Wildfire (Fire #3) by Anne Stuart

wildfire

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Her power-hungry husband takes pleasure in her pain, but she’s done playing the victim.

Three years ago, ex-operative Sophie Jordan made the mistake of falling in love—and marrying—her target. Now she’s paying for it tenfold. Her husband might be one of the sexiest men alive, but he’s also a psychopath. She’s been a virtual prisoner, and the time has come for retribution—and escape.

Undercover agent Malcolm Gunnison has his orders: get intel from Sophie’s arms-dealer husband, then kill him. He plans to get rid of her, too, if she gets in his way, but he’s unprepared when she gets under his skin instead. Whose side is she on? And what is she hiding behind those mesmerizing eyes?

Sophie vowed to never fall for another man again, but this sexy undercover agent is different. With danger mounting, can Malcolm and Sophie trust each other—and their growing passion—enough to get out of this operation alive?

Rating: B-

Any long-time romance reader probably has a favourite type of hero.  Protective alphas, arrogant arseholes, smooth spies and men of action… and then there are Anne Stuart heroes, who, as anyone familiar with her work will know, are a mixture of all the above with the aresholery often dialled up to the max.  But you know what?  They’re my blind spot.  They’re so full of testosterone, over-the-top masculine and fiercely protective of their women (albeit not quite at caveman levels) that they’re almost caricatures… but I still don’t care – I love ‘em.

The big saving grace is probably that your Anne Stuart alpha-hole hero isn’t a Neanderthal. He’s  highly-intelligent, well-educated, frighteningly competent, seriously hot – and ultimately redeemable.   Yes, any sane woman would probably run a mile in the opposite direction if she met one, but fortunately, this is highly stylised fiction, and Ms. Stuart always manages to redeem these ruthless men admirably.  But I can accept that her particular brand of gamma hero is an acquired taste, and if those types of characters aren’t for you, then I’m not likely to persuade you otherwise.

But for those of us who do drink this particular brand of Kool-Aid, Malcolm Gunnison, the hero of Wildfire – the third in the author’s current Fire series – is another in a long line of those guilty-pleasure heroes we love to hate.  Mal is sent by the Committee  – a covert, international organization that paid no attention to legal or moral implications in its quest to make the world a safer place – to the Caribbean island of Isla Mordita to meet with Archer MacDonald, international arms and drug dealer, and the man behind the development of a new biological agent, RU48 (also known as Pixiedust!) which is unlike any chemical weapon previously developed.  Mal’s cover as an ex-Committee agent now acting as the middle-man for a potential buyer works perfectly to convince Archer that he’s dealing with a man every bit as dangerous as himself.

Mal’s job is to find out everything he can about the weapon, kill Archer and get out – and it’s up to him whether he gets the man’s wife out with him or leaves her there.  A former CIA and State Department agent, Sophie Jordan was in the early stages of her Committee training when she was made part of a team sent to undertake surveillance on Archer and made the mistake of falling in love with and marrying him – only to discover, too late, that the man was a ruthless psychopath.  When Archer discovered she had been a Committee agent, he ordered her murder.  Sophie narrowly escaped death, but the bullet damaged her spine and for the past two years, she has been confined to a wheelchair, a literal prisoner on the island subject to the not so tender mercies of her husband, who takes delight in playing psychological games, and abusing her both emotionally and physically.  But a year ago, she began to regain the use of her legs, and without anyone knowing, has been building her strength and training for the day when she will kill Archer and get the hell outta Dodge.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Blindsided (Men of Steele #3) by Gwen Hernandez

blindsidedThis title may be purchased from Amazon.

SHE’S RUNNING FOR HER LIFE
Framed for espionage, reformed hacker Valerie Sanchez has no choice but to run. Worse, when the proof of her innocence is destroyed, things turn deadly. Can she trust the sexy terrorist hunter who mysteriously turns up to protect her, or is he the real threat?

HE’S HOT ON HER TRAIL
Former Marine sniper Scott Kramer’s job was supposed to be easy. Follow the hot computer geek who stole plans for classified weapons until she meets her buyer, then let law enforcement take over. But when Valerie becomes an assassin’s target, Scott’s gut says she’s innocent. Now, he must risk his life—and his heart—to keep her safe.

Rating: B

New-to-me author Gwen Hernandez has crafted a tightly plotted page-turner in Blindsided, the third book in her Men of Steele series.  The heroes are all ex-military men who now work for Kurt Steele’s  security firm, and even though this is the third in the series and some characters from the other books are referenced or make brief appearances, it works perfectly well as a standalone.

