#FinishLine by Cambria Hebert

Blurb:
34384215
Every race has a finish line.

Where you go after you cross it is what matters most. And sometimes, that’s the most intriguing.

Here at GearShark, we’ve featured lots of drivers. All of them are well acquainted with the finish line. And as race fans, we’re well acquainted with cheering as they cross it. What we aren’t privy to is riding shotgun, seeing where they drive once the race is over.

Our interviews barely scratch the surface, offering just a glimpse of the men and women behind the wheel. The discovery of vanished Motocross sensation Jayson Hamilton, who has been right under our noses for years, proves secrets abound.

It’s time to dig deep. Look beyond the racetrack at the drivers who continue to pique our interest. In addition to scoring an exclusive, all-access interview with the elusive Jayson Hamilton (his first and only since the death of his fellow racer and partner Matt Lewis), we’ve caught up with some of our most popular featured men and women in the racing world.

Where are they now?

Who are they now?

What do these hot commodities do when they escape the spotlight?

Rumors of weddings, babies, and new tattoos swirl through the media on a weekly basis. And though we’re headlining the hashtag #Finishline, we’re far from finished. In fact, we’re just getting started.

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My Review:
3.5 stars — I think I might have enjoyed this one a bit more if I’d had dedicated time to read it, instead of it being broken up in little pieces whenever I had time in between other stuff going on in my life.

That being said, remember how I LOVED #Bae because it was so much more than *just* a huge epilogue??  Well, this one is basically just a huge epilogue.  I kept waiting for twists and turns and more character development, and I really didn’t get it.  We did get a few answers about Hopper’s past, but in general I felt underwhelmed…like I wanted more.

And honestly, while I love Hopper and Arrow together, things got a bit overdramatic in their relationship…over the top declarations and stuff like that.  And I couldn’t help but be a bit uncomfortable with the co-dependency that was their relationship.  In some ways I can see how these two damaged characters might form that kind of relationship, but it’s not my favourite, if that makes sense.

Now, it was not all over the top and crazy, don’t get me wrong.  If it was, I wouldn’t be rounding up.  I do LOVE epilogues, so it was super fun to see them together, loving each other, putting each other first, and actually getting to see the happily ever after.  I loved Hopper and Jace’s conversation near the beginning, I loved the proposal, I loved Arrow’s surprise for Hopper in Las Vegas…well surprises (honeymoon too).  I loved the wedding.

I do remember seeing people mention that this was not just an Arrow/Hopper story, so I wasn’t completely taken by surprise when their story finished at 70%…I kind of still wanted more, but I was satisfied.  And I do remember people mentioning that there is no more Trent and Drew story (though they do have cameos), so I wasn’t surprised about that either (though there was a tiny piece of my heart that held out hope for some reason).

And I actually enjoyed Josie and Jace’s extra bit of story.  I thought they had a bit more to say, and I actually almost got more out of their story than I was expecting.  Though their little bit of conflict was resolved fairly quickly in the end, but I still appreciated that we got to see them hit a stumbling block.  I loved the proposal, I loved Jace’s conversation with Josie’s Dad and the way it played out after that, I LOVED the wedding (and seeing Josie get some girlfriends in Rimmel and Ivy, Trent’s da bomb), and I thought that the hospital scene at the end was hilarious and a perfect end to their story.

So yeah.  I enjoyed it.  Just not as much as I was hoping to.  Trent and Drew remain my faves, but I’m glad that Ms. Hebert didn’t just slap something together for them just because fans were asking.  I hope she gets inspired, but I will wait for gold if it comes, and be satisfied if this is all I get if inspiration doesn’t strike.

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#Blur by Cambria Hebert

Blurb:
32856045Nothing but a #blur…
There’s a new kid in town, and he’s hell on wheels.
From what we’ve heard, it may be because
he knows exactly what hell’s like.
Lonely.
Scorching.
Unforgiving.
You may know his brother, the NRR hotshot
(and former GearShark cover model)
Lorhaven.
It’s only natural a driver with his background and family connections
has sped his racecar into the newest, hottest division.
But that’s not all.
Arrow may be following in big bro’s tread marks,
but he doesn’t plan to stay there.
He’s swerving onto the road less traveled…
and a lot more controversial.
He’s opening up about his private struggles with sexuality
to tell a story that’s gone unheard until now.
One thing’s for sure; Arrow may have a painful past,
but his foot is heavy on the accelerator.
With speed like this, he’s bound to leave everything behind in
nothing but a #blur.
Check out the full feature article inside…

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My Review:
4.5 stars — I will start off by saying that this book should contain a HUGE trigger warning.  I don’t have triggers, but I really don’t get why more authors aren’t putting them on books.  You can be vague, you can just say trigger warning and not explain what kind, but give people who have triggers at least a mini head’s up.

This book broke me, particularly the past sections.  I was trying so hard to contain my bawling in bed because my hubby was sleeping, but even though I wasn’t making any noise, I was shaking so hard he woke up anyways.  And didn’t even comfort me, the bastard.  So yeah, be prepared for a bit of an emotional rollercoaster in parts.

