Publisher: St. Martin's Paperbacks

Deep Cover by Scarlett Cole

Deep Cover by Scarlett ColeDeep Cover by Scarlett Cole
Series: Love Over Duty, #3
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on 31st July 2018
Pages: 336
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three-stars

ARE THEY IN TOO DEEP?

Ex-Navy SEAL Cabe Moss always comes when called to duty―at all costs. Even though the death of his fiancée nearly destroyed him, Cabe won’t let his past interfere with any work that has to get done. When his latest task pushes him to team up with FBI Agent Amy Murray, a fierce beauty with the undercover skills to match, Cabe must admit that, for the first time in years, he wants to do more than just complete their mission together…

Amy was born ready for this assignment, but working side-by-side with the the strong, silent, and frustratingly professional Cabe seems to be the biggest challenge of all. But when the sparks begin to fly―and the stakes rise to dangerous heights―the only thing Amy is left worrying about is how she can resist him. Their lives may be in danger, but their hearts hold the biggest risk of all…

‘Deep Cover’ has an irresistible blurb, and even if Scarlett Cole’s works haven’t always agreed with me, such is the power of blurbs that it has gotten me willing to give her books another go.

Still reeling from the loss of his military fiancée, the thought of getting truly involved again is one that he shuns (not being sure of whether he can give that much to another person yet again). So the mess of guilt, pining and uncertainty is the cloud that hangs over Cabe’s and Amy’s burgeoning relationship, and much of the angst emanates from Cabe’s inability to fathom being with a woman who has the potential to be killed in the line of duty.

After a dud meeting in a bar, Cabe and Amy meet again on an undercover op organised by a joint task force and the rest is as they say, either kismet or cliché. Cue the bone-deep attraction that’s forbidden on so many counts, along with Cabe’s own tragic backstory that has a stranglehold on his emotions, I expected a lot of angst, tied in with the taut suspense in this op. But the angst is mostly smoothed out, the emotional bumps in the road overridden instead by the developing case which take precedence over the romance.

That said, Cabe/Amy do kind of form a believable pair; Amy’s confidence and competence (her ability to put things down on the table when it mattered) drew me in most of all, since I tend to forget the pleasure that comes with reading about a fantastic or at least, well-formed protagonist. Her foil is perfect to Cabe’s hesitation in any case, and having a good female lead never fails to brighten my day.

After a decent start however, I got frustrated at times. Some parts were unevenly paced—the storytelling lingered too much in some bits and rushed through others which I wanted to see drawn out—so I came out of this more nonplussed about the repetitive nature of the writing and Cole’s tendency to draw some details out more than I liked which resulted in a bit of skimming. Switches in POVs however, could definitely be demarcated a lot better too, which I suspect has more to do with an ARC’s formatting than anything else.

There are as well, a fair number of secondary characters—along with names and acronyms that may or may not be incidental to the plot—given the nature of the suspense and the operation, with hints of several backstories in the previous books leading up to this one, which could either prove a distraction or be motivation for reading the rest of the books in the series first. It also probably means ‘Deep Cover’ can work as a standalone…though it might pose a few difficulties when dealing with the overall narrative arc.

In short, ‘Deep Cover’ is a decent read, though not a perfect, spine-tingling one for me—I’m not entirely sold on the style of storytelling which I’ve rapidly come to recognise as Cole’s here, but it’s certainly one that I can see appealing more broadly to other RS fans.

three-stars

I Flipping Love You by Helena Hunting

I Flipping Love You by Helena HuntingI Flipping Love You by Helena Hunting
Series: Shacking Up, #3
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on 29th May 2018
Pages: 320
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two-stars

A new kind of love story about flipping houses, taking risks, and landing that special someone who’s move-in ready…

SHE’S GOT CURB APPEAL

Rian Sutter grew up with the finer things in life. Spending summers in The Hamptons was a normal occurrence for her until her parents lost everything years ago. Now Rian and her sister are getting their life, and finances, back on track through real estate. Not only do they buy and sell houses to the rich and famous, but they finally have the capital to flip their very own beachfront property. But when she inadvertently catches the attention of a sexy stranger who snaps up every house from under her, all bets are off…

HE’S A FIXER UPPER

Pierce Whitfield doesn’t normally demo kitchens, install dry wall, or tear apart a beautiful woman’s dreams. He’s just a down-on-his-luck lawyer who needed a break from the city and agreed to help his brother work on a few homes in the Hamptons. When he first meets Rian, the attraction is undeniable. But when they start competing for the same pieces of prime real estate, the early sparks turn into full-blown fireworks. Can these passionate rivals turn up the heat on their budding romance — without burning down the house?

