Monday, 23 September 2019

#CBR11 Book 67: "The Bookish Life of Nina Hill" by Abbi Waxman

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

From Goodreads, because it's been over a month since I finished this:

The only child of a single mother, Nina has her life just as she wants it: a job in a bookstore, a kick-butt trivia team, a world-class planner and a cat named Phil. If she sometimes suspects there might be more to life than reading, she just shrugs and picks up a new book.

When the father Nina never knew existed suddenly dies, leaving behind innumerable sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews, Nina is horrified. They all live close by! They're all—or mostly all—excited to meet her! She'll have to Speak. To. Strangers. It's a disaster! And as if that wasn't enough, Tom, her trivia nemesis, has turned out to be cute, funny, and deeply interested in getting to know her. Doesn't he realise what a terrible idea that is?

Nina considers her options.

1. Completely change her name and appearance. (Too drastic, plus she likes her hair.)
2. Flee to a deserted island. (Hard pass, see: coffee).
3. Hide in a corner of her apartment and rock back and forth. (Already doing it.)

It's time for Nina to come out of her comfortable shell, but she isn't convinced real life could ever live up to fiction. It's going to take a brand-new family, a persistent suitor, and the combined effects of ice cream and trivia to make her turn her own fresh page.

This book is what I hoped, based on the description and many rave advance reviews, that Evvie Drake Starts Over was going to be. It was a perfectly fine book, and a decent romance, but it never really gave me the thrill that a really satisfying reading experience should. Now this book, on the other hand, I liked so many things about this book - the introverted heroine and her overwhelming love of books, obviously. Nina's trivia quiz hobby - I love a good trivia quiz and used to take part in a weekly one along with my brother and his friends (sometimes my husband would also take part). I really miss having a regular trivia quiz team.

I liked the weird and wonderful way that Nina's newly revealed family tree hung together. Her new relatives, even the rather antagonistic ones, were great supporting characters. I love that the author takes the time to give us an idea of who Nina's friends are, and that Tom, Nina's initial quiz nemesis, but whom she clearly really fancies, has his own distinct friend group and supportive family members too. A good supporting cast is a lot more important to the quality of a book than a lot of people think. It makes the world seem more real and while Nina is most certainly an introvert, it doesn't mean she doesn't have people in her life who help draw her out of her shell occasionally.

The one thing that keeps this book from being a full five star read for me is that the romance could have been more developed. The family and friend stuff is all excellent and amused me greatly, but Tom is clearly a really great guy and pretty much perfect for Nina, so I missed having more scenes of just the two of them, developing their relationship (there were a little too many complications, and not enough actual couple time). A stronger romance plot would have made this book pretty much perfect for me.

Judging a book by its cover: I've mentioned the trend of cutesy, cartoony covers for romances that the publishers seem to want to market to a wider, more mainstream audience, but this one, I don't actually mind. I like the warm, happy colours of it, and I love that the glasses double as the Os in bookish. If I hadn't already heard a lot about this book on various book review sites I follow, this cover would guarantee that I would notice the book in a store and pick it up to see what it was about.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

#CBR11 Book 66: "The Wallflower Wager" by Tessa Dare

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lady Penelope Campion lives quite happily alone in London, aided only by an old, pretty much deaf housekeeper and surrounded by her unusual menagerie of rescued animals. There's a highland cow, a goat, an otter, several chickens, a dog with only the use of his front legs, a whole bunch of kittens and a particularly foul-mouthed parrot. Her friends dote on her and even politely try to eat her horrendous vegetable meat substitutes without complaining or making a fuss. So when Penelope's aunt comes to announce are demanding Penelope's return to the family estate in the country, she's devastated. She makes a wager with her aunt that she'll stop being a strange reclusive wallflower, get all the animals re-homed, purchase a new wardrobe and start being seen at social engagements around town again - even balls.

