Category: (Sub)Genre

The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa

The Worst Best Man by Mia SosaThe Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa
Published by Avon on 4th February 2020
Pages: 368
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two-half-stars

A wedding planner left at the altar. Yeah, the irony isn’t lost on Carolina Santos, either. But despite that embarrassing blip from her past, Lina’s managed to make other people’s dreams come true as a top-tier wedding coordinator in DC. After impressing an influential guest, she’s offered an opportunity that could change her life. There’s just one hitch… she has to collaborate with the best (make that worst) man from her own failed nuptials.

Tired of living in his older brother’s shadow, marketing expert Max Hartley is determined to make his mark with a coveted hotel client looking to expand its brand. Then he learns he’ll be working with his brother’s whip-smart, stunning—absolutely off-limits—ex-fiancée. And she loathes him.

If they can survive the next few weeks and nail their presentation without killing each other, they’ll both come out ahead. Except Max has been public enemy number one ever since he encouraged his brother to jilt the bride, and Lina’s ready to dish out a little payback of her own.

But even the best laid plans can go awry, and soon Lina and Max discover animosity may not be the only emotion creating sparks between them. Still, this star-crossed couple can never be more than temporary playmates because Lina isn’t interested in falling in love and Max refuses to play runner-up to his brother ever again...

Imagine the male protagonist of a romance being the one who opens the story by telling his brother not to marry his fiancée for various reasons not quite made clear to us, then later snags the fiancée for himself. Not by manipulation really, but by coincidence several years later, when the trio meet again as part of a business rivalry-recruitment set-up.

‘The Worst Best Man’ had an amusing start, albeit one that made me cringe. The writing is witty, assured and quirky enough that it can elicit a few amused smirks out of you, yet for what is a promising storyline, I thought the forward momentum of the plot stalled somewhere in the middle with a lot of to-and-fro between Lina and Max. The sheer details of wedding after wedding, then the family crowd jutting in and there…(and the constant emphasis on Portuguese and Brazilian culture and food, etc) just got to me that it was hard to even get a glimpse of the very slow burn between Lina and Max—so much so that I was squinting for it each time they interacted.

Still, Max’s and Lina’s dynamic was interesting so to speak: not quite friends, not quite enemies, but there was the undercurrent of discomfort, awareness and past hurt that couldn’t be brushed away too easily because of a history that was after all, a major bump in Lina’s life. Both were, individually, relatively well fleshed-out, but setting them up as a pair and the subsequent development of them as a couple were the parts where I thought the story fell short.

Max and Lina had internalised their attraction to each other (even that felt quite muted) that it dragged out a chemistry which could have been hotter and brighter. When they fell into bed together was the time I felt like I’d been blindsided somehow; there just didn’t seem enough between them for that spark to ignite. More so perhaps, when the emotional twist came at the end because it left me gobsmacked and confused…because, wasn’t it about Lina to start with?

Long and short it, I wished I liked this more, given how the blurb so easily hooked me in. In the end, it was more of a stuttering journey to end of the line and even then, I couldn’t buy into a couple who didn’t quite seem to move on completely from their past convincingly enough to be one that I could root for.

two-half-stars

Love Her Or Lose Her by Tessa Bailey

Love Her Or Lose Her by Tessa BaileyLove Her or Lose Her by Tessa Bailey
Series: Hot & Hammered #2
Published by Avon on 14th January 2020
Pages: 352
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three-half-stars

Rosie and Dominic Vega are the perfect couple: high school sweethearts, best friends, madly in love. Well, they used to be anyway. Now Rosie’s lucky to get a caveman grunt from the ex-soldier every time she walks in the door.

Dom is faithful and a great provider, but the man she fell in love with ten years ago is nowhere to be found. When her girlfriends encourage Rosie to demand more out of life and pursue her dream of opening a restaurant, she decides to demand more out of love, too. Three words: marriage boot camp.

Never in a million years did Rosie believe her stoic, too-manly-to-emote husband would actually agree to relationship rehab with a weed-smoking hippy. Dom talking about feelings? Sitting on pillows? Communing with nature? Learning love languages? Nope.

But to her surprise, he’s all in, and it forces her to admit her own role in their cracked foundation. As they complete one ridiculous—yet surprisingly helpful—assignment after another, their remodeled relationship gets stronger than ever.

