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Eyeballs rolled into my head

Man Candy by Jessica Lemmon

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ New Adult/ Reviews 15th October 2017
Man Candy by Jessica LemmonMan Candy by Jessica Lemmon
Series: Real Love #3
Published by Loveswept on January 9th 2018
Pages: 191
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two-stars

Dax:
After spending the summer buried up to my eyeballs in my family’s affairs, I’m ready for a break. The kind of break where I can spend two solid weeks camping and fishing in the company of absolutely no one. Then I find myself directly in the path of a drop-dead gorgeous tornado by the name of Becca Stone. Who can resist a night with a damsel in distress? Especially when she happens to be a leggy blonde? The last thing I expect is for Becca to show up on my cabin doorstep the next night, shivering in the rain and ready for seconds.

Becca: One minute I’m admiring the rock-hard jaw of the Magic Mike lookalike who walks into my bar, and the next I’m getting fired by my own brother. Loudly. In front of everyone. Luckily Dax Vaughn is a gentleman who aims his white-hot smile at me. Oh, it’s on. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Then a torrential storm washes out the main road and causes a massive power outage, giving us two whole weeks to enjoy each other’s company. At which point Dax will go back home, leaving “us” in the rearview mirror. That’s the plan. Or it was . . . until I started falling for him.

Overall, an underwhelming read, particularly so when we’re simply taken through a bar hook-up, a lot of flirting and a session in bed thereafter, all within the starting pages.

Without the buildup of sexual tension or even any inkling of where Dax and Becca were going, I couldn’t quite see a direction for the story for the first half of the book, much less a couple with a path ahead of them since all they wanted was one night together.

With a lacklustre meeting, a hookup and inclement weather that forces a pairing together who really shouldn’t be together, the truth is, I was bored. Dax—the older hero who’s gotten his thoughts and convictions straight in his head—chases while Becca gives every excuse to run. And that’s the holding pattern that we see, which made it hard to see the point of their interaction, especially given a flaky female protagonist with a penchant for running away and not grow up.

Admittedly, I do prefer my heroines who dig in, get dirty (and not just in bed) and put themselves out there while holding up their big-girl panties in order to make the big decisions that really matter, so Becca just didn’t do it for me when all we get from her was insecure deflection and frustrating evasion because she simply couldn’t hold anything down, much less admit that she wanted Dax for longer than she thought. Commit-less, rootless and an emotional coward in every sense of the word, Becca’s contrast to Dax is a stark one and Jessica Lemmon’s attempt to bridge this gap through the slow revealing of their personal histories past the sex merely seemed to show how ill-suited they were for each other past their bedroom antics.

Somehow, ‘Man Candy’ reads like a story that I’ve come across elsewhere a hundred times—even role-reversal stories where the female protagonist only wants temporary arrangements are dime a dozen. While there is a huge amount of flirtation, scorching sex (which is never the problem in romance books anyway), I pretty much struggled with the lack of depth and the predictability in this book, as well as with a pairing forged out by lust and not too much else.

two-stars

Jax by Cristin Harber

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Military/Paramilitary/ Mystery/Crime/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 14th October 2017
Jax by Cristin HarberJax by Cristin Harber
Series: Titan #9
Published by Mill Creek Press on October 10th 2017
Pages: 258
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two-half-stars

Seven is an enigma. A motorcycle club princess. The daughter of a notorious gangster. The best friend of the deputy mayor. A coffee shop owner. The single mom of two young, adopted children. She’s colorful, in every way possible—from her attitude to her piercings and bright pink hair—and she’s a woman on a mission with the power to help broker a clean break between a powerful motorcycle club and a South American drug cartel. But not all players are ready for the game to change, including the ones she can’t see like the CIA. Jax Michaelson has a bad attitude and a good shot. The former Navy SEAL has been on Titan’s problem list for running his mouth since the day he showed up for work, but he does a hell of a job, and they’d never let him go. Call him cocky, that’s fine, because then you’d have to admit he’s the best at anything and everything—except diplomacy. When Titan is forced into the seedy drug world filled with cartel glitz and Harley-riding MCs, Seven and her family become an unexpected bargaining chip right after she and Jax find a way to stand each other—in bed. Will friends become lovers? Or are they too far gone to be opposites that attract? Is Jax nothing but a bad boy who leaves her hoping for a military hero when the burden of living as Mayhem royalty backfires and her children disappear.

