Entropy by Jess Anastasi

Entropy by Jess AnastasiEntropy by Jess Anastasi
Series: Atrophy, #4
Published by Entangled Publishing, LLC on 23rd July 2018
Pages: 271
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Captain Qaelan Forster is used to trouble. He lives on the wrong side of the law and he’s on the most-wanted lists. He’s mixed up in his cousin's mess who has problems on a cosmic level—like shape-shifting aliens who want them dead. But Qaelan’s not prepared for the cheeky kind of trouble called Camille Blackstone, whose infamous father has any man interested in his daughter executed.

After Camille drags Qaelan into an impulsive act of rebellion, she finds herself trying to defend the sexy captain from her overprotective father's wrath, even if she has to handcuff herself to the captain to keep him alive. However, it soon becomes apparent there are much more dangerous things lurking in the dark corners of the universe than a vengeful pirate lord. And she's just landed in the middle of it.

Qaelan Foster’s latest outings with his cousin have been more misadventures than adventures and mostly of the dodgy variety. But then he gets entangled with the likes of Camille Blackstone, which brings a whole new meaning of trouble.
But first, context is king: ‘Entropy’ isn’t exactly a standalone and there’s quite a backstory as to how this book begins. Basic knowledge of Jess Anastasi’s world-building surrounding the Imojenna and its ragtag crew would provide a fuller appreciation of Qae/Camille’s relationship and why we keep getting teased with Rian’s own ‘will-they-won’t-they’ relationship with Ella). And that’s as much as I should say, without needing to go into any longwinded recounting (which a book review isn’t supposed to be anyway) of the whole story.
Sadly, I wasn’t too sold on Qae and Camille to begin with: their (sort-of?) one-night stand, without the buildup or chemistry didn’t do much for me so very early on in the story, though it was a clever twist on how things ended up—Anastasi leaves a little bit to anticipate—before the story really kicks in.
Unlike the trajectory that the Atrophy series has been taking, ‘Entropy’, with the story of Qae/Camille, is like a diversion, steered towards a different path of space adventures because it isn’t directly focused once more on Rian, his demons and his endless chasing after an enemy that he may never overpower. Whatever few scenes with Rian/Ella/others I lapped up; the rest with Qae/Camille, I read with a bit more lukewarmness and frustration. Because despite their flirty push-pull, foreplay-esque tussles which I probably would have liked more if there weren’t the weight of the narrative arc already written into the series, all I could keep thinking about was Rian and when he’d finally get his own story straightened out. It’s that heavy of a presence he has in ‘Atrophy’, which I find impossible to shrug off.
Even if Qae/Camille’s tale and their frolic with the space pirates didn’t exactly keep me engaged, I still like the organic whole of the ‘Atrophy’ series and that isn’t often that I can say this. Reading any book of Anastasi is like having a mish-mash of scenes from syfy-series that I’ve enjoyed over the years flash fondly through my mind. There’re parts of everything I love/hate, along with the understated dashes of humour which make me laugh not only because they always serve as shadows of what I miss in those—like new wine continually put in old wine skin.
But until Rian’s story comes, I suspect I’ll be in a well of frustration.

Happy Hour by Piper Rayne

Happy Hour by Piper RayneHappy Hour by Piper Rayne
Series: Charity Case #3
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on 12th July 2018
Pages: 306
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The perfect man for her is the one she hates most. #gofigure

Dating is hard. Dating in your thirties is even harder. Dating in Chicago is harder still.

I haven't given up on finding my happily-ever-after, but in the age of swiping right and Netflix and chill, I'm wondering if everything is as temporary as my marriage turned out to be.

Truth is, there is one guy I can't get my mind off of.

Roarke Baldwin has salt and pepper hair I've dreamed of running my hands through and I'm pretty sure that if I checked he really does have a six pack of abs underneath his suit. And I've always wondered what that stubble on his face would feel like between my thighs.

The problem? He's the one man I hate more than my ex-husband…

His divorce attorney.

The enemies-to-lovers trope is one that I really like and ‘Happy Hour’ is one of the few that I wanted to get into if only to read how a woman falls head over heels over her divorce attorney—one who helped her ex-husband screw her over (monetarily, at least).

