Publisher: Montlake Romance

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

Threat of Danger by Dana Marton

Threat of Danger by Dana MartonThreat of Danger by Dana Marton
Published by Montlake Romance on June 5th 2018
Pages: 304
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four-stars

Jess Taylor and Derek Daley were in the throes of first love in a small Vermont town when they were kidnapped by a serial killer. They escaped his clutches—but not the trauma of the unsolved crime. With their lives changed forever and their romance cut short, they went their separate ways to exorcise their fears.

Jess is living on the edge as Hollywood’s hottest stuntwoman. It’s no longer terror thrumming through her veins. It’s adrenaline. Derek is a former Navy SEAL spinning his ordeals into heart-pounding bestselling thrillers. But when Jess is called home on a family emergency, she must face the past—and face the man she left behind, who is just as haunted and, like her, still so much in love.

Now, as an old flame reignites, Jess and Derek are taking advantage of second chances and putting their bad memories behind them. But here, in the quiet town of Taylorville, a killer is getting a second chance as well.

With Dana Marton, each book is radically different: characters, histories and backstories, all of it and it’s this kind of unpredictability that makes Marton a compelling writer. In fact, ‘Threat of Danger’ is nothing like its predecessor (save the good writing), is only very marginally linked to it and a solid standalone in its own right.

‘Threat of Danger’ is in essence, a whodunnit mystery that builds up to the revelatory moment and it’s closer to a typical ‘crime’ story rather than a military one that I’d expected. Jess/Derek’s story unfolds slowly, almost painfully as the memories return, the irrational blame that Jess places on Derek for their ordeal in the woods a decade ago coming to light as she’s forced to revisit her hometown. Jess’s family business of sugaring fascinated me, as did Marton’s deliberate but unusual pairing of a stuntwoman who lives on adrenaline highs (yet stays anonymous) and a retired SEAL who’s now a bestselling thriller writer.

Jess’s and Derek’s story is also a second-chance one that, because of the circumstances laid out, is more or less a believable one, though it does seem as though Jess and Derek come together incidentally because of her return. This pairing would absolutely not have existed otherwise save for the hand of fate so to speak, and the quick fall back in love (was it ever?) felt a mite bit forced, especially over the few weeks that Jess stayed.

The biggest issue I have is the perp’s (somewhat weak) motivation for committing crimes which didn’t entirely make too much sense, but then again, should there really be expecting a solid, logical reason for characters doing what they do? Maybe. Nonetheless, I would have liked to be more convinced about the deeper, more twisted psychological rationale behind the string of serial killings that the perp committed at least, particularly in a story that’s all about shoring up the moments until the momentous climax.

There’s no doubt that Dana Marton’s writing is thrilling, her opening scene superbly crafted, as dreaded anticipation cuts the knife edge of a vague menace that we never quite find out about. That much I knew from the prologue that I’d better buckle in for the ride that awaited me and I was right. ‘Threat of Danger’ is engrossing, compelling and thankfully, filled with mature characters (some of whom act as tragic parallels to Jess/Derek’s relationship) who add rather than detract from the entire storytelling. It’s in all, an entertaining read that had the time passing without me even knowing it, and I finished the book moist with anticipation with what else Marton has up her sleeve in the rest of this series.

four-stars

Forged in Ember by Trish McCallan

Forged in Ember by Trish McCallanForged in Ember by Trish McCallan
Series: Red-Hot SEALS #4
Published by Montlake Romance on 15th May 2018
Pages: 394
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three-stars

In the final novel in the scorching Red-Hot SEALs series, a desperate mother and a Navy SEAL fight fire with fire to protect their love and save the world…

Amy Chastain has made a lot of enemies—none so ruthless as the insanely powerful New Ruling Order (NRO). When they killed her husband, it was hell. Then they targeted her children by injecting them with a dangerous, experimental isotope. Now Amy trusts only one man to help her: the ex-commander of SEAL Team 7.

In the company of Navy SEALs, Jace “Mac” Mackenzie was in his physical element. Now he’s on the run from the same cabal that poisoned Amy’s children. That doesn’t stop him from launching a mission to bring down the NRO—and find an antidote. But the clock is ticking. And as the sparks fly between him and Amy, Mac realizes he has more to lose than ever before.

