Category: Military/Paramilitary

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

Deep Cover by Scarlett Cole

Deep Cover by Scarlett ColeDeep Cover by Scarlett Cole
Series: Love Over Duty, #3
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on 31st July 2018
Pages: 336
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three-stars

ARE THEY IN TOO DEEP?

Ex-Navy SEAL Cabe Moss always comes when called to duty―at all costs. Even though the death of his fiancée nearly destroyed him, Cabe won’t let his past interfere with any work that has to get done. When his latest task pushes him to team up with FBI Agent Amy Murray, a fierce beauty with the undercover skills to match, Cabe must admit that, for the first time in years, he wants to do more than just complete their mission together…

Amy was born ready for this assignment, but working side-by-side with the the strong, silent, and frustratingly professional Cabe seems to be the biggest challenge of all. But when the sparks begin to fly―and the stakes rise to dangerous heights―the only thing Amy is left worrying about is how she can resist him. Their lives may be in danger, but their hearts hold the biggest risk of all…

‘Deep Cover’ has an irresistible blurb, and even if Scarlett Cole’s works haven’t always agreed with me, such is the power of blurbs that it has gotten me willing to give her books another go.

Still reeling from the loss of his military fiancée, the thought of getting truly involved again is one that he shuns (not being sure of whether he can give that much to another person yet again). So the mess of guilt, pining and uncertainty is the cloud that hangs over Cabe’s and Amy’s burgeoning relationship, and much of the angst emanates from Cabe’s inability to fathom being with a woman who has the potential to be killed in the line of duty.

After a dud meeting in a bar, Cabe and Amy meet again on an undercover op organised by a joint task force and the rest is as they say, either kismet or cliché. Cue the bone-deep attraction that’s forbidden on so many counts, along with Cabe’s own tragic backstory that has a stranglehold on his emotions, I expected a lot of angst, tied in with the taut suspense in this op. But the angst is mostly smoothed out, the emotional bumps in the road overridden instead by the developing case which take precedence over the romance.

That said, Cabe/Amy do kind of form a believable pair; Amy’s confidence and competence (her ability to put things down on the table when it mattered) drew me in most of all, since I tend to forget the pleasure that comes with reading about a fantastic or at least, well-formed protagonist. Her foil is perfect to Cabe’s hesitation in any case, and having a good female lead never fails to brighten my day.

After a decent start however, I got frustrated at times. Some parts were unevenly paced—the storytelling lingered too much in some bits and rushed through others which I wanted to see drawn out—so I came out of this more nonplussed about the repetitive nature of the writing and Cole’s tendency to draw some details out more than I liked which resulted in a bit of skimming. Switches in POVs however, could definitely be demarcated a lot better too, which I suspect has more to do with an ARC’s formatting than anything else.

There are as well, a fair number of secondary characters—along with names and acronyms that may or may not be incidental to the plot—given the nature of the suspense and the operation, with hints of several backstories in the previous books leading up to this one, which could either prove a distraction or be motivation for reading the rest of the books in the series first. It also probably means ‘Deep Cover’ can work as a standalone…though it might pose a few difficulties when dealing with the overall narrative arc.

In short, ‘Deep Cover’ is a decent read, though not a perfect, spine-tingling one for me—I’m not entirely sold on the style of storytelling which I’ve rapidly come to recognise as Cole’s here, but it’s certainly one that I can see appealing more broadly to other RS fans.

three-stars

Free Fall by Emmy Curtis

Free Fall by Emmy CurtisFree Fall by Emmy Curtis
Series: Elite Ops #3
Published by Forever Yours on 10th July 2018
Pages: 240
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two-stars

A legend among black ops teams, Col. Duke Cameron can't wait to get back in action again-no matter how high the risk. Two of the world's best military pilots are missing after a midair collision, and he's made it his job to find out why.

