Sunday, 24 September 2017

Autumn reading challenge: Readers Imbibing Peril XIII (#RIPXII)

Every September through October for the last few years, I've been participating in a fun reading challenge that pretty much lets me get credit for reading a whole load of books I would probably be reading anyway.

The R.I.P challenge (Readers Imbibing Peril) is now in it's 12th year, now with new hosts, over on Estrella's Revenge. Genres included in the challenge are

  • Mystery
  • Suspense
  • Thriller
  • Dark fantasy
  • Gothic
  • Horror
  • Supernatural
There are several challenge levels, but since the most advanced one only requires you to read four books, I'm going to do what I always do, which is sign up for Peril the First (4 books), Peril the Second (2 books) and Peril the Third (1 book), making my grand total at least 7 books. I will easily cover that goal in the increasingly darkening autumn months and I like sharing my reviews with new people. So far, I've read three books in September that qualify for the challenge and have another few lined up.

Friday, 22 September 2017

#CBR9 Books 84-87: "The Neapolitan Novels" by Elena Ferrante

Total page count: 1700 pages
Rating: 4 stars

I'm going to begin by including a brief summary of each of the individual books in the series, before reviewing all books as a whole, as I don't think it's possible for me to talk about my reading experience and impression of these books individually.

My Brilliant Friend

We are introduced to the two protagonists of the series, in our narrator Elena Greco (also sometimes called Lenuccia or Lenu) and her best friend Raffaela (called Lena by most people, but Lila by Elena). As with the great Russian novels, I'm honestly not sure why the nicknames are so different from people's normal names. There's a huge cast of characters in each book, many with a whole host of different monikers. Thankfully there is a handy list at the start of each book so you can keep track.

Anyways, Elena and Lila are young girls growing up in a rough part of post-World War II Naples, a place of poverty and squalor, large families, not to mention organised crime and violence. Elena is the more quiet and nervous of the two, with Lila in some ways her complete opposite, confident and fierce. They start school together and while Elena loves books and learning and strives to apply herself so she'll be allowed to continue in school, Lila is the fiercely brilliant one, having taught herself to read before any of the other children and constantly impressing the strict teacher, even as she clearly makes no efforts to become well-liked. The girls' friendship is defined by their academic rivalry, and while Lila is initially clearly 'the brilliant friend' of the title, things change when her parents won't let her continue her education to secondary school because they need her help at home, while Elena is allowed to continue, as long as she excels.

Nevertheless, while she feels lucky and triumphant at this, Elena can't help but constantly comparing herself to Lila and now does what she can to pass on her knowledge to her friend, even as their paths seem to diverge more and more, changing their friendship as their spheres become ever more different. As they grow older and hit puberty, Elena once more feels overshadowed by Lila, who while a late bloomer becomes one of the neighbourhood beauties, while Elena feels gawky and unattractive. While she keeps struggling to stay in school, Lila is being courted by the most popular young men in the area and looks to be maturing away from Elena for good.

The Story of a New Name

Lila has gotten married to one of the richest young men in the neighbourhood and as a result changed the fortunes of her entire family, but Elena is deeply worried about her, and with good reason it seems. Married life is not at all what Lila expected and while she's able to live a life of leisure and glamour, she is clearly not very happy either. She uses the admiration of the powerful (and possibly Mob connected) Solara brothers to further her family's ambitions, even though neither her father nor her brother seems to have much in the way of actual drive or business acumen.

Elena, meanwhile, continues her education and starts considering a career as a writer, and pines in her infatuation of the older, intellectual Nino Sarratore. At times, she has barely any contact with Lila, but even as they stay competitive and occasionally jealous of each other, they share a bond that refuses to be broken, and whenever Lila really needs her, Elena can't help but return to aid her.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

This book is set in the 1970s and both our protagonists are now grown women. Lila has left her abusive husband and taken her son with her, living in a very rough area and working herself to the bone in a sausage factory. She's living platonically with one of her childhood friends, Enzo, who tries to support them as best he can as a labourer, while taking evening classes on computer science on the side. Elena, meanwhile, has finished college and published a novel to fair acclaim. She meets and marries a promising young university professor from an esteemed family, moving away from her family in Naples to settle in Florence, growing more separated from her volatile best friend. Even living in very different circumstances, in different parts of the country, their lives still connect and their bond remains, if fraught and threatened at times.

