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Black List by Lynn Raye Harris

Black List by Lynn Raye HarrisBlack List by Lynn Raye Harris
Series: Black's Bandits #1
Published by H.O.T. Publishing, LLC on 26th March 2019
Pages: 300
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three-stars

Jace Kaiser is a man without a country, without connection. His only loyalty is to the group who saved him, and the man who leads them.
Until her...

The assignment should have been easy. Capture a deadly assassin and take her to HQ. But flawed intel leads to disaster, and Jace abducts a beautiful art appraiser instead. Intrigued by her courage, he's drawn to her in ways he can't explain. Dr. Madeline Cole stood up to him, fought for her identity, and never backed down. She's the kind of woman he could fall for if it wasn't so dangerous--for her.

Then Maddy is targeted for elimination because she's the sole person who can identify the mysterious female assassin--and the only thing standing between her and certain death is the sexy mercenary who swears he'll die before he lets anything happen to her. As the passion between them ignites, it seems clear that keeping Maddy safe has become the most important assignment of Jace's life.

Even then, protecting her might not be enough--because Jace has secrets that could destroy them both. And someone is determined to unmask them all...

Ian Black has always been an enigmatic character in Lynn Raye Harris’s canon of H.O.T. men and the call for his book that has instead led to a whole new series—hopefully leading up to Black’s own story—that actually has me intrigued. The tone’s slightly different here, along with a lot more tight-lipped head nodding, the telling of lies and covert operations, just as the suspense and action are toned down a little more.

But the ‘Black List’, however, despite it revolving around Black’s shenanigans, his pivotal and black-op dabbling in international affairs and his merry group of men, was just a little more than lukewarm for me, despite the initial, exciting premise of mistaken identity, spies and double agents.

It was made clear that Jace Kaiser had a fractured history, but I think I would have liked a greater insight into his past than just the short retelling of what happened to him and his sister—a story that did in the end, turn out central to the entire plot. The focus however, on surveilling Madeline Cole and Jace’s very brazen attempt to seduce her instead, made the middle of the book flat for me, and pulled the story towards more instant lust than love. Or at least the journey from the former to the latter seemed to typically involve a streak of protective behaviour first that somehow translated into love after a very short period of time.

A main issue I’ve struggled with here, especially with a classic Lynn Raye Harris male protagonist is the sudden impetus to put roots down after a sudden, intense burst of action and adrenaline. How had Maddy’s blowjob ranked differently from the rest of the other women for Jace, despite the fact that he’d been given many blowjobs by women (which has got to be one of the most distasteful things I’ve ever read)? Had he simply fallen for her because he’d had a bit more time with her and had developed a need to protect her (keeping in mind that he’d had another one night stand just before meeting her)?

In any case, Maddy/Jace’s romance didn’t feel the most convincing of the lot that Harris had done so far—unbelievability played a huge part of it for me, at least like they hadn’t gone through enough together to be a rock-solid pairing I could get behind. The cloak and dagger business of Ian Black’s activities was also something I wanted more of but didn’t really get so it’s something I can only hope to see more in the next few books.

three-stars

Flirting with Disaster by Jane Graves

Flirting with Disaster by Jane GravesFlirting with Disaster by Jane Graves
Series: The DeMarco Family #3
Published by Tule Publishing on 16 April 2019
Pages: 438
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two-stars

He was the man she couldn’t have…she was the woman he couldn’t forget.

On a humanitarian mission to fly doctors to a remote village in Mexico, pilot Lisa Merrick discovers something sinister lurking behind the organization in charge. Her plane is sabotaged, leaving her trapped in the Mexican wilderness with a price on her head and no way out. Injured and desperate, she contacts the one man she knows will help her: Dave DeMarco, a tough but compassionate Texas cop with whom she was once wildly in love.

Dave DeMarco is stunned when a woman from his past calls him late one night with an incredible story of smuggling, sabotage and attempted murder. Soon, though, his mission to rescue Lisa becomes a struggle for survival against an enemy who wants them both dead. When the danger they face clashes with the passion that still burns between them, Dave vows to protect the woman he never stopped loving – and keep her in his life forever.

