Monday, 26 February 2018

#CBR10 Book 10: "Making Up" by Lucy Parker

Page count: 330 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! This was an ARC granted to me through NetGalley. It has in no way influenced my review. 

Beatrix "Trix" Lane may be tiny, but she also used to be fierce and confident and very ambitious. Until her former boyfriend pretty much broke her down entirely and left her a pale shadow of herself. Now that the star of the fancy acrobatic West End show she's in has been possibly permanently damaged after a fall, Trix has a chance at the lead role, but she's no longer sure she's acrobatic or talented enough. To add to her stress levels, the person who annoys her the most in the world, Leo Magasiva, has just been hired on to the show's makeup team.

While he's quite the special effects wizard, Leo Magasiva has career issues of his own, after a very famous film star neglected to disclose an allergy and Leo's makeup job caused a horrible allergic reaction. Leo was fired and blacklisted, and now needs to really prove himself, preferably by winning first prize in the UK SFX makeup artistry championship. He's secured his younger sister an internship with the theatre, but she appears to have had a complete personality transplant after a year in New York and is now behaving like a stuck-up brat and doing her very best to piss off not only Leo, but everyone around her. So having to work in close quarters, and as it turns out, sharing living quarters with Trix Lane, is not exactly his idea of fun.

Trix and Leo used to be friends growing up, until Trix got a scholarship to a fancy boarding school and left Leo behind forever. They nevertheless seemed to run into each other all over the place over the years, constantly sniping and trying to one-up one another. Now, working on the same show and living across the hall from one another, their snarky rivalry is brought to a head, and before long, they've moved from hate to something else entirely. They may have a long history, but is there any chance of a future together? If Leo wins his SFX championship, it means a lucrative contract in LA, while if Trix gets the starring role in The Festival of Masks, she's staying in London indefinitely.

Lucy Parker's Act Like It was one of my favourite romances (and books in general) of 2016, and the follow-up, Pretty Face, was one of the few really memorable romances of all of 2017, and an even better book than the first in the London Celebrities series. So when I saw a tweet from Ms. Parker saying that her new book, Making Up, was available upon request from NetGalley, I requested it immediately and crossed my fingers that I would be lucky enough to be granted a copy. While I read and review a LOT of romance, being granted an ARC was by no means a certainty, as I have a pretty bad track-record with reviewing my NetGalley books before the deadlines. However, the book gods smiled up on me, and even though the book isn't out until the end of May, I have been lucky enough to read it.

Of all of the three Lucy Parker books I've read so far, this is probably the weakest. It has a lot of good thing going for it, but was not as instantly likable to me as Act Like It and it lacked the emotional depth of Pretty Face. It has a lot of the things Ms. Parker does well - a likable cast of characters, great banter, competence porn (both Leo and Trix are very good at what they do, for all that Trix' confidence and self-esteem has been entirely eroded by her d*ck of an ex-boyfriend). I thought the initial conflict between Trix and Leo was solved a little bit too quickly and that the readers could have been given a bit more insight into the situation with Leo's bratty sister earlier in the story, but I liked the book and for those readers who have read and enjoyed Pretty Face, it might be nice to know that there are extended cameos from Trix' best friend Lily and her fiancee Luc, who actually get married in this book. Lucy Parker is a talented enough writer that while I would rank this third of her three books, it's still a very enjoyable read and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

#CBR10 Book 9: "The Hating Game" by Sally Thorne

Page count: 387 pages
Audio book length: 11hrs 29mins
Rating: 5 stars

This is my fourth re-read of The Hating Game, and my original review for the book can be found here. Also this book will contain mild spoilers for the story, so if you haven't read it, drop everything and come back once you have (it's awesome, I promise), you may want to avoid this until then.

It's difficult for me to pinpoint exactly what I find so comforting about this book, but it really does work for me on every level. This was my favourite book of 2016, and I read it three times from early August when it came out until the end of that year. Now, having just had a baby, I spend quite a bit of the dark hours of the night breastfeeding. It's really rather time-consuming and both comforting and rather boring at the same time. As I'm as of yet not really proficient enough to feed my little boy and read on an e-reader (let alone hold a book), having audio books is a blessing, and as I occasionally doze off a bit, it's good to have something familiar and well-known to listen to, rather than something brand new.