One consistent thing about Cristin Harber’s characters is that they do tend to behave in ways I’ll never expect. Jax and Seven are no exception to this general rule that I’ve come to learn of the Titan gang; neither is the direction that Harber takes in this book that completely surprised me. Characters whom you thought you can’t warm to can suddenly turn around and show that the notion of ‘heroism’ doesn’t always conform to some pre-determined idea that you have…though as much as I hate to say it, the opposite applies too.

Titan’s ops thus far have been more paramilitary covert ops, so when Jax’s story came wrapped up in a MC’s dealings, I couldn’t say I was entirely enthusiastic about this turn, but it’s clearly my own sub-genre preferences speaking here. Jax, the known arse and the bastard-to-go-to in the past few Titan books, had a story and I was itching to uncover it, and this itch surpassed even my general dislike for MC stories.

The result is an MC-centric book that I couldn’t really get into but for Jax’s and Seven’s dance around each other and the fact that they aren’t quite the stereotypical characters I tend to read in such stories. There is action, of course and Jared Westin’s mobilisation of his Titan troops is always an awesome thing to read about, but that only comes much later…past the talking, posturing and the laborious sifting through truth and lies.

Above all, Jax made the story for me, as self-titled as this books is anyway, I didn’t expect anything different when Harber fleshed him out to be a protagonist who was so much more than his crusty, abrasive surface. I couldn’t quite say the same for the rest of the characters, who were simply varying shades of unlikable. In fact, I cheered Jax for giving it stubbornly to the Titan team who admittedly hadn’t been on his side to begin with and Jared/Sugar—a couple whom I’d adored when their book came out—behaved in fact, like idiots for most of this, tarnishing the sheen of the halo I’d initially put on them. Soon enough, it got just as hard to like Seven, whom I felt simply needed to grow a spine where Jax was concerned because she couldn’t decide where her loyalties were going to lie when it was all said and done.

‘Jax’ is a very different type of Titan book for which I needed a huge effort to suspend disbelief. That Jax’s so-called mortal enemy was dealt with all-too-easily—he was flitted in and out, appearing to play an important role but didn’t, and realising that he was ultimately, another plot device to help alter other characters’ perception of Jax tanked the read for me.

But I’ll reiterate that my own response to the plot and characters is just that—a catalogue of issues that just didn’t work for me, which simply outweighed Jax as the shining star of his own book and explains my half-hearted rating of it.

two-half-stars

Never Let Go by Cynthia Eden

Posted in Contemporary Romance/ Fantasy/ Military/Paramilitary/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense/ Speculative Fiction/ Urban Fantasy 28th September 2017
Never Let Go by Cynthia EdenNever Let Go by Cynthia Eden
Series: Lazarus Rising #1
Published by Hocus Pocus Publishing inc. on January 1st 1970
Pages: 278
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three-stars

He was more than just a man...

Dr. Elizabeth Parker didn't like wild, dangerous men...yet she still found herself falling for sexy Navy SEAL Sawyer Cage. He was her exact opposite--a man she should definitely stay away from, a man who lived for the thrill of danger...but he was also the man she found herself wanting more than any other.

But their secret relationship ended in heartbreak when Sawyer was killed on a mission. Grieving for him, the last thing Elizabeth ever expected was to find Sawyer listed as a test subject for the top secret government project she was heading--a project called Lazarus.

For years, Elizabeth had worked feverishly to unlock the secrets of life and death, and with her Lazarus formula, she finally thought she'd made a breakthrough. Only she never expected to use Lazarus on her lover.

But the choice is taken out of Elizabeth's hands...

Sawyer is given the Lazarus formula, and he's transported to a remote government facility. At that facility, Sawyer wakes once more, only he's not the same man. He's stronger, he's faster, his reflexes and his senses are ten times better than an average man's. The government calls Sawyer a super soldier... Elizabeth still calls him...hers.

Unfortunately, Sawyer has no memory of his life before Lazarus. All he knows is that something about the sexy doctor awakes a primal response in him. He wants her, and he'll do anything to possess her. Soul-deep, he feels that she was meant to be his.

Death waits in the darkness.

But something is wrong inside the Lazarus facility. The test subjects are holding back secrets, and danger seems to lurk in the air. The Lazarus subjects are super-human now, and some of those subjects have a very, very dark side. Twisted cravings drive them to the very edge of sanity. Can Sawyer keep Elizabeth safe from the madness around them...or will the growing darkness consume them both?

NEVER LET GO...a gripping new romantic suspense from New York Times and USA Today best-selling author Cynthia Eden.