I’ve been fascinated by both Arrow and Hopper from previous books.  And their book was both really fulfilling and left me wanting a bit more at the same time.  We’ll see how I feel after #FinishLine, but this book was a strange dichotomy.  It’s why I’ll end up rounding down, even though I had mega feels while reading it.

I loved both characters.  I felt like we really got to delve into what their shattered souls were like, and I loved seeing them develop strength both on their own, and derive it from each other.  I really loved them together.  There were so many lines that just got to my heart, I loved how they recognized the brokenness in each other, but weren’t put off by it…rather they were drawn to each other almost because of it.

I freaking stood up and cheered with Arrow’s confrontation with his father at the end.  That was ridiculously satisfying.

There were so many scenes that just pulled me in and grabbed hold of me.  I loved the way they loved each other, how they both resisted, were unsure, were afraid, but the connection was powerful enough to keep drawing them back.  I even enjoyed that they had stumbling blocks, but that they overcame them.  And I really felt their chemistry, I especially enjoyed their first explorations of each other.

I will admit that there were things that didn’t quite work for me.  I thought the stuff Arrow dealt with from his father at the beginning was a bit over the top.  I was disappointed that we didn’t really get any resolution on the aftermath of Arrow’s past (I really thought we’d find out more details on what happened when Lorhaven found him, and what happened to the guys).  And similarly I was disappointed that we got NO resolution from Hopper’s past.  What happened to those two guys?  What happened to Arrow’s mother?  She just kind of fell off the radar, that seemed odd.  And while I loved the connection between Arrow and Hopper, it felt a bit rushed at the beginning…  And quite frankly, I thought the development of their physical relationship moved too fast to be believable with Arrow…I wouldn’t have minded something more there.  It seemed like a missed opportunity.  I know people heal in different ways, but…

So yeah.  Those are some mega missed opportunities, but I guess that goes to show how much I loved the parts that I loved.  They overshadowed those things that on a different book would have brought my rating down much farther.  Super curious to see what we get from the final book…

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#Bae by Cambria Hebert

Blurb:
30968750Happily-ever-after.
That’s what happens when you get married.
Right?
Turns out sparkly rings, cake and a fantastic wedding do not automatically grant you that, not even when it’s all you truly want.
I’m even starting to doubt the bottomless, unconditional love I share with the man I married will be enough.
I can’t have happily ever after, know why?
Because I can’t give Romeo what he truly wants. I’ve tried. So hard. I won’t be happy unless he is and something is missing. Someone.
Paparazzi are in my face. The flashing cameras and prying eyes are everywhere. My secret is getting harder to hide, and I know the second the scoop is dished the grip I have on the fraying rope of that happily ever after will snap right in my face.
In our face.
I can’t let that happen. No matter what.
Because with or without a happy ending, Romeo comes Before Anyone Else.

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My Review:
4.5 stars — Oh Rimmeo… I forgot how much I loved their voices, you know? Like I knew I was in love with them, but I forgot just how much. And right from the prologue I was like “OH YEAH!” Seriously, these two are epic. Like I love them both individually, but I also love them as a couple. I love the way they love each other, I love the way they tease each other, I love them from their light interactions to their heavy interactions.

What I think I loved most about this book is that it wasn’t just an extended epilogue, full of happy, happy, happy. Don’t get me wrong, I love those…though usually in novella form, not in novel form. NOPE, Ms. Hebert gave us so much more. It’s like how in real life there is no such thing as a Happily Ever After…not really. You find your person, and that part is AMAZING…but you still work EVERY SINGLE DAY to make it the best it can be. You’re still faced with challenges, both individually and as a couple. And that’s what we get to see in this book, though a bit amplified because of Romeo and Rimmel’s celebrity status, and because Ms. Hebert loves to torture her characters along the way.

This book had a lot of heavy. It starts right from the prologue, and we really get a lot of feels and raw emotions. I’ll try not to go into too many details to avoid spoilers, but as I already had an idea of the issue Rimmel and Romeo would be facing, I’m not sure if it’s a spoiler or not. But if you’re adamant about not being spoiled AT ALL, perhaps skip the rest of this review.

OK, still with me? I cannot fathom how prospective parents do it. The loss that they suffer in the prologue is experienced by so many, but not really talked about openly. And as someone who doesn’t even desire children, it’s a bit out of my realm of experience. But I have friends who have experienced miscarriages, and I thought that Romeo and Rimmel’s experience was very raw and real, and touched on a few related topics. I actually did OK emotionally in the prologue, probably b/c I knew it was coming, but Ms. Hebert certainly tried to make me bawl, b/c you see how happy and playful and excited they are. And the rest of the book we get sprinkles of their struggles, mixed in with paparazzi crap, and the usual drama that seems to surround our favourite couple. I broke down for Rimmel, particularly in the scene where she visits Valerie. It’s so hard to see our kind-hearted heroine struggling with so many expectations and guilt. But it was Romeo’s struggles that truly caught me off guard…because I think we forget about the potential papa’s sometimes. I totally bawled for him, and felt every one of his emotions.

