Sunday, 15 October 2017

#CBR9 Book 88: "Rebel of the Sands" by Alwyn Hamilton

Page count: 358 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Amani Al-Hiza is poor orphan, raised by uncaring relatives in a small desert town where most inhabitants work in the local mine. She knows that if she doesn't collect enough money to get out soon, she'll end up as third wife to her unpleasant uncle, a fate she would rather die than accept. One night, she disguises herself as a boy and enters a shooting competition at the local watering hole, trying to win enough money to finally leave. She's an excellent shot, and sure that she will win, until she meets the mysterious Jin and things escalate out of control.

A few days later, Jin and Amani are on the run, riding a mythical desert horse and fleeing the armed guards of the empire. Initially, Amani tries to go her own way, she wants nothing more than to get to the capital and reunite with her late mother's younger sister and hopefully stay hidden in the crowded city. Yet her path crosses with Jin faster than she thinks, and she finds herself wanted because of her association to him. They have no choice but to keep running. As they join a caravan to travel through the desert, Amani comes to discover that a lot of the mythical stories she grew up with have more than just a kernel of truth to them. She also grows closer to Jin as they travel, and finds that although she was quite happy to leave him when they first met, after facing dangers together, she will gladly risk her own life if it ensures his safety.

Can a book be classified as a Western if it's set in a distinctly Middle Eastern environment? Does that make it an Eastern instead? There are absolutely Western-like elements during the first half of the book. Amani grows up in a dusty little mining town, and is a crack shot with her revolver. The scenery described is pretty much straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie. But the myths and legends, as well as the geography is decidedly Middle Eastern, like something out of Arabian Nights.

This is a debut novel, and while there are a lot of interesting ideas, there is also a lot that will be familiar to YA readers here. Our heroine is an orphan, growing up with obvious hopes and dreams different from everyone around her. She clearly has unusual abilities and as she goes on her journey, she discovers how special she really is. The country is divided into factions, with the oppressive sultan being challenged by a rebel prince. There's a love interest with a mysterious background, who seems to be connected to the rebels somehow. Nevertheless, the elements were used well, and I found I didn't mind the formulaic aspects too much.

The plot takes quite a few twists and turns, and the story ended up in a very different place from what I was expecting. I've seen some reviews say that they found the book boring, predictable and that Amani and Jin had no chemistry. I disagree with all of them. Anyone expecting a passionate romance should probably look elsewhere. There is a slow-burning attraction here, but the main focus of the story is clearly Amani's both physical and emotional journey away from her origins. She changes and develops a lot as she travels, and learns that many things are different from what she was always raised to believe. She starts out as an outcast and loner, but finds friendship and allies in unexpected places, new causes to believe in and the possibility for a very different future for herself opening up.

I have seen several people compare this book to Walk on Earth a Stranger, probably because both have a female protagonist, Western elements and involve a journey of some sort. But apart from that, I really think it's quite unfair to compare them, and this book certainly features a lot more adventure and unexpected supernatural elements. The first was pretty much a straight up historical novel, this is a fantasy novel, with distinct mythological influences. While I thought the first half of the book was a bit slow-going, the second half picked up enough and went in a surprising enough direction that I am very eager to see where the story goes next. I hope Ms. Hamilton can deliver on the set-up she established in this book.

Judging a book by its cover: I really like the cover design for this book, with the dark desert landscape and the silhouetted rider moving across it at night, with an Arabic city in the background. The yellow and blue waves framing the image, the font chosen and the image invoking adventure and the Middle Eastern setting. Sadly, it looks as if the publishers have chosen a much more generic (and less good) cover design for the second book, which makes me sad.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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.

#CBR9 Book 78: "My One and Only" by Kristan Higgins

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

While others may describe divorce attorney Harper James as somewhat bitter, cynical and decidedly unromantic, she herself claims that she is realistic and practical and her job allows her to help her clients, usually in miserable relationships have the best possible lives after their divorces. Her mother packed up and left Harper and her father on Harper's thirteenth birthday, and Harper's own marriage didn't even last six months, but she doesn't really feel that those things in any way influenced the woman she is today.

Successful and good at her job, Harper has been dating a guy for several years now, and as she's about to turn thirty-four, the same age her mother was when Harper last saw her, she feels that now would be a good time for them to take their relationship to the next level. Sure, Dennis still lives with his parents, tends to call her 'dude', has a very annoying rat tail that he refuses to get rid of, but he's tall, extremely handsome and works as a firefighter, saving lives! Harper has even bought her own engagement ring and seems very surprised when Dennis appears reluctant to agree to her fine list of bullet points on why they should get married. Her rather awkward proposal attempt is interrupted by a phone call from her younger step-sister, joyfully announcing that she's getting married. In two weeks' time. As her sister's been married twice before already, Harper thinks this may be extremely foolish and impulsive, but nevertheless agrees to be the maid of honour.

Complications arise once they get to the Montana wilderness retreat where the marriage is taking place. It turns out the best man is Harper's ex-husband, Nick Lowery, because her little sister is marrying his younger brother, after they've barely had a chance to get to know one another. Harper obviously brings along her hunky boyfriend, but it's quite clear from the moment they meet again, that there is still tons of chemistry between Nick and Harper. While Nick may think Harper never really loved him and was determined to see the marriage fail from the moment they tied the knot, Harper did actually have her heart thoroughly broken and still feels that Nick was caring and attentive until he actually made her his wife, and then turned into a neglectful workaholic.

