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Made my chest ache

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Historical Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews 11th October 2017
Next Year in Havana by Chanel CleetonNext Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton
Published by Berkley Books on February 6th 2018
Pages: 336
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five-stars

After the death of her beloved grandmother, a Cuban-American woman travels to Havana, where she discovers the roots of her identity--and unearths a family secret hidden since the revolution...

Havana, 1958. The daughter of a sugar baron, nineteen-year-old Elisa Perez is part of Cuba's high society, where she is largely sheltered from the country's growing political unrest--until she embarks on a clandestine affair with a passionate revolutionary...

Miami, 2017. Freelance writer Marisol Ferrera grew up hearing romantic stories of Cuba from her late grandmother Elisa, who was forced to flee with her family during the revolution. Elisa's last wish was for Marisol to scatter her ashes in the country of her birth.

Arriving in Havana, Marisol comes face-to-face with the contrast of Cuba's tropical, timeless beauty and its perilous political climate. When more family history comes to light and Marisol finds herself attracted to a man with secrets of his own, she'll need the lessons of her grandmother's past to help her understand the true meaning of courage.

The Cuban revolution and this transitory time of change are wholly unfamiliar to me, but ‘Next Year in Havana’ brings it all to life through broad, sweeping strokes that tell parallel stories of a woman’s journey out of Cuba and her granddaughter’s journey back there nearly 60 years later.

Chanel Cleeton’s precise yet lyrical prose rolls through constant reiterations of the resilience of memory and all the versions of Cuba that emerge through every character’s eyes. Marisol Ferrera and Elisa Perez’s fervent (and doomed) love affairs might be wrapped up in the city’s fading glory and the wire-tight tension of impending upheaval, yet these star-crossed lovers seem merely a metaphor for the Cuban individual’s love unending love affair with his/her country—it’s just how effortlessly their romances have been woven into the backdrop of revolution, reform and change.

It’s that curious strain of hope that can’t ever die—and perhaps the eternal yearning for something that they can’t have—which seems to be the poignant and loudest message that Cleeton brings across in this enthralling read. Like in many stories of revolution, the academics and thinkers (and the women who stay hidden in the shadows) matter—it’s brain over brawn, passion over looks—and they bear the burden of carrying the mantles of heroes and or the swords of villains. Sometimes both. Marisol’s and Elisa’s voices are as much tethered to their love of their country as they are tied to their love for their revolutionary men, but it’s also the selfsame passion and emotion that Pablo and Luis carry in their intellectual rhetoric that had me mesmerised from start to finish.

‘Next Year in Havana’ isn’t a book that lets bygones be bygones, after all. Yet the story’s power lies not quite in the galvanising force of political dialogue or the hard, dirty work of nonviolent change but in loss, tragedy and the love that came incidentally—the untold stories that were left by the wayside because bigger things eclipsed these. So when Cleeton told them, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat, swooning. And I might have also shed a tear or two.

five-stars

A SEAL’s Strength by J.M. Stewart

Posted in Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Military/Paramilitary/ Reviews 6th October 2017
A SEAL’s Strength by J.M. StewartA SEAL's Strength by J.M. Stewart
Series: Military Match #2
Published by Forever Yours on October 3rd 2017
Pages: 240
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two-stars

This second chance was worth the wait . . .

As a SEAL, Gabriel Donovan did the toughest jobs imaginable without blinking an eye. But three years after his wife's death, the idea of dating still makes him sick to his stomach. His daughter desperately needs a mother, though, and there's nothing Gabe won't do for his little girl.

Stephanie Mason doesn't run from anything. Not even coming face to face with the "one that got away" on a blind date. Steph's body vividly remembers every single thing about Gabe and while some things have changed, the way he makes her feel sure as hell hasn't.

Gabe and Steph know that love comes with risks, but if they're brave enough, this second chance might just bring them the love of a lifetime.

J.M. Stewart writes emotional journeys that dig deep and raw and ‘A SEAL’s strength’, like its predecessor, is more tangentially military than it really is a contemporary romance that explores second chances that come by way of tragedy and coincidences.

Stephanie Mason wasn’t so much as the one who got away as the one whom Gabriel Donovan had let go, only to hop onto someone else 2 months later which pretty much decided the rest of the decade for him. But a few years after his wife’s death, his unwilling hop back onto the dating train leads him straight back to Steph and a past that might be better left buried. Ironically, it was Gabe’s original ‘sin’ along with some other knocks along the way that had made Steph’s big heart the way it is today and their temporary affair—courtesy of a match-making site—brings back to light the deep hurts of yesterday.

