Publisher: Zebra

The Intended Victim by Alexandra Ivy

The Intended Victim by Alexandra IvyThe Intended Victim by Alexandra Ivy
Series: The Agency #4
Published by Zebra on 31st December 2019
Pages: 352
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two-stars

ONCE, SHE GOT AWAY

The body lying on a cold steel slab bears all the hallmarks of the Chicago Butcher. There's a cruel slash across her throat, deep enough to sever the carotid artery, and a small crescent carved into her right breast. Her delicate features are painfully familiar to Ash Marcel, once a rising star in the Chicago PD. But though the victim resembles his former fiancée, Remi Walsh, he knows it's not her.

BUT THIS TIME

Though Remi escaped a serial killer five years ago, her father died trying to save her. Grief and guilt caused her to pull away from the man she loved. Now Ash is back in her life, insisting that Remi is still in danger.

IT'S A DEAD END . . .

Someone is targeting women who look just like Remi. With or without a badge, Ash intends to unmask the Butcher. But the killer isn't playing games any longer. He's moving in, ready to finish what he started, and prove there's nothing more terrifying than a killer's obsession . . .

I’ve not read the rest of the books that preceded ‘The Intended Victim’ by Alexandra Ivy, but this is easy enough to get into as a standalone. The premise is undoubtedly quite an intriguing one: a serial murderer—a.k.a. The Butcher—who’s apparently back after five years and is now strangely obsessed with altering his victims’ faces to resemble Remi Walsh before killing them.

The suspense plot itself is sort of unique, with a twist that I sort of saw coming but was left skeptical in the end. It did lack a bit of forward momentum even as the process of getting to know more about the strange spate of murders was ongoing, getting even disconcerting at times with different POVs belonging to secondary characters popping up from time to time.

There’s a second chance romance in here as well, but this was probably the weakest part of the story for me. Ash/Remi’s history was sort of glossed over; we weren’t told much, only that Remi had pushed Ash away after tragedy touched their lives and that he was only back because she seemed to be in the sights of the same killer again.

I was obviously hoping for harder soul-searching on Remi’s part, but most of it dealt with her determination to try to just look at the future and not the past—and that she only looked at Ash with regret. In this way, Ash/Remi’s second chance romance didn’t quite feel like a justified or a convincing one at all: a pairing brought back together incidentally and not because both wanted it enough to look for each other. Five years on, all we really had of Remi was her weak excuse of wanting to ‘protect’ others by pushing them away and internalising her own mental mess that she’d never bothered to sort out. Through it all, I never quite got the idea that she wanted them as much as Ash pursued her, merely caving to Ash’s insistent pressure and going along with it.

The uptick in the narrative happened at the last quarter, after which, it got engrossing, though everything was wrapped up quite neatly—too neatly perhaps—in the last chapter. Would I recommend this? Maybe. It’s a decent read if you like the usual red-herrings and the clues that come with solving a murder mystery, though romance-wise, it’s not quite a satisfying one.

two-stars

Fallen by Rebecca Zanetti

Fallen by Rebecca ZanettiFallen by Rebecca Zanetti
Series: Deep Ops, #2
Published by Zebra on 24th September 2019
Pages: 368
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three-stars

Too quiet.
A talented hacker who got caught, Brigid Banaghan is now forced to work with a secret Deep Ops unit. But she won't reveal any more to these renegade Feds than she has to. Especially not to Raider Tanaka, her control freak of a bodyguard and handler. It's enough that his body is tensed for action and his heated gaze is always on her . . .

Too sharp.
Raider knows there's more to his new assignment than he's been told. Why send a deadly agent of his experience to guard a computer genius—even a gorgeous, unpredictable, undisciplined one? But when Brigid's estranged father is named in an investigation into Boston's organized crime, Raider's mind switches onto high alert, just like his senses . . .

Too close.
To clear her father's name, Brigid needs Raider's help. The Unit's idea that she bring a strait-laced Fed in as her "fiancé" won't fly, though—not unless Raider can release his inner bad boy and become the rebel Brigid can't resist . . .

‘Fallen’ is Rebecca Zanetti’s second instalment of her ‘Deep Ops’ series and one that, if you’ve not read the first book, could be difficult to wade into from the beginning as you struggle to make sense of events, characters and context. But it isn’t an impossible task to figure out that this ragtag team of covert government agents operating off the fly, will do off-the-record missions barely held together by duct tape despite the individual competencies and shady backgrounds of its agents.

I know that Raider Tanaka’s story has been long-awaited, and I was hoping ‘Fallen’ would do justice to it with a pairing of handler and former ex-con. But there’s pretence on several levels as Brigid and Raider go undercover, but perhaps the strongest betrayal is yet to come as Brigid keeps her own secrets from him. That all seems to be suddenly forgiven when things come to a climactic finish however, does feel like a cop-out without Brigid paying her dues, so to speak.

Zanetti’s writing style, in itself, is sometimes, hard to pin down and this had me stumbling particularly in the middle. There are driving, satisfying moments where you could literally see the jigsaw puzzles sliding seamlessly into place, just as there are moments of high-riding tension, only to be broken by odd pockets of humour that surface within the storytelling—unwarranted, unexpected but sometimes enough to jerk you into a bark of laughter—with characters who have at least a quirk or 2 that become their calling card. And that, never fails to leave me either breathless, or scratching my head in bewilderment at the absurdity of the very different aspects of storytelling that Zanetti seems to incorporate in all her works. Suspension of disbelief aside, there were scenes (particularly the ones with anthropomorphism) that were probably meant to be funny but had me painfully grimacing instead.

‘Fallen’ is a not bad read, though not a fantastic one. There are hints of future pairings (though it seems the rest of the books are a long time in coming) and I wish it’d left more of an impression nonetheless, given how much I was looking forward to Raider’s story and how much I like Zanetti’s storylines.

three-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

Hidden by Rebecca Zanetti

Hidden by Rebecca ZanettiHidden by Rebecca Zanetti
Series: , #1
Published by Zebra on 25th September 2018
Pages: 400
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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
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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
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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
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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