Tag: Indifferent shrugs

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

One Christmas Eve by Shannon Stacey

One Christmas Eve by Shannon StaceyOne Christmas Eve by Shannon Stacey
Series: Cedar Street, #2
Published by Carina Press on 11th November 2019
Pages: 104
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two-stars

Zoe Randall is busy living her life as she damn well pleases. She’s back in her favorite town, her divorce in her rearview mirror, and living out her childhood dream of running a bookstore with her cousin. She has no interest in the uptight nerd who opened his boring-ass business next to her shop…until he complains about one of her sexy window displays.

Then it’s game on.

Preston Wheeler knows he takes life a little too seriously. But when the saucy bookseller next door starts pushing his buttons, he can feel that changing. Beautiful, vivacious Zoe challenges him in all the best ways, and soon he’s pushing her buttons right back: teasing and flirting all the way through the holiday season.

As Preston loosens up and Zoe is treated to the man behind the suit (particularly his forearms), she realizes she’s more interested than she cares to admit. And Preston comes to see the beauty—the absolute delight—in adding Zoe’s bright splashes of color to his once very black-and-white existence.

For a Christmas story (where has the year gone?!), this probably ticks all the boxes: festive, with the formulaic but well-paced story of a not-quite-enemies-to-lovers trope, and a HEA that follows after both protagonists resolve their own issues.

I’ve always liked Shannon Stacey’s writing, but somehow I didn’t exactly feel moved or get too deeply into both Preston and Zoe. The former is stoic and rather bland to be honest, as nice as he is while the latter seems to be uber-sassy and sensitive to the point of jumping at every perceived form of judgement (in some ways, it feels like over-compensation for her imagined shortcomings). Stacey does make the pairing work with her persuasive writing – I could sort of believe in them as the story went on – though for a novella, it felt somewhat forced and rushed, before it all skipped to a HEA a year later.

Again, it could just be down to me just not feeling the Christmassy vibe that’s laid out in the book, so take this with a pinch of salt, especially for those who are already in the mood.

two-stars

Make Your Move by Laura Heffernan

Make Your Move by Laura HeffernanMake Your Move by Laura Heffernan
Series: Gamer Girls, #3
Published by Lyrical Press on 17th December 2019
Pages: 304
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one-star

LOVE’S ALL ABOUT TIMING . . .

At twenty-eight, Shannon has yet to fall in love. Which is fine, since she’d rather spend her evenings creating games than swiping right or going on awkward blind dates. Right now though, she has two little problems. First, she’s stuck for a new game idea. Second, the only candidate in her roommate search is Tyler, the gaming buddy who’s long had an unrequited crush on her.

It should be awkward. But when Tyler moves in, the situation doesn’t go at all the way Shannon expected. Between helping her deal with coworkers and fixing the bugs in her latest game, Tyler’s proving to be damn near perfect. Except for the fact that he’s falling for someone else. . .

Maybe Shannon has already forfeited her turn. Maybe she’s playing for nothing but heartache. But the best games have endings you can never predict . . .

This was unfortunately, a total disconnect for me.

Not only was I plunged into a world with a bewildering array of characters at the very start which made it difficult to navigate the whole setup, there was also the certain issue I took with Shannon who kept insisting that she didn’t want to encourage Tyler’s crush on her. Only after they become roommates does she suddenly, with the speed of a lightning strike, discover that she actually is crushing on him.

The long explanations of her demi-sexuality and the lack of focus and build-up added to the source of frustration, more so since for the most of the book, Tyler spends his time with a new girlfriend, who also happens to be a bitchy rival of the heroine.

Personally, it was hard to get invested in them at all, given the circumstances surrounding Shannon’s work and the focus on gaming, when I wanted to see an equal amount of time spent developing a pairing that barely did much together, thanks to poor timing. But when I started skimming throughout most of the story, it became clear this wasn’t for me at all.

one-star

The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa

The Worst Best Man by Mia SosaThe Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa
Published by Avon on 4th February 2020
Pages: 368
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two-half-stars

A wedding planner left at the altar. Yeah, the irony isn’t lost on Carolina Santos, either. But despite that embarrassing blip from her past, Lina’s managed to make other people’s dreams come true as a top-tier wedding coordinator in DC. After impressing an influential guest, she’s offered an opportunity that could change her life. There’s just one hitch… she has to collaborate with the best (make that worst) man from her own failed nuptials.

Tired of living in his older brother’s shadow, marketing expert Max Hartley is determined to make his mark with a coveted hotel client looking to expand its brand. Then he learns he’ll be working with his brother’s whip-smart, stunning—absolutely off-limits—ex-fiancée. And she loathes him.

If they can survive the next few weeks and nail their presentation without killing each other, they’ll both come out ahead. Except Max has been public enemy number one ever since he encouraged his brother to jilt the bride, and Lina’s ready to dish out a little payback of her own.

