Burn Down the Night by M. O'Keefe. Yes, I'm aware it's the third book in a series that everyone was talking about back in...oh, 2016. What can I say? You obviously have not had the pleasure of seeing the absurd contents of my Kindle.
Second, this is the book that helped inspire my recent post about "bad girl" heroines. Unfortunately, on that score, this book is problematic. Oh who am I kidding? On all scores this is a problematic read. But you know what? I didn't care. I was riveted from the moment I started to the moment I finished. It had the same impact on me as the first book in the series (Everything I Left Unsaid) and wiped away any lingering malaise I had leftover from the second book (The Truth About Him - which frankly I thought was a rather pointless endeavor outside of anything involving the secondary characters).
This is the book where we finally get Joan as the heroine. Joan is a stripper at the local seedy strip club that is a front for various criminal activities. It's also a hangout for Max Daniels, the president of the Skulls Motorcycle Club. Joan is the sort of character who, when caught in a bear trap, would gnaw off her own arm to escape. She's a hard woman, as evidenced by her interactions with the other characters in the first two books. She's also a woman with secrets. A lot of them. She's working some sort of angle but up until now readers were left wondering what game she was actually playing. Turns out it's a game to save her younger sister, Jennifer, who is trapped in a cult that is a front for drug running. And Max, our MC president, is naturally all wrapped up in the business of those drugs.
Max "got out" of the MC in the previous book. He left. He was in Arizona. But when his brother called him home, he came. And now the shit has really hit the fan. Joan has found out that the cult leader is coming into the club to complete the drug deal. She has plans. Involving a couple of homemade bombs (yes, really) and a gun - all in the name of getting the psychopath cult leader to tell her where her sister is. Max being there puts a fly in the ointment and naturally it all goes horribly wrong. The cult leader gets away, Max gets beaten to a pulp by his "brothers" and shot for good measure. Since Max is the last potential remaining link to finding her sister, Joan does the only sensible thing she can think of. She kidnaps him and takes him to Florida. She's going to convince this man to help her find her sister if it's the last thing she does.
I loved Joan in the first two books. I LOVED HER! She was brittle, all rough edges and very, very hard. This is the sort of woman who could literally spit nails. When I found out O'Keefe actually had plans to make her a heroine I was so excited, but also nervous. Because I loved hard Joan. I didn't want hard Joan to morph into a Rescue Me Princess all because she was finally getting a romance. And praise jeebus, she doesn't. That being said, there are obvious "reasons" Joan is the way Joan is. I will say this, at least O'Keefe doesn't turn her into a tragic, misunderstood victim. Joan is in the situation she is because she's made terrible choices. She's spent her whole life pushing people away. She's the sort who never dithers over fight or flight - she's the sort who will always choose flight. Joan is looking out for Joan but feels this incredible amount of guilt over what has happened to her sister. This guilt is what drives her character to the brink of exhaustion.
Then there's Max. There's no way to sugarcoat this - Max is a criminal scumbag. The guy is the president of an MC and was working out a drug deal with the cult leader. I mean, there's no way to sugarcoat that - or is there? O'Keefe is smart. She doesn't make apologies for Max. What makes his character from being totally unpalatable is that he was looking to get out. He DID get out. But family brought him back and having been in "the life" for that long - getting out isn't all that easy. It's literally all he knows.
What we have is a romance between two cornered animals and it makes for fascinating reading. Max is the one who comes around first. Partly because he's looking for a way out anyway and also because he totally "gets" Joan. I loved the fact that their big emotional Black Moment in this story is Max asking her if she ever gets tired of running, of being alone; of never asking anybody for help, even when it's blatantly obvious that's exactly what she needs - help from other people who care about her. It's just that Joan makes it nearly impossible for those around her to care about her. She keeps pushing them away.
This is a compellingly addictive story with a lot of really interesting edges to it. It's also problematic as hell. I can totally understand readers not wanting to read about an MC president and a stripper heroine who plants bombs and compulsively pushes everyone who gets anywhere near her far, far away. These are hard characters. But it also brings pretty high stakes into the potential romance. Because O'Keefe has to "redeem" these characters enough so that you root for them, but also not morph them into pod people in order to accomplish that. And I think she does. Joan isn't my perfect "bad girl" heroine, but she's the one I have at the moment. And you know what? I'll take her.
Final Grade = A