Gabriel Duke grew up in abject poverty and has used his cleverness and guile to become a force to be reckoned with in London society. He's known as the Duke of Ruin after having schemed, manipulated and used his financial savvy to ruin several important and influential families. Now he's bought a grand mansion right next door to where Lady Penelope lives and is having it refurbished, planning to sell it for a fortune, in part because he can boast about the peers nearby. Not that he'll ever be able to sell the house if there's a veritable zoo of strange creatures in the neighbouring house. He demands that Penelope get rid of her animals, and since that works out well with her aunt's already stated demands, Lady Penelope negotiates Gabriel's help in assisting her.

Of course sparks fly pretty much instantly. Lady Penelope and Gabriel's first meeting involves her breaking into his house in the middle of the night to retrieve her sweary parrot, and walks in on him wearing only a towel. They're deeply attracted to one another, but Gabriel doesn't believe he could ever be good enough for Penelope, and she's got some trauma in her past that she needs to work through, and has never really allowed herself to feel attracted to a man before, certainly not to let go and give into her desires.

I liked Gabriel (seriously, romance authors, start picking other names for your heroes, the cognitive dissonance is just too strange when I have to read kissing books starring dudes with the same name as my sweet little boy), who despite presenting himself as gruff and ruthless is clearly just a marshmallow at heart, desperately wanting to be loved. For all that he claims to be annoyed by Lady Penelope and her many rescue animals, he also keeps going above and beyond for her, and has absolutely no time for anyone criticising her in any way. It's quite clear that for all that her friends love her dearly, they sometimes infantilise Penelope a bit too often. Gabriel treats her like an intelligent, adult woman who should take charge of her own life. He also gets massive kudos for the way he reacts when Penelope finally tells him the secrets of her past, although then he goes an alphas it up a bit too far, creating over the top drama towards the end.

Lady Penelope is very cute, but sadly here I think Ms Dare has turned the quirky knob past even eleven and gone too far. The many different rescue animals are funny in moderation, but there may be a bit too many of them. I also the shtick with her vegetarianism and array of utterly inedible meat substitutes just a bit too much. It's shown later in the book that it's perfectly possible to eat a completely meat-free diet even in Regency times without resorting to creating food no one in their right mind would consume. I did appreciate that despite her past unfortunate experiences, Penelope is entirely frank about her sexual attraction to Gabriel and once she decides she wants him, doesn't let anything stop her from having a good time.

There are the obligatory cameos by the previous heroes and heroines in the series. There's a particularly amusing scene in the final part of the book involving all three very manly heroes trying to figure out what to do when faced with a goat in labour. I thought this was better than The Governess Game, but nowhere near as good as The Duchess Deal (which, for all its Tessa Dare crazy, utterly worked for me). It'll be fun to see what happy ending is in store for our final heroine of the series, some time next year.

Judging a book by its cover: OK, Avon cover designers, have you actually just given up now? There is NOTHING on this cover that suggests that it's a historical romance set in the Regency era. Nothing! The female cover model is wearing what appears to be a negligee and the male model looks, well, just like a male model. From the 21st Century. There have been a lot of romance cover trends that annoyed me, but using a cover that could pretty much just as easily fit on a contemporary is a new low. Additionally, the weird effect where they've made it look like the couple are glowing is not a good feature - it makes me worry the couple are faintly radioactive, or possibly aliens.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

#CBR11 Book 65: "A Rogue by Night" by Kelly Bowen

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Sir Harland Hayward, Baron Strathmore, is something of an oddity among the nobility, in that he insists on not only continuing to run a shipping company, but he works as a practising physician, treating aristocrats and commoners alike. A less widely known fact is that he also helps his sister, the headmistress of the prestigious Haverhall School for ladies (a profession she has kept up with, even after becoming a duchess) to each year train some select students who are interested in becoming doctors as well. Harland knows that women can be just as capable, if not better, at certain things than men. He doesn't have a lot of illusions left after surviving and treating survivors on the battlefields of the Napoleonic wars.

