Exploited, the first book in A. Meredith Walters’ two-part Zero Day romance serial, features a topical premise that is largely wasted amidst a sea of poorly-written characters and improbable scenarios. After weeks of putting the book down and forcing myself to pick it back up again, I cannot recommend it.
Ten years ago, Hannah Whelan’s world turned upside down when her father lost control of his car on an eroding stretch of asphalt. The accident claimed his life and the future of her sister, who became paralyzed from the neck down. Since then, Hannah has directed all her anger towards the government whose corner-cutting she believes to be responsible for the accident. With the help of her roommate – who has ties to the hacking community – Hannah transforms herself into one of the most notorious hacktivists in the country. Code named Freedom Overdrive, Hannah adheres to one simple code of conduct: Expose corrupt corporations and politicians and make them pay for ruining the lives of those who can’t stand up for themselves.
FBI Agent Mason Kohler is in a bind. When he transferred from Washington D.C. to the FBI field office in Richmond, VA, he made the mistake of sleeping with a senior agent and then dumping her when she expressed an interest in a more serious relationship. Now the agent he slept with has turned most of the Richmond office against him and he feels the only way to earn the respect of his peers is to catch Freedom Overdrive, the cybercriminal who has eluded the FBI for years.
Mason’s and Hannah’s paths cross one morning in a coffee shop with a meet-cute that would feel right at home in a Nancy Meyers movie. Mason is immediately smitten with the funny and sexy girl who happens to share his love for the Dandy Warhols. Hannah, on the other hand, had orchestrated the meeting so she can keep tabs on the FBI’s investigation into her alter ego. Inevitably, as Hannah gets to know Mason, the line between make-believe and reality becomes blurred. Can she really be falling for the man intent on bringing about her downfall? And when the time comes, will she have the strength to walk out of his life?
Exploited alternates between Mason’s and Hannah’s point of view and all too often, their whiny voices and immature attitudes make this book read more like a bad young adult novel than one starring a couple in their late twenties and early thirties. They have both suffered tragedies that inform their choices in life, but instead of taking charge of the things they can control, such as the relationships with their family and co-workers, they would much rather blame their unhappiness on their pasts. I also found myself rolling my eyes whenever Hannah or Mason would talk about how smart they are. For a supposedly smart gal, Hannah sure makes a lot of mistakes, but those pale in comparison to Mason’s inability – or is it refusal?- to see Hannah for who she is even with all the clues staring him right in the face. This is one FBI agent who can’t solve his way out of a paper bag much less catch a cunning hacker.
It takes a very skilled writer to make a relationship built on lies and deception believable, and this author isn’t up to the task. Hannah’s attitude towards Mason runs hot and cold – she gives Mason the cold shoulder when she feels guilty about lying to him but is not above using sex to distract him when he catches her in a lie – which inexplicably only makes Mason want her more (talk about a needy hero!). Mason appeals to Hannah because he’s suffered through a personal tragedy of his own and also because of his secret love of musicals. Ultimately, I had a hard time believing that what Mason feels for Hannah is real given how little he really knows about her.
In a nutshell, there’s very little about this book that I actually like. Some individual scenes – such as when Hannah and Mason meet for the first time and when they finally consummate their relationship – are quite well written, but that is not enough to save a book that features a lukewarm romance and a cast of caricatures that bear no resemblance to real people. Aside from Mason, the Richmond FBI office is staffed by a vindictive supervisor with a penchant for abusing his power, a female agent who wears her jilted-woman status like a badge of honor on her sleeve, a fumbling idiot everyone makes fun of but keeps around because he has a well-connected father, and a lecherous asshole who is openly hostile to Mason because he’s jealous of him (for the life of me though, I can’t figure out why he would be jealous of Mason since Mason is the one no one likes). And when at one-point, Hannah is able to waltz right into an FBI field office and is left alone with an unlocked computer… well, let’s just say that I sincerely hope real-life FBI offices are much better run than the fictional one depicted in Exploited. Otherwise we’re all in a heap of trouble.
If, at this point, I haven’t managed to dissuade you from reading this book, you should also know that it ends on a cliffhanger revolving around a hacker who has an unhealthy obsession with Hannah and with Hannah and Mason’s relationship in a state of turmoil. Who is this mysterious hacker, and will Hannah and Mason be able to find their way to their happily-ever-after? To be honest, I couldn’t care less.