The enemies-to-lovers trope can be a fabulous one to get on board with, particularly if the chemistry jumps out at you, then goes beyond the hate-part and is somehow sustained throughout the entire plot. No one said however, that it isn’t a tricky one as well, despite the obvious trajectory to a HEA.

Yet it wasn’t quite a good sign when the characters were annoying from the start, despite the book starting out as somewhat fun and hysterical involving a grocery cart, a dented car and its repair cost. While I really do like the love-hate antagonism done right, I found it hard to swallow the irritating, shrewish and apparently empty-headed twin sister who tried to use faulty logic (and thankfully fails) to get out of a mistake she made, then the heroine Rian Sutter who built on the stupidity when tried to get Pierce Whitfield to lower his repair cost through equally faulty logic and wilfully misinterpreting everything he said, which felt no better than any other kind of manipulation.

Or maybe there was just something about an over-the-top Rian that rubbed me the wrong way; her unkind thoughts of and behaviour towards a less-than-ideal date playing yet another part in this, not to mention the initial impression she made in the beginning chapter. (Side rant: why are other men purposely written as slobbery, boring, clumsy and completely undesirable in order to boost the hero’s image? Shouldn’t a hero’s or heroine’s qualities speak for themselves without the need for the author to put others down?)

In any case, I found myself skimming after a while as the development of Rian/Pierce’s relationship got somewhat tortuous, wondering if the sense of humour here was just one that didn’t appeal: there weren’t overtly hilarious moments for me though there was quirk. In fact, a few bits of dry wit from throwaway comments in the inner monologue had me smirking more than laughing out loud while the banter between Rian and Pierce didn’t exactly made me hack out a lung.

I wished I liked this story more, rather than just tolerated this until the end. But the best conclusion I can come to is that Helena Hunting just isn’t an author that fits my tastes, in a classic case of “it’s not you, it’s me”.

two-stars

Collision Point by Lora Leigh

Collision Point by Lora LeighCollision Point by Lora Leigh
Series: Brute Force #1
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on February 27th 2018
Pages: 336
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Riordan “Rory” Malone is a force to be reckoned with. A member of the Brute Force Protection Agency and an operative working with the Elite Ops, Rory is the fiercest of warriors and protectors. Honed from the strong Irish stock of their grandfather and sharpened to a razor’s edge, Malone men live for one single purpose: to protect the women who own them, body and soul. From the moment he saw Amara Resnova, he knew she could be that woman.

But Amara, daughter of an alleged notorious crime lord, is a force in her own right. When she betrays her father, she’s finds herself in the arms of a man who is dangerous for her body and soul.

Can Rory keep Amara safe while protecting his own heart? Can Amara trust Rory not to break hers even as the danger mounts, threatening to take them and their passion to a breaking point?

I had assumed that ‘Collision Point’ was the first of a new series by Lora Leigh and not part of her Elite Oops series, which I didn’t exactly take to. But while I found the start somewhat intriguing, it just wasn’t a story that could hold my interest; neither was the writing style which I found choppy, repetitive and somewhat difficult to follow.

On the one hand, there’s nothing more enticing about a male protagonist who knows what he wants and goes after it. On the other hand, there is the cookie-cutter pattern emerging here, of the growling, neanderthal male who’s built only to have rough sex and protect his mate and the helpless female who seems to run and flail at that possessive edge he shows around her. I’ll admit readily that Leigh’s ‘Wild Card’ put me off such protagonists, though ‘Collision Point’ felt marginally better as it pretty much revolved around a hero bulldozing his way through everything to get his woman back.

Structurally, I did struggle with this even from the beginning, as I tried to piece together Riordan’s and Amara’s history for the first few chapters as their backstory came in dribs and drabs, interrupted by copious descriptions of erections, wetness and coitus interruptus. Admittedly, with a sensual history between them, Riordan and Amara weren’t strangers to begin with, but instead of a constant build-up or reconstruction of their past, more than half the story was concerned with sex or how aroused either protagonist was (then spending it jealous thinking of imaginary lovers the other might have had), which did get annoyingly distracting.

