Category: Mystery/Crime

Orientation by Gregory Ashe

Orientation by Gregory AsheOrientation by Gregory Ashe
Series: Borealis Investigations #1
on 24th May 2019
Pages: 311
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three-half-stars

Shaw and North are best friends, private detectives, and in danger of losing their agency. A single bad case, followed by crippling lawsuits, has put them on the brink of closing shop. Until, that is, a client walks into their Benton Park office.
Matty Fennmore is young, blond, and beautiful, and he’s in danger. When he asks for Shaw and North’s help foiling a blackmail scheme, the detectives are quick to accept.

The conspiracy surrounding Matty runs deeper than Shaw and North expect. As they dig into the identity of Matty’s blackmailer, they are caught in a web that touches politicians, the local LGBT community, and the city’s police.
An attack on Matty drives home the rising stakes of the case, and Shaw and North must race to find the blackmailer before he can silence Matty. But a budding romance lays bare long-buried feelings between Shaw and North, and as their relationship splinters, solving the case may come at the cost of their friendship.

It isn’t often that I delve into M/M stories, but ‘Orientation’—strictly not quite a romance as yet—is making me rethink my choices. Gritty, oh-so-angsty and so well-put out, Gregory Ashe outlines 2 beguiling best-friends-protagonists who sort of sit on the opposite ends of the personality spectrums—private detectives, if you would, whose agency is failing, until someone walks through the door one day and changes the game.

Unresolved sexual tension is the order of the day, both Shaw and North struggle with their own deeply buried feelings for each other. There are parts that are excruciating to read about, as Ashe covers spousal abuse, unrequited feelings and the constant need (and the subsequent inability) to get past one’s own issues so sharply that you can’t help but feel for both Shaw and North. All these are interspersed with their banter, their amazing chemistry and the keen intelligence that permeate the rest of the narrative, as both Shaw and North trudge through what is more than just a simple case of blackmail and a shy young man supposedly coming out of the closet.

But at the same time there’s a whopping amount of brutality that Ashe doesn’t shy away from, just as he draws out the contradictions in the characters that you find in real life. Shaw/North don’t stay in their boxed up stereotypes; North, the blue-collared worker from a construction background is surprisingly in tune with his own emotions, while the Lululemon-wearing Shaw whose strange, romantic idealism jars so strongly with the sudden injections of impulsive violence he’s capable of showing.

If I were to find any fault with this book, it’s just that the plot is convoluted, a mite bit drawn out too much, the word play and the inner monologue too frilly, with some characters so flamboyant and overtly annoying gracing the pages even if they’re not actively present. But that’s perhaps nitpicking. There are layers upon layers of history, twists and turns in the form of conjectures and assumptions that aren’t exactly laid out in a linear fashion, so blink and you’ll miss it, or get even more confused.

Still, ‘Orientation’ is a book that had me sitting up and taking note of the language, the writing style and the compelling main characters—Ashe’s insights into both Shaw and North alone, are good enough for me to read straight into the next book without wanting to stop.

three-half-stars

Save Your Breath by Melinda Leigh

Save Your Breath by Melinda LeighSave Your Breath by Melinda Leigh
Series: Morgan Dane #6
Published by Montlake Romance on 17th September 2019
Pages: 320
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four-stars

Morgan Dane and PI Lance Kruger investigate the mysterious disappearance of a true-crime writer.

When true-crime writer Olivia Cruz disappears with no signs of foul play, her new boyfriend, Lincoln Sharp, suspects the worst. He knows she didn’t leave willingly and turns to attorney Morgan Dane and PI Lance Kruger to find her before it’s too late.

As they dig through Olivia’s life, they are shocked to discover a connection between her current book research on two cold murder cases and the suicide of one of Morgan’s prospective clients.

As Morgan and Lance investigate, the number of suspects grows, but time is running out to find Olivia alive. When danger comes knocking at their door, Morgan and Lance realize that they may be the killer’s next targets.

Melinda Leigh returns with one of the tightest, most cohesive crime-busting, lawyer-PI team in the Morgan Dane series—I can’t seem to get enough of Morgan Dane and Lance Kruger—and ‘Save Your Breath’ is yet another great instalment in this fantastic lineup.

I think I’ve said this in every review of the series, but written from a romance review’s perspective, I’ll need to say it again: the romance is slight and brought off-screen, given the established pairings, with slight touches and kisses and reaffirming words forming the basis of affection here. Lance and Morgan are grounded in each other and it’s always a joy to read about their mature relationship and how they get on in each new book, so ‘Save Your Breath’ furthers their relationship just a little more and probably gives them the short but needed HEA all of their stalwart fans want.

As much as I was hoping for a sharper focus on Lincoln Sharp’s and Olivia Wade’s romance developing along side Morgan/Lance’s rock-solid one, ‘Save Your Breath’ wastes no time in moving past their attraction, straight onto the meat of the story of Olivia’s disappearance and several seemingly unlinked cases.

There’s no doubt that Leigh always crafts a good suspense; this far into the series, the pacing, tone and characters are nuanced and pitch-perfect, though a mite bit predictable plot-wise, or even a bit of a let down when all’s revealed and tied up.

