Publisher: Zebra

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
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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

Kill Without Shame by Alexandra Ivy

Kill Without Shame by Alexandra IvyKill Without Shame by Alexandra Ivy
Series: ARES Security #2
Published by Zebra on December 27th 2016
Pages: 352
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two-stars

Five brave military heroes have survived the hell of a Taliban prison to return home and take on civilian missions no one else can. They re the men of ARES Security. Highly skilled, intimidating, invincible, and one by one, tested again and again Lucas St. Clair s prestigious family had a political future neatly planned out for him one that didn't include his high school sweetheart, Mia Ramon. Under their pressure, Lucas gave her up. But since surviving captivity, he s a changed man and a crucial member of ARES Security. When he discovers a dead man clutching a picture of Mia that bears a threatening message, his fiercest protective instincts kick in, and he knows he must go to her. Mia has never forgiven Lucas for breaking her heart, and she s convinced her feelings for him are in the past. But it s soon clear that isn t true for either of them. Now, determined to solve the crime and keep Mia safe, with his ARES buddies backing him up, Lucas will have to reconstruct the murder victim s last days and follow a lethal trail that leads right back to the fate of the woman he still loves.

Unfortunately, this was a book that I struggled with, despite the promising blurb that made me wish otherwise. As a suspense read, ‘Kill Without Shame’ is decent, but I found myself somewhat disappointed in the textbook style it was presented in, with the whodunnit moment coming as a huge info dump by the villain, with multiple POVs that could be distracting. Yet if the suspense is decent enough, the pairing seems a weak one, forged, or should I say, re-forged in the heat of danger and uncertainty.

After a 15-year absence of doing whatever he wanted, the appearance of high high-school ex on a dead man’s belongings convinces Lucas St. Clair that he’d always loved the woman whom he’d broken up with. It’s a premise that gets my spidey sense tingling as he goes in search of her to protect her—as well as to convince them that they really do belong together after walking away from Mia Ramon supposedly for her own good. Forgive my scepticism and my own unforgiving instincts when it comes to a limp explanation that I felt Mia accepted too easily because he smelled good, had a huge ton of sex appeal, good sexual moves and a hot body. A sleek, smooth apology and it was back in bed with him, because the threat against her made it easy to lean in on Lucas who happened to be conveniently there and gave him the reason to hone in once more on her when he saw the opportunity.

As always, my issue with second-chance romances is the believability of it, particular when one party has forsaken another for no apparent good reason, then returns out of the blue expecting forgiveness and a HEA after having spent the intervening years apart trying to forget her with other women, muscling in finally because she ’needs’ him. Had the threat against Mia not materialised, would he have gone after this woman whom he proclaimed to be the only one for him? Lucas St. Clair’s bullying and controlling behaviour rubbed me the wrong way, unfortunately; keeping watch over her—at a distance—for 15 years, then dictating her actions might be romantic to some, but it reeks merely of cowardice for me personally despite Alexandra Ivy’s efforts to shed some light on the remorse and regret he has felt since he walked away from.

There’s a secondary romance in a sub-plot that never quite went anywhere and also a hint of another team member’s stalker—plot lines that are meant to tantalise for future books perhaps, but it felt squandered instead when these scenes (and the subsequent switches in POVs) detracted from the building action and suspense. On a broader scale, ‘Kill Without Shame’ has all the right ingredients, I guess the individual bits, along with several clichéd moments that put it all together failed for me.

two-stars

Locked and Loaded by Mandy Baxter

Locked and Loaded by Mandy BaxterLocked and Loaded by Mandy Baxter
Series: U.S. Marshals, #5
Published by Zebra on September 27th 2016
Pages: 352
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four-stars

Charlotte Cahill intends to take down an infamous diamond smuggler on the FBI’s Most Wanted list—and she intends to do it by the book.  That won’t be easy with the cocky new temporary deputy on her task force. Mason Decker feels like trouble, especially when his cool gaze wanders across her hot body . . .   After his time as a Customs officer, Decker has enough experience hanging out with criminals to know that working undercover means following your instincts, not the rules. It doesn’t take long for him to lock horns with Cahill. But when the sexy assistant U.S. attorney is accidentally dragged out of her orderly world and into the turn-on-a-dime tension of Decker’s deceptive games, she’ll find that nothing is as seductive as playing a new role . . .

