Teach Me by Olivia Dade

Teach Me by Olivia DadeTeach Me by Olivia Dade
Series: There's Something About Marysburg #1
Published by Hussies & Harpies Press on 28th March 2019
Pages: 276
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four-half-stars


Their lesson plans didn't include love. But that's about to change...

When Martin Krause arrives at Rose Owens's high school, she's determined to remain chilly with her new colleague. Unfriendly? Maybe. Understandable? Yes, since a loathsome administrator gave Rose's beloved world history classes to Martin, knowing it would hurt her.

But keeping her distance from a man as warm and kind as Martin will prove challenging, even for a stubborn, guarded ice queen. Especially when she begins to see him for what he truly is: a man who's never been taught his own value. Martin could use a good teacher--and luckily, Rose is the best.

Rose has her own lessons--about trust, about vulnerability, about her past--to learn. And over the course of a single school year, the two of them will find out just how hot it can get when an ice queen melts.

I didn’t know what to expect from Olivia Dade’s ‘Teach Me’ but a romance set in school (one that begins with a bit of hostility) between 2 older, scarred , divorced people wasn’t it. Yet it surprised me once I got going, past the initial friction between Rose Owens and Martin Krause after the school administrator did a bit of deliberate reshuffling intended to sting hard.

Rose/Martin are exceptional educators—I suspect Dad wouldn’t write them otherwise—but Dade excellently juggles the demands of teaching with the issues teachers themselves face…along with a burgeoning attraction at the workplace that neither of whom quite knows how to navigate.

Dade beautifully captures the inner workings of human behaviour with her characterisation, laying out the complicated bundle of emotions tangled up with even messier histories and self-esteem issues that can’t be miraculously shrugged off even by age. And by doing so, lays out a new standard of sexy that isn’t defined by blindingly-movie-star looks or bulging muscles that many male romantic protagonists exude, but rather, one that’s grounded in quiet integrity, steadiness and fierce intelligence.

The slow burn between Martin and Rose is something to be savoured really; Martin dismantles Rose’s hard shell of emotional armour with patience and so much gallantry that it’s impossible not to love him as a romantic hero, especially when it’s clearly so against the usual romantic-male-type that one gets by the dozen in the genre. He’s a dreamboat, in short, whose age has given him enough hindsight, perspective and maturity in dealing with Rose’s issues as well as his own scars to know what he wants and needs.

But ‘Teach Me’ is particularly enjoyable because of the uber-maturity that resounds everywhere—where restraint is prized over emotional outbursts, where things are talked about and calmly discussed, where behaviour isn’t ruled by petty, hormonal renderings. That it’s so well-written, so brilliantly articulated is a treat. Rare is the occasion—and one I rue here—where I want more smutty interactions and if this is the book’s only shortcoming, then it’s obviously on me.

four-half-stars

Top Secret by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

three-half-stars

Hard Target by Pamela Clare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

three-stars

Beyond the Limit by Cindy Dees

Beyond the Limit by Cindy DeesBeyond the Limit by Cindy Dees
Series: Valkyrie Ops, #1
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on 25th June 2019
Pages: 384
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one-star

Skylar Tate, former Miss Congeniality, is a media officer for the Navy, but she itches to get on the field—and she can prove she has what it takes. But convincing others that she can become one of the first ever female Navy SEALs? That might be tougher than the agonizingly brutal training.

Griffin Caldwell and his teammates in his Navy SEAL platoon, the Reapers, are tasked to secretly train women candidates to become the first female SEALs. But when he meets Skylar Tate, it's friction—and lust—at first sight. Griffin can't believe the former pageant queen has what it takes, and Skylar can't believe his arrogance. But when one deadly mission goes wrong, it's up to Skylar and Griffin and their unprecedented bond to save the day.

Oddly reminiscent of ‘The Medusa Project’—a book of Cindy Dees I read a long time ago, ‘Beyond the Limit’ failed to enthral me because it felt like ground that has been trodden on before: women attempting to break through the elite ranks of spec ops, an area traditionally and still dominated by Alpha men and the likes, and eventually getting them to eat their words, while forming a sisterhood in the process.

Miss Congeniality turned Spec-ops potential soldier Sherri Tate is the first in line in this book, as a SEAL platoon is tasked to get them up to speed as suitable candidates (and probably getting them to fail in the process). But seeing Sherri Tate swooning over her instructor and his hot bod felt painfully awkward instead and trying to meet all the men’s , seemingly proving the point that women and men couldn’t work together in the military without someone dying of lust.

