Thursday, December 2, 2021

Emma Kaye - Time for Love

Alexandra Turner will do anything to save her twin sister. Even when she's transported back in time to Regency England. Rescuing her sister and finding her way back to her own time will take all her concentration. Falling in love is not an option.
With the death of his brother, Nicholas Somerville became the ninth Marquess of Oakleigh and must return to England to take his place in society. Part of his responsibility will be to find a wife. It never occurs to him he might actually discover a woman he could love--until he meets Alex on his voyage home.
Can Alex and Nicholas find a way to bridge the gap of time and circumstance? Can they overcome their fears to realize that true love transcends time? Or will a dark secret from Alex's past rear up to separate them forever?

Comment: Another book which had been in the pile for a long time and only now did I finally start it. Unfortunately, it didn't end up being as great as I would have liked.

In this story we meet heroine Alexandra Turner, she is going on about her life, trying to get the contact of a woman who she believes could be her sister. Alexandra doesn't have memories of her childhood, but certain clues led her to believe she could have a twin sister and just as she is contacted by someone claiming to be her, she looses contact again. Then, her supposed sister's employer contacts her, tells her a weird story about time travel and Alexandra takes this as a possibility and decides to travel back in time in order to help her, and this way they might finally be reunited. Of course, Alexandra didn't count on meeting an impossible man who makes her doubt if getting back to the "present" is such a great idea...

Yes, it's a fact what I wrote above just confused me as much as any who haven't read this book, and I did. I must confess the biggest disappointment in this book is how badly executed it was - in my opinion. I've also seen some reviews where the expression "well developed plot" comes up but honestly, I just can't understand how this could be.

When I was a teenager I started to notice those Mills and Boon and Harlequin books on supermarkets (back in early 00s we could buy them there) and after reading one or two, the romance world really became broader. I also was influenced by them to write what I like to call short stories of my own, imagining these crazy romance ideas...but you see, the problem were not the ideas, but the fact I could not connect them properly, could not make them feel they were part of the same plot. That is precisely the feeling I got while reading this book, the author has thought of so many things, put them all in this story but the end result feels like a uneven patchwork and not a solid novel.

I became disappointed as soon as the story begins. Alexandra just embarks on unlikely situations without any kind of knowledge of what she's doing, whom she is meeting, there's no explanation for anything, not even her personality is well developed and she just takes for granted she has to act and help her sister - someone she has never met! I wondered, wouldn't one just call the police with such a lack of information? No, Alexandra just goes and following an almost comical string of coincidences, somehow discovers her sister has time traveled.

From this on, it was just.... I kept reading, not in hopes of seeing if it would get better (I figured it wouldn't) but to see where the author would go with all these ideas. Well, one thing is for certain, the author has a lot of imagination and there were a few passages I think were well placed but the overall effect was, sadly, not one I found was polished enough. It looked as if each new idea had to fit that role because it was what one would think right away, not because it had any kind of sequence or continuity.

So, summarizing, let's see... After Alexandra goes through the portal (apparently they exist in specific spots and people could use it but on "our" side the belief is that it could lead to too many people finding them and causing problems, so they are sort of guarded by a private company as much as I gathered) she has to pretend to be a man on a ship which will travel to England and its captain is a man who recently got a title, of course they hit it off but the captain is confused and after he discovers Alex is a woman he is fascinated because she doesn't even care about his scars (of course). In England her sister's family welcomes her, although she starts as the maid but then they all learn Alex and her sister Charlotte were kidnapped as children and take to the "present time"... I could carry on, but you get the idea... there's a lot going on and practically none of it has a well done structure to give it aim or reason.

Anyone used to reading romance novels would recognize several clichés and while I don't mind these, it's certainly better when they prove to be necessary. That is why they are clichés, because they usually work and fit plots. To me, there was no cohesion in how things happened, in why they were playing out that way and it felt as if the author had no logic for several situations, they were just... added to what was going on. I won't even start on the very poor characterization of every character we see.

Sadly, this didn't work out for me. It just lacks structure, editing, a plan.... I will not read the sequel, the sister's story for I can only imagine it would be the same thing again, only with a different POV.
Grade: 2/10

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Rachel Reid - Common Goal

Veteran goaltender Eric Bennett has faced down some of the toughest shooters on the ice, but nothing prepared him for his latest challenge—life after hockey. It’s time to make some big changes, starting with finally dating men for the first time.
Graduate student Kyle Swift moved to New York nursing a broken heart. He’d sworn to find someone his own age to crush on (for once). Until he meets a gorgeous, distinguished silver fox hockey player. Despite their intense physical attraction, Kyle has no intention of getting emotionally involved. He’ll teach Eric a few tricks, have some mutually consensual fun, then walk away.
Eric is more than happy to learn anything Kyle brings to the table. And Kyle never expected their friends-with-benefits arrangement to leave him wanting more. Happily-ever-after might be staring them in the face, but it won’t happen if they’re too stubborn to come clean about their feelings.
Everything they both want is within reach… They just have to be brave enough to grab it. 

Comment: This is the 4th installment in the Game Changers series, featuring hockey players who are gay or bi and who enter gay relationships, this changing the game of acceptance of gay athletes in sports. The books are more focused on romance than society rules, though.