The unusual plot of diamond smuggling, cons and undercover work in ‘Locked and Loaded’ has been entertaining from the get go – and is possibly the best of the U.S. Marshal series to date. It’s currently my antidote for listless, clichéd-ridden summer reads and a perfect choice for a high-octane action flick in narrative form, to the extent where I was sorry when it all ended so quickly.

What starts out as a man sidelined in law enforcement for his infamous family and a prickly U.S. Attorney turns into an elaborate con with twists and turns I didn’t see coming. Mandy Baxter has written a sufficiently complex plot to keep the action going, with very strong lead characters who are compelling in their own right without crossing the line into smarmy or super-human…along with a cast of shady secondary ones who themselves aren’t caricatures. But it’s also a showing of diamond valuation, the stones’ shady origins and the bloody politics involved from raw material to production and selling – a complex minefield that Mason Decker and Charlie Cahill find themselves in with their necks barely above water. That the story covered issues like the moral grey areas of going undercover – and betraying one’s own family and principles while doing so – dramatised the plot and the main characters more sharply than ever and frankly, was a treat to read as Mason walked these painful steps to dissociate himself once again, from a life he’d never known.

Watching Mason’s and Charlie’s relationship grow degree by degree as their interactions turned from hostile to wary and finally to scorching was beyond entertaining and enjoyable. I liked seeing how their mutual admiration of each other grew through a situation that neither could get out of and how they managed to find common ground together.

It’s definitely a plot that could keep going on – even if all the books in the series are standalone books – and I hope it does. With an ending that seems a little rushed and a loose end that isn’t quite so tied up, maybe…just maybe…we’ll see Mason and Charlie again.

It’s too soon to say goodbye.

four-stars

Shadow Falling by Rebecca Zanetti

Shadow Falling by Rebecca ZanettiShadow Falling by Rebecca Zanetti
Series: The Scorpius Syndrome #2
Published by Zebra on August 30th 2016
Pages: 400
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four-stars

Before the Scorpius Syndrome tore through North America and nearly wiped out the population, Vivienne Kennedy was the FBI’s best profiler. The bacteria got her anyway. But she survived. She recovered. And when she woke up from a drug-nightmare of captivity, her skills as a hunter of men had gone from merely brilliant to full-on uncanny. Her mysterious rescuer wants her to put them to the test. But no matter how tempting he is, with his angel’s eyes and devil’s tongue, Vinnie knows she shouldn’t trust him.
If the FBI were still around they would rate Raze Shadow as one of the bad guys. His military training can’t wipe out his association with the Mercenaries, the most feared gang in a thousand miles. His loyalties are compromised. He won’t even tell Vinnie his real name. But there’s no FBI in the new America of fear and firepower, only instinct and risk.
And the way his arms wrap around Vinnie tells its own story. Whatever else Raze is concealing, he can’t hide his desire . . .

Time has a way of blurring my memories of books that I should remember better, but it’s always a feat to be pulled back into a series that’s been left by the wayside for a while. ‘Shadow Falling’ is a breathtaking return to Rebecca Zanetti’s vision of a post-apocalyptic world wrecked by the Scorpius virus and a brilliant one at that, unravelling the breadth and depth of the ruinous landscape, its core players and the divided camps where sides must be taken.

It’s part-movie and part-gamer’s paradise, thoroughly absorbing yet still expanding richly with every story – rightfully so – while guaranteeing a HEA for each featured couple per book. It’s Vinnie’s and Raze’s turn here, a setup cleverly written into the first book and so impactfully scored in the first chapter of this one that made me bait on Zanetti’s enticing hooks.