The Story of the Lost Child

The final book in the series sees Elena and Lila into middle age, with great changes having taken place in their lives. Having divorced her husband and left Florence,  Elena moves back to Naples to be with her lover, Nino Sarratore, despite his reluctance to actually leave his wife and commit fully to her. Lila, on the other hand, having taken night classes with her partner Enzo has surpassed even his skill with computers and programming and is now a wealthy and successful employer and entrepreneur in their old neighbourhood, now supporting not only her family, but her ex-husband Stefano, whose family fortunes are lost and seemingly having even the dangerous Solara brothers under her control.

Lila and Elena rekindle their sometimes very antagonistic, competitive and conflicted friendship as they experience pregnancy together and eventually, live as neighbours in the same building. When tragedy strikes for Lila, and her little daughter disappears, Lila and Elena's fortunes yet again seem to reverse, taking their relationship in new and unexpected directions.

My discussion of these books will contain some spoilers, because there was a major through line in the books that drove me absolutely mad, and I won't be able to give my honest opinion without discussing it. I will try to mark the relevant section carefully though, so it can be avoided by those who dislike such things.

These books have been translated into a number of languages and are lauded and praised by critics world-wide. While these books have a huge cast of characters and span decades, at the heart it chronicles the intimate lives of two women and I think it's

Judging the books by their covers: I don't really have a lot more to say than that I really like the covers for these books and their slightly nostalgic feel.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 11 September 2017

#CBR9 Book 83: "The Sun is Also a Star" by Nicola Yoon

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Natasha is desperately trying to keep her family from being deported, after her father, an illegal immigrant got a DUI and attracted the police's attention. She's been in the USA since she was six and barely remembers her life back in Jamaica anymore. She's doing well in school and loves science and technology. She certainly doesn't believe in love at first sight, or fated mates or fairytale endings. Even after she meets Daniel on a crowded New York street and he insists that they are meant to be.

Daniel's parents are immigrants from South Korea and he's never stepped a foot out of line, being the well-behaved younger son. Now he's on his way to an admissions interview to get into a college he doesn't really want to go to. He'd much rather live out his dream, writing poetry, but then his parents are likely to disown him. He sees Natasha in a crowd and is instantly struck by her. He insists he can make her fall in love with him over the course of a day, but that means they need to spend the whole day together.

I finished this book at the end of August, before my social media feeds and all the newspapers became full of the disastrous news that the Trump administration plans to terminate the DACA program. I read the book because it fit into my Monthly Keyword Challenge, but it turns out that I possibly couldn't have chosen a better time to read and review this book. Reading about the desperate plight of a daughter of illegal immigrants, who never had a choice about coming to the US, trying her very best to avoid being deported was affecting enough before I knew that hundreds of thousands of young people were facing the same terrifying fate.

Earlier this year, I read Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon and liked it, but this book deals with much more serious concerns. There is a bit of a fairytale quality to Natasha and Daniel's coincidental meeting and adventures on the New York streets - can two people actually fall in love over the course of a day and do they stand a chance when their families are clearly going to be against their relationship, even if Natasha actually does succeed and her family gets to stay in the country?

Yet part of what Yoon explores in this book is coincidences and the strange ways in which lives are connected in this great big universe. How lives touch each other in big or small way, and how one momentary decision or action can have wider repercussions for so many other people. As well as including chapters from Natasha and Daniel's points of view, we get the story of how Daniel's parents came to America, how Nathasha's father's life turned out completely different from what he expected. There are chapters giving us insight into the life of the security guard who Natasha has met multiple times when trying to get her case changed, and a number of other people, whose lives are in some way affected by either of the teenagers or people around them.

While this book absolutely qualifies as a romance, it covers a number of themes, one of the more serious of which is obviously immigration, both legal and illegal. Daniel's family don't need to worry about sudden arrest and deportation, but as the son of two ambitious immigrants, it's difficult for Daniel to forge his own path, without disappointing his parents, who worked so hard to give him the best possible life. There are Natasha's mother, who has to work two jobs to support her family, and Natasha's father, who dreams of being an actor and has had to realise that his dreams are unlikely to ever come true.

