Publisher: Pocket Books

Hooked on You by Kate Meader

Hooked on You by Kate MeaderHooked On You by Kate Meader
Series: Chicago Rebels, #4
Published by Pocket Books on May 7th 2018
Pages: 384
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three-stars

Violet Vasquez never met her biological father, so learning he left his beloved hockey franchise—the Chicago Rebels—to her is, well, unexpected. Flat broke and close to homeless, Violet is determined to make the most of this sudden opportunity. Except dear old dad set conditions that require she takes part in actually running the team with the half-sisters she barely knows. Working with these two strangers and overseeing a band of hockey-playing lugs is not on her agenda…until she lays eyes on the Rebels captain and knows she has to have him.

Bren St. James has been labeled a lot of things: the Puck Prince, Lord of the Ice, Hell’s Highlander...but it’s the latest tag that’s making headlines: washed-up alcoholic has-been. This season, getting his life back on track and winning the Cup are his only goals. With no time for relationships—except the fractured ones he needs to rebuild with his beautiful daughters—he’s finding it increasingly hard to ignore sexy, all-up-in-his-beard Violet Vasquez. And when he finds himself in need of a nanny just as the playoffs are starting, he’s faced with a temptation he could so easily get hooked on.

For two lost souls, there’s more on the line than just making the best of a bad situation… there might also be a shot at the biggest prize of all: love.

Kate Meader’s writing is always one that I look out for. There’s quirk, some humour and sometimes cheese, but it never fails to entertain. ‘Hooked On You’ closes Meader’s Chicago Rebels series and having come fresh off the scorching push-pull relationship of Cade/Dante, I really wasn’t sure what to expect with Violet/Bren’s story, even though this pairing had been hinted at from the very beginning.

A burly, surly Scot in trouble on so many fronts and a plucky, somewhat abrasive and determined-to-live-life-to-the-fullest cancer survivor? I took a breath and dove into a setup that was 3-books-in-coming and had my expectations exceeded on some fronts, especially when it came to Bren St. James.

As an alcoholic struggling with petulant pre-teens—the kind that swing between being difficult with everything and weird know-it-alls—I felt for Bren, his clawing back up into sobriety while doing everything he could to be a better man and a father. That Violet ended up as their nanny incidentally came as no surprise however, and I did enjoy reading how their initial rocky, contentious, sniping-type interaction smoothed out a little later on, held together only by sexual tension that Bren didn’t want to break for good reasons.

Meader’s exploration of what femininity might mean through Violet—having lost and reconstructed her breasts after the ordeal—was generally spot-on. With a hard front, a couldn’t-care-less, indifferent attitude that Violet put on, the shell of armour composed of sass, biting sarcasm and confrontational belligerence seemed too often like an over compensation for a vulnerable core. And I could, by and large, understand it. I got to grips with how fear could masquerade as courage and how the subtleties could be lost as Violet grappled with how she wanted to face life after cancer.

Still, while I understood Meader’s portrayal of Violet, I didn’t necessarily get to grips with her all the time. With a boatload of daddy-issues tattooed on her forehead and a chip on her shoulder a mile wide, I couldn’t help but feel that Violet was as easy to set off as a rocket, sometimes lashing out unfairly while taking on contradictory positions where Bren and his children were concerned. One moment she wanted to fight for Bren when his malicious ex-wife sauntered back into the picture, the next moment had her walking away with a dollop of self-pity because she’d assumed the martyr’s stance with him while assuming that he wasn’t ever going to put her first. For her immense courage in fighting the cancer, I did wish however, that she could have used that same courage with Bren (who truly had his hands full) when he needed it.

‘Hooked on You’ is nonetheless a pretty good read—Meader’s previous novella with Cade/Dante is probably my favourite—though honestly, I liked it more for Bren, who’s probably one of the best characters I’ve ever come across beneath the broody surface. There were bits that I thought lagged a little and parts where the back-and-forth got a tad tiresome, but overall, I’m still sort of wistful as I wave the Rebels goodbye.

three-stars

The Sins of Lord Lockwood by Meredith Duran

The Sins of Lord Lockwood by Meredith DuranThe Sins of Lord Lockwood by Meredith Duran
Series: Rules for the Reckless #6
Published by Pocket Books on February 27th 2018
Pages: 368
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four-stars

BACK FROM THE DEAD, AN EARL SEEKS VENGEANCE...

