Tuesday 31 December 2019

#CBR11 Book 106: "Nightchaser" by Amanda Bouchet

Page count: 416 pages
Audio book length: 11 hrs 45 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

Official book description:
Tess Bailey: the galaxy's Most Wanted.
Captain Tess Bailey is in deep trouble. She and her crew are on the run, pursued by a tyrant who'll take them dead or alive. Tess's best hope is a tall, dark, and much-too-appealing stranger, Shade Ganavan, who says he can help her. But his motivations are far from clear...

Shade Ganavan: arrogance, charm...and that special something that makes you want to kick him.
With the dreaded Dark Watch closing in, what Tess and Shade don't know about each other might get them killed...unless they can set aside their differences and learn to trust each other before it's too late.

So in a surprise twist, here I am, taking time away from my piles of boring correction work (I'd forgotten just how much eight graders simply CANNOT write yet - that's the problem with having had tenth graders for too many years in a row) to sneak one more review in before the deadline. I finished the audio book for this yesterday when out shopping, and wanted to add one more book to my tally before the year ends.

This book has already been reviewed and highly recommended by my friends Teresa and Rochelle. Teresa even included it in her top three books of the year, which is high praise. Having read Amanda Bouchet's fantasy trilogy, the Kingmaker Chronicles, which I thought started out very strong with A Promise of Fire, and then sadly got worse with each book in the series, I was initially not too interested in this when it came out at the start of this year, but based on the strong write-ups from people who tend to enjoy much of the same stuff as me, I figured it was worth a listen when I needed entertainment in the post-Christmas stress.

Sadly, Teresa, I didn't love this as much as you did, mainly because I kept being annoyed by Tess' frequently foolish and reckless behaviour. Sure she's brave, and plucky, and defiant and willing to do anything and everything for the orphanage where she was raised (after she was 12), but the stupid risks she takes and the extreme treatment she puts her own body through (without telling any of her crew who could totally HELP her), just had me rolling my eyes a bit too many times. You can't save those orphans if you're dead, Tess!

There's a lot to like about this book, though. There's action and adventure and some truly tense stand-offs against suitably impressive villains. The opening sequence, when Tess stupidly announces her true identity not only to her crew, but to the people pursuing her, before jumping her ship into a black hole was really very nerve-wracking. Tess flits around space rebelling against the evil space dictator and stealing valuable tech and supplies to provide to the rebels, and that's a worthy and cool cause. Her crew of ragtag co-rebels are also interesting and supportive (although I question the intelligence of her crew scientist, who even when patching up Tess after injuries doesn't notice how drained of blood she appears) and I like the back story of how they came to travel together. The chemistry between Tess and Shade was good and they share some decent banter.

Despite being exasperated by the foolish tendency of the heroine to refuse help from her loyal friends/crew (once you've announced to everyone who you really are, you may as well go all in and share everything that's special about yourself) and some of the decisions made by her along the way, I did mostly really enjoy this and will be checking out the sequel (hoping that unlike in her first series, Bouchet's writing and the story actually improves, rather than deteriorate in quality). Tess both starts and ends the book in a whole heap of trouble, and it will be fun to see how she manages to get out of her next scrape.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm really not a huge fan of this cover, although I like the colour scheme of dark blues and purples, with the orange swirling nebula in the background, behind our scowling cover model, who I'm assuming is supposed to be Tess. The tightly crossed arms, the grumpy facial expression, it just seems like the model was told to go for tough and independent, but landed on pouty, stubborn toddler (I should know, I've seen that facial expression on my child many a time recently). We get it, she wears leather, she doesn't smile - the heroine of this must be tough as nails (except, of course, she totally isn't).

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 29 December 2019

#CBR11 Books 102-105: Short reads to finish off my reading year

Night of the Scoundrel by Kelly Bowen
Page count: 133 pages
Rating: 4 stars

In this novella which concludes Kelly Bowen's The Devils of Dover series, we finally find out more about the mysterious King, who has been popping up in Bowen's books for a long time. A shadowy London crime lord with connections to smuggling, art forgery, theft and all sorts of other untoward business, he is not a man to cross. He discovers that a man he believed to be dead, a man who ruined his childhood and set him pretty directly on the path to where he is now, has resurfaced in London, and is hell bent on revenge.

Lucky for him, there is a woman of unique talents when it comes to delivering justice, whom he caught trying to steal from him. King makes a deal with the deadly Adeline Archambault and promises her more than she ever believed was possible, if she stays in London and helps him finally get justice from the man who betrayed him.

I've always liked King and suspected that he was more moral than some of his previous appearances made him seem. No one becomes a feared and undisputed crime boss in London without everyone believing you are utterly ruthless and without weakness. I'm not sure what background I imagined for him, but I've been hoping he would get his own story for a long time now. Adeline is, as Bowen's heroines tend to be, resilient, brave, resourceful and very good at her chosen profession. She has a lot of pain in her past too, which is probably why she's so attractive to King. I liked them a lot as a couple, and am sorry this was just a novella. I think the story was a bit too hurried, and would have liked a lot more page time with both characters.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover is fine, but nothing special. There's almost too much red there. I also wish that the lady cover model had been wearing trousers, which Adeline seemed to prefer to do for much of the story.

