Monday 19 March 2018

#CBR10 Book 22: "The Sins of Lord Lockwood" by Meredith Duran

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

William "Liam" Devaliant, the fifth Earl of Lockwood, is overpowered and kidnapped on his wedding night in Scotland, taken south and chained onto a prison hulk on its way to Australia. No one believes his mad story about being an earl, or if they do, they don't care. Four years later, he's back in London, a very changed man, determined to enact his revenge on the man behind the plot to have him abducted, his own cousin. All the male retainers in his household are basically former convicts who survived along with them. In the eight months since his return to London, he's become famous for his lavish entertainments. Lockwood had not expected the arrival from Scotland of his headstrong and very angry wife, who believes he abandoned her all those years ago and has now come back mainly to spend her money irresponsibly and recklessly.

Anna Winslow, Countess of Forth and a Scottish heiress in her own right, wasn't planning on falling for the handsome, yet penniless Earl of Lockwood, yet his charm and easygoing nature was irresistible to her. Orphaned at a young age, and passed around her many relatives, Anna became used to taking care of herself. While she suggested a marriage of convenience with Lockwood (she needed a husband to get ownership of an island, he needed money for his estates), she'd started believing that he cared for her as she had begun to do for him. She certainly didn't expect him to abscond with a large sum of money before they'd even had a chance to consummate the marriage. When news greets her that her husband's been in London for the past eight months, spending her money on all manner of extravagances, she shows up to confront him.

The happy and carefree man she met four years ago is gone. The current Lockwood, while he tries to feign nonchalance is clearly also trying to get Anna to return to Scotland as quickly as possible, and she can tell there's a lot of rage just under the surface of his carefully controlled temper. When Lockwood is suddenly taken ill, possibly poisoned, Anna finally discovers why her husband disappeared and begins to learn the extent to his scars, both physically and emotionally. She comes to understand just how wrong she's been in her anger against him and how much time has been stolen from both of them, and wants vengeance against the man who wronged them just as much as her husband does. She's also determined to prove to her husband that while he's been through hell while he was away, his scars don't make him any less of a man, rather the opposite. She loves her husband and will fight for her marriage, no matter what it takes.

While I don't remember all that much about it, as I read the book way back in 2009, the Earl of Lockwood shows up as a supporting character in Meredith Duran's debut novel, The Duke of Shadows. It seems some Duran fans have been waiting for her to tell Lockwood's story since 2008, when the book first came out. As far as I could tell, some of the plots of these two books run concurrently, so I may have to revisit the book just to see exactly at what points they intersect. Last year's A Lady's Code of Misconduct can be seen as a prequel of sorts to this, set somewhat earlier, where the plot against Lockwood is actually discovered.

This book starts with Lockwood onboard the prison hulk and alternates between telling the story of his and Anna's courtship, with the sections set four years later, when Lockwood is working on his revenge. Meredith Duran does not write fluffy, amusing, easy to digest romances. She tends to have a fair amount to a whole lot of angst in her books, with tormented and frequently deeply flawed characters trying their best to find some semblance of happiness. While the sections of the book dealing with the courtship are lovely enough, there's a lot of pain and darkness in the rest of the book and Lockwood has some serious PTSD to work through, which is difficult in this day and age, let alone in a time where men were not supposed to feel or show weakness, loss of control or vulnerability. The years spent in Australia were hell on Earth for Lockwood and his men, and he suffers from occasional panic attacks without knowing what they are or how to properly deal with them.

Anna is a great heroine and while there's the occasional trope in romance that the hero will demand an heir, here it is the lady who is in need of legitimate offspring. Due to strange family superstition, the island that Anna loves so dearly can only be in the possession of a married woman, which is why she needs a husband in the first place. While her English holdings and much of her money is controlled by her husband after their marriage, she still retains control of her Scottish properties and requires an heir to keep them. She has no intention of passing them down to some cousin. While she is heartbroken and bitter at the beginning of the book, believing her husband left her to travel the world for three years, merrily spending her money, she still demands her dues from him. Lockwood doesn't want her to see how broken he really is and certainly doesn't want her involved in his revenge scheme, so is quite happy to have her continue believing he is a heartless, opportunistic cad, as the story of how he disappeared sounds too preposterous to be believed. It's only when he's unconscious, and she sees the scars all over his body that he's worked so hard to hide that she begins to understand that he might not have been lying when he initially (making it sound like a tall tale) told her where he'd been since their wedding night.

While I loved the interplay between Lockwood and Anna, I thought the villain of the piece was rather uninspiring and the parts later in the novel, dealing with his comeuppance were less interesting to me than the couple finding their way back together. The Count of Monte Christo this ain't. Duran continues to be a reliable romance author whose books I enjoy. I'll be interested to see what she writes next.

Judging a book by its cover: Lovely as the colours on this cover are, and big thumbs up for having a cover model with the correct hair colour, this silk concoction just does not seem like anything the very pragmatic and practical Anna would ever wear. Frankly, I'm not entirely sure if she's wearing a dress or has just draped herself in emerald green sheets. Then again, having the cover model wearing sensible tweed or grey wool probably wouldn't sell as many books.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 17 March 2018

#CBR10 Book 21: "My Once and Future Duke" by Caroline Linden

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Sophie Graham is twelve when she is orphaned and left in the care of her arrogant grandfather, the Viscount Makepeace. Her father, his second son, eloped with an opera singer (Sophie's mother) and was summarily disowned. Sophie spent her childhood travelling through Europe with her parents. When both her parents die from illness, there is no one left for Sophie. Her grandfather sends her to boarding school, where she befriends Miss Eliza Cross, the daughter of an industrialist, and Lady Georgiana Lucas. Sophie's grandfather pays her tuition until she is 18, then she has to make her own way in the world. Working as a ladies' companion for a while, Sophie is left 300 pounds in the widow's will, and uses the money to set her "grand plan" in motion. Inventing a dead husband, so she is now Mrs. Campbell, Sophie uses the gambling skills and her gift for card counting to slowly amass a nest egg for herself, gambling at the Vega Club in London. She wants to continue until she's set aside ten thousand pounds, and then either find herself a nice husband or retire to the country and live on the interest of her money.

