Cold & Deadly by Toni Anderson

Cold & Deadly by Toni AndersonCold & Deadly by Toni Anderson
Series: Cold Justice: Crossfire #1
Published by Toni Anderson on 12th February 2019
Pages: 400
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four-stars

Hostage Negotiators can talk themselves out of anything—except falling in love.

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Dominic Sheridan is an accomplished expert in the Crisis Negotiation Unit. Practiced, professional, used to dealing with high-stake situations under tense conditions, Dominic is a master at manipulating people. Everyone, that is, but the headstrong rookie agent bent on destroying her fledgling career.

As a child, Ava Kanas put her life on the line when the mob executed her father. Now someone has killed her mentor, the man who inspired her to become an FBI agent—and she’s the only one who recognizes it was anything but a tragic accident.

When another agent is murdered and Dominic nearly dies, it becomes obvious a serial killer is targeting the FBI. Together Dominic and Ava search for clues in the investigation, all the while fighting a forbidden attraction that will complicate everything, especially when the predator sets their sights on Ava.

The marvellous Toni Anderson scores again. ‘Cold & Deadly’ is the latest incarnation or rather, the first of the spin-off books of her FBI agents series, and with it comes the same fantastic, faultless type of writing that reminds me why I love romantic suspense so much.

SSA Dominic Sheridan and rookie agent Ava Kanas find themselves embroiled what apparently looked like a simple case of a retired agent committing suicide, where soon it becomes clear that  someone is targeting the FBI agents themselves as Dominic soon finds himself in the crosshairs of an investigation that blows up beyond his imagination.

From the onset, it becomes clear that the case is a winding, gritty and absorbing one, so vividly painted—even with the sub-plot/diversion that was equally hair-raising—with the bleak but brutal shadow of violent deaths and the warped minds of serial killers. There’s no doubt at all that Anderson can write and does it superbly (I think I can’t say this enough about the quality of her prose), as her protagonists and secondary characters are so cohesively put together that any prerequisite knowledge of her previous books isn’t needed to get lost in this tale of grand revenge, edgy paranoia, spellbinding action sequences and unintended (or forbidden?) attraction.

Yet my only gripe, strangely, is about the romance, which I found sidelined amidst the rocking suspense. Dominic and Ava, pushed together incidentally, and their growing attraction is predictable though not without the amount of cold water each pours on the future of this so-called relationship. There’re so many reasons why this pairing wouldn’t work—Anderson herself provides these reasons in the protagonists’ individual musings—and I was left ironically convinced that ‘Cold & Deadly’ would still have been a brilliant (or perhaps, even superb?) read if the romance hadn’t been even included at all.

The shining light here however, was probably Ava Kanas herself. My perspective on her went from dour to admiring to uncertain, but what remained consistent was that Anderson had drawn up a pretty complex, passionate and multi-faceted protagonist who felt like a contradictory piece of work on so many levels, yet owned a big heart that made it impossible not to feel for her when push came to shove. Dominic Sheridan in contrast, felt like he was left a little paler in the shade: more remote, more like the poor rich boy who shunned commitment, who made a name for himself independently in law enforcement in spite of his rich family’s connections, suddenly questioning what he can commit to.

If length tends to become and issue of contention for several authors that I do like, ‘Cold & Deadly’, at around 400 pages, made me grateful that Anderson took her time to weave everything together with intricate detail. Surfacing from this a few days later, I’m just happy to say that I had a bloody good time.

four-stars

The Risk by Elle Kennedy

The Risk by Elle KennedyThe Risk by Elle Kennedy
Series: Briar U #2
Published by Elle Kennedy Inc. on 18th February 2019
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three-stars

Everyone says I’m a bad girl. They’re only partly right—I don’t let fear rule me, and I certainly don’t care what people think. But I draw the line at sleeping with the enemy. As the daughter of Briar’s head hockey coach, I’d be vilified if I hooked up with a player from a rival team.