Valerie Sanchez is the daughter of an infamous ‘black hat’ hacker (i.e, someone who hacks into computer systems with criminal intent) but although she worked alongside her Papá when younger, she now works for Aggressor International – a government funded organisation that hunts down terrorists – as one of their team of ‘white hat’ hackers, people employed to identify and fix vulnerabilities and security holes in the computer systems of their clients.  She’s an unashamed geek who loves her job and her current assignment is to hack into the servers of Westgate Defence Systems to find and report on any weaknesses in their online security.  With her partner, Jay Suresh, she has finally managed to find a way in, but before she can file her report, she discovers something odd; all the companies she has been employed to hack over the past few months suffered security breaches following her investigations.  Believing that this must mean the clients have not undertaken the security measures outlined in her various reports, she makes her concerns known to her boss, Duncan Hollowell.

Former marine sniper Scott Kramer, a member of the Steele Security team, has gone undercover as a new employee at Aggressor in order to undertake surveillance on a staff member suspected of stealing information from the company.  The few times he’s spoken to Valerie Sanchez, she’s seemed flustered and tongue-tied; she might be a bit geeky but his gut is telling him that this woman isn’t guilty of anything.  So he’s astonished when Hollowell tells him she’s downloaded several files relating to classified weapons systems and tells him to keep her under surveillance until the FBI team arrives to arrest her.

Valerie soon realises she’s been set up, but before she can make a run for it, the FBI is banging on her door.  She’s being escorted to a car when shots ring out – one of the agents is hit and someone screams at Valerie to run.  Watching all this, Scott heads after her, but does nothing to stop her getting away.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Dollmaker (Forgotten Files #2) by Mary Burton (audiobook) – Narrated by Christina Traister

dollmaker-audio

Dr. Tessa McGowan had never seen anything quite like it. But the mutilated bodies on her exam table tell a stunningly macabre tale: someone with a twisted mind is kidnapping women and altering their faces to resemble real, life-size dolls. As a forensic pathologist, it’s her job to aid the agent leading the case – even if that agent is her estranged husband.

Twelve years ago an unspeakable tragedy destroyed Dakota Sharp’s world. Haunted by the ghosts of his past, he’s devoted himself to capturing killers. His only regret is that it cost him Tessa. Now, as the Dollmaker case brings them together – and raises his suspicions that he’s crossed paths with this deranged psychopath before – they may just have their second chance. But it seems Dakota’s not the only one who wants to make Tessa his own…

She may be the Dollmaker’s next target, but Tessa has no intention of winding up as another toy on his shelf. Can she and Dakota stop this ghastly killer before his next deadly playdate?

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

The Dollmaker is the second book in Mary Burton’s The Forgotten Files series, but it works perfectly well as a standalone. It’s my first time listening to a book by this author, and it definitely won’t be my last, as the mystery is tightly-plotted and suspenseful and the main characters, while perhaps somewhat stereotypical, are nonetheless well-drawn and likeable. The mystery element of the book is very much to the fore, although there is also a second-chance romance between Agent Dakota Sharp of the Virginia State Police and his estranged wife, pathologist Dr. Tessa McGowan, brewing in the background.

While attending the funeral of his step-father, Roger, to whom he wasn’t close, Dakota Sharp is approached by Douglas Knox, the former local police chief who investigated the death of Sharp’s half-sister, Kara, some twelve years ago. The cause of death was an overdose, but Roger was never convinced of that and spent the last decade or so trying to prove she was murdered. Knox now tells Sharp that there may have been more to Kara’s death and offers to send him his case files. Sharp is sceptical, but, to humour the old man, accepts the offer and asks a colleague to look over them, feeling he’s too close to events to do so himself.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

At Close Range (Tracers #11) by Laura Griffin

at-close-range

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a lakeside tryst ends in a double murder, police detective Daniele Harper arrives on the scene determined to get answers. Clues are everywhere, but nothing adds up. Dani turns to the Delphi Center crime lab for help, but soon regrets it when her secret attraction to their chief firearms examiner threatens to distract her from the most important case of her career.

As a ballistics expert and former Navy SEAL, Scott Black knows firearms, and he knows he can help Dani unravel her case. Scott has managed to hide his interest in his best friend’s younger sister for years, but when her investigation brings them together, the sparks between them quickly get out of control. Scott resolves to keep his hands off Dani and his eyes on the goal—identifying a killer. But when that killer zeroes in on Dani, all bets are off. There isn’t a line Scott won’t cross to convince Dani to trust him so that he can help her take down a ruthless murderer who has her in his sights.

