Category: Romantic Suspense

Stripped by Tara Wyatt

Stripped by Tara WyattStripped by Tara Wyatt
Series: Blue HEAT, #1
Published by Avon Impulse on 15th May 2018
Pages: 384
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three-stars

Detective Sawyer Matthews isn’t just having a bad day—he’s having the worst day. His hunt for the criminal who killed his team member has stalled and now… he’s got to play nice with his new, totally unwanted partner. It’s not that she isn’t qualified, or that he doesn’t like her—it’s because he knows what she looks like naked. So very, very naked.

Brooke Simmons finally landed her dream job working for H.E.A.T, an elite undercover detective squad, and she’s not giving up simply because she had a one-night-stand with her sullen—but undeniably sexy—new partner. They’ll just have to keep it professional. Easier said than done, considering their first case requires Sawyer to infiltrate a drug cartel operating out of a male strip show. Watching him do his best Magic Mike impression every night isn’t just hot—it’s torture.

Sawyer doesn’t need any distractions, yet his attraction to Brooke is explosive and he can’t resist going for round two. Or three. Or four. But as their investigation progresses and danger mounts, they’ll have to put their jobs, hearts, and lives on the line to fight… for each other, for survival, and for justice.

Tara Wyatt’s newest law enforcement series sounded like the kind of romantic suspense I wanted to dig my heels into and ‘Stripped’—in more ways than one—is the introduction to a trio of detectives seeking to avenge the death of their friend, while finding their HEA along the way.

It’s not quite a workplace romance gone wrong, but Brooke and Sawyer went at it in reverse—from a one-night stand to the mortifying discovery that they actually work together—with Brooke as a replacement for Sawyer’s fallen best friend. As they got very hot and extremely heavy in the opening scenes for what was meant to be a one-nighter, I felt a tad bit cheated out of the usual play of tension that I normally like before they actually fall into bed, then felt equally off-centre as both Brooke and Sawyer did as I didn’t know where the direction of ‘Stripped’ was going.

My own expectations of a high-octane, non-stop police drama weren’t quite fulfilled; instead we had Sawyer and Brooke sniping post-hookup (and basically being jerks to each other) that got annoying at times instead of the heavy and heated glances that typically build. Then it got weirdly comical when Sawyer went undercover as a male stripper, kicking off a raunchiness that rivalled a porno given the amount of sexy times in it when I wanted to read more about hard-core police work.

There were overly-used clichéd phrases written in that made me cringe as well, and some unwelcome development of secondary characters whose future stories I know I might not be looking forward to read. In all, there was certainly action that kept me going (of the actual road-rash-giving kind) and I did, for most of it, liked Brooke’s no-nonsense character save for the last, somewhat out-of-character TSTL move on her part.

But there were lulls in the pacing that made the whole story move along in a jerky fashion and I did at times, feel somewhat untethered to the plot that just didn’t build or move when I thought it would, in a direction I thought it would. That said, ‘Stripped’ is far from a bad read, only that I wished I enjoyed it more.

three-stars

Built to Last by Julie Ann Walker

Built to Last by Julie Ann WalkerBuilt to Last by Julie Ann Walker
Series: Black Knights Inc., #12
Published by Sourcebooks on 3rd July 2018
Pages: 384
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two-stars

Masterful, mysterious, and completely ruthless, Jamin “Angel” Agassi joined the Black Knights Inc. after a mission-gone-wrong forced him to undergo extensive plastic surgery and change his name. He's going to bring down the world's worst crime syndicate, and hopefully keep Sonya Butler, a love from his past, from discovering who he really is...

When a dark-eyed stranger gets caught up in Sonya’s latest mission, she starts to question all her hard-won instincts. Something about Angel tells her he's more than he seems, and sometimes, when she least expects it, he reminds her of a man she used to know. As the bullets fly, she realizes that in love and war nothing is ever what it seems...

As the tail-end of Julie Ann Walker’s ‘Black Knights Inc.’, ‘Built to Last’ has an interesting premise and one that reminds me strongly of another book that I’ve read and found confounding, but the lure of black-ops, action and suspense is always hard to resist.

