Publisher: Carina Press

Arctic Heat by Annabeth Albert

Arctic Heat by Annabeth AlbertArctic Heat by Annabeth Albert
Series: Frozen Hearts, #3
Published by Carina Press on 23rd September 2019
Pages: 361
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three-stars

Owen Han has a fresh lease on life—he’s kicked cancer’s ass and is roaring through his bucket list. The former investment banker hopes to find his next challenge in Alaska, volunteering alongside park rangers and fulfilling his childhood dreams of snowy winters and rustic life. Of course, those dreams did tend to feature big strapping mountain men in vivid detail…

Ranger Quilleran Ramsey would like to be anywhere other than dealing with newbie volunteers. And really, the only thing he needs less than a green volunteer “partner” is the flirty attentions of a buff city boy who doesn’t look ready to last a week, let alone an Alaskan winter. They’re all wrong for each other, even if Quill’s traitorous body enjoys the flirting more than it should.

As the weeks pass, the two snowbound men give in to temptation. But can their seasonal romance last until spring? For them to have a future together, each will have to trust the other…while hoping that the harsh elements and omnipresent dangers don’t destroy what happiness they’ve found in the moment.

There’s something I find compelling about Annabeth Albert’s Frozen Hearts series, but perhaps it’s the wilds of Alaska and the odd, accompanying sense of adventure and danger so far north that pull me in. Here, the urban-suave ex-investment banker and a grumpy, closet ranger come together in ‘Arctic Heat’, a pairing that is as unlikely as Owen Han and Quill Ramsey meeting under ‘normal circumstances’ had tragedy not struck in a way to make the former reevaluate his priorities.

And they couldn’t be more different, especially when the thought of such a pairing seems like a bad idea from the start. Owen is rocking what life has to offer after beating cancer, now exuberantly pursuing everything in his bucket list, Quill’s stoic, cautious and reticent in his approach to jumping into everything headlong despite Owen’s very obvious attempts in starting something between them. More so, because Owen’s place in Alaska is temporary—a pit stop in his journey towards ticking off yet one more thing in his list—while Quill is simply opposed to having his slow, steady life upended by an eager, restless puppy of a volunteer who just won’t give up.

But Albert works these kinks out slowly but surely, with action that is muted in favour of relationship development and a slow burn that’s mostly found in Owen’s small but significant inroads (literally and metaphorically) in Quill’s closeted and closed-up life and his overall bleakness on the relationship front. It’s a pairing that’s good for each other, I think, despite my finding Owen a bit too pushy for my liking, even if it’s meant to get Quill to let go of his regimented thinking a bit more.

Overall, ‘Arctic Heat’ is a gentler, more emotion-focused than adventure-driven sort of story, with an iron-clad HEA that Albert reinforces through lots of emotional affirmation. It did drag a bit and became somewhat predictable for me, but it’ll could appeal to those who like delving into head space with some adult angst.

three-stars

Dine with Me by Layla Reyne

Dine with Me by Layla ReyneDine With Me by Layla Reyne
Published by Carina Press on 16th September 2019
Pages: 205
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four-stars


Life never tasted so good.

Miller Sykes’s meteoric rise to award-winning chef is the stuff of culinary dreams, but it’s all crashing down around him. He’s been given a diagnosis that could cost him something even more precious than his life: his sense of taste. Rather than risk the very thing that defines him, Miller embarks on a last tour of his favorite meals while he still can.

But there’s a catch: he needs a financial backer to make it happen, and he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s sick.

Dr. Clancy Rhodes has two weeks to come to terms with putting aside oncology to work at his father’s thriving plastic surgery practice. When the opportunity to travel with a Michelin-starred chef presents itself, the foodie in him can’t believe it. It doesn’t hurt that Miller’s rugged good looks are exactly Clancy’s cup of joe.