The Monsters We Deserve by Marcus Sedgwick
Page count: 145 pages
Rating: 2 stars

An author goes to a remote mountain cabin to write a book and ruminates on the craft of writing while doing so. There are a lot of thoughts about how writers create and why, and also a lot of ponderings about Mary Shelley and her creation of Frankenstein back in 1816. The longer the author stays by his lonesome, the weirder and creepier things get. Where do monsters come from, really? Why is the human mind so in need of monsters to represent something to us?

I don't think I would ever have picked this book up if it wasn't the January pick for my fantasy/sci-fi book club. In the plus column, it was short and a very quick read. I was able to get through it, even when my head felt like it was stuffed with cotton wool and my sinuses were aching, fighting the cold I caught just before Christmas. As I have mentioned before, horror isn't my preferred genre. There are definitely mostly horror elements to this. There isn't all that much that I think qualifies it as fantasy, unless you count the unnamed author's actual conversations with Mary Shelley (but they could just as easily just be a sign of the madness descending on the author). I read and reviewed this just after submitting my choices for best and worst novels of the year. It would absolutely be a contender for worst book, but the author was at least trying to do something interesting with this little novella, I just don't think it worked for me. I'm therefore going to rank it as my second worst read of the year, and will be very interested in what the rest of the members of my book club think of it.

Judging a book by its cover: It's a creepy book, it's got a creepy cover. I read an e-book version, where the cover is black on a white background. I think I prefer the paperback cover, which has the exact same image and design, but the background is black, with a white silhouette.

A Match Made for Thanksgiving by Jackie Lau
Page count: 100 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Nick Wong is an advertising executive ("like in Mad Men?"), who very much enjoys his lifestyle as a wealthy, handsome (he apparently looks a lot like Henry Golding - nice!) and carefree bachelor in Toronto. He has a gorgeous penthouse on the 53rd floor with gorgeous views of the city, he can go to the best restaurants, clubs and bars and meet beautiful women. He can find and eat amazing food from all over the world. A completely different existence from the place where he grew up, boring Mosquito Bay by Lake Huron. Nevertheless, he always dutifully goes home for Thanksgiving.

Lily Tseng was told by her long-term boyfriend that she was boring just before he dumped her. She really felt the sting of that, and has decided to do something very unlike herself, and have a one night stand. As she is sitting at a bar, talking out loud to herself, she is overheard by the gorgeous Nick, who is more than happy to buy her drinks, flatter her and help her with her new impulsive side. She ditches her friends and enjoys a long night of passionate fun with Nick, expecting never to see him again.

But fate wants it differently. Nick's parents and grandparents (well, his mother and grandmother, mostly) are sick of all four Wong siblings getting older and neither one of them settling down and providing grandchildren. So they've set each of the Wong children up with a blind date for Thanksgiving, using popular romance tropes as a guide. Lily, whose mother is a friend of  Nick's mother, shows up as his eldest brother Greg's date (she works for an engineering firm, he's an engineer). Nick's date on the other hand is a pig farmer ("we were going for opposites attract"). Obviously, the night doesn't entirely turn out the way the Wong parents had expected, as Nick, normally not one to want more than something casual with a woman, becomes determined to have more than just the one night with Lily (who he doesn't find the slightest bit boring).

My fellow Cannonballer and romance fan, Emmalita/Rochelle, is the one who really got me to notice Jackie Lau as a writer this year. She's read and recommended a lot of her books, and these little novellas, each set at a significant holiday over the course of a few months sounded like exactly the sort of thing my frazzled brain needs as entertainment during a stressful end of the year period. The idea of four siblings all being hounded to settle down by their parents, and using popular romance tropes to match them up is a very fun one, and I love how disastrous each of the parents' matchmaking attempts prove initially. It's also fun how Lau shows her knowledge of all the popular tropes by playing with them and subverting the readers' expectations somewhat.

Having now read a few of Lau's books, I can see why everyone warns you not to read them while hungry. There are so many descriptions of delicious food in here! Sure, the sex scenes are also hot and the banter between the characters is excellent, but the food, people. I think I was literally drooling at one point (although that could also have been because of my cold).

Judging a book by its cover: This is a very cute and cartoony cover, featuring some of the elements that are relevant for the story. You've obviously got the Thanksgiving spread on the table (and the beautiful autumnal colour scheme), but there's also the containers of boba tea (which Nick and Lily go to get on their first memorable night together).

A Second-Chance Road Trip for Christmas by Jackie Lau
Page count: 94 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Greg Wong is about to drive from Toronto, where he lives and works as an engineer, back to Mosquito Bay to celebrate Christmas with his family. His mother asks him to give Tasha Edwards, his high school ex-girlfriend a ride, as she's also going home for Christmas and doesn't have access to a car. After the matchmaking shenanigans at Thanksgiving, Greg is instantly wary - is this another attempt at setting him up. It's been over fifteen years since he and Tasha broke up, as they were going to different universities, and they haven't seen each other since.

