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Zero Hour by Megan Erickson

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 10th December 2017
Zero Hour by Megan EricksonZero Hour by Megan Erickson
Series: Wired & Dangerous #1
Published by Forever on January 30th 2018
Pages: 320
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three-stars

Hacker extraordinaire Roarke Brennan lives each hour - each breath - to avenge his brother's murder. His first move: put together a team of the best coders he knows. They're all brilliant, specialized, and every one an epic pain in his ass. Only now Wren Lee wants in too, threatening to upset their delicate balance. The girl Roarke never allowed himself to want is all grown up with sexy confidence and a dark past ... and she's the wild card he can't control.

Roarke might still think she's a kid, but Wren's been to hell and back. Nothing and nobody can stop her - especially the tatted-up, cocky-as-all-hell hacker. But when years of longing and chemistry collide, Wren and Roarke discover that revenge may be a dish best served blazing hot.

‘Zero Hour’ spoke directly to the geek in me. I blank out at many things technical, so hackers (whether they be black/white hats) written as heroes/heroines of romances are relatively new in this genre but so welcome.

I love the lingo, the geek side of things, the stuff that the deep, dark web is made of, most probably because I’ve never been able to get my mind around it. That Megan Erickson has jumped wholly on this subject has made me more than moist with excitement, with the underlying classic tropes of the forbidden best friend’s younger sister while a high-stakes hacker-style investigation into a murder brings it all together. There’s a lot of beguiling intrigue to be explored in this arena after all, and I’ve always wondered why not many authors have chosen to use this very contemporary setting along with the realistic and contemporary threats we face today to weave a pretty little tale.

Unsure as I was about how hackers would appear in this series, I was nonetheless surprised by the tattooed protagonists who sometimes acted more like members of an MC at times instead of thickly-spectacled people who were glued to their computers and surfaced bleary-eyed only for meals and sleep. Yet Erickson gets the anti-social, loner-types pat-down though, by introducing a varied, unpredictable put-together team of characters whose questionable histories are still veiled to us.

Roarke and Wren do have a hell of a backstory and a decade of separate lives that Erickson didn’t make too much of, except for the fact that pining (on both sides) went on while they moved on with others instead. Their sudden reunion—spurred on by the death of his brother and Wren’s own personal motive for revenge—however, felt almost like a coincidence, along with the hidden skills that they’d each picked up which didn’t seem to fit the hacker-skill set. Where had they had weapons training, for instance, at least enough that they would carry guns around? What sort of jobs had they done in the past 10 years that made them what they were today? Why did Wren only return now, at a time when Roarke sought revenge when the tragedy that she and her friend suffered happened years ago?

I think the questions that kept popping up dipped my enjoyment of the story somewhat and the brother’s-best-friend-to-lover trope was less convincing especially after knowing that Roarke and Wren had always wanted each other but never actively did anything about it. The ending, for all the gritty, edgy build-up, seemed a little anti-climatic with the rather convenient end of the mastermind, and the several loose threads hanging, while understandably left deliberately to set up the sequel, didn’t give the story a proper sense of closure.

In many ways, ‘Zero Hour’ reads like the establishing novel it is and while I did like how this narrative arc—the mesh of thriller and digital espionage really gets me going—seemed to be shaping up, I’m already eager to see how Erickson would explore the unstable dynamics of the ad-hoc group brought together by chance and the pairings that will come out of that.

three-stars

Twisted Truths by Rebecca Zanetti

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense/ Speculative Fiction 12th October 2017
Twisted Truths by Rebecca ZanettiTwisted Truths by Rebecca Zanetti
Series: Blood Brothers #3
Published by Forever on November 14th 2017
Pages: 432
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three-stars

You can't escape the past . . .

Noni is desperate. Her infant niece has been kidnapped, and the only person who can save her is a private detective with too many secrets to count--and more enemies than he can name. A man who walked away from Noni without any warning a year ago, a man who broke her heart. But with Talia's life on the line, Noni needs his help now more than ever--and this time, she won't take no for an answer . . .

The moment Denver Jones sees Noni, the memories come rushing back. The fire in her eyes. The determination in her voice. The danger of having her in his life. Denver had to push her away once, but now with vicious criminals threatening Noni and her niece, he'll do whatever it takes to protect them. But enemies from his past are circling, and they'll use anything--and anyone--to get to Denver.

