The Way Back Home by Carmen Jenner

Blurb:
33119387August Cotton shouldn’t be here. When a tragic accident calls him home to Magnolia Springs, this returned Veteran adds his parents to the list of things he’s lost in recent years, right along with his IED detection dog and his left leg. As the sole guardian of his four-year-old sister, August must rely on his Marine training in raising a tiny hellion who’s as stubborn as he is. But the Corps could never prepare him for this. Nor could they prepare him for Olivia Anders, a woman who’ll stop at nothing to get her way.

As owner of Paws for Cause, Olivia is no stranger to the broken men and women who return home from war. She’s no stranger to broken dogs either. In fact, she’s made it her mission to pair the two and enrich both of their lives, but pairing ornery and aloof August Cotton will take some work. The last thing August wants is some pushy southern woman occupying his parents’ bed and breakfast and forcing him to open up about the hell he narrowly escaped, but that’s exactly what Olivia intends.

They complete one another, and yet they can’t stand to be in the same room.

Can Olivia make this hardened Marine feel again and finally show his heart the way back home?

*** Intended for a mature 18+ audience only. This book may contain triggers for some readers.

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My Review:
3.5 stars — OK, first things first, YAY to the author for putting the potential trigger warning!  I don’t actually experience triggers, but I kind of thought that this one might have potential (it does deal with the difficult subject of war, ptsd, and suicide).

OK, so wanna hear the weird thing about this one?  I LOVED so much of this book, but the one thing I was meh on?  The romance.  *rolls eyes*  Like seriously, isn’t that odd?  It’s kind of a romance book.  It’s not the whole point, but it’s kind of a main point.  *sigh*  I was going to leave that til the end like I’ve been doing lately, but how about we just get it out of the way and end on a high note?

I 100% felt the lust and attraction between Olivia and August.  I did.  It made it a little frustrating that this ended up being a slow burn book, and that the author tended to rely heavily on the interruption to stop things from going in a physical direction (I can’t even tell you how many times they were about to kiss and someone/something interrupted them).  I don’t mind that in general, but if it’s multiple times, I tend to start rolling my eyes.  My problem was not in their physical chemistry, it was that I didn’t completely follow the development of their feelings and emotions.  I got some of it, but these two were just so ridiculously damaged that they were just not healthy with each other.  I mean, like I said to my husband, it was quite a bit of hate boinking (except I used a more colourful word that definitely won’t make it past the ‘zon’s approval process).  I know some people really enjoy those kinds of angsty relationships, and I honestly actually got how it made sense in some ways, given what they’d been through in each of their pasts, but it just kind of leaves me feeling icky and unsatisfied.  And it probably didn’t help that I didn’t understand the point where Olivia got fed up…it didn’t feel like it fit, I didn’t understand how she got to the end of her rope.  Oh well, sometimes I am dense.  And I *really* didn’t like how she handled the PTSD stuff with both August and Dalton.  Honestly, I was a bit surprised how often she made really silly mistakes, and then the author would excuse it away as she should know better…but for realz people, SHE DOES THIS FOR A LIVING.  She *should* know better.  I didn’t buy being distracted by her feelings for August.  It was just too much to watch her constantly putting herself in dangerous situations.

OK!  Now onto the fun stuff!!  Well, and heartbreak.  But the good heartbreak.  The elements that put this book up there for me are actually kind of diverse.  I actually thought Olivia was hilarious and sassy and in general she had an amazingly tender heart.  It’s kind of a strange mixture actually.  But I just fell in love with the way she took in strays, from animals to humans.  I loved the way she interacted with many of the strong secondary characters.  She was wonderful with Bettina (though can I just say I’m never a fan of writing out 4 year old dialogue with the lisps included?  Personal preference).  I was pleasantly surprised with the way her relationship with Josiah progressed, and my heart ached in that storyline (though I will admit I read another review that mentioned some race issues, and in the end I agree with that reviewer, even though my little white reader self didn’t completely ferret that out on my own).  I thought Josiah and Beau added to this full, hilarious household.  And, being an animal lover, I ADORED Betty, Zora, and the bit we saw of Xena.

And while I never really felt like I got to know August quite as much, and particularly not until the second half, I loved a lot of what I got to see in his story.  I felt for him with the Jude/Sav storyline.  But where he really shone was in watching him with his dogs (either Havoc or Zora).  I felt like I learned a LOT about Marine Working Dogs, and how that all works, and while heartbreaking at times, it was also fascinating and gave me EVEN MORE respect for both the animals and handlers.

So yeah.  It’s weird when you like characters on their own, but when they don’t bring out the best in each other.  Or at least not in my opinion.  So, needless to say, this book left me feeling very mixed.  The parts I loved I REALLY LOVED.  But if I can’t connect on a romance in a romance book, well…I don’t know.  It’s a bummer, at minimum.

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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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Hole Hearted by Melissa Pearl

Blurb:
32798890Cassie Grayson doesn’t know how to be a mom. She’s twenty-two and hardly in a position to care for a kid. But when her twelve-year-old nephew is dumped in her lap, she does the only thing she can: she takes him in.