When his parents died, Harland discovered that the family fortunes were nearly gone. He tried his best to save the family shipping business, but after some devastating losses, had no choice but to make a deal with ruthless underworld crime boss King. Now he has no choice but to run a smuggling operation along the Kentish coast, taking advantage of many of the people on his lands. When one of his smugglers, Matthew, is shot during an operation, he shows up to help in his guise as the local benevolent physician, only to discover that Katherine, Matthew's sister, has the situation well at hand. She's able to deal with the complicated gun shot in a way that shows she has a lot more skills and experience than your regular village healer and wise woman. Harland is both impressed and intrigued by Katherine, but his guilty conscience for the situation he's put her family in wars with his attraction for her.

Katherine hates that her father and brother are involved in smuggling, and determined to get them to go straight, if she can just ensure that her brother survives being shot (and the possible following infection). Like Harland, Katherine has extensive battlefield experience in France, having fallen in love with and followed a manipulative nobleman to war, only to discover he only saw her as a passing fancy, and ended up abandoning not only her, but his dying men on the field towards the end of the war. So Katherine doesn't trust handsome nobles anymore, and clearly being the most intelligent member of her family, seems to be the only person who questions why the local baron suddenly shows up to offer medical assistance after her brother's "accident". Who exactly told him there was a need?

Ignoring Katherine's animosity, Harland offers to let her brother recover at Avondale House, the manor house his brother in law owns, and from which his sister Clara houses her summer students. The authorities won't think to look for him there. Harland also suggests that Katherine help with instructing the medical students and once his sister enthusiastically supports the idea (and Katherine is sure it's not just a strange way for him to seduce her), she grudgingly accepts the job.

Katherine has barely started her instructor job when Harland comes to her, asking for help with a dangerous mission he's been given by King. There are French prisoners who need to be rescued from prison in London and escorted back to France. Harland needs an extra physician with him to ensure he can treat the wounded prisoners, and Katherine is the most skilled person he can think of. As it turns out, her past smuggling experience and quick wits make her even more invaluable partner on the mission.

Katherine's distrust and animosity towards Harland doesn't last very long, and while they don't plummet into insta-love, they haven't spent much time in each other's company before they are pretty hopelessly in love. Sadly, the early smugglers vs corrupt and violent authorities sub-plot, followed by the more adventurous escape and rescue heist takes up most of the story, with less time to properly pace and develop Katherine and Harland's relationship.

King has been the enigmatic sort-of-villain in a lot of Bowen's books by now, and he's always fun (I'm really hoping he's getting his own book sometime soon). It was extremely refreshing to see Katherine taking him on head on, not even vaguely intimidated by him. Harland, bless him, for all that he's compassionate and deeply feminist, is clearly not all that clever and never stood a chance against King, getting mired in a deal that keeps forcing him to take advantage of his Kentish tenants and putting them at risk. Katherine, whose mother (before her death) successfully masterminded the local smuggling long before Harland got involved, taught her daughter well (for all that Katherine hates smuggling, it doesn't take away from the fact that she's very good at it). Once she understands the full truth behind Harland's predicament and how it impacts on her own family, she goes toe to toe with the London crime lord, basically saving the day before Harland even realises what's going on.

Sadly, I don't think either of the books in Bowen's The Devils of Dover series have been as strong as those in her Season for Scandal trilogy, but it continues her trend of having interesting, unusual and extremely proficient women fall for powerful men who utterly adore them, and rather than feel threatened by them just want to use their power and resources to make sure that the women in their lives can live their best lives and continue to be awesome. While she's not on my auto-buy or pre-order list yet, Kelly Bowen is a historical author whose books I've come to look forward to and I'm excited to see what she's going to come up with next.

