Publisher: Avon

Playing For Keeps by Jill Shalvis

Playing For Keeps by Jill ShalvisPlaying for Keeps by Jill Shalvis
Series: Heartbreaker Bay, #7
Published by Avon on 22nd January 2019
Pages: 384
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two-stars


If you’re planning on falling in love…

When it comes to the confident, charismatic Caleb Parker, Sadie Lane feels the spark—the kind that comes from rubbing each other the wrong way. She’s a tattoo artist, he’s a straight-laced mogul. But after they accidentally co-rescue an abandoned dog from a storm, Sadie sees a vulnerable side to the seemingly invincible hottie.

you’d better be sure…

Caleb doesn’t do emotions. Growing up the underdog, he’s learned the hard way to build up an impenetrable wall. Perfect for business. Disastrous for relationships. He’s never worried about it before—not until he finally gets behind Sadie’s armor and begins to fall.

… someone is there to catch you.

Both guarded and vulnerable, Sadie and Caleb are complete opposites. Or are they? Shocked at their undeniable connection, can they ever admit to wanting more? That all depends on what they’re each willing to risk.

Co-parenting an abandoned dog is what brings Sadie Lane and Caleb Parker together in Jill Shalvis’s ongoing ‘Heartbreaker Bay’ series—one that I had no idea would be going on and on and on.

And much of ‘Playing For Keeps’ is about bringing down the walls that Sadie has built after an emo-filled teenage-hood and adult-life, complete with barbs, pushing away and a whole lot of questioning when the man for her finally rolls around the corner with his own special brand of baggage that he’s already overcome.

In essence, ‘Playing For Keeps’ is built upon a push-pull between Sadie and Caleb: the former is an expert at lashing out, self-sabotaging good things and running away, while the latter’s supposed proclaiming that he’d been falling for her with her for over a year yet hooking up with other women in the meantime over the past few months (maybe I’m the only one with this hang-up?) didn’t quite make them a couple I could really stand behind.

But in Shalvis’s gentle exploration of emotional self-harm and the scars that don’t really fade is also the implicit message of getting a guy who pursues you no matter how deep your issues run and puts himself out there for you until you finally soften and give in…well, that’s the core of romantic fiction that’s always been the age-old draw for readers. That much I appreciate, as much as the light-hearted storytelling that Shalvis excels at: emotions are drawn out, though not overly so and conflict is resolved as quickly as they come, leaving just gentle waves that lap at the shore that do no lasting harm, so to speak.

Yet I think the Heartbreaker Bay series is losing its sheen for me. I couldn’t find it in myself to get excited over Sadie/Caleb, even though Shalvis’s writing is as buoyant and rom-com pitch perfect as I remember. Other than the small, irksome bits I can’t seem to let go of when it comes to the characters in question, the anthropomorphising of animals (something that Shalvis does a fair bit) where a pet’s behaviour is tailored to tug at every ‘cute’ heartstring is only something I can take in small amounts.

I’m guessing that ‘Playing For Keeps’ is something a devoted Shalvis fan will enjoy and I did wish that it’d worked better for me.

two-stars

Fix Her Up by Tessa Bailey

Fix Her Up by Tessa BaileyFix Her Up by Tessa Bailey
Series: Hot & Hammered #1
Published by Avon on 11th June 2019
Pages: 400
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two-stars

Georgette Castle’s family runs the best home renovation business in town, but she picked balloons instead of blueprints and they haven’t taken her seriously since. Frankly, she’s over it. Georgie loves planning children’s birthday parties and making people laugh, just not at her own expense. She’s determined to fix herself up into a Woman of the World... whatever that means.

Phase one: new framework for her business (a website from this decade, perhaps?)
Phase two: a gut-reno on her wardrobe (fyi, leggings are pants.)
Phase three: updates to her exterior (do people still wax?)
Phase four: put herself on the market (and stop crushing on Travis Ford!)

Living her best life means facing the truth: Georgie hasn’t been on a date since, well, ever. Nobody’s asking the town clown out for a night of hot sex, that’s for sure. Maybe if people think she’s having a steamy love affair, they’ll acknowledge she’s not just the “little sister” who paints faces for a living. And who better to help demolish that image than the resident sports star and tabloid favorite?

