Publisher: Berkley

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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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.


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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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.


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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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.


Dare to Lie by Jen McLaughlin

Dare to Lie by Jen McLaughlinDare to Lie by Jen McLaughlin
Series: The Sons of Steel Row, #3
Published by Berkley on February 7th 2017
Pages: 336
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As an undercover DEA agent in the most powerful gang in Boston, Scott Donahue accepts the risks of living a double life. But when Tate Donovan, leader of the Sons of Steel Row, assigns Scotty to take his place in a bachelor’s auction sponsored by his sister’s sorority, he’s exposed to a whole new level of danger. Even though Tate makes it very clear—Skylar is off limits—the second Scotty sees her, he’s a goner. But how does he tell Sky she’s falling for a man who doesn’t exist?
Sky can’t resist Scotty’s cool confidence or the raw, edgy power oozing from his perfect body. She’s always been the good girl, but he brings out the bad in her. And even though she knows so little about who he really is, Sky’s willing to take the biggest risk of all. But putting her heart on the line is no guarantee that Scotty won’t slip through her fingers...

Skylar Daniels has been the head honcho’s secret, a precious sister who has been hidden in the shadows because of her connections to the Sons of Steel Row, only emerging when her brother tasks Scott Donahue to attend a bachelor auction in his place. Skylar’s winning bid on Scotty however, throws the status-quo into question, as her presence suddenly ups the stakes for the DEA undercover agent—who, apparently until Skylar, had been whoring around—and for those associated with him.

‘Dare to Lie’ is as enthralling as it is riveting, laying out the dangerous action and the brutal gang wars like an oncoming train wreck that I couldn’t look away from. Too often, I wondered how things could end in anyway resembling picture-perfect when Jen McLaughlin’s gritty characters show no mercy as they try to juggle the needs of their families and their loyalties and with several wild-west-style shootouts, tussle always for territory in a battleground that even Scotty can’t hope to save, not when his life is fabricated out of lies upon lies and deals that aren’t watertight. Above all however, I loved Skylar Daniels from the start, much more than Scott not least because she gave so much meaning to ‘virgin who takes no crap’ and pretty much set the blueprint for how I’d love my heroines to behave. That she refused to give in to both her brother and to Scott’s machinations was admirable, even though I wished they’d both done better by her after stringing her along and doling out the hurt only hardened men know how to do.

There are twists and turns as the story nears its inevitable (bloody) end and finally, I got to see the cold as ice leader Tate Donovan behave in a way that made me long for his own story.

Consider me hooked.


Ruthless by Lexi Blake

Ruthless by Lexi BlakeRuthless by Lexi Blake
Series: Lawless #1
Published by Berkley on August 9th 2016
Pages: 352
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The Lawless siblings are bound by vengeance. Riley, Drew, Brandon, and Mia believe the CEO of StratCast orchestrated their parents’ murder twenty years ago to steal their father’s software program. And there’s only one way Riley can find some solid evidence...   Heir to the StratCast legacy, Ellie Stratton hires a new attorney to handle a delicate business matter—and she’s shocked by her attraction to him. Over the course of a few weeks, Riley becomes her lover, her friend, her everything. But when her life is threatened, Ellie discovers that Riley is more obsessed with settling an old score than in the love she thought they were building. And Riley must choose between a revenge he’s prepared for all his life and the woman he’s sure he can’t live without...

‘Ruthless’s’ summary was a delicious draw for me and I jumped in, itching for a good revenge plot that should at some point in time, turn sour. The set-up was perfect in the prologue – the Lawless siblings, whose namesake seemed fitting for the plot – but I found myself getting more and more confused (and incredulous) as time wore on. The story begins in the midst of a corporate buyout and a legal battle; it soon becomes apparent however, that there are several wars to be won, even when there are people you think are on your side.

I think the biggest problem I had was with the very uneven writing, or rather, the lack of finesse in the execution of the plot: dialogues seemed off (business meetings just didn’t have the appropriate voice and tone – who really mentions breasts and sex in the first so-called professional meet?!), characterisations were wobbly at best and at times one-dimensional, motivations were insufficiently explained and the plot of vengeance and the backstory needed to be a lot tighter. There were some parts where I felt Riley and Ellie behaved more like juveniles than adults. The former prevaricated too much and the latter simply seemed too naive and a pushover where it should really matter, but apparently lust and attraction are enough to change agendas because instant love comes well (there’re pages after all, dedicated to sex here), instantly after someone has an earth-shattering orgasm.

I think this inability to suspend my disbelief here played a huge, huge part in my subsequent ability to go on without questioning everything I read and without my scoffing terribly at some dialogue or scene. In the end, I skimmed lots, only wanting the bits where the deception unravelled and when it all went to pot. If I started out excited about the overarching narrative, this book is making me think again. Yes, there’s the mystery that’s yet unsolved and intriguing leads like Drew and Bran who have yet to fall to their knees in supplication to their women, but well, it’s going to take something special to get my doubts out of the way.


Rookie Move by Sarina Bowen

Rookie Move by Sarina BowenRookie Move by Sarina Bowen
Series: Brooklyn Bruisers, #1
Published by Berkley on September 6th 2016
Pages: 336
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Hockey player Leo Trevi has spent the last six years trying to do two things: get over the girl who broke his heart, and succeed in the NHL. But on the first day he’s called up to the newly franchised Brooklyn Bruisers, Leo gets checked on both sides, first by the team’s coach—who has a long simmering grudge, and then by the Bruisers’ sexy, icy publicist—his former girlfriend Georgia Worthington.   Saying goodbye to Leo was one of the hardest things Georgia ever had to do—and saying hello again isn’t much easier. Georgia is determined to keep their relationship strictly professional, but when a press conference microphone catches Leo declaring his feelings for her, things get really personal, really fast....

