Friday 11 August 2017

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

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From Goodreads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 10 August 2017

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

Page count: 288 pages
Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 8 August 2017

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

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 5 August 2017

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

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 3 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.