Publisher: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform

The King’s Man by Elizabeth Kingston

The King’s Man by Elizabeth KingstonThe King's Man by Elizabeth Kingston
Series: Welsh Blades #1
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on 9th August 2015
Pages: 324
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three-stars

Ranulf Ombrier’s fame throughout England for his skill at swordplay is rivaled only by his notoriety as King Edward I’s favorite killer. Ranulf's actions have gained him lands, title, and a lasting reputation as a hired butcher. But after years of doing his king's bidding, he begins to fear for his mortal soul and follows his conscience away from Edward, all the way to the wilds of Wales.

Gwenllian of Ruardean, Welsh daughter of a powerful Marcher lord, has every reason to leave Ranulf for dead when one of her men nearly kills him. As a girl she was married by proxy to a man Ranulf murdered, only to become a widow before she ever met her groom. In the years since, she has shunned the life of a lady, instead studying warfare and combat at her mother’s behest. But she has also studied healing and this, with her sense of duty to knightly virtues, leads her to tend to Ranulf’s wounds.

Saving her enemy’s life comes with consequences, and Gwenllian and Ranulf are soon caught up in dangerous intrigue. Forced together by political machinations, they discover a kinship of spirit and a surprising, intense desire. But even hard-won love cannot thrive when loyalties are divided and the winds of rebellion sweep the land.

‘The King’s Man’ is in short, a mesmerising read. More so because I can’t even remember the last time I’d dipped a toe in one that’s past the 18th or 19th century. But undoubtedly, this is also a hard review to write, torn as I am between the superb writing and a lacklustre romance that sputtered out before it even began.

That Elizabeth Kingston managed to frame the story within the confines of 13th century Britain yet pull the smallest parallels to modern life makes this story heart-wrenchingly contemporary and frankly, impressive, at least in the way Gwenllian struggled with giving up her identity as swordswoman and a commander of the men in her keep the moment she was made to marry Morency.

In Gwenllian, we get a multifaceted and complexly drawn portrayal of an unusual woman of that time, with such wondrous strength of character and ferocious adaptability that it puts—or should put—many to shame. Forced into a role that put her squarely in a round hole of running the keep as a newly-married lady, and torn between warring factions and political intrigue, her ultimate decision to leave her former self and devote her life to being a lady felt like a bittersweet decision that is admittedly hard for a 21st century reader to swallow—a reminder perhaps, that such sacrifices in some form or other, still exist today even as strong women fight just as hard to have it all.

Kingstons’s characterisation draws no complaint from me, though the pairing left me more than a little wanting: there’s heat at nights, and muted remoteness between the protagonists by day, in a connection that never quite sparked given the lack of communication for most of it and for the repetitive lines of how much Gwenllian felt drawn to Morency and to her obedience to duty. And if I loved her spunk in the beginning, that merely flared as bright and as briefly as a shooting star before she’d determinedly shed her armour in a displacement that drew all the feels. In short it was a sacrifice I’d hoped never to read in the story, only to have it dug even more deeply by the time it ended.

I thought Kingston glossed over the fluidity of the concept of beauty despite the refreshing idea that not only beautiful women in romantic literature deserves a happy ending. Even for 13th century sensibilities about supposedly immutable gender roles, the unforgivable insults that Morency hurled at Gwellian in the early days merely made him a cruel and arrogant prick who never quite redeemed himself by the end of the book. I’d not seen enough of his vulnerability or his devotion to Gwenllian—nor of any active encouragement for her to be who she needed to be—to believe that he’d truly loved her and to this extent, ‘The King’s Man’ felt like a massive let down.

three-stars

Dirty by Callie Hart

Dirty by Callie HartDirty by Callie Hart
Series: Dirty Nasty Freaks #1
Published by CreateSpace, Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on March 30th 2018
Pages: 179
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one-half-stars

Face of an angel.Body of a god.And a mouth so dirty he could make the devil blush…

Fix Marcosa’s time can be bought with money, but he isn’t selling sex. Murderers, rapists, criminals: if you’re on the wrong side of Fix’s moral code, you’re in trouble. The kind of trouble that winds up getting you killed. As a hitman for hire, Fix is no stranger to violence. He’s merciless. Relentless. A true savage, down to the roots of his very soul. You can beg. You can plead. You can pray, but it won’t do you any good. Once the tall, dark stranger arrives at your doorstep, it’s already too late to repent.