When it's time for everyone to leave, Harper's flight is cancelled due to technical difficulties, and she ends up accepting an offer from Nick to drive with him part of the way home, until they can get her on a plane back to Martha's Vineyard. During this several day road trip, they get lots of time to talk things through, and slowly start to find some common ground again.

There is a lot going on in this book, and Harper has a whole lot of emotional baggage to process before she is in any way ready for any romantic relationship, with Dennis (who, while cute, is obviously all wrong for her) or Nick. Nick really does seem like a good guy, but it's obvious that he's laying way too much of the blame on their brief and failed marriage at Harper's door. They were both very young when they got married, Harper pretty much let herself be talked into it, but her slew of complicated abandonment issues combined with his need for success meant the marriage never stood a chance. On this road trip, it's not just about Harper and Nick possibly working through their differences from last time, Harper also gets a chance to confront the parent who left her all those years ago.

This book is standard length for a romance, but it felt longer, because so much happened in it. Due to her constant fear of abandonment, Harper has a real problem disappointing other people. While she's an efficient and fairly ruthless divorce attorney, in her personal life, she will go out of her way not to say no to people, even when it can cause major problems. In the final section of the book, there is an implausible and very frustrating complication which could have been avoided with one simple no, but instead Harper goes on to hurt more people she cares about. I will say that she turns around and grovels rather spectacularly, after a heck of a grand gesture, but it this book was all a bit too much and I doubt I will ever re-read it.

As well as the all over plot, I was constantly annoyed throughout the book by Harper's "swearing". She says or thinks "crotch" instead of more traditional swear words, and on occasion will exclaim "holy testicle Tuesday". I get that some people get annoyed and offended by swearing, but I would much rather have had that than Harper's silly exclamations.

I have heard good things about Kristan Higgins' contemporaries, and while I didn't love this, I certainly didn't hate it either. I suspect, given my tendency to buy books pretty indiscriminately in e-book sales if they cost $3 or less, that I not only own several more books by her, but that I will end up getting more at some point in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: Open-top sportscar. Check. Couple sitting close together. Check. Tiny, cute dog. Check. All these elements are in the book and it's quite obvious that this is a romance novel. I don't exactly think it's a very exciting cover, but it does what it needs to and none of the major element on the cover seem out of place or inappropriate.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 4 September 2017

#CBR9 Book 77: "Strange the Dreamer" by Laini Taylor

Page count: 532 pages
Rating: 5 stars

From Goodreads:
The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around - and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he's been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance to lose his dream forever. 

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god?And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries - including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo's dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed?And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

I am reluctant to give more information about this book than the blurb already reveals, because as several other reviewers have pointed out before me, this book is a wonderfully immersive reading experience and the less you know about the details of the plot, the more lovely surprises there are for you along the way.

Anyone who's read anything by Laini Taylor before (and if you haven't, go check out Daughter of Smoke and Bone immediately. Don't worry, this review will wait) will know that she has a very rich prose, and is excellent at world building. She describes settings, experiences and characters so vividly and her books tend to completely engross me. This is absolutely the case here. She's also very good about writing complex individuals, there is very little black and white in her characterisation. Everyone is flawed in some way. Rarely is someone entirely good or wholly evil, but they are always interesting to read about.

The reader is taken into the story through the eyes of Lazlo Strange, an orphan who becomes a librarian and spends all his free time finding information about a mythical lost city. He vividly remembers the city having a different name at one point, but one memorable day in his childhood, it was as if it was stolen out of his mind, being replaced by the word 'Weep'. By the time he grows up, he almost doubts that there ever was a different name to it, but he still dreams. Lazlo is clever and humble, and a very good person. He will selflessly help others, even when it might lead to others exploiting his hard work and presenting it as their own. He is finally rewarded for his hard work when an exotic delegation comes to the library where he works.

There are so many other fascinating characters in this story as well, and so many different settings to explore over the course of the book. There are mysteries to be solved, and dreams that may or may not come true, and hints of romance, but also great loss and tragedy. It's also important to note that this book is NOT self-contained and ends on a heck of a cliff-hanger. There is as of yet no publication date for the sequel (I think this will happily only be a duology, so once you have the next book in your hot little hands, you'll get to read the end to the story), and if you hate unresolved endings and waiting for months or maybe years between books, maybe hold off until The Muse of Nightmares is released.

Judging a book by its cover: Both covers for this book are very pretty, but the edition I read had this, the UK cover, with the beautiful dark blue background and the stylised moth in the centre of the cover. I like that the faint patterns in the blue could be stars, or maybe tracings of a map, it's not entirely clear. Since the colour blue and moths are both very significant in the book, this cover seems wholly appropriate and the deep blue just soothes my soul.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 76:" Wildfire" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is the third book in a series, and the review will contain spoilers for the previous two books. If you haven't read any of the books yet, start with Burn for Me. If you aren't caught up with the series, maybe come back for this review later.