And that’s who Jake Connelly is. Harvard’s star forward is arrogant, annoying, and too attractive for his own good. But fate is cruel—I require his help to secure a much-coveted internship, and the sexy jerk isn’t making it easy for me.
I need Connelly to be my fake boyfriend.

For every fake date…he wants a real one.

Which means this bad girl is in big trouble. Nothing good can come from sneaking around with Jake Connelly. My father would kill me, my friends will revolt, and my post-college career is on the line. But while it’s getting harder and harder to resist Jake’s oozing sex appeal and cocky grin, I refuse to fall for him.

That’s the one risk I’m not willing to take.

Enter the raunchy world of college hookups, the infamous laddish, cocky behaviours of manwhore athletes, competitive sports (typically hockey) and the bumpy transition from hormonal young adulthood to equally hormonal adulthood. At least, this is how I’ve seen Elle Kennedy’s college campus series shaping out to be thus far—I’ve not been wrong here—and ‘The Risk’ continues in this similar fashion as Kennedy milks the shallows of college life, only with a fraternising with the enemy vibe from the beginning.

Brenna Jensen and Jake Connelly play for opposing teams though the friction that comes when they cross paths is perhaps better summed up as ‘love and hate being 2 sides of the same coin’. There are too many reasons why the mutual attraction shouldn’t be given into, and god forbid that Jake should have any say at all in who Brenna chooses to hook up with. It’s a predictable journey thereafter; emotions develop after they get down and dirty, and along with their futures getting put on the line as well.

It always takes a bit of a mental adjustment for me to get into Elle Kennedy’s construction of her New-Adult world anyhow: there’re often bursts of selfish, juvenile behaviour and several moments of ’the world is bigger than me’ revelation, which also have my sympathies for the characters going up and down like a yo-yo. My reservations, perhaps have also got to do with the feeling that I’m reading about protagonists who simply don’t show enough depth despite the angsty teenage struggles they face…and that they’ve still not done enough of growing up by the end of the book.

And for that reason I can’t quite connect or root for them. Brenna/Jake weren’t exactly likeable protagonists at all—I did think they were selfish and immature in their own ways, even though their tussles were amusing at the very least. What was somewhat frustrating was the hint of unrequited love at the end—a pining best friend doesn’t get the man she’s always wanted, while said man goes for someone who couldn’t quite be compassionate about the hurt that this caused—and that the HEAs in the series are stubbornly about people who don’t always seem the best matched couple.

Given the glowing reviews about Kennedy’s Off-Campus series and the Briar U series, I’m well aware that I’m standing off to one side being sceptical of what pairing Kennedy will churn out next. There’s no doubt that she does tell an engaging story. I just wish I could have liked it more.

three-stars

Keep Her Safe by K.A. Tucker

Keep Her Safe by K.A. TuckerKeep Her Safe by K.A. Tucker
Published by Atria Books on 23rd January 2018
Pages: 436
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three-half-stars

Noah Marshall has known a privileged and comfortable life thanks to his mother, the highly decorated chief of the Austin Police Department. But all that changes the night she reveals a skeleton that's been rattling in her closet for years, and succumbs to the guilt of destroying an innocent family's life. Reeling with grief, Noah is forced to carry the burden of this shocking secret.

Gracie Richards wasn't born in a trailer park, but after fourteen years of learning how to survive in The Hollow, it's all she knows anymore. At least here people don't care that her dad was a corrupt Austin cop, murdered in a drug deal gone wrong. Here, she and her mother are just another family struggling to survive...until a man who clearly doesn't belong shows up on her doorstep.

Despite their differences, Noah and Gracie are searching for answers to the same questions, and together, they set out to uncover the truth about the Austin Police Department's dark and messy past. But the scandal that emerges is bigger than they bargained for, and goes far higher up than they ever imagined.

