Tag: ARC

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

Under Control by Shannon Stacey

Under Control by Shannon StaceyUnder Control by Shannon Stacey
Series: Boston Fire, #5
Published by Carina Press on 28th August 2018
Pages: 384
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three-stars

When faced with the opportunity to change shifts while staying in the same house, veteran firefighter Derek Gilman jumps at the chance. His new schedule means not working Saturdays, which means more time to spend with his two kids. His divorce may have been amicable, but being a firefighter and a single dad is a lot to juggle. And when fate brings a gorgeous, wealthy woman into his life, he’s pretty sure he can’t handle more than he already is.

Olivia McGovern loves plans. She planned to start her own business and planned its growth. It’s earning her seven figures now, but her personal life simply doesn’t exist. Getting trapped in a broken elevator figures in exactly nowhere, and freaking out in front of a sexy firefighter definitely isn’t on the agenda. Especially not one with two kids and an ex.

What would have been a random incident with an attractive stranger becomes something more when a charity event brings them back together. They’re from different sides of the tracks, literally—with friends, family and careers to consider. But as Derek and Olivia are discovering, chemistry doesn’t allow for plans, and love doesn’t bother with logistics.

Since Shannon Stacey’s books deal with firefighters finding their better halves, it’s always a treat to find out who the unknown other half is in every book, as well as the very different story that Stacey tells for ever one of them.

For Derek Gilman, it’s corporate-highflyer Olivia McGovern who’s quite the opposite of his type, it seems, especially for a divorced man who’s caught up in his job and handling his 2 kids.

Past their first tension-filled encounter in a stalled elevator however, things past their second meeting fell into a bit of a lull for me despite their paths crossing repeatedly via mutual friends (the details of Olivia’s corporate career and the charity they were involved in didn’t interest me that much) as I impatiently waited for things to heat up between Olivia and Derek. And heat up they do, though gently and without any (unpleasant) surprises, even if I’d hoped for a bit more first-responder action.

The pluses here however, do outweigh the lull for me: the progressive, natural attraction between them, no clichéd evil ex running interference, no excessive denial of attraction or feelings; everyone generally behaves like the adults they are, working towards a happy home—all refreshing to read. Olivia’s fear of compromising her career plans with a relationship is her biggest worry; the fear of Olivia fitting into his domestic life is Derek’s, though the general lack of angst makes ‘Under Control’ an easy read without the overt strife that can sometimes accompany blended-family-type stories.

three-stars

Counterpoint by Anna Zabo

Counterpoint by Anna ZaboCounterpoint by Anna Zabo
Series: Twisted Wishes #2
Published by Carina Press on 24th September 2018
Pages: 378
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three-stars

Twisted Wishes lead guitarist Dominic “Domino” Bradley is an animal onstage. But behind his tight leather pants and skull-crusher boots lies a different man entirely, one who needs his stage persona not only to perform, but to have the anonymity he craves. A self-imposed exile makes it impossible to get close to anyone outside the band, so he’s forced to get his sexual fix through a few hot nights with a stranger.

When computer programmer Adrian Doran meets Dominic, he’s drawn to the other man’s quiet voice and shy smile. But after a few dirty, demanding nights exploring Dominic’s need to be dominated, Adrian wants more than a casual distraction. He has no idea he’s fallen for Domino Grinder—the outlandish, larger-than-life rock god.

Dominic is reluctant to trust Adrian with his true identity. But when the truth is revealed prematurely, Dominic is forced to reevaluate both his need for Adrian and everything he believes about himself.

I’ve always been intrigued by Dom Bradley, or at least, with the sexy but untouchable stage persona he assumes that has helped become a weapon against his shyness when performing. And it was more than an inkling that ‘Counterpoint’ would be a book that would tear apart these well-compartmentalised identities, considering meeting and hooking up with Adrian Doran is the catalyst that brings us to this point.

But ‘Counterpoint’ starts with a slow, almost awkward introduction—there isn’t too much of the nerd boy that Zabo explored in her previous book, so it is gratifying to see just how different Dominic/Domino is at the start—that actually left me surprised with the fidgety Dominic whose top layer simply doesn’t resemble the rock god at all.

