Publisher: Gallery Books

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

On the Corner of Love and Hate by Nina Bocci

On the Corner of Love and Hate by Nina BocciOn the Corner of Love and Hate by Nina Bocci
Series: Hopeless Romantics, #1
Published by Gallery Books on 20th August 2019
Pages: 336
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one-star

What’s a campaign manager’s worst nightmare? A smooth-talking charmer who’s never met a scandal that he didn’t like.

When Emmanuelle Peroni’s father—and mayor of her town—asks her to help rehab Cooper Endicott’s image, she’s horrified. Cooper drives her crazy in every way possible. But he’s also her father’s protégé, and she can’t say no to him without him finding out the reason why: Cooper and her have a messy past. So Emmanuelle reluctantly launches her father’s grand plan to get this Casanova someone to settle down with and help him lose his lothario reputation.

Cooper Endicott wanted to run for Mayor, but he never wanted the drama that went with it. Now that he’s on the political hamster wheel, the other candidates are digging up everything from his past. Even though he’s doing all the right things, his colorful love life is the sticking point for many of the conservative voters. He wants to win, badly, and he knows that if he wants any chance of getting a vote from the female population, he needs to change his image. The only problem? He might just be falling in love with the one person he promised not to pursue: the Mayor’s off-limits daughter.

A poor little rich boy known for his womanising ways needs someone to keep him in hand. After all, his mayoral ambitions are in jeopardy. Who better to do so, than a longtime friend who always had the hots for him but was cruelly subject to his numerous hookups over the years, to become his campaign manager and keep him on the straight and narrow for better media reception of the reformed manwhore?

That should have been my warning sign.

Some books do get better as you go on. For others, you get a sinking, cringey feel from the very start.

Unfortunately, ‘On the Corner of Love and Hate’ fell into the latter category. Admittedly, I wish I’d given the blurb more than just a side-eye before I’d even begun, but it was Nina Bocci and I wanted to have an enthusiastic go at her attempt at romantic dramedy.

Shallowly flaky, lacking moral fibre and substance, Cooper was a manchild with manwhoring ways, made even unforgivable because his weakness for women was something he was unrepentant about—not that he seemed to make any effort to get together with Emma. Having this thrown in my face time and time again made the story hard to go on with, let alone the excruciating pining that Emma had going for decades (!) for someone who always supposedly wanted her but took it up with many many other women instead because he was either ‘young and stupid’ or trying to get her attention and having the best of both worlds. That there was the constant presence of a college fling and a now friends-with-benefits secondary character—a typical mean, beautiful but bitchy one—made the entire story feel like a pool of circling sharks hungry for blood and a piece of Cooper’s arrogant arse.

As a result, there was little of the romance I saw, more so because this was entirely written in Emma’s POV, of Emma’s own jealousy and well-hidden hurts as the pages wore on and her perception of Cooper’s lack of initiative for anything except for flirting and women.

Perhaps this was done, ironically, too well. Bocci’s writing keeps you outraged on Emma’s behalf, frustrated by her own attraction that she can’t seem to shake off. So much so that the attempt to position Cooper as a ‘good man’ with a half-hearted rationale of his behaviour over the years to show some redeemable qualities in him merely left me with the poorest impression of a character who shouldn’t have even been a worthy of the status of a romantic hero.

That Emma fell like a house of cards after spending a hot night with him made her no better than the other women who were ready to fling their panties at him at the sight of his gigawatt smile.

I couldn’t do it. I skimmed, skipped, and cringed too much to be able to go on, then finally threw it in.

one-star

Her Deadly Secrets by Laura Griffin

Her Deadly Secrets by Laura GriffinHer Deadly Secrets by Laura Griffin
Series: Wolfe Security, #2
Published by Gallery Books on 2nd July 2019
Pages: 368
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two-half-stars

Private Investigator Kira Vance spends her days navigating the intricate labyrinth of Houston’s legal world, and she knows all of its shadowy players and dark secrets.
On a seemingly normal day, she’s delivering a report to her top client when suddenly everything goes sideways and the meeting ends in a bloodbath. Twenty-four hours later, the police have no suspects but one thing is clear: a killer has Kira in his sights.

