Category: Action/Adventure

Iditarod Nights by Cindy Hiday

Iditarod Nights by Cindy HidayIditarod Nights Published by Ooligan Press on April 14 2020
Pages: 200
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two-stars

Sparks fly when Claire Stanfield, a jaded criminal defense attorney, and Dillon Cord, a former police officer trying to forget his traumatic past, meet in the wilderness of Alaska before they face what might be their most difficult challenge yet: surviving the dangerous twists and turns of the Iditarod Trail.

Claire Stanfield became a lawyer to make her father proud, but after a troubling case leaves her shaken, she escapes to Alaska and immerses herself in the world of dog sledding. Dillon Cord became a police officer to serve his community, but he moves to Nome in the wake of a life-altering incident.

For both, the Iditarod—the toughest sled dog race in the world—offers a chance for forgiveness, redemption, and healing. After meeting unexpectedly just ten days before the race, Claire and Dillon are drawn together by the shared challenge of surviving the merciless Alaskan wilderness out on the trail. With the help of their strong-willed sled dogs, the two mushers navigate treacherous mountain paths, as well as their own budding relationship.

If they can come to terms with their pasts and stay focused on the dangerous trail ahead, Claire and Dillon might have a chance to create something special—but only if they reach Nome in one piece.

When I first read the blurb of ‘Iditarod Nights’, it instantly appealed because so few of these adventure-romance type stories in the wilds of the boreal regions actually cross my feed. Doing a check on Goodreads however, suggested that this ARC is either a reprint, or a re-written and expanded version of an earlier one with a spanking cool cover.

If you’re interested in the actual Iditarod journey, Cindy Hiday does an impressive job of detailing the many stops of the race and how the mushers perform, including the fatigue they feel and the hallucinations they get.

But what started out promising—the dogs, the sledding, the descriptions of the race, the setup of the protagonists meeting—soon became a lull as the Dillion Cord and Claire Stanfield did their own preparations, waffling in their interactions—from the time they meet to the time the race takes place—to the extent where I doubted their chemistry and attraction. More so that their making out sessions came out of nowhere when there didn’t seem to be sufficient build of tension between them as they went on solo with their dogs on the race, met up at key checkpoints/rest stops then kissed a bit…and rinse and repeat.

Basically put, it was a tenuous connection I struggled to see of near-strangers having awkward talk in a step-forward-two-steps-back kind of dance, are uncomfortable in so many ways around each other, but yet give out pecks and kisses easily. Woven into this epic but exhausting experience is Dillon’s own past that keeps creeping back on him just as he keeps trying to maintain a distance from Claire, adding to the disconnect I felt between the pair.

I wished I’d liked this better, given the crazy epic adventure that really lends itself to what could have been an equally blistering romance. Instead, I was lukewarm by the time it all ended and still bewildered by two characters jumping into a romance but were really just only beginning to a tentative friendship.

two-stars

Whiteout by Adriana Anders

Whiteout by Adriana Anders
Series: Survival Instincts, #1
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on 28th January 2020
Pages: 352
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four-half-stars

Angel Smith is ready to leave Antarctica for a second chance at life. But on what was meant to be her final day, the research station is attacked. Hunted and scared, she and glaciologist Ford Cooper barely make it out with their lives…only to realize that in a place this remote, there's nowhere left to run.

Isolated in the middle of a long, frozen winter with a madman at their heels, they must fight to survive in the most inhospitable—and beautiful—place on earth. But the outside world depends on what Ford and Angel know and, as their pursuers close in and their new partnership burns bright and hot, they will stop at nothing to make it out of the cold alive.

Adeptly written, full of thrilling moments showing superb narrative control, ‘Whiteout’ is putting Adriana Anders on my romantic-suspense-authors list. Truth is, I had a damn good time with this. Few stories use Antarctica as a setting; even fewer delve so deeply into and write so convincingly about the endless, brutal, frigid whiteness and the fragility of humanity against the unrelenting harshness of nature.

Both Angel Smith and Ford Cooper are in Antarctica for various reasons of their own, but they have each found a place there they belong, amongst an eclectic group of people finding camaraderie at the end of the world. Things change only when a series of events lead them to run for their lives and the fractious ‘relationship’ both initially have changes as they are thrust together in extreme and adverse circumstances that no one could ever imagine.

Angel/Ford are an unlikely pairing, but Anders persuades me early on that a terse, emotionally-unsure glaciologist with an everyday heroine with her own hurts can actually be one I’ll root for. In fact, the strength that Angel develops as the crisis goes on is admirable—more so because it very eloquently details the sort of limits and fortitude you don’t know you have until the need for survival drops suddenly on you.