Still, the burn is slow despite their flirting, the poetry and the literature and the quick hookups, and I got impatient getting to the meat of the story and skimmed even the smutty bits that for some reason didn’t interest me too much, until the conflict finally, finally kicks in towards the end. It is primarily the shifting nature of these identities that Zabo takes on that I wanted to read after all, such that this eclipsed everything else that others might find they like about the story, their bedroom activities and all. So I lapped up all the bits that involved Dom and his difficulties with his stage persona, then found myself skimming the others.

Nonetheless, slippery as it is to handle, I thought the complexity of Dom’s issues is quite well teased out (admittedly for longer than I thought these should have been)—the contradictions, the fear of discovery, the identity that he hides behind—though in contrast, I found Adrian less interesting, who feels more like a typical player who finally can see himself settling down with someone as unusual as Dom, who then fights for a relationship that he suddenly wants so much.

Objectively speaking, ‘Counterpoint’ is more than a decent read and that’s Zabo’s confident writing showing here. But to say that the last quarter is the most thrilling and enjoyable bit is probably the most accurate sum-up for me, just like ’Syncopation’ was.

three-stars

Cold Blooded by Toni Anderson

Cold Blooded by Toni AndersonCold Blooded by Toni Anderson
Series: Cold Justice
Published by Toni Anderson on June 12th 2018
Pages: 311
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three-half-stars

Searching for the truth…

Disgraced investigative journalist Pip West is devastated when she discovers her best friend’s body face-down in a tranquil lake. When cops and federal agents determine that her friend overdosed then drowned, Pip knows they’re mistaken and intends to prove it.

Special Agent Hunt Kincaid doesn’t trust journalists and has no patience for Pip’s delusions, especially since her meddling could reveal why the FBI is interested in her friend’s last days. The dead scientist worked at the cutting edge of vaccine research and might have a connection to a new, weaponized, vaccine-resistant anthrax strain that just hit the black market.

…just turned deadly.

Pip is thrown off her game by grief and her unexpected attraction to the handsome federal agent. Hunt battles the same unwelcome pull, determined to resist the heat that threatens to consume them both. But the more Pip digs, the closer she gets to both the sexy FBI agent, and to a bioweapons terrorist who’s more than capable of cold-bloodedly sacrificing anyone who gets in his way.

Toni Anderson’s poised writing is always finely balanced between intricate details, action and intriguing development—well, this is no different. But it’s good to see ‘Cold-Blooded’ starting afresh (either that, or I really can’t seem to remember these protagonists popping up anywhere else) with an entirely new pairing without the strong links to the rest of the characters in Anderson’s previous books as it reads like a proper standalone.

The uneasy relationship between journalists and law enforcement is the crux of Pip’s and Hunt’s initial conflict here and like oil and water, they don’t mix. Both Pip and Hunt get off on the wrong foot and their incompatible goals, along with the secrets kept—not to mention the cloud of grief and mourning that surrounds Pip from the start—pretty much define first half of their bumpy ride together.

Pip and Hunt as a pairing however, does feel like an optional ‘add-on’ in some ways, put together because of their own different inroads into the same investigation with mere hints of attraction and tension that stretch past the halfway mark. That this happens over the course of an intense few days, so much so that it causes Hunt to reevaluate his no-commitment stance after good sex, does make their instalove/connection more implausible and unconvincing (this much is admitted by the characters themselves).

Bottomline is, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was always some kind of wall separating them—Hunt’s indirect way of using Pip to further his investigation, Pip’s grief and her own uncertainty about Hunt as a law enforcement officer and what he represents, the implicit but telling lack of trust on both sides even towards the end of the story—and this barrier didn’t feel as though it’d been overcome by the end of the story, given how they’d only gotten to know each other incidentally (and in bits and pieces) while working the case.

Minus the romance however, Anderson’s storytelling nonetheless, is compelling. Weaving the elements of what appear to be shady circumstances of related homicides and drug use as both Pip and Hunt dig unrelentingly deeper into this tangled web…well, this is Anderson in her element. These are the bits I’ve always enjoyed about Anderson’s writing, even if I thought the romantic relationship between Pip/Hunt could have been left out and ‘Cold Blooded’ would have come out as tighter, more focused story.