‘Flirting with Disaster’ is my first Jane Graves book—an author that somehow slipped under my radar—and from what it looks like, a second edition reprint of a previously-published book of the early 2000s.

This does feel like reading an older style of romantic suspense so to speak: where action and passion collide, both burning hot and fast, the protagonists (linked only by a tenuous thread in their high school years very long ago) suddenly diving into each other like the end of the world is coming when danger flares. Somehow I think of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in ‘Speed’, or some other movie in that sort of similar make, where the connection is fast but cursory and I can’t think of anything else past that moment of seizing the day.

Like a movies with scenes told through multiple POVs at breakneck pace, both Dave and Lisa felt like they were carved out of stereotypes at times. The white-knight with a messiah complex, going by way of the cop family tradition and the latter, a wildcard, impulsive and petulant pilot who runs off the deep end just because she can, self-absorbed in putting her own needs and ambitions first (with several TSTL moments), and as a result turns out to be pretty much the female equivalent of the manwhore.

I wasn’t comfortable with the bashing of the dead wife, when it felt like the justification of the romance both Dave/Lisa had going on. Essentially, with the total opposites in play here—the needy, dependent late-wife vs. the fierce, independent woman who’d never left Dave’s memories at all felt like unnecessary drama and ruined it for me. What was wrong with having Dave in a happy or fulfilling marriage with a perfectly good wife before taking up with Lisa as a widower? Why was it necessary to dishonour his previous relationship by saying that Dave admit Lisa a very long time at the very end, all throughout his marriage to another woman—with emotional adultery? (I guessed this was a trigger that was pulled for me)

The secondary romance between Sera/Adam was oddly, the one that drew me in more. I liked their dynamic better, perhaps more so because it also revolved around a dead spouse without the misplaced affections.

In any case, ‘Flirting with Disaster’ was a quick read, but a middling one at best. Graves does write well undoubtedly, but it was just the pairing that didn’t do much for me.

two-stars

Rocky Ground by Kaylea Cross

Rocky Ground by Kaylea CrossRocky Ground by Kaylea Cross
Series: Crimson Point #4
Published by Kaylea Cross Inc. on 26th March 2019
Pages: 203
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two-half-stars

She’s been hurt too many times…

Single mom Tiana Fitzgerald has sworn off all romantic relationships to protect herself and her daughter. Her track record is disastrous and she’s done getting hurt. But a certain sexy Scotsman in Crimson Point has other ideas, and somehow manages to sneak past her defenses at every turn. As the hits keep coming and her life implodes, she begins to see he’s unlike any man she’s ever known. Now he’s become the greatest threat to her heart, because there’s no possible future for them. Not when he’s leaving the country in a few weeks. And when her worst fears are realized, she must risk everything by placing her trust in in his hands.

He’s determined to capture her heart.

Scotsman Aidan MacIntyre never saw the fiery, beautiful Tiana coming. The prickly redhead has gotten under his skin as badly as he wants to get under hers. But she’s determined to keep walls between them. Luckily the former Royal Marine doesn’t know how to give up. Someone from her past wants to hurt her, but Aidan will stand between her and any threat. He’ll stop at nothing to protect her and the little girl who have completely stolen his heart—and fight for them to have a future together.

‘Rocky Ground’ didn’t appeal personally for reasons that I’ll readily admit are formed out of my own biases: that the whole story is built around bad, past relationships and exes, where the conflict has more to do with confronting one’s own bad decision making even with the small town support rather than the military-type, global-conspiracy kind of suspense I’m so used to Kaylea Cross producing over the years.

Never more so does it look more so like Hallmark with sexy times in Cross’s Crimson Point series; where issues that flare up are more domestic but everything is neatly wrapped up in a neat bow. The good and bad guys are so clearly delineated that an obvious volcanic vent in the rock separates them, where good and evil even more clearly separated. And that’s all well and good I guess, since it’s more than arguable—or at least blindingly obvious—that many people do turn to romantic fiction for the HEAs, the clear sense of good guys winning and the cosy, wrapped-up, feel-good endings when real life tends to offer the opposite…and that much I understand.

