Hate Crush by A. Zavarelli

Hate Crush by A. ZavarelliHate Crush by A. Zavarelli
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on 21st November 2019
Pages: 324
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three-stars

They call him the devil.

When I crash-landed into him on my first day at Loyola Academy, I was sure that couldn’t be true.

He was the most gorgeous man I’d ever seen in real life.

Little did I know he was also the cruelest.

I went from starstruck to stunned the moment his cynical eyes cut through me.

I can’t tell you what it was that made him want to punish me. But from that day forward the brooding recluse of a man made it his goal to torment me.

I want to loathe him, and some days, I do.

But good or bad, nobody’s attention has ever tasted so sweet.

What do you do when you have a hate crush on your bully?

Worse yet, what do you do when he’s also your teacher?

The bully-love-hate-teacher-forbidden mega trope romance is a not-so-secret catnip of mine, so ‘Hate Crush’ seemed like a good idea at the time. And to be fair, I did have an idea of what this was going to be and there were no illusions (at least, not too many) about it turning out to be a sweet, salty thing with an easy, kissy ending.

Like the blurb suggests, Sebastian Carter has found a target in Stella LeClaire, the new girl who is only part of the elite and rich crowd because of the strings that her father has pulled in Loyola Academy. The affair that they eventually fall into however, is one borne out of obsession, unhealthy dependency, abandonment issues and a way to work out a loss of direction and bitterness…the furthest thing from love, in my opinion.

This much I expected, even welcomed because I wanted to see how things would move from confused hate to lust to love as the story went on. A. Zavarelli did lay this out clearly enough, that this twisted relationship of theirs was anything but wholesome and that much, I was clear about.

What was hard to stomach though, were Sebastian Carter’s extended periods of bullying, of breaking down, of constant humiliation and cruelty for the sake of teaching a bitter and hard lesson in life simply because life had been hard for him. Doling pain out in equal measure isn’t surprising in terms of human behaviour I guess—people who have been hurt and cut deeply can and will do the same to others with a vindictiveness that is hard to witness, even in fiction—yet this happened to an extent where there was just too much of stomping down and very little building up and grovelling, which I needed to see in equal measure. One minute he’s distant and aloof, ghosting her for months; the next scene he’s back with a personality transplant and overly concerned and suddenly in love with her…really?!

In essence, the incredible masochistic streak I kept seeing couldn’t and shouldn’t simply have been mitigated only by a short period of remorse and lip service that was entirely disproportionate in righting all the wrongs that Sebastian committed, rendered even more ineffective by Stella’s easy capitulation and an epilogue that briefly told about a difficult journey to get to where they were five years later.

And if the end point was to see a stronger, grittier Stella who could resist even Sebastian’s cruelty, it actually felt as though it looked like she would have gotten there on her own, which suggested that his awful, nasty treatment of her was in fact, unwarranted. It’d served no transformative purpose as a result, and merely looked like an exercise in detailing reprehensible behaviour because neither could really get past their own issues to de-couple from their toxic relationship.

I’m leaving my rating as an arbitrary 3-starred one because of my own indecision regarding the subject matter and the narrative purpose it was supposed to serve, which I felt wasn’t entirely fulfilled. ‘Hate Crush’ didn’t tread on my triggers because it was a bully sort of romance (it’s something I can handle) but rather, infringed on my own personal sense of justice that demanded an equal amount of development and transition to a believable relationship I could buy into.
three-stars

Would Like To Meet by Rachel Winters

Would Like To Meet by Rachel WintersWould Like to Meet by Rachel Winters
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on 3rd December 2019
Pages: 368
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one-star

After seven years as an assistant, 29-year-old Evie Summers is ready to finally get the promotion she deserves. But now the TV and film agency she's been running behind the scenes is in trouble, and Evie will lose her job unless she can convince the agency's biggest and most arrogant client, Ezra Chester, to finish writing the script for a Hollywood romantic comedy.

The catch? Ezra is suffering from writer's block--and he'll only put pen to paper if singleton Evie can prove to him that you can fall in love like they do in the movies. With the future of the agency in jeopardy, Evie embarks on a mission to meet a man the way Sally met Harry or Hugh Grant met Julia Roberts.

