Publisher: Carina Press

Imperial Stout by Layla Reyne

Imperial Stout by Layla ReyneImperial Stout by Layla Reyne
Series: Trouble Brewing #1
Published by Carina Press on 23rd July 2018
Pages: 268
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two-stars

It’s a good thing assistant US attorney Dominic Price co-owns a brewery. He could use a cold one. Nic’s star witness has just been kidnapped, his joint operation with the FBI is in jeopardy, his father’s shady past is catching up with him and the hot new special agent in San Francisco is the kind of distraction best handled with a stiff drink.

Kidnap and rescue expert Cameron Byrne has his own ideas about how to handle Nic, but his skills are currently needed elsewhere. The by-the-book FBI agent goes deep undercover as a member of an infamous heist crew in order to save Nic’s witness, break up the crew and close the case before anyone else gets hurt. Nic in particular.

Things heat up when Cam falls for Nic, and the witness falls for Cam. As the crew’s suspicions grow, Cam must decide how far he’s willing to go—and how far into his own dark past he’s willing to dive—to get everyone out alive.

‘Imperial Stout’ is me stepping out of my comfort zone when it comes to M/M fiction, though Layla Reyne isn’t a new author to me. Written in a fairly different style from what I’m used to, and not having read Reyne’s ‘Agents Irish and Whiskey’ series, this is me coming in as a newbie. So with a very busy first chapter that included not only an action scene but a load of history between the protagonists which sort of involved also a best friend’s partner and ex-flame, I was a little lost, though duly warned about the kind of romance this path would take.

Still, I found it hard to engage with this one with the convoluted way the plot was initially presented, not like the way I was engaged in Reyne’s ‘Changing Lanes’ series, with my attention constantly pulled between the intrigue, the brewery, the huge number of characters mentioned or dropping in and the romance that was supposedly building. The pairing—between a US Attorney and a kidnap and rescue specialist with the FBI—, while intriguing, seemed to fade behind the never-ceasing activity that kept going on and I never quite lost the feeling of trying to play catch up having walked straight into a tv-series mid-season just as the action was heating up.

‘Imperial Stout’ is safe to say, probably more a book for Reyne’s stalwart followers of her previous series who want to continue into this spin-off in this particular world of whiskey, agents and lawyers. That said, while I still do like Reyne’s writing, I’m going to take a pass on this book and the series. I did try to get into Nic/Cam as much as possible, skimming the pages just to see how things finally fell into place for them, but ultimately, I just didn’t feel as though I made any headway into them at all. And without the base appeal of the main pairing in this romance, I couldn’t quite see the point going on.

two-stars

Tight Quarters by Annabeth Albert

Tight Quarters by Annabeth AlbertTight Quarters by Annabeth Albert
Series: Out of Uniform, #6
Published by Carina Press on 31st July 2018
Pages: 352
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four-stars

Petty Officer Bacon, a navy SEAL and ace sharpshooter, has been on the front lines of more than his fair share of dangerous ops. Yet when a minor injury relegates him to the beta team, he’s tasked with what may be his riskiest assignment yet: the silver fox journalist he’s babysitting is the hottest, most charismatic man he’s ever encountered.

Award-winning journalist Spencer Bryant may have been named one of Pride magazine’s most eligible bachelors of the year, but he’s not looking to change his relationship status. He’s a consummate professional who won’t risk his ethics or impeccable reputation by getting involved with a source. Even a sexy-as-hell military man. But while Spencer can resist his physical attraction to Bacon, he has less control over his emotions—especially when the mission goes sideways and the two men are trapped alone.

Getting out of the jungle alive turns out to be easy compared to facing the truth about their feelings for one another back in the real world. And whether or not they can build a future is a different story altogether.

It isn’t very often that I venture into M/M romance and Annabeth Albert is an author who’s new to me.

That the ‘Out of Uniform’ series has crossed my feed numerous times which I haven’t yet taken up is just added incentive to get into a military romance of this particular sub-genre. Coming straight into ‘Tight Quarters’ without having previously read the rest of the books in the series was no biggie; I had no problems catching up even with the small references to what happened before without the focus on Bacon and Spencer faltering at all.

