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

Don’t You Forget About Me by Mhairi McFarlane

Don’t You Forget About Me by Mhairi McFarlaneDon't You Forget About Me by Mhairi McFarlane
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on 10th September 2019
Pages: 432
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two-stars

You always remember your first love... don’t you?

If there’s anything worse than being fired from the lousiest restaurant in town, it’s coming home early to find your boyfriend in bed with someone else. Reeling from the humiliation of a double dumping in one day, Georgina takes the next job that comes her way—bartender in a newly opened pub. There’s only one problem: it’s run by the guy she fell in love with years ago. And—make that two problems—he doesn’t remember her. At all. But she has fabulous friends and her signature hot pink fur coat... what more could a girl really need?

Lucas McCarthy has not only grown into a broodingly handsome man, but he’s also turned into an actual grown-up, with a thriving business and a dog along the way. Crossing paths with him again throws Georgina’s rocky present into sharp relief—and brings a secret from her past bubbling to the surface. Only she knows what happened twelve years ago, and why she’s allowed the memories to chase her ever since. But maybe it’s not too late for the truth... or a second chance with the one that got away?

Do you ever forget your first love? Or your first crush, at least?

Very British (and exaggerated humour), a lot of quirk and a very rambly, stream-of-consciousness-type narrative combine to shape a bumbling protagonist who, for some reason, has found herself in dead-end jobs for the past decade or so, while her first crush as she mortifyingly finds out, is on the up and up. But beyond the comparison of who has climbed the social ladder better, McFarlane winds around the

But I’m very mixed about this, despite the lovely blurb and the heavy-hitting issues that McFarlane raises here.

The charm and bane of story both lie in the style and the execution of it. Dialogue-heavy, some parts are wildly hilarious and starkly emotional about the pains of letting go of dreams, while other parts are incredibly frustrating because it takes pages just to describe a single event which then leads to too many off-shoots, too many side-characters and an all-over-the-place, unfocused story with trips down memory lane that could have been trimmed leaner and meaner. It takes a third of the book before Georgina meets Lucas again properly, and nearly two-thirds more before we really get to the heart of what really happened to Georgina and Lucas post-A’Levels, with a lot of what feels like filler in between.

Put a gentler way, ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ is more women’s fiction than romance, I think, with the threads of Bridget-Jones-like-friendships and family issues coming more strongly through than just the focus on a romantic relationship itself. It’s more Georgina Horspool’s chick-lit story than hers and Lucas’s, and a chick-lit that traces the ups and downs in her life with wry humour. It ends with a heart-rending HEA, of course, but that’s more like the cherry on top for Georgina herself, rather than a couple I really wanted to see more of together.

two-stars

Wolf Rebel by Paige Tyler

Wolf Rebel by Paige TylerWolf Rebel by Paige Tyler
Series: SWAT: Special Wolf Alpha Team #10
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on 26th November 2019
Pages: 320
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four-stars

She let him get away

SWAT werewolf Rachel Bennett is hounded by nightmares after a vicious attack left her with PTSD. Not knowing who or what she can trust anymore, she's relieved to be assigned to a high-profile protective detail. Diving into work might be the distraction she needs, until she notices the mysterious hunk who seems to follow her wherever she goes―and recognizes him.

Now he needs her help...

After he's badly injured, former Navy SEAL Knox Lawson seeks out Rachel when he realizes he's turning into a werewolf. He'd once been part of the group hunting her kind, but he knew he had to quit when he found Rachel in his crosshairs. Now he desperately needs her help.

Rachel isn't sure she trusts Knox, but having him around keeps the nightmares―and the monster creating them―away. Knox might not know much about being a werewolf, but there's no doubt he'll do everything in his power to win her trust and keep her safe.

With a rapidly growing menagerie of paranormal creatures injecting new life into the SWAT series, ‘Wolf Rebel’ is a fun and campy, enemies-to-lovers with a twist story as Paige Tyler ups the ante here with more than just repetitive storylines of werewolves obsessed with finding their mates. Whether Tyler has consciously done this deliberate kink in the growing narrative arc or not, it’s one I can definitely appreciate—it does keep things fresh if you’re concerned with the onset of reader-boredom that far down this series.

