Category: Military/Paramilitary

Fighting Absolution by Kate McCarthy

Fighting Absolution by Kate McCarthyFighting Absolution by Kate McCarthy
Published by Kate McCarthy on 10th September 2019
Pages: 404
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four-stars

"She's a combat medic.He's SAS, and her best friend.They weren't supposed to fall in love."

At fifteen, Jamie Murphy finds herself broken and alone, convinced she doesn't need anyone.

Until she does.

Bear is the boy behind the fence, the one who was there for her when no one else was.

Until he's not.

Left with nothing, Jamie joins the army hoping it will give her purpose. The last thing she expects is the best friend from her past to reappear in the dusty plains of a war-torn country. No longer the boy she once knew, Bear is now a man: big, bearded, and SAS—one of the army’s elite.

Soon Jamie finds herself not only fighting against her enemies, but her feelings for a man who left her once before. Can she risk losing him all over again?

‘Fighting Absolution’ is not quite a conventional romance, so that’s best to get that out of the way at the start. For those who are used to the establishing scene of the protagonists following a particular trope they are familiar with, this tosses all of it out of the window. Maybe I’m one of those, so inured to tropes and straight-up, direct coupledom despite the difficulty the protagonists face getting together. After all, it’s the classification of romance, isn’t it?

Kate McCarthy strays from this a fair bit and inadvertently, treads on several triggers or safety boundaries that some readers might have. Incidental friends to lovers? Second chances? Or second choices? It’s hard to sit down and categorise it, as mixed as I am even as I write this review.

In short, I was afraid that this would become a love triangle within a ‘growing-up’ type of story. In some ways, it is, and it isn’t, with some layers of complication (read: deception) between the protagonists. The romantic trajectory isn’t a straight one where both protagonists meet and then things are immediately set in stone from there onwards. It certainly follows Jamie Murphy’s journey more than a couple’s journey together for at least a third of the book, then takes a bit of a skewed turn when a third party so to speak, gets introduced.

Honestly, I’m sort of uncomfortable with the this particular skew, but these are my own expectations talking because of McCarthy messing with my own idea of ‘meant-to-be’ that I’m used to in romantic fiction. It’s not a bad read by any means, though there is the usual frustrating push-pull, some stubbornness and the lack of communication resulting in could-be-avoided-conflict as the narrative shifts from angsty to oddly light-hearted and back to angsty again.

‘Fighting Absolution’ is a longer read with New Adult inclinations, and told in the shadow of war, PTSD and difficult personal histories, has a plot that relies on losses and gains for its emotional momentum. I’m not entirely sure how many years slip by between the pages, but the passage of time and the slow burn give the HEA a bit more depth and credence. I liked parts of it, was uncomfortable with some of the others…and that is going to be my bottom-line. But it wasn’t hard to get caught up with the drama of it all, and for that alone, it was quite worth it.

four-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

Search and Destroy by Julie Rowe

Search and Destroy by Julie RoweSearch and Destroy by Julie Rowe
Series: Outbreak Task Force #4
Published by Entangled tangled Publishing, LLC (Amara) on 26th August 2019
Pages: 400
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three-stars

Dr. Carmen Rodrigues, CDC’s Outbreak Task Force director, is on the hunt for a killer–– an airborne virus spreading from Florida across the States, gaining traction with each passing moment. Although she’ll never forget her one night with sexy bodyguard John Dozer in Afghanistan, his protective nature is one distraction she doesn’t need right now.

Ex-Army Intelligence officer John Dozer will put his life on the line for beautiful, independent Carmen. Every. Time. Even when she pushes him away. And now, with her struggling to contain an outbreak likely triggered by domestic bio-terrorists, maybe even insiders at the CDC, she needs him more than ever. He lost her once. He’ll never let that happen again.

In ‘Search and Destroy’, Julie Rowe amps it up with a serious but sudden outbreak of measles, the mobilisation and the rush to contain yet another outbreak. In a straight, unapologetic continuation from the previous book (those who haven’t yet started from scratch might find themselves in a bind here), there’s finally a sense that something bigger and more sinister is brewing. Bioterrorism? Political wrangling? All of the above? There’s more than what meets the eye, but it isn’t all clearly laid out just yet.

What I did find questioning though, was the forced chemistry and sex between Carmen and Dozer very early on—all of which would have been alright, except that it left Carmen alternating between being a simpering wimp when it came to Dozer’s supposed masculinity and being the strong, take-charge boss as the action wore on. Dozer’s less-than-appealing alpha behaviour in contrast, made him walk a dangerously close line to being a possessive alpha arse, and oddly enough, a side player in the bigger scheme of things.