Despite my wariness of the second-chance trope, I picked it up because I like Stewart’s writing and her characterisation though this book left me rather pessimistic by the end. Learning Steph’s and Gabe’s backstory made me restless as I’d assumed that Steph and Gabe hadn’t had that much of a prior association. But they’d been more than that: best friends and lovers—a relationship that he dropped too easily—to the point where it’d scarred and influenced Steph’s emotional state. Ultimately, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that Steph had indeed gotten the shorter end of the stick when she merely settled for the bits she could reach for with Gabe—without knowing what he could really offer—only because her friends convinced her about keeping up the affair with him. That Gabe rounded off the story’s conflict and HFN ending with no iron-clad promise but rather, with a softly-softly approach to the future left me feeling as though this relationship hadn’t moved past shaky ground at all.

Both protagonists’ maturity however, was admirable—Stewart prioritises honesty and communication in a way that thankfully eschews any game-playing between the both of them—and this was exactly what made it so difficult to rate this book. Above all, I struggled with the issue of forgiveness and the ideas of loyalty that Gabe espoused here, yet knowing a decade of life-changing experiences for the both of them had blurred the blacks and whites to muted shades of grey. I couldn’t help but feel dissatisfied nonetheless, that for all the adulting both characters had done to get to where they were at the end, Steph hadn’t gotten the much more that she deserved.

two-stars

Burn For You by J.T. Geissinger

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Fairytale/ Netgalley/ New Adult/ Reviews 5th October 2017
Burn For You by J.T. GeissingerBurn for You by J.T. Geissinger
Series: Slow Burn #1
Published by Montlake Romance on October 17th 2017
Pages: 348
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four-stars

The marriage is fake. But for a sassy chef and an arrogant billionaire, the sparks are real…

Jackson “The Beast” Boudreaux is rich, gorgeous, and unbelievably rude to the staff at Chef Bianca Hardwick’s New Orleans restaurant. Bianca would sooner douse herself in hot sauce than cook for Jackson again, but when he asks her to cater his fund-raiser, Bianca can’t refuse, knowing the cash will help pay her mother’s medical bills. Then Jackson makes another outrageous request: Marry me. The unconventional offer includes an enormous sum—money Bianca desperately needs, even if it does come with a contract—and a stunning ring.

The heir to a family bourbon dynasty, Jackson knows the rumors swirling around him. The truth is even darker. Still, he needs a wife to secure his inheritance, and free-spirited, sassy Bianca would play the part beautifully. Soon, though, their simple business deal evolves into an emotional intimacy he’s built walls to avoid.

As the passion heats up between them, Bianca and Jackson struggle to define which feelings are real and which are for show. Is falling for your fake fiancé the best happy ending…or a recipe for disaster?

J.T. Geissinger is an author whose name and books have crossed my feed a fair bit, though I’ve never gotten around to reading any of her works, so ‘Burn for You’ is a fresh start for me. And what an introduction it was.

There can never be enough fairy tale retellings for me—the raunchier the better, the funnier the more cherished and the dirtier, the more I fall to my knees in worship. Geissinger’s ‘Burn For You’ fits all of these categories quite comfortably, so needless to say, I had a good time going through this incredibly spirited Southern version of beauty and the beast.

The enemies-to-lovers trope is one of my favourites, so when ‘Burn For You’ started out with the unbridled antagonism, I simply sat back, waited for the claws to get unsheathed and the knives to start flying. The first chapter didn’t disappoint in its explosive introduction to the battling protagonists, as the very distinctive voice of Bianca Hardwick—filled with that kind of wry, sarcastic humour I love—made Jackson Boudreaux out to be the untamable, hairy devil-beast with the appearance and temper to match. Their locking horns was enjoyable as hell, though I wasn’t disappointed when we moved past that and into the harder bits that slayed me the moment Jackson’s tortured past was revealed.

Written with some ‘historical’ romance kind of flair, a mad amount of slang, and buoyed by a tinge of melodrama, ‘Burn For You’ did go a little weirdly hysterical towards the end, with some over-the-top clichés that had me cringing a bit. Still, I went happily along for the ride—that much invested I was in the story by then—and decided immediately by the end that Geissinger would be on the ‘authors-I sniff’ list.

four-stars

Wrong to Need You by Alisha Rai

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Edelweiss/ Erotica/ Reviews 29th September 2017
Wrong to Need You by Alisha RaiWrong to Need You by Alisha Rai
Series: Forbidden Hearts #2
Published by Avon on November 28th 2017
Pages: 384
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three-stars

He wasn’t supposed to fall in love with his brother’s widow…

Accused of a crime he didn’t commit, Jackson Kane fled his home, his name, and his family. Ten years later, he’s come back to town: older, wiser, richer, tougher—and still helpless to turn away the one woman he could never stop loving, even after she married his brother.