Travis Ford was major league baseball’s hottest rookie when an injury ended his career. Now he’s flipping houses to keep busy and trying to forget his glory days. But he can’t even cross the street without someone recapping his greatest hits. Or making a joke about his… bat. And then there's Georgie, his best friend’s sister, who is not a kid anymore. When she proposes a wild scheme—that they pretend to date, to shock her family and help him land a new job—he agrees. What’s the harm? It’s not like it’s real. But the girl Travis used to tease is now a funny, full-of-life woman and there’s nothing fake about how much he wants her...

Some time has passed since I’ve put my nose in a Tessa Bailey read and it’s only a reminder how assured Bailey is with words. Though I’ll be the first to say that her stories can be a hit or miss for me.

I wavered on ‘Fix Her Up’ despite the cute blurb. Tackling the brother’s best-friend, fake dating trope (crossed with the manwhore/guileless virgin one which I didn’t expect and detested), it actually started off pretty damn well, then turned predictably cringeworthy because the blurb hadn’t quite revealed the intricacies of the characters that could make or break the story for me.

Georgie had always been overlooked, or rather, looked at as the annoying and forgotten little sister, the one who never mattered enough to be other than that label. Worse yet, she’d spent her entire life in love with the famous homegrown baseball player who’s now a failure and a washout while he hopped into bed with as many women as he could while leading that famous sportsman lifestyle, then helps him indirectly pick up the pieces when he comes home wallowing in self-pity. In fact, I felt sorry for her for getting short-changed in so many ways but liked her for being the somewhat quirky, pushing-back-sort of girl who made the best she could of her situation.

Some dick-waving in the face of male competition and fake dating and some machinations later…well, their story goes as you’d expect as Travis Ford somehow manages to see past what he’d always thought of as the best friend’s pesky sister because she made him laugh and talk again and want things beyond the physical. Having his well-earned reputation thrown in my face repeatedly however, even if it was to show superficial his conquests and hundreds of one-night stands were didn’t help this while she pined afar. That Georgie—comfortable in her own clothing—seemed to have needed a makeover before Travis could see her as someone to lust after was a bothersome reminder that her looks ultimately mattered as well.

Travis’s lack of commitment was mentioned to many times and the reason for that was also given as an insecure childhood, and predictably, both his and Georgie’s issues came to the fore, or rather, where it hurt the most at the climax, after which the typical grovelling started—when the manwhore suddenly became a family, committed man out of the blue after a bit of self-talk and self-actualisation.

‘Fix Her Up’ is a classic Bailey read, nonetheless. I could power through the pages because of a writing style that I am comfortable with; my own complaints about the tropes are my own prejudices showing up here.

two-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

Beautiful Sinner by Sophie Jordan

Beautiful Sinner by Sophie JordanBeautiful Sinner by Sophie Jordan
Series: Devil's Rock #5
Published by Avon on 30th October 2018
Pages: 368
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two-stars

Locked in with the town bad boy . . .

Most women would be scared, but Gabriella’s only worried about resisting Cruz Walsh, who’s even hotter than he was back in high school. Cruz was wrongly accused of the high-profile crime for which he was imprisoned; Gabriella’s desperate for the scoop that will get her career off the ground and get her out of Sweet Hill, where everyone still remembers her as “Flabby Gabby.” Being stuck in a supply closet with Cruz is the perfect opportunity to land an interview. What Bri doesn’t count on is Cruz taking “up-close and personal” to a whole new level.

If there’s a silver lining to the hell Cruz went through, it’s that losing his freedom put everything in perspective. Maybe starting over someplace new would be easier, but after years locked up, Cruz values his family—and his true friends—more than ever. So he’s back home, facing the gossip, dodging reporters . . . and face-to-face with Gabriella Rossi. They’ve both changed: Bri wants a story and Cruz just wants her. Another thing he’s learned? Don’t let a good thing slip away.

