Publisher: Berkley

Bringing Down The Duke by Evie Dunmore

Bringing Down The Duke by Evie DunmoreBringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore
Series: A League of Extraordinary Women, #1
Published by Berkley on 3rd September 2019
Pages: 320
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three-half-stars

England, 1879. Annabelle Archer, the brilliant but destitute daughter of a country vicar, has earned herself a place among the first cohort of female students at the renowned University of Oxford. In return for her scholarship, she must support the rising women's suffrage movement. Her charge: recruit men of influence to champion their cause. Her target: Sebastian Devereux, the cold and calculating Duke of Montgomery who steers Britain's politics at the Queen's command. Her challenge: not to give in to the powerful attraction she can't deny for the man who opposes everything she stands for.

Sebastian is appalled to find a suffragist squad has infiltrated his ducal home, but the real threat is his impossible feelings for green-eyed beauty Annabelle. He is looking for a wife of equal standing to secure the legacy he has worked so hard to rebuild, not an outspoken commoner who could never be his duchess. But he wouldn't be the greatest strategist of the Kingdom if he couldn't claim this alluring bluestocking without the promise of a ring...or could he?

Locked in a battle with rising passion and a will matching her own, Annabelle will learn just what it takes to topple a duke....

Reading about fictional, historical women ahead of their time should well resonate with those living in this century, as far removed as we are from them, simply because the issue of equality among the sexes is still a highly contested one despite the leaps we’ve made.

Despite the levity of the cover, Evie Dunmore’s debut historical is rather compelling, with all the peaks and troughs of the historical romances that I turn to from time to time. There’s some sensitivity to the social and cultural constraints of the time and Dunmore shows that awareness in her prose and her protagonists’ behaviour—where they should step or not—while piling on the rising heat between a vicar’s daughter studying at Oxford and a blue-blooded, pedigreed duke who has the ear of the Queen.

Anchoring her story straight in the middle of a time where bluestockinged women were petitioning for their right to vote—a fundamental right so many take for granted these days—in Victorian England is sly and smart, as Dunmore weaves the politics of the day quite deftly with ideas of social standing, fidelity and the transactional nature of marriage in two protagonists who lie on the opposite ends of the ladder.

The slow burn between Annabelle Archer and Sebastian Montgomery is a believable one, more so because Dunmore writes Annabelle as a character who’s easily empathised with: as one who wants more, who yearns to bridge the chasm that gapes between her and her duke, but can’t. My only let-down was her own hand-wringing, her lack of conviction and her dismally cowardly behaviour towards the end in a supposedly self-sacrificing cruel move—cruel to be kind so to speak, and a stupid action—where it was left all to Sebastian to do the hard work and climb the mountain while she did nothing to fight for what she really wanted. Ironic, considering the passion she had for the suffragist movement.

If I thought Sebastian impenetrable and difficult to grasp, Dunmore’s rushed stripping away of his defences towards the end of the book made him a different romantic protagonist I wanted to get behind—one who almost deserved better than what Annabelle did to him.

These grumbles aside, Dunmore’s rather impressive debut is making me sit up and take note. It’s well-written, well thought-out and engaging. For someone with hands and feet firmly in contemporary romance, this is quite a feat.

three-half-stars

Faker by Sarah Smith

Faker by Sarah SmithFaker by Sarah Smith
Published by Berkley on 8th October 2019
Pages: 320
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four-stars

Emmie Echavarre is a professional faker. She has to be to survive as one of the few female employees at Nuts & Bolts, a power tool company staffed predominantly by gruff, burly men. From nine to five, Monday through Friday, she's tough as nails--the complete opposite of her easy-going real self.

One thing she doesn't have to fake? Her disdain for coworker Tate Rasmussen.

Tate has been hostile to her since the day they met. Emmie's friendly greetings and repeated attempts to get to know him failed to garner anything more than scowls and terse one-word answers. Too bad she can't stop staring at his Thor-like biceps...

When Emmie and Tate are forced to work together on a charity construction project, things get...heated. Emmie's beginning to see that beneath Tate's chiseled exterior lies a soft heart, but it will take more than a few kind words to erase the past and convince her that what they have is real.

‘Faker’ surprised me much, in a good way, more so considering it’s Sarah Smith’s debut book with the enemies-to-lovers trope that I always dig.

Still, I couldn’t help but look at the many shades of Sally Thorne’s ‘The Hating Game’ colouring Emmie’s and Tate’s circumstances and relationship from the start: a love-hate relationship in the office underlaid with more conflicted and complicated emotions that both seem to harbour for each other, a holding pattern of sniping, arguments and clenched jaws (and lip-trembling, withheld tears) up until the point where something changes the dynamics of it, the slow-burn that follows the turnaround.

