Publisher: Zebra

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
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
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

Hidden by Rebecca Zanetti

Hidden by Rebecca ZanettiHidden by Rebecca Zanetti
Series: , #1
Published by Zebra on 25th September 2018
Pages: 400
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
three-stars

Hide. That’s all Pippa can do to escape the terror chasing her. But now that she’s off the grid in a safe house, she finds plenty of interesting things to watch through the window. Like her new neighbor, with his startling green eyes, killer smile, and sexy bad-boy tattoo . . .

Run. Malcolm West is fleeing the hell he unleashed in his last assignment as an undercover cop. A backwoods bungalow sounds like the perfect place to start over. Until he discovers he’s been set up . . .

Fight. Someone’s gone to a lot of trouble to bring them together. No matter how much he resents that, and his own driving needs, Malcolm will have to dig deep and let loose the banished killer inside himself, or Pippa’s fears could come true faster than the flip of a bolt in a lock . . .

When burnt-out, former undercover cop Mal West gets sucked into a strange unit, his first task with them is to investigate his seemingly sweet, innocent but squirrelly neighbour who’s hiding a deadly secret. But Pippa Smith is covering up something as well, and their paths collide in a way that’s unexpected and dangerous.

Told in a few flashbacks, we learn of Mal’s and Pippa’s personal histories that led them to where they are now; both are tortured in their own ways by memories too scarring for them to forget. First as neighbours, then later as lovers, both clearly battle the same crazies, though from different and opposing angles,.

As a grounding book that introduces the rest of the Requisition Force, ‘Hidden’ is a good hook in itself in pulling out the cracked-up, damaged unit that I can’t wait to see more of. Severely defective in their own ways (even the dog’s included in this) though it’s ripe for Zanetti to insert some humour here, there’re sufficient seeds planted here that makes me want each of their stories.

The frustration I have nonetheless, with such undercover stories simply lies with the deception that forms (in this case, on both sides) the foundation of a romantic relationship and becomes the major part of the conflict that you know is just coming because of this very thing that gets stretched longer than it should have.

The pitfall that typically follows is the use of sex that delays communication and disclosure, or some other event/circumstance that deliberately blocks this—which then forms a large part of the romantic pairing’s misunderstanding, with lots of running involved—along with some TSTL behaviour—because there just isn’t enough trust between the both of them to go around. It’s precisely because of this that I find the love/romantic connection between Mal and Pippa difficult to swallow, especially if trust and respect (apart from the scorching sex) are supposed to be foundational for their relationship.

The pace and action do pick up after this though, which eventually made the story a lot more engaging. And even if Mal/Pippa do sort of work out their issues in a rush before the climax happens, I probably would have liked this a lot more if less time had been spent on deceit and the copious amount of sexual tension (and later on, raunchy sex instead of talking) simply taking up the first three-quarters of the plot.

three-stars

Stay with Me by Jules Bennett

Stay with Me by Jules BennettStay with Me by Jules Bennett
Series: Return to Haven #1
Published by Zebra on March 27th 2018
Pages: 221
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
three-stars


Small-town Haven, Georgia, is home to generations of families, plenty of Southern charm, and an airport that's seen better days. But as three friends are about to discover, love gives everything wings . . .


At eighteen, Olivia Daniels left Haven behind and never looked back. Doggedly climbing the corporate ladder, she's finally nearing the top when her father dies--leaving her part-owner of the run-down airport that was his first love. It's a complication Olivia intends to wrap up quickly--buying out her co-owner and selling the land. Good thing her childhood best friends are with her for moral support. Because one look at her new partner is proof that her tidy plan has hit turbulence . . .

Jackson Morgan practically grew up in Haven's airport, and no one could have been a better mentor than Olivia's dad. Flight is in Jackson's blood, but his roots are firmly planted, and there's no way he's giving up the airport--not even for sassy, headstrong Olivia, his childhood crush. Coming to an agreement won't be easy, especially when the attraction between them soars to new heights every day. Love definitely wasn't on the itinerary, but is it enough to keep them together for a lifetime trip? . . .

‘Stay with Me’ is simply a book that tries to bring 2 very different people, their differing goals and their diverging circumstances together and finally trying to make it work. It’s not exactly rom-com kind of material, and I wasn’t too sure what to expect with this story, but there wasn’t any doubt that this is a light-hearted, small town read with an unusual enough premise for Olivia to meet Jax again—the younger man who’d nursed an adolescent crush on her and is now all man to know what he wants.

There were misunderstandings along the way, past hurts that come to light as both Olivia and Jax needed to work through that on their own, and a 4-year-old who spoke in a way that was way too old for her age. Throw in the perfect setup of future couples and the trilogy for Jules Bennett’s ‘Haven’ series is set.

