Tuesday 31 January 2017

#CBR9 Book 7: "A Crown of Bitter Orange" by Laura Florand

Page count: 323 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Malorie Monsard returns to the south of France, where she grew up, having left on a hike after finishing high school and made enough money in Paris to put herself through business school. Having felt like an outcast while growing up, due to the legacy of her great-grandfather who betrayed resistance members to the Gestapo, and a narcissistic father who would manipulate her, her mother, her sisters and her grandmother, and charm, lie and steal his way until he finally met an unglamourous end in a car accident with another woman. After the women of the Monsard family left and scattered across the globe, Malorie's grandmother remained and tried to keep up what little remained of the family's once great fragrance business. Now she has died, Malorie is in charge of the inheritance, forcing her to return to her brittle roots. Will she sell off the near-dead family business or make a go of it in a town she's wary about returning to?

Tristan Rosier is the youngest of five male cousins and always felt it was his job to see to the emotional well-being of all his family. He grew up with Malorie, having been placed next to the quiet, studious girl all the way through school as this seemed to be the only thing that could somewhat calm his own irrepressible, energetic and impulsive self. Nursing a crush on her since childhood, Tristan never could figure out why Malorie was the only woman who would never give him the time of day. Growing up with war hero relatives, privileged and loved constantly, Tristan nonetheless deeply felt the loss of his two oldest cousins who went off to join the armed forces, and Malorie, who simply never returned from her post graduation hike.

When he met her again a few years ago in New York, he was trying to pitch his most extravagant and brilliant perfume to the company where she worked, and she used her cold, logical accounting skills to ruin his dream. Now she is back in Grasse, and Tristan wants to do everything in his power to make sure she decides to stay around. He'll help her restore the Monsard perfume house to its former glory, he'll offer up his perfumes and heart on a plate, if only she'll notice how much he adores her and decide to stay.

Tristan and Malorie may be the same age, but they are also in many way a study of opposites. Tristan had a loving, supportive family, a proud family legacy, and while he may have suffered from something like ADHD while in school, when working with fragrances and creating world-class perfumes, he's an unsurpassed genius, making his family's company millions every year. Handsome, charming and confident, he always tried to gain Malorie's attention, but when she seemed to always ignore him and treat him with indifference, he would happily flirt with any of the other many girls in school. While being the youngest cousin has earned him his fair share of taunting and rough-housing from the older ones, and he deeply felt the sting when his cousins Raoul (who later returned) and Lucien (as of yet unaccounted for, he joined the Foreign Legion) left the village, and then Malorie took the chance to get the hell out of dodge as soon as she graduated from high school. While he's deeply proud of her for making the connections needed to get herself a job and put herself through business school, he's always been sad that she never said goodbye, and left just as he intended to declare his feelings for her.

Malorie, on the other hand, grew up ashamed, knowing that while the Rosier patriarch and his step-sister were Resistance heroes, her great-grandfather sold out one of their allies to the Gestapo, and her grandmother was left a pregnant, teenage scandal in the village. That her son, Malorie's father, grew up to be the most selfish, self-centred user imaginable was also the Monsard's misfortune. While Malorie's grandmother struggled to keep the once great pre-war perfume house of Monsard from completely collapsing, her father would steal whatever valuables weren't nailed down and sell to support his extravagant habits. He would manipulate his mother, his wife and his daughters and leave them all wary and distrustful of charming, glib men. Both amused and exasperated by Tristan as they grew up, Malorie was very aware that while on the surface he might resemble her father, he was really nothing like him. She was nonetheless not going to fall for his flirting, shoring up her heart and making sure she never revealed any of her infatuation to him, instead having to watch him flirt with everyone else in school (not realising that every time he clumsily knocked over her books, or squeezed down next to her or insisted on sitting next to her in school, it was to get her undivided attention).

At twenty-nine, Tristan is a passionate, creative genius - a fragrance-creating artist who makes best-selling perfumes for fragrance houses world-wide. Malorie is a top rate accountant, using her financial skills and logic to work herself into a very prominent position at a New York-based perfume house. When her grandmother dies, she returns to Grasse, the town she grew up in, and faces the memories of her childhood and mourns for the loving woman all of them (her mother, her sisters and herself) left behind, who worked tirelessly to retain something of the Monsard family legacy, even if it was just a small soap and perfume shop. Living in her grandmother's old house, in a garden of bitter orange trees, Malorie realises how little she appreciated her grandmother, who is now lost to her. Malorie and her sisters have twenty percent of the stocks of the Monard family business, and she needs to make some difficult decisions about what she wants to do with her future.

She's both amused and confused by Tristan's attentions, not to mention the scrutiny she faces from the various critical members of his family. While Tristan is now trying to convince her of his long-lasting devotion, she cannot believe that this handsome, brilliant man, who has always had women fall at her feet, isn't just trying to finally seduce "the one that got away". But as Tristan really starts pitching woo, and his entire family seems to be taking her measure to see if she can possibly be good enough for him, she starts to realise that he might in fact be serious, and his feelings for her may be more than just lustful.

Malorie is a great character and she's clearly not had an easy life of it. Tristan is an adorable puppydog of a man, but he did occasionally get on my nerves with his complete lack of empathy for the lives of others, considering the incredibly privileged life he himself has led. He, unlike many of his other family members, who seem perfectly capable of understanding why Malorie may be wary and insecure, cannot seem to understand why Malorie can't just get over her past and be happy about her future. He also insists on keeping a secret from her for the longest time, despite advice from pretty much literally every other member in his family, and seems absolutely baffled when the situation blows up in his face. Luckily, he doesn't take long to realise that he's been an idiot, and grovels appropriately.

While her Amour et Chocolat books were set in Paris with arrogant chocolate and pastry-creating geniuses, Laura Florand's books in Provence, with a large extended family involved in perfume creation is possibly even more comforting to me. I wasn't entirely wild on the previous book in the series, A Wish Upon Jasmine, the first book, Once Upon a Rose, is lovely and well worth checking out. In that one, there are several references to Goldilocks and the three bears, here the fairy tale references are to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. I know some CBR romance readers recently have expressed an inability to tolerate Florand's more alphahole and arrogant heroes - I would recommend they try this or the first book in the series for slightly more sensitive beta heroes. I'm already looking forward to what's in store for the rest of the cousins.

Judging a book by its cover: OK, this cover drives me nuts with annoyance. I absolutely loathe generic covers that are clearly designed by someone who hasn't read or has any idea of what the content of the book are. Neither of the people on the cover look ANYTHING like the descriptions of Tristan or Malorie, and at the bottom there's a huge field of lavender, when the whole point of this book is ORANGE BLOSSOMS! I think lavender may be mentioned in one sentence in passing over the entire course of the book. How hard would it have been to find a stock photo of orange blossoms, people (I found one in a ten second Google search!), and a couple who at least nominally matched the descriptions of the protagonists? Grrr!

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday 26 January 2017

#CBR9 Book 6: "Deep" by Kylie Scott

Page count: 273 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Psychology student Elizabeth "Liz" Rollins is the younger sister of Anne, heroine of Play, who ended up with the drummer of Portland-based mega rock band Stage Dive after a whirlwind romance. Liz was a supporting character in that book, as well as in the sequel, Lead, and she's been nursing a crush on the band's massive, strong and silent lumbersexual bassist, Ben. Due to a nine year age difference and the fact that Ben is quite obviously not the settling down type (or even the multiple dates kind a guy), both Anne and her boyfriend Mal warn Liz to stay away from Ben, but they keep texting in secret, and this does nothing to diminish Liz' infatuation, until she figures out that Ben really isn't going to piss off his friends, and she cuts off all contact.