As Clancy and Miller travel from coast to coast and indulge in everything from dive bars to the most decadent of culinary experiences, they’re suddenly sharing a lot more than delicious meals. Sparks fly as they bond over their love of flavors and the pressures of great expectations. But when Miller’s health takes a turn for the worse, Clancy must convince him he’s more—so much more—than just his taste buds. And that together, they can win a battle that once seemed hopeless.

‘Dine With Me’ is as much as a tribute to food as it is to romance: two weeks with an ailing celebrity chef (his self-imposed last rites, so to speak) and a foodie doctor on the verge of a career shift.

Layla Reyne takes a different direction with ‘Dine With Me’ and by turning to gastronomy, automatically helped keep the pages turning as I lapped up the descriptions of food as much as I did of the growing tension and stark differences between Clancy Rhodes and Miller Sykes—one with an unfailing optimism for human life and the other, with a fatalistic view of life as well…because of their work and what they love most doing. In essence, their chance meeting when Clancy signs up for the food tour becomes a slow burn of smouldering looks, helpless moans and tingly feels over gourmet dishes, with some (un)timely intervention of family and friends on both sides.

Reyne walks the thin line here when it comes to relationships; Clancy’s unusual—and frankly, rather unbelievable—family situation enables him to accept Miller’s own without difficulty. I found the circumstances and the plot a bit more conveniently serendipitous and a bit more far-fetched than I liked, and struggled with the small niggle bits that had to do with characterisation.

It is difficult to reconcile Clancy’s eager, enthusiastic puppy-dog demeanour with that of a 30-year-old doctor who’d seen too much in oncology, though it does play off nicely against Miller’s stoic and gruff behaviour as he wrestles with his own mortality. Still, it all comes to an end rather quickly where I’d hoped Clancy could have played a bigger part in Miller’s journey to recovery. Reyne focuses instead, more on food and the present rather than Clancy/Miller’s relationship changing past the tour, then hops to conclusion a few years down the road that tells more than shows the hard journey to their HEA.

Still, there’s a bit more poignancy and a lot more of the struggle for acceptance of change as the sobering thought of mortality lurks around the corner—it’s just slower-paced though, and if food’s the thing that revs your engine, ‘Dine With Me’ offers something unusual and different.

four-stars

Arctic Wild by Annabeth Albert

Arctic Wild by Annabeth AlbertArctic Wild by Annabeth Albert
Series: Frozen Hearts #2
Published by Carina Press on 3rd June 2019
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three-stars

When a plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, the best place to land is in the arms of a younger man…

Hotshot attorney Reuben Graham has finally agreed to take a vacation, when his plane suddenly plunges into the Alaskan wilderness.

Just his luck.

But his frustrations have only begun as he finds himself stranded with the injured, and superhot, pilot, a man who’s endearingly sociable—and much too young for Reuben to be wanting him this badly.

As the sole provider for his sisters and ailing father, Tobias Kooly is devastated to learn his injuries will prevent him from working or even making it back home. So when Reuben insists on giving him a place to recover, not even Toby’s pride can make him refuse. He’s never been tempted by a silver fox before, but something about Reuben is impossible to resist.

Recuperating in Reuben’s care is the last thing Toby expected, yet the closer they become, the more incredibly right it feels, prompting workaholic Reuben to question the life he’s been living. But when the pressure Toby’s under starts closing in, both men will have to decide if there’s room in their hearts for a love they never saw coming.

I’m new to Annabeth Albert’s Frozen Hearts series, so ‘Arctic Wild’ was sort of a pleasant surprise to me—something that didn’t involve her usual military stories and instead, dealt with the Alaskan wilderness was something I couldn’t resist trying out.