My rating merely reflects my inability to continue the story—‘Collision Point’ is more like romantic suspense erotica, if there’s ever such a sub-genre. Sure, the sex is hot, but, it’s not a style that I’m used to at all (this is clearly, my preference) and frankly, I was thrown off way too much, right to the point past the halfway point where I found myself too frustrated to even get down and dirty with this pairing.

Maybe I Do by Nicole McLaughlin

Maybe I Do by Nicole McLaughlinMaybe I Do by Nicole McLaughlin
Series: Whiskey and Weddings #1
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on August 29th 2017
Pages: 300
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four-stars

She doesn’t believe in fairy tales. He is married to his job. Maybe whiskey is the secret ingredient that will bring them together–and give true love a shot.

Wedding photographer Charlotte Linley loves her work –even though she hates weddings. Sure, she still holds a grudge after being left at the altar by her high-school sweetheart. But today Charlotte is just happy to have complete control over her career, which is flourishing. Especially since she joined forces with one of the three gorgeous owners of The Stag, a boutique distillery that has become Kansas City’s hottest wedding venue.

Dean Troyer, bitter after the end of his own marriage, knows that Charlotte is the real deal–beautiful, talented, and successful. He may flirt with her every time she comes to The Stag, but Dean is determined to keep his professional distance…particularly now that she’s helping him with his own sister’s wedding. The only problem? The more time Dean spends with Charlotte, the deeper their connection grows. Is this a rom-com cliche’ or could it be that these two jaded souls in the wedding business have finally found their real-life happily ever after?

Books that deal directly with weddings do give me pause. Fussy bridezillas, miles of (pink) sequinned fluff, colour-coordinated decor, crazy cakes and the general wedding fever that gets most characters scurrying around can and often give me nightmares, but I do like Nicole McLaughlin’s writing and ‘Maybe I do’ was pretty much a shoo-in.

I was nonetheless surprised to read though, that beyond a long-term flirtation that turned into something more, much of it shone the spotlight Dean’s hesitation, his indecisiveness and his insecure second-guessing that made him blow hot and cold. These were also what created many of the speed bumps in the story when he had, for 3 years, built a wall between Charlotte and him. That was understandable to an extent, clearly, because McLaughlin does write an irresistible older hero who has already been dented by the hard knocks of life multiple times. Dean’s case is a sympathetic one, yet I thought he needed to get himself sorted sooner and man up (and grovel) where Charlotte was concerned.

Charlotte on the other hand, grabbed me from page one, made me root so much for her and pretty much made the day for me. Amidst a slew of immature heroines who flounce their way into over-the-top hysterics when the situation never calls for it, Charlotte stands out like a sparkling gem. I loved how measured and thoughtful her responses and reactions were as much as I loved how upfront she was with Dean and how put-together she had it all despite how he treated her.

There were some distracting issues that did seem to take a bit of focus away from Charlotte/Dean themselves, so it isn’t quite the perfect read for me since what Dean and Charlotte had to sort out did seem monumental but were dealt with only in the closing chapters (as well as the epilogue) and I was left wondering just how much they really understood each other despite Charlotte’s admirable way of assimilating Dean’s revelation. The nitty-gritty of Dean’s sister’s wedding planning got lost on me, as much as I couldn’t quite get past the issues with both Dean’s and Charlotte’s ex-es, who were more than just ghosts of the ugly past.

