Publisher: St. Martin's Press

The Girl He Used to Know by Tracey Garvis Graves

The Girl He Used to Know by Tracey Garvis GravesThe Girl He Used to Know by Tracey Garvis Graves
Published by St. Martin's Press on 2nd April 2019
Pages: 304
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three-stars

Annika (rhymes with Monica) Rose, is an English major at the University of Illinois. Anxious in social situations where she finds most people's behavior confusing, she'd rather be surrounded by the order and discipline of books or the quiet solitude of playing chess.

Jonathan Hoffman joined the chess club and lost his first game--and his heart--to the shy and awkward, yet brilliant and beautiful Annika. He admires her ability to be true to herself, quirks and all, and accepts the challenges involved in pursuing a relationship with her. Jonathan and Annika bring out the best in each other, finding the confidence and courage within themselves to plan a future together. What follows is a tumultuous yet tender love affair that withstands everything except the unforeseen tragedy that forces them apart, shattering their connection and leaving them to navigate their lives alone.

Now, a decade later, fate reunites Annika and Jonathan in Chicago. She's living the life she wanted as a librarian. He's a Wall Street whiz, recovering from a divorce and seeking a fresh start. The attraction and strong feelings they once shared are instantly rekindled, but until they confront the fears and anxieties that drove them apart, their second chance will end before it truly begins.

‘The Girl He Used to Know’ is told in a series of flashbacks and switches in both protagonists’ POV, and is pretty much a slow-moving, meditative sort of piece on love, loss and love-regained in the decade when the face of terror changed the world. That doesn’t quite come into play until the end however, as Tracey Garvis Graves places a hyper-focus on the unlikely pairing of Annika and Jonathan from college and how they navigate the tricky waters of a developmental disability that has the former’s inability to deal with social situations, social cues and instinctively-learned behaviours.

For the longest time, I only had the inkling of Annika having done something a decade ago, but the crawl towards that moment is a slow one, as is her equally slow get-together with Jonathan, interspersed with her desperation to make amends and pick up where they left off the moment she bumps into him all these years later.

The serendipity play aside (meeting again and then just taking things up felt like the jigsaw puzzle coming back together too easily for me), the narrative coasted along quite slowly for me—I did find myself skimming some bits—without too many spikes and valleys, which left me not knowing what direction the plot was going to go in. Despite having taken days to finish this, it did get better though; things picked up towards the end but ended abruptly on a note that actually led to some furious screen-tapping because I literally thought my ARC was missing a chapter or two.

In the end, this turned out to be a middling read despite the earnest love story between two everyday characters. I was engaged at times, less at others, but was ultimately left scratching my head at a conclusion that felt as though Garvis-Graves simply threw down her pen and left the book incomplete.

three-stars

Maybe This Time by Nicole McLaughlin

Maybe This Time by Nicole McLaughlinMaybe This Time by Nicole McLaughlin
Series: Whiskey and Weddings #2
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 27th 2018
Pages: 300
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one-star

Jen Mackenzie has been knocked down more than a few times, but she always gets up and makes sure she has the last word. It’s the reason she now considers herself equal parts self-sufficient and free-spirit. But since losing her job and trying to help her mother beat cancer, real life―and her occasional careless choices―have begun to catch up with her. Her one saving grace: The Stag, a boutique distillery that has become Kansas City’s go-to wedding venue. The only catch: One of the owners, TJ Laughlin, happens to be the one man who somehow manages to make Jen feel inadequate.

TJ has secretly had a thing for Jen since high school. Now, as her new boss, it’s a daily struggle between revealing his feelings and wringing her beautiful neck. Only one thing is for certain: he can’t stand idly by and watch the woman he cares for struggle. She may be convinced that accepting TJ’s help is a weakness. But all he sees in Jen is beauty and strength, inside and out. As things finally heat up between them, can TJ find a way to convince Jen that love is about give and take―and having it all, together?

While I definitely liked Nicole McLaughlin’s first book in this series, ‘Maybe This Time’ was a different kettle of fish unfortunately. Perhaps what made it worse was that I’d been wanting TJ to find his HEA particularly after pining after someone who absolutely didn’t deserve him at all.