Instead of being able to spend Christmas with her new boyfriend, Connor Rogan, one of the most powerful and magically gifted men in the United States, Nevada Baylor has to rush back to her family once they discover that her paternal grandmother, Victoria Tremaine, is coming for the family. Once back home, Nevada discovers added complications to her fledgling romance, when she finds Rynda Sherwood, nee Charles, Rogan's ex-fiancee, in her kitchen. Rynda's husband is missing and she's pretty much being shunned by all the powerful people in Houston after Nevada, Rogan and their allies killed Rynda's mother at the end of the previous book.

While several of the Baylor clan think it's a dreadful idea for Nevada to help Rynda, as she may lose Rogan in the process, Nevada feels obligated to help the distressed and desperate woman. She wisely points out that if Rogan is going to go back to Rynda, they're never going to have much of a future together, are they? She also needs to convince her mother, sisters and cousins that the best way to defend themselves against Victoria Tremaine is by forming a House of their own. This means coming out in the open with their powers, and being tested and proving their strength. If they register as a House, they will be protected for the next three years and evil grandma won't be able to kidnap them and use their powers for her own gain.

The stakes and danger have escalated with each book in this trilogy and with every book, the sinister conspiracy to create chaos and destabilise the city is revealed to be more far-reaching and powerful. While Nevada hopes that Brian Sherwood's disappearance has nothing to do with the plots she and Rogan have been uncovering in the previous two books, it quickly becomes clear that he's been abducted by someone who wants something left behind by Rynda's now dead mother. Probably evidence that could hurt the conspiracy, making it all the more important for them to find it before the kidnappers hurt Brian.

While Nevada believes their only chance to stay safe from the ruthless and wealthy Victoria Tremaine is by becoming a magical House of their own, her mother Penelope is dead against the idea and pretty much wants Nevada, her sisters and their cousins to pack up and flee. It's made clear that there's really nowhere they could hide for long, and that Victoria wouldn't hesitate to use one of the family to coerce and control the others if she could. When registering for a House, all the various members of the Baylor family would have to be tested, however, and in the case of the youngest sister, Arabella, it could cause widespread panic and end with the girl being locked up by the government for life if the range and nature of her powers are revealed.

Rogan is willing to support Nevada every step of the way, even as he is worried he might lose her forever. Her magical abilities and his are not even vaguely compatible, and Primes of influential Houses tend to marry and have children based on how well powerful their offspring will be. As Nevada discovers, Rynda's husband was deeply disappointed because their youngest son seemed to be entirely without magical ability. Will Rogan care about such things, even if he claims he doesn't?

I wasn't entirely happy with Rynda Charles Sherwood becoming a major character and occasional relationship obstacle for Nevada and Rogan in this book. While it's quite clear that Rogan broke up with her for a reason, and really isn't interested in her apart from feeling protective towards her since he's known her when since they were children, the woman is manipulative and annoying, and does her best to try to throw herself at Rogan and play on his sympathies for much of the book. Nevada admirably doesn't really give into jealousy, and once it becomes clear that she's a Truthseeker Prime to be reckoned with, she has suitors of her own to fend off. She's much more interested in following her heart, rather than making a strategically advantageous alliance with another compatible House. It takes her a little while to convince Rogan of this, but things work out in the end.

One of the things that becomes clear in this book is what a disadvantage Nevada and her family are in because of Penelope's insistence on hiding the true extent of their powers, in order to keep them hidden from Victoria Tremaine for as long as possible. It's only been a few months since Nevada really got involved in the larger world of the magic users of Houston, and she's had to try to teach herself through books given to her by Rogan, while other Primes are trained pretty much from birth. She's strong and powerful, but almost entirely untrained, and now that the Baylors are facing direct attack from several fronts, she needs finesse and to be able to access the full range of her powers. Her mother made that extremely difficult, which is why Nevada chooses to be honest with her cousin Leon about his powers when they start discovering the extent of them, even though they might not like what he chooses to do with them once he knows.

While this is the third book in the originally planned trilogy, not all the threads are neatly tied off at the end of the book, and there are absolutely things that are left unresolved. The authors have said that if the book sells well enough that Avon commissions more books, they'll be happy to write them, and either way, they may self-publish at least one more book in the Hidden Legacy universe. While Rogan and Nevada absolutely have a "happy for now" ending, I would love to read more about them, about Catalina, Arabella, Bern and Leon, as well as Cornelius and his daughter and their strange menagerie of animals. Three books simply doesn't feel like enough, and I am always happy to get more Ilona Andrews books.

Judging a book by its cover: I love the fact that due to the huge amount of protests about the truly diabolically bad cover for White Hot, the publisher actually gave the cover model portraying Rogan (not sure if it's the same guy as one the last cover) a t-shirt, rather than showing off his abs. The cover model portraying Nevada is definitely not the same as on either of the two other covers in the series, but what can you do, eh? Because the last cover was so awful, this doesn't really seem bad in comparison. There are some tornadoes in the background, that's sort of significant. I don't care for the blue fire effect around the title in the slightest. Ilona Andrews deserves better than this cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

#CBR9 Book 75: "When Life Happened" by Jewel E. Ann

Page count: 338 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

After Parker Cruse found her boyfriend in bed with her twin sister, and said boyfriend went on to marry her twin, Parker has nothing but contempt for cheaters. She's also not really on speaking terms with her sister or brother-in-law after dosing her sister with laxatives during the wedding. Having initially planned to go follow her boyfriend to college, her plans for the future were derailed for a while. Now she's moved out of her parents' house (but only really to her grandparents' farmhouse across the road) and is trying to figure out what to do with her future.

