Touch of Red (Tracers #12) by Laura Griffin (audiobook) – Narrated by Tavia Gilbert and George Newbern

This title may be downloaded from Audible

When crime scene investigator Brooke Porter arrives at the home of a murdered woman, the only thing more shocking than the carnage is the evidence that someone escaped the scene. But where is this witness now? A thorough search of the area yields more questions than answers, and before Brooke even packs up her evidence kit, she’s made it her goal to find the witness and get them out of harm’s way.

Homicide detective Sean Byrne has seen his share of bloody crime scenes, but this one is particularly disturbing, especially because Brooke Porter is smack in the middle of it. Sean has had his eye on the sexy CSI for months, and he’s determined to help her with her current case—even if it means putting his attraction on hold so he and Brooke can track down a murderer. But as the investigation—and their relationship—heats up, Sean realizes that keeping his work and his personal life separate is more complicated than he ever imagined; especially when the killer sets his sights on Brooke.

Rating: Narration – A: Content – B

Touch of Red is the twelfth book in Laura Griffin’s Tracers series of standalone romantic suspense novels, and is one of only four titles in the series available in audio (the others are books one, two and eight – I have no idea why those in particular). While that’s rather frustrating for anyone wanting to embark upon a long-running series, it could actually turn out to be a good thing, because if the publisher is planning on recording the other books, there’s the chance that they’ll use the same excellent dual narrator team of Tavia Gilbert and George Newbern to perform them.

Each book in the series boasts a self-contained suspense plot and a romance that reaches an HFN or HEA by the end, so there is no need to worry about cliffhangers; and although characters from earlier books do make an appearance – par for the course with series books – the author gives the listener enough information to explain how they relate to the current story and its characters, so it’s not strictly necessary to have listened to or read the previous books. Linking the books together is the Delphi Center, a high-end, high-tech forensics facility that is usually called in by the San Marcos PD to help with their biggest and most difficult cases.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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Tramps and Thieves (Murder and Mayhem #2) by Rhys Ford (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Tremblay

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon

Whoever said blood was thicker than water never stood in a pool of it.

Retiring from stealing priceless treasures seemed like a surefire way for Rook Stevens to stay on the right side of the law. The only cop in his life should have been his probably-boyfriend, Los Angeles Detective Dante Montoya, but that’s not how life – his life – is turning out. Instead, Rook ends up not only standing in a puddle of his cousin Harold’s blood but also being accused of Harold’s murder…and sleeping with Harold’s wife.

For Dante, loving the former thief means his once-normal life is now a sea of chaos, especially since Rook seems incapable of staying out of trouble – or keeping trouble from following him home. When Rook is tagged as a murder suspect by a narrow-focused West LA detective, Dante steps in to pull his lover out of the quagmire Rook’s landed in.

When the complicated investigation twists around on them, the dead begin to stack up, forcing the lovers to work together. Time isn’t on their side, and if they don’t find the killer before another murder, Dante will be visiting Rook in his prison cell – or at his grave.

Rating: Narration – A+: Content – B+

I so enjoyed Murder and Mayhem, the first book in Rhys Ford’s series about the cop and the (ex) cat burglar, that I was tempted to move straight on to book two, Tramps and Thieves immediately it came out. But then I told myself to be a good little reviewer and listen to some of the other things that were – admittedly – ahead of it on my TBL. So I did. But now here I am to tell you that, in spite of some similarities in the plotline (someone is Out To Get Rook), Tramps and Thieves is every bit as entertaining as Murder and Mayhem; Dante and Rook are every bit as engaging as they were before and Greg Tremblay’s narration is every bit as awesome.

At the end of Murder and Mayhem, L.A. detective Dante Montoya and Rook Stevens, the ex-thief who’d haunted Dante’s thoughts for years, were an established couple – although it was clear that things weren’t going to be plain sailing for the rather mis-matched duo. Falling in love with someone who spent most of his life on the wrong side of the law is something Dante never expected, and loving the acerbic, vulnerable and complicated Rook has turned his life upside down. But in a good way.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Poison Evidence (Evidence #7) by Rachel Grant (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicol Zanzarella

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

It was supposed to be paradise….

Ivy MacLeod has the perfect opportunity to test her advanced remote sensing technology: mapping a World War II battle site in the islands of Palau. The project is more than an all-expenses-paid trip to paradise. It’s also an opportunity to distance her reputation from her traitorous ex-husband.