Except just as they’re getting back on track, Rosie discovers Dom has a secret... and it could demolish everything.

It isn’t often that you get a romance about a decade-long married couple whose relationship has gone stale and dry, where the HEA is one where the fairytale is reiterated rather than newly formed. There’s a bit more of a ring of maturity to such kind of stories I think, because it involves how love can evolve and change and grow in different ways over the years—and how critical the act of communication becomes just to keep the romance going beyond scorching up the bed sheets at night. What I liked so much was that such stories take up the hard part after the HEA, where maintaining that sort of happiness is a different kettle of fish, but also that the married couple’s story doesn’t end past the wedding vows.

‘Love Her or Lose Her’ is a Tessa Bailey attempt at such a story with Dominic and Rosie who have been each other’s one and only since middle school, having  seen nothing and no one else but each other even while they tread on rocky and shaky ground and still come out stronger at the end of it. There’s so much of the journey of rediscovering each other that it’s a heavier, weightier kind of second-chance romance that Bailey writes this time around, with regrets and love as both Dom and Rosie both look back to the past and and then forward to a future that was disintegrating before their eyes.

It did get a bit too porny for me as it usually is with Bailey’s filthy-mouthed male protagonists though; the sex scenes did seem out of place at times and exaggerated to the point where multiple orgasms are par for the course and never-ending sex drives keep everyone wet and sticky the whole night. I wasn’t too sure as well with the conflict that Bailey drew up at the very end—it did seem unnecessarily drawn-out for the sake of providing conflict, like a deliberately dip before ending on a high, a narrative template that I thought could have been ditched from the very start.

I’m guessing ‘Love Her or Lose Her’ might be a mixed bag for some readers. I do know people who lose immediately interest past a couple getting together—that the HEA should stay immortalised—while others argue that the purpose of escaping into romantic fiction is so you don’t have to think about realism and the heartache that accompany it. But I can count the number of stories on one hand that I’ve come across involving married couples and how they come out stronger on the other end, and in just this respect, Bailey is a shining star.

three-half-stars

The One For You by Roni Loren

The One For You by Roni LorenThe One for You by Roni Loren
Series: The Ones Who Got Away, #4
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on 31st December 2019
Pages: 448
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three-stars

Sassy Kincaid Breslin finally gets her happy ending...

She got a second chance at life.
Will she take a second chance at love?

Kincaid Breslin wasn't supposed to survive that fateful night at Long Acre when so many died, including her boyfriend—but survive she did. She doesn't know why she got that chance, but now she takes life by the horns and doesn't let anybody stand in her way

Ashton Isaacs was her best friend when disaster struck all those years ago, but he chose to run as far away as he could. Now fate has brought him back to town, and Ash doesn't know how to cope with his feelings for Kincaid and his grief over their lost friendship. For Ash has been carrying secrets, and he knows that once Kincaid learns the truth, he'll lose any chance he might have had with the only woman he's ever loved.

Following the characters of a fictional town that still bears the scars of a school shooting over a decade ago has put Roni Loren on my radar. 4 books into the series, Loren still tells powerful stories of what it means to grieve, to nurture memories that are both good and bad, and even to tell oneself certain reconstructed tales laced with rum so that life gets easier to deal with as the years go by.

‘The One For You’ seems like Roni Loren’s final book of a difficult and poignant series, closing with Kincaid Breslin’s book and honestly, this was a harder, angstier one to take in than the rest. A series of events brings old school best-friends back together again, forcing them to face some unfinished business between them as they wade through the unpleasant memories that time and space can’t erase. The rest is predictable—Ash and Kincaid rediscover their own friendship, only with a dose of attraction and lust, with a big reveal towards the end of what really went down all those years ago that would again, make or break this fragile thread linking them once more.

Impulsive, flighty and so self-absorbed, I found Kincaid a different kettle of fish to even warm up to, let alone with her thoughtless hookups and actions that made others pay for the consequences. Constantly moving, surrounding herself with people, it felt as though she couldn’t even, for one moment centre herself and figure out what she really needed, having already sold herself the delusion of losing her one and only soulmate to the school shooting, then later back-pedalling when she realised it was supposedly her best friend for her after all. Not fighting for Ash, pettily looking at faults she could find with him even after all he’d done for her, so hell-bent on independence that she shaped up as someone who put herself first only.

