Saturday, 4 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 33: "The Unleashing" by Shelly Laurenston

Page count: 385 pages
Rating: 3 stars

#CBR12Bingo: Cannonballer Says (previously reviewed by alwaysanswerb, yesknopemaybe and teresaelectro)

Official book description:
Kera Watson never expected to face death behind a Los Angeles coffee shop. Not after surviving two tours lugging an M16 around the Middle East. If it wasn't for her hot Viking customer showing up too late to help, nobody would even see her die.

In uncountable years of service to the Allfather Odin, Ludvig "Vig" Rundstrom has never seen anyone kick ass with quite as much style as Kera. He knows one way to save her life--but she might not like it. Signing up with the Crows will get Kera a new set of battle buddies: cackling, gossiping, squabbling, party-hearty women. With wings. So not the Marines.

But Vig can't give up on someone as special as Kera. With a storm of oh-crap magic speeding straight for L.A., survival will depend on combining their strengths: Kera's discipline, Vig's loyalty... and the Crows' sheer love of battle. Boy, are they in trouble.

There are so many elements of this paranormal fantasy that should make it exactly my thing - a lot of references to Norse mythology; hunky fighter dudes; a diverse cast of kick-ass warrior women; a big lug of a loyal dog, a romantic subplot- yet, it took me nearly a week to finish The Unleashing, because I kept putting it down and there was nothing much enticing me to pick it back up again to keep reading. Maybe I just read it at the wrong time, because I do not seem to have responded to it as enthusiastically as previous Cannonballers.

Kera is an ex-marine. She's tough, independent and very organised. She finds herself part of a near-immortal group of warrior women sworn to the Norse goddess Skuld (one of the Norns, think three Fates in Roman or Greek mythology). The sisterhood are called Crows and they live in a big, gorgeous mansion in Malibu. While they can manifest wings and claws and are fearless fighters, a lot of them also seem like bitchy sorority girls a lot of the time, all very busy doing their own thing, and no one really seems to bother to explain much of her new and very strange existence to Kera. At least her rescue pitbull Brodie was also brought over with her, with the unexpected side effects that the dog can also manifest wings and supernatural fighting powers now. Of course, Kera barely ever sees her dog, as her various new battle sisters keep taking the dog with them on runs.

Kera discovers that the reason she didn't die in the alley behind the coffee shop where she worked is because the hot, silent guy who frequently showed up there (who she believed to be a veteran of some kind with severe PTSD) is, in fact, a Raven, one of a legendary group of warriors sworn to Odin. Ludvig "Vig" Rundstrom is a gifted blacksmith and seems to make weapons for all the various groups of viking warriors (there's a whole bunch of them). Vig was too late to stop Kera being stabbed, but since he has a big old crush on Kera, he begged Skuld to give her a new chance at life. Since the Crows are less than forthcoming about Kera's new afterlife, except to say that she'll grow wings and have to fight when the time comes, Kera very much appreciates having Vig basically explain all the nitty gritty and also offer to teach her how to fight, as the army training she possesses isn't going to cut it in the sort of fights the Crows get into.

Even before Kera got an unfamiliar new afterlife, she was attracted to Vig, and we discover that he went massively out of his way to go to the coffee shop where she worked just so he could see her. So obviously the two act on their mutual attraction to one another. They just sort of decide that they're crazy about each other, without the reader really ever getting to see how that attraction, or affection for the other, came to be.

Generally, while quite a bit of the world-building here is interesting, the relationships, whether the romantic or platonic are not well established enough for me. While it's clear that there's a lot of tight-knit friendships among the already-existing Crows, they are all initially mostly surprisingly unhelpful and in some cases, really rather bitchy to Kera. While I can see that to their free and chaotic, self-indulgent party lifestyle, her tendency to wander around with a clipboard, trying to impose order and regular schedules on them (because this is what she's used to) is annoying, but there are more mature ways of dealing with things than how it goes down here. It didn't really become clear to me why I was supposed to like any of these women.

At least a couple of the main reviewers over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books really rave about these books and talk about how funny and action-packed they are. Same with a lot of reviewers on Goodreads. I get the action part, there's quite a lot of fighting, but I really don't think this book was all that funny. It takes quite a while before the reader gets a clear picture of what has actually happened to Kera. The whole situation with a bunch of warrior tribes dedicated to various Norse gods is also not very clearly established until quite a long way into the book. There's a lot of switching between POVs, we don't just see things through the eyes of Kera and Vig, but a whole bunch of other supporting characters, including some antagonists. The book also ends really rather abruptly, on quite the cliff-hanger, so while the romantic subplot involving Kera and Vig is resolved, the reader is clearly going to have to keep going with the series if they want to see how the big battle between some ancient evil and what I'm assuming is going to be the united front of all the various Norse battle groups. Not a huge fan of that either. I have heard really good things about Laurenston's writing, and I already own the full trilogy (thanks, frequent e-book sales!), so I probably will keep reading, but I'm not entirely sold on this just yet.

Judging a book by its cover: First of all, I genuinely don't know if this is the first book to use what seems to be a stock image of that shirtless, very ripped guy in a hoodie, but I've seen variations of this exact image on a bunch of books during the last few years. Obviously, the others don't have a bunch of birds in the background, but otherwise, it really an image that's been doing the rounds.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 3 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 32: "Any Old Diamonds" by K.J. Charles

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR12Bingo: Money!

Official book description (because I'm still reviewing books I read three months ago): Lord Alexander Pyne-ffoulkes, the younger son of the Duke of Ilvar, holds a bitter grudge against his wealthy father. The Duke intends to give his Duchess a priceless diamond parure on their wedding anniversary — so Alec hires a pair of jewel thieves to steal it.

The Duke's remote castle is a difficult target, and Alec needs a way to get the thieves in. Soldier-turned-criminal Jerry Crozier has the answer: he'll pose as a Society gentleman and become Alec's new best friend.

But Jerry is a dangerous man: controlling, remote, and devastating. He effortlessly teases out the lonely young nobleman's most secret desires, and soon he's got Alec in his bed—and the palm of his hand.

Or maybe not. Because as the plot thickens, betrayals, secrets, new loves, and old evils come to light. Now the jewel thief and the aristocrat must keep up the pretence, find their way through a maze of privilege and deceit, and confront the truth of what's between them... all without getting caught.

Despite owning several of them, and having even more of them on my TBR list (because they are seemingly universally loved among the various romance reviewers I follow, not to mention several fellow Cannonballers whose opinions I trust), I have actually only read one single novel by K.J. Charles, The Magpie Lord, back in 2016 when it was a book club pick for Vaginal Fantasy. Back in April, this fit with one of my other reading challenges, and now, with the launch of the third Cannonball Bingo, my massive review backlog is suddenly rather useful, as quite a few of the books I've read, yet sadly not had time to write about yet, during the past quarter of a year can be used to tick off squares on the Bingo Card.

But Malin, what did you think about the book? This book has an average rating of 4.32 on Goodreads, and unlike some books, where that number is utterly baffling, in this case, it's very deserved. This is a very enjoyable read, and while it seems like a fairly straight-forward story where a well-born, somewhat naive young man is forced to rely on unscrupulous and devious criminals in order to enact revenge on his unfeeling father, the plot proves to be a lot more delightfully twisty than it first appears. I don't want to dwell on the way in which the narrative diverged from my expectations, as that would obviously be spoilery, just be aware that this is not necessarily the book it seems to be at the beginning.

I think The Magpie Lord is one of Charles' early novels, and while I liked it fine, her writing seems a lot more sophisticated and developed now. The plot is tight, the characters are all complex and interesting, the villains of the story are utterly loathsome (seriously, just when you think there is no way they could actually be as bad as they seem, something happens and they somehow sink to even further lows) and the romance, which seems a bit unbalanced to begin with develops seamlessly as the plot unfurls and we get to know Alec and Jerry better.

I'm a huge fan of a heist story, and if you can throw in a good romance at the same time, so much the better. This was exactly what I needed from a book when I read it, and I'm going to have to make sure it doesn't take me five years before I read any more from K.J. Charles.