Tasha's mother has also been teasing her a bit, but Tasha has no intention of even considering getting back together with Greg. She has countless examples of why reconnecting with an ex is a bad idea, and besides, they have literally nothing in common. He's introverted, gruff and taciturn, only wanting to listen to public radio, while she's extroverted, talkative and would prefer to listen to Christmas songs and sing along loudly. Their mini road trip starts off badly when Tasha arrives late, and Greg keeps grumbling about how much the delay has caused them to have problems. Of course, in the hours in the car, she also starts remembering all the nice times they had together in the three years they dated, and how kind Greg always were to her.

Then there's the snow storm. Unable to actually drive all the way to Mosquito Bay, Greg and Tasha are forced to stop for the night. Except due to the horrible weather, there's only one motel room free, where the heating is broken, and there's only one bed. Back in the day, when they were teenagers, having a night alone in a room with a queen size bed would have been an incredible luxury. Now it's just awkward. Of course, the lack of heating means they have to snuggle close to keep warm, and before you know it, all those thoughts of what they used to have, make it tempting for Greg and Tasha to see if they can rekindle something.

Normally, two people jumping each other after only a few hours together would make me roll my eyes and complain loudly about insta-lust and how it's important to establish a relationship. But the brilliant thing with second chance romances is that the couple already know each other, they've already done the complicated and time consuming getting to know one another bit. Greg and Tasha dated for three years and were very happy together. They didn't break up over irreconcilable differences or cheating or some sort of acrimonious reason, but because they were going to be in different cities and figured that it was for the best, as they would probably grow apart anyway. Now both have had fifteen years to establish careers and proper grown up lives for themselves. They've both been in other relationships, but seem to never have quite had the same connection with anyone as they did with their first love.

I like how Jackie Lau takes all these popular romance tropes and plays with them. Here she manages to do an old lovers reunited story, and throw in road trip, forced proximity, the "there's only one bed" (more forced proximity) AND the couple are an opposites attract. She manages to show that while they are very different, Tasha and Greg compliment one another, and instead of finding the other's differences annoying and bothersome, they actually find it charming (at least after a little while).

Because they're stuck at a motel in a snow storm, there was a lot less of the tempting food descriptions in this one, as Greg and Tasha mostly eat granola bars and the like. So it turns out that Lau can write books that don't instantly make me hungry, as well.

Judging a book by its cover: Another cutesy cartoony cover, this one a bit more stylised for Christmas and not directly related to the contents of the book (if so, there should probably have been granola bars instead of candy canes) and a whole lot more snow everywhere.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 28 December 2019

#CBR11 Book 98-101: "Hidden Legacy" by Ilona Andrews (re-read)

Total page count: 1382 pages
Burn for Me - 4.5 stars
White Hot - 5 stars
Wildfire - 5 stars
Diamond Fire - 4.5 stars

Sapphire Flames, book 4 in the series (novellas only count as half instalments) and the continuation of the series came out in August (on my birthday - thank you, House Andrews, for your benevolence!). In the months leading up to that release, I wanted to re-read the previous books, so everything was fresh in my mind. The plan was that my husband would read them too (how am I married to a man who just simply refuses to read the same things I like and adore?) and then we would review all four under the "Two voices are better than one" square on this year's Cannonball Bingo. Unfortunately, due to his brain worms and a number of other factors, he never ended up even finishing his re-read of Burn for Me, let alone get round to reading any of the others. So instead, we had to go with plan B, a co-written review of Pumpkinheads (which was considerably faster for the husband to read than the nearly 1300 pages of these combined books).

This brings us to December, and me desperately scrambling to actually complete my double Cannonball. My work load this year is frankly depressing (if I'm not correcting and grading something, I'm probably planning the next task that needs to be corrected and graded). It also turns out that while maternity leave and taking care of a small baby leaves you with a fair amount of time to read (if your hormonal brain lets you concentrate on anything), being the mother of a very active and demanding toddler demands enough of what is left of my energy and intellectual capabilities once the work stress has done its damage, that I barely have the capacity for much of anything anymore. In the last month, I've barely even watched TV, we end up watching movie trailers and YouTube videos, because even a half hour episode of a show either takes up too much time, or demands too much of my mental faculties.

I pretty much have no choice but to write a rather rambling review of my re-read of these books, if I'm to have any chance to complete my double Cannonball (never give up, never surrender!) I can't have four books there on my "Read in 2019" shelf just standing there being un-reviewed, even if they are all re-reads. I've already linked to my original reviews at the top of this one, so anyone wanting plot summaries and such like, can just go check out what I wrote last time.