In this story we follow Eric Bennet, a veteran goal keeper who is about to be 41 and he certainly feels his good years are gone. He plans on retiring by the end of the current season and, perhaps, going with the new flow of some players now being openly gay, he will try to explore his bisexuality with men. He was married and was faithful to his wife but he also feels attracted to men and wants to see where this side of him will take him... and that is how Kyle enters the picture. 
Kyle works at Kingfisher, a gay bar Eric's fellow player Scott now attends frequently. Kyle is friends with Kip, Scott's fiancé and that is how Eric starts talking to him and, by confessing his bisexuality, Kyle doesn't mind giving him a few tips and advice on dating men. However, what starts as just some flirting and easy friendship soon evolves to something else, which neither truly recognizes at first... but as their feelings deepen, can they notice they are actually perfect for each other?

Again, the author plays on the emotions here with characters we can like and want to see happy. The stories aren't plain nor superficial but there's a certain simplicity to how things are played out that somehow makes reading very easy.

In this story a new relationship dynamic is portrayed, that of an older guy with no experience dating men and a younger but more experienced partner who also guides things in terms of intimacy. I'm no expert on relationships and even less on labels but I would say this was a little bit like a very light BDSM kind of scenario in the bedroom. Nothing along BDSM happens, but it's clear Eric, the older character, cedes control to Kyle, the younger one, while they are together in intimate moments. I think it's an interesting way to portray this type of relationship, a sort of mentorship backwards to the traditional, and while I'm not fond of this in books (BDSM types of relationships I mean), I was invested in Eric's happiness enough to not be bothered by it.

I liked Eric a lot. He reminded me a bit of Ryan, the protagonist of the previous installment, in the sense they are both a bit shy and unsure of themselves out of the hockey ring and neither is really comfortable with how to try to be with someone they like. Of course this makes it easier for the reader to feel sympathetic, to want to see them succeed.... in Eric's case, he had been married but he wanted to see if his attraction to men would be any different. It's no surprise that falling in love makes everything different!

I liked Eric and his initial lack of confidence. I liked how he slowly came out of his shell and started to make decisions, started to think about his happiness and the things he wanted to do after retirement. His scenes with his colleagues were endearing and his thoughts on what he was going through really made me root for him and understand his attitude and choices.

Kyle reads as a more cynic character. He didn't have a great experience coming out, he has felt the weight of many past decisions and although he is quite young (25 to Eric's 41) he has reached a level of maturity only disappointments can really force on you. Of course that is was cute to see him fall for Eric, especially because Eric is a sweet man and proves to Kyle not everyone would mistreat them. In fact, the small conflict between them seemed a bit out of hand considering how things had evolved with them until then, but thankfully it was close to the end and nothing complicated had to be solved.

I liked Eric more than Kyle but it was cute to see them together. The age gap was quite a theme throughout the book and I can see how it would make them nervous. I don't mind this trope, after all, age isn't an exclusive synonym of maturity but it certainly makes HEAs easier to accept when we imagine they might together for longer if they have similar ages. Yes, I know it doesn't have to be so, many people die young for instance, but it's just easier to picture.

I also liked seeing secondary characters a lot. Fans of the series will certainly smile like I did when they showed up. Overall, I think the author has created a pretty solid cast and the world building will make it hard to say goodbye to this group. I'm now eager to read the next one!
Grade: 8/10

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Elizabeth Lowell - Too Hot to Handle

When a career-threatening injury forces Tory Wells off the diving platform, she relocates to Arizona for a promised job while she recovers. Ethan Reever takes one look at the "girl" who turns up at his ranch and sends her packing. She's too slender, too city—and far too attractive to work on his ranch. But Tory isn't the type to give up on her dreams, and for the first time in her life those dreams include love.

Comment: One of the elements I like in romance novels is when heroines are trying to make ends' meet and by trying to have a better life, they improve their skills, they become better people, they realize they are worthy of their own self esteem. If, in the process, they fall in love, the better. The fact the heroine in this book was at a difficult moment at first is certainly the reason why it was in my TBR...

Tory is part of a swimming team but she's out of the competition period after an injury and operation. While she's out of work, she needs money and decides to accept a job proposal as cook at a ranch. The problem is that, when she arrives, the person who told her about it isn't there and his brother Ethan, the owner, definitely doesn't want her there and believes she won't do a good job, being so young and apparently not strong enough for had labor. Tory leaves defeated and despite her leg injury, since she doesn't have money, she walks until some teenagers decide to prank her. Of course, Ethan sees this and decides to help her, and that is how they get to realize first impressions aren't always trustworthy.

This book was published in 1986 and it follows the pattern of many other books from those times in terms of plot and language and dynamics. In this case: opposite - almost enemy couple doesn't see eye to eye despite sexual attraction, alpha hero and innocent heroine, purple prose and a strong lack of balance in the relationship. Now, all these things wouldn't matter if the story was balanced but sadly, it was an extreme case of lack of romance and power dynamics.

Saying this, it would seem most tropes would be out dated but it's interesting how some books, despite a sign of their times, still hold on the passage of time. How many books by Nora Roberts and Sandra Brown which, sure, could have some changes to fit nowadays expectations, are still readable and enjoyable even if one can dislike some detail. Overall, many of their stories still work out well in terms of romance. I don't think it was the case here, the differences between the protagonists and the unfairness of their lack of equality are too obvious to ignore.

I think the most glaring element that put me off was how the hero treated the heroine. Ok, perhaps still following body ripper trends and the idea alpha heroes always behave this way but the love of the heroine wins him over could be appealing to many, but honestly, Ethan treated Tory as an object, as if it was her fault he was physically attracted to her. He thinks she too young, too silly, too innocent, too weak, too much of a temptation and proceeds to treat her so. Tory is a classical heroine needing "rescue" in the sense she is alone, she has very little connections and support and he is ready to be a mentor/lover for her.