Fiercely independent, Kira doesn’t expect—or want—help from anyone, least of all an unscrupulous lawyer and his elite security team. Instead, she launches her own investigation, hoping to uncover the answers that have eluded the police. But as Kira’s hunt for clues becomes more and more perilous, she realizes that she alone may hold the key to finding a vicious murderer. And she knows she must take help wherever she can find it if she wants to stay alive.

‘Her Deadly Secrets’ is the murder mystery aficionado’s sort of read—and a little different in than the usual Laura Griffin Tracers style—, as PI Kira Vance finds herself somewhat over her head investigating an associate’s murder and the hot-shot lawyer that she suddenly reports to.

But the security team that he’s called on her brings on a tagalong bodyguard that she resists, until it seems that what she’s looking at is a vicious killer who’s got her in his sights.

It’s a template that has been told many times before—variations on a theme in a way, that Kira Vance treads where many others have trodden before. As a police-procedural-type series with an intense focus on the unsolved crime, this works perfectly fine.

But the book’s billing as romantic suspense however, doesn’t, especially not when the romance has been written in awkwardly, with 2 people thrown together by force and then suddenly developing a romance when there’s a distinct lack of romantic chemistry between them.

For someone who expected a bit more of the latter after going through Griffin’s Tracers books, I was actually taken aback with surprise when the first kiss happened, left incredulous with anything that hinted of romance between them past the initial, weak attraction. In short, Kira/Jeremy as a pairing were sidelined here so much that I hesitated to even call this a connection (as hurriedly as it was developed) in favour of tying all the loose ends of the plot up.

It isn’t to say that the book isn’t written with Griffin’s usual aplomb: meticulously planned and executed with the kind of writing that pulls you in.

But the storytelling felt somewhat unbalanced—exciting at the start, only to head, rather frustratingly, into a lacklustre and sagging middle—along with a romance that hardly took off. In short, ‘Her Deadly Secrets’ is probably a book suited to those who prefer the journey of uncovering the whodunnit mystery than following the emotional development of the protagonists.

two-half-stars

The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren

The Unhoneymooners by Christina LaurenThe Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren
Published by Gallery Books on 14th May 2019
Pages: 416
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three-half-stars

Olive is always unlucky: in her career, in love, in…well, everything. Her identical twin sister Amy, on the other hand, is probably the luckiest person in the world. Her meet-cute with her fiancé is something out of a romantic comedy (gag) and she’s managed to finance her entire wedding by winning a series of Internet contests (double gag). Worst of all, she’s forcing Olive to spend the day with her sworn enemy, Ethan, who just happens to be the best man.

Olive braces herself to get through 24 hours of wedding hell before she can return to her comfortable, unlucky life. But when the entire wedding party gets food poisoning from eating bad shellfish, the only people who aren’t affected are Olive and Ethan. And now there’s an all-expenses-paid honeymoon in Hawaii up for grabs.

Putting their mutual hatred aside for the sake of a free vacation, Olive and Ethan head for paradise, determined to avoid each other at all costs. But when Olive runs into her future boss, the little white lie she tells him is suddenly at risk to become a whole lot bigger. She and Ethan now have to pretend to be loving newlyweds, and her luck seems worse than ever. But the weird thing is that she doesn’t mind playing pretend. In fact, she feels kind of... lucky.

Christina Lauren’s pitch-perfect rom-com tickles the funny bone, not in the gut-busting way but it garners more than a few smirks. Even if ‘The Unhoneymoners’ leans towards more of women’s fiction—the kind that celebrates a female character’s growth and achievements, and catalogues her mistakes, no matter how many baby steps it might take.

Olive Torres, the queen of bad lack, rules the entire show, with a sometimes hysterical voice determined to win every argument and be cynical/negative about everything that passes her in life. Except that her sister and the new husband—along with the other wedding guests—start spontaneously throwing up on the wedding itself and this hands her a free pass to Maui, with the groom’s brother and her supposed nemesis, Ethan Thomas.

The journey from here is more of less predictable even if the fake-marriage, enemies-to-lovers-tropes aren’t: there’re tons of awkward moments, moments of unexpected bonding and heartfelt conversations between Ethan and Olive and moments when they discover neither of them are what they appear to each other.