Sera Lafferty’s no stranger to heartbreak. With an abusive father and a dependant sister, her life has been one of sacrifice and compromise. As soon as she sets eyes on Felix ‘Fix’ Marcosa, she recognizes the darkness in him and makes a vow: she will not get involved. But trapped inside a motel room with the sexiest man to ever walk the earth? Throw in some tequila and the storm to end all storms, and Sera finds herself worshipping at the altar of Marcosa.

She knows she made a mistake.

She knows she needs to run.

But when she witnesses the assassin at work first hand, she knows it’s far too late. Thrown into the back of his sleek black ride, Sera finds herself trapped, and in more way than one. Fix is deadly. He’s demanding, he’s dirty, and he’s determined to claim her for his own.

Like ships passing in the night with some added horizontal tango, Felix Marcosa is en route to his next assignment while Sera is simply trying her best to get to her sister’s wedding. It’s a one-night stand that goes wrong the day after, though it heads in a direction that warranted more side-eyed looks and raised eyebrows than anything else.

Because, for the most of ‘Dirty’, I had quite a hard time suspending disbelief for the most of it…and this is only part 1.

Incongruity is probably the word I’d use to describe the entire reading experience. The New Adult voices sometimes slipped into juvenile banter when I’d expected a weightier consideration of the morality angle or at least, the grey areas of what Fix does—we’re talking about a hitman after all—when most of the talk between Sera and Fix revolved the latter goading the former about sex and how aroused she got…and that’s mildly putting it.

I thought that the similar-sounding voices of both Fix and Sera that should have been more differentiated, to begin with, though the juvenile tinge given the first-person POV and the behaviour that corresponded with it as the pages went on kept making me wonder if we were dealing with characters who hadn’t crossed the twenties-age-bracket. Or at least, there was a certain distasteful, couldn’t-care-less, screw-the-world flippancy in the tone that I thought outstripped what I’d hoped would be a story with a bit more gravity and less insanity in far-fetched twists that made the the entire thing feel somewhat absurd.

Needless to say, this isn’t the book for me at all—chalk it up to unmet reader-expectations.

one-half-stars

I Bet You by Ilsa Madden-Mills

I Bet You by Ilsa Madden-MillsI Bet You by Ilsa Madden-Mills
Series: The Hook Up #2
Published by CreateSpace, Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on 29th October 2018
Pages: 209
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two-stars

Sexy Athlete: I bet you…Penelope Graham: Burn in hell, quarterback.

The text is random but Penelope figures out exactly who “Sexy Athlete” is. And why she shouldn't take his wager.

Ryker Voss. Football star. Walks on water and God's gift to women.Just ask him.

His bet? He promises Penelope he’ll win her the heart of the guy she’s been crushing on. His plan—good old-fashioned jealousy. Once her crush sees her kissing Ryker, he'll realize what he's missing. Sounds legit, right? The only question is…why is Ryker being so nice to her?

Penelope Graham. Virgin. Lover of sparkly vampires and calculus. His mortal enemy.

Penelope knows she shouldn’t trust a jock, but what’s a girl to do when she needs a date to Homecoming? And Ryker’s keeping a secret, another bet, one that could destroy Penelope’s heart forever.

Will the quarterback score the good girl or will his secrets mean everyone loses this game of love?

‘I Bet You’ started off as a mixture of odd and affected, with the protagonists acting like they’ve been pretending at being something that they’re not at first. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the high-school-type narrative—admittedly one that I wasn’t expecting at all—complete with the sorority/frat house bitch-testosterone kind of vibe was off-putting at first.

Then again, this is can probably be attributed to my growing wariness and intolerance of the N/A genre, particularly when hormonal characters are still driven by their lustful instincts, which I didn’t expect ‘I Bet You’ to be.

Add the virgin-player trope to it and I was questioning my decision to read this halfway through, but I pushed on because some reviews had suggested that this wasn’t a story that entirely stuck straight to stereotypes and an all-too-predictable ending.