A hot-shot journalist embedding with this particular SEAL team (which is, according to Bacon—I just had to have a laugh at his name because his real one isn’t much better) isn’t a scenario I’d ever envisioned, but this was something I was happy to take with a pinch of salt, or better put yet, a willingness to suspend disbelief for what I thought was going to be by and large, some kind of romantic suspense written into the story.

But it wasn’t quite one and because I dove in without expectations, everything felt fresh and new, from the not-quite action in the first half and the rather unusual conflict in the second that simply made it impossible to take sides.

The forced babysitting of Spencer Bryant, a plan that went inevitably wrong during a mission and the action that happened thereafter and the added element of the kind of craving attraction that Albert writes so well just made me a happy camper. The details of the mission itself felt as though they were deliberately left fuzzy, so it was akin to being part of the action but not being in the heart of it, which left the focus on the development of the relationship—both when Spencer and Bacon were together as well as apart.

Past the mission however, ‘Tight Quarters’ felt like a different book in the move from military to the party crowd that Spencer/Bacon got involved in on his leave. The different aspects of their characters coming out to play threw me for a bit when I’d been ready to pigeon-hole both of them as ‘journalist’ and ‘soldier’, in fact. But the thoroughness of Albert’s exploration of the tension between Bacon and Spencer—one that resulted in a slight lull in the first third of the book—was rewarding as a result, especially in the light of the slow, slow burn that was set up as hostile from the start.

By the time Bacon and Spencer talked their way through to their sappy end, I was impressed by Albert’s style—the emotional rawness that emerged later between this pairing—and her handling of gender fluidity. And then I wondered why I didn’t jump on her other books earlier on.

four-stars

Making Up by Lucy Parker

Making Up by Lucy ParkerMaking Up by Lucy Parker
Series: London Celebrities #3
Published by Carina Press on May 28th 2018
Pages: 318
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three-stars

Once upon a time, circus artist Trix Lane was the best around. Her spark vanished with her confidence, though, and reclaiming either has proved…difficult. So when the star of The Festival of Masks is nixed and Trix is unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight, it’s exactly the push she needs. But the joy over her sudden elevation in status is cut short by a new hire on the makeup team.

Leo Magasiva: disgraced wizard of special effects. He of the beautiful voice and impressive beard. Complete dickhead and—in an unexpected twist—an enragingly good kisser.

To Leo, something about Trix is…different. Lovely. Beautiful, even though the pint-size, pink-haired former bane of his existence still spends most of her waking hours working to annoy him. They’ve barely been able to spend two minutes together for years, and now he can’t get enough of her. On stage. At home. In his bed.

When it comes to commitment, Trix has been there, done that, never wants to do it again. Leo’s this close to the job of a lifetime, which would take him away from London—and from Trix. Their past is a constant barrier between them.

It seems hopeless.

Utterly impossible.

And yet…

I don’t have much experience with reading Lucy Parker’s books, but ‘Making Up’s enemies-to-lovers blurb drew me right in.

I loved the chaotic opening that was full of sensory delights mixed with the drama that happens both onstage and offstage—that’s what you get for sinking the story straight into one of Westend’s best runs, complete with the out-of-the-world costumes, death-defying acts, impossible characters and finally, the stripped-down actors behind them.

Parker paints stunning pictures with words, no doubt, with so much of the side-of-your-mouth kind of humour here both dry and witty—blink and it’s gone—that ups the pace and makes the pages fly. Even the antagonism between Trix and Leo fell into romcom land as they traded barbs with the frenemies vibe and slung such spirited snarky insults that I was tempted to steal some those in order to expand my own swearing vocabulary.

I did like Parker’s chosen setting of performance art, and the support that went on behind the scenes…Trix and Leo were the furthest from the typical stock characters you see in romance these days and that alone kept me reading. Quirk aside (and there’s quite a fair bit of it that can be funny, if the humour and writing do appeal), I still sort of had a hard time trying to place where ‘Making Up’ fell on my personal ratings spectrum.