It’s through the ‘inheritance’ of a friend’s baby that Noni Yuka gets tangled up in a gang’s trafficking activities while doing an online search for him—and trumpeting his presence when all Denver Jones wants is to lie low. It’s also the reason that he’d cut their affair short and found solace in a bottle, though Noni’s explosive return to his life thrusts him and his brothers into greater danger.

2 storylines converge in ’Twisted Truths’—which accounts for the length of the book—and without prior knowledge of the previous books in the series (as well as maybe the series before this) this might be a little hard to follow despite the brief recaps that Rebecca Zanetti does here and there. In short, the crazy brand of villainy that has been stalking the Dean brothers and now the Jones brothers come to a head here as the evil pair of Madison and Cobb pit themselves against Denver and by extension, the rest of the Jones boys.

As difficult as it might be to read as a standalone, ‘Twisted Truths’ is nonetheless full of action, some sexy times, some bizzare twists and turns (along with some TSTL moments from Noni), and sort of held together by a villain so overblown that an evil, giggling cartoon character might as well populate the pages. This closure however, is long time in coming and Zanetti does it by highlighting the bonds between brothers who may or may not be blood-related—who also jump in with seemingly unlimited resources to save the day.

three-stars

Hard Justice by April Hunt

Posted in Contemporary Romance/ Mystery/Crime/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 5th September 2017
Hard Justice by April HuntHard Justice by April Hunt
Series: Alpha Security, #3
Published by Forever on August 29th 2017
Pages: 352
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two-stars

A DATE WITH DANGER As the first female operative at Alpha Security, Charlotte "Charlie" Sparks has her work cut out for her. Sure, she can wrestle a man to the ground and hit a target at 200 yards with the best of them. But sometimes, being surrounded by all that testosterone can drive a woman to distraction-especially when that distraction is six-and-a-half feet of cocky, confident, Alpha-trained muscle. Ex-SEAL commander Vince Franklin has been on some of the most dangerous missions in the world. But pretending to be Charlie's fiancé on their latest assignment in Miami is his toughest challenge yet. Vince and Charlie are like oil and water; they just don't mix. And when their fake romance generates some all-too-real heat, Vince learns that Charlie is more than just arm candy. She's the real deal-and she's ready for some serious action.

When a relationship begins with antagonism, I’m typically up to my ears with glee because the 180-degree flip later is typically steamy, jaw-dropping and plain old fun to read. I’d hoped ‘Hard Justice’ was going to be that, since working undercover on a case together seemed to be just the catalyst of what was supposed to ignite the latent attraction between Vince and Charlie at least.

And to some extent, it started off that way. I fed off the hostile push-pull vibes at the beginning and really did think that Charlie stood her ground well against Vince. But as the action wore on and Charlie’s complicated past came to light, it wasn’t long before doubts started to creep in about whether this pairing was meant to be, especially when 2 very strong and very opposing personalities seem to clash and clash always without passable compromise.

At every turn, Vince and Charlie went up against each other for 1 reason or another—the former trusts careful planning while Charlie more impetuously dives straight into action—and I found this never-ending tussling (punching, yelling, shouting, insulting) between them more wearying than titillating. If it was supposed to be amping up sexual tension, all I could really see was scrappy, irascible arguing with a side dose of lust, which eclipsed the case of abducted women and human trafficking they were supposed to be working on. There was a basic lack of trust and very reactive behaviour—I wasn’t even sure if they liked each other!—on both sides so far down the line that I think I got emotional whiplash from their lashing out at each other when neither could really sit down to communicate honestly.

It was a struggle to stay interested in the story thereafter, not just because of their tussling but ever harder to believe that it had all turned to love by the end of it, which isn’t’ to say it isn’t a decent read. There’s certainly action, suspense and a very Hollywood-type climax and ending (all the ingredients for RS)—and April Hunt does write quite well for that matter—which leaves me thinking that the pairing and the story just didn’t appeal to me as much as I thought it would.

two-stars

Most Of All You by Mia Sheridan

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Edelweiss/ New Adult/ Reviews 31st August 2017
Most Of All You by Mia SheridanMost of All You: A Love Story by Mia Sheridan
Published by Forever on October 17th 2017
Pages: 352
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three-stars


A broken woman . . .