Judging a book by its cover: None of the books in this series have had particularly great covers, but this is just a bit sad. First of all, the cover model looks very little like our hero (his hair, for instance, is described as red - not the dirty blond of this guy). Putting some boyband reject in a period shirt and dark trousers and asking him to scowl for the camera, before photoshopping him over a nice generic old timey house background - it's scraping the bottom of the barrel, ideas wise. Kelly Bowen is lucky that by now she's proven herself good enough that I'll read her books regardless of what the cover looks like.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

#CBR11 Book 64: "Evvie Drake Starts Over" by Linda Holmes

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Reader's Choice (in place of Back to School)

Eveleth "Evvie" (rhymes with 'chevy') Drake has packed the car and is about to leave her husband when she gets a phone call that he's been in a car accident. Before she can make it to the hospital, he is dead. About a year later, everyone thinks Evvie has kept to herself, isolated in her big house, because she's overcome with grief. She never told anyone that the town's beloved son, a popular and charming doctor, was in fact an emotionally abusive asshole whom she was in the process of leaving when he died. She doesn't feel grief, she feels guilty - about all the sympathy almost smothering her. About NOT grieving.

Her best friend Andy, single father of two little girls, is puzzled that the good doctor didn't seem to have left any life insurance, he knows Evvie is almost broke. He suggests she rents out her downstairs apartment to a childhood friend of his, former baseball pro Dean Tenney, who needs to get away from the media spotlight and could use some relaxing downtime in Maine. Dean used to be a Major League pitcher, but finds himself struck down by the 'yips' and can no longer pitch reliably. He's tried every possible treatment under the sun, and needs to get away from it all to start rethinking his future.

Dean and Evvie make a deal: he won't ask her about her marriage and late husband, she won't ask him about baseball. As they become more friendly, that rule rather quickly gets broken, though, and Evvie finds that she can tell Dean, an almost stranger, things that she has never felt comfortable sharing with her dad or Andy. The couple of months Dean was going to stay keep getting extended, and gradually, his and Evvie's friendship starts evolving into something more, at the same time as some of the secrets Evvie's been keeping come out and start driving a wedge in the friendship between her and Andy.

While Dean seems to enjoy his time with Evvie and the quiet life in Maine, the rest of his life is back in New York. Evvie claims she is perfectly fine and totally over her former relationship - but can she really fully put her trust in another man after the things her husband put her through?

This book has been on so many 'Must Read' lists this year, and I'm assuming that so much of the hype comes from the fact that Linda Holmes is a well-known podcaster and NPR presenter. She also used to write for Television without Pity back in the day (man, I miss some of those recaps!), but to me, she's a complete unknown. I'm always happy to give a well-reviewed romance a chance, and it didn't take me long to see why this book has become so popular.

As an introvert with social anxiety, I totally understand and relate to Evvie's instincts to stay inside and shield herself from the outside world. Her job is transcribing audio tapes and interviews for other people, which sounds like a fascinating way to make a living, if one that doesn't exactly lend itself to an active social life. In the year after her husband's death, she pretty much only sees her friend Andy or her father, and even after Dean moves in, her interactions with others than these three men isn't exactly frequent.

I found it interesting that there was not one, but two, portrayals of mothers who chose to leave their children behind after a divorce. In general, it always seems to be the mother who has the main custody of the kids, but both Evvie's mother and Andy's wife are more than happy to leave the child rearing to the men and going off to do their own thing, which certainly results in Evvie having a lot of complicated feelings towards her mother and feeling abandoned and ignored by a person she wishes to be closer to. Her father is great, but so caring and protective that Evvie has never felt she could tell him the truth about her marriage, and what she was about to do on the night her husband died.

I also liked that while this is absolutely a romance, with the developing relationship of Evvie and Dean at the centre of the story, the book is just as much about Evvie slowly healing from the emotional abuse she has suffered and learning to become a bit more open and adventurous. This is presented as a gradual and slow change, and very refreshingly, it's not because she suddenly falls in love with someone new, who "heals" her magically with his presence. Evvie just comes to realise how much of the solitude she now has told herself she enjoys comes from the fact that she was being isolated from other people by her husband, and that in fact, her life will be more exciting and richer if she has more people to share it with. Over the course of the book, she also comes to accept that she's not weak for accepting the help from others, including a professional therapist who can help her work through her past trauma better than anyone else.

