Publisher: Loveswept

Riven by Roan Parrish

Riven by Roan ParrishRiven by Roan Parrish
Series: Riven #1
Published by Loveswept on 29th May 2018
Pages: 262
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three-stars

Theo Decker might be the lead singer of Riven, but he hates being a rock star. The paparazzi, the endless tours, being recognized everywhere he goes—it all makes him squirm. The only thing he doesn’t hate is the music. Feeling an audience’s energy as they lose themselves in Riven’s music is a rush unlike anything else . . . until he meets Caleb Blake Whitman. Caleb is rough and damaged, yet his fingers on his guitar are pure poetry. And his hands on Theo? They’re all he can think about. But Caleb’s no groupie—and one night with him won’t be enough.

Just when Caleb is accepting his new life as a loner, Theo Decker slinks into it and turns his world upside-down. Theo’s sexy and brilliant and addictively vulnerable, and all Caleb wants is another hit. And another. That’s how he knows Theo’s trouble. Caleb can’t even handle performing these days. How the hell is he going to survive an affair with a tabloid superstar? But after Caleb sees the man behind the rock star, he begins to wonder if Theo might be his chance at a future he thought he’d lost forever.

Put together a reluctant rockstar and a supposed washout in the ever-fickle music industry and the result is a volatile cocktail that results in several life-changing decisions. Theo Decker’s fame is wholly unwanted, and like a lost little boy, wanders through the fog of being with a band that breaks every music chart but leaves him on the outside of a firm circle of friendship, until Caleb Blake Whitman powers through his life as an accidental one-night stand.

‘Riven’ is my first Roan Parrish read and I’m starting to see how it’s a style of storytelling that moves some readers to tears and others to boredom. It’s just an odd mix of purple prose and perceptive insights, but also with some New Adult traits that felt a little too naive for this entire plot. Meaning, the rest of their journey is status-quo: most of the book read like a ton of push-pull, of Caleb running away and Theo constantly taking him back (accompanied by bruising reconciliation sex)—in the name of protecting him and them in some warped way—until some sort of balance is reached, past that point of acknowledging their kind of brokenness.

The strange (and sometimes wonderful) thing about Parrish’s writing is that there isn’t quite the focus on the characters’ pasts, but rather, the sensations that their memories dredge up which then serve to reconstruct them in bits and pieces.

Caleb’s drugged-up past and subsequent rehabs? A done deal, recounted repetitively merely as a tether to the present. Theo’s broken family and the litany of self-recrimination of not being enough for anyone? Also glossed through with some of the prerequisite angst that NA books tend to shed in all the pages, written not in flashback but in dialogue or as inner monologue, as being a private failure that he can’t overcome even with his current success.

Much of ‘Riven’ is the reconciliation of emotions, of feelings, of sorting oneself out when faced with yet another obstacle too big to see behind after all, so it isn’t a surprise that with each round of repetitive self-castigation for Caleb and Theo comes some kind of deeper understanding of themselves as well. Still, this ended up as a middling read for me; I wished I was more moved by Caleb/Theo’s rocky road to happiness, but well, I found myself simply neutral by the time they rode off into their countryside sunset.

three-stars

I Think I Love You by Lauren Layne

I Think I Love You by Lauren LayneI Think I Love You by Lauren Layne
Series: Oxford #5
Published by Loveswept on 17th July 2018
Pages: 184
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three-stars

Brit Robbins knows that dating in New York City is hard—she just hoped to have it mastered by age thirty. But after yet another promising suitor says they have no sparks, Brit decides it’s time to torch her dating game and try a new plan. And who better to coach Brit through the art of seduction than the guy who first gave her the “let’s be friends” card?

Hunter Cross has always figured there’s nothing his best friend Brit can do to surprise him. But Brit’s request is a surprise he doesn’t see coming—and one he’s definitely not prepared for. Hunter and Brit have always been careful to keep things perfectly platonic, but the fake dates and faux flirting are starting to feel like the real deal. And soon Hunter realizes he has taught Brit too well. Not only has she become an expert at seduction, the man becoming thoroughly seduced is him.