There were so many aspects of the story that simply didn’t gel with me, though my primary issue lay with Jen, who rubbed me the absolute wrong way from the start. It began with the childish taunting she did of TJ—if this isn’t the childish equivalent of taunting the one you secretly have a thing for like—, the self-pity, the lashing out at people who didn’t deserve it all because she felt trodden down by life.

If I had any sympathy for the acrimonious struggles she faced with her mother and being stretched in all ways, that wore off quickly enough in her overcompensation for it by generally being a bitch to others, particularly TJ, who had (inexplicably) been panting after her for so long. That she tried to measure against herself against the women she thought TJ liked, then justified her own insecurities by putting TJ’s date down convinced me that this wasn’t a ‘heroine’ I could ever root for, much less even grow to like when she’d actually thrown her hookups in his face in the previous book and then being defiant about being late at work because of it.

For most part, I thought Jen pretty much acted like the whole world owed her something, and seemed petty over almost everything. And lordy, how I loathed her. I didn’t like how TJ had given up his own job for her, when she’d all but selfishly left him to pursue her own dreams. Mostly, I felt sorry for TJ, who seemed to be at the losing end of the deal, couldn’t understand what the hell he actually saw in her, and generally thought of their romance as a lacklustre one that I couldn’t see working out down the line.

And that pretty much clinched it for me. I couldn’t quite go on anymore after that, especially when I detested this so, so much. It’s a review that’s clearly against the grain, and admittedly, my strong reaction is one that shows my own issues with the type of characters I can and want to get on board with in romantic fiction. That said, I think I’m still cautiously optimistic about Jake’s story though—he and Alexis do seem to be headed down a path that isn’t pretty—though I’m still feeling burnt by this particular installment.

one-star

Final Siege by Scarlett Cole

Final Siege by Scarlett ColeFinal Siege by Scarlett Cole
Series: Love Over Duty #2
Published by St. Martin's Press on January 30th 2018
Pages: 300
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two-stars

IN THE LINE OF FIRE…

Former SEAL Malachai “Mac” MacCarrick is all about the future he’s created with his Navy brothers in Eagle Securities, taking assignments in the most dangerous places, and doing things no one but ex-military would attempt. But when an urgent phone call brings his troubled past—and the woman he once loved—into the present, it’s a chance to redeem himself that he can’t refuse.

STRAIGHT TO THE HEART…

An investigative journalist researching an explosive story, Delaney Shapiro tells herself she got over Mac—and his role in her brother’s death—a long time ago. But the first moment she sees him at her bedside in an overseas hospital, she knows it’s not true. Every moment together rekindles the desire that once burned between them, and now that she’s a target for an emerging Russian arms dealer, Mac won’t let her out of his sight. To protect her, he’ll risk it all—including his life…

A separation caused by tragedy, and a coincidental ‘rescue’ so to speak, 14 years later, leading to a second-chance romance did sound like the kind of story I wanted to dig into. Delaney and Mac do have weighted history and I was eager to see what Scarlett Cole would write about such a story and second chances, particularly after I got a sniff of what happened in their past.

But as an RS reader, I’m admittedly used to a style of writing that has gotten ingrained over the years, so these are my own preferences that I’m highlighting here—preferences that perhaps show how unused to Cole’s style I am.

For this reason, ‘Final Siege’ was hard to get into despite the enticing blurb, and these were mostly structural (narrative-wise) quibbles for me. Cole’s writing did throw me off in the instances of head-hopping—when the perspectives sometimes switched without warning—and the lack of demarcating in spots where scenes and dialogues just didn’t break or signal any time passing. With the lack of paragraphing and breaks, the whole narrative felt a little rambly, along with some awkward insertions of sentences that didn’t quite seem to flow with the development of a scene or aid in characterisation. Some parts, however, were well-written, though it was hard to get past the uneven way the whole story was laid out, particularly at the beginning of chapters where I found myself scrambling to make sense of context.