Still, the sparks between Roarke Baldwin and Hannah Crowley have been hinted at for a while now and ‘Happy Hour’ is a story of a lost venue, a grudging turn to a nemesis and the subsequent build of a relationship that one has been hankering after more than the other.

The subsequent 5 favours that Roarke asks of the gun-shy Hannah is sweet-amusing in some ways; they’re all non-sexual and non-demeaning, as part of the contract and it was by and large fun to see how Roarke desperately tries to manoeuvre Hannah to where he wants her. The journey onward is predictable as a result: the favours draw Hannah and Roarke together, catalysing what we as readers know and expect that it would all end up as time between the sheets. The conflict itself is just as inevitable nonetheless and it’s something that’s been done dime a dozen times—addressing Hannah’s skewed view of men, their purpose and the place they play in her life.

The conclusion proved unsatisfying as a result. I did think it was unfair of Hannah to write marriage off completely after her very first one, even to a man who’d gone to bat for her in the end because it seemed to show there were some obstacles that Roarke couldn’t overcome in her life still, this being one of them, so much so that it felt as though they were still living in a compromised state as long as Hannah didn’t open herself to that possibility once more.

In contrast, Roarke came off as the sweeter, more open and vulnerable of the two, unlike the corporate shark I thought him to be. Solely written in Hannah’s POV, thereby exposing all her thought-processes that turned neurotic and paranoid at times, I know I would have preferred a glimpse into Roarke’s mind as well, particularly what he’d been thinking ever since he stuck her with the 5-favour-contract.

Most of the time, it felt as though Roarke had an insurmountable mountain to climb when it came to Hannah (her idiotic and sometimes bitchy self-denials and her refusal to trust) and what made me hesitant about my own rating about this book was how Hannah used her her mistrust of men after her disastrous marriage to judge everyone else who comes after. That she knew and admitted it, yet acted stupidly about it, made me feel sorrier for Roarke’s efforts that were doomed to fail because of her insecurities.

So if ‘Happy Hour’ started happy for me, it degenerated into more eye-rolling as I read on, mostly because I was rooting for Hannah to rise above her past—to be that sort of heroine is the kind I ship—but never quite got it by the end of it all.

Firestorm by Rachel Grant

Firestorm by Rachel GrantFirestorm by Rachel Grant
Series: Flashpoint #3
Published by Janus Publishing on 10th July 2018
Pages: 300
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CIA covert operator Savannah James is after intel on a potential coup in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but she needs a partner fluent in Lingala to infiltrate the organization. Sergeant First Class Cassius Callahan is the perfect choice, except he doesn’t like her very much. He doesn’t trust her, either, despite the sparks that flare between them, fierce and hot. Still, he accepts the assignment even though their cover requires Savvy to pose as his mistress.

They enter battle-worn Congo to expose the financing for the coup. A trail of cobalt, gold, and diamonds leads them into the heart of a jungle in which everyone is desperate to find the mother lode of ore and gems. Betrayal stalks them as they follow the money, but Savvy will stop at nothing to bring down the would-be dictator before he can ignite a firestorm that will engulf all of Africa.

Deep in the sultry rainforest, spy and Green Beret forge a relationship more precious than diamonds, but Cal knows Savvy is willing to sacrifice anything—or anyone—to complete her mission. As they near the flashpoint, Cal will have to save her from the greatest threat of all: herself.

Start a Rachel Grant book and it’s a sure-thing to surface only a few days later. It’s that intricate, that complex and that impossible to breeze through because of the details and the twists and turns that slowly come into play despite the deceptively simple beginning. A light-hearted read this isn’t, but ‘Firestorm’, like every other Grant read, always muscles in on the romantic suspense genre with a lot of audacious aplomb.

That kind of daring comes in from the beginning with Savannah James and Cassius Callahan going undercover, though the trajectory of the storytelling doesn’t stay in a direction you’d expect. There’re hooked roads, forked paths and unforeseen obstacles that constantly throw wrenches in the good ol’ plot, which makes ‘Firestorm’ and all-round absorbing ride. But beneath that, there are also gut-churning and tooth-rottingly salacious details revolving around exploitative sex, violence and mega-money deals in a hot zone in Africa—all of which Cal and Savvy try to uncover without compromising themselves—that can be difficult to power through.