A malicious entity taking the form of an evil clown, a traumatised cop and an ex-SEAL turned ex-hunter turned werewolf (how’s karma for that?) find themselves tangled in a thriller-romantic suspense mix that thankfully doesn’t cut too deep in order to retain its entertainment value. Essentially, ‘Wolf Rebel’ took a direction that I wasn’t expecting but it was easy to hop on for the squinty-eyed ride as shapeshifters, vampires and other paranormal things came together with faint echoes of Stephen King’s IT tied to even fainter echoes of gothic (?) horror.

Rachel Bennett and Knox Lawson might seem an unlikely pair, but Tyler writes them in a way that does work with the multiple obstacles that they both face. Their getting together isn’t as drama-laden as I thought it would be; external circumstances bring them together so that means there isn’t overt conflict for the sake of deliberately tearing a couple apart before some third party intervenes to drive them back together.

Suspension of disbelief is par for the course, but ‘Wolf Rebel’ seems to have regained that panache I thought the series started lacking in the middling few books, with a newly expanded arc that bodes pretty well for future books.

four-stars

Fighting Absolution by Kate McCarthy

Fighting Absolution by Kate McCarthyFighting Absolution by Kate McCarthy
Published by Kate McCarthy on 10th September 2019
Pages: 404
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four-stars

"She's a combat medic.He's SAS, and her best friend.They weren't supposed to fall in love."

At fifteen, Jamie Murphy finds herself broken and alone, convinced she doesn't need anyone.

Until she does.

Bear is the boy behind the fence, the one who was there for her when no one else was.

Until he's not.

Left with nothing, Jamie joins the army hoping it will give her purpose. The last thing she expects is the best friend from her past to reappear in the dusty plains of a war-torn country. No longer the boy she once knew, Bear is now a man: big, bearded, and SAS—one of the army’s elite.

Soon Jamie finds herself not only fighting against her enemies, but her feelings for a man who left her once before. Can she risk losing him all over again?

‘Fighting Absolution’ is not quite a conventional romance, so that’s best to get that out of the way at the start. For those who are used to the establishing scene of the protagonists following a particular trope they are familiar with, this tosses all of it out of the window. Maybe I’m one of those, so inured to tropes and straight-up, direct coupledom despite the difficulty the protagonists face getting together. After all, it’s the classification of romance, isn’t it?

Kate McCarthy strays from this a fair bit and inadvertently, treads on several triggers or safety boundaries that some readers might have. Incidental friends to lovers? Second chances? Or second choices? It’s hard to sit down and categorise it, as mixed as I am even as I write this review.

In short, I was afraid that this would become a love triangle within a ‘growing-up’ type of story. In some ways, it is, and it isn’t, with some layers of complication (read: deception) between the protagonists. The romantic trajectory isn’t a straight one where both protagonists meet and then things are immediately set in stone from there onwards. It certainly follows Jamie Murphy’s journey more than a couple’s journey together for at least a third of the book, then takes a bit of a skewed turn when a third party so to speak, gets introduced.

Honestly, I’m sort of uncomfortable with the this particular skew, but these are my own expectations talking because of McCarthy messing with my own idea of ‘meant-to-be’ that I’m used to in romantic fiction. It’s not a bad read by any means, though there is the usual frustrating push-pull, some stubbornness and the lack of communication resulting in could-be-avoided-conflict as the narrative shifts from angsty to oddly light-hearted and back to angsty again.