Their scenes together are filled with purple prose and it can get a bit nauseous to read about how they think of one another, especially the power Tory has on Ethan and that he is just a man, he can't control his reactions, although she isn't doing anything to seduce him. Juts by breathing, she is a temptress.... it really makes their relationship border on the experienced lover faulting the heroine for being who she is, making her believe he "can't help it" while blaming her and this results in a dynamic that feels very slimy. It's incredible how much of his thoughts are only about sex when it concerns Tory, although he is a "man of the world" and knows what he wants.

It's too bad because I truly wanted to read about this couple. I would love to read about Tory falling in love with the ranch, of finding her cooking skills something to be proud of, something to make her feel worthy of a life in the countryside, of being able to evolve from just someone under appreciated at the swimming team, with no possibility to come back because of her leg, but then she finds a new path. That journey would also have a strong man who might feel he wasn't good for her or that would feel she wouldn't be able to preserve but reality and life would prove otherwise. This is what I would have wanted to read and it was sad the author (perhaps) preferred the trend of the time.

I wonder if she wrote this with willingness, or if she felt this wasn't something she liked writing... I think the saddest part is that it was a wasted opportunity. It was hard not to feel berated in the place of the heroine while reading this but to be fair, the whole story feels a bit weak, lacking solid structure, proper development, a more organized and stronger plot... a little like old fashioned bodice rippers and books from Mills and Boon where there was a page limit. Anyway, what can I say... one less in the pile. Next.
Grade: 2/10

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Courtney Milan - Proof by Seduction

She was his last chance for a future of happiness...
A gifted fortune-teller from a humble background, Jenny can make even the most sophisticated skeptic believe her predictions simply by batting her smoky eyelashes. Until she meets her match in Gareth Carhart, the Marquess of Blakely, a sworn bachelor and scientist.
Broodingly handsome, Gareth is scandalized to discover his cousin has fallen under the spell of "Madame Esmerelda," and vows to prove Jenny a fraud. But his unexpected attraction to the fiery enchantress defies logic. Jenny disrupts every facet of Gareth's calculated plan--until he can't decide whether to seduce her or ruin her. Now, as they engage in a passionate battle of wills, two lonely souls must choose between everything they know...and the boundless possibilities of love.

Comment: I had this book by Courtney Milan to read for a while. I have read other books by her in the past and enjoyed most of them, which is why I was also curious about the books I hand't read yet.

In this story, apparently the first or one of the first books written and published by the author, we meet heroine Jenny who works as the clairvoyant Mrs Esmeralda and after such a disappointing life, she mostly feels no worries about taking people's money to make ends' meet. For the past years, this has been her livelihood but lately, she has been feeling a little guilty for taking one of her client's money. Ned Carhart approached at a very low moment in his life and more than wanting his money, she felt she was being a friend, who could help him. However, two years passed and now his cousin, the marquess of Blakely, much more set on logic and science, wants to prove her wrong and cease her influence on Ned. The problem is that Jenny doesn't mind a challenge and she wants to gain the upper hand on a lord. What neither counted on was how much proximity could cause them to develop feelings for one another...

This story has all the ingredients to make it a good one, I really tend to like the idea of heroines in rough moments in their lives getting better chances of improving their odds of becoming stronger, happier... I think this was a great story to see an example of this, but to be fair, I really think this is one of those books by the author where the analysis of things took up a lot of attention, in detriment of the romantic aspects of the main couple's relationship.

I say this because mrs Milan is know for her depth of characterization and by how much her characters think and are logical, a little bit an extension of the author herself, with her wit and more scientific mind. I'd say the issue is that, on the other side of this, we have too much of an analytic approach, which can sound a bit too specific and "brainy" and that removes some of the fun out of things. Besides, if this takes a long part of the novel, then when the characters change their minds or start acting differently because they interact with someone different, it might sound too odd. Well, at least, I felt that in this case.

Gareth, the hero, is described as someone who is practical, serious about his duties as a marquess and we learn he was taught from a young age to not give in to silliness and fun because he is the embodiment of his title. I can see how he would feel he had a certain posture to uphold. Of course, Jenny being someone without the same social constraints because she was not part of the aristocracy, means we would have a great contrast and indeed, there are some cute scenes in the book where we see how opposed they are. I especially liked and laughed at the scene Gareth sings in public...

But there's never the sense we are losing track of the proper issues at hand here: society works a certain way and people are expected to play roles, to not catch the attention of others for judgment is harsh. Jenny has felt it in a way and she has had bad experiences so there is always this notion women, in particular, aren't seen as equals and Jenny clearly wants to be seen as equal by Gareth. I found the conflicts and discussions they shared quite interesting and realistic but in terms of romance....

The best part of the romance, for me, was actually the end. I suppose it's no surprise this story ends as well as one could expect but the road there felt so complicated for them, both personally and in how society would see it, that when they did, I feel I wasn't convinced enough their love was as solid as the author intends it to look. I get the idea but there's some looseness of the tone of the story, some more daily life scenes missing from their interactions, to make it sound they could match at all levels. I was glad they found a HEA but the journey wasn't always as captivating as I might have preferred.