While Dean isn't really able to "heal" Evvie from the scars brought on by her emotionally (and occasionally physically) abusive marriage, neither is Evvie able to fix Dean's 'yips', for all that she tries and tries. They change each others' lives, and make them richer and happier, and both characters end the book in a much more hopeful place than where they started, but this is not a story where love magically solves everything.

I can see why this book has become so popular, but all the hype made me expect something more than just a well-written contemporary romance. I kept waiting for it to blow my socks off, and to really suck me in, and that never happened. I liked the book a lot, but based on other reviews, I was expecting to love it, and that never happened. It's good, it deals with a lot of important issues, but I doubt I'm going to revisit it in years to come.

Judging a book by its cover: This is one of the many romance novels being marketed for a wider audience by giving it a cute cartoony cover, in this case, there aren't even people on it, embracing and sending the signal that you may catch 'romance cooties' if you read it. This book is a romance, through and through, and it's a shame that other books of similar quality are overlooked because of the stigma associated with the genre.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

#CBR11 Book 63: "Spinning Silver" by Naomi Novik

Page count: 480 pages
Audio book length: 17 hrs 56 mins
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Listicle (on a bunch of best of 2018 lists, including NPR, Bustle and Bookbub).

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of Jewish moneylenders, but her father is a dreadful one, who doesn't have the heart to actually claim back the debts that the villagers owe, even when his daughter is starving and the long, cold winters are making his wife sicker and sicker. Miryem refuses to see her mother die due to her father's weakness, hardens her heart and takes over her father's duties. Unlike him, she refuses to listen to excuses and starts forcing people to pay back some of what they owe. If they can't contribute coin, she'll take goods.

Wanda is the daughter and eldest child of a violent, drunken farmer who borrowed money from the moneylender when his wife was sick, but drank most of the money away, so she died. Now he abuses Wanda and her two brothers, who barely have enough to survive on, since what the tax collectors don't take away, their father spends on drink. When Miryem comes calling to collect on the debt, she decides Wanda will come work in her parents house as a servant, a maid of all work, and will gradually pay off the debt that way. Neither Mireym, nor Wanda's father realise how happy Wanda is about this change in her circumstances. Wanda is away from her father's violent presence for much of the day, she gets more to eat (even if she sometimes has to steal bread meant for the chickens), her father can't marry her off to anyone (as then no one will be paying off the debt) and gradually, she steps in as an assistant to Miryem, and slowly learns the intricacies of the numbers in her ledger.

Because Miryem is ruthlessly efficient, she manages to start reclaiming her mother's dowry. A savvy businesswoman, she sells everything her family can't directly use, making a profit, so that soon her family has gone from abject poverty to modest wealth again. Her grandfather is immensely proud of her, and lends her silver for more loans, which she is able to return to him as gold. Getting a reputation as someone who can start with silver and end up with gold is dangerous, though. Miryem finds herself challenged by the Staryk, the cold creatures who haunt the woods and terrorise people in the winter. The first time he brings her a small pouch of six silver coins to be returned as gold. If Miryem succeeds, she will be rewarded, if she fails, she will be turned to ice. Miryem takes the coins to a young jeweller in the city where her grandfather lives. He turns the magic silver into a ring, which they sell to the local duke, and not only do they manage to get the six gold coins the Staryk demands, but they both make a profit.

