Tag: Contemporary Romance

Happy Hour by Piper Rayne

Happy Hour by Piper RayneHappy Hour by Piper Rayne
Series: Charity Case #3
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on 12th July 2018
Pages: 306
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The perfect man for her is the one she hates most. #gofigure

Dating is hard. Dating in your thirties is even harder. Dating in Chicago is harder still.

I haven't given up on finding my happily-ever-after, but in the age of swiping right and Netflix and chill, I'm wondering if everything is as temporary as my marriage turned out to be.

Truth is, there is one guy I can't get my mind off of.

Roarke Baldwin has salt and pepper hair I've dreamed of running my hands through and I'm pretty sure that if I checked he really does have a six pack of abs underneath his suit. And I've always wondered what that stubble on his face would feel like between my thighs.

The problem? He's the one man I hate more than my ex-husband…

His divorce attorney.

The enemies-to-lovers trope is one that I really like and ‘Happy Hour’ is one of the few that I wanted to get into if only to read how a woman falls head over heels over her divorce attorney—one who helped her ex-husband screw her over (monetarily, at least).

Still, the sparks between Roarke Baldwin and Hannah Crowley have been hinted at for a while now and ‘Happy Hour’ is a story of a lost venue, a grudging turn to a nemesis and the subsequent build of a relationship that one has been hankering after more than the other.

The subsequent 5 favours that Roarke asks of the gun-shy Hannah is sweet-amusing in some ways; they’re all non-sexual and non-demeaning, as part of the contract and it was by and large fun to see how Roarke desperately tries to manoeuvre Hannah to where he wants her. The journey onward is predictable as a result: the favours draw Hannah and Roarke together, catalysing what we as readers know and expect that it would all end up as time between the sheets. The conflict itself is just as inevitable nonetheless and it’s something that’s been done dime a dozen times—addressing Hannah’s skewed view of men, their purpose and the place they play in her life.

The conclusion proved unsatisfying as a result. I did think it was unfair of Hannah to write marriage off completely after her very first one, even to a man who’d gone to bat for her in the end because it seemed to show there were some obstacles that Roarke couldn’t overcome in her life still, this being one of them, so much so that it felt as though they were still living in a compromised state as long as Hannah didn’t open herself to that possibility once more.

In contrast, Roarke came off as the sweeter, more open and vulnerable of the two, unlike the corporate shark I thought him to be. Solely written in Hannah’s POV, thereby exposing all her thought-processes that turned neurotic and paranoid at times, I know I would have preferred a glimpse into Roarke’s mind as well, particularly what he’d been thinking ever since he stuck her with the 5-favour-contract.

Most of the time, it felt as though Roarke had an insurmountable mountain to climb when it came to Hannah (her idiotic and sometimes bitchy self-denials and her refusal to trust) and what made me hesitant about my own rating about this book was how Hannah used her her mistrust of men after her disastrous marriage to judge everyone else who comes after. That she knew and admitted it, yet acted stupidly about it, made me feel sorrier for Roarke’s efforts that were doomed to fail because of her insecurities.

So if ‘Happy Hour’ started happy for me, it degenerated into more eye-rolling as I read on, mostly because I was rooting for Hannah to rise above her past—to be that sort of heroine is the kind I ship—but never quite got it by the end of it all.

Firestorm by Rachel Grant

Firestorm by Rachel GrantFirestorm by Rachel Grant
Series: Flashpoint #3
Published by Janus Publishing on 10th July 2018
Pages: 300
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CIA covert operator Savannah James is after intel on a potential coup in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but she needs a partner fluent in Lingala to infiltrate the organization. Sergeant First Class Cassius Callahan is the perfect choice, except he doesn’t like her very much. He doesn’t trust her, either, despite the sparks that flare between them, fierce and hot. Still, he accepts the assignment even though their cover requires Savvy to pose as his mistress.

They enter battle-worn Congo to expose the financing for the coup. A trail of cobalt, gold, and diamonds leads them into the heart of a jungle in which everyone is desperate to find the mother lode of ore and gems. Betrayal stalks them as they follow the money, but Savvy will stop at nothing to bring down the would-be dictator before he can ignite a firestorm that will engulf all of Africa.

Deep in the sultry rainforest, spy and Green Beret forge a relationship more precious than diamonds, but Cal knows Savvy is willing to sacrifice anything—or anyone—to complete her mission. As they near the flashpoint, Cal will have to save her from the greatest threat of all: herself.

