Review: The Final Line (Recon Diaries #3) by Kendall McKenna

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Rating: 5 stars out of 5 The Final Line

Staff Sergeant Corey Yarwood returned home after a tour of duty that saw him injured and a case built against the civilian security forces that operated overseas.  Now an instructor at the Basic Reconnaissance Course. Corey is suffering from PTS, and is drinking heavily in his off duty hours to help him sleep through the night and the nightmares that arrive as he falls to sleep.  One night at a local bar, Corey comes to the aid of a woman being targeted by some local drunks.  When her friend arrives to take her home, Corey meets a man that is smart, compassionate and wakes up his long slumbering libido.

Sean Chandler, an actor and a musician, walks into a dive bar expecting to find his neighbor who called for a ride. Instead he finds himself tossed into the middle of a drunken mess with one man standing between his friends and a group of angry drunks. He watches as the Marine easily handles the situation and then helps him walk his neighbor to the car.  One ride home lands Sean squarely into Corey’s life, as friend and perhaps even romantic partner.  Corey is less than communicative, but Sean sees immediately that Corey is having problems, starting with alcohol.  But Sean also sees the remarkable man who is in so much pain and in need of his help that nothing will stop Sean from doing  what he can to see Corey on the path to sobriety and mental health.

Corey is also suffering from memory loss.  Something awful happened during his last tour of duty and an investigation has been opened up to uncover those responsible for civilian deaths and the following coverup. Corey’s memories are the key needed to unlock the truth.  As the investigation draws closer, Corey’s memories gain power.  Will the truth put Corey on the path to recovery and love or will the truth be his downfall?

When is 5 star rating not high enough? The answer is when you have a book like The Final Line in front of you to review.  This is really one of the most exemplary examples of military fiction that I have read in quite some time.  Add to that fact that given the overwhelming number of soldiers returning from their tour of duty with PTS, traumatic head injuries as well as physical disabilities and an infrastructure unable to handle all their needs, it becomes not just a beautifully written piece of fiction but a timely one as well.

Corey Harwood is the focus of this book, unlike the previous stories where Marine Staff Sergeant Jonah Carver and former Platoon Commander, Kellan Reynolds were the main characters. In those stories, Corey was a young soldier just learning the reality of his job, a reality that only comes with the first tour of duty.  This is our first introduction to  “baby Marine” Corey Yarwood in Brothers In Arms:

PFC Corey Yarwood of Slayer-Two-Three sat cleaning his gear, listening to the bullshit his fellow Marines were spouting. He laughed in the right places but didn’t contribute much. Jonah always felt a sharp twist in his chest when he saw Yarwood. The kid resembled Kellan. Jonah had thought Kellan looked young all those years ago, but Yarwood—Yarwood looked so young, he made Jonah feel old. Kendall McKenna. Brothers in Arms  MLR Press LLC.

From baby faced, inexperienced Private, we watch Corey age and grow into a seasoned warrior injured in battle, returned to the States for training in Fire for Effect (Recon Diaries #2):

Jonah’s features split into a grin. “Yarwood,” he greeted, extending his hand.

Corporal Corey Yarwood approached, dressed in full utilities including the eight cornered, billed cover. He’d changed since Kellan had last seen him. Corey was the same height, but he held himself a little taller. He seemed broader in the chest and shoulders. Two years had matured Corey, that much was obvious. He’d still been boyish, when Kellan had met him. Now, he was unquestionably all man.

Corey grasped Jonah’s hand and shook it briskly. They pulled each other in for the ultra-masculine, back-slapping hug of the alpha male. Corey was smiling wide when he stepped back, his eyes shone as he looked up into Jonah’s face. He released Jonah’s hand but now stood gripping his bicep.   Kendall McKenna. Fire for Effect . MLR Press LLC.

By the second book, Corey has returned home a veteran Marine with First Recon getting ready to deploy for his third mission overseas.  Experienced but still young enough to harbor a crush on his idol, Jonah Carver.  This is also where we start to get our first indications that all is not well with Corey, when Kellen asks about his injury:

“How’s your head these days?”

Corey’s fingers lifted to his temple in what looked like an unconscious gesture. “I have a pretty good scar but beyond that, I healed up fine.” Kendall McKenna. Fire for Effect . MLR Press LLC.

