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For Her Eyes Only by Shannon Curtis

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: McCormack Security Agency, Book 3
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 273 Pages
Formats: Kindle
Disclosure: An ARC of this book was provided to me by Carina Press via NetGalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.



Uneven Tone Hurts the Read

When the father of a good friend is murdered and her friend is viciously attacked, MSA operations manager Vicky Hastings is determined to have her first field assignment be the undercover investigation that will identify and catch the perpetrators. There's just one small problem. Her partner for the mission is Ryan Brennan.

Okay...the MSA agent and undercover specialist is not a small problem. Sinfully sexy problem, yes. Small, no. Unfortunately, the gorgeous but frustrating man sees her only as a friend and is completely dismissive of her talents and her contributions to the agency. He's none too thrilled with the idea of being her partner on this assignment, either.

Well he'll just have to suck it up and deal with it, because Vicky is determined to catch the killers and gain Ryan's respect as a valued member of the MSA team. She just hopes she doesn't die trying.

~*~

There were things I liked about this third installment of Curtis' McCormack Security Agency series. Despite a limited amount of exposition to set this book into the series and a perplexing setup for the plot conflict (why was a security agency doing what police are supposed to do?), the story starts with a vicious killing that sets the sort of dark, edgy tone that I like in romantic suspense, and there's no doubt that the killers are Bad Guys riding the Crazy Train. That worked for me, as did several crafty, well-conceived and executed plot points in the suspense thread. Overall, I was surprised and pleased by the big picture of the conflict when it's finally revealed late in the book as it reaches its climax.

There were also elements of the romance that amused and charmed, and the cute, sometimes goofy, sexy heat between Vicky and Ryan made up for some of the less favorable points in their relationship. Despite a hearty dose of emotional immaturity on both their parts, and the confusing, difficult-to-believe premise of friendship between them (I never bought that setup, no matter what they said), they sort of worked for me as a romantic couple.

Unfortunately, the lighter tone of their relationship was at such odds with the severity of the opening sequences and the seriousness of the suspense, that I found the two elements jarring when taken together in context. Instead of blending and weaving together cohesively, the suspense threads and the romance threads never came together for me and ended up feeling very disparate throughout the book.

And I'm sorry, but I have to vent. When you and your partner have just found a viciously assaulted young woman bleeding out and dangerously near death, then you have to toss the dying woman over your shoulder to race away from the scene before the bomb that was planted kills you all, the very last thing on your mind should be the fine bum of your friend/partner.

I think Ryan having to tell himself not to stare at Vic's ass mere moments after bearing witness to horrific brutality and nearly getting blown to bits was supposed to be cute, but to me, it was so completely inappropriate in the moment that it didn't give me much of a first impression of Ryan's character.

That situation wasn't helped by the borderline incompetence and lack of professionalism evidenced by Vicky and Ryan once they were undercover. The whole premise of them going undercover as a married couple was a pretty heavy-handed and overused romantic suspense trope to begin with. And once they've inserted into the scenario, they spent so much time bickering at each other and flagrantly one-upping each other with ridiculous cover story that the investigation got lost in the shuffle.

I was also a little unhappy with Vicky's naiveté, nerves, and discomfort with Ryan's proximity once they were under. For someone who fought so hard to get where she was, claiming over and over that she was ready and more than able to do the job, desperate to prove herself, she came off as a complete powder puff at crunch time, or worse, a very disappointing gender stereotype.

Truth is, though, for me it was really all about the tone. Because of how the story started, the lighter elements weren't as successful for me as they could have been. On their own and in a different setting, I could really have enjoyed the romance arc and would have had more patience for the characters and their quirks.

Had the lighter romance been more in line with the darker suspense threads, this could have been a very solid read for me. As it is, the disparate pieces just didn't quite fit right. There were good points for sure, just not enough of them to elevate the story as a whole.

Never Surrender by Susan Vaughan

Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Task Force Eagle, Book 1
Rating: 2 Stars
Length: 188 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided to me by the author for review. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.





Struggled with the Romance

There is nothing Juliana Paris wouldn't do to protect her younger brother, even if it means withholding information from the sexiest man she's ever seen, DEA Agent Ricardo Cruz. Juliana doesn't trust cops and the DEA is just another type of cop agency as far as she's concerned. If her brother is in trouble, and it looks like he definitely is, Juliana will find him and she'll keep him safe. Keep him free. Fix whatever it is he's done wrong this time.

Except this time, Juliana discovers, there are worse things than sexy DEA agents looking to imprison her brother on drug trafficking charges. There is a vicious drug cartel who think she's got something that would incriminate them, and they're coming for her hard. With her brother on the run and Agent Rick Cruz breathing down her neck, Juliana may need to rethink a few of her trust issues. Her life - and the life of her brother - may depend on it.