They see each other for the first time in a while at Anne and Mal's wedding in Vegas and alcohol and the prolonged absence leads to a one night stand (Liz kicks Ben out of her room - sans pants - once he lies on the phone to Mal about who he's with and what he's doing). Cue a couple of months later, when Liz has discovered that she's pregnant. She's forced to announce the news at a particularly awkward band dinner, where Ben's current date diagnoses both Liz and lead singer Jimmy's girlfriend Lena with probably "bun in the oven"-itis. Anne is worried and disappointed, Mal is outraged at his best friend's betrayal, and Liz pretty much figures she's going to be a single mum, as Ben is clearly not all that enthused about becoming a daddy.

As Stage Dive are going on a months long tour, Ben persuades Liz to come with them, so she'll be taken care of and he and she can try to figure out some sort of friendship, since they'll be sharing custody of a child in about seven months. Liz is disappointed that Ben has no interest in even trying for a closer relationship, but doesn't want to be alone either and agrees to his "let's be friends" suggestion, against her better judgement. Her brain tells her to be rational and not expect too much of him, even as her crazy pregnancy hormones make her even more insanely attracted to him than before. Is she ever going to get him to see her as more than his baby-mama friend?

I'm really not sure what the title Deep is supposed to refer to, as there is nothing particularly deep or profound about this story. While I really did enjoy the first two books in this series, especially Anne and Mal's book, Kylie Scott's writing seems to be a case of diminishing returns. She writes great female characters. I always really like the heroines in her books. Sadly, the heroes just don't seem to come up to scratch. I actively disliked Jimmy in Lead, I though Vaughn in Dirty was incredibly bland and far too commitment shy and Ben doesn't impress me in any way either. A better title for this book would have been Shrug, which pretty much sums up my feelings about the whole thing. It's not an actively bad book, but it's not exactly a life-changing one either. I don't feel at all bad that it's been nearly two years since this book was published until I got round to reading it.

Things I liked:
- Liz is a really good heroine (her baffling love of Ben notwithstanding). She's smart, determined to get a good education and she really has very few expectations of Ben, even after she gets pregnant. Liz and Anne come from a troubled family background and Liz had a time in her youth when she lived a pretty wild lifestyle, but is very grateful to Anne for not giving up on her, and having worked hard to help put her through college. After Ben insists, she agrees to accept a hefty bank transfer from him, but even as she's growing out of all of her clothes, she's reluctant to touch the money, intending to save it all for the child.
- The friendship between the various women in the series. Liz and Anne are sisters, who are very close, but Liz also finds a close and supporting friendship with Evie and Lena, the other wives/girlfriends of the band.
- Most of the supporting characters are actually pretty good.

Things that annoyed me:
- This is yet another contemporary romance where the heroine is apparently so astoundingly fertile that she gets knocked up after having sex once WITH a condom. As someone who has struggled with infertility issues for more than half a decade now, this just feels a bit insulting. Unlike with Rock Wedding, where I was unaware of the pregnancy storyline, I was at least prepared for it this time (as it says in the blurb).
- Ben. First of all, the burly, bearded, man-bunned mountain of a man doesn't do it for me at all. It's pretty much the opposite of the physical type I find attractive. Add to that the fact that Ben is super happy about being the laid-back, happy-go-lucky commitment-phobe who claims he really wants to be 100% involved in his child's life, but doesn't go to a single doctor's appointment with Liz, and just pays a huge amount of money into her account. Only later in the book, when they actually start getting into a more romantic relationship, does he seem like he cares about the details of her pregnancy. He's also super jealous of any other guy who shows Liz any attention, even while he still insisting that they're just platonic friends.
- The baffling inclusion of Ben's super-bitchy sister in the last third of the book. She arrives out of nowhere, is super insulting and even though she seems to be happy living large on Ben's rock star paycheck, dares to accuse Liz of being a gold digger and emotionally blackmailing her into signing a contract in front of her entire extended family. She later shouts abuse at Liz during the birth, claiming that Liz will deliver the baby faster if she's angry.
- This is yet another book where the heroine could do SO much better and therefore the romance just doesn't work for me.

At this rate, it's going to take some very rave reviews for me to bother with another of Kylie Scott's books.

Judging a book by its cover: Each of these books have featured partial pictures of rocker dudes in various states of undress, and I'm guessing that the dude on the cover here is meant to be Ben, what with having tattoos and holding a bass guitar. He doesn't seem big enough or built enough based on the descriptions in the book, and his beard is positively weeny for all the loving descriptions the hero's facial hair gets in this book. Weak cover, guys.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday 23 January 2017

#CBR9 Books 4 and 5: "84 Charing Cross Road" and "The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street" by Helene Hanff

Combined page count: 230 pages
Rating: 5 stars

In October 1949, New York writer sends off a letter to a bookshop in London, Marks & Co, on 84 Charing Cross Road. She is looking for reasonable second-hand books and luckily the staff at Marks & Co are able to help her. By Christmas, as she has heard that everyone in the UK are still on rationing, she has ordered a whole ham and a lot of powdered eggs to be shared out among the staff and her generosity prompts the mysterious FPD that she's been corresponding with is in fact called Frank Doel.

The outgoing and often very impulsive American writer and the more restrained English bookseller carry out a correspondence over the years, with the occasional letter included from other people in the store, and later Frank's wife Nora, who are all blown over by Ms. Hanff's continued generosity. She keeps insisting on sending food parcels to the store around every big holiday, and before long, she is receiving Christmas presents from the thankful staff as well. The correspondence, which chiefly focuses on the books Ms. Hanff requests, and a love of reading, come to include stories of their everyday lives, information about their families and career ambitions (in the case of Ms. Hanff). Her many eventual friends in the UK keep admonishing her to visit, but every time she gets closer to her goal of saving up enough, something big interferes and she has to put it off for a while longer. Sadly, in January 1969, after nearly 20 years of letters back and forth, Ms. Hanff is notified by a secretary at Marks & Co that Frank Doel has passed away. His daughter gives her permission to publish his letters, however, in what became 84 Charing Cross Road.

Said book and it's strange and wonderful success is what finally allows Helene Hanff to travel to London, but not until the summer of 1971, while still recovering from a hysterectomy. For five weeks, she is able to visit her beloved London, although she's terrified when she gets off the plane. She gets to meet several of the friends she made during her many years of corresponding, even though the bookshop Marks & Co is now closed. Her English publishers put her up in a lovely little hotel in Bloomsbury and various friends, family of former correspondents and fans of her book all insist on treating her to the time of her life, hence the title of her next book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. She really feels wonderfully pampered during her stay, and while sadly she never manages to see the inside of the Tower of London, she nonetheless gets to visit a fair amount of locations in the London and its surroundings.

Made up from her diary entries while she was in England, the book gives somewhat more insight into Ms. Hanff and her dreams, fears and insecurities. I'm not surprised that she has adoring fans that want to show her every courtesy, I loved both books immensely. They're both such quick, witty and entertaining reads. I know that there is a film based on 84 Charing Cross Road, I should probably try to find a copy and watch it. The paperback I got at my local library contained both books, and even so, I was able to read both in a couple of indulgent afternoons. I've heard of both the film and the book, and am delighted that I finally read it.

Judging a book by its cover: A delicate creamy golden colour for the cover, with the shopfront of Marks & Co, where Ms. Hanff bought her books for so many years (but which had sadly closed by the time she visited London) at the bottom, showing the reader just what the bookstore looked like and allowing the reader to imagine its loyal employees, who all became such dear friends to Ms. Hanff. An open second-hand book at the top shows the reader that they are most certainly also central in this story.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR9 Book 3: "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe" by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Page count: 368 pages
Audio book length: 7 hrs 29 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Aristotle "Ari" is a conflicted teenager growing up in El Paso in the late 1980s. He's sixteen and a loner, but doesn't really mind his lack of friends. He's very close to his mother, whose a high school teacher (not at Ari's school), but wishes he could talk to his dad, a Vietnam vet about, well, anything really. The youngest of his family, Ari's twin sisters are much older than him and his brother is in prison, never spoken about by anyone in the family. There are no pictures, his name is never mentioned, and Ari can't help but wonder about him constantly.