There are some secondary issues being dealt here to, which I liked, namely in the character of Ned, who is obviously facing depression. I suppose this will be alluded further in his own book but I'm still debating if the curiosity over hoe his HEA might develop is enough to make me want to go through what I imagine will be more analysis and picking on (deserving) serious matters without enough to balance this out. I like the vibe of the books but they aren't always as balanced as they could. To me, at least.
Grade: 6/10

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Ashlee Mallory - Her Backup Boyfriend

Straight-laced lawyer Kate Matthews always plays by the rules. But when her ex gets engaged and a big promotion is on the line at work, she blurts out that she has a new boyfriend. And now that she's proved she “has a life” outside of work, everything is perfect. Except for one teeny little detail―there is no boyfriend. And now Kate's liable for her little white lie...
Dominic Sorensen is hot, charming, and very definitely not Kate's type. But not only does Dominic want to help Kate renovate her home, he's also willing to play “boyfriend.” All he wants in return is a little pro bono work for his sister. Now instead of Mr. Right, Kate has a delectable Mr. Fix-It-Right―and some unbelievable sexual chemistry. And if falling for Dominic is a breach of contract, Kate is guilty as charged...

Comment: I got interested in this book after seeing it recommended somewhere if one would want to read a story containing "x" but I really can't remember anymore which specific reason that was. I suppose now it must have been the fact the heroine felt she was alone in the world and the hero's family was supposed to be welcoming. I tend to enjoy these types of plots.

In this story we meet Kate Matthews, a young lawyer who is almost at the point of getting a partnership, something she feels will be the validation of all her hard work and determination, even though she didn't have a family and connections to back her up. However, the owners are a little traditional and feel she isn't mingling enough and after she blurts she has a boyfriend, of course they expect her to bring him to the company's winter retreat...
Dominic is her neighbors' nephew and he seems to understand about construction, which Kate has some need of, since her fixer up house isn't no where near ready. While talking, she also learns his sister needs legal advice after a divorce so they agree he will be her boyfriend while she will help his sister. The plan was for them to simply be partners in their mutual deceptions but apparently all this time together makes them see each other quite differently...

At first sight, this book has all the bones for a good story. There were several elements I liked in the book, especially the ones related to the heroine's stage in life and how that affects her goals, her thoughts... the story seems to have all the necessary details for it to work perfectly but, nevertheless, I still found the final effect to be a bit bland and I kind of wish some things had been done better.

Kate is a hardworking woman who feels she will prove her worth and ability by doing everything she can to be successful, as a way to prove to herself that despite not having close family, only grandmother, nor social connections that those in her circle of acquaintances at work have, she is still a good employee and an asset to the firm she works at. In fact, she is close to be promoted but the big case she has in hand proves to be a little more ethically challenging than she anticipated.

At the same time, she becomes friends with a man who has a loving and supportive family, very much opposed to her own experience and the contrast between their lives and the demands at work will be the big obstacles to solve in this book. I found all the elements to be interesting, but the execution was a little slow and the way the protagonists' personalities were developed not very exciting. Kate is  the type of character that embodies many of the things I like in heroines but something about her just made the story feel boring sometimes.

I can't exactly pinpoint what, but Id say the romance between her and Dominic was too bland. I'm not talking about the fact we don't see graphic sex scenes, it all fades to black, but they don't interact enough in a way I'd say is strong on the chemistry and sexual connection for the full impact of their feelings later on to be that big to the point of convincing me they are in love. I'm told that and we do see them sharing scenes and conversations but they just lack a powerful connection. I think the author could have written things differently, perhaps wording things differently in some moments.

The obstacles are eventually solved, Kate has her eureka moment when it comes to her self validation and we are aware they will be a happy couple, with Dominic's family a solid support. But these things are inferred, not really constructed because the focus was in other elements. I don't mind it but then, the romance should have been done in another way too, to make it more believable. It was very good they were respectful of one another but then everything between them felt robotic, too much of a plan and I think there's a lack of spontaneity and emotion in their moments together.

All details considered, this was an average story, slightly predictable, readable yes, but in my opinion could have been stronger at all levels.
Grade: 6/10

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Kerrigan Byrne - The Highwayman

Dorian Blackwell, the Blackheart of Ben More, is a ruthless villain. Scarred and hard-hearted, Dorian is one of London’s wealthiest, most influential men who will stop at nothing to wreak vengeance on those who’ve wronged him…and will fight to the death to seize what he wants. The lovely, still innocent widow Farah Leigh Mackenzie is no exception—and soon Dorian whisks the beautiful lass away to his sanctuary in the wild Highlands…
But Farah is no one’s puppet. She possesses a powerful secret—one that threatens her very life. When being held captive by Dorian proves to be the only way to keep Farah safe from those who would see her dead, Dorian makes Farah a scandalous proposition: marry him for protection in exchange for using her secret to help him exact revenge on his enemies. But what the Blackheart of Ben More never could have imagined is that Farah has terms of her own, igniting a tempestuous desire that consumes them both. Could it be that the woman he captured is the only one who can touch the black heart he’d long thought dead?

Comment: I added this book to my TBR back in 2016 for it was included in some reader's lists of the best books of 2015. I know it took me a long time to finally pick it but now I did, I must say it wasn't as wonderful for me as I hoped, even though it's not a bad book.

When this story begins we meet children Dougan and Farah while they console each other at the orphanage they live in. They become friends and decide to love each other, as their families didn't since they left them there. One day, years later, something terrible happens and Dougan is arrested and Farah doesn't know what happens to them so she decides to leave the orphanage and go to London, where she finds herself working for Scotland Yard, trying to find a way to know what happened to Dougan, whom she never forgot. One day, the notable villain Dorian Blackwell kidnaps her and tells her he knew Dougan in prison, that they were part of a group of friends who looked up for one another until Dougan died but he now feels he knows her, so much Dougan talked about her. He comes up with a plan to have revenge on those who harmed him and Farah is key to make that plan happen. But will they discover that the best plans might not be easy to accomplish if love gets in the way...?

