review: come a little bit closer

Come a Little Bit Closer by Bella Andre (2013)

Come a Little Bit Closer is the seventh book in Bella Andre’s featuring the Sullivans (specifically, the San Francisco Sullivans) and tells the story of Smith Sullivan, mega-movie star and the woman he falls in love with Valentina Landon.  The Sullivan books don’t have to be read in order, but they are certainly more enjoyable when you do.  Case in point: one of the supporting characters in this book and Valentina’s sister, Tatiana Sullivan, will return in the tenth book of the series, Just to Be With You.  That book makes several mentions to the movie that Smith is producing, directing and starring in during this book, Gravity.  Another kind of easter egg is that at the close of this book, there’s a reference to the Maverick Group, which is a nod to another of Andre’s series that she co-authors with Jennifer Skully.  To recap then, you can completely read these books in any order and you can skip books if you don’t they will appeal to you.  On a personal note, I’ve skipped books three and eight, but read all of the others in the San Francisco and Seattle Sullivans series.

There are three watchwords around which much of the thematic content of the book revolves–close, closer, and gravity.  Not going to spoil that for you, but if you do pick the book up, make sure to pay attention to Andre’s use of those words in particular.  It gives a lot of insight into Smith and Valentina’s needs and their relationships with each other and their families.  As alluded to above, the story finds Smith starting the first day of production on a film where he wrote the screenplay himself and is producing, directing and acting in the film.  It is a major turning point in his career, and he is intent upon not losing his focus at such a crucial moment.  And yet, he can’t help but be distracted by his co-star’s sister, Valentina Landon.  As Tatiana’s business manager, she will be on the set everyday, and finding a way to ignore his attraction is part of his internal struggle.  The love story between Smith and Valentina takes place against the backdrop of a film in production, and it’s no coincidence that the film is also a love story, where the male protagonist bares many similarities to Smith, his creator.  One aspect of the novel that makes this book stand out among the other books in this series is that Andre plays with the narrative structure, showing the scenes that are being filmed by narrating the events so that readers can follow the parallel story.  She does this by showing it through Valentina’s point-of-view, though it’s not necessarily true to how we would absorb it if we were watching the actors play out the scene.  All we would see is the dialogue, the characters’ body language, the background; we wouldn’t have privy to the characters’ inner thoughts or the back story, but because Valentina has read the script, in a way she is our interpreter, our narrator, filling in the gaps between the dialogue..

Throughout the series, Smith Sullivan makes brief appearances, and there are times when his absence makes him a presence in the other books.  Consequently, it really is a delight to finally read his story, and as is sometimes the case in a series where one character’s story is long-awaited, I’m glad to report that I wasn’t at all disappointed with him or his story.  Smith’s character is a fully developed and realized character at the end of the story, and though perhaps he doesn’t go through as much of a change as other protagonists, there are bits and pieces that demonstrate that falling in love with Valentina has pushed him into unfamiliar territory and into behavior that is wholly uncharacteristic of him.  In some ways, he is your cliche character who is in some way famous (here an actor, but Andre has already given us this trope with in Marcus and Nicola’s story, Ryan and Vicki’s story and will use it again in Mia and Ford’s story). He doesn’t ever think he will be loved for who he really is beneath the fame and celebrity.  He has millions of adoring fans but none of them really knows who he is.  While that is the case, Smith is unique enough to hold your attention.

Valentina is also a likeable, believable character and she is strong enough to stand up to Smith and say exactly what is on her mind but she also conventional in that beneath the strength there is vulnerability and a fragile need for love.  She is also conventional in her insistence that she will not date an actor, providing Andre with a built-in way of increasing the unresolved sexual tension.  Another concern in a series like this where Smith’s story was long-awaited is that the mate chosen by the beloved character isn’t close to who you would imagine him finding a happily ever after with.  Again, this is something that doesn’t happen and Valentina is definitely not a disappointment.  She easily becomes a character readers can fall in love with and who easily fits effortlessly into the Sullivan clan.

I’ve had this book on my to-read shelf for a long time, and honestly, I hadn’t started reading it for the very reasons listed above–I was worried I would be disappointed.  Instead, this was the perfect book for a Saturday when all I wanted was to spend the day on the couch getting lost in a good book.  Come a Little Bit Closer is actually my second-favorite book in the series, and the thing that makes that statement interesting to me is that Just to Be With You (the book featuring Tatiana Landon and Ian Sullivan) is by far my favorite book in the series.  Somehow, Bella Andre got it right with these two Sullivans and the sisters they fall for.  It didn’t all five stars when I rated it after reading it (the end seems to drag a bit) but it is definitely one of my recommended reads and gets a star next to it on my list of books read for the year, reminding me it was a favorite.  Give it a try.  If you like contemporary romance, I think you’ll enjoy it.