But foreign intelligence agencies will kill to possess her invention, and paradise turns deadly when her ex-husband’s vicious allies attack. In desperation, she turns to Air Force pilot Jack Keaton. But is he the bigger threat? Jack might be protecting her as he claims…or he could be a foreign agent. Her compass is skewed by his magnetic pull and further thrown off when she learns her own government has betrayed her.

Stranded on a tropical island with a man whose motives remain a mystery, Ivy must decide who is the spy, who is the protector, and who is the ultimate villain. She longs to trust the man who rescued her, but she’s risking more than her heart. Choose right, and she saves her country’s secrets – and her life. Choose wrong – and she risks nothing short of all-out war.

Rating: Narration – B+: Content – A-

Note: In my review of Cold Evidence, I mentioned that there was a teeny bit of a cliffhanger at the end, which would play out in the next book. Because the two stories are linked by this plot point and a few recurring characters, there will be some small spoilers for Cold Evidence in this review.

Rachel Grant is – in case it’s not obvious by now – my go-to author for romantic suspense. She’s got the knack of getting the balance between romance and plot just right; the pacing in her books is spot on, just the right mix of fast-paced action and calmer periods of reflection or love scenes, and her characters are strong, likeable and easy to root for. In this series, she’s drawn strongly on her background as an historian and archaeologist, and many of her characters work in those professions, as marine archaeologists, military historians and the like, all of which I find fascinating. In Poison Evidence, the seventh book in the Evidence series, we meet Ivy MacLeod, a highly intelligent, self-confessed tech-geek with a passion for geological and geographical archaeology, who works for NHHC (Naval History and Heritage Command) and whose latest invention – a complex computerised mapping system using infrared and Lidar she nicknames CAM – is about to undergo its first field test in the small Pacific island nation of Palau.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Negotiator (Games People Play #2.5) by HelenKay Dimon

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Lauren Gallagher’s life changed almost three years ago. After her husband disappeared at sea, she was left with a failing pleasure boat company and more than a few secrets. Now, after years spent rebuilding the business and paying off the pile of debts, she finally feels in control. But when she finds her husband, actually dead, on the floor, she becomes the leading suspect in his murder investigation.

Garrett McGrath wants Lauren in his bed, not his heart. He doesn’t do emotions, but every time he sees her, holding himself back gets harder and harder. When Lauren comes under suspicion for killing her previously presumed-dead husband, he knows he has to help her, any way he can.

But as the danger becomes more intense and Garret and Lauren grow closer than either planned, they’re in danger of losing everything…including their hearts.

Rating: C+

In HelenKay Dimon’s Games People Play series, the heroes are all men who bonded in their youth when they were taken under the wing of someone named Quint, who saved them from the downward spirals they were in, helped all of them learn to utilise their unique skill-sets and set them on the straight and narrow.

Years later, the ‘Quint Five’ are all well-placed and powerful individuals who are often called upon by government departments and law enforcement to undertake missions and cases that they can’t touch.  In book one, The Fixer, we met Wren – an enigmatic man whose speciality is making problems go away – and his second-in-command, former Black Ops, professional negotiator, Garrett McGrath.

In The Enforcer (book two) Garrett was sent along to ride shotgun on the mission undertaken by Matthias Clarke, another of the five, whose private security firm is often used by Wren in the course of his business.  Garrett immediately captured my attention; his gregarious, wise-cracking ways were such a contrast to the gruff, taciturn Matthias (I do love a smart-mouthed charmer!) and so many tough-guy heroes are dark, brooding and almost miserable that it was a refreshing change to come across one who knew how to lighten up.   I’ve been looking forward to his book, but I confess that I’d hoped for a full-length novel rather than a novella.  I’m not the greatest fan of novellas anyway (few authors really know how to get them right) and Garrett is such a great character that he deserved more page time.

The Negotiator picks up a few months after the events of The Enforcer, which took place in the small, seafront town in Annapolis where Matthias was searching for a woman named Kayla Roy who was suspected of murder.   One of the secondary characters in the book was Kayla’s friend, Lauren Gallagher, who runs a pleasure boat and fishing tour business; and for the past few months, a rather smitten Garrett has travelled regularly to Annapolis to spend time with Lauren, who adamantly refuses to go on a date with him.  She tries to tell him it’s because she’s older than he is (by five years) or because she was a mess and … he could do better.  But Garrett is a shrewd man and knows there’s more to it than that – and he has his theories as to what that ‘more’ is.  Still, the one thing Lauren hasn’t said is that she’s not interested, so he continues to hope that she will eventually open up and let him in.