But then, there’s nothing too unpredictable about the story. You could see the train collision coming however; big-city silver fox, high-powered lawyer and Alaskan guy who has no love lost for the city, whose relationship started out as unwilling participant and tour guide until an unexpected plane crash forces them together in unexpected ways. Reuben Graham and Toby Kooly couldn’t be more different and they both know it.
Essentially, this was less of a survival-in-the-wilderness type of read than it was a slow-paced, grinding out the differences type of story as both Reuben and Toby drew closer (the latter has colder feet and more commitment issues than the former who longed for a connection) to each other. And as a result, I was more restless than usual at certain parts of the book, despite it being as close to a realistic m/m romance—there’s real life mirrored in there—as it could probably get the way I imagined it
I can’t exactly put my finger on what would have made it a more convincing romance for me—the sexy times are certainly not lacking—but perhaps the depth of Toby’s own feelings and commitment after Albert had so painstakingly painted him as a casual-sex person who slept around because he didn’t want any more burdens added to his life was what ironically made me doubt the feasibility of this pairing even by the HFN at the end.
So in all, a somewhat engaging but middling read—just wish I could have been more excited about this whole story.
three-stars

End Transmission by Robyn Bachar

End Transmission by Robyn BacharEnd Transmission by Robyn Bachar
Series: The Galactic Cold War, #3
Published by Carina, Carina Press on 20th May 2019
Pages: 170
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two-half-stars


Firefly
meets James Bond in this action-adventure romance set in an alternate future where the Cold War never ended…

Maria Watson defied her family to join the Mombasa as Chief Engineer, finding her place among a ragtag fleet of pirates and privateers. Their latest mission left her with a price on her head and a scar on her heart. When a surprise attack separates her from her ship, stranding her in hostile space with a stolen Soviet weapon, she’ll do whatever it takes to uncover that weapon’s secrets—even sacrifice herself.

Broken by the war, Combat Medic Tomas Nyota spent years drowning his sorrows in the bottom of a bottle. Sober, he found a new purpose as the Mombasa’s Chief Medical Officer. His job is to keep the crew alive, even the brilliant but contrary Chief Engineer with whom he’s constantly at odds.

Trapped together in a stolen ship, running from both the Alliance and the Soviets, they must work together to survive. But when the weapon’s horrific purpose is uncovered, their quest becomes a race against time. They must expose the truth and destroy the weapon—before it’s too late.

As a syfy-novella, ‘End Transmission’ works pretty well. As someone who dove straight into this installment without having read the first 2 books in the series, Robyn Bachar’s world-building is intriguing, sort of easy to get into and pretty absorbing considering the alternate-earth direction that this series has taken and extrapolated. Split into 2 factions—the bad Soviets and the supposed not-bad camps—this extreme form of rivalry has extended into the space age where the initial Cold War rift had snowballed into something way, way bigger than anyone living in the present can imagine.

Still, the political tenets remain the same: conspiracy, espionage and undercutting, with a huge emphasis on intrigue and intelligence…issues that hardcore syfy books tend to reimagine, comment on, criticise and re-write. ‘End Transmission’ might revolve around a particular prototype designed for mind and behaviour-control coupled with several great inserts like a fake honeymoon, getting stuck in confined spaces with a so-called rival, but Bachar’s other books (as inferred) had already padded out so much that I was wondering just how much I’d missed out with some info-dump happening midway through.

I took an extraordinary long time to finish this nonetheless, skimming at times, caught between the perfunctory romance and the very detailed world that Bachar has written in this short novella.

As a syfy-story, ‘End Transmission’ is great, though as a romance, not so. Maria and Tomas seemed more at loggerheads (or simply, characters who just didn’t see eye to eye) minus the sizzling chemistry of an enemies-to-lovers vibe, with a switch suddenly flipping between them at the 3/4 mark that had me befuddled because I just couldn’t see it coming. In fact, I wasn’t entirely sure they even liked each other despite the love declarations at the end—that much of a negative dynamic Maria/Tomas had that didn’t even have me rooting for their HEA or HFN.

In short, a middling read for me at least, though I wish I could have been more enthusiastic about their story.

two-half-stars

Lost in You by Lauren Dane

Lost in You by Lauren DaneLost In You by Lauren Dane
Published by Carina Press on 13th May 2019
Pages: 176
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one-star

Getting lost in the arms of a bad boy never felt so good

Time and the military have made Joe Harris a better man than he was when he left Petal, Georgia, ten years ago. Now that he’s back, all he wants is to take care of his dad, get his garage up and running and spend time with his dog. He has no plans for a relationship, especially one with his best friend’s kid sister, no matter how much she tempts him. And boy does she ever.