Neither of them have it easy as they try to navigate this unknown path. Cassie must deal with her feelings toward her estranged sister and her own rocky childhood growing up in the foster care system. Felix is still reeling from being uprooted from the only life he’s ever known, and he doesn’t connect with his weird, emotionless aunt. The only person who seems to breach the gap between them is Troy Baker, the counselor assigned to Felix.

To Troy, Felix and Cassie should be just another case, but they’re not. Something about the hopeless duo captures his heart, and in spite of his hesitation he finds himself falling for both of them. Felix’s quiet strength is endearing, but it’s Cassie’s determination to not let her nephew down that chips away at his own walls, daring him to more than just help her…but maybe fall in love as well.

Can three strangers from completely different worlds create an unlikely family? Or are the hidden holes in their hearts too big to heal?

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

Note: I’m going to put a trigger warning for this book.  No deetz, but just know that there is difficult subject matter.

So I was actually supposed to be finishing a beta read, but I decided to sneak this book in on the side, and it turns out this book did not want to BE just a side read.  Oh no, it wanted to suck me in.  This book gives Geronimo a run for its money as my favourite of the latter Songbird novels.  It was such a difficult read at times, with so much heartbreak and our heroine struggling with the evils of her childhood.  But with all of that comes a lot of love and hope and inspiration.  Ms. Pearl balanced it really well for me.

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about having Felix’s POV in the story…not because he’s a 12 year old boy, but because so many times it feels like authors aren’t authentic and realistic with children, you know?  Like they don’t really feel their age.  But Felix was PERFECT.  His reactions and feelings, and how he coped at school, particularly at the new school with the new girls, really felt…well, authentic.  He made all the choices I expected him to make.  And quite frankly, for a girl that’s not really good with kids, he made me love him.  I felt all of his heartbreak, and uncertainty, and fear, and hope, and love!  I can honestly say that this book would not have been half as good without his POV added.  (and can I just say that I kind of hope that Felix and Summer get a bonus novella sometime in the future when we’re all missing the Songbird novels and we beg Ms. Pearl for just a little bit more?   I can dream.)

So that brings us back to our normal hero and heroine, Troy and Cassie.  I’ll talk about Cassie first, b/c I love book boys, and I want to save my book boy for the end.  Cassie broke my freaking heart.  I felt like she was portrayed in a very sensitive and realistic way (even though I don’t honestly know how anyone copes with abuse, and people cope in many different ways, but I really felt like Cassie’s way of coping was realistic).  It was so odd to want to be mad at her sister Crystal right along with Cassie, but to also understand how those events in the past played out the way they did.  They were both so young.

Cassie goes through a HUGE character growth throughout this story…and I thought the pace of her changes was realistic and believable.  Like she had put a big coating of steel over herself, but Felix and Troy were seeping in through the seams and bringing her back to life a little at a time.  There were some scenes that just made my soul soar even while it was breaking.  When they find Felix and she sings to him…  When she embraces music to try to make a connection with him.  It was so hard to watch them struggle to fit together, but then it made those wins all the more sweet.  And it was the same with her relationship with Troy.  I knew that one was going to be so much harder, but I felt like the story moved in a way it was supposed to, and that how it played out felt right for them.

Troy was amazeballs.  I just love me a sweet, caring, sensitive man.  And sexy to boot!!  Seeing him fall in love and desperately want to become part of this little family was both beautiful and heartbreaking.  He was just the perfect fit for Cassie, and I loved seeing him get his love story.  I realize I don’t know what to say about him, other than to say that he gives Harry (from Geronimo) a run for his money in the book boy department.  He definitely made me swoon on multiple occasions.

The music in this one was a mixed bag for me…I discovered that I’m not an 80’s hairband lover!  I tried listening to some of the songs and I was just like “Felix, Troy, no…”  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love me some Bon Jovi.  But apparently that love does not translate to Europe’s Superstitious or Def Leppard’s Animal.  😛  But then I discovered that I actually knew the title song, Hole Hearted, and LOVE it, and had never known the name of the song or that that was what they were saying!!  Bwahahaha…  So anyways, while I didn’t always enjoy all the songs, I really did enjoy how the music played a part in this book as it has with every Songbird novel.

And bonus points for this book?  So many cameos!!  I knew we’d see Jimmy, Nessa and Chaos (and that was awesome), but I totally forgot that Cole and Troy were friends!!  I really need to go back and reread this series from the beginning and catch up on the books I missed…

So yeah, I’m totally babbling now, but just know I really loved this book and feel like it’s one of the stars in this series.

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Steady Stroke by A.M. Arthur

Blurb:
30309403After a tragic accident, Lincoln West’s dreams of making it big as a guitarist fell apart. Unable to play music, he’s battling a hopeless downward spiral, and takes his friend’s offer to stay at their beach house for the summer. While at an open mike night at local bar Off Beat, he locks eyes with a busboy who doesn’t make Linc feel so broken anymore.