Having managed to save up about four thousand pounds, Sophie is still a long way off her goal when she encounters Jack Lindeville, the Duke of Ware. The duke has come to the Vega Club, forced to pay off the gambling debts of his reckless younger brother, Philip, and is determined to make the man stop throwing his money away without any care of consequences. When the duke sees his brother, who only earlier that day swore he would no longer visit the club, gambling with an attractive woman, he challenges said woman, Sophie, to a game instead. Sophie discovers that the duke is not much of a gambler, and is quite happy to keep taking his money, until the duke makes a rather extravagant wager. If she wins, Sophie gets five thousand pounds. If she loses, she is to spend the next week with the duke. As this is a romance novel, of course Sophie loses, and Jack, determined to teach his brother a lesson, spirits Sophie away right there and then. While she protests, he takes her to his country home a bit outside London, where they end up trapped for several days because of the rain turning all the roads back to London to mud.

Jack desires Sophie, but regrets his impulsive actions almost immediately. Sophie, in turn, really does not need her reputation to be tarnished any further than it already has been. She already makes her living from gambling, but otherwise makes sure her reputation is spotless. If society believes her to be the duke's mistress, she'll no longer be allowed to see her friends, Eliza and Georgiana, and she'll lose any chance at a decent marriage. Nevertheless, they can't travel for a few days, and Sophie tries to figure out why the duke acted so rashly and what makes him tick. Soon they are starting to become friends, but are also aware of the attraction simmering between them. The dukes of Ware never marry for love or on impulse, and Sophie is perfectly aware that she's far from the suitable wife for a duke. Their relationship can't really go anywhere, can it?

The dedication of this book is for Miranda Neville, in memory of her, to be exact. I hadn't even realised that she had passed away, but some quick googling gave me additional details. Back in 2015, during Cannonball 7, I read The Wild Quartet, the best of which was absolutely The Duke of Dark Desires, but I enjoyed all four. I had always planned to check out more of Ms. Neville's books, both from her back catalogue and newer ones. It seems Ms. Neville died in October of last year, after battling cancer, so it seems extra appropriate to be reviewing this book, dedicated to her memory for CBR. We are all about the F*CK cancer, after all.

I discovered Caroline Linden as an author a few years ago, with her series The Truth About the Duke. All the books in that series were very enjoyable and well-written, and I keep reading her books, hoping that she'll once again write something of the same quality. She keeps being favourably reviewed on romance review sites, but I tend to find her books mediocre at best, and rarely memorable for very long. The books are perfectly fine as I read them, and then I can't remember a thing about them about a week later. Very disposable entertainment. I do remember more of this book, but mostly just the bits that annoyed me.

What I disliked:
- What is the Duke of Ware's full name? I refuse to believe his given name is actually Jack, which seems far too informal a name for someone with a title that lofty.
- For all her insistence on not tarnishing her reputation, it takes less than three days for Sophie to jump into bed (or a sofa in the library, as the case may be) with the duke. She's rather bad at guarding her own virtue.
- There is something of the insta-love aspect to this book. Jack and Sophie spend very little time together before they fall head over heels. Yes, they actually initiate an affair and keep furtively meeting for what seems like weeks, but both have clearly fallen for the other before they pack up and leave the cosy country mansion to return to London.
- The dowager duchess was tiresome in the extreme, and her complete inability to see anything inappropriate in her younger son's behaviour and lifestyle choices was rather implausible.
- The third-act complication keeping the lovers apart - and how it needed to be resolved. There's a lot of needless drama to keep the couple apart for longer than is necessary, which felt like it just dragged the story out.

What I did like:
- Sophie's plan is a very sensible one, and it's nice to see someone making their own way in the world with mathematical skills and playing the odds. Until the duke of Ware dangles five thousand pounds in her face, she never seems to take foolish risks, preferring to spend a bit longer saving up to secure her future.
- Once he's corrected on his judgmental preconceptions about Sophie and her lifestyle, Jack very quickly comes to admire Sophie as much as she deserves.
- The friendship between Sophie, Eliza and Georgiana was nice, even though I would have liked some more time spent on their meetings. Eliza's clearly going to be the heroine of the next book.

As so many romances I read these days, this was a perfectly ok read, with nothing too objectionable to make me upset, but also nothing much to make me want to re-read it any time soon or remember it come next month.

Judging a book by its cover: See, here the cover designer has clearly had some idea of the contents of the book. The cover model has the same hair colour as our heroine, and she's wearing a red dress (obviously showing way more skin than any respectable Regency woman ever would, but such is the ways of romance covers), just as Sophie is in the scene where she first meets the Duke of Ware. They've even given her a playing card to hold, with additional cards on her lap. It's not great, but I'll take it.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 14 March 2018

#CBR10 Book 20: "Fire Falling" by Elise Kova

Page count: 380 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book 2 in a series, and as such, the review will contain some spoilers for the plot of book 1. If you want to remain unspoiled, start at the beginning with Air Awakens.

Left no choice after her trial and sentencing, Vhalla Yarl, former librarian apprentice is marching to war for the Solaris empire. She's considered property of the empire and has to use her new and unfamiliar Windwalker powers to help the Emperor and his forces win their conquest of the rebellious north. Two of her new friends from the Tower of Sorcery, her mentor Larel and the cheerful Tower librarian Fritz, have joined the army to help train her and keep her company in the battles to come. Both the younger prince, Baldair, and Crown Prince Aldrik feel responsible for Vhalla, and do their best to help train her, in both magical and mundane fighting, as the army marches towards their destination.

Vhalla is still struggling with nightmares after the attack on the capital, which led to her arrest and keeps seeing her dead friend's face in her dreams. She's unsure exactly what is expected of her in battle, but pretty sure that the majority of senators wouldn't care at all if she's killed, no matter how useful her Windwalker powers might prove to the empire. She's also confused about her developing feelings for the Crown Prince, and his mercurial treatment of her. Sometimes he completely ignores her, while at other times, he appears to return her feelings. Not that it would matter if he did love her, as how could the heir to the empire ever have a future with a lowly commoner, indentured by the Crown?