Why you should read the Hidden Legacy books by Ilona Andrews:
  • Excellent plot. There's an over-arcing story going through all three of the first books, with a series of shadowy figures trying to destabilise the powers that be in Houston and our resourceful protagonists having to join forces to unmask and stop them, but there's also a self-contained story in each of the three books. While you will get more attached to the characters and invested in the bigger plot lines, Ilona Andrews also recaps the most important points in each book (without it seeming like too annoying regurgitation), so you could start with any book in the series and manage to follow along (but where's the fun in that?)
  • Amazing world building. I have no idea where Ilona Andrews get their ideas from. The husband and wife writing team consistently, in each of the many books and series they have produced, manage to build and populate fascinating worlds, with interesting magical systems, supernatural abilities and creepy crawlies. The Hidden Legacy series is set in a world not all that different from our own - it's just that when magical powers were discovered, the magical elite developed and took power, with society having to change to adapt to that. The various types and variations of magic that they use in this book - so clever and inventive
  • The supporting cast. One of my favourite things in all the different series that Ilona Andrews have created over the years is their ability to create wonderful and interesting supporting characters. If the protagonist is a loner, they make sure said person gets enough friends and eventually found family to support and back them. If the protagonist is part of a family, said family will probably be full of interesting, vibrant, demanding and usually supportive. If the protagonist in question comes from a dysfunctional family background, the authors will make sure that by the end of the story, that character has found a new set of people to lean on and belong to. In so many stories, children and adolescents are just annoying plot moppets. This is never the case in an Ilona Andrews story. In Hidden Legacy, Nevada is the breadwinner for her family, but she has her mother, grandmother, her two cousins and her younger sisters firmly on her side at all times. While her sisters and cousins bait and tease her and deeply exasperate her sometimes, they will also drop everything on a second's notice to come to her aid. 
  • The protagonists. While Connor Rogan took a while to make me really like him, and make me believe he was worthy of Nevada, our heroine, Nevada Baylor had me won over by the end of the first chapter of the first book. She's had to work hard for a long time and has absolutely no time or patience for arrogant men who think they can order her around or swoop in and one up her. Once Connor realises just how isolated he's made himself, and what a remarkable woman he's found in Nevada, he more than does the legwork to prove himself an acceptable partner to her. 
  • The action. There are always a lot of amazing action scenes in all of Ilona Andrews' books. This series is no exception. There are car chases, shoot outs, intense magical battles and more quiet power struggles - all fun.
  • The humour. Ilona Andrews writes amazing banter between their romantic leads, but also has laugh out loud funny dialogue and situations involving supporting characters in each of their books. I frequently find myself laughing out loud more than once, in between biting my nails because of the tension and suspense.
  • The original trilogy is already completed. While Diamond Fire is a novella introducing Nevada's younger sister Catalina as the protagonist and this story bridges the gap between the original trilogy and the new one (which begins with Sapphire Flames), the three books about Nevada and Connor and their attempts to stop the whole of Houston society being destabilised (all while falling in love and figuring out how they can have a future together) are finished and all out - so three great books to read, no waiting. 
I've re-read each of these books at least twice now, and can very much vouch for the quality and entertainment value of the stories. I really think Ilona Andrews just keep getting more talented with each new book they publish and feel lucky that I've been reading their books for so long. I have extremely few auto-buy authors anymore, but Ilona Andrews qualify not just for auto-buy, but pre-order. Then, once the books are out in paperback, I will pay again for physical copies. That's a very rare privilege.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR11 Book 97: "My Fake Rake" by Eva Leigh

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Official book description:
Lady Grace Wyatt is content as a wallflower, focusing on scientific pursuits rather than the complications of society matches. But when a handsome, celebrated naturalist returns from abroad, Grace wishes, for once, to be noticed. Her solution: to "build" the perfect man, who will court her publicly and help her catch his eye. Grace's colleague, anthropologist Sebastian Holloway, is just the blank slate she requires.

In exchange for funding his passage on an expedition leaving London in a few months, Sebastian allows Grace to transform him from a bespectacled, bookish academic into a dashing—albeit fake—rake. Between secret lessons on how to be a rogue and exaggerated public flirtations, Grace's feelings for Sebastian grow from friendship into undeniable, inconvenient, real attraction. If only she hadn't hired him to help her marry someone else...

Sebastian is in love with brilliant, beautiful Grace, but their bargain is complete, and she desires another. Yet when he's faced with losing her forever, Sebastian will do whatever it takes to tell her the truth, even if it means risking his own future—and his heart.

My Fake Rake is a romance of the “I’ll pretend to date someone else to make the object of my affection truly notice me, but wait, I find I fancy the someone else more than the original object of my affection” variety, but with a role-reversal make-over twist.

A historical romance set in Regency England and written by Eva Leigh, My Fake Rake is my seventh book by this author. I generally find her work good fun, but I’m starting to worry that her quality is slipping. While I very much enjoyed her first trilogy, the Wicked Quills of London, I thought the books in her London Underground series were merely OK. This beginning of her new series (where the prologue finds what is clearly going to be the heroes of the future novels collected in one room for some sort of collective punishment a la The Breakfast Club) is her weakest one yet. I found My Fake Rake rather dull, especially as both the hero and heroine keep agonising about their attraction for the other without EVER having an honest conversation about it. I will give Eva Leigh’s future novels a chance because I liked the supporting character of the Duke of Rotherby, who has to help our hero and heroine actually pull off the makeover and fake dating ploy, as our protagonists are too socially awkward and inexperienced to figure out how to do this on their own. He’s the hero of the next book. This one, however, was nothing special and if you are curious about the author’s works, I would not recommend this particular effort. Go for something in her earliest trilogy instead.

