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Turned Up by Erin Nicholas

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 16th August 2017
Turned Up by Erin NicholasTurned Up by Erin Nicholas
Series: Taking Chances #3
Published by Montlake Romance on August 29th 2017
Pages: 252
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three-stars

Dillon Alexander has been Kit Derby’s nemesis since third grade, when he beat her in the school spelling bee. They’ve been competing ever since, driving each other to be the best at everything from science fairs to bake sales. While working together one night during their senior year, they stopped bickering long enough to share an emotionally charged kiss. But a tragedy that same night left them both racked with guilt, driving Dillon out of town and leaving Kit determined to keep her distance.

Now an emergency room physician, Dillon has returned to their hometown of Chance, Nebraska. Soon he and Kit fall back into old habits, sparring in public while trying to stay out of each other’s arms. But when a blizzard traps them overnight at Kit’s grandmother’s farmhouse, the real competition begins: Who will be the first to give in to the feelings they’ve denied for a decade?

Erin Nicholas’s ‘Turned up’ is generally an easy, light read and while I hadn’t been invested in small town Chance for a long while, Kit’s and Dillon’s supposed enemies-to-lovers trope brought me back instantly to that simmering sexual tension that had to snap sometime.

Only that I didn’t quite know what to feel about their complicated history that started in high school which Nicholas outlined, seeing as I was expected (and perhaps hoping for) more of a straight-up competitive ‘hate’ to love sort of relationship because those seem…hotter somehow. Yet, what it takes for them to move past the will-they-won’t-they stage is apparently some kind of disaster or a snowstorm, where dating, rather than occasional pent-up sex over the months and years will become the new norm.

But as most stories go, past the initial honeymoon stage, there’re always obstacles to flatten, some of which become the biggest thorn in the flesh that eventually lead to the pairing’s HEA. The format here isn’t too different, only that I felt emotional mountains were made of molehills that could have easily been solved by talking and some strategic and intelligent positioning so that Kit/Dillon wouldn’t have to listen to what everyone in a small town and what they had to say about their relationship.

I didn’t like how Kit gave credence to how the mayor’s wife tried to dictate the way Dillon’s and her relationship should go and that she did irked me, because it really looked as though they were getting into a whole new rhythm of their own before she starting doubting everything they had. Seriously? Worse yet, she’d started to believe that she could only be the best when Dillon was there to compete with her and push her to be better and that this eventually became the conflict in the climax seemed, well, annoyingly petty. Kit’s way of running to deal with feelings got tiring (and in some way, TSTL) as well, when her inability to face up to how relationships DO change people felt like an identity crisis that only teenagers rather than professionals should be worrying about. Thankfully though, that was brief enough, though sufficiently lengthy enough to trigger the personal peeve of mine when couples get together deliriously happy before someone suddenly shifts and turns tail because of an external influence and acts completely out of their depth.

And I’m going to say right here, that this is probably splitting hairs because of my admittedly short fuse when it comes to stupid behaviour. Yet that was the only downer—with enough push-pull that just didn’t convince me at all—that would have otherwise made this a very, very good read.

three-stars

Crossing the Line by Kimberly Kincaid

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 25th July 2017
Crossing the Line by Kimberly KincaidCrossing the Line by Kimberly Kincaid
Series: Cross Creek #2
Published by Montlake Romance on August 8th 2017
Pages: 316
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three-stars

Cocky farmer Eli Cross plays twice as hard as he works. When his latest stunt drums up a heap of negative PR for the family farm, he grudgingly agrees to play host to an ambitious New York City photographer. Her feature on Cross Creek could be just the ticket to show the country what the Cross brothers do best…which is more problem than solution for Eli.

Scarlett Edwards-Stewart has photographed everything from end zones to war zones. She’s confident she can ace this one little story to help her best friend’s failing magazine. At least, she would be if her super-sexy host wasn’t so tight lipped. But the more Scarlett works with Eli, the more she discovers that he’s not who he seems. Can his secret bring them closer together? Or will it be the very thing that tears them apart?

Eli Cross’s modus operandi is to operate with a firmly-affixed front of cocky deflecting, grinning-and-bearing, and simply be labelled as the good-for-nothing brother who’s also the least hardworking one on the farm that is in sore need of a good financial haul.