But in the course of testing out the meet-cute scenes from classic romantic comedies IRL, not only will Evie encounter one humiliating situation after another, but she'll have to confront the romantic past that soured her on love.

I can’t exactly put my finger on what, but ‘Would Like To Meet’ just didn’t work out at all from the very start.

What threw me off were the stage directions that set the scene, followed by a myriad of text messages, a plethora of characters and a fumbling heroine who messes up at the very start. For this reason, it was hard to get past just the first few chapters with the way the story was laid out and I had to keep going back to the blurb of the book just to keep the synopsis in my head and who the protagonists really were because there wasn’t an establishing scene with both Evie Summers and her romantic leading man in it.

In fact, the focus on Evie, her whirlwind life and the number of people in it—it was the impression I got in the first few chapters—was exhausting as I hit an early, early patch where the story just flattened to the point where I skimmed and then, fully stopped. I’d be hard-pressed to classify ‘Would Like To Meet’ as romance, but rather it’s more chick-lit with the focus on Evie’s personal growth and self-discovery in the journey she takes in the story.

In any case, I’d never been quite so fidgety about the story (wanting to put it down while straining at the leash to do something else is quite a bad sign) and obviously this has to be a case of ‘it’s just me’.

one-star

Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai

Girl Gone Viral by Alisha RaiGirl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai
Series: Modern Love, #2
Published by Avon on 21st April 2020
Pages: 400
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three-stars

OMG! Wouldn’t it be adorable if he’s her soulmate???
I don’t see any wedding rings [eyes emoji]
Breaking: #CafeBae and #CuteCafeGirl went to the bathroom AT THE SAME TIME!!!

One minute, Katrina King’s enjoying an innocent conversation with a hot guy at a coffee shop; the next, a stranger has live-tweeted the entire episode with a romantic meet-cute spin and #CafeBae is the new hashtag-du-jour. The problem? Katrina craves a low-profile life, and going viral threatens the peaceful world she’s painstakingly built. Besides, #CafeBae isn’t the man she’s hungry for...

He’s got a [peach emoji] to die for.

With the internet on the hunt for the identity of #CuteCafeGirl, Jas Singh, bodyguard, friend, and possessor of the most beautiful eyebrows Katrina’s ever seen, comes to the rescue and whisks her away to his family’s home. Alone in a remote setting with the object of her affections?

It’s a recipe for romance. But after a long dating dry spell, Katrina isn’t sure she can trust her instincts when it comes to love—even if Jas’ every look says he wants to be more than just her bodyguard…

When Katrina King’s visit to a cafe results in a narrative spinning out of control thanks to a fame-hungry stranger, her sudden viral fame threatens her ordered, routined life and pushes her friend/bodyguard of many years to hide her away at his family peach farm. It takes, predictably, the intervention of animals and friends and family for the status quo to change between them, but it’s still a slow, slow burn of a romance, with a lot of thoughts about ‘why this shouldn’t happen’ up until the last third of the book.

Both Jasvinder Singh and Katrina are cautious in their own ways thanks to their own personal histories, but the jigsaw puzzle of both Jas’s and Katrina’s lives are revealed in fragments, which proved frustrating at times as I tried to piece together it all without the whole picture coming into play. Yet these seemed fairly inconsequential even as the story wore on, as Rai chooses to take the smoother and calmer path to a HEA that simply creeps up on you.

Alisha Rai’s ‘Girl Gone Viral’ is a different animal from its predecessor and it’s a change that I don’t exactly know how to deal with—not a bad one, since it sort of hovers between contemporary romance and a slight threat to privacy that requires nothing more than staying low and some familial, domestic upheaval. The angst level is low—not the sort that pulls the emotions out of your chest and has it aching—with an equally-strange low level of steam that’s unusual for Rai’s writing. Still, the last few bits of the book were the parts that I truly found enjoyable, much more than the first, slower-paced sections where things just trundled along, despite the softer and sweeter protagonists who actually do deserve each other and their HEA.

three-stars

Pretty Face by Lucy Parker

Pretty Face by Lucy ParkerPretty Face by Lucy Parker
Series: London Celebrities, #2
Published by Carina Press on 20th February 2017
Pages: 222
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three-half-stars

It's not actress Lily Lamprey's fault that she's all curves and has the kind of voice that can fog up a camera lens. She wants to prove where her real talents lie—and that's not on a casting couch, thank you. When she hears esteemed director Luc Savage is renovating a legendary West End theater for a lofty new production, she knows it could be her chance—if only Luc wasn't so dictatorial, so bad-tempered and so incredibly sexy.