The summer when he's sixteen, Ari makes his first real friend, Dante. They meet at the public pool, when Dante offers to teach him how to swim. Dante is pretty much Ari's polar opposite. He's outgoing and talkative, questioning everything. He's positive where Ari is melancholy. Yet the two boys connect. They spend pretty much the whole summer together, until a bad accident puts Ari in the hospital. Dante's family move to Chicago for a school year, but the boys keep in touch by writing letters.It's clear that both of the boys do more developing and figuring out of who they're becoming when they're apart.

When Dante and his parents move back to El Paso, he's worried that Ari will no longer be his friend. Dante has been experimenting with kissing while he was in Chicago and has pretty much figured out that he only wants to be kissing boys. He's worried that Ari won't be his best friend anymore. He's worried about telling his parents and disappointing them, because he's absolutely crazy about them. Can Ari and Dante's friendship survive these new realisations?

I'd heard about this book in several places. It was very favourably reviewed by several review sites I frequent, like The Book Smugglers and Forever Young Adult. I put it on my TBR list, and as is so often the case, more or less forgot about it. Then earlier this month, fellow Cannonballer JCoppercorn wrote another very positive review, and because I had been browsing Audible, I discovered that Lin-Manuel Miranda was the narrator of the audiobook. This pretty much made the book a must-buy and I've been very happily listening to it for the past week.

This book, you guys. It's so good! I've seen some complaints that the dialogue wasn't entirely realistic and that sixteen/seventeen-year-olds don't speak the way Dante and Aristotle do, but as a reader of a lot of YA fiction, I would say that this is more often the exception than the rule. Frankly, I teach fifteen/sixteen-year-olds and none of them, male or female, are even half as articulate as any fictional teen I've every come across in fiction.

Frankly, the close, extremely functional relationship these young men had with their parents was probably unrealistic too, but it added to my enjoyment of the book. Both Ari's and Dante's parents are pretty much the greatest, even though Ari's dad isn't exactly the most talkative or emotionally demonstrative of people. Dante's parents both more than make up for that, though, and I found myself being vaguely jealous of how great, understanding, supportive and insightful all these adults were. Way better than any of my parents during my coming of age, and my Mum was pretty super. Not that they always said or did the right thing. As mentioned already, Ari's father is rather distant and taciturn, still stoically dealing with the aftermath of his time in Vietnam, even a decade and a half later. Neither of Ari's parents (or his sisters) will in any way acknowledge the existence of his older brother, who went to prison when Ari was four. Ari feels the lack of his brother deeply and cannot understand why his family won't ever tell him a thing about him.

The book is told from Ari's point of view and we only ever see Dante and the other characters through his eyes, with the exceptions of the letters Dante sends him while he lives in Chicago. Every so often, there are Ari's diary entries, but most of the story is just about a year and a half of his life, while he is growing up, changing and desperately trying to figure out who he is and what is going to become of him. Friendship is a new and occasionally difficult thing for Ari. Expressing his emotions and figuring out what he wants is even more so. He's frequently troubled by bad dreams, where his fear of being left behind by the men who mean something to him (his father, his brother and Dante) is painfully obvious.

It's clear that while Dante is much more outgoing and sociable than Ari, he hasn't really had a lot of close friends either. So both boys become the other's best friend, while still trying to figure out what that entails, as well as what becoming men is all about. Add to that the questions surrounding their identities as Mexican (Ari looks a lot more Mexican than Dante, both have parents who have become educated and don't necessarily fit into their traditional communities anymore) and in Dante's case, the questions surrounding his sexuality. While he's in Chicago, Dante clearly does his best to try to figure out exactly who and what he likes, while Ari reads his letters and feels uncomfortable about a lot of these things. Luckily, Dante's realisations about his sexuality doesn't get in the way of their continued friendship once he and his parents move back to El Paso.

This book made me laugh, and cry both happy and sad tears. It's such a lovely book and I'm glad I finally read it. The only reason I'm not giving it 5 stars is that it really does take Ari way too long to get over himself and figure out what matters to him in the end. When your parents have to sit you down and have a serious conversation with you before you wise up, it's gone a bit far. Again, not unrealistic, teenagers are really very clueless, but I still wish the book had continued on a little bit longer after it's current end point. The narration by Lin-Manuel Miranda is excellent (I hadn't expected anything else). Goodreads tells me that there will be a sequel at some future date (as of yet there is no release info) , and I cannot wait to find out what happens next with these lovely guys and their families.

Judging a book by its cover: I love pretty much everything about this cover, just as I love pretty much everything about the book. The font used for the title, the illustrations that look like someone has scribbled or doodled over much of it. Ari's red pickup truck and the lonely landscape that he enjoys so much. It's a really good cover and captures some of the feel of this book excellently.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

Saturday 21 January 2017

#CBR9 Book 2: "Breath of Fire" by Amanda Bouchet

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! I was granted an ARC copy of this through NetGalley. That has in no way influenced my review.

Spoiler warning! This is the second book in The Kingmaker Chronicles and as such this review may contain mild spoilers both for the first book in the series, A Promise of Fire and for the beginning of this book. If you're new to the series, start with book one. If you like going in not knowing anything, come back and read this review once you've finished the book.

Griffin has discovered the truth about Cat's parentage and past and is none too happy about it. After throwing one hell of a tantrum, he seems very surprised when Cat has retreated to her old room in the barracks, believing that he can no longer stand to be near her. After revealing the full truth of her past to him, they reconcile most ardently and then begin to consider what to do about the upcoming Power Bid in the region. Cat is the rightful heir of Fisa and knows that at some point, she has to confront her tyrannical and sadistic mother and end her reign once and for all. The third country in the region, Tarva, are making overtures towards invading Sinta and Griffin and his family need to figure out what to do to protect themselves until they can further consolidate power.

Cat suggests recruiting the aid of magical creatures to guard their borders. In order to do so, they first have to go see a Chaos Wizard and then complete a dangerous and elaborate quest in a maze in the ice caves in the mountains. Only Cat and Cato, one of the other members of Beta Team are allowed into the caves. Griffin, Carver and Flynn have to wait outside. Cat has been granted Ariadne's thread, which will never run out, so she and Cato can find their way back out, but inside the caves, they have to face a number of challenges and Cat comes to discover new and surprising gifts granted to her by her godly protectors.

Once they've survived the maze and Artemis' challenges, they have to travel to actually persuade the giant centaurs they want to recruit to join their cause. This involves trying to outsmart a hydra and another set of challenges. When they finally do make it back to Sinta, it's clear that the best way to gain access to the Tarvan capital and its royals is by competing in and winning a hugely popular bloodsport tournament, held every four years. The winners are granted an audience with the Tarvan rulers. Gaining access to the palace could allow Beta Team to usurp power without having to go to war. The tournament is fiendishly difficult, however, and it's going to take a lot for them to win.

A Promise of Fire was one of my favourite books last year and combined an interesting and elaborate fantasy world, complete with a lot of influence from Greek mythology, with a satisfying, slow-burning romance. One of the few things that annoyed me about the book was that Cat had yet to tell Griffin about her mother and her true identity when the book ended. Extremely frustratingly, Bouchet chooses to have Griffin discover the truth between books, so to speak, off-page and not from Cat directly. He is absolutely livid, throws the mother of all temper tantrums, completely trashes their bedroom (to the point where he cleaves their bed in two with his sword) and generally manhandles and yells at Cat (who is still recovering from a near-death experience), acting completely at odds with the character we got to know in book 1.

When Cat is hurt and heartbroken and leaves to take refuge in her old room in the barracks, believing Griffin to be so disgusted with her and her family legacy that he can no longer love her, she is surprised to find that when she wakes up from a long, healing sleep, he has been frantically looking for her since she disappeared and wonders why she would leave him. Having read the preceding chapters, I am totally with Cat - confused about Griffin's mercurial turnaround and sudden declarations of eternal devotion and crazed possessiveness. What follows is several chapters of slightly uncomfortable love making, as it's clear that Griffin really needs to assert his dominance over Cat (or something). This beginning really threw me off and made me wonder if I was reading the same writer.

