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Oh for fuck’s sake

An Ex for Christmas by Lauren Layne

Posted in Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews 12th November 2017
An Ex for Christmas by Lauren LayneAn Ex for Christmas by Lauren Layne
Series: Love Unexpectedly #5
Published by Loveswept on November 7th 2017
Pages: 218
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two-stars

When a psychic tells spunky, superstitious Kelly Byrne that she’s already met her true love, she becomes obsessed with the idea of tracking him down before Christmas. Kelly immediately writes up an “Ex List” and starts contacting old boyfriends to figure out which one is the one. When her college sweetheart rolls into town, Kelly convinces herself that they’re meant to be. The trouble is, sparks are flying with someone she’s never given a chance: her best friend, Mark.

Mark Blakely has watched the guys on Kelly’s list break her heart, and he’s not looking forward to watching them do it all over again. Mark’s always been there for her, but the timing’s never worked out for their relationship to be something more. Now, just as Mark is ready to move on, the sexual tension between them is suddenly off the charts. With Christmas morning around the corner, he just hopes Kelly will wake up and realize that everything she wants has been right in front of her all along.

I’m starting to wonder if Lauren Layne and I should start to part ways. When I’ve loved her earlier works, these days, I’ve taken more and more issues of late with her characters whom I can’t seem to like at all—and my recent lowered ratings of her books might be an unfair attempt to recapture what I’ve felt about her previous books.

The friends-to-lovers (with an unrequited element) romance is one where I tread very, very carefully, because there’re just too many entanglements and questions that tend not to be satisfactorily answered before a typical, teary grovelling session happens just a page or 2 before both parties ride off into the sunset. Romantic-comedy or not, I do like my couples evenly-paired emotionally at the very least, which means that I do need to see, while reading the romance genre, that both are on the same page when it comes to their feelings for each other, rather than a protagonist hankering after another for an extended period of time, then having the other playing catch up only in the last few pages. Where’s the satisfaction in that?

“An Ex for Christmas” was just that for me, though I was under the impression that it was more of a timing-not-right sort of thing for them, instead of one where an obtuse woman stomps on a man’s heart unknowingly.

For want of a better way of putting things, Kelly seemed to bring out the latent violent tendencies in me as I found myself caught between wanting to smack her and throwing a chair at her for her steadfast refusal to see how much she’d put Mark in the friend zone. Kelly’s perky obliviousness and inability to recognise what was in front of her all along—while flaunting the plan to dates ALL of her ex-es in front of the guy who’s always loved her—was not just cringeworthy, but thoughtless and stupid, considering this came off some screwed-up, superstitious conclusion based on an old woman’s prediction.

In fact, I felt so bad for Mark and actually wished he found someone else other than a woman who’d never seemed to return his feelings beyond platonic friendship. I thought he deserved better instead of Kelly’s ‘sudden’ realisation that she ‘thought she loved’ him despite him going to bat for her—the obstinate search for her ex-es even though those tanked disastrously proved it sufficiently, and I couldn’t blame him at all for finally wanting to give up while the woman he wanted simply went off doing her own merry thing.

Obviously my sentiments lie in the minority here—unrequited love stories tend to do that for me, particularly with the one who pined for a long time—but exasperation and irritation just got the better of me for this one. So I skimmed, if only for poor Mark, feeling relieved when I got to the end, though not any happier about it still because their love affair all sat wrong with me. Like I said, maybe this is sort of the end of the road for me when it comes to Layne’s stories; never say never though, but I’m going to be taking a wide berth for now.

two-stars

Hooking Up by Helena Hunting

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ New Adult/ Reviews 7th November 2017
Hooking Up by Helena HuntingHooking Up by Helena Hunting
Published by Swerve on November 1st 2017
Pages: 259
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one-star

Amalie Whitfield is the picture of a blushing bride during her wedding reception–but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of proclaiming his undying love, her husband can be heard, by Amalie and their guests, getting off with someone else. She has every reason to freak out, and in a moment of insanity, she throws herself at the first hot-blooded male she sees. But he’s not interested in becoming her revenge screw.