Liam Devaliant, Lord Lockwood, was born into a charmed life. Charismatic, powerful, and wild, he had the world at his feet—and one woman as his aim. His wedding to Anna was meant to be his greatest triumph. Instead, in a single moment, a wicked conspiracy robbed him of his future and freedom.

...BUT WILL HIS LONG-LOST COUNTESS PAY THE PRICE?

Four years later, Liam has returned from death with plans for revenge. Standing in his way, though, is his long-absent bride. Once, he adored Anna's courage. Now it seems like a curse, for Anna refuses to fear or forget him. If she can't win back Liam's love, then she means at least to save his soul...no matter the cost.

There are few authors who can tempt me back into historical romance and Meredith Duran is always one of them. But it certainly doesn’t hurt that the very peculiar situation of Lord Lockwood, or better known as Liam Devaliant—first revealed in ‘The Duke of Shadows’ as the man with an odd temper, an odder past and an obviously missing bride—is one that’s gripping and compelling enough to wait several years for.

‘The Sins of Lord Lockwood’ is an absolutely unexpected treat, dashing away all my expectations of a wimpy, hiding heroine and a man who constantly pushes her away for his shame at having been kidnapped and imprisoned. Instead, Duran presents a strong heroine capable of matching her husband’s changed mien—riddled with PTSD and a barely-concealed rage that leaks out as near-schizophrenia—and in doing so, has probably crafted one of the most memorable historical heroines I’ve ever had the pleasure of cheering for.

Lockwood’s and Anna’s present reality is interspersed with the lazy days of their meeting and their courtship 4 years prior, as Duran’s narrative weaves between the pragmatic (though flirty) circumstances of their initial union and the strained volatile interactions of their reconciliation. There are hints of what Liam suffered in Elland, but the details are fuzzy: Duran concentrates on sensation, conflict and pain rather than gives a blow-by-blow account of what really happened, as these help to explain why Lockwood seemingly vacillates between moments of forced indifference and letting the tormented beast loose at unexpected times.

What surprises me most perhaps, is how Anna comes across, though Duran—which I loudly applaud—writes very contemporary sensibilities into her heroines that make them three-dimensionally relatable. Anna’s capability, her management skills, her fearless leap into the affairs of men, her strength and determination to pull her husband back from the brink left me in awe…here is the ‘modern historical’ female protagonist whom I absolutely dig (though clearly this is not the norm of Victorian England), the woman whose alpha tendencies could probably have helped front the #MeToo movement if given the chance.

Duran’s superlative prose is as always, a big draw, pulling the nuances of emotions and desire together in a way that makes me stop and savour her written word. That alone is reason enough to put Duran on my reading list, though ‘The Sins of Lord Lockwood’—read it even if only to revisit Emma and Julian—is one that I’ll remember for some time to come for a protagonist who stands starkly apart from so many others.

four-stars

A Lady’s Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran

A Lady’s Code of Misconduct by Meredith DuranA Lady's Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran
Series: Rules for the Reckless #5
Published by Pocket Books on February 28th 2017
Pages: 400
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two-stars

A DEAL WITH THE DEVIL...Trapped in the countryside, facing an unwanted marriage and the theft of her fortune, Jane Mason is done behaving nicely. To win her freedom, she’ll strike a deal with the most dangerous man she knows—a rising star in politics, whose dark good looks mask an even darker heart.

...NEVER GOES TO PLAN.The bitter past has taught Crispin Burke to trust no one. He’ll gladly help a lovely young heiress, provided she pays a price. Yet when a single mistake shatters his life, it is Jane who holds the key to his salvation. And in a world that no longer makes sense, Crispin slowly realizes that she may be the only thing worth fighting for...

The marvellous Meredith Duran—whether the plot is something you like or not—always weaves something so well-written that it leaves you breathless with her poetic prose and her sharp insights into human nature. That much is axiomatic and if the rating seems contrary to this, it’s only because I couldn’t buy into the romance and the circumstances under which Jane Mason and Crispin Burke were brought together.

Still, I had to stop from time to time in admiration of how Duran writes.