Judging a book by its cover: I really like the covers for these books, looking like old theatre posters or the like. The two men appear to match the descriptions of Lord Alexander and Jerry Crozier well. I also like that the cover hints at the romance between the characters without being too obvious.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

#CBR12 Books 29-31: The "Chance of a Lifetime" trilogy by Kate Clayborn

A group of three close-knit friends buy a lottery ticket together one night and end up winning a considerable amount of money. Not enough to never have to worry about money again, but certainly enough that they can fulfill some life-long dreams and still live comfortably afterwards.

Beginner's Luck
Page count: 246 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Ekaterina "Kit" Averin is if possible the least risk-averse person there is. She's very happy working as a research assistant at a university, co-writing the occasional article and generally happily hiding her technical brilliance in order not to attract undue notice. She doesn't want fame, she wants stability. When she and her friends win the lottery, she buys herself a house, her first proper home. The house needs a lot of work, which she can thankfully also afford. She isn't expecting the person to help her out the most is also the person who's trying to tempt her away from her safe, comfortable university job.

Ben Tucker is back in his hometown because his father had a bad accident on his salvage yard and needs some help until he recovers from the injuries. Rather than take over the family business, Ben has moved out of state and works as tech industry recruiters for Beaumont Materials. He agrees to try to smooth-talk one K. Averin into joining his company but is surprised to discover that the brilliant tech mind is a beautiful woman, and one who is completely unimpressed with Ben's tempting offers and handsome face. Ben's bosses really want Kit recruited, however, and keep badgering him to persuade her. Initially, he's determined to succeed, but as he gets to know her, since she's a frequent visitor to his father's salvage yard, trying to find pieces to help her refurbish her house, he realises that he may be willing to sacrifice his own career dreams rather than persuade Kit into a job she's not interested in.

Kit's dad was an addict and from she was fairly little, Kit was basically raised by her older brother Alex, as the family moved to a new place every year or so. She's never known safety and stability until she herself became an adult. She's very uncomfortable being in the spotlight and remains a research assistant at the university despite having more knowledge and experience than many of the grad students she helps. She keeps co-writing scientific articles with her mentor, who is getting increasingly more insistent that her name should be the main one featured since it's her work that's being written about and lauded. It's thanks to some of those articles that Ben is sent by Beaumont Materials in Texas to recruit her. Taking the job would mean a lot more money, both for Kit and her mentor at the university (they're willing to pay a lot to sweeten the deal). Nevertheless, moving to yet another new place, away from her dream house and her best friends is a terrifying and unthinkable prospect for Kit.

Ben grew up in the little town that Kit has fallen for and wants to live in permanently. He had quite the reputation as a wild child and didn't like the negative attention he was attracting, so moved away as soon as he was able. He clearly loves his dad, and worries about the hard work of running the salvage yard. There's also some guilt there for not leaving his dad with anyone to take over the family business. So when his dad gets injured, he arranges for leave from his recruiter job to go home and take care of his father. Meeting and fairly quickly falling for Kit Averin is obviously not part of his plans. He does seem to find any excuse to help her around her fixer-upper of a house, though, and tries not to think too much about how his and her dreams about the future seem to be mutually exclusive.

As well as Kit and Ben, we get to know the supporting characters of  Zoe and Greer, Kit's best friends (and fellow lottery winners). There's also Ben's dad, and the surly teenager he hires to help out around the yard after the kid tries to vandalise some stuff (without much success). Finally, there's Alex, Kit's older brother, who travels the world as a photographer. Having spent much of his childhood and adolescence basically raising his younger sister, Alex now seems allergic to staying in one place for too long. One of the subplots of the book is the disagreement they have when she wants to share her lottery winnings with him and he flatly refuses to even consider it.

Despite Kit and Ben's seemingly incompatible visions of the future, this was a cozy and comfortable romance without too much drama. Kit's childhood was clearly utterly awful, so the found family she created in her friends and the security she looked for made perfect sense to me.

Luck of the Draw
Page count: 300 pages
Rating: 4 stars

When she unexpectedly won the lottery along with her two best friends, cutthroat corporate attorney Zoe Ferris quits her job, having long been uncomfortable with the sort of things she has to spend her days doing. Of the three women, Zoe is by far the one most comfortable financially, and despite her grand promises to herself about travelling the world or making a distance, Zoe doesn't really do a lot once she quits her job. Eventually, she realises that the only way she's ever going to feel better about herself is if she makes amends for a lot of the bad behaviour she exibited in her past life as a high-powered lawyer. She makes a "guilt jar" with the names of everyone she feels she's wronged in some way, and determines to try to apologise and make peace with each and every person whose name is on the little slips of paper, from her harried former personal assistant, to the barista she frequently yelled at and so forth.

The slip of paper she draws out first is that of the O'Leary family, however. A family Zoe dreads facing because of the horrible way her company handled the case of their son's wrongful death. She remembers both the wife and husband crying at the negotiation table. She goes to see them, only to discover that they've moved to Florida, and their remaining son, Aiden O'Leary is living in their house. He's not interested in her apology, but since she's so hell-bent on doing anything to gain some measure of forgiveness, he asks her to pose as his fake fiancee over the next couple of months instead. Aidan wants to buy the campground he and his brother used to spend their summers at and turn it into a rehab retreat in his dead brother's memory. Yet the couple who still own and run it are very conservative and all the other potential purchasers are married couples with solid families. As a single man, Aidan's certain he won't stand a chance. So he gets Zoe to agree to help him. Of course, he wasn't expecting to fall for the beautiful, intelligent woman who he was determined never to forgive.

Luck of the Draw has a bit of an enemies to lovers feel, as Aiden is certainly very antagonistic towards Zoe, to begin with. Initially, the couple only spends time together on the weekends they're going up to the campground where they pretend to be a couple and listen to the various other buyers' pitches for the future of the property. Once Zoe has decided to be a fake fiancee, she's certainly going to be the best and most supportive one she can be. While Aidan is reluctant to listen to her, at first, she makes a lot of good suggestions for how he should pitch his idea to the current owners. She also uses all of her considerable people skills to charm and socialise with the current owners and other guests up at the campground.

Zoe's best friends are not exactly enthusiastic about how she's chosen to spend her weekends, but remain supportive because they respect her wishes. Aiden's closest co-workers in the EMT services also think the fake fiancee plan is a bad idea. Things certainly don't get any easier once Zoe and Aidan start falling for one another. Zoe hates having to lie to the very nice couple that own the campground, Aidan hates keeping things from his parents. He doesn't think they'd react well to knowing that the unfeeling harpy who outlined their dead son's legal settlement is now someone their remaining son is falling for.

Since quitting her job and winning the lottery, Zoe has been aimless and without purpose. Once she starts opening herself up a bit more when away with Aiden, she begins to have ideas about how she can best help others going forward. She figures out what she'd like to work with and how to continue making amends, in some ways, to the society at large.

Aidan has obviously in no way fully processed his grief about losing his twin. The fact that his brother was a drug addict, so the decline was gradual and there were many instances where Aidan feels he maybe could have stepped in and made his brother stop, but didn't, certainly doesn't make it better. He comes to realise that a lot of the hostility he feels towards Zoe is obviously because of the guilt he feels about his own inability to do something for his brother while he was still alive. It also becomes clear that he believes buying the campground and turning it into a rehab facility is the only way he can really atone, whether he's actually the best person to be developing such a place or not.

Both the protagonists in this book have a lot of unresolved issues and need to work through a lot of pain over the course of the story. Their happy ending felt all the more deserved once they got that far. 

Best of Luck
Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

When Greer Hawthorne wins the lottery with her two best friends, not only does she get the opportunity to pay off a lot of her family's debts, but she can finally complete her college education. With her dream job secured after she graduates, Greer is devastated to realise that because she's missing one arts credit, she may not be allowed to complete her education after all. Her only chance is a photo course offered by one of the department chairs, or she won't be graduating.

Alexander "Alex" Averin was only really planning on staying in town a couple of days for his sister's wedding, but when he has a panic attack during the rehearsal dinner and Greer helps him work through it, suggesting he see a therapist she can recommend, he decides to stick around for a little while. When it also turns out that to get into the photography class that can give her that coveted arts credit needed to graduate, Greer may need some help from a world-famous photojournalist, there's all the more reason for him not to go away on new adventures. He's very much trying not to notice how attractive his sister's best friend is, but the more time they spend together, the more difficult it gets.