I realise I’m not quite the type of reader who crows about female vs. male prowess even if it’s with the former coming out top), even if it’s about the women trying to earn a place in the SEALs—and how the men do everything in their power to wash them out. There’re misogynist and chauvinistic tendencies, both overt and implied and so deeply buried in everyday vocabulary—that men would be made obsolete if the women joined their ranks?!—but if the intention is to rile the female reader, it didn’t exactly work on me because it felt like a story that has been already told…by Dees herself a long time ago.

It’s not that I don’t think a very special breed of women can cut it in spec ops (there are already women rangers out there, so it’s a moot point), but rather, it’s probably the sense of entitlement of the elite SEALs have, along with the whole cyclical round of women proving men wrong that I’m tired with. Even though the women do it and triumph through sheer grit and hard work.

It’s all on me, I’ll readily admit, that I wasn’t as engaged in the storytelling as I would have liked and the skimmed the whole way without being able to get a hook into the whole journey of Sherri going through her rounds and rounds of training. ‘Beyond The Limit’ just didn’t do it for me, for a combination of reasons that had me not finishing it.

*ARC by the publisher via Netgalley

one-star

Well Met by Jen DeLuca

Well Met by Jen DeLucaWell Met by Jen DeLuca
Published by Berkley Books on 3rd September 2019
Pages: 336
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four-stars

Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The faire is Simon's family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn't have time for Emily's lighthearted approach to life, her oddball Shakespeare conspiracy theories, or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she's in her revealing wench's costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they're portraying?

This summer was only ever supposed to be a pit stop on the way to somewhere else for Emily, but soon she can't seem to shake the fantasy of establishing something more with Simon or a permanent home of her own in Willow Creek.

When Emily Parker moved to Willow Creek to help her sister and niece after an accident, getting roped into being a tavern wench during the summer Renaissance Faire under the disapproving eye of a buttoned-up, uptight Simon Graham—the local high school literature teacher and also the surly man in charge—wasn’t the turn she expected her life to take.

But the Faire—the make-believe and physical transformation and the layers of identities that the characters took on—and its supposed Elizabethan magic could work wonders. The friction between Emily and Simon turned into something other than constant arguing…with a slow-burn that proved to be quite rewarding by the time the sparks turn to fire, because the feisty tavern wench and the swaggering pirate can play at something in all their interactions, even if their real life personas are more riddled with confusion about the mutual attraction.

In fact, seeing Simon’s layers coming apart was perhaps, the best parts of the book.

In all, ‘Well Met’ is cute and light-hearted and honestly, thoroughly enjoyable, more so because it was an easy read that handled the sniping and the humour with quite a bit of panache with a cast of characters that were in their own ways, memorable. The heavier themes like grief, emotional healing and moving on were handled with the knowledge that these are more complicated than we always make them out to be without weighing the entire story down with angst. The only thing that I couldn’t entirely get on with was Emily’s insecurity about not being the priority in people’s lives—a point that she rued often and made it a bigger issue with Simon than it should have been—as it felt like amplified conflict when it didn’t have to be.

Still, I had loads of fun to the point where this ended up being one of the rare stories where I alternated between dreading finishing it and wanting to savour the swoon-worthy chemistry between Simon and Emily as much as I could (which mean turning the pages at a furious pace just to see how it would develop). For those who love everything about Shakespeare and his time? This book’s yours to hug close.

four-stars

Pretty Reckless by L.J. Shen

Pretty Reckless by L.J. ShenPretty Reckless by L.J. Shen
Series: All Saints High, #1
Published by L.J. Shen on 21st April 2019
Pages: 360
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three-stars

Penn
They say revenge is a dish best served cold. I’d had four years to stew on what Daria Followhill did to me, and now my heart was completely iced. I took her first kiss. She took the only thing I loved. I was poor. She was rich. The good thing about circumstances? They can change. Fast. Now, I’m her parents’ latest shiny project. Her housemate. Her tormentor. The captain of the rival football team she hates so much. Yeah, baby girl, say it—I’m your foster brother. There’s a price to pay for ruining the only good thing in my life, and she’s about to shell out some serious tears. Daria Followhill thinks she is THE queen. I’m about to prove to her that she’s nothing but a spoiled princess.

Daria
Everyone loves a good old unapologetic punk. But being a bitch? Oh, you get slammed for every snarky comment, cynical eye roll, and foot you put in your adversaries’ way. The thing about stiletto heels is that they make a hell of a dent when you walk all over the people who try to hurt you. In Penn Scully’s case, I pierced his heart until he bled out, then left it in a trash can on a bright summer day. Four years ago, he asked me to save all my firsts for him. Now he lives across the hall, and I want nothing more than to be his last everything. His parting words when he gave me his heart were that nothing in this world is free. Now? Now he is making me pay.

