Wednesday, October 16, 2019

#TBRChallenge 2019: Stone Cold Undercover Agent The Book: Stone Cold Undercover Agent by Nicole Helm

The Particulars: Romantic Suspense, Harlequin Intrigue, 2017, Book #2 in trilogy, out of print, available in digital

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I picked this up at an RWA conference (2017 most likely) and at that time I think Helm was fairly new to Harlequin Intrigue.  I have enjoyed some of her SuperRomances, and neither here nor there she's a baseball fan.  So we chat on occasion.

The Review: Let me preface this by saying that I've enjoyed Helm's books in the past and she has the kind of style that I sink into.  And when you couple that style with the Intrigue line?  If the author is hitting her beats it's pretty much a guarantee that I won't come up for air until I finish the last page.  Which is what happened here.  Even though this book is a hot mess that defies logic.  Seriously.  Some of that can probably be chalked up to being book 2 in a trilogy, when I haven't read book 1, but there are elements in play with this book that don't make a whole lot of sense.

Gabriella Torres was kidnapped 8 years ago by a madman whose motives are never made clear.  For one thing, we never find out why he's kidnapping women (because there are others besides Gabby).  "The Stallion" seems to be looking for "the perfect woman" - even resorting to taking measurements.  He has a collection of creepy dolls he coos over.  Oh, and he doesn't rape his captives nor does he allow his henchmen too.  Look, on one hand it's refreshing to read a romantic suspense novel where the heroine isn't an abuse survivor - but rape is about power, not sex.  So Gabby being untouched in 8 long years of captivity, when "The Stallion" seems to want to "break" her - um, how does this make any sense?  I know this is an insane thing to quibble about but with so many high publicized cases, all the true crime TV shows and podcasts out there...This. Doesn't. Make. Sense.

Anyway, The Stallion is some kind of evil crime lord.  But we never get any details about his "business" other than "drugs."  He has the kidnapped girls doing some work (sewing drugs into pillows, stuffed animals and the like) and he's got hired goons running around doing hired goon stuff but other than that?  Yeah, we got nothing.  And he's not raping any of the women nor prostituting them (Gabby isn't special) - which begs the question of WHY IS HE KIDNAPPING THEM?!?!  I don't know much about the drug business but I'm thinking he could probably get plenty of willing workers without resorting to kidnapping.  But, who knows?  It's not a business model I've explored for myself so what do I really know?

Jaime Alessandro has been undercover in The Stallion's organization for two years, and is starting to crack up.  But he's finally worked his way up the ladder and has been "gifted" Gabby by his boss.  Why The Stallion finally thinks it's OK for Jaime to do the dirty with Gabby when he's protected her from Every. Single. Other. Henchman. and has never prostituted her out via human trafficking in the previous eight years?  Also not explained.  At all.  Apparently readers just need to roll with it.

Gabby has paid attention, noticed patterns to The Stallion's movements and Jaime needs her help to ferret out his various hideouts and uncover evidence.  The information she shares with him isn't exactly earth shattering, nor does it lead to some crazy stash of cash or a mass grave of dead bodies - but whatever.  Just roll with it.  Anyway...Gabby thinks Jaime is there to rape her, but eventually pieces together that he's an undercover cop.  But when they're around other henchmen or The Stallion - they need to act like she's scared and he's roughing her up.  So the power dynamic here is all sorts of squirky.

These two don't need a love story - they need years of therapy.  The human spirit is an amazing and resilient wonder, but Gabby has been in captivity for eight years.  It's great that she's feisty but dude - she's too feisty.  And Jaime has been deep undercover for two years.  Doing bad things.  Witnessing bad things.  I don't care who you are Mr. Macho Romance Hero - nobody walks away from that clean.  So to have these two hot for each, burning up the sheets (yes, there are sex scenes), and declaring they love for each other after less than one week of knowing each other AND factoring in their respective baggage?  I cannot suspend that much disbelief.

And yet?  I read this book straight through.  As in picked it up, didn't put it down, went to bed late on a school night.  Why?  Lord, I don't know!  And while I have no interest in reading the first book in the series (about Gabby's sister), I'm going to track down book #3 which is about another kidnapped woman who becomes slightly unhinged over the course of this story.  I mean, I need more Alyssa is my life apparently.

Helm can obviously write because I tore through this during a time when I've been reading books slower than usual (which, for me, is extra slow since I've never been a fast reader).  It's hard to explain if you're not a category reader, but an author can write a mess of a book and if the beats are hit at just the right moments?  It's darn near impossible for me to stop.  There's a reason Intrigues are my go-to reading when I'm traveling and stuck on airplanes. 

So for that reason, it feels wrong to slap this with the grade I'm going to, but seriously - this plot is a dang mess.  Helm's written better.

Final Grade = D


azteclady said...

I'm going to be the one who says (though I haven't read it), I can see the collecting yet not raping thing and, if done well, not bat an eye. Because evil dude can get his jollies over the possession and power over them without actual rape.

But then handing one of his collected trophies to someone else, without the *why* being made clear? yeah, no.

And totally with you on then, "okay, they fall for each other, now let's do therapy, because boy o boy"

Still, I would probably try this--starting with the first book, because yeah, I have that thing about reading in order.

Wendy said...

AL: Point taken on the collecting thing. I could have bought into that - but the author doesn't really spend much time at all on the villain's psyche, so the reader doesn't have much to go on as far as understanding his motivations. Which...hello, category romance. You can only do so much in that word count.

Mileage will vary on that of course. I know some readers who strongly dislike villain-point-of-view for various reasons (which I TOTALLY get) - but here I felt like the book suffered mightily for it.