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

Cold Evidence (Evidence #6) by Rachel Grant (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicol Zanzarella

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The only thing Navy underwater archaeologist Undine Gray fears more than facing former SEAL Luke Sevick is never scuba diving again. But when a dive on a Cold War-era US Navy submarine ends with an accidental explosion, she’s terrified of going into the deep, forcing her to beg the most experienced diver she knows to take her back to the bottom of the cold Salish Sea.

Luke wants nothing to do with the woman who destroyed his career a dozen years ago but finds it impossible to turn his back on her plea. Caught off guard by an attraction he doesn’t want to feel, he’s eager to be done with this mission of mercy. But when they dive on the wreck, he only gets sucked in deeper. Someone has been digging on the Navy sub…and it appears the explosion that almost killed Undine was no accident.

To find the truth, Undine must navigate murky waters and the unexpectedly hot undercurrents swirling between her and Luke. Worse, divers are searching for something lost in US waters during the Cold War, and they’ll do anything to keep Luke and Undine from finding it first.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

Cold Evidence is number six in Rachel Grant’s seven-book (so far) Evidence series of romantic suspense novels. I’ve yet to read or listen to every instalment, but those I’ve got to so far have proved to be immensely enjoyable, complex and action-packed stories featuring hot-as-hell heroes and feisty (in a good way) heroines who don’t take any crap. The romances are nicely steamy and well integrated into the main storylines, and for me, the balance between romance and suspense is just about perfect. Cold Evidence does feature some recurring characters but like all the books in the series, it can be enjoyed as a standalone – although there is a bit of a cliff-hanger at the end which leads into the next book, Poison Evidence. Don’t worry though, it’s more by way of a teaser; the suspense storyline and HEA are happily resolved, so you can safely listen to this without fear of frustration!

Underwater archaeologist Undine Gray is working on a project to salvage the USS Wrasse, an old US submarine that sank off the coast of Seattle during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, taking a number of its former crewmembers with it; men who had served aboard her in World War Two and who had volunteered to take her to her final resting place, not knowing it would become theirs, too.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Catalyst (Flashpoint #2) by Rachel Grant

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a food storage depot in famine-struck South Sudan is torched, American aid worker Brie Stewart flees, only to land in a market where she’s the next item up for auction. Is the attack on the aid facility another assault upon the war-torn fledgling democracy, or has her family set her up as a pawn in their quest for oil rights?

Chief Warrant Officer Sebastian Ford crossed paths with Brie years ago when she was a shill for her family’s company, pushing a pipeline that threatened his tribe’s land. Determined to lead the rescue operation to save her, he won’t let her abduction—or the attraction that flares between them—get in the way of settling their unfinished business.

The Green Beret’s skills are put to the test in the flooded grasslands of South Sudan, where they must battle nature and dangerous factions who are after more than oil. Bastian and Brie put their hearts on the line as they find themselves embroiled in a conflict that extends beyond country and continent. Together they must douse the spark before it reaches the flashpoint and engulfs everything they hold dear.

Rating: B+

I’ve become a huge fan of Rachel Grant’s particular blend of complex, steamy and intricately plotted romantic suspense novels over the past year or so, and have been eagerly awaiting the release of Catalyst, the second book in her Flashpoint series. Like the previous book, Tinderbox, Catalyst is set in a real-life flashpoint, this time in South Sudan, a young nation embroiled in an ongoing civil war, and features characters based at the (fictional) US military outpost of Camp Citron in Djibouti. There are some things in this book that may be difficult to read about – in particular the buying and selling of women and children – and the way that the plight of so many people in desperate need is thrust aside in favour of big business and political expediency made my blood boil on more than one occasion. Ms. Grant tells a gripping, well-paced and impeccably researched story that pulled me in from the start and kept me transfixed until the nail-biting conclusion.