Unfortunately, this didn’t fare all too well for me. Penelope at first glance, came off as flighty and insecure while trying to be spunky. Her somewhat archaic ideas coming from her bodice-ripper mind—losing her mind every single time Ryker came near, blowing hot and cold—felt even more out of place for a N/A virgin heroine who somehow managed to ensnare the usual manwhore quarterback (apparently 4 months of no-sex is a great accomplishment to laud), whose interest in someone-not-his-type seemed inexplicable.

Essentially, much of the entire book had to do with confusing game-playing (and not just in the field), hedging, chasing and pushing. What also felt like bits of the historical-romance genre sensibilities had crept into the story and threw me off quite badly because of how incongruous these were considering the college setting. By the end of it, I still found it hard to buy into a pairing which I thought could have ended up colouring outside the lines of these well-worn tropes but ultimately didn’t.

two-stars

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the time by Kylie Scott

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the time by Kylie ScottIt Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time by Kylie Scott
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on 7th August 2018
Pages: 185
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two-half-stars

Returning home for her father’s wedding was never going to be easy for Adele. If being sent away at eighteen hadn’t been bad enough, the mess she left behind when she made a pass at her dad’s business partner sure was.

Fifteen years older than her, Pete had been her crush for as long as she could remember. But she’d misread the situation—confusing friendliness for undying love. Awkward. Add her father to the misunderstanding, and Pete had been left with a broken nose and a business on the edge of ruin. The man had to be just as glad as everyone else when she left town.

Seven years on, things are different. Adele is no longer a kid, but a fully grown adult more than capable of getting through the wedding and being polite. But all it takes is seeing him again to bring back all those old feelings.

Sometimes first loves are the truest.

‘It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time’ is quite a mouthful, but it’s hard to put down with the wrenching pain of unrequited love being the driving factor here, given the somewhat forbidden trope of much older man and younger woman, who reunite after the latter pretty much blew up their friendship by making a pass at him 7 years ago. The stupid things teenage girls do when faced with their crushes are what I remember (cringingly fondly?) as well, nonetheless and this was the basis that kept the pages turning. That and that an age-gap like 15 years doesn’t bother me—so I was on it like white on rice.

But Adele’s and Pete’s history is inked in such a way that makes me question the age-gap issue: would a teenager really find a best friend in a 30-year-old man? (As a teen with a limited perspective, I simply remembered that anyone past 25-ish or so, to be naively considered middle-aged and didn’t have much to talk about with them apart from school and, well, nothing much else) How did Pete transition from seeing Adele as the ‘kid’ to a romantic partner and how on earth did Pete and Adele suddenly regress to being teenagers in their interactions when the former couldn’t seem to deal with something that happened years ago?

Adele comes across, as a result, as the more mature, thinking adult, and for some reason, so forgiving of Pete’s indiscretions and indecisiveness. Or at least, with the whole novella written in Adele’s POV, it is so much easier to see her own insecurities and flaws exposed while I felt too kept in the dark about what Pete is thinking. It’s also quite inconceivable that, as Adele mentioned herself, a man at 40 hadn’t seen the light enough to deal with his own abandonment and emotional issues to remain a closed-off player that he goes about it by blowing hot and cold numerous times…all of which suddenly gets shrugged off at the end.

I would have been probably more mollified however, without the ending twist that seemed to forced a happy ending for all involved—2 people hashing it out and dealing with what’s between them would have worked better, instead of the dependence on external circumstances to speed things along quite unbelievably. Honestly, it’s hard to rate this story like this, where I got through it effortlessly – Kylie Scott’s writing is pretty good that I could empathise mostly with Adele – yet detested the slide into the New Adult feel of it when I’d clearly expected the protagonists to behave their own ages.

two-half-stars

Fast Justice by Kaylea Cross

Fast Justice by Kaylea CrossFast Justice by Kaylea Cross
Series: DEA FAST #6
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, Kaylea Cross Inc. on March 17th 2018
Pages: 352
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four-half-stars

Sacrifice is a requirement of the job. Rowan Stewart walked away from the love of a lifetime to focus on the demands of her job as Assistant US Attorney. Now she's working on the biggest case of her career, prosecuting one of the Veneno cartel's most notorious members. Except the case presents unexpected challenges-including the man she can't forget...and a threat she could not foresee. But this time, it could cost her life. Special Agent Malcolm Freeman is FAST Bravo's point man. On an op he's the first one through the door, leading the way for his team. Professionally, he's at the top of his game. His personal life is a different story. After Rowan ripped his heart out a year ago he closed himself off to any relationships. When fate throws them together he steps up to ensure she's protected, even though it might mean getting his heart broken again. But protection isn't enough. The enemy is determined to use Rowan to get what they want. With her life hanging in the balance, Malcolm and his team race to find her before it's too late. He lost her once. He can't lose her now. This time, failure is not an option.