There’s always something darkly seductive and irresistible about the super-soldier romance for me, seeing as these sort of stories are always finely balanced on the knife-edge of suspense and erotica. Depending on the severity of the super-soldier transformation however, it’s also undeniable that these tales run the risk of normalising the clichéd caveman behaviour of the heroes in question as the status quo in this sub-genre, as is the expected offshoot of writing altered personalities.

‘Never Let Go’ isn’t a new concept (Rebecca Zanetti’s Sin Brothers or Christine Feehan’s Shadowalkers come to mind immediately) though it definitely is an intriguing start, with a little twist of how the super soldiers actually get to where they are. I can’t quite say it’s a perfect read however, as it carries all the hallmarks of an establishing book with the same pattern of logic-deficient neanderthals who are primally ruled by instinct, libido and emotion…along with many loose ends which hint at a bigger picture that hasn’t yet quite coherently come together.

I’m still glad that Cynthia Eden has jumped on this bandwagon nonetheless, even though there are unavoidable pitfalls of this particular sub-genre of romantic/paranormal suspense: the most glaring ones being the cavemen who run around and the brutal savagery that results as part of their transformation, but also several authors’ tendencies to emphasise a narrowed definition of the good and the bad—no grey area of morality seems to exists apart from the questionable idea of ethics and playing god using frontier medicine and technology—which, if handled carelessly, can turn the characters into flatter and puppet-like figures.

And clearly, there were some parts where ‘Never Let Go’ that were grounded in those stereotypes, which tanked my enjoyment a little. As much as I liked Elizabeth’s and Sawyer’s early relationship before he went, well, ‘monstrous’, the middle bit of the story actually got quite hysterical, with parts resembling a b-grade slasher film as Sawyer struggled to fight the darkness in him and Elizabeth seemingly frozen between speechless terror and speechless desire. I was simultaneously horrified, incredulous and disbelieving, yet glued to the book while also wondering if there were going to be more mad turns and madder character deviations that the story was going to take.

That said, I’m not counting out this series just yet. Far from it, in fact. I just wish that I could have suspended my disbelief a little more, though there is cause for more cautious optimism given the hints that have already been dropped about the rest of the project and the other primals waiting in line to pounce.

three-stars

Heart of Fire by Amanda Bouchet

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Fantasy/ Magic/Paranormal/ Netgalley/ New Adult/ Reviews/ Speculative Fiction 24th September 2017
Heart of Fire by Amanda BouchetHeart on Fire by Amanda Bouchet
Series: Kingmaker Chronicles #3
Published by Piatkus on January 2nd 2018
Pages: 448
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two-half-stars

Who is Catalia Fisa?With the help of pivotal figures from her past, Cat begins to understand the root of her exceptional magic, her fated union with Griffin Sinta, and Griffin's role in shaping her destiny.

Only Cat holds the key to unlocking her own power, and that means finally accepting herself, her past, and her future in order to protect her loved ones, confront her murderous mother, and taking a final, terrifying step--reuniting all three realms and taking her place as the Queen of Thalyria.

What doesn't kill her will only make her stronger...we hope.

War-games and politics converge in the last installment of Amanda Bouchet’s Kingmaker series, though admittedly, it isn’t that much different from the first and second book, except for the fact that the plot moves on with loose ends consolidating and the sun setting over a new, united kingdom. In essence, a ‘Heart on Fire’s’ ending cannot come without sacrifice and blood and tears as with the epic tales that follow this trajectory, along with the big questions of destiny and human choice that run consistently through the narrative.

The biggest draw of this series had always been the intriguing mix of gods and people with magic swirling in the midst of them—with screwed up characters mingling with equally screwed up deities who do nothing but act on their own whims just because. It’s deeply imaginative and what I envisage pre-Christian, ancient Greek civilisation of mythology could have been, supercharged in a way that can only come alive in fiction with many modern inserts in it.

Yet apart from Greek gods messing around in people’s lives and paving the way for a woman who’s supposedly unique in the whole universe, I found myself having the biggest problem with Cat Fisa at the start: petulant, juvenile and reckless, though this isn’t too far-off from what might come from a teenage girl thrust into power and kingship, who’s doing everything she can just to survive and go with the flow.

But somehow I expect characters in New Adult fantasy to be larger than life with traits that transcend petty teen tendencies which means I need to see some kind of exponential growth from the Cat as the main protagonist, so the depiction of an immature twit with TSTL moments didn’t gel with these expectations. Yet because Cat annoyed me so much, the little pockets of drama involving secondary characters had turned out to be more entertaining than the main plot itself. As was the descriptions of the magical parts and the landscape that thrilled me more than the adventures of Griffin and Cat (who can suddenly grow wings) with too many ‘easy’ Deus Ex Machina devices here at play.

