Covert Vengeance by Kaylea Cross

Covert Vengeance by Kaylea CrossCovert Vengeance by Kaylea Cross
Series: Vengeance, #2
Published by Kaylea Cross Inc. on 30th July 2019
Pages: 232
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one-half-stars

Revenge came at a heavy price.

Valkyrie hacker Amber Brown is deadly in her own right, but her preferred weapon is a keyboard. So after her teammates left her for dead, she took her revenge the way she was trained to—swiftly and brutally. Except one of her targets might be innocent. To right that wrong, Amber vows to rescue the at-risk Valkyrie no matter the cost, and this time she’s working alone. So when a sexy stranger shows up in the middle of a firefight and announces he’s been sent by her sister, it’s going to take a whole lot more than his word to make her trust him.

Chasing redemption may prove deadly.

Elite gun for hire Jesse Cordova lives on the edge of the law. When a new job offer sets off warning bells, he digs deeper and finds the startling truth. The woman he’s been tasked with capturing is a secret government assassin, and Amber Brown is unlike any target he’s gone after before. But bringing her in opens them up to a whole new level of danger, pitting them against one of the most ruthless assassins in the world. Now that the sexy Valkyrie has stolen his heart, Jesse will risk everything to see their mission through—knowing that the only way this ends is with one of them dying.

I’m taking extraordinarily long with a Kaylea Cross book, which is unusual to say the least, which really meant that ‘Covert Vengeance’ was a massive disappointment on a scale that horrifies me, seeing how Cross used to be a staple of mine.

The series of avenging women out for blood is an intriguing one, but thus far, I think I’m simply reading variations on a theme about closed-off, distrustful and distant women who operate alone (aren’t bred for relationships and commitment, naturally) who finally find someone to trust—after a series of suspenseful events that typically involve some life-or-death scenarios. Like ‘Stealing Vengeance’, ‘Covert Vengeance’ traverses the same blurred lines of conspiracy theories and secret dealings though it’s a lot more toned down here without the particular rough edge that I associate with suspense writers.

Cross’s Valkyrie characters didn’t seem to carry the cloaking weight of tragedy or angst that I’d expected them to have; instead, Amber and Megan felt like brashly petulant characters bulldozing their way around to kill everyone who’d wronged them, to the point where they trampled over their own partners in their blazing self-righteousness to be judge, jury and executioner.

Jesse/Amber as a pairing was as well, a lukewarm one that felt forced and emotionless (though Cross does write steamy scenes) and a connection that, like Tyler/Megan, was made with inexplicable near-instant love—somehow, they are right for each other because they have similar occupations—because this is after all, romantic suspense. In short, I just didn’t feel it and no amount of espousing a character’s beauty/strength/determination—traits that could as well, be negatively interpreted as headstrong, foolish and plainly TSTL at times—helped change my mind about them.

Maybe the Valkyrie sisterhood is one that Cross attempts to highlight, though the bonds weren’t so tangible that I felt moved by them; neither did I even like the women characters at all, much less Amber, which kind of defeated the whole point of the book and the romance which was clearly meant to take centre-stage.

one-half-stars

War by Laura Thalassa

War by Laura ThalassaWar by Laura Thalassa
Series: The Four Horsemen, #2
Published by Independently Published on 11th July 2019
Pages: 502
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three-half-stars

They came to earth-Pestilence, War, Famine, Death-four horsemen riding their screaming steeds, racing to the corners of the world. Four horsemen with the power to destroy all of humanity. They came to earth, and they came to end us all.

The day Jerusalem falls, Miriam Elmahdy knows her life is over. Houses are burning, the streets run red with blood, and a traitorous army is massacring every last resident. There is no surviving this, especially not once Miriam catches the eye of War himself. But when the massive and terrifying horseman corners Miriam, he calls her his wife, and instead of killing her, he takes her back to his camp.

Now Miriam faces a terrifying future, one where she watches her world burn town by town, and the one man responsible for it all is her seemingly indestructible "husband". But there's another side to him, one that's gentle and loving and dead set on winning her over, and she might not be strong enough to resist.

However, if there's one thing Miriam has learned, it's that love and war cannot coexist. And so she must make the ultimate choice: surrender to War and watch humankind fall, or sacrifice everything and stop him.

The premise of the Four Horsemen (and the mortal women they find along the way) is an unusual one and it’s a massive read that you’ll need to hunker down with.

After going through ‘War’ and ‘Pestilence’, it does appear that the emerging pattern winding its way through the series will probably involve every horseman on the warpath of judgement and destruction while their mortal women fight to save the human race. But Laura Thalassa doesn’t shy away from brutality and perhaps that’s in part, what makes ‘War’ so difficult to put down as I made my way wide-eyed through the pages and saw things through Miriam Elmahdy’s eyes as they happened. The imagining of a post-apocalyptic world that burns and crumbles when wave after wave of destruction hits, where judgement is unrelentingly meted out by otherworldly beings is strangely, a seductive idea.