But even the best laid plans can go awry, and soon Lina and Max discover animosity may not be the only emotion creating sparks between them. Still, this star-crossed couple can never be more than temporary playmates because Lina isn’t interested in falling in love and Max refuses to play runner-up to his brother ever again...

Imagine the male protagonist of a romance being the one who opens the story by telling his brother not to marry his fiancée for various reasons not quite made clear to us, then later snags the fiancée for himself. Not by manipulation really, but by coincidence several years later, when the trio meet again as part of a business rivalry-recruitment set-up.

‘The Worst Best Man’ had an amusing start, albeit one that made me cringe. The writing is witty, assured and quirky enough that it can elicit a few amused smirks out of you, yet for what is a promising storyline, I thought the forward momentum of the plot stalled somewhere in the middle with a lot of to-and-fro between Lina and Max. The sheer details of wedding after wedding, then the family crowd jutting in and there…(and the constant emphasis on Portuguese and Brazilian culture and food, etc) just got to me that it was hard to even get a glimpse of the very slow burn between Lina and Max—so much so that I was squinting for it each time they interacted.

Still, Max’s and Lina’s dynamic was interesting so to speak: not quite friends, not quite enemies, but there was the undercurrent of discomfort, awareness and past hurt that couldn’t be brushed away too easily because of a history that was after all, a major bump in Lina’s life. Both were, individually, relatively well fleshed-out, but setting them up as a pair and the subsequent development of them as a couple were the parts where I thought the story fell short.

Max and Lina had internalised their attraction to each other (even that felt quite muted) that it dragged out a chemistry which could have been hotter and brighter. When they fell into bed together was the time I felt like I’d been blindsided somehow; there just didn’t seem enough between them for that spark to ignite. More so perhaps, when the emotional twist came at the end because it left me gobsmacked and confused…because, wasn’t it about Lina to start with?

Long and short it, I wished I liked this more, given how the blurb so easily hooked me in. In the end, it was more of a stuttering journey to end of the line and even then, I couldn’t buy into a couple who didn’t quite seem to move on completely from their past convincingly enough to be one that I could root for.

two-half-stars

Total Control by Laura Griffin

Total Control by Laura GriffinTotal Control by Laura Griffin
Series: Alpha Crew, #4
Published by Gallery Books on 2nd September 2019
Pages: 183
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two-half-stars

Navy SEAL Jake Heath has his eyes on Alexa Mays. The FBI Agent is whip smart and hot as hell, but she won’t give him the time of day. So, when she calls him out of blue, he thinks his luck has changed.

But instead of meeting up for a romantic dinner, Alexa needs Jake for a very different reason. Her counterterrorism team is hot on the heels of the extremist that Jake’s task force has been tracking for months, and now he’s on American soil. The only way she can take him down is with Jake’s help.

Alexa knows Jake is tough and relentless...and that the chemistry between them is electric. Although she’s risking her heart—and maybe even her career—by bringing him onto the mission, she doesn’t have another choice. Together, they’re an unstoppable and powerful team.

As the hours tick by and a lethal enemy gets closer to launching an unimaginable attack, Alexa and Jake need to fight fire with fire before the clock runs out. The only question is: will their own flames get in the way?

Laura Griffin’s ‘Alpha Ops’ series and I have been on rocky ground since day one; it is so startling dissimilar to the heart-pounding crime thrillers that she writes that these brief, novella-length works feel like they’ve been penned by someone else, both in style and in plot-execution. Yet I keep returning to them, hoping that each one would get better, even as ‘Total Control’ has left me on the fence.

Everything was cursory here: context and histories that were told rather than shown, explained away with a few lines rather than drawn out with chapters, and lacked the usual solid development that Griffin’s careful plotting in her full-length works contain. Her protagonists’ connection seemed forced especially when Alexa Mays only decided to give Jake Heath the time of day after 6 months of radio silence because she needed something from him.

In fact, it was harder to like Alexa at all, when Griffin seemed to have set her up as callous and manipulative from the beginning, which made Jake’s willingness (by blowing off his family for her) to ingratiate himself into her good books even more inexplicable. I think, above all, there were scenes that lacked the ‘softer’ emotional bits—or rather, vulnerability—that would, ironically, given an action-packed story more edge and more impact. That it went from zero to a hundred towards the last quarter—a bit of a feat considering this topped out at a rushed 120-ish pages on my reader—was something that came unexpectedly, though not in an unwelcome fashion, until it tapered off to a rather abrupt conclusion that felt like a HFN.

I’m not ashamed to say that I liked the past 20 or so pages the best, which nonetheless, still wasn’t quite enough to erase the lacklustre first half. I only wished ‘Total Control’ was a full-length (and more balanced) book and had it been, it would have been phenomenal.

two-half-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

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