In many ways, Fire Falling has even more structural problems than Air Awakens. While Vhalla's friendships with Larel and Fritz (I like these characters and both friendships are done really well), as well as non-magical characters Daniel and The Other One? (I'm sorry, I can't remember the names of absolutely everyone, and The Other One was pretty damn non-descript) are developing, and she's being trained in both normal combat and her magical powers, sometimes in a group, other times alone in Aldrik's tent, there's also huge stretches of marching and not much happening. We get hints of another love triangle, because Aldrik has a magically powered lady friend who he's spending a lot of time with, and who's clearly very jealous of Vhalla, but it sort of fizzles out to nothing and again, mostly serves to make me roll my eyes at its being included at all. Then, suddenly, in about the last third of the novel, there's a sudden burst of action and danger, changing the status quo again and leading to a tense finale - before the book literally ends on a cliffhanger.

Impossible as the love affair between a crown prince of the empire and a commoner former library apprentice may be, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that because I've read a whole bunch of books, the end game of the series, no doubt after much of the introduced cast members so far have been killed off so that Vhalla and/or Adrik can be sad and suffer some more, and all sorts of angst and horrible war has taken place, is the two of them ending up together. After a lot of back and forth and "OMG, he could never love me!", they do declare their feelings for one another, and it's all rather sweet for a short while, before everything goes to hell again.

Having now read two books, I'm not entirely sure I can stick with this series. There are too many sections of the books where nothing happens, followed by sections of just a ridiculous amount of action, killing off a supporting character, and then the plot veers off somewhere entirely unexpected for the last third - and what does happen seems to be about the ruthless emperor, the concerned, possibly jealous younger prince, Vhalla and Aldrik's impossible love and one or more really rather forced love triangles. I can already see the outlines of another one all ready for book 3, but I'm not sure I can take the melodrama. I'm going to take a break for now, certainly.

Judging a book by its cover: None of the people on this cover appear to have limbs going the wrong way unless you look at the cover carefully, as was the case with Air Awakens. We still get the same anime style, and in the acknowledgements, the author makes it clear that she absolutely adores the covers. I think the lighting could have been better, and would have liked to see the armour on the characters more clearly. Also, not at all how I picture Aldrik and Vhalla (my mental image is pretty much Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley, as their Star Wars characters.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 13 March 2018

#CBR10 Book 19: "Air Awakens" by Elise Kova

Page count: 342 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Vhalla Yarl is a librarian apprentice living in the huge central library in the capital of the Solaris empire. The empire has been at war for ages, trying to conquer the lands in the north and through this conquest uniting the whole continent under one power. One evening, there's a state of emergency declared, one of the princes has been injured, and all the librarians are needed to help research a possible cure. Remembering how the younger, charming prince, known colloquially as "The Heartbreak Prince", once saved her when she was falling off a shelf in the library, Vhalla works tirelessly through the night to find as many texts as possible, taking copious notes.

Shortly after, she finds herself abducted and taken to the Tower of Sorcerers. It seems Vhalla has latent magical powers, and they showed themselves in the notes she wrote about possible cures. The injured prince in question also wasn't the younger one, but the older, aloof Crown Prince, himself gifted with magical powers. Like most common folk, Vhalla has grown up on stories of how terrifying the sorcerers of the land are, and rejects any possibility that she might herself have magic. She insists on returning to her position in the library, but keeps seeing strange things, and starts a correspondence with someone leaving sarcastic notes in the books she reads in secret while stacking the shelves. Soon, she's researching magic and sorcery and learning that her prejudices were probably wrong. Unsurprisingly, her mystery mentor turns out to be the Crown Prince himself, who has rather unorthodox views on how to get Vhalla's power to manifest once and for all.

Even after the rather startling event that triggers her powers fully (or possibly because of it), Vhalla is still reluctant to commit to becoming a sorcerer. There is a ceremony where she could eradicate her magic instead, and she wants a month to decide which choice to make. Everything suggests that Vhalla may be a Windwalker, however, the first such to manifest in over a hundred and fifty years. The sorcerers in the Tower and Crown Prince Aldrik would really prefer it if she chose magic, rather than stay an anonymous librarian.

So while I had at least one Elise Kova book on my TBR-shelf (thanks again, random e-book sale where a book that someone recommended cost $2.99 or less), I had never actually read anything by her when this book was selected as the February 2018 pick for Vaginal Fantasy. It seemed like a quick read, the book was on sale on Kindle, so I got it and glommed it. Librarian heroine, elemental magic and a dark broody sorcerer prince who's most likely going to end up being the love interest? I can work with that.

This is the first book in a series of five, and while some people have rated each book in the series highly, glancing through the reviews, the latter books in the series may or may not go a bit off the rails and some people seem to have rage-quit the series later on. While I didn't love this book, I also didn't hate it, and there was a lot of interesting potential here, but there may be a bit too much set-up for the books to come.

The names of the characters might have been created in a "YA fantasy name generator". There's a lot of strange ones here. Because apparently you can't write YA without it, there are hints of a love triangle, of course, and I rolled my eyes both at the presence of it, and the third part - one of Vhalla's childhood friends at the library, who obviously has loved her for ever, but doesn't really start mentioning it until the Crown Prince starts showing his interest in Vhalla, and is extremely "nice guy" and rather emotionally manipulative about the whole situation - no, thank you. That we then sort of get a second love triangle of sorts, because of course Vhalla's other childhood friend at the library has always fancied whats-his-douche, but hasn't wanted to say anything because she was happy to sacrifice herself and pine in silence if Vhalla liked him back - yeah, too much drama drama for me. That whole thing did not read well.

Then the story takes an incredibly sharp turn into something a lot more serious and gory in the last third, and there's such a rapid tonal shift that I initially thought my book was missing a chapter or two. As this series is apparently pitched as Avatar: the Last Airbender (which I've never watched, but I know deals with elemental powers meets Throne of Glass, I guess the last third is where the author felt the need to get it to the latter influence in a hurry - heroine with unusual powers forced to use them in aid of the crown.

