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New Tricks by Kelly Moran

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 27th June 2017
New Tricks by Kelly MoranNew Tricks by Kelly Moran
Series: Redwood Ridge #3
Published by Kensington Books/Lyrical Press on September 26th 2017
Pages: 250
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three-stars

Loving someone is something you never forget how to do . . .

Zoe Hornsby has enough on her plate. Her pet grooming business tucked inside her friends’ veterinarian clinic is busy, and all her free time outside of work is dedicated to caring for her mother’s ailing mind. Dating is certainly not on her agenda. For all she cares, the town gossips of Redwood Ridge, Oregon, can set their matchmaking sights on someone else. Because no way would she consider sexy veterinarian Drake O'Grady her perfect guy. Once upon a time, she may have harbored a little crush, but he’d only had eyes for her best friend. And the crazy attraction building between her and Drake now? Down boy, down.

After Drake lost his wife to cancer, he’s finally clawed his way out of grief and beginning to feel more like a part of the human race. But he’s appalled to learn his prying family thinks he's ready to jump in the dating pool. And the woman they thrust at him couldn’t be more inappropriate. As his dead wife’s best friend, Zoe is off limits. Even if they seem to share a common sadness, she is too potent a personality to get romantically tangled with. Yet she’s making his heart beat and blood roar like he never thought it could again. And he doesn't want to just exist anymore . . .

The intensity of emotions and the build-up of a relationship is Kelly Moran’s trademark and by and large, her nuanced take on issues of unrequited feelings, grief and what it means to embark on something that has the tinge of the forbidden can break the hardest of hearts. ‘New Tricks’ turns the table on the grieving spouse unable to move on as Drake—who doesn’t fit into that category at all—is the active pursuer of a relationship and the one suddenly pining for a woman he’d never seen more than a friend until a while ago. That alone made him stand out as I enjoyed every moment of him going after what he wanted, then calling Zoe out on her running away.

I’m a little mixed about the pairing in question nonetheless, not just because I’m wary about friends-to-lovers but also because I found Drake a lot easier to like than Zoe, who frustrated me at times. I wasn’t entirely sold on her as a character who had the reputation of being the town’s ‘good time’ (which came uncomfortably close to the equivalent of manwhore for me somehow, which I equally dislike) or her frequent use of near-antagonistic sarcasm as guilt prevented her from moving on with her dead best friend’s husband. While I could sympathise with the number of things on her plate and the way these duties weighed her down, I also didn’t like how volatile Zoe became when confronted with her own feelings that she couldn’t quite own up to in front of him, in contrast to Drake’s relatively easy admission that he didn’t know what to do with a burgeoning attraction. Using as many weak excuses that she could—including the ‘good time’ one—simply felt like a form of playing games that she didn’t want yet inexplicably did somehow. Yet Zoe was a multifaceted bundle of contradictions that made her a realistic character too, as was Drake whose grief was given a poignant sheen that I loved.

That said though, ‘New Tricks’ is definitely an emotional one, with some angst on the side thrown in for good measure. The ghost in the relationship isn’t entirely missing, but isn’t too much of an obstacle that it becomes the focus of the story and the sole reason for being the conflict of it. As I’ve always said, what rocks my boat doesn’t necessarily do the same for others and vice versa, and while this was an okay-type read for me, Moran is typically an author I come back to time and again.

three-stars

True Hearts by Jeannine Allison

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews 26th June 2017
True Hearts by Jeannine AllisonPure Hearts by Jeannine Allison
Published by Amazon Digital Services on June 22nd 2017
Pages: 391
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two-stars

She gave me her kidney. I gave her my heart...

Nicholas Blake learned a long time ago that nobody does anything for free. He’s felt the pain of lies and manipulations enough times to know that people only look out for themselves, and that all good deeds come with a price. So when he wakes up from a near deadly car accident and finds out a stranger is offering to donate her kidney, he’s immediately suspicious of her intentions.

What he doesn’t expect is Iris Chamberlain, a beautiful woman with a big smile and an even bigger heart, claiming she just wants to help. The more time Nick spends with Iris, the more he starts to believe in what he always thought was impossible: a pure heart.

But betrayal leaves a bitter mark. Will Nick be able to let go of his past and let Iris in? And will Iris be able to show him what it truly means to have a pure heart?