The main plot of My Fake Rake focuses, as I mentioned earlier, on a makeover story with a twist. It is not the socially awkward heroine who needs a new wardrobe, but rather the hero. Sebastian Holloway, eldest son of a wealthy industry magnate is an avid anthropologist, but because his father has cut him off, he can’t actually afford to do people watching outside the isle of Britain, on the occasional wander. He is tall, blond and crippled by social anxiety. In case you’d like social media to help you provide some mental casting, Eva Leigh has Pinterest boards for each of her novels, and she has the delectable Alexander Skarsgård as her suggested Sebastian. The heroine, Lady Grace Wyatt, is a wallflower, but mostly by choice. She is well-read, clever and passionate about lizards and amphibians. Her scientific interests make her unappealing on the marriage mart. For those wondering, Eva Leigh imagines her looking like Allison Brie. ¨

Lady Grace’s father is ailing and wants her to marry and find a husband to take care of her before he dies. Lady Grace has nurtured a crush on a titled, dashing fellow scientist explorer for years, but he seems to view her more as a sister. Sebastian and Grace are close friends and frequent study buddies and Grace is clearly ignoring any possible attraction to him (he’s been in love with her for years, but would never dare suggest that he, a penniless, untitled nobody would be good enough for her, even if she didn’t keep talking to him about her crush on another guy for years). Once Sebastian’s old school chum, the Duke of Rotherby joins in to help Grace give Sebastian a proper makeover, it becomes apparent that Sebastian is, in fact, a certifiable hottie, and Grace is forced to reconsider which man she actually wants. Many complications ensue before our nerdy couple move forward together secure in their love and commitment.

While there is far too much back and forth nonsense where Grace and Sebastian clearly fancy the pants off each other (she literally gets short of breath when he removes his spectacles at one point), they spend far too much time assuring themselves of why they couldn’t possibly voice their attraction towards the other. Even after they’ve kissed several times, they’re able to explain it away as something other than genuine passion and infatuation. This got tiresome. The Duke of Rotherby, the main supporting character made the story more bearable, but I still kept putting the book down and finding excuses not to read more quite a few times. It’s fun that the author is trying to basically take 80s high school rom com plots and turn them into Regency romances, but this one didn’t entirely work out.

Huge thank you and shout-out to my fellow kissing book aficionado, Mrs. Julien, whose romance novel review template (tm) I resurrected to review this novel. 

Judging a book by its cover: While I'm normally a big fan of both the colours red and purple, I'm not sure they go together very well on this cover. It all looks a bit lurid, and I'm not a big fan of either the bright yellow or that rather spindly font they've chosen for the book's title either. At least neither of the cover models appear to be wearing wildly anachronistic clothing, for a change.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 96: "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern

Page count: 502 pages
Audio book length: 13 hrs 40 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Official book description:
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway - a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love - a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

I first read this book back in 2011, during Cannonball III. I revisited it a few years later, to see if it was as magical and unusual a reading experience as I remembered, and I still pretty much loved it. This autumn, trying to challenge myself and move outside my comfort zone, I joined a book club and despite my busy work schedule and my extreme tendency for introversion, I've actually managed to go to every meeting since September. This was the December book, and so I had the perfect excuse to re-read the novel once more, this time in audio. I found Jim Dale's narration to be very good, although I'm not sure he did all of the female characters' voices justice.

Re-reading and then discussing a book I love with near-strangers with different opinions was an interesting experience for me. From month to month, it varies how many show up to the meetings, and also how many who actively take part in the discussion. For December, turn-out was unusually high, and a lot of the members had feelings they wanted to share. To my dismay, many of them seemed not to like the book all that much, or to have serious problems with it. Since I still pretty much loved the book, that wasn't the easiest thing to hear.

So what were problems that fellow members of my book club had with this book? Quite a few people thought the romance between Marco and Celia to be either far too underdeveloped or wholly unnecessary. She didn't really make the reader see why exactly they were so drawn to one another, it all had a bit of a fated mate feel to it, which is an unpopular trope. A few thought Isobel, Marco's jilted girlfriend, would have been more interesting if she'd turned out to be villainous. Several were of the opinion that Morgenstern's writing was too unfocused and all over the place, and that she didn't really go into depth about any of the things that were truly interesting - like the inhabitants of the circus and how the strange magical stasis affected them.

There was agreement that the best bits of the book were the sections seen through Bailey and Herr Thiessen, through whose eyes we really understand more of what makes the circus just so fascinating and appealing. I also think that everyone felt that our doomed lovers had some pretty dreadful father figures in their lives, and that the physical and emotional abuse they both went through was awful.

As is always the case at our book club meetings, a good third of the attendees had either not read the book at all, and just showed up for the social aspect, or at least not finished the book before the meeting. No one seemed to have loved the book as much as I do, which I found very sad, as while I can see a lot of some people's complaints, I still very much love the book. I'm desperately sorry that the Cirque de Rêve is entirely fictional and not a place that can actually be visited.