It’s far from a bad read, but there were parts that I felt were stylistically overdone: the constant hyperboles and the smart cracks could have been dialled back a wee bit, which, combined with a full boatload of drama—don’t expect any less from the theatre people—nearly caved my head in. The pygmy hedgehog however, was the extra special sparkle in all of it.

three-stars

Hot Response by Shannon Stacey

Hot Response by Shannon StaceyHot Response by Shannon Stacey
Series: Boston Fire #4
Published by Carina Press on April 24th 2018
Pages: 285
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four-stars

Gavin Boudreau lives for the job, but he also believes in “work hard, play harder.” As the youngest guy in Ladder 37, he figures he’s got plenty of time before settling down becomes a priority. Soft, pretty women who aren’t looking for promises are exactly his type, and he’s comfortable with that. Working with a gorgeous EMT isn’t going to change who he is.

The last thing Cait Tasker needs in her personal life is a firefighter whose challenges on-scene have been a thorn in her side from minute one. Her plate’s too full for a man anyway. Back in her childhood home to help her family cope with an unexpected tragedy, she’s got enough to handle without throwing a hot, testosterone-laden fireman into the mix.

As long days on the job lead to long nights together, Gavin and Cait will discover how far temptation can take them—and what happens when the one you thought was all wrong for you turns out to be the person you can’t live without.

Shannon Stacey’s firefighters are always fantastic entertainment but I think ‘Hot Response’ has so far, knocked this series out of the park as a firefighter and an EMT get off on the wrong foot due to a small series of unintended misunderstandings.

Gavin Boudreau and Cait Tasker didn’t seem like the kind of characters who would have worked out based on the blurb, but the story that Stacey tells turned out to be quite a different one. I never quite even got the idea that Gavin was only up for a good time, and that he tuned out to be an absolute prize—all about family, thoughtful and considerate—surprised me pleasantly, as much as how into the relationship with Cait when that finally took off. That their relationship was hampered by a large issue in Cait’s life was going to be a conflict that I saw coming from afar, though I was glad to see that resolved relatively quickly (though a little abruptly).

What stood out however, was the progression of their relationship; none of it felt forced nor boring, as I was engrossed in the day-to-day routines of them working as first responders and how their jobs intersected from time to time. The episodes with their own families did made me cringe at times, as were the very relatable struggles that both faced, particularly Cait’s, though I could understand Gavin’s own position on Cait’s reluctance to move on.

In any case, ‘Hot Response’ made a perfect weekend read for me: there was a comfortable mix of angst, action and banter and I loved reading about the interactions between the whole fire crew. My only tiny complaint is the rather abrupt resolution and end to the book, though it’s not something I should be nitpicking about because there’s clearly more of this beloved crew to come.

four-stars

The Love Coupon by Ainslie Paton

The Love Coupon by Ainslie PatonThe Love Coupon by Ainslie Paton
Series: Stubborn Hearts #2
Published by Carina Press on March 9th 2018
Pages: 253
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three-stars

Can you fall in love if you have the right coupon?

Tom O’Connell had a problem. His temporary roommate, Flick Dalgetty was noisy, messy, made of bees and had enough energy to power an amusement park. The problem was he shouldn’t have kissed her.

Flick Dalgetty had a problem. Her landlord, Tom O’Connell was made of granite. He was a big, repressed anti-social ogre, but the man knew how to kiss. The problem was he felt guilty about hooking up and she wanted more.

Until Flick’s gift of thirty coupons, each entitling Tom to one guilt and obligation free activity, from bowling and bubble bathing to morning delight and lingerie buying, removed all the guesswork of being incompatible partners and temporary roommates.

Now the only problem was Flick had to leave and Tom needed to stay and they might be falling in love—and there wasn’t a coupon for that.

Love can be a sexy game until it becomes the only one your stubborn heart wants to play.

Quirk is the order of the day each time I read an Ainslie Paton novel, from the (sometimes hilarious) descriptions of her characters to the even odder situations that they find themselves in. But these can also be a refreshing change from the monotony of encountering variants of the same type of plots that have been reworked in so many ways.

