Tag: spooks-spies-n-such

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

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

City Under Siege by R.J. Prescott

City Under Siege by R.J. PrescottCity Under Siege by R.J. Prescott
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on February 19th 2018
Pages: 412
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two-stars

London is a city in flames. Tensions are high and a critical situation is about to go from bad to worse. The Prime Minister wants to send a message, and the SAS will be the ones to deliver it.

Emotional detachment is my speciality. I’m ruthless and cut throat, but there is nobody better.

Sarah Tatem is an innocent. Caught up in a world in which she doesn’t belong, and trying desperately to do the right thing. My job is to keep her safe long enough to get what’s needed, and bring an end to this siege of terror.

But something has changed. I’ve learned that the only thing stronger than loyalty is love, and now she’s gone.

My name is Lieutenant Tom Harper, and I’m about to unleash hell.

‘City Under Siege’ does have an exciting premise and to be honest, I was also lured in by the cover that depicted a post-apocalyptic London which I always seem to have an unholy fascination with.

But for someone who loves romantic suspense, this was a hard book to get through, even to the midway mark. I definitely liked the plot, which (plus points given for starting out strongly) unfortunately stuttered in the middle with the action taking a lull. Add to that endless and very long dialogues—some bordering on the ridiculous—taking place in scenes that I feel weren’t especially necessary and ‘City Under Siege’ found one of its victims in me.

Perhaps these scenes were meant to know the growing bond between Tom and Sarah, or perhaps they were meant to inject some levity into a serious situation, but these ended up mostly flat for me, with some secondary characters coming in and being over-the-top ridiculous in their villainy. Consequently, I was bored boneless and struggled to the midway mark while wondering when things were going to start rolling again.

I’m not quite sure if I’m able to put a finger on it specifically, but the combination of poor editing and the constant spelling errors like ‘metal/mettle’, ‘saught/sought’, ‘discrete/discreet’ was off-putting. In addition, I thought the plot and pacing also needed more developmental work for a better flow. ‘City Under Siege’ sadly, didn’t live up to its potential for me, more so because I had high hopes after reading all the glowing reviews about it.

two-stars

Running the Risk by Lea Griffith

Running the Risk by Lea GriffithRunning the Risk by Lea Griffith
Series: Endgame Ops #2
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on April 3rd 2018
Pages: 347
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three-half-stars

Survival is crucial. Trust is optional. Love is unstoppable.

Jude Dagan's life as he knew it ended a year ago. On a mission gone wrong, he was forced to watch as Ella Banning, the only woman he's ever loved, was killed. Or so he thought.

Jude wasn't the only one who lost something on the day Ella was presumed dead. She sacrificed Endgame Ops, the love of her life, and parts of herself she can never get back. Now she's determined to take down the world's most dangerous terrorist--even if it means working for him. When Jude and Ella are reunited, they'll battle the lies Ella has been forced to tell...and struggle to save a love that knows no bounds.

How do you love a woman who has, supposedly, for the greater good, betrayed you? A woman whom you’ve thought dead, coming back from the grave, who’d actually walked away willingly?

‘Running the Risk’ is a hard one to swallow, but then again, books about betrayal, second chances, big-time conspiracies and a high-stakes game are never easy to get through because they demand for sides to be taken and thereafter, leave you there and then bank on your (romantic) capacity to overlook the gravity and/or the cost of betrayal and proclaim that scarred love still conquers all.

Jude Dagan has found himself in a cruel twist of events that brought him back face to face with a one-time love, and the story unfolds with him learning about the depth and the breadth of her deception, even though it has been done for the sake of pursuing the same goal: eliminating a dangerous player in the international-arms dealing arena. Ella Banning on the other hand, is unable to outrun Jude’s crafty determination, torn between duty and mistaken loyalty (perhaps even stupidity)…and for this reason, it was easier to love Jude more than Ella. Without a good reason given for her actions until later, it was difficult to sympathise with her position in the book for the first half at least, but what do you really say about a woman who made this decision mistakenly believing she was protecting him?

Thankfully, that angst isn’t drawn out too much. The second half is relentless action, a consolidation of sorts, a reaffirmation of team effort, along with sex that sometimes happens in places and situations that seem rather inappropriate and unbelievable—that’s where the suspension of disbelief kicks in.

Still, Lea Griffiths’s effortless writing swept me through it all, unravelling the complex network of arms trade, the shady players and the constant jetting from one locale to the next, where nothing is as it seems—this is the type of high-octane romantic suspense I dig. There’re moves and counter-moves on a chessboard and the dangerous game that’s played has a price that’s typically too high for anyone to afford…all of which Griffith manages very well. But the whole largeness of the entire conspiracy that Griffiths has built here means that only a part of it is resolved in this book and there’re still too many things that haven’t yet fallen into place.

‘Running the Risk’ can of course, be read as a standalone. There are however, references to what happened in the previous book in the secretive and high-strung world of covert ops (and some recap for the reader’s sake here) which can be a confounding—I think the secret-keeping and the classified stuff sometimes work against the story—and the epilogue that’s like a trailer for the next book to come is merely a stark reminder that the whole arc is far from over. I’m always itchy for more (particularly when it comes to world-domination-type things), but the wait for the next one looks to be long.

three-half-stars

Her Dark Half by Paige Tyler

Her Dark Half by Paige TylerHer Dark Half by Paige Tyler
Series: X-Ops #7
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on September 5th 2017
Pages: 348
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four-stars

Trevor MaxwellCoyote shifter with an attitudeCovert operatorTrusts no one, especially his devastatingly beautiful new partner

Alina BoschFormer CIA, newest operative on the covert teamHired to spy on her partnerMotto: "Never be deceived again."

Coyote shifter Trevor Maxwell is teamed up with CIA agent Alina Bosch to catch a killer. But when the mission becomes much more dangerous than they expected, they're going to have to ignore the attraction between them and learn how to trust one another to come out on the other side...

‘Her Dark Half’ is a book that has been coming for a long time, or at least the revelations in it, where the narrative arc comes to an end, so to speak, before another begins.

There’s clearly too much to recount here, but along with Alina’s and Trevor’s romance, Paige Tyler finally answers the questions (at least many of them) that I’d ranted about not being addressed in her previous books’ narratives that simply coasted along. For this reason, I’m not sure if this book would work as a standalone, because the more critical parts of the backstory and the buildup that happen in some of her past stories definitely would contribute to a fuller reading experience in this one.

I did like Alina/Trevor for most part, but most importantly, Alina’s deception wasn’t one that was held to the very end and then becoming the major conflict between her and Trevor. Paige Tyler simply had bigger fish to fry, too much action to write, more hybrids/shifters to put through the wringer and more bombs to drop on the unsuspecting reader. The opening up of the X-Ops world after this major shakeup is one that I’m definitely looking forward to and I’m really curious to see what else Tyler has in store after this.

four-stars