Sophie Jordan’s ‘Devil’s Rock’ series is not an easy one to pin down. I’ve been mixed on these books, but keep on going back because I like the premise of how her protagonists pick themselves up again after life kicks them down. And what best demonstrates this spiral than time in prison, where things can only go up from then onwards?

‘Beautiful Sinner’ is just that: a wrongly-accused man who’s free but who can’t escape his past, paired with a woman who happens to want him…and something from him. There’s little else, apart from a huge preoccupation with the heroine’s body issues, and pages and pages trying to ramp up sexual tension before Cruz and Gabriella fall into bed which then later turns supposedly into love, so much so that the story could have been cut in half and still been told satisfactorily.

There’s also an intensely N/A feel to it, if that’s your thing: the flashbacks, the innumerable self-image issues that Gabriella faced, the inability to get past those teenage years with peripheral characters behaving like stereotypical mean-girls, the journey of self-discovery along the way…all of which had me turning the pages wondering if I’d fallen into high school or college drama without meaning to.

The baffling bit is a small bit of history over a decade ago that Cruz apparently can’t forget—a make-out session with a mystery girl who did a Cinderalla-move on him where she pretended to be someone else, before disappearing for a long time. Yet what tossed my suspension of disbelief out of the window however, was the painfully ridiculous notion that Cruz, at that time (even as a manwhore), couldn’t tell the difference between girls in total darkness (they’re not the same size!) as they made out. That this particular night was given so much weighty significance 12 years later left me incredulous (most people barely remember such things), because well, I’d thought that life experience and a myriad of memories in the intervening years would have long overshadowed that night that both apparently could never forget.

It’s also hard to deal with a heroine so insecure about her own body and so downtrodden in so many ways, seeking validation in every small compliment she can get. Even harder yet to deal with is the way Gabriella had made Cruz out to be the one and only man who could persuade her with sex so different and so out-of-the-world from her other boyfriends. (It certainly helps that Cruz only wants her type of body) Body-image issues are hard to deal with—this much I acknowledge. But to read how it becomes all-consuming where a heroine can’t believe anyone would want her, let alone a man with a smoking hot body pushes it too far even for me.

I think I was looking for more to this story but never quite got it, until way past the halfway mark when the conflict finally kicked in. It was only then when things got more interesting, though by which time, I was a little too ready to throw in the towel.

two-stars

Disturbing His Peace by Tessa Bailey

Disturbing His Peace by Tessa BaileyDisturbing His Peace by Tessa Bailey
Series: The Academy #3
Published by Avon on April 24th 2018
Pages: 384
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four-stars


She’s got probable cause to make her move . . .

Danika Silva can’t stand Lt. Greer Burns. Her roommate’s older brother may be sexy as hell, but he’s also a cold, unfeeling robot. She just wants to graduate and forget about her scowling superior. But when a dangerous mistake lands Danika on probation—under Greer’s watch—she’s forced to interact with the big, hulking jerk. Call him daily to check in? Done. Ride shotgun in his cruiser every night? Done. Try not to climb into his giant, muscular lap and kiss him? Umm…

Greer doesn’t let anythingor anyone—distract him from the job. Except lately, all he can think about is Danika. He’s wanted the beautiful, cocky recruit since the moment he saw her. But she’s reckless and unpredictable, and Greer is painfully aware of what can happen when an officer doesn’t follow the rules. Probation seemed like a good idea, but now Danika’s scent is in his car and he’s replayed her voicemails twenty times. Christ, he’s a goner.

Danika’s melting Greer’s stone-cold exterior one ride-along at a time. Being together could have serious consequences… but breaking a few rules never hurt anybody, right?

In the first 2 books, Tessa Bailey teased us with this simmering tension between Greer and Danika, so the final installment of The Academy series is one that I’d been impatiently waiting for. And as I’d expected of Bailey, Greer/Danika’s story is volatile but scorching, with the requisite bouts of self-doubt and angst, as Greer (the hardass) Burns finally meets his match when recruit Danika Silva gets under his skin.

Like all of Bailey’s males, Greer magically turned into alpha-aggressive, dirty-talking man in bed, though this much I’ve already come to expect of him. But while it was fun to read about the prim and buttoned-up Lieutenant lose his cool, I actually preferred and liked the tortured soul that Bailey showed here, as much as I liked the cold exterior that he displayed to the world because his layers went that much deeper.