And by and large, it was a fun, sometimes cheesy, eye-rolling and cringy ride, and it made me think this warrants a close-to 4-star rating. Still, I didn’t have to put down the book and wonder if it’s taking a large chunk of my day and fret about it. Told in a way that made the pages fly by, there’s plenty of quirk, lip-pursing and amusing times to make it one of the most lighthearted reads I’ve had in a while.

three-half-stars

Sidelined by Suzanne Baltsar

Sidelined by Suzanne BaltsarSidelined by Suzanne Baltsar
Published by Gallery Books on 27th August 2019
Pages: 320
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two-stars

When Connor McGuire loses out on his dream job of being the head coach of the local high school football team, he thinks life can’t get any worse. Then he discovers just who got the coveted position—it was a handout to the kid of a well-known, successful college coach. Connor’s sure this is just a publicity stunt, but the kid turns out to be not only a sharp strategist, but a driven and sexy young woman, too. Frustrated in more ways than one, Connor realizes that he might have to step up his game or risk losing altogether.

Coach Charlotte “Charlie” Gibb calls a flag on the play when she finds out that her very male, very attractive, but definitely-rooting-for-her-to-lose assistant coach resents her for taking what he considers to be his rightful position. But never one to back down from a little healthy competition, Charlie is determined to prove her worth—both on and off the field.

Hacking it in a man’s world of competitive sports is tough, but as the head coach of a high-school football team with disgruntled men with the boys’ club mentality, Charlie Gibb starts off with everything against her.

I commiserated immediately. ‘Sidelined’ was a book I wanted to read because I needed to see a woman succeed in a position that typically garners misogynistic comments, barely-veiled sexual barbs and plain old discrimination because of her gender. To this extent, Suzanne Baltsar tells a pretty decent New Adult story of what it probably takes to make it—and stay standing—in an all boys’ club.
It was primarily characterisation of the unlikeable protagonists that I had a problem with—and a pairing that I simply couldn’t get behind. I found neither Connor Mcguire nor Charlie Gibb blameless in all their self-made conflicts, stubborn and defensive as they were of their own behaviour without wanting to give each other an inch for most of the book. The shift from enemies-to-lovers came too abruptly (I didn’t feel much chemistry there) and I just couldn’t quite get the frenzied push-pull that was somehow called heated foreplay when all I saw was hostile sniping and unkind insults.
To begin with, Charlie wasn’t easy to like, abrasive and pushy (and sometimes lacking total control of her emotions) as she was after her years of fighting male opposition and public scrutiny. In fact, she was one of the most callously insensitive ‘heroines’ I’ve ever come across; making light of Connor’s history in comparison to the way she’d tried to overcome her own insecurities and her constantly eagerness to push the blame onto Connor for their relationship problems made her bloody intolerable.
Yet frankly, I’m also well aware that she might be a protagonist I can see some readers liking for standing her ground as stubbornly as possible while shooting her mouth out at everything that her sensibilities are offended by.
On the other hand, throw in Connor’s emotional shutdowns, the constant blowing hot and cold? I was tired of them by the time I finished the book.
I wish I liked ‘Sidelined’ a lot better—I did come in expecting a rom-com-type story, but was left feeling by the end of it as though I was stuck with a pairing that would easily fall apart when the next big obstacle was thrown their way.
two-stars

Desperate Girls by Laura Griffin

Desperate Girls by Laura GriffinDesperate Girls by Laura Griffin
Series: Wolfe Security #1
Published by Gallery Books on 7th August 2018
Pages: 368
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four-stars

Defense attorney Brynn Holloran is right at home among cops, criminals, and tough-as-nails prosecutors. With her sharp wit and pointed words, she has a tendency to intimidate, and she likes it that way. She’s a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom, but in her personal life, she’s a mess.

When a vicious murderer she once helped prosecute resurfaces and starts a killing spree to wipeout those who put him behind bars, one thing becomes clear: Brynn needs to run for her life.

With no help from the police, Brynn is forced to take matters into her own hands, turning to a private security firm for protection. But when Brynn defies advice and gets involved in the investigation, even the former Secret Service agent assigned to protect her may not be able to keep her safe. With every new clue she discovers, Brynn is pulled back into the vortex of a disturbing case from her past.

As the clock ticks down on a manhunt, Brynn’s desperate search for the truth unearths long-buried secrets and reignites a killer’s fury.

‘Desperate Girls’ isn’t a title I’d immediately associated with the blurb of the story and it became quite clear from the onset that the story is so much more than the rather irrelevant-sounding title. As a sort-of offshoot of Laura Griffin’s Tracers series, I was eager nonetheless to take a closer look into Liam Wolfe’s Security company staffed by supersized heroes and the different kind of romantic suspense revolving around security that Griffin was going to write.

