Publisher: Montlake Romance

The Friend Zone by Sariah Wilson

The Friend Zone by Sariah WilsonThe Friend Zone by Sariah Wilson
Published by Montlake Romance on 11th June 2019
Pages: 304
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three-stars

Disgraced college quarterback Logan Hunt was on his way to NFL stardom when he messed up big-time. Now the Texas star player with a bad temper has a new option: Seattle’s EOL College—as in End of the Line, to his fellow misfit recruits. It’s Logan’s last chance. If he can follow the rules.

No parties, no fighting, no swearing, and oh, no dating the coach’s daughter, Jess. Simple. Yeah, right. For Logan, there has never been a rule he’s more tempted to break.

The deal is “just friends.” The pretty, confident, and fiercely smart math whiz is fine with pizza, tutoring, and keeping Logan in line. But the closer Jess gets, the more receptive she is to his warm heart and spirit—not to mention his irresistible off-field passes.

With defenses down, they’re both heading into the danger zone.

It’s more than thrilling. It’s love. It’s also a game changer that could sideline Logan’s NFL goals—and more important, a future with Jess. But dreams are worth fighting for, right?

Sariah Wilson’s ‘The Friend Zone’ harks back to a time when I remember YA/NA reads to be a lot more innocent and docile, both in speech and thoughts and deeds—or at least, when more risqué activities were kept firmly behind closed doors and stayed there, where the hottest things got were kisses and monologue-driven, self-actualising type of pining and many, many scorching looks.

It does take getting used to though, having this version of sparkly clean YA/NA sports romance graze my e-reader after being inured to a million sex scenes, to the uninhibited partying lifestyles of manwhore athletes and the women who prostrate themselves without care at their feet. So much so, that I kept wondering if Logan Hunt and Jess were going to go beyond censoring themselves and feeling hot under the collar after their bouts of denial, the chest-heaving sense of attraction, the running away and the pushing and pulling.

The answer, in short, is…no.

Wilson instead, does it the old school, slow-burn way: through friendship with some romantic, underlying tension and lets it grow and grow and…well, grow, with some bouts of humour in between. There isn’t a climax that ends up in torn clothes and smexy times (that did leave me somewhat disappointed anyhow) and with an ending that felt a little rushed and one that by-passed the physical nature of their relationship, I turned the last page still somehow wishing there had been more.

three-stars

Huge Deal by Lauren Layne

Huge Deal by Lauren LayneHuge Deal by Lauren Layne
Series: 21 Wall Street, #3
Published by Montlake Romance on 23rd April 2019
Pages: 268
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three-stars

An alpha among the wolves of Wall Street, Kennedy Dawson rose to the top of the pack by striking the right contracts at the right times. But there’s one deal that’s been giving him a run for his money—a pact to never again let his assistant, Kate, get under his skin. She may be smart, gorgeous, and sharp as a whip, but she’s definitely off-limits.

Kate Henley isn’t a banker, but she knows a thing or two about risk management—specifically, about managing her attraction to her smolderingly sexy boss. She already fell once, and Kennedy showed no sign of paying a return on her investment. So when Kennedy’s brother starts pursuing her, Kate figures she has the best of both worlds. Jack is charming, rich, very attentive, and the spitting image of his older brother.

It’s also making Kennedy think twice. But to win Kate’s heart, he’ll have to broker the deal of a lifetime…and prove he’s worth the risk.

It’s been a while since I’ve bene on the Lauren Layne boat, and ‘Huge Deal’ was one that I stepped into warily. Layne’s recent works have revolved around certain tropes and themes (questionable ones for me at least, when they seem to have to do with sibling dating, manwhores, oblivious/unrequited love) that have made it hard to fully like her books.

And lordy, how do I even begin with this?

Yes, there are feels. And yes, my chest hurt, mostly for Kate, but ultimately, I was left with too many doubts left unassuaged, shadowed instead by feel-good platitudes, of talk but not enough grit and fight in a relationship. Especially one that begins with unrequited emotions.

