Tag: Made my chest ache

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

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

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

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

Bringing Down The Duke by Evie Dunmore

Bringing Down The Duke by Evie DunmoreBringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore
Series: A League of Extraordinary Women, #1
Published by Berkley on 3rd September 2019
Pages: 320
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three-half-stars

England, 1879. Annabelle Archer, the brilliant but destitute daughter of a country vicar, has earned herself a place among the first cohort of female students at the renowned University of Oxford. In return for her scholarship, she must support the rising women's suffrage movement. Her charge: recruit men of influence to champion their cause. Her target: Sebastian Devereux, the cold and calculating Duke of Montgomery who steers Britain's politics at the Queen's command. Her challenge: not to give in to the powerful attraction she can't deny for the man who opposes everything she stands for.

Sebastian is appalled to find a suffragist squad has infiltrated his ducal home, but the real threat is his impossible feelings for green-eyed beauty Annabelle. He is looking for a wife of equal standing to secure the legacy he has worked so hard to rebuild, not an outspoken commoner who could never be his duchess. But he wouldn't be the greatest strategist of the Kingdom if he couldn't claim this alluring bluestocking without the promise of a ring...or could he?

Locked in a battle with rising passion and a will matching her own, Annabelle will learn just what it takes to topple a duke....

Reading about fictional, historical women ahead of their time should well resonate with those living in this century, as far removed as we are from them, simply because the issue of equality among the sexes is still a highly contested one despite the leaps we’ve made.

Despite the levity of the cover, Evie Dunmore’s debut historical is rather compelling, with all the peaks and troughs of the historical romances that I turn to from time to time. There’s some sensitivity to the social and cultural constraints of the time and Dunmore shows that awareness in her prose and her protagonists’ behaviour—where they should step or not—while piling on the rising heat between a vicar’s daughter studying at Oxford and a blue-blooded, pedigreed duke who has the ear of the Queen.

Anchoring her story straight in the middle of a time where bluestockinged women were petitioning for their right to vote—a fundamental right so many take for granted these days—in Victorian England is sly and smart, as Dunmore weaves the politics of the day quite deftly with ideas of social standing, fidelity and the transactional nature of marriage in two protagonists who lie on the opposite ends of the ladder.

The slow burn between Annabelle Archer and Sebastian Montgomery is a believable one, more so because Dunmore writes Annabelle as a character who’s easily empathised with: as one who wants more, who yearns to bridge the chasm that gapes between her and her duke, but can’t. My only let-down was her own hand-wringing, her lack of conviction and her dismally cowardly behaviour towards the end in a supposedly self-sacrificing cruel move—cruel to be kind so to speak, and a stupid action—where it was left all to Sebastian to do the hard work and climb the mountain while she did nothing to fight for what she really wanted. Ironic, considering the passion she had for the suffragist movement.

If I thought Sebastian impenetrable and difficult to grasp, Dunmore’s rushed stripping away of his defences towards the end of the book made him a different romantic protagonist I wanted to get behind—one who almost deserved better than what Annabelle did to him.

These grumbles aside, Dunmore’s rather impressive debut is making me sit up and take note. It’s well-written, well thought-out and engaging. For someone with hands and feet firmly in contemporary romance, this is quite a feat.

three-half-stars

Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex

Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth EssexAlmost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex
Series: The Reckless Brides, #1
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on 31st July 2012
Pages: 353
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four-stars

A Lady in Disguise
For generations, the Kents have served proudly with the British Royal Navy. So when her younger brother refuses to report for duty, Sally Kent slips into a uniform and takes his place—at least until he comes to his senses. Boldly climbing aboard the Audacious, Sally is as able-bodied as any sailor there. But one man is making her feel tantalizingly aware of the full-bodied woman beneath her navy blues…

A Man Overboard
Dedicated to his ship, sworn to his duty—and distractingly gorgeous—Lieutenant David Colyear sees through Sally’s charade, and he’s furious. But he must admit she’s the best midshipman on board—and a woman who tempts him like no other. With his own secrets to hide and his career at stake, Col agrees to keep her on. But can the passion they hide survive the perils of a battle at sea? Soon, their love and devotion will be put to the test…

‘Almost a Scandal’ was an automatic read because it’s got those gender-bending qualities that I love, or at least it’s has a Mulan-esque sheen of a woman dressing as a man to in a male-dominated field that somehow always pulls me in.

Yet strangely, Elizabeth Essex’s writing, so focused on Regency-period British naval supremacy, shines precisely not quite in the wonder of cross-dressing or gender relations, but in this, more so particularly if you’re interested in the intricacies of bringing a warship ship out and engaging in battle, though the sheer detail of every movement, every activity done on board could be tedious if you’re in it more for the romance itself than the setting. It’s well-researched, a little jolly for the tough conditions of war, perhaps, but delivers a breath of fresh sea-air.

Still, amidst the drama of the high seas, Sally Kent and Colyear’s relationship is one forged out of family history, hard-earned respect, battle-worn lines and sexual tension bursting at the seams. A slow burn, the many smouldering looks between them and the inevitable sense of mounting passion kept me engrossed and jittery, more so because Essex’s protagonists are generally likeable and never exactly fall over the rail in a fit of histrionics.

A curious mix of naïveté and a highly-developed sense of justice, Sally Kent is as capable, or perhaps even more so than quite a few men on the Audacious, while Col—intense, controlled, so dedicated and so brilliant until Sally unravels him—feels like the brooding, swoonworthy-type who oddly enough, generally lacks the off-putting, prickish vibe of the male protagonists in more traditional historical romances. It was no hardship to root for this pairing, maybe because it was easy to like them as individuals first.

But perhaps what Essex has done towards the end in not short-changing the reader into an abrupt conclusion but one that’s painfully drawn out to an ending that’s well-deserved is what really makes ‘Almost a Scandal’ a very memorable foray into a historical romance.

four-stars