review: close contact

Close Contact by Lori Foster (2017)

When it comes to romance novels, I like mine sexy hot and with a heavy dollop of suspense. It’s no surprise, then, that I settled on Close Contact by Lori Foster while searching for my next read. I’ve read Foster’s work before, but it’s been awhile. Still, I thought I knew what I’d be getting with one of her books—steamy romance, independent female protagonist and a male protagonist with a protector streak two miles wide. Close Contact is the third book in Foster’s Body Armor series, featuring MMA fighters-turned-bodyguards. In the genre of romantic suspense, how could this go wrong, right?

This is the story of Maxi Nevar and Miles Dartman. I’m not a proponent of spoilers, so I’ll just say here that one night, something scary happens to Maxi, who is currently living on a 25-acre farm left to her by her late grandmother. Not sure what to do, she reaches out to her former lover, Miles for help. Miles has recently retired from his career as an MMA fighter (for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery for some time, and when the reveal does happen, it’s a bit disappointing in the sense that Foster could have done so much more with it) and now works for Sahara Silver, owner of Body Armor Security. After a somewhat tense reunion, Miles agrees to play bodyguard, and the pair return to Maxi’s farmhouse. Once there we learn that there are various potential suspects—Maxi’s ex-fiance, Gary, her brother and her sister who want her to sell the farm, and a township cop who seems more than a little shady. Aside from the general threat whose source remains elusive, the farmhouse and barn need lots of repairs, and Miles and his friends offer to do the work while also trying to pinpoint the source of the threat against Maxi. Continue reading

review: just one touch

Just One Touch by Maya Banks (2017)

For the part of me that is a writer, it is a challenging task to write this book review.  I find myself wanting to temper my comments and yet I know that I just need to come right out and say what I’m really thinking.  What I’m really thinking is that this book isn’t any good.  I have read and liked other books by Maya Banks in the past, but this one definitely is not like the others, and in this case that’s a bad thing.  The only reason that I got to the end of the book was because, well, I forced myself to keep reading.  Not because I thought it would get better (I didn’t and it didn’t) and not because I have some sort of personal rule about finishing every book I begin (I don’t and have given up on countless books).  The idea of the story had potential, but it was wasted time and time again.  I’m putting this book into my newly minted “Don’t Bother” category of books, and here’s why.

In theory, Just One Touch should be able to stand alone.  It is the fifth book in Banks’ Slow Burn series; however, the series isn’t serial in nature in that the events of one book are a continuation of or dependent upon the events that took place in the book or books that came before it.  The books are set in the same world and you will see characters from previous books make appearances; however, these do not have to be read in order, so you can jump in at any point or pick and choose to read the stories that appeal to you.  One of the problems with the book is that even as it tries (and fails) to stand alone, it reveals a lot of the details of other books in the series to the point that if you hadn’t read the others, you’d already have them spoiled for you.  In addition, if you haven’t read the previous books in the series, you will be confused by some of the actions of the supporting characters.  What’s more, you’ll be called upon to care about the fate of those characters in this book, to be empathetic and sympathetic toward them, but if you haven’t read each of their stories, that aspect of the story will be lost to you and only further decrease the odds that you’ll enjoy the book.  In my opinion, if you’re going to write a series you have to either (1) have each book be a link in a sequential chain, where you must read them in order, or (2) have the books exist within the same world and with recurring characters but each book can and does stand on its own.  For this reader, Just One Touch misses the mark.