‘Fighting Absolution’ is a longer read with New Adult inclinations, and told in the shadow of war, PTSD and difficult personal histories, has a plot that relies on losses and gains for its emotional momentum. I’m not entirely sure how many years slip by between the pages, but the passage of time and the slow burn give the HEA a bit more depth and credence. I liked parts of it, was uncomfortable with some of the others…and that is going to be my bottom-line. But it wasn’t hard to get caught up with the drama of it all, and for that alone, it was quite worth it.

four-stars

Sin For You by Sherilee Gray

Sin For You by Sherilee GraySin For You by Sherilee Gray
Series: Rocktown Ink #2
Published by Sherilee Gray on 5th September 2019
Pages: 189
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three-half-stars

My best friend's sister is back in town, and while she’s here, she's under my protection. Quinn Parker had her heart broken, and I'll make sure no one hurts her again.

But when she starts looking around for a hot, no-strings distraction, I can’t stand back and do nothing. No one is touching this vibrant beauty...but me.

She’s the woman of my dreams, but Quinn wants a good time, not a long time. We play by her rules: no one finds out, no one gets hurt.

I have to keep it casual because an ex-con like me can't offer her forever…even if I want so much more.

Sherilee Gray tackles the brother’s best friend trope with a grand helping of angst in ‘Sin For You’ and it’s a steamy one that pulls you in from the start.

I definitely liked this one much better than the first in the series, even if I hadn’t been on board the whole time with the protagonists essentially, taking turns to be wishy-washy about coming up with reasons and/or excuses why they shouldn’t be with each other and why they have nothing but sex to give.

It’s a strange one I’ll admit; the angst and the monologues that both Bull and Quinn emit in stages can both tug at the heartstrings and annoy simultaneously. Gray writes well enough and eloquently enough to show the pain each character has gone through, but the manner in which they repeatedly switch roles in trying to justify their actions and beliefs (while assuming too much and hashing things out too little) did get grating after a while. And just as you think they’ve got it sorted, off they go again, on a tangent that could have been easily solved by a bit more talk and a little less internal self-agonising.

‘Sin For You’ is quite an emotional see-saw to say the least, and all the quirks that come along with it. Both Bull and Quinn are relatable (sort of) and Gray does tension and steam well enough that I can squirm with glee each time the both of them mess up the sheets. It’s not a bad read nonetheless, even with the hand-wringing, needless tears and the multiple turns the characters take on the merry-go-round.

three-half-stars

Total Control by Laura Griffin

Total Control by Laura GriffinTotal Control by Laura Griffin
Series: Alpha Crew, #4
Published by Gallery Books on 2nd September 2019
Pages: 183
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two-half-stars

Navy SEAL Jake Heath has his eyes on Alexa Mays. The FBI Agent is whip smart and hot as hell, but she won’t give him the time of day. So, when she calls him out of blue, he thinks his luck has changed.

But instead of meeting up for a romantic dinner, Alexa needs Jake for a very different reason. Her counterterrorism team is hot on the heels of the extremist that Jake’s task force has been tracking for months, and now he’s on American soil. The only way she can take him down is with Jake’s help.

Alexa knows Jake is tough and relentless...and that the chemistry between them is electric. Although she’s risking her heart—and maybe even her career—by bringing him onto the mission, she doesn’t have another choice. Together, they’re an unstoppable and powerful team.

As the hours tick by and a lethal enemy gets closer to launching an unimaginable attack, Alexa and Jake need to fight fire with fire before the clock runs out. The only question is: will their own flames get in the way?

Laura Griffin’s ‘Alpha Ops’ series and I have been on rocky ground since day one; it is so startling dissimilar to the heart-pounding crime thrillers that she writes that these brief, novella-length works feel like they’ve been penned by someone else, both in style and in plot-execution. Yet I keep returning to them, hoping that each one would get better, even as ‘Total Control’ has left me on the fence.

Everything was cursory here: context and histories that were told rather than shown, explained away with a few lines rather than drawn out with chapters, and lacked the usual solid development that Griffin’s careful plotting in her full-length works contain. Her protagonists’ connection seemed forced especially when Alexa Mays only decided to give Jake Heath the time of day after 6 months of radio silence because she needed something from him.