Beth Murphy grew up surrounded by trouble, so these days she steers clear when she sees it. Until Joe Harris rides back into town—he’s the kind of trouble worth getting tangled up in. She knows he’s not the same guy he once was, but there’s something he’s not telling her.

When things at home take a turn, Joe does the only thing he can: he pushes Beth away. This is his responsibility, not hers. But Beth isn’t about to lose him—not when they’ve already lost their hearts to each other.

‘Lost in You’ started out promising, but dipped quite early on when I realised there wasn’t much else but talk about Beth going after Joe and Beth really going after Joe.

And that was my red flag, even though the best friend’s sister trope is one that I do nose around for whenever I can. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really get engaged beyond the point where Beth started chasing Joe because there wasn’t much more to look for beyond that. A forthright heroine who knows what she wants is always a welcome change in direction in romance, but the small town talk simply seemed to be about everything and nothing as Joe and Beth danced around each other in a two-steps-foward-two-steps-back choreography.

Not having read Lauren Dane’s other series, ‘Lost In You’ did feel like I’d stepped in the middle of a show whose beginning I knew absolutely nothing about. Secondary characters who must have played an important and heartfelt role in previous books made appearances here but because I wasn’t invested in them at all, such scenes actually felt redundant and dragged the story under—this is obviously on me, but it was also a sign that ‘Lost in You’ just wasn’t my thing as well.

one-star

Reverb by Anna Zabo

Reverb by Anna ZaboReverb by Anna Zabo
Series: Twisted Wishes #3
Published by Carina Press on 6th May 2019
Pages: 286
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three-stars

The tougher they are, the harder they fall.

Twisted Wishes bass player Mish Sullivan is a rock goddess—gorgeous, sexy and comfortable in the spotlight. With fame comes unwanted attention, though: a stalker is desperate to get close. Mish can fend for herself, just as she always has. But after an attack lands her in the hospital, the band reacts, sticking her with a bodyguard she doesn’t need or want.

David Altet has an instant connection with Mish. A certified badass, this ex-army martial arts expert can take down a man twice his size. But nothing—not living as a trans man, not his intensive military training—prepared him for the challenge of Mish. Sex with her is a distraction neither of them can afford, yet the hot, kink-filled nights keep coming.

When Mish’s stalker ups his game, David must make a choice—lover or bodyguard. He’d rather have Mish alive than in his bed. But Mish wants David, and no one, especially not a stalker, will force her to give him up.

I think Anna Zabo goes where not many mainstream authors tread, where sexuality (and what it means) is put to the forefront of the Twisted Wishes series. ‘Reverb’ on the surface, might seem like an M/F book as opposed to the first to M/M ones, but I’ve always thought that Mish—the unapologetic loudmouth, Spartan rock queen, bold and take-no-prisoners bass player Mish Sullivan—wouldn’t settle for anything vanilla. Apparently Zabo thought so too.

Getting stuck with a bodyguard isn’t Mish’s idea of a good time, but the internet stalker is making the band nervous enough to put her under David Altet’s watch. What follows is an oddly sweet, progressive step—from attraction and lust to something deeper—with the idea of the band as a close-knit family being reiterated throughout Mish/David’s story.

I’m guessing (and I might be wrong here) that it’s not a book that all readers would take to—to each her or his own, really—especially since the Twisted Wishes series is the furthest from heterosexual pairings. Anna Zabo didn’t make David’s transgender status a big issue at all but then queerness in the band members in the previous 2 books had already set the stage for Mish’s own book where bucking gender norms had already taken centre stage.

