Tag: Idiotic Lead Character

The King’s Man by Elizabeth Kingston

The King’s Man by Elizabeth KingstonThe King's Man by Elizabeth Kingston
Series: Welsh Blades #1
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on 9th August 2015
Pages: 324
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three-stars

Ranulf Ombrier’s fame throughout England for his skill at swordplay is rivaled only by his notoriety as King Edward I’s favorite killer. Ranulf's actions have gained him lands, title, and a lasting reputation as a hired butcher. But after years of doing his king's bidding, he begins to fear for his mortal soul and follows his conscience away from Edward, all the way to the wilds of Wales.

Gwenllian of Ruardean, Welsh daughter of a powerful Marcher lord, has every reason to leave Ranulf for dead when one of her men nearly kills him. As a girl she was married by proxy to a man Ranulf murdered, only to become a widow before she ever met her groom. In the years since, she has shunned the life of a lady, instead studying warfare and combat at her mother’s behest. But she has also studied healing and this, with her sense of duty to knightly virtues, leads her to tend to Ranulf’s wounds.

Saving her enemy’s life comes with consequences, and Gwenllian and Ranulf are soon caught up in dangerous intrigue. Forced together by political machinations, they discover a kinship of spirit and a surprising, intense desire. But even hard-won love cannot thrive when loyalties are divided and the winds of rebellion sweep the land.

‘The King’s Man’ is in short, a mesmerising read. More so because I can’t even remember the last time I’d dipped a toe in one that’s past the 18th or 19th century. But undoubtedly, this is also a hard review to write, torn as I am between the superb writing and a lacklustre romance that sputtered out before it even began.

That Elizabeth Kingston managed to frame the story within the confines of 13th century Britain yet pull the smallest parallels to modern life makes this story heart-wrenchingly contemporary and frankly, impressive, at least in the way Gwenllian struggled with giving up her identity as swordswoman and a commander of the men in her keep the moment she was made to marry Morency.

In Gwenllian, we get a multifaceted and complexly drawn portrayal of an unusual woman of that time, with such wondrous strength of character and ferocious adaptability that it puts—or should put—many to shame. Forced into a role that put her squarely in a round hole of running the keep as a newly-married lady, and torn between warring factions and political intrigue, her ultimate decision to leave her former self and devote her life to being a lady felt like a bittersweet decision that is admittedly hard for a 21st century reader to swallow—a reminder perhaps, that such sacrifices in some form or other, still exist today even as strong women fight just as hard to have it all.

Kingstons’s characterisation draws no complaint from me, though the pairing left me more than a little wanting: there’s heat at nights, and muted remoteness between the protagonists by day, in a connection that never quite sparked given the lack of communication for most of it and for the repetitive lines of how much Gwenllian felt drawn to Morency and to her obedience to duty. And if I loved her spunk in the beginning, that merely flared as bright and as briefly as a shooting star before she’d determinedly shed her armour in a displacement that drew all the feels. In short it was a sacrifice I’d hoped never to read in the story, only to have it dug even more deeply by the time it ended.

I thought Kingston glossed over the fluidity of the concept of beauty despite the refreshing idea that not only beautiful women in romantic literature deserves a happy ending. Even for 13th century sensibilities about supposedly immutable gender roles, the unforgivable insults that Morency hurled at Gwellian in the early days merely made him a cruel and arrogant prick who never quite redeemed himself by the end of the book. I’d not seen enough of his vulnerability or his devotion to Gwenllian—nor of any active encouragement for her to be who she needed to be—to believe that he’d truly loved her and to this extent, ‘The King’s Man’ felt like a massive let down.

three-stars

Ghost by Janie Crouch

Ghost by Janie CrouchGhost by Janie Crouch
Series: Linear Tactical #5
Published by Calamity Jane Publishing on May 21st 2019
Pages: 251
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three-stars

Everyone eventually breaks under torture.

It’s a truth elite solider and government agent Dorian Lindstrom, codename Ghost, knows firsthand. His body may have recovered from what was done to him in that Afghani prison six years ago, but his mind…not quite so much.

He’s seeing dead people.

Grace Brandt, government codename Wraith, knows her past can’t be forgiven. She has stayed “dead” for as long as she could, but now the forces she’s been fighting, the secrets slowly suffocating her, won’t stay hidden any longer.

And the man she helped break—the man she's always loved—is the only one who can stop the danger threatening them all.

When it comes to keeping the people he loves safe, including the one who thinks she’s not worthy of it, there is no danger—past, present or future—Dorian won’t battle.


The Ghost will rise.

I’m in a bind.

What do you do, when the basis of romance—the believable pairing of 2 characters you need to root for and believe in—doesn’t quite work for you, even though the premise of the story itself is quite intriguing?