As Mac closes in on the NRO, he uncovers a plot that threatens more than Amy’s children. Now it’s a race against time to stop a global conspiracy, save the woman he loves, and protect the family that’s starting to feel like his.

Driven by hate, Amy Chastain seeks vengeance for her children who have been used as scientific subjects. She’s not the only one part of the collateral damage when a flight was hijacked months ago, though that critical event has made it obvious that there are bigger things at play. Smack in the middle of the instability are new bonds that are made (though not without much friction in the process) and with a revelation of a Dan-Brown-type conspiracy, 4 SEALs manage to fall in love along the way. That, in a nutshell, is how far we’ve come.

‘Forged in Ember’ closes the whole series as the bad guys are dispatched, only with a loose thread or so left hanging so that there’s room for a sequel. There’s also a helpful recap of the entire story-arc in the beginning, which makes ‘Forged in Ember’ a passable standalone, but the odd bits of paranormal activity, coupled with the suspense, would probably mean that the rest of the books in this series are best read in order before tackling this one.

There’s no bigger relief than this—to see the final book in Trish McCallan’s ‘Red-Hot SEALs’ series appear, especially since the wait time for it has stretched an excruciating number of years. But I’ve held out, unable to forget that the series contains an odd but good mix of conspiracy theories, military suspense and paranormal happenings that form a cocktail potent enough to keep me constantly lapping at the pages. That McCallan’s writing style is exactly what I go for in this particular genre for doesn’t hurt either.

I’ve always been intrigued by the tension between Jace McKenzie and Amy Chastain after their very unusual meeting (in rather tragic circumstances) in the first book, anyway, and ‘Forged in Ember’ finally tells their story. Amy Chastain has always stood out like a beacon of unflagging courage and fortitude—the horrors of what she’d suffered from the first book have made me want her story from the start, as McCallan pairs a woman whose strength can’t afford to waver with a rough-hewn, temperamentally impulsive commander who’s as brutish, gruff and blunt as they come. Still, their coming together is more muted that I thought, hindered many times, by the race to save her son.

As a result, the HEA in the uneasy aftermath feels like shaky foundation on which this book ends. McCallan’s SEALs get their happy rides into the sunset, banished as they are from active duty as they know it, reinstated into another secretive order that will probably see the light of day again. There are things that I thought somewhat bizarre and out of place—the large insertion of native Indian tribal rites and rituals, the super-secret, well-stocked military base off the official lines, the influence of the supernatural here—which also takes a great amount of the suspension of disbelief. Or that paranormal abilities, which defy all attempts at rational explanation anyway, conveniently pop up at times give a deus-ex-machina cop-out to prevent more characters from dropping dead like flies and help save the day.
three-stars

Burning Up by Jennifer Blackwood

Burning Up by Jennifer BlackwoodBurning Up by Jennifer Blackwood
Series: Flirting with Fire, #1
Published by Montlake Romance on 8th May 2018
Pages: 256
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three-half-stars

Unemployed schoolteacher Erin Jenkins is back in Portland, the town she hasn’t called home for more than a decade. It’s not the way she wants to spend her last days of summer: in between jobs and avoiding her mother’s snooping by escaping to the ice-cream aisle. But when the opportunity arises for her to accompany her brother’s best friend—her lifetime crush—to a wedding, summer gets a whole lot more interesting.

Firefighter and single dad Jake Bennett has built a nice, safe wall around his heart—no romance, no getting burned. That doesn’t mean he’s ruling out a fling. Considering Erin’s visit is temporary, they’re the perfect fit for a scorching no-strings one-night stand. Or two. Or five. Until the worst thing happens: Erin and Jake are feeling more. Damn that four-letter word.

Now their hearts are on the line, and when their smoldering summer comes to a close, it’s going to be harder than ever to put out the fire.

If there’s anything to be expected of Jennifer Blackwood’s writing, it’s the hefty dose of humour inserted in straight from the start, or at least it’s what I’ve come to associate Blackwood with.

