Tag: spooks-spies-n-such

The Savior by Cristin Harber

The Savior by Cristin HarberThe Savior by Cristin Harber
Series: Aces #1
Published by Mill Creek Press on 19th December 2018
Pages: 299
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four-stars

A man loses the woman he intends to marry.A woman loses her best friend.
Retired Army Captain Liam Brosnan and US Marshal Chelsea Kilpatrick are forced to question what they know about a murder that forces them together. Uncertain connections from Liam’s military career rope them into a cloak-and-dagger investigation that offers more questions than answers.

Being duty-bound while in the throes of grief is a dangerous mixture. They struggle with unexpected sparks of passion and question their loyalty to a woman they loved while a murderer closes in on his next target.

Will the explosive solace Liam and Chelsea find in one another lead to a love neither expected? Or will it blind them to looming danger and death?

Cristin Harber’s larger-than-life military/terrorism conspiracy plots often skirt closer to the edge of the unbelievable than many of the books I’ve gone through but then again, that’s part of the basis of the romantic suspense genre: the homing in on particular individuals upon whom the fate of the country or the world hangs, no matter how ludicrous the situation might be (even when the connections are far from water-tight).

Yet ‘The Savior’ is an intriguing start to a new series that I’m curious enough to want to continue: the somewhat taboo attraction between a retired army captain and a federal agent, brought together ironically by the death of the death of his girlfriend (who also happened to be latter’s best friend).

Chelsea Kilpatrick and Liam Brosnan do make a good pairing somehow, especially so after Liam learns that the tragedy they’d both lived through was in fact, premeditated…and carefully planned over a few years.

Pile on the guilt, the hesitation, the electric sexual tension and a mite bit of push-pull. The icky dead-partner as the third party vibe isn’t altogether absent, nonetheless. We’re not quite given much of their history together however, only that they knew each other marginally through Julia, yet Liam and Chelsea ‘adulted’ quite well and I liked their inadvertent (and fairly mature) way of dealing with their burgeoning attraction to each other.

What was strangely surprising was the lack of action that brought the steady pace to a sort of lull until the last quarter of the book as things pulled together. (I didn’t get the Vietnamese-sounding terrorist names, by the way.) Harber’s writing style did feel somewhat ‘off’ and uneven at times though: some collocations didn’t quite make sense logically if you actually think carefully about it, or the moments where more was needed but wasn’t given and vice versa. Some were even jarring enough to kick me out of the narrative; well, the whole point being, I did think a finer-toothed comb was necessary in weeding out these errors, developmental or otherwise.

Being cautiously optimistic about this new series is what I’m left with by the end, abrupt as it seemed.

four-stars

Silent Evidence by Rachel Grant

Silent Evidence by Rachel GrantSilent Evidence by Rachel Grant
Series: Evidence,
Published by Janus Publishing on 28th December 2018
Pages: 436
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four-stars


The man of her fantasies is finally hers. Sort of…

Two things haunt forensic anthropologist Hazel MacLeod: the bones of victims of genocide she examines for her work, and former SEAL Sean Logan’s rejection. But within days of moving to her cousin’s estate to take a much needed break, she finds herself faced with both.

First, she’s called in to examine a mass grave in Virginia, then, her politician cousin receives a threatening letter and insists Hazel needs around the clock protection—from none other than Sean Logan. To make matters worse, because the threat to her is classified, Hazel and Sean must pretend to be lovers to hide that he’s her bodyguard.

Sean has spent years trying to avoid his boss’s sexy cousin, but now he’s guarding her twenty-four/seven and even bringing her as his date to a romantic destination wedding. As the heat between them intensifies, Sean can’t lose sight of the danger that brought them together. But when bullets start flying, new questions arise. Are the senator’s political rivals really behind the threat, or is someone trying to silence Hazel from speaking for the dead?

The unfulfilled, unrequited type stories are what I tend to go after and ‘Silent Evidence’—touted by Rachel Grant as such—was one that I immediately pounced on when it came. Then again, reading Grant’s works is always an enthralling, absorbing experience.

‘Silent Evidence’ isn’t exactly a standalone to begin with. Characters from Grant’s previous books do play a substantial part in here—with the many references to the events of previous books providing much-needed context for how well we can understand what’s really going on—this far into the series where Grant’s speculative ‘world-building’ so to speak, is sufficiently developed to entangle everyone else apart from her protagonists in the building mystery and suspense.

The romance itself however, is fairly straightforward: Hazel MacLeod has always wanted Sean Logan, whose rebuffs have not only put her on edge and eager to avoid him, but that circumstances have somehow conspired to put them back in each other’s orbits when it becomes clear that there are odds and ends that don’t add up—with more than a touch of danger that sweeps in.