Instead, I felt for Ash’s pining and his prolonged pain, especially as he kept on being second-best but never the first choice. That was rough, the way he’d held out for Kincaid and watched out for her time and again with her flaunting her dates in his face, and then later being so thick (and possibly in constant denial) in the way she kept seeing through him. In essence, he deserved better.

It did feel like a cop-out after all, at the end of the book when the love declarations came flowing in fast and furious, where Loren tried to sell the idea of Kincaid and Ash as the OTP. And that ironically, was hard to buy into since the whole book was already spent detailing how Kincaid didn’t quite seem to have a heart for Ash at all the way he did for her.

It isn’t to say that this isn’t a decent book considering the overarching narrative – my own issue with characterisation aside. Loren handles the aftermath of violence, the process of rebuilding and the coming to terms with stuff with a lot of grace and class, with a watertight HEA for all. The fairy-tale ending is given to her bunch of characters who vowed to live their lives to the fullest after the tragedy, and it’s with that upbeat note that the series anyway—with the message that there is hope and a happiness that even tragedy can’t take away.

three-stars

Residual Burn by Kelly Moran

Residual Burn by Kelly MoranResidual Burn by Kelly Moran
Series: Redwood Ridge, #4
Published by Kelly Moran on 24th September 2019
Pages: 218
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one-half-stars

Jason Burkwell is all about the next adventure. Whether it's an emergency call as lieutenant on Redwood Ridge's fire department or a pretty woman between the sheets, he gets in and gets out. He has no interest in being trapped by anything or anyone. But when he's manipulated into a charity auction for his station, something tells him he's about to get hosed. Especially when the town matchmakers shove quiet, shy Ella Sinclair in his path. Constantly. Every encounter with the brown-eyed beauty makes him realize the simmering attraction and strange tug of emotion is beyond basic heat.

Together, they're combustible. If only he can figure out what she's hiding...

Ella Sinclair's been burned before, and she's got the scars to prove it. Ever since her return to Redwood Ridge, she's had more than a little crush on a certain gorgeous firefighter. Except Jason doesn't know she exists. To trigger his memory would mean reliving the worst day of her life, and she's worked hard to move past the pain. Venturing out of her safety zone is tough enough, never mind that hero worship leaves her with a horrible case of babbling-itis. Her heart's becoming more engaged the longer they spend together, but his sudden interest can't possibly last when he discovers she's not the ideal image of perfection.

I hesitated with this book, then picked it up only because I like Kelly Moran’s writing—full of heart and emotion—even if the blurb gave me many pauses.

And true enough, there were many times that I wanted to stop there and then despite the evocative use of words. Because this was a pairing involving a Peter Pan womaniser with daddy issues who never looked past his own behaviour just had to be paired with a very, very inexperienced woman whose self-esteem was in the dumps.

It’s safe to say that the protagonists (along with the back drop of some very annoying secondary characters mixed with other sage ones) were what I had a huge problem with. Ella Sinclair’s constant reiteration of her own inexperience, her babbling, her put-downs of herself got exhausting to read about after a while, but I could feel for her more after her back story was revealed.

But no matter how Moran tried to frame Jason as a charming playboy, out only for a fun-lovin’ time with never breaking women’s hearts because he was out of the door by the time that happened, I could only see him as a mega-prick through and through, more so when there were repetitive paragraphs dedicated to how he ‘normally’ behaved around women and how he was breaking the mould with Ella.

Even if this was to show how Ella was different, her obvious discomfort and babbling around him were cringeworthy, more so since it felt like she intrigued Jason only because she made him to the work instead. That he never needed to chase women but instead he sought out the first stirrings of attraction, then left before it burnt him out didn’t endear me to him at all…more so because it cemented his repulsive reputation too well that it made the HEA unbelievable.

These issues are frankly, personal, which makes this review the clichéd but true ‘it’s just me’. I struggled through ‘Residual Burn’ for these reasons, even though the underlying narrative of firefighting and loss was the only thing that kept me hanging on. Not my favourite Moran book honestly, but then, I went into this really hoping for better.

one-half-stars

Shifter Planet: The Return by D.B Reynolds

Shifter Planet: The Return by D.B ReynoldsShifter Planet: The Return by D.B. Reynolds
Series: Shifter Planet #2
Published by Entangled tangled Publishing, LLC (Amara) on 14th October 2019
Pages: 276
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three-stars

Rachel Fortier is a much sought-after expert when it comes to exotic planets—especially the deadly kind. So when she’s hired by Earth Fleet’s most respected scientist to join a mission to the tightly closed planet Harp, it’s a dream come true. Until she discovers their mission is to capture shifters and sell them to the Military.