No doubt this has a sweeping narrative arc—a feature of the typical romantic suspense novel that I love—and coming into this so late in the game means that it can be hard keeping the story straight in my head. I lacked the context about the hows and whys of this particular mission and being dropped like this into the story was disconcerting. My bad here.

But this much I knew: Jamin “Angel” Agassi felt like most remote of the lot and as an agent, well, he’s one to be admired and feared for doing his job well. Country above everything. Duty above love. The righteousness of sacrifice being the mantra he works according to, which happens to give leeway to do things using a bewildering number of identities. And that’s all the positive things that I can give about this character.

Walker writes a second-chance romance and I was hoping that this would be one of the rare few that would work for me. The validity of the explanations for the separation and what both characters did in the years are usually the answers that I seek in this trope.

‘Built to Last’ unfortunately, couldn’t satisfy those prerequisites I have.

My scepticism about Angel’s and Sonya’s romance stems from the fact that Angel had buried his head in the sand after he’d chosen his country over Sonya, destroyed the both of them, tried to forget her, then had a woman in every port, all the while saying that he still loved her. And then continued reprehensibly, to lie to her about his identity as she felt guilty about projecting her feelings for a man she thought dead onto him, while knowing full well about the consequences of his own actions that he didn’t want to face.

Perhaps this sits perfectly fine with other readers who like this sort of star-crossed kind of vibe where the number of bed partners they’ve had in the intervening years is inconsequential. This connection between Sonya and Angel, supposedly forged long ago and sparking to life again, wasn’t one I could buy into, more so on Angel’s part, given that he’d done nothing to question his own choices—and wouldn’t have—until he saw Sonya again. For this reason I couldn’t believe that they belonged together, not when Angel (the only one who could but didn’t) didn’t move heaven and earth to be with Sonya. Merely paying lip service to the expansive declaration that he’d loved her for a decade, the regrets he expressed at the end merely seemed too panicky, too little, too late.

In short, less the past romance is crowed about and exalted, the less I feel compelled to argue for the kind of hypocrisy involved in ‘moving on’.

So for the hero that Angel is to the rest of the world, I could only call him a coward.

My beef with characterisation aside, Angel/Sonya’s story, interspersed with sudden flashbacks, POVs from the villain and another pairing, did feel disjointed as well. The sly but strange insertions of humour (?) and exaggerated snark sometimes seemed ill-fitting, bordering the absurd for the situation at hand when all I wanted was a more straightforward progression of the plot and the relationship.

The conclusion as a result, felt abrupt considering the plot juggled more than just a pairing here, but I’m guessing that this would deliriously please the hard-core fans of this series who have been invested in the characters and the narrative from the beginning.

‘Built to Last’ isn’t good as a standalone. Would I have been a happier camper having gone through all the other books? Perhaps. But this swan-song, long-awaited or not, wasn’t one I could enjoy at all, unfortunately.

two-stars

Off the Grid by Monica McCarty

Off the Grid by Monica McCartyOff the Grid by Monica McCarty
Series: The Lost Platoon, #2
Published by Berkley Jove on July 3rd 2018
Pages: 304
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two-stars

A team of Navy SEALs go on a mission and disappear without a trace--they are The Lost Platoon.

Investigative reporter Brittany Blake may have stumbled upon the story of a lifetime in her search for her missing brother. When he seemingly disappears overnight, she refuses to accept the Navy's less-than-satisfying explanation. She begins her own investigation, which leads her to top-secret SEAL teams, covert ops, and a possible cover up...

John Donovan is having trouble biding his time, waiting for his Commanding Officer to figure out who set up their platoon. John's best friend and BUD/S partner, Brandon Blake, was one of the many lives tragically lost in the attack against his team. When Brandon's sister, Brittany, tracks John down, looking for answers, he realizes that she may be their best bet--or bait--for finding out who is targeting SEAL Team Nine.