Like all Grant books, her plot and characters are layered and complex, with a hard, detailed look into fascinating fields such forensic anthropology, political manoeuvrings and a thread of racial tension woven through it all. But it did take a while to get to the meat of the story and the conspiracy as Sean and Hazel did their will-they-won’t-they dance in a fake boyfriend/bodyguard ruse that felt somewhat amateurish for this high-octane story. If Hazel suffered from all the pining, Sean’s own indecision got rather aggravating until a near-fatal accident took it all out of him and got him to buckle down for the ride.

The big reveal and the unravelling of the conspiracy did seem kind of a let down after the elaborate setup however, when it all peaked and then wrapped in the last 15 or so pages of the long, long read where telling took over showing. Left with the niggling feeling that I’d been taken for a huge, circular joyride with political and human-experimentation inserts from time to time, I finished ‘Silent Evidence’ semi-content that Sean/Hazel rode off into their HEA but wondered if the story could have been shorter and tighter.

four-stars

When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton

When We Left Cuba by Chanel CleetonWhen We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton
Published by Berkley Books on 9th April 2019
Pages: 368
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three-stars

Beautiful. Daring. Deadly.

The Cuban Revolution took everything from sugar heiress Beatriz Perez--her family, her people, her country. Recruited by the CIA to infiltrate Fidel Castro's inner circle and pulled into the dangerous world of espionage, Beatriz is consumed by her quest for revenge and her desire to reclaim the life she lost.

As the Cold War swells like a hurricane over the shores of the Florida Strait, Beatriz is caught between the clash of Cuban American politics and the perils of a forbidden affair with a powerful man driven by ambitions of his own. When the ever-changing tides of history threaten everything she has fought for, she must make a choice between her past and future--but the wrong move could cost Beatriz everything--not just the island she loves, but also the man who has stolen her heart...

‘When we left Cuba’ isn’t quite a sequel to Chanel Cleeton’s much-loved ’Next Year in Havana’, the latter of which I do consider one of my best reads of the year. Still, it’s a book that stands on its own feet even if it’s less sweeping than its predecessor. Still, ‘When we left Cuba’ is a compellingly written story of the oldest Perez sister who struts her way through the pages, armed with the thirst for revenge as she somehow moseys her way into the clutches of the CIA while tangling with a senator whose a player in politics and in every sense of the word.

Within the fodder material of the fabled and many attempts of the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro is where Cleeton posits Beatriz Perez after her escape from Cuba, navigating the thorny issues of policy and politics of the time. Bold, hot-headed and reckless, Beatriz carves a path for herself that’s as treacherous as you’d expect, resulting in having her loyalties sorely tested as her decisions change the course of her life.
Cleeton writes in favour of long, descriptive passages of place and emotion; the pace is slower as a result, the plot a little more convoluted. The romance isn’t quite the focus here; rather, Beatriz herself is the star of the show, front and centre. Her long, longstanding affair with a powerful senator is carried out amidst society’s expectations and the uncertain political climate, a subplot that runs alongside her involvement with the CIA.

I’ll admit though, that it is harder to be singularly or emotionally invested in Beatriz completely as I was in Cleeton’s first book about Elisa and her granddaughter. Undoubtedly, Beatriz is a colourful character who stands out sharply—sometimes too painfully sharply like a woman cut from a different cloth—not just by means of her birth but also her life experiences, but ultimately, she’s still a protagonist whose story I read about from a distance as she made her own small stamp on history, for better or worse.

Cleeton’s impactful writing carries it all here, despite the odd hollowness I felt about Beatriz by the end. It’s what took me through the politics, the lies, the dirty games and the passing of time within the pages after all and it’s what keeps me coming back.
three-stars

Out of Time by Monica McCarty

Out of Time by Monica McCartyOut of Time by Monica McCarty
Series: The Lost Platoon, #3
Published by Berkley Books on 31st December 2018
Pages: 384
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three-half-stars

With his men scattered to all corners of the globe after a disastrous secret op in Russia, Lieutenant Commander Scott Taylor is trying to find out who was responsible for leaking the information that killed half his platoon. Were it not for Natalie Andersson, the woman he had been secretly dating in the Pentagon who had warned him of the danger, he knows they would all be dead. Scott is devastated when he hears that the woman he loved and hoped to marry has been killed for helping him--until he learns that Natalie was the spy who betrayed them. But when his search to clear his name brings him face-to-face with a very-much-alive Natalie, Scott realizes that justice and vengeance might not be as clear-cut as he thought.

Natalie Andersson, or, as she was born, Natalya Petrova, has put the memories of her early childhood in Russia behind her. She never dreamed that she would be at the center of an elaborate "sleeper" espionage program. Even when she learns the truth, she refuses to spy for the country of her birth, until the Russians threaten the lives of the only family she has ever known. But Natalie is the worst spy in the history of spying, falling for her target. When her attempt at misdirection leads to irreversible consequences, she is forced to run for her life, with her lover hot on her tail.

At the heart of it, ‘Out of Time’ is one of assumed betrayal, even more assumptions that the protagonists have of each other and the elasticity of truth, all of which revolve around a botched mission, a missing SEAL team and questionable loyalties.