Greer struggles with a chronic illness and an over-protective family who have had to sacrifice a lot for her health. That's one of the reasons why she's so determined to pay her parents back and help her siblings when she wins the lottery. She's also determined to get a degree, secure herself a good job and find a place of her own to live, since living with her sister still feels a lot like being checked up on all the time. Discovering that all of her dreams may be ruined by one missing course, shortly before graduation is gutting to her. She doesn't really want to use her friendship with Alex to convince the department chair to accept her, but she's run out of other options.

Alex spent much of his childhood raising his younger sister Kit. Now he travels the globe taking pictures in some pretty dangerous areas. While he's been trying to ignore it, he's been struggling with his mental health for a long time, and the panic attack just before Kit's wedding just makes it impossible for him to ignore any longer. He understands that unless he can get the anxiety and panic attacks under control, he's unlikely to be able to continue his career as he used to. Having always been deeply self-sufficient and independent, it's difficult for Alex to admit to vulnerability and accept help, but for some reason, when Greer offers it, he doesn't see it as pity and listens to her advice.

I'm not a huge fan of sibling's best friend/best friend's sibling romances, of which this is clearly one. I thought Greer and Alex in many ways were more interesting as separate people than as a couple, but the book was really interesting when it dealt with both Greer's quest for independence and Alex' struggles to improve his mental health. I'm always a big fan of people addressing their mental health in a serious manner instead of just brooding about their secret pain. Therapy should be normalised and feature much more in both romantic and other contemporary fiction.

Judging the books by their covers: The cover designers have been pretty good about finding cover models that more or less match the protagonists of each book. Each of the women being placed in front of a wall of some sort is a nice common motif and each of the women's body language also says quite a bit about their attitudes and confidence, especially at the start of the books.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

#CBR12 Book 28: "A Murderous Relation" by Deanna Raybourn

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the fifth book in the Veronica Speedwell series. There will absolutely be spoilers for some of the previous books in the series. Skip this review if you're not up to date. It's an excellent series; if you want to start at the beginning, pick up A Curious Beginning

Official description:
Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian colleague Stoker are asked by Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk to help with a potential scandal so explosive it threatens to rock the monarchy. Prince Albert Victor is a regular visitor to the most exclusive private club in London, known as the Club de l'Etoile, and the proprietress, Madame Aurore, has received an expensive gift that can be traced back to the prince. Lady Wellie would like Veronica and Stoker to retrieve the jewel from the club before scandal can break.

Worse yet, London is gripped by hysteria in the autumn of 1888, terrorized by what would become the most notorious and elusive serial killer in history, Jack the Ripper--and Lady Wellie suspects the prince may be responsible.

Veronica and Stoker reluctantly agree to go undercover at Madame Aurore's high-class brothel, where another body soon turns up. Many secrets are swirling around Veronica and the royal family--and it's up to Veronica and Stoker to find the truth before it's too late for all of them.

Back in London after their near-death experience, not to mention declarations of affection for one another, Veronica and Stoker nevertheless never really seem to find the time or privacy to actually act on their out in the open emotions. You'd think snooping around a high-class brothel and trying to locate a precious gemstone, so they can soothe the worries of Lady Wellie and none other than the Princess of Wales. While they become certain rather quickly that the royal heir has nothing to do with the gruesome serial murders taking place, there is clearly someone trying to blacken the young prince's name, and as their investigation deepens, Veronica and Stoker discover that the culprits are known to them from a previous case.

It should be absolutely no surprise to anyone reading Deanna Raybourn that she writes very slow-burn romances and that readers have to be patient because her romantic pairings take a good long while to get around to anything but the occasional kiss and a whole lot of unresolved sexual tension. In A Dangerous Collaboration, Veronica finally gave up on her strange notion that she must flit about the world, free as the butterflies she likes to hunt, and admitted to herself, and Stoker, that she loves him. His feelings, and thoughts on monogamy, have been pretty obvious to readers for several books now. Being utterly fiendish, Ms. Raybourn strings the readers along for pretty much this entire book as well, before we finally get the very satisfying consummation of Veronica and Stoker's relationship.

Another important relationship that is formed in this book, is that of Veronica and Prince Albert Victor, her secret half-brother. Tasked initially by Lady Wellie to retrieve a fancy diamond that Albert Victor gifted to his mistress, matters are complicated by murder and kidnapping and a truly hare-brained plot to depose the current royal family. While they are in captivity together, some secrets are revealed to the royal heir, and rather than being upset, he seems quite happy to discover their kinship.

There's a dark minor subplot involving the Jack the Ripper murders, and without spoiling too much, over the course of their sleuthing, Veronica and Stoker come into contact with one of the women who end up being one of the murder victims. Some readers might find it a bit forced, I thought it worked very well and lent the book an extra emotional beat.

By now, I'm going to be reading these for as long as Ms. Raybourn feels like writing them. I find the continuing adventures of Veronica and Stoker (not to mention the small cameo appearances that we get from other members of his family) incredibly entertaining and am already happily anticipating the next installment.

Judging a book by its cover: I've commented before that I really like these woodcut-inspired covers, and this black, white and red one is particularly striking. It's nice that the little figure that's supposed to be Veronica has her little butterfly net, although I don't recall her doing much lepidoptery at all in this book. Also not sure what's up with the dog next to her. Even with these niggles, cool cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

#CBR12 Book 27: "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Official book description:
The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb.
News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.

Civilization has crumbled.

A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe.

But now a new danger looms, and he threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild.

Moving backwards and forwards in time, from the glittering years just before the collapse to the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after, Station Eleven charts the unexpected twists of fate that connect six people: famous actor Arthur Leander; Jeevan - warned about the flu just in time; Arthur's first wife Miranda; Arthur's oldest friend Clark; Kirsten, a young actress with the Travelling Symphony; and the mysterious and self-proclaimed 'prophet'.

Thrilling, unique and deeply moving, this is a beautiful novel that asks questions about art and fame and about the relationships that sustain us through anything - even the end of the world. 

This was our very first Cannonball Book Club pick back in 2015, and I read and reviewed the book back then too. My original review can be found here. It took me a while back then to decide that I actually wanted to read the book for myself, and I'm not going to lie, re-reading it while a pandemic swept from Asia towards Europe and the USA, was making me a bit nervous. Looking back at the dates when I re-read this book, it was exactly during the time when Norway literally shut down, when the most drastic measures in post-World War II society were implemented, all over the course of a few days. I began my re-read of this on the 12th of March, on my way to work. By the afternoon, we'd been told that the nurseries, schools and universities, not to mention pretty much all major businesses, would be closed until further notice, and everyone was encouraged to just remain indoors, in a kind of pre-quarantine.

Of course, I'm reviewing the book some three months later, and while the pandemic is currently under control in certain parts of the world, it's still spreading wildly and terrifyingly fast in other parts of the globe. While I would love to believe the hopeful views on humanity and survival that are explored in this novel, the current news cycle shows that most people are short-sighted, egotistical, self-centred and careless. It's boring and difficult, not to mention very inconvenient to shelter in place and stay away from people for months. It's much nicer if you can just go about your business instead.  It's hot and uncomfortable to wear a mask to protect others, so a whole bunch of people are just not going to do that, despite all the factual evidence that we could massively halt the spread of the virus if everyone (especially the ones who don't feel sick, but may be asymptomatic carriers) just wore a face mask, washed their hands a lot and tried to keep their distance when out and about.

Station Eleven is a science fiction novel, it's set in a post-apocalyptic society, but it is nevertheless a hopeful and uplifting read. I don't think Emily St. John Mandel would dream of the situations that Covid-19 has created world-wide back when she wrote her book, and as I said, right now, the things that seem the most far fetched and fictional to me, are how well the "Fifteen years later" societies are managing. Of course, we're currently in the middle of "Year One" of this scenario, so perhaps, in the future, when a terrifyingly tragic percentage of the population has died (even if it's not 99%, like in this book), people will again focus mainly on re-building communities and re-discovering art and beauty and togetherness.

