Series: Alpha Ops

Turn Me Loose by Anne Calhoun

Turn Me Loose by Anne CalhounTurn Me Loose by Anne Calhoun
Series: Alpha Ops, #6
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on May 30th 2017
Pages: 350
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three-stars

When she was on the verge of adulthood, Riva Henneman committed a crime and got caught red-handed. Luckily, she was busted by a HOT young cop...who also had a big heart. A one-time SEAL candidate, Officer Ian Hawthorn knew how it felt to have your dreams derailed. So he gave Riva a choice: face prison time or work for him as a confidential informant. But even a get-out-of-jail-free card comes with a cost. . .
Years later, Ian still remembers beautiful, innocent Riva--and the smoldering attraction they shared but both tried to ignore. Will they have a second chance, now that they're back in each other's lives? Riva's work with inner-city children has led to a surprise run-in with Ian, who has his own agenda--one that could put them both in grave danger. Is their desire worth the risk this time?

Riva’s and Ian’s relationship is a complex one and while it’s not quite a second-chance trope we’re dealing with here, it can’t be denied that circumstances and their shared history have made their case together this time around layered and complicated as repressed desire and attraction come to the fore. ‘Turn Me Loose’ is riveting and more character-focused, though a little slow-paced for me, as I’d expected action and evasion, rather than a slow burn and a slow build-up to a climax that I did see coming.

But Anne Calhoun’s trademarks for me at least, are her excellent insights into her characters and the sharp way she writes about the emotional state of mind. ‘Turn Me Loose’, like most of her other books, is yet another example of it. Ian and Riva are as flawed and multifaceted as you can get, torn by their individual duties yet determined to fight for what’s right because they’re still haunted by the shadow of their own pasts. But there’s also so much regret in their lives—dreams they’d never managed to quite fulfil—but that changes by the end of the book, where finding each other takes on more meaning than what they’ve been searching for.

Thanks to Calhoun’s sleek writing, I liked every moment of the build-up between them, as we’re taken past “careful” sex to sex with no-holds-barred that ends with the ominous warning that things are going to fall apart. Yet there aren’t any sharp spikes or dips in the action that I expect of RS and to my slight disappointment, ‘Turn Me Loose’ didn’t quite fit that category as I kept waiting for something more dramatic to happen, which didn’t. Furthermore, I couldn’t exactly swallow the idea that Ian had always loved Riva for seven years—at least, not when they’ve had something so rocky that they’d never even sought out each other—which kept me somewhat sceptical up until the very end. But Calhoun’s HEA is typically a HFN as well, and it comes as a blissful wrap-up and a quick catch up with the rest of the characters in the Alpha-Ops series, which I hope wouldn’t be the last that I see of them.

three-stars

Going Deep by Anne Calhoun

Going Deep by Anne CalhounGoing Deep by Anne Calhoun
Series: Alpha Ops, #5
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on November 1st 2016
Pages: 352
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four-stars

After weeks on a sold-out tour, singer Cady Ward is coming home for the holidays. But after one too many episodes of fan-craziness, Cady’s manager decides that she needs protection—in the form of muscled cop Conn McCormick. Longing for peace and quiet to prepare before her next album drops, Cady doesn’t need a bodyguard just to deal with some vague email threats…though she can’t deny that close proximity to Conn’s body is a very nice place to be.
Conn is in the midst of a career scandal when his boss assigns him to pop-star guard duty. It’s a poor use of his skills, even though Cady’s feisty nature proves the perfect distraction for Conn while Internal Affairs investigates his case. What begins as a sizzling attraction becomes something deeper than either Conn or Cady could have expected. But when Conn uncovers the sinister plan behind the threats to Cady, he’s faced with a professional dilemma: To save her life, will he risk having a future with the only woman who’s ever touched his soul?

My standing weakness for Anne Calhoun’s writing isn’t exactly a state secret, but good language and the beauty of precision and pacing can make or break a story for me. ‘Going Deep’ isn’t any different from the rest of Calhoun’s Alpha Ops books: slow-going and rather predictable with her stories reading more like a meditative character study than an action film straining at the edges to burst free into explosions and non-stop action.