I found Raze a more believable – albeit typical – hero than Vinnie as a female lead whose constant babbling and juvenile actions made her sometimes annoying and way below her station. More’s the pity because a greater explication of her backstory and a comparison of how much she’s changed for instance post Scorpius, really could have shaped her into a more convincing character than what we know of her current (and sometimes flighty self) right now. Raze/Vinnie is a pairing that, while more than decently written, somehow took a back seat to the world-building and the potential pairings Zanetti has already put in motion for her sequels (and it’d better not end with the third book). For all the steamy scenes and the conflict, Vinnie and Raze’s relationship just didn’t quite rock me to the core, despite the feral, neanderthal element infused in Zanetti’s alpha heroes given the context and circumstance and the steamy scenes that were nothing short of explosive. In the scramble for a new pecking order, Raze and Vinnie are simply another couple who struggle for belonging.

What I thought missing was a fuller picture of the Scorpius bacterium’s destruction, the actual effects it had on our lead characters rather than glossed over speculations and conclusions that didn’t quite satisfy. But maybe that’s the bigger draw of post-apocalyptic stories as well beyond its characters that I was feeling which reading the story: the violent, brutal state of chaos where alliances and relationships needed to be forged anew in the very recent detritus of the collapse of the world we’re intimately familiar with. And that’s what I want more of here. But then, with Sami/Tace and possibly Moe/Grey on the way, I want a lot more of that too.

four-stars

Fearless by Kimberly Kincaid

Fearless by Kimberly KincaidFearless by Kimberly Kincaid
Series: Rescue Squad #2
Published by Zebra on July 26th 2016
Pages: 368
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three-stars

Firefighter Cole Everett's life revolves around the firehouse. Committed to saving lives--and to the guys who always have his back in the most dangerous moments on the job--Cole's focus is a coveted spot on the Fairview Rescue Squad. When his captain asks him to mentor a rookie firefighter, he jumps at the chance, hoping it will help to prove his skill. But the new "guy" is none other than Savannah Nelson, a female firefighter as stubbornly determined as Cole is, and a whole lot curvier in all the right places . . .
Savannah won't let anyone extinguish her dream of fulfilling her family legacy and becoming a top notch firefighter--and she's happily surprised when strong-willed, sexy Cole is willing to give her the chance she deserves. Concentrating on the job isn't always easy when the heat between them flares higher every day, but Savannah won't give up--not even when one of Station Eight's veterans seems bent on trashing her reputation. To stop a string of possible arsons, Savannah and Cole will need to eliminate every distraction--but can they let their love go up in flames?

Cole Everett has wanted to be one of the elite, has worked hard for it and is just within reach of his dream of joining the squad after eight years in the firehouse. But to fill the gap he’s going to leave behind, he’ll need to train the replacement himself, a smart-arse rookie by the name of Savannah Nelson who’ll do anything it takes to be part of a minted firefighter. It all sounds like a fair trade, but neither one could have counted on the obstacles that go against this rocky partnership or that the attraction they have to each other.

Savannah has all the earmarks of a rookie firefighter – brash, raring to go, somewhat cocky with an sassy attitude – but it was easy to like her when she didn’t skirt anywhere near the TSTL line with Cole and actually listened when it came to what was important, proving a good match for Cole’s seriousness. Yet she was also upfront, direct and dedicated with Cole and trod the fine line between respect and sass quite well, which is unusual for a headstrong female protagonist.

But what struck me hard about ‘Fearless’ were the intricacies of firefighting laid out in great detail here. Kimberly Kincaid doesn’t shy away from the hard bits of showing the inner workings in a firehouse and how they work (and the research clearly shows!) and I found myself lapping up as much about the entire profession as I did with the progress of Savannah/Cole’s relationship – which was also, thankfully, a slow-burn of a relationship that developed over weeks of hard work and camaraderie than instant love (of which I’ve hard too much these days). There’s loads of action in the first half but I felt the story really picked up when in the last quarter with the added complication of a possible arsonist and the growing but unavoidable conflict between the lieutenant and both Cole/Savannah. The building suspense that came after the RST was a lovely touch, although the climax wasn’t a heart-pounding one that I’d hoped for as the story somehow limped to a disappointingly quick and abrupt conclusion.

three-stars

The Name of the Game by Jennifer Dawson

The Name of the Game by Jennifer DawsonThe Name of the Game by Jennifer Dawson
Series: Something New #3
Published by Zebra on September 29th 2015
Pages: 352
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two-stars