First, let’s get this out of the way: there’s no question that Layne can write and quite perceptively too. There’s angst, the outpouring of emotions, some nuanced looks at human behaviour in ‘Huge Deal’…but there’s also the uncomfortable underlying implications that affections could be transferred fast and that easily with the slight hint here of double-dipping, that appearances mattered greatly when Kennedy only noticed Kate after her mini-makeover which I couldn’t shake off.

Kenendy’s utter obliviousness to Kate, his underestimation of her, his under-appreciation for her for years when it was clear she had a thing for him was painful to read about. His accidental and meaningless put-downs made it worse—or that he often made it sound like he thought nothing of her except as an assistant—didn’t make the case for coupledom any easier, until Jack the younger brother came on the scene.

Why did it have to take a little bit of competition from his brother, for God’s sake, for Kennedy to wake up and see that Kate was a woman worth being with? That without Jack to peel the blinkers off Kennedy’s eyes, Kate couldn’t stand on her own merit and be deserving of that same attention without the makeover? Would Kate and Kennedy otherwise have gone on their own individual trajectories had Jack not intervened? Would Kennedy have not bothered about Kate otherwise?

The bottomline is, many of these burning questions—appearing when some tropes themselves appear—weren’t sufficiently addressed for me to buy into Kate/Kennedy, not when I found myself reading about affections that were too shakeable, too transferable, too easily swayed, where it had to take a mountain-moving revelation or makeover for an unattainable man to finally notice the woman who’d always been in front of him while going through a score of others in the meantime.

The reversal of everything in the last quarter of the book was surprising to say the least, as Kennedy ironically played catch up and took every effort to convince Kate—whose own POV on love had changed. In fact, I needed Layne to address the imbalance of emotions more or at least why it’d taken Kennedy this much to see her for what she was, but it seemed as though she’d taken another way out with a whole emotional twist that simply felt out of character for Kate.

With the sudden rush to an abrupt ending—the ending conflict was up and done too quickly for my liking—I was still left with the feeling that Kennedy hadn’t put himself out there enough, hadn’t fought for the both of them enough, hadn’t been put through the emotional agony enough, hadn’t made himself more vulnerable enough.

That Kate had all along, been the more multi-faceted character with the most growth and change didn’t exactly put them as equals as ‘Huge Deal’ rolled up to a quick HEA that left me less than convinced at a pairing that should and could have been more tested in a crucible that never quite burned hot enough.

three-stars

Secrets Never Die by Melinda Leigh

Secrets Never Die by Melinda LeighSecrets Never Die by Melinda Leigh
Series: Morgan Dane #5
Published by Montlake Romance on 19th March 2019
Pages: 361
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four-stars

When a retired sheriff’s deputy is shot to death in his home, his troubled teenage stepson, Evan, becomes the prime suspect. Even more incriminating, the boy disappeared from the scene of the crime.

Desperate to find her son, Evan’s mother begs PI Lance Kruger for help. She knows her son is innocent. Kruger and defense attorney Morgan Dane want to believe that too, but the evidence against the boy is damning. Just as the trail goes cold, another deputy vanishes. His shocking connection to Evan’s stepfather throws the investigation into chaos as Lance and Morgan fear the worst…that Evan is the killer’s new target.

With so many secrets to unravel, will Lance and Morgan find him before it’s too late?

Throw in a police procedural-type story and I know Melinda Leigh can make it shine. Leigh’s Morgan Dane juggernaut—into its fifth book here—keeps rolling on and shows no sign of abating and for good reasons.

Morgan and Lance tackle a case that has gotten law enforcement into a tizzy: the murder of a retired deputy sheriff, his missing stepson and the current inclination of the authorities to blame it on the latter. The setup is admittedly formulaic (and a little anti-climatic as well) but nonetheless absorbing, easy to follow, with protagonists you know you can put your last penny behind.