Rating: B+

Although At Close Range is the eleventh book in Laura Griffin’s Tracers series, I didn’t feel as though I’d missed out by not having read the previous ten books.  Information about the Tracers themselves and the highly advanced forensic facility at which they work is disseminated quickly and without getting bogged down in too much detail; and even though some characters from the earlier novels make appearances, they are here as secondary characters and there’s no overlap of their stories with this one.

The plot is fast-moving and complex, with plenty of action and suspense and a focus on a particular area of science which is very relevant, giving the story a really up-to-the-minute feel.  But not everything is flashy and hi-tech; the plotlines and characteristics are very strongly grounded in reality – even for a Brit whose knowledge of the US justice system comes primarily from watching the various police procedurals which grace our TV screens ;).

Recently-minted Detective Daniele (Dani) Harper is both pleased and wary when she is assigned as lead detective on the case of the double homicide of a college professor and the young woman with whom he was having an affair.  While it’s flattering that her boss, Ric Santos, feels she’s up to the job, the fact that the victims were both on staff at the local university means the case is going to attract a lot of media attention, and deep down, Dani is worried that she’s not ready to take on a leadership role.  But she’s nothing if not tenacious so she grits her teeth and throws herself into the investigation, determined not to let Ric down and to show that she – the daughter of a cop and sister of a prosecutor with the DA’s office – has earned her place through dint of sheer hard work and not because of her family connections.

Firearms and ballistics expert Scott Black joined the Tracers – the forensic team at the Delphi Center – when a knee injury forced him to retire from his work as a Navy SEAL. He and Dani have known each other for around fifteen years owing to his friendships with her brothers, so he’s always treated her like his best friend’s kid sister.  But that changed a few months earlier when they shared a drunken New Year’s Eve kiss, and things have been awkward between them ever since.  Dani has fancied Scott for years, but never thought anything would come of it – and while he is equally attracted to her, according to the unwritten code of guy friendship, his friend’s little sister is strictly off limits.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Devil’s Daughter (Hidden Sins #1) by Katee Robert

the-devils-daughter

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Growing up in a small town isn’t easy, especially when you’re the daughter of a local cult leader. Ten years ago, Eden Collins left Clear Springs, Montana, and never once looked back. But when the bodies of murdered young women surface, their corpses violated and marked with tattoos worn by her mother’s followers, Eden, now an FBI agent, can’t turn a blind eye. To catch the killer, she’s going to have to return to the fold.

Sheriff Zach Owens isn’t comfortable putting Eden in danger, even if she is an elite agent. And he certainly wasn’t expecting to be so attracted to her. As calm and cool as she appears, he knows this can’t be a happy homecoming. Zach wants to protect her—from her mother, the cult, and the evil that lurks behind its locked gates. But Eden is his only key to the tight-lipped group, and she may just be closer to the killer than either one of them suspects…

Rating: B

Katee Robert is probably best known for her sexy contemporary romances. With The Devil’s Daughter, she’s moved into romantic suspense territory, and has done so with a reasonable degree of success, penning a well-paced and gripping tale that kept me eagerly turning the pages.

Sheriff Zach Owens, a former Marine, saw enough killing, bloodshed and violence during his various tours of Iraq to have made him want to leave it behind him and settle down in the relatively quiet Montana backwater of Clear Springs. The worst he usually has to deal with involve the odd DUI, theft and minor crimes, and sometimes keeping a lid on the suspicion harboured by some of the locals towards Elysia, the large compound outside of town which is home to a religious cult. Most of the time, the town and the cult manage to co-exist peacefully, but when a local girl goes missing and her ultra-conservative, church-going parents insist that someone from the cult is responsible for her disappearance, Zach has to walk a tight-rope between doing everything he can to find the girl and keeping the simmering resentment of her parents and their supporters from igniting the tensions between Clear Springs and Elysia and provoking a serious incident.

Zach’s fears are confirmed when he receives news that the naked body of a teenager has been found just outside town and he fully expects this to be the missing girl – but it isn’t. It’s another local girl, one who was believed to have left town to attend college, hence the fact she’d not been missed. And to make things worse, the girl is linked to Martha Collins, the head of the commune at Elysia, by virtue of the fact that Martha wrote her letters of reference for college. Zach knows that any direct approach to Martha or her inner circle will be shut down and met with their usual brand of stonewalling, but with a murder directly linked to the group, and suspicions mounting that they have something to do with the other girl’s disappearance, Zach is going to have to tread carefully if he’s to stand any chance of getting answers, finding the missing teenager or solving the murder.

