Category: Netgalley

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

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

One Christmas Eve by Shannon Stacey

One Christmas Eve by Shannon StaceyOne Christmas Eve by Shannon Stacey
Series: Cedar Street, #2
Published by Carina Press on 11th November 2019
Pages: 104
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two-stars

Zoe Randall is busy living her life as she damn well pleases. She’s back in her favorite town, her divorce in her rearview mirror, and living out her childhood dream of running a bookstore with her cousin. She has no interest in the uptight nerd who opened his boring-ass business next to her shop…until he complains about one of her sexy window displays.

Then it’s game on.

Preston Wheeler knows he takes life a little too seriously. But when the saucy bookseller next door starts pushing his buttons, he can feel that changing. Beautiful, vivacious Zoe challenges him in all the best ways, and soon he’s pushing her buttons right back: teasing and flirting all the way through the holiday season.

As Preston loosens up and Zoe is treated to the man behind the suit (particularly his forearms), she realizes she’s more interested than she cares to admit. And Preston comes to see the beauty—the absolute delight—in adding Zoe’s bright splashes of color to his once very black-and-white existence.

For a Christmas story (where has the year gone?!), this probably ticks all the boxes: festive, with the formulaic but well-paced story of a not-quite-enemies-to-lovers trope, and a HEA that follows after both protagonists resolve their own issues.

I’ve always liked Shannon Stacey’s writing, but somehow I didn’t exactly feel moved or get too deeply into both Preston and Zoe. The former is stoic and rather bland to be honest, as nice as he is while the latter seems to be uber-sassy and sensitive to the point of jumping at every perceived form of judgement (in some ways, it feels like over-compensation for her imagined shortcomings). Stacey does make the pairing work with her persuasive writing – I could sort of believe in them as the story went on – though for a novella, it felt somewhat forced and rushed, before it all skipped to a HEA a year later.

Again, it could just be down to me just not feeling the Christmassy vibe that’s laid out in the book, so take this with a pinch of salt, especially for those who are already in the mood.

two-stars

Make Your Move by Laura Heffernan

Make Your Move by Laura HeffernanMake Your Move by Laura Heffernan
Series: Gamer Girls, #3
Published by Lyrical Press on 17th December 2019
Pages: 304
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one-star

LOVE’S ALL ABOUT TIMING . . .

At twenty-eight, Shannon has yet to fall in love. Which is fine, since she’d rather spend her evenings creating games than swiping right or going on awkward blind dates. Right now though, she has two little problems. First, she’s stuck for a new game idea. Second, the only candidate in her roommate search is Tyler, the gaming buddy who’s long had an unrequited crush on her.

It should be awkward. But when Tyler moves in, the situation doesn’t go at all the way Shannon expected. Between helping her deal with coworkers and fixing the bugs in her latest game, Tyler’s proving to be damn near perfect. Except for the fact that he’s falling for someone else. . .

Maybe Shannon has already forfeited her turn. Maybe she’s playing for nothing but heartache. But the best games have endings you can never predict . . .

This was unfortunately, a total disconnect for me.

Not only was I plunged into a world with a bewildering array of characters at the very start which made it difficult to navigate the whole setup, there was also the certain issue I took with Shannon who kept insisting that she didn’t want to encourage Tyler’s crush on her. Only after they become roommates does she suddenly, with the speed of a lightning strike, discover that she actually is crushing on him.

The long explanations of her demi-sexuality and the lack of focus and build-up added to the source of frustration, more so since for the most of the book, Tyler spends his time with a new girlfriend, who also happens to be a bitchy rival of the heroine.

Personally, it was hard to get invested in them at all, given the circumstances surrounding Shannon’s work and the focus on gaming, when I wanted to see an equal amount of time spent developing a pairing that barely did much together, thanks to poor timing. But when I started skimming throughout most of the story, it became clear this wasn’t for me at all.

one-star

You Deserve Each Other by Sarah Hogle

You Deserve Each Other by Sarah HogleYou Deserve Each Other by Sarah Hogle
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on 7th April 2020
Pages: 368
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three-half-stars

Naomi Westfield has an Instagram-perfect life, including the perfect fiancé: Nicholas Rose holds doors open for her, remembers her restaurant orders, and comes from the kind of upstanding society family every bride dreams of being a part of. They never fight, complain, or disagree. They're preparing for their lavish wedding that's three months away. And they are miserably and utterly sick of each other.

Tired of contorting herself to fit the ridiculous standards demanded by Nicholas's family, Naomi wants out of the relationship. But there's a catch: Whoever calls off the engagement will have to foot the enormous bill for the wedding. When Naomi finds out that Nicholas, too, has been feigning contentment, the two of them go head-to-head in a battle of wills to see who can annoy the other into surrendering through pranks, sabotage, and all-out emotional warfare.

But now that they have nothing to lose, they're finally being themselves. They're having so much fun getting on each other's nerves that it starts to feel like something else entirely. As Naomi discovers hidden feelings for Nicholas buried under three years of simmering resentment, she wonders if he feels the same way.

Suddenly, the countdown to the wedding that may or may not come to pass feels more like a race to mutual destruction--and Naomi doesn't want to be left alone at the finish line.

What happens when the first flush of lust and attraction peters out in the months following the heady romantic dating period…and worse yet, when the wedding is approaching and someone’s getting more than just cold feet?

Where most books go in the direction of explaining that couples break up because of this, this is really, where the story starts in ‘You Deserve Each Other’—that alone made me pick up the book, for its realism that we typically don’t want to read about in the bid to escape the dreary duties of real life. For that alone, I’d commend Sarah Hogle for making the dating bit forming the prologue and starting the story only when Nicholas’s and Naomi’s claws come out to play.

Hogle deals with the the stifling feeling of being trapped with some poignancy, panache and sad realism all too well—the lull, this daily grind, the toughness of maintaining relationships coming to a head—with Naomi’s first person neurotic ramblings taking the forefront of the narrative. It’s an odd lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers trope here, and we’re stuck in the middle of a war, seen at least only from Naomi’s perspective—with her building resentment, her unhappiness and the increasing number of walls she puts up in the hopes she’ll antagonise her fiancé past the point of no return.

‘You Deserve Each Other’ starts off with increasingly juvenile pranks and it gets worse with the weird one-upping, second-guessing and the snide things both Nicholas and Naomi say to each other. But thankfully, before it starts getting really pointless however, the change of heart comes, in the form of small and nice gestures, in learning the small bits that drew them to each other at the beginning.

It’s probably a book that’s possibly relatable to some more than others. Well-written, in the first-person, with precious flashes of insight and some poetic writing, it’s not a hard one to get through but Naomi’s antics can get exhausting and to what end, you ask? Why bother with the merry-go-round of vindictive games, the wilful misunderstanding and distrust when all is seemingly lost?

I’ll admit that I enjoyed the last quarter the best and that was when the book really took off for me, not just because you could literally read about their gradual climb back into their HEA but because it was also a great relief to get past the antagonism. In short, not a bad read, but some parts were frustrating—possibly even felt redundant—and those were hurdles to get through before the good bits come.

three-half-stars