Judging a book by its cover: My copy of this book has the UK cover and I bought this very edition because I love the cover so much. The white silhouettes on a stark black background. The little touches of red to help draw the eye. The gorgeous Victorian costumes the couple on the cover are wearing. The silver of the cover quotes. All the colours are the primary ones used in the Night Circus itself, so it feels entirely appropriate that only they are used in the cover design.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 95: "GMorning, GNight!: Little pep talks for me & you" by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonny Sun

Page count: 207 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Official book description:
"Good morning. Do NOT get stuck in the comments section of life today. Make, do, create the things. Let others tussle it out. Vamos!"

Before he inspired the world with Hamilton and was catapulted to international fame, Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspiring his Twitter followers with words of encouragement at the beginning and end of each day. He wrote these original sayings, aphorisms, and poetry for himself as much as for others. But as Miranda's audience grew, these messages took on a life on their own. Now, at the request of countless fans, Miranda has gathered the best of his daily greetings into a beautiful collection illustrated by acclaimed artist (and fellow Twitter favorite) Jonny Sun. Full of comfort and motivation, Gmorning, Gnight! is a touchstone for anyone looking for a lift.

I see on Goodreads that some people absolutely loved and adored this book, while others felt it was a cheap and underwhelming effort from Miranda, trying to cash in further on his fame. I think I'm much more in the former category, and as someone who has followed Miranda on Twitter for a long time, and have enjoyed his inspirational little tweets in "real time", I was very excited when I learned that many of them were to be collected in a book.

It may also be that I was reading through these during a stressful and emotionally exhausting period in my life, but a lot of these little poems truly spoke to me and made me feel so much better. I'm not lying when I say that I cried more than once when reading, just as I smiled. Some of these sayings may be trite and simple, but I believe the intention behind them is to help, to support, to inspire and to cheer up and for me, they more often than not made me feel better and motivated and inspired, rather than annoyed, as some people seem to have gotten. Miranda seems to me as a person who works really hard to try to stay positive, even when the world around us is doing its damnedest to wear us down. These little Twitter verses is one of the ways in which he fights the gloom, and I'm thankful for that.

Some of the illustrations in the book are better than others. With the simple black and white line drawings, it would probably work as a colouring book, as well, if one wanted to use it as such.

Judging a book by its cover: This book has a relatively simple cover, it's one of the illustrations made by Jonny Sun for one of the tweets collected in the book. I like his drawing style. It's very clear and no-nonsense.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 94: "Suddenly Last Summer" by Sarah Morgan

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Official book description:
Fiery French chef Élise Philippe is having a seriously bad day. Not only have the opening day plans for her beloved café fallen apart, but Sean O'Neil is back in town, and looking more delectable than ever. Last summer, they shared an electrifying night together…and the memories have Élise really struggling to stick to her one-night-only rule! Her head knows that eventually Sean will be leaving, so all she can do is try to ignore her heart before she spontaneously combusts with lust.

Being back in Vermont—even temporarily—is surgeon Sean O'Neil's worst nightmare. For Sean, returning home to the Snow Crystal Resort means being forced to confront the reasons and the guilt he feels about rejecting his family's rural lifestyle years ago. But discovering that Élise has settled in Vermont and still sets his blood racing is a very welcome distraction! Thinking he can persuade her into a replay of last summer is tempting, but remembering how good they are together is going to make walking away more difficult than he could imagine…

Seeing the way his grandfather treats him and talks to him when he comes back to the family resort, I'm not all that surprised that doctor Sean prefers to stay in Boston, being a sought after playboy surgeon. When his grandfather has a heart attack, however, he obviously does the right thing and comes rushing home to help out. He discovers that his brother has done a pretty good job of turning business at the Snow Crystal Resort around and that while customers aren't flocking to the place, they're not about to have to file for bankruptcy either. Now his brother's beautiful French chef is in a tizzy because the wooden deck around her lakeside cafe won't be finished in time for the grand opening, and the resort and the O'Neil family could suffer financially as a result.

Élise feels like she owes everything she has to the O'Neil family and is eternally grateful that Jackson O'Neil hired her when she was at her lowest point, and that his family have welcomed her with open arms and treats her as one of their own. She's willing to do absolutely everything for them, and the new cafe was going to be the money spinner that would attact even more guests to the Snow Crystal Resort. That the grand opening might have to be cancelled or even postponed is unthinkable to her, even if she has to accept the help of handsome doctor Sean in order to get the deck ready on time. She and Sean shared a passionate night together a year ago, but Élise has a bad track record with romance, and does not intend to ever be in a relationship again. Thankfully, Sean doesn't seem like the long term commitment kind.

Except, once he's forced to stay around in Vermont while his grandfather recuperates and keeps seeking out Élise, as the sparks flying between them are just as hot as the previous summer, Sean begins to think that maybe he has been a bit hasty in his choice to stay in Boston all the time. That Élise just wants something casual makes him all the more determined to win her over and convince her that she may want to give love and romance a second chance.

For those who would like a heads up about such things, I should warn that there is a history of physical and emotional abuse in Élise's past, which is why she's so incredibly determined never to make herself vulnerable to a man ever again. I think it's dealt with pretty well, and Sean recovers pretty well after being a bit of a clueless idiot about his lady love, not to mention the bullheadedness of his grandfather initially.