If that all has you concerned, don’t worry…we do still get a lot of moments of levity sprinkled in. And not only that, but it feels like coming home while reading this book, where you get to hang out with all your favourite characters again. I love the whole freaking family, and seeing Braeden, Ivy, Nova, Trent and Drew again just made my heart happy.

And yes, they do experience their fair share of over the top drama, but if you’re a fan of the Hashtag series, you know what to expect. And can I just say that I laughed so hard at the fourth wall break near the end of the book that I actually woke my husband up? That was comedy gold Ms. Hebert. Dark humour at its finest.

So yeah. As a die-hard fan of the series, I wasn’t surprised that I loved the book, but I think I was surprised that even after all this time there’s still more story to tell. And honestly? It just made me desperately want to reread from the beginning again. Instead I’m on to #Blur! Soon I will be done, and they’ll have to wait until I have time for another epic reread.

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#Swag by Cambria Hebert

Blurb:
30367827These drivers got #swag…

Racing is in her DNA.
Right alongside money and power.
When you’re the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the country,
you have to work harder for success.
Joey Gamble’s a girl on a male-dominated track.
With a daddy who can buy whatever she wants.
But she doesn’t want anything… except to EARN her reputation.

Racing is his passion.
Trouble follows him everywhere. Some even say he invites it.
When you’re nipping at the taillights of the best driver in the new NRR,
you have to fight and claw for each and every success.
It’s never been easy for Lorhaven.
That’s why he doesn’t play by the rules.
He’s a man with a serious chip on his shoulder against the pro racing circuit.
We at GearShark want to know what’s up with that.

We’ve also been hearing rumblings…
of a pro who wants to go indie.

We’ve invited racing royalty and the driver from the wrong side of the tracks to sit down and talk to us about a possible crossover.
We expected sparks to fly when Joey and Lorhaven crossed paths.
Will those sparks ignite into a full-on inferno?
Read the full feature article inside…

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My Review:
4 stars — This book had an up and down vibe for me.  There were parts where I felt like it dragged a bit, but then there were parts that were just over the top amazing for me.  So perhaps it’s really a 3.5 star read, but I just loved the ending so much, and it’s amazing how much the way a book ends can affect your opinion of it, you know?  So I’m going with full 4 stars anyways.  I rate on gut feeling anyways, so I guess I should go with my gut.

I will say that I’m not convinced that the Lorhaven we met in this book matched the Lorhaven we saw in #Junkie and #Rev.  Which is I guess sort of the point, we’re supposed to look at him more closely and see him more deeply.  And I totally did!  I really actually fell in love with the Lorhaven we meet in this book…but we didn’t meet Lorhaven did we?  We met Jace.  And I will caveat that I feel like there’s a disconnect between the two, there’s something missing from really allowing me to mesh these two together.  It’s not that you don’t see the ruthless side of him.  But I felt like his reasons for the illegal betting/gambling were just kind of glossed over, and weren’t enough for me.  And I can’t figure out why the man we meet in this book would have chased after Drew in #Junkie…but I might be forgetting an explanation that occurred in Trew’s books, since it’s been a few months since I reread them.  Basically what I’m saying is that if I look at him as a character solely from this book, I have no problems.  But if I look at him as a whole, I don’t feel like his character arc is believable.

Those stipulations aside, I LOVED Jace.  I loved the way he cared for his brother, how fiercely he loved him.  I loved that he made no apologies for his asshole-like nature, and that we did get to see how much of his personality was a front to maintain control.  I loved that while we got to see his good qualities, Ms. Hebert didn’t make all his bad qualities magically disappear.  And while I wasn’t completely won over by the speed and reasons he fell for Joey (or Josie as he calls her), I LOVED the way he fell in love with her…the way he cared for her, and how he is fierce in his love for her as well.  He was just very no-nonsense, and straightforward, which kind of surprised me.

Joey tried my patience at times.  There was a lot to love about her as well, she was a passionate woman dealing with so many struggles, both internally and externally.  My heart broke for her and how she saw her relationship with her father, and how she struggled to prove her worth in the face of insurmountable odds.  I LOVED how comfortable she was in her sensuality, and yet how innocent she was in love.  She was a strange mix of strong and vulnerable, and in general I thought it was done very well.  The climax of her story had my heart aching, and I loved the way she learned to lean on Jace, and open up to him and her father.

BUT.  But.  I’m the kind of girl that doesn’t believe it’s OK for women to hit men without provocation.  And there was a part earlier in the book that just tweaked me.  She slams her pointed heel into Jace’s foot and slaps him across the face for his asshole nature (“calling her sweetheart”).  Maybe it’s just me, but that is NOT a good enough reason to resort to violence.  And that bothered me.  To a lesser degree, there is another moment where I’m not thrilled with her physical violence, but I could give more of a pass (the street race).  At least there she had slightly better reasons, but I honestly hate it when a woman can physically assault a man and no one chides her, but when the man comes after her, everyone talks about how it’s wrong to hit a woman.  Uh, it’s kind of wrong to hit anyone, regardless of gender.  I get not everyone feels this way, and it’s not an issue I’m super passionate about (not enough to ruin a book for me), but it is something that bugs me.  (and no, I had no problems with the stuff in the climax…totally different circumstances)

The chemistry between Jace and Josie was fantastic.  You could really feel their attraction, and the steamy scenes were awesome.  And I really felt the development of their feelings for each other.  I thought the progression was natural and I loved getting to really see it happen.  I loved how they understood each other intrinsically, and how in most cases they brought out the best in each other.