But his love has never been for agriculture like the rest of his brothers and being stuck in that position means to just stay as much under the radar and keep his love for journalism under wraps until it, well, all blows up in his face. And as we all know it, it does, upon the arrival of a famous photographer who’s out in the middle of nowhere as a favour for a friend.

I just wasn’t too convinced at the reason he had to keep his love for writing a secret because it simply doesn’t seem like something to be ashamed about. That he didn’t assert his own love for it while working on the farm was quite incomprehensible to me.

What was surprising though, was that the cocky, hell-if-I-care exterior was nowhere in sight when Scarlett shows up and tags along. He’s distanced but polite at first, without the charm that I thought he’d be laying on thick to deflect Scarlett’s curiosity about his personal life. Initially, I had a hard time figuring out how Eli/Scarlett would work out in ‘Crossing the Line’ but it eventually became clear that they were displaced in their own, similar ways—and acted out in an opposite manner—and in so doing, rather poignantly find their common ground.

I wasn’t entirely sure what purpose the last bit of drama that came in at the end served though (apart from inserting the customary-ending conflict between Eli and Scarlett) and that kind of threw me off the narrative a bit. The ending as a result, came rather abruptly and we don’t really know how Eli/Scarlett work their arrangement out past their love declarations so that felt a little unfinished.

That part aside, Kimberly Kincaid’s writing is always lovely to read. It’s flowing and easy, and ‘Crossing the Line’ is no different. Thee three Cross brothers are well on their way to get their HEAs and because the grumpy ones do tend to excite me more, I’m already expecting Owen’s story to be a hoot.

three-stars

The Hunting Grounds by Katee Robert

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 4th July 2017
The Hunting Grounds by Katee RobertThe Hunting Grounds by Katee Robert
Series: Hidden Sins #2
Published by Montlake Romance on July 25th 2017
Pages: 318
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two-stars

Maggie Gaines used to be an FBI agent—top of her class and one of the bright, up-and-coming stars—until she spectacularly fell apart during her first high-profile case. That was eight years ago. Now she’s a ranger at Glacier National Park, and she’s found some measure of peace. But when the body of a murdered woman is discovered, she must finally put the past behind her and work with the one man she thought she’d never see again.

For months, Vic Sutherland has been hunting a killer who’s been targeting unsuspecting hikers in national parks—and now the predator has come to Glacier. Vic knows the case will bring him face-to-face with his former partner, yet nothing can prepare him for seeing Maggie again after all these years, or for the memories of passion it stirs in both of them.

As the investigation brings them closer together—and closer to the killer—Maggie and Vic fear they have only each other to trust. But even that might not be enough to make it out of Glacier alive.

I’ve been intrigued by Katee Robert’s move into the more hardcore romantic suspense/thriller-type reads. Since ‘The Devil’s Daughter’ didn’t seem to be a bad debut, ‘The Hunting Grounds’ looked even more enticing because of a serial killer hunting in national parks and how that brings a second-chance romance into play.

Yet I wasn’t pulled in as I thought I’d be, despite the theories that kept flying and the case of teenagers-turned adults who never quite managed to get their screw-ups resolved. I found that the juggling of two separate groups (loosely put) of characters—the protagonists who are also the romantic pair as well as a group of young adults whose lives are just still unsorted—broke the narrative too often, just as I was about to get into it. Maggie/Vic were more interesting than the potential victims (and perpetrators) and while complicated group dynamics always make for interesting reading, I felt that they were distracting instead, written in a way that drew the story out superfluously as it oddly and awkwardly straddled the New Adult genre at times with teenage-hormone-ridden drama peppering certain scenes.

Flashbacks tended to interrupt Maggie/Vic’s progress with the case, and it was difficult to try to get back on board after those, let alone feel any heat or chemistry between 2 people who actually have so much history together. There were tender moments between them, which I liked and that both Maggie and Vic pretty much ‘adulted’ through it all. With the focus on the suspense and the serial killing however, the developing romance wasn’t a drawn out one, just that Maggie/Vic played no games (perhaps because of the lack of time) and that everything happened fairly quickly in the span of a few days.

