Publisher: Berkley Books

Out of Time by Monica McCarty

Out of Time by Monica McCartyOut of Time by Monica McCarty
Series: The Lost Platoon, #3
Published by Berkley Books on 31st December 2018
Pages: 384
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three-half-stars

With his men scattered to all corners of the globe after a disastrous secret op in Russia, Lieutenant Commander Scott Taylor is trying to find out who was responsible for leaking the information that killed half his platoon. Were it not for Natalie Andersson, the woman he had been secretly dating in the Pentagon who had warned him of the danger, he knows they would all be dead. Scott is devastated when he hears that the woman he loved and hoped to marry has been killed for helping him--until he learns that Natalie was the spy who betrayed them. But when his search to clear his name brings him face-to-face with a very-much-alive Natalie, Scott realizes that justice and vengeance might not be as clear-cut as he thought.

Natalie Andersson, or, as she was born, Natalya Petrova, has put the memories of her early childhood in Russia behind her. She never dreamed that she would be at the center of an elaborate "sleeper" espionage program. Even when she learns the truth, she refuses to spy for the country of her birth, until the Russians threaten the lives of the only family she has ever known. But Natalie is the worst spy in the history of spying, falling for her target. When her attempt at misdirection leads to irreversible consequences, she is forced to run for her life, with her lover hot on her tail.

At the heart of it, ‘Out of Time’ is one of assumed betrayal, even more assumptions that the protagonists have of each other and the elasticity of truth, all of which revolve around a botched mission, a missing SEAL team and questionable loyalties.

Natalie Andersson isn’t who she seems and as the story progresses, it’s evident that there’re contradictory gaps in both what Scott Taylor and Natalie believe of each other. The former’s a huffing and puffing betrayed military man, the latter? Quite possibly the worst spy in history. But the Russian sleeper agent and the elite American soldier form a pairing that’s charged with so many overtones in today’s political climate and that Monica McCarty takes it on makes ‘Out of Time’ a sort of contemporary forbidden trope and one that I really wanted to read.

By and large, I did like Nat/Scott’s story though I found the secondary couple of Colt/Kate more compelling in the whole narrative arc of lies, deceit and vengeance as the characters pursued some kind of justice for themselves and for the dead men. Dealing with 2 couples isn’t an easy feat by any means, though the focus on 4 major characters did mean less focus on each couple, which left me a feeling little short-changed about it. For all the build-up, I thought the ending was somewhat anti-climatic, with less of a bang and more than a whimper than I’d hoped. I couldn’t tell though, if there is going to be a continuation of the series or not—McCarty doesn’t give any hint of how resolved things really are—but I’m still hoping for the secondary characters to get their own books somehow.

‘Out of Time’ is not a standalone and that much becomes obvious when the opening few chapters leaned hard on prior knowledge of previous books to get the story of Natalie and Scott going. McCarty does take the effort to get any new reader up to speed however, though it’s through a certain style of storytelling that eventually got to me—this is obviously a personal nitpick.

Beyond the rather exciting prologue that was easy enough to follow, the first few chapters were a mash of telling and showing (sometimes more of the former), with a recounting of past events inserted into the protagonists’ POVs in the present timeline and thus forcing the reader to straddle a scene within a scene. As a result, I did get confused and mildly frustrated, having needed to pause multiple times to mentally untangle and piece together what had gone down, when and with whom. The use of flashbacks or at least, something more linear as a storytelling device would have worked better than the mental gymnastics it took at times.

It isn’t to say however, that ‘Out of Time’ isn’t a decent read. I thought it was the best out of McCarty’s series in fact…only that it could have been longer and a bit more drawn-out—given the scope of the story and the pairings involved—for a less abrupt ending.

three-half-stars

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

The Kiss Quotient by Helen HoangThe Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
Series: The Kiss Quotient, #1
Published by Berkley Books on 5th June 2018
Pages: 336
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three-stars

Stella Lane thinks math is the only thing that unites the universe. She comes up with algorithms to predict customer purchases--a job that has given her more money than she knows what to do with, and way less experience in the dating department than the average thirty-year-old.

It doesn't help that Stella has Asperger's and French kissing reminds her of a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish. Her conclusion: she needs lots of practice--with a professional. Which is why she hires escort Michael Phan. The Vietnamese and Swedish stunner can't afford to turn down Stella's offer, and agrees to help her check off all the boxes on her lesson plan--from foreplay to more-than-missionary position...