And I loved getting to see so many characters that we already love, and ones I can already see myself falling more in love with.  This book sets up nicely for Arrow and Hopper’s book, I can’t wait to dive into it!

I can honestly say I enjoyed this story more than I had anticipated.  And while it was not all rainbows and unicorns, the things I loved outweighed my niggles this time.

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One True Pairing by Cathy Yardley

Blurb:
30174469They couldn’t be more opposite, the Hollywood actor and the hometown girl, but all they need is a little convention magic to become the perfect ship in Cathy Yardley’s One True Pairing.

Jake Reese needs a decoy girlfriend. Fast. The lead actor of the popular TV show, Mystics, is tired of losing his shirt to overeager fans. Literally. Which is why a chance meeting with gothabilly bookworm-slash-barista Hailey Frost seems almost too perfect to be true. Hailey is not impressed with his TV fame and is desperate to save her family’s bookstore. It’s a match made in Hollywood, but as the two pretend to date, fan fiction becomes reality. Can this OTP become canon?

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My Review:
4.5 stars — I received a free copy through NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review/opinion.

Yup, that was a whole lot of perfect for Lenore.  I was sucked right in, and entertained from start to finish.  I loved the humour, I loved the characters, I loved the romance, I loved the geek stuff, I loved the celebrity aspect…  Seriously, it was just my kind of book, you know?

Hailey was all sorts of unique as a heroine.  Not just because she embraced her rockabilly style, but because she was hiding a childhood growing up with grifters, and damage from time spent in the foster system.  I liked that she was both tough and independent, but she was also using her sisters as a crutch to avoid being vulnerable.  It was surprisingly easy to love her.

Jake was just uber adorable.  I just wanted to hug him.  He was so sincere, and kind, and caring, and passionate about what he loved.  I will admit that I saw the Susie thing from like a mile away, and so just kept waiting for him to figure things out.  I actually anticipated that resolving with Hailey as a catalyst, but I was satisfied with the way it went anyways.

And I liked the two of them together…you could really feel their draw to each other, and the chemistry and sexual attraction.  Seriously, it was hot.  But, even though it was hella fast, I still really enjoyed the development of their relationship due to spending so much time together in a short span of time.  And I found it amusing how tongue in cheek Ms. Yardley was having Hailey despise insta-love in stories and then giving Hailey a fast love story herself.  I’m sure it will bother some people, but I loved it.  I’m not an insta-love hater though (not a lover, just not a hater).

And the secondary cast was pretty great too, from Hailey’s sisters to Jake’s co-stars.  It’s definitely setting up future stories, you can totally tell.

Honestly, other than totally guessing the Jake side story, the only other thing I was meh on was the stalker storyline.  It felt a little thrown in last minute, and like just a plot device.  But I loved so much else in the story, I don’t even care.

Any book that can make me tempted to fight through sleep and keep reading, even though it’s 3 am, is my kind of book.  I did manage to resist, but I was epically tired.  Can’t wait for more in this series.  Gotta go back and read Level Up now, though those characters are only loosely mentioned in this one…it stands alone pretty well.  I concur with the title: Jake and Hailey are my OTP!

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Cross Check by Kelly Jamieson

Blurb:
32934382A party girl and a clean-cut college hockey player discover that they’re not so different in this sexy, soulful Bayard Hockey novel from the bestselling author of Shut Out and the Heller Brothers series.

Ella Verran has three goals this semester: get off academic probation, repair her relationship with her friend Skylar, and take some responsibility for her life. All of which are hard enough without hot, snobby hockey player Ben Buckingham around to distract her. Ella can’t stand Ben, and she knows the feeling is mutual. But he’s best friends with Skylar’s boyfriend, so he’s always around—taunting and tempting Ella in ways she never thought possible.

As the star forward of the Bayard College hockey team, Ben has goals too, like playing well enough to land a spot on an NHL roster. Ben is perfectly poised on the ice, so why can’t he keep his cool around Ella? Her wild behavior rubs him in all the wrong ways—and a few of the right ones. But as they skate around each other, Ben learns that there’s more to Ella than her bad reputation. And when the line between love and hate starts to blur, he can’t resist crossing over and sweeping her off her feet.

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My Review:
3.75 stars — I received a free copy through NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review/opinion.

I love it when an author surprises me with a character!  We didn’t really get that great of an impression of Ella in the first book, but I really enjoyed her in this one.  I thought she really redeemed herself and getting a look inside her head made me understand her more.  Plus we just got to see more of what she’s about, you know?  I really appreciated her storyline of going off the rails after her friend’s suicide, and then having to rein it in and settle down after going on academic probation.  I enjoyed how Ms. Jamieson took a hard look at slut-shaming, and while Ella regretted some choices she made in partying/sleeping around, it wasn’t all “down with the promiscuous girls” as you often see in some books.  Ella really struggled with the labels she was given, and I thought we got an honest and refreshing look at the double standards between men and women, and how it’s not the actions that she regretted so much as the reasons she was doing it, and how it made her feel.

