Publisher: Escape Publishing

A Daughter’s Choice by Lee Christine

A Daughter’s Choice by Lee ChristineA Daughter's Choice by Lee Christine
Series: A Mindalby Outback Romance Series #4
Published by Escape Publishing on 31st July 2018
Pages: 190
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
two-half-stars

Mindalby, a small town, a community, a home. But when the mill that supports the local cotton farmers and employs many of the town's residents closes unexpectedly, old tensions are exposed and new rifts develop. Everyone is affected and some react better than others, but one thing is certain: living on the edge of the outback means they have to survive together, or let their town die.

Lynsey Carter's relationship with her father is fraught, so when she hears that the cotton mill that is her birthright has closed down (and her father is lying low), she returns to Mindalby to support her mother and seek out answers. She hasn't been back since high school, since she left her heart behind with Julian Stone. But Julian didn't want it, or her; he wanted a life in Mindalby.

Torn between family loyalty and duty to the community, between the life she's built for herself and the passion for Julian she just can't seem to shake, Lynsey needs to decide if her home–coming is for a visit – or for real.

I’ve always like Lee Christine’s writing and ‘A Daughter’s Choice’ is no different. The context and the circumstances in which this story are unusual to say the least, though distilled, it’s one of a girl returning home to the Australian Outback to take care of affairs that have gone awry (thanks to a corrupt, deadbeat father), then meeting an old flame who’d broke her heart. With a narrative built around the failure of a mill on which the livelihood of a small community depends, Lynsey and Julian reunite out of necessity—returning home does that in a small town—and it takes only just a few days together to remind them how good they could be and have been.

But more on that later.

Pacing-wise, I thought the story did drag on a bit when it became slower going than I expected (Christine is an author I read for romantic suspense after all) and the slower pace did throw me off a bit. That translated to me put this down and taking it up numerous times, and when I took it up, there were parts I trudged through just trying to stay interested in the subject matter.

Apart from following the developments and the slight suspense written into this (which perked me up), I was baffled how Lynsey and Julian fell into bed when nothing between them was resolved, all within a few days after a separation of 9 years. Julian’s supposed friends-with-benefits situation with another woman seemed to become a non-issue when I’d actually hoped for that particular casual relationship to be dissolved even before Lynsey/Julian got together again. Admittedly, second-chance romances don’t necessarily sit all too well with me when the slightest thing give me cause to question the validity of the reunion. Essentially, I thought there were relationship issues which needed ironing out but felt glossed over in favour of the suspense despite both protagonists trying to be mature about themselves.

In all, the dive into the Australian Outback is always a cultural shift that I love to read about after all because such writers—and I’ve gone through quite a few of them—offer such different perspectives especially in the romance genre, I think I surprised myself most of all by not really feeling this story at all.

two-half-stars

Game On by Nicola Marsh

Game On by Nicola MarshGame On by Nicola Marsh
Series: Women of W.A.R #1
Published by Escape Publishing on February 20th 2018
Pages: 63
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
two-half-stars

Are they playing to win…or playing for keeps?

Angelica Bryant has a dream. The only child of a soccer legend, she pays her bills by working at her father’s bar while pursuing her goals: a role in sports management and a place in the newly established Women’s Aussie Rules league. Football is her passion, and she won’t let anything get in her way: including an ill-advised one-night-stand with one of Australia’s most successful agents.

Jaxon Flint thrives on success. His workaholic lifestyle keeps his agency and the athletes he represents at the top of their game – and all of his emotions at bay. Until he meets Angie, W.A.R.’s newest star, who undermines his carefully laid plans and gets under his skin. Is he willing to relinquish his careful control both in and out of the bedroom?

When Angie and Jaxon end up working together, it’s game on!

I started out the Women of W.A.R. series in reverse order, leaving Nicola Marsh’s novella for the last, and to my relief, discovered that reading the books in any order had no bearing on my understanding of the timeline at all.

There was so much I liked about the initial setup, the pacing of the opening scenes and the conflict that Marsh had set up between Jaxon and Angie. And then it felt like everything was over before it began. It was clear that both Angie and Jaxon struggled with issues that I was looking forward to see Marsh unentangling, which unfortunately, didn’t quite happen at all. As a result, Jaxon seemed more like a bundle of contradictions (and an arse to boot in the way he blew hot and cold with Angie despite his own self-awareness), whose flat denial about not wanting commitment in order to keep his life uncomplicated wasn’t entirely given much depth, as was Angie’s somewhat abruptly resolved situation with her father as she tried to find her own way forward.