Luc Savage has respect, integrity and experience. He also has it bad for Lily. He'd be willing to dismiss it as a midlife crisis, but this exasperating, irresistible woman is actually a very talented actress. Unfortunately, their romance is not only raising questions about Lily's suddenly rising career, it's threatening Luc's professional reputation. The course of true love never did run smooth. But if they're not careful, it could bring down the curtain on both their careers…

Lucy Parker’s ‘London Celebrities’ is a rather unique series I think; there’s nothing quite like what I’ve gone through in my years of reading romance and I do like the premise that each story is based on. Revolving around the tv or theatre scene and written with startling and subtle acerbic humour at times, Parker brings together characters that stand out because of their (either revolting or outstanding) actions or their circumstances.

In this case, Luc Savage and Lily Lamprey clash when the latter is ‘forced’ cast in Luc’s latest production. The former is a stern, no-nonsense, work-first acclaimed director and the latter, often mistaken for her tv persona, is hopefully not just a pretty face with a penchant for stealing men under people’s noses and a voice that makes people cringe or get aroused. Stereotypes are par for the course at the start and insults are freely flung, but if this was going to be a falling-for-the-boss-type story, Parker injects so much more into this relationship than I could ever imagine.

The slow burn of ‘Pretty Face’ made this trundle along at times; Luc/Lily’s relationship slid along into something more congenial past their fractious meeting but I was still squinting to see their chemistry and heat by the time they kissed, much less when they fell into bed. There was plenty of drama that advanced the plot and how Luc and Lily soon became integral to each other’s lives, but much of it still felt like a lot of hand-wringing and indecision for both. In other words, I’d was hoping that their attraction was written more overtly, and their need for each other more obviously—and more shown rather than told through inner monologues.

The book’s last quarter was arguably the best bit, when push came to shove as their relationship was put through a test I wasn’t sure both could recover from, yet Parker’s resolution of it was satisfying, more so because of the maturity she injects into her characters. The charm of this grew on me as the story wore on as well, and by the time this ended, I was wanting more of Luc and Lily.

three-half-stars

Headliners by Lucy Parker

Headliners by Lucy ParkerHeadliners by Lucy Parker
Series: London Celebrities #5
Published by Carina Press on 20th January 2020
Pages: 286
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four-half-stars

He might be the sexiest man in London, according to his fan site (which he definitely writes himself), but he’s also the most arrogant man she’s ever met.

She might have the longest legs he’s ever seen, but she also has the sharpest tongue.

For years, rival TV presenters Sabrina Carlton and Nick Davenport have traded barbs on their respective shows. The public can’t get enough of their feud, but after Nick airs Sabrina’s family scandals to all of Britain, the gloves are off. They can barely be in the same room together—but these longtime enemies are about to become the unlikeliest of cohosts.

With their reputations on the rocks, Sabrina and Nick have one last chance to save their careers. If they can resurrect a sinking morning show, they’ll still have a future in television. But with ratings at an all-time low and a Christmas Eve deadline to win back the nation’s favor, the clock is ticking—and someone on their staff doesn’t want them to succeed.

Small mishaps on set start adding up, and Sabrina and Nick find themselves—quelle horreur—working together to hunt down the saboteur…and discovering they might have more in common than they thought. When a fiery encounter is caught on camera, the public is convinced that the reluctant cohosts are secretly lusting after one another.

The public might not be wrong.

Their chemistry has always been explosive, but with hate turning to love, the stakes are rising and everything is on the line. Neither is sure if they can trust these new feelings…or if they’ll still have a job in the New Year.

Nick Davenport and Sabrina Carlton are petty rivals on and off tv, but there’s good cause for it…up until the point where both their careers are suddenly in jeopardy. A twist of events forces them to co-host the dreaded early-morning show which no one bothers with, since it’s not quite the ‘serious’ stuff compared to what they used to do, and with the list of grievances sitting between them, neither’s looking good at all. This status quo doesn’t look like it’s about to change, until mishap after mishap spring the comedy into the story and Nick/Sabrina find themselves in various compromising positions which make everyone else think that they are public enemies but secret shaggers.

