Tag: Made my chest ache

Bringing Down The Duke by Evie Dunmore

Bringing Down The Duke by Evie DunmoreBringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore
Series: A League of Extraordinary Women, #1
Published by Berkley on 3rd September 2019
Pages: 320
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three-half-stars

England, 1879. Annabelle Archer, the brilliant but destitute daughter of a country vicar, has earned herself a place among the first cohort of female students at the renowned University of Oxford. In return for her scholarship, she must support the rising women's suffrage movement. Her charge: recruit men of influence to champion their cause. Her target: Sebastian Devereux, the cold and calculating Duke of Montgomery who steers Britain's politics at the Queen's command. Her challenge: not to give in to the powerful attraction she can't deny for the man who opposes everything she stands for.

Sebastian is appalled to find a suffragist squad has infiltrated his ducal home, but the real threat is his impossible feelings for green-eyed beauty Annabelle. He is looking for a wife of equal standing to secure the legacy he has worked so hard to rebuild, not an outspoken commoner who could never be his duchess. But he wouldn't be the greatest strategist of the Kingdom if he couldn't claim this alluring bluestocking without the promise of a ring...or could he?

Locked in a battle with rising passion and a will matching her own, Annabelle will learn just what it takes to topple a duke....

Reading about fictional, historical women ahead of their time should well resonate with those living in this century, as far removed as we are from them, simply because the issue of equality among the sexes is still a highly contested one despite the leaps we’ve made.

Despite the levity of the cover, Evie Dunmore’s debut historical is rather compelling, with all the peaks and troughs of the historical romances that I turn to from time to time. There’s some sensitivity to the social and cultural constraints of the time and Dunmore shows that awareness in her prose and her protagonists’ behaviour—where they should step or not—while piling on the rising heat between a vicar’s daughter studying at Oxford and a blue-blooded, pedigreed duke who has the ear of the Queen.

Anchoring her story straight in the middle of a time where bluestockinged women were petitioning for their right to vote—a fundamental right so many take for granted these days—in Victorian England is sly and smart, as Dunmore weaves the politics of the day quite deftly with ideas of social standing, fidelity and the transactional nature of marriage in two protagonists who lie on the opposite ends of the ladder.

The slow burn between Annabelle Archer and Sebastian Montgomery is a believable one, more so because Dunmore writes Annabelle as a character who’s easily empathised with: as one who wants more, who yearns to bridge the chasm that gapes between her and her duke, but can’t. My only let-down was her own hand-wringing, her lack of conviction and her dismally cowardly behaviour towards the end in a supposedly self-sacrificing cruel move—cruel to be kind so to speak, and a stupid action—where it was left all to Sebastian to do the hard work and climb the mountain while she did nothing to fight for what she really wanted. Ironic, considering the passion she had for the suffragist movement.

If I thought Sebastian impenetrable and difficult to grasp, Dunmore’s rushed stripping away of his defences towards the end of the book made him a different romantic protagonist I wanted to get behind—one who almost deserved better than what Annabelle did to him.

These grumbles aside, Dunmore’s rather impressive debut is making me sit up and take note. It’s well-written, well thought-out and engaging. For someone with hands and feet firmly in contemporary romance, this is quite a feat.

three-half-stars

Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex

Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth EssexAlmost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex
Series: The Reckless Brides, #1
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on 31st July 2012
Pages: 353
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four-stars

A Lady in Disguise
For generations, the Kents have served proudly with the British Royal Navy. So when her younger brother refuses to report for duty, Sally Kent slips into a uniform and takes his place—at least until he comes to his senses. Boldly climbing aboard the Audacious, Sally is as able-bodied as any sailor there. But one man is making her feel tantalizingly aware of the full-bodied woman beneath her navy blues…

A Man Overboard
Dedicated to his ship, sworn to his duty—and distractingly gorgeous—Lieutenant David Colyear sees through Sally’s charade, and he’s furious. But he must admit she’s the best midshipman on board—and a woman who tempts him like no other. With his own secrets to hide and his career at stake, Col agrees to keep her on. But can the passion they hide survive the perils of a battle at sea? Soon, their love and devotion will be put to the test…

‘Almost a Scandal’ was an automatic read because it’s got those gender-bending qualities that I love, or at least it’s has a Mulan-esque sheen of a woman dressing as a man to in a male-dominated field that somehow always pulls me in.