In fact, the first pages were brilliantly absorbing. I loved Jane’s steely will, the quest for independence and the plotting that provided her the opening that allowed her to escape the oppressive thumb of her uncle, all pitted against the cunning and cold manipulations of Crispin Burke. But after Crispin’s amnesia, I’d initially thought her actions showed a desperate woman trying to take flight; after that however, I thought they made her a hypocrite. That deception carried and drove this romance all along wasn’t something I liked at all (and which was something that Jane let go of in small doses).

The romance between Jane and Cripsin—the hard, unyielding man—before the accident was what I wanted to read, and not the man who suddenly seemed to ‘turn good’, as was the (rather unbelievable) implication that the knock on the head could be so strong as to be personality altering. That Jane wanted to separate the Crispin before and the Crispin after his amnesia never sat well with me, and this was only addressed towards the very end only, which I thought could have been acknowledged way earlier—that this was the same man still, an anti-hero, the schemer that was equally deserving of a HEA and whose machinations were precisely what she wanted while never admitting she needed that part of his personality for her own ends.

That said, Duran hasn’t stopped being my gold standard for 21st century historicals. If I don’t read enough of her works, that’s just all on me.

two-stars

Cowboy Up by Harper Sloan

Cowboy Up by Harper SloanCowboy Up by Harper Sloan
Series: Coming Home #3
Published by Pocket Books on December 19th 2017
Pages: 384
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two-stars

As the eldest Davis, Clayton has always tried to lead by example. He takes his job as head of the family businesses seriously, making sure the farm and auto shop are running smoothly—along with keeping an eye on his brother and sister. For him, there's a time and place to let go of the control he holds with an iron grip. And with the way he grew up, coupled with disastrous end to his last relationship, he's just fine with his quiet, solitary life.

Most of the time.

What he hadn't counted on was cute, quirky, shy bookstore owner, Caroline Michaels. She's the proverbial woman next door—well, the next town over, that is. Caroline hasn't lived an easy life, but after escaping an abusive ex, she's finally living it for herself. The last thing she ever expected was a one-night stand with Clay Davis, a night she can't stop thinking about.

So when she falls on hard times and Clay comes out of nowhere to her rescue, she realizes just how impossible it'll be to stay away from him. Now all she has to do is convince him to live a little...

Will Clay be able to give up the reins and finally settle down? And, more importantly, will Caroline muster enough courage to lasso him up?

It takes a bit of an adjustment to get back into cowboy land with Harper Sloan.

Throw in the soap-opera angle (because it really is) with many overreactions, over-the-top responses, lengthy declarations of emotions and there’s always something loud, hysterical and irrepressible about this series where characters don’t do anything softly. They laugh, weep, shout and wave their arms with exaggeration in a place where cowboys swagger hard, women’s panties get wet like dripping taps and hard verbal shots are slung without abandon. ‘Cowboy Up’ is for want of a better word, an impetuous read that rides on the wild side, and it’s akin to getting blown through an oncoming hurricane of torrential high drama.

And the story started that way—all in, with no room for regrets that briefly pushed their way to the surface, from a scorching one-night stand that dovetailed really quickly into a declaration from Clayton Davis that Caroline was the woman he’d always wanted in his life, though it’s probably swoony enough for readers who want to read about a male protagonist who found himself balls-deep (and not just literally) and wholly devoted to the woman from the start.

This was the unbelievable stretch for me, since I found it bewildering that Clayton extrapolated that bright future for him and Caroline all after a one-nighter where a connection had apparently been forged soul-deep. Yet all I could see was a relationship that felt at first, more like dependence on Caroline’s part rather than one of equals—with Clayton acting almost as a crutch while she got her feet up and about again. To be fair, Caroline’s skittish and somewhat needy behaviour has stemmed from losing everything and being in several abused relationships in a manner that Clayton could only step in as the alpha protector role which was easy for him to do so.