She meets her handsome neighbour, Gus, when his dog escapes into her yard. While she finds him attractive, she is very aware that he's married and once his wife, Sabrina, hires Parker to be her personal assistant (although not really, as she has an actual assistant, she just needs a random errand person), she's even more determined to not act on the palpable chemistry between them. She can't forget the betrayal and horror she felt when she found her sister and boyfriend cheating on her, and absolutely doesn't want to do the same to anyone else. But Sabrina travels a lot, leaving Parker and Gus alone together, and when she is home, she and Gus seem to do nothing but argue. Parker discovers that things are not always black and white - life can be very complicated.

Cannonball Read's inimitable reviewing duo, PattyKates, read this back in July and insisted that others in the our little romance-appreciating community try it to, so we could get a discussion going on it. They can usually be trusted when they recommend something (or warn you off it), but I was deeply uncomfortable with the adultery aspect of the book. Enough other people who I respect and trust read the book and insisted it was worth my time, so I felt I had to see what the fuss was about. This should tell you how far behind I am on my reviews. I read this in mid-July and am only getting around to blogging it now.

As most other people who have reviewed the book have insisted on, this book is better if you don't know the full story going in. Yes, the first third of the book really is rather uncomfortable, especially if you don't like adultery as a plot point. There is a twist, and even knowing that going in, I had absolutely no idea what I was in for. I therefore don't want to say too much either, except to say that I'm glad I kept going and that after the very unexpected twist, the book did not go where I was expecting it.

While I have trouble taking anyone who styles herself Jewel E. Ann as a pen name (because there is NO WAY that is anyone's given name) too seriously, I do respect her creativity and this romance really was something slightly different from your regular contemporary. Part of the problem is that there is so much happening in this book, and she only has a little over 300 pages to get it all to work out. I think the book may have worked better and the pacing have felt a bit more comfortable if it was a slightly longer book.

While I found Parker and Gus' initial shenanigans really uncomfortable, I did like them both as separate people. I liked Parker's relationship with her parents and her struggles to come to terms with her sister and ex-boyfriend's new relationship. Part of the issues with this book is that Parker had so many different things to come to terms with, like finding out what to do with her life, sorting out her complicated family problems and such, it didn't entirely feel like she had time for a grand romance as well.

I absolutely don't regret reading this book, and PattyKates are completely right that was an interesting and unusual romance, well worth discussing within our little romance community. I don't really feel like I need to go seek out other books by this author, though, and I doubt I will be re-reading the book now that I know all the twists and turns it takes.

Judging a book by its cover: I genuinely have NO idea what's going on with this cover. The skirt, the sneakers, the disembodied lower half of a woman apparently hula-hooping with electricity? The tag line "Thy shalt not covet thy neighbor's husband" is appropriate, but I have no clue as to what the rest of the cover is about. The author appears to self-publish. Maybe this was the best stock cover image she could find?

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 74: "This Song Will Save Your Life" by Leila Sales

Page count: 288 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Elise Dembowski has always been painfully uncool at school, and spends an entire summer pretty much studying up on how to become popular, spending much of her savings in the process on a new wardrobe, without any success at all. Things may in fact have gotten even worse for her. In a moment of despair, she cuts herself pretty deeply, and while bleeding, calls a school mate, who naturally freaks out and has paramedics sent to Elise's house. After this event, Elise's divorced parents are extremely protective and worried about her, while Elise is pretty much seen as an even bigger freak at school.

Her life starts changing for the better, when one night, wandering aimlessly near her mother's house, she comes across an underground dance club, where she is taken under the wing of some of the regulars, and seems to hit it off with 'Charm', the DJ (His full DJ name is DJ This Charming Man - I honestly can't be bothered to look up what his given name was, it is eventually revealed). The slightly older girls who come there to dance seem to accept her for exactly who she is and 'Charm' is all too happy showing her some of the technical aspects of DJ-ing. On the dance floor, she is able to let go and finds a lot of release. She manages to convince her musician father to get her some mixing equipment and starts teaching herself to DJ, with helpful assistance from 'Charm'. When she actually gets to try it out herself at the club, she discovers her true passion.

To be able to get to the underground club, she needs to spend more time with her mother and her new family, causing tension and friction with her dad, who's losing out on time with his daughter. She keeps having to lie to her parents, which isn't easy for her. To add to her complications, someone at her high school has started an online journal, pretending to be Elise, writing exaggerated posts about how lonely, angry and depressed she is, apparently counting down towards her eventual suicide. While Elise doesn't exactly have a lot of friends, she does have people who care about her, and this blog is making people concerned about her - especially in light of her cutting incident a few months back.

While my escape from the hardships of life has always been books, I know enough people who find solace in music that there was a lot in this book that rang true to me. While Elise is setting off on her project to become more popular, one of the things she simply cannot do is get into the modern disposable pop that most of her peers seem to like. To her, the music of the 1980s and 90s is the only thing that properly counts, music she's learned to love growing up with a musician father. Her extensive knowledge is one of the things that initially impresses 'Charm' and makes him think she might be interested in DJ-ing.