While I had little interest to see the movie adaptation of Everything, Everything, a quick internet search confirms that this book is also being adapted, and this is a story I think would work really well on the screen. Based on the two novels of hers I've now read, I am absolutely going to keep an eye on anything else Ms. Yoon publishes. She's an excellent YA author.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover image is actually made up of tons of different coloured yarn and made by designer Dominique Falla. As one of the underlying themes of the book is exactly how people connect and change impact on each other's lives in big or small ways throughout life, the web with so many different coloured strands is really cool and rather unusual. The colours chosen are all really vibrant and draw the eye in a good way as well.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 82: "Dirty Dancing at Devil's Leap" by Julie Anne Long

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Avalon Harwood and Maximillian "Mac" Coltrane spent pretty much every summer together growing up, when the wealthy Coltrane family visited their giant mansion. First they were the best of friends, which developed into something more, until at seventeen, Mac broke Avalon's heart when she heard him talking dismissively about her to his father. They never saw each other again, until now.

In the intervening years, Avalon has developed a highly successful app and runs her own tech company out of San Francisco. Mac's father was arrested for fraud and embezzling and his family lost all their money. No one really knows what happened to Mac or his brother. After coming home unexpectedly and finding her boyfriend of several years sleeping with their intern, in their bed, Avalon goes home to her parents in Hellcat Canyon. While angry and grieving for her lost relationship, she discovers that the big Victorian mansion the Coltranes used to own is up for auction and she impulsively decides to buy it, only to find the price being pushed up constantly by some stuffy lawyer. Turns out the lawyer was working for Mac, who has been working as a caretaker at the house and was hoping to buy back the family house, only to be outbid by Avalon, the girl that got away.

Avalon has decided to refurbish the house and sell it to a San Francisco friend looking for a new location for corporate retreats. She hadn't quite expected that the house was going to cost her so much. She's also dismayed to discover that part of the land she remembers so fondly playing on growing up, including the hot springs and the bathing area over by Devil's Leap, are NOT included in the purchasing price. They belong to her neighbour, in fact, none other than the house's caretaker, Mac. He still wants to buy the house from Avalon and decides to do everything in his power to sabotage her sale to what he considers corporate hacks. Avalon refuses to be bested, and they begin a battle of wits and elaborate pranks, while fighting their mutual attraction.

One of my major gripes in previous reviews of Long's contemporaries is her complete failure to address safe sex, which is not really necessary in Regency historicals, but really should be a feature of all contemporary romance. It does not need to take up a lot of page real estate, but responsible couples, especially individuals who haven't seen each other for the best end of two decades, should probably have a brief conversation about being STD free, whether the woman is on the pill, or they should just use condoms as a default. In this book, there is at least one love scene where condoms seem to make an appearance, which is better than in previous books, but there are still several where apparently the couple just don't care about things like pregnancy or STDs. It really does make me annoyed.

While I'm a huge fan of many of Julie Anne Long's historical novels, her contemporaries have been a bit hit and miss and while I by no means disliked them, they've not exactly stayed in my memory and I certainly have never felt a need to re-read them, which I frequently do with my favourite romances. While a lot of romance bloggers have been raving about the previous two books in the Hellcat Canyon series, this is the first one I felt I could whole-heartedly give four stars to. It doesn't hurt that while Avalon and Mac were childhood sweethearts of a sort, the comment Avalon overheard made her hate him, and returning to fight for the house now makes them rivals. I'm a sucker for a good enemies to lovers story, especially if it involves the various parties trying to one-up one another with creative and not too harmful pranks. See also The Hating Game by Sally Thorne and Dating You/Hating You by Christina Lauren.

While Long is not back on my pre-order list (which she was for her historicals), she's now closer to "would possibly buy for full price" than she was based on her previous contemporaries. I thought this one was fun, and there were a lot of quirky elements, like a girl scout troop full of adorable young ladies, some goats, a fluffy dog and other things that amused me while reading. I wouldn't necessarily recommend you rush out and read the previous two books in the series, unless you get them from the library, but this one is worth your time.

