Category: Advanced Reader Copy

Crave the Heat by Marnee Blake

Crave the Heat by Marnee BlakeCrave the Heat by Marnee Blake
Series: The Smokejumpers #2
Published by Lyrical Liason on January 15th 2019
Pages: 189
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three-stars

Smokejumper Dak Parrish has come home to Oregon to fight fires—and to mend fences with his family. He left the Warm Springs Tribal Reservation after feuding with his father. Now, with tribal lands threatened by an arsonist, Dak gets a chance to make amends by acting as a liaison between the reservation and the forest service criminal investigator—a woman who sparks a surprising and hungry flame in him.

After a trauma on the east coast, Heidi Sinclair left DC to start fresh as a criminal investigator in Oregon. But her first serious investigation provides one stubborn obstacle after another—including an arrogant firefighter she suspects knows more than he's saying. Though she tries to battle her attraction to Dak, it’s too late. As they track down the arsonist, someone will do whatever it takes to keep old secrets buried, even if it turns everything Heidi and Dak have fought for to ashes...

I do like Marnee Blake’s ‘The Smokejumpers’  series – a series of elite firefighters is one that’s hard to resist after all. ‘Crave the Heat’ is Dak Parrish’s story, whose convoluted family history plays a prominent role in the latest case of arson that brings his path into a spectacular collision with forest service criminal investigator Heidi Sinclair.

The lines of battle were clearly demarcated here at least: Dak’s loyalties were torn between his family and his own need to work the right side of the law with Heidi, though it became clear that the plot was always going to lead to a point where these ties frayed and broke.

The attraction was fast and furious between Dak and Heidi, though I struggled to believe their near-instant connection at times, particularly when Heidi’s mixed signals bleeped strong despite the smidgen of self-awareness she had. Her constant pushing away Dak did get annoying after a while as she projected her own traumatic past and fears – rather unfairly – onto everything Dak said or did. In turn, the poor guy doubted himself more and more and frankly, I thought, deserved better all the times she cut and ran.

Blake’s insertion of some suspense drove the story forward nonetheless, even if the few twists in the story left me a bit nonplussed and more so, with a resolution that felt a little less than complete.  Still, the writing, like in all of Blake’s books, is straightforward and steady, and makes it all go down quite nicely for a few hours of escapism.

three-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

Out of Time by Monica McCarty

Out of Time by Monica McCartyOut of Time by Monica McCarty
Series: The Lost Platoon, #3
Published by Berkley Books on 31st December 2018
Pages: 384
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three-half-stars

With his men scattered to all corners of the globe after a disastrous secret op in Russia, Lieutenant Commander Scott Taylor is trying to find out who was responsible for leaking the information that killed half his platoon. Were it not for Natalie Andersson, the woman he had been secretly dating in the Pentagon who had warned him of the danger, he knows they would all be dead. Scott is devastated when he hears that the woman he loved and hoped to marry has been killed for helping him--until he learns that Natalie was the spy who betrayed them. But when his search to clear his name brings him face-to-face with a very-much-alive Natalie, Scott realizes that justice and vengeance might not be as clear-cut as he thought.

Natalie Andersson, or, as she was born, Natalya Petrova, has put the memories of her early childhood in Russia behind her. She never dreamed that she would be at the center of an elaborate "sleeper" espionage program. Even when she learns the truth, she refuses to spy for the country of her birth, until the Russians threaten the lives of the only family she has ever known. But Natalie is the worst spy in the history of spying, falling for her target. When her attempt at misdirection leads to irreversible consequences, she is forced to run for her life, with her lover hot on her tail.

At the heart of it, ‘Out of Time’ is one of assumed betrayal, even more assumptions that the protagonists have of each other and the elasticity of truth, all of which revolve around a botched mission, a missing SEAL team and questionable loyalties.