 

review: hard to come by

Hard to Come By by Laura Kaye (2014)

Hard to Come By is the fourth installment in Laura Kaye’s Hard Ink series.  These books should be read in order but I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum.

This book picks up what feels like only hours after the conclusion of Hard to Hold on To, the third book in the series.  This one tells Derek “Marz” DiMarzio’s story, and though he is as intense as the other men in his team, he is also lighter and a bit more fun (he sings aloud and apparently does so terribly).  Marz is the computer genius of the team of former Special Forces men.  In this book, he has two primary goals to achieve: one, unlock the microchip drive that they discovered in the previous book and two, get close to Emilie Garza with the hope that she will in turn provide the team with the intel they need to find and capture Manny Garza, a man they suspect is working with Seneka Worldwide Security, a defense contractor that is well-known for its allegations of corruption, and is also somehow connected to the Church gang–the team’s primary adversary thus far as they try to unravel the secrets and lies that led to their team being ambushed in Afghanistan, seven of their brothers-in-arms being killed, and their less than honorable discharge from the service and their honor and reputations ruined.  One of the main characteristics of Marz that also drives a lot of who he is as a character when we first meet him and his development as the story progresses is that during the ambush he suffered a leg injury that led to his leg being amputated just beneath his knee.  Marz, Nick (their team’s leader) and Beckett (Marz’s best friend and fellow team member) all came back with varying levels of scars that are visible on the outside, and how he deals with the loss of part of his leg is inspiring and humanizes him as a character.  He is definitely a good guy, but that comes into conflict with the fact that for the first third of the book, the relationship he’s building with the Emilie is built on lies.

Emilie, on the other hand, wears her battle scars on the inside.  She is recently divorced from a man who shook her ability to trust, and she’s been dealing with her brother’s increasing erratic behavior.  Emilie is a trained clinical psychologist and believes that Manny is struggling with a form of PTSD, and she has been contemplating taking steps to have him involuntarily committed for a psychiatric evaluation because he refuses to seek help or even talk about what’s going on with him.  She isn’t the strongest female character you’ll find in a romance, but she’s also not portrayed as being weak and docile.  I liked her character, and her story arc is also one of healing in terms of learning how to trust again.  I would also say that part of her character development is coming to terms with the consequences of making an impossible choice that, even if it’s the right choice, it’s still not easy to live with.  If you have read the first books in this series, I think you’ll find that Emilie is a lot more like Becca (as opposed to Crystal/Sara or Jenna) and what you have in the romance plot between her and Marz is that two nice people end up falling in love with each other.

Yes, the books are romances, but there is a heavy element of suspense/action to the series as well.  In a way, the main thread that has carried through the series as a whole thus far is that at it’s heart, it’s a quest story.  This team of disgraced soldiers are looking for truth and redemption, and they are only going to be able to get it if they can find out exactly what happened in Afghanistan, why the military covered it up and hung the whole thing around their necks, and who is pulling the strings.  Hard to Come By takes another step in the quest by unlocking the microchip, which leads to a revelation that changes everything.  It also brings the threat of the Church gang to a conclusion, much in the same way a hardboiled detective novel resolves the mystery that you see on the surface but in doing so only leaves you with more question and a far more complex mystery to unravel.  Also, the mystery of the bracelet that the team’s former commander, Merritt, sent to his daughter, Becca is solved.  This is all to say that some questions and puzzles that have lingered since the first novel get paid off in the fourth book, but at the same time, the quest is not over.  I hope that what will follow in the last two books is a showdown that is both surprising but also brings closure and success to the team of men Kaye has convinced us to become invested in and care about.  Indeed, when the first book begins, the team–Nick, Shane, Easy, Marz, and Beckett–don’t look anything like a close-knit group and the bonds that had held them together as brothers-in-arms were in shambles.  As the series has progressed, those bonds are being rebuilt–and this book features the rebuilding of the friendship between Beckett and Marz, which has been strained since their return from Afghanistan–and on top of that, their family is growing.  Becca, Sara, Jenna and now Emilie are part of the family, Jeremy (Nick’s brother) has had his relationship with Nick strengthened, and Charlie, Becca’s brother, has also been brought into the family bosom.  There is a definite sense that until they met each other and came together to fight for a common goal, they were all adrift and isolated.  There’s even a moment in the book that alludes to this very idea.  Now, though, they have each other, and all that’s left is to finish what they’ve begun.

One more thing. Each of these books takes place over the span of a week at most, and that works in this series because it gives a sense of immediacy and urgency, but it also gives each book a sense of purpose.  Each book lays out a challenge, and like I said, each challenge brings them closer to their goal.  The fact that these stories don’t take place over a longer period of time for me makes them more believable, because no way could this kind of intensity be sustained over a period of several months.