I also really loved that the author took a good hard look at mental health, and that we got to see Ella’s sessions with her therapist.  I will admit that while I LOVED that this was all looked at, occasionally it felt a little heavy-handed.  Which is funny, b/c this issue is really important to me.  Or maybe not heavy-handed so much as not as natural to the story…I don’t know, I don’t know how to explain it.

Ella was spunky, but also really vulnerable and insecure.  I really did feel for her, even if her penchant for pushing people away made me want to throttle her.  It made her growth more satisfying though.

And then we get Ben!!  We also got to see the slut-shaming from his perspective, and I loved that it really opened his eyes as well.  I honestly thought we were going to get more from his background and past, but that wasn’t as prominent as I’d expected.  But I loved how we got an even deeper look at what it might be like for a hockey athlete looking to get drafted.  I loved how vulnerable and scared and overwhelmed he was, and I guess that’s sort of where we see the effects of his past.  He felt so alone at times, and my heart broke for him.  But I also really admired his dedication and determination, and I loved how Ella really showed him parts of himself to be proud of.

Their romance was cuter than I expected.  I guess because I never really understood why they were enemies, since it was based on assumptions about the other person.  But Ben was so adorable in his pursuit of Ella.  He kind of made me swoon at times.  Maybe because he was kind of vulnerable, but he still put himself out there.  And I really loved their chemistry…holy heck could you feel it right from that dance scene!

I loved having more fun scenes with their group of friends!  They often made me laugh out loud at their strange conversations and antics.

I will admit that occasionally certain transitions didn’t feel smooth to me…but that could be in my head too.  (Like those strange conversations with their friends didn’t always flow as naturally for me)

So yeah, I was surprised that I enjoyed this one even more than the previous book!  And again, if you love hockey, or love sports romances that actually showcase the sport, I think Ms. Jamieson is one of the best I’ve ever read for that!  And now she’s made me want to check out her Aces series!!

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Shut Out by Kelly Jamieson

Blurb:
28473716From the bestselling author of the Heller Brothers Hockey series comes the first novel of a new hockey romance series featuring a college team whose players are heating things up both on and off the ice.
 
The Bayard College hockey team isn’t where Jacob Flass thought he’d be a season ago. He was a rising star in the Canadian major junior league, cruising toward a spot on an NHL roster—until a single disastrous night on the town brought it all crashing down. Now he’s out of options, except for playing well, studying hard, and staying away from girls. He’s not supposed to be flirting with the hottest, sweetest chick he’s ever met. But how could he possibly stay away?
 
Skylar Lynwood knows that Jacob is out of her league. She’s just trying to go with the flow, which isn’t easy when six feet and four inches of total hockey hunkiness is making a play for her one moment, then giving her the cold shoulder the next. Skylar’s head tells her that this rugged athlete isn’t worth her time, but her body says something altogether different. Risking her heart for Jacob may be the craziest thing she’s ever done . . . but she won’t let him shut her out.

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My Review:
3.5 stars — Do you ever finish a book and just have no idea how to rate it?  I’m a gut feeling rater, and this one left me a bit jumbled.  There were a lot of things about this book that I absolutely LOVED!!!  But at the same time, it took me like HOURS to just finish the last like 10%.  I lost my verve for it somewhere along the way.

Let’s talk about about the things I loved first for a change (b/c I usually lead with the bad).  I adored all the little conversations this book ended up having with the reader about very important topics, and I loved the way they were brought up in the book and addressed.  From rape culture to intimate relationship abuse to actual sexual violence for both females AND males to sexual consent to even slut shaming.  I just loved that the conversations were happening in the book, were very important to the story of the characters, but felt natural at the same time.  And we got to see some very different perspectives surrounding this really broad topic, and how confusing it can be, but how important having the conversations and moving our society forward is.  Especially in the context of a college campus.  We even got to see some of the skewed mentality surrounding athletes and how they are treated by the opposite sex, as well as how that can lead to a feeling of entitlement.  The book didn’t provide a bunch of easy answers, but just took a frank look.  And it wasn’t too cheesy, and not too in your face either.  In the end, this was my favourite part of the book.

I also LOVED the bantering between our hero and heroine.  You could feel their chemistry right from the beginning, and I loved that you could see their friendship grow even when they were both consumed with feelings of lust.  But seriously, they were really pretty cute together, and they definitely made me laugh at times.  They did get a bit cheesy at the end, I struggled through some of the dialogue at times when they were professing feelings, but that could have been just me.

And I enjoyed both characters in general.  I wasn’t necessarily in love with either of them, but neither did they annoy the crap out of me.  Not a ringing endorsement, I know, but it’s just the way I felt.  Basically for all the things I loved about each of them, there was something else that bugged me.