The characters, as well as the development of those characters, also fails to deliver.  There’s no real depth to either the male protagonist or female protagonist.  Instead, Isaac and Jenna are both cardboard, two-dimensional stick figures who do what they’re supposed to do but are in no way engaging or interesting.  Both characters’ pasts are shrouded in mystery.  At least, I think that’s the intent.  I’m not spoiling anything by saying that at the beginning of the story, Jenna has escaped from a cult.  Though the question of how she came to be a member of the cult is answered in the faintest of terms by the end of the story, the answer itself is rendered meaningless because I don’t ever get to the point where I really care.  Likewise, Isaac’s history is also shrouded in secrecy, and though the intent is to show that whatever is in his past haunts him to the point that he needs a kind of spiritual healing, it’s never specifically spelled out what, exactly, haunts him.  I didn’t ever really know who the main characters were, and I was never invested in them.  There were moments when Jenna in particular is supposed to be read as strong, selfless, and courageous.  Honestly, I kept thinking “Is this really the choice you’re going to make? Seriously?”.  She’s not believable as a character.  None of the character development worked for me.

Oh, and this is a romance, right?  Not only was I not invested in Isaac and Jenna as separate characters, I wasn’t invested in their love story either.  There was never any chemistry between them, no tension, nothing to make it hard for me to look away and put the book down.

There’s also the dimension of suspense, right? The villain of the story (and yes, in my mind villain is the accurate term to use here instead of antagonist because the character isn’t nearly complex enough to earn that descriptor) is yet another cardboard figure.  Apparently, nothing more than evil and a quest for immortality drive his actions.  Throughout the story, his machinations are nothing more than plot devices.  The crisis/all is lost moment in the story is quite predictable and the showdown is anticlimactic at best.

Then there’s the epilogue.  Don’t read it.  Trust me, just skip it altogether.  If I hadn’t been reading on my e-reader I would have thrown the book against the wall.  As it is, I’m rolling my eyes and shuddering just thinking about it.

It’s rare that I give a book a one-star rating.  I know from experience how hard it is to write a story from start to finish, and consequently, I typically choose not to review books if I think I’m going to struggle to find good things to say about it. I’m changing my mentality (or trying to change it) on that because I think if you’re a writer, you can learn from books that are not executed or written well. That’s what Just One Touch is for me.  A lesson on what not to do in my own writing.

review: hard to let go

Hard to Let Go by Laura Kaye (2015)

And then we came to the end. Hard to Let Go is the final (full-length) installment in Laura Kaye’s Hard Ink series, which follows a group of five men who were discharged from Army Special Forces in disgrace and are trying to unravel the truth behind the event that ended their military careers. If you haven’t read all of the books before this one, then here’s your spoiler alert warning. Stop reading because there are spoilers dead ahead. If you’re interested in checking out the series, I do recommend the first book, Hard As It Gets.

Is it part of a series?
Yes. This is book six in the Hard Ink series and I would advise reading them in order. Hard to Let Go wraps up the larger mystery threaded through the series and ties off all the loose ends.

What is it about?
If you look at the book in terms of its placement in a series, then you can guess that Hard to Let Go is the climax of the series as a whole. The book begins where the previous book in the series, Hard to Be Good, leaves off. There’s been an attack on Hard Ink and in terms of the series’ story structure, the team’s investigation into the events surrounding their discharge from the military and the coverup of what actually happened has reached its moment of crisis. The attack brought death and loss straight to the team’s door, and the beginning of Hard to Let Go is basically the aftermath. The team is reeling but still intent upon pursuing their investigation to the end, particularly in light of all of the sacrifices they’ve made up to this point. In this book, Kaye gives us the revelation of the mastermind as well as answers the questions of what the initials GW and WCE mean, sets up the final confrontation and showdown between the team and the villain, and delivers closure and realization for the team. Oh, and of course there’s the romance plot between Beckett and Kat.