I’ll readily admit that authors can and do a difficult time getting that tricky mix of romance and suspense down, especially with readers who often prefer one over another. Having a healthy and equal mix of both is what I prefer though and ‘The Hunting Grounds’ doesn’t quite fulfil that. Coupled with an abrupt end—credits roll as people are bruised and recovering in hospital along with unexpected declarations of love thrown in—the story seemed to have ended on an unfinished note that left me wondering if I’d actually missed several pages.

two-stars

The Drowned Girls by Loreth Anne White

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 11th June 2017
The Drowned Girls by Loreth Anne WhiteThe Drowned Girls by Loreth Anne White
Series: Angie Pallorino #1
Published by Montlake Romance on June 20th 2017
Pages: 524
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three-stars


He surfaced two years ago. Then he disappeared ...

But Detective Angie Pallorino never forgot the violent rapist who left a distinctive calling card—crosses etched into the flesh of his victim’s foreheads.
When a comatose Jane Doe is found in a local cemetery, sexually assaulted, mutilated, and nearly drowned, Angie is struck by the eerie similarities to her earlier unsolved rapes. Could he be back?​Then the body of a drowned young woman floats up in the Gorge, also bearing the marks of the serial rapist, and the hunt for a predator becomes a hunt for a killer. Assigned to the joint investigative task force, Angie is more than ready to prove that she has what it takes to break into the all-male homicide division. But her private life collides with her professional ambitions when she’s introduced to her temporary partner, James Maddocks—a man she’d met the night before in an intense, anonymous encounter.
Together, Angie and Maddocks agree to put that night behind them. But as their search for the killer intensifies so does their mutual desire. And Angie’s forays into the mind of a monster shake lose some unsettling secrets about her own past . . .
How can she fight for the truth when it turns out her whole life is a lie?

There’s no doubt that Loreth Anne White writes excellent police procedurals in their gritty, brutal glory. Her angst-ridden characters, worn down by the nature of their work, are jaded and cynical with nary an ounce of optimism in them and as we tend to learn at the start of the book, wrestle with their own broken lives as they keep disappointing their families before they find some kind of equilibrium by the end of it. Their behaviours tend to mirror the nature of the crimes they’re investigating, stopping short of going past the grey areas into the forbidden and while the psychology behind it all is intriguing, I always find myself coming out of every White suspense read unsure, uncertain and strangely in need of a thorough cleaning.

Irascible, combative and abrasive, Angie Pallorino is straight out, a character difficult to like or side with, unlike a typical romance heroine for whom an author tries to get the readers to have an affinity. Everything about her, like White’s protagonists, can and does rub me the wrong way especially in the manner she uses people and men. But her tenacity is also what makes her a good detective and her career is probably all she has.  Like Angie, James Maddocks is running on his own fumes, rebuilding his life in a place where he can hopefully also rebuild his relationship with his daughter. They don’t get off to the best start: a one night stand that ends in coitus interruptus followed by a hostile meeting at the work place. But Maddocks is the upstanding, strong one who’s got his head on relatively straight in contrast and I liked that steadying presence he seems to provide throughout.

There’s very little on the romance in White’s latest suspense books and this is no different. The multiple POVs and the doubts cast on each and every character does a good job of distancing you from them, bringing into focus instead, the complicated but excellent set up of the crime scenes. The search for justice and laborious police work are White’s focal points—along with the superb Hitchcockian suspense kind of writing—and her characters merely players as they try to untangle this web of brutal deaths. It’s packed with tons of details that makes it a difficult read in that sense, and heavy-going in a way gritty crime fiction can be, which naturally brings me to the question that I’ve always struggled with when it comes to romantic suspense that’s heavy on the suspense: is it possible to ‘love’ a read when it’s simply about the case (that’s fantastically set up, no doubt), even if there are characters you don’t exactly connect with or feel for?