Mortified and desperate to escape the post-wedding drama, Amalie decides to go on her honeymoon alone, only to find the man who rejected her also heading to the same tiny island for work. But this time he isn’t holding back. She should know better than to sleep with someone she knows, but she can’t seem to resist him.

They might agree that what happens on the island should stay on the island, but neither one can deny that their attraction is more than just physical.

Not having read the first book, I’m guessing that the implications of Amalie and her secret hook-up are much larger than I think, though ‘Hooking Up’ does clearly work as a standalone.

Having said that, I had the inkling that the book wasn’t for me at all—an inkling that grew like an ominous thundercloud by the time I got to the part where the shenanigans started a few minutes post-wedding.

Cheating and a tit-for-tat vibe in the story are what push the narrative along: out of spite, Armstrong swopped into get the girl (one which the mystery man sees first), then quite publicly cheated on her in a cringeworthy manner during the wedding reception. The brokenhearted Amalie in turn, went on her honeymoon alone, hooked up with the man who quite literally saw her first while her divorce hadn’t gone through (though it’s pretty much expected that the marriage is over by then). That personally is a trigger for me, so I was struggling with this early on, which clearly places me in the minority as I kept wondering if Amalie/mystery man’s actions were justified nonetheless, especially since this merely took place a few days after the disastrous wedding and not after the dust properly settled.

I also found it hard to sympathise with the jilted woman, whose choice in bad boyfriends (and husband) merely reinforced her lack of judgement and her inability to rein everything in. And unlike our mystery man who seemed stalwart in his desire for her, Amalie merely stayed a whiny, flaky protagonist who spent most of the story vacillating between her regrets and her own abysmal history in ‘love’ which she projected onto mystery man.

I couldn’t finish the story after all—it’s an issue I typically have with characters and issues like cheating. The ease of reading just didn’t surpass how much I disliked the characters in the book save for the mystery man of the story and was actually happy to put Amalie and her antics far behind me.

one-star

Cuffed by K. Bromberg

Posted in Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews 29th October 2017
Cuffed by K. BrombergCuffed by K. Bromberg
Series: Everyday Heroes #1
Published by JKB Publishing, LLC on October 23rd 2017
Pages: 394
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one-star

“I hate you. I never want to see you again.”

Grant Malone is not the reason I moved back to Sunnyville—at least that’s what I tell myself. Yet, those parting words I said to him back in third grade, ring in my ears every time a townsperson brings up one of the Malone boys. I thought time had healed my wounds. I was wrong. Nothing could have prepared me for how I felt when I finally saw him again.

Twenty years does a lot to turn a boy into a man. One who hits all my buttons—sexy, funny, attractive, and a police officer. But Grant is off limits because he knows too much about my past.

But I’m drawn to him. That damn uniform of his doesn’t hurt either. It’ll be my downfall. I know it.

What’s one night of sex going to hurt . . . right?

***

I’ve always loved Emmy Reeves.

That’s why I’m shocked to see her all these years later. The shy girl I once knew is all grown up.

Adventurous and full of life, she owns my heart now, just as much as she did back then. Convincing her of that is a whole different story.

I’ll give her the one night she asks for—like that’s a hardship—but when it comes to letting her walk away after, she has another thing coming. There’s no way in hell I’m letting her go this time without a fight.

‘Cuffed’ and I got off on the wrong foot.

I gritted my teeth and struggled on for the first half, wondering about the glowing reviews that this book has received, determined to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

After all, there was nothing remotely attractive in a petulant woman holding a childish grudge for a mistake made 20 years ago against a police officer, acting like the biggest flake in the world all because she’s running, commitment-free, from a past that’s yet to be revealed. And the mature woman she’s grown into knows just as well that it’s easier to blame her lack of trust and intimacy on a past she hasn’t gotten over, which is admittedly a tough one.