The overall narrative arc isn’t one that is yet resolved: Ford and Angel barely get out of this alive (this is still thanks to an almost Deus ex Machina moment) and the bad guys for now get their comeuppance, but there overall trajectory of world domination through population-cleansing is still there. It left me somewhat uncertain and unclear, so portions with the masterminding corporation and the higher-ups seemed fuzzy despite the slow movements of chess pieces across a board I couldn’t fully understand yet.

I wished we could have had more moments exploring Ford’s history together—that is merely briefly alluded to—but the focus is so on the present that there just doesn’t seem to be enough space (both mental and emotional) for it. The last few pages wrapped up Ford/Angel’s story a tad hastily and a sort-of cliffhanger ending made ‘Whiteout’ feel incomplete despite the rushed HEA. But Anders leaves me wanting more and in this case, I’m already watching out for the sequel.

four-half-stars

The Lost Spear by N.J. Croft

The Lost Spear by N.J. CroftThe Lost Spear by N.J. Croft
Series: Lost #0.5
Published by Sideways Books on 26th August 2019
Pages: 114
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two-stars

Archaeologist Dr. Eve Blakeley has dedicated her life's work to finding Genghis Khan's final resting place. But first she'll have to find the Spirit Banner, Khan's lost spear, an eight-hundred-year-old weapon shrouded in as much mystery and lore as his lost tomb. The two are intertwined by centuries of secrets.

During her search through the mountains of Mongolia, she's joined by MI6 agent Zachary Martin, who is convinced that recent, seemingly random acts of terror around the globe are somehow connected to her.

But as they follow the clues to the spear, the line between her historical research and present-day terrorism blurs even more... Someone doesn't want her team to find the spear, and they'll do anything to keep the secrets of Genghis Khan buried forever.

It’s strange that ‘The Lost Spear’ came as part of the ARC offering under Entangled Publishing. But the blurb wasn’t one that I could resist, so I took a chance on an archaeological thriller, not knowing whether it was actually part of an imprint primarily associated with romantic fiction.

The long and short of it is, ‘The Lost Spear’ would be a disappointment especially if you think this is one that falls under that category. The romance plot is thin and weak, with the barest hint (that’s more told than showed) of what could happen between several characters. That the male protagonist (is MI6 agent Zachary Martin even one?) was kissing Eve Blakeley with nary a hint of chemistry while contemplating his own feelings towards his recently-dead partner mere pages ago didn’t really bode well for a strong romance.

That said, if archaeology and searching out lost items, racing against time if your thing, then ‘The Lost Spear’ does well to outline an intriguing mystery surrounding Genghis Khan and his Spirit Banner and the quest to find it.

But at 114 pages, it felt like this went nowhere, with a compendium of theories about the Spirit Banner, the revelation of bad guys who quite predictably masqueraded as good guys and an unsatisfactory cliffhanger that at the end, left me wondering if this was just a circular walk in the steppes of Central Asia. It’s a clear setup for what looks like a full-length sequel, but I’m not sure if I’m into this enough to continue.

two-stars

Total Control by Laura Griffin

Total Control by Laura GriffinTotal Control by Laura Griffin
Series: Alpha Crew, #4
Published by Gallery Books on 2nd September 2019
Pages: 183
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two-half-stars

Navy SEAL Jake Heath has his eyes on Alexa Mays. The FBI Agent is whip smart and hot as hell, but she won’t give him the time of day. So, when she calls him out of blue, he thinks his luck has changed.

But instead of meeting up for a romantic dinner, Alexa needs Jake for a very different reason. Her counterterrorism team is hot on the heels of the extremist that Jake’s task force has been tracking for months, and now he’s on American soil. The only way she can take him down is with Jake’s help.

Alexa knows Jake is tough and relentless...and that the chemistry between them is electric. Although she’s risking her heart—and maybe even her career—by bringing him onto the mission, she doesn’t have another choice. Together, they’re an unstoppable and powerful team.

As the hours tick by and a lethal enemy gets closer to launching an unimaginable attack, Alexa and Jake need to fight fire with fire before the clock runs out. The only question is: will their own flames get in the way?

Laura Griffin’s ‘Alpha Ops’ series and I have been on rocky ground since day one; it is so startling dissimilar to the heart-pounding crime thrillers that she writes that these brief, novella-length works feel like they’ve been penned by someone else, both in style and in plot-execution. Yet I keep returning to them, hoping that each one would get better, even as ‘Total Control’ has left me on the fence.

Everything was cursory here: context and histories that were told rather than shown, explained away with a few lines rather than drawn out with chapters, and lacked the usual solid development that Griffin’s careful plotting in her full-length works contain. Her protagonists’ connection seemed forced especially when Alexa Mays only decided to give Jake Heath the time of day after 6 months of radio silence because she needed something from him.