While Marsh did capture key moments for Angie and Jax, the brevity of this novella meant that the passing of time felt very pronounced with each chapter and with it, came a bit more telling rather than showing. I thought ‘Game On’ had so much potential, but was ultimately, disappointed by the lack of development that could have otherwise, made this a brilliant read.

two-half-stars

Long Game by Catherine Evans

Long Game by Catherine EvansLong Game by Catherine Evans
Series: , #2
Published by Escape Publishing, Escape Publishing - Harlequin Enterprises, Australia Pty Ltd on February 1st 2018
Pages: 108
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
three-stars

oes she dare pursue all her dreams?

Everyone in Grong Grong knows Cress Kennedy’s childhood dream is to play Aussie Rules Football, so when the Sydney Sirens sign her in the new Women’s Aussie Rules competition, she heads to the big city to pursue her dream. But no one in Grong Grong knows of Cress’s other dreams: the ones that revolve entirely around Quin Fitzpatrick.

Quin Fitzpatrick left Grong Grong as an eighteen-year-old to play Aussie Rules in Sydney, but after eight years the shine has gone from the lifestyle. When his best friend’s little sister follows in his country-to-city footsteps, he promises to look after her. She can stay with him and he’ll protect her as best he can. Besides, Watercress is the little sister he never had.

But Cress is all grown up now and playing Women’s Aussie Rules, and it’s about time that Quin sees her as a woman too..

I’ve always loved the idea of competitive women sports and Women in Aussie Rules – women playing Australian Footy – is the perfect platform to build budding romances in each regional team in the series. Catherine Evan takes on the Sydney Sirens with Cress Kennedy and her longtime childhood crush Quin Fitzpatrick, who was the first to leave their hometown of Grong Grong nearly a decade ago to follow that very dream they both shared.

The friends-to-lovers trope has always made me wary, because for me, there always had to be a set of criteria that should ideally be met; otherwise, I’d start questioning the validity of the pairing. Nonetheless, Quin/Cress do sort of work under the very specific circumstances that Evans has laid out: Quin left Grong Grong way before Cress really grew up, so their meeting again simply set the stage for a childhood friendship that deepened in the weeks they spent together in Sydney.

The setting couldn’t be more perfect – the Sydney harbour bridge climb was something I wanted to do some time ago, then balked at the horrific prices – and Evans’s way of writing Quin’s and Cress’s relationship did pull me in, despite the slow, slow burn. On the flip side of the coin, their hesitation to get involved any more deeply with each other was a source of frustration when the rushed conclusion and their less-than-ideal circumstances made for a HFN ending that made me wonder if this pairing would work out.

‘Long Game’ ended on a note of hope instead of a guaranteed Quin/Cress future when everything was still up in the air. And while I loved their commitment to each other because of it, the last bit proved somewhat dissatisfying especially after the long wait for Quin and Cress to finally end their dance around each other. In all, it was a mixed read for me – I certainly enjoyed myself, but definitely wished things could have turned out differently.

three-stars

Fair Game by Amy Andrews

Fair Game by Amy AndrewsFair Game by Amy Andrews
Series: Women of W.A.R #3
Published by Escape Publishing on February 20th 2018
Pages: 150
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

How to mend a broken heart...

Darcy Clarke would do anything to play for the new Women’s Aussie Rules league, even put up with her ex, Tony, who just happens to be the coach of the Brisbane Banshees. Tony stomped out of their apartment – and all over heart – two years ago, but she’s moved on, and she deserves her jersey.

As his best friend’s girl, Darcy has always been out of Levi’s reach, even after Tony dropped her and moved out of the apartment they all shared. Now, two years on and still sharing the same apartment, she should be fair game. But Levi is no closer to getting Darcy to think of him as anything but a roommate and a friend.

But when Darcy injures herself in play, Levi’s qualifications as a sports massage therapist are put to good use. Suddenly, their relationship becomes very hands on, and Darcy sees a whole new side of her old friend. A pity he seems immune to her charms. When Tony makes it clear he wants back into her life, she has a decision to make: between the man she once loved and the man who never left her side.