Before long, Stella not only learns to appreciate his kisses, but crave all of the other things he's making her feel. Their no-nonsense partnership starts making a strange kind of sense. And the pattern that emerges will convince Stella that love is the best kind of logic...

The well-heeled but socially-awkward person hiring an escort for schooling in seduction with the transaction soon turning personal isn’t a new one, but Helen Hoang puts a spin in this reverse Pretty-Woman tale that had me glued to the paged from start to end.
There’s much I like about Hoang’s debut book: the racial diversity and how some cultural norms can seem so foreign and the sensitive portrayal of people with disabilities, to start with. But I also needed to mention how much the writing shone.
It was Stella Lane however, who stood out so sharply like a diamond in the dust. A true-to-the-core heroine who deals with autism and the need for structure, the difficulty with processing emotions. And the list goes on until a fantastically-rounded character along the autism spectrum emerges: quirky, artless with no games played, truly clueless about handling people, yet really wanting to learn all she could—I loved Stella from the start, felt and hurt for her, wished things had worked out better for her without her need for an escort’s services.
But where would the story be otherwise? I found it harder to care about Michael, the professional escort who put the word ‘professional’ in escorting because it was simply more profitable to turn what he’d already been doing for years into a job that also helped to pay the bills. But that’s me—my intense dislike for manwhores, professional or not, bogged down by daddy-issues or not—and I hadn’t gotten a big enough sense that Michael wanted to break out of his escorting work despite feeling it like a noose around his neck. That he was perceptive enough to know that he was trying hard to become what his father wasn’t and ironically became the man who’d fallen just as far unfortunately still didn’t do it for me at all.
In many ways, ‘The Kiss Quotient’ was more of Stella’s book for me despite the obvious romance written into it. It was her story that shone, her struggles and her growth that appealed. So I cheered a heroine I loved, and found myself shrugging at a hero who seemed lacklustre in comparison. With the HEA that was almost inconsequential for me, her eventual acceptance of herself felt like the ultimate triumph that I always wanted for her.
three-stars

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

Next Year in Havana by Chanel CleetonNext Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton
Published by Berkley Books on February 6th 2018
Pages: 336
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five-stars

After the death of her beloved grandmother, a Cuban-American woman travels to Havana, where she discovers the roots of her identity--and unearths a family secret hidden since the revolution...

Havana, 1958. The daughter of a sugar baron, nineteen-year-old Elisa Perez is part of Cuba's high society, where she is largely sheltered from the country's growing political unrest--until she embarks on a clandestine affair with a passionate revolutionary...

Miami, 2017. Freelance writer Marisol Ferrera grew up hearing romantic stories of Cuba from her late grandmother Elisa, who was forced to flee with her family during the revolution. Elisa's last wish was for Marisol to scatter her ashes in the country of her birth.

Arriving in Havana, Marisol comes face-to-face with the contrast of Cuba's tropical, timeless beauty and its perilous political climate. When more family history comes to light and Marisol finds herself attracted to a man with secrets of his own, she'll need the lessons of her grandmother's past to help her understand the true meaning of courage.

The Cuban revolution and this transitory time of change are wholly unfamiliar to me, but ‘Next Year in Havana’ brings it all to life through broad, sweeping strokes that tell parallel stories of a woman’s journey out of Cuba and her granddaughter’s journey back there nearly 60 years later.

Chanel Cleeton’s precise yet lyrical prose rolls through constant reiterations of the resilience of memory and all the versions of Cuba that emerge through every character’s eyes. Marisol Ferrera and Elisa Perez’s fervent (and doomed) love affairs might be wrapped up in the city’s fading glory and the wire-tight tension of impending upheaval, yet these star-crossed lovers seem merely a metaphor for the Cuban individual’s love unending love affair with his/her country—it’s just how effortlessly their romances have been woven into the backdrop of revolution, reform and change.

It’s that curious strain of hope that can’t ever die—and perhaps the eternal yearning for something that they can’t have—which seems to be the poignant and loudest message that Cleeton brings across in this enthralling read. Like in many stories of revolution, the academics and thinkers (and the women who stay hidden in the shadows) matter—it’s brain over brawn, passion over looks—and they bear the burden of carrying the mantles of heroes and or the swords of villains. Sometimes both. Marisol’s and Elisa’s voices are as much tethered to their love of their country as they are tied to their love for their revolutionary men, but it’s also the selfsame passion and emotion that Pablo and Luis carry in their intellectual rhetoric that had me mesmerised from start to finish.