This is a story with an interesting premise: someone who wants revenge has amassed wealth and influence and the only step missing is to have access to the aristocracy and then he will be ready to rule over everyone and he will prove his past isn't detriment for being important. He uses the sweet memories of a friend to propel himself and his small group of fellow prisoners to want to believe they will get their lives back. The idea is certainly a good one and besides the execution of it, I also found the friendship between misfits to be a positive aspect.

This means I could understand the hero's motivation for his attitudes and could feel empathy for him at times. It was also interesting and somewhat new to see a hero who suffered a sort of PTSD due to his time in prison and one effect was how abhorrent all physical touch was for him. This made for certainly complicated matters when it came to his relationship with the heroine but, this also being a romance novel, of course this issue gets solved at some point.

The heroine was likable and surprisingly receptive of the new information she kept learning throughout the book, being quite understanding and nice about things that might not be well seen otherwise, and although this made it easy for us to have a sunnier opposition to the hero's darkness, it also made me think they were too obviously a match. I think it's perceived from the start where this would go in terms of how well suited they were as a couple, but it made things too convenient at times, as if the bother to create a relationship wouldn't be even necessary. I kind of wish there would be more to the heroine.

The romance didn't convince me. Sure, I'm glad they found happiness and the epilogue is sweet and did make me wonder how the following stories might go, but the dynamics between the protagonists weren't enough for me. Plus, considering the kind of trauma they both suffered, I think the intimacy they shared had moments that seemed too....focused on the sexy aspects. I don't know, but I would have preferred more development in their emotional state before they were able to commit to each other. There does seem to exist quite a gap between who they are during the book and what we see in the epilogue.

I think the idea of this book is interesting but I'm not certain the execution was the best. I see why many have liked reading this and I agree some chapters were engrossing to read... but others weren't as captivating and I conclude I feel pretty meh about the whole thing.
Grade: 6/10

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Hailey turner - In the Shadows

Staff Sergeant Alexei Dvorkin doesn’t trust easily, and he most certainly doesn’t trust spies. He’ll work with them if ordered to, but that doesn’t mean he has to like it. Except Agent Sean Delaney is proving to be the exception to the rule. There’s something about Sean that gets under Alexei’s skin and won’t let go. Alexei would be lying if he said he wasn’t interested in what lay beneath the agent’s mask. When they’re assigned together for a mission, Alexei vows to keep Sean safe all while trying to coax the hot agent into his bed.
Agent Sean Delaney has spent his entire adult life living a lie for his country. When the MDF tasks him with finding evidence of criminal wrong-doing against the owner of a private military company, Sean knows exactly how to play the game to get what he wants. He just doesn’t know how to handle Alexei’s advances, nor his own attraction to the younger soldier. Being a spy is lonely work, and Sean knows he should keep his distance, but saying no to Alexei is impossible from the moment they first kiss.
When the mission takes a turn for the worse, the only thing left to do is run. In the wake of betrayal, and in the path of danger, can their fragile trust survive the battle?

Comment: This is the 3rd installment in the Metahuman series. Again, a mix of military procedures and mission details along with the development of the romance between two of the team's members.

Sean Delaney has been a CIA agent since he entered college and he has had to lie to his family since then, as well. He feels his work is worthy and that is often what makes it endurable to lie and be alone far too much. Now that he is paired with a team of methahumans, since he is one himself, he sees what being in a team really means and he doesn't feel as lonely. He gets especially close to Alexei, someone he can see becoming a friend and, perhaps, even something more than that...However, problems from his past CIA missions and the aftermath of a recent mission with the metahuman team somehow get mixed up and the team now faces a new dangerous enemy. Will they be able to avoid further complications and save the day?

In this story, which closely follows the events from the previous book - meaning this is yet another series better read in order - the team is resting up while Sean, who helped in the previous mission, is back to duty when something goes wrong he needs to call up for help. By doing so, the rest of the alpha team becomes involved too, some more than others, in order to prevent bigger problems, but things don't go as well as they hoped and somehow Sean and Alexei pretend to be very close while trying to dig up information on someone.

This is the starting point for a new mission which changes a lot of what had been established for most characters. The team is close but they still have families and individual/personal issues and that might affect their availability to a mission. For instance, Jamie is now helping his father's campaign but he certainly prefers to avoid if he can say he has work stuff to do. Anyway, this time the focus is clearly on Sean and Alexei, although the others play their roles as expected and I can say it's a nice feeling to know the others aren't there just because.

This series has plenty of action scenes and chapters focused on missions and weapons and things that I, personally, don't feel as interested in, but the author always mixes this up with personal details related to the characters and it makes what I would usually skim into something more or less appealing and quick to read. There's a lot to be said about eye for detail here and I can imagine the lists and papers on the author's desk as she connects things and makes them necessary to make the plot points feel smooth.

The mission we see being developed here has some ups and downs but for the most part, it feels as if they know what they'redoing, especially if one considers the fact they try to be fair, they try to enforce justice and protect innocents. Still, as one must imagine, for me the fun part and most captivating element in the book is the romance. True, this might not be the focus but it still plays a heavy part in the books and I surely liked Sean and Alexei a lot more than I did Kyle and Jamie from the other two books.

Now, I have to say all characters feel important but the ones in relationships obviously have a bit more attention on them. Jamie and Kyle were fun to watch but their intimacy scenes are not what I prefer to read about, so the first two books were good for me more due to the overall effect of the mix romance/world building. In this one I really liked to know Sean and Alexei better and have a better glimpse of how their personalities are.

I also liked their romantic relationship a lot more than I did the other couple's. The dynamics between these two are more appealing to me, their personalities and attitude one I like seeing developed more as well and the intimacy more fun and cute to watch. I would say they make a cute couple, they have serious issues that are heavy on their hearts but they are more carefree in general and it's easier for them to be a couple. I'm hoping we have more scenes with them in the future.