In short, ‘Heart of Fire’ wasn’t quite the breath of fresh air as the first book was, and it required a greater suspension of belief that took a lot of effort on my part. And before it becomes mortifyingly obvious that I’m just desperately digging around for things to like about this story, it’s probably best to say that this is a series that I should have stopped earlier on.

two-half-stars

The Pretender by HelenKay Dimon

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Edelweiss/ Mystery/Crime/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 23rd September 2017
The Pretender by HelenKay DimonThe Pretender by HelenKay Dimon
Series: Games People Play #3
Published by Avon on December 26th 2017
Pages: 368
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two-stars

They say it takes a thief to catch a thief, and Harrison Tate is proof. Once a professional burglar, he now makes a lawful living tracking down stolen art. No one needs to know about his secret sideline, “liberating” artifacts acquired through underhanded methods. At least until one of those jobs sees him walking in on a murder.

Gabrielle Wright has long been estranged from her wealthy family, but she didn’t kill her sister. Trouble is, the only person who can prove it is the sexy, elusive criminal who shouldn’t have been at the island estate on that terrible night. She’s not expecting honor among thieves—or for their mutual attraction to spark into an intense inferno of desire.

Under the guise of evaluating her family’s art, Harris comes back to the estate hoping to clear Gabby’s name. But returning to the scene of the crime has never been riskier, with their hearts and lives on the line.

‘The Pretender’ is HelenKay Dimon’s third foray into a group of mysterious men who do mysterious things and it’s one of those books that tend to leave me (as the previous books in this series have) with a very unfulfilled sense of ending, because of the very nature of these men and women who are frankly, difficult to get into.

It isn’t a slight on Dimon’s writing at all, because that itself is quite polished and I love this particular bit about Dimon that keeps me coming back for her books. In fact, the beginning chapter sucked me in straight as a watching art thief gets embroiled in a vicious murder, whose presence—should he confirm it—would exonerate a woman accused of many things. But from there onwards I found myself putting down and picking up the story so many times over the span of about a week or so, just unable to get deeper into the mystery that didn’t unfold as quickly for me as I liked.

There is a boat load of things going on, as there is a weird claustrophobic feel of the island setting as characters find themselves as potential pawns and suspects, but the pieces of this puzzle are doled out piecemeal and very sparingly in the first half.

It was tooth-clenchingly hard to get them put together, and I was frustrated when the pacing stuttered because the protagonists chose sex over talking too often, leaving half-truths on the table as trust is treated almost as secondary to passion. There is some form of continuing deception and dishonesty on both Harris and Gabby’s sides while a murderer is running loose, and this proves ultimately not only distracting but puts the whole relationship on shaky foundation that consequently made it hard to get invested in.

But because ‘The Pretender’ tried to juggle the whodunnit element of a mystery thriller with the obstacles of what deception might to do a relationship that began on the wrong footing, there were parts where the mystery was going nowhere when motives didn’t generally become that much clearer even as the story went on. Unfortunately, I found myself disappointed with this one—the difficulty in finishing the book was enough proof of it.

two-stars

The Charmer by Avery Flynn

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 16th September 2017
The Charmer by Avery FlynnThe Charmer by Avery Flynn
Published by Entangled: Select Contemporary on September 25th 2017
Pages: 212
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two-stars

Hot, filthy rich, and usually irresistible, Hudson Carlyle just met the one woman in Harbor City who’s immune to his legendary charm. Nerdy ant researcher Felicia Hartigan is the unsexiest dresser ever. She trips over air. And she’s in love with totally the wrong man. Hudson can’t stop thinking about her.

His regular moves won’t work here. He’s going to need a new plan, starting with helping her win over the man she thinks she wants. And if in the process she ends up falling for Hudson instead? Even better. Step one, charm her panties off. Step two, repeat step one as frequently as possible.

But what if the famous Carlyle charm finally fails him when he needs it most? Or worse, what if she figures out the one secret he’s kept from everyone, including his family, and walks away for good?

It’s evident from the beginning that ‘The Charmer’ is like a flip-off to the brother’s best-friend trope, a twist which is in itself, an interesting though tricky one. I don’t know why books that involve academics/geeks/researchers or brainy protagonists appeal so much, but they do. The moment I saw ‘Ant researcher’ in the blurb, I was quite sold on reading this, but was disappointed when it didn’t quite turn out the way I’d hoped.