The first half of the book, with Elise's extreme loneliness and despair is quite hard to read. No amount of patient encouragement from her well-meaning parents about being yourself and staying strong helps when everyone your own age seems to think you're a pathetic loser. It's not like Elise is actually being bullied, she's simply entirely over-looked and ignored, which is an insidious type of bullying in itself. When all the people you see at school every day don't seem to care whether you're there or not, it can be easy to convince yourself that you don't matter and that it may be easier if you just died.

After her somewhat botched self-harm attempt, Elise is forced to get counselling and she does actually find a couple of sort of friends, although it takes her a long time to appreciate them, as they may be even more outcast and oddball than she is. With her newfound passion for DJ-ing and going to the dance club, she finds something to truly care about and no longer really cares what her high school peers think of her.

I was never popular in school, and really didn't want to be. I was always extremely lucky enough to be an outcast in a little group of equal-minded unpopular girls. We hung out in the school library and talked about fantasy novels, TV shows and were frankly shocked and somewhat uncomfortable if we ever got invited to parties (they were so loud and full of tedious people, and I tended to end up in a corner wishing I was at home reading). I know my husband was not as lucky, which is why he can still visibly shudder whenever he has to enter a school. For people who suffered bullying or being ignored in the way of Elise, this book could be hard to read. I think the topic is dealt with in a good way, though, and Elise reads like a very believable teenager, even when she makes some rather poor choices over the course of the book.

Judging a book by its cover: This cover is pretty decent for a young adult novel. There's a slightly geeky looking girl wearing big headphones, which seems appropriate based on Elise's DJ passion. Since the girl's in profile, you don't get that much of an impression of her, and can project your own ideas as to who she is. The red letters in the title, spelling out LOVE is also a nice touch.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 11 August 2017

#CBR9 Book 73: "An Extraordinary Union" by Alyssa Cole

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From Goodreads:

Elle Burns is a former slave with a passion for justice and an eidetic memory. Trading in her life of freedom in Massachusetts, she returns to the indignity of slavery in the South - to spy for the Union Army. 

Malcolm McCall is a detective for Pinkerton's Secret Service. Subterfuge is his calling, but he's facing his deadliest mission yet - risking his life to infiltrate a Rebel enclave in Virginia.

Two undercover agents who share a common cause - and an undeniable attraction - Malcolm and Elle join forces when they discover a plot that could turn the tide of war in the Confederacy's favour. Caught in a tightening web of wartime intrigue, and fighting a fiery and forbidden love, Malcolm and Elle must make their boldest move to preserve the Union at any cost - even if it means losing each other...

Elle Burns is the daughter of slaves and can even remember the slavery of her childhood, before her parents' master's son freed them when he inherited. She may be young and female, but she has a gift that can provide invaluable help to the Union cause - her eidetic, or photographic memory. Able to recount with perfect recall anything she has read or overheard, she's the ideal spy. She is rather hot-tempered, though, which is why her current mission involves her posing in a newly elected Confederate senator's household as a mute slave. Her superiors hope that can keep her from exploding and risking the mission. Working undercover in Richmond, Virginia, she hopes to overhear plans that may help the Union cause and hopefully end the Civil War faster.

Malcolm McCall is the son of poor Scottish immigrants, and while he may be white, he remembers all too well the hardships his family suffered in their homeland before his family emigrated. His parents marriage suffered because of some of the horrors inflicted on his mother by British soldiers, his father could never entirely get over it and was pretty much driven mad. Determined to ensure that there is no such oppression and mistreatment of people in his new homeland, he is an avid supporter of the Abolitionist cause and proudly serves the Union and President Lincoln by working for the Pinkerton Secret Service. Posing as a decorated Confederate soldier, he charms his way as a favoured guest into Senator Caffrey's household and tries to learn as many secrets as possible to report back to his superiors.

He's somewhat taken aback to discover that the pretty slave he saw abused by the spoiled young Miss Caffrey earlier in the day is apparently his contact, and that she's not mute or in any way slow, rather the opposite. While Elle is naturally quite wary of the strange soldier she is asked to cooperate with, Malcolm seems pretty instantly infatuated with Elle, and his attraction only increases when he learns just how intelligent and talented she is. Even though they both work for the Union, the couple are both very aware that an inter-racial marriage would be impossible and forbidden, even if they survive their dangerous mission.

Elle is used to people around her being initially rather impressed with her memory, but usually they either seem jealous that such a gift is bestowed on a black woman, or they feel threatened and slightly put off by it. Daniel, her former best friend and erstwhile suitor, seemed intimidated by it and certainly didn't want her to use her abilities to spy for the Union. Now he's been taken prisoner by slavers, and one of Elle's hopes while working as a spy is to discover his whereabouts in the South to see if she can help get him freed. She's surprised when Malcolm is neither upset, threatened or intimidated by her recall, but seems even more attracted to her because of it. As they get to know each other better, he also comes to see what a burden it must be for Elle to perfectly remember absolutely everything she's ever read or heard - she can't really selectively overhear bad or horrible things.

This book was one of those releases that I've seen raved about practically everywhere that reviews romance on the internet. It may have raised my expectations too high, because while I liked the book, it certainly didn't exactly blow me away, and I thought the romance developed very fast and became intense extremely quickly, considering the brief timeline the novel takes place over. Especially considering the racial and political difficulties facing the couple, Elle's misgivings are brushed away in no time at all. Also, it's clear that Malcolm needs to be very open-minded, but he seemed almost anachronistically understanding and a bit too modern in his attitudes throughout the story.