In fact, it wasn’t hard to like Jax at all, who, despite being younger (but capable single-father), showed more sense and maturity than Olivia who spent more time denying her emotions, running away and reiterating how much her career meant to her. Yet if this was to prove that age difference was merely a number and not a sign of the older being better, I thought ‘Stay with Me’ succeeded a little too well. Not that I naturally expected Olivia to behave better because she was older of the pairing, but because I didn’t expect that she would be a ruthless corporate shark in one life and a petulant, delusional coward out of her office comfort zone who didn’t give an inch at all.

The angsty build-up took me by surprise as a consequence, and I couldn’t get over the pacing of the impending climax and the abrupt resolution—Jax’s constant, exhausting chase vs. Olivia’s capitulation, and the love declarations that quite literally happened in the last 2 pages—which made for an ending that actually had me examining the file to see if I’d downloaded a corrupted and/or incomplete version of the ARC. A longer denouement and a shorter run through of Jax/Olivia’s push-pull would have eased the strung-out plot towards the end somewhat and made the pairing a more believable one.

My disgruntled mood aside, ‘Stay With Me’ is nonetheless, a decent read and an easy introduction to this new series. A HFN-ending might not exactly be what many others want, but if you’re perfectly happy with a resolution no matter the speed, then this is a ride that wouldn’t be bumpy at all.

three-stars

Mess With me by Nicole Helm

Mess With me by Nicole HelmMess with Me by Nicole Helm
Series: Mile High Romance #2
Published by Zebra on August 29th 2017
Pages: 231
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
two-stars

In Gracely, Colorado, it s all about the climb into the rugged Rocky Mountains, and over the obstacles that life has thrown in your way. With the right partner, the view from the top is grand . . . Sam Goodall knows how to hide. And in the years since his sister s death, he s done just that, burying himself in his work at the Evans brothers Mile High Adventures as a backpacking guide. Clients don t mind his strong, silent demeanor, and he s happy to leave the rest of the world behind when he s hiking, or holed up in the off-grid cabin he calls home. But he owes his life what there is of it to the Evans boys, and when they ask for a favor, he can t refuse. Hayley Winthrop is looking for something she s never had a true sense of family, and a purpose. Finding her half brothers was the first step discovering where she belongs in the world is the next. Could it be in the fresh air of small-town Gracely? With hunky Sam agreeing to train her as an outdoors guide, she s torn between exploring her newfound skills and getting closer to him. But chipping away at the walls around Sam could take a lifetime . . . Sam is stuck in the past, and Hayley is looking toward her future they re a mismatched pair from the start. But the connection between them right now is too good to let go . . ."

I’m a tad conflicted about ‘Mess With Me’, the second book in Nicole Helm’s Mile High Adventures series.

Sam Goodall, the tortured hero was mouthwateringly enticing—the circumstances that made him that way drew me like a moth to flame rather than his yeti-like appearance—which meant that the story started off well. But then it sagged in the middle when the plot seemed to be more of the same from the start: Hayley Winthrop gaining some courage to test out her newfound independence on the unwitting Sam, who in turn, gets drawn out from his cold shell of self-recriminating isolation because of her, all through their training sessions. In essence, there was too much to-and-fro without the sense of anything very significant happening, despite Sam’s intriguing backstory drawing me in from the start.

Hayley was one of those heroines who had me rooting for her at the beginning, only for this sentiment to fizzle out when I just didn’t see her in a better place by the end of the book. In fact, it was harder to like her by the end of it; there was this passive-aggressive vibe in her that rubbed me the wrong way, though her uncertainty and hesitance were understandable in the beginning before it got annoying in the middle. I did understand—sort of—her familial conflict and her need to please people, though her assertion of her own independence vacillated between feeling timidly guilty and then lashing out too often that I just got fed up with her.

I only perked up when Helm introduced the conflict for the next book through the character of Tori, who spiced the dynamics up between the Evans brothers a little more and finally took the focus off Hayley’s self-pity, irrational behaviour and her constant musings about her inability to fit in as the ‘outsider’. Which clearly means that I’m cautiously optimistic for Tori’s story and those years of unresolved history with Will that is bound to explode in their faces. I just hope that it’ll be a ride that would be worth it.

two-stars

Need You Now by Nicole Helm

Need You Now by Nicole HelmNeed You Now by Nicole Helm
Series: Mile High Romance #1
Published by Zebra on May 30th 2017
Pages: 304
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
three-stars

He s mountain-tough. She s city-smart. The sparks are about to fly . . . Only the most resilient of souls could breathe new life into an all-but-forgotten town nestled in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains but what they get in return might be worth the heartache it takes to make it happen . . . Gracely, Colorado, was once a booming mining town. No one knows that better than Brandon Evans. His father s company kept the town thriving for years until Brandon threatened to expose his illegal practices and drove him away. Everyone blames Brandon and his brother for turning Gracely into a ghost town but the tenacious residents cling to a long-held legend about the land s healing powers. And Brandon has a plan to spin that legend into reality . . . Lilly Preston took a leap of faith and moved to Gracely a year ago to save her nephew from an abusive situation. She would do anything for him, even sacrifice her glamorous job. Reluctantly, the former PR hot shot takes a job at the ruggedly handsome Evans brothers Mile High Adventures, a company offering restorative Rocky Mountain vacations. Brandon thinks PR is pointless, and Lilly knows less than nothing about the outdoors. Which is exactly why they need each other in ways neither ever imagined . . .