Crystal learned long ago that love brings only pain. Feeling nothing at all is far better than being hurt again. She guards her wounded heart behind a hard exterior and carries within her a deep mistrust of men, who, in her experience, have only ever used and taken.


A man in need of help . . .

Then Gabriel Dalton walks into her life. Despite the terrible darkness of his past, there's an undeniable goodness in him. And even though she knows the cost, Crystal finds herself drawn to Gabriel. His quiet strength is wearing down her defenses and his gentle patience is causing her to question everything she thought she knew.


Only love can mend a shattered heart . . .

Crystal and Gabriel never imagined that the world, which had stolen everything from them, would bring them a deep love like this. Except fate will only take them so far, and now the choice is theirs: Harden their hearts once again or find the courage to shed their painful pasts.

Therapy can come in the oddest forms, according to Mia Sheridan. And from there, when given enough time, come affection and desire, in the shape of a hardened, cynical stripper who distances herself from her clients and a gentle, sensitive artist who has suffered his own form of childhood abuse.

‘Most of All You’ is a poignant read that deals with two protagonists damaged in very different ways and how the glue to piecing themselves back together isn’t just the quick and shallow version of sex but a connection that happens first in the strangest of places.

There’s also a bit of a role-reversal here as Gabriel—the more open, tenderhearted one—tries to break down those walls that Ellie has built and it’s a refreshing change as masculinity isn’t seen here in the form of a posturing Alpha-male but as a gentle but unrelenting wave of affection that washes away resistance. It’s Gabriel who’s the crutch for Ellie—whose self-loathing didn’t seem like it could be overcome—nonetheless and it’s as though ‘Most of All You’ champions not the man who shouts the loudest or speaks the dirtiest, but the man who paces his approach and uses patience to triumph.

Sheridan’s storytelling is slow, as it lingers over a myriad of emotions, draws out the drama and takes apart each character’s state of mind, but it’ll certainly appeal to many who prefer a feel-good and emotional read with a strong thread of idealism that can’t be shaken off. The cynic in me stays a little sceptical, but definitely recognises that this sheen—lacking in romance these days—is something Sheridan recaptures here.

three-stars

Too Beautiful to Break by Tessa Bailey

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 15th August 2017
Too Beautiful to Break by Tessa BaileyToo Beautiful to Break by Tessa Bailey
Series: Romancing the Clarksons #4
Published by Forever on September 26th 2017
Pages: 320
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three-stars

A love of a lifetime . . .

Leaving Belmont Clarkson is the hardest thing Sage Alexander has ever done. From the moment they met, she knew Belmont was the one, and getting up close and personal with him on his family's epic road trip has taken her desire to a new, even hotter level. But there's no way she can go there---not without revealing secrets that could devastate them both.

Losing Sage is not an option. Belmont's heart is hers, has always been hers. He knows she's hiding something from him, but nothing will stand in his way of telling her just how much she means to him. Finding her is easy---saving her from her past could cost him everything.

‘Too Beautiful to Break’ closes out the Clarksons series where a road trip from the west to the east coast (that’s supposed to end in a dip in the cold, cold waters of the Atlantic) based on a mother’s journal heals rifts between siblings and gets them their own love of their lives as well. Each book chronicles each Clarkson sibling’s story and I have to say, it has been a ride as Tessa Bailey picks on the oddest of triggers for each of them to use as the very catalyst to lead them to their HEAs.

Bailey has left Belmont’s and Sage’s for last, and it’s their strange interdependency rather than any sexual tension throughout the trip that finally causes Sage to up and leave Belmont who needs her to calm the demons in his head.

That’s where the story begins—with so many conflicting and contradictory emotions that Sage broadcasted which frankly, confused me. Much of Sage’s bluster about needing to push Belmont away felt like the lady doth protested too much when she realised she had been using him as much as he has been using her instead. I didn’t like her wishy-washy sense of pushing-pulling away from Belmont and that he’d needed to chase her up the mountains and down the valleys just to get her to understand that he saw her as a woman (rather than someone he needed to lean on) didn’t sit too well with me when it was evident from the start that their relationship was really about support. In other words, they were using each other as crutches because they needed to lean on each other when it was bad. Yet I couldn’t quite see what exactly was so wrong with that, because that was what partly defined a relationship as well: people needing each other in so many ways, only that their need hadn’t yet turned sexual.