I’m going to remember ‘Fair Game’ as one of Amy Andrews’s best. For not just the unusual portrayal of a hands-on, sporty, low-maintenance market gardener and the unusual man-bunned, sports therapist, yoga-loving man but also proving, in the world of alpha males and women who sometimes struggle to understand them, that non-stereotypical roles can not only function but function brilliantly.


Who would have thought that an understanding of anatomy would be so useful?

But the best of all? It doesn’t take a footy fan to understand the development of the relationship between Levi and Darcy; Andrews writes their friends-to-lovers journey with a sweet but raunchy and believable build-up, concentrating on characterisation instead, up to the point where you’re convinced that the clothes have to come off (and thankfully they finally do). Levi came across as one of the best top blokes – understanding, supportive and so thoughtful – I’ve had the privilege of reading about and while I didn’t exactly understand Darcy’s initial insistence that a relationship would detract from the many things that were going on in her life, I’m glad that this was resolved fairly easily and quickly with a conclusion that I thought could have benefitted from an epilogue.

Still, ‘Fair Game’ left me a happy camper and considering the reading slump I’ve been having so far, this just made my day.

five-stars

Secrets at Wongan Creek by Juanita Kees

Secrets at Wongan Creek by Juanita KeesSecrets at Wongan Creek by Juanita Kees
Published by Escape Publishing on August 12th 2017
Pages: 142
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
two-stars

Still waters run deep in Wongan Creek...

When spray drift ruins his crop and throws his ability to hold on to the family farm into question, Harley Baker wants to confront his neighbour and shout his rage and worry to the sky. But arguments are tricky when the woman whose herbicides killed his crop is also the woman he’s loved his whole life.

Tameka Chalmers knows that her father’s farming methods are outdated, inefficient, and even dangerous, so when Harley charges her with the loss of his livelihood, she can only accept the blame. There’s so much she would like to do differently, but her father’s rule is absolute and if she wants to keep working the farm she loves, she must do as she’s told.

But the simple action of speaking with Harley, the man she wants but can never have, starts an unexpected chain reaction of events that throw everything she’s ever known into question: her past, her family, her life. Dark secrets come to light and when Tameka is injured in a house fire, she and Harley have one small chance to seize a lifetime of happiness, if only they are able to rise from the ashes and claim it.

It’s easy to get lost in Juanita Kees’s take on the Australian rural communities. Essentially Kees does a wonderful job of setting up the Wongan Creek the way of life, how farms are run and the challenges they face especially when the secrets each family has come to light in the worst way possible. There’s as always, a touch of suspense and a whole lot of mystery when it comes to Harley and Tameka’s families whose lives are so intertwined that these bonds have the power to heal as well as to burn.

Unfortunately, I found myself liking this book less than its predecessor, even if Kees does try to write about an abused, downtrodden woman stuck in the middle her warring loyalties. Nonetheless, it was difficult to sympathise with someone who could not to speak out against what she knew was wrong that had her languishing in the doldrums for years. Although I understood Tameka’s need to defend her family ties, I didn’t like her way of burying her head in the sand and carrying on with the reasoning that it was best to go on that way because everything was already so badly screwed up, while being ridiculously hurtful to people around her who just didn’t deserve her appalling behaviour.

It only had to come to a head for Tameka to see the error of her ways and it had to take the entire community—or at least the family that she believed she’d wronged badly—to extend that forgiveness first before she decided not to run and push. While I liked that Hayley didn’t give up on her, I honestly thought he deserved better than Tameka who’d built so much concrete around her heart that she was nothing but rude, self-pitying and stubborn to do any better, lashing out first to prevent others from seeing all the things she’d not made right. Throw in a completely evil man made only of cruelty, and well, the villain of the hour couldn’t get any clearer.

I’m rather mixed about this story overall; the rural setup is what appealed to me most here, though I couldn’t say the same of the characters. Yet Kees’s Wongan Creek is a series is something I’d love to see developed and I’m sort of eager to see what else is in store here.

two-stars

Shelter by Rhyll Biest

Shelter by Rhyll BiestShelter by Rhyll Biest
Published by Escape Publishing on February 15th 2017
Pages: 210
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
one-star

Kat Daily is excited to trade her Sydney airport quarantine uniform for an RSPCA inspector’s uniform and a job in the rural town of Walgarra. A fresh start in a new place, where she can make a real difference in the lives of the animals that she loves.
But Walgarra doesn’t offer a peaceful, bucolic existence. Like many small towns, the distance from urban settings — and urban law enforcement — has allowed a criminal element to set in. Kat may only be looking after animals, but that doesn’t mean she will be immune to people with sinister agendas.
The previous RSCPCA inspector was murdered, and Officer Luka Belovuk is determined to keep the new inspector from the same fate. He may have very broad shoulders, but carrying the safety of the law-abiding community just trying to live their lives has weighed him down, and one more death might be more than he can take.
Not all small towns are quaint and quiet, but they all have one thing in common: a community of people willing to protect their population with everything they have.