‘Next Year in Havana’ isn’t a book that lets bygones be bygones, after all. Yet the story’s power lies not quite in the galvanising force of political dialogue or the hard, dirty work of nonviolent change but in loss, tragedy and the love that came incidentally—the untold stories that were left by the wayside because bigger things eclipsed these. So when Cleeton told them, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat, swooning. And I might have also shed a tear or two.

five-stars

Going Dark by Monica McCarty

Going Dark by Monica McCartyGoing Dark by Monica McCarty
Series: The Lost Platoon #1
Published by Berkley Books on September 5th 2017
Pages: 352
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three-stars

Like Rome's Lost Legion, a SEAL platoon goes on a mission and vanishes without a trace.
After walking into a trap on a covert op in Russia, the men from top secret SEAL Team Nine are presumed dead. Not knowing whom they can trust, and with war hanging in the balance, the survivors must go dark and scatter around the globe.
Marine ecologist Annie Henderson joins her new boyfriend on a trip to the Western Isles of Scotland to protest a hazardous offshore drilling venture. When she realizes that she may be swept up in something far more dangerous than she'd intended, there is only one man she can turn to. . . .
She and the mysterious but sexy dive boat captain haven't exactly gotten off to the best start, but something about his quiet confidence makes her think that he's the kind of man she can depend on. Because he's gruff and guarded, she can tell Dan Warren has secrets. But she could never imagine how high the stakes are for him to keep his cover, even as he risks everything to protect her. . . .

A SEAL team paralleling the lost Roman Legion is a mouthwatering prospect. A covert op that had gone so wrong has led to the remaining few scattered around the globe and off the grid, waiting for justice to be served? It’s catnip on a platter. As someone who isn’t really into historicals, Monica McCarty’s a new author for me and any addition to the RS sub-genre is something I’m typically happy to pounce on.

Yet the opening was at best, shaky with an overwhelming info-dump that got my head swirling, all in the midst of an op that was going to go bust. Filled with with too many names, ranks and explanations of how the team worked, the first chapter was also oddly anchored by a character who also wasn’t the protagonist, which was bewildering to say the least as you only learn of one of the secondary SEALs peripherally mentioned was going to be the hero instead in the next few chapters.

But ‘Going Dark’ hits its stride halfway in, as Dean Baylor (the once Senior Chief)—hiding away in the Hebrides two months after the botched Russian job—gets inadvertently involved in an ecoterrorist plot with a woman who could very well be collateral damage. Nevertheless, I was drawn in by the intrigue and the suspense more than the characters with whom I felt less of an affinity.

Dean/Annie weren’t quite a couple that I could see together—their fiercely opposing ideals aside—as their skin-deep connection simply felt like an adrenaline-fuelled product that would burn bright and hot, but eventually burn out. Dean’s constant rumination about his casual hookups, his usual type of women and Annie not fitting the bill were off-putting to say the least, even when these comparisons were supposed to serve as his internal monologues about Annie’s break from the mould. The latter’s environmental-saving, emotional liberalism is the still furthest from his military beliefs however, though attraction comes at the worst possible timing especially since “casual” has always defined Dean’s so-called social life to a tee. Yet Annie’s insecure naïveté—some TSTL lines were crossed—and her need to keep clinging when all they agreed to was a fling that would end when they separated got annoying when she went from a seeming no-nonsense PhD graduate to a weepy, needy woman when she near begs him to stay.

That said though, this is a thoroughly promising series; the other characters definitely intrigue me and Monica McCarty provides enough of a backstory of them as a teaser that makes me enthusiastic for the sequels to come. Action specific to each couple is the focus of every book it seems, though as of now, investigations of the overall mystery crawl on, which make the ending unsatisfactory as none of the pieces have yet fallen into place. But the bright side? There’s still more to look forward to.

three-stars

Silver Silence by Nalini Singh

Silver Silence by Nalini SinghSilver Silence by Nalini Singh
Series: Psy-Changeling Trinity #1
Published by Berkley Books on June 13th 2017
Pages: 423
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five-stars

Precision. Family. These are the principles that drive Silver Mercant. At a time when the fledgling Trinity Accord seeks to unite a divided world, with Silver playing a crucial role as director of a worldwide emergency response network, wildness and chaos are the last things she needs in her life. But that's exactly what Valentin Nikolaev, alpha of the StoneWater bears, brings with him. Valentin has never met a more fascinating woman. Though Silver is ruled by Silence--her mind clear of all emotion--Valentin senses a whisper of fire around her. That's what keeps him climbing apartment buildings to be near her. But when a shadow assassin almost succeeds in poisoning Silver, the stakes become deadly serious...and Silver finds herself in the heart of a powerful bear clan. Her would-be assassin has no idea what their poison has unleashed...