The world building in the book is promising and I liked most of the characters enough that I'll most likely check out at least the next book in the series, mainly to see if the central romance goes anywhere interesting and Vhalla's powers develop in a cool way.

Judging a book by its cover: See, while I like the anime style cover, this drawing also gives me a headache. When I look at it more closely, it's obvious that the girl is wearing a shirt with long, trumpety sleeves, and it's not that her elbow has somehow dislocated and her arm is hanging limp and twisted down the side of her body. Also, she's wearing some kind of hood or cloak that's whirling in the wind. See, our protagonist has wind powers, and the way the wind is blowing her hair and shirt is clearly meant to be represented on the cover - but I think it's done n a very messy way, and I'm not sure what direction the wind is supposed to be coming from, as her hair is blowing one way and her clothes appear to be swirling in different directions. It's not great. I'm also pretty sure Vhalla is supposed to have darker hair than this girl has.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 12 March 2018

#CBR10 Book 18: "Hello Stranger" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Doctor Garrett Gibson is the only female physician in England, trained in France and licenced before they got around to changing the rules so other women couldn't follow her example. She has a good job, working as a staff physician at Winterborne's department store. She also does pro bono work in the poorer parts of town, and it's on her way home from one of these jobs that she finds herself accosted by three thugs. While she's been trained in self defence, things start take a turn for the serious until Ethan Ransom shows up to lend a hand. The former Scotland Yard detective has been keeping an eye on Garrett, worried that someone would indeed attack her and overwhelm her. He clams her defencive moves are far too mannered, and offers to teach her to fight dirty, so she can properly defend herself in future.

Ethan Ransom has been attracted to the intelligent Dr. Gibson for months, but working in a secret branch of the government, he can't allow himself to get attached to anyone - his job is too dangerous. Yet he can't really stay away from her, and when he ends up in a near-death situation, Dr Gibson needs to use all of her skills to patch him back together again. Ethan also needs to swallow his resentment of his Ravenel relatives, so he and Garrett have somewhere to lay low while the people who want him dead are brought to justice.

I was so excited when it was announced that Lisa Kleypas was returning to historicals, and yet with each book, I get a bit more disappointed, because her stories just aren't up to the standards of her earlier historicals. I had high hopes for Dr Gibson's book, mainly because she's been such an interesting supporting character in two of the other books in the series. I wasn't as thrilled by the prospect of Ethan Ransom (clearly related to the Ravenels in some way, as he has the tell-tale eyes of most of the family members) being the hero, as his presence in the latter half of Devil in Spring suggested that it would involve shady government conspiracies (that part being my least favourite subplot of said book) of some sort, and I wasn't wrong. Ethan is basically working for an early version of the Secret Service, but some of his superiors are corrupt (seriously, the villain in this book isn't described as having an elaborate moustache he can twirl, but he might has well have had), and since Ethan wants to blow the whistle on them, he needs to be killed. SPOILER - he doesn't die.

What didn't work for me in this book:
- The stupid government conspiracy subplot and the nefarious scheme to have Ethan killed
- Ethan's "Irish brogue" - despite the fact that he was born and raised in London. I don't care how Irish his mother was, he would not have had a full-on Irish lilt, so that was just dumb
- The complete lack of time spent developing Ethan and Garrett's relationship. They've only met a couple of times before the start of this book. Then it's established that Ethan has pretty much been stalking Dr. Gibson every Monday when she does her charity work in the rough parts of town, because he fancies her, but considers her way too good for him (for reasons). Then they have one sparring session and go on one date, before they have a one-night-stand and suddenly they love each other passionately. Not very satisfying at all, in what is supposed to be a ROMANCE.
- The stupid villain. He was way over the top.
- Ethan's "Oriental" training, both in martial arts and those of the bedroom - in India. Elyse over on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books says it much better than I ever could. Thankfully, Lisa Kleypas apologised very eloquently and I suspect she will do better in future.

What I did like:
- Doctor Gibson's medical expertise. Kleypas has clearly done her research here and the bits where Garrett gets to ply her trade are excellent.
- West Ravenel - charming, funny and very likable supporting character. To me, he improved every scene he was in, and I desperately hope that his book (the next one coming up) is better. It won't take much.

I don't see myself completely abandoning this series. Lisa Kleypas has written so many good novels in the past that I'll keep reading these books in the hopes that she'll strike gold once more with one of them. I really hope Avon hires a better cover designer, though.

Judging a book by its cover: I have ranted before about the awfulness of the covers for Lisa Kleypas' Ravenel series, but I think we may have hit a new low. There is NOTHING period appropriate about this contemporary monstrosity of a ball gown. It shows WAY too much skin for anything worn by anyone respectable in the 19th Century. Then there's the incredibly lurid pink background - I just can't with this cover. I saw a theory online that the reason they're using the wholly period-inappropriate dresses are to trick Kleypas' contemporary fans into picking the books up - well, they're going to be disappointed when they find themselves reading a Victorian historical.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 17: "The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virue" by Mackenzi Lee

Page count: 528 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 47 mins
Rating: 2.5 stars

Henry "Monty" Montague is a young bisexual lord sent off on a grand tour of Europe, accompanied by his best friend, Percy (who Monty has a massive crush on) and Felicity, Monty's younger sister. For the first part of their journey, they are accompanied by an elderly tutor, but once they leave Paris, hijinks really ensue due to very poor decisions made on Monty's part and soon the three young people are left to fend for themselves, on a crazy adventure through much of Europe - involving highwaymen, pirates, alchemy and more.

This book appeared on SO many "Best of 2017" lists. I read so many favourable reviews of it, on a number of websites. The premise is so promising. Young, handsome queer nobleman travels through 18th Century Europe with his biracial best friend and feminist younger sister, having all sorts of adventures. It literally took me six months to finish the book. To be fair, for much of those six months, I simply wasn't reading (or listening, as the case may be), because I didn't actually care enough to pick the book back up again.