Judging a book by its cover: I really don't particularly like the exaggerated poses of the couples on these Julie Anne Long contemporaries, and once again, I just think it's a bit much. The landscape in the picture is different from that described in the book, and I really just don't think people do embraces like that unless forced to. The whimsically tilted letter in the title font just makes my eye twitch. Please Avon cover designers, go for something a bit more sedate next time.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

#CBR9 Book 81: "My Kind of Wonderful" by Jill Shalvis

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Bailey Moore was given the all clear from the cancer which dominated every aspect of her life since she was sixteen, and now has a sort of reverse bucket list. While she was sick, she didn't really imagine much of a future for herself, but now there are just so many things she'd like to do. One of her first items is skiing in the Rocky Mountains, so she goes to the Cedar Ridge skiing resort, but mis-reads the map and ends up having to be rescued by ski patrol leader and co-owner of the resort, Hudson Kincaid. While she may need more lessons before she can properly enjoy elegantly sliding down the slopes, she's more than capable of handling the next item on her list - making a mural.

Hudson Kincaid is pretty much all about taking care of his ailing mother, his siblings and the financially challenged Kincaid family skiing resort. He's still feels like he drove his twin brother off after they had a big fight on their eighteenth birthday. His mother is fighting dementia, and will be crystal clear and lucid one moment, but most of the time still imagine him and his brother Jacob as young boys or teenagers. In one of her more lucid moments, she placed a call to Bailey and commissioned her to paint a big family mural for the Cedar Ridge resort. Hudson thinks it's a terrible idea, and tries to convince Bailey to go home, but is voted down by the rest of his siblings, who all think the mural could be great for business.

Bailey likes that Hudson doesn't treat her as fragile or breakable, even though it's quite obvious from her peach fuzz hair that she's recovering from long term illness. Because of her big list of adventures, she's not really looking to stay too long in one place, and Hudson has far too many commitments already to settle down with anyone. Having a passionate, yet short-term fling while Bailey works on the mural isn't going to hurt either of them, right?

Last summer, I read the first of the Cedar Ridge novels and enjoyed the family dynamics between the various Kincaid siblings who showed up as supporting characters. The eldest brother was already happily settled and in Second Chance Summer, second eldest brother Aidan reunited with his teenage sweetheart. While Hudson is the hero of this novel, and his brother Jacob doesn't really appear, he's mentioned so often and is constantly thought about by Hudson or their mother so frequently that it doesn't surprise me that he's the hero of the next book in the series.

This book was a quick read, and perfectly pleasant, but the so many of the major complications could have been solved by the protagonists sitting down and having a serious conversation or two about their expectations and thoughts. There's not really any doubt that Bailey is going to be accepted by the Kincaids, they all seem completely infatuated with her and are ready to welcome her with open arms, Hudson just takes a really frustratingly long time to realise that he's an idiot for not wanting a relationship.

This was a perfectly serviceable romance, given an extra half a star because I really like the setting and the supporting characters so much. I will probably be checking out further books in the series as well at some point, there are at least two Kincaid siblings yet to pair off.

Judging a book by its cover: Yeah, this is not a great cover. Random skier who looks nothing like the description of the hero looking off in the middle distance photo-shopped over what looks more like a drawing of a mountain top and a cabin than another stock photo. The guy is certainly fit, which is appropriate, as Hudson, the hero, spends his whole life doing physical things, but if this book hadn't been on sale and I hadn't enjoyed the first book, this cover would make me think twice about reading the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 80: "Beauty Like the Night" by Joanna Bourne

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Sèverine de Cabriallac was orphaned during the French Revolution and adopted by one of the foremost British intelligence agents, William Doyle. Her whole childhood was spent being raised, taught or entertained by various spies. During a youthful rebellion, Sèvie ran off to Spain and joined British Military Intelligence. She was in love with a French soldier, who died. No longer really interested in the spying game so many of her family are involved in, she works as a private investigator instead. One memorable night, a mysterious stranger appears in the bedroom of the inn she is visiting, brandishing a knife. He asks about a missing young girl and a stolen amulet, and seems to think Sèverine may know the whereabouts of both.