My first foray into L.J. Shen’s writing has well, left me speechless with writing that is exceptional and a plot that’s so much of a mindfuck that I still don’t quite know what to make of it.

 

Throw out everything you know of the bubbly, pimple-ridden teen angst that you think is associated with New Adult storylines—even the those with the darker psychological themes—then twist it all around until the characters have chewed each other bone dry in the most vicious way possible.

‘Pretty Reckless’ goes beyond the usual teenage rebellion and the malicious things teens can do to each other, or even the usual head cheerleader/queen bitch and the dumb jock trope doled out in spades. With Daria’s and Penn’s story, it all begins with a seemingly innocent, childish act that snowballs into deeper and horrifying things, trapping everyone involved in a cycle of hate, revenge and self-destruction.

There’s something awry and so divergent (or even deviant?) from the stereotypical mean-girl storyline that many books tout; instead, Shen takes the kind of implicit guilt and punishment that the characters heave upon themselves to pay for the misdeeds they’ve done, and puts them in the darkest corners and the smallest, most incongruent things which then come into the glaring light later as rotten to the core. There’s also an unapologetic level of crudeness (trigger warning here), a constant streak of calculative and manipulative behaviours—given the insidious self-awareness and perception that the characters have—and a level of teenage angst mixed with rejection, jealousy and taunting that strips you raw.

In essence, it’s a level of repulsive meanness (that I rarely read about in the type of books my nose is normally buried in) which makes it hard to look away, even if it’s impossible to root wholly for anyone in this unravelling tale of madness. The rating hence, is a perfunctory one—I can’t say I loved the story, yet I couldn’t look away from the train wreck that somehow satisfied my morbid curiosity.

three-stars

Her Deadly Secrets by Laura Griffin

Her Deadly Secrets by Laura GriffinHer Deadly Secrets by Laura Griffin
Series: Wolfe Security, #2
Published by Gallery Books on 2nd July 2019
Pages: 368
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two-half-stars

Private Investigator Kira Vance spends her days navigating the intricate labyrinth of Houston’s legal world, and she knows all of its shadowy players and dark secrets.
On a seemingly normal day, she’s delivering a report to her top client when suddenly everything goes sideways and the meeting ends in a bloodbath. Twenty-four hours later, the police have no suspects but one thing is clear: a killer has Kira in his sights.

Fiercely independent, Kira doesn’t expect—or want—help from anyone, least of all an unscrupulous lawyer and his elite security team. Instead, she launches her own investigation, hoping to uncover the answers that have eluded the police. But as Kira’s hunt for clues becomes more and more perilous, she realizes that she alone may hold the key to finding a vicious murderer. And she knows she must take help wherever she can find it if she wants to stay alive.

‘Her Deadly Secrets’ is the murder mystery aficionado’s sort of read—and a little different in than the usual Laura Griffin Tracers style—, as PI Kira Vance finds herself somewhat over her head investigating an associate’s murder and the hot-shot lawyer that she suddenly reports to.

But the security team that he’s called on her brings on a tagalong bodyguard that she resists, until it seems that what she’s looking at is a vicious killer who’s got her in his sights.

It’s a template that has been told many times before—variations on a theme in a way, that Kira Vance treads where many others have trodden before. As a police-procedural-type series with an intense focus on the unsolved crime, this works perfectly fine.

But the book’s billing as romantic suspense however, doesn’t, especially not when the romance has been written in awkwardly, with 2 people thrown together by force and then suddenly developing a romance when there’s a distinct lack of romantic chemistry between them.

For someone who expected a bit more of the latter after going through Griffin’s Tracers books, I was actually taken aback with surprise when the first kiss happened, left incredulous with anything that hinted of romance between them past the initial, weak attraction. In short, Kira/Jeremy as a pairing were sidelined here so much that I hesitated to even call this a connection (as hurriedly as it was developed) in favour of tying all the loose ends of the plot up.

It isn’t to say that the book isn’t written with Griffin’s usual aplomb: meticulously planned and executed with the kind of writing that pulls you in.

But the storytelling felt somewhat unbalanced—exciting at the start, only to head, rather frustratingly, into a lacklustre and sagging middle—along with a romance that hardly took off. In short, ‘Her Deadly Secrets’ is probably a book suited to those who prefer the journey of uncovering the whodunnit mystery than following the emotional development of the protagonists.

two-half-stars