Only a writer of Bailey’s calibre can sharply highlight emotions and get deeply into her characters’ heads—this much I’ll always associate with Bailey’s books and exposition about her paragraphs of her characters’ state of mind. Yet here, Bailey tries to make a distinction between need and neediness that I basically couldn’t agree with—it was unconvincingly superfluous and one that split hairs—and in doing so, has her protagonists running emotional rings around each other because they find themselves unable to go to each other for comfort with the ‘wrong’ kind of motivation.

I could understand Sage’s and Belmont’s need to fight their own demons, only that I didn’t think at all that they should have insisting on doing it alone. For Sage, it was her impoverished roots with parents who only leaned on each other and forgot about her; for Belmont it was a traumatic childhood incident that he hadn’t managed to shake off at all. In any case, there’s a small town type feel in Louisiana that’s claustrophobic and stifling, with a villain that somehow manages to ensnare both Sage and Belmont when he finally comes to her rescue and tries to take on her burdens. I only wished that Sage fought harder for Belmont as he did for her.

In ‘Too Beautiful to Break’, it all ends blissfully happy for everyone, especially for readers who want to see how other characters get on after the end of their own books. The Polar Plunge cements the Clarksons’ siblings bond and with the retro-tint of movies past, the layers of all the stories in this series come together when everyone has their HEA by the time they shake the cold water off themselves.

three-stars

Too Hard to Forget by Tessa Bailey

Posted in Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Reviews 30th April 2017
Too Hard to Forget by Tessa BaileyToo Hard to Forget by Tessa Bailey
Series: Romancing the Clarksons #3
Published by Forever on April 25th 2017
Pages: 336
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three-stars

This time, she's calling the shots. Peggy Clarkson is returning to her alma mater with one goal in mind: confront Elliott Brooks, the man who ruined her for all others, and remind him of what he's been missing. Even after three years, seeing him again is like a punch in the gut, but Peggy's determined to stick to her plan. Maybe then, once she has the upper hand, she'll finally be able to move on. In the years since Peggy left Cincinnati, Elliott has kept his focus on football. No distractions and no complications. But when Peggy walks back onto his practice field and into his life, he knows she could unravel everything in his carefully controlled world. Because the girl who was hard to forget is now a woman impossible to resist.

I dove into ‘Too Hard to Forget’ with trepidation, because the Clarksons series hasn’t been quite one for me so far. But a second-chance romance makes me curious and suspicious simultaneously and I did want to read what the hype was about when there were so many layers of the forbidden in this Bailey book.

Peggy Clarkson’s chance to get left behind at this stage of the road trip is also the reason for her 4 failed engagements in the past 3 years, and that is mostly because of the very stoic and unfeeling football coach with whom she’d had a secret relationship before graduation. Back then, she was his greatest shame and mistake and the impetus for revenge now is strong…until she realises that Elliott Brooks can easily beat her at her own game.

I’m plainly uncomfortable with the oppressive religious type of bondage that Elliot holds himself to and I’ll say straight out that this is just my prejudice against the exaltation or the denigration of organised religion that’s mixed in with the romance genre showing up here. There’s too much of the sacred and the profane that Tessa Bailey plays up especially in the first quarter of the book, where ‘sin’ and trespasses and easy labels are accorded to Peggy’s supposed behaviour and Elliott’s stoic sense of right and wrong.

Not only because I had been given the image of a ‘monk’ sinning willingly because of a seductress, but also because of the way religious faith has been positioned here as the ultimate stumbling block concerning ‘moral standards’, around which characters either fall so spectacularly short of or end up poking fun at. Frankly, I would have been infinitely happier had it been left out entirely. That said, adding Elliott’s devout Catholicism into the mix certainly makes for complex characterisation and it does make both the H/hr more multifaceted gems as a result—which I’m sure is Bailey’s intention all along—but I’m more than happy that the religious bit lightened up in the second half of the story.

It’s not to say though, that ‘Too Hard to Forget’ is written badly. Far from it. Peggy/Elliott’s story is emotional and heart-wrenching and that’s all because of Bailey’s sharp, well-honed writing style (the alpha, dirty-talking male makes yet another appearance here), especially when the switch is suddenly flipped at the halfway mark and the grovelling actually starts—just as Peggy finally decides to walk away. I liked the mess that Elliott had to sort out in his own head before he could pursue Peggy, just as I appreciated Peggy’s ability to see that she needed to heal apart from Elliott’s damaging impact on her personality. The added complication of a pre-teen daughter merely heaped on the growing sense of conflict because their emotional ties couldn’t be so easily severed. That much made for entertaining reading and the book was for most part, difficult to put down after I got past the heavy religious part.