Sadia Ahmed can’t deal with the feelings her mysterious former brother-in-law stirs, but she also can’t turn down his offer of help with the cafe she’s inherited. While he heats up her kitchen, she slowly discovers that the boy she adored has grown into a man she’s simply unable to resist.

An affair is unthinkable, but their desire is undeniable. As secrets and lies are stripped away, Sadia and Jackson must decide if they’re strong enough to face the past...and step into a future together.

‘Wrong to Need You’, like its predecessor, thrusts you straight back into a soap opera whose edges have already been sharply defined: family feuds, circles of friends and boundaries of rifts that have been established ‘off-stage’, leaving only forbidden relationships within this framework that need to be worked out. There’s a bit of a repetitive go over with the previous story (close family-rifts tend to do that) as it deals with lost, damaged individuals who have barely managed to hold it together, almost as if proving that time barely has an effect on closing up wounds, let alone healing them.

Sadia Ahmed’s and Jackson Kane’s relationship is wrong on so many levels, as it soon becomes apparent, not least because Sadia used to be married to Jackson’s brother. Sadia’s family beliefs, the apparent screwup she has made of her own life, her bisexuality, her dead husband versus Jackson’s deliberate unfeeling rootlessness, his unrequited love and the injustice that had been done to him—if these aren’t issues that will break the donkey’s back, I don’t know what will.

It’s admittedly difficult to write a pairing like this, with everything riding against the wave of approval. But the lure of the forbidden is always strong and Alisha Rai certainly thrives on teasing out every nuance of Sadia/Jackson’s emotional angst and fraught feelings. Forbidden doesn’t just describe Jackson and Sadie however; the story does skirt the edge of voyeurism, and some sexual deviant behaviours that might be triggers for some readers though there’s the gratuitous bit of illicit (and explicit) feeling running throughout the story that makes ‘Wong to Need You’ the complete package.

Yet throughout, I’ve found myself asking the question: is it possible to like a book but not exactly be invested in the pairing? This sounds more so unforgivable, considering romance really is about 2 protagonists getting together though there isn’t a rule—unspoken or otherwise—that states a pairing has to be the be-all or end-all in it. I wasn’t exactly rooting for Jackson or Sadie that much, but the unfolding drama itself is compelling and that alone propelled me to want to know how things would work out.

That said, Rai’s writing is easy to get lost in and I for one, can’t wait for Eve/Gabe’s story.

three-stars

Mend Your Heart by Tracey Alvarez

Posted in Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Reviews/ Sports 20th September 2017
Mend Your Heart by Tracey AlvarezMend Your Heart by Tracey Alvarez
Series: Bounty Bay #4
Published by Tracey Alvarez on September 15th 2017
Pages: 247
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five-stars

An idiot’s guide to falling for your best friend’s widow…

Former rugby star Isaac Ngata was New Zealand’s golden boy until five years ago when a tragic accident took the life of his friend and team mate. Now he’s a pariah with a screwed up knee and a burden of guilt toward his friend’s wife and daughter. Best thing for him to do is sink into the anonymous safety of his hometown. An even better thing to do would be to stop picturing Natalie in his arms.

For someone who doesn’t know a dummy pass from a drop kick, Natalie Fisher just wants to keep her late husband’s passion for sport in the past. But their teenage daughter’s rugby team is in desperate need of a coach and the man she can’t stand to be around has volunteered. A long buried attraction flares to life between Natalie and Isaac, one they can’t run far or fast enough to avoid. Soon rugby fever isn’t the only thing heating up Bounty Bay. Crossing the line never had such high stakes…

I’ve somehow always hesitated to jump into Tracey Alvarez’s Far North/Bounty Bay series, but this is probably because I’m so attached to her Down South crew that I’m probably as possessive of them as Alvarez is. But ‘Mend Your Heart’s blurb sounded heartbreaking from the start and I knew immediately that I wanted Isaac Ngata’s story desperately as much as I wanted my next Down South fix.