The second time, the Staryk lord comes, he demands sixty silver coins transformed and claims it is the second of three tests. Miryem is bold enough to ask what her reward will be if she actually succeeds, and is shocked to discover that should that come to pass, the Staryk lord making the demands will take her as his wife. She doesn't really want that (he's terrifying), but neither does she want to die. She goes back to the jeweller, who makes a beautiful necklace, which he also presents to the duke. The duke, who has never really thought he'd be able to make an especially good match for his plain daughter Irina, discovers that with the Staryk silver ring and necklace, she may not be beautiful, but she's striking and mesmerising in a way he can clearly capitalise on. He demands a silver crown from the jeweller, and since the third time the Staryk lord arrives, he wants 600 silver coins turned to gold, Miryem has no problem providing enough metal. As soon as she has presented the gold the Staryk lord (who turns out to be the king of his people), she is whisked away to his kingdom, and her family in the human world are left with only vague memories of her.

The jeweller makes a crown fit for a queen which the duke gifts to Irina, and when the tsar comes to visit, it is decided that he will take Irina as his bride. Sadly, Irina discovers that the reason the tsar was so ready and willing to agree to marry a minor duke's unremarkable daughter has nothing to do with her magical silver jewelry, but rather her distant Staryk ancestry. The tsar is possessed by a demon, who craves the Staryk cold within her. He intends to murder Irina and eat her life force. Luckily for Irina, she discovers that wearing her silver, she can slip through mirrors into the cold, snow covered Staryk kingdom, hiding away from the demon when he comes every night. In the daytime, her husband is human, and she puts up a very credible show of them being wildly infatuated, while trying desperately to figure out a way she can tempt the demon with something else, so she, or those she loves, don't become victims of the demon instead.

Irina is not the only one who ends up with an undesirable husband. Miryem is taken to the centre of the Staryk lands, and it turns out that while she could metaphorically turn silver into gold in the 'sunlit lands' because she was a clever negotiator and drove a good bargain, in the Staryk kingdom, she can literally turn silver into gold with a touch. This makes her an important asset to the Staryk king, who clearly resents the fact that she succeeded with his three impossible tasks in the first place, and ended up as his wife. They barely interact, except every evening, when Miryem gets to ask him three questions.

As the story progresses, Irina, Miryem and Wanda's stories become even more intertwined than in the beginning. Miryem needs to stop the Staryk king from covering the human world in pretty much eternal winter, and try to find a way to get back to her parents. Wanda and her brothers end up orphaned after a truly horrible accident and need to find a way to survive. Irina needs to figure out how to save her spoiled, indifferent husband and the kingdom she now feels responsible for from the ravages of the demon.

This is the follow-up to Novik's Uprooted, which while it felt like it should be, wasn't actually a retelling of any fairy tale. In Spinning Silver, however, Novik takes on the fairy tale of Rumplestiltskin, but mainly by using many different elements of the old tale in a completely new way in this novel. It's not straw being turned into gold, but silver. In the story, the desperate young woman forced by the king to spin the straw, pays the little imp first with a necklace and then with a ring, and finally, she's forced to bargain her firstborn child to succeed in her impossible tasks. The Staryk silver that Miryem is asked to transform as her initial tests, are turned into a ring, a necklace and a stately crown. She is later set an even bigger, seemingly impossible task, involving her new-found magical powers, but succeeds through her own cleverness. There are marriages (to an otherworldly king and a tsar) because of magical interference, and I was surprised and delighted that there was even callbacks to the promise of a firstborn child as the story progressed. The danger of revealing your true name to someone, and how it can grant others terrible power over you is a factor, as it is in so many faerie stories. There are also some elements of the Hades and Persephone myth (always a good one) in the second half of the book.

I found it interesting, that while female friendship is so central to the story in Uprooted, this book, which can be said to have three different female protagonists have all three struggling alone, without much support from others of their sex at all. Miryem loves her mother, but has no female friends. Wanda lost her mother to childbirth, and while she is given a job by Miryem, they never become close - it is entirely an employer/employee relationship. Irina also lost a mother to childbirth, and is only really close to the nurse who raised her, Magreta. The three women's stories weave into each other more tightly as the story progresses, but even towards the end, they each seem to stand alone, just helping each other a bit to achieve the same end goals.