Natalie Andersson isn’t who she seems and as the story progresses, it’s evident that there’re contradictory gaps in both what Scott Taylor and Natalie believe of each other. The former’s a huffing and puffing betrayed military man, the latter? Quite possibly the worst spy in history. But the Russian sleeper agent and the elite American soldier form a pairing that’s charged with so many overtones in today’s political climate and that Monica McCarty takes it on makes ‘Out of Time’ a sort of contemporary forbidden trope and one that I really wanted to read.

By and large, I did like Nat/Scott’s story though I found the secondary couple of Colt/Kate more compelling in the whole narrative arc of lies, deceit and vengeance as the characters pursued some kind of justice for themselves and for the dead men. Dealing with 2 couples isn’t an easy feat by any means, though the focus on 4 major characters did mean less focus on each couple, which left me a feeling little short-changed about it. For all the build-up, I thought the ending was somewhat anti-climatic, with less of a bang and more than a whimper than I’d hoped. I couldn’t tell though, if there is going to be a continuation of the series or not—McCarty doesn’t give any hint of how resolved things really are—but I’m still hoping for the secondary characters to get their own books somehow.

‘Out of Time’ is not a standalone and that much becomes obvious when the opening few chapters leaned hard on prior knowledge of previous books to get the story of Natalie and Scott going. McCarty does take the effort to get any new reader up to speed however, though it’s through a certain style of storytelling that eventually got to me—this is obviously a personal nitpick.

Beyond the rather exciting prologue that was easy enough to follow, the first few chapters were a mash of telling and showing (sometimes more of the former), with a recounting of past events inserted into the protagonists’ POVs in the present timeline and thus forcing the reader to straddle a scene within a scene. As a result, I did get confused and mildly frustrated, having needed to pause multiple times to mentally untangle and piece together what had gone down, when and with whom. The use of flashbacks or at least, something more linear as a storytelling device would have worked better than the mental gymnastics it took at times.

It isn’t to say however, that ‘Out of Time’ isn’t a decent read. I thought it was the best out of McCarty’s series in fact…only that it could have been longer and a bit more drawn-out—given the scope of the story and the pairings involved—for a less abrupt ending.

three-half-stars

Eagle by Janie Crouch

Eagle by Janie CrouchEagle by Janie Crouch
Series: Linear Tactical #2
Published by Calamity Jane Publishing, Jane Crouch on 10th October 2018
Pages: 278
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three-stars

He's fighting for what's right... She's fighting just to survive...

When former Special Forces soldier Finn Bollinger is asked to help with a deadly government mission, he's up for the task. His job teaching survival skills to civilians at Linear Tactical keeps him sharp, and he can still handle himself in the field.

But the Army damn well didn't teach Finn how to handle Charlotte Devereux. She's back and she's all sorts of bad news.

Charlotte can't change the past. Can't change the choices she made or the fact that they cost her everything. All she can do is endure the fallout. Even if that means putting her future in the hands of Finn, the man who has every right to want to destroy her.

And can in so many more ways than he thinks.

When the undercover mission goes impossibly wrong, they'll all have to depend on Charlotte's strength in order to survive. But everyone has a breaking point...

What I’ve found so unusual about Linear Tactical is how Janie Crouch has found a way of getting her characters peripherally involved in huge governmental-level-type espionage incidents even if they aren’t actually neck-deep in the deep-end of things and jet-setting all over the world to prevent a nuclear meltdown. It’s romantic suspense done somewhat differently (there’s still plenty of action, deception and loose ends in the small place that they’re all based) and it’s something I’m new to.

Crouch tackles Finn Bollinger’s and Charlie Devereux’s second-chance story in ‘Eagle’, where their history is hinted at in the first book of her Linear Tactical series as an unhappy one. But as it becomes evident that Charlie had left Finn to marry someone else and left him in bad shape 8 years ago, the twist of fate that brings them back together (the former as the special needs tutor of Finn’s son) is more than just one that rekindles their burnt-out relationship. Throw in a boy (who’s got more than meets the eye), a sleazy strip club, a quasi-military operation and a private security firm and a perfect storm starts to brew.