‘I Think I Love You’ feels like the true end to Lauren Layne’s Oxford series, a not quite full-length tale of the last standing couple, who don’t even know they’re meant to be paired with…yet. Layne tackles the friends-to-lovers trope here and straightaway, I knew it would be a tricky one with questions that needed to be answered—questions that this trope always seems to invite for the pairing to be a believable and satisfying one.

Brit and Hunter slide in somewhere later in the Oxford series as best friends, and as boss and subordinate, whose status-quo hasn’t changed in years, until Brit stirs the waters by adding a particularly farcical element in the setup which, according to Layne, has the power to change everything they know about each other. As a plot device that sets the action and the romance on a predictable path, Brit’s apparent seduction tutoring works all too well. So the story goes.

It inevitably goes sideways and it isn’t a surprise to see Hunter screwing up colossally, but what is frustrating is his not doing enough to make up for it and Brit being too soft-hearted about it. With the abrupt conclusion however, there isn’t a chance to see Hunter fighting for a relationship with Brit, which I knew I needed to read after the way he’s waffled too much in his manly cowardice. In other words, the grovelling hardly matches the crime.

I was actually more interested in the implications of this trope and how Layne would tackle the explanation of the sudden flip in the switch in their relationship when years of never looking at each other ‘that way’ were thrown to the wind—because this would probably justify the validity (which I can’t quite blindly accept as timing, serendipity or the sudden realisation of scales falling from eyes) so to speak, of best friends becoming lovers. How does a seduction plan inexplicably turn Hunter into looking at Brit from a platonic friend into someone else? There’s a suggestion here that a platonic friendship perpetually hangs on a knife’s edge, needing merely the slightest thing for it to tip over into a different space, so would that have meant that Hunter and Brit would never have crossed any line had Brit not taken the first step?

The long and short is, I’m not entirely sure if I’m quite convinced about this trope still. It’s probably cynicism speaking here nonetheless and that Layne chooses to tackle this once again isn’t surprising seeing how often it appears in her books. I do think Hunter and Brit do ultimately belong together—best friends can and do make good lovers—only that I had hoped for a more solid grounding for them becoming a couple other than sudden, forced proximity with all the talk of dating and seduction giving them the orgasmic shivers.

As far as it goes, my wistfulness with finishing this series probably has to do with my introduction to Layne via Penelope/Cole, whose story started my going down the Oxford rabbit hole. I loved seeing the rest of the Oxford crew even if some stories worked better than others for me, and with all the series I’ve gone through, I had hoped this one ended more on a bang for me.

three-stars

Down With Love by Kate Meader

Down With Love by Kate MeaderDown with Love by Kate Meader
Series: Love Wars, #1
Published by Loveswept on 7th August 2018
Pages: 237
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two-stars

Sparks fly when the hot-shot divorce lawyer meets the high-powered wedding planner. The only question is, what kind?

If you ever get married, remember my name: Max Henderson. In my line of work, you acquire a certain perspective on supposedly everlasting unions. . . .

1. Pre-nups are your friend. 2. The person you married is not the person you’re divorcing. 3. And I hope you didn’t spend much on the wedding because that was one helluva waste of hard-earned cash, wasn’t it?

But some guys are willing to take a chance. Like my brother, who thinks he’s going to ride off into the sunset with the woman of his dreams in a haze of glitter on unicorns. And the wedding planner—the green-eyed beauty who makes a living convincing suckers to shell out thousands of dollars on centerpieces—is raking it in on this matrimonial monstrosity.

The thing is, Charlie Love is not unlike me. We’re both cogs in the wedding-industrial complex. As the best man, I know her game—and I can play it better than her. But after one scorching, unexpected kiss, I’m thinking I might just want to get played.