Tell me more about the main characters.
Beckett Murda is the fifth and final member of the team to find love. For most of the series, Beckett has been the one on the fringes of the group. He feels guilty and responsible for the injury his best friend, Derek “Marz” DiMarzio (whose story is told in Hard to Come By) suffered during the firefight that ended their military careers. He is also struggling with his past, which has led him to be emotionally numb and caused him to believe that he doesn’t deserve love and that no one wants him in their lives, as either friend or family. Katherine “Kat” Rixey is Nick Rixey’s sister (whose story is told in the first book, Hard As It Gets). She’s come to Baltimore to visit her brother and also put distance between her and a threatening ex-boyfriend. Kat is an attorney at the Department of Justice, and she reveals that her office has been investigating some of the same people that the team has identified as being part of the plot to discredit them. She agrees to provide the team with documents that could be helpful to them, risking her career in the process. Although Beckett and Kat’s relationship begins with the familiar “I can’t stand you” trope, they work well together as the leads of the story. Both of them are likable characters, and if you’ve been invested in Beckett’s character throughout the series and waiting for his story, you won’t be disappointed. Another highlight of Kat’s introduction into the story is that there is additional emphasis on the aspect of family. Nick, Jeremy, and Kat are their only family unit, as are Becca and Charlie, but Kat’s inclusion into the story reinforces a running thread throughout the series, which is the idea that family isn’t just about blood relations. Sometimes family ties are forged in blood. With Kat’s appearance, there’s also the sense that the Rixey family has once again been made whole, and that the ties between brothers and sister are stronger than ever. Indeed, the same can be said of Becca and Charlie in light of the revelations of their father’s actions before his death.

What is the narrative style?
Like many romance novels, the narrative is told in third person point-of-view, alternating between Beckett and Kat’s POV. The narrative style works and I liked being able to see the story, at last, from Beckett’s point of view.

Should I invest my time?
If you’ve come this far into the series, then yes, you should definitely read this book. Again, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in how the overarching story ends or in the romance plot between Beckett and Kat. I actually gave this book five stars when rating it, which isn’t something I do often. In my opinion, the book earned that rating from me because it not only rewarded my investment in the series as a whole, but it also drew me into Beckett and Kat as characters and convinced me to become invested in their story. I see this series as falling into the subgenre of romantic suspense, and since that is what I write myself, I appreciated the way this story (and the series as a whole) was structured and how the romance plot and suspense plot were intertwined. Though I am sad to see this series come to a conclusion (yes, there’s one more novella after this one that I’m guessing is actually an epilogue to the series as whole), I was more than satisfied by the conclusion. I’m also comforted by the fact that there is Kaye’s new series, Raven Riders, to look forward to. The Hard Ink series is definitely one that I recommend to anyone who likes their romance and suspense to walk hand in hand.

review: hard to come by

Hard to Come By by Laura Kaye (2014)

Hard to Come By is the fourth installment in Laura Kaye’s Hard Ink series.  These books should be read in order but I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum.

This book picks up what feels like only hours after the conclusion of Hard to Hold on To, the third book in the series.  This one tells Derek “Marz” DiMarzio’s story, and though he is as intense as the other men in his team, he is also lighter and a bit more fun (he sings aloud and apparently does so terribly).  Marz is the computer genius of the team of former Special Forces men.  In this book, he has two primary goals to achieve: one, unlock the microchip drive that they discovered in the previous book and two, get close to Emilie Garza with the hope that she will in turn provide the team with the intel they need to find and capture Manny Garza, a man they suspect is working with Seneka Worldwide Security, a defense contractor that is well-known for its allegations of corruption, and is also somehow connected to the Church gang–the team’s primary adversary thus far as they try to unravel the secrets and lies that led to their team being ambushed in Afghanistan, seven of their brothers-in-arms being killed, and their less than honorable discharge from the service and their honor and reputations ruined.  One of the main characteristics of Marz that also drives a lot of who he is as a character when we first meet him and his development as the story progresses is that during the ambush he suffered a leg injury that led to his leg being amputated just beneath his knee.  Marz, Nick (their team’s leader) and Beckett (Marz’s best friend and fellow team member) all came back with varying levels of scars that are visible on the outside, and how he deals with the loss of part of his leg is inspiring and humanizes him as a character.  He is definitely a good guy, but that comes into conflict with the fact that for the first third of the book, the relationship he’s building with the Emilie is built on lies.