By and large, Delaney and Mac danced around the biggest ghost in their past that haunt them. Delaney did turn out frustrating at times: her inability to get over Mac’s supposed part in her brother’s death felt like something she hung onto simply so that she had a reason to keep on hating Mac. There was also a large focus on the push-pull happening between Delaney and Mac that got cloyingly repetitive when I’d expected the suspense to take priority after they meet again. That however, only kicked in somewhere near the halfway point, which made ‘Final Siege’ seem rather slow-paced for an RS book and in some way, like a game that went a step forward and 2 steps back.

That said, I’m not too sure how much of final revisions ARCs actually undergo. ‘Final Siege’ does unfortunately, look like a book that still needs a bit of editing; otherwise, it’ll be left as a story that’s got a potential which it never quite reached.

two-stars

Forever Yours by Addison Fox

Forever Yours by Addison FoxForever Yours by Addison Fox
Series: The Brooklyn Brotherhood #3
Published by Swerve on June 13th 2017
Pages: 85
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one-star

Detective Cade Rossi has spent the majority of his life oblivious to Jasmine Shane. She’s always been his little sister’s best friend, but after coming to her rescue one night, Cade is starting to see the woman behind the lawyerly suits.
Since childhood, Jasmine has harbored an embarrassing crush on Cade. She’s seen him work his way through nearly every eligible bachelorette in Park Heights, Brooklyn, and Jasmine’s given up hope of them ever having a chance together.
But summer is the perfect time for a fling, and as Cade and Jasmine grow closer, what starts out as an innocent flirtation could turn into so much more…

One party pining for another (20 years in Jasmine’s case!) is always a trope that I’m uncomfortable with, only if it’s because I’ve my doubts about reciprocity. Would the “crushee” being able to live up to the expectations that the “crusher” has inadvertently placed on him/her? More importantly, can that depth of feeling ever be returned? I’m admittedly also sceptical about one party suddenly “seeing” the other person as a date rather than a familial relation, because, what really, has caused this switch to flip when it never has before? Many times, I’ve had the displeasure of reading about a female protagonist caving in too easily when the hero in question flashes a glance in her direction, “seeing” her as a woman only when she finally tells him how long she’s pined after him without him actively seeking her out. And often, the reality is that she does deserve better than him.

I come into ‘Forever Yours’ with those above-mentioned issues about unrequited love, more so if the ‘hero’ in question is a lothario who’s a player cowardly enough *not* to examine why he feels differently about a heroine despite these shifting feelings. And that Cade knew exactly his behaviour wasn’t decent (yet continued it) made me want to throw it in, yet Jasmine does exactly what so many heroines do—putting the crush to bed, literally, in order to move on. Only until both parties find that they fit and Cade, somehow magically, finds that it’s with Jasmine that he doesn’t feel suffocated at all. Bed-hopping from woman to woman is given a new spin or an excuse that I can’t excuse from Cade: that he simply hadn’t been with the “right” woman all along even though Jasmine was always in front of him. Suddenly with her, his urge to run isn’t there and instead of helping me to think that Jasmine is special, all I could conclude was that Cade is merely an arse who, unforgivably doesn’t know how treat other women better. There are some lines, that once crossed, can’t be uncrossed and I hate to say that Cade went past all of them.

The insertion of a criminal breaking parole and going after Jasmine means that that Cade gets to play hero and his actions certainly go a way into convincing Jasmine that they can be good together. The biggest surprise that came however, was his sudden declaration of love that had me wondering if that happened because it was a prelude to the coming sex scene and an easy wrap-up to end of the novella.