I can see why this is a book that was loved by many. I really liked Percy and Felicity. A lot of important issues are dealt with over the course of a book that really does have a lot of plot twists and adventure. You'd not necessarily expect a romantic historical romp to have a queer main character or deal with matters of parental abuse, racism, the treatment of the mentally ill, feminism and so forth. I just really couldn't with Monty. I get that for all that he is white and privileged and rather spoiled, he also doesn't have the easiest time of it. His father is clearly the worst. Being bisexual in the 18th Century - not great. But for all of his legitimate complaints, he's also a self-centred, impulsive idiot who gets his companions into a lot of trouble time and time again and pretty much without fail makes every situation all about himself - even though both Percy and Felicity have a lot more they could complain about. Being black or female in the 18th Century - less great than being a rich, white, cis-gendered male. I kept hoping Monty was going to learn some sort of lesson and improve, and he does, eventually, but to me, it was just too little, too late.

In the end, I did finish the book, but I also returned the audio book to Audible for a refund of a credit, because there is absolutely NO way that I will want to revisit this book again. It seems that Mackenzi Lee has a sequel coming out later this year, all about Felicity, which I may give a try, because I liked her a lot. I just hope Monty stays far away from the main narrative, because I have had it with that guy.

Judging a book by its cover: "A dizzying, dazzling and roguishly romantic romp" says the cover quote. Sadly the main romantic plot of the book could be said to be Monty's love of himself (yes, he fancies Percy, but so much more page space in the book seems focused on how much he fancies himself). I will give the cover designer kudos for picking a cover model who looks as spoiled and entitled as Monty acts for much of the book. The drawn on title and little doodles (a sailing ship, a violin, playing cards - all things that appear in the story) add whimsy.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 11 March 2018

#CBR10 Book 16: "Buns" by Alice Clayton

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Clara Morgan is legendary in the hospitality business for her ability to turn around pretty much any struggling hotel or guest house. When she's not busy rebranding hotels, she runs marathons and other endurance races. What she rarely, if ever, does is stay in one place for very long. She has an apartment in Manhattan, but travels both domestically and abroad so often that she hardly ever has time to spend there. She never puts down roots anywhere and is careful not to get herself too attached to anyone or anything. Her childhood growing up in the foster care system, being handed from family to family taught her that that's a recipe for disaster. While her friends are all finding partners and getting settled, establishing relationships and traditions of their own, Clara is perfectly happy focusing on her career. Or is she?

Clara's current assignment could lead to her becoming partner, if she pulls it off successfully. The prestigious Bryant Mountain House in Hudson Valley is in desperate need of a face-lift and makeover and Clara is just the woman for the job. She just needs to convince Archie Bryant, fifth generation Bryant and soon to be current owner and manager (when his father retires shortly) that while the hotel is a gem, they're spending far too much money keeping up traditions that no one is very interested in and that they'll be going out of business if they don't renew and update and attract new customers. Archie's not going to give up on a hundred and fifty years of tradition and doesn't want social media stars in his family's hotel anyway. However, he doesn't want to lose his family business altogether either and if that means taking some advice from Ms. Morgan - he may just have to swallow his pride and accept the help.

Buns is the concluding volume in Alice Clayton's Hudson Valley series and features a lot of things that are normally total catnip for me. You have the "enemies to lovers" plot trope - Clara and Archie pretty much hate each other on sight and keep arguing vehemently, until they basically can't keep their hands off one another. There's the "competence porn" aspect - with both Clara and Archie being consummate professionals, very good at their jobs. There's a section where one of the couple nurses the other one back to health (I have no idea why this is a trope that works for me, it just does) There's the larger supporting cast of these novels, the inhabitants of the little town of Bailey Falls and the couples from the previous two novels, all of whom I like - and yet, the book failed to entirely wow me.

While Clara is extremely good at her job, and her reluctance to establish roots and crippling fear of abandonment due to her childhood seems perfectly natural, I never entirely understood why her two very supportive friends, who really seem to know the extent to how bad it was for her growing up, never convinced her to see a therapist. As it's obvious that Clara is deeply private and rarely shares the extent to her lonely and sad childhood with people, I can see why her boss or colleagues never mention it to her - but Roxie and Natalie, her two besties, and heroines of the previous two novels in the series, really should have done her a solid and insisted she get some professional help to process her traumas. This would have been a very different book if that were the case.

Archie's fine, if a bit stuffy and set in his ways. A widower for some years, he has issues of his own to work through, having been with only one other woman, who he'd known since childhood, before meeting and falling for Clara. In a lot of romances, the complications are due to faults of both sides of the couple, but here it's pretty much all on Clara when the relationship falters in the third section of the novel and it's pretty much all due to her crippling fear of abandonment. There's the requisite grand gesture towards the end where she wants to prove her love to Archie, and will say it was pretty spectacular.

With the four books I've read by her so far, Alice Clayton continues to be one of those authors who's books are perfectly fine, but nothing extraordinary and where I struggle to entirely remember the plot a week or two after finishing the novel. Not bad by any means, but she continues to be on my "buy on sale" list and won't graduate any higher based on this book.

Judging a book by its cover: This is another example of the cover designer clearly just having been given a vague idea of the contents of the book. There's a shirtless guy and buns in both the literal and metaphorical sense. See what they did there? Yet the model looks nothing like Archie is described (also, I'm unsure if he ever actually wears jeans over the course of the novel), and the baked goods in question that are mentioned at several points are hot cross buns, not at all what we're seeing in the forefront on this cover. How hard is it to get these little details right, people?

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 15: "A Duke in the Night" by Kelly Bowen

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

August Faulkner, the twelfth Duke of Holloway is a known ladies man and ruthless business man. Very few people know how extensive his holdings actually are, though. He's just bought the Haverhall School for Young Ladies and is planning a trip to Dover to persuade the current Baron Strathmore to sell the family's struggling shipping company to him for a large sum as well. Then he discovers that Lady Anne, his beloved younger sister, has run away to spend the summer with the Haverhall School's summer program, and decides to combine fetching her back with charming the Haywards into selling him their family business.