Chief Warrant Officer Sebastian Ford is surprised to recognise a familiar face one night in the bar at the camp – Gabriella Prime, the daughter of Jeffrey Prime Sr., owner of one of the world’s largest energy corporations. The last time Bastian saw her, she was in full ball-buster ‘Princess Prime’ mode – designer clothes, killer heels, full make-up – in her role as Prime Energy’s PR executive, defending the company’s plan to screw over the native American tribes of East Washington by building an oil pipeline that would ignore even the most basic environmental rules. The woman in front of him now, a decade later, is different, though. The outward trappings of the corporate shill and billionaire boss’s daughter are gone; over the last decade, Gabriella Prime has cleaned up, grown a conscience and left her old life behind her. She deliberately sabotaged PE’s plans for the Northwest oil pipeline, cut all ties with her father and brothers, legally changed her last name to Stewart (her mother’s name) and for the past five years has lived and worked under the radar for USAID in South Sudan. Bastian is rather stunned to discover that Brie Stewart is an aid-worker who lives from pay-day to pay-day like everyone else – and maybe a little suspicious that such a ruthless leopard could have changed its spots, but he has to admit to a reluctant admiration for the guts it must have taken to thwart her father’s plans and then to re-invent herself. But that doesn’t tell him what he really wants to know – which is what she’s doing in Djibouti hanging out with the camp ‘spook’, the enigmatic CIA operative, Savannah James.

One month later, the aid station Brie works at is attacked and she and her three co-workers are forced to flee for their lives. Brie manages to evade capture for a couple of days, but her luck runs out and she is taken to the very slave market she had been summoned to Camp Citron to talk to Savannah James about.

Bastian and his team are authorised to get Brie out – but when they discover that the slave market also houses a large number of children, none of the team can bear to leave the kids there and make impromptu plans to get them out as well.  Unfortunately, things go awry, and Brie and Bastian are stranded when their vehicle and equipment fall victim to roads made impassable by the heavy rains. They hole up at an abandoned village while Bastian works on a way to get them out of there, knowing they likely haven’t got long before the Sudanese soldiers who originally captured Brie find them.  During the few days they spend alone together, the attraction that had sparked between Bastian and Brie back at the camp builds to inferno levels and becomes increasingly difficult for them both to resist – although resist they must.  And do.  With difficulty. While they await rescue, they try to work out why Brie’s camp was targeted – was it a random attack? Had her family somehow found her and orchestrated the attack to get her back?  Or is something even more sinister going on that neither of them can yet comprehend?

The kidnap and rescue is only the beginning of what is a superbly conceived and plotted story that pitches Bastian and Brie into the sights of a Sudanese warlord with links to the Russian mafia, and a dangerous former associate of Brie’s father who is obsessed with her almost to the point of madness.  The vile plan this person hatches is so utterly despicable that it fairly took my breath away; and although he is perhaps a little over the top, his scheme is, sadly all too plausible.

Once again, Ms. Grant achieves just about the perfect balance between the disparate elements of this romantic thriller. She obviously knows her stuff when it comes to the geo-political background of the region in which the book is set, and the way she utilises that knowledge and interweaves it throughout the story to forge a cohesive, compelling tale of corporate greed, military ambition and terrifying obsession is quite masterful.  Her central characters are just as multifaceted as her story and the romance that develops between them simply drips with sexual tension from the moment the pair of them face off at the bar in Camp Citron. Brie and Bastian have more than their share of baggage and neither of them has had any desire for much more than hook-ups and casual sex in the past, but as the attraction that burns between them gradually starts to encompass admiration and respect, it becomes clear that this relationship is unlike any they’ve had before.   I admit to finding Brie’s tendency to beat herself up over her past choices a little irritating, although she does have an inner mental strength that is admirable and I liked how she was able to find something positive to focus on once the revelation over her identity meant she was no longer able to work for USAID.

Although some characters from Tinderbox make an appearance here – most notably Pax, Cal and Savanna James – the book works perfectly well as a standalone, and fans of Ms. Grant’s Evidence series might also recognise a certain enigmatic Russian spy who pops up to lend a (very dangerous!) hand.  A great combination of action-packed, intelligently-written, edge-of-the-seat thriller and sexy romance, Catalyst is an engrossing read and earns a strong recommendation.

Tequila Sunrise (Agents Irish and Whiskey #3.5) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Former FBI agent Melissa “Mel” Cruz spent years skirting the line between life and death, knowing the next assignment might be her last. Back from overseas and eager to enjoy life outside the Bureau, she’s ready to give Danny Talley a Christmas Eve he’ll never forget.

A proven asset in high-stakes missions, Danny’s known for having the skill and brains to get the job done. When the Talley flagship is hijacked during the company holiday party, he’ll do anything to save his family, his love and everything they’ve all worked so hard to build. But their enemies have a secondary protocol—leave no survivors—and that plan is already in play.

Navigating through a tangled web of lies and betrayal, Mel and Danny race against the clock to retake the ship before their future goes up in flames. As the seconds tick down, they’re forced to face their greatest fear—losing each other.