In fact, I thought Rowe put Dozer’s and Carmen’s relationship on the backburner along with the questions that the reader typically has in favour of the action, which I found more believable than their relationship. As a result, Carmen/Dozer was a questionable pairing despite their very, very brief history 9 years ago and that their reunion suddenly sparked off Dozer’s sudden need to only keep Carmen now (why not any time sooner despite all the regret?) was bewildering.

Instead, the memorable character that stood larger than life throughout the series turned out to be the Drill Sergeant whom I found hilarious but also charismatic the moment he appeared on the pages and that alone you could say, makes every book in the series worth reading.

This isn’t to say that ‘Search and Destroy’ isn’t smartly and well-written…it certainly is, even if it’s the rare book of Rowe that has gotten me a little more disappointed than excited. Rowe makes it very clear that the series has a mini arc within a larger narrative arc that will keep going for some time with the sequels to follow. Yet because of this, ‘Search and Destroy’ felt incomplete and particularly rushed with Carmen/Dozer’s relationship that went from zero to a hundred in a space of a few days, carved out in small pockets that frankly, did feel like blippy speed bumps in the otherwise pacey and thrillingly consistent storytelling.

three-stars

Ghost by Janie Crouch

Ghost by Janie CrouchGhost by Janie Crouch
Series: Linear Tactical #5
Published by Calamity Jane Publishing on May 21st 2019
Pages: 251
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three-stars

Everyone eventually breaks under torture.

It’s a truth elite solider and government agent Dorian Lindstrom, codename Ghost, knows firsthand. His body may have recovered from what was done to him in that Afghani prison six years ago, but his mind…not quite so much.

He’s seeing dead people.

Grace Brandt, government codename Wraith, knows her past can’t be forgiven. She has stayed “dead” for as long as she could, but now the forces she’s been fighting, the secrets slowly suffocating her, won’t stay hidden any longer.

And the man she helped break—the man she's always loved—is the only one who can stop the danger threatening them all.

When it comes to keeping the people he loves safe, including the one who thinks she’s not worthy of it, there is no danger—past, present or future—Dorian won’t battle.


The Ghost will rise.

I’m in a bind.

What do you do, when the basis of romance—the believable pairing of 2 characters you need to root for and believe in—doesn’t quite work for you, even though the premise of the story itself is quite intriguing?

If I were to approach ‘Ghost’ from a non-romantic perspective, then the whole covert-spying, black-ops stuff with tons of brain-washing involved is one that can—and did—keep me on my toes. I loved the twists and turns; rather, I liked how Janie Crouch didn’t simply stop but kept going past the point where I expected the climax and resolution to be.

But as acknowledged in the afterword, Crouch recognises that the female protagonist—Grace Brandt, aka Ray (what the hell kind of name is that?)—isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And she definitely isn’t mine, more so because she’s written to be the other half of a damaged character whose story I’ve always hankered after from the very start.

Wary, suspicious, morally suspect and prone to simply run with Dorian always chasing after her…that she was Ghost’s, or rather, Dorian’s other half, was frankly a hard pill to swallow. This time, the repetitive arguments of her not being good enough for him seemed spot-on, and I’d spent the whole time wishing Crouch had simply chosen a different protagonist for Dorian. It also seemed inevitable that Dorian/Grace’s HEA didn’t feel sufficiently set in stone, even if it were a touch of the realistic that Crouch was aiming for after all that both had gone through.

My rating of ‘Ghost’ is probably quite an arbitrary one. I’d be the first to admit that it turned out as ‘average’ because I was weighing the romance against the plot and while the latter was not bad, it was weighed down completely by the former that I didn’t buy into at all.

three-stars

Stealing Vengeance by Kaylea Cross

Stealing Vengeance by Kaylea CrossStealing Vengeance by Kaylea Cross
Series: Vengeance, #1
Published by Kaylea Cross Inc. on 28th May 2019
Pages: 269
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three-stars

She’s an expert at getting into places she doesn’t belong.

The government created Megan, transforming her into a Valkyrie—a deadly operative only whispered about in certain circles. They took everything from her and made her into a weapon. Now someone is leaking secret information about her sisters-in-arms, betraying them for money. Loyal Unto Death is the Valkyrie motto. So when Megan is recruited to find who leaked the files, she takes the high-risk assignment. Even if it means working with the man who betrayed her trust long ago. Even if it means giving her life. Because she’ll do whatever it takes to find justice.