This wasn't supposed to be quite such a depressing whinge about how bafflingly selfish a lot of people currently are, but rather a review of my re-read of the book. In my mind, I'd built up the bits I disliked, with the 'Prophet', into a much larger part of the story. So much of the book looks back on the lives of a lot of the people before the Georgia flu hit and subsequently make us care when they are either killed by the flu themselves or lose other loved ones from the illness. It's still a wonderful book, and I'm glad we revisited it for Book Club.

Judging a book by its cover: I own three copies of this book. An e-book copy, an Audible audiobook and the UK paperback copy, which I was gifted in a Cannonball Book Exchange. This is the cover of the paperback I have, which seems extra timely now that an actual pandemic is sweeping the world and we saw that in places where people were forced to isolate during the lockdown, wild animals really did end up roaming the urban streets, undisturbed by people. So the deer facing the reader among the high rises of a city doesn't seem as strange as it may have once done. It doesn't take long for nature to start reclaiming the space we take up.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR12 Book 26: "Ninth House" by Leigh Bardugo

Page count: 476 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Leigh Bardugo has become a popular name in YA fantasy, with her Grisha trilogy, the duology Six of Crows, as well as the Nikolai duology (which is still incomplete). This is her attempt of paranormal fantasy aimed at adults, and in case the black and grey cover left you in any doubt, it doesn't take long before the reader is made very aware that this book is "not for kids". Our protagonist, Galaxy "Alex" Stern has the rather unusual ability to see ghosts, which has mostly been a horrible burden throughout her life so far, making her a seemingly mentally unstable outcast who ended up hanging with the wrong crowd and numbing her senses with drugs just to get some peace.

Nevertheless, the sole survivor of a horrible multiple homicide in a sketchy drug den, Alex is given the opportunity to come to prestigious Yale, precisely because her ability to see and sense ghosts is useful to those in power there. There are nine secret magical societies at the university, and Alex is a member of Lethe, the one that "polices" the others. It's also the smallest of the societies, with hardly any members. The senior member, who trains the younger one, is known as Virgil. The younger member is Dante. Alex is the Dante to Daniel "Darlington" Arlington's Virgil, and they don't exactly have the warmest or friendliest of relationships. Unlike Alex, Darlington has to drink a special potion to see ghosts. The potion is both foul-tasting and can be lethal if over-used. There's also the fact that Darlington seems to come from a privileged and wealthy background, while Alex was pretty much literally living on the streets before she got the chance to come to Yale. There's also Dawes, the shy research assistant who seems infatuated with Darlington and rather hostile towards Alex.

The book's plot is not told chronologically. The prologue is set in early spring, while other chapters are set in the autumn and winter, with alternating POVs from Alex and Darlington. It's clear from the prologue that Alex in the spring is in a pretty bad place, so it's going to be quite the ride to figure out how she ended up in such a tight spot.

As well as introducing us to some very interesting world-building, with a lot of creepy supernatural stuff going on, there is a murder mystery to be solved. A young girl is murdered on the Yale campus, and while a lot of people seem to brush it off as a lovers' quarrel gone wrong, Alex knows that there's more to the story and keeps poking her nose into places it doesn't belong.

As I mentioned in my first paragraph, while Bardugo has previously written for teens, this book is much darker and more serious, complete with all sorts of adult themes. I was surprised at how gory and f**ked up it got, on occasion. I should probably also add that while the main mystery of the story is solved at the end, there is very much a cliff-hanger sort of a feel to the ending, with the purpose of the sequel very much established. I'm already looking forward to seeing where Alex ends up next.

Judging a book by its cover: I know I finished the book about three months ago, but I'm trying to remember if there was a snake prominently featured in the story at any point, and coming up blank. I think the snake may have been put on the cover to create a cool visual, and I do like the black on black, with the grey font. It may be that the snake is a metaphor I'm too stupid to have understood, of course.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 6 June 2020

#CBR12 Book 25: "Queenie" by Candace Carty-Williams

Page count: 336 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 45 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper, where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle-class peers. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie seeks comfort in all the wrong places…including several hazardous men who do a good job of occupying brain space and a bad job of affirming self-worth.

As Queenie careens from one questionable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be?”—all of the questions today’s woman must face in a world trying to answer them for her.

I'm not the first Cannonballer to read Queenie and thanks to the reviews of others, I knew that the only thing this book seemed to have in common with Bridget Jones' Diary is that they are both about young British women with a supportive friend group. I suspect a lot of people who picked up the book based on such a comparison would have been shocked, and quite possibly put off. Poor Queenie is a mess, personally and professionally. Her white boyfriend has broken up with her, but she keeps telling herself that they are just on a temporary break and will be getting back together again after some months apart. From Queenie's own flashbacks to the relationship, not only did her boyfriend's family contain several blatant racists, but they were never a particularly healthy couple and it's probably best in the long run for Queenie to be rid of him.

Not that she realises this, and she deals with being single by pretty much hooking up with and having unprotected sex with increasingly more awful and unsuitable guys (including one who is really violent towards her). She wants to be taken seriously at work and write about serious issues like racism, police brutality and the gentrification of previously immigrant-rich areas, but also comes in late, takes super long lunches, spends a lot of her day on social media and is generally a hot mess. Despite all this, her boss really does seem to want to keep giving her chances. Queenie also has a group of loyal and supportive friends (the chat group is called "the Corgis", which is just super cute) who keep trying to be there for her, even as she keeps spiralling further and further into bad decision territory.

One of the major issues in Queenie's relationship with her unsuitable boyfriend was that she would have nightmares and occasionally freak out when he touched her. It becomes clear the further into the book we get that Queenie's mother also made bad choices with regards to men, and a violent stepfather in Queenie's past has left her deeply traumatised. She's currently estranged from her mother but has grandparents who take her in and try to help her when she can no longer to afford her flat. Several of the nurses at the free clinic that Queenie has to keep visiting because of her impulsive and unprotected hook-ups start showing concern for her and recommend that she see a therapist. It's made very clear that in the Jamaican culture, you don't go talking to strangers about your problems, and it takes Queenie a really long time to convince herself (not to mention her concerned grandparents) that this is a necessary step in her road towards healing and self-improvement.

I finished this book in early March, before the corona pandemic really erupted in the western hemisphere and the world changed completely. Reviewing it now, as multiple cities in America have literally been burning and there are protests all over the world to protest police brutality and to express solidarity with #blacklivesmatter, I wonder what Queenie would think if she were a real character and saw what was happening? Would she feel hopeful? Would she fear that it was only a momentary distraction and soon the world would have moved on, allowing the systemic racism to continue?

For the first two thirds at least, this book is dark and miserable and there are graphic descriptions of emotional and physical abuse and some of Queenie's sexual encounters could probably be classified as rape. She keeps making terrible choices, both personally and professionally and if I'd started this book a month later, in the midst of lock-down with all the worries about corona and my anxiety constantly spiking, I'm genuinely not sure I would have been able to finish the book. It's certainly NOT a light, frothy, comedic romp about a woman just trying to find love. It's a harrowing description of an individual in crisis with a lot of undiagnosed mental issues, and we follow along until she hits rock bottom. If you can get through the difficult parts, I can assure you that the book goes to a much more hopeful and encouraging place once Queenie starts accepting that she needs professional help, and needs to start loving herself and staying away from her terrible life choices.

I'm very glad that I read the book. I really liked the narrator and being fore-warned, I knew I was going to have to get through some unpleasant stuff before Queenie began to work towards a better life for herself. I will say that times are tough and depressing right now, and if you're looking for some light escapism, this is not the book for you. It's an excellent story, but very unpleasant in places.

Judging a book by its cover: I've seen this cover with a bright, almost neon-pink background and this warm orange-red one. In both, you have the same central image, an elaborate hairdo of intricate braids piled on top of a young woman's head. We don't get to see her face, only her hair and an ear with some piercings. I love how it looks as if the title is woven into the braids, like some sort of ornamentation in itself. Queenie is very protective of her hair (and why shouldn't she be?), yet she keeps having to suffer micro-aggressions like people touching it without her permission. So it's a good choice to have the hair featured on the cover of the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 5 June 2020

#CBR12 Book 24: "The Ultimate Pi Day Party" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 236 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
If there’s one thing that might get my dad, a retired math teacher, to visit Toronto and have a real conversation with me for the first time in seventeen years, it’s a big nerdy Pi Day party. And hopefully this party—and seeing the tech company I built from nothing—will finally be enough to impress him and make him forgive me for everything I did when I was a teenager.