’True Hearts’ is a very much a feel good type of read, with a kind of New Adult-ish introspective vibe about the cynic who is inclined call everyone’s action out as self-serving until proven otherwise who goes up against a someone who wholly (or at least habitually) believes in human goodness and sincerity.

And that was where my reservations slid in.

Call that my own cynical self talking here, especially when it begins with the donation of a kidney after what appears like a paranormal ‘sign’ that fates are intertwined—with no expectations thrown into the mix. I found it difficult to accept the very selfless and positive Iris Chamberlain when it was way easier to sympathise with Nick and his understandable behaviour traits knowing what he’d gone through. Iris was, well, surreal in her giving selflessness, when the way she chose to see nothing but good made her more like a saint about to be canonised than a flawed character. But Jeannine Allison makes Iris out to be the exact kind of person that Nick actually needs—at least, a person who is determined to wear down his cynicism—though she stumbled where it really mattered most, or at least where I needed her not to.

Throughout the book, I felt mostly caught between Iris and Nick, never quite able to step out of Nick’s more ‘realistic’ way of perceiving the world as opposed to Iris’s steadfast one-woman stand against Nick’s fatalistic pessimism. In fact, I found myself repetitively questioning Iris’s naïveté, the appalling behaviour of her relatives, and how the characters did nothing but try to turn Nick into a happier version of himself without acknowledging too much that his own perception of the world had merit. That they’d tried to defend their own behaviour, implicitly putting the fault mostly on Nick’s door was quite the last straw for me.

I think the long and short of it is that ‘True Hearts’ is a rose-tinted affirmation of the goodness left in humanity, though it’s a simplistic ideal here that I can’t quite buy into.

two-stars

Shattered King by Sherilee Gray

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Erotica/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ New Adult/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 22nd June 2017
Shattered King by Sherilee GrayShattered King by Sherilee Gray
Series: Lawless Kings #1
Published by Swerve on June 27th 2017
Pages: 320
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two-stars

He’s out to get revenge for a crime he didn’t commit…

Hunter King just got out of prison. Incarcerated for three years though an innocent man, his rage against the people who put him there knows no bounds. First up on his list for vengeance: the woman who betrayed him years ago. The woman he loved fiercely, the one bright light in his otherwise hard, ruthless life. She has information he needs. And he’s going to kidnap her, hold her hostage, in order to get it. But one look into Lulu’s eyes unleashes the true beast within. Hunter’s never hated anyone this deeply, or wanted any woman this badly.

Lulu had no choice: Either help send Hunter to prison, or see him destroyed. She couldn’t do that to the man she loved. Couldn’t do it to the father of her child. But Hunter was locked away before he had a chance to learn about his son—and a hard layer of despair has formed around his heart that she’s desperate to crack. And if Hunter is to give himself and Lulu a second chance at love, he needs to find a way past his darkest demons.

A new series always excites me, though there’s always some trepidation because many of them don’t quite hit their stride until a few books in, especially when the starting one is full of establishing plotlines, histories and characters. ‘Shattered King’s’ blurb drew me in immediately: betrayal, secrets and lies all tangled up in a hard, brutal second chance romance after Hunter King’s life takes a turn for the worse when Lulu—the only woman he’s ever loved—sent him to prison.

My first impression of ‘Shattered King’ is the overall grittiness and the barely-leashed edge of violence that Sherilee Gray excels at here, in which hard sex plays a major role. Her characters stay just at the boundary of the wrong side of the law, crossing these lines sometimes with no qualms and are the anti-heroes who would keep you safe at any cost just as they keep your panties constantly wet. But there’s also a load of high drama and a considerable number of triggers here that might go down on the wrong side of some readers’ sensibilities.

It was hard however, to see anything beyond the overflowing lust that supposed proves compatibility, because it seemed to trump even their volatile personalities and apparently, solve most problems. The copious amount of sex replaced actual communication, because by god, it was what both Hunter and Lulu needed to do but didn’t, as body parts suddenly spoke louder than words and that proved frustrating. But this is suspense as much as it’s erotica, so I was in a way, expecting more than just sex to eclipse everything else.