Despite the dire warnings of both her adoptive father and her brother-in-law, Adrian Hawkhurst, currently head of British Intelligence, Sèvie is intrigued enough to take the case offered by the enigmatic Raoul Deverney. He wants to find out who murdered his wife, stole the amulet that is a Deverney heirloom, and finally where his wife's (not his) daughter is. He claims that he and Sèverine have met before, many years ago in Spain, but Sèvie has no recollection of this. Raul is not entirely sure the legendary young woman isn't involved in the death of his estranged wife, but he figures she is his best way of tracking down the murderers and achieving justice.

As well as trying to track down murderers and a missing adolescent, Sèverine is helping her family foil a rumoured assassination attempt on the Duke of Wellington. Initially, it seems the cases couldn't possibly be connected, but as Sèvie's investigation continues and the pieces keep falling into place, the same individuals may be responsible for both.

This is one of the more low-key of Joanna Bourne's Spymaster books. While quite a lot of the previous novels take place during or in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic war, this one is set in the Regency era, after the various battles have taken place. Some of the book flashes back to Sèverine's spying career in war-torn Spain, where we find out how her and Raoul's paths first crossed. As is always the case in a Bourne novel, the protagonists are very well matched. Both have dark pasts filled with things they're not necessarily proud of. Both are extremely intelligent, observant and capable people, who find it hard to easily give their trust to someone else, because they've learned the hard way how easily such trust can be betrayed.

Sèverine was an excellent spy, having been raised in the craft as a child. She's also a diligent and efficient investigator, doing her best to help her clients in any way she can. She will occasionally help her family in matters of national security, because she cares about them, and while she doesn't want to actively spy, she enjoys the occasional mission. Raoul is also very good at what he does, which is rather more than being the wine merchant he openly claims to be. His marriage was one forced upon him and he never loved the woman, but feels he needs to bring her killers to justice both as a matter of family honour and to reclaim the family amulet. He is adamant that her young daughter is no real concern of his, but as he discovers just how badly the girl was neglected and mistreated and how much of the funds he sent to his wife for her upkeep were squandered, he begins to feel profoundly guilty about his own carelessness and ignorance of her situation.

The couple try to fight their mutual attraction for a long time, knowing it would be a very inconvenient thing for them to get romantically involved. Neither of them are looking to ever settle down with someone, yet they are so obviously made for one another. While there is a fair amount of unresolved sexual tension, there really isn't a lot in the way of love scenes, so anyone wanting more of that might have to look elsewhere. I don't know if Bourne is planning any more books in her Spymasters series, but if this is the final one, it's a very good conclusion to a very enjoyable set of novels. This book works as a stand-alone, but will probably be more emotionally satisfying if you've read some of the previous ones and know the supporting characters and their backstories better.

Judging a book by its cover: Now this is a beautiful cover. I love the use of colours, with the blue background and the red leaves in the corners. The cover model looks a lot like Sèverine is described, up to and including the red evening gown she wears in a very significant scene. I wish more historical romances had covers like this.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 79: "The Duchess Deal" by Tessa Dare

Page count: 389 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Miss Emma Gladstone was a respectable clergyman's daughter until a foolish indiscretion made her father condemn her and forced her to walk all the way to London during the winter. She lost a toe. Now she's making a living as a seamstress, but will be fired if she doesn't get paid for the extravagant and somewhat excessive gown she created for Annabelle Worthing, until recently betrothed to the Duke of Ashbury. To make sure she's taken notice of, she dons the over the top gown and visits the reclusive Duke in person to demand her money.

George Pembrooke, the Duke of Ashbury, known as Ash to the few friends he has left, was badly scarred in the Napoleonic wars. One side of his face and much of his upper body is ravaged by burn scars and the results of the army surgeons trying to save his life. With his engagement to Miss Worthing dissolved, he still needs to find a suitable wife to give him an heir. He takes his duties seriously and refuses to surrender his people and properties to his dissolute cousin. He's taken by surprise by the forthright Miss Gladstone and impulsively proposes marriage to her. She believes he is jesting with her and obviously refuses, but once he's settled on the idea, he decides that only she will do.