Written wholly in Emmie’s POV, the whole narrative is more introspective, more centred about her emotions and her changing perceptions—and her interpretations of Tate’s overreactions that the reader sees as something else other than hate and dislike. Seeing Tate through Emmie’s eyes is an experience in and of itself–some descriptions are hilarious, and in other parts, a little cringeworthy.

It all ends up quite endearing and buoyant in some ways, though the slow, slow burn and the multiple cock-blocking scenes made me impatient at parts.

In essence, apart from the exteriors that both Emmie and Tate wear, much of ‘Faker’ reads like the honeymoon phase of a relationship: the effusive optimism about falling in love (more so as Emmie turns into a stalwart fan of Tate), the thrill of seeing someone with fresh eyes, the yearning for constant physical closeness and all. It’s bubbly, and oddly heart-twinging in some bits, and past the last page, I find myself hoping that Emmie and Tate actually do last.

four-stars

Kings Rising by C.S. Pacat

Kings Rising by C.S. PacatKings Rising by C.S. Pacat
Series: Captive Prince, #3
Published by Berkley on 2nd February 2016
Pages: 352
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four-stars

Damianos of Akielos has returned.

His identity now revealed, Damen must face his master Prince Laurent as Damianos of Akielos, the man Laurent has sworn to kill.

On the brink of a momentous battle, the future of both their countries hangs in the balance. In the south, Kastor’s forces are massing. In the north, the Regent’s armies are mobilising for war. Damen’s only hope of reclaiming his throne is to fight together with Laurent against their usurpers.

Forced into an uneasy alliance the two princes journey deep into Akielos, where they face their most dangerous opposition yet. But even if the fragile trust they have built survives the revelation of Damen’s identity—can it stand against the Regent's final, deadly play for the throne?

Kings Rising’ left my head spinning and it is a thrilling conclusion to the series really, as C.S Pacat pushes the envelope with court machinations, battle strategies (on and off field). Or rather, it’s akin to following a game of chess as the pieces are moved around – by whom, you wonder? – in such a way the battle lines look straight but are in fact, blurred, where trust is an empty word since betrayals and backstabbing and pre-empting are part for the course here.

The third book builds on the first and the second, and there’s something – having come this far – I think I’ll always miss about the first book particularly since it all felt a little simpler than this. But so it goes with power-hungry royalty and the devious lengths they all go to in order to be the supreme ruler.

It’ll be years before I’ll forget Laurent (and to a lesser extent, Damen), who’s probably a triumph of characterisation: complex, contradictory, sweet yet cruel and way too volatile to handle with care. For Laurent alone, ‘Kings Rising’ is worth all the stars I can give, except for the abrupt ending minus a badly-needed epilogue that made it seem just too short.

four-stars

Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh

Wolf Rain by Nalini SinghWolf Rain by Nalini Singh
Series: Psy-Changeling Trinity, #3, #3, Psy-Changeling #18
Published by Berkley on 4th June 2019
Pages: 416
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three-half-stars

The end of Silence was supposed to create a better world for future generations. But trust is broken, and the alliance between Psy, Changeling, and human is thin. The problems that led to Silence are back in full force. Because Silence fixed nothing, just hid the problems.

This time, the Psy have to find a real answer to their problems–if one exists. Or their race will soon go extinct in a cascade of violence. The answer begins with an empath who is attuned to monsters–and who is going to charm a wolf into loving her despite his own demons.

Nalini Singh’s über-popular Psy-Changeling series probably needs no introduction that far gone into its second series, set in the future when the Trinity Accord has been signed and a cautious peace has settled amongst the three races populating an alternate version of Earth.

The Psy-Changeling verse has expanded so much by this point that it’s practically impossible to jump into and rush through ‘Wolf Rain’ as a standalone. By and large, I did think Singh handled most aspects of the sheer size/weight of her own intricate world-building quite deftly here: the precarious juggle between the bonds of pack and romance and the weighted history that the races have, the larger, wider implications of the collapsing Psy-Net, the latent and new threats and the supporting characters who still have dedicated scenes for readers who can’t let them go.

‘Wolf Rain’ deals with the subtleties of the Psy, or rather, the subtleties of the Empaths who’d been cast aside who rose to prominence after the fall of Silence with the introduction of a rather aggravating, loud-broadcasting captive Empath Psy who simply doesn’t fit the designation E to a tee. After a quick look at other changeling groups in the first two books of this new season however, ‘Wolf Rain’ for this reason, feels oddly like a return to, or at least, a lateral expansion of the Snowdancer/Dark River-centric books where changelings shifters mostly get paired by with their former Psy enemies. Alexei Vasiliev Harte finds his mate in Memory here (battling a serial-killer at the same time) while sub-plots push forward the ongoing story of Psy-life after Trinity.