I think ‘Shattered King’ would have worked better for me if the story’s protagonists weren’t always on the verge of going off the deep end at the slightest push of a button. Hunter’s sudden switch from pissed-off alpha male to possessive alpha male was too abrupt, just as I couldn’t entirely trust Lulu not to stop running, which seemed to be her only modus operandi throughout the entire story, either from her hellish stepfather or for the sake of her son. Held at ransom for so long, I’d expected a gutsier female lead despite the amount of abuse she’d faced but her tendency to not want to face things couldn’t make me warm up to her enough, especially when she couldn’t seem to take active steps to sort out the mess she’d made of her own life as well as Hunter’s. The long and short of it is that Lulu does run in the end and predictably ends up in the hands of her worst enemy like the damsel constantly in distress, even as Hunter bails her out at the last minute.

‘Shattered King’ is not a bad start to the series, but it’s probably better suited for those who like the MC-type of stories and a HEA that comes amidst bloodshed and shady activities. But just because I couldn’t really feel Hunter/Lulu’s connection doesn’t mean that anyone else can’t, and I’m simply going to continue reading because there are stories that I know Gray can write that I’ll love. It’s just not this one.

two-stars

Friend (With Benefits) Zone by Laura Brown

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Edelweiss/ New Adult/ Reviews 21st June 2017
Friend (With Benefits) Zone by Laura BrownFriend (With Benefits) Zone by Laura Brown
Published by Avon Impulse on June 27th 2017
Pages: 384
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one-star

I’m ridiculously attracted to my best friend.

Today is a bad day. The worst actually. After dealing with the constant manhandling that comes with being a cocktail waitress at a dive bar and surviving a date from hell, I see an eviction notice slapped on the door of my sketchy basement apartment. Great.

When my best friend Devon shows up at my door and uses his stubborn charm (emphasis on stubborn) to get me to move in with him, I give in. We’ve had about a million sleepovers since we met in the kindergarten Deaf program, but this time it’s different because I can’t stop thinking about his hard body covering mine, every single night.

I know Devon would do anything for me, but I’m afraid what I want to happen will ruin our friendship forever. And the more time we spend together in close quarters, the harder it’ll be to resist the spark of attraction I’ve always felt. But maybe it’s possible to have the best of both worlds: keep the one relationship I can’t live without and indulge in an attraction I can’t deny.

I guess the only thing we can do is try…

‘Friend (With Benefits) Zone’ started out very promising, with the blurb sounding a growing-up story of 2 deaf people trying to find their way in the world just as the notion of building a career looms large. But beyond that, I liked the idea of putting people with disabilities in the spotlight and showing that they actually do lead lives as ‘normal’ as those who don’t—and thought that this would provide a different edge to the best friends turned lovers type of read.

But with the sexual tension between Jasmine and Devon shattering so early on, the direction in which the story was going to go became rather unclear. And I found myself unpleasantly surprised when maturity (or the lack of it) came into play and formed the major part of the conflict—driven mostly by Jasmine. She started out as strongly independent, but that soon moved to bullheadedly, stupidly stubborn when she started insisting on being an island and going at it all on her own, pushing everyone else away because that was the way she wanted it to be. Not accepting help from Devon and her closest friends (then have them trying to reel her back in), using sex avoid the issue, vacillating between wanting Dev and wanting her own way were just signs of her irrational immaturity that frustrated me to no end, which actually went on ad nauseum to the point where I thought they should have given up on her because there was no getting her to see reason.

As much as Devon’s desire to help her and support her in everything, he did come across as somewhat spineless towards the end, when he needed to leave Jasmine on her own for her to finally come to her senses. Instead, he couldn’t quite let her go or do a complete break, even when he had his own share of dodging the intended career path that his family wanted for him throughout. In fact, I needed to see that Jasmine wanted their relationship Devon even if she had nothing to her name. But because Devon had arranged it such that she could have her bar and own it (with the startup costs included as a loan), it felt as though it was only with her future secured and in place that it was easy to get back with him.

This constant push-pull vibe that got stronger, as well as the anti-climatic ending did, unfortunately, grate on me. I couldn’t quite shrug away how much I disliked the characters by the end and this sadly, tanked the whole story for me.

one-star

Too Close to Call by Tessa Bailey

Posted in Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews/ Sports 18th June 2017
Too Close to Call by Tessa BaileyToo Close to Call by Tessa Bailey
Series: Romancing the Clarksons #3.5
Published by Evil Eye Concepts, Incorporated on June 13th 2017
Pages: 136
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four-stars

All-American wide receiver Kyler Tate’s life is about to change. A fairytale college career skyrocketed him to the NFL draft. Adoration and opportunity are thrown in his direction wherever he goes, thanks to being chosen in the first round by the Los Angeles Rage.