Devirginised from my first Rhyll Biest’s read, “Shelter” quite frankly, raced past the quirky and slid straight into the bizarre for me, even though it was an interesting setup that showcased the menacing, broken down part of rural Australia with equally broken characters littering the pages. But my struggle with this book lay mostly with the characters and the writing style, which do run contrary to my personal tastes.

On their own, Kat and Luka are characters that at best, could function as single protagonists but not together. I found their chemistry non-existent, built only on a frustrating one-sided chase where Kat pushes Luka away because of her complete fear of relationships, then turns that energy instead into taking on reckless tasks in her work to punish/atone.

But Kat wasn’t the most likeable character to begin with: deceptive, defensive and immaturely prickly, whose own issues somehow made her go around petulantly with a chip on her shoulder in a small-minded and emotionally vindictive way, especially with Luka. The constant insistence that she wasn’t made for relationships and the constant running away simply wore thin as the story wore on, escalating my own frustration level until I was ready to give up on the pairing. Throw in the alter-ego of an imaginary fairy called Galenka (or some strange voice that dictates what her subconscious really wants) that dictated her mental thoughts made me want to go mental myself sooner rather than later.

The snarky commentary—part Galenka and part Kat—felt overdone, as though every single thought needed to be catalogue and revealed, even during sex which sort of broke those hot moments somewhat. The caveat here is that the writing isn’t bad—Rhyll Biest can write up a storm—but her hyperbolic, anthropomorphising style (“her car, lurking by the kerb, gave her a sympathetic look”, “his hand, big as a frisbee”, “arms outstretched like a zombie hungry for brains”) is distracting enough to make me do several sentence re-reads just to try to get the metaphors or similes the right way up.

Or maybe I’m just slow. Or call it my inability to appreciate this sort of quirk enough.

Whatever it may be, “Shelter” isn’t quite my brand of humour nor my cup of tea, sadly.

one-star

Whispers at Wongan Creek by Juanita Kees

Whispers at Wongan Creek by Juanita KeesWhispers at Wongan Creek by Juanita Kees
Published by Escape Publishing on November 15th 2016
Pages: 155
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
four-stars

Travis Bailey may as well be Wongan Creek. His family has farmed canola for generations, and he sometimes feels like he holds the community together with his bare, dirt-stained hands. Between caring for the farm, his orphaned niece and his elderly, ailing neighbour, he doesn't have time for himself. He doesn’t have time to fall in love.
Social worker Heather Penney is living on borrowed time. When her mother died of Motor Neurone Disease, she took the initial blood tests and now nothing is guaranteed, let alone a future with a family and a home and a child. Wongan Creek, and its resident protector, might be getting under her skin, but she can't afford to get attached.
But even as a new mine revitalises the small town, old secrets threaten resurface, and Travis and Heather find themselves fighting to save the farms and the futures of Wongan Creek's long-time residents—and possibly their own lives.

This is a lovely read that brings the rural setting of a small Australian town vividly to life and two unlikely people together, while perfectly capturing the strong ties that the characters have to the land and the struggle that they face as it undergoes the inevitable development that comes. But as with small towns, some secrets stay murky until something catastrophic forces them to come to light.

I loved Travis Bailey and the heavy sense of responsibility that he has tried to shoulder from the start. The mystery and the slight suspense surrounding Heather Penney, his niece’s lineage and his twin’s death that Juanita Kees adds to the story gives it a shimmering layer of depth and excitement I hadn’t felt in a long time while reading a ‘rural romance’ so to speak. And even if I scoffed at Heather’s cowardly act at the end (whose grovelling felt too easy), I still found Kees’s pacing excellent, the scenes building up to the climax (which isn’t really as explosive as it is) feeling like a tightening noose that I almost dreaded. There are twists and turns in the plot which surprised me right up until the end, yet Kees wraps it all up quite nicely that is quite worthy of a Hallmark movie.

four-stars