Category: Advanced Reader Copy

Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn

Love Lettering by Kate ClaybornLove Lettering by Kate Clayborn
Published by Kensington Publishing Corp. on 31st December 2019
Pages: 320
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three-stars

Meg Mackworth’s hand-lettering skill has made her famous as the Planner of Park Slope, designing beautiful custom journals for New York City’s elite. She has another skill too: reading signs that other people miss. Like the time she sat across from Reid Sutherland and his gorgeous fiancée, and knew their upcoming marriage was doomed to fail. Weaving a secret word into their wedding program was a little unprofessional, but she was sure no one else would spot it. She hadn’t counted on sharp-eyed, pattern-obsessed Reid . . .

A year later, Reid has tracked Meg down to find out—before he leaves New York for good—how she knew that his meticulously planned future was about to implode. But with a looming deadline, a fractured friendship, and a bad case of creative block, Meg doesn’t have time for Reid’s questions—unless he can help her find her missing inspiration. As they gradually open up to each other about their lives, work, and regrets, both try to ignore the fact that their unlikely connection is growing deeper.

But the signs are there—irresistible, indisputable, urging Meg to heed the messages Reid is sending her, before it’s too late . . .

If I’d initially thought there was something paranormal in the blurb, I could probably be forgiven for thinking that—Kate Clayborn’s ‘Love Lettering’ is intriguing just from the summary of its story and in contrast to what I thought, is founded on the abstract brought to life by the external forms of typography, colours, shapes and sizes.

The subject matter itself that ‘Love Lettering’ touches on has complexity behind it—signs, signals and their representations, codes, connotations, meanings and so on that can be broken down as academically deep as you want to make it—which is also what made me rather excited about romantic fiction being quite overt about how we’re essentially semiotically-led people.

It’s how Meg Mackworth interprets the world in any case, up until the point where she ‘foretells’ a mistake that would have been made when a particular client of hers comes in with a stoic and aloof fiancé. A year later, the decision comes back to haunt her in the best of ways: Reid Sutherland aka now-an-ex-fiancé reluctantly partners up with her as she tries to find inspiration in NYC for a particular design job, in the hope that she could help him find some kind of renewed pleasure in the place he can’t wait to move out of.

Seeing their odd relationship develop through the game of signs is quirky different all on its own but it was ultimately something I couldn’t get invested in past the first chapter or so. Having it go on made the storytelling sag even before the halfway point, and I found myself skimming just to catch the turning points between Reid and Meg…one of the oddest couples I’ve ever read about.

There’s creativity in the plot and in the way its written, but what stumbled me quite a few times was how Clayborn took a small, single thought which came through as the at-times frenzied inner monologue of Meg’s, then ran amok with it, drew it into the past or into the future, or flung it out far into the abstract before grounding it back in the present—racking up the paragraphs while adding to my confusion.

Like primary theme of the book, Meg’s infatuation with (and hyper-analysis of) the minutest signs lent the narrative a certain quirk and whimsicality, but also a lack of directness, coupled with convoluted descriptions that gave me pause, especially when I had to go back to re-read something just to get some clarity and focus back just to confirm what had transpired. And sometimes, it really felt like much ado about nothing when all I wanted to was for the plot to move decisively onward.

But move on it finally did, up to a point towards the end where it took a hooked sort of turn I didn’t expect and then I simply went through the rest easily. ‘Love Lettering’ is an unusual and clever one, sort of unevenly paced but if code and signs are your thing, this is the one to go for.

three-stars

Cross Her Heart by Melinda Leigh

Cross Her Heart by Melinda LeighCross Her Heart by Melinda Leigh
Series: Bree Taggert #1
Published by Montlake Romance on 17th March 2020
Pages: 369
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four-stars

For more than twenty-five years, Philadelphia homicide detective Bree Taggert has tucked away the nightmarish childhood memories of her parents’ murder-suicide…Until her younger sister, Erin, is killed in a crime that echoes that tragic night: innocent witnesses and a stormy marriage that ended in gunfire. There’s just one chilling difference. Erin’s husband, Justin, has vanished.