Once Emma realises that the Duke of Ashbury is entirely serious, she accepts, because she would be a fool not to. Becoming a duchess isn't a chance any woman should pass up, even if the duke is a self-loathing, brooding and rather imperious sort of man. While the scars are obviously impossible to ignore, Emma nevertheless finds Ash very attractive and suspects that she may find making an heir with him rather enjoyable. Ash has certain terms for the marriage. 1) They will be husband and wife at night only. 2) No lights or kissing. 3) No questions about his scars and 4) Once Emma is pregnant with is heir, Ash will send her to an estate in the country and she will never have to share his bed again. Miss Palmer, one of Emma's high-born customers at the modiste is pregnant, and terrified to tell her father. As Emma knows all too well how devastating parental disapproval can be, she promises to help, and if she gets pregnant quickly, she'll be able to invite Miss Palmer to come stay with her in the countryside until the babies are born, with no one being the wiser.

Of course, Emma refuses to live in an entirely emotionless marriage. She insists that she and Ash have dinner together every night and she refuses to take him too seriously. She brings a feral tomcat with her when she arrives, and Breeches, as she names the beast, proceeds to terrorise the household. Refusing to call her husband by his given name, George (it was also her father's name), Ash or the formal Duke, she proceeds to try every endearment and pet name under the sun, in order to tease him. She tries to keep herself from falling too deeply for her husband, not wanting to get hurt, but the meddlesome servants of the Duke's household do whatever they can to constantly throw the Duke and the Duchess together, desperate for them to fall in love, so Ashbury will lighten up a bit and stop making their lives more difficult with his brooding and self-pity.

Elyse over on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books described this book as "a fairytale Regency that blends Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella and Batman". She's not wrong! This book has all of those elements. The Cinderella element is obviously the seamstress becoming a duchess. Tessa Dare has a previous romance with a huge gap in social status between the couple, when she has a barmaid marrying a duke in Any Duchess Will Do. That book is also excellent and one of my favourites of her back catalogue. Without wanting to spoil too much, the Batman subplot comes into the story because cranky and brooding Ash tends to wander the London streets at night rather than allow himself to sleep next to his wife, and will frequently beat up muggers and other ne'er-do-wells who try to attack him or others to channel some of his aggression. There's even a lovably young lad who insists on becoming his loyal sidekick.

This is the first book in a new series for Dare, entitled Girl Meets Duke. As well as befriending and doing her best to help Miss Palmer, Emma also makes the acquaintance of four eccentric young ladies on the other side of the square, many of whom I suspect will be heroines in future adventures. Before this book came out, I was in really a rather serious reading slump. I had only finished ONE single book in all of August, as well as re-reading one. With The Duchess Deal, I could barely put the book down. I read until far too late into the night, making me seriously sleep-deprived at work the next day, and spent every available minute I had to spare reading more. I finished the book in less than twelve hours and was so thoroughly delighted and entertained by it.

Tessa Dare tends to have a lot of rather frivolous and unlikely plot elements in her historical romances, and I can understand that for some readers, some of the seeming anachronisms and silliness can get a bit much. I thought this was her best book in years and absolutely loved it. The 'Beast of Mayfair' storyline went on for a bit longer than I would have liked, and Ash really did take way too long to realise how lucky he was to have Emma, but I also loved that he only swore in Shakespearean quotes and the bit where his long-suffering butler, Khan, finally has enough and loses his temper was worth the price of admission alone. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants a quick, fun and diverting read. Even Mrs. Julien, who has previously occasionally found Tessa Dare's books to be too silly for her, liked this one a lot. I'm already looking forward to the next in the series.

Judging a book by its cover: I really can't remember which side of Ash is horribly scarred, but based on this cover image, it really can't be his left side, or there have been some serious omissions from the cover designer. I don't hate the cover, but I'm not sure I personally would have chosen what looks like a soft-focus stock photo from a slightly raunchy wedding shoot as the cover for a Regency romance. The dress the woman is wearing is far too modern for the time period, you can't just put the male model in a poofy shirt and expect that to be enough to signal "period clothing".

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.