The family-like bonds in every series is probably Tracey Alvarez’s forte, as secondary characters float in and out of the whole book while propping the whole narrative as well as the protagonists up with a sly yet subtle kind of humour I’d be hard-pressed to find outside of Australia and New Zealand. Alvarez’s writing is definitely no slouch either, though it can take some getting used to her style, as well as the references to a sport that can be rather obscure for those who live on the other side of of the Pacific ocean. But rugby is everything in Kiwi-land and I love Alvarez’s deliberate spotlight on the All Blacks who aren’t, despite popular opinion, the only famous thing about this place.

But I digress.

Back to the plot as we know it: Isaac’s professional career and reputation went up in flames 5 years ago in an incident that destroyed any kind of relationship between his (now dead) best mate’s wife and daughter, and that’s just the beginning of what we know. It unravels slowly from here onwards, with bits and pieces that come along with the truth that you know is contrary to what Isaac (and popular opinion) has claimed. Natalie and Olivia are in essence, too close and yet too far for this guy to find his HEA, though it’s clear that it’s high time for him to.

Isaac himself jumped out from the pages and became an immediate hero-to-die-for when it became clear what he did to protect people he owed nothing to. The grumpy facade, that shell he’d retreated into and the emotions he didn’t quite try to hide and run away from like almost every alpha book hero I know, made him a shining beacon among the thorny arses in romantic fiction. I loved every moment of his interaction with Natalie, Olivia as well as the all-girls school rugby team, just as much as I cheered for their HEA with their nosy but well-meaning mates in the background. For a few hours, I’d been happily part of their whanau and needless to say, I’d gladly leap back in when Vee’s and Sam’s story comes out of the works.

five-stars

Cold Malice by Toni Anderson

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Mystery/Crime/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 17th September 2017
Cold Malice by Toni AndersonCold Malice by Toni Anderson
Series: Cold Justice #8
Published by Toni Anderson on September 12th 2017
Pages: 326
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four-stars

ASAC Steve (Mac) McKenzie is out to prove himself by leading a task force investigating a series of murders in the heart of Washington, DC. His undercover work in an antigovernment compound twenty years earlier is related—as is the sweet, innocent girl he befriended back then. Now that girl is a beautiful woman, and she has something to hide.

Tess Fallon spent a lifetime trying to outrun her family’s brand of bigotry, but someone is threatening her anonymity by using the anniversary of her father’s death to carry out evil crimes and she’s terrified her younger brother is involved. She sets out to find the truth and comes face-to-face with a man she once idolized, a man she thought long dead. As the crimes escalate it becomes obvious the killer has an agenda, and Tess and Mac are running out of time to stop him.

Will the perpetrator use a decades-old dream of revolution to attack the federal government? And will the fact that Tess and Mac have fallen hard for each other give a cold-hearted killer the power to destroy them both?

What begins as seemingly unrelated, cold-blooded murders appears to be an act of white supremacist leanings and at the heart of it would be a woman whose father was the leader of such a group, who also, twenty years ago, had been freed of that life when Steve McKenzie worked undercover at their complex. But 2 decades isn’t long enough apparently, for some ghosts to stay buried and this time, Mac’s reentry into Tess Fallon’s life is anything but coincidence when the resurrection of the dogmas of white nationalists begins with a rising body count of specifically targeted individuals.

I’m going to say from the start that ‘Cold Malice’ is a jaw-dropping, romantic-suspense-at-its-finest type of read. With multifaceted, fully fleshed out protagonists at its helm, the conflict around which the plot is centred has such chilling relevance for the times we live in, lending the whole story a believability that makes Anderson’s brand of fiction as large as reality. In fact, it’s so intricately plotted, so heart-poundingly intense and just so well done that I couldn’t put the book down, even when sleep was calling.

And where do I even begin with Toni Anderson’s characters? Tess Fallon in this case, had wholly won me over. She’s everything I love in a heroine: brave, loyal, protective and so strong as she fights a parentage anyone would be ashamed of. I couldn’t blame her at all for not fully trusting Mac for simply showing up 20 years with a different identity then demanding her cooperation; coupled with the fact that she had to pay for her family’s sins and run from a past that wasn’t even quite her own—compounded by the FBI who vilified her—felt like a massively unfair position she’d been put in. That she’d dealt with it the only way she knew how to—by protecting her brother, by keeping some walls up—was not only understandable, but justified.

On the other hand, it was harder to like Mac, whose own conflict about his job and Tess’s involvement in the case left him indecisive about her. Using their connection to further his investigations merely served to confirm how much of an arse he could be and there were numerous instances when I thought Tess deserved better for the crap she’d been dealt from all sides.