Wedding-planner, come meet the divorce lawyer: 2 occupations at odds with each other, down to the fundamental beliefs that the people working in these lines should hold. Right? ‘Down with Love’ is where Kate Meader bravely tackles these opposites and tries to prove the contrary with Max Henderson (the first victim, so to speak) and Charlie Love—whose last name is ironically appropriate for her occupation.

Excited as I was by Meader’s blurb of this new series, I was also a little wary, because beneath it lies the stereotypical trope of a commitment phobic player paired with a woman who tries to be sassy and stumbles when the charm comes out. And with Meader’s style of writing, I can say—objectively—that it’s perfectly tailored for the rom-com style that many readers would expect. Meader’s writing is pitched exactly like the voices you hear in romantic comedy, that is, pitch-perfect, if that’s your sort of thing, in other words. That much, it delivers.

Max Henderson kicks of the start of Kate Meader’s new series of cynical men who think they’ve seen the worst of humanity in the battlefield of court when divorce inevitably hits couples. But I think the male POV is tricky to write, period. Getting the fine balance right between voice, hints of vulnerability and the cocky front that many authors try to portray of their alpha males who apparently know so much about women is one that either has me grimacing or smirking. The usual smug, self-satisfied, arrogant tone of Max crosses the line into bar-smarmy faux smoothness and sleazy bad taste and it isn’t frankly something I want to read of a male romantic protagonist who’s head seems to be constantly filled with women’s body parts and what he’d like to do to them. (Here, I’m reminded of another author who’s done the same previously and it isn’t that good a memory, sad to say.)

But because many rom-coms are retellings and rehashes of tropes with varying contexts, character histories and storytelling styles, ‘Down With love’ still feels at its core, one that doesn’t deviate too much from the well-worn but well-loved formula: a woman who finally gives the cynical Max what he’s always fed other women (nothing beyond a night or two) and then it’s the typical reversal of him finally getting a taste of his own medicine just as he realises she’s unlike the others. Cue the game to wear her resistance down, thanks to the perpetual player, no-one-gets-hurt reputation Max strives to cultivate in the first place.

There are a few bits of talking ‘out’ to the reader as well—better known as breaking the fourth wall here, when a character steps out of the fictional word briefly and breaks through the invisible wall separating reader and the cast—and I’m not too sure how I feel about that here. Perhaps Meader seeks to bridge that connection between Max and me when the use of the second person pronoun ‘you’ seems to…mediate this distance that I subconsciously hold, first to convince me that he’s anti-marriage and then later, to convince me that he’s a reformed man. Or perhaps I’m just over-reading this.

In short, I think I wasn’t really feeling this at all sadly—not the pairing, not the context and not the plot. ‘Down With Love’ didn’t exactly move me much even as Meader tries to work out the opposing beliefs of Max and Charlie, and given the many times I managed to walk away and came back to the book (rinse and repeat) it’s clear this isn’t the story for me, as much as I really like Meader’s writing.

two-stars

Never Sweeter by Charlotte Stein

Never Sweeter by Charlotte SteinNever Sweeter by Charlotte Stein
Series: Dark Obsession, #2
Published by Loveswept on April 19th 2016
Pages: 262
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three-half-stars

Letty Carmichael can’t believe her eyes when she catches a glimpse of her high school tormenter, wrestling champ Tate Sullivan, on campus. College was supposed to be her escape from Tate’s constant ridicule. Now he’s in her classes again, just waiting for his chance to make her life hell. But when Letty and Tate are partnered up for an assignment—on sex in cinema, of all things—she starts to see a kinder, gentler side of him. And when she realizes Tate knows more about sex than she could ever guess at, he soon starts making her blush in a whole new way.

Tate Sullivan is haunted by regret over his cruelty toward Letty. So when she agrees to work with him, he seizes his chance to make amends. He can’t blame her for not believing he’s for real, but soon Tate starts to break down her wall. She wants to know about passion, desire, lust—topics he is well versed in. And in return she offers the one thing he always wanted: the chance to be more than just a jock.

Letty is shocked by how sensitive Tate can be. Still, desiring him feels ludicrous. Loving him is impossible. Craving him is beyond all reason. So why can’t she stop?