For example, I really enjoyed that Skylar was struggling to follow in her sisters footsteps, and had a bit of a crisis over what she wanted to do with her life (balancing parental expectations with her own passions).  BUT it kind of annoyed me that she didn’t talk to them.  I guess that’s kind of realistic, young adults can make some pretty silly assumptions sometimes.  But still.  At the same time I was really impressed with her work with SAPAP and I loved how passionate she was about it.  She really broke it down and made it less awkward, and she was pretty frank about how she was feeling.  I also loved that while we didn’t see her journey with her therapist, you could see some of the positive influences it made on her.  BUT!  I couldn’t help but feel disappointed with the way she handled the aftermath of Brendan’s suicide…and all that shiznit with Ella.  AGAIN, it was probably pretty realistic, but I guess I was wanting something there.  That’s probably more on me than her though.

As for Jacob, well, I had mixed feelings about how he responded after the “incident” that the book opens with.  BUT part of that was because the author chose not to go into details about what happened until MUCH later in the book, and so as a reader you’re left to try to guess at what happened, and so it made it hard to understand his reactions.  At the same time, I LOVED the way he developed as a character wrt all that, and how he responded to the training he underwent, and how he really took that on and allowed it to impact his life in a positive way.  And I loved how dedicated he was to his hockey career, and I really appreciated the conversation he and Skylar had about while he may have talent, he still works really hard to be that good.  I think people forget that about naturally talented athletes.

Things I disliked: how Skylar reacted to Jacob’s secret (not listening to his side is just a big NOPE); the sudden introduction to more of Skylar’s story than I was expecting (kind of came out of the blue, wish there had been hints); some of the talking during sex really ruined it for me (I just can’t read a character saying “Yeah. Oh yeah.” and not want to giggle, it doesn’t feel natural).  Which is not to say the steamy parts weren’t deliciously steamy, I just wish the talking had felt more natural.  Also, they occasionally felt older than 19/20.

I LOVED the guys Jared lives with, and I enjoyed seeing him develop friendships with them.  They were so funny and cute, and I hope to see their stories.  At the same time, maybe due to the nature of Skylar’s story, I was disappointed in the lack of female secondary characters to love.  There were a lot of tiny female parts, but the only major one was Ella, and it was kind of hard to love her.

As an aside, I LOVE reading books by Canadian authors, or about characters that are Canadian…I love seeing things I recognize.  My hubby laughed at me and said now I know how minority groups must feel when they read diverse characters that represent them.  BUT, as a good ole Saskatchewan girl, born and raised, I must say that Saskatoon’s team is the BLADES, Moose Jaw is the WARRIORS.  Tsk tsk.  😛

So yeah.  See?  Conflicted.  Do I round up or down?  I DON’T KNOW!!!  I’m going to round up and say that the awesome amount of *actual* hockey in this sports romance put it over the top for me.  😉

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Hello Forever by Sarina Bowen

Blurb:
34223444A basketball game changed both their lives.

When they were only teenagers, Axel and Caxton were caught making out in the woods at church camp. And afterward, Cax had disappeared from all the youth group activities.

Six years later, Axel is astonished to spot his first love’s face in the crowd of a college basketball game he’s watching on TV—at a school which has just offered him a job. It’s a thousand miles away, in a tiny rural town. But suddenly, he can’t wait to get there.

Cax can’t believe his eyes when Axel appears in the same Massachusetts town where he now lives. And he’s still just as drawn to Axel as ever. But he can’t let himself go there again, because loving Axel will mean giving up everything else he holds dear.

Both men have so much to lose. But as far as their love is concerned, it’s Hello Forever.

Hello Forever was previously published as It’s Never Over. This is a stand-alone novel with no cliffhangers. Readers of Goodbye Paradise will get to check in on Caleb and Josh and their clan.

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My Review:
4 stars — I received a free copy in exchange for an honest and unbiased review/opinion.

Another solid M/M romance from Ms. Bowen!!  While I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as Goodbye Paradise (which is a really hard book to live up to since it was a 5 star read for me and contained so many little things that made it a perfect Lenore book), I was still sucked into this story and stayed up until 2:30 in the morning finishing it.

The POVs in this story weren’t structured in the same way as the previous book, this one was more close to alternating chapters (with some exceptions, as it made sense for the story).  I didn’t mind the change.  It made more sense for Cax and Axel’s story, and I felt like I got what I needed as a reader as the plot progressed.

There’s something about the different struggles that LGBT folks face when deciding when to come out that just rips open your heart, you know?  And Cax in particular had a tough road to walk.  I can’t imagine having to survive an abusive father no matter who you are, but especially as a gay kid when he is ridiculously homophobic and bigoted.  And I really got how his upbringing and experiences and the state of his family influenced his choice to remain mostly in the closet, especially if he wanted to maintain a relationship with his brothers.  Do I believe that he couldn’t have found another way?  I’m not sure.  But for who Cax was, it made sense…he was flawed, but doing the best he could with what he knew.  I enjoyed seeing him grow stronger over the course of the book, with setbacks here and there, but eventually standing up and accepting himself with no apologies.

While Cax’s journey was perhaps more heartwrenching in some ways, I felt closer to Axel in this story.  It wasn’t that he didn’t have his own struggles to go through, even as someone who was able to come out of the closet with support from his Mom.  He really showed that you can be “out and proud”, but still fear the backlash that may come from people he meets.  And how that fear can make for a lonely existence sometimes.  AND how loving someone in a closet can really have adverse affects on you as well.