With an apparent suicide that sparks off a civilian-run investigation, K.A Tucker plunges us straight into a fascinating case of deep rot in a police department, the layers of cover-ups and complicity at all levels. That much, ‘Keep Her Safe’ is a solid thriller/suspense as Noah Marshall and Grace Richards try to untangle threads that many have tried to sever in a 14-year-old mystery. Tucker pours out theories, doubts upon doubts, throws in several signposts and red-herrings while piling on the emotion—all of which did keep me engaged until the end. Well, mostly.

At 400 pages, ‘Keep Her Safe’ ran the risk of being bloated, along with the slow burn of a romance that thankfully, didn’t exactly detract from the plot. Told in several POVs, straddling different timelines, this was drawn out much more than I thought it would, as it soon became clear (halfway into it at least) who the major, dirty players were.

That much I liked, as cynical as the plot is, about a broken justice system where evasion and conspiracy (and deliberately not doing the right thing) seem the reigning themes of this procedural.

Character-wise however…oh lord, how I loathed Grace—a hormonal teenager masquerading as an adult.

Petulant and petty, with an uncontrollable temper, with a bull-headed tendency to rush into everything—and blaming everyone else for everything not going right—Grace’s large chip on her shoulder was so blindingly big that it was impossible to like her at all. It always felt that she was the self-righteous one, while Noah always fumbled in his missteps and had the uphill climb to appease her ‘world-owes-me-big’ attitude. I get it—she’s had a hard life. But behaving at every turn like the world owes her everything for that while trampling everyone and anyone because of her circumstances? Didn’t get too much sympathy from me here.

Noah’s restraint in contrast, was a cool balm of relief, though I got annoyed and tired with the number of times he had to keep her flaring temper and her inability to even sit and think rationally. That he had to keep placating her made him like a caretaker of an unruly child instead of a romantic interest.

That said, K.A Tucker isn’t quite an author on my regular feed, though I’m guessing she should be. While I couldn’t (or rather, didn’t) buy into the romance at all, ‘Keep Her Safe’ is more than a decent read even though I took days to finish it.

three-half-stars

Deadly Obsession by April Hunt

Deadly Obsession by April HuntDeadly Obsession by April Hunt
Series: Steele Ops, #1
Published by Forever on 30th April 2019
Pages: 416
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three-half-stars

Someone is watching their every move.

After a lifetime spent in and out of hospitals, Zoey Wright is tired of playing it safe. She's ready to take charge of her own life and get out of her comfort zone, starting with a new job as a CSI agent. But when her childhood crush Knox Steele gets pulled onto her case, Zoey needs to put her feelings for him aside or more women will die at the hands of the serial killer preying on her hometown.

Former Army Ranger Knox Steele is back in Washington to help his brothers open an elite private security firm. He never expected to stumble onto a crime scene, or see his best friend's little sister working it. Zoey is all grown up now, and the attraction between them is electric, despite his best efforts to resist it. But all that changes for Knox when he realizes the victims have one thing in common . . . and Zoey might be next.

There’s always a special excitement I have when there’s the new start of a series particularly in the sub-genres of romance that I look for. April Hunt’s new Steele Ops series was one I plunged into because, well, new year, new series, new start.

Sort of.

Combining the brother’s-best-friend trope with a typical serial-killer storyline, ‘Deadly Obsession’ is very much an establishing book that sets the context for the series. And thus far, I did like the cocooned bonds and the closeness between the characters and Hunt’s decision to write a somewhat different heroine—whose illness gave her cause to rise above her circumstances again and again—is quite remarkable.

There were no surprises here, where characters or plot were concerned at least: Zoey being in the line of fire, Knox’s non-committal stance towards the will-they-won’t-they relationship, his denseness that needed a huge awakening in the form of mortal danger to Zoey to dissipate, the ‘sex-only’ agreement that you just know will fail. They’re well-worn tropes really, but April Hunt’s engaging writing carried the story and I did, by and large, have a good and easy time making my way through the suspense—even guessed who the perp was well in advance.

There’s much talk about seizing life by the horns especially when faced with one’s mortality nonetheless: Zoey did come across as desperate and overcompensating for having missed out on so much at times, just as Knox’s indecisive mixed signals grated along with the reminders about how he didn’t stick with women at all.