It’s impossible to go into any of the Psy-Changeling books and not get blown away by the intricately detailed, futuristic world that Nalini Singh has shaped over the past 15 books. ‘Silver Silence’ is Silver Mercant’s story, the stoic, emotionless psy who finally meets her match in the Valentin Nikolaev the bear alpha and their epic romance—from wary suspicion to brief happiness to heartbreak—feels like a great love story unfolding amidst a shifting world that’s hurtling towards an unknown future.

The book isn’t a standalone, but admittedly, it can function as one especially if you don’t exactly wish to go through the first 15 books of the series to get to this point and half the title itself is the name of a mysterious psy who has appeared as Kaleb Krychek’s tough, capable but emotionless aide in the past few books. After ‘Allegiance of Honor’ closed the previous arc, Silver’s story heralds in a new age, so to speak, ushering in Psy-Changeling’s “season 2” and focusing on a period where all three races look towards unity as they seek to heal their deeply-fractured world.

In fact, ‘Silver Silence’ takes up the complicated threads from the end of the last book and adds even more layers to this shifting world that inexorably hurtles towards an unknown future even as new and recurring characters find their mates. It also feel like a reboot of the series that is making me feel the excitement I haven’t felt in forever when a good book comes along.

There are light-hearted moments as there are heart-wrenching ones and while I felt overwhelmed by the details at times as ‘Silver Silence’ kicks the action all back up into high gear, it’s hard not to look back at every turn and wonder just how far we’ve come since the first book. I laughed so hard at Singh’s introduction of the Bear changelings—their irrational behaviour that still somehow endears people to them above all—and loved every moment detailing how different they seemed to the rest of the changelings and pretty much fell for this bear clan as I did the wolves. There’s also renewed focus on the Human Alliance (though there’s already some gutting tragedy here!) which I hope will play a bigger role in the upcoming books and I simply can’t wait to see how far Singh goes to integrate these races in this new age.

Singh pits opposing characters here as she normally does in her stories—an emotional, primal changeling with a psy conditioned for absolute control—but adds an intriguing history behind the distinguished Mercant family line and the Stonewater clan that makes Silver’s and Valentin’s story so much more than just an opposite-attracts kind of story. The type of pairing isn’t new (a psy with an alpha changeling) but Singh’s storytelling never gets dull here, because Silver/Valentin’s relationship is tied so deeply to the instability during the Age of Trinity yet isn’t compromised by the unfolding of events. It’s also deftly handled such that it’s hard not to root for both Silver and Valentin, who are well-matched and unwavering when it comes to loyalty and desire, as they show the same kind of determination to be with each other no matter the circumstance. Their conflict and their different stances on sex (the virgin vs the experienced male) aren’t simply written for the sake of adhering to a particular romance-novel format, but rather the history of these races explains why Silver/Valentin behave the way they do and does actually lend a measure of credibility for readers who like challenging these well-established romance tropes.

After having gotten the rather fierce affirmation of Silver/Valentin’s HEA, to finish the first ‘episode’ of the new season is akin to waking up rudely to reality and the garish morning light, making you want to crawl back into the reading cave for the sequel…which isn’t yet on the horizon.

five-stars

Revenge by Lexi Blake

Revenge by Lexi BlakeRevenge by Lexi Blake
Series: Lawless #3
Published by Berkley Books on June 20th 2017
Pages: 352
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three-stars

When Drew Lawless discovers a fatal flaw in his plan to avenge his parents' deaths, he turns to the one woman he promised he wouldn't touch. He offers her a deal, one that will bring her into his investigation, his life, and his bed. Investigative reporter Shelby Gates never dreamed how twisted the case would become--or how fascinated she would be with Drew. Every day they spend together binds them. And every night brings her closer to realizing he might be the man for her. As Drew's feelings for Shelby grow, so does the danger. From the streets of Dallas to Austin's high-tech business world, Drew and Shelby play a game begun twenty years before--a game they will win, or die trying.