Every path is a hard-fought one, on the personal and the collective level—reflected by the longer than usual narrative—and needless to say, Alexei/Memory’s one is also a push-pull based on experience, insecurity and fear. Admittedly, this is a pairing that didn’t enthral me as much as Singh’s other couples and as a romance, didn’t quite live up to other pairings that had moved me a lot more…so this sort of impacted my rating of the overall story nonetheless.

Still, I liked the nuanced exploration of the fascinating PsyNet that draws so much from facets of computer networking and meta systems and that alone perhaps, makes ‘Wolf Rain’ worth it.

three-half-stars

Ocean Light by Nalini Singh

Ocean Light by Nalini SinghOcean Light by Nalini Singh
Published by Berkley on 12th June 2018
Pages: 416
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four-stars

Security specialist Bowen Knight has come back from the dead. But there's a ticking time bomb in his head: a chip implanted to block telepathic interference that could fail at any moment--taking his brain along with it. With no time to waste, he should be back on land helping the Human Alliance. Instead, he's at the bottom of the ocean, consumed with an enigmatic changeling...

Kaia Luna may have traded in science for being a chef, but she won't hide the facts of Bo's condition from him or herself. She's suffered too much loss in her life to fall prey to the dangerous charm of a human who is a dead man walking. And she carries a devastating secret Bo could never imagine...

But when Kaia is taken by those who mean her deadly harm, all bets are off. Bo will do anything to get her back--even if it means striking a devil's bargain and giving up his mind to the enemy...

I’ve always had a soft spot for Bowen Knight, even loved his cause and his unwavering, determined fight for humanity in the Human Alliance (guess which one I belong to?)—the least of the three races it seems, in Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling world. My heart sank when Bo went down hard in ‘Silver Silence’ and just as I thought all hope was lost, ‘Ocean Light’ became my own (and Bo’s) salvation. This was the book I’ve always wanted ever since Bowen burst onto the scene, from the moment I learned that he had an immovable but lethal chip in his head about to detonate any time.

That Singh chooses to introduce Blacksea using Bowen’s story is an obvious shift away from the Bear changelings in ‘Silver Silence’, a mysterious group hinted at in the closing books of Singh’s “season 1” of her Psy-Changeling novels that focused solely on the cats and the wolves. Here, Singh opens yet again new pathways and original insights into her massive world-building that continues now deep down in the sea, so compelling in ways that it’s hard to turn away from the myriad of sea creatures and their personalities that populate this book. Half the book however, after the intriguing setup, comprises Singh’s languid, thorough exploration of the world Bo has found himself in, not least the slow unfurling and the slow romance between him and Kaia, before the pace picks up frantically again towards the end.

Written into Kaia Luna’s and Bowen Knight’s attraction is a conflict that’s drawn up against these lines: the bad blood between the humans the Blacksea changelings rather than just a personal feud that Kaia sets up against Bowen for the losses in she feels keenly in her life. Enemies-to-lovers in this context, might just seem a little too dismissive after all, too small a view to take in the huge world that Singh has written, though this is still a trope nonetheless, in romantic fiction which I like a lot.

Yet Kaia, a scientist-turned-cook (with maternal instincts and a soft, easily hurt heart that’s prone more to pulling away) in the Ryujin BlackSea Station, is the last person I’d expect Singh to pair with the hard security chief, who is as ruthless and emotionless as the Psy themselves without the telekinetic power. Coupled with the (somewhat unbelievable) bit of instalove written into a strong attraction—cue bodies hardening, arousal flaring—that strikes the both of them at first glance is perhaps also an attempt to humanise the hard-nosed image of Bowen Knight who is more a man of flesh and emotions more similar to the other alpha changelings than we think. I would have loved a stronger, harder, a more sword-wielding-type mate for Bo—the type that would have stood for his fight in the Human Alliance by his side with a weapon— but clearly this is my personal preference speaking for such heroines to materialise every time.

‘Ocean Light’ is satisfying on many levels, but I particularly loved the introduction to the Blacksea changelings and Bowen’s Knights. The threads of this incredibly complex arc that Singh has written are far from tied up, nonetheless. There are still too many unrevealed secrets here—things that Singh doesn’t choose to reveal—that baby steps seem to be the only way in which this juggernaut of a story can move on, which is both as rewarding and as frustrating at times.

four-stars

Wired by Julie Garwood

Wired by Julie GarwoodWired by Julie Garwood
Series: Buchanan-Renard, #13
Published by Berkley on July 4th 2017
Pages: 336
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one-star

Allison Trent doesn’t look like a hacker. In fact, when she’s not in college working on her degree, she models on the side. But behind her gorgeous face is a brilliant mind for computers and her real love is writing—and hacking—code. Her dream is to write a new security program that could revolutionize the tech industry.
Hotshot FBI agent Liam Scott has a problem: a leak deep within his own department. He needs the skills of a top-notch hacker to work on a highly sensitive project: to secretly break into the FBI servers and find out who the traitor is. But he can’t use one of his own. He finds the perfect candidate in Allison. Only, there’s one problem—she wants nothing to do with his job and turns him down flat.
What Liam doesn’t know is that Allison is hiding secrets that she doesn’t want the FBI to uncover. But Liam will do nearly anything to persuade her to join his team, even break a few rules if that’s what it takes. A temptation that could put his job—and both of their futures—on the line…and longing for more . . .