U.S. Air Force veteran Casey Jacobs loves working for a cutting-edge, high-tech company - until she suspects their newest design might have caused a horrible plane crash. But after a few "accidents," it's clear no one wants her asking too many questions. The only person she trusts to help her is Duke, the sexy secret crush from her flying days who still turns her on like no one ever has.

But someone is watching their every move, making sure they don't uncover the truth. And when the danger turns physical, it's not just their love that's on the line. It's their lives.

‘Free Fall’ has a very tempting burb and I couldn’t wait to dive into it.

But my excitement turned to confusion as I flailed about in the opening few chapters, feeling as though I’d plunged straight into a conspiracy mystery without knowing the head or tail of its context (I’d actually flipped the pages wondering if I’d missed a chunk of the beginning of it).

I felt too scattered, too lost, in short, with the first and foremost question running through my mind being: is ‘Free Fall’ meant to be a standalone? Do I actually need to backtrack to read the rest of the books in the series before embarking on this? There were bits of a backstory that came through dialogue or inner monologues but it was difficult to piece even that together when my attention was already flagging, when I was trying hard to simply stay in the story with a level of confusion that showed no signs of abating.

So what really stood out for me were random actions scenes (written like movie action scenes which were quite thrilling), followed then by the lulls of the talk of the conspiracy involving Casey’s employer (which had me struggling to piece together) and then steamy times (which required no introduction)—in all, not quite sufficient to say that I could enjoy the overall flow of the story. I gave up, in the end, despite trying to power through.

two-stars

Total Control by Jackie Ashenden

Total Control by Jackie AshendenTotal Control by Jackie Ashenden
Series: 11th Hour #2
on 26th June 2018
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two-stars


Once they were soldiers. Now they answer only to honor . . .

 
The 11th Hour is made up of men and women who are no longer deemed fit to serve their country, but still need to fight a war. They work in shadows, keep their secrets—and follow their hearts . . . 

Helicopter pilot Kellan Blake has always hated being told what to do, so being discharged from the army for insubordination doesn't come as much of a surprise.

What does surprise him is that when he joins up with the elite, underground 11th Hour squad instead, they send him straight home. The nest of vipers that calls itself his family is the next target for the team’s tech unit, so he’ll either have to brave their traps and deceptions himself—or watch his sweet, shy friend Sabrina walk into them alone . . .  

Sabrina’s no femme fatale, but since there's no one else with the tech skills to get the info they need, she’ll put on a party dress and take one for the team. But whoever decided she should pretend to be Kellan’s new fiancée hit a little too close to home. How can she concentrate on a dangerous mission when she's worried about giving away what she really feels for her loyal, passionate, smoking hot partner? At least she isn’t likely to blow their cover. Until she’s in the line of fire, and neither Kellan's demons nor his heart are hers to tame . . .  

‘Total Control’ started out fantastically, I have to say. The conflict was established early on, as Kellan Blake went all out to prove his father’s innocence when the 11th Hour crew had all but deemed his guilty of crimes too horrific to imagine. But it was the undercover mission involving him and fellow operative and best friend Sabrina however, that had things going completely awry for me, along with a set of revelations and corresponding behaviour that made me think twice about rooting for this pairing.

Combining the unrequited love, best friends-to-lovers trope here, Jackie Ashenden focuses less on the action and more on the drama surrounding both Kellan and Sabrina, though it’s the former’s intrusive past that has been brought to light in a very unpleasant way, overshadowing the original mission. And that was what spoiled the broth for me, so to speak. I wanted to see how Ashenden addressed his inability to see Sabrina for who she was given she was under his nose all these years, but this didn’t happen; instead, all I got was more of Kellan bulldozing his way through to proclaim Sabrina was what he wanted after 2 weeks undercover and several nights of hot sex.