My only complaint (which probably seems like a petty one given how excellent everything else is) is that as a romance, the speedy conclusion seems to do a disservice to Tess, where Mac’s major grovelling session which I absolutely needed to see never really happened at all. I didn’t think he’d redeemed himself enough to earn back her affection when all he’d done was to put his job above her, with his doubts blindingly overshadowing what he really felt for her. With a fairly quick resolution, I felt that this important bit where broken parts of a relationship are repaired had been glossed over, leaving me with a pairing that seemed to have done their making up and talking behind closed doors.

Then again, it isn’t as if this should throw any shade on Anderson’s fantastic writing. ‘Cold Malice’ is yet another masterpiece of hers and I’m actually convinced that this author does RS so well that she’s actually suited to writing for the big screen. Needless to say, I’m already asking, when’s the next full novel coming?

four-stars

Maybe I Do by Nicole McLaughlin

Posted in Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Reviews 3rd September 2017
Maybe I Do by Nicole McLaughlinMaybe I Do by Nicole McLaughlin
Series: Whiskey and Weddings #1
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on August 29th 2017
Pages: 300
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four-stars

She doesn’t believe in fairy tales. He is married to his job. Maybe whiskey is the secret ingredient that will bring them together–and give true love a shot.

Wedding photographer Charlotte Linley loves her work –even though she hates weddings. Sure, she still holds a grudge after being left at the altar by her high-school sweetheart. But today Charlotte is just happy to have complete control over her career, which is flourishing. Especially since she joined forces with one of the three gorgeous owners of The Stag, a boutique distillery that has become Kansas City’s hottest wedding venue.

Dean Troyer, bitter after the end of his own marriage, knows that Charlotte is the real deal–beautiful, talented, and successful. He may flirt with her every time she comes to The Stag, but Dean is determined to keep his professional distance…particularly now that she’s helping him with his own sister’s wedding. The only problem? The more time Dean spends with Charlotte, the deeper their connection grows. Is this a rom-com cliche’ or could it be that these two jaded souls in the wedding business have finally found their real-life happily ever after?

Books that deal directly with weddings do give me pause. Fussy bridezillas, miles of (pink) sequinned fluff, colour-coordinated decor, crazy cakes and the general wedding fever that gets most characters scurrying around can and often give me nightmares, but I do like Nicole McLaughlin’s writing and ‘Maybe I do’ was pretty much a shoo-in.

I was nonetheless surprised to read though, that beyond a long-term flirtation that turned into something more, much of it shone the spotlight Dean’s hesitation, his indecisiveness and his insecure second-guessing that made him blow hot and cold. These were also what created many of the speed bumps in the story when he had, for 3 years, built a wall between Charlotte and him. That was understandable to an extent, clearly, because McLaughlin does write an irresistible older hero who has already been dented by the hard knocks of life multiple times. Dean’s case is a sympathetic one, yet I thought he needed to get himself sorted sooner and man up (and grovel) where Charlotte was concerned.

Charlotte on the other hand, grabbed me from page one, made me root so much for her and pretty much made the day for me. Amidst a slew of immature heroines who flounce their way into over-the-top hysterics when the situation never calls for it, Charlotte stands out like a sparkling gem. I loved how measured and thoughtful her responses and reactions were as much as I loved how upfront she was with Dean and how put-together she had it all despite how he treated her.

There were some distracting issues that did seem to take a bit of focus away from Charlotte/Dean themselves, so it isn’t quite the perfect read for me since what Dean and Charlotte had to sort out did seem monumental but were dealt with only in the closing chapters (as well as the epilogue) and I was left wondering just how much they really understood each other despite Charlotte’s admirable way of assimilating Dean’s revelation. The nitty-gritty of Dean’s sister’s wedding planning got lost on me, as much as I couldn’t quite get past the issues with both Dean’s and Charlotte’s ex-es, who were more than just ghosts of the ugly past.

I’m mildly curious about the next few books in the series, though I’m going to be on the fence for now—a secondary character who just might be a protagonist in the next story isn’t entirely likeable at all so that put a damper in it already. But to get back to the present instead of projecting a bit too much, I’ll have to say that ‘Maybe I do’ is definitely an enjoyable (and emotional) read and with a sparkling heroine who jumped out from the pages and kept me in a girl-crush for the entire duration? That made a near-sleepless night worth it.

four-stars
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