Miss Clara Hayward and the Duke of Holloway shared a dance at a ball ten years ago, an occasion neither has forgotten. Clara is therefore taken aback when the Duke shows up, claiming to want to keep an eye on his sister. While the regular terms at the Haverhall School for Young Ladies is everything you might expect from a prestigious boarding school for the wealthy and titled, the summer program is meant for specially selected ladies who dream of something more. For twelve weeks, Clara works with them to increase their confidence and teach them self-worth, and they get to try their hands at professions that ladies are normally excluded from. She doubts Holloway would approve. His presence and his attempts to charm her are also very distracting to Clara, who may have had an unusual upbringing, but needs to keep her reputation spotless if she wants to continue as headmistress of her school.

While Clara and Holloway share an attraction, does their relationship have a chance of survival if Clara discovers why the Duke really came to Dover? Can she find happiness with the man who's already purchased her beloved school and wants to take over what remains of her family's business?

This is the sixth Kelly Bowen romance I've read, and as in all the others, A Duke in the Night has a very capable and unorthodox heroine. To society in general, Miss Clara Hayward is all good breeding and proper manners, from a wealthy background, but so educated that she's been relegated to wallflower and spinster status. Since Clara has no intentions of marrying and subjecting herself to the whims of a husband, her reputation suits her just fine.The wealthy families who send their daughters to her school don't know just how unusual an upbringing Clara and her siblings have had, with parents who encouraged them to pursue their interests and learn what suited them. Clara's younger Rose is a talented artist, while her brother Harland, the current baron, is a practising physician. Any whiff of impropriety, such as if Miss Hayward were rumoured to be the mistress of the Duke of Holloway, could destroy her career. So while she enjoys the flirtatious banter between herself and Holloway, Clara needs to stay unaffected.

Most of society also don't know that the Haywards are struggling financially, because their popular parents left their children in quite a lot of debt. Their public image is still one of success. Of their formerly successful shipping company, only two ships remain, and due to storms and inclement weather, they are currently missing. Both Rose and Clara are doing whatever they can to help their brother keep the company solvent, but there is absolutely a strain on their finances. Initially, Rose and Harland are concerned about Clara's reputation when Holloway shows up. They both feel she's free to make her own choices, but are not blind to the attraction between their sister and the duke, who doesn't have the best reputation when it comes to ladies or business.

Holloway's determination to buy the Hayward's business is the main conflict in the story. Faulkner may be a duke now, but he's one of those off-shoots on the family tree that only inherited the title after a whole slew of distant family members kicked the bucket and passed the title onto him. Faulkner grew up in abject poverty on the streets, stealing and doing whatever he could to make money to support his father and sister, stuck in debtor's prison for years. Now that he's a duke, Faulkner spends an absolute fortune lavishing fancy dresses and jewelry on Lady Anna, determined that she will have everything she missed out on when she was a child. What he fails to do, is listen to what his sister actually wants. She wants nothing so much as a chance to run a business of her own, trying her hand at hotel management.

Faulkner can't forget his years of starvation and poverty and keeps buying struggling enterprises and turning them around for a profit. He uses middle men and acts through corporations, so very few people actually realise just how wealthy and successful (or ruthless) the duke is. The duke seems incapable of just enjoying the wealth and power he's already amassed and resting on his metaphorical laurels, so to speak. Until he comes to terms with having enough, he's never going to find happiness with Clara.

While Clara is worried about the duke's reactions to her summer program, he turns out to be surprisingly understanding and progressive, if he occasionally needs a little time to come to terms with each new revelation. He keeps insisting that Clara keeps challenging him, and she does. Both protagonists in this may be somewhat anachronistic in their opinions and beliefs, but it felt refreshing with a thoroughly alpha hero who was nevertheless willing to be questioned and wanting to improve.

There is a minor subplot in the story with a rather predictable antagonist. While I didn't like the character or the subplot, I was surprised at the way the story played out and overall, this was another solid historical romance from Ms. Bowen. Based on the sample chapter at the back of the book, Clara's sister Rose is the next one to find her happy ending.

Judging a book by its cover: As with the prequel novella The Lady in Red, the title really doesn't have much, if anything, to do with the book. Yes, there is a duke (like in pretty much half of all books set in historical Romancelandia), but where the "in the night" comes in is uncertain. I don't know if scowly, brooding man on the cover is better than lady with partially undone dress, or yards and yards of fabric making up the skirt, but this is a pretty generic cover. I like the shades of blue in the background, but this could be the cover of almost any historical romance novel, and it's not exactly memorable.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 8 March 2018

#CBR10 Book 14: "The Lady in Red" by Kelly Bowen

Page count: 115 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lady Charlotte Beaumont has been overlooked and ignored by her family for her entire life. Generally isolated at a remote country estate, she's had the opportunity to hone her artistic skills, way past the bland watercolours ladies of her station are normally allowed to paint. She's also become quite a talented forger, and tries to use her skills to negotiate a deal with the infamous King of the London Underworld. He acknowledges her skill, but also calls her bluff. Nevertheless impressed, he agrees to help her, in return for the original painting she's trying to sell him a forgery of, and a favour to be called in at a later date. This is how Lady Charlotte is introduced to Miss Clara Hayward and her prestigious boarding school, Haverhall School for Young Ladies. Clara and her sister help Lady Charlotte become "Charlie" Beaumont, a promising young painter.

Flynn Rutledge has worked very hard to be one of the two painters to restore the murals at the Church of St. Michael, and initially feels both threatened and a bit offended when he meets the other young man who's been accepted to the job. It doesn't take him long to realise that Charlie Beaumont, despite being young, is extremely talented. Soon they are working well together and developing a slow friendship until a fateful evening when they are set upon by bandits, and Charlie jumps into the fray to defend Flynn, ending up being stabbed as a result. When Flynn removes Charlie's shirt, he realises why his workmate has been so secretive.

The two painters soon become lovers, but Charlotte still keeps certain things secret from Flynn, knowing that the man hates and distrusts nobility because of his history. He didn't mind that Charlie turned out to be a woman, but how will he react if he discovers that his lover is of noble birth?