Rating: B-

Tequila Sunrise is the final book in Layla Reyne’s fabulous Agents Irish and Whiskey series, and takes place a few months after the events of Barrel Proof. It’s also a neat bridge between this series and her next romantic suspense project which is going to feature Nic Price and Cam Byrne, who both appeared as important secondary characters in the earlier novels, and who both have key roles to play in this story. Tequila Sunrise is a quick, action-packed read in which Melissa Cruz, our favourite, kick-ass, ball-busting (ex)FBI agent, gets to shine in all her Ramboesque glory. Or maybe I should call her Jane McClane… *wink*

Not long after recovering from near fatal injuries inflicted by an explosion at the end of Barrel Proof, Special Agent in Charge Melissa Cruz of the San Francisco FBI decided to make a career change, and is now dividing her time between private investigative work (as a bounty-hunter of sorts) and head of security for Talley Enterprises, the shipping company run by her lover, Daniel Talley. Danny is the younger brother of Aidan (Irish) and has a reputation as a bit of a lothario; he and Mel began a relationship which ran in the background of the trilogy and by the end of the final book, they are well-and-truly an item.

The story opens on Christmas Eve as Mel is coming home from a job, wanting nothing more than to get back to Danny and for them to spend some time together. When she is held up the airport, and then finds out that Aidan, who is also on his way back to San Francisco, has been delayed, her instincts tell her something isn’t right.

The Talley family is hosting a massive holiday party that evening, to celebrate Christmas, John Talley’s upcoming retirement and the commissioning of Talley Enterprises’ newest ship, the Ellen, named after the Talley matriarch, Aidan and Danny’s mother. All the Talley ships are named for the Talley women and this, the final ship built by John Talley before he hands the company over to Danny, is the finest ship in their fleet and the envy of their competitors. With a large gathering of employees, family, investors and media on board, it’s an extremely high-profile event – and when Danny learns of the simultaneous delays that have affected both Mel and Aidan, he can’t help but be concerned.

Danny can’t wait to see Mel again; they’ve spent almost as much time apart as they have spent it together during the course of their relationship and both of them are eager to do something about that.  At Danny’s side and just as eager to be reunited with the love of his life is Aidan’s fiancé, former FBI agent Jameson Walker, who has been eagerly embraced by the large Talley clan and whom Danny already thinks of as a brother.

Mel and Aidan are finally able to make their separate ways to the party, but before they can get on board, the Ellen is hi-jacked by a team of mercenaries.  With the ship locked down and the family and guests held hostage, it’s up to Jamie and Danny to save the day, or at least buy everyone some time while a rescue can be effected.  Danny may be a civilian, but he knows how to think on his feet and he’s proved his mettle by helping Aidan and Jamie in the past. Mel is on the outside, but she sure as hell isn’t going to sit and wait while the man she loves is in danger; with an arsenal worthy of Rambo and a sense of irony to rival Bruce Willis in a dirty vest, Mel sneaks aboard to lend much more than a hand in taking down the bad guys.

It’s true that the plot owes more than a little to Die Hard, but I love that movie, so I didn’t care.  The action does, perhaps move a little too quickly at times, but Ms. Reyne also allows for slower moments of introspection, especially in the short flashbacks to Danny’s childhood with his brothers, Mel’s with Gabe and to various stages in Danny’s  relationship with Mel.  The little insights to his early family life are really poignant, and when it comes to Mel and Danny, I liked reading about these two people with demanding, high-powered jobs realising that they want more from life and deciding to do whatever it takes to make it work between them.  I also appreciated that Mel, at forty-five, is an older heroine with a great sense of self, and no qualms about the fact that the love of her life is thirteen years her junior. Go, Mel!

On the downside, however, there is a slightly frenetic feel to the whole thing, and while I did enjoy the flashbacks, I can’t deny that they give the novella a slightly disjointed feel overall.  And as happened in the novels, Jamie’s Mad Hacking Skillz are something of a deus ex machina at times; it’s likely I wouldn’t have understood what he was doing had Ms. Reyne elaborated, but even so, there’s a sense that they’re something of a get out of jail free card when there’s no other way out of a given situation.

I enjoyed meeting all the characters again, and seeing how things are working out for them a few months on.  There’s a schmaltzy family Christmas scene at the end that somehow made me want to go ‘aww’ rather than lapse into a sugar-induced coma, and the glimpses we’re given of Cam and Nic’s seemingly combative relationship has well and truly whetted my appetite for the stories to come.  Tequila Sunrise is a high-stakes, fast-paced and nicely steamy read that provides a great coda to the Agents Irish and Whiskey series.