Monica McCarty’s ‘Lost Platoon’ series has an intriguing premise, which is why I can’t quite let go of this just yet. ‘Off the Grid’ even started off with that sense of urgency and adrenaline-high type of action which I adore in romantic suspense, and having these in the opening chapters seemed to bode well for the whole book. 2 very different couples grounded several unrelated developments as their own histories played out at the same time, the trajectories of their own discoveries dovetailing somewhat by the end.

This was until I realised that McCarty’s juggling of the conspiracy plot and 4 couples really spread the romance thinly to the point where the second-chance trope—rather glibly inserted—was worked out in a way that made out the male protagonists to be nothing but cruel, asinine arses and women who should have known better than to melt at the slightest finger wiggle.

‘Off the Grid’ ended up being a story that had so much potential which it ultimately didn’t fulfil. I felt as though I didn’t know more at the end of the book than I really did at the beginning, save for the basics that had already been laid down in the last book. My eagerness at wanting to uncover a significant chunk of the conspiracy plot turned into frustration when the storyline went nowhere: several threads were dangled as hooks, but there didn’t feel as though any significant progress was made, enough for the end to feel like a satisfying read, both on the action and on the romantic front.

Getting on board with Brittany and John was difficult when the latter merely treated her as the off-limits best-buddy’s sister, his obvious but reluctant attraction to her an unwanted thing as his motivation for getting close to her proved to be an order that he was following more than true attraction he wanted to follow up on. So much of their ‘relationship’ felt accidental as a result, when John made her out to be a burden more than a love interest, or a secondary character whom he didn’t want to want no matter the case. Wanting some other woman to screw to get his mind off things, for one, didn’t make him seem a credible romantic hero I could get behind, not to mention the other abominable ways in which he’d treated her throughout.

Much of their relationship was much more one-sided than I liked as John did nothing but push Brittany away on all fronts, while in contrast, the latter could never seem to resist this man who couldn’t give her what she wanted or needed—not even the basic respect that even strangers actually show each other. The rushed HEA (John only realising he ‘loved’ Brittany after she got captured) and the numerous instances of mansplaining away abhorrent behaviour that was subsequently too easily excused made me dislike a pairing which didn’t feel like they could successfully be together apart from burning up the sheets in bed.

There wasn’t much I could say about Kate/Colt either, whose business was given near-equal screen time, but with a lack of resolution that piled on the annoyance, despite them having formed a larger part of the narrative arc which was essentially left dangling by the end of the book.

If I started ‘Off the Grid’ on a high, I ended this on a whimper. I wished this could have worked better. I wished I didn’t struggle so hard to like the male protagonists, who gave me every reason to dislike them intensely. I wished they had more ballsy courage as the heroines did (the lack of grovelling didn’t help either). Too many wishes, too much frustration. And that was when I finally admitted defeat.

two-stars

Avalanche by Cambria Hebert

Avalanche by Cambria HebertAvalanche by Cambria Hebert
Series: BearPaw Resort #1
Published by Cambria Hebert on March 9th 2018
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two-stars

Don’t get caught in the surge.

Through a bullet hole in a wall, I watch a man bleed to death. Those responsible think their crime died with the victim, until I identify them.What’s a girl to do when she’s being hunted by murderers witness protection can’t even stop?Run.My only refuge is a place I vowed to never go again.When it’s do or die, an eight-year-old heartache suddenly seems trivial. Besides, he won’t be there anyway.But he is.Turns out my old pain feels brand new the second his eyes meet mine.I can’t leave. I can’t stay. This snowy town that’s supposed to be my shelter suddenly exposes me more than before.With no one else to lean on, Liam becomes my lifeline. Now we’re both running for our lives, trying not to get swept away.

Apart from the (very petty) complaint that the brochure-like cover does not match what the story seemingly promises, I was actually intrigued by ‘Avalanche’ and its premise.

Past the excellent opening chapter however, I couldn’t get past the idea of the unbelievable instalove that Cambria Hebert rolled out in both Bell/Liam’s very short history or that they remembered it as true love 8 years later after an accidental meeting. Instead, their connection (both present and remembered) felt romanticised, naive, as Bellamy went from frantic woman on the run to woman who melted at everything Liam did, seemingly losing every sense of self-preservation (her half-hearted moments of wanting to run and barely-there backup plans) when he touched her.