In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to find a more emotionally-manipulative and controlling ‘hero’ than Kellan, who uses every weapon in his arsenal to get his way (that includes sex) to railroad his best friend under the guise of wanting to protect her. His inability to see her as an operative, his unquestioning acceptance of the his sudden but inexplicable attraction to her despite the fixation on anything and everything else but her didn’t make him a protagonist deserving of a woman who was insecure enough in measuring her self-worth in terms of usefulness to him and whose only crime was to stupidly let herself be controlled by him.

The constant repetition of what Kellan did years ago grated on me—a character who made her presence felt without appearing nonetheless—made the story like a lopsided love triangle when that became the focus at the end instead of the mission that we started out with. The result was an ending scene that became an emotional mess and both Sabrina and Kellan tried different ways to rationalise what they’d done…until I failed to see any logic in their arguments.

In essence, the direction the story took was immensely disappointing, particularly after the pretty cool build-up from the start. And more’s the pity, because ‘Total Control’ could have gone down so differently for me but ultimately didn’t.

two-stars

Forged in Ember by Trish McCallan

Forged in Ember by Trish McCallanForged in Ember by Trish McCallan
Series: Red-Hot SEALS #4
Published by Montlake Romance on 15th May 2018
Pages: 394
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three-stars

In the final novel in the scorching Red-Hot SEALs series, a desperate mother and a Navy SEAL fight fire with fire to protect their love and save the world…

Amy Chastain has made a lot of enemies—none so ruthless as the insanely powerful New Ruling Order (NRO). When they killed her husband, it was hell. Then they targeted her children by injecting them with a dangerous, experimental isotope. Now Amy trusts only one man to help her: the ex-commander of SEAL Team 7.

In the company of Navy SEALs, Jace “Mac” Mackenzie was in his physical element. Now he’s on the run from the same cabal that poisoned Amy’s children. That doesn’t stop him from launching a mission to bring down the NRO—and find an antidote. But the clock is ticking. And as the sparks fly between him and Amy, Mac realizes he has more to lose than ever before.

As Mac closes in on the NRO, he uncovers a plot that threatens more than Amy’s children. Now it’s a race against time to stop a global conspiracy, save the woman he loves, and protect the family that’s starting to feel like his.

Driven by hate, Amy Chastain seeks vengeance for her children who have been used as scientific subjects. She’s not the only one part of the collateral damage when a flight was hijacked months ago, though that critical event has made it obvious that there are bigger things at play. Smack in the middle of the instability are new bonds that are made (though not without much friction in the process) and with a revelation of a Dan-Brown-type conspiracy, 4 SEALs manage to fall in love along the way. That, in a nutshell, is how far we’ve come.

‘Forged in Ember’ closes the whole series as the bad guys are dispatched, only with a loose thread or so left hanging so that there’s room for a sequel. There’s also a helpful recap of the entire story-arc in the beginning, which makes ‘Forged in Ember’ a passable standalone, but the odd bits of paranormal activity, coupled with the suspense, would probably mean that the rest of the books in this series are best read in order before tackling this one.

There’s no bigger relief than this—to see the final book in Trish McCallan’s ‘Red-Hot SEALs’ series appear, especially since the wait time for it has stretched an excruciating number of years. But I’ve held out, unable to forget that the series contains an odd but good mix of conspiracy theories, military suspense and paranormal happenings that form a cocktail potent enough to keep me constantly lapping at the pages. That McCallan’s writing style is exactly what I go for in this particular genre for doesn’t hurt either.

I’ve always been intrigued by the tension between Jace McKenzie and Amy Chastain after their very unusual meeting (in rather tragic circumstances) in the first book, anyway, and ‘Forged in Ember’ finally tells their story. Amy Chastain has always stood out like a beacon of unflagging courage and fortitude—the horrors of what she’d suffered from the first book have made me want her story from the start, as McCallan pairs a woman whose strength can’t afford to waver with a rough-hewn, temperamentally impulsive commander who’s as brutish, gruff and blunt as they come. Still, their coming together is more muted that I thought, hindered many times, by the race to save her son.