All in all, a good book, solid plot and better romance. I still think some details could have been better done (I'm a sucker for romance, therefore more romantic moments, perhaps even more scenes with the whole team or where we would get to know the other team members' personalities and private lives even more...) but overall, I had a great time and will certainly read the next book.
Grade: 8/10

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Harmony Verna - Beneath the Apple Leaves

In 1914, Andrew Houghton s family is one of hundreds eking out an existence in the coal mines of southwestern Pennsylvania. Though he longs to be a veterinarian, he s fated for a life underground, picking rock alongside his father.
That destiny changes when his aunt, Eveline Kiser, arranges for her husband to secure Andrew an apprenticeship on the railroad. Wilhelm Kiser, a German immigrant, has found his American dream in Pittsburgh, with a well-paying job as a brakeman, and a secure pension. But on Andrew s first week, an incident goes tragically wrong, leaving him severely injured, his dreams shattered. Wracked with guilt, Wilhelm finally agrees to his wife s pleas to leave Pittsburgh s smog behind. With Andrew in tow, they swap their three-story row house for a rough-and-tumble farm.
Life in rural Pennsylvania is not as idyllic as Eveline imagined. The soil is slow to yield and their farmhouse is in disrepair. But there is one piece of beauty in this rugged land. Lily Morton is quick-witted and tough on the outside, but bears her own secret scars inside. Andrew s bond with her will help steer them through all the challenges to come, even as anti-German sentiment spreads across America with the outbreak of World War I.
Beneath the Apple Leaves is a vivid, deeply moving portrait of family its hardships, triumphs, and passions and a powerfully authentic evocation of life on the land and the hearts that sustain it.

Comment: I saw this book was on sale earlier this year and the blurb seemed interesting enough, I imagined one of those stories where the characters face a lot of adversity but are "rewarded" at the end with happiness and success. Sadly for me, this was anything but a happy read.

In this book we follow Andrew Haughton, a young man whose dreams are simple: he wants to work with animals, perhaps becoming a veterinarian. However, life in the 1910s is very hard and his father works in a coal mine, which means any savings aren't easy to obtain, especially if his father has demanded Andrews never accepts working in the mine. Tragedy happens, however and Andrew and his mother must leave the home they have known but while he is sent to his aunt, his mother decides to leave for her Dutch homeland. Andrew is left with family but things don't go any easier there and, once again, they all need to leave, this time to a farm, but when they arrive they realize a lot of work is necessary to put things into order. Will they be able to overcome all the difficulties coming their way?

I feel like sighing. Looking at the cover, looking at the blurb I confess I imagined a very different story than the one that actually was written. And I certainly thought apples might have a bigger role in the story,perhaps because they would become important for the family's livelihood... Unfortunately, I think the bones of the story weren't used the best way.

For me, the biggest issue is how much pain and hopelessness the characters face. It seemed only bad things were happening to them all, and I assume the idea was how sorrow and heartbreak would help shape one's values and attitudes, so the family could reach happiness and union by working together, by being kind and helpful, so that their journey through so much hardship would be rewarded. At least, I saw this as being the possible goal here. However, each main character had something bad happening to them and I feel it was only for shock factor.

Were the bad things to have a positive outcome sooner, I think the character's evolution would have seemed to be better structured but in my opinion they only seemed to have strength by going through terrible things. Honestly, I think it led nowhere because by the end the characters were in the same place, emotionally and economically speaking, as they were in the beginning, only they felt like one or two events could help them see the future with brightness. I mean... this is to be expected, I suppose, but certainly not enough to turn this story around, in terms of how much they "learned".

At some point I felt like giving up but kept going, in the hopes that the characters would become wiser or more knowledgeable about the"enemy" sooner, but the bad things kept coming. As if there was no positive details in their lives to make hardship bearable... in turn, my enjoyment was also practically not even bearable because it really felt the story would go nowhere. 

As I've said, I hoped the story would lead the characters to a farm and that despite worries and problems, they would slowly get a better life, and so on but this didn't happen. Even the allusion to characters' dreams went nowhere because they could barely make ends meet and there would be another obstacle after the last one, to overcome.     

The WWI theme, the issue of racism and prejudice against Germans and people from Europe during a time war was ongoing, the way of life at a time where poverty and difficulties were too hard to avoid were interesting themes and could have provided good food for thought but the repetitiveness and constant hardship just didn't make reading this book a good experience.      
Grade: 3/10                                                                      

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Robert Galbraith - Troubled Blood

Private Detective Cormoran Strike is visiting his family in Cornwall when he is approached by a woman asking for help finding her mother, Margot Bamborough – who went missing in mysterious circumstances in 1974.
Strike has never tackled a cold case before, let alone one forty years old. But despite the slim chance of success, he is intrigued and takes it on; adding to the long list of cases that he and his partner in the agency, Robin Ellacott, are currently working on. And Robin herself is also juggling a messy divorce and unwanted male attention, as well as battling her own feelings about Strike.
As Strike and Robin investigate Margot’s disappearance, they come up against a fiendishly complex case with leads that include tarot cards, a psychopathic serial killer and witnesses who cannot all be trusted. And they learn that even cases decades old can prove to be deadly . . .

Comment: This is the latest installment in the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith. The book was published last year but I waited for the paperback edition and only now finally got to it. What a ride!