~*~

This book started out okay for me. It didn't break any new ground in the genre, the story as a whole is a bit too generic and lacking in complexity and the suspense plotline is a bit too predictable, but both Juliana and Rick had moments when they really shone as characters, and I enjoyed their contentious interplay in the first half of the book. They made that part of the ride worth the trip.

I liked the solid foundation of personal history that shaped each of them as characters. Rick's loss of his brother was the source of his zeal to stop the cartel and take down its evil leader and Juliana's overprotective fervor for her brother and the desperation that drives most of her actions was born out of her own childhood traumas. Those were nice, organic touches that helped define the characters and added a layer of believability.

That didn't necessarily make them consistently appealing, though. Rick was a bit of a dog, actually. He's a good looking guy who appreciates all women...especially the ones he can charm into bed. And he's very charming. Just ask him. I liked him most of the time, but have to admit, there were times when he came off rather shallow and manipulative with that charm of his.

Juliana frustrated me. I can't say I disliked her, exactly, but she seemed to have a stubborn resistance to anything resembling sense in the first half of the book and it made her seem very immature. I understood, even sympathized at times with her desire to keep her brother safe, but I can't say she went about it in the best ways.  Unfortunately, my biggest problem with her - and the book - came at just past the halfway mark, when out of nowhere she suddenly realizes she's in love with Rick - the same guy she's been openly distrustful of and withholding evidence from at every turn up to that point...and beyond.

I'm all for a healthy bit of lusty good times, but her love for him at that point in the story was way too abrupt and lacking in necessary foundation for my taste. In fact, I think I got a little whiplash from the shocking about-face.

Still, I think I could have accepted that shocker and still mostly enjoyed the second half of the book if the romance had been handled better from that point. Unfortunately, the chemistry between Juliana and Rick worked better for me before they got together than it ever did after. The relationship-centric scenes suffered from stilted, awkward dialogue that made me cringe in places and what little sexuality was included stayed closer to tepid, child-friendly levels of description. For fans of the more circumspect sex scene this might be a big plus for the book, but that's not where my preferences lie.

Too many other things went wrong for me from there, too. The brother Juliana is trying to protect comes off as selfish and a bit stupid, the thugs causing most of the trouble never really seemed all that threatening to me, and the plot threads surrounding the leak in the DEA office and the identity of the cartel's American partner were so anemic they offered nothing of substance to the plot. Between that and Rick's team, who lacked the definition necessary to give them any impact on the story at all, far too many of the golden opportunities to broaden the scope of the story or better layer the plot went unexplored and unrealized.

Had the romance not put such a damper on the read for me, maybe I would have been more forgiving of the limited suspense plot. This isn't a long book, so I'm less of a stickler in that regard. I may not have loved it, but I wouldn't have ended up as dissatisfied as I was. Unfortunately, too much of my overall impression of the story is hampered by what was, to me, a sometimes painful and odd romance arc. There were good points to both the characters and the story in this book, but the bad outweighed them for me this time.

Darkest Flame by Donna Grant

Genre: Paranormal Romance
Series: Dark Kings, Book 1
Rating: 3 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Paperback, Kindle
Series Parts: Darkest Flame: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
Note: Though I read this book in its series parts (1-4), I couldn't figure out a way to review those parts individually without making myself nuts, so this review is for the book as a whole.
Disclosure: An ARC of parts 1-3 of this book were provided to me by St. Martin's Press via Netgalley. This rating, review, and all included thoughts and comments are my own.




More Flash than Substance

When MI5 agent Denae Lecroix was sent on a mission to infiltrate Draegan Industries, she knew something was off with the assignment. She just didn't know how off it was until her partner turned on her and tried to kill her after they'd pushed deep into Draegan's land. That betrayal cut almost as deeply as the knife wound she took before she...ended the partnership.

Waking up from a sleep that spanned over a thousand years to find two humans battling to the death in his cave, Dragon King Kellan was so surprised by their trespass that he was able to curb the instinct to kill the interlopers.

And he remembered his responsibility. Good thing for the surviving female that he did, too. No matter how much he loathed humans, a race full of murderous, wretched betrayers, his word was a bond, obligating him to take the surviving human female to the King of Kings before he could wash his hands of the race and sleep once more.

What Kellan learns when he takes Denae to his King changes everything. With old enemies allying with humans and the Dragon Kings being targeted in a way they have never been before, their fate could very well rest in the hands of one not-quite-dead MI5 spy and her willingness to embrace a world that she couldn't have ever dreamed existed alongside her own.