But it’s got to be a really great party.

That’s where Sarah Winters comes in. She owns Happy As Pie, a sweet and savory pie shop, and wants to get into catering. She makes an amazing lamb-rosemary pie, cherry pie, lemon-lime tart…you get the idea. She’ll provide the food and help me plan the party, nothing more. No matter how much time we spend together, I’m not going to fall in love with her.

At least, that’s what I tell myself…

Josh Yu has worked very hard to become successful. He's now the CEO of his own tech company in Toronto and employs a lot of people, but he feels like his achievements are meaningless, since he lacks his father's approval. Josh's dad, now a retired math teacher, has given him the silent treatment since he was in high school and accidentally got his girlfriend knocked up. Josh's girlfriend chose to have an abortion and is now happily engaged to someone else. Josh's mother and sisters all love and support him, but his dad still literally refuses to acknowledge him, even when he's home for the holidays. Pi Day was always a big deal for his dad, so Josh wants to arrange a Pi Day party for his company, and invites his parents to come visit him.

Josh hires Sarah Winters to cater his party. She owns and runs a small pie shop in Baldwin Village in Toronto. While she's dreamed of branching out into catering, Sarah's shop is as of yet mainly a bit infamous because someone bought a banana cream pie there that they used to throw at a politician. Sarah also feels like she has something to prove to her mother, who didn't really like that Sarah was going to move to a big city and risk everything by opening her own pie shop. Catering Josh's party will be a great opportunity for Sarah, although also the biggest event she and her employees have ever had to prepare for.

Sarah and Josh are pretty much instantly attracted to one another and get adorably flustered in each other's presence. There are several scenes where these two, who are both very good at what they do, bumble and get discombobulated by the presence of the other. Like most of Lau's other romances, there's a lot of delicious food descriptions, in between people falling in love with one another. Sadly, it takes Josh a bit longer to understand that just because his father is a withholding idiot, it doesn't in any way mean that Josh is unworthy of affection or deserving of love. Just because his dad is a bit toxic, doesn't mean that Josh hasn't felt love and approval from the rest of his family. It made me sad that it took him so long to get over the emotional scars his dad caused him.

The thing I liked the most about the book was probably Sarah's developing friendship with two other women who are setting up businesses in Baldwin Village (and will clearly be the heroines in the next books in the series). Sarah has moved to Toronto from a small town and while she has her employees, she's rather lonely and has been so busy establishing and building her pie shop to really make any new friends. So seeing her meet supportive, like-minded women was nice.

I was lucky enough to get this book for free (Lau every so often makes one of her books available for free for a limited period). While it's not the best of her stories that I've read, there were a lot of positives and it did make me really crave some pie.

Judging a book by its cover: While shirt-less beefcake cover models are pretty standard on contemporary and paranormal romance covers, you very rarely see hot, shirtless Asian guys featured. That makes this an unusual cover, and in this, like in all other aspects of romance, diversity and representation are important. Not sure why the CEO of a tech company would stand around randomly shirtless at night, but it's a good image, so I'm not going to complain too much.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 29 May 2020

#CBR12 Book 23: "A Princess in Theory" by Alyssa Cole

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Naledi "Ledi" Smith's parents died when she was very little, and she was shuffled through a series of foster homes her entire childhood. She learned to rely on no one but herself. When she keeps getting persistent e-mails about some African country named Thesolo and how she's the crown prince's intended, she obviously assumes that these communications are spam and deletes them all. Now she's working hard to get her degree in epidemiology and waitressing on the side, in between worrying about her hard-partying best friend Portia, who seems to be going off the rails a bit.

Of course, what Ledi doesn't know is that she was born in Thesolo, and her mother was best friends with the current queen. For reasons known to no one but her now-deceased parents, they chose to break all ties to their former friends and family and flee to the United States. While Ledi has loving grandparents and an uncle and cousin in Thesolo, not to mention an actual royal fiancee, she was too little to ever be told about this, and as her parents were using fake names when they died, no one was able to track down Ledi's true family.

Her royal betrothed, prince Thabiso, keeps being pressured by his parents to find a suitable replacement to marry. He fondly remembers his childhood friend, and while he feels hurt and betrayed by her parents' actions, he keeps asking his hyper-efficient assistant to continue the search for her. When she is tracked down in New York, he decides to travel to see her and confront her about the perceived abandonment of her duty. When he meets her, Ledi mistakes him for someone else and he likes the idea of getting to know his fiancee without any of the trappings of his title and status in the way. He doesn't exactly make a great first impression on her, being absolutely dreadful at the job he impulsively decides to pretend he's applying for, but pays one of her neighbours to go on an extended vacation, so he can rent her flat and be just across the hall from Ledi. He discovers that Ledi has absolutely no idea where she came from and what is waiting for her in Thesolo, she is completely ignorant about what her heritage entails.

Ledi is undeniably attracted to the handsome guy who suddenly moved in across the hall from her, but suspects there may be something strange about him too. When she discovers the truth about his identity, she's already half on her way to falling in love with him and is furious about his deceptions. She nevertheless agrees to come with him to Thesolo to see her forgotten homeland, not because she has any intention of marrying him and becoming a princess, but because there is a mysterious illness spreading among the population, and as an epidemiologist in training, trying to find out what is causing the disease would be incredibly good for her future career. She agrees to pretend to still be Thabiso's fiancee, as it makes things easier for her when she returns to an unfamiliar country, but is pretty clear on the fact that she'll be going back to her life in New York once she's helped figure out what is causing the strange illness.

This is the first in Alyssa Cole's Reluctant Royals series, which keeps being lauded all over the romance review blogs. Her contemporaries just keep getting so much love and keep appearing on best-of lists, but neither of the other two books I've read in this series has done much to impress me. A Duke by Default (about Ledi's best friend Portia who cleans up her wild child act and tries to get her life in order in Scotland) ended up on my Worst of 2018-list because it kept pushing all of my "nope"-buttons and A Prince on Paper (about Ledi's shy cousin), while somewhat better, still didn't exactly wow me. So if I hadn't actually already paid money for this one, I may not have even given Ms. Cole a third chance. I like her historical novels better, and will still keep reading those, but at least, reading the series in the wrong order, meant that I finally got a book I actually liked, and may possibly, at some future point, consider re-reading. I can only imagine my disappointment if I'd read the series in the order it was published.

My friend and fellow reviewer Narfna points out in her review (she read the series in order) that the heroine is a lot more sympathetic and relatable than the hero. This seems to be typical in all of the Cole contemporaries I've read. I found Portia's surprise duke utterly insufferable and wished her to find her HEA with anyone else, and the flamboyant step-prince who woos Ledi's cousin also made me roll my eyes a lot. While Naledi is a wonderfully realised character with obvious hopes, dreams, ambitions and extremely understandable emotional baggage because of her childhood, Thabiso is a lot more slick and complex. While it's obvious to the reader why he might find a break from his regular royal routine and scrutiny refreshing, he has very high-handed ways, and pretty much stalks and keeps lying to Ledi in order to spend more time with her. He also didn't have much personality beyond being a handsome royal who refused to cave to his parents' persistent matchmaking.

This is my favorite book of the series, and even with this, I have quite a lot of quibbles and misgivings. I'm not sure I'm going to re-read even this one, which I liked better than both the other main books in the series (there are also two novellas). Hence I can't give the book four stars, and I'm a bit reluctant in wholeheartedly recommending it. Still, while these books just aren't for me, Alyssa Cole does not lack for enthusiastic supporters online. Based on her Twitter feed, she's a great lady, I'm just sorry I couldn't really fall for her brand of escapism. 

Judging a book by its cover: While most of Alyssa Cole's contemporaries in this series just have not been working out for me, I cannot deny that the covers for the various books are gorgeous. The colourful dresses that the cover models wear are all breathtaking, and there is such a sense of joy in each of the images. This book (the first in the series) is no exception.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

#CBR12 Book 22: "Dark Lover" by J.R. Ward

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 2 stars

Official description:
In the shadows of the night in Caldwell, New York, there's a deadly turf war going on between vampires and their slayers. There exists a secret band of brothers like no other-six vampire warriors, defenders of their race. Yet none of them relishes killing more than Wrath, the leader of The Black Dagger Brotherhood.

