Tag: Kickass Heroine

What I’ve Done by Melinda Leigh

What I’ve Done by Melinda LeighWhat I've Done by Melinda Leigh
Series: Morgan Dane #4
Published by Montlake Romance on 18th September 2018
Pages: 336
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four-stars

Morgan Dane’s new client has blood on her hands—and no recollection of what happened—as the #1 Amazon Charts bestselling series continues.

Haley Powell wakes up covered in blood, with no memory of the night before. When she sees a man lying in the backyard, stabbed to death, she has only one terrified thought: What have I done?

Agreeing to take the case as a favor to her PI friend Lincoln Sharp, Morgan must scale a mountain of damning circumstantial and forensic evidence to prove her client innocent. Haley couldn’t appear more guilty: her bloodstained fingerprints are on the murder weapon, and she has no alibi. But Morgan can’t shake the feeling that this shocked young woman has been framed.

Someone out there is hell-bent on sabotaging her defense, targeting Morgan, her partner, and especially Haley. Someone who will stop at nothing—and whose next move will be deadly.

Melinda Leigh’s ‘Morgan Dane’ juggernaut of a series goes on strong with no sign of abating and I for one, am glad for it. With little of the unnecessary (and sometimes over-exggerated) drama as her stalwart, arse-kicking protagonists who go from strength to strength, ‘What I’ve Done’ is another solid offering in which I was happy to get lost.

There’re slight developments in Morgan’s and Lance’s relationship which are always nice to read about, but by and large, they are an established couple, which frees Leigh to concentrate on the suspense. We’re plunged straight in, like any police procedural show: an establishing mystery which eventually turns out to be the complicated case that Morgan and Lance get involved in. The stakes are high; the evidence mounts against them in a near-indefensible case, but Leigh quite masterfully twirls the mess until it makes coherent sense with a satisfying resolution.

It isn’t often that I like the suspense overshadowing the romance—a hearty mix of heat and action is typically what I look for—but this series is one that I can’t help but want more and more of. In short, I was nonetheless riveted and engaged—when the case unravels to show that no one is truly innocent and the degree of debauched behaviour is just skewed towards who’s the worse guy.

Admittedly, the romance is subdued, the heat much less pronounced with a new kind of conflict brewing but Morgan/Lance’s chemistry and affection for each other—borne of months working seamlessly together—are obvious despite the very few scenes that concentrate solely on them. ‘What I’ve Done’ is nonetheless solid and well-written, closing with the sense that this growing partnership in more ways than one, is far from over.

four-stars

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

Down Deep by Kimberly Kincaid

Down Deep by Kimberly KincaidDown Deep by Kimberly Kincaid
Series: Station Seventeen #4
Published by Kimberly Kincaid Romance on June 18th 2018
Pages: 343
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four-stars

Ian Gamble has a past he’d rather forget—which is exactly what he’s doing at The Crooked Angel Bar and Grill when the place catches fire. Between his active duty in the Marines and his experience as a firefighter, his instincts get him and hot, headstrong bar manager, Kennedy Matthews, to safety. But those same instincts kick into high gear when the fire is ruled an arson, and he discovers Kennedy’s got secrets of her own.

The only thing that matters more to Kennedy than her bar is her brother. When she finds out he’s in over his head with a dangerous arsonist, she’ll do anything to keep him safe—even if it means teaming up with Gamble, who’s too sharp-eyed and hard-bodied for his own good. With every step, their attraction flares hotter and the risks grow more dangerous. Can Gamble and Kennedy face their fears—and their secrets—to catch a terrifying enemy? Or will they go down in flames?

To say that ‘Down Deep’ has got ‘lasting power’ makes it rather cringeworthy without the other kinds of innuendos that will probably come up here given the genre that I’m reviewing. Yet I’ve put book down and taken it up numerous times not because of boredom (but because of other things calling) and never once did I feel that it was difficult to get back into the flow of the story.

It’s easy and exciting enough to follow, the rather slow burn and build-up aside. But then, Kimberly Kincaid’s ‘Station Seventeen’ series has not really disappointed me from its inception, through the pairings of first responders with the law-enforcement people that have become par for the course.