But there’re an equal number of books these days after all, that deal with the role-reversal of a woman not wanting any strings and being bitchy in her defence of it, whether the rationale for it is justified or not. Nothing really made Emerson any different from those other protagonists who are worn down by the charms of Grant Malone, who has been, up to this point, walking away from every woman he sleeps with because he’s only been ‘passing time with them’, knowing he’s loved her all along.

One would think that two decades might be a tad bit long for a grudge, or that the perception that she’s gained from it should have helped in the intervening years. Evidently not.

I think neither protagonist really interested me, nor could I like them much, which meant I kept reading on just to discover what Grant did in grade school though there are sufficient hints about what really happened. But to get to that is a frustrating exercise seeing Emerson pushing Grant away, just as Grant couldn’t let her go for when he sees her again, resulting in hostile sniping without getting to the heart of the issue…ad nauseam.

In the end, I found it was impossible to get past even the halfway point. There’s just something about the characters that rubbed me the wrong way and clearly ‘Cuffed’, as I suspected from the start,  just isn’t the book for me.

one-star

Winnawarra by Elizabeth M. Darcy

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Mystery/Crime/ Reviews/ Romantic Suspense 26th October 2017
Winnawarra by Elizabeth M. DarcyWinnawarra by Elizabeth M. Darcy
Published by Luminosity Publishing LLP on December 8th 2017
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two-stars

Emily Perkins is over the moon to learn Jock Macgregor has left her a share in Winnawarra Station in the magnificent Kimberly region of Outback Australia. The bonus comes when she realises, his handsome grandson, Doug is the man of her dreams. She loves working beside him and every day is an adventure.

After receiving a letter from Jock, she discovers he was convinced the accident that killed his son and daughter-in-law was actually murder, and he included her in his will to investigate the deaths.

When accidents start happening to Emily, and she hears footsteps outside her room at night, she is convinced someone is stalking her.

Is she next on the killer’s list?

Isolated on an Outback cattle ranch, will strong, dependable Doug be able to keep her safe?

A murderer is loose at Winnawarra Station, and she must race against time to identify the killer before he strikes again.

The Australian rural romance is a sub-genre that I like quite a bit, so ‘Winnawarra’ sounded like a thing straight up my alley, particularly with some romantic suspense thrown in. But I’m frankly, struggling to write a review of a story where the bits that appealed equalled the parts that didn’t.

I did like the numerous cultural references in the book—the Australian rural ranching practices never fail to fascinate me—and Elizabeth M. Darcy’s style of writing is different in a way that takes a while getting used to. The premise for Emily’s arrival “Winnawarra” was as well, an unconventional one, as was the suspense that really amped up the tension and thrills when things went bump in the night.

However, I had a few issues with the inconsistencies in characterisation, writing and pacing, and that did affect my ability to get absorbed fully in the suspense. In fact, the protagonists didn’t seem to be the adults they were, while several bits of dialogues took on an odd archaic sheen that didn’t seem to fit with the contemporary tone of the story.

Emily seemed childishly impatient with crazy mood swings at times (not to mention the easy jealousy), blaming her fear on Doug’s inability to ‘keep her safe’, then getting close to accusing him of murder in her haste to uncover the mystery surrounding Winnawarra. To be fair however, Doug never looked as though he’d managed his PTSD at all and that did spill over in actions that were self-destructive to the point where it struck Emily precisely where her nerves were rubbed raw by her past relationship. And…no condoms? Seriously? When Doug had all but admitted he’d slept with way too many women when he was drunk and on a bender?

At the same time, the murder mystery that Emily was investigating also seemed quite tangential, involving characters that still seemed to steer the plot from beyond the grave, leaving me like the disconnected outsider trying to look in through a dusty window. The story did however, hit its stride past the halfway mark, though it led to a climax where the villain was revealed to be whom I suspected he was all along.

‘Winnawarra’ would be a decent read particularly if the rural traditions of ranching (along with hot cowboys) down under interests anyone looking to get into rural romance. Unfortunately, the story fell rather flat for me despite its potential.

two-stars

Man Candy by Jessica Lemmon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

two-stars

Jax by Cristin Harber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

two-half-stars

The Pretender by HelenKay Dimon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

two-stars
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