Luckily, the book got better again, with Cat getting over some of her deeply held trust issues and confessing the truth about her past and her abilities to Griffin's entire family. She and Griffin then take Beta Team and go off to fight/recruit mythological monsters and you get more of the road trip feel that worked so well in the first book. Yet during Cat and Cato's ordeals in the ice caves, there was another misstep that made me feel uncomfortable and which I've seen described in other reviews as likened to male rape, and I find I have to agree. Event specific spoilers to follow!

Artemis the goddess is attended by a very skilled archer, who insists that in order for them to succeed in their quest, Cato has to service her (and possibly the goddess). If he refuses, it's quite clear that the archer will kill both him and Cat, so it's not like he's able to give clear and unforced consent here. It is later described how he was pretty much drugged with an aphrodisiac and had to provide his sexual services for the best end of two days, while the goddess Artemis watched them the whole time. The whole incident has clearly not been very enjoyable for him, but is just glossed over, as the female archer was really hot, after all (as it often is in other popular media too, season one of Orphan Black springs to mind - if the woman is hot enough, consent is probably not required from the man).

Spoilers over!

With the beginning of the book, and this storyline leaving a bad taste in my mouth, I still enjoyed much of the book. Even so, the plot felt more disjointed in this book than in the previous one, jumping around a lot more, from challenge to challenge. While I appreciate the author skipping out on all the boring transport bits, it got a bit frenetic at times.

Apart from his initial flip into bizarro Griffin, our hero is mostly very supportive of his incredibly powerful lady love. As is often the case with very alpha dudes, there is a lot of assertions of "Mine!" in a way that I've never found guys to need to do in real life, but so often happens in these kinds of stories. Once assured that Cat loves him just as much as he does her, though, he seems perfectly comfortable with her magical and political legacy and ceding power and authority to her, as she is clearly the one prophesied to overturn the current (and pretty shitty world order) and unite the three countries into one new super-realm. At the beginning of the book, he gets a bit bull-headedly protective, but this too changes and he mostly lets Cat do what she does best, which is kick ass.

Cat grows a lot more comfortable with the idea that she can be a ruler without being like her crazy, psychopathic mother and that the prophecies about her doesn't necessarily spell out doom and apocalypse, just a much needed revolution with power being wrested from those who abuse it. The three countries need more benevolent rulers and she and Griffin can do a lot of good, if they succeed in their mission. Having learned the hard way not to make any attachments, she comes to accept that she can love and trust Griffin, his family, Beta Team and her found family at the circus, without being worried that they'll reject her because of her psycho mother or her scary powers. Becoming more comfortable with accepting affection and support from others also makes her more confident and skilled.

I hope that the final book of the trilogy has less of the things that seriously bothered me in this book (and that nearly reduced my rating to 3.5 stars) and more of what made the first book so good. Sadly, Heart on Fire is not out until January 2018, so I'm in for quite the wait.

Judging a book by its cover: Yet again a cover that focuses on the strong female protagonist (and not any of the many dudes of the story), I still think it's sad that they appear to have changed cover models, so the woman portraying Cat looks completely different. Nonetheless, she's wearing leather armour and looking impressively muscled, while holding a sword and trailing fire. I'm assuming the heavy use of blue mist is meant to evoke the ice caves where a dramatic part of the novel takes place. I don't like this as much as the first one, but it's still better than a LOT of fantasy covers out there.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

Sunday 15 January 2017

#CBR Book 1: "The Way of Kings" by Brandon Sanderson

Page count: 1325 pages
Rating: 4 stars

We primarily follow the story of three people in this book, with occasional points of view from others to further shed light on goings on. The first (and in my opinion, most interesting) of our protagonists is Kaladin Stormblessed, a surgeon's son, turned army spearman turned slave. After numerous escape attempts, he ends up at the long-running war on the Shattered Plains, a desolate landscape made up of numerous rocky plateaus, requiring the fighting armies to have bridges to get across the chasms. Kaladin becomes part of the bridge crew of bridge four, and discovers that being a bridgeman is a near-certain death sentence, and bridge four is probably the place you'll get killed the fastest. But whether he is in fact Stormblessed, or perhaps cursed, Kaladin's experience is that those around him, the ones he gets attached to and tries to protect, die around him, while Kaladin is left, pondering his failures.

Our second protagonist is Shallan Davar, is a young noblewoman from a small estate whose lived a sheltered life and now needs to persuade the king's sister, notorious heretic Jasnah Kholin, to take her on as a ward. Shallan claims she wants to learn from Jasnah and become a scholar of renown like the older woman, but she's secretly planning an audacious theft, to save the fortunes and reputation of her entire family.

The third protagonist (and by far my least favourite, until 95% into the book when things turned considerably) is the king's uncle, Dalinar Kholin, one of the most famed warriors of his generation. He's been fighting the war on the Shattered Plains for six long years, trying to avenge the death of his brother, the former king, who was spectacularly assassinated after signing a peace treaty with the strange and savage Pashendi people. As the Pashendi claimed responsibility, the twelve brightlords of Alethkar have been fighting a war made up of countless minor battles against these people they barely understand, with twelve separate forces and strategies. With each new highstorm, Dalinar has visions, where he hears voices admonishing him and sees scenes from Roshar's past. He believes that their tactics are wrong, and that a change needs to be implemented. His nephew is young and relatively inexperienced and convinced that assassins lurk around every corner trying to kill him. But what if the visions are just delusions, and Dalinar is actually going insane?

About six years after I first put it on my TBR list and around five years after I bought the book (having first heard Mr. Sanderson talk about it at a signing at my local fantasy/comic book store way back in 2010), I decided to start off my reading year by reading The Way of Kings. A veritable brick of a book, it has taken me more than two weeks and I'm not going to lie, there were times when I questioned my choice. Sanderson's fantasy epic the Stormlight Archive is apparently going to be ten whole books long. Each of the books are also about three times the length of a normal novel, so there's going to be a lot of pages devoted to this story, and the page count here is not necessarily an advantage.

I really did like a lot of things about this book. I'm giving it four stars. I did, however, remember why I read maybe one or two epic fantasy books every few years now, rather than all the time, like I used to when I was a teenager. The massive page count is one of the things I did not like. It takes something like 500 pages for things to even start getting beyond the setting up stages. The book has three prologues, although my book twin on the internet, Narfna, has pointed out that at least one of them is clearly the prologue to the series as a whole and we therefore cannot expect to understand it at the end of the first book. Once upon a time, I used to love these intricately plotted, slow and dense stories, generally thinking the more pages, the better. The longer I got to spend in one world with the characters, the happier I was. Now I get impatient, and would very much like it if there is significant plot development before I've read more than a standard paperback novel's worth of pages.

Kaladin's story was good pretty much all the way through. Sanderson cleverly reveals Shallan's double-crossing motives early on, so the reader is interested in seeing exactly how she's going to outsmart and steal from probably the most powerful woman in the known world. Dalinar's storyline is like treacle, however. He worries about his nephew, he feels guilty that he was drunk when his brother was murdered. He's frustrated about all the petty infighting among the other brightlords. He keeps having confusing visions (I'm sure these are going to be very significant in later books, but right now, no) and generally pissing off everyone by being tiresomely noble, stuffy and judgmental. Every so often in his chapters, they have to fight some sort of giant beastie, or there's a battle against the Pashendi, but mostly, there is just chapters and chapters of boredom.

