Publisher: Avon Impulse

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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two-stars

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.

two-stars

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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four-stars

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.

four-stars

Torch by Karen Erickson

Torch by Karen EricksonTorch by Karen Erickson
Series: Wildwood #3
Published by Avon Impulse on August 16th 2016
Pages: 336
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three-stars

Most women swoon over Tate’s devilish grin and firefighter uniform. But Wren couldn’t be less impressed by his good looks and flirtatious banter—in fact, she seems to downright despise him. She thinks he’s a player, but his attraction to her is no game. Wren is unlike anyone he’s ever known and he isn’t about to let the feisty, gorgeous woman slip through his fingers. Wooing Wren would be so much easier if she didn’t hate him…
Or does she?

Wren Gallagher’s and Tate Warren’s story has been teased about in Karen Erickson’s previous books and I was eager for this frenemies-in-lust trope to come to fruition here. To some extent, I wasn’t disappointed, because ‘Torch’ did exceed my expectation when it came to resolving Wren’s and Tate’s initial impressions of each other and how it progressed onto something more…precipitated by friends’ gatherings, an ex and a case of arson that left Wren with close to nothing.

Even as these events provided interesting twists and turns to the story, they don’t exactly amount to much by the time we reach the end of the book. There is an ongoing case of arson that’s been the constant thread in the Wildwood books, yet nothing comes out of it here, which I found disappointing. Wren’s house goes up in flames but the ongoing investigations fade into the background as the rocky, slow-burn relationship between Wren and Tate is prioritised. The ex-boyfriends returns, and barely forms a credible threat before slinking away, the overprotective brother-behaviour is taken a notch too high and Wren’s own half-formed plans to move away are not addressed fully enough, not even by the end. Those bits were let-downs to me, particularly because the last three-quarters of the book felt contrived, as though Wren’s overreaction was writ-large simply to provide a source of conflict (and climax) – as the large obstacle a couple needs to go through before they’re baptised by fire – before ending abruptly with nothing in the arson case resolved at all. Perhaps ‘Torch’ could have gone from a decent to stellar read had Erickson tightened the loose threads that were hung up so tantalisingly in the beginning, so that I didn’t feel as though I was reading only half a book with the pages ripped out of the other half.

But for shorties like this, the lead characters do drive the plot and I did think Wren was relatable, and her desire to make something more of her life resonated with me except for the last bit that seemed completely out of character for her. I felt much less for Tate though because I couldn’t quite decide if he was a player or someone who was trying to shrug off that label. All Erickson makes clear is that he wants Wren, but never quite provides an impetus other than the idea that she is a challenge for someone who never had to fight for a woman before.

There’s of course, a HEA – an albeit rushed one – but it’s all but left me wondering if ‘Torch’ closes this series or if there’s more in the works, because so much of it still feels incomplete.

three-stars

Stirring Attraction by Sara Jane Stone

Stirring Attraction by Sara Jane StoneStirring Attraction by Sara Jane Stone
Series: Second Shot #2
Published by Avon Impulse on June 7th 2016
Pages: 256
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three-stars

When Dominic Fairmore left Oregon to be all he could be as an Army Ranger, he always knew he’d come back to claim Lily Greene. But after six years away and three career-ending bullets, Dominic is battered, broken, and nobody's hero—so he stays away. Until he learns Lily has been the victim of a seemingly random attack. He’ll do anything to keep her safe . . . even go home.
Lily is starting to find a life without Dominic when suddenly her wounded warrior is home and playing bodyguard—though all she really wants is for him to take her. But she refuses to play the part of a damsel in distress, no matter how much she misses his tempting touch. He’ll leave as soon as she’s safe and Lily knows her heart will never heal.
But as attraction stirs to so much more, danger closes in. With more than Lily’s heart at stake, Dominic can no longer draw a line between protecting Lily and loving her . . .

Well then.

When a man returns home, near completely broken only because the woman he loves faces a threat, what’s she to do when the motivation to keep her safe is the only thing that will keep him where she needs him to be?

I’m a little torn here because I loved the absolute devotion Lily and Dominic showed each other even when they were apart – the sheer lack of this these days makes their hold on each other all the more precious – but that is pretty much all the story is about: Dominic working through his stubborn ‘I’m not the man you need’ beliefs while Lily fights her own push and pull factors when it comes to the love of her life. I did think however, that the suspense was somewhat weak and looked on the verge of escalating but never quite did, yet was enough to be the catalyst to bring them together once more. Some transitions and dialogue didn’t seem to flow too well, but I’d attribute it to Sara Jane Stone’s particular way of writing that I couldn’t exactly get used to.