I did like that over the course of the novel, it's clear that each of the protagonists have their strengths and while they are good apart, they're even better together. They also both get a chance to rescue the other out of some pretty dire straits. Thinking back, I think the ending may have been a bit sudden and certain bits were a little bit too convenient to be entirely realistic. I appreciate reading a romance from a different time period than I usually do, though, and it's quite clear that Ms. Cole has done her research well. This is the first book in a series, and I'm sure I'll be reading more of these.

Judging a book by its cover: I've seen this cover highlighted in a number of places as a very good one, and I agree that it's nice-looking, I have doubts that a house slave (like Elle is posing as) would be allowed such a nice dress. It really seems too delicate and pretty for that. I do really like the background details and the pose and posture of the woman on the cover. She looks competent, but wary and on guard, which seems very suitable for this book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

#CBR9 Book 72: "True North" by Liora Blake

Page count: 288 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Kate Mosely is a widow living alone and rather lonely in the little town of Crowell, Montana. She more or less runs the local newspaper she inherited from her father (with help from his old business partner), but her small claim to fame is writing a novel that's become a bestseller, much thanks to her persistent and aggressive literary agent, Stephen. Now, hoping to create more buzz for the book, as well as spurring Kate into writing a second novel, he's booked her on several TV appearances in LA.

Kate is to appear first on a prestigious late night talk show, with tons of viewers, and later fly back to go on one of those mid-morning shows aimed mainly at women, where Kate's tragic widow persona should go over especially well with the audience. Kate is rather uncomfortable about leaving her safe haven, but does what she's told and flies to Los Angeles. Before her first appearance, she makes a new friend in Kellan, the utterly flamboyant and supremely confident stylist that Stephen has hired to help her get the exact right image for late night TV. Kellan is absolutely delighted to take Kate under his wing, and dresses her expertly, so all her nervousness disappears.

In the talk show green room, she encounters some rock star she thinks looks very familiar, and is briefly propositioned by one of his band mates before said guy is told to lay off. She asks the producer who the star is before going on stage, and is told by the baffled individual that she just spent time with Trax, one of the most famous musicians in the US at the moment. He plays a mix of rap, rock and punk (I imagined some kind of mix between Eminem and Henry Rollins) and has a decidedly bad boy image, as a former poor kid become super successful. Once Kate is actually on the show, she promotes her book as well she can, but it's only when Trax is being interviewed that things get interesting. Sparks of palpable mutual attraction clearly fly between the small town novelist and the big shot rock star, and both the talk show host and the audience are loving it.

Kate thinks little of it, until Trax, or Trevor Jenkins as he's really called, phones her up the next day, having had his publicity people get her phone number from her agent. He was clearly rather smitten with Kate, and invites her for a date. After a panicked call to Kellan, and a few hours of primping, Kate feels ready to go out with an international rock star, and discovers that he's a very different (and much more dangerously attractive to her) person when he's not being Trax. Clearly quite used to and very tired of women (and men) wanting to spend time with him, date him and use him for his fame and connections, Trevor seems delighted by how completely indifferent Kate is to his celebrity status. They share some rather steamy kisses, but Trevor is a gentleman and doesn't push his luck on the first date. While they had fun, Kate doesn't really believe it's going to go much further.

But to her surprise, Trevor keeps leaves her a voice mail message when she gets home to Montana, checking if she got home ok. He sends her texts, and gets rather annoyed when she doesn't respond to them at first. Kate is still rather taken aback that such a famous, handsome, very charming man seems infatuated with boring old her, but they start up some pretty heavy duty flirting long distance, either over the phone and by text. Kate hasn't really felt attracted to someone since her husband died and she can't imagine that someone as famous as Trevor/Trax feels more than a passing attraction to her. Hence she is rather shocked when he's quite insulted when she returns to LA for her morning talk show appearance without telling him she was going to be in town. He makes it very clear that to him she is not just some diversion to momentarily entertain him, but if she doesn't feel the same way, maybe they won't have a future after all.

As things get more serious, and Kate meets Trevor's family, not to mention he comes to Crowell and meets what's left of hers, there are absolutely complications to their romance. Some early communications misunderstandings and Kate's sustained disbelief that Trevor is actually completely smitten with her are fairly easily worked through. It gets worse when the tabloids start noticing their relationship, and start digging into Kate's tragic back story, twisting it into something ugly that will sell well. Can Trevor persuade Kate that she's not going to ruin his life and career and that he's in fact never going to be happy without her?

As is so often the case, I got this book in an e-book sale several years ago (it came highly recommended on at least one romance review site I follow - and now I see why), and then promptly forgot about it. Only when it fit into one of my countless reading challenges, What's in a Name, where I have to read a book with a title featuring a compass direction, did this book reappear on my radar. I've read my fair share of rock star romances, and usually, they fail to be all that memorable. Most of them are very forgettable. This book, though, sucked me in wholly. I stayed up until way later at night than was entirely advisable and as soon as I had the chance the next day, I finished it happily. Yup, one of those gems that you read in less than 24 hours, from an author I'd never heard of before.