The only purebred vampire left on earth, Wrath has a score to settle with the slayers who murdered his parents centuries ago. But, when one of his most trusted fighters is killed-leaving his half-breed daughter unaware of his existence or her fate-Wrath must usher her into the world of the undead-a world of sensuality beyond her wildest dreams.

Where do I even begin with this book? J.R. Ward is a big name in the paranormal romance circles. This book came out in 2005. There are now 18 books in the series, which does not seem to be wrapping up any time soon. Am I going to be reading any of the rest of the series, two more of which I own (but thankfully only paid e-book sale prices for)? Unlikely. I knew about Dark Lover long before I bought it, on sale, back in 2014. I enjoy a lot of paranormal fantasy, although the romance sub-genre frequently tends to feature the "fated mate" trope a lot more often than I like. It's not a genre trope I am fond of. I like to believe that the characters I read about have some kind of choice about who they end up with.

I didn't know too many details about the series, except that it's been running for a long time, has a huge amount of devoted fans, and the vampire protagonists all tend to have implausible names, often featuring an unnecessary letter or two (seriously: Rhage, Zsadist, Vishous, Phury, Tohrment, the list goes on). In contrast, Wrath has a perfectly normal spelling to his name, but he does get to be the super-tormented king of the vampires. Wrath is a trademark alphahole hero. He is in fact even referenced in the very entertaining little essay that Ilona Andrews wrote and published on their blog. He's nearly seven feet tall, and built like a tank and is all tortured because his parents were killed while he was hidden away and unable to stop the killers. The only feelings he allows himself are those of brotherhood and fraternity, anything softer is clearly far beyond him.

Elizabeth "Beth" Randall is a journalist who grew up in a series of foster homes. She never knew her parents. She's also half-vampire and her father is blown up in a car bomb by vampire hunters at the start of this book. Vampires and half vampires don't come into their full powers until they're in their early twenties. Beth is clearly going to go through her transition soon, and a letter to Wrath, her father begs him to find her and help her through the change (which could be deadly for her). Initially, Wrath has no interest in this, but loyalty and honour to his dead friend compels him to seek Beth out, and once he sees her, it's pretty much inevitable where things will be going.

Beth, who starts the book narrowly escaping sexual assault, has never really been interested in any guy, even though they seem to be throwing themselves at her, left and right. One of her potential suitors is a cop named Butch, who beats up the arrested suspect in her assault case. However, once Beth meets Wrath, it becomes clear that she has a thing for tall, muscular, brooding dudes with rage and commitment issues.

Vampires in this world only really survive by feeding on other vampires. In a very heteronormative twist, men seem to have to feed on women, and vice versa. Hence, Wrath has a mournful lady vampire who he feeds from but refuses to in any way treat with respect. Since he's the king of the vampires, she's bound to him and can't go elsewhere and is generally pretty miserable. She's initially a bit upset, then very relieved, once Wrath sets his sights on Beth and she goes through her transition. Sad lady vampire never did anything to stir Wrath's desires, but between him and Beth things are very different.

There's a lot of world-building here, much of which is really annoyingly old-fashioned. This world does not seem to be very progressive or feminist. Vampires are a separate race from humans, but can clearly mate and create offspring with them. As I mentioned before, the vampires come into their full powers in their early twenties. Not everyone survives the transition. There's a secret society of vampire hunters, who all seem to be incels, trying to kill all the vampires. They are controlled by a being called the Omega, and have to sacrifice their hearts and humanity (literally) to their cause. Based on the representatives we see in this book, the vampire hunters are really not much of a threat, unless they're deploying car bombs.

This is a fun enough, but really rather dumb book. Other people have reviewed it WAY better than I have. See, for instance Navessa's review on Goodreads or romance author Alexis Hall's review over on Dear Author. While 18 books and counting might at one point have been appealing to me, now it's a strong deterrent, and the official book descriptions of most of the sequels had me rolling my eyes so hard it hurt. I really don't see myself spending more time reading about Ward's alphahole heroes and the women and/or men that fall for them.

Judging a book by its cover: This cover couldn't belong to any genre but paranormal romance, really and one featuring vampires at that. Bladed weaponry - check. Neck biting pose - check. Tattoos - check. And just in case you hadn't already figured out that it was about vampires, the cover is nice and bright red. At least you're unlikely to think this is a chick-lit book about a twenty-something single woman in the big city (although our heroine fits all those descriptors as well).

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 11 May 2020

#CBR12 Book 21: "Brown Girl Dreaming" by Jacqueline Woodson

Page count: 368 pages
Audiobook length: 3 hrs 55 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Official book description:
Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

This unusual autobiography, written in verse, is absolutely lovely. I chose to listen to it in audiobook, narrated by Ms. Woodson herself, mainly because I find poetry is always more accessible when it's read to me, rather than when I have to read it myself. Possibly my only complaint with this book is that it was much shorter than I was expecting, mainly because it's by no means a full autobiography of Ms. Woodson's life. It covers her childhood and adolescence and tells the story of how, although she had big problems learning to read, she found a love of books and stories and became determined to become an author.

A book written in verse may seem a bit daunting, but the language that Ms. Woodson uses throughout is descriptive, evocative, and in no way dense. Each chapter is relatively short, so you can easily break up your read if you want to. I found the short chapters made it even more tempting to keep going for longer, which made me finish the book sooner than I was expecting.

In general, while parts of Ms. Woodson's early years were sad and dramatic, most of the stories in this book are hopeful and heartwarming. I can easily understand why the book has been so critically acclaimed and been nominated for and won a ton of awards. I suspect this is the sort of book that will work very well for a number of reading challenges - written by an African American woman, dealing with various kinds of marginalisation and racism, it's autobiographical, it's aimed at YA/middle-grade readers, it's won a bunch of awards AND it's written in verse.

Judging a book by its cover: It's almost difficult to find an image of the plain cover for this book, considering that the standard cover now seems to be covered in little medals announcing the many awards this book has won or been nominated for. The silhouette of the little girl, reading a book, and butterflies and golden swirls seemingly erupting from its pages seems very appropriate. The colours of the sky behind the girl are lovely and evoke hopefulness and optimism, in my mind.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

#CBR12 Book 20: "Chasing Cassandra" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Official book description:
Railway magnate Tom Severin is wealthy and powerful enough to satisfy any desire as soon as it arises. Anything—or anyone—is his for the asking. It should be simple to find the perfect wife—and from his first glimpse of Lady Cassandra Ravenel, he’s determined to have her. But the beautiful and quick-witted Cassandra is equally determined to marry for love—the one thing he can’t give.

Severin is the most compelling and attractive man Cassandra has ever met, even if his heart is frozen. But she has no interest in living in the fast-paced world of a ruthless man who always plays to win.

When a newfound enemy nearly destroys Cassandra’s reputation, Severin seizes the opportunity he’s been waiting for. As always, he gets what he wants—or does he? There’s one lesson Tom Severin has yet to learn from his new bride:

Never underestimate a Ravenel.

The chase for Cassandra’s hand may be over. But the chase for her heart has only just begun...

I had originally rated this book 4 stars, but since I can barely remember a single detail about the plot less than three months after finishing the story, I don't think the book is worthy of such a high rating. This is the sixth and final book in the Ravenel series, but the book stands on its own just fine.

Lady Cassandra Ravenel is the last of the sheltered young ladies of the family to get married. Unlike her brilliant twin who always wanted to be a businesswoman, inventing board games, Cassandra has never wanted anything but a loving husband, a cozy home and some children to love. Having grown up in an abusive household, she wants safety and security and is happy that her sisters and cousins all now have loving relationships, exactly what she wants for herself. So, while she finds Tom Severin fascinating, his self-professed inability to love seems to rule him out as a suitable future partner for her.