I loved catching up with Morgan and Lance, whose relationship grows from strength to strength. Past the sexual tension, the getting-together, Morgan/Lance’s solid partnership is never in question. The return of the odd, power couple as a crime-solving duo is always welcome of course, yet I find that I miss the heat between them—something that Leigh now glances over—even though I liked the progression of their relationship. Essentially, much of ‘Secrets Never Die’ deals with the investigation process and the superhuman strength that both Morgan/Lance seem to possess in the few days within which the story takes place, with only a very, very faint whiff of romance even with the introduction of a potential secondary pairing of Sharp and Olivia.

In any case, Leigh’s solid writing gave me a good ol’ crime mystery to solve and if you aren’t bothered by the seeming lack of romance) ‘Secrets Never Die’ is a pretty good all rounder.

four-stars

Ache for You by J.T. Geissinger

Ache for You by J.T. GeissingerAche for You by J.T. Geissinger
Series: Slow Burn #3
Published by Montlake Romance on 6th November 2018
Pages: 362
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one-star

In this fairy tale with a sexy twist, she’s a penniless San Francisco seamstress. He’s the king of Italian couture. Who’s got designs on whom?

Boutique owner Kimber DiSanto has seen better days. She’s been dumped at the altar by Prince Charmless, her business went up in flames (literally), and now she’s stuck in Florence, Italy, with an ice-queen stepmother, to try to save her late father’s failing dress shop. Only one thing could make it worse: another man in her life. The arrogant Italian fashion tycoon offering to buy her father’s shop is as rich as he is sexy, and their attraction is off the charts. But Kimber’s not about to get burned again.

Women don’t say no to Matteo Moretti—and certainly not with Kimber’s stinging precision. With all the heat and fury sparking between them, Matteo can’t resist baiting the gorgeous American. His plan? Win her over one scorching kiss at a time.

Kimber tells herself it’s all just a game. That her broken heart isn’t in danger, and that Matteo’s touch does not make her Lady Land dance with joy. But sometimes it takes the fieriest of enemies to turn a fantasy into a real-life romance.

Down-on-her-luck Kimber—dumped by a wealthy fiancé at the altar—makes it to Italy, though not without more drama following her around, mostly in the form of another rich Italian tycoon. Only to realise that her dying father has remarried a calculative barracuda, left her with 2 stepsisters, and an evil stepmother.

If this rings familiar, that’s because ‘Ache for You’ is a Cinderella tale of sorts from riches to rags and riches again, only that it involves a truly unlikeable heroine and a mysterious Italian fashion magnate who somehow gets turned on by rudeness and a judgemental attitude.

Kimber’s tendency to overreact, her exaggerated hysteria and self-pity pouring through the pages from the start as she makes everything all about her and her misery had me wondering if I’d accidentally stumbled onto a bitchy reality series instead of a reconstructed fairytale romance. Gritting my teeth, I hoped it would get better as I read on but instead, it became more and more farcical to be believable. I just couldn’t get the connection between Kimber and Matteo—are sparks supposed to fly if the latter gets off on being verbally abused?

In essence, as much as fairytales are supposed to be much-beloved archetypes, I thought Geissinger’s own characters felt too ‘locked’ in their stereotypes (the rom-com, first person POV style of writing confirms this) to be anything more than caricatures flitting through the winding plot.

As much as I liked the first book in the series, which did actually seem promising, I’m unfortunately going to count this as a total bust for me: the signs couldn’t be clearer when I found myself simply more exasperated than enthralled just a quarter way through.

one-star

Unspeakable by Elisabeth Naughton

Unspeakable by Elisabeth NaughtonUnspeakable by Elisabeth Naughton
Series: Deadly Secrets #4
Published by Montlake Romance on 20th November 2018
Pages: 304
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four-stars

All his siblings have moved on from their troubling pasts, but Rusty McClane can’t leave his behind. Not even when his freedom is in jeopardy.