Still, it’s a smooth read otherwise, engaging and compelling and if this is really Leigh’s last in this series, I’ll be saying a very, very wistful goodbye.

four-stars

Her Deadly Secrets by Laura Griffin

Her Deadly Secrets by Laura GriffinHer Deadly Secrets by Laura Griffin
Series: Wolfe Security, #2
Published by Gallery Books on 2nd July 2019
Pages: 368
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two-half-stars

Private Investigator Kira Vance spends her days navigating the intricate labyrinth of Houston’s legal world, and she knows all of its shadowy players and dark secrets.
On a seemingly normal day, she’s delivering a report to her top client when suddenly everything goes sideways and the meeting ends in a bloodbath. Twenty-four hours later, the police have no suspects but one thing is clear: a killer has Kira in his sights.

Fiercely independent, Kira doesn’t expect—or want—help from anyone, least of all an unscrupulous lawyer and his elite security team. Instead, she launches her own investigation, hoping to uncover the answers that have eluded the police. But as Kira’s hunt for clues becomes more and more perilous, she realizes that she alone may hold the key to finding a vicious murderer. And she knows she must take help wherever she can find it if she wants to stay alive.

‘Her Deadly Secrets’ is the murder mystery aficionado’s sort of read—and a little different in than the usual Laura Griffin Tracers style—, as PI Kira Vance finds herself somewhat over her head investigating an associate’s murder and the hot-shot lawyer that she suddenly reports to.

But the security team that he’s called on her brings on a tagalong bodyguard that she resists, until it seems that what she’s looking at is a vicious killer who’s got her in his sights.

It’s a template that has been told many times before—variations on a theme in a way, that Kira Vance treads where many others have trodden before. As a police-procedural-type series with an intense focus on the unsolved crime, this works perfectly fine.

But the book’s billing as romantic suspense however, doesn’t, especially not when the romance has been written in awkwardly, with 2 people thrown together by force and then suddenly developing a romance when there’s a distinct lack of romantic chemistry between them.

For someone who expected a bit more of the latter after going through Griffin’s Tracers books, I was actually taken aback with surprise when the first kiss happened, left incredulous with anything that hinted of romance between them past the initial, weak attraction. In short, Kira/Jeremy as a pairing were sidelined here so much that I hesitated to even call this a connection (as hurriedly as it was developed) in favour of tying all the loose ends of the plot up.

It isn’t to say that the book isn’t written with Griffin’s usual aplomb: meticulously planned and executed with the kind of writing that pulls you in.

But the storytelling felt somewhat unbalanced—exciting at the start, only to head, rather frustratingly, into a lacklustre and sagging middle—along with a romance that hardly took off. In short, ‘Her Deadly Secrets’ is probably a book suited to those who prefer the journey of uncovering the whodunnit mystery than following the emotional development of the protagonists.

two-half-stars

In Dark Water by Leslie Tentler

In Dark Water by Leslie TentlerIn Dark Water by Leslie Tentler
Series: Rarity Cove #3
Published by Left Field Press on February 5th 2019
Pages: 236
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four-half-stars

One year after the tragic loss of her husband, Mercer Leighton returns home to Rarity Cove to be near family and resume her former job at the St. Clair resort. Feeling adrift in life, what she doesn’t count on is being witness to a double murder in nearby Charleston’s French Quarter.

Charleston Homicide Detective Noah Ford is no stranger to the dark, violent side of humanity. Nor is he happy about the lone eyewitness in his investigation being part of one of the South Carolina Lowcountry’s most prominent families. However, when an attempt is made on the beautiful widow’s life, Noah vows to protect her.

As it becomes increasingly clear that the killer will stop at nothing to eliminate the witness, Noah also begins to suspect the presence of a traitor in his own department. After a stunning betrayal, he is forced to take Mercer into hiding to keep her alive. As the two fight for survival, they also fight the simmering attraction between them.

But the killer is out there, and he refuses to give up.

A return to Leslie Tentler’s Rarity Cove after so long took a bit of re-orienting, a bit of catching up, but the slow build-up of ‘In Dark Water’ makes it very easy to jump into Mercer Leighton’s and Noah Ford’s story after Mercer unwittingly witnesses a murder and eventually finds herself at the hands of law enforcement as they scramble to take her into protection when it becomes evident that she’s next on the hit list.

There isn’t much unpredictable about the plot however: the homicide detective and widowed witness fall for each other, the leak in the law enforcement ranks, a criminal out for revenge, but I thought the execution of it was quite well done and that alone made the story worth savouring. Mercer and Noah were not just believable together, but Tentler’s measured pacing, the explosive action in the last quarter and the sensitive way she writes of their progressing relationship—adulting is done pretty well here, so no complaints from me—probably made ‘In Dark Water’ my favourite in this series.

My preference for more explicit, lusty smut between them and higher-octane action—essentially higher highs and more breathtaking swoops of passion I guess—that most likely stems from B-grade movie leftovers is probably a petty one, considering how much I liked this.