None of the accolades mean anything, though, without his high school sweetheart, Bree Sutton, by his side. Four years ago, she walked away from Kyler, choosing a quiet life over the flash and notoriety his career would someday bring.

Now he’s back in their Indiana hometown, refusing to leave for Los Angeles without her. Demanding she give their life together a shot. Her heart never stopped bleeding for the love of her life, but Bree’s decision was final. Too bad their wild attraction has only been amplified by their separation, and Kyler won’t quit until Bree is wearing his ring.

Kyler burst onto the scene in Brooks’s book and immediately I knew there was a story there that I wanted to read. ‘Too Close to Call’ is one that got me, not just because of the devotion of this soon-to-be football star, but his single-mindedness about wanting to get the love of his life back once and for all, despite Bree having ended it all 4 years ago.

With the tons of manwhores in college sports peppering the books these days in search of commitment-free hookups, Kyler stands out like some shining gem in the mud because he could never let Bree go. I did sort of wish that he’d tried to get on with it given the way she’d so callously broke things off with the intention of never seeing him again, just as I wished Bree had more gumption and chutzpah to fight for their relationship the way he did. That she’d stayed on the fence the whole time up until the end made me wonder about if she thought Kyler less important than her supposed duty to the family coupled with the flimsy excuse that she was only holding him back.

My only complaint really is how Tessa Bailey manages to make every hero of hers into an alpha, dirty-talking male though…to the point where they become indistinguishable in the way they burn up the sheets. Somehow the couple in question lose their distinct identities when they finally have sex (it inevitably ends up with a woman panting and begging and a man talking her ear off) only to regain these after the heights of orgasm are reached. Kyler/Bree in this case, could be Elliott/Peggy or even Ginger/Derek or anyone else and I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference, which is a far cry from the earnest, determined college student I first encountered in ‘Too Hard to Forget’.

Yet ‘Too Close to Call’ is short, rather satisfying read nonetheless, perhaps only because I thought Kyler deserved what he searched for all these years. At least it has the straightforward sort of clarity that I couldn’t quite get from this series from the very start, and that’s good enough for me.

four-stars

The Drowned Girls by Loreth Anne White

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Mystery/Crime/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 11th June 2017
The Drowned Girls by Loreth Anne WhiteThe Drowned Girls by Loreth Anne White
Series: Angie Pallorino #1
Published by Montlake Romance on June 20th 2017
Pages: 524
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three-stars


He surfaced two years ago. Then he disappeared ...

But Detective Angie Pallorino never forgot the violent rapist who left a distinctive calling card—crosses etched into the flesh of his victim’s foreheads.
When a comatose Jane Doe is found in a local cemetery, sexually assaulted, mutilated, and nearly drowned, Angie is struck by the eerie similarities to her earlier unsolved rapes. Could he be back?​Then the body of a drowned young woman floats up in the Gorge, also bearing the marks of the serial rapist, and the hunt for a predator becomes a hunt for a killer. Assigned to the joint investigative task force, Angie is more than ready to prove that she has what it takes to break into the all-male homicide division. But her private life collides with her professional ambitions when she’s introduced to her temporary partner, James Maddocks—a man she’d met the night before in an intense, anonymous encounter.
Together, Angie and Maddocks agree to put that night behind them. But as their search for the killer intensifies so does their mutual desire. And Angie’s forays into the mind of a monster shake lose some unsettling secrets about her own past . . .
How can she fight for the truth when it turns out her whole life is a lie?

There’s no doubt that Loreth Anne White writes excellent police procedurals in their gritty, brutal glory. Her angst-ridden characters, worn down by the nature of their work, are jaded and cynical with nary an ounce of optimism in them and as we tend to learn at the start of the book, wrestle with their own broken lives as they keep disappointing their families before they find some kind of equilibrium by the end of it. Their behaviours tend to mirror the nature of the crimes they’re investigating, stopping short of going past the grey areas into the forbidden and while the psychology behind it all is intriguing, I always find myself coming out of every White suspense read unsure, uncertain and strangely in need of a thorough cleaning.