Kate is a great heroine, and three years after her husband's death, she still does grieve deeply for him. To make matters worse, he died in a car accident in winter, while she was behind the wheel, so she tries very hard not to feel guilty, but it's very hard for her. Living in a small town where everyone knows everyone else, it's not exactly easy for her to meet anyone new, but she's still very surprised at the strength of the attraction she suddenly feels for Trevor/Trax when they meet on the talk show. She's also practical and pragmatic, not at all prone to flighty fantasies, and it takes her a long time to believe that his interest in her is genuine and that he wants something serious and long-term, even after such a short acquaintance. Her restraint and scepticism is one of the things that cause problems early on in their romance.

Trevor has clearly lived a hard life, and became famous while he was still fairly young. As young men are wont to do when they come into huge amounts of celebrity and money, he partied pretty seriously hard for a few years, and now has a reputation as one of the bad boys of the music scene. Both he and his family have known their fair share of difficulties and have had a lot of people try to use him or them, and exploit Trevor's fame. He asks Kate some fairly blunt questions on their first dates, and seems absolutely delighted when she can honestly answer all of them, and seems entirely indifferent to his fame. Frankly, the fact that he's so famous is what makes her doubt that he can really be attracted to a nobody like her, but having had easy access to everything he wanted for so long, has made him want things that are real instead. He no longer wants to live a crazy party lifestyle with casual hook-ups, groupies, drugs and alcohol. He wants to take care of his mother and sister, and his orphaned niece and while he doesn't intend to stop making music, he really doesn't want or need to live in the spotlight anymore.

It's always nice to read a romance where the hero is initially more smitten than the heroine, and almost has to persuade her to love him back. I think it makes for an interesting dynamic. The book was a very quick and entertaining read - it gets a bit frustrating in the second half, when Kate decides to go all self-sacrificing and martyr-like to give up her chance of happiness for the good of Trevor, but she eventually comes to her senses and gives pretty good grovel. There are two more books in the series, the next one featuring Trevor's sister and his bandmate Simon (the guy who cheerfully hit on Kate in the green room at the start of the book), who has clearly been head over heals for her for years. The final book is about Kate's sister, who's a pretty cool supporting character in this one, and now that I've discovered Liora Blake, I'm very interested in seeing if the rest of her books are as good as this one.

Judging a book by its cover: I think one of the reasons I was underestimating how enjoyable this book was going to be, was the cover. The headless bodies, with some shirtless dude making sure the man-titty is fully on display, while leaning on his guitar. The turned-away woman, with the baggy flannel shirt and cowboy boots, it all seemed a bit photo-shopped together and not very professional or inviting. As these books appear to be self-published, I maybe shouldn't have been so hard on the cover design.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

#CBR9 Book 71: "Greenglass House" by Kate Milford

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Milo Pine lives at the large and sprawling Greenglass House with his adopted parents, Nora and Ben. The house is an inn that tends to cater to smugglers and other people not always on the right side of the law, but during the Christmas season, it's normally empty and quiet and Milo is looking forward to a few weeks of relaxation and quiet with his family. His parents are extremely surprised and Milo rather annoyed when they seem to be absolutely inundated with guests only a few days before Christmas Eve. This is really going to put a damper on Milo's vacation.

Greenglass House has an illustrious history, and once belonged to legendary smuggler Doc Holystone. Somewhat of a local hero, he was eventually cornered by law enforcement and died on the property. As the days pass, it turns out that all the strange guests who have shown up have some sort of connection either to Doc Holystone, Greenglass House or the mystery surrounding him. While the group is snowed in by the inclement weather, it turns out that someone is stealing items from some of the guests. Milo and his new friend Meddy, the housekeeper/cook's youngest daughter decide to investigate and figure out what is going on, and try to locate not just the missing items, but who is responsible for stealing them.

Greenglass House is a middle grade mystery novel with a frame narrative. While there are several mysteries to be solved, the book is also very much about story telling of various kinds. The main story about Milo, his parents and the various strange guests is a frame narrative. There is also the book of local legends and stories that Milo is lent by Georgie, one of the guests, and the many stories that the various guests are persuaded into telling in the evenings, both to entertain and for the various individuals stuck at the house to get to know each other better. Some of the stories obviously turn out to have more of a significance to the plot than others, but even the more throw-away ones are a delight to read.

Milo starts the story as a rather shy and introverted boy, who is forced out of his comfort zone more than once because of the unusual pre-Christmas events he becomes part of. Meddy is a much more outgoing and impetuous individual and she persuades Milo to investigate, while also creating "roles" for them, using the rules of an old role-playing game of sorts. Meddy knows all of the rules and character traits for the various personas, and badgers Milo until together they've created Negret, who is in many ways the direct opposite of the youth. Meddy becomes Sirin, an incorporeal spirit, who will be invisible at all times, so she will be able to observe the various people as Milo has to do most of the active investigating and questioning. As the story proceeds, and Meddy encourages him, he becomes a lot more assertive and brave.

While it's not a major plot point in the story, the fact that Milo is adopted and doesn't look like his parents (he's of Chinese origin) does come up. While he's lived with Ben and Nora since he was a baby and loves them and never feels anything less than absolutely treasured, he does still occasionally wonder about his biological family and what they may be like. He's painfully aware that new guests who arrive at the inn will always instantly see that he's adopted and looks nothing like his parents. While role-playing Negret and solving mysteries with Meddy, he's able to work through some of his identity qualms in a pretty good way.