As a result, the HEA in the uneasy aftermath feels like shaky foundation on which this book ends. McCallan’s SEALs get their happy rides into the sunset, banished as they are from active duty as they know it, reinstated into another secretive order that will probably see the light of day again. There are things that I thought somewhat bizarre and out of place—the large insertion of native Indian tribal rites and rituals, the super-secret, well-stocked military base off the official lines, the influence of the supernatural here—which also takes a great amount of the suspension of disbelief. Or that paranormal abilities, which defy all attempts at rational explanation anyway, conveniently pop up at times give a deus-ex-machina cop-out to prevent more characters from dropping dead like flies and help save the day.
three-stars

Tight Quarters by Annabeth Albert

Tight Quarters by Annabeth AlbertTight Quarters by Annabeth Albert
Series: Out of Uniform, #6
Published by Carina Press on 31st July 2018
Pages: 352
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four-stars

Petty Officer Bacon, a navy SEAL and ace sharpshooter, has been on the front lines of more than his fair share of dangerous ops. Yet when a minor injury relegates him to the beta team, he’s tasked with what may be his riskiest assignment yet: the silver fox journalist he’s babysitting is the hottest, most charismatic man he’s ever encountered.

Award-winning journalist Spencer Bryant may have been named one of Pride magazine’s most eligible bachelors of the year, but he’s not looking to change his relationship status. He’s a consummate professional who won’t risk his ethics or impeccable reputation by getting involved with a source. Even a sexy-as-hell military man. But while Spencer can resist his physical attraction to Bacon, he has less control over his emotions—especially when the mission goes sideways and the two men are trapped alone.

Getting out of the jungle alive turns out to be easy compared to facing the truth about their feelings for one another back in the real world. And whether or not they can build a future is a different story altogether.

It isn’t very often that I venture into M/M romance and Annabeth Albert is an author who’s new to me.

That the ‘Out of Uniform’ series has crossed my feed numerous times which I haven’t yet taken up is just added incentive to get into a military romance of this particular sub-genre. Coming straight into ‘Tight Quarters’ without having previously read the rest of the books in the series was no biggie; I had no problems catching up even with the small references to what happened before without the focus on Bacon and Spencer faltering at all.

A hot-shot journalist embedding with this particular SEAL team (which is, according to Bacon—I just had to have a laugh at his name because his real one isn’t much better) isn’t a scenario I’d ever envisioned, but this was something I was happy to take with a pinch of salt, or better put yet, a willingness to suspend disbelief for what I thought was going to be by and large, some kind of romantic suspense written into the story.

But it wasn’t quite one and because I dove in without expectations, everything felt fresh and new, from the not-quite action in the first half and the rather unusual conflict in the second that simply made it impossible to take sides.

The forced babysitting of Spencer Bryant, a plan that went inevitably wrong during a mission and the action that happened thereafter and the added element of the kind of craving attraction that Albert writes so well just made me a happy camper. The details of the mission itself felt as though they were deliberately left fuzzy, so it was akin to being part of the action but not being in the heart of it, which left the focus on the development of the relationship—both when Spencer and Bacon were together as well as apart.

Past the mission however, ‘Tight Quarters’ felt like a different book in the move from military to the party crowd that Spencer/Bacon got involved in on his leave. The different aspects of their characters coming out to play threw me for a bit when I’d been ready to pigeon-hole both of them as ‘journalist’ and ‘soldier’, in fact. But the thoroughness of Albert’s exploration of the tension between Bacon and Spencer—one that resulted in a slight lull in the first third of the book—was rewarding as a result, especially in the light of the slow, slow burn that was set up as hostile from the start.

By the time Bacon and Spencer talked their way through to their sappy end, I was impressed by Albert’s style—the emotional rawness that emerged later between this pairing—and her handling of gender fluidity. And then I wondered why I didn’t jump on her other books earlier on.

four-stars