Tag: Made my chest ache

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.

Whitsunday Dawn by Annie Seaton

Whitsunday Dawn by Annie SeatonWhitsunday Dawn by Annie Seaton
Published by Harlequin (Australia) TEEN/MIRA on 23rd July 2018
Pages: 384
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four-stars

When Olivia Sheridan arrives in the Whitsundays as spokesperson for big mining company Sheridan Corp, it should be a straightforward presentation to the town about their proposed project. But when a handsome local fisherman shows her what ecological impact the proposal will have, Olivia is forced to question her father's motives for the project.

Struggling with newly divided loyalties, Olivia is thrown further into turmoil when she is mistaken for a woman who disappeared more than sixty years before. When it becomes clear that Captain Jay is also keeping secrets, Olivia realises that there is more to these sunshine–soaked islands than she ever expected.

Seeking to uncover the truth, Olivia is drawn into a dangerous game where powerful businessmen will stop at nothing to ensure their plan goes ahead, even if that means eliminating her…

Against the epic Far North Queensland landscape, this is the story of two women, separated by history, drawn to Whitsunday Island where their futures will be changed forever.

‘Whitsunday Dawn’, set in the beautiful, otherworldly part of Northern Queensland, is so much more than the enemies-to-lovers trope undertaken by Annie Seaton when Olivia Sheridan tangles with Fynn James from the very start because of their conflicting agendas. Yet Olivia paths and Fynn’s paths cross in more ways than one, with the addition of a supposedly-delusional elderly woman who keeps seeing someone else from the past in Olivia’s face.

Seaton deftly handles two timelines and their contexts as she brings these seemingly unrelated things together—these can be chaotic and jarring nonetheless as the chapters slip between 2018 and 1942—and parallel developing relationships within as the story goes on. But even if the first shift to 1942 threw me off, it’s through this particular story (within a story) that Seaton revives an overlooked part of WWII that reached this remote region of Australia and those affected, while amping up the suspense as events in 2018 once again take the stage.

I liked Olivia/Fynn’s story as much as I was unwittingly drawn into Lil/Jack’s doomed one. But it’s all too-often that a particular timeline doesn’t end too well however, and Seaton’s moving portrayal of the tragedy of the pairing in history left me a blubbering mess.

‘Whitsunday Dawn’ closes on a bittersweet note—with the tacit acknowledgement that life, death and war can only leave scars and nostalgic wistfulness by the end of it all—but had me wishing nonetheless, that things still ended more happily.

four-stars

Fighting for Everything by Laura Kaye

Fighting for Everything by Laura KayeFighting for Everything by Laura Kaye
Series: Warrior Fight Club #1
Published by Laura Kaye on 17th May 2018
Pages: 264
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three-stars

Loving her is the biggest fight of his life…

Home from the Marines, Noah Cortez has a secret he doesn’t want his oldest friend, Kristina Moore, to know. It kills him to push her away, especially when he’s noticing just how sexy and confident she’s become in his absence. But, angry and full of fight, he’s not the same man anymore either. Which is why Warrior Fight Club sounds so good.

Kristina loves teaching, but she wants more out of life. She wants Noah—the boy she’s crushed on and waited for. Except Noah is all man now—in ways both oh so good and troubling, too. Still, she wants who he’s become—every war-hardened inch. And when they finally stop fighting their attraction, it’s everything Kristina never dared hope for.

But Noah is secretly spiraling, and when he lashes out, it threatens what he and Kristina have found. The brotherhood of the fight club helps him confront his demons, but only Noah can convince the woman he loves that he’s finally ready to fight for everything.

‘Fighting for Everything’ is something I decided to give a go because it does sound different from Laura Kaye’s offerings of late: MCs aren’t what I typically read and Kaye’s recent focus on that left me hanging in the wind. That it’s an earnest take on vets and the demons they bring home from war is a bonus because it shoves the spotlight on protagonists who are the furthest from the cocky, swaggeringly confident male romantic fiction loves to portray.

But the Warrior fight club bit doesn’t come in until much later, to my surprise. In fact, most of the book revolves around the constant push-pull between Noah and Kristina who’d practically known each other all their lives, who suddenly move from friendship to something more, seemingly out of the blue. Angst-ridden and drama-filled, Noah/Kristina’s constant push-pull (along with unhinged jealousy and dirty sex) takes centre-stage as Kaye pulls everything down to rock-bottom, then uses the fight club as the anchor to restart everything.

I did feel so very sorry for Noah in any case. The damage he’d suffered to his body, the pain he found himself in made it easier to understand his rationale for really not being in the right place for anything (even if it’s somewhat inexcusable) with his best friend. And as much as I dug Kristina for putting herself out there after getting the epiphany about having always loved him, her ultimatum to Noah however—either lovers or nothing without leaving friendship as the option had she not gotten what she wanted—felt somewhat unreasonable when Noah had loads to sort through on his own.

As a result, ‘Fighting for Everything’ was a middling read, at most. The caveat here is that the friend-to-lovers trope is one I’m the most sceptical about, and the closer the friendship to begin with, in essence, the more doubtful I am. And this is clearly my inability to believe how a switch suddenly flips and a protagonist suddenly realises he/she has been ‘in love’ all along with the other person after years have gone by with many other partners coming and going. It’s the obliviousness/pretence/delusion of the characters that typically keeps me from buying into this trope entirely; only rarely does it work for me and only under very specific conditions at least.