‘Cowboy Up’ rides high on emotion, albeit too much for me perhaps, because too much of it felt overplayed and I really thought I would have enjoyed this more. As always, there isn’t any reason why this wouldn’t work for others even if it couldn’t resonate with me. But with my ears feeling as though they’re still ringing and my head still woozy at the speed with which things went down, I was nonetheless, sort of relieved when the sun finally set on their HEA.

two-stars

So Over You by Kate Meader

So Over You by Kate MeaderSo Over You by Kate Meader
Series: Chicago Rebels #2
Published by Pocket Books on December 19th 2017
Pages: 400
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two-stars

Isobel Chase knows hockey. She played NCAA, won silver at the Games, and made it thirty-seven minutes into the new National Women’s Hockey League before an injury sidelined her dreams. Those who can’t, coach, and a position as a skating consultant to her late father’s hockey franchise, the Chicago Rebels, seems like a perfect fit. Until she’s assigned her first job: the man who skated into her heart as a teen and relieved her of her pesky virginity. These days, left-winger Vadim Petrov is known as the Czar of Pleasure, a magnet for puck bunnies and the tabloids alike. But back then... let’s just say his inability to sink the puck left Isobel frustratingly scoreless.

Vadim has a first name that means “ruler,” and it doesn’t stop at his birth certificate. He dominates on the ice, the practice rink, and in the backseat of a limo. But a knee injury has produced a bad year, and bad years in the NHL don’t go unrewarded. His penance? To be traded to a troubled team where his personal coach is Isobel Chase, the woman who drove him wild years ago when they were hormonal teens. But apparently the feeling was not entirely mutual.

That Vadim might have failed to give Isobel the pleasure that was her right is intolerable, and he plans to make it up to her—one bone-melting orgasm at a time. After all, no player can perfect his game without a helluva lot of practice...

Hockey isn’t a game I follow at all, but the premise of Kate Meader’s series is easy enough to understand. Three estranged sisters—broken in their own way by a father who still wreaks destruction from beyond the grave—, a switch in management of a hockey team and the struggle to stay afloat with a change this momentous. For those who don’t understand the game, then the details or lack thereof are sparse enough that you can focus on the drama surrounding the couple and the management team in question.

‘So Over You’ is Isobel’s story and a Russian player who’s as ‘Russian’ as they come (that however, depends on your perspective), though it was for me sadly, more of a surprising miss than a hit as the first book. Quite a bit of the story made a mountain of a molehill of Isobel not getting an orgasm when Vadim took her virginity (or in a more cringeworthy way of putting it—‘making her a woman’) close to a decade ago and how Vadim obsessed increasingly over this salient point because he wanted to prove otherwise now.

In this book, that’s not just a backstory; it’s in fact, like a niggling ghost of Christmas past that wouldn’t go away because both parties remembered it in different ways, not to mention the aftermath that was significant enough that this had become a point of contention with the both of them.

To be fair, the dour sex they had as teenagers wasn’t all that the story revolved around, though the little sub-plots in between did little to distract me from watching out for the next pairing (Cade! Dante!) in the sequel, which was a clear indicator of how difficult I found it to be invested in Isobel and Vadim. On the one hand, I could understand Isobel’s need to define herself apart from hockey, or simply as a WAG of yet another famous player in the league when her own career fell to pieces.

Yet it was hard to sympathise with that self-same selfish ambition that ran over people in the process; neither could I accept her interfering with Vadim’s relationship with his mother as she projected her own daddy-issues onto his markedly different parental situation. Vadim, on the other hand, apart from his awful heavy-handed ways, sometimes leaned towards becoming a caricature—broody, with speech patterns of a non-English speaker that’s either archaic or with mixed metaphors meant to be amusing somehow—or at least a character that seemed to conform to the stereotypes of how some parts of the world view Russians these days.

I’m just going to put this particular book down as an aberration in a series that I do like quite much. There’s still so much going for it: Meader’s writing, for one, but the tease for Cade and Dante is enough to keep me watching out for the next book that can’t come soon enough.

two-stars

Touch of Red by Laura Griffin

Touch of Red by Laura GriffinTouch of Red by Laura Griffin
Series: Tracers #12
Published by Pocket Books on October 31st 2017
Pages: 368
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four-stars

When crime scene investigator Brooke Porter arrives at the home of a murdered woman, the only thing more shocking than the carnage is the evidence that someone escaped the scene. But where is this witness now? A thorough search of the area yields more questions than answers, and before Brooke even packs up her evidence kit, she’s made it her goal to find the witness and get them out of harm’s way.

Homicide detective Sean Byrne has seen his share of bloody crime scenes, but this one is particularly disturbing, especially because Brooke Porter is smack in the middle of it. Sean has had his eye on the sexy CSI for months, and he’s determined to help her with her current case—even if it means putting his attraction on hold so he and Brooke can track down a murderer. But as the investigation—and their relationship—heats up, Sean realizes that keeping his work and his personal life separate is more complicated than he ever imagined; especially when the killer sets his sights on Brooke.