Yet strangely, Elizabeth Essex’s writing, so focused on Regency-period British naval supremacy, shines precisely not quite in the wonder of cross-dressing or gender relations, but in this, more so particularly if you’re interested in the intricacies of bringing a warship ship out and engaging in battle, though the sheer detail of every movement, every activity done on board could be tedious if you’re in it more for the romance itself than the setting. It’s well-researched, a little jolly for the tough conditions of war, perhaps, but delivers a breath of fresh sea-air.

Still, amidst the drama of the high seas, Sally Kent and Colyear’s relationship is one forged out of family history, hard-earned respect, battle-worn lines and sexual tension bursting at the seams. A slow burn, the many smouldering looks between them and the inevitable sense of mounting passion kept me engrossed and jittery, more so because Essex’s protagonists are generally likeable and never exactly fall over the rail in a fit of histrionics.

A curious mix of naïveté and a highly-developed sense of justice, Sally Kent is as capable, or perhaps even more so than quite a few men on the Audacious, while Col—intense, controlled, so dedicated and so brilliant until Sally unravels him—feels like the brooding, swoonworthy-type who oddly enough, generally lacks the off-putting, prickish vibe of the male protagonists in more traditional historical romances. It was no hardship to root for this pairing, maybe because it was easy to like them as individuals first.

But perhaps what Essex has done towards the end in not short-changing the reader into an abrupt conclusion but one that’s painfully drawn out to an ending that’s well-deserved is what really makes ‘Almost a Scandal’ a very memorable foray into a historical romance.

four-stars

Nothing but Trouble by P. Dangelico

Nothing but Trouble by P. DangelicoNothing But Trouble by P. Dangelico
Series: Malibu University #1
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on 26th March 2019
Pages: 229
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four-stars

Reagan Reynolds...Water polo god. Owner of a face that belongs under Wikipedia’s definition of drop dead gorgeous. Too charming for his own good. But most importantly––the worst driver on the planet.

No, really, I’m pretty sure his blind nana taught him how to drive.

I had no idea who he was until he almost ran me over. And frankly, I kind of wish I still didn’t because then I wouldn’t have a sprained ankle to show for it. And my leg wouldn’t resemble a boa constrictor that’s swallowed a feral pig.

Yeah, it’s that bad.

I’ve spent years saving every penny I’ve ever earned to be able to transfer to Malibu University. And now my entire future––including my scholarship––is in jeopardy.

So I either accept the help he insists on giving me, or lose everything I’ve sacrificed for.

In the meantime, I’m going to ignore the fact that we’re becoming friends.

And I’m definitely going to pretend he’s not turning into the object of my…umm, dirty fantasies.

That’s not happening.

Not even a little.

Because the minute I clapped eyes on him I knew he was nothing but trouble.

What I’ve mostly found with New Adult books is that emotions (and with it, some irrational behaviour) hold huge sway over what characters say and do—hormones I guess, do play a huge part—and that’s both a boon and bane of this sub-genre that can go so wrong and yet so right.

‘Nothing but Trouble’ is my first P. Dangelico read and it kept me up past my bedtime, with a NA/YA story that started out lighthearted but soon unravelled into angst, unrequited emotions and heavier issues—parental, peer pressure, drugs—that some New Adult books have cut their cloth with.

The frat-boy syndrome swings into play here: athletes and manwhoring seem to be synonymous terms and appear in way too many sports romance books. Reagan felt a bit like an anomaly of sorts, but make no mistake, most of his team wholly embrace the bevy of bunnies that flock to them. Still, Dangelico’s male characters can undoubtedly be bastards, nonetheless. Reagan’s indecision (and his pulling several dickish moves throughout despite some tragic, trying circumstances), and his constant swaying regarding wanting to keep Alice at a distance while giving her more mixed signals made her in contrast, a stalwart, steady protagonist whom I found myself liking a lot.