I’ve never felt so rewarded by a Lucy Parker book as I have with ‘Headliners’. (To be fair, I had a good feeling about it when I read the blurb and got started.) I can’t entirely remember what transpired at the end of the last book even, but as a standalone, ‘Headliners’ functions perfectly legitimately. Characters from Parker’s previous books who have already found their HEA do flit in and out however, and if you’ve not read the rest of the books, there’s a bit of an insider-wink-wink sort of joke that you could miss out on.

Still, Parker crafts a holiday rom-com with so much panache and style and comedy—it’s hilarious to read how one thing after another befalls the ill-fated couple as they wear out the enemies-to-lovers trope to the fullest. In the previous books, I’d always found a particular sort of imbalance when it came to quirk, dialogue and characterisation, but ‘Headliners’ seemed to have perfected these somehow: not too many quirks, snappy and funny dialogue and spot-on ‘Love-Actually’ type characters. Might be a bit of a bias here, but I’m voting this as Parker’s crowning glory.

four-half-stars

The Business of Blood by Kerrigan Byrne

The Business of Blood by Kerrigan ByrneThe Business of Blood by Kerrigan Byrne
Series: The Business of Blood, #1
Published by Ardent Publishing on 20th October 2019
Pages: 309
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four-stars

London, 1890. Blood and death are Fiona Mahoney’s trade, and business, as they say, is booming.

Dying is the only thing people do with any regularity, and Fiona makes her indecorous living cleaning up after the corpses are carted away. Her childhood best friend, Mary, was the last known victim of Jack the Ripper. It’s been two years since Fiona scrubbed Mary’s blood from the floorboards, and London is no longer buzzing about the Ripper, but Fiona hasn’t forgotten.

And she hasn’t stopped searching for Jack.

When she’s called to a murder in the middle of the night, Fiona finds a victim mutilated in an eerily similar fashion to those of the Ripper, and only a few doors down from Mary’s old home. The relentless, overbearing, and irritatingly handsome Inspector Grayson Croft warns her away from the case. She might have listened, if she hadn’t found a clue in the blood. A clue that will lead her down a path from which there is no return.As a killer cuts a devastating swath through London, a letter written in blood arrives at her door, and it is only then that Fiona realizes just how perilous her endeavor is. For she has drawn the attention of an obsessive evil, and is no longer the hunter, but the prey. Fiona Mahoney is in the business of blood.

But she’s not the only one.

Taking place smack in the aftermath of the Ripper murders in the most squalid bits of London, ‘The Business of Blood’ follows an intrepid Fiona Mahoney who has somehow managed to eke a place out for herself as the clean-up crew of wet work, keeping company with questionable characters just so she can live decently. But it’s also one that has put her on a path of investigation and ultimately revenge: to search out the Ripper who’d torn up her friend 2 years prior, up until she tangles with law enforcement and the people who may or may not have had a hand in the murders suddenly happening all around her once more.

I loved the premise of the story from the start: it’s suspenseful, and probably groundbreaking for putting a female protagonist in a role that most heroines steer clear of in historical romances. It’s also macabre but fascinating in the way murder cases and unsolved crime mysteries probably are, hinting of ethnic struggles and the consequences of those in individuals that eschew the notion of life being sacrosanct—more so as these seem to underpin Byrne’s London as a gritty and unstable hotbed for brutal violence and insanity.

There’s barely a hint of romance at all in fact; much of it is Fiona’s story, her quest to unravel the thread linking the pile of bodies rapidly falling around her and her interactions with characters who are hiding too many secrets of their own for her liking. Seeing as this is a series, the Ripper murders aren’t done and dusted just yet, with the climax taking a bit of a hooked twist while leaving unresolved matters for the next few books to cover.

Byrne does write a good mystery, though it’s the purple prose and some over-descriptions of emotions or events that I could have done without. Still, ‘The Business of Blood’ is an intriguing read and a bit of a mental screw, to be honest. Yet I’d be the first in line for the next book already.

four-stars

Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

three-stars