Sanderson is famed in fantasy circles for his world-building, and this book is no exception. Roshar, as this world is called, is largely barren, a world of stone, where powerful storms sweep the landscape and all cities have to be built in sheltered areas to withstand the forces of the highstorms. Very little grows, and instead of dogs and horses (although these do exist) there are crustacean creatures called chulls or axehounds. The only part of Roshar that seems to be similar to our own world is distant Shinovar, where they have horses and chickens and grow crops the way we would expect. The people of Althkar and other places in Roshar seem to use a type of magic to transmutate stone or metal into food. They can also turn rocky cliffs and caves into habitable dwellings.

As with all illustrious fantasy epics, there's always stuff in the distant past that echoes into the present. In the past, there were an order of famed warriors with possible supernatural powers, known as the Radiants. They either betrayed humanity or grew disillusioned and left them. There was something called the Desolation and the arrival of something called Voidbringers. Dalinar's visions seem to be from this past, and his niece Jasnah is trying to investigate them, but the reader is given very little and have to try to piece together understanding from fragments.

While the book took longer than I would have liked to really get going, once the plot really does kick off, I naturally didn't want to stop reading (this always happens). As the second book, Words of Radiance is supposed to be even longer, it's going to have to wait until I at least finish my first Cannonball, though. I just hope that there is more real action and less slow filler, and that Dalinar doesn't go back to being a boring old stodge.

Judging a book by its cover: Drawn by the legendary cover artist Michael Whelan, who has illustrated so many covers for decades, the cover gives the reader some idea of the rocky and inhospitable landscape of the Shattered Plains, showing one of the powerful brightlords with their legendary shardblades (that paired with special armor can almost make a warrior near-invincible). It's a really good cover, evoking a lot of the feel of the book. I can see why Sanderson was so excited to have Whelan do the cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 8 January 2017

Reading Challenges for 2017

So last year, I tried to cut down on my reading challenges, but still completed a total of about 16 throughout the year. As is always the case during December, once I start looking for new challenges, there are just SO many that look exciting. Case in point, I'm currently looking at 28 different ones, most of them running throughout 2017. A lot of them are ones I've done before, but others are brand new ones I found while browsing online. Doing separate sign-up posts for all of them would just be exhausting (as it is, this post is likely to take hours), so I'll gather them all here.
  1. The Cannonball Read. The reason I started book reviewing in the first place. The Cannonball Read (sign-up here until the 13th of January) is an online race to read and review 52 books in a year (or 26 or 13) with a mission to donate profits to the American Cancer Society. We’re essentially a virtual book club where participants read what they want and write what they want, all while shouting “F— Cancer!”. My goal has always been at least a double (104 books), but in a very good year, I can complete a triple (156). My goal this year is just to do better than 2016, when I came in fourth, and reviewed 135 books.
  2. The Goodreads Reading Challenge. Again one I do every year, because I like to see the line creeping closer to my goal being fulfilled. For the last few years, my goal has been 104 books (the aforementioned double Cannonball), I don't see any need to change that. 
  3. The Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge. Read a total of 26 books, with a title starting with each of the letters of the alphabet (removing A, and or the). The exception to the rule are letters Q, X and Z, where the letter can be anywhere in the title. 
  4. The Backlist Books Reading Challenge. In an attempt to get through more of the MANY books on my TBR, most of which were published quite a few years ago, I'm signing up for this challenge, where the goal is to read backlist books - defined as anything published a year before you read it. So if I read a book on the 16th of January 2017, it needs to have been published on the 16th of January 2016 or earlier. I read a lot of new books, but should be fine with this challenge too. My goal is that at least two thirds of the books I read this year fit in this category.
  5. Color Coded Reading Challenge - one I really enjoy. Read books with the colour in the title or as the dominant colour of the cover (the challenge became so much more doable once they changed this rule). The colours in question are Blue (or any shade thereof, like turquoise, navy, azure, aquamarine etc.)
    Red (or any shade of it, like Scarlet, Crimson, Burgundy, Bloody etc.)
    Yellow (or Gold, Lemon, Maize, Blonde etc)
    Green (Emerald, Lime, Jade etc)
    Brown (Tan, Beige, Chocolate, Sand, Cinnamon etc.)
    Black (Ebony, Charcoal, Raven, Jet etc.)
    White (Ivory, Eggshell, Cream etc.)
    Any other colour in the title/on the cover (Purple, Orange, Pink, Silver, Grey etc.)
    A title/cover that implies colour (Rainbow, Polka-dot, Paisley, Plaid, Stripe, Darkness etc.)
  6. E-books Reading Challenge. As nearly all books I read over the course of a year, with the exception of the occasional dead tree book, or a comic book, are e-books, this challenge seemed like an obvious choice. The books have to have an ISBN, so you can't just read online serials. There are also levels. I signed up for Terabyte - at least 75 books in a year. I can choose to move up levels, but not down.
  7. Flights of Fantasy Reading Challenge. Because I find that I have so many fantasy novels littering my TBR shelf (and my physical bookshelves), I figured signing up for this challenge might motivate me to read more of them. It doesn't have any levels, but I've challenged myself to read at least 12, so approximately one a month. I don't know if urban/paranormal fantasy counts, but I'm going to pretend it doesn't, just to make it a bit harder for myself. 
  8. 10th Annual Graphic Novel & Manga Reading Challenge. I have far too many comic book trade collections and graphic novels on my shelves that I've not taken the time to read (I bought four in New York last summer - have I read them yet? Nope). So to make myself read them over the course of this year, I'm signing up for the lowest level of this challenge; Modern Age - read and review at least 12 books during the year. 
  9. Historical Romance Reading Challenge. I do like a reading challenge that basically lets me keep reading exactly the genres and books that I already enjoy. Because I'm trying to diversify a bit away from historical romance, one of my favoured genres, or at least read a bit more widely within it, I may try to read from some of the various sub-categories suggested on the site: Medieval, Regency, Victorian, Western, Pirate, historical romance with a diverse protagonist or Time Travel romance (must take place 80% in the past). I've signed up for level 4 - Marchioness - 26-35 books.
  10. Diverse Reads Reading Challenge. As in previous years, I'm very aware that I could do a lot better about reading books by and about people who are not cis-gendered, straight white women. The challenge doesn't have levels, but I've promised myself to read at least 30 books that are written by or about characters including but not limited to LGBTQIA, persons of colour, gender diversity, people with disability (including physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual or developmental; chronic conditions, mental illnesses and addiction) and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities.
  11. Literary Pickers Reading Challenge. I really enjoyed this literary scavenger hunt last year, so I'm going to do it again. Check the website for the full list of items to be found. Only one item per list can be included per book. The books must be published ones, and be of the romance genre or with a strong romantic element. There are a hundred items on the list, I've signed up for Garage Sale Guru (25 items). Apparently I'm also to make an update post once a month with my progress (will need to set a reminder in my phone for that).
  12. Monthly Keyword Challenge. This is one of my favourite challenges of the year, and it allows me to do one of the things I love almost as much as reading - making lists about things I'm planning to read. With five or six keywords for each month of the year, you read books that contain one or more of the keywords. The keywords can also be tweaked so that the keyword "family" lets you choose a title containing "sister", "mother" or the like. 
  13. Monthly Motif Challenge. After a year's hiatus, I've once again decided to do this challenge, mainly because I liked the looks of the 12 different motifs featured this year. I need to read at least one book a month featuring the suggested theme or motif, which should be eminently doable. 
  14. New Author Reading Challenge. A challenge that simply wants you to try books by new authors, be they debut writers or just ones whose books you've never tried before. Last year I set myself the challenge of 25, and beat that easily, so I'll challenge myself to try 30 new authors this year.
  15. New to Me Reading Challenge. It's important to me to not just read the same things and genres, it would get very boring. So I like this challenge, as it prompts me to discover new authors, series and genres. This year, there doesn't appear to be any levels, just a minimum requirement of 12 books, so I've set myself the challenge of at least 40 new things over the course of the year. 
  16. Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. This challenge allows all kinds of historical fiction (historical romance, historical mystery, historical fantasy, young adult) which is nice, because I read a lot of it. As in previous years, I'm signing up for the highest level (Prehistoric) of 50+ books.
  17. Pick Your Genre Challenge. Because I don't have a specific challenge for all the various romances I read, I made this my Romance Challenge last year, and I intend to do the same this year. The minimum here is also 12 books, but I'd like to be able to read at least 50 over the course of the year. 
  18. Paranormal Reading Challenge. Another challenge that is pretty much me linking up reviews for books I will already be reading, whether I'm signed up to this or not. I'm not reading as many paranormals as I used to, but figure I can set myself a challenge of 24 books. 
  19. Pages Read Reading Challenge. Last year, due to a massive workload and just generally life getting in the way, I read fewer pages than I had since 2011. I'd like to do better this year, but still don't think I'll be able to sign up for more than level 4 - Apple Tree - 48 000 pages. I do still have a lot of correction work in the coming months. 
  20. Review Writing Challenge. This challenge wants readers to actually review the books they read. Because I already try to review everything I read (and post them on a group blog where we try to make money for cancer charities), this seems like a fairly natural one to take part in. My goal is the same as on my blog - a minimum of 104 reviews.
  21. #ShelfLove Challenge 2017. This challenge tries to make you grow your TBR pile responsibly and read the books you actually own. As I currently have 544 books listed as "To Read" in my personal library (according to LibraryThing), this seems like a very necessary challenge for me to take part in. Last year, 28% of the books that I read were ones I'd acquired before 2016. I'd like my goal for this year to be at least 30% of the total. Because of that, I'm signing up for level 5, My shelves are now my BFF (41-50 books). 
  22. #RockMyTBR Challenge 2017. After a heroic cull of my Goodreads TBR shelf, said shelf still contains 947 books, so more books than I could read in about six years, even if I didn't keep adding to it. One of the side effects of the Cannonball Read is that I keep discovering authors and books that seem so tempting, and that's before you count all the other ones I find on the many other review sites I frequent. So a challenge to try to reduce my TBR list seems essential. With previous TBR challenges, my goal has always been to read at least 50, so while this site doesn't set levels, that's the level I've set for myself. 
  23. What an Animal Challenge. This is one that I've taken part in for years now and really enjoy. They appear to have changed the rules so that it's no longer enough if the book you count just has an animal on the cover or an animal as part of the title. An animal has to play a major part in the plot, or one of the characters is or turns into an animal of some sort (dog, cat, monkey, wolf, snake, insect, centaur, mermaid, dragon, vampire, were-creature etc). It does make it a tad bit more challenging than before, but I still think I can manage the highest level - 21 or more books. 
  24. What's in a Name 2017 Challenge. I failed to complete more than two of the seven categories of this last year, because I just didn't feel inspired. I like the categories for this year a lot more, and will therefore try again. 
  25. Women Challenge 2017. I've mentioned before that I think this challenge may be targeted towards people who don't already read primarily books written by women, but it's not going to stop me from signing up once more. As always, I'm signing up for level 4, Wonder Woman, 20 or more books written by female authors. As always, to make it a teeny bit harder, I'm only allowed to list each author once. 
  26. 2017 YA Reading Challenge. This challenge is all about the YA books, of which I also read many. Books may be horror, romance, dystopian, supernatural, graphic novels etc. There are no levels, but I feel like I should challenge myself to at least 12. 
  27. You Read How Many Books? 2017. As I failed in my goal to reach level 2 of this (150 books), I'm not going to sign up for more than level 1, 100 books, this year. I don't want to set myself up for failure, after all, but I certainly hope I'll be able to pass level 2 anyway. 
  28. Reading Challenge Addicts 2017. As the site says "Some of us have a bit of a problem. Some of us have a huge problem". Looking at the list of challenges I've signed up for this year, I think I'm in the HUGE problem category. I'm just competitive by nature, and like getting credit for things I already like doing. With my monster list of challenges, it'll take something spectacular for me not to be able to complete Out of This World - 16 challenges entered and completed by the end of 2017.
In addition to all of these numerous challenges, I will also be taking part in the RIP Challenge in September and October, and trying for two Dewey Read-a-thons (April and October). 