‘Burning Up’ began with a woman on the outs and her embarrassment all because of (wrong) timing—the usual thing that creates comedy—and the characters’ as well as the reader’s reactions to it were enough to bring me on board with it. For a firefighting book however, the burn between Erin/Jake was slower than I expected, with few sparks that flare here and there, interspersed with some firefighting action and the day-to-day scenes (some unusually funny) of the EMTs that I usually like reading about.

And that’s probably as far as I should get with the fire analogies before they start getting corny.

By and large, Blackwood’s jaunty, funny writing made it quite easy to sail through the forbidden brother’s best friend kind of story. There were however, some parts that were frustratingly dedicated to the push-pull decisions both protagonists made as well as the shady implication that Jake needed Erin’s brother’s ‘permission’ or approval to date her and that Erin seemed to constantly pick up the breadcrumbs Jake left for her even as he pushed her away repeatedly, unable to decide what he really wanted. Their HEA, left to the last minute, was an abrupt one, done to the extent where I flipped the page wondering if I’d actually missed something or accidentally ghosted a few paragraphs that would have helped solidify the ending.

In any case, ‘Burning Up’ reads like the establishing book that it’s meant to be: done with a setup of future pairings, the slight hints of the characters who will next get their story and the presence of a close community that help structure the context and the scene. It’s a series that I’ll be watching out for, even if it’s just for the sheer fun factor that Blackwood’s confident writing has.

three-half-stars

Melt For You by J.T. Geissinger

Melt For You by J.T. GeissingerMelt for You by J.T. Geissinger
Series: Slow Burn #2
Published by Montlake Romance on 15th May 2018
Pages: 346
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three-stars

A wallflower gets seduction tips from a playboy athlete—until love changes the rules.

Socially awkward Joellen Bixby has a date every Saturday—with her cat, a pint of ice cream, and fantasies of the way-too-handsome Michael Maddox. She’d give anything to win over the unattainable CEO of her firm, but how can she when she blends in so well with her cubicle? The answer may be closer than she thinks.

Cameron McGregor is a cocky, tattooed Scottish rugby captain who just moved in next door. He’s not Jo’s type—at all—but the notorious playboy is offering to teach the wallflower everything he knows about inspiring desire. Though a lot of women have rumpled Cam’s kilt, Jo is special. Far from the ugly duckling she thinks she is, in Cam’s eyes she’s sharp, funny, and effortlessly sexy. Now, thanks to him, Jo is blooming with confidence and has the man of her dreams within reach.

Unfortunately for Cam, he’s just helped to push the woman of his dreams into the arms of another man—and now he’s in the fight of his life to keep this beauty from getting away.

Starting ‘Melt for You’ was quite an apprehensive step to take, I’ll readily admit.

Considering that I loved the spunk and the unexpected but fun retelling of Beauty and the Beast in J.T. Geissinger’s first book in this series (which made me request this ARC), the blurb to this one—so different from the first—gave me pause. The inexperienced woman vs. the experienced commitment-phobic womaniser CEO/athlete/military man etc. ranging from fun-loving to sleazy is one of the tropes all too common in the romance genre and one that I most dislike with a vehemence that rivals my hate for, say, bad public transport management.

I realise this puts me in the minority and I can’t count myself as one of those readers who claps and whoops for the uber-manwhore and feels triumphant that some lone woman finally manages to ’tame’ him even as it takes a process as elaborate and sensitive as sprucing up her self-esteem or image issues. That, pitted against how much I do enjoy Geissinger’s writing and the promise of the loose retelling of ‘The Ugly Duckling’ however, the latter won out…marginally.

‘Melt for you’ starts off with the kind of self-deprecating, smart-alecky talk of Joellen Bixby that rambles on about Christmas shopping to fatness and hair-colour, done in the uncanny style of Bridget Jones: a stream-of-consciousness type, neurotic mash of ageing fears and randomness manifesting as humour. Because of this, Cam obviously stands in sharp contrast to an awkward, thirty-six heroine who has far, far lower self-esteem than a bacne-ridden teen—cocky, obnoxious, and insufferable about his well-earned reputation with the ladies. The build here isn’t quite between 2 protagonists who have their eyes on each other; instead, Joellen’s fixation with her boss while Cameron McGregor with the panty-dropper reputation isn’t the most romantic setup that I can buy into, not when the weird love triangle goes on up until the last quarter of the book.