I loved Cax and Axel together, and loved hearing about their past as children.  If I had one complaint, I wish we’d gotten a bit more from the romance.  It’s not that it wasn’t deliciously steamy, or that they didn’t have chemistry, but it just felt like something was missing to really push it over the top for me.  Honestly, it could just be that it’s hard to follow up the love of Caleb and Josh from the previous book.

The plot took a few twists and turns I wasn’t expecting.  Like, something would happen and I would assume that I knew how it was going to play out, but then it would go in a slightly different direction.  I like that, it felt authentic to the characters.  That’s not to say that there weren’t some things that were definitely foreshadowed and didn’t shock me, but it was nice to be surprised on some things.  Wow, that was really vague and confusing, sorry.  😛

Again, this story is strong in secondary characters, with so many playing important roles.  And I loved so many of them, from the reappearance of Caleb and Josh (squee!), to Boz who was so funloving, to Amy (though I wish we could have seen her a bit more), to Jason (perhaps we’ll see his story in the future?), to even Cax’s brothers.  I love when a book has a great supporting cast.

So yeah.  I always hate writing these last paragraphs, I never know how to end a review.  Obviously I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and what more can you ask for?  OH!  And can I just say that Caxtastrophe and Axeldental were the most hilarious email names??  Loved it!

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Goodbye Paradise by Sarina Bowen

Blurb:
34527470Most people called it a cult. But for twenty years, Josh and Caleb called it home.

In Paradise, there is no television. No fast food. Just long hours of farm work and prayer on a dusty Wyoming ranch, and nights in a crowded bunkhouse. The boys of the Compound are kept far from the sinners’ world.

But Joshua doesn’t need temptation to sin. His whole life, he’s wanted his best friend, Caleb. By day they work side by side. Only when Josh closes his eyes at night can they be together the way he craves.

It can never be. And his survival depends on keeping his terrible desires secret.

Caleb has always protected Josh against the worst of the bullying at the Compound. But he has secrets of his own, and a plan to get away — until it all backfires.

Josh finds himself homeless in a world that doesn’t want him. Can Caleb find him in time? And will they find a place of safety, where he can admit to Josh how he really feels?

Warning: Contains a hot male/male romance, copious instances of taking the Lord’s name in vain, and love against the kitchen counter. This book was previously released under the title: In Front of God & Everyone.

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My Review:
5 stars — OMG guys, I don’t even know what to say except this was so my kind of book.  Like you know how you have those specific kinds of things that just shoot a book over the top for you?  Well this book had them all.  I have an unhealthy fascination with books about characters from religious cults.  I love best friends to lovers stories.  And I adore male/male romances.  Plus a million little things that I could never put into words.

I fell in love with both characters, obviously, but perhaps more for Josh than Caleb.  Josh had such a sweet naivety to him, and he was just so damaged from living in fear that someone would find out his “sinful” thoughts.  The compound did a real number on him, from the doctrines that they were taught, to the people who mentally abused him by tearing him down at every chance, to the family that basically abandoned him.  At times I was flabbergasted at the stark difference between Josh and Caleb, because even with Caleb’s ability to leave the compound, I didn’t understand how he was able to see the compound for what it was so much more than Josh.  But as I went on with the book, I could really tell how the differences in their family situations growing up could make an impact, could allow Josh to believe it more fully with less skepticism.

And Josh just developed even more fully in their time outside the compound, and my heart ached for how lost he seemed.  How everything that drew him in reinforced the horrible things the bullies made him feel about himself.  I was so invested in his growth, in watching him love his new jobs, and eventually come to understand that that was OK.  And seeing him stand up for himself against Caleb was both heartbreaking and rewarding.

Since a larger part of the book was in Josh’s POV, I did feel I got to know him a bit more, but I fell in love with Caleb all the same.  It’s funny, b/c I felt like we got to see more of his damage in the second half of the book, and the effects of the compound on him were more subtle perhaps.  But I loved that he wasn’t as strong and together as we might have thought at first glimpse.  I wasn’t expecting it, I thought his contributions to the story would be more wrt the romance, but it’s funny how those we see as so together can sometimes be hiding great strain and sorrow.  There’s a TINY part of me that perhaps wanted more from him, but I’m also OK with it because I loved the story we got.

The romance was amazing.  Seeing them figure things out together, and struggle against their upbringing and their fears to embrace what they desired was very fulfilling.  Obviously the steam factor was amazing, right from the first kiss.  It’s kind of funny, b/c it’s like taking the fears of most LGBT folks and magnifying it a bit.  Fear of being discovered, shame of their feelings, fear over being accepted by their loved ones, fear of losing their loved ones because of who they love.

And then to top off this amazing story of Josh and Caleb, we got a FANTASTIC set of secondary characters, some of whom we got to see a bit of their own story as well (Maggie and Daniel).  I LOVED the dynamic of a runaway from the cult wanting to help other runaways from the cult.  I truly believed in the bond they shared from their shared experience, and how they became a family.  And I appreciated that Ms. Bowen added more to the story in little bits, like Maggie’s struggle after Chloe’s birth.  I loved how much love they had to give to each other.

