Tinderbox (Flashpoint #1) by Rachel Grant (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Tremblay

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

In the volatile tinderbox of the Horn of Africa, Morgan Adler has made the paleoanthropological find of a lifetime. The discovery brings her to the attention of a warlord eager to claim both Morgan and the fossils, forcing her to make a desperate dash to the nearby US military base to beg for protection.

Master Sergeant Pax Blanchard has orders to intercept Dr. Adler before she reaches the base, and in so doing saves her life. After a harrowing afternoon, he safely delivers her to his commanders, only to find his responsibilities toward protecting the obstinate archaeologist have only just begun. Morgan and Pax are forced to work together in the Djiboutian desert heat, but it is the fire that ignites between them that threatens to combust them both. For the Green Beret, involvement with the woman he must protect is a threat to his career, while for the archaeologist, the soldier is everything she never wanted but somehow can’t resist. When Morgan uncovers a mystery surrounding Djibouti’s most scarce and vital resource, the danger to her reaches the flashpoint. For Pax, protecting her is no longer a matter of following orders, and he’ll risk everything to bring her back alive.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A-

I discovered Rachel Grant’s romantic suspense novels less than a year ago, and have been hooked ever since. I’ve read and listened to several of the titles in her Evidence series, all of them tightly-plotted thrillers interwoven with a nicely steamy romance featuring intelligent, sassy heroines and gorgeous, alpha-male heroes. The author makes excellent use of her own background in history and archaeology in her books, which are extremely well researched both in terms of the locations in which they are set, and the technological and specialist detail which add so much interest and depth to the stories. Tinderbox, the first book in her new Flashpoint series is no different. The story opens with a bang – literally! – and the pace never lets up, as our two protagonists are drawn into a dangerous conspiracy in a part of the world which exists on a knife-edge.

Doctor Morgan Adler has been contracted by the Djibouti government to undertake an archaeological survey of the proposed route of a new railway. That particular area, known as the Horn of Africa (on the East coast – Djibouti is bordered by Eritraea, Ethiopia and Somalia) is a haven for terrorists and pirates –as well as being a veritable treasure trove for archaeologists. Morgan has just made what is likely to be the find of the decade – if not the century – in ‘Linus’ a set of three and a half million-year-old remains that could prove to be as significant an archaeological find as Lucy was in the 1970s. But she has been forced to flee the dig by several armed men working for Etefu Desta, an Ethiopian warlord looking to expand his territory into Djibouti. With the American Embassy closed, the only place she can think of that will be able to provide secure storage for the finds she has so far uncovered is the US military base at Camp Citron, and she’s on her way there with her precious cargo when she’s stopped by two Green Berets – Special Forces Operatives – about two miles from the camp.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

FOR A CHANCE TO WIN A COPY OF THE AUDIOBOOK OF TINDERBOX, READ MY INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR AND ENTER THE GIVEAWAY HERE

Live Wire (Nashville’s Finest #1) by Caisey Quinn

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

HE’S NOT AFRAID OF ANYTHING…

Explosive ordinance disposal specialist Chase Fisk never breaks a sweat defusing even the most complicated of explosives. So when a homicidal maniac threatens to set off military-grade IEDs during Nashville’s largest music festival, Chase is the man to take him down. But with the reappearance of a woman he thought was long dead, everything he thought he knew is blown away.

EXCEPT LOSING HER AGAIN.

FBI operative Vivien Montgomery is an enigma to everyone around her. So when a deadly threat lands her in Nashville and paired up with the only man she’s ever loved, she isn’t looking forward to an emotional reunion. She’s only here to get the job done and get out. But when the madman behind the chaos targets her for death, the one man she left behind might be the only person she can count on to save her life…

Rating: C-

Live Wire is the first book in Caisey Quinn’s aNashville’s Finest series, and with a blurb that promised a homicidal maniac threatening to set off military-grade IEDs during Nashville’s largest music festival,  and a rekindling romance between an explosives expert and his former lover, now an FBI agent, you’d think I was in for an action-packed, emotional rollercoaster of a ride, right?

Wrong.

Because Live Wire is, in fact, a damp squib.  There is very little action, the romance is perfunctory, the characters are barely two-dimensional and the plot is predictable and not particularly suspenseful.

Four years before the book opens, Chase Fisk watched the love of his life get blown to smithereens when a military training exercise went badly wrong.  He still has nightmares about that day, and has never really got over Vivien Brooks, in spite of having spent the first couple of years after her death trying hard to forget her in the beds of numerous other women.  An injury sustained during the blast got him a medical discharge from the army, and Chase now heads up an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit with the Nashville PD.

When a tip off leads Chase and his team to a condemned building on the east side of town they aren’t expecting to find a stash of military grade explosives and maps of the city marked up in a kind of code.  But with the prestigious Country Music Festival just weeks away – which will see a massive influx of tourists into the city – there’s no time to waste in decoding the maps, working out what is planned – and who is planning it.

Given the nature of the discovery, the FBI is called in, and immediately dispatches three highly trained agents to aid the Nashville police.  Among them is Vivien Montgomery, who, four years previously, had been undergoing military training when she’d been informed that she was the target of a Russian mafia boss who had a grudge against her family.  For her own safety, the Bureau faked her death and she was then sent on an undercover assignment to take down said mafia boss, which lasted around two years.  She is naturally wary at the prospect of seeing Chase again, certain he’s going to be furious at her deception rather than pleased to see her – and this is borne out at their first meeting, which is anything but a tender reunion. Fortunately, however, after some initial hostility and sniping, they realise they can’t go on this way and decide they need to address the elephant in the room.