But my being less sceptical about the romance doesn’t make ‘Cold Blooded’ a bad book. Far from it, in fact, despite the small conflict I had buying into Pip and Hunt together. I definitely enjoyed this more as a mystery/suspense novel rather than one classified as romantic suspense, but perhaps the base line that matters here is that Toni Anderson writes well enough for me to stayed glued to the pages.

three-half-stars

Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren

Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina LaurenJosh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren
Published by Gallery Books on 4th September 2018
Pages: 320
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two-stars

Hazel Camille Bradford knows she’s a lot to take—and frankly, most men aren’t up to the challenge. If her army of pets and thrill for the absurd don’t send them running, her lack of filter means she’ll say exactly the wrong thing in a delicate moment. Their loss. She’s a good soul in search of honest fun.

Josh Im has known Hazel since college, where her zany playfulness proved completely incompatible with his mellow restraint. From the first night they met—when she gracelessly threw up on his shoes—to when she sent him an unintelligible email while in a post-surgical haze, Josh has always thought of Hazel more as a spectacle than a peer. But now, ten years later, after a cheating girlfriend has turned his life upside down, going out with Hazel is a breath of fresh air.

Not that Josh and Hazel date. At least, not each other. Because setting each other up on progressively terrible double blind dates means there’s nothing between them...right?

Josh and Hazel are apparently undateable together—that much power-writing duo Christina Lauren wants to bring across. But the irony is that they are never better matched despite their opposite ways, as the story trundles on. Both go on blind double dates (mostly disasters), get on as good friends (loads of banter and nonsense talk), then finally realise that they do actually belong together.

After having quite a good time with a few of this duo’s books, jumping into Lauren’s ‘Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating’ was something I eagerly did…that is, until the very first chapter caught me out with the antics of a female protagonist I had a bad feeling about.

There’s no other way for me to say this, but I simply found Hazel cringe-worthy. At least, there’s the part where the adorable, bumbling fool kind of woman would probably find purchase with many readers because it’s so obvious how flawed she is. Unfortunately, she simply read like a protagonist who couldn’t grow up and stayed that way so as to become as a plot device mirroring the loud, clueless millennial—as reported about with derision in the newspapers these days—who stumbles over everything and says whatever her mouth decides to say without engaging her brain.

But unlike Bridget Jones, she appears fully formed, owns her quirks, and pretty much heads the movement for how women should be themselves (and proud of it for going through men, not wanting commitment) without changing for anyone…which is a good thing right?

Um.

For me, it was too much, too hard, too affected because it felt like the authors were trying too hard to make her the kind of woman who’s just like a commitment-phobic male protagonist unable to hold a relationship. Written as larger than life because it’s fiction and drawn up so deliberately like a character in a sitcom or as a mirror of this kind of male hero, Hazel simply made me sigh in resignation and not in a good way.

Unlike the usual style of Lauren’s that compelled me to read what this writing duo has done so far—the first person narrative, the huge touch of the insane in this romcom—this book started as a rough ride for me, oddly so because of its very lighthearted feel that just didn’t leave me clutching my sides in laughter. It did get somewhat better as Josh and Hazel find their groove together first as good friends, but I couldn’t really hold an interest in a book where the protagonists obliquely get closer together while dating others.

In short, it’s a story that will appeal to many, but it isn’t one for me.

two-stars

Shipped by Karrie Roman

Shipped by Karrie RomanShipped by Karrie Roman
Published by NineStar Press on 18th June 2018
Pages: 258
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three-stars

Ryan Lowe has been a lonely nobody all his life. The only time he ever feels the rush of living is when he’s acting. Wanting to get as far away from his small town life and alcoholic father as possible, he leaves Australia to pursue a career as an actor in the bright lights of Hollywood, never stopping to consider the fame that might come with it.

Lucas Evers understands fame. He’s been a successful actor on the small-screen for years and loves his career. Nothing comes for free though, and the price he’s paid for his success is keeping who he is hidden from the world. He married his best friend to keep both of their secrets, and until now, he has been content with the cost of his fame.

When Lucas and Ryan are cast in a new television series based on a wildly popular book series everything changes for them. The show is a worldwide hit and together they have just become the most popular ship on the planet. As they begin to realize it’s not just their characters falling in love, the cost of their fame rises. Together they must face stalkers, anxiety, panic attacks, and attempted murder.