Apart from the romance, the camaraderie in the fight club shines through—the military brotherhood extended past military service is what Kaye excels at—and it’s something I do want to read more about. It does come in a little too late in this book, but seeing as this is only the start of the series, I’m curious to see how far Kaye will take this.

three-stars

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the time by Kylie Scott

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the time by Kylie ScottIt Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time by Kylie Scott
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on 7th August 2018
Pages: 185
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two-half-stars

Returning home for her father’s wedding was never going to be easy for Adele. If being sent away at eighteen hadn’t been bad enough, the mess she left behind when she made a pass at her dad’s business partner sure was.

Fifteen years older than her, Pete had been her crush for as long as she could remember. But she’d misread the situation—confusing friendliness for undying love. Awkward. Add her father to the misunderstanding, and Pete had been left with a broken nose and a business on the edge of ruin. The man had to be just as glad as everyone else when she left town.

Seven years on, things are different. Adele is no longer a kid, but a fully grown adult more than capable of getting through the wedding and being polite. But all it takes is seeing him again to bring back all those old feelings.

Sometimes first loves are the truest.

‘It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time’ is quite a mouthful, but it’s hard to put down with the wrenching pain of unrequited love being the driving factor here, given the somewhat forbidden trope of much older man and younger woman, who reunite after the latter pretty much blew up their friendship by making a pass at him 7 years ago. The stupid things teenage girls do when faced with their crushes are what I remember (cringingly fondly?) as well, nonetheless and this was the basis that kept the pages turning. That and that an age-gap like 15 years doesn’t bother me—so I was on it like white on rice.

But Adele’s and Pete’s history is inked in such a way that makes me question the age-gap issue: would a teenager really find a best friend in a 30-year-old man? (As a teen with a limited perspective, I simply remembered that anyone past 25-ish or so, to be naively considered middle-aged and didn’t have much to talk about with them apart from school and, well, nothing much else) How did Pete transition from seeing Adele as the ‘kid’ to a romantic partner and how on earth did Pete and Adele suddenly regress to being teenagers in their interactions when the former couldn’t seem to deal with something that happened years ago?

Adele comes across, as a result, as the more mature, thinking adult, and for some reason, so forgiving of Pete’s indiscretions and indecisiveness. Or at least, with the whole novella written in Adele’s POV, it is so much easier to see her own insecurities and flaws exposed while I felt too kept in the dark about what Pete is thinking. It’s also quite inconceivable that, as Adele mentioned herself, a man at 40 hadn’t seen the light enough to deal with his own abandonment and emotional issues to remain a closed-off player that he goes about it by blowing hot and cold numerous times…all of which suddenly gets shrugged off at the end.

I would have been probably more mollified however, without the ending twist that seemed to forced a happy ending for all involved—2 people hashing it out and dealing with what’s between them would have worked better, instead of the dependence on external circumstances to speed things along quite unbelievably. Honestly, it’s hard to rate this story like this, where I got through it effortlessly – Kylie Scott’s writing is pretty good that I could empathise mostly with Adele – yet detested the slide into the New Adult feel of it when I’d clearly expected the protagonists to behave their own ages.

two-half-stars

Breaking Gravity by Autumn Grey

Breaking Gravity by Autumn GreyBreaking Gravity by Autumn Grey
Series: Fall Back, #2
Published by AG, Autumn Grey on 26th March 2017
Pages: 326
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five-stars

I've always followed my dreams with ruthless determination. My life was going well. Success was at my fingertips. Until it wasn't. All it took was three seconds to send my world crashing down around me, ripping my dreams to shreds. Then I meet her, with her large hazel eyes that slay me at first glance. And everything starts to make sense again. I try to keep my distance. To remind myself I am her mentor. That we can't be more, but every time I push away, I'm pulled deeper into her. The line between student and teacher is blurring. One kiss. One taste. They’re all it would take to cross the line.

Just like that, I ‘ship them.

The deliciously forbidden teacher-student romance is a favourite of mine but I have to say there’s none so well executed and so well crafted as ‘Breaking Gravity’, which was brilliantly enthralling from the very start. That it involved musicians and music was something else I adored.

Pitting the steely-eyed, tortured (but swoonworthy) hero against a sassy but sensible heroine isn’t something unique, but Autumn Grey’s take on Nathaniel Rowe and Elon Blake won me over hook, line and sinker. In fact, Grey writes a convincing pairing in Nate and Elon, first drawing out the tragedy in their lives, taking so much time to shape each protagonist’s shattered dreams and hopes before building them up again, both individually and together…just as I loved them that way, individually and together.

In fact, there was so much that I loved about this book and this couple: the build of the electric, sexual tension, the hot and heavy attraction, the fierce loyalty between them, the lessons both taught each other, and the scorching, steamy scenes followed by the tender aftermath that helps gives this relationship a deeply romantic sheen.

There’s the prerequisite drama and angst that seem to accompany most N/A books, several small bits of moral philosophising about life and such (my only, tiny complaint is that it comes across trite at times), but the small element of serendipity that adds a touch of dreaminess to the pairing—Elon’s childhood music crush turned out to be her tutor and finally, the man in her life is a fantasy come to life—is the clincher for me.

five-stars