But it’s precisely here that I stumbled too. The biblical overtones—the title and the series say it all—made it impossible to ignore the eschatological implications of whatever one’s religious leanings might be about the end of the world. Still, whether theology or religion or whatever those beliefs are though, it could be harder for some more than others, I think, to swallow an author’s execution of the end times, hook, line and sinker.

The harder part to believe however, was that a long-lived ‘heavenly’ (manwhoring) creature got laid low by a young woman, then had his plans for riding through the earth and bringing death derailed because he fell in love and gained some measure of human emotion. That their heavenly mission so to speak, was eventually realised as a ‘wrong’ one made it seem like a negation of the idea of supernatural judgement—one that Thalassa pulled out so strongly from the start—and perhaps, a reversal of what the book was so strongly built on (and which I had already bought into) from the very start.

Thalassa hints at War and Miriam as broader types of war and love and that the reconciliation of these both as ideas and characters would mean some kind of catastrophic turn in the plot – and a turn there was. The irony was that as War shed his otherworldly beliefs and took on more empathetic human traits, the story lost a little more of its sheen for me at the very end.

The long and short of it is, suspension of disbelief is par for the course and if the middle sags a little with a bit of repetitive storytelling, the riveting last quarter most likely made up for it. ‘War’ is by and large, well-written, both in characterisation and the odd (meta) pockets of humour that peeked out of the pages—this is where the lengthy storytelling helped and very few of the scenes actually felt like page-fillers for the sake of…page-filling. But it succeeded in making me think, so in many ways, I’d say ‘War’ is quite the success.

three-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

Lies by Kylie Scott

Lies by Kylie ScottLies by Kylie Scott
Published by Kylie Scott on 21st July 2019
Pages: 242
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one-star

Betty Dawsey knows that breaking things off with Thom Lange is for the best. He’s nice, but boring, and their relationship has lost its spark. But steady and predictable Thom, suddenly doesn’t seem so steady and predictable when their condo explodes and she’s kidnapped by a couple of crazies claiming that Thom isn’t who he says he is.

Thom is having a hellish week. Not only is he hunting a double agent, but his fiancé dumped him, and thanks to his undercover life, she’s been kidnapped.
Turns out Thom is Operative Thom and he’s got more than a few secrets to share with Betty if he’s going to keep her alive. With both their lives on the line, their lackluster connection is suddenly replaced by an intense one. But in his line of work, feelings aren’t wanted or desired. Because feelings can be a lethal distraction.

I liked the blurb, so my expectations followed. An established couple of sorts, to be brought together, ironically, the lies that Thom had been fabricating all the time.

But what I think I got was a droll, new-adult or teenagerish voice of Betty Dawsey that showed some sort of sarcastic, wry bewilderment which didn’t suit the romantic suspense vibe that this was supposed to be giving. Her relatively easy acceptance (paying lip service to her own rough and tumble emotions which I expected to be sharper) of her situation, the lack of heart-pumping excitement and uncertainty and the rather confusing animal codenames Kylie Scott brought in along with the new dimension of Betty’s wild ride just threw me for a loop.

Add an emotionally stunted (I’d go as far as to say developmental disorder, perhaps) male ‘hero’ who gave Betty the ‘mediocre’ relationship because he thought she was asking for one and didn’t quite apologise for his actions made him more like the terminator programmed to act than a human I could find any common ground with. That Betty found this harder, colder part of Thom somehow arousing while trying not hard enough to deny it made me more disturbed.

Generally, ‘Lies’ turned out to be al alternate-reality sort of headspace that I couldn’t get into, at least for me, because I think my fixed idea of RS – the way it should be told, narrated, and voiced – let me down here in the end. The rare and lacking idea of getting an existing couple back together was one that attracted me to start, but sadly, this was simply executed in a way that kept building on my incredulity to the point where I gave up a quarter way through.

one-star

Arctic Heat by Annabeth Albert

Arctic Heat by Annabeth AlbertArctic Heat by Annabeth Albert
Series: Frozen Hearts, #3
Published by Carina Press on 23rd September 2019
Pages: 361
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three-stars

Owen Han has a fresh lease on life—he’s kicked cancer’s ass and is roaring through his bucket list. The former investment banker hopes to find his next challenge in Alaska, volunteering alongside park rangers and fulfilling his childhood dreams of snowy winters and rustic life. Of course, those dreams did tend to feature big strapping mountain men in vivid detail…

Ranger Quilleran Ramsey would like to be anywhere other than dealing with newbie volunteers. And really, the only thing he needs less than a green volunteer “partner” is the flirty attentions of a buff city boy who doesn’t look ready to last a week, let alone an Alaskan winter. They’re all wrong for each other, even if Quill’s traitorous body enjoys the flirting more than it should.

As the weeks pass, the two snowbound men give in to temptation. But can their seasonal romance last until spring? For them to have a future together, each will have to trust the other…while hoping that the harsh elements and omnipresent dangers don’t destroy what happiness they’ve found in the moment.