In fact, it was harder to like Alexa at all, when Griffin seemed to have set her up as callous and manipulative from the beginning, which made Jake’s willingness (by blowing off his family for her) to ingratiate himself into her good books even more inexplicable. I think, above all, there were scenes that lacked the ‘softer’ emotional bits—or rather, vulnerability—that would, ironically, given an action-packed story more edge and more impact. That it went from zero to a hundred towards the last quarter—a bit of a feat considering this topped out at a rushed 120-ish pages on my reader—was something that came unexpectedly, though not in an unwelcome fashion, until it tapered off to a rather abrupt conclusion that felt like a HFN.

I’m not ashamed to say that I liked the past 20 or so pages the best, which nonetheless, still wasn’t quite enough to erase the lacklustre first half. I only wished ‘Total Control’ was a full-length (and more balanced) book and had it been, it would have been phenomenal.

two-half-stars

Dom by Anna Hackett

Dom by Anna HackettDom by Anna Hackett
Series: Hell Squad #18
Published by Anna Hackett on June 17th 2019
Pages: 135
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three-half-stars

As the battle against the invading aliens intensifies, a group of bad boy bikers and mercenaries will stand and fight for humanity’s survival…

Squad Three berserker Dom Santora has an ugly past he can’t forget. Born and raised in the darkness, he spent his life before the alien invasion as a Mafia enforcer. He’s found some meaning fighting against the aliens with his fellow berserkers, but he knows his soul is too stained to ever find redemption. And there is no way he’ll ever deserve the quiet beauty of a woman like Arden Carlisle.

When the raptors invaded, Arden lost her husband and children in the first horrible, bloody wave of the attack. Since that terrible night, she’s survived, but she hasn’t been living. Hollowed out by her grief, she’s found a way to keep going as the comms officer for Squad Nine. But lately, color has started to seep back into her world, and the person she sees most clearly is the dark, handsome, and lethal Dom.

Dom and Arden are two damaged souls who find each other in the darkness. But the Gizzida are putting the final pieces of their endgame into place. The aliens want the Earth and to wipe out the human survivors once and for all. As Dom, Arden, and the berserkers work to find a deadly alien bomb, they uncover the true horror of the aliens’ plans. To have any chance at love, life, and survival, Dom and Arden will have to fight harder than ever before.

With Anna Hackett’s post-apocalyptic Hell Squad series drawing soon to a close, I can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel. Quite literally so, given the odder and odder paranormal elements coming into play (I think of Fright Night zombies, leeches and all other weird things that Hackett’s throwing in here) along with the dinosaur aliens who have overrun future earth.

But the secret weapon of a wisp of another alien whose actions are powerful enough to be the Deus ex Machina of the entire series—conveniently saving the characters and the day when all hope is thought to be lost—is Hackett’s chosen form of redemption it seems. Selena may yet save us all, though it’s starting to be a recurring pattern. But I digress, as much as I love that character and her long-awaited story with the head of the Berserker squad.

‘Dom’ is the penultimate novella here, even as Hackett’s willingness to stretch the series on can be somewhat frustrating. The latest to fall prey to love, so to speak, Dom is silent and tormented by the trajectory of his entire life, only to find it with a woman who’s also lost everything in the alien war.

Like many of the HS books, the pattern is similar: there’s a strong strain of instalove given the brevity of the work and the heavy focus on action that helps cement the pairing, a new discovery and a final mission where a near-catastrophic event happens…but we all live to see another day, bruised, battered and torn. Dom and Arden don’t exactly stray from this template, but it’s Hackett’s imagination and her ability to throw new developments that ultimately carry the story through.

‘Dom’ is certainly enjoyable throughout, but I’ll confess my heart probably lies with the finale that’s yet to come.

three-half-stars

Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex

Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth EssexAlmost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex
Series: The Reckless Brides, #1
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on 31st July 2012
Pages: 353
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four-stars

A Lady in Disguise
For generations, the Kents have served proudly with the British Royal Navy. So when her younger brother refuses to report for duty, Sally Kent slips into a uniform and takes his place—at least until he comes to his senses. Boldly climbing aboard the Audacious, Sally is as able-bodied as any sailor there. But one man is making her feel tantalizingly aware of the full-bodied woman beneath her navy blues…

A Man Overboard
Dedicated to his ship, sworn to his duty—and distractingly gorgeous—Lieutenant David Colyear sees through Sally’s charade, and he’s furious. But he must admit she’s the best midshipman on board—and a woman who tempts him like no other. With his own secrets to hide and his career at stake, Col agrees to keep her on. But can the passion they hide survive the perils of a battle at sea? Soon, their love and devotion will be put to the test…

‘Almost a Scandal’ was an automatic read because it’s got those gender-bending qualities that I love, or at least it’s has a Mulan-esque sheen of a woman dressing as a man to in a male-dominated field that somehow always pulls me in.