Paton’s style however, does take getting used to—from metaphors that never quite occur to you make regular occurrences to odd, long dialogues to hyperboles that give you pause—and I suspect it might put some readers in one camp or the other. ‘The Love Coupon’ safe to say, follows this kind of pattern in what’s essentially, a roommates to lovers story based on Flick Dalgetty pulling Tom O’Connell out of his comfort zone in every direction he’d never anticipated.

Make no mistake, Flick Dalgetty came in with a bang. True to her name (like a fly you want to flick off), Flick was already made out to be a circus-act protagonist who went at everything like the Duracell Bunny and then some—just to read in third person about her was exhausting. As a character who seemed to exist to poke the conservative, routine-based Tom out of his comfort zone, I couldn’t help but at times find her pesky, needy and almost petulantly acting up when it came to the long-suffering Tom—essentially rubbing me the wrong way because she didn’t know how to leave things alone. There were parts about her family though, that made her vulnerably relatable and those were the bits that I enjoyed reading the most.

What I found odd was that the love coupon part of the story didn’t come in until at least half the story later, the first of which felt like long dialogues and Tom/Flick rather quickly feeling their way around each other, at parts literally. I did however, appreciate Paton establishing their odd relationship first, before the coupon idea came in, which definitely helped solidify this weird bond that they had going by then.

Still, while I’m sold on the premise of the story, Tom/Flick felt like a batty idea that I couldn’t quite shake by the end of their tearful declarations that they couldn’t live without each other. There was overall, still an oddity about ‘The Love Coupon’ that felt a tad ‘off’ to me—this is obviously just me—as Tom/Flick abruptly and impulsively rode off into their (Washington) sunset before the credits rolled. It’s definitely rom-com worthy though, so if that’s your sort of thing, ‘The Love Coupon’ is a perfect bet.

three-stars

Syncopation by Anna Zabo

Syncopation by Anna ZaboSyncopation by Anna Zabo
Series: Twisted Wishes #1
Published by Carina Press on April 9th 2018
Pages: 295
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three-stars

Twisted Wishes front man Ray Van Zeller is in one hell of a tight spot. After a heated confrontation with his bandmate goes viral, Ray is hit with a PR nightmare the fledgling band so doesn’t need. But his problems only multiply when they snag a talented new drummer—insufferably sexy Zavier Demos, the high school crush Ray barely survived.

Zavier’s kept a casual eye on Twisted Wishes for years, and lately, he likes what he sees. What he doesn’t like is how out of control Ray seems—something Zavier’s aching to correct after their first pulse-pounding encounter. If Ray’s up for the challenge.

Despite the prospect of a glorious sexual encore, Ray is reluctant to trust Zavier with his band—or his heart. And Zavier has always had big dreams; this gig was supposed to be temporary. But touring together has opened their eyes to new passions and new possibilities, making them rethink their commitments, both to the band and to each other.

Music excites me and everything about the blurb of ‘Syncopation’ was catnip: a fledgling garage band on the verge of making it big, a new cocky (and talented) drummer taking the place of the old one, an unspoken, straining attraction between 2 people who’d had a rocky relationship years ago and the slow unravelling of a frontman who takes on too much on his own shoulders.

The title ‘Syncopation’ is a fitting one somehow—the beat that the band conjures, that Zavier and Ray dance to…it’s a story paced like a musical score, a build-up, with several sparks thrown in, then finally the climax that leaves one breathless. I loved the rush, the electrifying atmosphere that exploded to life on the page and the highs and the lows that Zabo writes so intricately about. In fact, Zabo’s descriptions of the exhilaration of performing and the adulation of the audience felt spot-on, as were her ways of talking about synaesthesia in the way it gave voice to music through shapes, colours and lines.

There are tons of triggers here, though, so going into this with eyes wide open is a necessity. What I personally hadn’t expected was the BDSM, the brutal, power-play kinks and the absence of love declarations in the traditional sense, though these were edgy enough to give the story a dirtier, flintier side as Zavier and Ray worked through their history while on tour. And as the tour amped up with each stop, so did the tension between them which I knew was going to explode in a fit so spectacular taking cover was probably necessary.