Bree knows how explosive the line between love and hate can be, yet the evidence against her troubled brother-in-law isn’t adding up. Teaming up with Justin’s old friend, former sheriff’s investigator and K-9 handler Matt Flynn, Bree vows to uncover the secrets of her sister’s life and death, as she promised Erin’s children.

But as her investigation unfolds, the danger hits close to home. Once again, Bree’s family is caught in a death grip. And this time, it could be fatal for her.

Melinda Leigh’s an old hand at this by now…writing taut and tight thrillers, I mean. With cleverly plotted, smartly-paced narratives that scarcely let you blink, the new Bree Taggert series—following the Morgan Dane one which I loved—is promising to be a good one, particularly if you’re more into the suspense than the romance.

Bree Taggert’s never really far from her violent past, but history seems to repeat itself in her sister’s murder, bringing her back to a place where she finds herself saddled with new responsibilities while dealing with fresh grief. Former investigator Matt Flynn helps her to unravel what happened that night, though it’s not one that’s easily undertaken both for Bree and the reader. Carnage, gore, complex characters, shady motivations and convincing legalese do make ‘Cross Her Heart’ an intriguing read from the start and it’s one that’s solid. Heavy topics are par for the course—death, guilt, murder—and Leigh covers this well and with sensitivity.

There are tangents and off-shoots as Leigh pulls secondary characters under the microscope and hints that any might be a suspect as we’re taken on a winding journey of unravelling what seems like a domestic dispute case of a spouse killing his wife. But the overall murder plot is a little bizarre when all’s revealed, admittedly, as though it’s something that you merely give a side-eye to when you’re finally introduced to a pivotal turn of events, then are incredulous when it finally untangles in front of your eyes.

There’s strong friendship here, mature protagonists and barely a hint of romance, but if I know Leigh’s writing style, this is merely a slow burn, with a deliberate (and understandably, appropriate) build that will continue over the rest of the series. It’s a solid introduction however, to a couple that will just grow stronger over the next few books and I for one, can’t wait.

four-stars

The Intended Victim by Alexandra Ivy

The Intended Victim by Alexandra IvyThe Intended Victim by Alexandra Ivy
Series: The Agency #4
Published by Zebra on 31st December 2019
Pages: 352
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two-stars

ONCE, SHE GOT AWAY

The body lying on a cold steel slab bears all the hallmarks of the Chicago Butcher. There's a cruel slash across her throat, deep enough to sever the carotid artery, and a small crescent carved into her right breast. Her delicate features are painfully familiar to Ash Marcel, once a rising star in the Chicago PD. But though the victim resembles his former fiancée, Remi Walsh, he knows it's not her.

BUT THIS TIME

Though Remi escaped a serial killer five years ago, her father died trying to save her. Grief and guilt caused her to pull away from the man she loved. Now Ash is back in her life, insisting that Remi is still in danger.

IT'S A DEAD END . . .

Someone is targeting women who look just like Remi. With or without a badge, Ash intends to unmask the Butcher. But the killer isn't playing games any longer. He's moving in, ready to finish what he started, and prove there's nothing more terrifying than a killer's obsession . . .

I’ve not read the rest of the books that preceded ‘The Intended Victim’ by Alexandra Ivy, but this is easy enough to get into as a standalone. The premise is undoubtedly quite an intriguing one: a serial murderer—a.k.a. The Butcher—who’s apparently back after five years and is now strangely obsessed with altering his victims’ faces to resemble Remi Walsh before killing them.

The suspense plot itself is sort of unique, with a twist that I sort of saw coming but was left skeptical in the end. It did lack a bit of forward momentum even as the process of getting to know more about the strange spate of murders was ongoing, getting even disconcerting at times with different POVs belonging to secondary characters popping up from time to time.

There’s a second chance romance in here as well, but this was probably the weakest part of the story for me. Ash/Remi’s history was sort of glossed over; we weren’t told much, only that Remi had pushed Ash away after tragedy touched their lives and that he was only back because she seemed to be in the sights of the same killer again.