That there was a declaration of never having stopped loving each other—yes, the flings and never being seen with the same girl twice certainly help bolster that particular conviction—made me cringe, particularly when it didn’t feel as if their week-long affair as teenagers was the epic type of romance I could be crowing about.

It was as though this book couldn’t really decide whether it was going to sit in the romantic suspense category or the new adult one, and ended up straddling both in a way that provided a lukewarm version of both. The suspense—the gravitas, the heart-pounding action and the high-octane action—was simply put aside in favour of the reunion between Bellamy and Liam and that part of the plot which I liked, built up nicely over the prologue and first chapter, lost its momentum and faded into NA shenanigans that had me both bewildered.

That there was too much time given to the tiresome to-and-fro about Bellamy’s insecurity about Liam and her inability to steer her own life and letting Liam dictate her next course of action was frustrating. It did pick up a little towards the end though even that stuttered to a halt with an unsatisfactory conclusion that didn’t tie very much else together apart from some revelations that helped me piece together Bellamy’s backstory.

I did expect much more from Hebert in this new series, but sadly, found ‘Avalanche’ an overall disappointment, and my waning excitement probably means I wouldn’t continue this.

two-stars

Lie Close to Me by Cynthia Eden

Lie Close to Me by Cynthia EdenLie Close To Me by Cynthia Eden
Series: Lazarus Rising #5
Published by Hocus Pocus Publishing, Hocus Pocus Publishing inc. on March 20th 2018
Pages: 209
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three-stars

He’s Lazarus, and so is she. What happens when their worlds collide?

He’s hunting her. Maddox Kane has one goal—track Luna Ashton. He’s the best hunter on his team, finely honed and designed by Uncle Sam to be an unstoppable killing machine. He’s a super solider—faster, stronger, and deadlier than anyone else. Maddox keeps his emotions under careful lock and key because he can’t afford to feel. Feeling is too dangerous, and the attraction Maddox feels for Luna is positively lethal.

Luna has no memory of being in the labs with Maddox. She doesn’t remember the connection they shared when they were trapped in hell. She doesn’t remember escaping the facility. She doesn’t remember him. So when Maddox hunts her down, she’s terrified of him…and of the strange psychic and sensual connection they seem to share. Surely she shouldn’t want him so much?

Luna is different from the other Lazarus subjects, and Maddox isn’t the only one hunting her. She’s a dangerous threat to Project Lazarus, and Luna isn’t going to be allowed to just slip away from the U.S. government…or from the other super soldiers who are also desperate to find her. Every Lazarus subject has incredible psychic gifts. Some Lazarus subjects can make people see their worst fears, some can control minds…but Luna’s gift—she can show people their memories. Luna has the ability to restore memories to all of the other Lazarus subjects, yet she can’t see her own past.

And if you can’t see your past…then you never know what danger is coming, what killer is standing right next to you, touching you, lying to you…not until it is too late.

If I was horrified by subjects rising from the dead in a macabre fashion from the first book, Cynthia Eden’s characters do it rather regularly now to the point where I find myself quite immune to these ‘risings’, only for the fact that it proves to be a reset button that’s both a boon and a bane to read about. ‘Lie With Me’—Eden’s 5th outing into this series—was just a book I wanted to get into despite my own personal misgivings about this series, because the subject matter is darkly seductive enough to draw me in.

But I wasn’t entirely too sure what I was reading about as well, to be honest, even up to the halfway mark of the story, or how it all tied into the first few books and this wasn’t rolled out early on enough for me to catch on. So I trudged along trying to make sense of it myself, even if the lack of signposting was just not helpful. The roundabout teasers about who Maddox and Luna were but not confirmed until later, the villain playing tricks (or truth?) in both the characters’ and the reader’s head, and the somewhat repetitive action of more Lazarus soldiers seemingly joining in the fray rather randomly simply added to my confusion instead of clearing it up. It did get better later though, as Eden brought in characters from previous books while seemingly expanding the narrative arc of this series.