More disturbingly though, there were many things I found myself wishing. I wished Joellen thought better of herself, from the very start, because those issues of hers struck hard (and too close to home as a family member struggles with this) and made me somewhat heartsick. I wished she saw her own self-worth without the need of some help from a well-known player who’d actually spent the entire book playing reaffirming aunt.

Above all, I wished I laughed more and took this less seriously like the rom-com it’s meant to be, but I couldn’t. Not with the deep-seated issues that I know go deeper than perfect physical appearance being the apparent answer to everything, a commonly-held hypothesis that Joellen was determined to get on board with. Not when I’m passionately against women feeling as though they need to do to extreme lengths so they get noticed by a man. Dour as this review is—which is influenced clearly by what I’ve seen happen to others—, ‘Melt for You’ if anything, throws this starkly into the spotlight and strangely, what mattered more than the HEA is Geissinger’s reinforcement of this past the epilogue.

three-stars

The Start of Something Good by Jennifer Probst

The Start of Something Good by Jennifer ProbstThe Start of Something Good by Jennifer Probst
Series: Stay #1
Published by Montlake Romance on June 5th 2018
Pages: 345
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three-stars

When Ethan Bishop returns to the Hudson Valley, his body and spirit are a little worse for wear. As a former Special Forces paratrooper, he saw his fair share of conflict, and he came home with wounds, inside and out. At his sisters’ B & B and farm, he can keep all his pain at a safe distance. But quiet time isn’t easy when a fiery woman explodes into his life…

It’s business—not pleasure—that brings Manhattan PR agent Mia Thrush reluctantly to the farm. Tightly wound and quick tempered, Mia clashes immediately with the brooding Ethan. Everything about him is irritating—from his lean muscles and piercing blue eyes to his scent of sweat and musk.

But as the summer unfolds and temperatures rise, Ethan and Mia discover how much they have in common: their guarded histories, an uncontrollable desire, and a passion for the future that could heal two broken hearts. But will their pasts threaten their fragile chance at a brand-new future?

I love a good a enemies-to-lovers story, and Jennifer Probst’s throwing together of a wounded soldier and an uptight, prickly PR shark sounded like a read up my alley. As total opposites (at least on the surface), Ethan and Mia clash immediately. The latter wouldn’t be caught dead on a horse-rescue farm while the former is the furthest away from branded designer wear and corporate work having been burnt by the bad experience he’s had in the past.

‘The Start of Something Good’ however, has all the hallmarks of the rom-com movie: characters that do fit a certain mould as their relationship finally coasts after a rocky start…until crunch time arrives. And all of it’s done with no small amount of irony, some banter and humour and a supporting cast of characters that form part of a backdrop that’s supposed to be sepia-toned kind of charming.

Mia’s portrayal is however, a little too stereotypical for my taste—the spoilt, shrewish city princess on a strict carb-free diet got me rolling my eyes after a while and her insistence on doing things the only way she knew how did get a tad bit irritating. On the other hand, Ethan’s master of all trades persona and the idyllic life in the country felt a little oversold as the story seemed to build its case around a city vs. the country sort of dilemma.

The choice between frenetic city-living and the slowness of small town life is one that I saw coming from the very start the moment Probst laid out Ethan’s and Mia’s obvious differences. Small town quirks admittedly, aren’t exactly to my own liking—the emergence (inevitable, it seems in such stories) of nosey, cock-blocking senior citizens who take glee in other people’s businesses being one of them—and the oneupmanship between Ethan and Mia got old quickly as the middle part lagged a little after a good setup in the animosity between them. Still, it’s a journey that’s fairly predictable and the conflict that’s about to come past the usual angst about short-term fling and settling down could be sniffed out a mile away.

I did like Probst’s way of getting Mia to reevaluate her notions of success as well as the incisive, assured writing that catalogues the changes wrought in both Ethan and Mia as they slowly start to see each other beyond the gripes and the snipes. ‘The Start of Something Good’ is a decent read nonetheless, and the setup for the next books sounds interesting enough for me to warrant a closer look at this developing series.

three-stars