Reading ‘Rookie Move’ is akin to being given a privilege pass into the back rooms of a high-profile sports team and despite not having the foggiest idea about hockey at all (European football’s more my thing), I found myself getting excited by everything I read behind the scenes: the media hype and speculation about transfers, billionaire bosses, new signings, bosses and managerial conflicts; essentially, the complex, framework behind the game itself and the number of people it took to keep the entire engine and brand running smoothly.

It’s thoroughly engaging stuff, but that’s probably because of Sarina Bowen’s assured writing, the motley crew of hockey players she’s created here and her special, nuanced understanding of the game itself. Loosely tied to The Ivy Years series, the first of which being the only one I read, I still never found myself lost at all, which means ‘Rookie Move’ is rock-solid as a standalone.

Leo Trevi has lots going for him: he’s a male lead whose camp I found myself in immediately because he’s the all-round good guy and does everything to prove it. And there just aren’t enough of them of late, especially in fiction when the bad boys seem to be all the (overrated) rage these days.

But what’s not to like, really? He tries hard at everything, doing all it did stay in the upper echelons of hockey and wouldn’t give up on Georgia when all she’d done was to cause him pain. My frustration with Georgia might seem a little unfair given her traumatic past, yet it’s difficult to excuse her actions for treating Leo like her personal punching bag. The frosty, standoffish (and hypocritical) front she takes up with Leo when she was the one who’d given up on them to begin with baffled me, a sentiment that soon morphed into disbelief and not just a slight bit of loathing when she pushed him away constantly to protect herself after meeting him again 6 years later.

Above all, I thought there simply weren’t enough cathartic moments between Leo and Georgia. There’s so much Bowen covers about the hockey season, the plays, the trades and even the sex scenes that I thought it compromised just how much both Leo/Georgia needed to sort out outside the bedroom. At least that was something I felt I badly needed to read about, given Bowen’s brave penchant for writing trauma into her characters – that they needed *not* to gloss over the events that had been so pivotal in their high school days. That this aspect was so insufficiently dealt with somehow made this pairing’s getting together never a sure thing (dependent rather, on Georgia’s current courage-metre) until the abrupt end that left me dissatisfied and disappointed.

Character-gripes aside, Brooklyn Bruisers is shaping up to be a series that I could get into: there’re secondary characters who are crying out for their own stories to be told and perhaps, even a mysterious billionaire owner who might need his own HEA.


Into the Blue by Chanel Cleeton

Into the Blue by Chanel CleetonInto the Blue by Chanel Cleeton
Series: Wild Aces #2
Published by Berkley on July 5th 2016
Pages: 320
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Eric Jansen—call sign Thor—loves nothing more than pushing his F-16 to the limit. Returning home to South Carolina after a tragic loss, he hopes to fix the mistake he made long ago, when he chose the Air Force over his fiancée.   Becca Madison isn’t quick to welcome Thor back. She can’t forget how he shattered her heart. But Thor won’t give up once he’s set his sights on what he wants—and he wants Becca. Thor shows Becca that he’s no longer the impulsive boy he used to be, and Becca finds herself irresistibly drawn to him. But will Thor be able to walk away from his dream of flying the F-16 for their love or does his heart belong to the sky?

In ‘Into the Blue’, Becca and Thor’s reunion play out against the harsh demands of military life and the unrelenting call of duty, and much of the story is a (re)discovery of what they’ve had together and whether they could do it all again after the scars of the pasts. Chanel Cleeton’s writing is stellar, even in the very odd first person narrative that gives a new adult feel to the very adult story that’s being told here. Yet the standouts in this story are the main characters themselves, who, against all odds, find love again after a long decade: three-dimensional, flawed protagonists who never really grew larger than life because Cleeton has anchored them deep in human experience that any reader can relate to.

That said, put me on team Becca, stat.

There’s so much I loved about her: the unshakable sense of justice, the steadfast, uncompromising stance in knowing what she wanted and the sacrifice she’d been willing to make for Thor and the full  support she’d given him before he’d thrown all back in her face. For that reason I fully understood and empathised with her cool, wary stance with Thor’s sudden reappearance – which I understood and empathised with much less. His reasons for returning and falling back together with Becca seemed incidental than deliberate and it left me wondering if he would have returned to her of his own volition had things still gone well for him in the air force. I did think it rather patronising when Thor’s granny offered ultimately meaningless excuses for his leaving, as though Becca hadn’t been enough for him to man up when he really needed to do so.

My nitpicking aside, what struck me deeply was Cleeton’s so very succinct articulation about military wives and girlfriends finding themselves torn between what their men’s careers demand of them and how much of their own desires they would have to deny. Beyond the sizzling chemistry and steamy bedroom scenes, Becca’s gutting, merciless arguments and demands of Thor must have at some point in time – extrapolating from the author’s acknowledgement of how personal this series is to her – paralleled Cleeton’s own personal misgivings and thoughts which give these particular scenes a weighty credence and resonance backed by real life experience.

The sense of tragedy isn’t as all-encompassing in this book as it was in the previous one, yet the weight of the personal price both Thor and Becca paid for their own happiness feels no lighter than the price the rest of the squadron paid when they lost one of their own. Even Thor/Becca’s happy ending is written as a potential reality rather than a confirmed one, as though their closing chapter can’t quite be written until the entire series is complete, or rather, until unrequited love gets its turn in the spotlight with Dani and Easy in the final book.

It’s sneaky as hell, but something very much to look forward to.