There’s only Belmont and Sage now though and it’s mostly bewilderment that I’m left with about their strange, unhealthy co-dependency relationship. It has been mysteriously hinted at in this book and while I do find myself sort of eager to see just what they’re about, there’s part of me hoping that it wouldn’t be too bizarre.

three-stars

Lethal Lies by Rebecca Zanetti

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 12th April 2017
Lethal Lies by Rebecca ZanettiLethal Lies by Rebecca Zanetti
Series: Blood Brothers #2
Published by Forever on May 16th 2017
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three-stars

A deadly secret can't stay buried forever . . . Revenge. It's the only thing that will help Anya Best sleep at night. The serial killer who murdered her sister is on the loose, and Anya will stop at nothing to put him behind bars-even use herself as bait to lure him out of hiding. But she can't do this alone.
Private investigator Heath Jones's job is to bring bastards to justice. This time it's personal. He knew the Copper Killer's latest victim so when her sister asks for his help, he's all in. But when Anya uses the media to taunt the killer, she exposes Heath's identity, putting them both in jeopardy. Now, secrets buried long ago are coming to light and the forces determined to destroy him are watching Heath's every move, waiting to exact their own revenge. And they'll use anything and anyone to get to Heath.

‘Lethal Lies’, like ‘Deadly Silence’, is a spin-off from the Sin-Brothers series, with some paranormal bits hinted at, though it takes more of a back seat as Rebecca Zanetti focuses instead on the suspense. In here, Heath Jones fights for his own happy ending with Anya Best after the Copper Killer puts her in his sights and kills her sister as collateral damage. Revenge and grief push Anya into setting herself up as bait for him, inadvertently involving Heath in this crazy plan as her fake fiancé. But Heath’s weakness is playing the protector when he sees women abused or chased down and soon enough, finds himself in an untenable position where his foes finally know where he and his brothers are hiding out.

With the opening scenes arranged in an order that wasn’t entirely linear (with some flashbacks written into them), I felt as though I was thrust into a middle of a situation without a grounding context and spent quite a while bewildered, like an outsider who couldn’t quite make sense of what was going on until partway through. Is this book good as a standalone? If Heath and Anya had a history, what exactly is it? What is Anya’s murdered sister connection with the brothers?

It was only after the facts settled that it became somewhat clearer. Anya’s gauntlet, thrown down so impulsively, isn’t something that allows any secrets to be kept…and Heath and his merry band of brothers have a huge one that is compromised by her very public, naive trap-setting actions. Like the Sin-Brothers, there’s are foes out for Heath and the layers that help shield their business are all geared towards keeping them out of the public gaze which Anya has blown wide open. That bit intrigued me as it did in Zanetti’s previous series: the compound of elite, trained soldiers, genetically-modified and controlled by an evil doctor, though it isn’t emphasised at all here.

As far as suspense goes, ‘Lethal Lies’ was surprisingly slow-paced as we follow the story of how Anya and Heath get on drawing the killer out, with some steamy scenes thrown in as they give in to their mutual attraction. 50% into the book however, Heath/Anya are still on track (or rather, undercover) to become bait for the killer whose sights are on the latter, with several meetings with his brothers and an ex that refuses to go away as they spend too much time deciding if what lies between them is real or fake, in a to-and-fro that got frustrating. Several territory tussles between the brother and the FBI ensue, all of which seemed like red-herring fillers to bring the page count up but didn’t seem to add much to the developing action. I couldn’t quite decide if Anya’s insistence on her continued involvement was gullible or admirable though it was balanced at times by shots of maturity that didn’t deviate from her determination to avenge her sister. Heath on the other hand, was hard to unravel, apart from his inability to leave women in distress.

It did get better though, in the last 50 pages or so, when we’re finally set on the straight and narrow to getting the Copper Killer to appear. But his identity isn’t that much of a surprise and is more connected to the Sin-Brothers history than it is to Anya.

I’m left somewhat mixed on ‘Lethal Lies’, frankly. Yet there’s enough of their unresolved background and a foe still waiting in the wings that presumably, will lead to a showdown in the next book, which will probably keep me reading to the end.

three-stars
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