‘Never Sweeter’ is my first plunge into Charlotte Stein’s writing and I knew from the first page that this was a very different New Adult read than what normally comes across my feed. The issues of NA books can and sometimes do resonate with me though not necessarily always, which are probably enough (sucker that I am) make me continue with this genre that I can get very conflicted about.

The typical idea that boys bully girls they like takes a more sinister turn here, and out of the very real damage of such an act, Stein builds a second-chance romance between a tormented, defensive girl who has since learned to use her wit and her former bully. Much of Tate’s and Letty’s interactions are made up of banter, words that grow deeper and more meaningful after being paired on a steamy project. And I found it…cute in fact, after a while, as Tate somehow managed to worm himself into both mine and Letty’s good graces eventually, even though the good boy bit he shows is just so incongruous with what Letty actually remembers.

Then the story went the way of erotica (almost) and I blinked, many times. Not that these scenes weren’t scorching though, because they were. But because they felt like a huge departure from the emotional build of the first half and straight to the down and dirty, which admittedly does work after the relationship groundwork has been done.

’Never Sweeter’ wasn’t a perfect read: the supposed, sudden change that Tate underwent between high school and college left me wondering what really happened, the cheesy, porny phrases when things started getting hot and heavy between them, the odd and nearly anticlimactic ending that made little sense and felt like conflict created for the sake of it. These dimmed my enthusiasm for the story a bit, even as Stein wrote parts I couldn’t straight out believe even, like Tate’s apparently range of sexual experience without having had sex, or that he’d do something (somewhat silly) in the last bit that felt like betrayal, or even the involvement of mobsters in the pot that sort of came and then flitted away. It was also difficult to differentiate Tate’s and Letty’s voices after a while because they talked and bantered with such similar styles and yes, the lack of dialogue tags annoyed me at times.

That said, I can well imagine how polarising ‘Never Sweeter’ can be. I’m a little torn between what I found unnecessary and how much I actually liked Tate/Letty’s story, but this is probably enough to put Stein on my author-watchlist.

three-half-stars

An Ex for Christmas by Lauren Layne

An Ex for Christmas by Lauren LayneAn Ex for Christmas by Lauren Layne
Series: Love Unexpectedly #5
Published by Loveswept on November 7th 2017
Pages: 218
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two-stars

When a psychic tells spunky, superstitious Kelly Byrne that she’s already met her true love, she becomes obsessed with the idea of tracking him down before Christmas. Kelly immediately writes up an “Ex List” and starts contacting old boyfriends to figure out which one is the one. When her college sweetheart rolls into town, Kelly convinces herself that they’re meant to be. The trouble is, sparks are flying with someone she’s never given a chance: her best friend, Mark.

Mark Blakely has watched the guys on Kelly’s list break her heart, and he’s not looking forward to watching them do it all over again. Mark’s always been there for her, but the timing’s never worked out for their relationship to be something more. Now, just as Mark is ready to move on, the sexual tension between them is suddenly off the charts. With Christmas morning around the corner, he just hopes Kelly will wake up and realize that everything she wants has been right in front of her all along.

I’m starting to wonder if Lauren Layne and I should start to part ways. When I’ve loved her earlier works, these days, I’ve taken more and more issues of late with her characters whom I can’t seem to like at all—and my recent lowered ratings of her books might be an unfair attempt to recapture what I’ve felt about her previous books.

The friends-to-lovers (with an unrequited element) romance is one where I tread very, very carefully, because there’re just too many entanglements and questions that tend not to be satisfactorily answered before a typical, teary grovelling session happens just a page or 2 before both parties ride off into the sunset. Romantic-comedy or not, I do like my couples evenly-paired emotionally at the very least, which means that I do need to see, while reading the romance genre, that both are on the same page when it comes to their feelings for each other, rather than a protagonist hankering after another for an extended period of time, then having the other playing catch up only in the last few pages. Where’s the satisfaction in that?