In contrast, I’d been unable to get a grasp on Danika’s character from the past 2 books, but I’d been hesitant to see Greer/Danika as a pairing when the latter had come across as cocky, impetuous and rebellious without a cause simply because her buttons were pushed by a stone-cold Lieutenant. Yet the Danika here seemed so more likeable and understandable as Bailey un-peels the layers from her: she is the responsible caretaker, the reliable and dependable one who takes people’s burdens because she can, until it becomes both a crutch and a source of pride. In this way, Danika was who Greer needed, though it did, predictably, come to a point when Danika tried to take too much on her shoulders and ended up in danger because of it.

So to this extent, ‘Disturbing his Peace’ doesn’t disappoint.

But Bailey’s stories do follow a pattern: the meet/greet, the hot and steamy, the emotional sharing, the conflict (and temporary breakup) and the grovelling/HEA. To say that I dreaded the conflict is an understatement, because it was sniffable a mile away.

The issues I had, apart from the implausibility that a department would grant an instructor/recruit leeway for being together, was that the blame for their conflict late in the story seemed to be laid solely on Greer’s feet as though Danika had nothing to make amends for when she actually needed to own the mistake she made. There were clearly lessons to learn on both sides—and issues to be sorted out—and despite this, I felt that Danika hadn’t put enough of herself out there at the end, despite all the lip-service she’d paid to the sentiment earlier on in the book. I thought she was too quick to write Greer off, too impatient in expecting a lot out of a man who’d closed himself up for years, and too hard-headed to be understanding at the point where Greer had needed her most.

That said though, ‘Disturbing his Peace’ is an easy read, never straying into the heavy angst under Bailey’s excellent handling of her characters’ emotional states. For that reason alone, I keep coming back—though it’s harder in this particular case, to say goodbye to this series that had drawn me in from the start.

four-stars

True to You by Jennifer Ryan

True to You by Jennifer RyanTrue to You by Jennifer Ryan
Series: Montana Heat #2
Published by Avon on February 27th 2018
Pages: 384
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three-half-stars

A Montana Man risks everything for the woman he loves . . .

Undercover DEA Special Agent Dawson King spent five months in a Montana prison establishing a fake identity to take down a ruthless drug dealer and put him behind bars. Except there’s a wild card . . . the killer’s beloved daughter. Cara Potter may appear to be on the right side of the law, but King has learned the hard way to trust no one—even someone as tantalizing as the coffee shop owner. She’s irresistible . . . but is she also dangerous?

From the moment he enters her life, King makes Cara . . . nervous. The handsome drifter says he wants to get his life together . . . but there is something about him that doesn’t quite ring true. Cara wants to believe in him, yet she holds back despite the way he awakens dormant dreams and leaves her breathless with his sexy smile, steamy kisses, his every touch.

When the explosive truth comes out and she’s betrayed by the ones she loves, Cara must decide—can she trust her heart, or should she listen to her head?

Sometimes book covers can be deceiving, which do a great disservice to the stories in them. What looks like a cowboy romance is in fact, a romantic suspense (yay for me) novel that I would have missed out if I hadn’t taken the time to pick the blurb apart.

Jennifer Ryan is a new author to me, but ‘True to You’ is a fantastic introduction to her writing style; the story is an articulate read, done for most part, in a way where I didn’t find myself bored or skimming through what I usually call ‘filler pages’.

Cara and King were relatable protagonists and good together, and Ryan certainly didn’t waste any time setting up the scene for their paths to intersect. The on-the-edge, delicious tension between them tightened with each fine line that King crossed, as he desperately juggled his attraction to Cara and his work, while trying to be the good guy in the whole thing. But the usual problem with undercover work as a plot device is as always, the extent and depth of the deception (no matter how King tried to mitigate the damage) that cuts to the core, particularly when Cara paid yet again for it, with her already eroded trust in people who had betrayed her in the past.

