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Maybe I Do by Nicole McLaughlin

Posted in Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Reviews 3rd September 2017
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

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Military/Paramilitary/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 5th June 2017
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

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 9th May 2017
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

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ New Adult/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 4th May 2017
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

One Wild Night by Melissa Cutler

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 3rd February 2017
One Wild Night by Melissa CutlerOne Wild Night by Melissa Cutler
Series: One and Only Texas #3
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on March 7th 2017
Pages: 304
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two-stars

A cowgirl at heart, Skye Martinez has a rebellious streak she's determined to shake. Especially since she's poised to take the reins of her family's business at Briscoe Ranch Resort. It's time for her to settle down and get serious about her future...right after one last night of fun with a handsome stranger she meets in the resort's stable. But when a midnight horseback ride turns into a red-hot weekend with one of country music's biggest stars, Skye's world is rocked beyond her wildest dreams...
Gentry Wells rode his bad boy image all the way to the top of the country music charts. But churning out hits has dried up his creativity, and he can't remember the last time his life was his own. Skye is a sexy distraction he can't resist, especially since she breathes new life into his music. They bring out the wild side in each other, which is great for Gentry's career—but a major threat to Skye's. Too bad he's fallen in love with her. With their hearts and futures on the line, can Gentry convince Skye to turn their joyride into a real chance to ride off into the sunset together?

‘One Wild Night’ is as the title suggests: the accidental meeting of 2 strangers at different crossroads of their lives, who then decide to have a weekend fling and then say goodbye. A country music has been, strung around for years to keep up his reputation and raunchy songs with the manager of Briscoe Ranch’s housekeeping whose bad girl is straining at the leash as she battles the values instilled in her from the very beginning—it’s pretty much an unlikely pairing to survive if not for a crisis that happens to turn things around.

This is the sort of read that puts me at a loss for review, particularly when it felt like characters who were doing the wrong things (or sometimes the so-called ‘right’ things) for all the wrong reasons. The accident—a major turning point—suddenly gave Gentry a 180-degree turn from a man who was convinced that he was a commitment-phobe to the other extreme where he found himself going to convert to Catholicism (because it was one of the terms and conditions that Skye had laid out) and become the stable man Skye always wanted. It’d taken life as he knew it away, flipped that mental switch and I disliked how this new Gentry only emerged because the accident gave him no option but to reevaluate what he’d been doing; essentially, I doubted that he would have ever voluntarily chosen the kind of lifestyle that Skye was ultimately looking for or prioritising her because his flagging career came first. Yet the excuses simply vanished with his finger and his sudden transformation kept me in continual disbelief throughout. For Skye, unable to shrug off her religious upbringing, kept thinking of every bad thing happening as heavenly punishment that was meted out to her with the accident had me grimacing, even as she swung from one emotion to another that made her indecisive about what she really wanted.

I’d be the first to say that the kind of religious guilt present throughout made me uneasy…as it was probably meant to be. That it’d resulted in the self-indulgent and sometimes irrational, immature behaviour of the characters—while providing the impetus for dictating directly and indirectly how both Gentry and Skye behaved however—was thoroughly frustrating. Gentry/Skye as a result, didn’t exactly appeal to me, as their relationship simple seemed overshadowed by Skye’s religious convictions (yet contrary behaviour) and Gentry’s seeming inability to do what he really wanted but never managing it until the accident pushed him into it.

The One and Only Texas series has so far, a hit or miss for me. Unfortunately, I think I should have given this one a pass.

two-stars

The Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne

Posted in Historical Romance/ Reviews 11th November 2016
The Highwayman by Kerrigan ByrneThe Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne
Series: Victorian Rebels, #1
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on September 1st 2015
Pages: 384
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four-stars

Dorian Blackwell, the Blackheart of Ben More, is a ruthless villain. Scarred and hard-hearted, Dorian is one of London’s wealthiest, most influential men who will stop at nothing to wreak vengeance on those who’ve wronged him…and will fight to the death to seize what he wants. The lovely, still innocent widow Farah Leigh Mackenzie is no exception—and soon Dorian whisks the beautiful lass away to his sanctuary in the wild Highlands…

But Farah is no one’s puppet. She possesses a powerful secret—one that threatens her very life. When being held captive by Dorian proves to be the only way to keep Farah safe from those who would see her dead, Dorian makes Farah a scandalous proposition: marry him for protection in exchange for using her secret to help him exact revenge on his enemies. But what the Blackheart of Ben More never could have imagined is that Farah has terms of her own, igniting a tempestuous desire that consumes them both. Could it be that the woman he captured is the only one who can touch the black heart he’d long thought dead?