I was obviously hoping for harder soul-searching on Remi’s part, but most of it dealt with her determination to try to just look at the future and not the past—and that she only looked at Ash with regret. In this way, Ash/Remi’s second chance romance didn’t quite feel like a justified or a convincing one at all: a pairing brought back together incidentally and not because both wanted it enough to look for each other. Five years on, all we really had of Remi was her weak excuse of wanting to ‘protect’ others by pushing them away and internalising her own mental mess that she’d never bothered to sort out. Through it all, I never quite got the idea that she wanted them as much as Ash pursued her, merely caving to Ash’s insistent pressure and going along with it.

The uptick in the narrative happened at the last quarter, after which, it got engrossing, though everything was wrapped up quite neatly—too neatly perhaps—in the last chapter. Would I recommend this? Maybe. It’s a decent read if you like the usual red-herrings and the clues that come with solving a murder mystery, though romance-wise, it’s not quite a satisfying one.

two-stars

Yours in Scandal by Lauren Layne

Yours In Scandal by Lauren Layne
Series: Man of the Year #1
Published by Montlake Romance on 10th March 2020
Pages: 278
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two-stars

Fresh off being named Citizen magazine’s Man of the Year, New York City’s youngest mayor, Robert Davenport, decides it’s time to strategize. Next move: a bid for the governor’s seat. In his way: an incumbent with a flawless reputation. He also has an Achilles’ heel: an estranged wild-child daughter with a past so scandalous it could be Robert’s ticket to victory. And a charm so irresistible it could be Robert’s downfall.

Rebellion is a thing of the past for Adeline Blake. As New York’s premier event planner, she’s all about reform and respectability. Then she’s approached by Robert to organize the party of the season. Curious, considering he’s her father’s most formidable opponent. And alarming, too. Because Addie can’t help but fall for the righteously popular candidate with the movie-star smile.

Now it’s Robert’s choice. Does he pursue a future that holds his legacy? Or the woman who holds his heart?

In an age of political cynicism, ‘Yours in Scandal’ is a more lighthearted take on politics and an incidental romance that develops out of it, never steering too close to the deep divisiveness that dominates the headlines these days.

That said, I am familiar with Layne’s style which does have a certain smartness and intelligence to the modern-day rom-com. But in recent times, they’ve sort of faded for me and I’d hoped that ‘Yours in Sandal’ would be a perk-me-up. As a result, I’m mixed with this one, even though this has a delicious premise of fraternising with the enemy, a slow burn and a hard juggle between professional facades and personal feelings.

Subterfuge underlaid Robert’s and Adeline’s relationship both ways and I struggled with this majorly when it became obvious this was going to be the part where the lack of communication would blow up in their faces. Clearly not all was as it seemed—and both Robert and Adeline carried on that way for yonks—and if there was some hint of attraction in their interactions, nothing was too hot and heavy such that I was squinting by the halfway mark to feel a chemistry that wasn’t quite there. I didn’t get the anticipatory sense of sexual tension or build-up; instead I got a pursue-and-dodge pattern which got tiresome after a while.

I generally liked Robert’s principled nature as mayor of New York, his determination to be a clean politician—though he was dragged by some forces to not quite do some right things. At the start, there was also such an appeal of wanting to know how Layne would reconcile the wild girl rattling against the cages demanding to be let out and the prim and proper event planner that was intriguing both Addie and Adeline.

Sadly, she merely ended up as a frustratingly opaque character, constantly pushing Robert away with excuses about his chosen career not being for her. In fact, she was a player of games because she wanted to hide behind her past, coupled her inability to put herself out there and be emotionally brave was off-putting. I found her, in essence, a huge flight risk (and was proven correct) with a foot ready to step out of the relationship when she could.

