Publisher: Forever

It Takes Two by Jenny Holiday

It Takes Two by Jenny HolidayIt Takes Two by Jenny Holiday
Series: Bridesmaids Behaving Badly #2
Published by Forever on 26th June 2018
Pages: 384
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three-stars

All’s fair in love and warWendy Liu should be delighted to be her best friend’s maid of honor. But after years spent avoiding the bride’s brother – a.k.a the boy who once broke her heart – she’s now trapped with him during an endless amount of wedding festivities. Luckily she’s had time to perfect her poker face, and engaging Noah Denning in a little friendly competition might just prove that she’s over him for good…

Noah Denning is determined to make his little sister’s wedding memorable. But it seems Wendy is trying to outdo him at every turn. Challenging each other was always something he and Wendy did right, so when she proposes they compete to see who can throw the best bachelor or bachelorette party in Sin City, Noah takes the bait – and ups the stakes. Because this time around, he wants Wendy for keeps. And when you’re fighting for love, all bets are off.

This series, as the name suggests, is built around weddings, bridezillas and how each pairing is cemented in this heightened time of blustery emotions spiking high and low…along with random crying spurts. Jenny Holiday’s ‘One and Only’ set the precedent. ‘It Takes Two’ continues it in a different way, and had me on tenterhooks for a while. Well, most second-chance romances do actually, because I’m always looking for a satisfactory explanation of the pairing’s history before I can believe in the way it all comes together in the present.

A ruined teenage crush that had been elemental in some ways and a man who’s nothing but oblivious to what he’d done—his mind was simply on responsibility and not much else—do after all, make for interesting reading. In this case, the best friend’s brother returns home and Wendy’s constant avoidance of Noah Denning—through the years—is no longer possible. That childhood, familial bond has since devolved into uneasy tension, layered over by sniping and oneupmanship that happens during a wedding that neither can avoid.

Wendy’s history with Noah is thankfully, not made out to be a something that she hasn’t ever gotten over, but rather, a hurtful and never-forgotten experience cementing a personality that solidified in the many years after Noah left. And because Holiday hasn’t made this momentous event akin to the most epic heartbreak of Wendy’s life, this is fertile ground for a so-called second-chance that I think I can get on board with. Still, blaming Noah for the entire change in her adult outlook on dating however, seems extreme, seeing as Wendy’s combative stance stemming from her (somewhat unfairly) padded memory of prom night when she’d deliberately remembered him as someone he isn’t.

The amount of self-reflection that Holiday writes into the story and the tightly-controlled amount of angst, I think, make this better than the average rom-com for me. There are odd bits though, that threw me off: the flashbacks that aren’t demarcated but pop into a scene unannounced, the somewhat awkward dance between Wendy and Noah that hops from taunting to a huge step into bed. But to the even more awkward and unbelievable realisation that the thing between them had always been love despite 17 years of separation and nothing but big-brother-type protection before? Gobsmacked doesn’t quite cover it.

In all, there were parts I liked and parts that caught me frowning. I would have preferred a more iron-clad HEA in a conclusion that seems more like a HFN here; this is, like the previous book, an abrupt one that leaves the couple standing at a precipice of change just as the credits start to roll.

three-stars

Darkest Night by Megan Erickson

Darkest Night by Megan EricksonDarkest Night by Megan Erickson
Series: Wired & Dangerous, #2
Published by Forever on 31st July 2018
Pages: 320
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two-stars

Bodyguard Jock Bosh has one job: keep Fiona Madden safe. Safe from the men who've been hunting her. Safe from the bastard responsible for ruining her life. And with the attraction sizzling white-hot between them, that means keeping Fiona safe from him too.

Fiona has spent the past decade on the run. Her survival is the single greatest weapon she's had against the men out to destroy her. Until Jock. Now, with him by her side, she finally has a chance to bring them down. But when her enemies make their next move and Jock puts himself in the line of fire, Fiona realizes that there's more at stake than just her life-she's also risking her heart.

There has been drama. There have been words (some very virulent ones) that have been flung around. I’m sort of aware of the drama that has surrounded Megan Erickson in the past few months, but not having any involvement in the debate that had ignited the entire community (and pretty much blew up over the course of a few days) means that I’m still kind of bewildered over the whole thing.

But that really isn’t a disclaimer on my part in any case. I’ve been graciously handed an ARC and that’s what this is going to be about—an assessment of what I felt about the plot, characters and the style. This review is going to be just that: a book review and nothing more as all my reviews have been.

So off we got onto a start that felt somewhat abrupt where ‘Darkest Night’ left me flailing for purchase. With the barest of context alluded to about the history of Fiona Madden and Wren Lee, to the magical and mysterious appearance of a stoic bodyguard named Jock, I struggled for the first quarter for some kind of purchase. With too many questions in mind—how this was related to the previous book being the first and foremost—it was hard not to feel as though I’d come in late to the game where a huge chunk of the back story had been reduced to a few sentences of vague explanation that Jock provided for his presence as well as the danger that Fiona was in. For this reason I’m not entirely sure if ‘Darkest Night’ worked well as a standalone; needing to go back to the first book for details can be tiresome but the appearance of Roarke’s hacker crew and the story arc that seemed to be carried over in this half necessitated it.

There wasn’t the geek-heavy type of plot with hardcore coding and tech-speak that I expected with a first half slowly revolving mostly around Fiona getting used to Jock’s towering presence. With a more traditional take on the bodyguard-type (who also happened to be a hacker) story, Erickson focused on character building that came to a road block when both their pasts were brought into question. Still, Jock remained remote for most of the time, while Fiona trying her best to cut through his walls felt merely like an exercise in futility and this holding pattern (along with wildly vacillating emotions on both sides) made their connection difficult to buy into.