And it wasn’t just these more major secondary characters, I also loved the minor ones.  From Washington, to the tiny glimpse of Trey, to Caleb’s work buddies.  They all added something to the story.

So there’s my gushing review.  When this first came out, it pained me that I didn’t have time to read it right away, b/c I had a feeling I was going to be in love.  Thank the baby jesus that Ms. Bowen republished it under her name, b/c what if I’d never discovered it otherwise?  That would have been a travesty.  A travesty I tell you!

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Home by Melissa Pearl

Blurb:
26026392Rachel Myers never meant to stay in the small town of Payton. Her eyes are set on bigger things than waitressing at Clark’s Bar. She wants to perform on a stage of her own with bright lights, fame, and fortune. But her dreams seem too far out of reach and so she stays put, content with the love of her boyfriend, Joshua Clark. He’s a good man, a solid rock she can depend on. She wants that to be enough, but it hasn’t quelled her yearning for the big city.

Josh has never loved anyone the way he loves Rachel and he dreads the day she might leave him. He’s happy in his small town home. Running the bar that has been in his family for two generations is a dream come true. He couldn’t be happier with his life… until one night, a city boy from Hollywood promises Rachel a record deal and destroys everything.

Jumping at a chance she never thought she’d have, Rachel leaves Payton. And Josh. But the sparkle of Los Angeles is not all it’s cracked up to be, and Rachel quickly figures out that some sacrifices are not worth the risk. Is she too late? Will Josh forgive her, or has her desire for fame ruined the best thing she’s ever had?

Sometimes you have to say goodbye before you can say forever.

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My Review:
3.75 stars — While these books are all standalone, you do get something a bit extra when you read them all.  And I actually skipped over 2-4 the first time around, so after reading True Love and Rather Be, I was hella interested in finally reading Josh and Rachel’s story.  And it’s funny, b/c while I’m a romantic at heart, this wasn’t a typical love story for me.  Which is not a bad thing, it’s more that there were many other aspects that drew me into this story, and for once the romance wasn’t the biggest part.

Both of our characters are hecka flawed, with a lot of growing to do, and in this story we see them as an established couple at the beginning, and then they end up on separate paths to do their own growing before finding their way back to each other.  The problem with this is that I didn’t necessarily feel *quite* the same investment in them as a couple as I normally do in my romance novels.  It wasn’t that they weren’t super cute together, or they didn’t make me smile…or that I wasn’t rooting for them.  But it just felt a bit different than my normal romances.  I was rooting for them not because I knew much about what they were like together, but because I believed them when they told me that the other was their “person” and that they were their true love, and so I wanted them both to find their happiness.  Does that make sense?  Probably not.

As with most of the Songbird novels, I felt a smidgeon more for Rachel’s story than for Josh’s.  It wasn’t that Josh didn’t have his own path to go on, but I just felt more invested in Rachel’s path.  Maybe it’s because Josh was so bad with open emotions, I always felt like I wanted just a bit more from him.  BUT he really was the perfect big intimidating man with a marshmallow center.  I loved that he was so quiet and reserved, but would not take crap from anyone.  I loved the way he was protective of Rachel.  So many of his reactions felt just very young.  He was an interesting dichotomy in that sense, in that he had all this responsibility with the bar, but I felt like he still had a lot of growing to do with relationships.  Not that I could blame him with the heartaches he experienced in his past.  I really did understand why he was so quick to jump to conclusions, and why he turtled to protect himself.  And while I wouldn’t have minded a bit more groveling on his part for the mean words he said to Rachel, as a man of few words I understand that was probably more than could be asked for.

Rachel also suffered from being young and naive.  It was PAINFUL to see her get taken for a ride…it’s so hard being a reader and seeing all the pitfalls, and wanting to yell at your character “OPEN YOUR EYES!!  DON’T SIGN THAT!!!  WHAT ARE YOU DOING???”  But I could totally see how this probably happens every day to young girls with more dreams than common sense…  But it hurt to read.  And while it sucked to see her believing the threats, they felt real to me, and I could see how she would assume she didn’t have another out.  I felt like the time it took her to figure things out was realistic too, even if it sucked.  I was happy with the turns that story took, and it was actually really gratifying to see her figuring herself out, what she was capable of, and what she wanted from life.

And I think that’s where this story wins.  It’s a love story where the couple really *needed* to separate and learn to stand on their own, so they could really understand what they needed from each other.  And it made that moment where she sings, and then the whole phone call part just so gratifying, I wanted to whoop out loud!!  I love when a climax is that satisfying.

I also ADORED the cameos from Jody, Leo and Angel.  That was so satisfying.  I’m sure it would be interesting even if you’d never read Everything, but it was like awesomesauce after reading it.  AND!  I loved seeing more of what happened between Nessa and Josh!!  That always felt a little bit unfulfilling in True Love, so while these are all truly standalones, you really do get more out of the experience if you read them all (and in order).  Now I’m going to reread til the end of the series!!  It’s so fun seeing the little glimpses of where characters weave in and out of each book, connecting them all in some way.

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