While this seems to be a contemporary story, there is a lack of much identifiable technology, and some of what is mentioned appears almost Steampunky. There is also a supernatural element, but I don't want to say too much about it, so as to not spoil anything for new readers. The plot with a number of colourful individuals stuck together by circumstance, while a mystery needs to be solved, is also reminiscent of a lot of cozy mysteries, like those by the excellent Agatha Christie. Here the detective is not an eccentric Belgian or a village spinster, but a clever young man instead, which made for a nice change. The book won an Edgar Award in 2015 and has been nominated for a number of other ones.

This is the first Kate Milford book I've read, after having heard so many good things about her. This book was a fascinating read, because of the multiple levels of story telling, the mystery and the wonderful interplay between the characters. I can highly recommend it to anyone looking for something quick and entertaining to pass the time.

Judging a book by its cover: This cover is absolutely lovely, giving the reader a very good idea of what the fanciful Greenglass House and its snow-clad surroundings look like. I like the various shades of green that are used, in the title font, the various trees in the woods and the colourful glass of the house. Such excellent cover design.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

#CBR9 Book 70: "The Ghost Bride" by Yangsze Choo

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 3 stars

The former Chinese colony of Malaya (current day Malaysia) is now under British rule, but the Chinese population there still try their best to stick to their ancient customs. Li Lan's family was once wealthy, but after her mother died from chickenpox, her father tried to cover his grief by taking opium and now they are nearly bankrupt, with very few promising marriage prospects for Li Lan. One day, however, her father claims that the wealthy and influential Lim family have offered her a ghost marriage. The son and heir of the family died last year, and they want Li Lan to marry him in a proxy ceremony. Her future would be secured, and she would always have a comfortable home - but Li Lan is appalled by the suggestion.

The Lim family want to persuade Li Lan and invite her to their opulent mansion. Here she meets the new heir, Tian Bai, cousin of her deceased intended bridegroom. They seem drawn to one another, and later Li Lan discovers from her father that before the son of the Lim family died, there was an arrangement where she was intended for Tian Bai. Now that he's the heir and her family are in debt and out of favour, the match seems impossible.

Li Lan comes to realise that the reason the Lim family are so eager for her to be a ghost bride is that her dead bridegroom is haunting the household, and is determined to win her, reluctant or not. He starts haunting her dreams, trying to curry her favour, and Li Lan becomes increasingly more desperate to get rid of him. Seeking the aid of an wizened old lady who claims to be a medium (against the dire warnings of her nurse), Li Lan is given drugs and incantations that are supposed to keep her ghostly suitor out. Unfortunately, she finds herself in a coma-like state, separated from her body. Li Lan finds that she has to visit the underworld to try to figure out why her suitor is so obsessed with her, so she can figure out a way to get rid of him once and for all. Being away from her body for too long holds its own dangers, though, there are vengeful, restless spirits that could take possession of it, and if her spirit is gone for too long, she'll waste away and die.

This was the Vaginal Fantasy book club pick for June (and yes, I'm only NOW getting around to writing about it - I'm well behind on my reviews), and since I'd bought it in an e-book sale ages ago, I figured it was as good a time as any to read the book. While all the VF ladies really liked the book, I must admit, I was rather more underwhelmed by the whole thing. Learning more about a part of the world I knew little to nothing about (colonial Malaya) and the customs and beliefs around death, funerals and the afterlife in this culture was fascinating. That part worked really well. The actual story of the book, though, never managed to really engage me.

First of all, Li Lan seemed rather useless and while she actually does go out and do quite a lot over the course of the book, she still managed to come across as rather passive and uninspiring. Brought up in a culture where upper class women were pretty much supposed to be mainly ornamental won't have helped with this, of course. Nevertheless, I had trouble warming to her as a protagonist. I wanted her to grow more of a backbone and show more spirit.

I also thought the structure of the book left something to be desired. It's got a very slow start and as I have already mentioned, struggled to make me really interested in the story of Li Lan. She's facing a pretty creepy scenario, I wanted to feel for her, but I kept on with the book partially in the hopes that just around the corner, something was going to hook me in. The middle part of the book takes place in the afterlife, which was also potentially cool, but here the story got a bit confusing, and I never really understood the motivations behind Li Lan's vengeful dead suitor or the corrupt afterlife officials who seem to be exploiting him somehow. During the last third of the book, Li Lan has to fight to get her body back, after it's possessed. There is also a new and rather unexpected love interest introduced, a bit late in the story, in my opinion. I found it especially vexing because he was one of the most fascinating characters in the book, and we didn't get to spend enough time with him. I also would have liked for there to be more interaction between him and Li Lan, she seems to fall for him awfully and conveniently quickly.

 It's clear from the reactions of the four really rather different VF hosts and much of the VF Goodreads forum that most people liked this book a lot more than I did. It should absolutely be applauded for doing something different and teaching the reader about a different time and culture. I don't regret buying or reading the book, but I doubt I'll ever be re-reading it, and if it wasn't a digital copy, this would end up in my "give away to a charity shop" pile.

Judging a book by its cover: I think the cover for this is really beautiful, and if I recall correctly, that along with the description (as well as it being on sale) was what made me buy the book in the first place. The flowers in the foreground, the sparkles, the partially out of sight woman, the foreground of the picture being out of focus. I'm sorry I didn't like the book as much as I do the cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.