‘Revenge’ isn’t meant to be a standalone—that much becomes evident after the first few paragraphs into chapter 1. Too much has happened to the Lawless siblings and the murder mystery surrounding their parents and while Drew’s plot for revenge is detailed in the beginning, it involves manipulation and a rehash of so many details that a reader who hasn’t yet gone through the rest of the previous books would have difficulty assimilating all of them. But it’s also a setup of Drew/Shelby’s story, starting with his trying to convince her of taking up a contract and a non-disclosure agreement to work with him with several dangling carrots for her at the end of it all, only to take it all away.

I liked Shelby at first; she seemed sharp and capable as a reporter, lured as she is by Drew’s false promise that she would get a story of a lifetime while helping the family find justice. It was also difficult not to feel sorry for her, knowing she was also just a pawn to be moved about if Drew really had his way. Yet there’s a core of softness and naïveté that seemed out of place for an investigative reporter that had her being taken advantage of too easily. Drew, on the other hand, is as large a bundle of contradictions as Shelby: cold, manipulative, yet childlike in his need for touch and comfort. There are however, discrete parts of Drew and Shelby’s personalities that don’t fit and perhaps that’s what really threw me off, as did the idea that a family could be so rotten to the core—affairs all around, with psychopathic tendencies thrown in—where money and ambition instead of love fuel every action.

But the plot wasn’t quite what I expected as it took some strange turns along the way that made the storyline a little odd with characters turning on each other and muddying up the black and white lines drawn within the Lawless family. It’s also dialogue-heavy and much like a chess-game, with many threads that you can be expected to untangle right up until the climax of the story where a psychopathic mother finally faces off her own children.

‘Revenge’ straddles the line between intrigue, mystery and romantic suspense, and while actual action is lacking, the corporate espionage and the many bedroom games can keep you entertained…if this is the sort of thing that thrills you.

three-stars

All You Need by Lorelei James

All You Need by Lorelei JamesAll You Need by Lorelei James
Series: Need You #3
Published by Berkley Books on April 4th 2017
Pages: 368
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two-stars

PR agent Annika Lund can spin any disaster into a win. But revamping the reputation of a notorious Swedish hockey player will take every trick in her arsenal, especially when his agent insists that convincing everyone he’s no longer a playboy is top priority. And that it requires a sham relationship—with Annika playing the part of loving girlfriend.
On fire in the rink and in the bedroom, Axl Hammerquist couldn’t care less about being anyone’s golden boy. So when his agent forces him to play nice with a new publicist, he takes satisfaction in being as much of a pain as possible. But the more time he spends getting to know Annika, the more Axl starts to think that being Mr. Nice Guy might be worth it if it gets him the girl...

This started off well enough, judging from the blurb that made me want to dive in straight away. I took a chance on the humour that other reviews said the book was filled with—often laughter does overcome many narrative problems in my opinion—and thought it might be a sparkling example of an antagonistic relationship between a PR guru and a Swedish manwhore hockey player. Cue the puns and snark, throw in the prerequisite love/hate line and you’ve baited me. But it’ll take more than that though, for my attention not to wander when what follows thereafter goes somewhat awry with the sheer amount of details thrown in. Add the sudden influx of huge numbers of characters suddenly gracing the book and an elaborate scheme that involves some kind of family manipulation and I could barely keep up.

A lot of it the story is dialogue-driven, as we navigate the WAG scene and get around the politics of hockey while Annika and Axl slowly strip back the layers and get to know each other. This process however, involved conversations going off on tangents even though I knew they were meant to be ‘getting to know you better’ sessions and numerous instances of name-dropping particularly when the entire Lund family came into play so it really didn’t take too long before I felt very much like an outsider eavesdropping on every scene.

I couldn’t quite muster up enough interest in the way hockey was portrayed here, let alone the couple in question except for the way Annika/Axl danced around their attraction. But if their hostile, sparking first few interactions heated up my screen, it soon mellowed and faded into a smoother, more staid and ‘softer’ side of romantic attraction that diminished my pull to the both of them—because they suddenly began lacking that tension and chemistry that drew me initially to them.

Their path to a ‘proper’ relationship is simply sort of straightened out the moment they gave into their attraction, the predictability of the trope—Axl is suddenly now a reformed manwhore who finally understands why men stay monogamous while Annika finally sees the ’softer’ side of him—made me eventually lose interest. So all it really takes, as the story seemed to say, is the right woman (with some measure of determination, confidence yet can melt like butter when a man touches her) to set the womanising jock straight, despite what the media might make of them.

My inability to really cut my teeth in made the book difficult to continue but it’s clearly something that’s just me, judging from the other glowing reviews the book has gotten. Still, I skimmed and felt relieved when I got to the end.

two-stars