Tom Severin is a brilliant businessman, who only allows himself to feel five different emotions at any given time. Love certainly isn't one of them. He's a self-made man and utterly ruthless in the pursuit of his goals, even when it on occasion hurts his friends or associates. He is utterly mesmerised by Cassandra from the first moment he sees her, and wants nothing more than to make her his wife. However, for all his claims of being without softer emotions, once he realises that he's not the man to give Cassandra the love and family life that she wants, he insists on her forgetting all about him and finding someone else. He then spends much of the book pining for her, adopting a street urchin and reading various novels that Cassandra or others of his friends have recommended, to learn about love and other finer feelings.

Kleypas has said in earlier interviews that Severin may be a bit of a sociopath. He certainly comes across that way in earlier books. He's also written in such a way here that he seems to be neuro-atypical side, where it's not that he doesn't feel emotions the same way as everyone else, he just has more difficulty understanding them. Kleypas has taken heroes with villainous traits and made them work just fine in the past - one of the problems with this book is that Severin and Cassandra spend a lot of the middle of the book apart. It's only once Cassandra is faced with scandal, having been slandered by a young nobleman, that Severin comes to see that he may be the only one able to help save Cassandra's reputation. He swoops in, offers to marry Cassandra to save her reputation, and buys the newspapers that printed the scurrilous rumours about her so he can expose the guilty parties and save the day.

Once Cassandra realises the changes Severin has made during their time apart, changes he doesn't think mean much at all, but gives her hope that his heart of ice can eventually be thawed, she agrees to marry him and fiercely defends him from the concerns of the rest of her family. She knows that she'll be able to do a lot of good in society with Severin's scads of money, and the fact that he's taken in an orphan (despite claiming not to care what happens to the boy) and read a slew of novels to try to understand just what everyone else (especially Cassandra) sees in them gives her hope that he may come to be the husband she needs.

Lisa Kleypas is one of the more famous romance novelists out there, but if you're new to her books, I would recommend starting with her Wallflower series, or the Hathaways (although stay away from Seduce Me at Sunrise, which is awful). There are a few decent books in the Ravenel series, but her back catalogue of classic historicals is much more likely to give you quality reading material.

Judging a book by its cover: All of the books in this series have had absolutely infuriating covers, with women in highly anachronistic and inappropriate attire considering the time period the books are set in. On this one, the cover model, supposed to portray a sheltered Victorian woman, appears to be wearing a modern-day wedding dress while running (see the book title features the word "chasing" and she seems to be running - so clever!) through an ice cave full of candlesticks? With her long hair flowing free behind her like the mane of some spirited horse? Seriously, Avon, you failed miserably with these.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 4 May 2020

#CBR12 Book 19: "Xeni: A Marriage of Inconvenience" by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Page count: 292 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
She just wanted to claim her inheritance. What she got was a husband…

Xeni Everly-Wilkins has ten days to clean out her recently departed aunt’s massive colonial in Upstate New York. With the feud between her mom and her sisters still raging even in death, she knows this will be no easy task, but when the will is read Xeni quickly discovers the decades-old drama between the former R&B singers is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Secrets, lies, and a crap ton of cash spilled on her lawyer’s conference room table all come with terms and conditions. Xeni must marry before she can claim the estate that will set her up for life and her aunt has just the groom in mind. The ruggedly handsome and deliciously thicc Scotsman who showed up at her aunt’s memorial, bagpipes at the ready.

When his dear friend and mentor Sable Everly passed away, Mason McInroy knew she would leave a sizable hole in his heart. He never imagined she’d leave him more than enough money to settle the debt that’s keeping him from returning home to Scotland. He also never imagined that Sable would use her dying breaths to play match-maker, trapping Mason and her beautiful niece in a marriage scheme that comes with more complications than either of them need.

With no choice but to say I do, the unlikely pair try to make the best of a messy situation. They had no plans to actually fall in love.

OK, I'm now trying to review books I finished almost three months ago, which isn't exactly easy at the best of times, and all the harder now, when my brain frequently feels like a sieve and I have a very small supply of figurative spoons to get me through my days, and each time the spoon reserves fill up, it feels like a few more have gone missing, and the ones that are left are a bit battered and tarnished. Yes, I know there are things like review amnesties, but to get to my Cannonball, I need to review what I've read. So I apologise if this and upcoming reviews are a little bit less amusing or informative - I'm just trying to get by here.

This is one of the many books I read in February (still my best reading month of the year so far, when we still had no idea what was coming), while I was trying to expand my horizons and discover more books by talented black ladies. Fellow Cannonballer and good friend Rochelle/Emmalita reviewed this back in October 2019 and as pretty much all of her recommendations have been solid gold for me, this seemed like a natural book to try, especially since I'm also doing an A to Z Reading Challenge this year, and finding books starting with X is almost impossible. So, thank you for that, Rebekah Weatherspoon, and thank you for a lovely read.

The official book description make it seem like there's a lot more tension and coercion going on with the arranged marriage between Xeni and Mason. It's not like anyone is standing there with a shotgun. The will of Xeni's deceased relative simply states that if they marry and stay married for thirty days, Xeni will inherit a huge estate, including tens of millions of dollars, several houses and assorted other goodies, while Mason will get enough money to cover his student debts and set him up comfortably in the future. It's more like good-natured meddling and match-making from beyond the grave. The will in no way states that the couple needs to consummate the marriage or even live together, just stay married for one month, to see if they hit it off. It's a clever conceit to do a modern marriage of convenience story (harder to find plausible situations in a contemporary setting, when social ruin for unwed ladies isn't so common).

With the amount of money on the line, neither Xeni nor Mason feel like they can refuse, and it doesn't hurt that they find their potential temporary spouse attractive. Xeni gets a lot of unexpected information thrown at her during the will reading, and having a strong and supportive shoulder to both literally and figuratively cry on doesn't seem like such a bad idea. The couple agree to marry and have a sexual relationship while they are wed, but agree that the relationship will be temporary and they will go their separate ways once the thirty days are up. I'm sure it's no spoiler to say that things don't necessarily end up that way.

Weatherspoon is an author I'd heard of several times before, but never read. Based on this, I will be tracking down more of her books (but probably not the one with the cowboy on the cover and an amnesia storyline, because that's just a big ol' nope for me). My friend and fellow Cannonballer Teresa, who is lucky enough to work part-time at the Ripped Bodice in California, also speaks very highly of Weatherspoon, so the woman clearly deserves some of my time and money.

Judging a book by its cover: I am ambivalent about this cover. On the one hand, it doesn't feature little cartoon characters. On the other hand, it seems needlessly pastel, and the cover model doesn't look anything much like Xeni is described in the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

#CBR12 Book 18: "Get a Life, Chloe Brown" by Talia Hibbert

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. The next items?

• Enjoy a drunken night out.
• Ride a motorcycle.
• Go camping.
• Have meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sex.
• Travel the world with nothing but hand luggage.
• And... do something bad.

But it’s not easy being bad, even when you’ve written step-by-step guidelines on how to do it correctly. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.

Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.

But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior…

This is another one of those books that have come highly recommended on a number of blogs, as well as by a number of Cannonballers whose opinions I trust. It became available in an e-book sale at the start of March, and fit nicely with my #BlackHistoryMonth goal of reading more by and about black women (I'm fully aware of my privilege as a middle-class, middle-aged white woman and I know I still read far too many books both by and about mostly white characters with a very similar background to my own, but I am trying to expand my horizons, I really am), I dove right in.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown deserves all the positive reviews it's been getting. It's a lovely little romance, and it was even better for featuring a plus-size, chronically ill character, who at no point in the story is in any way suddenly magically healed by her romantic encounters, or made to feel like she's worth any less because she's ill. Since being diagnosed with fibromyalgia, she's lost a lot of her support network, including a boyfriend and most of her regular friends. She's been isolating herself for far too long, and after a near-death experience, she decides things need to change. She loves making lists (and they help her when her short term memory is muddled from the meds she frequently has to take) and she makes a special to-do-list. She moves into a new flat and immediately ends up in conflict with Redford, the handsome super of the building.

A few months later, she's had a few more mortifying encounters with Red (she's also spied on him painting at night), but not really made much progress with her "Get a Life" list. She offers to design a new website for Red in return for help with some of the items on the list. The two fairly quickly discover that the animosity that exists between them because of their first meetings are mainly down to misunderstandings, and it doesn't take long before they are fast friends, quickly moving towards something more.