Still, I was pulled in by the circling, the heart-breaking push-pull and the electric, growing tension between Reagan and Alice until it finally broke. Their story is well-written and engrossing in a way I hadn’t expected when I picked this up with a seamless introduction to secondary characters and hints of their future HEAs, even if I’m a little more sceptical about what they’ll turn out to be.

four-stars

Heat Stroke by Tessa Bailey

Heat Stroke by Tessa BaileyHeat Stroke by Tessa Bailey
Series: Beach Kingdom, #2
Published by Tessa Bailey on 15th March 2019
Pages: 178
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four-stars

They can't be together. They won't stay apart.

Marcus “Diesel” O’Shaughnessy is a brash, oversized CrossFit enthusiast with a naked lady tattooed on his rippling forearm. Jamie Prince is a private school teacher with an extremely low tolerance for bull. The two men have zero in common. Well, except for three things.

They’re both moonlighting as lifeguards for the summer. No matter how hard they try, they cannot stay away from each other. And both of them have secrets they’re determined to keep.

But what happens in the shadows of the Long Beach boardwalk can only remain hidden for so long, before the July sunshine reveals the hot, unrelenting connection they never expected, forcing Marcus and Jamie to decide if they’re simply caught up in a temporary heat stroke or if they’ve found something worth rescuing...

3 lifeguard brothers, 3 different stories, all long beach-centric. I’ve not read the first book but I’m eternally grateful that Tessa Bailey has done something different with Jamie’s story, seeing how seldom she ventures into M/M territory just sweetened the pot.

I had all the feels when Bailey wrote about the pain of needing to hide one’s sexuality, the struggle about finding acceptance and the fear/insecurity about facing peer pressure when push came to shove about choosing yourself and what you wanted others to see. Jamie Prince slayed me with his history, his openness and his big heart; I loved him as much as I felt for Marcus who, for the longest time, straddled between wanting to come out and staying closeted in fear of judgement for the kind of lifestyle he wanted to lead.

The issues aren’t new but in Bailey’s hand, Jamie/Marcus’s evolving emotions sprung out starker than usual, with a funny mixture of endearing sweetness and some cringeworthy scenes about cock cages and weird, non-stop erections that made Viagra’s effect pale in comparison. Cue the big talking, the (somewhat toned down) dirty bits and some inevitable push-pull…I’m just happy to say Bailey delivered that I needed to read about two characters I could and wanted to cheer for.

four-stars

The Last Letter by Rebecca Yarros

The Last Letter by Rebecca YarrosThe Last Letter by Rebecca Yarros
Published by Entangled: Amara on 26th February 2019
Pages: 432
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four-stars

Beckett,

If you’re reading this, well, you know the last-letter drill. You made it. I didn’t. Get off the guilt train, because I know if there was any chance you could have saved me, you would have.

I need one thing from you: get out of the army and get to Telluride.

My little sister Ella’s raising the twins alone. She’s too independent and won’t accept help easily, but she has lost our grandmother, our parents, and now me. It’s too much for anyone to endure. It’s not fair.

And here’s the kicker: there’s something else you don’t know that’s tearing her family apart. She’s going to need help.

So if I’m gone, that means I can’t be there for Ella. I can’t help them through this. But you can. So I’m begging you, as my best friend, go take care of my sister, my family.

Please don’t make her go through it alone.

Ryan

It’s hard to put into words what ‘The Last Letter’ is about, even if the emotions they draw out are raw and unrelenting, leaving you to grapple with them past the last page of the story. On the surface, it’s about a loyal soldier putting down roots in a small town because he’d promised his best friend to take care of his sister, though there’re some secrets he’s carrying on him along with the burden that he’d long fallen in love with her before they had even seen each other face to face.

Movingly told with a very slow burn, ‘The Last Letter’ is women’s fiction and romance with the heavy emotional waves of angst and brooding that I’m tempted to shove into the New Adult category all at once. It’s both easy and difficult to get through because of the very weighty, no-easy-answers topics Rebecca Yarros has chosen to cover here, but the payoff then, is one that understandably leaves readers reeling: if the characters are put through the wringer, so are we.