Legal investigator Harper Blake can sense a bad boy. She’s drawn to them—like she is to her mysterious and brooding new client. The police believe that Rusty is involved with the case of a missing underage girl. Harper’s job is to find evidence to defend him. But is her sexy suspect a predator…or something else?

If Rusty is guilty of anything, it’s of stirring something primitive in Harper. The closer they get, the harder it is to believe the worst of him.

But in an underworld filled with sex trafficking, kidnapping, and murder, Harper will need to be cautious about whom she trusts. Because Rusty isn’t the only one with secrets.

Elisabeth Naughton’s ‘Deadly Secrets’ is a series that constantly surprises me, and much of that has to do with how Naughton weaves stories built on the unrelated personal histories of each adopted McClane sibling’s varied pasts. ‘Unspeakable’ is an engaging suspense right from the start and one that quite pointedly starts out by shaping Rusty McClane first, as a questionable protagonist and then later, a gruff and compelling shiny knight in armour living a double life and is quite worthy of the romantic-hero-accolade.

And it’s Rusty who shines, along with his demons, his irresistible vigilante persona—Stephen Amell as the Arrow keeps coming to mind—that he hides from everyone. However, I had my reservations about the disgraced ex-cop Harper Blake—her own shady history, her eagerness to work with Rusty and her personal agenda that she keeps from him—because for quite a bit of the story, the self-serving bit of dishonesty just to get her lost career back and her reliance on their sexual chemistry to get things moving kept nagging at me. With a quick-fire conflict-climax-resolution that was offered almost as an aside towards the end, it was admittedly, harder to root for a pairing as solidly as I thought I would after a spectacular beginning.

Danger and intrigue are present throughout which makes the book hard to put down once I dug in. There are brilliants scenes alternating between the gut-churning sex trade and the sultry heat that builds between Rusty and Harper, and coupled with a good number of players (and a series of ‘generational’ coincidences attributed to fate that might be a little hard to swallow) that Naughton juggles quite effortlessly.

So bottom-line here: my own quibbles with the heroine aside, ‘Unspeakable’ is a sufficiently complex, not too convoluted read and by and large, a pretty good addition to the RS genre that I’m always putting my nose in.

four-stars

Up in Flames by Jennifer Blackwood

Up in Flames by Jennifer BlackwoodUp in Flames by Jennifer Blackwood
Series: Flirting with Fire, #2
Published by Montlake Romance on 9th October 2018
Pages: 300
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one-half-stars

Sloane Garcia has butted heads with Reece Jenkins ever since he was a colossal jerk of epic proportions on a night she’d rather forget. So what if he’s overconfident, ultramasculine, and hard muscled? When she finds out he’s on the auction block at the annual firefighter’s charity event, she decides to give this cocky firefighter a dose of his own medicine. Now that she’s won the hunk, he’s on call—to do whatever Sloane wants.

Sure, Reece and Sloane had a rocky start, but he had his reasons. None of that matters now that he’s the bachelor at her beck and call, tasked with granting her four wishes in four weeks. He runs into burning buildings for a living, but nothing will be as tough as dousing the flames Sloane ignites in him. What started out as just a game might end up with Reece losing the one thing he swore he’d never give up: his heart.

Somehow I feel as though I need this caveat, as always, before I begin this review. My expectations, when it comes to romantic fiction are tuned differently when when I read general fiction; better put, the very classification of the genre shapes what I naturally want to read of my protagonists, so their traits are looked at not just in terms of their social contributions (good soldier/cop/firefighter), or their generosities to their families, or how often they mow the lawn for their blind neighbours, for instance, which many authors love to highlight.

In contrast, I typically look at romantic heroism through the lens of other qualities, such as integrity, commitment, the care and concern because this genre is precisely one in which such things seem necessary for the guaranteed HEA that is its peculiar characteristic. I’ve been confronted with too many protagonists who fall out of this framework of late, and instead conform to stereotypes that have me rolling my eyes, which accounts for my inability to like a book more because of it.