And that is in itself, unusual enough for me to slow down and savour the descriptive and very introspective story of a bodyguard assigned to an up and coming pop singer whose several weeks of hiatus will change everything they know of each other.

I had however, expected more action and suspense and thought that the ending was an anti-climax when we were given a cursory resolution of the so-called mystery and Conn’s own conflict at work, which somewhat curtailed my enjoyment of the book.

But perhaps what really appeals and what I remember most after the last page is turned-and this is admittedly not for those who want a healthy mix of action and steam—is how Calhoun cracks open her characters, and displays them at their rawest and most vulnerable. More surprisingly though, it’s not during sex when that happens, even if these scenes are more erotic than dirty.

I liked Conn and Cady immediately; they are characters who don’t seem to play the usual games, are strangely honest with with each other minus the usual issues that flare so brightly until one hurts the other unspeakably and needs to grovel for the damage done. Instead, there’s a sort of melancholy stamped into both of them, and whose attraction to each other somehow seem natural—like a long-forgotten spark, a connection that’s rare but to be cherished for the moment—, which I find all the more remarkable for a pair as mismatched as Cady and Conn.

Throughout the book there’s this constant moody lyricism that calls into the question of home, that elusive something that Cady and Conn both can’t seem to find in their own respective lives. Calhoun expounds this yearning as excellently as she did in the first book of this series, leaving an ending that’s bittersweet, like the closing of a chapter without a glimpse of how their new path together would go, while leaving me wanting more of their lives together in the future.

four-stars

Risk of Exposure by Emmy Curtis

Risk of Exposure by Emmy CurtisRisk of Exposure by Emmy Curtis
Series: Alpha Ops #6
Published by Forever Yours on May 3rd 2016
Pages: 224
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two-stars

He is a trained professional—but nothing can prepare him for the hottest mission of his life. Assigned to protect his boss’s daughter, British former SAS operative Malone Garrett breaks the first rule of covert surveillance—don’t make contact. And especially don’t take your mark out to dinner, then agree to a rooftop quickie. But now that Mal has Abby in his arms, he has no intention of ever letting her go.Abby Baston told herself it was a hit and quit, a one-nighter with a hot, handsome stranger whose hands were trained to take action. Working undercover for the CIA, she can’t risk anything more. But when an international crisis ignites, Abby must make a call: trust Mal with her secret—and her heart—and partner up, or lose everything in a split second . . .

While it all started out quite well and witty, I eventually found it hard to go on soon enough. Unfortunately, it was characterisation that tanked the story for me, made all the more disappointing because of the fantastic blurb, but mostly because it was difficult for me get a read on the lead characters who behaved so oddly and almost with artifice, like they were in some play on stage acting out for an audience with dramatic hand gestures and movements. Nothing much around them seemed real enough to like at least and while I understand the need for covers, illusions and protective shells, both Malone Garrett and Abby Baston made the incredible but unbelievable leap from that to ‘true love’ like trapeze champs.

The ‘sparks’ between Malone and Abby came in the form of sniping, temper tantrums, blackmail and sudden bouts of emotional outpourings, interspersed with hot sex and quite a bit of it at inappropriate times, which makes me wonder about their self-preservation instincts.

Great, if that’s your thing, but it clearly isn’t mine.

Usually it’s a special sort of banter that makes a growing relationship fun to pursue and great to read, but everything about Malone/Abby simply came off as bizarre and forced. Consequently, all I wanted to do by the time I hit midway was to give their flimsy, changeable-as-weather personalities and that volatile joke of a relationship a wide berth; they were arses in their own special ways most of the time and not likeable enough for me to cheer for their own HEA.