Sunday 1 January 2017

End of year review 2016

So 2016. It was a horrible year, both on a global scale and a personal one. While I didn't get physically injured this year, I did have it confirmed, not once, not twice, but three times, that conceiving is apparently something I just don't do. If you count our first IVF attempt, where I had a negative result just after Christmas last year, by Christmas this year, I'd had four perfectly healthy fertilised embryos implanted on four separate occasions, and every single time, the results were as dispiriting. We now get one more state sponsored attempt, but I can't say I'm looking forward to the months of hormones, injections, the absolutely gruelling egg extraction and quite possibly more disappointment and further confirmation that I will never have children of my own.

Then there was the cancer theme running through 2016. My godfather is still fighting his battle with. One of my female cousins has breast cancer. My eldest male cousin died just after Christmas, having battled lung cancer for the best part of the year. Add to that, the various celebrities that died, whom I admired - David Bowie, Alan Rickman.

It's quite natural, as we get older, that the people we look up to and admire,who are usually quite a bit older than ourselves, get sick and die. Everyone dies, it just feels like a lot more people who actually mattered to me kicked the bucket. The one that absolutely broke me, at the end of a year with very few positive memories, was Carrie Fisher. Four days after having a heart attack on a plane from London, Ms. Fisher died and the world grieved. I couldn't stop crying for hours. I watched Star Wars before I was old enough to understand how narratives work. I watched Star Wars before I could actually read. That's how long Princess Leia was part of my life, someone strong, courageous, spirited and independent that I could look up to. That Carrie Fisher was so much more than the one part she will always be associated with just made it all the more sad to me.

Because it just makes me sad to dwell on more negatives, I'm not even going to touch the train wreck of political disasters that have taken place in the past year, and try to focus on something positive. Sadly, I'm genuinely struggling to come up with positive things. Neither my husband nor I got injured. Our cats are healthy. We spent three lovely weeks in New York, visiting the sister of my heart, Lydia and her family. I got to meet up with several dear book friends during a lovely outing to the Metropolitan Museum. I set myself a journal challenge - to write one page a day in my Moleskine. I also have to find three positive things each day. Some days this year, that's been nearly impossible. So far, I've managed to journal for 295 days straight. That's pretty good. I've also set myself a daily challenge on DuoLingo, where my streak is now 340 days. I've completed the language trees for German, French, Swedish, Norwegian and am now about halfway through teaching myself Spanish. Sadly, my language skills aren't exactly great when I'm not in the app - I suspect my reading and writing skills are better than my actual active vocabulary or pronunciation, but it's at least goals I set myself that I've been able to complete.

My work load during the first half of the year was heavy, but since August, when my supervisors have done their very best to absolutely drown me in work (my life seems to consist of grading essays now), it's been all the harder to find the energy and motivation to read and review. As a result, I've read a lot less than I'd like and I have to go back to 2011 to find a year where I read fewer books and pages in total. My hope for 2017 is that I have more time to read and enjoy what I'm doing, and that while the world is quickly going to hell in a hand basket, perhaps the year will bring more happy things for me on a personal level, at least.

Let's move on to my reading. I got acquired 285 new books in 2016. 238 were e-books, 14 were audio books. Only 11,5% were actual physical books. 29 were gifts. 16 were free on various websites.

Total pages read: 52292
Total books read: 150
New books: 124
Novellas: 10
Re-reads: 24
Audio books: 15
Comic books/graphic novels: 12
Since I did the BOYB challenge, intended to make me read books I actually owned prior to 2016, I can also extrapolate that 28% of the books I read over the course of the year were my own property, acquired before the reading year began. I like discoveries like that.

