an ex-mobster, Rafe Maguire’s no saint. But he’s trying to turn over a new leaf. Although he probably shouldn’t kiss the hot doctor on the side of the highway. Or suggest a no-strings fling with a woman he has no business pursuing. Rafe’s life is too complicated for love—his new WITSEC-provided identity doesn’t fit him at all and there’s a U.S. Marshal watching his every move. He can’t tell Mollie the truth… but their chemistry is scorching and being good doesn’t mean he can’t be a little bad.

Mollie can’t resist the guy who looks rough, talks tough, and is loyal to the bone. But it’s obvious Rafe is keeping secrets. When the truth comes out, Mollie must decide if she could ever love an ex-mobster… or if this bad boy has truly gone good.

Three bothers in witness protection, facing nothing but uncertainty after being uprooted from the life they know, finding their own HEA a book at a time? ‘Bad For Her’’s novel premise intrigued me from the start. The originality of the blurb reeled me in immediately and Christi Barth’s marvellous storytelling took it the rest of the way.

Admittedly, I strangely found myself more interested in the brothers’ interaction with each other than I was in the romance this time around—which almost felt like an afterthought. It’s strange not to be swept up in the romance though; Mollie Vickers wasn’t a protagonist interesting enough for me to buy into the pairing, especially when she paled in contrast to the larger-than-life Rafe Maguire. Embodying the best definition of ‘bad boy’ I’ve read about in recent memory, Rafe’s loyalty to his brothers, the sacrifices he made for them and the all-round good guy that he strove to be somehow carved out a sharper silhouette of him than Mollie—and after a while, it was pretty much because of him and his brothers that I read on.

That, and the surprising, consistent thread of snide humour that ran throughout this book, courtesy of Rafe and his brothers who should have found side-jobs at comedy gigs.

In fact, the laughs kept me going and the sarcastic commentary from the characters that was either accidental or deliberate went a long way in keeping this an upbeat journey of three men stumbling around and finding their own way to survive in a whole new world so far from their comfort zone. In ‘Bad For her’, I lived through Kellan, Flynn and Rafe’s shenanigans in a town so far from the city slickers that they were, laughed at their antics, felt their paranoia and sympathised with Rafe’s efforts to keep them safe. Bottom-line is, there’s so much I love about these guys and having each of them anchor the next few books is bound to be an entertaining ride. Here’s crossing my fingers.


Friend (With Benefits) Zone by Laura Brown

Friend (With Benefits) Zone by Laura BrownFriend (With Benefits) Zone by Laura Brown
Published by Avon Impulse on June 27th 2017
Pages: 384
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I’m ridiculously attracted to my best friend.

Today is a bad day. The worst actually. After dealing with the constant manhandling that comes with being a cocktail waitress at a dive bar and surviving a date from hell, I see an eviction notice slapped on the door of my sketchy basement apartment. Great.

When my best friend Devon shows up at my door and uses his stubborn charm (emphasis on stubborn) to get me to move in with him, I give in. We’ve had about a million sleepovers since we met in the kindergarten Deaf program, but this time it’s different because I can’t stop thinking about his hard body covering mine, every single night.

I know Devon would do anything for me, but I’m afraid what I want to happen will ruin our friendship forever. And the more time we spend together in close quarters, the harder it’ll be to resist the spark of attraction I’ve always felt. But maybe it’s possible to have the best of both worlds: keep the one relationship I can’t live without and indulge in an attraction I can’t deny.

I guess the only thing we can do is try…

‘Friend (With Benefits) Zone’ started out very promising, with the blurb sounding a growing-up story of 2 deaf people trying to find their way in the world just as the notion of building a career looms large. But beyond that, I liked the idea of putting people with disabilities in the spotlight and showing that they actually do lead lives as ‘normal’ as those who don’t—and thought that this would provide a different edge to the best friends turned lovers type of read.

But with the sexual tension between Jasmine and Devon shattering so early on, the direction in which the story was going to go became rather unclear. And I found myself unpleasantly surprised when maturity (or the lack of it) came into play and formed the major part of the conflict—driven mostly by Jasmine. She started out as strongly independent, but that soon moved to bullheadedly, stupidly stubborn when she started insisting on being an island and going at it all on her own, pushing everyone else away because that was the way she wanted it to be. Not accepting help from Devon and her closest friends (then have them trying to reel her back in), using sex avoid the issue, vacillating between wanting Dev and wanting her own way were just signs of her irrational immaturity that frustrated me to no end, which actually went on ad nauseum to the point where I thought they should have given up on her because there was no getting her to see reason.

As much as Devon’s desire to help her and support her in everything, he did come across as somewhat spineless towards the end, when he needed to leave Jasmine on her own for her to finally come to her senses. Instead, he couldn’t quite let her go or do a complete break, even when he had his own share of dodging the intended career path that his family wanted for him throughout. In fact, I needed to see that Jasmine wanted their relationship Devon even if she had nothing to her name. But because Devon had arranged it such that she could have her bar and own it (with the startup costs included as a loan), it felt as though it was only with her future secured and in place that it was easy to get back with him.

This constant push-pull vibe that got stronger, as well as the anti-climatic ending did, unfortunately, grate on me. I couldn’t quite shrug away how much I disliked the characters by the end and this sadly, tanked the whole story for me.