If I were to approach ‘Ghost’ from a non-romantic perspective, then the whole covert-spying, black-ops stuff with tons of brain-washing involved is one that can—and did—keep me on my toes. I loved the twists and turns; rather, I liked how Janie Crouch didn’t simply stop but kept going past the point where I expected the climax and resolution to be.

But as acknowledged in the afterword, Crouch recognises that the female protagonist—Grace Brandt, aka Ray (what the hell kind of name is that?)—isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And she definitely isn’t mine, more so because she’s written to be the other half of a damaged character whose story I’ve always hankered after from the very start.

Wary, suspicious, morally suspect and prone to simply run with Dorian always chasing after her…that she was Ghost’s, or rather, Dorian’s other half, was frankly a hard pill to swallow. This time, the repetitive arguments of her not being good enough for him seemed spot-on, and I’d spent the whole time wishing Crouch had simply chosen a different protagonist for Dorian. It also seemed inevitable that Dorian/Grace’s HEA didn’t feel sufficiently set in stone, even if it were a touch of the realistic that Crouch was aiming for after all that both had gone through.

My rating of ‘Ghost’ is probably quite an arbitrary one. I’d be the first to admit that it turned out as ‘average’ because I was weighing the romance against the plot and while the latter was not bad, it was weighed down completely by the former that I didn’t buy into at all.

three-stars

Top Secret by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

Top Secret by Sarina Bowen and Elle KennedyTop Secret by Elle Kennedy, Sarina Bowen
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on 7th May 2019
Pages: 267
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three-half-stars

LobsterShorts, 21Jock. Secretly a science geek. Hot AF.

LobsterShorts: So. Here goes. For her birthday, my girlfriend wants…a threesome.
SinnerThree: Then you’ve come to the right hookup app.
LobsterShorts: Have you done this sort of thing before? With another guy?
SinnerThree: All the time. I'm an equal opportunity player. You?
LobsterShorts: [crickets!]

SinnerThree, 21Finance major. Secretly a male dancer. Hot AF.

SinnerThree: Well, I’m down if you are. My life is kind of a mess right now. School, work, family stress. Oh, and I live next door to the most annoying dude in the world. I need the distraction. Are you sure you want this?
LobsterShorts: I might want it a little more than I’m willing to admit.
SinnerThree: Hey, nothing wrong with pushing your boundaries...
LobsterShorts: Tell that to my control-freak father. Anyway. What if this threesome is awkward?
SinnerThree: Then it’s awkward. It’s not like we’ll ever have to see each other again. Right? Just promise you won’t fall in love with me.
LobsterShorts: Now wouldn’t that be life-changing...

In a rivals-to-lovers frat house story, Elle Kennedy and Sarina Bowen head straight into M/M territory after ‘Him’ and ‘Us’ (one of my first few and most memorable stories) once again and I’d be lying to say that I wasn’t excited about this rushed announcement of their collaboration that took off like wildfire all those years ago.

It’s a new pairing all around this time, though the flavour and the context—the college years with all the raunchy going-ons mostly revolving around hook-up culture and to some extent, toxic behaviour regarding sexuality and gender roles—is not too different from what Kennedy and Bowen have been dipping their pens into for quite a while.

Luke Bailey (student, stripper, never commits when it comes to attachments and strapped for cash) and Keaton Hayworth II (poor, rich boy never meeting his daddy’s expectation) clash as rivals for fraternity president, though their mutual dislike stems from something far deeper than that. But they meet online, oddly when Keaton starts researching dudes for a threesome for his girlfriend’s birthday party, and things start taking a turn for the…interesting. Rivals in real life, sexting buddies online—what starts out like a rather twisted version of ‘You’ve Got Mail’ eventually becomes a mortifying discovery about each other and themselves, though it’s not without a huge amount of push-pull and settling for something neither could have ever imagined.

Kennedy and Bowen is a collaboration that does work obviously, and at times, dare I say, write better together than apart: their characters are hilarious and there’re more unexpected turns in ‘Top Secret’ than I could ever have imagined, which kept me guessing at how the story would eventually end.

I can’t help the comparison between this book and Jamie/Wes nonetheless, the latter of which stay pretty close to my heart, which probably accounts for my somewhat less enthusiastic rating for the book. There’s probably nothing more insidious than a reader upholding past characters as a standard for what authors have to meet in the future and I’m guilty here of that. Luke/Keaton were fun, but ultimately, didn’t move me as much as Jamie/Wes, for the amount of pushing away that Luke kept doing, or that Keaton had to fight for everything when Luke just couldn’t meet him halfway. I wasn’t entirely convinced as a result, that Luke would have the guts to stay committed to Keaton when his first instinct was to always run.