This was neither a bad, nor a particularly memorable book. I enjoyed it while I read it, but am not sure I have a desperate need to seek out any of the two other books in the series to find out how the romantic prospects of the other two O'Neil brothers work out. To be fair, this is the middle book, so I already know who Jackson ends up with (but I'm not sure I care the exact hows or whys of why they got together). Of the Sarah Morgan books I've read in the past, I enjoyed her New York-set From Manhattan with Love series more.

Judging a book by its cover: This is a pretty generic contemporary romance cover, in my opinion. There's nothing particularly wrong with it, and the cover models more or less fit the description of the protagonists, but there's nothing super appealing about it either.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 27 December 2019

#CBR11 Book 93: "Headliners" by Lucy Parker

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, but this has in no way influenced my review. 

While this works fine as a standalone contemporary romance, both characters and some of the events that complicate their relationship early on are introduced in The Austen Playbook, which I can also heartily recommend.

Official book description:
He might be the sexiest man in London, according to his fan site (which he definitely writes himself), but he’s also the most arrogant man she’s ever met.

She might have the longest legs he’s ever seen, but she also has the sharpest tongue.

For years, rival TV presenters Sabrina Carlton and Nick Davenport have traded barbs on their respective shows. The public can’t get enough of their feud, but after Nick airs Sabrina’s family scandals to all of Britain, the gloves are off. They can barely be in the same room together—but these longtime enemies are about to become the unlikeliest of cohosts.

With their reputations on the rocks, Sabrina and Nick have one last chance to save their careers. If they can resurrect a sinking morning show, they’ll still have a future in television. But with ratings at an all-time low and a Christmas Eve deadline to win back the nation’s favor, the clock is ticking—and someone on their staff doesn’t want them to succeed.

Small mishaps on set start adding up, and Sabrina and Nick find themselves—quelle horreur—working together to hunt down the saboteur…and discovering they might have more in common than they thought. When a fiery encounter is caught on camera, the public is convinced that the reluctant cohosts are secretly lusting after one another.

The public might not be wrong.

Their chemistry has always been explosive, but with hate turning to love, the stakes are rising and everything is on the line. Neither is sure if they can trust these new feelings…or if they’ll still have a job in the New Year.

To say that I was eager to get my hands on this ARC is an understatement. I renewed the site once or twice a day, checking whether I'd been granted a copy. Of course, about the point when I was starting to give up hope and stopped checking, I received an e-mail confirming I was one of the lucky ones to get this book early. Lucy Parker is one of the few authors writing, in any genre, who has the honour of being not only on my auto-buy list, but one of the few who deserves the very coveted pre-order treatment. So even before I was granted a copy of this, I had paid money for it, because all of Parker's previous four novels have proven excellent reads, and I was pretty sure this would be too.

While Sabrina and Nick may initially detest each other, they are also professionals, who do the jobs they are hired to and don't let their animosity for their closest co-worker get in the way of doing their very best. Of course, neither of them are stupid, either, and it doesn't take them long at all to figure out that there is someone trying to sabotage the show. They're unsure of whether the guilty party has it in for one or both of them, but once they join forces to try to flush the culprit out, they also end up spending a lot more time together, and all that passionate dislike starts turning into something a bit more affectionate.

For those readers who have read The Austen Playbook, there are cameos from Freddy, Griff, Charlie and some of the Carlton sisters' friends who we were introduced to in that book. The two sisters are still really close, and Nick's thoughtless behaviour taking advantage of the Carlton family's scandals affected both of them, and pretty much ruined his long friendship with Griff. So obviously Sabrina takes her sister's opinions into consideration when her feelings towards Nick start to change.

Sadly, there is also a re-appearance of Sabrina's douchy movie star ex-boyfriend, and I was deeply grateful that there didn't appear to be any jealousy drama to complicate the plot, and that his appearance was relatively brief. I'm a little bit worried that movie-ex is going to feature as a hero in one of Parker's future books, but at the same time, she's written enough of my keeper shelf novels by now that if that's a choice she ends up making, I will probably end up loving him as much as I do Richard, Luc, Leo, Griff and now Nick.

It was going to take a lot for me not to like this book. I've never rated a Lucy Parker novel lower than four stars, this features enemies to lovers (one of my favourite tropes), while also displaying a lot of competency porn. Both Sabrina and Nick are amazing at their jobs and work really hard for the things they've achieved. The book gives fun insight into the behind the scenes bustle of a popular talk show and there's an amusing minor subplot where both Sabrina and Nick have to scramble to secure a horrible electronic toy, the most sought after present of the Christmas season, for a child they care for.

All I can say is that if you've enjoyed any of Parker's former novels, you will absolutely like this one too and should consider pre-ordering it. I still think The Austen Playbook is my absolute favourite, followed by Pretty Face in second place, but this may edge out Act Like It for third (because it doesn't have that slightly shaky last act with the overly dramatic building collapse). The book will be on general release on Janurary 20th, 2020.