Jennifer Blackwood’s ‘Up in Flames’ was unfortunately, yet another one of those for me. It’s certainly a story that will appeal to others: the rather light-hearted feel, the slight bit of angst to stir up some emotions about a backstory accounting for present-day terrible behaviour and the eventual but rocky road to redemption and a HEA.

What stood out for me was the very relatable Sloane, but then I’ve always liked seeing this sort of scrappy strength in a romantic heroine: somewhat bitter about a breakup but still digging in, hanging on in control, refusing to be vulnerable, with her brain turning to mush at the sight of Reece’s body being the only cringeworthy characteristic I found.

In contrast, Reece felt like too much of the clichéd, ego-filled, manwhore arsehole player for me—doing the rounds with eight of the nurses in Sloane’s workplace first made him beyond distasteful (armed with the usual excuse of having been hurt so long ago and thus is into emotionless hooking up from now onwards) in contrast to Sloane’s impressive sticking it through with her one and only long-term relationship despite it ending badly. Adding the fact that he’d always had a thing for her on and off throughout most of their lives, was waffling about the idea of ‘them’ up until quite literally the last few lines in the second-last chapter…well, I couldn’t quite find too much of a basis to even root for this pairing when there didn’t seem to be that much of an active push for both to be together.

The enemies-to-lovers trope is a deliciously cool one (which had me jumping on this) but with constant thoughts intruding about Sloane deserving way better than settling for what I honestly thought was a chemistry-less relationship, this is clearly not a book that worked for me.

one-half-stars

What I’ve Done by Melinda Leigh

What I’ve Done by Melinda LeighWhat I've Done by Melinda Leigh
Series: Morgan Dane #4
Published by Montlake Romance on 18th September 2018
Pages: 336
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four-stars

Morgan Dane’s new client has blood on her hands—and no recollection of what happened—as the #1 Amazon Charts bestselling series continues.

Haley Powell wakes up covered in blood, with no memory of the night before. When she sees a man lying in the backyard, stabbed to death, she has only one terrified thought: What have I done?

Agreeing to take the case as a favor to her PI friend Lincoln Sharp, Morgan must scale a mountain of damning circumstantial and forensic evidence to prove her client innocent. Haley couldn’t appear more guilty: her bloodstained fingerprints are on the murder weapon, and she has no alibi. But Morgan can’t shake the feeling that this shocked young woman has been framed.

Someone out there is hell-bent on sabotaging her defense, targeting Morgan, her partner, and especially Haley. Someone who will stop at nothing—and whose next move will be deadly.

Melinda Leigh’s ‘Morgan Dane’ juggernaut of a series goes on strong with no sign of abating and I for one, am glad for it. With little of the unnecessary (and sometimes over-exggerated) drama as her stalwart, arse-kicking protagonists who go from strength to strength, ‘What I’ve Done’ is another solid offering in which I was happy to get lost.

There’re slight developments in Morgan’s and Lance’s relationship which are always nice to read about, but by and large, they are an established couple, which frees Leigh to concentrate on the suspense. We’re plunged straight in, like any police procedural show: an establishing mystery which eventually turns out to be the complicated case that Morgan and Lance get involved in. The stakes are high; the evidence mounts against them in a near-indefensible case, but Leigh quite masterfully twirls the mess until it makes coherent sense with a satisfying resolution.

It isn’t often that I like the suspense overshadowing the romance—a hearty mix of heat and action is typically what I look for—but this series is one that I can’t help but want more and more of. In short, I was nonetheless riveted and engaged—when the case unravels to show that no one is truly innocent and the degree of debauched behaviour is just skewed towards who’s the worse guy.

Admittedly, the romance is subdued, the heat much less pronounced with a new kind of conflict brewing but Morgan/Lance’s chemistry and affection for each other—borne of months working seamlessly together—are obvious despite the very few scenes that concentrate solely on them. ‘What I’ve Done’ is nonetheless solid and well-written, closing with the sense that this growing partnership in more ways than one, is far from over.

four-stars