My rating reflects my personal prejudices clearly, but that aside, Addison Fox’s writing is more than decent. It’s primarily the reason why I chose to read this ARC in fact, because Fox’s style is confident and persuasively compelling, with enough sass that I would have appreciated had the context been different—which I’d hoped could have been different, that Cade was just misunderstood. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case and ended up being one of those reads that rubbed me the wrong way entirely as I struggled even to reach for their HEA.

one-star

Wicked Heart by Leisa Rayven

Wicked Heart by Leisa RayvenWicked Heart by Leisa Rayven
Series: Starcrossed, #3
Published by St. Martin's Press on May 17th 2016
Pages: 304
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five-stars

The one guy she can’t have is the one she can’t forget.
Liam Quinn is one of the biggest movie stars in the world…and the only man Elissa Holt has ever truly loved.
After being out of her life for six years, he and his gorgeous fiancé are set to star in the new Broadway show Elissa is stage managing. The only trouble is, when late night rehearsals bring Elissa and Liam together, the line between what is and what could have been gets blurred. Now one moment of weakness is about to create a scandal that will echo around the world.
Elissa knows that falling for Liam again would be a tragedy in the making, but as any good romantic knows, love doesn’t always follow the script.

As one of the rare few who couldn’t quite stomach ‘Bad Romeo’ and ‘Broken Juliet’, awarding 5 quick stars to this book as soon as I finished it is probably going to make me look as if I have suddenly developed schizophrenia.

But it is that good. To the extent where I am anxious to go back and comb through every character’s lines and actions once again to see if I’ve overlooked anything which I’ve so obviously misconstrued, as must have been the author’s intention all along.

Yet what made ‘Wicked Heart’ superlative was Leisa Rayven’s ability to sink you into her brand of angst and pain, leaving you to believe that nothing good enough can save a long-ago relationship from the last, spitting embers of apparent betrayal and residual pain – until a short but powerful confession turns everything around, redefining the term ‘perspective’ and realigning my own fickle reader-allegiances.

What a journey this proved to be: angsty, highly emotional, deeply nuanced yet so redemptive in a way that left me stunned, gutted yet incredibly happy for all the characters.

five-stars

One Hot Summer by Melissa Cutler

One Hot Summer by Melissa CutlerOne Hot Summer by Melissa Cutler
Series: One and Only Texas #1
Published by St. Martin's Press on April 5th 2016
Pages: 384
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three-stars

Welcome to Dulcet, Texas, home of the legendary Briscoe Ranch Resort, where one woman will discover that even love is bigger in the Lone Star State...
Celebrity wedding planner Remedy Lane is Hollywood royalty--until a scandal sends her packing to the wilds of Texas. She has a knack for leaving disaster in her wake, but she's determined to reboot her career at Briscoe Ranch, a luxury resort known for extravagant weddings. Little does she know that weddings don't happen at the resort without the approval of the town's cowboy swaggering, too-hot-for-his-own good fire chief, Micah Garrity.
Micah knows trouble when he sees it, and all it takes is one glimpse of Remedy's princess airs for him to know he's met his match. Too bad he can't stop thinking about her--even when she brings about one disaster after another at the resort. He and Remedy clash at every turn, but they can't stop the sparks flying between them. They come from such different worlds--does love stand a chance or will this fire burn too hot for either of them to handle?

Remedy Lane lurches from disaster to disaster, each done with unyielding sass and good intentions. In every situation, she pulls the gruff, grounded fire-chief along with her in this rocky ride – all for the happy-ever-afters for the couples who have engaged Briscoe Ranch resort to host their wedding ceremonies. It’s wedding planning in full force, and in trying to escape the scandal that has plagued her in celebrity-buzzed Hollywood, Remedy realises that this small town in Texas has much more to offer than the shallows of the celebrity lifestyle she’s known all her life.

Much of the book is about reconciling how opposites could work out, encapsulated not only in Remedy and Micah, but in the contrasting social circles in which they both run. It’s also the major source of conflict as well as humour and I loved the straight, no-nonsense storytelling until it became rather bloated in the middle, only to bend, twist and turn into a burning (pun intended), emotional climax that stole my breath because I didn’t quite see it coming.

But it’s strange to review a book where there are many things to like as there are to dislike: the humour vs. the constant, exhausting bickering about wealth and status, the ‘frenemy’ chemistry vs. the quick burnout at the end, and the huge cast of characters vs. the relative stock stereotypes which seemed characterise many of them. Despite my own conflicted opinion, one thing that has struck me throughout is how much of a standout this series has the potential to become. For that reason, I’m simply going to stick with this good thing that Melissa Cutler has gotten going.

three-stars