But this is one situation she can’t escape from on her own.

Tyler Bergstrom never forgot the resourceful woman who escaped during the toughest phase of SERE school. So when he learns the stunning truth about her and his unwitting part in her past, he volunteers to work alongside Megan for a chance at redemption. Except she doesn’t want a partner. Doesn’t want to let anyone into her life, including him—hell, especially him. Yet whether she likes it or not, for this mission they’re partners. Now it’s a race against the clock to bring down the shadowy figure targeting Valkyries. But the threat goes deeper than they ever imagined. No one is safe. And if they can’t overcome the past and learn to trust each other, they’re both dead.

A super-secret government program taking orphaned young girls and turning them into black-ops assassins is the basis for Kaylea Cross’s new Valkyrie series.

Having graced graced the pages of her books from time to time, there’s a particular mould that these women seem to fit: doing all that it takes to get the job done, staying solitary, emotionless and distrustful while they’re at it. So similar are they, that it feels like a calculated risk that Cross takes as she finally puts all of them in the spotlight in order to give the Valkyries their own HEAs.

‘Stealing Vengeance’ nonetheless, is a good establishing book, with a slightly different tone and flavour to her previous books and it’s not bad so far. It’s a lot more cloak and dagger, more furtive and evasive though admittedly pushing past the point of suspending disbelief at times, all with the overarching theme of revenge and weeding those responsible for their inhumane actions.

Cross pairs Megan with Ty Bergstrom here in a mission to sniff out traitors—2 characters who only have a fleeting brush with each other over a decade ago, though that was apparently enough to help reignite a spark between them. And given the women’s kind of covert history, there’s also a bit of a role reversal here as the women act pretty much like many male protagonists in the romance genre: distrustful, putting the mission above all and inevitably throwing a wrench in a developing relationship.

Megan did frustrate me from time to time: I didn’t know where her ultimate loyalties lay; that it was inexplicably to a long-lost sister in custody who hadn’t yet proven herself simply made her judgement seem even more dodgy (and not copping any punishment for insubordination seemed somewhat naive…and a constant thing that Cross seems to gloss over in most of her books). And instead of voicing regrets and wishing things could have gone differently, I wished she’d been brave enough at least emotionally to sort herself instead of being a coward—while justifying it with arguments like he deserved better—where Ty was concerned.

There’s not too much we know about Ty’s history on the other hand, only that Cross writes him as far gone over Megan, with an attraction that’s simmering, and apparently so deep that he decides he can’t live without her…and would pay almost any price to keep their relationship. But any conflict between them is quickly resolved and the story ends (almost abruptly) before I could get a convincing feel of the both of them beyond fervent reiterations that Ty really, really wanted to be with Megan, the latter of whom tearfully reciprocates at the last minute.

In all, ‘Stealing Vengeance’ is more than a decent start, even if it didn’t come off as breath-stealing as I’d hope it be. Where Cross takes the story arc however, is something to look forward to.

three-stars

Hard Target by Pamela Clare

Hard Target by Pamela ClareHard Target by Pamela Clare
Series: Cobra Elite, #1
Published by Pamela Clare on 25th April 2019
Pages: 261
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three-stars

Derek Tower has spent his life at war, first as a Green Beret and then as the owner of a private black-ops company, Cobra International Security. When a high-ranking US senator asks Cobra to protect his daughter, a midwife volunteering in Afghanistan, Derek’s gut tells him to turn the senator down. The last thing he wants to do is babysit an aid worker. But Jenna isn’t just another assignment. She’s also the younger sister of his best friend, the man who died taking bullets meant for him. There’s no way Derek can refuse.

Jenna Hamilton doesn’t need a bodyguard, especially not one hired by her intrusive and controlling father. She knew the risks when she signed on to work in rural Afghanistan, and the hospital already has armed security. She also doesn’t need the distraction of a big, brooding operative skulking about, even if he is her late brother’s best friend—and sexy as hell. As far as she’s concerned, he can pack up his Humvee and drive into the sunset. And, no, nothing her hormones have to say about him will change her mind.

From the moment his boots hit the ground in Afghanistan, Derek does his best to win Jenna over, posing as her brother so the two of them can spend time alone. Except that what he feels for her is anything but brotherly. Stolen moments lead to secret kisses—and an undeniable sexual attraction that shakes them both to the core. But events have been set into motion that they cannot escape. When a ruthless warlord sets his sights on Jenna, Derek will do whatever it takes to keep her safe, even if it costs him his heart—or his life.

