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Saturday, December 14, 2013

ARC Review: Striking Distance by Pamela Clare

I’m an avid Pamela Clare fangirl and have been a huge fan of her I-Team romantic suspense series since the beginning (Reece, you will always have a special place in my heart. Zach and Gabe, you too). The I-Team books are a perfect mix of heart-pounding suspense, sexy romance, and poignancy, and I feel like I’ve just stepped off an intense emotional rollercoaster (in a good way!) whenever I read one. I anxiously await the next instalment from the moment I read “THE END” on the current release, so the two-and-a-half-year wait between BREAKING POINT (one of my favourites) and the current STRIKING DISTANCE (the sixth full-length entry, though they all stand alone) has been harrowing. Pamela has said that STRIKING DISTANCE was the hardest book she’s written, and given the amount of heart-rending emotional turmoil the characters face, I’m not surprised. It’s been a few days since I finished reading it, and I’m still digesting it. Pamela has a fantastic way with words, a knack for creating incredibly realistic characters, and an emotional intensity to her writing that makes her one of the best in the genre. Despite (perhaps even because of?) the delay, STRIKING DISTANCE does not disappoint: it is much more slow-paced than the other I-Team novels but delivers an emotionally intense story about love, loss, overcoming self-guilt, and personal strength. It is not for the faint of heart or an easy read, but well worth the time for anyone looking for a romantic suspense read weighted toward the romance.

STRIKING DISTANCE tells the story of U.S. Navy SEAL Javier Corbray and television-reporter turned-investigative-newspaper-journalist Laura Nilsson, who was abducted and held captive for 18 months by Islamic terrorists in Pakistan before being rescued during a SEAL raid on the compound led by Javier. The two of them have a history: a supposedly no-strings-attached marathon weekend of sex after a chance meeting in Dubai City two years prior. Their encounter was initially part of the STRIKING DISTANCE prologue, since it introduces the characters and sets the stage for the rest of the novel, but because Laura and Javier’s meeting, the rescue, and the main storyline all occur on different years, the time jumps and shifts in action would’ve necessitated two prologues. Rather than forego all mention of their passionate weekend together, Pamela cut it from the prologue, expanded it, and released it as a short erotic prequel novella, FIRST STRIKE. Pamela normally writes very hot love scenes, so I didn’t really notice a drastic difference with FIRST STRIKE, other than more explicitness and frequency. Because, whew, Laura and Javi have a LOT of sex over two days and three nights! FIRST STRIKE is not gratuitous smut, however: it’s as poignant as any of Pamela’s other work, and it gives us keen insight into how much Laura and Javi have lost and have to struggle with & overcome in the main story. As Pamela is sure to note in the foreword, FIRST STRIKE is not a complete story: it ends with a cliffhanger, where STRIKING DISTANCE picks up. While it is not necessary to read FIRST STRIKE to understand or enjoy STRIKING DISTANCE (Laura and Javi’s history is mentioned in the main story), I found that it added an extra dimension to the hero and heroine and their developing relationship that made me connect with and feel for them more.

Normally, Pamela’s I-Team novels feature a fast-developing romance against a backdrop of nonstop, pulse-pounding action. The most action-heavy part of STRIKING DISTANCE is the prologue, detailing the raid on the al Qaeda compound and Laura’s unexpected rescue. The story then fast-forwards two years to the present, with Laura back Stateside working as a member of the Denver Independent’s elite investigative I-Team and talking about her captivity at the trial of terrorist Abu Nayef Al-Nassar, in hopes that it will help her heal and truly move on with her life. Javier is in Colorado visiting his buddy Nate (another I-Team series hero), on medical leave from the Teams after his decision to let a shepherd and his sons live resulted in an ambush that killed 18 soldiers and severely wounded Javier downrange in Afghanistan. Nate’s wife is good friends with many of the I-Team reporters, and so Javier and Laura unexpectedly reconnect at a backyard barbeque. Despite some attempts on Laura’s life following her testimony at Al-Nassar’s trial, the action is sporadic and the story slow-moving, with the focus being heavily on Javi and Laura and their (re)blossoming relationship. Javi has a major case of PTSD from the shepherd incident that he initially refuses to acknowledge and then (somewhat magically) overcomes thanks to Laura. He’s an engaging character shaped by his upbringing, an interesting mix of Latino machismo that precludes any admission of weakness and a burning need to prove himself and atone for the actions of his gangbanger teenage self that resulted in his younger brother’s death. Self-recrimination—over his brother’s death, over the ambush that killed his teammates, over his inability to stop Laura’s abduction despite being half a world away—is a huge part of who he is and why his identity is defined by being a SEAL, and watching him learn to let go of some of that guilt as he falls deeper for Laura is incredibly rewarding. Despite being an avid romantic suspense reader, I like my heroes with a touch of beta so Javier’s overt uber-alphaness and cultural machismo initially rubbed me the wrong way a bit. But his slow, purposeful wooing of Laura, letting her be in control, and the way he lays it all on the line for her quickly changed my mind. That last ~40% of the book? Be still, my heart.

A lot of people read romance for the deliciously sexy heroes, but I cannot enjoy a story—even if it features the most perfect hero ever—if I don’t connect with and feel for the heroine as well. Pamela does a fantastic job with Laura, creating a realistic, emotionally complex character in whose emotional arc you cannot help but become deeply invested in. Pamela takes a strong, intelligent, sexually-confident woman and subjects her to 18 months of harrowing emotional and sexual abuse before yanking her out of that hell and making her face the seemingly simple task of leading a normal life. Laura does a fairly good job of gathering the pieces of her life and putting on a front of normalcy whilst being torn apart by self-loathing and blame for a secret she’s keeping from almost everyone (don’t want to spoil what it is, even if it is quite easy to guess and revealed very early on!). Her developing relationship with Javier helps her learn to forgive herself, and watching her rediscover herself as a woman and reclaim the sensuality that was such an integral part of her character before her abduction is one of the most satisfying and heartwarming things I’ve witnessed. Despite their history and the lingering scorching attraction, the romance between Laura and Javi is an extremely slow build, which is rather unusual for an I-Team novel but is extremely appropriate given Laura’s trauma. Anything else would’ve felt unrealistic. Laura (and, by extension, Javier and us readers) is put through the emotional wringer, and that incredibly difficult, heartrending (but ultimately right) decision she makes near the end had me near tears. And again during the second part of the incredibly poignant epilogue, where everything comes full circle and we get a glimpse of what follows the HEA.

Overall, FIRST STRIKE and STRIKING DISTANCE are fantastic additions to what is already one of the best romantic suspense series around. Though slower-paced and more character-driven than previous instalments of the I-Team series, it’s Pamela Clare at her (already impressive) best. I-Team fans will delight in the cameos by series favourites Julian Darcangelo, Marc Hunter, and Zach McBride and the always-enjoyable bromance banter. Romantic suspense readers unfamiliar with Pamela’s work should definitely give the I-Team series a try (the first book, EXTREME EXPOSURE, is one of my personal favourites)—I cannot recommend this series, or this author’s work, enough, and am already looking forward to the next one. Here’s to hoping it won’t be another 2.5 years for more of the I-Team!

**ARC provided by Publisher**

Purchase: | Amazon | Kindle | Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository |


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