By and large, this latest offering from Tentler reminded me why I do wish her new books could some somewhat faster. I do like her law enforcement heroes and Noah’s one whom I immediately grouped into this odd, cop-sized shape compartment that I have for them. And while it might be a story that’s probably done in some variation or other, ‘In Dark Water’ is one I’ll remember for some time.

four-half-stars

Taken by Rebecca Zanetti

Taken by Rebecca ZanettiTaken by Rebecca Zanetti
Series: Deep Ops #1.5
Published by Zebra on 30th April 2019
Pages: 111
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three-stars

Hunter Holt might be the most stubborn ex-soldier ever born, but when he’s called on to help find a lost foster kid, he jumps into action. Even if it means working with the woman who broke his heart five years ago—the woman who still haunts his dreams . . .

Faye Smith has spent five long years trying to get her life back on track. She knows she should’ve turned toward Hunter and not away from him. But they both had too many demons to destroy. Maybe now they’ll get another chance—and save someone else’s life too . . .

But first they’ll have to stop arguing long enough to trust the Deep Ops team. Hunter was a lost boy himself once. In fact, he ran away from the exact same man, their monster of a father. Now he and Faye will have to unite to find the brother he never knew—and maybe each other . . .

As a side-story of Rebecca Zanetti’s Deep Ops series, ‘Taken’ is pretty much a compact standalone as Raider Tanaka’s old friends take the stage in a short, second-chance romance.

In this case however, the brevity of the story probably made me less engaged than I could have been, since this felt as though it could have been a full-length book and had lost so much because it wasn’t. All we know is that Hunter Holt and Faye Smith had once been together; she’d split five years ago and is now back to get him to search for his teenage half-brother he’d never known existed. In fact, I felt as though I’d been missing a big chunk of their backstory—the breakup, the —even though it was sort of told in a few lines what had happened to Faye and Hunter.

Coming back together in the midst of the search, then pledging themselves to each other again after scorching sexy times or talking things through to re-cement their broken bond just seemed too easy, too soon…too coincidental. Would Faye really have searched Hunter back out had it not been for this incident when she’d done nothing for five years? As a result, Faye/Hunter were a pairing that seemed to happen only again because unexpected circumstances forced them back again, rather than a pairing that actively wanted to solve the problems that had first rent them apart while finding their way back to each other again—a rather common occurrence in the second-chance romance trope that typically leaves me feeling scratchy on the inside.

There’s no denying that Zanetti writes pretty well though, but what constantly threw me off were the strange and awkward inserts of humour that broke the intensity of what would have been otherwise an enthralling narrative. In here, it come in the form of out-of-the-blue humour, even odder animal behaviour and weird pick-up lines that bad-ass characters spout, incongruous to what you think they might behave.

In short, ‘Taken’ was pretty much what I thought it would be—no big surprises and not entirely a let-down either but not something I could really get excited about…at least not while Raider’s story is in the making.

three-stars

Stone Cold Heart by Laura Griffin

Stone Cold Heart by Laura GriffinStone Cold Heart by Laura Griffin
Series: Tracers #13
Published by Pocket Books on 26th March 2019
Pages: 384
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four-stars

When local rock climbers stumble upon abandoned human bones in a remote Texas gorge, Sara Lockhart is the first to get the call. She has a reputation as one of the nation’s top forensic anthropologists, and police detective Nolan Hess knows she is just the expert he needs to help unravel this case. Although evidence is scarce, Nolan suspects the bones belong to a teenage climber who vanished last summer.

But as Sara unearths strange clues, she finds chilling similarities to a case from her past—a case that now threatens to rock Nolan’s community. While Sara digs deep for answers, the stakes rise higher as another young woman disappears without a trace. Investigators work against the clock as Sara races to discover the truth, even if her harrowing search brings her face to face with a stone-cold killer.

Laura Griffin returns with a classic ‘Bones’-episode thriller, when a series of missing persons start to bring an unlikely connection to a serial killer lurking in the midst of them.

For readers who like a suspense-heavy, romance-that-skims-the-surface read, ‘Stone Cold Heart’ delivers superbly. Nolan Hess and Sara Lockhart hold their own individually as protagonists; both are competent in their own fields, established in their own circles.

But as the case progressed and these circles overlapped, it did feel as though Griffin did the small, budding romance a bit of a disservice. I was hoping for a more developed working relationship between Sara and Nolan beyond intense glances, not-so-secret shared smiles and an impulsive kiss or two which were then put aside in favour of work. I did get that they liked each other despite Sara’s half-in, half-out stance—along with the tingly feels that came across more like an infatuation than anything more—though the sudden, almost obligatory slide into sex surprised me given how muted their dancing around each other had been. Still, they were ultimately not too convincing as a pair and the uncertain ending (for the romance at least) didn’t cement their status as one that could go the distance.

From canvassing to questioning to the science behind the bones, the action surged through after the halfway mark and that got me excited, even when forensic anthropologists trying to play trained cops was what tipped the hand. The plot’s admittedly yet another iteration of a whodunnit mystery—for this reason, some of the Tracers books aren’t that much differentiated from each other—but Griffin’s way with words, getting the devil snared in the small details and the setup of the suspense nonetheless made ‘Stone Cold Heart’ an engrossing read as the case came together.

four-stars

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