I really do like these books and recommend them to readers who enjoy romantic suspense.  There’s a nice balance between the romance plot and the suspense plot, and the books themselves are well-written.   If you want to give the series a try, start with the first book, Hard As It Gets.

 

Special Note: The Raven Riders series by Laura Kaye is an offshoot of the Hard Ink series.  I happened to have read Ride Hard before reading Hard to Come By, and it is in the latter that Kaye introduces the characters of Haven and Cora.  They are only in the book for a minute and it’s not necessary to read this series first; however, I will say that if you like the Hard Ink series and are interested in the Raven Riders series, finish this series first and then start with Ride Hard.  I wish I had.

review: demand

Note: Demand is the second book in the Careless Whispers trilogy.  If you have not read the first book in the series, please stop reading this post.  Spoilers are ahead and I don’t want to spoil the surprises for you.

Demand by Lisa Renee Jones (2016)

In the second book of her Careless Whispers trilogy, Lisa Renee Jones returns us to Italy and the world of Ella and Kayden at the exact point where she left off at the end of the first book, Denial.  In fact, Jones does something at the start of the book that I have never encountered before.  She devotes the first pages to a kind of “previously on Careless Whispers” intro that you would expect from your favorite television series, and you know what, it totally works.  She follows it with a list of characters, one that reminds me of what I would expect to find in a detective mystery novel, but that works, too.  Both reminded me of where I was in the story, of the characters I had met and would meet, and made me ready to take on the second book even though it’s been months since I read Denial.  I loved this device, and though there may be people who frown at it, as someone who reads a lot of serial fiction and sometimes installments are several months (or a year or two) apart, this was an excellent way to reacquaint me with the story and the characters.  Well played.

Like Denial, Demand is told completely from Ella’s first-person point of view.  One of the reasons this continues to be the most effective narrative style is that more and more, Ella is getting her memory back.  She remembers more about David, the man who was her fiance, about the mystery man that rescued her after she lost her passport and all of her money but also abused her sexually, and about her life before she travelled to Europe.  Having her as our narrator makes everything she is remembering, feeling and experiencing much more immediate, especially since a lot of what is revealed is happening in her own mind (as opposed through spoken dialogue) and also because with the exception of Kayden, there really is no one that she trusts enough to reveal all that she is remembering. The other reason this works is because, at least for me, I like Ella as a character and I’m invested in her story.  She is frequently just as clueless about what is happening as we are as readers, and thus we’re in the same boat, trying to navigate the confusing labyrinth together.

Though the story is told through Ella’s first person narrative, Kayden does not feel distant from us or an impenetrable mystery.  As this book unfolds, we find him being much more forthright and open with Ella than he was in the first book.  Kayden is the prototypical male protagonist you would expect to find in a book firmly placed in the erotic romantic suspense genre, but he’s not a carbon copy.  He, too, is likeable even though there is a definite edge to him and it’s clear that he does not always operate on the lawful side of the line dividing the good guys from the bad guys.  He isn’t so dark that it is hard to understand why the female protagonist would want to be with him, and if you like alpha male characters he delivers and compels you to want to keep reading and see how the romance between him and Ella will play out.

The plot of the story becomes more intricate in this book even as certain questions are answered.  Jones reveals the identity of the man that Ella can remember mistreating her but whose face she has been unable to recall.  There is forward progress on the plotline involving Gallo and his relentless pursuit to destroy Kayden, and at the end of the story we are left wondering how that will play out.  Niccolo makes an entrance into the story, and there is more revelation about why the butterfly necklace is significant and what Kayden’s relationship to its discovery is.  And yet there are new characters that we are not yet sure we can trust, and there’s also the recurring implication that the tower of the castle where Ella and Kayden live is under some kind of surveillance.  This feels like it is leading up to a betrayal from someone close to them that neither Ella nor Kayden will see coming.

While the Careless Whispers trilogy is a spin-off of Jones’ Inside Out series, you don’t have to have read the latter to enjoy this trilogy.  I would recommend this series to anyone who has enjoys the work of Julie Kenner (the Stark novels), Sylvia Day (the Crossfire novels), Meredith Wild (the Hacker novels), Lorelei James (the Mastered series) and Jones’ Amy Bensen series.  Lisa Renee Jones is solidly on my list of authors whose books I will automatically add to my to-read list.  I consumed this book in one day and had a hard time putting it down.  In my opinion, it’s not easy to find good books in the romantic suspense genre, but this trilogy definitely stands out and shines.  I’m looking forward to the final book in the trilogy, Surrender.