The genre breakdown for 2016 is as follows:
Romance - 41.3% (I couldn't be bothered checking how many historical vs contemporary)
Paranormal/urban fantasy - 10.6%
Fantasy - 16%
Mystery/suspense - 2.6%
Science fiction - 6%
Historical fiction (non-romantic) - 5.3%
Non-fiction - 2.6%
Young adult - 15.3%

I found that I do not appear to have read any contemporary fiction that isn't also romantic. I should possibly do something about that in 2017. I've already done my round-up of my reading challenges. I failed to complete two, but took part in enough that I still felt like I did ok. I would like to say that I'll take part in fewer challenges this year, but having gone through a list of available ones that look fun, it looks like there's going to be closer to twenty in 2017 as well.

I sat down, while waiting for 2016 to finally expire, to try to organise my best of the year list. I have managed to cut it down to twenty by including whole series in some spots. The following list is a mix of books published in 2016 and books from before. I ruled out all re-reads to make the list more manageable. The books are listed in alphabetical order, because trying to rank it gave me a headache.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I listened to the audio book back in March and later in the year, this book was also selected as one of the Book Club Picks for the Cannonball Book Club. I'd heard many positive things about it, but was still unprepared for how this book was going to affect me emotionally. It's such an honest, wonderful and important book. I look forward to getting to teach excerpts from it to my pupils in the spring.

Magic Binds by Ilona Andrews. It'll come as no surprise to long-time readers of my blog that there are two entries by the Andrews' on this list. The penultimate book in my favourite paranormal fantasy series currently being written sees our protagonist trying to plan a wedding while thwarting an ominous prophecy, while also desperately fielding power plays from her ruthless, power-hungry and immortal father. Others may disagree, but I love these books and can't wait to see what happens in book 10.

One Fell Sweep by Ilona Andrews. One positive thing about 2016 is that I got two books from my favourite paranormal authors. Not content with excellent characterisation, action and plotting in their Kate Daniels series, they also publish a sort of urban fantasy/science fiction hybrid series in instalments for free on their website. What started as a fun little side project keeps getting more ambitious with every book, and in the third volume, there is romantic pay-off both for our protagonist and supporting characters.

Six of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo. This action-packed, heist-driven historical fantasy series, consisting of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom helped me not go entirely mad in November, when the only physical book I had time to read was the massive Count of Monte Cristo and my world was pretty much non-stop correction work. Amazing world building, clever and razor-sharp plotting, with a super cast of characters, these two books made me happy I'd stuck with Bardugo's Grisha trilogy, which I was never all that impressed by. When certain characters showed up in cameos here, it made it all the more satisfying.

A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet. The first volume in what is going to be a trilogy, this very entertaining book by a debut author manages to combine both well-plotted and realised fantasy with a very satisfying and slow-burning romance. Both protagonists and supporting cast are people I want to keep reading about, there are monsters and deities from Greek Mythology and the next two books are coming out in early 2017, so none of the endless waiting that you get with longer traditional fantasy series.

The Ivy Years by Sarina Bowen (including the excellent novella Blonde Date, but NOT book 5, The Fifteenth Minute). Having heard many positive things about these books by my fellow romance enthusiasts online, I finally got round to this series of New Adult romances early in the year. Focusing on college age protagonists involved in various sports at the fictional Harkness College and every single story I read is absolutely excellent. Bowen also deserves credit for writing very sex positive books with likable characters who never slut-shame.

Him by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy. While I haven't actually read any of Elle Kennedy's solo romances yet (they're high on my reading list for 2017), I very much enjoyed her collaboration with Sarina Bowen. Another New Adult romance, this one focuses on two hockey players and former best friends who initiate a love affair when they meet again after several years apart. A very satisfying M/M romance, at least to me, a cis-gendered, very straight woman.

The Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown. With the third book, Morning Star, coming out this year, I finally allowed myself to start this very hyped dystopian science fiction trilogy and for the most part, I was never bored or disappointed. I've seen it classified as young adult, but really don't think that any but the most sophisticated of teen readers will fully get the themes and stories explored over the course of these three books. Rather than just being a boring bridging instalment, Golden Son was probably my favourite of all three books.

Radiance by Grace Draven. Another satisfying fantasy romance, where an arranged marriage between a two parties who initially find the other physically repellent, but manage to develop a close friendship, which later blossoms into devoted love. While I can see why some people had problems with aspects of both the world building and the story, I was absolutely engrossed throughout and really need to get round to reading the sequel soon.

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye. An homage to the classic Jane Eyre, where the heroine instead ends up murdering multiple individuals over the course of her life. Where the hero doesn't have secrets in the attic, but instead a past in colonial India and possibly unsavoury goings-on in the cellar. With a much more diverse cast than the classic Victorian Gothic novel and marvellously narrated in audio by Susie Riddell, this is one of my very favourite discoveries of 2016 and I will be seeking out other books by the author as well.

The Belhaven duology by Emily Foster, consisting of the books How Not to Fall and How Not to Let Go. Written by a scientist in response to 50 Shades of Grey and the many similar books its success has spawned, Ms. Foster wanted to write a romance which was feminist, sex-positive, science-driven and actually erotic. The protagonists are both science nerds who also love rock climbing, so there isn't just steamy smexy times. The first book is mostly fun, infatuation and getting to know one another, the second part is in large part time-consuming psychological healing, angst, separation and trust issues, before the couple finally get their well-earned happy ending. I found both protagonists incredibly compelling and love books that show that love and great sex can't magically cure deep psychological trauma, it needs to be dealt with by professionals.

Wicked Sexy Liar by Christina Lauren. The final book in their Wild Seasons series, I was initially not entirely sure why this book needed to exist. As it turned out, it was the most satisfying romance of the lot. The story of commitment-shy London and the charming Luke, who initially just want a casual hook-up, but develop their relationship into so much more really surprised me with how great it was and probably the first one I will be recommending to someone curious to try a book by this romance-writing duo.

Her Every Wish by Courtney Milan. After last year's rather disappointing historical romance, Once Upon a Marquess, it was a great relief to see the stellar Ms. Milan back on form with this delightful novella about reaching for your dreams, ignoring your critics and not apologising for your desires. Featuring thoroughly working class protagonists, an adorable inter-racial couple in the Victorian era, I was glad to see that Milan hadn't lost her touch. 

Hold Me by Courtney Milan. Further evidence that Courtney Milan is one of the best romance novelists (if not THE best) writing at the moment came later in the year, with this contemporary New Adult, featuring a transwoman Latina heroine and an Asian bisexual hero. Dealing more with the struggles women face in the STEM fields than making a big issue out of the heroine's gender identity, this enemies to lovers story was deeply satisfying.

The Captive Prince trilogy by C.S. Pacat. Another series I had heard a lot about on the interwebs, but had resisted reading until I was sure it was completed, this alternate history fantasy featuring two sworn enemies falling in love. There is unreliable narration, all manner of political intrigue, slavery, spying, warfare and dysfunctional family dynamics. With each new book in the trilogy, it seems like the story is turned on its head, and the reader is kept entertained throughout, hoping for a happy outcome for the complex, star-crossed lovers at the centre of the story.

Kindred Spirits by Rainbow Rowell. If Ms. Rowell has a book out in a given year, no matter how short, it's pretty much a given that it will find its way to my best of list. A novella written for World Book Day, this tale features Star Wars fans waiting in line for The Force Awakens. It's short, but very sweet and my only complaint is that there isn't a lot more of it. One of my fervent hopes for 2017 is that there will be another Rowell book in the later half of the year (there are sadly none scheduled for the first half).

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. One of those modern classics that I had never got round to reading, this heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting historical novels centres around Francie Nolan, growing up in Brooklyn in the aftermath of World War I. While the family is poor, the father an alcoholic, there is love and loyalty and a lot of positive things in between all the bleakness. While the book made me cry more than once, it's a wonderful book and should be read by more people.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. If I had to pick my very favourite book from 2016, not necessarily in terms of overall quality or worthiness, but the book that gave me the most sheer enjoyment and that I proceeded to re-read twice in the months after it came out in August. This contemporary romance, where bitter enemies Lucy and Josh discover just how much they have in common when they start fighting for a new CEO position, and their "hating game" turns into the "something else" game was just so comforting and delightful to me, and I keep finding new things to love about it with each new reread.