By and large though, I did have an easy time reading this and did find the story quite engaging despite the well-trodden issues in romance that authors do like to take up. Hunt’s writing has a certain kind of clarity here that I can appreciate and there’s enough development of the secondary characters whose coming stories (no doubt) I would like to follow up on.

three-half-stars

Protecting Piper by Cynthia Eden

Protecting Piper by Cynthia EdenProtecting Piper by Cynthia Eden
Published by Hocus Pocus Publishing, Hocus Pocus Publishing inc. on 29th January 2019
Pages: 178
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two-stars

She was off limits.

Eric Wilde has always known that Piper Lane isn’t for him. She is his younger brother’s best friend…and probably more. But that hasn’t stopped Eric from wanting her. For longing for the one woman that he can’t have. Sure, he’s rich, successful—he’s built a security empire, and he’s got the world at his feet. Only he doesn’t have her.

He is the one man she needs the most.

Free-spirited Piper Lane has always considered Eric to be the enemy. He’s seemed to resent her, and the guy just flat-out makes her nervous. Every time she’s around him, she winds up doing something horribly embarrassing. But, this time…everything has changed. This time, he’s the one man she needs the most.

Something is stalking Piper.

A stranger has broken into Piper’s home twice, and she feels like someone is following her. Watching her every move. She needs a professional to help her—so enter Eric Wilde. He promises her protection, he promises to put his best investigators on her case, and he even moves her into his house. Suddenly, the guy who has always been the villain in her life…he’s now playing the role of hero.

Everything will change as the danger mounts.

And maybe Eric isn’t so bad, after all. The more time that Piper spends with him, the more she realizes that her feelings for Eric are far more complicated that she ever imagined. Desire explodes between them even as the danger deepens around her. Someone in the dark is targeting Piper, and he is determined that if he can’t possess her…then he will destroy her.

‘Protecting Piper’ was one I was eager to read, seeing how it was not tied to any of the long-running Cynthia Eden series at all and that it does have the best friend’s brother’s trope (and the sort of liking each other from afar) in it.

Apart from the very quick suspense setup that Piper Lane had a stalker, the first half however, was off-putting.

And that was mostly in part due to Eric Wilde who acted the epitome of the bully who couldn’t use his words to pursue the girl, who bulldozed and snarled his way through every man who came near to Piper when he didn’t throughout all the years he’d known her.

That Eden played up the double standard here —having Eric question the number of lovers Piper had while he screwed around with tons of others—was rather infuriating, along with the juvenile behaviour Eric displayed of tormenting her because he supposed loved her from afar, while not manning up to do anything about it until she was in danger. Having Piper going inexplicably from teenage crush to dislike to all-in love made the inconsistencies in the characters’ emotional development even starker.

Eden’s rather simple whodunnit novella would have been more enjoyable I think, had there not been her trademark overuse of ex-lovers always circling the pond and muddying the waters between the protagonists. ‘Protecting Piper’ became a less-than-stellar read as a result, where the romance was reduced to sudden realisations that they’d been idiots all along while ex-lovers rigorously defended as meaningless.

two-stars

On Thin Ice by Julie Cross

On Thin Ice by Julie CrossOn Thin Ice by Julie Cross
Series: Juniper Falls #3
Published by Entangled: Teen on 26th February 2019
Pages: 340
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three-stars

Brooke Parker never expected to find herself in the tiny town of Juniper Falls, Minnesota. Of course, she also never expected to lose her dad. Or for her mom to lose herself. Brooke feels like she’s losing it…until she finds Juniper Falls hockey. Juniper Falls girls’ hockey, that is.

Jake Hammond, current prince of Juniper Falls, captain of the hockey team, and player with the best chance of scoring it big, is on top of the world. Until one hazing ritual gone wrong lands him injured, sitting on the sidelines, and―shocking even to him―finding himself enjoying his “punishment” as assistant coach for the girls’ team.