Start a Rachel Grant book and it’s a sure-thing to surface only a few days later. It’s that intricate, that complex and that impossible to breeze through because of the details and the twists and turns that slowly come into play despite the deceptively simple beginning. A light-hearted read this isn’t, but ‘Firestorm’, like every other Grant read, always muscles in on the romantic suspense genre with a lot of audacious aplomb.

That kind of daring comes in from the beginning with Savannah James and Cassius Callahan going undercover, though the trajectory of the storytelling doesn’t stay in a direction you’d expect. There’re hooked roads, forked paths and unforeseen obstacles that constantly throw wrenches in the good ol’ plot, which makes ‘Firestorm’ and all-round absorbing ride. But beneath that, there are also gut-churning and tooth-rottingly salacious details revolving around exploitative sex, violence and mega-money deals in a hot zone in Africa—all of which Cal and Savvy try to uncover without compromising themselves—that can be difficult to power through.

Still, betrayals and disavowals are par for the course, and it’s akin to hopscotching blindfolded in a minefield. The lack of full disclosure, the deception and lies (whether necessary or not), tend to be one of my pet-peeves in such romances nonetheless. ‘The mission above all’ as mantra and the prolonged double-crossing that inevitably destroys a relationship account for what I’ve always thought of as the biggest failings in such stories. There are a few instances of that here, unsurprisingly as it is, when it comes down to spooks justifying their belief that the ends justify the means. That said, it makes for interesting, though not always enjoyable friction and conflict between Cal and Savvy.

In contrast to Cal’s open-book demeanour however, I was itching to unravel Savannah, or at least get to the real person behind the mission-above-all heartless character who’s seemingly been nothing more than a compassionless automaton in the first few books of this series. What I wasn’t prepared for was a tragic backstory to emerge, and one that should be uncomfortably close to women who’ve tried to rise in their careers. It isn’t to say there aren’t eye-rolling TSTL moments—like the stunt she pulls towards the end, which made me think that trust was still an issue, not to mention the stupid (and wrong) belief of doing even stupider things to in a self-sacrificing way that typically gets old and annoying.

As I’d initially expected, ‘Firestorm’ is a longer read than most typical romance-length books. Beyond the characters and the thrilling storyline, Grant takes her time laying out the context of the Central African region to the point where parts of the story feel like a anthropological documentary embedded into the rush of adventure…and for that alone, it’s not hard to consider ‘Firestorm’ a fantastic (and quite possibly, the best) addition to the series.

Major Crimes by Janie Crouch

Major Crimes by Janie CrouchMajor Crimes by Janie Crouch
Series: Omega Sector: Under Siege #4
Published by Harlequin Intrigue on 19th June 2018
Pages: 288
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three-stars

Working together would bring down a killer

But her secrets could tear them apart…

Hayley Green never wanted to see Omega special agent Cain Bennett again. Ever. He seduced her, then sent her to prison for hacking, and Hayley’s only just started piecing her life back together. Except now Cain needs Hayley’s help to catch a murderer. Their past is colliding with their still-smoldering attraction…and the only thing more dangerous than the killer is the secrets Hayley’s been keeping.

It isn’t often that I do up a review for a category book, not because they don’t work for me, but because the formulaic writing that seems to be dictated by length also tends to bring what could have been a stellar story down to a mediocre read. Too often this happens, even with authors that I like writing under such particular imprints.

The blurb of Janie Crouch’s ‘Major Crimes’ is exactly what I wanted to read—there was I knew, a huge amount of emotional distance to cover and loads of trust to regain on one side—because I had a gut feeling that I could sympathise strongly with a female protagonist who’d already gone through so much. And that happened in fact, to the point where I wondered if Hayley should have been stronger to fight off her attraction to the man who’d thrown her in jail and did nothing but hang on to his righteous attitude for the whole time.