In fact, it was harder to like Alexa at all, when Griffin seemed to have set her up as callous and manipulative from the beginning, which made Jake’s willingness (by blowing off his family for her) to ingratiate himself into her good books even more inexplicable. I think, above all, there were scenes that lacked the ‘softer’ emotional bits—or rather, vulnerability—that would, ironically, given an action-packed story more edge and more impact. That it went from zero to a hundred towards the last quarter—a bit of a feat considering this topped out at a rushed 120-ish pages on my reader—was something that came unexpectedly, though not in an unwelcome fashion, until it tapered off to a rather abrupt conclusion that felt like a HFN.

I’m not ashamed to say that I liked the past 20 or so pages the best, which nonetheless, still wasn’t quite enough to erase the lacklustre first half. I only wished ‘Total Control’ was a full-length (and more balanced) book and had it been, it would have been phenomenal.

two-half-stars

Broken Knight by L.J. Shen

Broken Knight by L.J. ShenBroken Knight by L.J. Shen
Series: All Saints High, #2
Published by L.J. Shen on 17th August 2019
Pages: 205
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two-stars

Not all love stories are written the same way. Ours had torn chapters, missing paragraphs, and a bittersweet ending.

Luna Rexroth is everyone’s favorite wallflower.

Sweet. Caring. Charitable. Quiet. Fake.

Underneath the meek, tomboy exterior everyone loves (yet pities) is a girl who knows exactly what, and who, she wants—namely, the boy from the treehouse who taught her how to curse in sign language. Who taught her how to laugh. To live. To love.

Knight Cole is everyone’s favorite football hero.

Gorgeous. Athletic. Rugged. Popular. Liar.

This daredevil hell-raiser could knock you up with his gaze alone, but he only has eyes for the girl across the street: Luna.

But Luna is not who she used to be. She doesn’t need his protection anymore.

When life throws a curveball at All Saints’ golden boy, he’s forced to realize not all knights are heroes.

Sometimes, the greatest love stories flourish in tragedy.

I’m relatively new to L.J. Shen but yes, I do know what I’m getting into…mostly.

I like the complexities that Shen explores when it comes to the dynamics between screwed-up youths and young adults—it all veers towards the dangerous and the complicated but also sometimes involves the absurdities of the merry-go-round of relationships simply because people *can’t* seem to do simple. That they’d rather pine and do the ‘do-we-or-do-we-not’ dance are not just characteristics that are seen more in New Adult stories (admittedly, some adult characters do the same) but that Shen takes it to the maximum in ‘Broken Knight’.

Luna/Knight exemplify this particular dynamic in a dance that’s both angsty and sometimes, wholly unnecessary, before they finally, finally untangle the threads that keep them bound no matter what. Watching them wait for each other, wanting each other at the wrong time, then the vicious tit-for-tat game they play is undoubtedly quite the excruciating bit to take in, but Shen surprises me at every turn with her words, with her analogies, and her unexpected perceptions on love and relationships, albeit through secondary characters.

Abandonment issues take the forefront here. In fact, it feels like the primary issue that supposedly makes everyone act up and it’s as though the sins of the fathers bleed down into the next generation. That the previous generation, as twisted as they were, would raise wholesome families by extension, will seem like a joke at times.

Throw in the typical vices that lean towards the darker side of N/A plots and you’ll get drugs, promiscuous behaviour and a whole ton of doing things because characters can and will and want to hurt other people—with sullen teenagers continually acting like children while pretending to be adults and creating a storm of angst because they can’t see past their hormones. This much, I can believe, perhaps and if this is what Shen intends, then perhaps the book is a success.

I’ve not read Shen’s earlier works, but ‘Broken Knight’ will probably screw around with some people’s heads as well, particularly if you look at an iron-clad HEAs as a natural part of romantic fiction. It’s not a book that’s easy to like—I’m not sure I can say I do, honestly, since it’s Shen’s use of words that kept me going—but it’s certainly one that you can get through with the feeling like you’re watching a train-wreck happening again and again.

two-stars