But the truth is Corey is far from fine, and he is already drinking to excess.  By the time we meet up with Corey again, he has become Staff Sergeant Corey Yarwood  and is an instructor at the Basic Reconnaissance Course.  He is having difficulty sleeping, he has lost his memory of certain important events, and untreated PTS is steadily pulling him into a downward spiral. And that is just part of the beauty of this series and this book.  Kendall McKenna has given us a powerful portrait of a Marine, honor bound to the Corp and its codes of behavior, from his first tour of duty to a seasoned Instructor.  It’s realistic and its has all the authenticity I have come to expect from a Kendall McKenna story. I believe in Corey,  I believe in his attitudes towards the Corp and service.  And because of that unquestioning belief, I felt every moment of his pain, every second of his despair, and finally his joy as he starts on the path to recovery.

In some respects, this story is less a romance, than a study of a veteran who is dealing with PTS, and that makes it not only emotionally compelling but timely as our media is full of stories of our soldiers returning to society, unable to cope with their physical injuries and emotional trauma. It is not enough that a writer is familiar with military terms and uses them in a story.  It is the understanding of the soldier mentality, or in this case what it means to be a Marine, an identity so indelible that it is written on their cells.   Ask any one on a street in the US, what it means to be a Marine, and you can expect an immediate answer, whether it be “Semper Fi” or “once a Marine, always a Marine”. It is quite simply a never-ending brotherhood.  To understand and be able to ground their stories and characters in the Marine culture is an achievement that few authors manage.  Kendall McKenna is one of those who reach that level of accomplishment in every story she writes.  If you have read her guest blog , then you will understand how her family and past history has contributed to this knowledge.   But I am convinced that it is something more, something else, a special talent that allows an author to go beyond knowledge and history to extend real emotion and a mental framework into their characters that bring them fully alive on each page of the story.  Corey Yarwood is that powerful, compelling creation that moves beyond the page and into your hearts as a real person.  We invest ourselves emotionally in Corey’s situation and yearn for his recovery as much as those around him do.

Another terrific element of The Final Line is the fact that McKenna helps to educate the public about PTS without standing on a soapbox.  This is Corey’s first meeting with a doctor from the Warrior Clinic:

“I’m guessing it’s the nightmares and insomnia that are causing you the most trouble?”

“Yes, ma’am. Doctor Goldman gave me a prescription for that. It’s only been a couple days but so far, things seem better.”

“Good. That’s really good. You’ve reported only one anxiety attack. By taking care of the sleep issues and coming here, you’ve probably headed off more frequent and more severe episodes, so that’s also good.” Doctor Ingram paused and Corey wiped his sweaty palms on the thighs of his jeans.

“You’ve reported no flashbacks and no hyper-vigilance, but I’m willing to bet you have very mild symptoms and just don’t recognize them.” The doctor canted her head as she regarded Corey closely. “Do some of your memories seem more vivid that others? Do you lose time? Several minutes where you don’t know what you were just doing? Are you uncomfortable in crowds? Do you feel aggressive if you don’t have a wall at your back and all exits in view?”

Corey sat in stunned silence for several moments, mouth hanging slack as he stared at Doctor Ingram. “I don’t lose track of time,” he managed through his tightened throat. “But all the rest? Yeah.”

And that is just some of the symptoms associated with PTS and through Corey, we watch as he tries to deal with them first on his own, and then with the assistance of others, including doctors.  It is truly an eye opening experience if you are unfamiliar with the disease, and McKenna gets us right into his head and mind frame. Then multiply Corey by the thousands and you begin to  understand the hurdles the young men and women are facing as their return from duty and try to reintegrate into society.

Along with Corey, McKenna also gives us a military investigation into a war crime where civilians were killed and an coverup of that event at home.  Both Jonah Carver and Kellen Reynolds are back as part of that investigation and Corey’s memories hold the key to exactly what happened overseas and who was responsible.  This portion of the story is as enthralling as everything else going on around our main character.   It just as easily could have been one of those “ripped from the headlines” plot lines, but again this section has the same authentic feel as all other aspects of this story.  Trust me when I say your heart will just ache by the time this book is done, and not just for Corey. McKenna has given this its due diligence and it shows.

Is there a romance here?  Absolutely.  As with all her other characters, McKenna gives us another realistic, relatable character in Sean Chandler.  He is interesting, compassionate and a true equal for Corey.  There is no instant love here but a relationship that has to be built around real issues that have to be dealt with.  Corey has to learn to communicate better and Sean has a front seat in learning what it means to be a Marine, especially a Recon Marine.  It is a wonderful, believable and ultimately loving relationship that McKenna creates between the two men, emotionally satisfying for both the reader and the couple.  How I love them both.  You will too.

From character study to military investigation to war crime to the building of a loving relationship, The Final Line has it all and then some.  It is exemplary as an example of military fiction as it is m/m romance.  I cannot begin to recommend this story highly enough.  It is such a remarkable book, so timely and alive in personality and culture, that I continue to shake my head in amazement.