I could certainly appreciate the issues that Erickson wrote about—PTSD being the primary one—as much as I could ‘appreciate’ (is there a better word here?) how ‘Darkest Night’ was written around the problem of sex crimes and its victims. But having been left without solid footing for so long, along with the inability to read the protagonists or feel the depth of horror that these crimes normally elicit, I found myself more disconnected than invested nonetheless.

two-stars

More Than Words by Mia Sheridan

More Than Words by Mia SheridanMore Than Words by Mia Sheridan
Published by Forever on 12th June 2018
Pages: 336
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one-star

The moment she met Callen Hayes, eleven-year-old Jessica Creswell knew he was a broken prince. Her prince. They became each other's refuge, a safe and magical place far from their troubled lives. Until the day Callen kissed her--Jessica's first real, dreamy kiss—and then disappeared from her life without a word.

Years later, everyone knows who Callen Hayes is. Famous composer. Infamous bad boy. What no one knows is that Callen's music is now locked deep inside, trapped behind his own inner demons. It's only when he withdraws to France to drink his way through the darkness that Callen stumbles into the one person who makes the music return. Jessica. His Jessie. And she still tastes of fresh, sweet innocence . . . even as she sets his blood on fire.

But they don't belong in each other's worlds anymore. There are too many mistakes. Too many secrets. Too many lies. All they have is that instinctive longing, that need—and something that looks dangerously like love.

The blurb for ‘More of You’ was intriguing and given that there are some of Mia Sheridan’s work I do like, I have to say that this book tested my patience and crossed several personal boundaries for me: adultery and cheating, even though it’s probably Sheridan’s idea to show how far Callen had fallen before the journey of his redemption begins, with a girl whom he’d once shared some dreams with.

From the start, I had the inkling that ‘flights of fancy’ might have been the phrase to describe the sort of relationship Jessica and Callen had. In the prologue, Jessica and Callen had a connection forged in in fairytales and fantasies which felt fanciful for me, but then this is probably my cynical self speaking—I found it less grounded in reality and more wrapped in cotton-wool in fact. Granted, as children, seeking to escape the difficult situations at home, this was a scenario that I could accept.

But it was hard to continue thereafter—maintaining objectivity was harder if I was supposed to be invested in this story as a romance—when it became clear Callen wasn’t a character who had integrity, whose reprehensible, degenerate behaviour wasn’t what I could or wanted to root for in the beginning, much less care about his journey back to ’normalcy’ from the start. Having spent most of the book insisting that he was could not be the man Jessica deserved and pushing her away merely gave weight to what he really was after all: unworthy.

That Jessica, who remained an inexperienced virgin throughout the 10 years and kept trying to see him as her prince with rose-coloured glasses didn’t make her any less bewildering or weak a character for doing so. Her caving so easily to his charms while he became a manwhore was the last straw for me, especially when it sounded like this was going to be a contrived virgin-saves-the-rake-with-her-purity and goodness sort of tale.

I couldn’t scrub my mind off this book quickly enough. I never quite thought this day would come, but my stabby, explosive and fit-throwing reaction to ‘More of You’ is probably a good sign that Mia Sheridan and I need to part ways.

one-star

The Last King by Katee Robert

The Last King by Katee RobertThe Last King by Katee Robert
Series: The Kings, #1
Published by Forever on April 3rd 2018
Pages: 384
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four-stars

THE MAN SHE HATES TO LOVE

Beckett King just inherited his father's fortune, his company-and all his enemies. If he's going to stay on top, he needs someone he can trust beside him. And though they've been rivals for years, there's no one he trusts more than Samara Mallick.

The rebel. That's how Samara has always thought of Beckett. And he's absolutely living up to his unpredictable ways when he strides into her office and asks for help. She can't help wondering if it's a legit request or just a ploy to get her into bed. Not that she'd mind either one. After all, she likes to live on the edge too.

But soon the threats to the King empire are mounting, and the two find family secrets darker than they ever imagined and dangerous enough to get them both killed.

Filthy rich family drama—tuned up several notches—lies at the heart of ‘The Last King’ as children pay for the bad blood that started decades before their time and work painfully through schisms because of one woman’s longstanding, poisonous resentment left to fester.

It isn’t often that I read such books (the constant bitching and underhanded manoeuvring can get headache-inducing), but Katee Robert’s writing is compelling enough to try. As I suspected, it was easy to get engrossed in the tale of bad blood, bitchy office politics and corporate espionage that sort of runs the boundary into the murderous, though it felt a little like an oncoming train wreck I couldn’t take my eyes off. Vile aunt vs. struggling nephew, the former of whom gets her comeuppance and the latter of whom finally gets what he deserves? How sweet the sound. Built into this first establishing story however, is also a very difficult generation transition with several burn marks to pay for getting rid of a vile villain you’d love to hate, and a rival-to-lovers tale that thankfully, doesn’t involve too many TSTL moments.

Robert does write Beckett King as a protagonist I could sympathise with, and Samara Mallick as a worthy other half for him. Apart from their chemistry scorching the sheets, I didn’t have problems seeing both of them as equals both in and out of bed and I actually liked how Robert wrote Samara’s eventual shift in loyalty towards Beckett instead of blindly following his vile aunt the whole way.

In fact, I expected to be exhausted by the end of ‘The Last King’. Instead, I was drawn in—admittedly a little slowly at first—, surprised at how Beckett and Samara stole the show for me, as did Robert’s secondary characters, making me anxious to get onto the other Kings’ stories, though a long, long wait is in order.

four-stars

Zero Hour by Megan Erickson

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

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

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