The minor quip aside, ‘Top Secret’ is a fun and easy read—there’s never too much angst that bogs the story down—though the writing duo of Kennedy and Bowen should be enough to make M/M readers sit up and take note.

three-half-stars

Hard Target by Pamela Clare

Hard Target by Pamela ClareHard Target by Pamela Clare
Series: Cobra Elite, #1
Published by Pamela Clare on 25th April 2019
Pages: 261
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three-stars

Derek Tower has spent his life at war, first as a Green Beret and then as the owner of a private black-ops company, Cobra International Security. When a high-ranking US senator asks Cobra to protect his daughter, a midwife volunteering in Afghanistan, Derek’s gut tells him to turn the senator down. The last thing he wants to do is babysit an aid worker. But Jenna isn’t just another assignment. She’s also the younger sister of his best friend, the man who died taking bullets meant for him. There’s no way Derek can refuse.

Jenna Hamilton doesn’t need a bodyguard, especially not one hired by her intrusive and controlling father. She knew the risks when she signed on to work in rural Afghanistan, and the hospital already has armed security. She also doesn’t need the distraction of a big, brooding operative skulking about, even if he is her late brother’s best friend—and sexy as hell. As far as she’s concerned, he can pack up his Humvee and drive into the sunset. And, no, nothing her hormones have to say about him will change her mind.

From the moment his boots hit the ground in Afghanistan, Derek does his best to win Jenna over, posing as her brother so the two of them can spend time alone. Except that what he feels for her is anything but brotherly. Stolen moments lead to secret kisses—and an undeniable sexual attraction that shakes them both to the core. But events have been set into motion that they cannot escape. When a ruthless warlord sets his sights on Jenna, Derek will do whatever it takes to keep her safe, even if it costs him his heart—or his life.

‘Hard Target’ is classic Pamela Clare fare, full of action and hot scenes and while I do like her Colorado High Country books, I’m still glad she’s decided to return to romantic suspense in this new series.

Derek Tower isn’t a new character to grace Clare’s canon of works; he’s appeared in a few books as a peripheral figure and ‘Hard Target’ is his story of encountering the woman who also happens to be the sister of his dead comrade – and someone whom he’d never met before. First tasked to bring her home by a controlling father, it’s only a while later that Derek starts to realise that Jenna is her own woman intent on helping the Afghani women – which leads him to vow to protect her at all costs.

Clare constantly bucks the trend of creating unnecessary drama between her protagonists – this surprises me still – because she does by and large, write mature characters who mean what they say and show a lot of chutzpah and bravery while they’re escaping the bad guys and facing their biggest fears. Admittedly, I wasn’t as fond of Derek as I was of Jenna nonetheless; the latter seemed so much stronger, resilient and compassionate in contrast to the more commonly-used trope of the male protagonist using excuses to explain away why he didn’t do relationships.

It’s probably just me here, but I thought this didn’t quite have the hard edge or the soulful depth of the earlier RS books that Clare wrote. I found it a little hard to swallow and believe that a father – corrupt senator or not – would have gone to such lengths to get his 30-year-old daughter home for the reason that wasn’t entirely made clear other than she ‘should have stayed home’ instead of working in Afghanistan.

Still, the action and drama in Afghanistan was the book’s highlight, as well as the eye-opening descriptions that Clare had painstakingly taken to write about midwifery in a place where women are repressed and treated like sub-humans through Jenna’s experience.

‘Cobra Elite’ is still a series I’d love to see develop nonetheless. The establishing novel is not bad, though I’m hoping it’ll just get better from here.

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

Then Came You by Kate Meader

Then Came You by Kate MeaderThen Came You by Kate Meader
Series: Laws of Attraction, #3
Published by Loveswept on 7th May 2019
Pages: 181
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two-half-stars

In the courtroom, they’re rivals. In the bedroom, they’re . . . divorced. But could the road trip from hell lead to a second chance at love?

Aubrey Gates is the hottest divorce lawyer in Chicago, a barb-tongued stiletto with legs that go on for miles. When her cool gray eyes meet mine across the battlefield, I want her like I’ve never wanted anyone or anything. Then I remember who she is: the woman who brought me to my knees. The woman who destroyed my faith in relationships.

The woman I used to call . . . wife.

And she needs a favor from me, Grant Lincoln.

It seems my ex forgot to mention the demise of our marriage to her dear old grammie, and now we’re both expected to attend her ninetieth birthday party. In Boston. And because it isn’t already awkward enough, Aubrey and I are driving there together from Chicago. That’s more than a thousand miles of tension, heartbreak, and barely concealed lust.

A little piece of paper might say we’re over, but this road trip is the true test. I intend to get my wife back . . . and I won’t stop until “I do.”

I do have a soft spot for a second-chance story between a divorced couple (some personal conditions attached for it to be a palatable read for me) and Grant/Aubrey is what Kate Meader brings to the end (?) of this series of cynical, commitment-free divorce lawyers who ironically find their HEA. But Grant/Aubrey buck this trend in ‘Then Came You’ where a miscarriage tore them apart and after some time, find their way back to each other.