While I liked this book a lot, and think it's probably structured better than Uprooted, overall (there were no sections that felt like they dragged unnecessarily, like I remember from the previous book), there was one thing that was annoying, and rather distracting, throughout the book.  The point of view changes suddenly from one character to the other, without any warning for the reader. It can take a while to realise who you are reading about when you get to a new section. I listened to the book in audio, but because all of these women have vaguely Eastern European accents, there wasn't a lot of differentiation there either. This book, which in total has six different points of view (Miryem, Wanda, Irina, Wanda's younger brother, Irina's nurse Magreta and, only once, the tsar), may have been better served by multiple narrators, so it would be clear when the voices changed which character's section you were moving into.

I also thought that the ending was a bit rushed, and would not have complained if there was a bit more romance throughout the story. Being married off to a supercilious winter king who seems to loathe you for your humanity because of a strange magical bargain seems like the ultimate enemies to lovers story, doesn't it? I never got beyond the first of Novik's Temeraire books, despite my general fondness for dragons. Now, I hope Novik keeps writing fairy tellings or her own original folklore interpretations for many years to come.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover design is in the same style as Uprooted, but with much cooler colours (since so much of this is set in winter) and because silver plays such an important part in the story. The central image is clearly Miryem, using her magical powers to turn silver into gold. There's also one of the Staryk pouches of coins, the haughty face of the Staryk king and a rain of gold coins, all central elements of the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

#CBR11 Book 62: "Ride with Me" by Ruthie Knox

Page count: 328 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Travel

Tom is a brooding loner with a past, who gave up the corporate life and now works as a bike mechanic. He's estranged from most of his family, with the exception of his sister. Determined to cycle the Trans-America trail, from Oregon to Virginia, he's annoyed when he discovers said sister has been e-mailing someone (as him) to arrange for a riding partner. When he finds out that the "Alex" his sister has been e-mailing is, in fact, a Lexie, he is even more frustrated. He doesn't want company, but he also feels bad about leaving Lexie without any sort of protection on the journey. They agree to cycle together until Tom can find someone else for Lexie to ride safely with.

Lexie's parents met on the Trans-Am trail during the seventies, and she and her brother had always planned on doing the ride together. Then her brother went and married a woman with no interest in cycling, and Lexie has to decide whether she wants to do the ride by herself. Since no one answers her initial ad for a companion when it's obvious that she's a woman, she places a new one that seems more ambiguous. She figures that once all the details are ironed out, whomever agreed to ride with her could be persuaded to go along with the plan. She's not really expecting to meet a really hot, but taciturn and angry guy, with what seems to be very sexist views of female cyclists. Because he seems to take it as read that she'll be attracted to him, Lexie makes up a fictional husband to make sure the arrogant man is put in his place.

While both are incredibly annoyed by the other, they eventually grow to like one another and become friends over the course of their journey. Tom manages to get Lexie to relax more and rely a lot less on fixed plans, maps and her bike computer. Lexie gets Tom to open up more and gradually begin to interact with the people around him. Of course, the more time they spend together, the more the attraction between them grows, as well, and that fictional husband of Lexie's becomes quite the obstacle. Tom was cheated on by his now ex-wife and is determined never to be a part of any form of adultery. Having cycled thousands of miles together perpetuating the lie, Lexie is worried about how Tom will actually react if she tells him the truth.

As far as I can recall, this is the first romance novel I've ever read focused on cycling. It's a road trip romance, but the mode of transportation is bicycles, rather than a car, and these people are pretty serious about their hobby. On the other hand, as cycling cross country is a time consuming process, there is really not a smidge of the insta-love here. Tom and Lexie's journey takes many months and they have a lot of time to initially annoy each other, before the sparks fly, the truth comes out and they begin to get on (and get it on) passionately. During the first half of the book, the conflict is Tom and Lexie's differing views of how the journey should be conducted and them being seeming opposites. Once they start steaming up the tent every night (not to mention apparently having as much amorous time al fresco as possible), they are both in agreement that neither is looking for long term commitment, and their affair will end as soon as they reach Virginia. They seem to have very different plans for the future, and initially it seems impossible that they could continue a relationship after completing their long journey.