“An Ex for Christmas” was just that for me, though I was under the impression that it was more of a timing-not-right sort of thing for them, instead of one where an obtuse woman stomps on a man’s heart unknowingly.

For want of a better way of putting things, Kelly seemed to bring out the latent violent tendencies in me as I found myself caught between wanting to smack her and throwing a chair at her for her steadfast refusal to see how much she’d put Mark in the friend zone. Kelly’s perky obliviousness and inability to recognise what was in front of her all along—while flaunting the plan to dates ALL of her ex-es in front of the guy who’s always loved her—was not just cringeworthy, but thoughtless and stupid, considering this came off some screwed-up, superstitious conclusion based on an old woman’s prediction.

In fact, I felt so bad for Mark and actually wished he found someone else other than a woman who’d never seemed to return his feelings beyond platonic friendship. I thought he deserved better instead of Kelly’s ‘sudden’ realisation that she ‘thought she loved’ him despite him going to bat for her—the obstinate search for her ex-es even though those tanked disastrously proved it sufficiently, and I couldn’t blame him at all for finally wanting to give up while the woman he wanted simply went off doing her own merry thing.

Obviously my sentiments lie in the minority here—unrequited love stories tend to do that for me, particularly with the one who pined for a long time—but exasperation and irritation just got the better of me for this one. So I skimmed, if only for poor Mark, feeling relieved when I got to the end, though not any happier about it still because their love affair all sat wrong with me. Like I said, maybe this is sort of the end of the road for me when it comes to Layne’s stories; never say never though, but I’m going to be taking a wide berth for now.

two-stars

Man Candy by Jessica Lemmon

Man Candy by Jessica LemmonMan Candy by Jessica Lemmon
Series: Real Love #3
Published by Loveswept on January 9th 2018
Pages: 191
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two-stars

Dax:
After spending the summer buried up to my eyeballs in my family’s affairs, I’m ready for a break. The kind of break where I can spend two solid weeks camping and fishing in the company of absolutely no one. Then I find myself directly in the path of a drop-dead gorgeous tornado by the name of Becca Stone. Who can resist a night with a damsel in distress? Especially when she happens to be a leggy blonde? The last thing I expect is for Becca to show up on my cabin doorstep the next night, shivering in the rain and ready for seconds.

Becca: One minute I’m admiring the rock-hard jaw of the Magic Mike lookalike who walks into my bar, and the next I’m getting fired by my own brother. Loudly. In front of everyone. Luckily Dax Vaughn is a gentleman who aims his white-hot smile at me. Oh, it’s on. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Then a torrential storm washes out the main road and causes a massive power outage, giving us two whole weeks to enjoy each other’s company. At which point Dax will go back home, leaving “us” in the rearview mirror. That’s the plan. Or it was . . . until I started falling for him.

Overall, an underwhelming read, particularly so when we’re simply taken through a bar hook-up, a lot of flirting and a session in bed thereafter, all within the starting pages.

Without the buildup of sexual tension or even any inkling of where Dax and Becca were going, I couldn’t quite see a direction for the story for the first half of the book, much less a couple with a path ahead of them since all they wanted was one night together.

With a lacklustre meeting, a hookup and inclement weather that forces a pairing together who really shouldn’t be together, the truth is, I was bored. Dax—the older hero who’s gotten his thoughts and convictions straight in his head—chases while Becca gives every excuse to run. And that’s the holding pattern that we see, which made it hard to see the point of their interaction, especially given a flaky female protagonist with a penchant for running away and not grow up.

Admittedly, I do prefer my heroines who dig in, get dirty (and not just in bed) and put themselves out there while holding up their big-girl panties in order to make the big decisions that really matter, so Becca just didn’t do it for me when all we get from her was insecure deflection and frustrating evasion because she simply couldn’t hold anything down, much less admit that she wanted Dax for longer than she thought. Commit-less, rootless and an emotional coward in every sense of the word, Becca’s contrast to Dax is a stark one and Jessica Lemmon’s attempt to bridge this gap through the slow revealing of their personal histories past the sex merely seemed to show how ill-suited they were for each other past their bedroom antics.