Some people follow the rules. . .
A professor of forensic anthropology, James Donovan is the reasonable sibling among the passionate, impulsive Donovans. But there's nothing reasonable about his reaction to baker Gracie Roberts. She's all wild curls and mouth-watering curves, as deliciously tempting as the sugary treats she's famous for--and twice as irritating. But before long, James decides that getting a taste of her is one indulgence he can't pass up. . .
Some people play to win. . .
Independent, smart, and sexy, Gracie's year-long dry spell has her itching for a man. Responsible, health-obsessed James? Not in a million years! She needs a guy who knows how to let loose! But when James sets out to show her just how satisfying a disciplined man can be when pleasure is at stake, she learns just how sweet--and spicy--he really is.
Have James and Gracie found the recipe for love?

I had a hard time rating this because I loved the premise of opposites attracting yet I’ve got to admit that it’s yet another case of me liking a lead character but disliking the other one.

Thankfully, this doesn’t happen too often.

A very unusual male lead (who’s got brains and his own body issues) who veered off the path of typical alpha behaviour was truly a treat to read, but I was felled by a stupid, emotional woman who was so overtaken by her own issues and so convinced by her inability to commit that she’d written everything off before the word ‘compromise’ could be spelled out in proper terms.

While I do appreciate a woman who’s independent and strong, I thought Gracie had long fallen off that path into irrational moodiness, her prevarications and insecurities overshadowing what could really have been a more likeable and less annoying character. That she wanted to take more than she could give from James – who had to bend over backwards in order to pay for his well-meaning blunder – was the last straw that broke the camel’s back for me, particularly when the out-of-character, drunken (and supposedly comic) behaviour at the end made me cringe in shared embarrassment for him.

Even so, I still thought James deserved better than her, which the abrupt and rather awkward conclusion only seemed to reinforce.

two-stars

Into the Whirlwind by Kat Martin

Into the Whirlwind by Kat MartinInto the Whirlwind (BOSS, Inc. #2) by Kat Martin
Series: ,
Published by Zebra on May 31st 2016
Pages: 400
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two-stars

"I love her books!" --Linda Lael Miller
"Martin is superb." --RT Book Reviews
A bodyguard, a bounty hunter, a private investigator, no one can handle the heat like the men of BOSS, Inc.
Megan O'Brien is at her wit's end. Her three-year-old son has been kidnapped. No police, says the ransom demand. Fearing for her son's life, Meg has no choice but to turn to her former bodyguard, Dirk Reynolds.
Dirk's never forgiven Meg for the way she left him after their brief affair. But with bounty hunter Luke Brodie on his side, Dirk knows he's got to help Meg rescue her son.
The few clues they’ve gathered send them spiraling into a murky world of big banking and international crime. Meg may be way out of her depths, but she’s seeing a side of Dirk she never suspected—one no woman could possibly resist.

Desperation isn’t a good colour on anyone, least of all, a former model.

Megan O’Brien’s only hope – or so she makes it out to be – when her precious son is kidnapped is Dirk Reynolds, the man she’d heartlessly cut loose because he hadn’t conformed to her ideals of family and the approval of her parents. What follows is rather predictable – Dirk isn’t able to resist her pleas at all despite wanting to keep his distance – and the trail that opens up after her son is rescued is a far more interesting one that I can say of Meg and Dirk’s complicated relationship.

It bothered me a lot that, in this second-chance story, that Meg’s affections seemed conditional: save her son, get approval from her parents finally meant being good enough after proving oneself, which Dirk essentially did in an uphill climb to call himself trustworthy in her eyes. It only took a kidnapping it seemed, before Meg saw him for his qualities and decided that things should change between them. Ultimately, it was difficult to support this pairing when Meg seemed to reinforce that shallowness (except for when it comes to her son), even showing several TSTL moments throughout the book. The requisite HEA naturally demands that Meg accepts Dirk for himself before this pairing rides into their sunset, yet it was difficult by then, to change my impression of her and of the suitability of the couple.

That said, I’d definitely want to know the stories of the rest of Boss, Inc. – and Luke’s setup and his extensive involvement in this book – is a perfect hook for the next in the series.

two-stars