As this book is one of my ultimate comfort reads now, it had the honour of being the first audio book I listened to as a mother. Katie Schorr's narration is really good and her voice has now become what I imagine Lucy's must be like. As this was my fourth time through the book, there was nothing really NEW that struck me, except perhaps that Josh really is spectacular and Lucy misses out on so much by not realising sooner 1) just how great he is and 2) that he's madly in love with her.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

#CBR10 Book 8: "A Hope Divided" by Alyssa Cole

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Until she was thirteen, Marlie Lynch grew up with her mother, a freed slave and wise woman. After her white father's death, she was taken in by her half-sister and has been able to combine her knowledge of herbs and root magic with scientific principles. Three years into the American Civil War, Marlie and her half-sister are working surreptitiously to aid the cause of the Union, giving aid to runaway slaves and Freedmen, taking medicine and food to imprisoned Union soldiers, and with Marlie sending coded messages about troop movements and the Confederate Home Guard to the Resistance group the Loyal League.

Unfortunately for Marlie and her sister, their various anti-Confederate enterprises are endangered when Marlie's half-brother (and technically the heir) returns home with his unpleasant and racist wife, who is deeply loyal to the Confederate cause, to the point where she offers to let the Home Guard use their estate as their base of operations. While Marlie has always been a free woman, and has been treated more or less as a part of the family, she now sees how little protection she actually has, and how easily she can be ignored and mistreated because of the colour of her skin. Only a few trusted servants know that Marlie is hiding an escaping Union soldier, Ewan McCall in the laboratory in her private quarters. While McCall was imprisoned in the camp nearby, he and Marlie would exchange notes discussing ethics and philosophy. There was an attraction between them even before Marlie came to shelter him from danger in her rooms.

As Marlie's evil sister-in-law grows increasingly more controlling and jealous, and the cruel Captain of the Home Guard turns his eye more closely to Marlie, whose independence and spirit offends him, it becomes clear that Ewan can no longer stay on the Lynch farm and will have to escape. When Marlie's freedom is suddenly threatened as well, she has no choice but to go with him. While Marlie wants to believe that Ewan's feelings for her are true, she's very conflicted because of her own background, a product of the unequal union a slave-owner and her then enslaved mother. Can a relationship with a white man ever really last, no matter how sensitive and philosophical he seems?  Marlie has also dedicated her life to the healing and helping of others; how will she react when she discovers that Ewan was a torturer before he was taken prisoner?

This is the second book in Alyssa Cole's historical romance series The Loyal League, set during the American Civil War. As with the first book in the series, An Extraordinary Union, which I read back in July of last year, A Hope Divided was widely loved and gushed over on several romance review sites I follow. In the first book, we meet spies Malcolm McCall and Elle Burns, who work to bring down the Confederacy once and for all. Ewan McCall, the hero in this book, is Malcolm's younger brother, who clearly doesn't have the social graces of his brother (and frankly comes across as if he may be neuro-atypical). While he doesn't really want to fight, he believes in the Union cause enough that he joined the army, and was quickly discovered to have a knack for interrogation, due to his dispassionate and seemingly unfeeling manner. Ewan seems to have been very good at torture, but it's not something he enjoyed or is proud of, and he feels especially ashamed of having lost control of his temper and emotions when questioning the sadistic Captain of the Home Guard who later comes to plague Marlie's existence. 

Marlie also works for the Loyal League, but in a much less active role than Elle or Malcolm. With her white half-sister and some of their most loyal servants (all freed slaves), they do their best to help runaway slaves and Union soldiers get to the northern states, and Marlie sends coded letters, and feeds and treats wounded imprisoned Union soldiers, but otherwise has lived a very sheltered life on the family's farm. Her skin colour has always kept her from being a fully accepted part of the Lynch family, but she discovers how lucky and privileged her life has been when her half-brother's vicious and prejudiced wife takes control of the household and invites brutal and ruthless Home Guard soldiers to stay in their home. Her status as an intelligent and independent freedwoman and half white means nothing to these people and she grows increasingly more despairing due to their treatment of her.

Ms Cole has clearly done a huge amount of research for these books, and as I personally don't actually know the time period very well, it was very interesting to me to learn about all the various ways many of the people of the Southern states actually worked against the Confederate cause. While the romance between Marlie and Ewan is central to the book, both have a lot of emotional baggage before they are able to commit to anyone else, even before you add in the complications of an illegal bi-racial union. At one point in the story, I was honestly not sure how exactly they were going to find a satisfying HEA together, but I am very glad that they did.