Still, I couldn’t exactly shake the feeling that for at least the first half, Zavier and Ray didn’t feel like equals (the former never looked like an open book, even by the end of it), coloured as they were by Zavier’s arrogant assumption about Ray’s punk status (10 years earlier!)—a subtle dynamic that seemed to have carried over to their interactions in the band. But I liked their slow, almost-grudging shift into friendship, the vulnerability that had Ray stripped bare, the inherent contradictions in both Zabo’s protagonists: the confidence, the conviction and the absolute commitment Ray had in the band and Zavier’s protectiveness towards him, then their role reversal in the bedroom.

My tastes are admittedly, a tad bit vanilla for all that went on however, as the BDSM really kicked in by the second half of the story. While I loved Zabo’s writing and the masterful pacing this story, the other bit of me cringed when the kinks took me for a ride—pun intended—longer and deeper than I was hoping for. With an ending that defied the usual ‘HEA/HFN’, I’m not entirely sure how to classify my own reaction to ‘Syncopation’ and it’s a rating that reflects that. Will there be more Zabo books in the future for me? Possibly so, since the secondary characters here have hooked me in and I’m already leaning towards wanting to read their stories.

three-stars

Claimed by Alexa Riley

Claimed by Alexa RileyClaimed by Alexa Riley
Series: For Her #3
Published by Carina Press on March 27th 2018
Pages: 314
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three-stars

Jordan Chen is the man behind the screen. As part of the elite security team for Osbourne Corporation, he has an iron grip on protection, all without having to make close connections with people. Until he meets the beautiful Jay, and suddenly his quiet life doesn't seem so perfect anymore. He needs more. He needs her.

A workaholic to her core, Jay Rose doesn't have a lot of men in her life. Smiling in the face of her enemies gets her the results she wants at work, but doesn't exactly project a warm, welcoming vibe. So she's surprised when the enigmatic security expert strikes up a friendship with her—surprised but flattered, and maybe a little bit turned on.

A company as powerful as Osbourne Corporation has powerful enemies, and when Jay becomes a target, Jordan realizes there's nothing he won't do to bring her home safe.

It’s no surprise that I’ve often complained about the brevity of the dynamic (and instalove) duo Alexa Riley’s stories. The novella-length and even shorter tales they weave have tended to be—in part due to the length—full of alpha males who take over their women so thoroughly that they sometimes consume them whole, developing tunnel, caveman vision to the point where they see nothing but the words ‘mine, mine, mine’. It’s ‘crazy love’, as a villain in ‘Claimed’ says, or devotion so complete it could well be religious—a style that any Alexa Riley reader needs to get accustomed to first.

But Riley’s full-length stories, in the ‘For Her’ series at least, have gone a long way to ease this somewhat extreme vision of theirs, as the plot—as well as the action—unfolded and stretched over chapters rather than mere paragraphs. The drawn-out storytelling is a boon in this case and the burn between Jay/Jordan more believable because of it.

Yet if I thought ‘Claimed’ started out quite well, the story and characterisation faltered for me as the pages wore on. I liked the initial awkwardness between Jay and Jordan, even as Riley pushed their relationship straight into the deep end rather quickly without much angst at all. And while Jordan was quite the bossy protagonist to remember, what I couldn’t quite get was Jay’s seeming inability to use her brains around Jordan—her total dependence on him, her concealment of the threat pushing her into TSTL behaviour, her helplessness later on—and her sudden pliancy when it came to just becoming a passive taker as she got in deeper with Jordan. That said, a caveat: my confessed preference for stronger, take-charge heroines is definitely showing up here however, particularly since Riley has written some suspense into the story but not too much that it overwhelms the romantic elements in it.

While ‘Claimed’ isn’t my favourite of the series, it’s one I jumped onto because just the thought of a full-length Alexa Riley story is irresistible. Riley’s iron-clad reaffirmations of HEAs (multiple epilogues!), over the top as they might be, do sometimes work out after all quite nicely—this book’s tooth-achingly sweet, drawn-out ending fits the bill.

three-stars