~*~

It was nice reading a spin-off series opener that truly didn't require me to have read the series from which it spun. Grant did a really nice job introducing the Dragon Kings and their world in such a way that gave a nod to what came before, but didn't depend on it too heavily. There were a few scenes that would probably have had more of an emotional impact on me if I'd been familiar with their backstory, but nothing that confused me or made me feel lost.

There were several elements of Denae and Kellan's story that I liked quite a lot, and a couple of characters (Rhi especially) who endeared themselves quickly and deeply. I also thought the world and backstory were well-conceived, the history of the dragons tragic but, odd as it may sound, believable, and the dynamic between Dragon Kings, humans, and Fae - both Light and Dark - was fascinating. It all meshed together well and provided a solid framework for the story's foundation.

Plus, dragon shifters. I'm a sucker for dragon shifters.

Those were all lovely pieces of the story puzzle, but I can't say I was completely won over by the way it all came together. There wasn't quite enough focus on a cohesive plot for me and too much of the story got hung up on Denae and Kellan's attraction to one another to the exclusion of other necessary story elements.

Instead of laying groundwork for the arc of the series, or offering a sophisticated evolution of characters and story, too much of the narrative was spent telling me again and again how smart, strong, independent, gorgeous, etc. Kellan found Denae (despite his hatred of humans) and how unimaginably sexy and fierce and amazing Denae found Kellan. Unfortunately, there wasn't a whole lot in the story that evidenced either of those things to me as a reader, so it came off as a repetitive Tell versus Show situation unsupported by the reality of the content.

There were a few opportunities for plot progression, and scenes that made me think the book was getting into the nitty-gritty, especially during battle scenes or moments of suspense and tension. Instead of broadening and expanding on those points of conflict, though, the scenes tended to start and end quickly and were very sparse in description or definition. And far, far too many elements were introduced as teasers that never got anything even approaching explanation, let alone resolution.

Rhi's former relationship with a Dragon King. Con's hatred of Ulrick. And Rhi. His questionable actions in the past and conflicted ones now. The Silvers. The identity of the Bad Guy. Why that Bad Guy wanted Kellan. The MI5/Dark Fae alliance. Tristan's transition into a Dark King. The impact of human mates on the dragons. The dissension in the Kings' ranks.

And that's just off the top of my head. There were more things, sources of conflict or questions raised, that added to the pile of things that remained completely unresolved or unanswered by the end. The only thread that was resolved, in fact, was the relationship between Denae and Kellan.

Unfortunately, as characters, I couldn't quite garner much more than ambivalence for either of them. Their story just didn't give me enough reason to do so. Denae was too inconsistent. She kept reminding Kellan that she could handle herself and was a well-trained spy, but I don't recall many instances after the initial fight with her partner where she acquitted herself well in that regard. In fact, she had to rely almost exclusively and more than once on Kellan's help just to survive with both mind and body intact.

Kellan, on the other hand, was perfectly consistent...a perfectly consistent jerk. Between his oft-mentioned hatred of the human race and his unmitigated sense of superiority, I found him hard to take in the first half of the book and only marginally more palatable in the second.

There was a scene where he completely dismisses Denae's grievous personal losses because, as a dragon, his are so much more significant - then he jumps her for some wild monkey sex. That pretty much slammed the door closed on any lingering feelings of sympathy I had for him, and it severely damaged my respect for Denae's strength of character, because though she called him on his insensitivity, she sure doesn't hold him off or demand an apology for his galling opinions. He's apparently just too awesomely male to resist, regardless of his crappy attitude.

Adding in my issue with the too-abrupt (for my tastes) relationship timeline, and the romance elements of the story didn't work so well for me.

There were definitely parts of this book that shined brightly, but they just weren't given enough room to really gain a toehold in the narrative. Those good parts were fresh, original, and eminently entertaining, but neither the romance between Denae and Kellan nor either character individually worked well enough for me to convince me to stick around to see if all those teasers eventually get explained or all the unresolved issues eventually get their resolution. At best, this was an okay read for me overall, but not one I wish to follow up on with future books.

Ratings Guide

Here is a rundown of what the star ratings mean to me! It's not a perfect system, so you may see me add in a .5 star here and there if my impression of the book falls somewhere between these:

5 Stars - Loved it
4 Stars - Liked it
3 Stars - It's okay
2 Stars - Didn't like it
1 Star - Hated it

2014 Challenge

2014 Reading Challenge

2014 Reading Challenge
Tracy has read 22 books toward her goal of 175 books.
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Tracy's bookshelf: read

Zero at the BoneHead Over HeelsLord of the WolfynIn Total SurrenderA Win-Win PropositionNorth of Need

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