Much of Finn/Charlie’s story came from the anticipation of reading what really happened all those years ago and Crouch certainly took some time to build up to this. Yet the slow trickle of information that filtered through in the form of Charlie’s lack of willingness to be upfront with Finn about her secrets and problems, did make it hard for me to get behind their second-chance romance, let alone a female protagonist whom I wasn’t entirely sure I could support.

I probably would have liked Charlie a lot more had she been more remorseful and upfront about her own hard-headed decisions that she’d taken without seemingly fully considering the damage she’d wrought. In fact, for someone who’d tackled everything else head-on in the swath of destruction she’d left in her wake, I’d expected Charlie to be less cowardly in the way she still chose to assume the worst of Finn and of them when she’d never quite picked him over her own family to begin with.

But a caveat here: I’ll admit readily that the second-chance romance trope isn’t one that I typically like, so my review of ‘Eagle’ (and my rather stinging critique of Charlie) are definitely skewed because of this certain bent.

Despite my own reservations, I did find ‘Eagle’ quite compelling, the last quarter ramping up to be the most intense and heart-pounding part of the story. Crouch does pull all of it together in a way that’s quite neatly tied up—the suspension of disbelief comes into play, of course—while leaving a hook for Aiden’s story to come and that’s already what I’m looking forward to.

three-stars

Fireworks by Sarina Bowen

Fireworks by Sarina BowenFireworks by Sarina Bowen
Series: True North #6
Published by Tuxbury Publishing LLC on 13th November 2018
Pages: 293
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two-stars

Skye Copeland is on paid leave from her broadcasting job after accidentally drawing a pecker on the traffic map.

Let that sink in. Like it’s her fault the traffic pattern that day created a perfect schlong?

Skye isn’t laughing. She needs this job. And that’s the only reason she’s agreed to chase down a story in her least favorite place—that hell on earth known as Vermont.

A quick trip. In and out. Much like - never mind. Skye can sneak into the town that once tried to break her, get the story and get back into the good graces of her producer. Easy peasy.

Except things go sideways even as she sets foot over the county line. Her step-sister is on the run from a violent drug dealer. And the cop on the case is none other than Benito Rossi, the man who broke her teenage heart.

His dark brown eyes still tear her apart. And even as she steels herself to finally tell him off after twelve years, the old fireworks are still there.

Things are about to go boom.

‘Fireworks’ is Sarina Bowen’s ever-growing ‘Truth North’ series as we’re taken back on the ride to Vermont where Skylar and Benito meet again after 12 years. Their history is slowly revealed in flashbacks over the course of the story, enveloped lovingly by the rustic Vermont small-town community and memories that don’t just seem to fade.

If this starts out rather light-hearted, Bowen inserts a little more suspense here along with the quirk and in this way, this particular instalment is a little different from the rest of the books, as a large part of the plot is being driven by an impending drug bust and a sexual predator who’d already left some stains in the characters’ lives.

‘Fireworks’ had some bits that bothered me, in fact—but this was what I’d expected of the ‘True North’ series which has so far, brought my own reactions to extremes. But I like Bowen’s style of writing (though not her characters always), so perhaps this still makes me a glutton for punishment.

I found Skye a sympathetic character mostly; Bowen’s portrayal of a hapless teenager facing down a sexual predator is terrifying and I can certainly understand how these experiences shaped her future though there seemed to be contradictory parts of Skye (practical, wry, yet a complete pushover where her rather dumb stepsister and Benito were concerned) that I couldn’t reconcile with the picture that I’d formed early on of her.

But the late insertion of the classic ‘other woman/hookup’ plot device coming into play later honestly bothered me as much as it did Skye—that it’d taken a lot for her to be naked and vulnerable for Benito, only for him to call that very act casual with another woman—because it simply felt disrespectful and somehow cheapening of their growing romance.