Yet strangely, Elizabeth Essex’s writing, so focused on Regency-period British naval supremacy, shines precisely not quite in the wonder of cross-dressing or gender relations, but in this, more so particularly if you’re interested in the intricacies of bringing a warship ship out and engaging in battle, though the sheer detail of every movement, every activity done on board could be tedious if you’re in it more for the romance itself than the setting. It’s well-researched, a little jolly for the tough conditions of war, perhaps, but delivers a breath of fresh sea-air.

Still, amidst the drama of the high seas, Sally Kent and Colyear’s relationship is one forged out of family history, hard-earned respect, battle-worn lines and sexual tension bursting at the seams. A slow burn, the many smouldering looks between them and the inevitable sense of mounting passion kept me engrossed and jittery, more so because Essex’s protagonists are generally likeable and never exactly fall over the rail in a fit of histrionics.

A curious mix of naïveté and a highly-developed sense of justice, Sally Kent is as capable, or perhaps even more so than quite a few men on the Audacious, while Col—intense, controlled, so dedicated and so brilliant until Sally unravels him—feels like the brooding, swoonworthy-type who oddly enough, generally lacks the off-putting, prickish vibe of the male protagonists in more traditional historical romances. It was no hardship to root for this pairing, maybe because it was easy to like them as individuals first.

But perhaps what Essex has done towards the end in not short-changing the reader into an abrupt conclusion but one that’s painfully drawn out to an ending that’s well-deserved is what really makes ‘Almost a Scandal’ a very memorable foray into a historical romance.

four-stars

End Transmission by Robyn Bachar

End Transmission by Robyn BacharEnd Transmission by Robyn Bachar
Series: The Galactic Cold War, #3
Published by Carina, Carina Press on 20th May 2019
Pages: 170
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two-half-stars


Firefly
meets James Bond in this action-adventure romance set in an alternate future where the Cold War never ended…

Maria Watson defied her family to join the Mombasa as Chief Engineer, finding her place among a ragtag fleet of pirates and privateers. Their latest mission left her with a price on her head and a scar on her heart. When a surprise attack separates her from her ship, stranding her in hostile space with a stolen Soviet weapon, she’ll do whatever it takes to uncover that weapon’s secrets—even sacrifice herself.

Broken by the war, Combat Medic Tomas Nyota spent years drowning his sorrows in the bottom of a bottle. Sober, he found a new purpose as the Mombasa’s Chief Medical Officer. His job is to keep the crew alive, even the brilliant but contrary Chief Engineer with whom he’s constantly at odds.

Trapped together in a stolen ship, running from both the Alliance and the Soviets, they must work together to survive. But when the weapon’s horrific purpose is uncovered, their quest becomes a race against time. They must expose the truth and destroy the weapon—before it’s too late.

As a syfy-novella, ‘End Transmission’ works pretty well. As someone who dove straight into this installment without having read the first 2 books in the series, Robyn Bachar’s world-building is intriguing, sort of easy to get into and pretty absorbing considering the alternate-earth direction that this series has taken and extrapolated. Split into 2 factions—the bad Soviets and the supposed not-bad camps—this extreme form of rivalry has extended into the space age where the initial Cold War rift had snowballed into something way, way bigger than anyone living in the present can imagine.

Still, the political tenets remain the same: conspiracy, espionage and undercutting, with a huge emphasis on intrigue and intelligence…issues that hardcore syfy books tend to reimagine, comment on, criticise and re-write. ‘End Transmission’ might revolve around a particular prototype designed for mind and behaviour-control coupled with several great inserts like a fake honeymoon, getting stuck in confined spaces with a so-called rival, but Bachar’s other books (as inferred) had already padded out so much that I was wondering just how much I’d missed out with some info-dump happening midway through.

I took an extraordinary long time to finish this nonetheless, skimming at times, caught between the perfunctory romance and the very detailed world that Bachar has written in this short novella.

As a syfy-story, ‘End Transmission’ is great, though as a romance, not so. Maria and Tomas seemed more at loggerheads (or simply, characters who just didn’t see eye to eye) minus the sizzling chemistry of an enemies-to-lovers vibe, with a switch suddenly flipping between them at the 3/4 mark that had me befuddled because I just couldn’t see it coming. In fact, I wasn’t entirely sure they even liked each other despite the love declarations at the end—that much of a negative dynamic Maria/Tomas had that didn’t even have me rooting for their HEA or HFN.

In short, a middling read for me at least, though I wish I could have been more enthusiastic about their story.

two-half-stars