Sailing through this however, left me a little less than satisfied. This is where the brevity of a typical Harlequin read works against the story: for Hayley’s traumatic past and her (rightful) hurt and anger at Cain, I’d expected more grovelling, more insight, more regret; instead, these were relegated to single-sentence telling rather than showing, leaving out the bits that could have made the emotions rawer and the forgiveness less easy to come by. (Vindictive self speaking here)

Coupled with the suspense and the action which overtook the emotional weight of their past that I badly wanted to read about, ‘Major Crimes’ wrapped up too easily and quickly for me, particularly when it came to kissing and making up. The wrongs were righted, the bad guy was shot and the HEA were all delivered of course, but I couldn’t nevertheless, imagine Hayley/Cain moving forward without the huge load of past hurts and resentment popping up from often in their future…and that sort of dragged the happy ending from under my feet.

three-stars

Chaos by J.M. Madden

Chaos by J.M. MaddenChaos by J.M. Madden
Series: Dogs of War #1
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on June 26th 2018
Pages: 201
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three-half-stars

Aiden Willingham has lived a hard life. As a Navy SEAL, he agreed to take part in an ultra-secret government testing program. The company running the program, the Silverstone Collaborative, has produced a serum from an Amazonian plant that’s been proven to enhance physical abilities and mental fortitude. Problem is, men-- heroes-- have died during the testing, and it’s time for the company to be taken down before more men die needlessly.

Aiden, along with three others, have escaped the camp with evidence of the company’s horrendous practices. Now they’re in a race to expose them. They’ve already lost one of their team, and the Collaborative’s mercenaries are converging.
Angela Holloway knew the homeless man with sadness in his eyes was trouble as soon as she saw him hanging around the site of a murder.

Uncooperative, he stonewalls her investigation, but draws her in when the badge comes off. Aiden has scars, both internal and external, that make her heart ache. It’s a serious no-no getting involved with a suspect… too bad her heart isn’t listening. As details come to light about what’s going on in her city, she has to fight for what she believes is right, as well as the man on the wrong side of the law.

I can’t recall the number of iterations of the enhanced super-soldier I’ve gone through, but by now, it’s probably a lot. The conspiracy, the theories, the villainous cold-blooded woman (this pops up too predictably), the tortured men and the paranormal abilities they’ve developed because of the secret testing program…well, I can’t get past those enough, it seems.

‘Chaos’ is another version of these stories, so what really differentiates such stories from one another would then be the quality of the storytelling, which I’ve found myself subconsciously assessing on a personal scale.

As much as I loved the prequel, ‘Chaos’ plunges straight into the meatier side of it, this time with a romance on top of it, as the very sympathetic Aiden Willingham finally gets some due justice alongside a capable woman who does seem perfectly matched for him. Better yet, there aren’t the shenanigans of men behaving like growling beasts (both in and out of bed) then given the official excuse thrown out time and again for their inevitable actions.

So, by and large, ‘Chaos’ is a decent read, but I did think that J.M. Madden’s writing tended to get lost in several loops at times—too much of this, too little of that, but these are clearly my own gripes.

There’s a lot going on in here (sometimes too much I think), which might account for the rambling telling rather than showing: the recounting of past events, the conflicted inner monologues, the ton of information and context that Madden seems desperate to relay to the reader. Like the book’s title, some parts were chaotic though shrouded in mystery, and as a result, slowed the pacing in the first quarter of the book where I’d expected more driving forward momentum.

That said, I’m curious to see how Madden will take this entire narrative arc—I’m eternally grateful that Madden doesn’t deliberately leaving a cackling villain who survives until the very end just to draw out the good-evil conflict—and that black hole of not knowing what will happen next in this case, is a very welcome one.

three-half-stars

Wanting You by Leslie A. Kelly

Wanting You by Leslie A. KellyWanting You by Leslie A. Kelly
Series: Hollywood Heat #2
Published by Forever Yours on 31st July 2018
Pages: 384
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three-stars

A cold case is suddenly too hot to handle

Police officer Rowan Winchester wants nothing to do with his family's A-list Hollywood legacy. Working with the LAPD is his way of atoning for the Winchesters' dark and secretive past. And, right now, the last thing Rowan needs is true-crime novelist Evie Fleming nosing around the most notorious deaths in Los Angeles - including the ones that haunt his own family. To make things worse, he's torn between wanting the wickedly smart writer out of his city... and just plain wanting her.

While researching her latest book, Evie suspects that a dangerous new killer is prowling the City of Angels. Now she just has to convince the devastatingly handsome cop that she's right. Soon Evie and Rowan are working together to try to find the killer, even as their attraction ignites. But when the killer hones in on Evie, she and Rowan realize they'll have to solve this case fast if they want to stay alive.

‘Wanting You’ reads more like a typical murder-mystery in the RS genre as compared to the previous book—since it involves law enforcement and a true crime writer—, which isn’t a bad thing. If Leslie A. Kelly’s first book in the series felt more like a glitzy portrayal of celebrity romance, Evie/Rowan’s story delves into the grittier side of violent crime in the seedy underbelly of Hollywood, with a lot less of the stardust that one would expect of this kind of story.