Emilie, on the other hand, wears her battle scars on the inside.  She is recently divorced from a man who shook her ability to trust, and she’s been dealing with her brother’s increasing erratic behavior.  Emilie is a trained clinical psychologist and believes that Manny is struggling with a form of PTSD, and she has been contemplating taking steps to have him involuntarily committed for a psychiatric evaluation because he refuses to seek help or even talk about what’s going on with him.  She isn’t the strongest female character you’ll find in a romance, but she’s also not portrayed as being weak and docile.  I liked her character, and her story arc is also one of healing in terms of learning how to trust again.  I would also say that part of her character development is coming to terms with the consequences of making an impossible choice that, even if it’s the right choice, it’s still not easy to live with.  If you have read the first books in this series, I think you’ll find that Emilie is a lot more like Becca (as opposed to Crystal/Sara or Jenna) and what you have in the romance plot between her and Marz is that two nice people end up falling in love with each other.

Yes, the books are romances, but there is a heavy element of suspense/action to the series as well.  In a way, the main thread that has carried through the series as a whole thus far is that at it’s heart, it’s a quest story.  This team of disgraced soldiers are looking for truth and redemption, and they are only going to be able to get it if they can find out exactly what happened in Afghanistan, why the military covered it up and hung the whole thing around their necks, and who is pulling the strings.  Hard to Come By takes another step in the quest by unlocking the microchip, which leads to a revelation that changes everything.  It also brings the threat of the Church gang to a conclusion, much in the same way a hardboiled detective novel resolves the mystery that you see on the surface but in doing so only leaves you with more question and a far more complex mystery to unravel.  Also, the mystery of the bracelet that the team’s former commander, Merritt, sent to his daughter, Becca is solved.  This is all to say that some questions and puzzles that have lingered since the first novel get paid off in the fourth book, but at the same time, the quest is not over.  I hope that what will follow in the last two books is a showdown that is both surprising but also brings closure and success to the team of men Kaye has convinced us to become invested in and care about.  Indeed, when the first book begins, the team–Nick, Shane, Easy, Marz, and Beckett–don’t look anything like a close-knit group and the bonds that had held them together as brothers-in-arms were in shambles.  As the series has progressed, those bonds are being rebuilt–and this book features the rebuilding of the friendship between Beckett and Marz, which has been strained since their return from Afghanistan–and on top of that, their family is growing.  Becca, Sara, Jenna and now Emilie are part of the family, Jeremy (Nick’s brother) has had his relationship with Nick strengthened, and Charlie, Becca’s brother, has also been brought into the family bosom.  There is a definite sense that until they met each other and came together to fight for a common goal, they were all adrift and isolated.  There’s even a moment in the book that alludes to this very idea.  Now, though, they have each other, and all that’s left is to finish what they’ve begun.

One more thing. Each of these books takes place over the span of a week at most, and that works in this series because it gives a sense of immediacy and urgency, but it also gives each book a sense of purpose.  Each book lays out a challenge, and like I said, each challenge brings them closer to their goal.  The fact that these stories don’t take place over a longer period of time for me makes them more believable, because no way could this kind of intensity be sustained over a period of several months.

I really do like these books and recommend them to readers who enjoy romantic suspense.  There’s a nice balance between the romance plot and the suspense plot, and the books themselves are well-written.   If you want to give the series a try, start with the first book, Hard As It Gets.

 

Special Note: The Raven Riders series by Laura Kaye is an offshoot of the Hard Ink series.  I happened to have read Ride Hard before reading Hard to Come By, and it is in the latter that Kaye introduces the characters of Haven and Cora.  They are only in the book for a minute and it’s not necessary to read this series first; however, I will say that if you like the Hard Ink series and are interested in the Raven Riders series, finish this series first and then start with Ride Hard.  I wish I had.