Yet it’s somewhat slow going though and it was strangely hard to buy into Felicia and Hudson as a couple, particularly since there were several layers of deception, a ton of denial as well as instances of molehills being made mountains which, as staples of the rom-com, should have made me laugh but didn’t. Instead, both Felicia and Hudson were clichéd in the ways that define romantic comedy: the geeky, awkward woman with the tendency to say inappropriate (but apparently adorkable) things and the smarmy, cocky, smug manwhore millionaire who never needed help getting notches on his bedpost yet is strangely attracted to the ‘plainer’ one who is wary of him. Not only did I struggle to get past these stereotypes, I also found myself becoming as frustrated by Felicia’s inability to decide what or whom she really wanted as I was with Hudson’s inability to own what he does as well as his general dishonesty with Felicia—whom he’d never intended to end up with Tyler anyway despite his so-called help.

Their steamy scenes weren’t really the problem—Avery Flynn writes them scorching enough—only that those actually faded into the background and mattered less simply because the bottom-line was that I couldn’t get invested in Felicia and Hudson together with a whole farcical setup that was really leading nowhere for most of the story. I ended up skimming the last half of ’The Charmer’, interested only to see how it all blew up between them before the grovelling began. Unfortunately, I’m going to say that this isn’t a book for me at all.

two-stars

Tangled in Time by Barbara Longley

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Fantasy/ Magic/Paranormal/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Speculative Fiction 14th September 2017
Tangled in Time by Barbara LongleyTangled in Time by Barbara Longley
Published by Montlake Romance on October 24th 2017
Pages: 272
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two-stars

To set him free from an ancient curse, she must travel to a time of myth and legend…

Regan MacCarthy’s ability to see ghosts is a gift inherited from her Irish ancestors, but it’s one she’d dearly like to give back. In an attempt to return her powers to their source, she travels to Ireland to harness the ancient magic that still permeates the mystical site of Newgrange. Instead, something far more unexpected awaits her: a strapping, gorgeous stranger who insists he’s a centuries-old Celtic warrior.

Fáelán was one of Fionn MacCumhaill’s elite soldiers before being cursed by a resentful fae princess. The only way to free himself is to fall so deeply in love that he’d sacrifice his life. Not an easy matter when he’s invisible to most. Yet Regan sees him—not just the proud, handsome warrior on the surface, but the complex man beneath. Only when it’s too late does Fáelán realize that drawing this beautiful mortal into his world has endangered them both, and may destroy the happiness he’s waited an eternity to claim…

‘Tangled in Time’s premise has a certain fairy-tale like veneer to it: a man stuck in some indeterminate, liminal realm, cursed by a fae princess, to be set free only when he finally falls in love and gets a woman to return that sentiment.

The only problem is, Regan MacCarthy refuses to believe that Faelan of the Fiann is anything but a ghost and the latter’s effort trying to convince her takes up a significant part of the first part. The first part of the story goes as expected: Faelan is already half in love with Regan for engaging him and seems to be determined that he will be falling in love with her. Gotta love that ardent, earnest spirit, hey? Except that this happens only for the first half of the story, until Faelan’s curse isn’t released at all, because well, a vengeful fae refuses to let him go.

I spent a fair bit of the first part simply trying to figure out the mythology of the fae and the realms and Longley’s interpretation of Faelan’s cursed existence, which left me more puzzled by how it all worked. But being stuck in the void is just weird business: Faelan, as a 1800-year-old cursed guy, can ‘teleport’ himself past his island, though he isn’t susceptible to the elements, can shave with a disposable plastic razor (does he really shuttle material things back and forth the realms?!), speaks like a Scot, can’t smell, and even manages to alternate between ancient and modern clothes—it’s a mental tally that I’d gotten going subconsciously as it sort of became clear how he managed that.

Yet I was going along with the ride though, until some twists and turns came towards the middle of the book and these revelations made the story difficult to continue after that. There is sort of another woman involved, though not in the traditional sense and the consequences of Faelan’s ancient indiscretions as we learn later, is actually the basis for why he’s stuck that way. Despite the interesting paranormal slant to the story, the heavy involvement of OWs is a personal turn-off and then throwing some foetuses into the mix just makes it worse.

I’m just sorry to say I can’t give a better review and rating to this story whose blurb intrigued me so much. It was fun to see the mythical Ireland reconstructed through Barbara Longley’s pen, complete with mists, rolling hills and magic dust and I really thought I’d enjoy this a lot more than I would but after a while, ’Tangled in Time’ almost felt like a morality tale of not messing with more powerful spirits or things living in the unseen realms of existence…or else.

two-stars
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