Shifter Aidan Devlin is on patrol far from his clan when he sees a shuttlecraft landing where it definitely shouldn’t be. As the invaders emerge, he’s surprised to see a lone lovely woman, who doesn’t seem to belong. But when he’s captured and put in a cage, he has no one but her to help him escape.

Drawn together by a hunger they can’t resist, and desperate to discover who betrayed Harp, Aidan and Rachel first have to survive a deadly journey to the city. But once there, they find themselves confronted by a conspiracy that goes even deeper. Because Harp is harboring a traitor. And he’s willing to destroy their world—and everything in it—to get what he wants.

‘Shifter Planet: The Return’ plunges us back to a future where a long-isolated earth-colony comes under scrutiny by Earthers once again, and with it, its closely-guarded secrets that threaten to come to light. I’ve a soft spot for this series ever since D.B. Reynolds brought Harp and its shifter-inhabitants to my e-reader, so it’s more than welcome to see that she isn’t done with this world yet.

But while Reynolds’s world-building is fascinating, detailed and complex, much of it feels—quite literally—as the title suggests, a return to the first book, plot-wise as well, only with 2 different protagonists who are much like the first book’s pairing. Aiden and Rachel Fortier face Harp’s wildlife as their main threat as well as a traitor in the midst, with Earth’s growing interest in what Harp can offer.

Reynold’s biggest attraction perhaps, was an incredibly capable heroine battling prejudices (sometimes even with a hint of misogyny Rachel faces), showing time and again how she shouldn’t have been underestimated in the wild as she took more than adequate care of herself. I couldn’t exactly understand her dogged determination to walk straight to the enemy other than the insistence he needed to be confronted and that her reputation was on the line, but it was the driving momentum behind Rachel’s actions, along with a carefully-orchestrated series of events that led to the big reveal.

Deception played a big part here nonetheless; lying by omission and distrust carried on for a while and I was relieved actually, to be past that at around the halfway mark.

What proved to be the book’s annoying downer was probably Aiden’s manwhoring ways that were repeatedly thrown in my face, then justified immediately after by the fact that casual sex was encouraged among shifters and how much the ladies loved him and how many women he’d screwed. There was the mild implication Rachel was a woman Aiden could lose his heart to and make him want more because she could handle herself around him and in the wild when the rest of the soft city-women couldn’t, and that felt vaguely insulting somehow—as though he’d needed someone to meet those standards to ‘change’ his ways, so to speak when the rest wouldn’t get a sniff since they weren’t good enough.

As much as I liked the epic adventure through the planet, the romance fell short at the end: a hurried few lines about whether Rachel should leave for earth, an even quicker declaration of love and…that’s it. In fact, much of it felt incomplete, with an epilogue that had nothing to do with the main pairing and a vague suggestion that this isn’t the last we’ll see of Harp and its inhabitants.

In short, I wasn’t too sure what to make of this. It’s a compelling read—this made me stay past my bedtime—but it’s the realisation afterward that the similarities this bore to the first book and a rather unlikeable ‘hero’ for much of it that gave me pause about what could have been a higher rating.

three-stars

Orientation by Gregory Ashe

Orientation by Gregory AsheOrientation by Gregory Ashe
Series: Borealis Investigations #1
on 24th May 2019
Pages: 311
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three-half-stars

Shaw and North are best friends, private detectives, and in danger of losing their agency. A single bad case, followed by crippling lawsuits, has put them on the brink of closing shop. Until, that is, a client walks into their Benton Park office.
Matty Fennmore is young, blond, and beautiful, and he’s in danger. When he asks for Shaw and North’s help foiling a blackmail scheme, the detectives are quick to accept.

The conspiracy surrounding Matty runs deeper than Shaw and North expect. As they dig into the identity of Matty’s blackmailer, they are caught in a web that touches politicians, the local LGBT community, and the city’s police.
An attack on Matty drives home the rising stakes of the case, and Shaw and North must race to find the blackmailer before he can silence Matty. But a budding romance lays bare long-buried feelings between Shaw and North, and as their relationship splinters, solving the case may come at the cost of their friendship.