Finally, finally, finally.

‘Fast Justice’ reminds me of all the reasons why I read Kaylea Cross’s books and having ploughed through the somewhat lacklustre stories from the previous stories in this series, having Rowan/Mal’s tale kick my enthusiasm back to life (measured in terms of the loss of sleeping hours) has been beyond a pleasant surprise. The hints of their broken romance in the previous book had gotten me intrigued and Mal, who is predictably gun-shy about starting up with Rowan again, finally gets his due…in a story that provoked a range of emotions from me.

Apart from the thoroughly engaging suspense, Cross writes about a woman who is willing to own up to her mistakes, who swallows her pride and grovels because she knows she’d left a heartbroken man in her wake…and finally goes after what she wants. I loved the excruciating moments of tension between Ro/Mal, the reluctant truce that breaks down because Rowan decides to shake it all up and her lead role in trying to build them back together again as she tries to mend the damage that she had done to them. For this reason, I couldn’t help but love a woman who’s brave enough to show this sort of maturity when too many cowardly characters that have recently come across my feed have nearly made me thrown several books against the wall in frustration. (Proverbially speaking, because I use an e-reader.)

By and large, this was a compelling read. The entanglements with the Veneno Cartel are woven deep into ‘Fast Justice’ and the developmental arc is more tightly spread over the last few books. In fact, I was surprised at how much of the events that happened in the previous books spilled over into this, wondering if it might be somewhat difficult for ‘Fast Justice’ to be read as a standalone. Cross does provide some explanation—though some parts might still be confusing to readers who step in at this point in time—and without shying away from the brutality of cartel activity, throws in a few twists and turns that helped balance the angst of Rowan/Mal’s situation.

The hasty conclusion after the climax and the loose threads that aren’t tied up by the end are probably my only complaints. It’s evident that Cross intends to continue this arc until the baddies drop dead one by one, but it’s going to be a wait that will span several books before this happens. But until that happens, I’m happily going to go back to the good bits that had me gnawing down my own teeth.

four-half-stars

Hostage by Skye Warren & Annika Martin

Hostage by Skye Warren & Annika MartinHostage by Annika Martin, Skye Warren
Series: Criminals & Captives #2
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on January 27th 2018
Pages: 359
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three-stars

I NEVER KNEW WHEN HE'D COME TO ME. ONLY THAT HE WOULD.

I’d never even kissed a boy the night I met Stone. The night I saw him kill. The night he spared my life. That was only the beginning.

He turns up in my car again and again, dangerous and full of raw power. “Drive,” he tells me, and I have no choice. He’s a criminal with burning green eyes, invading my life and my dreams.

The police say he’s dangerously obsessed with me, but I’m the one who can’t stop thinking about him. Maybe it’s wrong to let him touch me. Maybe it’s wrong to touch him back. Maybe these twisted dates need to stop. Except he feels like the only real thing in my world of designer labels and mansions.

So I drive us under threat, until it’s hard to remember I don’t want to be there.

Until it’s too late to turn back.

Throw away all fixed ideas about how a hero or even an anti-hero should behave, entertain the idea of the antithesis of a fairytale romance, then come to ‘Hostage’ expecting that you’ll be getting the entire opposite of a sanitised HEA. ‘Hostage’ requires a lot from a reader, even for those who might like their stories tuned up, edgy and dirty. For a conventional romance reader, going into this book might even seem like going against the idealised structure and characters of a romance and the kind of happy-ever-after that typically ends with a ride off into the sunset.

‘Hostage’ is as the title implies, the forcible kidnapping of a girl because she witnesses a murder, then strangely developing an obsession with her as the months pass, because she represents a part of life that’s foreign and way out of reach.