In short, I’m mixed about the story as a whole, but Lily/Dominic will still go down in memory for being the couple to stick together even when they never quite were.

three-stars

Ignite by Karen Erickson

Ignite by Karen EricksonIgnite by Karen Erickson
Series: Wildwood #1
Published by Avon Impulse on March 15th 2016
Pages: 288
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two-stars

Weston Gallagher is falling hard-for the wrong woman.One night of passion has haunted him for years.Now he’s got a second chance to get the girl of his dreams…but there’s just one problem:She hates him.
Eight years after he stormed out of Wildwood, California, West has returned to his hometown as a firefighter. His friends and family are thrilled he’s back-with the exception of Harper Hill. His best friend’s sister is all grown up and in all the right ways. He knows she’s going to do everything she can to protect her heart and keep him at arm’s length, but West has other ideas.
He will win the girl that got away. No matter what it takes…

A blast from the past returns, but there isn’t much of a spine in either protagonist to work things out between them, leaving us with the same ol’ spiel of ‘sex only’ while secretly harbouring thoughts of more. I wished Harper had stood up a bit more for herself when it came to West’s appalling behaviour, who, unfortunately, isn’t helping his case by being one of the most wimpy male leads I’ve had the dubious honour of reading about.

But the rocky transition from sex to a proper relationship wasn’t a believable journey; rather, Harper and Weston’s sudden coming together by the end seemed to happen only because of a bad case of panic after an arson-case at a bar. Both didn’t seem to be characters I’d put an approval stamp on, but strangely enough, what ‘Ignite’ really did for me was the introduction of its secondary characters that look way more interesting than the main pairing…and whose stories I’d be waiting for.

two-stars

Serving Trouble by Sara Jane Stone

Serving Trouble by Sara Jane StoneServing Trouble by Sara Jane Stone
Series: Second Shot, #1
Published by Avon Impulse on April 12th 2016
Pages: 304
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two-stars

Five years ago, Josie Fairmore left timber country in search of a bright future. Now she's back home with a mountain of debt and reeling from a loss that haunts her. Desperate for a job, she turns to the one man she wishes she could avoid. The man who rocked her world one wild night and then walked right out of it.
Former Marine Noah Tager is managing his dad's bar and holding tight to the feeling that his time overseas led to failure. The members of his small town think he's a war hero, but after everything he's witnessed, Noah doesn't want a pat on the back. The only thing he desires is a second chance with his best friend's little sister.
Josie's determined to hold onto her heart and not repeat her mistakes, but when danger arrives on Noah's doorstep and takes aim at Josie, they just might discover that sometimes love is worth the risk.

‘Serving Trouble’ seems to find a way around the second chance romance + the best friend’s forbidden sister trope by adding a lot of occurrences, issues and side-plots to mess up the main characters’ road to happy ever after, to the point where I found the plot a trip on a merry-go-round to nowhere.

There’s the constant thread of withholding emotions and holding back for the fear of getting hurt and/or not being worthy enough to offer anything when it came to what really mattered; the emotional game that Josie and Noah played with each other – even unwittingly so – got tiresome quickly because neither side dared to make a commitment at all or talked it out in a mature fashion in a way I’d expected. Instead, the words ‘jerk’ and ‘hero’ had been used so often that it left me wondering about the amount of dignity and self-respect I’d like to see in a story’s protagonists. Mired in their own set of problems, Josie and Noah do battle realistic issues in a small town, yet there was never a sense of this pairing belonging solidly to each other at all. I wished I could say I found the start to this spin-off series a compelling one, but this just didn’t do it for me.

two-stars

When We Kiss by Darcy Burke

When We Kiss by Darcy BurkeWhen We Kiss by Darcy Burke
Series: Ribbon Ridge #5
Published by Avon Impulse on February 16th 2016
Pages: 400
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two-stars

Denver real estate mogul, Liam Archer, has always been a thrill-seeker, and the loss of his identical twin brother has only intensified his reckless behavior. Sky diving, heli-skiing, motorcycle riding…he’s tried everything once. Except falling in love. Liam doesn’t do relationships, but a no-strings fling with Aubrey Tallinger—the smart, gorgeous lawyer handling his brother’s estate—is totally his speed.
At first, hooking up with Liam whenever he’s in Ribbon Ridge is perfect; but Aubrey fears she could fall hard for the sexy daredevil, if he’d only stop refusing to acknowledge the demons he’s trying to outrun. To protect herself from heartbreak, Aubrey ends their affair. But this time, Liam isn’t leaving town and instead of seduction, he wants to be…friends.
The white hot attraction between them still sizzles but Liam knows that winning Aubrey back won’t happen in his bed. He’ll have to convince her that he’s more than the careless, adrenaline junkie she believes him to be. Because when they kiss, Liam feels whole again… and he isn’t ready to give her up without a fight.

Perhaps it’s unfair that ‘When We Kiss’ is taking the brunt of my frustration with the formulaic tropes that are tossed out so easily when it comes to characterisation.

There’re a lot of family-type interactions which I’d normally appreciate for the different dynamics, but I took immediate offence at the selfish and reckless behaviour of the male lead, whose actions showed nothing of concern for others but himself – even if he attributes it to repressing his twin brother’s death which I found it even harder to swallow. But for this man-child (who miraculously still manages to be a player), Darcy Burke has at least chosen a passable heroine who nevertheless, still crumbles at his every touch, despite her determination to resist him. Liam Archer was a ‘hero’ whose shallows I was not inspired to plumb and many times, I wondered why Aubrey even bothered.

I was hard-pressed to continue with the story, let alone get invested in this pairing, as disappointed as I was with these characters.

two-stars