This novella is sort of a bridging story between Kelly Bowen's Season for Scandal series, featuring underworld kingpin King towards the beginning, and her new series, The Devils of Dover, by introducing Clara Hayward and the Haverhall School for Young Ladies. While Clara's school is a very prestigious and expensive boarding school for young women in the highest echelons of society, she also offers a "summer program" for women who want to try their hands at professions not considered ladylike. With the help of Clara and her sister, Lady Charlotte finds herself disguised as a young man and granted a very sought-after commission at St. Michael's church. The architect in charge of restoring the building has worked with Clara before and knows Lady Charlotte's real identity, but clearly wants the most talented artist for the job, no matter what their gender.

Flynn is one of those heroes from a very poor background, who has had to work extremely hard to gain the position he has attained so far. His ultimate, and nearly impossible, goal is to have a painting displayed at the Royal Academy (it was his mother's fondest wish before she died). He was used and discarded by a noblewoman in the past, hence his distrust and scorn for the nobility.

Charlotte may come from a rich family, but she has clearly never really felt loved and taught herself to paint to alleviate the loneliness of being left in the country by herself for pretty much years on end. She clearly has absolutely no scruples about forging famous paintings, nor about giving them up in order to secure herself a better life (nor should she - her family are clearly the worst). She's very worried about how Flynn will react if he ever discovers her true identity. She's never been as happy as when she's painting the church murals with him. She never intends to return to her family and doesn't see why her noble title should get in the way of their happiness.

This is a tightly paced and very satisfying story, and it also made me more interested in reading more about Lady Clara and her unorthodox summer school for enterprising young ladies. This story really can be read entirely stand-alone to all of Ms. Bowen's other books though, which is also a bonus.

Judging a book by its cover: Neither the cover nor the title have ANYTHING to do with this novella. At all. Based on the cover and title, you might be forgiven for thinking this was a Christmas story, probably featuring a lady wearing red at some point. Nope. None of that at all. The novella is not set at Christmas, and no woman in the story at any point wears red. I genuinely wonder if Kelly Bowen told her publishers she was writing one story and then changed her mind, but the cover was already commissioned, so they kept it? Or they just slapped any old cover they had leftover on this story. It's a mystery.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 7 March 2018

#CBR10 Book 13: "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle

Page count: 247 pages
Audio book length: 6 hrs 26 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

I read this book for the first time back in October 2012. My review from back then can be found here. Back then, I rated the book 4 stars and from my write-up, I really appeared to enjoy it.

The first Cannonball Read Book Club of the year was a discussion of this book, since the star-studded movie version, directed by Ava DuVernay will be in cinemas any day now. From the trailers and promotional material, the movie looks like it's going to be visually stunning, and DuVernay has also chosen to make Meg bi-racial, played by newcomer Storm Reid, with the lovely Gugu Mbatha-Raw and best Chris (Pine) playing her father. This book has been a very important novel for a lot of generations of children growing up, by added diversity in the cast, it will now hopefully provide important role models for children of colour (especially girls), by allowing them to recognise themselves in Meg.

I don't know if it was the audio version I listened to this time (I didn't like the way Hope Davis, the narrator, did some of the voices) or whether it was because last time I read the book, I glommed it over just a few hours, while this time, it took me a few days to get though the book, but I liked it somewhat less than I appeared to have done last time. I know that quite a few of the Cannonballers had a hard time getting through, or with enjoying the book. Maybe that coloured my view this time?

When it comes to the "core cast", I think the introduction of Calvin and his obvious infatuation with Meg (despite the fact that they are in different years in school and seem to barely know each other socially) was a bit sudden. This could absolutely have been given more of a build-up, but the storytelling in the whole novel is rather sparse and lacking in detail. The book transitions from one scene/place to another very fast, and I generally feel that there could have been quite a bit more elaboration in the book.

Charles Wallace, Meg's little brother, is a little bit too "other" and while I don't seem to have had any objections to him on my first read, I found him a bit too precocious and quite a bit off-putting this time around. The scene at the end where Meg rescues him from the It is excellent, though.

Meg, our main protagonist, is a rather prickly young woman, and I can see why that would make her unlikable to some. I don't mind her crankiness and occasional rudeness, it frankly feels natural under the circumstances, with the situation she finds herself in. Feeling like an outsider in school, constantly worrying about her mother, questioning the disappearance and long absence of her father. If she'd been mild-mannered and meek and constantly pleasant, that would have felt a lot more wrong.

On revisiting the book, both the strong religious overtones and the very obvious anti-Communist propaganda bothered me. I was speaking to my best friend, who read the book as a girl and never connected with it very much. She grew up in a Christian family, going to Church every Sunday, and still found the “God” bits overly preachy. As someone living in a socialist country, having Communism portrayed as “the ultimate evil” felt really uncomfortable to me. It was a portrayal very much lacking in nuance, understandable due to the political climate when the book was written, but heavy-handed nevertheless.

I really do think the film looks very promising. Of course, now that I have a baby, I'm forced to hope that the Oslo Cinema's offer the movie as a early afternoon baby-friendly screening, otherwise I'll have to wait until it comes out on blu-ray.

Judging a book by its cover: This book really has had so many different covers over the years (some of them profoundly creepy). My favourite might be the 50th anniversary one - this is not it. My book has this cover, with the dark star-studded sky in the middle, and various details from the contents of the book around the edges. The Mrs W, the children's visits to several of the alien planets. It's certainly one of the more child-friendly of the many covers, I think.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 2 March 2018

#CBR10 Book 12: "Cream of the Crop" by Alice Clayton

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Natalie Grayson is tall, curvy and confident. She knows that while she may be a bit bigger than a lot of women out there, most men are incredibly attracted both by curves and self-assurance and she can usually walk into a room and hook up with anyone who strikes her fancy. She's got a loving family, an extravagant wardrobe, a bustling social life and a great career as a PR guru. The only thing that makes her even vaguely flustered is her weekly visit to the Union Square farmers market, where she gets her favourite cheese every week, and the owner of Bailey Falls Creamery makes her (and countless others) weak at the knees. Normally, Natalie can wrap any man around her little finger, but around the handsome cheese-maker, she is reduced to palm-sweat and monosyllabic answers.