Run, don’t walk, and pick this up.  If you are new to the series, start with Brothers in Arms and continue forward until you reach The Final Line.  And then spread the word too about a series all will want to read and men that all will want to embrace.

Cover Art by Jared Rackler.  The covers for these books are as powerful as the stories within.

The Recon Diaries books in the order they were written and should be read to understand the characters and events taking place: ReconDiariesBanner2 Brothers In Arms (Recon Diaries #1)

Fire for Effect (Recon Diaries #2)

The Final Line (Recon Diaries #3) Book Details:

ebook
Published July 4th 2013

Review: Black Hawk Tattoo by Aundrea Singer

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Rating: 4.5 stars

Black Hawk TattooTattoo artist Gabriel Navarro has a busy life, equally divided between the tattoo shop he works in and lives above and the university where he is pursueing his Masters of Fine Arts.  Gabe is very particular about the design and the person he inks so his curioussity and imagination are activated when a mildly intoxicated man comes into his shop with a mockup of a design he wants tattooed on his back.  The man, Jake MacLean, is an American Iraq war veteran and his design for his tattoo features a crashed Black Hawk helicopter bursting into flames and the words God Will Judge Me.  It it a crude drawing that both repels and attracts Gabe.  Gabe needs to fully design the tattoo and include some missing elements that Jake wants to add. As Gabe starts to collaborate with Jake on the design, he starts to realize that the man and his tattoo are occupying his mind at all times.

Jake MacLean ran from an abusive past right into the Army as a medvac helicopter pilot, a job he loved.  But one bad mission has left Jake a broken man, unable to overcome his PTSD and move forward with his life.  He moved from the US to Canada to stay with his older sister and her daughter, and he spends his days and nights getting drunk in an attempt to hold off the demons in his head.  Determined to pay his penance for the loss of his crew in the crash, he decides to have the crash permanently inked on his back for all to see.  But Jake wasn’t expecting to find an angel behind the tattoo gun at Atlantis Ink.

As the men begin to spend time together and a romantic relationship forms, Jake’s demons get louder and his anxiety and episodes start to spiral out of control.  Will Jake be able to reach out for the help he so  desperately needs or will his demons drag him and everyone he loves down with him, including Gabriel.

What an intense and masterfully written book.  Aundrea Singer is a new author for me and if this book is indicative of the way  she writes, she has instantly become a “must read” author for me.  The primary focus of this book is the main character Jake MacLean, a Iraq war vet who is suffering from PTSD, his physical and emotional scars still raw.  Singer takes us right into his head to hear his tormented thoughts, feel how every day is an obstacle he just might not get through.  Jake is a walking wound and Singer treats him with respect, recognizing the source of his fragility and pain while honoring his service.

Gabriel Navarro is his innocent romantic counterpart.  Intelligent, artistic and kind, Gabe is part Indian, part Euro which gives him a culturally rich background and history.  Gabe wants to help Jake but clearly doesn’t have the tools to do so. And the more he tries, the more frustrated he is.  Very realistic as we know that Jake must want to get help and that no one can do that for him. Gabe is a terrific character and I found myself wanting so much more of his backstory. Filling out Singer’s cast is memorable characters such as Hype, the tween who haunts the ink shop, arms covered in pen ink tattoos she has drawn,  Jake’s sister who has a young child, and is barely hanging on herself as she tries to recover from her  divorce.  And Rob, the owner of Atlantis Ink who looks after them all as though they are family. Hype especially will stick in your memory and heart.  Young, frail and trying to be so tough, her story will wrench your heart.  Aundrea Singer just delivers one amazing character after another and then puts them into situations so stressful and intense it is a wonder that any of them survive.  And yet, they do.

I came very close to giving this amazing story 5 stars but one element interfered with that rating.  it comes down to the fact that  Jake is such an emotional mess, so traumatized by his past experiences that is the only side we really see of him.  We watch as he breaks promise after promise, is consumed by delusions and nightmares but never see much more than a glimpse of the person he once was until the end.  So why does Gabe fall in  love with him?  That’s the man we need to see and don’t.  Yes, Jake is filled with survivor’s guilt and we “see” some of his interaction with his dead crew but only a smidge here and there of the man underneath the scars waiting to be redeemed.  Had the author delivered more of a pre-trauma Jake, then it would have made his fall so much more meaningful because we would have been able to see how much of himself he has lost.

But that quibble aside, this is a haunting, memorable story so current and one that holds so much meaning as our soldiers return home in ever increasing numbers, requiring the same sort of help that Jake so desperately needs.  I loved it and highly recommend this story of recovery and love to all.

Cover artist is Reese Dante who once again delivers an amazing cover, worthy of the outstanding story you will find within.