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect with ‘Need You Now’, since small-town stories can be charming as they can be vicious depending on the genre that I actually get into. But Nicole Helm has written quite a heartfelt one about a man who’s trying his hardest to establish his business in a town that hates him and his brothers and a woman whose family burdens lie squarely on her shoulders, mirroring reality closely in such a way that their situation is a relatable one. I felt for the Evans brothers as they cleaned up the mess their good-for-nothing father left them as much as I felt Lilly’s frustration at being trapped as the provider of a family that’s more broken than complete. Both Brandon and Lilly were hard on themselves in a way that made them the harshest critics of their own circumstances in a way I could definitely understand, as Helm makes both these characters face some hard truths about themselves.

It’s slow-going (with a lovely slow-burn) as Helm brings some nuanced emotions and well-timed humour into a prickly relationship but I genuinely enjoyed the rounds that Brandon and Lilly engaged in as they argued constantly over how to get Mile High Adventures up and on the map once more. Their disagreements were not only funny, but served to amp up the tension between them, which was always a fun way of getting them closer without both parties realising how much their mutual attraction had grown. Before I knew it, half the book was gone with Brandon/Lilly finding themselves in awkward situations until it all, well, explodes.

But as always, it gets worse before it gets better, business in town declines and Lilly/Brandon hit a very rough patch in their relationship. I did think Lilly tended to severely over-react in several parts because of her own issues, second-guessing everything and her lashing out seemed unjustified as she judged Brandon through these black-coloured lenses of her past. Her irrational behaviour towards the end was over the top as she only looked to protect herself, which made her harder to like when she selfishly refused to give Brandon a chance for anything and pretty much eviscerated him where it hurt the most.

The end of the road (read: the end of the book) came sooner than I thought and the curtain fell on Lilly/Brandon with a HFN ending, which is probably the most realistic one to expect in this case. Yet Mile High Adventures has barely gotten off the ground and Helm seems to promise more to come despite this rather abrupt conclusion.

three-stars

Into the Firestorm by Kat Martin

Into the Firestorm by Kat MartinInto the Firestorm by Kat Martin
Series: , , #3
Published by Zebra on January 31st 2017
Pages: 400
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
one-star

M. Cassidy...Luke Brodie had heard the name before, some novice bounty hunter working Seattle, catching tricky skips with more success than a newcomer should expect. But the dark curls, sparkly top, and impressive cleavage were not what Brodie had pictured. Emma Cassidy is tough and smart and sexy as hell. She's also popping up a step ahead of him every time he s close to the capture he wants most . . . and there s no room for learning on the trail of this monster.
Emma has idolized Luke Brodie, the bounty hunter who can bring anyone in. The big man in the soft shoes, with a face like a fallen angel and a reputation for breaking hearts. Watching him in action is intoxicating. But her fight with Rudy Vance is fiercely personal. If he gets too close, Brodie will find out just how ferocious she can be . . .

A very promising prologue which I felt boded well, but it didn’t go how I’d anticipated from there onwards. A lot of the action is very linear, almost reality-tv-like as we follow the characters’ actions and activities, but I found myself getting bored, unable to muster up that sense of anticipation that should have accompanied the search for their target. There are winding turns as both Luke Brodie and Emma Cassidy go through just to comb for information, as the introduction of secondary characters, a list of suspects/informants and a romance sub-plot that diffracted the romance and the overall sense of suspense.

I liked Emma well enough I guess; her gutsy determination making her a woman who has to draw the attention of a notorious womaniser because she is different from every other woman he knows. But the cliché has only begun. Luke’s reputation precedes him: he’s renowned for finding people just as he is for the rotating number of women in bed for whom not being with a woman for three weeks is made out to be apparently a huge accomplishment (is this really worthy of applause?), where this short period is already termed as a seeming lack of interest in the opposite sex. If that didn’t add to my already less than stellar impression of him, wanting Emma suddenly made him realise he needed a woman badly and how he needed one now was cringe-worthy, as is the denial that he isn’t a manwhore when he is the very definition of the unapologetic, uncommitted male fearing anything more than casual affairs. The setup of a male protagonist who only goes for one-nighters, who is ruled by his razor-focus in the field and a philandering attitude with women somehow cannot resonate with me as some romantic lead worth trumpeting despite Kat Martin’s attempt at rationalising his behaviour as one who finally burned out on one-nighters and found sex with Emma to be the ‘best of his life’.