Emmett Westmore lives for the anonymity of busing tables in his aunt’s quirky bar where no one pities him for the fire that killed everyone he loved. He blames himself for the fire, and he doesn’t want anyone to see him—except for Linc. Emmett’s walls drop when he’s around the gorgeous blue-eyed guitarist, but he has a secret that could destroy his budding relationship with Linc.

Both Linc and Emmett are looking for a way to live again…will they let their fears control them or take a chance on something real?

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

So I finished this book with a fairly solid 4 star feeling…but the problem is that there were a few things that bothered me, and I made the mistake of going to read other reviews to see if other people were equally bothered, and suddenly I was more bothered.  GAH!  I have to stop doing that!  So now we’re at a 3.5 stars and I don’t know whether to round up or down.  I think I’ll still round up since that was my gut feeling upon finishing the book, and I shouldn’t be so easily swayed.

So the good: I really enjoyed both characters.  I felt like they each had quite a bit of depth, and their own interesting story to tell about coming to terms with being gay and all that good stuff.  I also really enjoyed the romance in this one, I could really feel the chemistry between the characters.  They were playful at times, and seemed to bring out good things in each other, encouraging each to be themselves and reach for goals.  I loved how sweet they could be to each other (Emmett taking care of Linc with the migraines and his more recent trauma, and Linc being there for Em with his past struggles, and his current struggles accepting his homosexuality and exploring it).  I really enjoyed the addition of so many intriguing secondary characters…they felt real, had depth, and added to the story, added to our view of the characters in general (though I do have a counterpoint later).  Also, I will note that I didn’t read the first book in this series, and though some of the plot was given away, it did make me intrigued about picking up Dom and Trey’s story and reading it.

And then there’s the things that bothered me: first, and FOREMOST, the secret.  OK, so this is the first A.M. Arthur book I’ve read, and from some of the reviews I’ve seen, it seems the author is a fan of angst.  I’m only a medium fan of angst, so maybe it was a bit of a mismatch for me.  The problem for me is that there was SO MUCH of it.  I mean, each character individually had enough personal strife to satisfy any craving for angst.  And quite honestly, if that was all we had to deal with, I would have enjoyed this book so much more.  The problems they were dealing with were intriguing, and heartbreaking, and more than enough to make a great plot and provide conflict and resolution.  But the author had to one-up it or something.  And so came Emmett’s secret.  I was not a fan.  I think I might have blinked in disbelief.  It’s not that I haven’t read books with this twist in it, but they usually aren’t accompanied by a bevy of problems that precede it.  The problem lies in that with so many issues being addressed, none of them really got the love and attention and respect that they deserved.  I became desensitized, and I didn’t truly believe in the resolutions then.

(This might get a little plot spoilery in this paragraph, be warned) And it wasn’t just that this additional secret existed, it was that it was introduced to Emmett early on in the book, and then he kept it a secret from Linc until towards the end.  And I’m not entirely sure I believed in the purpose for him keeping it a secret, and so I felt myself disliking Emmett for making that choice.  And then it was just there, causing him guilt, and making me want to know how Lincoln would react.  And then when that finally came to a head, it was so close to the end, I didn’t really get the believable resolution I wanted.  I know…I’m being vague.  But I really have to be in this case.

So back to the other issues.  Wasn’t really impressed with the resolution to the issue Linc deals with wrt Tom.  Too serious of an issue to be handled so flippantly in some ways.  I try to tell myself that everyone deals with things differently, and this very well might be how someone would deal with it, but it became a tiny subplot compared to everything else going on, and so it really didn’t need to be there if it wasn’t going to be treated with respect and sensitivity.

Wasn’t really impressed with the additional diversity added for Emmett/Emilio.  Could have been so good, and I LOVE diverse books, but making him Muslim felt like a plot device to address the fear, but we got nothing from his religion (and having grown up so devoutly, I would expect to learn more about it regardless of how he feels now).  It was a topic that was added, but not given enough time or, again, respect.

I’m hoping that Van and Melody get their own book, and that the author actually deals with their sexual challenges with more insight and respect.  They were an intriguing addition, but again not really given time or weight (but at least in this aspect I’m assuming it’s because they will be getting their own book, otherwise I don’t see the point in adding yet another topic to this overloaded story).

And that’s the basic jist of it for me.  The story was overloaded.  I feel like the author could have done a much better job if she’d pared down the trauma each character (and the secondary characters) experienced and given more weight and thoughtfulness to any of the gagillion topics she chose to address.  By adding so many, she kind of watered it down and missed some great opportunities.

So how the hell can I justify a round up to 4 stars now?  Hmmm…good question.  See?  That’s the thing.  These things that bothered me really did bother me.  But the good stuff of the romance and the character interactions cannot be undervalued.  They made for a very enjoyable read for me.  So I guess the written part of my review is where I rant about those bad things, but the star part of my review is where I convey how much the good parts weighed in the grand scheme of things for me.  Well, if nothing else, this book made me think a lot about what I like and all that…  (And I thought my last review was long…*rolls eyes*)

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