There’s something I find compelling about Annabeth Albert’s Frozen Hearts series, but perhaps it’s the wilds of Alaska and the odd, accompanying sense of adventure and danger so far north that pull me in. Here, the urban-suave ex-investment banker and a grumpy, closet ranger come together in ‘Arctic Heat’, a pairing that is as unlikely as Owen Han and Quill Ramsey meeting under ‘normal circumstances’ had tragedy not struck in a way to make the former reevaluate his priorities.

And they couldn’t be more different, especially when the thought of such a pairing seems like a bad idea from the start. Owen is rocking what life has to offer after beating cancer, now exuberantly pursuing everything in his bucket list, Quill’s stoic, cautious and reticent in his approach to jumping into everything headlong despite Owen’s very obvious attempts in starting something between them. More so, because Owen’s place in Alaska is temporary—a pit stop in his journey towards ticking off yet one more thing in his list—while Quill is simply opposed to having his slow, steady life upended by an eager, restless puppy of a volunteer who just won’t give up.

But Albert works these kinks out slowly but surely, with action that is muted in favour of relationship development and a slow burn that’s mostly found in Owen’s small but significant inroads (literally and metaphorically) in Quill’s closeted and closed-up life and his overall bleakness on the relationship front. It’s a pairing that’s good for each other, I think, despite my finding Owen a bit too pushy for my liking, even if it’s meant to get Quill to let go of his regimented thinking a bit more.

Overall, ‘Arctic Heat’ is a gentler, more emotion-focused than adventure-driven sort of story, with an iron-clad HEA that Albert reinforces through lots of emotional affirmation. It did drag a bit and became somewhat predictable for me, but it’ll could appeal to those who like delving into head space with some adult angst.

three-stars

Dine with Me by Layla Reyne

Dine with Me by Layla ReyneDine With Me by Layla Reyne
Published by Carina Press on 16th September 2019
Pages: 205
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four-stars


Life never tasted so good.

Miller Sykes’s meteoric rise to award-winning chef is the stuff of culinary dreams, but it’s all crashing down around him. He’s been given a diagnosis that could cost him something even more precious than his life: his sense of taste. Rather than risk the very thing that defines him, Miller embarks on a last tour of his favorite meals while he still can.

But there’s a catch: he needs a financial backer to make it happen, and he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s sick.

Dr. Clancy Rhodes has two weeks to come to terms with putting aside oncology to work at his father’s thriving plastic surgery practice. When the opportunity to travel with a Michelin-starred chef presents itself, the foodie in him can’t believe it. It doesn’t hurt that Miller’s rugged good looks are exactly Clancy’s cup of joe.

As Clancy and Miller travel from coast to coast and indulge in everything from dive bars to the most decadent of culinary experiences, they’re suddenly sharing a lot more than delicious meals. Sparks fly as they bond over their love of flavors and the pressures of great expectations. But when Miller’s health takes a turn for the worse, Clancy must convince him he’s more—so much more—than just his taste buds. And that together, they can win a battle that once seemed hopeless.

‘Dine With Me’ is as much as a tribute to food as it is to romance: two weeks with an ailing celebrity chef (his self-imposed last rites, so to speak) and a foodie doctor on the verge of a career shift.

Layla Reyne takes a different direction with ‘Dine With Me’ and by turning to gastronomy, automatically helped keep the pages turning as I lapped up the descriptions of food as much as I did of the growing tension and stark differences between Clancy Rhodes and Miller Sykes—one with an unfailing optimism for human life and the other, with a fatalistic view of life as well…because of their work and what they love most doing. In essence, their chance meeting when Clancy signs up for the food tour becomes a slow burn of smouldering looks, helpless moans and tingly feels over gourmet dishes, with some (un)timely intervention of family and friends on both sides.

Reyne walks the thin line here when it comes to relationships; Clancy’s unusual—and frankly, rather unbelievable—family situation enables him to accept Miller’s own without difficulty. I found the circumstances and the plot a bit more conveniently serendipitous and a bit more far-fetched than I liked, and struggled with the small niggle bits that had to do with characterisation.

It is difficult to reconcile Clancy’s eager, enthusiastic puppy-dog demeanour with that of a 30-year-old doctor who’d seen too much in oncology, though it does play off nicely against Miller’s stoic and gruff behaviour as he wrestles with his own mortality. Still, it all comes to an end rather quickly where I’d hoped Clancy could have played a bigger part in Miller’s journey to recovery. Reyne focuses instead, more on food and the present rather than Clancy/Miller’s relationship changing past the tour, then hops to conclusion a few years down the road that tells more than shows the hard journey to their HEA.

Still, there’s a bit more poignancy and a lot more of the struggle for acceptance of change as the sobering thought of mortality lurks around the corner—it’s just slower-paced though, and if food’s the thing that revs your engine, ‘Dine With Me’ offers something unusual and different.

four-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