Or maybe it’s just my inability to appreciate that form of humour and that sex really is a clearing path to a happy ending.

two-stars

The SEAL’s Second Chance by Anne Calhoun

The SEAL’s Second Chance by Anne CalhounThe SEAL's Second Chance by Anne Calhoun
Series: Alpha Ops, #3
Published by Swerve on April 5th 2016
Pages: 115
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three-stars

In high school, basketball star Charlotte Stannard and Navy SEAL Jamie Hawthorn were everything but lovers. They shared a ruthlessly competitive spirit and relentless drive, but Charlie, afraid of the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy at seventeen, drove Jamie away. But now Jamie's back in town for the banquet to honor the basketball coach, and finds Charlie, newly home from a successful career in the European leagues and coaching the girls' team. The flames between them are hotter than ever, but Charlie believes Jamie just wants what he couldn't have when they were kids. Jamie's not just playing to win. He's playing for Charlie's heart, forever.

‘The SEAL’s Second Chance’ is classic Calhoun at work – a ten-year-history of friends that never really became more is finally given that sexy do-over when Jamie Hawthorn returns to Lancaster, seeking out the woman whom he’d never forgotten and perhaps, even loved. We’re not given a good enough reason for two people wanting each other badly yet not doing something concretely positive about it for a decade, yet it’s clear that the book is less concerned with revisiting the past (or even plotting the future) than it is with recording the present.

I enjoyed this short read nonetheless; Anne Calhoun excels at cataloguing intense, live-in-the-moment experiences and I’ve come to accept her stories for what they are: brief flashes of people (re)connecting, whose flaky pasts aren’t necessarily given sufficient explanations or justification, yet do so with a rawness that is enthralling and captivating; in fact, it’s almost akin to watching a short snippet of an erotic film that works well enough because it lacks actual context. Ms. Calhoun aims instead, to titillate and indulge even if it is somewhat sensually hedonistic, but isn’t that really the point here?

three-stars

The SEAL’s Rebel Librarian by Anne Calhoun

The SEAL’s Rebel Librarian by Anne CalhounThe SEAL's Rebel Librarian by Anne Calhoun
Series: Alpha Ops, #2
Published by Swerve on March 1st 2016
Pages: 124
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three-stars

The second in the Alpha Ops novella series that features an alpha Navy SEAL and the librarian who brings him to his knees.
Jack Powell never planned on leaving the Navy, but his final mission as a SEAL left him with a tremor and a bad case of nerves. He's home, taking some college classes and trying to figure out what comes next when he meets Erin Kent, a divorced college librarian with an adventurous bucket list and a mission to get her ex-husband's voice out of her head. Jack guides Erin through skydiving and buying the motorcycle of her dreams, blithely accepting Erin's promise that their relationship is purely temporary. But when Jack gets the chance to go back into the shadowy world of security contracting, can he convince Erin to break her word and join him on the adventure of a lifetime?

Anne Calhoun continues Jack Powell’s story as soon as the Turkish-holidaying contingent comes home and slides straight into the hot but temporary affair between him and a librarian desperately looking to live a life that isn’t dictated by any man.

Wrapped up at about 80 pages, ‘The SEAL’s rebel librarian’ is shorter than its predecessor, and is simply a drawn-out description of Jack’s and Erin’s time together and the intense, yearning hope of more when it becomes clear that a steamy time between the sheets isn’t all that they want. Short, yet sultry and so sensually evocative, I’m starting to think that each story’s brevity is deliberately calculated to leave the reader wanting more, all of which end at a point where the tentative first blooms of a budding relationship start to unfurl.

three-stars

The SEAL’s Secret Lover by Anne Calhoun

The SEAL’s Secret Lover by Anne CalhounThe SEAL's Secret Lover by Anne Calhoun
Series: Alpha Ops, #1
Published by Swerve on February 2nd 2016
Pages: 118
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four-stars

The first in the Alpha Ops novella series that features an alpha Navy SEAL who meets his match in a buttoned-up firecracker who is hiding a passionate side. Logistics director Rose Powell agreed to chaperone her grandmother on a guided tour of Roman ruins on one condition: her brother Jack would come with her. But when Jack backs out, his best friend and fellow SEAL Keenan Parker takes his place. Without a working cell phone, Rose's orderly world drifts into dreamy days and hot, secret nights in Keenan's bed. Keenan left the Navy but never made it any farther than Istanbul, much less to a viable future. Until he does, he'll show Rose things she didn't know about herself. Can he give his heart and his future to the woman he promised his best friend he'd never touch?