A 12-year separation is a long time and having Benito claim Skye is the only girl he’d ever loved while not actively doing a thing to find her again (as well as hooking up with others in the meantime, with the most recent one being Skye’s rival) felt hypocritical to me. That Benito had been hooking up with a ‘mean-girl’ then flightily going straight onto professing his love for Skye whom he’s always wanted just made this part of the story way too hard to swallow. It’d made him seem like a player and one who simply messed around other women’s feelings even if it was because of his obliviousness.

This device is one that I’ve come to actively detest in recent years; more often than not, it’s used too commonly to create conflict and have one protagonist doubt the other’s devotion or fidelity, only for some grovelling to ensue before the usual trite platitudes (‘it was only sex’, ‘it was only casual’, ’she/he means nothing to me’, ‘it’s only you for me’ or some other phrases with the same flavour) that’ll be thrown out and easily accepted. Yet as a reader, coming back from this type of comparison no matter what the character in question says, is damn near impossible. Like Skye, it’s something that can’t be un-read, or un-heard and thereafter serves as a niggling reminder of the past which pretty much killed the rest of the book for me.

‘Fireworks’ as a result, left me conflicted. I probably would have liked it way, way better minus the Jill Sullivan/mean-girl hookup nonsense which made me stumble irrecoverably, which in turn would have had me more wholeheartedly rooting for this particular second-chance romance—a trope that I already find myself sceptical about.

two-stars

Mission: Her Rescue by Anna Hackett

Mission: Her Rescue by Anna HackettMission: Her Rescue by Anna Hackett
Series: Team 52 #2
Published by Anna Hackett on October 7, 2018
Pages: 159
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two-stars

When archeologist January’s plane is shot down over the Guatemalan jungle, she knows she’s being hunted for the invaluable Mayan artifacts she’s carrying. Only one man and his team can save her…the covert, black ops Team 52, and the distrusting former CIA operative who drives her crazy…

Dr. January James has a motto: live life to the fullest. A terrible incident in her past, where she lost both her mother and her innocence, taught her that. Now she spends her days on archeological digs doing the work she loves. When her team uncovers a pair of dangerous artifacts in an overgrown temple, she knows they need to be secured and safeguarded. But someone else knows about the artifacts…and will kill to get them.
Working for the CIA, Seth Lynch learned the hard way that people lie and will always stab you in the back. He has the scars to prove it. He lives for his work with Team 52—ensuring pieces of powerful ancient technology don’t fall into the wrong hands. When he learns that the feisty, independent archeologist who works his last nerve has died in a plane crash, he makes it his mission to discover who the hell is responsible.

Deep in the jungle, Seth rescues a very-much alive January and it is up to him to keep both her and the artifacts safe. Hunted from every side, their attraction is explosive and fiery, but with January’s life on the line, Seth must fight his own demons in order to rescue the woman he can no longer resist.

‘Mission: Her Rescue’ is the second instalment of Anna Hackett’s Team 52 series, which, as a spin-off of Hackett’s Treasure Hunter series, gives more credence to theories of advanced ancient civilisations with hints of the paranormal appearing within the story. Seth Lynch is paired with January Jones here, which is apparently an enemies-to-lovers trope, though the enemies part is one that happens off-page (and retold by other characters), so the slide into lust is quick and more baffling.

Of all the Hackett’s books I’ve gone through however, I’m afraid ‘Mission: Her Rescue” resonated the least with me for a variety of reasons: a heroine who was petulantly stubborn for the sake of being argumentative and difficult (leading to some TSTL moments as well), for the same clichéd push-pull in the pairing, for a hate-to-love trope between 2 leads whose chemistry felt just non-existent, more so when it turned into instant love after a good tumble in bed, for the same type of enemies they face.

I’ll be the first to honestly admit that this isn’t a series I’ve been particularly enthusiastic about, given the rinse-and-repeat themes that appear here, along with the same-ish issues that plague the protagonists for not trusting each other as well as the same kind of baddies that populate each book (essentially, there are too many shades of the Treasure Hunter series here).