I can’t say that Aiden and Tiana HEA wasn’t hard won really, yet I couldn’t help but want a bit more grit/dark elements (or dare I say, tragedy or death, and not just for the bad guys?) where this series was concerned—where the protagonists have to deal with something more brutal that’s not written off the pages but on it, where picking things up in the most painful of ways should mirror some of the struggles faced in real life.

But I digress, as bent as I am on this somewhat sadistic path, even for fictional characters.

The bottomline is, I read ‘Rocky Ground’ through very easily (in fact, the Crimson Point books didn’t fare all too well with me), but wasn’t as moved as I have been by Cross’s other books. Tiana didn’t seem like a character I liked too much, while Aiden’s charming self—along with his persistence and his integrity—fared just a bit better. For the stalwart Kaylea Cross fan however, ‘Rocky Ground’ does have a variety of inserts to make the story flow: an evil ex, a natural disaster, a predictable but rather absorbing climax before the confetti-throwing, fairy-tale ending. It’s just not a story that stayed with me much.

two-half-stars

Still Burning by Leora Gonzales

Still Burning by Leora GonzalesStill Burning by Leora Gonzales
Series: Braving the Heat, #3
Published by Lyrical Press on 28th May 2019
Pages: 227
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two-stars

Sasha Kendall grew up in a family of firefighters. So when she falls hard for Jack Turner, her brother’s best friend and fellow firefighter, everyone's thrilled. But when her brother is killed in the line of duty, Sasha knows she can’t handle another loss. Jack will have to choose between her and his career . . .

Jack knew Sasha was meant for him right away—the same way he knew he was meant to fight fires and saves lives. Letting Sasha go was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do. But even though she left town, he’s never given up hope that heat between them still burns . . .

Four years later, Jack and Sasha meet again at a friend’s wedding—older, wiser, and hotter than ever. Will they flame out, or do they finally have what it takes to keep their love alive for good . . .

Coming straight into this particular story without having read the previous books, the setup of the ‘Still Burning’ isn’t difficult to grasp: there’s the death of a firefighter, some grieving and a breakup—written and done in short order in the first chapter before the story picks up again 4 years later.

And this is on me, really, not having realised that this was a second-chance romance that had iffy conditions surrounding a pairing’s reunion when I requested this book. Mea culpa.

But I suppose having a protagonist rub you the wrong way didn’t bode well for the entire read at all.

There just weren’t enough emotional peaks and troughs in what I thought could have been a turbulent, heartfelt reunion between a couple who split so suddenly. I get it—the death of a loved one can make people do things. Stupid things or otherwise. But I didn’t feel it too much here, sadly, except for the gross injustice Sasha dealt Jack when she upped and left and cut off all frantic contact with him the the next 4 years, without much that she needed to make up for even when they finally met again.

That Jack suddenly muscled back in on her date out of the blue in 4 years, asking to try again, without the breathless feels, the awkwardness and the backlog of pain and angst took me by surprise for starters, at how…too easy it all went. And having come across as rash, selfish and impulsive after breaking up with Jack over the fact that Sasha couldn’t date another firefighter, to the extent where it was ‘easier’ to suffer a break up than risk him dying, playing the non-committal woman the second time around who just didn’t do enough to fight for a relationship made it all tank for me. I mean, should that poor man really do all the work here?

Throw in some odd and perplexing time jumps past their reunion, the unresolved arson case, and the unwelcome intrusion of a psychotic ex-girlfriend to stir up more drama and I was about done with the bumpy reading experience. That Jack hadn’t moved on properly, so to speak, with an insane woman stalking him and creating more drama—using the villainous ex as a plot device to steer the reader’s attention to how Sasha’s the only one for him-didn’t sit well at all.

Needless to say, ‘Still Burning’ didn’t work out as a good read for me. I’d hoped I was getting a brother’s-best-friend kind of trope, but hey, failing to read the blurb properly after the initial excitement of seeing another firefighter story? That’s my fault.

two-stars

The Risk by Elle Kennedy

The Risk by Elle KennedyThe Risk by Elle Kennedy
Series: Briar U #2
Published by Elle Kennedy Inc. on 18th February 2019
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three-stars

Everyone says I’m a bad girl. They’re only partly right—I don’t let fear rule me, and I certainly don’t care what people think. But I draw the line at sleeping with the enemy. As the daughter of Briar’s head hockey coach, I’d be vilified if I hooked up with a player from a rival team.