Rose Powell’s trip to Turkey with her gran and other elderly friends nearly falls apart when her brother—PTSD ridden and anti-social—pulled out of it, leaving her with his best friend to play tour guide. Stuck without a cell phone and proper WIFI, Rose’s organised world of best-laid plans and itinerary dissolves in the wake of a vacation fling that she starts with Keenan. Drifting through the temporary world of ruins with nights of passion and days spent with the weight of history bearing down on them, both Keenan and Rose are forced to consider aspects of themselves they have never known – and the real meaning of belonging.

Like ships passing each other in the night, Rose and Keenan’s connection is unexpected, but memorable enough that temporary turns permanent. While I understood Rose’s own motivations for control and orderliness, I was even more intrigued by Keenan’s negation of the overt type of PTSD that most military romances seem to espouse, exuding instead, the mysterious yet subtle sense of having lost any sense of home, so eloquently brought across by the thin parallels Ms. Calhoun draws to The Illiad.

The attractiveness of Anne Calhoun’s writing lies precisely in its allusiveness, the near-abstract focus on emotions and the intense cataloguing of the present, as well as the wonderfully nuanced and subtle characterisation of both Keenan and Rose. The content (thankfully!) isn’t quite a proper reflection of the sleazy suggestiveness of its title, and I was surprised to find myself engrossed in the same trek that Rose and Keenan take around Turkey, similarly caught up in that dreamy, sensual world that unfolded in the ruins and later, in the bedroom. In fact, I’m vaguely reminded of Anais Nin’s writing, even if this story lacks the same visceral vocabulary and crystalline control of Nin’s erotica, yet that this comparison even slipped into my mind is pretty impressive enough, given the brevity of the novella.

four-stars

Pushing the Limit by Emmy Curtis

Pushing the Limit by Emmy CurtisPushing the Limit by Emmy Curtis
Series: Alpha Ops #3
Published by Forever Yours on November 4th 2014
Pages: 272
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three-stars

After their one-night fling at a wedding, archaeologist Henrietta “Harry” Markowitz thought she’d never see war hero Matt Stanning again. So when they’re paired up to investigate a military plane crash in Iraq, she’s not sure if the three-month reunion is serendipitous or cursed. What she does know is this gorgeous man lights her body on fire—and incredible sex is always a welcome distraction.
Air Force Sergeant Matt Stanning has been called a hero, but he feels nothing like one when he realizes the sexy blonde in his bed is the widow of his fallen brother-in-arms. Even worse, he actually has to work with her, and she’s unearthed evidence that points to a military conspiracy. If they dig deeper, they’ll put their lives in danger. If they don’t, they’ll never know the truth—not only about the mysterious plane crash, but about each other.

‘Pushing the Limit’ is Henrietta’s and Matt’s story and the opening scene is one that’s fit to burn up the sheets. Three months after an erotic encounter at a wedding, they meet again under more serious circumstances, in Iraq where an archaeological dig brings up something that calls for Matt’s expertise.

In this case, characterisation was probably my biggest issue with the whole story and in some moments, overshadowed the action. Harry (what’s with the masculine name, even as a short form?) isn’t that likeable or sympathetic a character to me unfortunately, and her issues with locking up her heart after her husband’s death 7 years ago are understandable, but the constant inner turmoil about her unwillingness to trust Matt grated on me eventually. There were a few TSTL moments but thankfully, those were countered by some form of remorse later, which at least makes her somewhat redeemable. Matt on the other hand, seemed more solid and stable, though not as hulking and alpha as I imagined him to be. Both had some revelations that they needed to have; Harry more than Matt it seems, though I wished it didn’t take until the end of the book for those enlightening moments to come.

It’s not to say the book isn’t worth reading; it certainly is at least, given that Ms Curtis offers an unusual and engaging plot combining the military and archaeology with several twists and turn, some of which were truly surprising. I did have my suspicions about the bad guy and did guess correctly after all.

three-stars