Still, betrayals and disavowals are par for the course, and it’s akin to hopscotching blindfolded in a minefield. The lack of full disclosure, the deception and lies (whether necessary or not), tend to be one of my pet-peeves in such romances nonetheless. ‘The mission above all’ as mantra and the prolonged double-crossing that inevitably destroys a relationship account for what I’ve always thought of as the biggest failings in such stories. There are a few instances of that here, unsurprisingly as it is, when it comes down to spooks justifying their belief that the ends justify the means. That said, it makes for interesting, though not always enjoyable friction and conflict between Cal and Savvy.

In contrast to Cal’s open-book demeanour however, I was itching to unravel Savannah, or at least get to the real person behind the mission-above-all heartless character who’s seemingly been nothing more than a compassionless automaton in the first few books of this series. What I wasn’t prepared for was a tragic backstory to emerge, and one that should be uncomfortably close to women who’ve tried to rise in their careers. It isn’t to say there aren’t eye-rolling TSTL moments—like the stunt she pulls towards the end, which made me think that trust was still an issue, not to mention the stupid (and wrong) belief of doing even stupider things to in a self-sacrificing way that typically gets old and annoying.

As I’d initially expected, ‘Firestorm’ is a longer read than most typical romance-length books. Beyond the characters and the thrilling storyline, Grant takes her time laying out the context of the Central African region to the point where parts of the story feel like a anthropological documentary embedded into the rush of adventure…and for that alone, it’s not hard to consider ‘Firestorm’ a fantastic (and quite possibly, the best) addition to the series.

Imperator by Anna Hackett

Imperator by Anna HackettImperator by Anna Hackett
Series: Galactic Gladiators #10
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing, Anna Hackett on July 8th 2018
Pages: 206
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three-half-stars

Space station security specialist Sam has done one thing since her abduction by alien slavers…fight to survive. But now one strong alien gladiator stands at her side and Sam knows she is no longer alone.

Thrust into a lawless desert arena, Sam Santos has done terrible things in order to stay alive. As the Champion of Zaabha, she’s been fighting to find a way out. Everything changes when the Imperator of the House of Galen sacrifices his freedom to help her. The hard-bodied, fierce man has vowed to help her escape, but getting out of Zaabha is only the first deadly task they face.

Galen was bred to be a royal bodyguard and protect his prince. With his planet now destroyed, he’s grown powerful and forged his wealthy gladiatorial House on the desert planet of Carthago. All Galen knows is honor, service, and sacrifice. Now his life depends on working with one battle-hardened woman of Earth as they fight together to survive. But Sam Santos is not what he expected. Tough, yes. A brilliant fighter, for sure. But there is a softer side to the woman as well. And Galen finds himself irrevocably drawn to all of Sam’s captivating facets.

Then they uncover a devious plot by the Thraxians that could bring down the foundations of the Kor Magna Arena and all they hold dear. Galen and Sam will stop at nothing to defeat the evil alien slavers, even if it means war. In amongst the fighting, Sam may finally show a man who lives for everyone else, that he deserves more than just honor and freedom, but love as well…if they survive the coming battle.

‘Imperator’ closes out Anna Hackett’s Galactic Gladiators series, or at least it’s the end…for now, until the next House gets its own story as a spin-off in the future.

Opening straight from the end of the last book (best to read them in order at least), Sam Santos’s and Galen’s story is one that Anna Hackett has been promising for a while. The fight agains the mortal enemy in this world comes to a head in this book and it’s an exciting one, though it did get loopy at times, as if Sam and Galen went round the merry-go-round getting free from the Thraxians, only to be captured again.