Angie’s story however, is pretty much unfinished. ‘The Drowned Girls’ seems to end on tenterhooks, on a tipsy toast that hopes for a better tomorrow, but with the sequel in store, you just know it’s going to unravel once more, until you’re back down through the looking glass, as dislocated as the characters who themselves don’t know any better but to screw things up.

three-stars

Say You’re Sorry by Melinda Leigh

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 13th April 2017
Say You’re Sorry by Melinda LeighSay You're Sorry by Melinda Leigh
Series: Morgan Dane #1
Published by Montlake Romance on May 16th 2017
Pages: 336
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five-stars

After the devastating loss of her husband in Iraq, Morgan Dane returns to Scarlet Falls, seeking the comfort of her hometown. Now, surrounded by family, she’s finally found peace and a promising career opportunity—until her babysitter is killed and her neighbor asks her to defend his son, Nick, who stands accused of the murder.
Tessa was the ultimate girl next door, and the community is outraged by her death. But Morgan has known Nick for years and can’t believe he’s guilty, despite the damning evidence stacked against him. She asks her friend Lance Kruger, an ex-cop turned private eye, for help. Taking on the town, the police, and a zealous DA, Morgan and Lance plunge into the investigation, determined to find the real killer. But as they uncover secrets that rock the community, they become targets for the madman hiding in plain sight.

As a huge fan of Leigh’s Scarlet Falls series, I was so thrilled to learn about this spin-off and even more excited to revisit Lance and Morgan, both of whom were said to have a brief history in Stella and Mac’s story. But Melinda Leigh is an author I can always count on for fantastic reads and ‘Say You’re Sorry’ more than lives up to this billing. But I love Leigh’s heroines and heroes for so many reasons: they use their smarts and wits and intelligence to get ahead (sometimes without even needing to fire a gun), they generally don’t have immature meltdowns that are out of character and aren’t afraid to admit their uncertainty and doubts even when cornered. The all-round maturity certainly helps.

‘Say You’re Sorry’ introduces us to Morgan Dane, a district attorney whose life was blown wide open when her husband died during his deployment, leaving her to sort herself out back home with 3 young children. But the fragility and vulnerability never quite go away no matter how much she convinces herself that the time to move on has arrived, up until a case convinces her to do what’s right rather than what’s convenient.

Leigh ratchets up the tension from the start and very much like every episode of a TV crime series, begins the show with the panicked pants of a potential victim who flees an unknown killer, who surprisingly, acts uncontrollably because of his own self-preservation instincts. But what looks like a simple teenage case of murder unearths a whole load of secrets and several twists that I didn’t see coming, which made the ride more exciting.

I liked both Morgan and Lance together, and loved their partnership which seems to bode very well for the next few books that Leigh has in mind. Morgan’s strong sense of justice appealed to me deeply, especially when it came to her determination to see a falsely-accused teenager out of jail for a crime he didn’t commit while tanking her career in the process. Lance’s solid character was as well, a perfect complement for Morgan’s. His broken dreams have left him a position where he hasn’t been able to be anything other than the police officer he once was, but there’s a sense of untouchable integrity and dignity about him that makes him quite a shining example of what a romantic hero should be.

’Say You’re Sorry’ is however, more focused on the suspense than romance, heavy with the potential of Morgan/Lance which sort of remains unfulfilled by the end of the book, but I’m hoping there’re more to come that will deepen this relationship between the both of them. I’m still vacillating between feeling a little cheated out of hot and heavy times and satisfied because justice is finally served, but as long as Leigh delivers these in the next few books, I’d be happy as a clam.

five-stars

Crossing Hearts by Kimberly Kincaid

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 12th January 2017
Crossing Hearts by Kimberly KincaidCrossing Hearts by Kimberly Kincaid
Series: Cross Creek #1
Published by Montlake Romance on February 7th 2017
Pages: 342
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three-stars

Hunter Cross has no regrets. Having left his football prospects behind the day he graduated high school, he’s happy to carry out his legacy on his family’s farm in the foothills of the Shenandoah. But when a shoulder injury puts him face-to-face with the high school sweetheart who abandoned town—and him—twelve years ago, Hunter’s simple life gets a lot more complicated.
Emerson Montgomery has secrets. Refusing to divulge why she left her job as a hotshot physical therapist for a pro football team, she struggles to readjust to life in the hometown she left behind. The more time she spends with Hunter, the more Emerson finds herself wanting to trust him with the diagnosis of MS that has turned her world upside down.
But revealing secrets comes with a price. Can Hunter and Emerson rekindle their past love? Or will the realities of the present—and the trust that goes with them—burn that bridge for good?

Kimberly Kincaid’s new series is quite a charming, heartfelt one and definitely one of the more engaging small-town stories that I’ve read for some time.