There are more than the usual tinges of reality creeping in here, nonetheless. Yarros’s marked conditions in this are that the HEA doesn’t come without a price and it’s quite a steep one that the characters pay for. Without the typical fluff cloud that many romance stories are built on, Ella/Beckett’s story resembles the very thorny bed of roses of real life more than the sometimes-unrealistic bent of HEAs that I’ve gotten used to; it’s a brutal kick in the arse and a sombre awakening as much as it is one that can make my chest ache with the poignancy of a love that comes with lots of attached baggage.

And where do I even begin with Beckett? Eloquent, stalwart, and so so unswervingly loyal that he stands out as a protagonist who should be enshrined, Beckett Gentry’s strength, integrity and stability became my pillar of light as he was Ella’s as they navigated the murky waters of child-cancer and the ever-lingering shadow of death that never seemed far away.

Yet oddly what deterred me from giving a higher rating really was Ella’s reticence and her own refusal to see past her mixed signals and her own hang-ups. Her lack of understanding when it came to Beckett’s omission, the overwhelming need to shut him out and only do what she thought was right for her frustrated the hell out of me especially when Beckett had laid everything else on the line repeatedly. And the overall enjoyment I had for it detracted not because of the shock ending, but because I thought Beckett had the constant uphill battle to climb when it came to Ella, even when he’d laid out his own insecurities and was instead, flayed and punished for it by her.

With not quite an instant love, but an old-time affection that develops over the written word—it’s strange but magnificent to see how the epistolary form has been done here—, ‘The Last Letter’ is a book that made me glad I took up despite my initial reservations. Yarros starts an intricately woven tale of tragedy and joy mixed with pockets of angst and ends it that way, but because of this, it’ll stick with me longer—ironically, perhaps—than many of the books that have passed me by.

four-stars

The One You Fight For by Roni Loren

The One You Fight For by Roni LorenThe One You Fight For by Roni Loren
Series: The Ones Who Got Away, #3
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on 1st January 2019
Pages: 416
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four-half-stars

How hard would you fight for the one you love? Taryn Landry was there that awful night fourteen years ago when Long Acre changed from the name of a town to the title of a national tragedy. Everyone knows she lost her younger sister. No one knows it was her fault. Since then, psychology professor Taryn has dedicated her life's work to preventing something like that from ever happening again. Falling in love was never part of the plan...

Shaw Miller has spent more than a decade dealing with the fallout of his brother's horrific actions. After losing everything―his chance at Olympic gold, his family, almost his sanity―he's changed his name, his look, and he's finally starting a new life. As long as he keeps a low profile and his identity secret, everything will be okay, right?

When the world and everyone you know defines you by one catastrophic tragedy...How do you find your happy ending?

The tragedy of Long Acre mirrors so much of the contemporary violence in schools but I’ve never read a romance series that details the lives of those who actually live on in the aftermath of it—and how a single, catastrophic event drastically alters everything they’ve done or believed in.

In ‘The One You Fight For’, Taryn Landry and Shaw Miller—victims in their own right as siblings of the victim and the perpetrator of the shooting—still find themselves reeling from the events more than a decade ago, still paying in their own ways for what they perceive as their penance for playing a part for what went down and upturned their lives. For all of Loren’s focus on the victims and the fallout of the shooting in her previous books, I hadn’t considered at all, how close relatives would have dealt with this and Loren finally forces this into the limelight with Shaw/Taryn taking centre stage in this instalment.

Shaw and Taryn meet in a series of serendipitous events that took a number of twists and turns getting there: from an anonymous song at a bar, to a run where Taryn collapses and eventually signs up at a ninja-warrior-type gym where Shaw and his friend are setting up.

Loren’s brilliance at portraying brokenness and the ‘relatability’ of characters however, is as heartbreaking as it is compelling to read about: each of her protagonists, guilty for the small things they thought they’d done to contribute to the tragedy, each trying to make up for their perceived culpability in their own ways.

What moved me the most however, was the utterly downtrodden Shaw, who couldn’t see beyond the need to punish himself for something he didn’t commit for his entire life: for being related to the shooter is by proxy meant that he was guilty as charged, for how he’d never been able to shrug away the stigma, at the abuse he’d received from so many (the sharp, acid tongue from Taryn notwithstanding when she said some cruel things), for the yearning to only be ‘normal’.