In this book, the main characters are still dealing with the challenges in their personal lives but the detective agency is going very well, so much that Strike and Robin have gotten the help of three investigators. Most cases are pretty predictable but they are part of the job and some even provide interesting situations. However, the main case Strike and Robin investigate in this story is the disappearance of Margot Bamborough in the 1970s for her now adult daughter wants to try to know what happened and gives the agency one year to investigate. The police at the time suspected a serial killer of having abducted her, he is in prison for other murders but is he actually guilty of Margot's death or was he just a convenient player? Strike and Robin go back to basics in this investigation and when the clues are finally put together, who knows what truth come out...

This is a big book, no doubt. My edition has a little more than 1000 pages but, sadly for me, I was also busy with other things so it took me longer to read this, otherwise it probably wouldn't have taken that long... I was enthralled by this plot. I think the author did a wonderful job.

The book is big, yes, and focused on the investigation of Margot's disappearance. But as expected, there's also a lot of time dedicated to Strike and Robin's thoughts, personal lives and dealings with secondary characters. This takes a lot of pages, takes a long time, is incredibly descriptive and long and I can understand why many readers find this annoying, boring, tiring, repetitive, everything is debated to the maximum and their relationship barely advances. While I, too, would love to see them reach common emotional ground sooner, I'm not bothered because, for me, the overall reading experience was outstanding.

It's true the setting up of Robin and Strike's personalities have already happened in a very solid manner: readers by now already understand they are complex and that they will, eventually, be together, but the road is taking a long time. There were moments I wish the author had stressed out this more, so that the scene where they finally admit their feelings comes quicker but...on second thought, I don't mind it because spending time with the characters, following them as they go on their routines, on their work, on their interactions just captivates me and I don't mind all the time this is taking. It's like spending time with friends, people you want to see find true happiness.

As for the case, I won't go into it because I don't want to ruin anyone's possibility of reading this story without spoilers, but I had no idea this would go the way it did - to be fair I'm not a very good guesser of who's done it and such in mysteries - and when the solution came up, when the case seemed to be finally solved, I was amazed at how on earth was it possible that the explanation was that. Of course, by then, all the clues we've spend so many pages on, thinking, connecting, deducting, all feel into place but I would never think it would be like that.

Of course, by then, all clues and hints made sense, as if the solution was in front of us all the time, just like in books from the masters such as Agatha Christie, but something lacked for us to connect the dots. I thought to myself, the amount of planning the author had to do, the work it took to plan and to write down stuff so that everything would make sense in the end... plus with the secondary things, the fact this is a huge book, all could be messy and badly executed but, in my opinion, all worked out very well.

Well, perhaps there are some things that could be improved, some details which could be removed, scenes that don't really mater much in the big scheme...some pacing here and there could have been adjusted... but I was having such a great time reading that those things didn't bother me. The positive aspects, to me, more than compensated for the things I'd change. For me this was a success and now it feels depressing to think it might take a long time for another story to be published...
Grade: 9/10

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

TBR Challenge: Alexis Daria - Take the Lead

Gina Morales wants to win. It’s her fifth season on The Dance Off, a top-rated network TV celebrity dance competition, and she’s never even made it to the finals. When she meets her latest partner, she sees her chance. He's handsome, rippling with muscles, and he stars on the popular Alaskan wilderness reality show Living Wild. With his sexy physique and name recognition, she thinks he’s her ticket to the finals—until she realizes they’re being set up.
Stone Nielson hates Los Angeles, he hates reality TV, and he hates that fact that he had to join the cast of the The Dance Off because of family obligations. He can’t wait to get back to Alaska, but he also can’t deny his growing attraction to his bubbly Puerto Rican dance partner. Neither of them are looking for romantic entanglements, and Stone can’t risk revealing his secrets, but as they heat up the dance floor, it’s only a matter of time until he feels an overwhelming urge to take the lead.
When the tabloids catch on to their developing romance, the spotlight threatens to ruin not just their relationship, but their careers and their shot at the trophy. Gina and Stone will have to decide if their priorities lie with fame, fortune, or the chance at a future together.

Comment: November came as if no one would notice but it's here and once more it's time for the TBR challenge post. This month the theme is "competition" which can be seen as vague but I immediately thought about this book, which features a dancing competition. Choice solved!

In this story, featuring a fictitious dance competition pretty much like the ones seen on TV where dance professionals are paired up with someone who is a celebrity, we follow Gina Morales, a young Latina dancer whose dream is to have her own show or perform on Broadway. She wants this year to be her winning year in The Dance Off but she is surprised the show's production has chosen for her a really good looking guy, which makes her suspect they want them to be the "couple" of the season.
Stone Nielson has his own reality show, along with his whole family, and they live in the woods, "surviving" in Alaska. He accepts the invite to be in The Dance Off because the paycheck is great and his mother has had a costly hip replacement. He figured he would just learn a few dances, have a good time, despite being in the city, which he doesn't care much about, preferring the wilderness of Alaska, but he is paired off with an energetic, nice and attractive partner who he starts to care about.
Can it be these two, going into the show with different reasons and from different backgrounds have enough in common to make it work?

I liked the setup for this book. In fact, that was the main reason why I added it to my TBR and I was eager to see how this would be mixed up with the romance. I liked the book in general but I must say I also expected a better balance between the several aspects dealt with in it and in the end I felt the romance wasn't fully convincing to me. I just can't explain well if it was due to the lack of balance or simply because the falling in love part wasn't credible.

The premise is really interesting and it reminded me of other authors whose plots revolved around movie settings or theater performances and some I really liked. Like those, I also liked how the story was developed here and in particular the eye for detail of the "backstage" possible scenarios. When one watches reality shows it's usually for the dramas or the "real people's experiences" but pretty much everyone by now has to believe the majority of what happens in these shows is planned and staged. Still, I liked the author included glimpses of what happens to make it possible for the show to happen because it did give some veracity to the plot.