Eden Collins escaped from the commune and her mother’s influence when she was eighteen. Now an agent working for the Behavioural Analysis Unit at the FBI, she’d never thought to return to Clear Springs, wanting to remain as far from there as possible, but when she’s anonymously sent a picture of the murdered girl, which clearly show tattoos identical to the ones Eden has, she knows she has to go back. Zach is initially suspicious of her presence and her motives. As Martha Collins’ daughter, Eden is not the most popular new face in town, and even Eden can understand why Zach feels the way he does. But she insists he needs all the help he can get in order to find the missing girl before she becomes the killer’s next victim.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Seconds to Sunrise (Black Ops: Automatik #3) by Nico Rosso

seconds-to-sunrise

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

She thought she’d lost everything…

April Banks thought her website crashing was just a glitch. Starting the online forum for war widows has been the only thing keeping her together since her husband died, and she won’t let anything interfere with her work. But this is no technical malfunction—cyberterrorists have targeted the information locked in April’s website and they’ll do anything to get it. Even if that means removing April. Permanently.

He’ll make them pay…

Automatik gave former SAS agent James Sant a way to protect the innocent again. He thinks life in the shadows is all he deserves…until he meets his newest assignment. April is everything James has never let himself want and he knows she’s already had too much heartbreak in her life to risk feeling for him. But keeping things professional while hunting the hackers with the gorgeous widow is going to be the hardest job he’s ever taken on.

Rating: C

Nico Rosso’s Seconds to Sunrise, the third in his Black Ops: Automatik series, felt very much like a book of two halves. But I don’t mean in that terms of the pagination; I’m talking about the difference in the successful (or not) treatment of the two plot elements, because one worked well and the other… didn’t. A good romantic suspense novel has to work in both areas, and while the suspense plot is fairly effective, the romance is stilted, with a lot of telling rather than showing and a singular lack of chemistry between the two leads.

April Banks’ husband, Mark, was killed during a tour in Afghanistan four years earlier. Utterly devastated, she has gradually re-built herself and her life, even though she is still living quietly in the shadows. She doesn’t have close friends or family, but she has a large support network she has built up through her website foundafter.com, a forum for women who are similarly circumstanced. The site has been a real lifeline for April, so when she discovers it’s been hacked, she feels as though she has been personally violated and exposed – but she isn’t going to give up without a fight. Her own computer skills are a match for the hackers, who have yet to break through her deeply encrypted security protocols. But she fears it’s only a matter of time before whoever is behind the hack breaks through and is able to steal all the personal and financial information belonging to the thousands of forum members.

Former SAS operative James Sant was at a loss when he left the army and did some things he’s not proud of. Joining Automatik offered him a way back into helping people again, and he’s never looked back – even though he is still haunted by the years he spent at the bottom of a bottle when he wasn’t running operations for a former colleague who wasn’t very discriminating about the jobs and clients he took on.

I haven’t read the other books in this series, but that’s not a hindrance, because the story in this one is self-contained, and the author includes enough information about Automatik for the reader to be able to work out that it’s a secret organisation made up of former military and special services operatives who now work to solve problems that nobody else can. They fly under the radar and won’t hestitate to use any means necessary to ensure the success of their missions.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

A Perilous Undertaking (Veronica Speedwell #2) by Deanna Raybourn

a-perilous-undertaking

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution, who stands accused of the brutal murder of his mistress Artemisia. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer—a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia’s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime.

Rating: B+

A Perilous Undertaking is the second book in Deanna Raybourn’s series of Victorian mysteries featuring the intrepid Veronica Speedwell, lepidopterist and lady adventurer and her friend and colleague Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, known as Stoker – the scion of a noble family from whom he ran away to join the Navy and who has since made himself a name as a natural historian.

Both characters were very well introduced in the previous book, A Curious Beginning, so while this one can be read as a standalone in terms of the mystery, readers will get a lot more out of the books if read in order, as the mystery, while entertaining, is, to my mind, secondary to the continuing development of the unconventional relationship between Veronica and Stoker. Added to this is the gradual drip-feeding of information about Stoker’s past – a past that has obviously been full of heartbreak and betrayal – which is both masterful and incredibly frustrating, as Ms. Raybourn teases us with hints without revealing all – although she does build on what we learned about him in the last book.