Natalie Andersson isn’t who she seems and as the story progresses, it’s evident that there’re contradictory gaps in both what Scott Taylor and Natalie believe of each other. The former’s a huffing and puffing betrayed military man, the latter? Quite possibly the worst spy in history. But the Russian sleeper agent and the elite American soldier form a pairing that’s charged with so many overtones in today’s political climate and that Monica McCarty takes it on makes ‘Out of Time’ a sort of contemporary forbidden trope and one that I really wanted to read.

By and large, I did like Nat/Scott’s story though I found the secondary couple of Colt/Kate more compelling in the whole narrative arc of lies, deceit and vengeance as the characters pursued some kind of justice for themselves and for the dead men. Dealing with 2 couples isn’t an easy feat by any means, though the focus on 4 major characters did mean less focus on each couple, which left me a feeling little short-changed about it. For all the build-up, I thought the ending was somewhat anti-climatic, with less of a bang and more than a whimper than I’d hoped. I couldn’t tell though, if there is going to be a continuation of the series or not—McCarty doesn’t give any hint of how resolved things really are—but I’m still hoping for the secondary characters to get their own books somehow.

‘Out of Time’ is not a standalone and that much becomes obvious when the opening few chapters leaned hard on prior knowledge of previous books to get the story of Natalie and Scott going. McCarty does take the effort to get any new reader up to speed however, though it’s through a certain style of storytelling that eventually got to me—this is obviously a personal nitpick.

Beyond the rather exciting prologue that was easy enough to follow, the first few chapters were a mash of telling and showing (sometimes more of the former), with a recounting of past events inserted into the protagonists’ POVs in the present timeline and thus forcing the reader to straddle a scene within a scene. As a result, I did get confused and mildly frustrated, having needed to pause multiple times to mentally untangle and piece together what had gone down, when and with whom. The use of flashbacks or at least, something more linear as a storytelling device would have worked better than the mental gymnastics it took at times.

It isn’t to say however, that ‘Out of Time’ isn’t a decent read. I thought it was the best out of McCarty’s series in fact…only that it could have been longer and a bit more drawn-out—given the scope of the story and the pairings involved—for a less abrupt ending.

three-half-stars

Destruction by J.M. Madden

Destruction by J.M. MaddenDestruction by J.M. Madden
Series: Dogs of War #2
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on September 25th 2018
Pages: 286
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four-stars

Going back into the torture camp where he’d been so brutally abused is the last thing Navy SEAL Drake Fontana wants to do, but if there are other men being experimented upon he has to be the one to get them out. And he has to give them an option other than to be a test subject to the Silverstone Collaborative, the pharmaceutical company funding the diabolical experiments. If he had his way, Drake would go in alone, but he’s assigned a team of retired, disabled military from the Lost and Found group. They all have strengths, but he hates being responsible for their safety. The most vital of the team is Jordan Madeira. The woman has fire in her blood and her heart, and she has contacts in the Amazon he could never find on his own. More than that, though, Jordan holds an immediate, dangerous attraction for Fontana. As the team crosses the jungle destroying research camps and searching for survivors, he realizes that she is what his heart has always been longing for. Home. But Fontana has always had to fight for everything he’s gotten in life, and Jordan’s heart will be no different.

The ‘Dogs of War’ series is one that I do find compelling—the super-soldier experimentation kind of storyline always gets my juices going—and by and large, J.M. Madden keeps expanding this particular universe with a military conspiracy, a potential take-down of the perpetrators and even more characters that might in fact, find themselves as part of future books. As of now however, the series follows the hard journey of 3 former military men with paranormal abilities, the survivors of their batch, who now seek to tighten the noose on the necks of those who’d first captured them.

‘Destruction’ is Drake Fontana’s story as he takes point in the vengeful hunt for their captors and the rescue of the soldiers experimented on with a team from LNF (Madden’s other series). Unlike some other RS super-soldier books that I’ve gone through however, Madden’s guys stand out because their paranormal abilities aren’t grossly exaggerated and that they’ve not been turned loose on the reader like grunting alpha-males with unrelenting sex-drives, über-dirty-talk and barbaric tendencies. They’re all scarred and battle-worn one way or the other in any case, and the women themselves it seems, aren’t spared the torture as well. But out of the crucible comes Jordan Madeira as one of the most kick-arse heroines who has gone through her own brand of hell and tragedy.

However, the writing style did take odd turns at times with the use of even weirder metaphors, but this is merely a personal writing peeve of mine where the words don’t exactly fall into place or make perfect sense. The language did throw me off for a bit (maybe a bit more editing was needed), but as jarring as it was, the plot was engaging enough that I could dust myself off and go on.

Suspense takes priority in ‘Destruction’—Madden’s focus on the team and action means that there’s not as much time on the pairing of Fontana/Jordan as much as I liked with the sex scene at the end happening almost like an afterthought before the story ends on an unfinished note. To this extent was the romance unsatisfying, but the thought of the next book keeps me hoping for more anyway.

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.

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