Kincaid effortlessly weaves the community of the firefighters into the suspense and action in Station Seventeen—each book builds subtly and slowly on an arc about arson but they work just as well as a standalone—and while it isn’t an unusual take on firefighting romances, it’s Kincaid’s vivid and engaging writing that always makes her stories stand out. Both Ian and Kennedy were good protagonists to follow as well; I loved the latter’s fierce protectiveness of her wayward brother above all, her tenacious hold on never giving up on him, along with the take-no-shit attitude with Gamble when he tries to ghost her away.

I did however, struggle with Kennedy/Ian’s connection going beyond lust and need in the heat of the moment, finely-tuned as it was because of the circumstances that pushed them together. I got that they cared about each other, liked each other even, but the transition to love felt tenuous nonetheless, more so when their brand of love seemed to be defined as a heart-to-heart talk combined with stratospheric sex. The rushed conclusion (that was strangely more telling than showing) and the rather odd fade-to-black climax scene threw me off as well, along with some strings that seemed to be left hanging by the end of the story.

So while not everything worked out for me like clockwork, ‘Down Deep’ was still a pretty good take on the kind of suspense that revolves around arson and firefighting—there’re just too few of these around—and I’m infinitely grateful that Kincaid fills this gap with this series.

four-stars

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

The Kiss Quotient by Helen HoangThe Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
Series: The Kiss Quotient, #1
Published by Berkley Books on 5th June 2018
Pages: 336
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three-stars

Stella Lane thinks math is the only thing that unites the universe. She comes up with algorithms to predict customer purchases--a job that has given her more money than she knows what to do with, and way less experience in the dating department than the average thirty-year-old.

It doesn't help that Stella has Asperger's and French kissing reminds her of a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish. Her conclusion: she needs lots of practice--with a professional. Which is why she hires escort Michael Phan. The Vietnamese and Swedish stunner can't afford to turn down Stella's offer, and agrees to help her check off all the boxes on her lesson plan--from foreplay to more-than-missionary position...

Before long, Stella not only learns to appreciate his kisses, but crave all of the other things he's making her feel. Their no-nonsense partnership starts making a strange kind of sense. And the pattern that emerges will convince Stella that love is the best kind of logic...

The well-heeled but socially-awkward person hiring an escort for schooling in seduction with the transaction soon turning personal isn’t a new one, but Helen Hoang puts a spin in this reverse Pretty-Woman tale that had me glued to the paged from start to end.
There’s much I like about Hoang’s debut book: the racial diversity and how some cultural norms can seem so foreign and the sensitive portrayal of people with disabilities, to start with. But I also needed to mention how much the writing shone.
It was Stella Lane however, who stood out so sharply like a diamond in the dust. A true-to-the-core heroine who deals with autism and the need for structure, the difficulty with processing emotions. And the list goes on until a fantastically-rounded character along the autism spectrum emerges: quirky, artless with no games played, truly clueless about handling people, yet really wanting to learn all she could—I loved Stella from the start, felt and hurt for her, wished things had worked out better for her without her need for an escort’s services.
But where would the story be otherwise? I found it harder to care about Michael, the professional escort who put the word ‘professional’ in escorting because it was simply more profitable to turn what he’d already been doing for years into a job that also helped to pay the bills. But that’s me—my intense dislike for manwhores, professional or not, bogged down by daddy-issues or not—and I hadn’t gotten a big enough sense that Michael wanted to break out of his escorting work despite feeling it like a noose around his neck. That he was perceptive enough to know that he was trying hard to become what his father wasn’t and ironically became the man who’d fallen just as far unfortunately still didn’t do it for me at all.
In many ways, ‘The Kiss Quotient’ was more of Stella’s book for me despite the obvious romance written into it. It was her story that shone, her struggles and her growth that appealed. So I cheered a heroine I loved, and found myself shrugging at a hero who seemed lacklustre in comparison. With the HEA that was almost inconsequential for me, her eventual acceptance of herself felt like the ultimate triumph that I always wanted for her.
three-stars