‘Yours in Scandal’ was a personal disappointment, but I’ll be first to say that it’s classic Lauren Layne in many ways as well…and will probably guarantee stalwart fans a better time than I had with this.

two-stars

Colder Than Sin by Toni Anderson

Colder Than Sin by Toni AndersonColder Than Sin by Toni Anderson
Series: Cold Justice: Crossfire, #2
Published by Toni Anderson on 22nd October 2019
Pages: 400
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four-stars

Top FBI negotiator Quentin Savage is hurled into his worst nightmare when a terrorist attack on a luxury hotel propels him from esteemed keynote speaker to powerless captive.

Haley Cramer is co-owner of a private security firm and prides herself on her independence, but she is shaken to the core when gunmen attack a conference she is attending. She survives, but only because Quentin Savage pretends she’s his wife.

Together Savage and Haley plot their escape from a ragtag army of brutal but efficient thugs while struggling to figure out exactly who the enemy is. Why was the conference attacked, and why was Quentin a specific target?

With non-stop action, ‘Colder Than Sin’ pushes all the James Bond buttons right: a terrorist bombing of a security convention in Indonesia—itself a volatile part of Southeast Asia—, a bid to escape, the kind of incidental romance that blooms along the way.

And this might just be Toni Anderson’s grittiest one yet, as she deals with the very, very uncomfortable topic of sexual assault and its repercussions, more so because this is in particular a crime against women and throwing it in the spotlight as one of the main plot devices in a romantic suspense story (a genre mostly written for and read by women) makes it harder to swallow.

For this reason, the surprise for me, weren’t really Haley and Quentin (who seemed alright together, but not a blazingly hot couple I was entirely invested in), but Darby O’Roarke, the young, strong survivor who probably deserved her own medal and story for keeping it together as well as she could given the circumstances.

But I think the icing on the cake was the riveting story on its own with or without the romance: the superb suspense, the search for answers, the breathless fight for survival lent a fast-paced trot to the whole narrative that there wasn’t quite time to think about the implications of such before the next twist occurred. I did have a suspicion how it would all go down and did guess correctly in the end but Anderson’s execution of this was simply done so, so well.

There was a contrived moment or two though: it was hard to stomach seeing Quentin and Haley getting it on while terrorists were on their tails (mud and all) while Darby was waiting for them—it just felt thoughtless at that moment, when good sense seemed abandoned for blazing lust. There were also a few TSTL moments for Haley, nonetheless, but Anderson generally writes mature characters who own up to their mistakes, their cowardice and their own emotional blocks and resolved it in a way that was by and large, satisfying.

Having been a fan of Toni Anderson for a long while, there’re few books of hers that actually disappoint. If there’s something she is known for, it’s complex and intelligently crafted stories that are in the unique position of boasting an equal amount of romance and suspense to keep the pages turning and turning. I’d be crossing my fingers for Darby’s own story next—this has really given me something to look forward to.

four-stars

Whiteout by Adriana Anders

Whiteout by Adriana Anders
Series: Survival Instincts, #1
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on 28th January 2020
Pages: 352
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four-half-stars

Angel Smith is ready to leave Antarctica for a second chance at life. But on what was meant to be her final day, the research station is attacked. Hunted and scared, she and glaciologist Ford Cooper barely make it out with their lives…only to realize that in a place this remote, there's nowhere left to run.

Isolated in the middle of a long, frozen winter with a madman at their heels, they must fight to survive in the most inhospitable—and beautiful—place on earth. But the outside world depends on what Ford and Angel know and, as their pursuers close in and their new partnership burns bright and hot, they will stop at nothing to make it out of the cold alive.

Adeptly written, full of thrilling moments showing superb narrative control, ‘Whiteout’ is putting Adriana Anders on my romantic-suspense-authors list. Truth is, I had a damn good time with this. Few stories use Antarctica as a setting; even fewer delve so deeply into and write so convincingly about the endless, brutal, frigid whiteness and the fragility of humanity against the unrelenting harshness of nature.

Both Angel Smith and Ford Cooper are in Antarctica for various reasons of their own, but they have each found a place there they belong, amongst an eclectic group of people finding camaraderie at the end of the world. Things change only when a series of events lead them to run for their lives and the fractious ‘relationship’ both initially have changes as they are thrust together in extreme and adverse circumstances that no one could ever imagine.