The same is true of Veronica. She does have her secrets, but seems generally much more straightforward. She’s intelligent, outspoken and adventurous; she has travelled widely on her lepidoptery expeditions, she’s – discreetly – taken lovers (albeit never in England and never Englishmen abroad), and at the end of the last book, was revealed to be the natural daughter of Edward, Prince of Wales. She is still coming to terms with that knowledge; she knows she will never be acknowledged, and nor does she want to be – and she is still furious at the fact that she was offered hush money (which she rejected) in exchange for never revealing the truth of her birth.

So when, at the beginning of this story she is summoned to meet with a mysterious woman who turns out to be her aunt Louise, Veronica is not best pleased. The woman is imperious, brusque and condescending, but she informs Veronica that without her help, an innocent man will shortly go to the gallows for murder. Miles Ramforth is a friend of the princess’ and he will hang for the murder of his pregnant mistress in a week’s time – but Louise knows for certain that he is not guilty and wants Veronica to prove it. Louise makes it clear that she will not reveal the reason that she is certain Miles did not commit the crime – and I admit that I rather wanted Veronica to tell Louise where to stick it, because she was obviously withholding crucial information.

Anyway. Miles and his lover were part of a well-known ‘commune’ of bohemians and artists who gather under the auspices of the famous painter, Sir Frederick Havelock at Havelock House in London (which the author based on the home of the renowned artist Sir Frederick Leighton), so it’s there that Veronica and Stoker begin their investigations. There’s absolutely no doubt that Ms. Raybourn knows how to write a rollicking mystery story which keeps twisting and turning right up until the last moment, but it’s the relationship between Veronica and Stoker – and Stoker himself, such an adorable mixture of brooding, sexy and sweet – that are the big draws for me.

The author has cleverly engaged in a bit of role reversal, with Veronica usually being the one to make a risqué comment or engage in a bit of flirtation while Stoker is the one to blush or change the subject. Veronica makes absolutely no bones about her interest in men and sex – and there is quite a lot of talk about carnal matters in the book – and it’s very clear that although she’s definitely interested in getting Stoker into bed, her “no Englishmen” rule keeps her from extending that particular invitation. Plus, there’s also the fact that neither of them has ever experienced the sort of relationship they are building between them, and neither of them wants to risk it. Ms. Raybourn does an excellent job in conveying the truth and depth of their friendship; there’s the real sense that these are two people who understand each other at an instinctual level:

“Whatever this thing is that makes us different, this thing that makes quicksilver of us when the rest of the world is mud, it binds us. To break that would be to fly in the face of nature.”

In spite of that, however, the sexual tension between them is intense and if and when they do get it together romantically, I can see them continuing just as they are in every other aspect of their lives. They are strong, fiercely intelligent characters who aren’t afraid to challenge each other and don’t give a fig for what anyone else thinks of them; they trust each other absolutely and depend on each other without being dependent on one another, if that makes any sense. They know the other is there for them; they don’t need each other precisely, but they both recognise that their life is richer and more complete now they’ve found each other.

Those are all the really good things about the book. But there are a few things that bugged me enough to make me lower my final grade a bit. In my review of A Curious Beginning, I said of Veronica:

there were times I felt she was bordering on caricature and her unconventionality began to seem like artifice. I got that she was an unusual young woman quite early on and didn’t need to be reminded of it quite so often

And I’d say the same thing here. Almost every character has something to say about Veronica which – even when it’s intended to be insulting – is meant to show how thoroughly Unconventional and Not Proper she is. And if it’s not someone else, then it’s Veronica herself extolling her eccentricity and achievements, which strays dangerously close to Mary Sue territory. The thing is, this is the second book in a series, and while I know that authors who write series also have to try to write each book so that a newbie can jump in, those of us who have read the first book are already well aware of Veronica’s idiosyncrasies and the way she enjoys flouting the conventions of society – so we don’t need to be hit over the head with it quite so frequently.

I also feel that while we get to know a little more about Stoker’s past – we meet all his brothers (there are three of them) in this book – Veronica is pretty much as she was in the first book and her character has developed little. Right at the end of A Perilous Undertaking, she reveals something to Stoker that she is not ready to discuss, so there is potential for growth in the next story (I hope); but ultimately, I’d have liked a little more character development and introspection instead the continual reminders as to how wonderful and unusual Veronica is.

But the things I liked definitely outweighed the things I didn’t, and this is still a book I’d recommend to fans of the author and historical mysteries in general. It’s very well written, the dialogue and snarky banter between Veronica and Stoker in particular is excellent and the mystery element is nicely plotted and executed. While it didn’t work quite as well for me as the previous book, it’s an enjoyable read and I’m already eagerly anticipating the next in the series.