I’m mildly curious about the next few books in the series, though I’m going to be on the fence for now—a secondary character who just might be a protagonist in the next story isn’t entirely likeable at all so that put a damper in it already. But to get back to the present instead of projecting a bit too much, I’ll have to say that ‘Maybe I do’ is definitely an enjoyable (and emotional) read and with a sparkling heroine who jumped out from the pages and kept me in a girl-crush for the entire duration? That made a near-sleepless night worth it.

four-stars

The Legend by Donna Grant

The Legend by Donna GrantThe Legend by Donna Grant
Series: Sons of Texas #3
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on June 27th 2017
Pages: 320
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three-stars

A LONE STAR LOVER
Callie Reed doesn’t need a man to protect her. An expert sharpshooter and renegade hacker, this Texas-born spitfire’s got the skills and the courage to stand up to any danger―no matter how deadly. But when she becomes the target of a shadowy organization known as the Saints, Callie is forced to team up with the one man she can’t outshoot: the gorgeous, and infuriating, Lone Star legend named Wyatt Loughman…
A Delta Force Colonel with a rock-hard body and stone-cold heart, Wyatt has been teasing and tormenting Callie since they were playmates on his family’s ranch. Of course, he’s wildly attracted to the fiery, strong-willed Callie. But he’s always hidden his feelings behind a wall of Texas tough and military cool, even as he’s burning up with desire. Can Wyatt save Callie’s life―without putting her love in the line of fire?

It’s clear from the first few pages that ‘The Legend’ doesn’t function well as a standalone and because I’ve not read the first book and went through the second quickly, this third one left me all at sea as I struggled to keep up.

As far as I could gather, there is a bioweapon at large, a sinister group of powerful people all over the world infiltrating important government positions, and some crime family descending on a ranch to wipe out a ranching family that also happens to do black ops. And as exciting as the action could get at times, a lot of it feels very unfinished as well by the very end. It’s the end of a battle though not the end of a war as it gets increasingly clear, as the bad guy is diminished but goes free.

By and large, catching up was a hugely difficult task, yet I pushed on because the drama between Wyatt and Callie was compelling enough for me to want to know what really happened between them in this second-chance romance. Yet Donna Grant does balance the action with some character development though, so apart from my incredulity of a ranching family getting hunted meticulously by several groups, it was easy enough to suspend my disbelief as Wyatt and Callie raced through Texas trying to save each other.

I loved Callie’s strength and determination, though wished she’d had enough gumption to turn Wyatt away when he clearly hadn’t done enough to deserve her, at least not the way he left her with deliberate words meant to scythe and hurt. That it’d taken 15 years and serious injuries before realising that his wanting to protect her from a distance was an argument never held water to begin with, it always felt as though Wyatt had a foot out the door, never being determined enough to stay for Callie despite the pages of self-recrimination that he seemed to undergo. It had to take Callie putting herself out there at every turn, right up to an obstinate declaration of love to change his mind, which was quite the last straw for me.

Frankly, I’m not quite too sure yet what to make of this book. Beyond the rather hasty, teaser-like wrap-up and the trail of destruction left behind, is this one of those endings where the couple in question finally gets together, but stare into the distance wistfully just as they prepare for war?

three-stars

Turn Me Loose by Anne Calhoun

Turn Me Loose by Anne CalhounTurn Me Loose by Anne Calhoun
Series: Alpha Ops, #6
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on May 30th 2017
Pages: 350
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three-stars

When she was on the verge of adulthood, Riva Henneman committed a crime and got caught red-handed. Luckily, she was busted by a HOT young cop...who also had a big heart. A one-time SEAL candidate, Officer Ian Hawthorn knew how it felt to have your dreams derailed. So he gave Riva a choice: face prison time or work for him as a confidential informant. But even a get-out-of-jail-free card comes with a cost. . .
Years later, Ian still remembers beautiful, innocent Riva--and the smoldering attraction they shared but both tried to ignore. Will they have a second chance, now that they're back in each other's lives? Riva's work with inner-city children has led to a surprise run-in with Ian, who has his own agenda--one that could put them both in grave danger. Is their desire worth the risk this time?

Riva’s and Ian’s relationship is a complex one and while it’s not quite a second-chance trope we’re dealing with here, it can’t be denied that circumstances and their shared history have made their case together this time around layered and complicated as repressed desire and attraction come to the fore. ‘Turn Me Loose’ is riveting and more character-focused, though a little slow-paced for me, as I’d expected action and evasion, rather than a slow burn and a slow build-up to a climax that I did see coming.

But Anne Calhoun’s trademarks for me at least, are her excellent insights into her characters and the sharp way she writes about the emotional state of mind. ‘Turn Me Loose’, like most of her other books, is yet another example of it. Ian and Riva are as flawed and multifaceted as you can get, torn by their individual duties yet determined to fight for what’s right because they’re still haunted by the shadow of their own pasts. But there’s also so much regret in their lives—dreams they’d never managed to quite fulfil—but that changes by the end of the book, where finding each other takes on more meaning than what they’ve been searching for.

