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Friday, May 2, 2014

ARC Review: Notorious by Allison Brennan

I have read all of Allison Brennan’s twenty-plus books (save for one novella) and can honestly say she’s one of the top romantic thriller writers out there, on par with such genre greats as Lisa Gardner and Sandra Brown. Her books are hard-hitting, masterfully paced, thoroughly researched and realistic, and incredibly well written. She has been on my auto-buy list for years, and I’m always impatiently awaiting the next instalment in her popular Lucy Kincaid series—a testament to her talent as an author, since multibook series involving the same couple are tough to pull off (unless you’re Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb). So when she announced a new thriller series starring investigative reporter Maxine Revere—her much-deserved hardcover debut—I jumped at the chance to read the first full-length novel, NOTORIOUS, early. Fans of Lucy Kincaid will encounter a very different heroine and a different style of book—more traditional mystery/thriller with the trademark ‘show’ style of writing and less focus on the romance—but Brennan creates an engaging world populated with well-developed characters and delivers a clever, multilayered whodunit plot that will keep you guessing until the big reveal. My only gripe is that, as the first book in the series (there is a prequel novella, MAXIMUM EXPOSURE, that introduces Max but NOTORIOUS can be read as a standalone—in fact, I haven’t read the novella myself), there is a LOT of necessary exposition and the plot only really gets going in the second half of the book.

In NOTORIOUS, cold case investigative reporter and true-crime author Maxine (Max) Revere is back in her wealthy Bay Area hometown for the first time in years to attend the funeral of her one-time best friend Kevin, who was accused (but not convicted) of raping and murdering another close friend thirteen years ago. Kevin’s death has been ruled a suicide driven by a lifetime of alcohol and drug abuse, but his sister believes foul play may have been involved and asks Max to investigate for the sake of (former) friendship. At the San Francisco airport, an elderly couple approaches Max about their grandson’s unsolved murder at her fancy prep school alma mater, and Max soon finds herself embroiled in two possibly related investigations and uncovering dirty little secrets meant to remain hidden—and which hit way too close to home.

With two cold case murder investigations simultaneously underway, one would expect nonstop action and suspense on every page and a pressing need to keep turning pages to unravel the tangled web of secrets… and this is indeed the case, once things truly get going about halfway through the novel. NOTORIOUS is clearly the start of what will surely prove to be a long-running series featuring Max and her justice-seeking endeavours, so Ms. Brennan spends a lot of time laying the groundwork for the series. We get a thorough introduction to Max and what has made her the ass-kicking, take-no-prisoners, willing-to-do-anything-for-the-truth person she is today through a careful treatment of her childhood with a wealthy but capricious mother that dumped her on her grandparents’ ├╝ber-wealthy doorstep as a child, the sensational murder of her high school best friend at the (presumed) hands of her other best friend and the rift with both her family and the town for standing by the accused murderer, and the disappearance of her college best friend during Spring Break. The same is true with the affluent suburb of Atherton and the complicated dynamics of the wealthy Revere family, both rife with secrets and lies and the desire to keep up appearances above all. Creating such a complete picture of Max so we can understand her motivations and behaviour at every step requires that the nonstop thrill ride not begin on page one, but we’re rewarded in turn with a well-developed heroine who is smart, savvy, and committed to finding the truth at any cost but still feminine under all the kickass. Once the hefty amount of exposition is out of the way, Ms. Brennan delivers a tight, clever mystery plot with clues sprinkled throughout and a great cadre of secondary characters that will have you wondering again and again who is lying and whom you (and Max) can trust. There is romantic tension with one Detective Nick Santini, but the focus is most definitely on the suspense rather than the romance and it’s unclear whether Santini (and his associated baggage) will be a recurring love interest in the series

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from the Max Revere series when I picked up NOTORIOUS, but Allison Brennan delivers a novel with all the elements that make her a master of the craft but that manages to have a completely different feel from her other work. Once the necessary exposition is out of the way, NOTORIOUS is a high-octane mystery thriller with a compelling heroine that will keep you guessing and turning pages and looking forward to more of Max’s future adventures.

**ARC provided by NetGalley**

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