What I did have a bit of an issue with however, was that both David’s and Mish’s pasts were very much glossed over in favour of the here and now. There were merely hints of the traumatic times both had in their earlier years, and where I was hoping for a deeper (and perhaps more painful, brutal look) at David’s transition, his deployment in the army and Mish’s own difficult childhood, what came instead were quite a few repetitive scenes of the band touring, its meteoric rise and the building chemistry between David/Mish.

Their easy, developing affection—with a more alpha, dominating female and a sensitive transgender man—surprised me nonetheless, when I thought it’d be full of angst and suppressed passion. Quickly falling into sync together, so much of them together consisted of laughter, desire and acceptance…well, at least until it came to a climax, the pushing away and the pre-requisite grovelling.

‘Reverb’ turned out to be a sweeter, more yearning read than I thought, at least with less of an edge that the first two books had. There’s still a certain sense of satisfaction in seeing Mish’s story that rounded out the band members’ own zig-zagged paths to their own HEAs, but the bottom-line perhaps, is that I enjoyed myself for most part.

three-stars

The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker

The Austen Playbook by Lucy ParkerThe Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker
Series: London Celebrities #4
Published by Carina Press on 30th April 2019
Pages: 400
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three-stars


Freddy Carlton knows she should be focusing on her lines for The Austen Playbook, a live-action TV event where viewers choose the outcome of each scene, but her concentration’s been blown. The palatial estate housing the endeavor is now run by the rude (brilliant) critic who’s consistently slammed her performances of late. James “Griff” Ford-Griffin has a penchant for sarcasm, a majestic nose and all the sensitivity of a sledgehammer.

She can’t take her eyes off him.

Griff can hardly focus with a contagious joy fairy flitting about near him, especially when Freddy looks at him like that. His only concern right now should be on shutting down his younger brother’s well-intentioned (disastrous) schemes—or at the very least on the production (not this one) that might save his family home from the banks.

Instead all he can think of is soft skin and vibrant curls.

As he’s reluctantly dragged into her quest to rediscover her passion for the stage and Freddy is drawn into his research on a legendary theater star, the adage about appearances being deceiving proves abundantly true. It’s the unlikely start of something enormous…but a single revelation about the past could derail it all.

Sometimes I pity Jane Austen and sometimes I think she’s got it all…a few hundred years too late. Think of the number of works of hers that so many have twisted, manipulated, adapted, lovingly massaged and downright massacred through the years and the poor gal should be turning in her grave, or exulting in her posthumous fame.

With a title like ‘The Austen Playbook’, you suspect you know what you’re in for.

Rife with Austen, classic-lit and pop-culture references (not to have Austen meta would have been a sin), I was tickled from the start with the parallel of Darcy’s dissing of Elizabeth as belly-gutting arts critic James Ford-Griffin unknowingly cut Freddy Carlton open in a noisy pub with his analysis of her acting—but that’s barely a hint of where the story will lead.

But the love-hate, actor-critic relationship gets a revamp when they are unwittingly reunited on Griff’s estate along with bitchy reality-tv-series-type drama, a rather mad discovery big-time plagiarism (the sins of the fathers) and unexpected lust/lust coming into play.

Parker’s writing is undoubtedly unique: assured, wry, quirky and with banter that is lofty, sneaky and full of high-brow snark. But admittedly sometimes hard to get through when all you want is straightforward talk minus the distracting character movements, turnarounds and exaggerated descriptions. For this reason, Griff and Freddy, like all of Parker’s characters, are eloquent, always know what to say and sometimes say the unexpected.

I loved the starting quarter, but my attention dipped when talk went deep into secondary characters, the protagonists’ relatives (don’t get me started on the convoluted history) then perked again Parker introduces the attraction between Griff and Freddy with hallowed tenderness.

There were some surprises by the end of it—veering sometimes into the unbelievable—but it was all fodder for entertainment, more so because Parker has made this book about acting, writing and celebrity gossip after all. Ultimately, there were parts of the story I liked and some not too much, but if you’re in because you like a particular writing style like Parker’s, then ‘The Austen Playbook’ should do it for you.

three-stars