Holding Out for a Hero by Codi Gary

Holding Out for a Hero by Codi GaryHolding Out for a Hero by Codi Gary
Series: Men in Uniform, #3
Published by Avon Impulse on November 8th 2016
Pages: 384
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He wasn’t looking for love...
Two years after the death of his wife, Sergeant Blake Kline is still hurting. He isn’t ready to date, but whenever he stops by his local diner and sees the friendly smile of his favorite waitress, he feels a spark of true happiness again. And when her life is unexpectedly threatened, Blake discovers his feelings for her might not be as platonic as he thought.
She was holding out for the hero of her dreams...
Bookworm Hannah York has always been a hopeless romantic—preferring book boyfriends to blind dates—and she’s been day-dreaming about Blake since the moment he came into her diner. She’s convinced they’ll never be more than friends... until Blake kisses her and “weak in the knees” becomes more than just a line from her favorite romance novel. The closer Blake and Hannah get, however, the harder he fights to keep her at a distance.
But forever has a way of sneaking up on you...
When their blossoming relationship takes a complicated turn, Blake will have to face his past… or risk losing Hannah forever.

‘Holding out for a hero’ seems a bit of a misnomer for a book that’s centred around a widower trying to live and love again and a shy, head-in-the-clouds woman who is insistent on seeing him as the hero he isn’t quite.

But if I could appreciate the fact that Blake and Hannah are neither players nor people who flit from a partner to another, I did find myself struggling with their characterisation—more the latter than the former—that made them hard to connect with. As much as I could sympathise with Blake’s inability to move on from his wife’s death, his blowing hot and cold along with Hannah’s passive-aggressive behaviour frustrated me as both walked into this relationship that always seemed to take a step forward and two steps back. Much of the story followed this trend from the start, as Blake finds himself wanting Hannah but unwilling to put himself out there again as Hannah gets annoyed over the slightest thing and retaliates by giving him the cold shoulder.

For most of it, I was wondering if she was ever going to adjust her own unrealistic expectations as she held Blake to her own impossible standards, but that never really happened. Instead, she did the same thing—running away and not facing up to the problem at hand—that she’d constantly accused Blake of doing. Irrational and annoying, too self-indulgently emotional and cowardly when it mattered most, I found Hannah difficult to like as a heroine way more than I could connect with Blake and his own issues. More importantly however, I found myself uncomfortable with the implication that grieving and mourning should happen within a fixed period of time as seen by the amount of insistent cajoling and pushing everyone did to get Blake out of his funk and right into his own HEA, even if it seemed Blake couldn’t face his own reality after 2 years.

With a rushed reconciliation and an even quicker fast-forward to their big family HEA, ‘Holding out for a hero’ might be for those who stand firmly in Hannah’s shoes (in essence, those who firmly need that HEA that spares no expense); unfortunately, it isn’t quite for me.


Mixing Temptation by Sara Jane Stone

Mixing Temptation by Sara Jane StoneMixing Temptation by Sara Jane Stone
Series: Second Shot #3
Published by Avon Impulse on September 13th 2016
Pages: 192
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After a year spent living in hiding—with no end in sight—Caroline Andrews wants to reclaim her life. But the lingering trauma from her days serving with the marines leaves her afraid to trust the tempting logger who delivers friendship and the promise of something more.

Following an accident that nearly robbed him of his hopes for the future, Josh Summers believes life has given him a second chance. He wants to settle down with the woman who stole his attention and his heart. And he’s willing to wait until she’s ready to be more than “just friends.” When fear of discovery leaves Caroline pretending to be his date, Josh tempts her to try the real thing—a relationship built on trust, not lies.

But then the past threatens and Caroline must risk everything—including her freedom—to bury her demons before she can take a chance on happy-ever-after.

Easily the most outstanding of the series, ‘Mixing Temptation’ deals with trauma and its very difficult aftermath. The hair trigger here is sexual assault and the very frank and brutal tacit admission that justice isn’t fully served even in fiction because of victim-blaming, masochistic attitude that is too rife in the military service – a fact that I can and do appreciate.

Both Josh and Caroline have suffered in different ways but Sara Jane Stone has written both their characters in such a sensitive manner that I can’t help but like both of them immensely in the slow, gradual build-up of their relationship. Josh’s good-natured patience and optimism – the all-round good guy can and does wins – is in fact, a perfect counter to Caroline’s wariness and broken past. I like their honesty with each other from the beginning and Josh’s perfect (almost preternatural) timing probably lifts him way above many heaving, neanderthal alpha romantic leads because in this very rare case, the beta-guy actually gets the girl. The conflict that arises between them has little to do with their developing relationship and more to do with a situation which subsequently forces Caroline to do something about her AWOL status. Seeing Josh’s and the rest of the gang’s unwavering support ultimately turns the story into a feel-good one with a well-deserved ending for the both of them.

I did feel though, that there was an aspect of the story that was left hanging – Helena’s own experience with sexual violence and Ryan’s none-too-brotherly concern for her – towards the end of the story. Ms. Stone doesn’t address this part beyond using it as a catalyst for Caroline to turn herself in and I found myself wondering about what could be another potential pairing that was never explored, all the more so considering this is the final installment of the series.