In short, Luke Brodie is the romantic lead stereotype I never quite signed up for and can’t ever see as a shining example of a romantic lead. There’s enough repetition about how Emma refuses to join his nightly brigade of women but can’t help it because of Luke’s huge sex appeal and how well he fills his clothes. But above all, it was hard to get invested in this pairing beyond their ruminating about how hot each other was, because lust seemed to be the primary reason for hooking up, apart from the shared case they were working on.

On the other hand, Emma Cassidy’s own insecurities about Luke’s reputation, her fear about falling in love with him while knowing that Luke wouldn’t want anything more than their short-term affair made her seem indecisive at best. That Emma went after Luke after he ended their affair (while giving the typical excuse that he didn’t deserve her) because he had no courage to fight for their relationship drove the last nail into the coffin for me.

‘Into the Firestorm’ missed the mark with me; clearly Martin’s style of writing, use of plot devices and stereotypical characterisations aren’t a fit for me at all.

one-star

Justice Ascending by Rebecca Zanetti

Justice Ascending by Rebecca ZanettiJustice Ascending by Rebecca Zanetti
Series: The Scorpius Syndrome, #3
Published by Zebra on January 31st 2017
Pages: 400
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
three-stars

Before surviving the Scorpius bacterium, Tace Justice was a good ole Texas cowboy who served his country and loved his mama. After Scorpius, the world became dark, dangerous, and deadly... and so did he. The Vanguard medic is stronger, faster, and smarter than before, but he's lost the line between right and wrong. His passion is absolute, and when he focuses it on one woman, there's no turning back for either of them.
Sami Steel has been fighting to survive right alongside Tace, convincing the Vanguard soldiers she's one of them. In truth, Sami is a former hacker turned government agent who worked at The Bunker, where scientists stored both contaminants and cures. Only she knows the location, and she's not telling. Yet when sexual fire explodes between her and Tace, she'll face even that hell again to save him.

Post-apocalyptic life continues in the Vanguard camp as people adjust to this new reality, but Sami Steele’s past is coming back to haunt her especially when Tace Justice’s infection by the Scorpius bacterium shows lingering effects that only she can help solve. But along with that, there are threats from frenemies, other enemies as well as the number of zombie/rippers that still prowl around the deserted streets. In addition, there’s an elusive bunker which Vanguard thinks of as ‘paradise’ which could contain the cure to the infection—but according to what Sami actually has experienced, they don’t know the half of it.

There is such toughness in Sami that would certainly draw admiration from the most jaded of readers: her backstory is finally revealed and I liked how deeply it ties into the deepening plot of this whole series even as she tries to outrun her past to find belonging in Vanguard. On the other hand, it was way harder to like Tace, even if Zanetti provides an acceptable reason for the way he has been behaving: either the infection has loosed the darkness that has always been lurking in him, or it has given him a side that simply permits him to be an arse to people and to women. Obsessive, suddenly over-protective with mood swings that would most probably classify him as bipolar or schizophrenic, I felt rather uncomfortable with the way these changes are acted out as he later takes some of those parts of him out on Sami sexually.

But as much as Tace seems to be someone completely different from the person he used to be, I couldn’t quite get a grasp on why he seemed to regain his sense of smell—the full effects of the bacterium aren’t made clear to us—or his emotional feelings only when he seems to be near Sami, even if we’re told that he has been fighting off his attraction to her for months yet going at it with other women in the meantime because he’s insatiable. Why the sudden, inexplicable acting on the attraction to her after his hook-ups with other women? Or is this merely spurred on by the secrets he knows she has been keeping? Not having answers to these questions made it consequently harder to fully buy into this pairing, let alone get invested into the declarations of love when I couldn’t see their connection past Tace’s darker needs and how he thinks Sami fulfils them.

Definitely not a standalone, ‘Justice Ascending’ jumps straight into the already-convoluted plot but ends feeling very much unfinished, as the multiple, diverging subplots still stay dangling rather loosely in front of us even as Tace and Sami cuddle into their HEA. I was engrossed in the breathless action, the widening scope of this ruined world that Rebecca Zanetti has created and the interplay of allies and enemies as battle-lines are drawn and redrawn, but less than thrilled by a lukewarm pairing that didn’t seem to have any impetus apart from a sudden, developing lust and other darker emotions that the plague apparently helped manifest. There isn’t any indication that this series is going to go on but with so many loose threads, it’d be a shame if it didn’t, given all the potential pairings and plot-lines that Zanetti has already developed in this one.

three-stars