Meader can write, undoubtedly, and that’s what draws me back again and again. I’ve always enjoyed her prose, the nifty handling of characters, the emotions and plot. The feels, generally, is what good writing gives. But the past is piled on and tucked into the present, as both Grant and Aubrey recount the past in their own interior monologues—the scenes aren’t quite flashbacks per se, but the slide into years before left me somewhat disconcerted when the present suddenly disconnects from the narrative you’ve been soaking in.

But ‘Then Came You’ left me flailing in deep water, not because of the traumatic loss that both Grant and Aubrey had suffered, but how for the longest time, Grant seemed to be the only one interested in patching the holes left in the aftermath—while Aubrey merely looked at him as an afterthought, entertaining ideas that she’d be moving onto other men and saying it straight to his face.

I definitely understood and felt their loss, but it was hard to root for a couple who weren’t even on the same page when it came to reconciliation. That it took just a few days worth of holidaying to erase the years of pent-up hurt and guilt made it unbelievable.

I thought Aubrey was too paralysed to move on, stuck as she was on her inability to overcome her distant, aloof self, while Grant’s white-knight complex made him seem like the poster-child for talking things through, moving on and healing. In fact, Aubrey came across as self-absorbed to see beyond her own grief to the burden Grant was carrying on his own…essentially she shaped up to be a frustrating ‘heroine’ who never rose up to the level I expected and wanted her to be. Her simultaneous defence and castigation of her own behaviour made her bottomline argument “I don’t deserve him” the ultimate, self-defeating coward’s way out without any showing intention of fighting for them at all.

In short, a whole lot of push and pull, with so much frustration and emotion (and not all of it good) thrown in. I wish this could have been a more satisfying read—angsty but with less of a roundabout way of rehashing the same issues that come again and again and earlier character growth perhaps—but ultimately, ’Then Came You’ turned out more of a disappointment than I thought.

two-half-stars

Counterpoint by Lauren E. Rico

Counterpoint by Lauren E. RicoCounterpoint by Lauren E. Rico
Published by Harmony House Productions, Lauren E. Rico on March 28 2019
Pages: 210
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four-stars

Brilliant young pianist Alexandria is poised for classical music superstardom…until the night she unravels in front of thousands at her Carnegie Hall debut.

Brilliant young pianist Nate is poised for classical music superstardom…until the night a horrific accident took away everything—and everyone he loved.

Now fate—and a wily cowboy pianist named Wyatt—have brought them both to Texas for a summer of intensive study and healing. And, though the two butt heads almost immediately, it’s soon clear that, together, Alex and Nate possess a dazzling chemistry that eclipses anything they might have done alone.

But the real test of their longevity as partners—on stage and off—comes when Alex’s overbearing father threatens to destroy everything they’ve both worked so hard for. Painful choices must be made and lives will be changed forever.

While Nate wrestles with the gut-wrenching guilt of his past, Alex is forced to confront the grim prospects for her future. And suddenly, each must decide if there is enough power in their music and enough courage in their hearts to breach the chasm between them.

Lauren E. Rico speaks directly to the soft spot I suspect I’ll always have for classical music and the very rare bit of romantic fiction written around it, because there’s just so much to explore in what’s typically considered a big-ego, elitist and inaccessible world. And well, that it was a world that I belonged to, very briefly so long ago, makes the classic music romance, so to speak, a wistful step back into that passionate, intriguing and cut-throat space.

The unique meeting of accomplished classical pianists, both child prodigies, both fallen in their own ways and unable to pick themselves up until the intervention of a mysterious do-gooder who wanted nothing more but to get them going again….no surprise then, that I jumped on ‘Counterpoint’ as soon as the ARC was available.

Nathaniel Calloway’s and Alexandria Mickelson-Fitch’s stalled careers start to collide in a way that neither could have ever imagined, thanks to a Texan cowboy professor who seem determined to get their back their tarnished stardom. Cue the resulting family drama, the heaving chests, the loud denials and affirmations came to the fore that catapulted the storytelling into soap-opera territory at times.

There were clear hurdles to jump over here: obsessive, helicopter parenting, volatile tempers with sometime immature outbursts (throw in the broody artistic-temperament) and so much ego-shuffling. I was sceptical of the quick switch from hostility to near-instalove, got frustrated when adults started behaving like teenagers who suddenly couldn’t see reason and devolved into self-absorbed, entitled, snivelling messes who couldn’t handle themselves let alone others.

Still, I lapped up every descriptive passage of the music that both Nate and Alex played, lapped up their duets and the heady sense of the music that spilled from the pages and left me wanting more as I rode every wave of high and low with them. The music’s made magic in Rico’s hands and I could only wish there were more of such stories from her.

four-stars