Hunter Cross—farmer extraordinaire—captured my imagination from the start and as foreign as this farming thing is to me, he’s vividly drawn enough that his bond to the farm and family cannot be disputed even as he struggles with an own injury and problems that threaten to weigh him down. An old flame returns though, for reasons that she will not disclose, but as things go, attraction and a shared history might trump that even.

There are many things to like about this book, undoubtedly: the assured writing, the small town feel that Kincaid creates so superbly and the great pacing and development of the relationship that’s supposed to be the HEA this time around. But What I found hard to accept though, was Emerson’s pushing away of the man she walked away from—under the erroneous but ultimately patronising claim that was pretty much ‘I did it for your own good’—12 years ago and her present-day lashing out at him because of her fear of her illness becoming public.

And yet that it was Hunter who has to grovel in the end to fight for their relationship. Far be it from me to dictate how a character deals with the traumatic news of a debilitating illness but I thought Emerson had mostly treated Hunter atrociously from the beginning. Illness or not (which incidentally, doesn’t provide a legitimate excuse for behaving badly), I found it hard to like her as a bona fide heroine because of this.

Kincaid does portray all too well how much less brave (and perhaps irrational) an illness can make a person, but I’d hoped for a less clichéd sort of conflict however, but it seemed as though it was always Hunter who had to make active inroads for the both of them which I hadn’t liked, each time Emerson retreated behind her growing fears.

This is a good start nonetheless; I liked the familial conflict laid out in the Cross family and the brothers’ stories that already lie in wait.

three-stars

The Devil’s Daughter by Katee Robert

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 8th January 2017
The Devil’s Daughter by Katee RobertThe Devil's Daughter by Katee Robert
Published by Montlake Romance on January 24th 2017
Pages: 301
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three-stars

Growing up in a small town isn’t easy, especially when you’re the daughter of a local cult leader. Ten years ago, Eden Collins left Clear Springs, Montana, and never once looked back. But when the bodies of murdered young women surface, their corpses violated and marked with tattoos worn by her mother’s followers, Eden, now an FBI agent, can’t turn a blind eye. To catch the killer, she’s going to have to return to the fold.
Sheriff Zach Owens isn’t comfortable putting Eden in danger, even if she is an elite agent. And he certainly wasn’t expecting to be so attracted to her. As calm and cool as she appears, he knows this can’t be a happy homecoming. Zach wants to protect her—from her mother, the cult, and the evil that lurks behind its locked gates. But Eden is his only key to the tight-lipped group, and she may just be closer to the killer than either one of them suspects…

Unlike Katee Robert’s other books that I’ve had the pleasure of reading, ‘The Devil’s Daughter’ is mystery-driven, set in the suffocating confines of a small-town that sits in the shade of a cult whose influence is larger than perceived. It’s a book that’s very different from what I’ve come to associate with Robert and not knowing what to expect, I find myself firmly caught between giving a 3- and 4-star review. There’s a guess-the perpetrator, whodunnit question throughout and the cult, built around the myth of Persephone and Demeter (combined weirdly with some Christian undertones), its proceedings and its shady people, act as the smokescreen concealing the truth from being discovered.

Not that the writing isn’t good (it is), or that the suspense isn’t sufficient (it is), but that the romance takes such a back seat to the story that it could have actually been superfluous because it felt like an addition only for the sake of bringing 2 leads together, even when their chemistry didn’t seem there at all. The romance could have not existed and the book would have worked; consequently, Eden’s and Zach’s pairing seemed forced, as both seemed rather snippy to each other—but not something I’d really mistake for sexual tension when it felt more like the case wearing on them—so the mild case of attraction that first bloomed into a kiss early on took me by surprise and disbelief, because both hadn’t moved past the ‘unwilling co-worker’ stage yet. The potential romantic interest, in short, barely came across and the later sex scene felt more like an obligatory prerequisite rather than a natural progression.

The ending almost mirrors the grim subject matter: an abrupt, a happy-for-now kind of resolution, like a scene in a crime movie when it end as with the police cruiser driving away while the good guys are left staring at the villain’s dead body on the ground. I think I had a problem with how rushed and incomplete it all felt—even when the big reveal came which wasn’t too hard to guess—even when it ended. If this is the start to a series, then I’m eager to see how it goes and how the arc set up here is going to end. But if it isn’t, then ‘The Devil’s Daughter’ might just be a tad bit disappointing.

three-stars
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