Apart from this, well, I can’t deny that there is series-fatigue setting in where things started to sound same-y. Eden’s cackling villains are evil to the point of funny at times, her supersoldiers start to blend into each other to the point where Maddox could easily be Sawyer who could easily be Flynn…both in behaviour (all are darkly and growly possessive, have raging breeder-type tempers and say ‘mine’ too often) and in general appearance (all are tall, muscled and so on).

I can see where this might be an attractive boon for some readers nonetheless—with past slates wiped clean, no other mentions of other lovers (who’re automatically considered inconsequential), and altered personalities to the point where the heroine becomes the sole, intense focus of the changed hero who would do anything to keep her with him.

The new-ish bits that kept me going on were simply these: the fact that Eden finally writes the possibility of recovering a Lazarus soldier’s past, and the expansion of the abilities of these soldiers, like Luna. And perhaps it’s development enough to see me through another book in this series.

three-stars

Reckless Honor by Tonya Burrows

Reckless Honor by Tonya BurrowsReckless Honor by Tonya Burrows
Series: Hornet, #5
Published by Entangled Publishing. LLC (Amara) on April 23rd 2018
Pages: 374
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three-stars

Jean-Luc Cavalier has only ever cared about three things: sex, booze, and the dangerous missions he undertakes with HORNET. Laissez les bons temps rouler is more than a Mardi Gras motto—it’s the way he lives his life. But all that changes the night he rescues Dr. Claire Oliver from deadly mercenaries.

Now he can’t get the gorgeous blond virologist out of his head.

Claire is running for her life. Someone wants her antiviral research and they’re willing to kill anyone and everyone to get it. She has no one to turn to except a womanizing Cajun with a silver tongue and devastating smile.

But when an ultra-deadly virus decimates the Niger Delta, saving Claire and her research becomes the least of HORNET’s concerns. The virus has all the markings of a bioweapon and Nigeria is only the testing grounds…

Jean-Luc Cavalier, like his last name suggests, has been difficult to take seriously in all of Tonya Burrows’s HORNET books I’ve gone through. The voodoo spell on his man bits that had cursed him into celibacy? Jean-Luc the manwhore had always looked like a joke to me and that’s putting it quite kindly. The womanising bastard of a language-expert hasn’t made his mark on me like some other characters in this series have, and I’ll readily admit my own scepticism when the time rolled around for his own story.

But the context in which Burrows has written his and Claire’s story is undeniably irresistible: the threat of a virus in far-flung Nigeria, the high-stakes of biological warfare coming into play? I’m fidgety with excitement. It’s a story that has its roots in the previous book (which I don’t really remember now), so I struggled a little in catching up with a plot that races through a hot-zone and tries to uncover the mystery behind a rapidly-spreading, man-made virus.

There was a bleakness to this that isn’t present in Burrows’s other books and perversely, I found myself liking the head and dankly pervasive atmosphere of the angst and the hopelessness that surrounded the dying camp that Jean-Luc and Claire found themselves in, while the geek in me slurped up every word to do with viruses and mutations. But as with most RS books, this took a suspense of disbelief to get through—the flitting from exotic location to yet another exotic location, the James Bond-esque type of action, the miraculous happenings when you least expect them.

What I wasn’t sold on was Jean-Luc, unfortunately. Not when I couldn’t shake the longstanding idea of him being a self-serving bastard and deem him a credible hero. Mostly the problem I have with manwhore types is this—I will always doubt their ability to commit no matter how special they make out a woman to be, let alone stick to that very one woman despite the extraordinary circumstances that bring them together.

Past the adrenaline rush and the intense emotions deadly situations tend to pull out of people, I couldn’t be convinced that Claire would have been enough for Jean-Luc not when nothing else has made him changed his mind on the ‘Laissez les bons temps rouler’ motto he went by until the threat of violent hemorrhagic death came on him, curse on his dick aside. That he wanted a chance with Claire because the threat of pending death brought the weight of regrets down on him or that she’d helped saved him…well anything less extreme than that wouldn’t have made him change on his own volition otherwise, would it? The suddenness with which Jean-Luc opted for monogamy was beyond unbelievable as a result and I was surprised in fact, that Claire didn’t have the same reservations, the giving, determined doctor that she is.