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

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

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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.

When Scott arrives at the crime scene, Dani isn’t sure whether to be relieved or dismayed.  She knows he’s the best at what he does, but doesn’t want the feelings she still harbours for him to get in the way of their working together.  Worse, it’s obvious right from the start that this is going to be a tough case.  The crime scene is surprisingly unhelpful; the female victim had no ID or phone – or none that was found – and the bullets and shell-casings retrieved are useless.  Good old-fashioned policing reveals the dead woman to have been Tessa Lovett, research assistant to James Ayres, professor of microbiology, and the woman with whom he’d been having an affair for quite some time.  Moreover, both victims had previously worked together in New Mexico, and both had recently relocated to San Marco – to a less prestigious university – and taken pay cuts, neither of which makes sense.

The ante is well and truly upped when Dani’s house is broken into late at night and her ID and laptop are stolen.  She gives chase but is unable to catch up with the interloper – and it becomes even more evident that she’s dealing with something other than a simple crime of passion perpetrated against an adulterous husband.  Events take an even more surprising turn when Scott is implicated in the crime and he is suspended from duty.  Whoever is behind the murders has planned meticulously, always seeming to be one step ahead of Dani in a bewildering game of cat and mouse as each lead she uncovers seems doomed to be cut off before she can pursue it.  And although Scott is officially off the case, he’ll be damned before he leaves the task of proving his innocence to someone else, even someone he trusts as much as Dani.  But his determination to protect her as well as to find out who has framed him risks the integrity of the evidence and the entire case; and when the perpetrators put them firmly in the firing line, their relationship is tested even as the ever-present attraction between them ignites into something neither is quite sure how to handle.

The suspense story is extremely well-put together, with lots of unforeseeable twists and turns and moments of high-octane drama, and I found myself on the edge of my seat several times.  Ms. Griffin really knows how to pile on the tension without taking things too far; as an example, there’s a brilliant set-piece around the middle of the book which is a terrific example of how to write a heroes-in-peril action scene, and in which the descriptions and imagery are so vivid that it was like I was watching a movie in my head.

The romance between Scott and Dani is well done, too, although it’s secondary to the suspense plot.  The pair has known each other for years, so their unacknowledged mutual attraction is of fairly long standing and the chemistry between them is pretty intense.  Since he came back from Afghanistan, Scott’s only relationships have been of the one-night variety, and even though he wants Dani, he tries to hold back, believing she deserves better than him.  His mixed signals – one minute he’s kissing her, the next he’s keeping his distance – and his insistence on pursuing his own investigation infuriate the hell out of Dani, but she also knows there’s no-one else she’d rather have watching her back.  They circle around each other warily, neither of them wanting to admit to anything they can’t pull back from, but as the danger intensifies, it becomes impossible for them to go on denying that there’s more between them than sexual attraction.

At Close Range is an exciting, action-packed story that certainly won’t be the last I’ll read by Laura Griffin.  The plot is well-constructed and the resolution is audacious but plausible with cleverly planted clues; and the two principals are strongly characterised and well-matched.  Because the novels are standalones, it’s the sort of series one can dip in and out of, so I’ll definitely be revisiting the team at the Delphi Center in the not too distant future.

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.

The small-town setting of this story is used to great effect in creating an atmosphere of oppression and insularity which helps to build a sense of menace in the mind of the reader.  Another thing the author does very well is to show just how deeply affected Eden was and continues to be by her upbringing and life as the daughter of a clever, manipulative and ruthless woman.   Eden has been out of Elysia for a decade; she’s an intelligent, independent, capable woman who is obviously good at her job, and yet coming back to Clear Springs almost threatens wipe out those ten years.  She knows how controlling and devious Martha is, and knows she has to keep her wits about her if she’s not going to get sucked back in; and Ms. Roberts communicates Eden’s complicated feelings  about Martha and Elysia with insight and skill.

The suspense plot is well-executed and especially unsettling on the few occasions the story is told from the PoV of the murdered girls.  I had my suspicions as to the identity of the villain, but it wasn’t too obvious, and overall I was satisfied with the way that storyline played out.

I can’t say the same of the romantic aspect of the book, however, which comes as a surprise given Ms. Robert is known as a romance writer.  Zach and Eden are a good fit; intelligent, competent people who are dedicated to their jobs and who are both carrying around a bit of emotional baggage.  But the romance isn’t really given enough time to develop, and as a result, it feels as though it has just been tacked on.  Their first kiss, for example, comes out of the blue when their relationship really only consists of suspicion and work-related disagreements.   In this context, sniping at each other doesn’t work as verbal foreplay, and there isn’t much chemistry between them.  The book ends with an HFN rather than an HEA for Zach and Eden, with both of them agreeing to pursue a relationship while continuing with their jobs and lives in different places

The Devil’s Daughter is billed as being the first book in the Hidden Sins series, and I’m certainly not averse to reading more, but I’m hoping that Ms. Robert will be able to achieve more of a balance between the romance and the mystery in the next book.