I have not watched any dancing competition on TV but it's something popular enough to allow anyone to have an idea. I also liked how a little of the heroine's personality came to live as she was seen planning choreographic moments for the episodes and the competition and practice scenes with her partner. Another interesting thing was the example of how the hero's reality show was based on lies and wrong premises but they had a contract and, again, drama sells. I think the details regarding the setting up of the reality shows was probably the element I found more interesting in this book.

Gina is a great heroine, she is smart, determined and a good person. She doesn't want to give in to stereotypes people have on Latino women while proving her worth as a professional. I applaud her professionalism and her work ethics. I liked her as the heroine of the book and how the story moved along for her. Stone, the hero, is described as quiet but I liked how he tried his best to help Gina and how positive he was in an experience which should be too hard for a shy person. I think it is believable he could overcome this since he was in a reality show of his own.

The romance felt a little disappointing. I liked the part where they fought their attraction, where they tried to keep the focus on their individual goals and then, as a way to help their partner, but as a romantic couple, it felt things were a bit forced. I mean this in the sense, their chemistry didn't feel very natural, only a progression of their dance partnership and proximity because of it. When they were together as a couple, it was nice but I don't think it was that obvious they had to be together. There was so much emphasis on what separated them and what existed to make it too hard for them to be a permanent couple that, along with the lack of balance between writing and romance descriptions, it just felt the end was also a little unlikely and convenient.

There was something missing from this story. I think perhaps a more romantic or well structured romance development would have helped or more nuances to the characters and their actions. Some things felt well thought but not well executed. I'm not certain I'll read the next installment but if I do, it won't be in the near future.
Grade: 6/10

Monday, November 15, 2021

Lorraine Heath - The Earl Takes All

One summer night, Edward Alcott gives in to temptation and kisses Lady Julia Kenney in a dark garden. However, the passion she stirs within him is best left in the shadows as she weds his twin, the Earl of Greyling. But when tragedy strikes, to honor the vow he makes to his dying brother, Edward must pretend to be Greyling until the countess delivers her babe.
After her husband returns from a two-month sojourn, Julia finds him changed. Bolder, more daring, and more wicked—even if he does limit their encounters to kisses. With each passing day, she falls more deeply in love.
For Edward the embers of desire sparked on that long-ago night are quickly rekindled. He yearns to be her husband in truth. But if she discovers his ruse, she will despise him—and English law prevents him from marrying his brother’s widow. Yet he must dare to risk everything and reveal his secrets if he is to truly take all.

Comment: This is the second story in the Hellions of Havisham trilogy and the protagonist is a character who had a not so good reputation in the previous book. Of course, I was curious to see how the author would redeem him and turn him into hero material...

In this second installment, Edward returns home from a journey he was sharing with his brother Albert with the most terrible news...his beloved twin is dead and he promised in his deathbed, to honor his wishes and, thus, he comes back pretending to be Albert until his sister-in-lam Julia has her baby. The problem is that by pretending, Edward is putting everyone at the worst place because he knows he will need to tell the truth. He also thought he could keep Julia away but what he took for some jealous attraction in the past, comes back to life as a love and passion he tried to deny. When he tells the truth, it won't be only Julia's heart breaking over the death of her husband and someone they both loved, nor her anger at his deceiving, it will also be his heart breaking for never being able to be with her...

What a complicated plot to work with... plus, according to British law, in the 1800s, people couldn't marry brothers or sisters of their spouses. I was both curious to see how the author would play this out and, even more important, how would the HEA happen because if there was one obvious thing, it was the fact Julia and Edward would be in love by then...

I liked this one better than the previous one. The plot is complicated but the challenges felt they were conductive to a better characterization of the characters. Whereas in the other book I found the characters to be a little boring at times, in here I was much more invested in the protagonists and in what obstacles they had before they could have their HEA.

Edward had been known as a free spirit, always into some journey planning, favored by the ladies and his rake friends, a good storyteller, someone not taken too seriously because he was a second son. His twin Albert was serious but not as confident and assertive as Edward and for some this meant Edward wasn't concerned about routines and such. But the boys were close and not just because they are twins, their childhood was pretty special. I liked that there was no good/bad twin plot here, only one of one twin being considered less than the other.

Of course, Edward being the hero, we see in this book how much of a good person he is, not perfect but not as bad as he seemed to have been painted in the previous book. I liked how we got to peel off his layers and how much he hod for the sake of someone or for the feelings of his brother. I liked knowing he was pining for Julia but didn't want to ruin his brother's relationship with her. Obviously, this means Edward is a true hero, focused on the heroine from afar....

Julia is a little more predictable. She is a good person and I can see why some readers found her to be a bit bland, especially since it takes around half the book for her to realize her husband isn't who he says he is. Her reaction upon discovering everything was also a bit "contained", I kind of imagined something more shocking could happen but, then again, how many witnesses would understand this before the characters were ready to explain... this is addressed in the story but I can't help thinking some realistic issues were push aside a bit too much...

The romance is cute and takes time for both to be immersed in love, let's say so, and I rooted for them to find some way to be together. I think the author did a good job here, the pace was good, the setting up of every detail seemed to work out fine and while this wasn't as tense and strained as it could, I was still convinced of the dire situation and that they felt nothing could help them. Some readers claim there was too much drama but for me, the final part kind of worked out.

The end has a HEA as expected and I also liked the epilogue. I would put this book along with the ones I liked best by the author, for certain.
Grade: 8/10