But Claire’s constant heart-sickness and the pain she felt about her own dilemma concerning the virus and the people she’d left behind made her a heroine laden with her own burdens—so much so that I didn’t see her getting her head past it at all. From her wanting a night to forget to her inexplicable falling in love with Jean-Luc baffled me as well, when most of the book was spent dodging mercenaries, arguing about playing god and figuring their way out of tricky situations with their only connection being the virus and her determination not to let anyone die because of her.

While Claire/Jean-Luc wasn’t quite a pairing I could realistically buy into, Burrows’s writing has always appealed to me nonetheless, which is what keeps me coming back to her HORNET series. The insertion of the rest of the guys is always a boon—the slight focus on Harvard, Ian and Marcus made me want their own stories, yes, these HORNET men nearly unhinged with their own deep issues—and a timely reminder that there’re so many loose threads yet to be tied up, as each one bleeds into the next story.

three-stars

Fast Justice by Kaylea Cross

Fast Justice by Kaylea CrossFast Justice by Kaylea Cross
Series: DEA FAST #6
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, Kaylea Cross Inc. on March 17th 2018
Pages: 352
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four-half-stars

Sacrifice is a requirement of the job. Rowan Stewart walked away from the love of a lifetime to focus on the demands of her job as Assistant US Attorney. Now she's working on the biggest case of her career, prosecuting one of the Veneno cartel's most notorious members. Except the case presents unexpected challenges-including the man she can't forget...and a threat she could not foresee. But this time, it could cost her life. Special Agent Malcolm Freeman is FAST Bravo's point man. On an op he's the first one through the door, leading the way for his team. Professionally, he's at the top of his game. His personal life is a different story. After Rowan ripped his heart out a year ago he closed himself off to any relationships. When fate throws them together he steps up to ensure she's protected, even though it might mean getting his heart broken again. But protection isn't enough. The enemy is determined to use Rowan to get what they want. With her life hanging in the balance, Malcolm and his team race to find her before it's too late. He lost her once. He can't lose her now. This time, failure is not an option.

Finally, finally, finally.

‘Fast Justice’ reminds me of all the reasons why I read Kaylea Cross’s books and having ploughed through the somewhat lacklustre stories from the previous stories in this series, having Rowan/Mal’s tale kick my enthusiasm back to life (measured in terms of the loss of sleeping hours) has been beyond a pleasant surprise. The hints of their broken romance in the previous book had gotten me intrigued and Mal, who is predictably gun-shy about starting up with Rowan again, finally gets his due…in a story that provoked a range of emotions from me.

Apart from the thoroughly engaging suspense, Cross writes about a woman who is willing to own up to her mistakes, who swallows her pride and grovels because she knows she’d left a heartbroken man in her wake…and finally goes after what she wants. I loved the excruciating moments of tension between Ro/Mal, the reluctant truce that breaks down because Rowan decides to shake it all up and her lead role in trying to build them back together again as she tries to mend the damage that she had done to them. For this reason, I couldn’t help but love a woman who’s brave enough to show this sort of maturity when too many cowardly characters that have recently come across my feed have nearly made me thrown several books against the wall in frustration. (Proverbially speaking, because I use an e-reader.)

By and large, this was a compelling read. The entanglements with the Veneno Cartel are woven deep into ‘Fast Justice’ and the developmental arc is more tightly spread over the last few books. In fact, I was surprised at how much of the events that happened in the previous books spilled over into this, wondering if it might be somewhat difficult for ‘Fast Justice’ to be read as a standalone. Cross does provide some explanation—though some parts might still be confusing to readers who step in at this point in time—and without shying away from the brutality of cartel activity, throws in a few twists and turns that helped balance the angst of Rowan/Mal’s situation.

The hasty conclusion after the climax and the loose threads that aren’t tied up by the end are probably my only complaints. It’s evident that Cross intends to continue this arc until the baddies drop dead one by one, but it’s going to be a wait that will span several books before this happens. But until that happens, I’m happily going to go back to the good bits that had me gnawing down my own teeth.

four-half-stars