The story was a little roundabout however—I did have some questions swirling around that weren’t satisfactorily addressed from the start, as were the lack of differentiation of speech/characters at times—and it did take me a while to unravel the facts on my own and get the whole plot straight before I could fully get on board with it. There were also several repetitive lines profiling the characters that didn’t feel necessary, as was the choppy pacing towards the end.

The climax happened at the 3/4 mark, leaving quite a long resolution that was filled with angst, inner monologues and huge emotional turmoil in both Cara and King, the latter of whom seemed to have ‘softened’ so much from the hardline, driven guy we saw in the breathtaking first few chapters. I’d hoped to see more action—more DEA agents scurrying around and King working in his element—in my romantic suspense reads in any case, which simply stopped after the climax took place after a short build-up. Also, with King referred to as ‘Flash’ and ‘Dawson’ as well, then Bennett as ‘Jay’ (all in the same scene) so the name changes threw me off sometimes.

‘True to You’ was in all, a good read, though not a perfect one. Still, Ryan is someone I’d be looking out for the next time something of hers gets published.

three-half-stars

Hurts to Love You by Alisha Rai

Hurts to Love You by Alisha RaiHurts to Love You by Alisha Rai
Series: Forbidden Hearts #3
Published by Avon on March 27th 2018
Pages: 384
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four-stars

Heiress Evangeline Chandler knows how to keep a secret . . . like her life-long crush on the tattooed hottie who just happens to be her big brother’s friend. She’s a Chandler, after all, and Chandlers don’t hook up with the help. Then again, they also don’t disobey their fathers and quit their respectable jobs, so good-girl rules may no longer apply.

Gabriel Hunter hides the pain of his past behind a smile, but he can’t hide his sudden attraction to his friend’s sheltered little sister. Eve is far too sweet to accept anything less than forever and there’s no chance of a future between the son of a housekeeper and the town’s resident princess.

When a wedding party forces Eve and Gabe into tight quarters, keeping their hands off each other will be as hard as keeping their clothes on. The need that draws them together is stronger than the forces that should shove them apart . . . but their sparks may not survive the explosion when long-buried secrets are finally unearthed.

For a man nearly a dozen years older than Evangeline Chandler, she’s the epitome of the forbidden fruit. The rich heiress shouldn’t fraternise with the housekeeper’s son, after all. Still, Eve had barely registered on Gabe Hunter’s radar when she was younger and their few meetings since then when the families feuded meant that he’d got even fewer glimpse of the Baby Chandler, until she burst back into his life suddenly. But because this is Alisha Rai—one of the reining queens of angst and emotions—‘Hurts to Love You’ is far from the Princess Bride, and instead, a meandering journey of hurt after hurt that every pairing needs to go through before getting their HEA.

Nonetheless, I was oddly charmed by Eve—the rich girl whose personality and struggles spoke the most to me. Then I thought she was one of the bravest characters I’d ever come across, from her moonlighting as a driver, to her her crazy infatuation with Gabe that made me laugh a little because it felt exactly like the innocuous things girls simply did to be close to their crushes. I loved how she tested every boundaries, courageously put herself out there in spite of Gabe’s harsh quickness in shutting down the potential between them. Rai’s nuanced writing won Eve over for me and as the title suggested, it did hurt, or at least I did, for Eve, mostly, as she went through rejection after rejection. Pain became the keyword in this book somehow, because Gabe was too caught up in his self-recrimination about his parentage and his age-issues, while Eve seemed to be the only one to fight for him when it really mattered.

Rai’s ‘Forbidden Hearts’ series is steeped deep in family drama and this installment isn’t too different. But I found it easier to get into and the whole read a more engrossing experience than the previous books, maybe because Eve/Gabe appeared initially unencumbered with the deep entanglement of family that the previous pairings seemed to be mired in from the very start. My rating of the book however, is mostly for Eve—the encapsulation of the strong heroine—and less for Gabe who seemed seemed cowardly in contrast when all he did was mostly run.

This doesn’t change the fact that ‘Hurts to Love You’ gave a good emotional workout…few books simply do those hard emotional punches that well and Rai aptly closes the series with mended but scarred hearts. The ending is as always, bittersweet, but perhaps that’s where it finds the most purchase.

four-stars