Somehow, ‘Man Candy’ reads like a story that I’ve come across elsewhere a hundred times—even role-reversal stories where the female protagonist only wants temporary arrangements are dime a dozen. While there is a huge amount of flirtation, scorching sex (which is never the problem in romance books anyway), I pretty much struggled with the lack of depth and the predictability in this book, as well as with a pairing forged out by lust and not too much else.

two-stars

Exploited by A. Meredith Walters

Exploited by A. Meredith WaltersExploited by A. Meredith Walters
Series: Zero Day, #1
Published by Loveswept on July 25th 2017
Pages: 288
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four-stars

At first glance, I’m nothing out of the ordinary. I am a daughter. A sister. A friend. When you look at me you won’t see anything that warrants suspicion. I don’t look like a criminal.
My name is Hannah Whalen, but most people know me as freed0mov3rdr1v3, or “Freedom Overdrive”—one of the world’s most prolific and notorious hacktivists. My goal—my purpose—is to shed light on the evil that lurks behind the corporate and government lies we have been force-fed for too long.
My story begins with the best possible intention. Devoting my life to exposing the corrupt. The dishonest. The unethical. For that, they label me a cyber-terrorist. Wanted by the FBI, I’ve always been one step ahead.
Until I fell in love.
Because I’m sleeping with the man who’s hunting me. And he has no idea that I am his prey. Now I have to decide what’s more important: my freedom or my heart.

The romance ‘verse of hacking is a relatively unexplored one and diving into ‘Exploited’ was an absolute treat as I’ve always wanted a story that really dug into black hats, the mentality under which they operate and the scrutiny they face.

That said, I do like A. Meredith Walters’s take on vigilante justice and the shadowy line that hackers often cross. Unlike the books that delve into them, ‘Exploited’

is a raw, honest take about the power trips that hackers take they dodge the law and the huge amount of pandering to ego that we see, as much as for Hannah as it is for Mason. But ultimately, put a law enforcement officer on the tail of the hacker (and vice versa) and Walters has a cat-and-mouse game going that you already know can’t end terribly well.

The thing about ‘Expoited’ is that there’s this bleak, eerie melancholy that I can’t seem to shake off somehow. The first-person narrative here isn’t one that only brings you closer and into the characters’ heads; it suffocates you just as Mason and Hannah live their suffocating lives, twisted and burdened by tragedy and circumstances not of their own making. Anger and the burning need for revenge has driven Hannah to her double life as a hacker who doles our her own brand of criminal justice by being one herself; Mason’s own dysfunctional family has brought him down a road where he’s hemmed in both at home and in the office.

In an odd way, I found myself wholly invested in the intrigue and the characters by extension, though Mason and Hannah were a pairing that I could neither get into nor like. Mason and Hannah weren’t protagonists I could root for—the callous way they treated others around them for one—and the games they played felt more like they belonged in an erotic thriller like ‘Basic Instinct’ that has deceit underscoring the action both at work and in the bedroom. I couldn’t quite get Hannah’s connection with Mason, at least because the depth of her manipulation makes her a difficult protagonist to like, but I found myself fascinated with how she was going to twist her way out of her whole setup thanks to her mysterious hacking partner, whose motivations are equally suspect. Mason’s dalliance with a work colleague and that constant comparison to Hannah (his ability to jump between women so quickly) grated on me and that gullibility that he had with Hannah was sort of laughable.

In short, this felt more of a parody of a romance than a proper one, yet that was in itself, a fascinating layer to the suspense that kept the pages turning for me. I found that I could objectively look at two people on the opposite sides of the law playing each other and not quite have an affinity for one or the other while enjoying the tightening of the noose on Hannah’s neck. The pace-perfect cliffhanger ending is predictable though unsatisfactory and more than anything, I want to see how a HEA is even possible in the sequel to this book.

four-stars