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.

review: caged

Caged by Lorelei James (2015)

Although Caged is the fourth book in Lorelei James’ Mastered series, it can absolutely stand alone.  The story focuses upon two characters that were peripheral in the first book in the series.  Molly Calloway is the female protagonist, and if you’re new to the series what you need to know about her is that she was mugged, and afterwards she enrolled in a self-defense class taught at Black Arts dojo.  Deacon McConnell, the male protagonist, is an instructor at Black Arts but he also is a fighter in the dojo’s MMA training program. This is a romance, so the summary of the novel is exactly what you’d expect–they meet, they breakup, they makeup and live happily ever after.

I’m still pondering the rise of the MMA fighter as a trendy male character in romance novels, but it works in this book; in fact, perhaps it is this very aspect of Deacon’s character that is critical to his development because in many ways this particular career choice marginalizes him.  The shaved head, the tattoos, and the aggression of the sport further push him to the fringes. It also gives James the opportunity to breakdown a stereotype (even if she does so in a conventional way).  His relationship with Molly gives him a connection to another person, and because of it the friendships he’s made with the instructors at Black Arts appear to deepen. By the end of the story, he’s also able to reconcile some of his family issues.  The loner is no longer a loner or a social outcast.  He is no longer the man apart or the man alone. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Molly, a woman who has been touched by violence and struggles to find a way to make herself feel safe and learn how to protect herself. The thing I like the most about the way James characterizes Molly is that the self-defense and kickboxing classes she has been taking grew out of a need to know that she could take care of herself, and in the process she’s not only found the physical strength she needs to do that but she’s also discovered her own inner strength that she draws upon repeatedly throughout the story, from dealing with her bully cousins to handling her relationship with Deacon.  The thing that Molly struggles with throughout the story–and is also the thing she must overcome in order to achieve growth as a character–is her unreasonable expectations for how the man she loves shares his secrets and his past.  That is to say, she must learn that emotional intimacy is not easy nor does everyone share as easily or willingly as others.  Maybe what it boils down to is a lesson in patience, and for Molly it’s a hard lesson to learn where Deacon is concerned.

I read a lot of romance novels, and this means that there are a lot of bad romance novels on my digital bookshelf.  Gratefully, Caged doesn’t fall into that category.  In case you missed it, I like my genre fiction (romance, paranormal, urban fantasy, suspense) to be edgy in some kind of way, I like my characters to be relatable, believable, and either likable or brilliant in the way they make me dislike them. I want the story to make me think about my own life in some way or another. I want it to be difficult for me to put the book down. I want the ending to be satisfying.  Caged hits these marks for me.  I could absolutely relate to the way that Deacon isn’t nearly as open or forthcoming with the details of his past as Molly wants him to be.  I get the way he has trouble communicating and isn’t big on talking about stuff.  The way that he struggles to share his thoughts and emotions and build an emotional bond with Molly is something that is familiar to me, and the way Molly’s inner strength and self-reliance has evolved since book one in this series is something else that resonates with me.

This is all to say I would recommend this book. I’m relatively new to Lorelei James’ work, but having read a couple of books by her now, I definitely won’t hesitate to read more.  I like her style of writing, and I so much appreciate the way she tells the story in third-person from Molly’s and Deacon’s points-of-view and doesn’t stray to other points-of-view. This keeps the novel focused and the story moving. It also induces me to become invested in the main characters and remain invested in them as the story unfolds. The more book reviews I write, the more I realize how much the narrative style affects how much I enjoy the novel. If you’re looking for your next read, pick this one up or Bound if you want to start with the first book in the series.