Thanks to Calhoun’s sleek writing, I liked every moment of the build-up between them, as we’re taken past “careful” sex to sex with no-holds-barred that ends with the ominous warning that things are going to fall apart. Yet there aren’t any sharp spikes or dips in the action that I expect of RS and to my slight disappointment, ‘Turn Me Loose’ didn’t quite fit that category as I kept waiting for something more dramatic to happen, which didn’t. Furthermore, I couldn’t exactly swallow the idea that Ian had always loved Riva for seven years—at least, not when they’ve had something so rocky that they’d never even sought out each other—which kept me somewhat sceptical up until the very end. But Calhoun’s HEA is typically a HFN as well, and it comes as a blissful wrap-up and a quick catch up with the rest of the characters in the Alpha-Ops series, which I hope wouldn’t be the last that I see of them.

three-stars

The Watcher by Bella Jewel

The Watcher by Bella JewelThe Watcher by Bella Jewel
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on May 30th 2017
Pages: 304
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three-stars

NOW YOU SEE HER . . . Seven years ago, Marlie Jacobson was kidnapped by a serial killer and lived to tell about it. But it was actually her mother who told the story, in a bestselling book that made Marlie famous. Today, she s known as the girl who slayed a killer. The one who got away. Now, there s just one thing Marlie wants to get away from: her past. But when her little sister disappears, her worst fears comes rushing back with a vengeance
NOW SHE S GONE. Kenai Michelson is a world-renowned investigator. Dark, brooding, and dangerously good-looking, he s the kind of man Marlie would normally avoid at all costs. But Kenai is her only hope in finding her missing sister. Together, Kenai and Marlie follow a trail of clues that leads them toward the truth and into each other s arms. As her trust in Kenai grows, so does their fierce connection. But will their desire turn deadly as they close in on a ruthless enemy who s watching their every move?

Marlie Jacobson is the woman who has gotten better of a serial killer and also famous for it, though the latter bit isn’t any fault of her own. But things come to a head when her sister goes missing and the only option for her is to seek out a famous private investigator who is as much as an arse as his reputation seems to suggest. The search for her sister seems to suggest that a copycat is on the loose, but the answer is closer to home than they both think.

Written mostly in Marlier’s POV, the experience of her capture is made more horrific in the first person narrative, which I could certainly appreciate. I could empathise with her fear and the bouts of panic attacks that still assailed her many years after the incident, and Bella Jewel definitely captures that difficult time excellently in a number of flashbacks that shows the ghastliness of her abduction.

Yet ‘The Watcher’ was a mixed bag of tricks for me, though I honestly had no expectations coming into this except that it had an element of suspense that I always like. The plot wasn’t entirely unpredictable and I think the peripheral characters sort of gave away their motives away early as I figured out from the start (without having made all the connections fully) who really was responsible for the disappearance of Marlie’s sister.

I also found both Kenai and Marlie a little too extreme for my liking. After the initial sass between the both of them wore off, I couldn’t understand Marlie’s rather juvenile baiting of Kenai, just as I thought him too distant, rude and unfriendly towards her. They’d barely gotten to the grudging like part of the relationship, and it all happened too fast for me to believe that everything turned from smug ‘frenemies’ so quickly into love; instead, I though it was simply lust and adrenaline resulting from an intense number of days in a closed space and several gun fights. Their interactions did feel a little too dramatic at times and things got over the top especially at the end when the villain made me grimace rather than feel repulsively creeped out.

Perhaps it’s because of the first person POV, ‘The Watcher’ retains a new-adult-ish feel to it and it’s certainly a format and a style that I’m not accustomed to when it comes to romantic suspense. Nonetheless, it’s definitely a story for those who like their RS stories written in the first person which also aren’t police procedurals, with a strong romantic element that holds it altogether. There isn’t the laborious red-tape and a huge number of pieces to puzzle and labour through in this book, but there is instead, an emotional focus on 2 unlikely people coming together here and finding each other because of it, which is mostly likely good enough for the die-hard romantics.

three-stars