It isn’t often that I delve into M/M stories, but ‘Orientation’—strictly not quite a romance as yet—is making me rethink my choices. Gritty, oh-so-angsty and so well-put out, Gregory Ashe outlines 2 beguiling best-friends-protagonists who sort of sit on the opposite ends of the personality spectrums—private detectives, if you would, whose agency is failing, until someone walks through the door one day and changes the game.

Unresolved sexual tension is the order of the day, both Shaw and North struggle with their own deeply buried feelings for each other. There are parts that are excruciating to read about, as Ashe covers spousal abuse, unrequited feelings and the constant need (and the subsequent inability) to get past one’s own issues so sharply that you can’t help but feel for both Shaw and North. All these are interspersed with their banter, their amazing chemistry and the keen intelligence that permeate the rest of the narrative, as both Shaw and North trudge through what is more than just a simple case of blackmail and a shy young man supposedly coming out of the closet.

But at the same time there’s a whopping amount of brutality that Ashe doesn’t shy away from, just as he draws out the contradictions in the characters that you find in real life. Shaw/North don’t stay in their boxed up stereotypes; North, the blue-collared worker from a construction background is surprisingly in tune with his own emotions, while the Lululemon-wearing Shaw whose strange, romantic idealism jars so strongly with the sudden injections of impulsive violence he’s capable of showing.

If I were to find any fault with this book, it’s just that the plot is convoluted, a mite bit drawn out too much, the word play and the inner monologue too frilly, with some characters so flamboyant and overtly annoying gracing the pages even if they’re not actively present. But that’s perhaps nitpicking. There are layers upon layers of history, twists and turns in the form of conjectures and assumptions that aren’t exactly laid out in a linear fashion, so blink and you’ll miss it, or get even more confused.

Still, ‘Orientation’ is a book that had me sitting up and taking note of the language, the writing style and the compelling main characters—Ashe’s insights into both Shaw and North alone, are good enough for me to read straight into the next book without wanting to stop.

three-half-stars

The Lost Spear by N.J. Croft

The Lost Spear by N.J. CroftThe Lost Spear by N.J. Croft
Series: Lost #0.5
Published by Sideways Books on 26th August 2019
Pages: 114
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two-stars

Archaeologist Dr. Eve Blakeley has dedicated her life's work to finding Genghis Khan's final resting place. But first she'll have to find the Spirit Banner, Khan's lost spear, an eight-hundred-year-old weapon shrouded in as much mystery and lore as his lost tomb. The two are intertwined by centuries of secrets.

During her search through the mountains of Mongolia, she's joined by MI6 agent Zachary Martin, who is convinced that recent, seemingly random acts of terror around the globe are somehow connected to her.

But as they follow the clues to the spear, the line between her historical research and present-day terrorism blurs even more... Someone doesn't want her team to find the spear, and they'll do anything to keep the secrets of Genghis Khan buried forever.

It’s strange that ‘The Lost Spear’ came as part of the ARC offering under Entangled Publishing. But the blurb wasn’t one that I could resist, so I took a chance on an archaeological thriller, not knowing whether it was actually part of an imprint primarily associated with romantic fiction.

The long and short of it is, ‘The Lost Spear’ would be a disappointment especially if you think this is one that falls under that category. The romance plot is thin and weak, with the barest hint (that’s more told than showed) of what could happen between several characters. That the male protagonist (is MI6 agent Zachary Martin even one?) was kissing Eve Blakeley with nary a hint of chemistry while contemplating his own feelings towards his recently-dead partner mere pages ago didn’t really bode well for a strong romance.

That said, if archaeology and searching out lost items, racing against time if your thing, then ‘The Lost Spear’ does well to outline an intriguing mystery surrounding Genghis Khan and his Spirit Banner and the quest to find it.

But at 114 pages, it felt like this went nowhere, with a compendium of theories about the Spirit Banner, the revelation of bad guys who quite predictably masqueraded as good guys and an unsatisfactory cliffhanger that at the end, left me wondering if this was just a circular walk in the steppes of Central Asia. It’s a clear setup for what looks like a full-length sequel, but I’m not sure if I’m into this enough to continue.

two-stars