And that’s who Jake Connelly is. Harvard’s star forward is arrogant, annoying, and too attractive for his own good. But fate is cruel—I require his help to secure a much-coveted internship, and the sexy jerk isn’t making it easy for me.
I need Connelly to be my fake boyfriend.

For every fake date…he wants a real one.

Which means this bad girl is in big trouble. Nothing good can come from sneaking around with Jake Connelly. My father would kill me, my friends will revolt, and my post-college career is on the line. But while it’s getting harder and harder to resist Jake’s oozing sex appeal and cocky grin, I refuse to fall for him.

That’s the one risk I’m not willing to take.

Enter the raunchy world of college hookups, the infamous laddish, cocky behaviours of manwhore athletes, competitive sports (typically hockey) and the bumpy transition from hormonal young adulthood to equally hormonal adulthood. At least, this is how I’ve seen Elle Kennedy’s college campus series shaping out to be thus far—I’ve not been wrong here—and ‘The Risk’ continues in this similar fashion as Kennedy milks the shallows of college life, only with a fraternising with the enemy vibe from the beginning.

Brenna Jensen and Jake Connelly play for opposing teams though the friction that comes when they cross paths is perhaps better summed up as ‘love and hate being 2 sides of the same coin’. There are too many reasons why the mutual attraction shouldn’t be given into, and god forbid that Jake should have any say at all in who Brenna chooses to hook up with. It’s a predictable journey thereafter; emotions develop after they get down and dirty, and along with their futures getting put on the line as well.

It always takes a bit of a mental adjustment for me to get into Elle Kennedy’s construction of her New-Adult world anyhow: there’re often bursts of selfish, juvenile behaviour and several moments of ’the world is bigger than me’ revelation, which also have my sympathies for the characters going up and down like a yo-yo. My reservations, perhaps have also got to do with the feeling that I’m reading about protagonists who simply don’t show enough depth despite the angsty teenage struggles they face…and that they’ve still not done enough of growing up by the end of the book.

And for that reason I can’t quite connect or root for them. Brenna/Jake weren’t exactly likeable protagonists at all—I did think they were selfish and immature in their own ways, even though their tussles were amusing at the very least. What was somewhat frustrating was the hint of unrequited love at the end—a pining best friend doesn’t get the man she’s always wanted, while said man goes for someone who couldn’t quite be compassionate about the hurt that this caused—and that the HEAs in the series are stubbornly about people who don’t always seem the best matched couple.

Given the glowing reviews about Kennedy’s Off-Campus series and the Briar U series, I’m well aware that I’m standing off to one side being sceptical of what pairing Kennedy will churn out next. There’s no doubt that she does tell an engaging story. I just wish I could have liked it more.

three-stars

Protecting Piper by Cynthia Eden

Protecting Piper by Cynthia EdenProtecting Piper by Cynthia Eden
Published by Hocus Pocus Publishing, Hocus Pocus Publishing inc. on 29th January 2019
Pages: 178
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two-stars

She was off limits.

Eric Wilde has always known that Piper Lane isn’t for him. She is his younger brother’s best friend…and probably more. But that hasn’t stopped Eric from wanting her. For longing for the one woman that he can’t have. Sure, he’s rich, successful—he’s built a security empire, and he’s got the world at his feet. Only he doesn’t have her.

He is the one man she needs the most.

Free-spirited Piper Lane has always considered Eric to be the enemy. He’s seemed to resent her, and the guy just flat-out makes her nervous. Every time she’s around him, she winds up doing something horribly embarrassing. But, this time…everything has changed. This time, he’s the one man she needs the most.

Something is stalking Piper.

A stranger has broken into Piper’s home twice, and she feels like someone is following her. Watching her every move. She needs a professional to help her—so enter Eric Wilde. He promises her protection, he promises to put his best investigators on her case, and he even moves her into his house. Suddenly, the guy who has always been the villain in her life…he’s now playing the role of hero.