So when her company is asked to help promote the little town of Bailey Falls to new visitors, Natalie jumps at the chance. One of her best friends, Roxie, is already settled there with her handsome farmer boyfriend and can't wait to formerly introduce her to Oscar Mendoza, the handsome dairy owner who Natalie is crushing so hard on. While their first encounter is a bit awkward, it becomes obvious that Natalie's attraction is entirely mutual, and Oscar wouldn't mind getting to know her better at all. It's not only Oscar's charms (and smoking hot body) that appeal to Natalie. She's thoroughly taken with the small town idyll of Bailey Falls and it's many friendly (and attractive) residents as well. Normally reluctant to leave Manhattan for more than a day, she now finds herself visiting the little Hudson Valley multiple weekends in a row, and not just to sample all the treats that Oscar has to offer. Natalie is very much a city person, however, and Oscar is most certainly a country lad. Can they find a lasting compromise which enables them both to be happy?

I didn't really think that this book had the same emotional depth to it as Nuts,the first book in the series, but it was a quick and enjoyable read. While Natalie is confident, body-positive and bubbly in the present, that wasn't always the case. Falling for a manipulative jerk when she was younger, who slowly but surely isolated her from her family and friends and made her feel awful about herself, she has determined never to let herself be that swayed by a guy again. She's financially independent, she flirts with guys but never really let's it get too serious and she goes to brunch at her parents' flat every Sunday, come rain or shine, because she never wants to fall out with them again. Hence, when her feelings for Oscar start getting serious, she's not sure how to handle it, as she's afraid to "lose herself" to a guy once more.

Another slight complication to Oscar and Natalie's relationship is Oscar's friendship with his ex-wife, who lives in the next town over from Bailey Falls. They knew each other growing up, got married after high school and while their marriage didn't work out, Oscar doesn't understand why he can't be on good terms with her. He helps her out around the house when something is broken, she bakes him delicious treats as a thank you. He doesn't see how this in any way should complicate or get in the way of his new, budding relationship with Natalie, but she's thrown by it more than once (and is met with sympathy and understanding by several of her new Bailey Falls friends - cause it is a bit weird, and they can see why she might feel threatened). Natalie works to get past her jealousy, but it takes a while.

My favourite thing about the Hudson Valley books is probably not even the central romances, but the supporting characters and the setting of Bailey Falls, which really does seem utterly charming. Oscar and Natalie are a fun couple, and it was nice to see Roxie and Leo (as well as his serious young daughter, who has gotten a swear jar in this book, and is well on her way to making a fortune) again as supporting characters. Roxie's high school crush, Chad, the former quarterback and his husband are probably my favourites, though, and I'm sort of sorry I never got to read their initial romance. There is one more book in the series, featuring Roxie and Natalie's third friend, Clara. I'm going to check that book out next.

Judging a book by its cover: It's quite clear that whoever was told to design the cover, hasn't had a chance to read any of the book, as while the dude pouring milk is nicely tan and sculpted, he looks nothing like the description of Oscar, who should have tattoos all over his arms and chest, and with his past as a football player seems like he's a lot more brawny than the dude they've chosen for this cover. According to the author's website, her metal image of him is Jason Momoa. This cover model is NO Jason Momoa. Also, it would have been cooler if they included some cheese on the cover, as Oscar makes his own, but that works less well with the title pun, I guess.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 11: "Unveiled" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 12 hrs 14 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

A long time ago now, back in April 2011, I first discovered Courtney Milan as an author, having read favourable things about her on various romance review blogs. My original review of this book, can be found here.

Fondly as I remember Ash and Margaret's story, this is not the Turner series book I've revisited most often. According to my records, I've only re-read it once before, back in 2012, so I was very interested to see if it was as good as I remembered. I listened to the book in audio (because I'm still not advanced enough to wrangle my e-reader and feed my child at the same time, certainly not at night). Nicole Quinn has one of those nice, crisp British voices that seems so very suitable for historical romances.

Even after nearly eight years, and with many, many, many more historical romances read, this is a very good book. I read through my original review, and I very much still agree with myself. So many romance heroes are domineering alphas and unrepentant rakes, who seem to think that women should just fall into their beds and can overwhelm with the sheer force of their personality. In these post-#metoo-times, having a hero who's very open and honest about what he wants, but also determined about obtaining clear and enthusiastic consent before he makes a move is encouraging (especially since back in 2011, when this book first came out, that certainly wasn't the norm among romance heroes. To a modern reader, it's also more appealing to read about a man who's not afraid of hard work. In the Victorian age, when these books are set, most of the landed classes came to realise that they couldn't survive merely on the income from their properties alone and society was changing rapidly. Ash is next in line for a dukedom, but has lived through poverty and need and worked since h was fifteen to make his fortune. He's no idle and cosseted fop.

So many of Ms. Milan's books are about clever and capable women who achieve great things, even with the limitations placed on them by the society they live in. Margaret isn't one of these heroines, having lived a sheltered and privileged life as a duke's daughter until Ash's revelations suddenly shook the very foundations of her existence. Even posing as a servant in her childhood home, she's not actually lower class, and never has to suffer true hardship. Being the youngest child of the duke, and being a woman, she's frequently been ignored by the duke an her brothers. She's never been away to school, she's been raised to be a nobleman's wife and a pretty ornament. Now that her legitimacy has been taken away, it's as if she has no worth whatsoever. Ash sees her, all of her, and does his best to build her confidence. He doesn't know that he's speaking to Lady Anna Margaret, youngest daughter to the duke he despises. He believes her to be a low-born nurse, and yet he still wants her to know that she is important, she has value, she should believe in herself. It is thanks to Ash's bolstering of Margaret's confidence that they are able to sort out the complicated tangle and find a happy ending eventually.

At some point this year, Ms Milan will hopefully publish her next historical novel (it's been years since her last one). Until then, I'm going to try to revisit her earlier books in audio format to see what I think about her back catalogue now. This was a very good start to my re-read project.

Judging a book by its cover: This is one of the books that Ms Milan published through Harlequin books, before she decided to do her own thing and self-publish. As such, my book has a somewhat different cover to the "lady in a photo-shopped wedding dress" that she so often employs on her own books. Not that this is all that much more exciting, with your trysting couple both in a state of semi-undress. I like the shades of blue they've used though.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.