Both Chloe and Red have supportive families, but emotional baggage from their pasts. While working together to cross off items on Chloe's list, it also becomes clear that Red needs to reevaluate his current choices and decide whether he wants to relaunch his painting career or do something else. It's very obvious that he's not content being a building superintendent. Of course, their pasts cause some friction along the way to the HEA but nothing that annoyed me too much, and there is suitable and appropriate groveling from the protagonist responsible.

This is the first in a series, with Chloe's younger sisters being the stars of the other books. While her sisters are nice supporting characters, one of them has an annoying quirk where she uses the wrong word and her sisters keep going "don't you mean ...?" A whole book with a heroine doing that is likely to drive me nuts. Nevertheless, based on this book, I will absolutely read more of Hibbert's books.

Judging a book by its cover: Whether I like it or not, the publishing world has clearly decided that cutesy cartoon covers are the standard for contemporary romance now, until the next trend comes along to replace it. This cover, though, I really like.  Chloe and Red look so cozy, and the reader can see that Chloe really is a big woman (which isn't really focused on in the story at all, another thing I really liked). The cat in the background is obviously also very appropriate.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

#CBR12 Book 17: "Not the Girl You Marry" by Andie J. Christopher

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Official book description:
Jack Nolan is a gentleman, a journalist, and unlucky in love. His viral success has pigeon-holed him as the how-to guy for a buzzy, internet media company instead of covering hard-hitting politics. Fed up with his fluffy articles and the app-based dating scene as well, he strikes a deal with his boss to write a final piece de resistance: How to Lose a Girl. Easier said than done when the girl he meets is Hannah Mayfield, and he's not sure he wants her to dump him.

Hannah is an extremely successful event planner who's focused on climbing the career ladder. Her firm is one of the most prestigious in the city, and she's determined to secure her next promotion. But Hannah has a bit of an image problem. She needs to show her boss that she has range, including planning dreaded, romantic weddings. Enter Jack. He’s the perfect man to date for a couple weeks to prove to her boss that she’s not scared of feelings.

Before Jack and Hannah know it, their fake relationship starts to feel all too real—and neither of them can stand to lose each other. 

Remember back in the early 2000s (soo long ago now), when both Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey were big names in romantic comedies, and then they did one together - How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days? Hudson is the bored women's magazine writer having to write "How to" pieces and desperately wanting more serious jobs. She needs a guy she can date and drive away using all the classic mistakes women tend to make in the dating world and will write an article at the end of it all. McConaughey's character is an ad exec who wants a particular job and needs to convince his boss he can make any woman fall in love with him. His work rivals set him up to ask Hudson's character out. He needs a woman to stay with him for at least two weeks, she needs a guy she can drive away. Lots of hijinks ensue and of course, they fall in love over the course of the movie.

Andie J. Christopher takes the nearly 17 year old rom com and gender-swaps it. Jack is the guy who has to write one last "How to" website article, while Hannah needs to prove to her boss that she's in a serious, going places relationship, so she can prove she knows romance and can be trusted to plan weddings. Hannah has had a number of unsuccessful dating experiences in her past, with her last long-term boyfriend burning her deeply by saying she's "not the girl you marry". She has a deeply cynical view of men and dating. Jack, on the other hand, is a bit of a serial monogamist. He falls deeply and tries to be the ultimate partner for any woman he's with. Unfortunately, sooner or later, the women he's dated in the past get bored and move on. He's instantly smitten with Hannah when they meet at a bar, especially because she's so determined to be unimpressed by his good looks and charm.

I really did how well Hannah's cynicism and insecurities was explained in the story. A lot of guys in her past were far too interested in her simply because of her biracial heritage, and she keeps feeling like she's not enough of either side of her background. She feels like her ex dumped her because she wasn't black enough, while at other times in her life, she felt left out because she wasn't white enough.

For much of the book, the two protagonists blatantly lie, deceive and use the other, which took away some of my enjoyment of the story. Ms. Christopher writes the book from the alternating POVs of Jack and Hannah, so the reader comes to understand both of their motivations, but it was still hard to root for two characters who were basically entering into a romantic relationship on a series of lies. Truth be told, while I have always been a huge fan of romantic comedies and am so happy that the genre is having a resurgence (thank Netflix!), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days was nowhere near one of my favourites. So I probably was never going to adore a book based on the same premise.

As February was Black History Month, I wanted to read more books written by and about diverse black women. I chose to read mostly romance because even back in February (it seems like years ago and we had absolutely no idea what was coming), I needed comforting reads with guaranteed happy endings. This was the first of several, by no means my favourite, but well-written enough that I will absolutely check out other books by Christopher in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: Like pretty much all contemporary romances out there at the moment, this one has a cute cartoony cover. The story is a gender-swapped version of the movie, the cover heavily mirrors at least one of the more well-known film posters (although I don't remember the dog). The poses of the characters on the cover are pretty much identical to those of the actors on the posters. I hadn't noticed that at first, and it's a nice touch.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 3 April 2020

#CBR12 Book 16: "A Big Surprise for Valentine's Day" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 116 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Amber Wong has landed her dream job at the Stratford Festival, and life is looking good. Sure, she hasn’t had sex in so long that her condoms have expired, but she’ll just pick up some new ones, along with some discounted Christmas chocolate, at the grocery store.

And that’s where she runs into Dr. Sebastian Lam, the son of her parents’ close friends, whom she hasn’t seen in years. He’s moved back to Ontario, newly single, and… Oh my God. He’s really hot.

The attraction is mutual and no-strings-attached sex is the perfect arrangement for both of them, since Amber has sworn off dating after a string of terrible boyfriends.

But what if their families find out they’re spending time together and start interfering in their lives? That would be a disaster.

Even worse? If they develop feelings for each other, given a relationship is the last thing Amber wants right now…

In this, the fourth and final of Jackie Lau's novellas set around holidays, the youngest Wong sibling, all of whom were set up on disastrous blind dates by their mother and grandmother during A Match Made for Thanksgiving, finally finds her HEA, with one of her older brother's best friends, no less. Ms. Lau really is working to get all the popular tropes into her novellas. Neither Amber nor Sebastian are looking for anything serious, and meet by chance at a convenience store. There is clearly an attraction between them, and they decide that since they are both single, they may as well enjoy some no strings attached fun for a while - which of course gets a lot more complicated the more time they spend with one another.

- This book is super sex-positive. There is not a hint of slut-shaming at any point. It's not often, even in romance, that you get the presence and enthusiastic use of sex toys in more than one scene, but more importantly - they use lube! I literally cannot remember EVER coming across the use of lube in smexy times in a contemporary romance between a man and a woman, and I've read a LOT of romances. There was an even article on Smart Bitches a few months back complaining about the complete lack of this in romance. So yay for that!
- Points for having a very well-endowed hero and acknowledging that it's going to cause some challenges and that considerations need to be made in the bedroom department. Very realistic, super unusual and extremely refreshing to read. The book gets an extra half a star just for that.

What I really liked:
-That Amber does crafting like cross-stitch and crochet (sometimes to hilarious results) and enjoys baking shows.
- That Sebastian is a very imaginative and considerate lover, who understands that being blessed in the pants department requires care and preparation.
- That both protagonists always make sure they have the enthusiastic consent of the other.
- The food descriptions, like always (although boba tea is disgusting. Blech, semolina ball - fight me!)

What I didn't like so much:
- The interfering and nosy relatives on either side. I get that it's a feature and that it in many ways was one of the obstacles that Amber and Sebastian had to work through, but by book 4, the zany grandmother just got on my nerves and much of the rest of the older family members, on either side of the couple just made me cringe and want to skim the parts where they showed up.
- Sebastian's mother was completely out of line and her judgmental attitude towards Amber made me want to slap her.

Jackie Lau continues to write comforting, satisfying romances between adults who know what they want and aren't afraid to communicate with one another. There is very little drama here, just a sweet, well-developed love story.

Judging a book by its cover: Yet another cute, cartoony cover, with delicious baked goods and associations to breakfast all around. The hero does make the heroine a very sweet and special breakfast, and I'm glad the cover designers went with donuts rather than boba tea as the thing to focus on, image wise.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.