I had a sort of inkling how this would go down from start to end. Taryn and Shaw aren’t hostile rivals to begin with, but what binds them is something more devastating and perhaps even notoriously taboo in the place where they live.

Conflict after conflict seem to await them up to a point where their loyalties are stretched and pulled in different directions, to the extent where the climax is a predictable one from the lead-ins and hints that have been given, as is their bittersweet resolution. Taryn/Shaw’s rather abrupt epilogue is hard-won nonetheless, though I did somehow wish for a more-iron-clad one that’s more inferred than given past the last page.

four-half-stars

The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker

The Simple Wild by K.A. TuckerThe Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker
Published by Atria Books on 7th August 2018
Pages: 388
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Calla Fletcher wasn't even two when her mother took her and fled the Alaskan wild, unable to handle the isolation of the extreme, rural lifestyle, leaving behind Calla’s father, Wren Fletcher, in the process. Calla never looked back, and at twenty-six, a busy life in Toronto is all she knows. But when Calla learns that Wren’s days may be numbered, she knows that it’s time to make the long trip back to the remote frontier town where she was born.

She braves the roaming wildlife, the odd daylight hours, the exorbitant prices, and even the occasional—dear God—outhouse, all for the chance to connect with her father: a man who, despite his many faults, she can’t help but care for. While she struggles to adjust to this rugged environment, Jonah—the unkempt, obnoxious, and proud Alaskan pilot who helps keep her father’s charter plane company operational—can’t imagine calling anywhere else home. And he’s clearly waiting with one hand on the throttle to fly this city girl back to where she belongs, convinced that she’s too pampered to handle the wild.

Jonah is probably right, but Calla is determined to prove him wrong. Soon, she finds herself forming an unexpected bond with the burly pilot. As his undercurrent of disapproval dwindles, it’s replaced by friendship—or perhaps something deeper? But Calla is not in Alaska to stay and Jonah will never leave. It would be foolish of her to kindle a romance, to take the same path her parents tried—and failed at—years ago. It’s a simple truth that turns out to be not so simple after all.

I’ve always wondered if ‘The Simple Wild’ was meant to be an angsty ‘growing-up’ New Adult type book or a smart-alecky rom-com story. But the truth is that it probably falls somewhere in between and had me sniffing a mite bit by the end of it.

From the urban bustle of Toronto to the wilds of Alaska, Calla Fletcher’s reluctant visit to pay her sick father a visit is in essence, a tale of a city girl—horrified by the shit-all to do in a small, small town—forced to relook her own ideas on love and life. In a case of schadenfreude (#iregretnothing), I gleefully relished and cackled my way through every fish-out-of-water moment that Calla had as she learned to operate in a place so out of sync with her own rhythm, liking Jonah even more when he simply came out and accused her of being the shallow, self-absorbed and empty woman that I felt she was. I didn’t quite feel any affinity with her from the beginning and her awkward moments kept me cackling for a while longer, until some kind of character growth happened as Calla finally (and slowly) started to shed that flighty exterior.

That Jonah helped in his caustic, cutting way just gave me extra laughs in the process. Or it could be that I liked his straight, no-nonsense talk, his directness with everything, including his feelings, without the typical games that many characters tend to play.

The loss of the father-figure is a theme that started to dominate more and more as I got into the book, and along with the weight of regrets, resentment and missed chances, ‘The Simple Wild’ suddenly became an incredibly emotional and absorbing read by the time I was halfway through. I gobbled every bit of Tucker’s descriptions of life in the tundra and the day-to-day operation of a flight charter company, revelled in the small-town characters she’d drawn up so sharply, then wanted to cry ugly tears when it all came to a difficult end.

My only quibble is the lack of a concluding, firm-in-the-ground HEA by the time Calla and Jonah met again. Given Tucker’s emphasis on history repeating itself, Calla/Jonah felt like a couple headed for a HFN ending instead as ‘The Simple Wild’ left me loudly protesting that I needed more.