Thus far, this mysterious team hasn’t been a stand-out at all despite their purpose and their intriguing ability to slip between the cracks of politics and military agendas. I generally do like Hackett’s wild imagination and what she writes about, so it was a surprising struggle even to finish Seth/Jan’s story even (this slid down into a trite and clichéd-ridden HEA that made me cringe), despite the short length of it, though these are clearly my own nitpicking and personal preferences that have contributed to the book being a disappointment.

two-stars

99 Percent Mine by Sally Thorne

99 Percent Mine by Sally Thorne99 Percent Mine by Sally Thorne
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on 29th January 2019
Pages: 352
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Crush: a strong and often short-lived infatuation, particularly for someone beyond your reach…

… If Darcy Barrett hadn’t met her dream man when she was eight years old, the rest of the male population wouldn’t be such a let-down. No one measures up to Tom Valeska, aka the best man on Earth, not in looks, brain or heart. Even worse is the knowledge that her twin brother Jamie saw him first, and claimed him forever as his best friend.

Tom’s off limits and loyal to her brother, 99%. One percent of Tom has had to be enough for Darcy, and her adoration has been sustained by his shy kindness. And if she’s honest, his tight t-shirts.

Now Darcy’s got three months left to get her life together before her twin insists on selling the tumble-down cottage they inherited from their grandmother. By night, she’s working in a seedy bar, shooting down lame pickups from bikers. By day, she’s sewing underwear for her best friend and wasting her award-winning photography skills on website shots of pens and novelty mugs. She’s enjoying living the messy life, and a glass of wine or ten… until that one night, when she finds a six-foot-six perfect package on her porch.

Tom’s here, he’s bearing power tools—and he’s single for the first time in a decade.

As a house flipper extraordinaire, Tom has been dispatched by Jamie to give the cottage a drastic facelift that will result in a ton of cash. Darcy doesn’t appreciate Tom’s unsentimental approach to knocking down walls, and he really, really doesn’t approve of her current burnout boyfriend. They can’t be in the same room together without sparks flying- and it’s not the faulty wiring. One bedroom wall separates them at night, and even that’s looking flimsy.

Will Tom ever see Darcy as anything other than a little-sister obstacle to get around? And can she stand up to her most formidable opponent—her twin? This time around, she’s determined to make Tom Valeska 99 percent hers, and he’s never managed to say no to her yet…

I’m not sure how to deal with my own sky-high expectations after Sally Thorne’s ‘The Hating Game’, so ‘99 Percent Mine’ having to match these is a tough order to boot. And as much as it pains me to say, my struggles started as I was barely past the first few pages.

Now that didn’t bode all that well. Getting on board with Darcy Barrett’s voice, her inner musings—neurotic, bitchy, lonely and tetchy—written in a first-person POV, New Adult style storytelling was difficult to begin with. There were too many tangents that a single, small thought of hers took, to the point where I wondered what Darcy really was trying to ramble on about as the story wound round and round with her self-deprecating bitterness and her observations of her surroundings (this swung from random things to other random things like a stream of consciousness) before moving forward with some significant developments.

Darcy was also quite the runner in every sense of the word, which isn’t the kind of protagonist I can say I honestly like. (Somehow characters in romantic fiction who drift from country to country, never putting down roots are those who in some clichéd manner, never seem to find their home until the one thing that’s been always bothering them gets put to bed.) Her endless pining for Tom Valeska was described with bombastic, exaggerated care, though much of it just came off as hopeless and reckless, just like what Thorne seemed to portray of Darcy—an annoying and burned-out mess who has descended into a deranged spiral of morbid thoughts of Tom and his supposed fiancée, while going at her own love life and career like the tanked things they were.

In any case, I couldn’t even finish the book at all. Maybe someday in the far distant future, ‘99 Percent Mine’ might be just what I need. But not today.