Angel/Ford are an unlikely pairing, but Anders persuades me early on that a terse, emotionally-unsure glaciologist with an everyday heroine with her own hurts can actually be one I’ll root for. In fact, the strength that Angel develops as the crisis goes on is admirable—more so because it very eloquently details the sort of limits and fortitude you don’t know you have until the need for survival drops suddenly on you.

The overall narrative arc isn’t one that is yet resolved: Ford and Angel barely get out of this alive (this is still thanks to an almost Deus ex Machina moment) and the bad guys for now get their comeuppance, but there overall trajectory of world domination through population-cleansing is still there. It left me somewhat uncertain and unclear, so portions with the masterminding corporation and the higher-ups seemed fuzzy despite the slow movements of chess pieces across a board I couldn’t fully understand yet.

I wished we could have had more moments exploring Ford’s history together—that is merely briefly alluded to—but the focus is so on the present that there just doesn’t seem to be enough space (both mental and emotional) for it. The last few pages wrapped up Ford/Angel’s story a tad hastily and a sort-of cliffhanger ending made ‘Whiteout’ feel incomplete despite the rushed HEA. But Anders leaves me wanting more and in this case, I’m already watching out for the sequel.

four-half-stars

Concerto by Hannah Fielding

Concerto by Hannah FieldingConcerto by Hannah Fielding
Published by London Wall Publishing on 1st August 2019
Pages: 528
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one-star

When Catriona Drouot, a young music therapist, honours an opera diva's dying request to help her son, Umberto Monteverdi, recover his musical gift, she knows it will be a difficult assignment. She had shared a night of passion with the once-celebrated composer ten years before, with unexpected consequences.

The extent of her challenge becomes apparent when she arrives at her client's estate on the glittering shores of Lake Como, Italy. Robbed of his sight by a nearfatal car accident, the man is arrogant, embittered and resistant to her every effort to help him. Still, Catriona sings a siren's call within him that he cannot ignore.

Caught up in the tempestuous intrigues at Umberto's Palladian mansion, Catriona discovers that her attraction to the blind musician is as powerful as ever. How can she share what she has hidden from him for the past decade? Soon she realises that hers is not the only secret that is rippling uneasily below the surface. Dark forces haunt the sightless composer, threatening his life - for the second time.

Concerto is a sensual and romantic story of lost love and forgiveness, destiny and difficult choices, and of a heroine determined to put things right at last.

Hannah Fielding’s ‘Concerto’ is a different kind of read from what I’m used to.

There’s something about the style of storytelling of ‘Concerto’ that feels very old school: long and languid descriptive sentences, with the determination to paint every picture of an exotic locale to exhaustion, and the inclusion of every emotion, no matter how minute. In fact, ‘Concerto’ is very reminiscent of an older style of historical romance that I used to read but have since moved past; as a result, I did find myself skipping through all the pages.

For those who love all things European, or rather, anything that remotely has a French or Italian connection, along with music, ‘Concerto’ is the read for you. There are beautiful parts written about Italy and the exploration of emotions of a wide-eyed girl—a romanticised version, so to speak, of the Old World wonders, the splendour of music and the first, heart-racing flushes of infatuation.

But there are tropes in here that probably pushed all my wrong buttons and as someone who’s more used to a faster pace and rather stereotypical characters (with dated attitudes) who behave like they’re in a soap opera, it wasn’t long before I realised ‘Concerto’ isn’t quite my kind of read—and this is clearly a matter of personal preference than the storytelling itself.

In fact, I found Umberto a detestable and unrepentant lothario, or rather, manwhore who went through countless women with romantic, poetic language and would would have probably carried on that way had it not been an accident that blinded him, while Catriona was too much of a wallflower who fell at his feet too easily for my liking. Throw some of my jaded cynicism in about them falling in love (?) after a one night stand 10 years ago and the suspension of disbelief had to work overtime.

I wished ‘Concerto’ could have been less of a disappointment, seeing how much I love the subject matter of the story, but there were simply too many stumbling blocks in here to even complete this.

one-star