Rarely do I venture into the historical romance world anymore, unlike the way I only read them…back in the day, when it was customary for men to be rakes and women as blushing virgins despite their fiery tempers and it all ends richly, wealthily happy ever after. But not being able to get anything contemporary to hold my attention, ‘The Highwayman’ seemed like a good and random dip back into it.

And it was an awesome read, for most part, but I suspected it appealed precisely because it read very much like a 21st century re-invention of the Victorian romance, complete with an anti-hero (no badly-behaving Dukes or Earls or Viscounts here because their aristocratic statuses allow them the liberty) who is as black as sin, the raunchy language of today’s sexy times and a spit-fire sassy woman who could probably run for a place in political office if she wanted. Kerrigan Byrne’s unapologetic portrayal of the king of the underworld and the rediscovery of his soulmate was enthralling and the reason for his cruelty towards others underscores just how much he had been stripped of dignity when it all began. That Byrne wrote a heroine to match is remarkable: one who never gives up, with the right balance of naïveté and sass that apparently proves sufficient to even turn the blackest heart around, even if the thought of loving a jaded, cynical man back into wholeness seems like a cliché to an equally cynical reader like me.

(It’s smartly done, nonetheless, leaving me with the burning but probably insignificant question of how Dorian’s eyes changed colour.)

The dramatic—sometimes overly so—descriptions got on my nerves a bit towards the end because I could only laugh at the elevated way both Farah and Dorian thought about their emotions always bursting at the seams. But I was still captivated by how Byrne put away the polite rules of Victorian society here to write by her own instead, leaving me never feeling out of place in a period that should be suffocating me with corsets, manners and stuffy shirts.

four-stars

Going Deep by Anne Calhoun

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Erotica/ Netgalley/ Reviews 22nd September 2016
Going Deep by Anne CalhounGoing Deep by Anne Calhoun
Series: Alpha Ops, #5
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on November 1st 2016
Pages: 352
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four-stars

After weeks on a sold-out tour, singer Cady Ward is coming home for the holidays. But after one too many episodes of fan-craziness, Cady’s manager decides that she needs protection—in the form of muscled cop Conn McCormick. Longing for peace and quiet to prepare before her next album drops, Cady doesn’t need a bodyguard just to deal with some vague email threats…though she can’t deny that close proximity to Conn’s body is a very nice place to be.
Conn is in the midst of a career scandal when his boss assigns him to pop-star guard duty. It’s a poor use of his skills, even though Cady’s feisty nature proves the perfect distraction for Conn while Internal Affairs investigates his case. What begins as a sizzling attraction becomes something deeper than either Conn or Cady could have expected. But when Conn uncovers the sinister plan behind the threats to Cady, he’s faced with a professional dilemma: To save her life, will he risk having a future with the only woman who’s ever touched his soul?

My standing weakness for Anne Calhoun’s writing isn’t exactly a state secret, but good language and the beauty of precision and pacing can make or break a story for me. ‘Going Deep’ isn’t any different from the rest of Calhoun’s Alpha Ops books: slow-going and rather predictable with her stories reading more like a meditative character study than an action film straining at the edges to burst free into explosions and non-stop action.

And that is in itself, unusual enough for me to slow down and savour the descriptive and very introspective story of a bodyguard assigned to an up and coming pop singer whose several weeks of hiatus will change everything they know of each other.

I had however, expected more action and suspense and thought that the ending was an anti-climax when we were given a cursory resolution of the so-called mystery and Conn’s own conflict at work, which somewhat curtailed my enjoyment of the book.

But perhaps what really appeals and what I remember most after the last page is turned-and this is admittedly not for those who want a healthy mix of action and steam—is how Calhoun cracks open her characters, and displays them at their rawest and most vulnerable. More surprisingly though, it’s not during sex when that happens, even if these scenes are more erotic than dirty.

I liked Conn and Cady immediately; they are characters who don’t seem to play the usual games, are strangely honest with with each other minus the usual issues that flare so brightly until one hurts the other unspeakably and needs to grovel for the damage done. Instead, there’s a sort of melancholy stamped into both of them, and whose attraction to each other somehow seem natural—like a long-forgotten spark, a connection that’s rare but to be cherished for the moment—, which I find all the more remarkable for a pair as mismatched as Cady and Conn.

Throughout the book there’s this constant moody lyricism that calls into the question of home, that elusive something that Cady and Conn both can’t seem to find in their own respective lives. Calhoun expounds this yearning as excellently as she did in the first book of this series, leaving an ending that’s bittersweet, like the closing of a chapter without a glimpse of how their new path together would go, while leaving me wanting more of their lives together in the future.

four-stars
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