I've read a fair few Ruthie Knox novels in previous years, but she's not as prolific as a lot of other contemporary writers out there, and so I have a tendency to forget about her, only to rediscover her again every so often. Each time I pick up one of her books, I'm surprised by how witty and enjoyable it is to read, with great chemistry between the leads, clever dialogue and some really steamy smexy times. I still have a few of her older books on my TBR list, and should probably do myself the favour of reading them before I completely forget how much I tend to like her books.

Judging a book by its cover: See, it's not just hockey romances that have prominent man-titty on the cover. A book about cycling can too, even though the hero is described as wearing t-shirts for most of the scenes that aren't *insert funky bass line here*. Also, since the hero is described as having several prominent tattoos, it would have been nice to have that reflected in the cover image.

Crossposted by Cannonball Read.

Monday, 5 August 2019

#CBR11 Book 61: "My Sister, the Serial Killer" by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Page count: 240 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Pajiba (reviewed by Kayleigh here)

Official book description:

Korede is bitter. How could she not be? Her sister, Ayoola, is many things: the favorite child, the beautiful one, possibly sociopathic. And now Ayoola's third boyfriend in a row is dead. Korede's practicality is the sisters' saving grace. She knows the best solutions for cleaning blood, the trunk of her car is big enough for a body, and she keeps Ayoola from posting pictures of her dinner to Instagram when she should be mourning her "missing" boyfriend. Not that she gets any credit.

A kind, handsome doctor at the hospital where Korede works, is the bright spot in her life. She dreams of the day when he will realize they're perfect for each other. But one day Ayoola shows up to the hospital uninvited and he takes notice. When he asks Korede for Ayoola's phone number, she must reckon with what her sister has become and what she will do about it.

This is not a mystery novel. It says right there in the title what the book is about. While Korede, our protagonist, tries to figure out the WHYs of the three men her young sister Ayoola has killed so far (until she calls Korede after the third time, Korede could at least pretend to herself that her sister just had very bad luck with men and had killed the first two in self defense), there is no question of WHO or HOW.

Korede may seem constantly frustrated by her younger sister, and at times rather jealous of her, but there is no doubt about the love the sisters share, or the harrowing upbringing that forged their relationship. Korede would clearly like a good man who loves her, but when the doctor she pines for falls for Ayoola after one brief meeting and becomes just as obsessed as the previous suitors, it becomes clear that he's really not looking for depth and personality and is no where near good enough a partner for Korede, really.

The novel is short and satirical and a lot of people a lot more clever than I have already talked about the way it challenges gender roles, beauty ideals and the like in modern day Nigeria. It's certainly very feminist, none of the men in the story come across particularly well, with the possible exception of Femi, but he's dead as the story begins. I thought this was an interesting portrayal of a very close, but complex sibling relationship. Korede keeps despairing that she needs to take care of her sister and (literally) clean up her messes, but for all her doubts, she keeps showing up and her loyalty to her sister trumps anything else in her life. She may feel frustrated that Ayoola have men falling for her and women clambering to be friends with her, just because of her looks and charm, while Korede works hard (even gets promoted to head nurse) and inhabits a lot of the virtues and skills a perfect wife should have, but keeps being ignored and overlooked. Nevertheless, she can't give up on her sister.The ending of the book, which almost seemed inevitable, made me rather sad.

This book has been reviewed by many Cannonballers already, and on the basis of several of those recommendations, I got the book in an e-book sale back in April. It seemed only suitable that I find a square for it somewhere on the Bingo card. I didn't love it as much as many have, but I thought it was funny and clever and it's such a very fast read.

Judging a book by its cover: I like the cover, with its contrast between the warm browns and the bright, almost neon green. I don't know if the rather elegant-looking woman on the cover is meant to be Korede or Ayoola, but she looks good.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.