The book functions well as a standalone, but there’s a heavy reliance on a tragic narrative arc and a convoluted, mysterious back story involving child actors, fame and what might be cover-ups. Kelly recounts it just fine, so catching up wouldn’t be an issue at all if that’s a concern. Disparate pieces of the mystery did throw me off though, when I found myself struggling to make the connections between Rowan’s family history, Evie’s current writing project (and the dangers that brings on its own), a deranged stalker and how these really linked up when they felt like smaller, unrelated threads that weren’t satisfactorily tied together. The latter half of the book settled into a police procedural as the newly minted team of Evie and Rowan go on a serial killer’s trail and felt more predictable in the way it throws shadow on everything, though I did spend a goodly bit of time wondering where this was all leading.

Speaking of couple-chemistry, Evie and Rowan do clash in their objectives and that’s typically what I dig when it comes to the romantic portion of it all: the sparks, the secrets that the latter guards and what the former wants to crack open, all of which seemingly putting each other on opposite sides despite their attraction. The quick way they fell into lust which then strayed into a holding pattern that mostly had Rowan blowing hot and cold proved a lull unfortunately, along with the roundabout police procedural that made me skim a bit.

That said, I liked Evie a lot—her determination, her compassion and forwardness—and this was a huge plus point in the general unevenness of the storytelling, which, don’t get me wrong, is something that still piques my interest. Kelly’s writing can be absorbing, and even if there were parts I was more engrossed in than others, I’m this far into the series not to want the last book in it.

 

three-stars

Desperate Girls by Laura Griffin

Desperate Girls by Laura GriffinDesperate Girls by Laura Griffin
Series: Wolfe Security #1
Published by Gallery Books on 7th August 2018
Pages: 368
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four-stars

Defense attorney Brynn Holloran is right at home among cops, criminals, and tough-as-nails prosecutors. With her sharp wit and pointed words, she has a tendency to intimidate, and she likes it that way. She’s a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom, but in her personal life, she’s a mess.

When a vicious murderer she once helped prosecute resurfaces and starts a killing spree to wipeout those who put him behind bars, one thing becomes clear: Brynn needs to run for her life.

With no help from the police, Brynn is forced to take matters into her own hands, turning to a private security firm for protection. But when Brynn defies advice and gets involved in the investigation, even the former Secret Service agent assigned to protect her may not be able to keep her safe. With every new clue she discovers, Brynn is pulled back into the vortex of a disturbing case from her past.

As the clock ticks down on a manhunt, Brynn’s desperate search for the truth unearths long-buried secrets and reignites a killer’s fury.

‘Desperate Girls’ isn’t a title I’d immediately associated with the blurb of the story and it became quite clear from the onset that the story is so much more than the rather irrelevant-sounding title. As a sort-of offshoot of Laura Griffin’s Tracers series, I was eager nonetheless to take a closer look into Liam Wolfe’s Security company staffed by supersized heroes and the different kind of romantic suspense revolving around security that Griffin was going to write.

The stoic bodyguard who eventually falls for his principal when they are paired up—typically reluctantly on the latter’s part—as a threat escalates isn’t a new idea, but Griffin’s take on it is a unique, intriguing one, going further than the usual bodyguard-type romance. The standout as always, is Griffin’s writing, her ability to juggle so many elements at once while revealing the intricate details about the security business that simply go beyond shadowing a principal. The complexity of the police case, the red-herrings, solid protagonists and the well-researched and fantastic writing made ‘Desperate Girls’ an entertaining read, even though my rather shallow way of measuring this had partially to do with the amount of sleep I had the past few nights at night as I got lost in Griffin’s writing.

My only gripes were the few TSTL moments early on, the courtroom drama that proved a bit of a lull (I was more caught up in the danger of a psychopathic, escaped convict and the slow, amping up of the action) and the final plot-twist feeling like a last-gasp attempt at drama that proved to be downers for me. I did feel that characterisation suffered a little under the hyper-focus on the court case and the overall suspense but these however, weighed against how much I enjoyed the developing action nonetheless, probably seem somewhat churlish to include. Still, the pulse-pounding moments, all leading up to the action-movie-type ending (complete with the exotic location) seemed to be over too soon, leaving me eager for the next book in this promising series and its fresh, new cast of characters.

four-stars

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