Stone Keaton appeared in ‘Prisoner’ as an absolute son-of-a-bitch, and there are many lines in the story that reinforce this. I’m constantly reminded that he feels no emotion, keeps things together in the most brutal fashion, and stamps his own cruel brand of revenge in the blood and gore for the sake of others. The only ‘saving grace’—even this is dubious—comprise his loyalty to his brothers and his protectiveness towards Brooke over a period of a few years (a girl who isn’t even legal when they meet), as well as the mantle of vigilantism that he takes on in a city where corruption runs rife.

‘Hostage’ deviates so far from the norm that the age-gap between Brooke and Stone is the last thing I’m bothered about, considering Skye Warren and Annika Martin write about almost everything that crosses the grey boundary of good and evil. The way Brooke is written surpasses that of the typical 18-year-old’s mind however; only her with (possibly misplaced) compassion and an overly soft romanticising of Stone remind me from time to time just how young she really is, which does go a bit of a way to soften the hardness of the latter. But while I sort of understood Stone’s obsession with Brooke, it is harder to take the leap and believe their so-called connection becomes a kind of twisted love after a time.

My rating is just a reflection of my own wishy-washy attitude to this book. What I like here, oddly, isn’t exactly a pairing that I find hard to get invested in; instead, it’s the indirect commentary on current politics—complicity, the guilt of big wigs, #fake news(!)—that Warren and Martin write into the narrative which is ironically and chillingly reflective of present-day reality. Even if that only becomes more and more evident as the pages go on, that alone gives that book a depth that I can appreciate, even if the romance isn’t quite what I can buy into.

three-stars

Twisted Twosome by Meghan Quinn

Twisted Twosome by Meghan QuinnTwisted Twosome by Meghan Quinn
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on July 16th 2017
Pages: 251
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three-stars

Racer McKay is a broody bastard. From the moment I met him, he's been rude, irritable, and unbearable. And worse? He's broke. A contractor working to remodel my parents pool house for extra cash, he stomps around in those clunky construction boots with his tool belt wrapped around his narrow waist, and a chip on his shoulder. Racer McKay is also infuriatingly . . . sexy as hell. I want to take that pencil tucked behind his ear, and draw lazy lines slowly up and down his body all the while wanting to strangle him at the same time. We try to stay out of each other's way . . . that is until I have no other option but to ask for his help. But what I don't realize is he needs me just as much as I need him. I have money he's desperate for, and he holds the key to making my dreams come true. Our pranks turn from sarcastic banter, to sexual tension and lust-filled glances. Bickering matches quickly morph into slow burn moments. We're hot, we're cold. We push and pull. I need him, I don't want him. We're on the verge of combusting with an agreement dangling dangerously between us. Neither one of us can afford to lose one another and yet, we're finding it quite hard to decipher the line that rests between love and hate.

Sometimes a character surprises you in the best way, particularly when it’s a secondary character from another book that couldn’t be taken seriously at all. Racer was such a character in Meghan Quinn’s first book and I didn’t quite know what to make of him. In fact, I barely gave him a thought at all until ‘Twisted Twosome’ came out and then my reading world got squeezed through the rabbit hole of this rather complicated man.

But Racer is, no doubt about it, the shining star of the story, because he’s so much more than the front he shows, and damn if that front is hilariously obnoxious, unapologetically arrogant and deliberately crude. I had the laugh of my life especially when he pitted himself against Georgiana until their love-hate, antagonistic relationship turned into something else entirely as the jibes grew less mean and increasing like foreplay.

Admittedly, it did get a bit much sometimes, but overall, I liked what Racer represented and how real he was as a character was underneath the insults, pranks and the fuck-all, mega man-child front. Quinn does writes his grief—and all the desperate financial struggles especially after losing the closest person he’d ever been to—in such a tangible way that I couldn’t help but wish for something better for him as he lurches from a project to another just to get by.

Racer and Georgiana do sort of make a believable pair, but it’s one that is solidified by constant arguing and banter—if that’s what could be considered the cornerstone of a relationship, because along with the taunts, so does the sexual tension mount along with them. Yet I was still caught by surprise when they fell into bed, because I didn’t think they liked each other enough for it. That part happened somewhat suddenly, though the conflict between their ‘social class’ was something I could sniff out a mile away. And as a little too neatly wrapped up as the end was, Quinn did have me rooting for them after all, because I was mostly invested in the both of them from the start.

three-stars