Sam, the former head of security on a space station, is as much as a gladiator and imposing warrior in her own right—I keep imagining a very sweaty Beyoncé dressed in tight leathers constantly holding a sword and knife for some reason—and a perfect match for Galen. Uber-capable, super tough, straight-shooting and determined, it’s easy to root for a strong female protagonist that you wish would always grace the pages of adventure romance books—eclipsing even the stoic and ever-in-control Galen who’d always scoffed in resignation about his gladiators falling for earth women.

I’ll admit that this isn’t quite the series that I’ve been salivating over, despite the rush of romance, adventure and iron-clad HEAs that are guaranteed in Hackett’s books. With the same formula of pairing women from earth with alien mates, the last-minute miraculous rescues and the survival against all odds that’s found in all of the books, I’m guessing that I’m probably thirsting after some deviation…somehow, somewhere.

The world-building is nonetheless impressive—it’s why Hackett’s books primarily appeal, even if not always for the pairing for me at least—and the book’s easy enough to breeze through, which would make it a perfect escape for a couple of hours.

three-half-stars

Major Crimes by Janie Crouch

Major Crimes by Janie CrouchMajor Crimes by Janie Crouch
Series: Omega Sector: Under Siege #4
Published by Harlequin Intrigue on 19th June 2018
Pages: 288
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three-stars

Working together would bring down a killer

But her secrets could tear them apart…

Hayley Green never wanted to see Omega special agent Cain Bennett again. Ever. He seduced her, then sent her to prison for hacking, and Hayley’s only just started piecing her life back together. Except now Cain needs Hayley’s help to catch a murderer. Their past is colliding with their still-smoldering attraction…and the only thing more dangerous than the killer is the secrets Hayley’s been keeping.

It isn’t often that I do up a review for a category book, not because they don’t work for me, but because the formulaic writing that seems to be dictated by length also tends to bring what could have been a stellar story down to a mediocre read. Too often this happens, even with authors that I like writing under such particular imprints.

The blurb of Janie Crouch’s ‘Major Crimes’ is exactly what I wanted to read—there was I knew, a huge amount of emotional distance to cover and loads of trust to regain on one side—because I had a gut feeling that I could sympathise strongly with a female protagonist who’d already gone through so much. And that happened in fact, to the point where I wondered if Hayley should have been stronger to fight off her attraction to the man who’d thrown her in jail and did nothing but hang on to his righteous attitude for the whole time.

Sailing through this however, left me a little less than satisfied. This is where the brevity of a typical Harlequin read works against the story: for Hayley’s traumatic past and her (rightful) hurt and anger at Cain, I’d expected more grovelling, more insight, more regret; instead, these were relegated to single-sentence telling rather than showing, leaving out the bits that could have made the emotions rawer and the forgiveness less easy to come by. (Vindictive self speaking here)

Coupled with the suspense and the action which overtook the emotional weight of their past that I badly wanted to read about, ‘Major Crimes’ wrapped up too easily and quickly for me, particularly when it came to kissing and making up. The wrongs were righted, the bad guy was shot and the HEA were all delivered of course, but I couldn’t nevertheless, imagine Hayley/Cain moving forward without the huge load of past hurts and resentment popping up from often in their future…and that sort of dragged the happy ending from under my feet.

three-stars

Chaos by J.M. Madden

Chaos by J.M. MaddenChaos by J.M. Madden
Series: Dogs of War #1
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on June 26th 2018
Pages: 201
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three-half-stars

Aiden Willingham has lived a hard life. As a Navy SEAL, he agreed to take part in an ultra-secret government testing program. The company running the program, the Silverstone Collaborative, has produced a serum from an Amazonian plant that’s been proven to enhance physical abilities and mental fortitude. Problem is, men-- heroes-- have died during the testing, and it’s time for the company to be taken down before more men die needlessly.

Aiden, along with three others, have escaped the camp with evidence of the company’s horrendous practices. Now they’re in a race to expose them. They’ve already lost one of their team, and the Collaborative’s mercenaries are converging.
Angela Holloway knew the homeless man with sadness in his eyes was trouble as soon as she saw him hanging around the site of a murder.

Uncooperative, he stonewalls her investigation, but draws her in when the badge comes off. Aiden has scars, both internal and external, that make her heart ache. It’s a serious no-no getting involved with a suspect… too bad her heart isn’t listening. As details come to light about what’s going on in her city, she has to fight for what she believes is right, as well as the man on the wrong side of the law.