Irascible, combative and abrasive, Angie Pallorino is straight out, a character difficult to like or side with, unlike a typical romance heroine for whom an author tries to get the readers to have an affinity. Everything about her, like White’s protagonists, can and does rub me the wrong way especially in the manner she uses people and men. But her tenacity is also what makes her a good detective and her career is probably all she has.  Like Angie, James Maddocks is running on his own fumes, rebuilding his life in a place where he can hopefully also rebuild his relationship with his daughter. They don’t get off to the best start: a one night stand that ends in coitus interruptus followed by a hostile meeting at the work place. But Maddocks is the upstanding, strong one who’s got his head on relatively straight in contrast and I liked that steadying presence he seems to provide throughout.

There’s very little on the romance in White’s latest suspense books and this is no different. The multiple POVs and the doubts cast on each and every character does a good job of distancing you from them, bringing into focus instead, the complicated but excellent set up of the crime scenes. The search for justice and laborious police work are White’s focal points—along with the superb Hitchcockian suspense kind of writing—and her characters merely players as they try to untangle this web of brutal deaths. It’s packed with tons of details that makes it a difficult read in that sense, and heavy-going in a way gritty crime fiction can be, which naturally brings me to the question that I’ve always struggled with when it comes to romantic suspense that’s heavy on the suspense: is it possible to ‘love’ a read when it’s simply about the case (that’s fantastically set up, no doubt), even if there are characters you don’t exactly connect with or feel for?

Angie’s story however, is pretty much unfinished. ‘The Drowned Girls’ seems to end on tenterhooks, on a tipsy toast that hopes for a better tomorrow, but with the sequel in store, you just know it’s going to unravel once more, until you’re back down through the looking glass, as dislocated as the characters who themselves don’t know any better but to screw things up.

three-stars

Locke and Key by Cristin Harber

Posted in Contemporary Romance/ Military/Paramilitary/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 27th May 2017
Locke and Key by Cristin HarberLocke and Key by Cristin Harber
Series: Titan #8
Published by Mill Creek Press on May 2nd 2017
Pages: 312
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two-stars

THE STOIC SPECIAL FORCES OPERATOR There’s only one person to blame for darkening the last years of Locke Oliver’s military career: Cassidy Noble. And damn if he doesn’t have to save her from the side of a frozen mountain. Even after the job is done, he can’t shake the woman from his thoughts. He blames her for the deaths in his Army unit so many years ago, and he’s not ready to let that go. It’s driving him to the point of distraction, and now his Titan Group boss says to get his act together or get out.
THE FEISTY, FALLEN REPORTER Cassidy is a disgraced journalist, once accused of treason—Or she’s an American hero. It depends on who you ask. She’s on a mission to rebuild her name and started with a simple question but discovered a complex web of spies and possible human trafficking. Titan Group believes in her. Locke does not. Until he can’t deny the truth any longer about the past or what she’s uncovered in her investigation.
BECOME AN INSEPARABLE TEAM Cassidy volunteers to go undercover. Locke would do anything to stay by her side as she slips into the network and is sold to the highest bidder. All is going right until everything goes wrong. Nothing is as they expect, including falling in love with the woman he thought he hated.

It took me an extraordinarily long time to go through this book that I’m actually wondering whether it’s sort of the end of the Titan series for me right now.

Having been a fan of Titan in the early days, I wondered how Cristin Harber was going to go on with the series after Jared Westin’s core team had found their respective HEAs. ‘Locke and Key’ is a book past that particular series arc but I’ve been struggling since the chapter closed on the core team.

I’ve admittedly found myself lukewarm and half-hearted about the Titan series after Parker’s book came out as a dud for me but the biggest problem in ‘Locke and Key’ was that I couldn’t find any character likeable, despite them having been fantastic protagonists in their own time in previous books who have since undergone some personality transplants. Here, they came across as volatile idiots lacking compassion or any sense of kinship and that famous ‘brotherhood-in-arms’ spirit which I tend to read about in RS books seemed sorely lacking here. Instead, what I saw was loads of peacock strutting, macho posturing and too many over-the-top type of reactions that felt like petty and unnecessary squabbles.

In essence, the volatility of the characters’ behaviours resulted in my own volatile reactions to difference scenes and dialogues. There were chapters that made me think I could get behind some characters and other chapters that had me rolling my eyes and ready to give up the book. The only things that kept me going were the secondary characters whose fight Titan inevitably became a part of to reunite their family and I read on, cheering for them alone.

Obviously, it’s one of those books that grated on me, but I’m hoping at least, that the overall sense of dissatisfaction with the series might pass. Whether there’ll still be Titan or Delta in my to-be-read list however, well, that’s still something that’s up in the air for me.

two-stars
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