Laura Griffin’s ‘Tracers’ series is such a unique one, or at least, the premise of her stories mirrors the TV series ‘Bones’ so much that it’s hard not to like the way the action unfolds. Griffin’s masterful writing, her deft handling of characters and the intricate details of forensic anthropology and crime investigation don’t hurt either, though it always takes me by surprise that secondary characters who pop up early on in the series (that I’ve long forgotten about) actually do get their own stories much later on.

That said, some of her books have admittedly been a hit or miss for me, and few are true standouts because the plots are tried-and-tested formulas that have worked well, though sometimes quite forgettably so after the ride is over. Like many of Griffin’s other books in the series, ‘Touch of Red’ starts with a murder by the way of a hapless victim brutally murdered in a way that gets everyone reeling, with clues pointing every which way until several keys are unearthed to the point where the whole story makes sense.

In this case, I was more absorbed by the clues and the investigation as detail after chilling detail unfolded than I was by Brooke/Sean’s developing relationship, not because they didn’t have chemistry, but because that perhaps, had to do with the fact that Griffin’s Delphi employee/Cop pairings started to look interchangeable after a while.

Nevertheless, what makes ’Touch of Red’ enjoyable is that Griffin hardly ever writes just a whodunnit book. It’s part-police procedural, part-thriller and romantic suspense where the romance develops by way of the investigation, though it never really is quite the focus of the book. The delicate balance is handled well though, and that mix will probably satisfy both romance-seeking and crime-loving readers.

four-stars

Kiss My Boots by Harper Sloan

Kiss My Boots by Harper SloanKiss My Boots by Harper Sloan
Series: Coming Home #2
Published by Pocket Books on July 18th 2017
Pages: 368
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three-stars

Quinn Davis prefers to live her life quietly. She’s the stereotypical tomboy with two overprotective big brothers who have always been there to protect her, especially from devilishly handsome cowboys with silver tongues. That is, until Tate Montgomery comes riding into town. Their first meeting, however, is far from something out of a fairy tale and only further convinces Quinn that men aren’t worth her time.

The only place Tate Montgomery ever truly felt at home growing up was during the long, sweltering summer months he spent at his Gram and Paw’s farm in Pine Oak, Texas. Now, Tate has returned to his childhood sanctuary seeking a fresh start—but if he’s being entirely honest, he’s not just back for the wranglers and Stetsons. During those summers, Quinn was a friend-turned-young-love who Tate lost when life threw him a curveball and he cut all ties to his past; but all it takes is one glance at the raven-haired beauty he did his best to forget for him to realize just how much he’s been missing….

What drew me to this series was the very unusual cowboy-dialogue and speech that Harper Sloan manages to sustain throughout—it’s charming in a way that I so seldom come across in contemporary Westerns even and I must say I’ve had a fun enough time just trying to tease out the figures of speech that the crazy characters seem to lob around. Not forgetting the general hysterical hell-raising, loads of over-the-top-type shenanigans which actually make for a bonafide western soap that’s leaves you incredulous and laughing.

But while Mav/Leigh’s book swept me into the world of New Adult-ish high drama, Quinn’s and Tate’s story in ‘Kiss My Boots’ did feel like a rinse and repeat of Mav/Leigh of the first book: a second-chance romance when one party has run off and stayed away for a long time, albeit for different reasons. And it’s inevitable that comparisons do come in and this fell a little short for me as Tate returned and things continued on without the friction and the obstacles I’d thought Quinn would throw his way.

Quinn, despite being a hell-raiser, seemed to accept the reasons that Tate provided early on for his disappearance—and she’s definitely more accepting than I could have been—and I’d expected a bigger fight as he grovelled his way back into her graces. There is none of that however and only an ex-hookup of Tate’s arrives blow this newfound happiness out of the water, though that’s also taken care of easily. In other words, I missed that electric fights and the heavy-breathing and bodice-ripping tension that Mav/Leigh had which didn’t quite happen here.

That said though, I loved catching up with Mav and Leigh, and there’s Clay’s story in the works, which will most likely leave me glued to this series.

three-stars