‘Hard Target’ is classic Pamela Clare fare, full of action and hot scenes and while I do like her Colorado High Country books, I’m still glad she’s decided to return to romantic suspense in this new series.

Derek Tower isn’t a new character to grace Clare’s canon of works; he’s appeared in a few books as a peripheral figure and ‘Hard Target’ is his story of encountering the woman who also happens to be the sister of his dead comrade – and someone whom he’d never met before. First tasked to bring her home by a controlling father, it’s only a while later that Derek starts to realise that Jenna is her own woman intent on helping the Afghani women – which leads him to vow to protect her at all costs.

Clare constantly bucks the trend of creating unnecessary drama between her protagonists – this surprises me still – because she does by and large, write mature characters who mean what they say and show a lot of chutzpah and bravery while they’re escaping the bad guys and facing their biggest fears. Admittedly, I wasn’t as fond of Derek as I was of Jenna nonetheless; the latter seemed so much stronger, resilient and compassionate in contrast to the more commonly-used trope of the male protagonist using excuses to explain away why he didn’t do relationships.

It’s probably just me here, but I thought this didn’t quite have the hard edge or the soulful depth of the earlier RS books that Clare wrote. I found it a little hard to swallow and believe that a father – corrupt senator or not – would have gone to such lengths to get his 30-year-old daughter home for the reason that wasn’t entirely made clear other than she ‘should have stayed home’ instead of working in Afghanistan.

Still, the action and drama in Afghanistan was the book’s highlight, as well as the eye-opening descriptions that Clare had painstakingly taken to write about midwifery in a place where women are repressed and treated like sub-humans through Jenna’s experience.

‘Cobra Elite’ is still a series I’d love to see develop nonetheless. The establishing novel is not bad, though I’m hoping it’ll just get better from here.

three-stars

Beyond the Limit by Cindy Dees

Beyond the Limit by Cindy DeesBeyond the Limit by Cindy Dees
Series: Valkyrie Ops, #1
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca on 25th June 2019
Pages: 384
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one-star

Skylar Tate, former Miss Congeniality, is a media officer for the Navy, but she itches to get on the field—and she can prove she has what it takes. But convincing others that she can become one of the first ever female Navy SEALs? That might be tougher than the agonizingly brutal training.

Griffin Caldwell and his teammates in his Navy SEAL platoon, the Reapers, are tasked to secretly train women candidates to become the first female SEALs. But when he meets Skylar Tate, it's friction—and lust—at first sight. Griffin can't believe the former pageant queen has what it takes, and Skylar can't believe his arrogance. But when one deadly mission goes wrong, it's up to Skylar and Griffin and their unprecedented bond to save the day.

Oddly reminiscent of ‘The Medusa Project’—a book of Cindy Dees I read a long time ago, ‘Beyond the Limit’ failed to enthral me because it felt like ground that has been trodden on before: women attempting to break through the elite ranks of spec ops, an area traditionally and still dominated by Alpha men and the likes, and eventually getting them to eat their words, while forming a sisterhood in the process.

Miss Congeniality turned Spec-ops potential soldier Sherri Tate is the first in line in this book, as a SEAL platoon is tasked to get them up to speed as suitable candidates (and probably getting them to fail in the process). But seeing Sherri Tate swooning over her instructor and his hot bod felt painfully awkward instead and trying to meet all the men’s , seemingly proving the point that women and men couldn’t work together in the military without someone dying of lust.

I realise I’m not quite the type of reader who crows about female vs. male prowess even if it’s with the former coming out top), even if it’s about the women trying to earn a place in the SEALs—and how the men do everything in their power to wash them out. There’re misogynist and chauvinistic tendencies, both overt and implied and so deeply buried in everyday vocabulary—that men would be made obsolete if the women joined their ranks?!—but if the intention is to rile the female reader, it didn’t exactly work on me because it felt like a story that has been already told…by Dees herself a long time ago.

It’s not that I don’t think a very special breed of women can cut it in spec ops (there are already women rangers out there, so it’s a moot point), but rather, it’s probably the sense of entitlement of the elite SEALs have, along with the whole cyclical round of women proving men wrong that I’m tired with. Even though the women do it and triumph through sheer grit and hard work.

It’s all on me, I’ll readily admit, that I wasn’t as engaged in the storytelling as I would have liked and the skimmed the whole way without being able to get a hook into the whole journey of Sherri going through her rounds and rounds of training. ‘Beyond The Limit’ just didn’t do it for me, for a combination of reasons that had me not finishing it.

*ARC by the publisher via Netgalley

one-star