The stoic bodyguard who eventually falls for his principal when they are paired up—typically reluctantly on the latter’s part—as a threat escalates isn’t a new idea, but Griffin’s take on it is a unique, intriguing one, going further than the usual bodyguard-type romance. The standout as always, is Griffin’s writing, her ability to juggle so many elements at once while revealing the intricate details about the security business that simply go beyond shadowing a principal. The complexity of the police case, the red-herrings, solid protagonists and the well-researched and fantastic writing made ‘Desperate Girls’ an entertaining read, even though my rather shallow way of measuring this had partially to do with the amount of sleep I had the past few nights at night as I got lost in Griffin’s writing.

My only gripes were the few TSTL moments early on, the courtroom drama that proved a bit of a lull (I was more caught up in the danger of a psychopathic, escaped convict and the slow, amping up of the action) and the final plot-twist feeling like a last-gasp attempt at drama that proved to be downers for me. I did feel that characterisation suffered a little under the hyper-focus on the court case and the overall suspense but these however, weighed against how much I enjoyed the developing action nonetheless, probably seem somewhat churlish to include. Still, the pulse-pounding moments, all leading up to the action-movie-type ending (complete with the exotic location) seemed to be over too soon, leaving me eager for the next book in this promising series and its fresh, new cast of characters.

four-stars

Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren

Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina LaurenJosh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren
Published by Gallery Books on 4th September 2018
Pages: 320
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two-stars

Hazel Camille Bradford knows she’s a lot to take—and frankly, most men aren’t up to the challenge. If her army of pets and thrill for the absurd don’t send them running, her lack of filter means she’ll say exactly the wrong thing in a delicate moment. Their loss. She’s a good soul in search of honest fun.

Josh Im has known Hazel since college, where her zany playfulness proved completely incompatible with his mellow restraint. From the first night they met—when she gracelessly threw up on his shoes—to when she sent him an unintelligible email while in a post-surgical haze, Josh has always thought of Hazel more as a spectacle than a peer. But now, ten years later, after a cheating girlfriend has turned his life upside down, going out with Hazel is a breath of fresh air.

Not that Josh and Hazel date. At least, not each other. Because setting each other up on progressively terrible double blind dates means there’s nothing between them...right?

Josh and Hazel are apparently undateable together—that much power-writing duo Christina Lauren wants to bring across. But the irony is that they are never better matched despite their opposite ways, as the story trundles on. Both go on blind double dates (mostly disasters), get on as good friends (loads of banter and nonsense talk), then finally realise that they do actually belong together.

After having quite a good time with a few of this duo’s books, jumping into Lauren’s ‘Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating’ was something I eagerly did…that is, until the very first chapter caught me out with the antics of a female protagonist I had a bad feeling about.

There’s no other way for me to say this, but I simply found Hazel cringe-worthy. At least, there’s the part where the adorable, bumbling fool kind of woman would probably find purchase with many readers because it’s so obvious how flawed she is. Unfortunately, she simply read like a protagonist who couldn’t grow up and stayed that way so as to become as a plot device mirroring the loud, clueless millennial—as reported about with derision in the newspapers these days—who stumbles over everything and says whatever her mouth decides to say without engaging her brain.

But unlike Bridget Jones, she appears fully formed, owns her quirks, and pretty much heads the movement for how women should be themselves (and proud of it for going through men, not wanting commitment) without changing for anyone…which is a good thing right?

Um.

For me, it was too much, too hard, too affected because it felt like the authors were trying too hard to make her the kind of woman who’s just like a commitment-phobic male protagonist unable to hold a relationship. Written as larger than life because it’s fiction and drawn up so deliberately like a character in a sitcom or as a mirror of this kind of male hero, Hazel simply made me sigh in resignation and not in a good way.

Unlike the usual style of Lauren’s that compelled me to read what this writing duo has done so far—the first person narrative, the huge touch of the insane in this romcom—this book started as a rough ride for me, oddly so because of its very lighthearted feel that just didn’t leave me clutching my sides in laughter. It did get somewhat better as Josh and Hazel find their groove together first as good friends, but I couldn’t really hold an interest in a book where the protagonists obliquely get closer together while dating others.

In short, it’s a story that will appeal to many, but it isn’t one for me.

two-stars