Everything will change as the danger mounts.

And maybe Eric isn’t so bad, after all. The more time that Piper spends with him, the more she realizes that her feelings for Eric are far more complicated that she ever imagined. Desire explodes between them even as the danger deepens around her. Someone in the dark is targeting Piper, and he is determined that if he can’t possess her…then he will destroy her.

‘Protecting Piper’ was one I was eager to read, seeing how it was not tied to any of the long-running Cynthia Eden series at all and that it does have the best friend’s brother’s trope (and the sort of liking each other from afar) in it.

Apart from the very quick suspense setup that Piper Lane had a stalker, the first half however, was off-putting.

And that was mostly in part due to Eric Wilde who acted the epitome of the bully who couldn’t use his words to pursue the girl, who bulldozed and snarled his way through every man who came near to Piper when he didn’t throughout all the years he’d known her.

That Eden played up the double standard here —having Eric question the number of lovers Piper had while he screwed around with tons of others—was rather infuriating, along with the juvenile behaviour Eric displayed of tormenting her because he supposed loved her from afar, while not manning up to do anything about it until she was in danger. Having Piper going inexplicably from teenage crush to dislike to all-in love made the inconsistencies in the characters’ emotional development even starker.

Eden’s rather simple whodunnit novella would have been more enjoyable I think, had there not been her trademark overuse of ex-lovers always circling the pond and muddying the waters between the protagonists. ‘Protecting Piper’ became a less-than-stellar read as a result, where the romance was reduced to sudden realisations that they’d been idiots all along while ex-lovers rigorously defended as meaningless.

two-stars

Touch of Eon by Anna Hackett

Touch of Eon by Anna HackettTouch of Eon by Anna Hackett
Series: Eon Warriors #2
Published by Anna Hackett on January 6th 2019
Pages: 143
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two-stars

She’ll do anything to free her sister and save the Earth from invasion, even if she’s blackmailed into stealing sacred alien artifacts…and becomes the prey of the dark, deadly warrior sent to hunt her down.

Special Forces Space Marine Lara Traynor wants to save her sister and her planet from annihilation by the deadly insectoid Kantos. Earth’s Space Corps give her one option: steal three gems sacred to the Eon Warriors. Lara has never failed a mission and she doesn’t plan to start now. What she doesn’t expect is the big, hard-bodied warrior the Eon sent to stop her.

Security Commander Caze Vann-Jad was born and raised to be the best Eon warrior in the empire. Honed by the military academy, his years as a stealth agent, and by his hard warrior father, he has never failed. He knows one weak, inferior Terran is no match for him. But when he finds himself face to face with the tough, skilled Lara, he realizes he’s underestimated the female warrior.

When they are attacked by a Kantos kill squad, it soon becomes clear that the Kantos are planning something far darker and dangerous. Caze and Lara are forced to change their dangerous battle of wits and skill into a fierce battle for survival. Neither of these fighters believe in love, but on the trail of a stolen gem, they will ignite an unstoppable desire, and discover that not only are their lives at stake, but their hearts as well.

As with every Anna Hackett book, ‘Touch of Eon’ is action-packed and a showcase of her wonderful imagination—it’s the main reason I always dive into her stories when they come out as a means of fond escapism.

The overall adventure is fun and I do see shades of all the pop culture syfy classic movies in it. The Eon world is a fascinating one, but I’d found the side-reveals—of the origins, their history—more interesting than a pairing that felt like a replication of the pairings that Hackett has been writing thus far.

I just wasn’t pulled into the characters at all; Lara Traynor’s boastful impudence and arrogance made her unlikeable from the start and the similarity the enemies-to-lovers vibe this story bears to Eve Traynor’s and Davion’s story (stubborn, super-human earth women fighting big strong eon warriors and taunting them) makes ‘Touch of Eon’ read like a copy of its predecessor save for the different challenges they go through. Throw in the instant love and attraction which happened at the speed of light between Lara and Caze and suddenly, two protagonists who never believed in relationships are pledged as mates and believers.

Essentially, the Eon series isn’t my favourite and I’m still remaining on the sceptical side of the fence with this.

two-stars