Saga, vol 6 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. While maybe not one of the very best volumes of the series so far, it's still a new instalment of Saga, enough said. I would obviously have preferred more Lying Cat, but watching Hazel turn into an actual little person and having Marko and Alana reunited again feels so good.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. I had only ever watched the movie before, but found that the book was just as delightful and, as is often the case, possibly even better than the cinematic adaptation. The uplifting tale of downtrodden governess Guinevere Pettigrew and her absolutely wonderful day of adventure is just such a sweet story. It's not a very long book, and it deserves more readers. The movie is also highly recommended.

There you go. My year in review. Now I need to go make lists of potential reading challenges and plan what I want to read in January.

Reading Challenge Round-Up 2016

Happy New Year! This is my Reading Challenge Round-Up for 2016. I don't have the time or patience to do separate posts for all my challenges. There are still too many essays waiting to be corrected and graded before I go back to work in a few days. For anyone interested in which books I read for the various challenges, visit my Goodreads page, where I have shelves assigned and clearly labelled for each of them.

1. The Cannonball Read. The reason I even have this blog and the "challenge" nearest and dearest to my heart. I was not able to complete as many books as last year, but did manage a total of 135, so a little bit more than two and a half Cannonballs. With my workload this past semester, it's amazing I've managed as much reading and reviewing as I have.

2. You Read How Many Books? hosted by the Crafty Engineer. I signed up for level 2, 150 books and am sad to say that I did not manage to reach this goal. My grand total for the year was 137 (although some of those were re-read more than once). I'll have to set a lower goal next year.

3. Alphabet Soup 2016, hosted by Dollycas. I completed this challenge in the middle of December, mainly because I'd gotten a bit lax about checking off the various letters. It's a really fun challenge, I will be repeating it next year.

4. Colour Coded Reading Challenge 2016, hosted by My Reader's Block. I managed to complete this challenge by the end of May. After they made it possible to read books that feature the colour not just in the name, but as the dominant colour of the cover, this has become a lot easier to complete. Absolutely repeating it next year.

5. The 2016 TBR Pile Reading Challenge, hosted by Bookish Lifestyle once again stopped posting link-up posts by May, I think it was. They seem to be a bit bad about organising the actual challenge throughout the year. Nonetheless, I tried chipping away at my TBR, and was able to reduce it by 78 books. Please don't ask me how many books I've added to the list over the course of the year (I wouldn't be able to answer even if I tried).

6. The Bring Your Own Books Challenge, or B.Y.O.B, is hosted by Literary Distractions. Trying to actually read some of the many many unread books that I own, I finished this challenge having read 42 books that I owned prior to 2016. Again, let's not ask how many books I added to my shelves (most of which I haven't read either)

7. The 2016 Monthly Key Word Challenge, hosted by My Soul Called Life, is one of my favourite challenges and I've really tried to find books I actually OWN with the keywords in them. That doesn't always work, but I managed to read at least one book every month that fit with the assigned keywords, and for most of the months, quite a few more. I ended up having read 43 books for this challenge this year

8. What an Animal IX Challenge, hosted by Socrates' Book Reviews is really a piece of cake for me, as I read so many books featuring paranormal creatures and shapeshifters. As the challenge also allows you to add any book with an animal in the title or on the cover, or in some other way important to the plot, I always enjoy this challenge, because I do so well at it. I set myself the highest level - 21 or more books, and had completed that by early July. In the end, I read 55 books that fit into this challenge.

9. Finishing the Series 2016 is now hosted by Bea's Book Nook was another challenge where the host just plain forgot to make posts where you could log your reviews. I'd promised myself to finish at least 7 ongoing series this year, I ended up managing to complete 28.

10. I suspect the 2016 Women Challenge, hosted by Peek a Book is actually aimed at someone who doesn't primarily read books by female authors. Since I'm a huge fan of challenges that I can complete without actually working to hard, it's another one I've taken part in for the last few years. I read a lot of female authors and therefore set myself the level Wonder Woman - to read 20+ books by female authors. Even if I've read multiple books by some authoresses, I've only allowed myself to count one book per person. I'd completed my initial challenge goal by the end of April, and read books by 81 different female authors this year.

11. The 2016 New Author Challenge, hosted by Literary Escapism, was in its eight year in 2016 and I signed up to discover at least 25 new authors in 2016. I'd completed that challenge by mid-July and ended up nearly doubling my goal, reading books by 49 different new authors over the course of the year.

12. The 2016 New to You Challenge, hosted by The Herd Presents, allows for some crossover with the previous challenge mentioned, as anything new to me - be it an author, a series, a genre all count. I signed up for 50 "new to me" things, and completed that goal in mid-September. In the end, there were 65 "new to me" entries on my list by the end of December.

13. The 2016 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, once again hosted by Passages to the Past, is one I also enjoy, because I love reading historical novels. As always, I signed up for the highest level, "Prehistoric", with 50+ books and completed my goal by mid-November. My final tally for this challenge was 63 books.

14. The Pick Your Genre Challenge, also hosted by The Herd Presents, allows the reader to pretty much design their own reading challenge. I set myself romance as a genre (of any kind) and read a total of 90 books that would qualify because of a central romance plot or very strong romantic elements as part of the story.

15. The 2016 Diverse Reads Challenge, hosted by Chasing Faerietales, doesn't have any set reading levels. They just want you to read diverse books, with main characters including but not limited to LGBTQIA, persons of colour, gender diversity, people with disability (including physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual or developmental; chronic conditions, mental illnesses and addiction) and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities. I set myself a personal goal of at least 30 books, which I'd managed to complete by the end of July. In the end, I'm proud to say that I read 52 books that qualify for this challenge, and I should really try to match that number in 2017.

16. What's in a Name 2016, hosted by The Worm Hole is a fairly small challenge, which I completely failed at. Despite the challenge only requiring you to read six books in total, the categories this year were such that I just never felt particularly inspired, and in the end, just gave up on it. I only read two out of the six required books, but the categories for 2017 look more doable, so I will sign up for this one again, to hopefully complete it this time.

17. The 2016 Literary Pickers Challenge, hosted by Delighted Reader is a new one for me this year, a literary scavenger hunt. There's a list of 100 different items to be found in romances (or books with a strong romance element) and I thought it looked like fun. I signed up for level 2, "Garage Sale Guru" (25 items) and had managed to find that many by the end of August, abouts. In the end, I managed to "find" 43 out of the 100 items. I suspect this challenge will require its own round-up post, as just linking to my Goodreads shelf won't actually say what item matches which book in the challenge.

18. The R.I.P (Readers Imbibing Peril) XI Challenge takes place only in September and October and encourages readers to read books in the mystery, suspense, thriller, gothic, horror and dark fantasy genres. I read my seven books fairly quickly and always enjoy this one.

18. I mustn't forget the Goodreads Reading Challenge for 2016 either. I always set my reading goal to 104 books (basically a double Cannonball), but obviously hope to read a lot more. With re-reads and the like, I have read a total of 147 books this year, says the tally.

19. My final challenge of the year was the Reading Challenge Addict where I signed up for "Out of this World", 16+ Reading Challenges entered and completed. For the first year in a long time, there are two that I didn't manage to complete, but the benefit of taking part in such a ridiculous amount of challenges is that I still managed to hit my target for this one (but only just).

I also took part in the October Read-a-thon, but am at a loss to remember why I couldn't do the one in April. I keep saying that I want to reduce the number of challenges I do, but then the end of the reading year finds me discovering all these tempting new ones (or just wanting to repeat the ones that have worked for me for years). I need a day or two to ponder what I want to do with reading year in 2017.