While the first book in the series was good, I think I liked this one even more, and will be excited to see what Alyssa Cole has in store in her next novel (I'm wondering if the next book will be about the third McCall sibling, the sister). 

Judging a book by its cover: Now, this is a lovely cover for a romance novel and I really like it. The cover model portraying our heroine looks confidently out at the reader, surrounded by the herbs and tools of her trade. I cannot speak for the accuracy of her dress (Civil War era America not being one of the historical periods I know a lot about), but there's no unlaced back, nor implausible amounts of skirts (while still showing a remarkable amount of leg). Just a beautiful, confident woman at her work desk. I don't know if Ms. Cole has any say in the choices of these covers (most authors don't), but either way, she's lucked out.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

#CBR10 Book 7: "The Soldier's Scoundrel" by Cat Sebastian

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Jack Turner and his siblings grew up in the slums of London and they have all worked hard to get out from under the criminal enterprises of their parents. Jack's sister is a dressmaker, while his brother seems to keep very posh and rarefied company these days. Jack uses some of the skills he's learned over the years to help women in trouble. He can locate stolen items, deal with blackmail claims, even make an unpleasant husband disappear to somewhere far away - his only rule is that the women who hire him not question his methods, and let him deal with the guilty party, without involving the authorities. His services are not available to gentlemen or nobles of any kind.

So when Oliver Rivington, formerly a captain in his Majesty's army, shows up in Jack's offices, convinced that Jack has to be some sort of con artist who has swindled Oliver's sister out of a large sum of money, Jack wants nothing to do with him. He lets Oliver sit in on an interview with a Mrs Wraxhall, who claims she's being blackmailed and needs Jack's help. Still convinced that Jack Turner is a no-good scoundrel, Oliver takes it upon himself to befriend Mr. Wraxhall, to make sure Turner isn't able to take advantage of the couple, but he soon discovers, like Jack, that there is a lot more to Mrs. Wraxhall's dilemma than first meets the eye and while Oliver doesn't initially approve of the man and his methods, he also can't seem to stay away from him. Jack has no intention of getting involved with some pampered nobleman's son, but as they start investigating the case together, neither of them can deny their attraction.

This is Cat Sebastian's debut, and in the last year, I've seen so many positive reviews of this and her follow-up books on a number of websites. While there are quite a few authors out there who write M/M romance now, many of them self-publish. That Ms. Sebastian's books are actually published by Avon intrigued me (even if the covers of the books are usually quite bad) and when I found this and the sequel on sale, I snapped it up immediately. I've only now found the time to read one, and based on this book, I'm glad to have more to look forward to.

Both Jack and Oliver are well-rounded and interesting characters. Oliver has fought all over Europe during the Napoleonic war, and is thoroughly heart-sick of all the violence and deplorable behaviour he's been witness to. He struggles with a painful leg injury, and until he confronts Jack and gets more and more interested in both the man and his investigation, he's not really had a lot to focus on or care about.

Jack shares his office space and private rooms in a building with his sister, whose dressmaker studio seems to be on the ground floor. They share a servant and eat most of their meals together. It's quite clear that his sister cares deeply for Jack, but worries about him, especially his homosexual proclivities. That's one thing Jack and Oliver have in common, despite being different in so many other ways, not just social status. They both have very caring and possibly surprisingly, for the time period, supportive younger sisters, who don't seem to care with whom they fall in love, even when homosexuality among men was still very much illegal (obviously women couldn't be gay - some women just lived their whole lives as spinsters with other spinster companions - nothing strange going on there).

The plot of the book is quite slow, and while there is a mystery to be solved, it unfolds slowly, with Jack and Oliver travelling around the countryside getting more besotted with one another. It almost felt a bit jarring when the danger gets ramped up rather suddenly towards the end of the book, and there are gunshots and wounds to be tended. This is also one of those stories where one party is so very convinced of their unworthiness of the other that they do everything they can to convince their lover that their union is impossible and it takes far longer than should be necessary for them to actually find their HEA at the end.

I still liked the book a lot, and will eagerly be reading more of Ms. Sebastian's novels in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: I agree with Narfna, my book twin on the internet, that Avon just doesn't seem to know what to do when they have to put two men on the cover instead of the standard pairing of a man and a woman. First of all, neither of the cover models look particularly like anyone inside the book (although that's pretty par the course for any romance). Secondly, they both just look so awkward. If I hadn't seen the book and author raved about on a number of romance review sites, it's unlikely I'd have picked it up on my own.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.