I can’t recall the number of iterations of the enhanced super-soldier I’ve gone through, but by now, it’s probably a lot. The conspiracy, the theories, the villainous cold-blooded woman (this pops up too predictably), the tortured men and the paranormal abilities they’ve developed because of the secret testing program…well, I can’t get past those enough, it seems.

‘Chaos’ is another version of these stories, so what really differentiates such stories from one another would then be the quality of the storytelling, which I’ve found myself subconsciously assessing on a personal scale.

As much as I loved the prequel, ‘Chaos’ plunges straight into the meatier side of it, this time with a romance on top of it, as the very sympathetic Aiden Willingham finally gets some due justice alongside a capable woman who does seem perfectly matched for him. Better yet, there aren’t the shenanigans of men behaving like growling beasts (both in and out of bed) then given the official excuse thrown out time and again for their inevitable actions.

So, by and large, ‘Chaos’ is a decent read, but I did think that J.M. Madden’s writing tended to get lost in several loops at times—too much of this, too little of that, but these are clearly my own gripes.

There’s a lot going on in here (sometimes too much I think), which might account for the rambling telling rather than showing: the recounting of past events, the conflicted inner monologues, the ton of information and context that Madden seems desperate to relay to the reader. Like the book’s title, some parts were chaotic though shrouded in mystery, and as a result, slowed the pacing in the first quarter of the book where I’d expected more driving forward momentum.

That said, I’m curious to see how Madden will take this entire narrative arc—I’m eternally grateful that Madden doesn’t deliberately leaving a cackling villain who survives until the very end just to draw out the good-evil conflict—and that black hole of not knowing what will happen next in this case, is a very welcome one.

three-half-stars

Genesis by J.M. Madden

Genesis by J.M. MaddenGenesis by J.M. Madden
Series: Dogs of War #0.5
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on June 20th 2018
Pages: 45
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four-stars

After a harrowing mission, Navy SEAL Aiden Willingham was approached to participate in a secret research project. Now he realizes the Spartan Project is a covert, multinational government testing program run by a private company called The Silverstone Collaborative. The company’s mission is to create super soldiers, men capable of recovering from horrendous illness and injuries, using a serum derived from indigenous plants in the Amazon rainforest.

The program is brutal and when the men object, they go from test subjects to caged prisoners overnight. The doctor leading the program is world-renowned for his cutting-edge cures, but Aiden sees only the madness in his eyes. The serum is producing results, but men are dying every day of testing.

And, as more men die, the experiments turn more deadly. What the research team doesn’t realize is exactly what the serum is doing…creating a psychic connection between four of the men. Aiden and his team have to break out of the camp before they’re compromised further. But getting out of the camp is the easy part. They know that actually living to bring the Silverstone Collaborative to justice is going to be the most difficult mission any of them have ever undertaken.

It has been so long that I’ve actually gone into a book without romance as its primary goal and this much I’d say: it’s a change, a subtle shift in re-looking the way I tend to evaluate romances…and perhaps a most welcome one after having gone through too many forgettable and mediocre reads. That also means the very freeing sensation of not having to nitpick through romantic tropes and analysing why they work (or not) for me and then rating the plot and/or the characters as disappointing/unimpressive each time. At least, that has been the pattern with me for a long, long time.

As the prequel J.M. Madden’s ‘Dogs of War’ series, ‘Genesis’ is the short but brutal story of captured soldiers experimented on and their daring escape—men bonded by torture and their emerging abilities—from a nightmare that they can’t seem to free themselves from. I barely remember Aiden Willingham at all from Madden’s other books, but the prequel takes care of it all, unravelling his past in a way that leaves no uncertainty or mystery (at least for Aiden as a character) in the next book to come. In any case, ‘Genesis’ is quite the exciting read: full of danger at every turn, with the thrills of these men’s desperate race for survival during harrowing flight for freedom (with a lick of the paranormal), proving a rollicking good start to a series which I can’t wait to see out.

four-stars