My mind went straight to some odd, romantic version of ‘Supernatural’ the moment I started ‘Shipped’ and thankfully, Lucas and Ryan aren’t brothers. Just co-stars who have an electrifying connection that neither can separate from screen time when life starts to imitate art. Or rather, fiction imitating art, when UST on-screen bleeds off-screen and turns everything else awkward between a supposedly happily-married rising star in Hollywood and a new guy from Down Under.

Whatever is done onscreen thus, is repeated off-screen so as readers, there’s double the dose of UST to pining to RST—a bonus if you want the repeat for both Lucas/Ryan and Sam/Dom because it all gets washed and rinsed through twice. It actually became confusing to me at times when their stories got so intertwined in the beginning of the story, thereafter sagged in the middle the moment ‘real life’ for Lucas and Ryan took over.

What sat oddly with me was the New Adult feel in ’Shipped’, dialogue and all (some were cringeworthy because I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to snort), when I think I just expected something more ‘adult-ish’ in the storytelling. Between Ryan being generally overwhelmed with everything and the constant self-recriminating ‘I’m always unloved’ vibe and Lucas doing the hormonal self-introspection about his own ‘marital’ status, I thought their relationship pretty much wobbled from bursting-at-the-seams-teenage-angst to trying-valiantly-to-adult and back again. Throw in the dark side of fame and fortune and the cycle of dysfunction is quite complete.

On the bright side, if you like 2 very, very earnest men finding their feet around each other while hanging on desperately with everything the world throws at them, ‘Shipped’ is the just book to read.

three-stars

A Daughter’s Choice by Lee Christine

A Daughter’s Choice by Lee ChristineA Daughter's Choice by Lee Christine
Series: A Mindalby Outback Romance Series #4
Published by Escape Publishing on 31st July 2018
Pages: 190
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two-half-stars

Mindalby, a small town, a community, a home. But when the mill that supports the local cotton farmers and employs many of the town's residents closes unexpectedly, old tensions are exposed and new rifts develop. Everyone is affected and some react better than others, but one thing is certain: living on the edge of the outback means they have to survive together, or let their town die.

Lynsey Carter's relationship with her father is fraught, so when she hears that the cotton mill that is her birthright has closed down (and her father is lying low), she returns to Mindalby to support her mother and seek out answers. She hasn't been back since high school, since she left her heart behind with Julian Stone. But Julian didn't want it, or her; he wanted a life in Mindalby.

Torn between family loyalty and duty to the community, between the life she's built for herself and the passion for Julian she just can't seem to shake, Lynsey needs to decide if her home–coming is for a visit – or for real.

I’ve always like Lee Christine’s writing and ‘A Daughter’s Choice’ is no different. The context and the circumstances in which this story are unusual to say the least, though distilled, it’s one of a girl returning home to the Australian Outback to take care of affairs that have gone awry (thanks to a corrupt, deadbeat father), then meeting an old flame who’d broke her heart. With a narrative built around the failure of a mill on which the livelihood of a small community depends, Lynsey and Julian reunite out of necessity—returning home does that in a small town—and it takes only just a few days together to remind them how good they could be and have been.

But more on that later.

Pacing-wise, I thought the story did drag on a bit when it became slower going than I expected (Christine is an author I read for romantic suspense after all) and the slower pace did throw me off a bit. That translated to me put this down and taking it up numerous times, and when I took it up, there were parts I trudged through just trying to stay interested in the subject matter.

Apart from following the developments and the slight suspense written into this (which perked me up), I was baffled how Lynsey and Julian fell into bed when nothing between them was resolved, all within a few days after a separation of 9 years. Julian’s supposed friends-with-benefits situation with another woman seemed to become a non-issue when I’d actually hoped for that particular casual relationship to be dissolved even before Lynsey/Julian got together again. Admittedly, second-chance romances don’t necessarily sit all too well with me when the slightest thing give me cause to question the validity of the reunion. Essentially, I thought there were relationship issues which needed ironing out but felt glossed over in favour of the suspense despite both protagonists trying to be mature about themselves.

In all, the dive into the Australian Outback is always a cultural shift that I love to read about after all because such writers—and I’ve gone through quite a few of them—offer such different perspectives especially in the romance genre, I think I surprised myself most of all by not really feeling this story at all.

two-half-stars