As Jake and Brooke grow closer, he finds the quiet new girl is hiding a persona full of life, ideas, and experiences bigger and broader than anything he’s ever known. But to Jake, hockey’s never just been a game. It’s his whole life. And leveraging the game for a shot at their future might be more than he can give.

I’ve not come back to Julie Cross’s Juniper Falls series in a while and to dive back into high school/college sports is still a change from what I’m used to.

Still, ‘On Thin Ice’ is more than what it reads from the blurb and the more I read, the more I realised that the romance is merely part of a larger storyline dealing with the culture of hazing and the coverup for fear of being called a tattle-tale.

I didn’t like Jake’s unwillingness to do the right thing, even after people got hurt (the point is, does an entire batch of freshmen have to die before something happens?) because of upholding stupid, supposed traditions that deem you either a ‘hero’ or a ‘loser’. But Cross does tackle this issue which does get resolved in the end, along with the slow-blossoming romance that gets tucked neatly into the bigger problems facing sports, making ‘On Thin Ice’ essentially, a story that quite warmly champions young adults as examples who finally choose the straight and narrow path.

I’m guessing this will probably appeal to the younger demographic more—in both characters and plot—and I’ll have to say that my rating really, is one given from my adult perspective that tends to get some eye-rolling in, along with the growing inability to connect with this genre of fiction that I so used to love. As a YA story though (more objectively speaking this time), it’s a pretty decent read.

three-stars

Covert Games by Katie Reus

Covert Games by Katie ReusCovert Games by Katie Reus
Series: Redemption Harbor, #6
Published by KR Press, LLC on 22nd January 2019
Pages: 194
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three-stars

She was supposed to be a means to an end…

Redemption Harbor Consulting’s greatest enemy, Alexei Kuznetsov, is in their sights. For RHC cofounder Leighton, toppling the treacherous criminal’s empire is one more small step toward making up for his own past. To destroy Kuznetsov, he’ll go through the Russian’s niece, a woman Leighton suspects may also be guilty of dirty deeds. A woman he doesn’t count on wanting…who boils his blood and makes Leighton want things he doesn’t deserve with someone he can’t have.
Now she’s everything to him…

Despite other prospects, family loyalty has Lucy Carreras running one of her uncle’s prosperous hotels. But the longer she observes its operations, the more she believes the elegant establishment is host to some shady exploits. When her suspicions are confirmed by Leighton—a dangerous man straight out of her fantasies—Lucy’s entire world explodes when she learns just how evil her uncle’s sins are. Now she can’t stand by and let it continue. She and Leighton will take Alexei down together…if they can survive the deadly storm hurtling toward them.

I’ve noticed a trend with the Redemption Harbor series thus far: each time there’s a new release, I eagerly get to it, starting out voraciously until my excitement peters out towards the middle when the peaks and troughs seem a little glossed over. At least, it has been happening with this series of books; it’s like an endless hoping for the book to be a good one based on the exciting blurb, only for it to go somewhat flat by the end.

‘Covert Games’ is a fraternising-with-the-enemy-type of read, though Katie Reus doesn’t quite get the drama overblown at all. There’s always the sense that things are reined in before the deception between the protagonists gets far gone or before the story gets turned into an angst-heavy kind of drama (the adulting in this however, is a plus point), though the instant love/lust came inexplicably out of nowhere between Leighton and Luciana.
Reus does deal with some heavy topics here and these do take priority in the story—it’s the suspense at least, that drives it along. Which might make the romance feel a little more incidental. There are some things in Leighton’s past that make him detached, but it’s not quite explored thoroughly and Luciana’s own childhood fears and suspicions are dealt with in a stroke of sorts in a defining incident that suddenly puts her on the opposing side of it all.
‘Covert Games’ isn’t a bad read at all, I’ll have to say. But this holding pattern of ‘starting high, tapering off’ is something I’m still hoping to break (endless optimism much?) with the next one to come.
three-stars