Julie Garwood used to be one of my go-to authors back (way back) in the day—a dim, dark time when only historical romances ruled my world—and I must admit that reading ‘Wired’ was part-curiosity, part-RS-driven-motivation to see how Garwood tackles contemporary romance when so much has changed since then. It’s my first Buchanan-Renard book and ‘Wired’ seemed like an appropriate insertion point to see what the hype is all about.

I wish I could say that it was akin to coming back to an old, trusted friend, but ‘Wired’ wasn’t really that experience for me. I do think though, that my changing tastes are responsible for framing the way I read romances these days and because of that, I found Garwood’s story an odd mix of omniscient narration, inexplicable perspective switches and showing-rather-than-telling, along with protagonists that seem be variants of Mary/Marty Sues. In short, Allison and Liam are perfect protagonists with perfect attributes who can do nearly no wrong—they’re elevated ideals to which I can’t relate at all, let alone empathise with.

Not that I have a problem with beautiful, fictionalised characters who are also capable, but Allison bucks even this trend, as she’s gorgeous enough to be a model, and so brilliant a hacker that she tops all the other experts…all before she graduates from college. The rather convenient immunity the FBI grants her after trying her to recruit her for her skills, along with the rather unbelievable dialogue, and the hype about just how good Allison really is, simply got annoying after a while.

In short, I’m afraid that Garwood’s style is just one that I’m not used to anymore. As a result, I had a hard time just getting into the first quarter of the book with scenes that just didn’t seem to further the plot, let alone buy into a romance between two characters who don’t seem to have sufficient chemistry together for me to want more.

one-star

The Thing about Love by Julie James

The Thing about Love by Julie JamesThe Thing About Love by Julie James
Published by Berkley on April 18th 2017
Pages: 368
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four-stars

FBI agents Jessica Harlow and John Shepherd have a past. The former lawyer and cocky Army ranger clashed during their training at Quantico, gladly going their separate ways after graduating from the Academy. Six years later, the last thing either of them expects is to run into each other again–assigned to work as partners in a high-profile undercover sting.
For both of them, being paired with a former rival couldn’t come at a worse time. Recently divorced from a Hollywood producer and looking for a fresh start, Jessica is eager to prove herself at her new field office. And John is just one case away from his dream assignment to the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team. In order to nail a corrupt Florida politician, they’ll have to find a way to work as a team–a task that becomes even trickier when they’re forced to hole up at a romantic, beachfront resort as part of the investigation. Suddenly, the heat behind their nonstop sparring threatens to make the job a whole lot more complicated. . .

The antagonistic-lovers trope is Julie James’s calling card, I swear. And it’s done with quite a bit of aplomb in ‘The Thing About Love’ which is pretty much a solid, steady kind of offering that has been a long time in coming. Technically not quite part of the FBI series that James has gotten going, John Shepherd (this guy can easily be a main character from Lost or Stargate with a heroic name like that) and Jessica Harlow work perfectly fine on their own here as first entanglements bring them from oneupmanship to dislike and finally, to mutual attraction years later. The long break between books as well, helps in a way that make the story not feel like a retread, even if characters from her previous books do flit peripherally in and out as reminders of the lawyer/law-enforcement dynamic that has always defined this series.

The setup is painstakingly detailed, given the number of pages in this book, even though the research and writing feel like a police procedural at times, but by and large, the story somehow reads like a screenplay—written for readers, yet built for the big screen on Valentine’s day while newly-minted couples cozy up to John and Jessica’s slow burn and capitulation.

Despite starting out a little slowly, the delicious build gained momentum and not without several laugh-out-loud descriptions I’ll always come to associate with James’s brand of written romantic comedy. The peaks and troughs aren’t too sharp, and without the pile of angst or false levity that could accompany stories like these, James manages to keep the whole story buoyant and easy to read. I think what I really enjoyed was the fact that I didn’t quite know how things were going to progress—or at least work themselves out—despite being able to guess how the conflict was going to play out when both Jessica’s and John’s career paths looked as though they were moving in opposite directions. Yet both Jessica and John are great in their own way, with pasts they’d rather leave behind but still lacking those extremes that can make or break a character, which, in many ways, do make them quite likeable.

Definitely a way more light-hearted read (not that that’s a bad thing) for FBI-type romances, ‘The Thing about Love’ is an unexpected surprise and I daresay, quite worth the wait.

four-stars