Judging a book by its cover: While I think Act Like It still has my absolute favourite of Lucy Parker's book covers, this comes in at a close second. There is such utter joy on both of the cover model's faces and the background and lights is magical and romantic. They seem utterly besotted with one another, which is exactly what you want from a romance cover.

Thursday 26 December 2019

#CBR11 Book 92: "The Queen of Nothing" by Holly Black

Page count: 300 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This is the third and final book in the Folk of the Air trilogy. Don't read this review if you haven't read the previous two book, it's impossible to review the story without mentioning events from earlier. If you want to start the series at the beginning (since the series is completed now), The Cruel Prince is the first book.

Official book description:
"He will be destruction of the crown and the ruination of the throne."

Power is much easier to acquire than it is to hold onto. Jude learned this lesson when she released her control over the wicked king, Cardan, in exchange for immeasurable power.

Now as the exiled mortal Queen of Faerie, Jude is powerless and left reeling from Cardan’s betrayal. She bides her time determined to reclaim everything he took from her. Opportunity arrives in the form of her deceptive twin sister, Taryn, whose mortal life is in peril.

Jude must risk venturing back into the treacherous Faerie Court, and confront her lingering feelings for Cardan, if she wishes to save her sister. But Elfhame is not as she left it. War is brewing. As Jude slips deep within enemy lines she becomes ensnared in the conflict’s bloody politics.

And, when a dormant yet powerful curse is unleashed, panic spreads throughout the land, forcing her to choose between her ambition and her humanity…

Jude is going stir crazy exiled from the Faerie Realm and while she claims to hate Cardan for his actions and betrayal of her, she also can't stop thinking about him constantly. She spends most of her time hiring herself out to fae who are living in the human realm, and foolhardy as ever, nearly gets herself killed fighting an exiled faerie general. As she's patching up her wounds, her duplicitous twin sister Taryn comes to see her, confessing that she's now a widow, having killed the spiteful Locke and begging Jude to sneak into Faerie, and appear at the tribunal masquerading as Taryn. Jude is immune to faerie glamour and can lie to her heart's content. She can pretend to be Taryn and deny all wrong-doing, thus clearing her sister's name.

Of course, nothing is ever easy. When Jude shows up at the Faerie Court, dressed and made up as her sister, she might fool everyone else, but not the king himself, who would know his mortal bride whatever she wears. When they are alone in his chambers, Cardan tries to explain his plan and why he actually exiled Jude, but before he is able to set the record straight, Jude (as Taryn) is "rescued" by some of the stolen forces now loyal to her foster father Madoc and taken far away from the Court, to Madoc's rebel camp. Jude goes from the possible frying pan into the fire, surrounded by all sides by people loyal to the man bent on usurping Cardan, and as a result, Jude herself, from the Throne of Faerie.

Forced to keep impersonating her gentler, more lady-like sister in the presence of the people who raised them, Jude realises she needs to escape before her deception is discovered. If Madoc discovers that she is actually married to Cardan, he won't hesitate to use that as leverage in his attempts to usurp the throne. Of course, still angry at the way Jude once betrayed him to put Cardan on the throne in the first place, Madoc may not even wait to question Jude, but just kill her instantly. While plotting her escape, Cardan is once more never far from Jude's thoughts, she sure spends a whole lot of time obsessing over someone she claims to hate and despise.

This is by far the shortest volume of the trilogy, and I can't help but think that Holly Black may have hurried to finish it before it was entirely ready. Considering the deeply problematic and antagonistic relationship between Cardan and Jude in the first book, which certainly developed into something more interesting in the second, she really could have given the readers a bit more time with the characters actually together, selling Cardan's personal growth and literal change of heart towards the girl he tormented so cruelly for so long. I can absolutely believe that two people who hate each other intensely and with good reason can become passionate lovers (it's a popular trope for a reason), but it's nice when you get to see proof of the relationship changing, not just get it presented to you as a finished process. Cardan's declaration of love is really rather swoon-inducing, but I would still have liked some more time with him and Jude together and talking, not constantly separated by the plot, apparently having fallen for one another and forgiving and forgetting the past while pining for the other.

The curse that complicates matters is pretty cool, but may have been solved a little bit too quickly and easily. This book is nearly a hundred pages shorter than the first book in the series, and as someone who really loves Holly Black's twisted visions of faerieland and the dark romances she creates, I could have done with a standard length novel as the conclusion this series. 

Judging a book by its cover: I think all the books in this trilogy have had fitting and gorgeous covers, but this final one is my favourite of the lot. All the elements on the cover fit perfectly (can't really explain why without spoiling important parts of the plot) and the use of the various colours and items to draw the eyes - this is one of my favourite covers of the year.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 91: "Emergency Contact" by Mary H.K. Choi

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
For Penny Lee, high school was a total nonevent. Her friends were okay, her grades were fine, and while she’d somehow landed a boyfriend, they never managed to know much about each other. Now Penny is heading to college in Austin, Texas, to learn how to become a writer. It’s seventy-nine miles and a zillion light years away from everything she can’t wait to leave behind.

Sam’s stuck. Literally, figuratively, emotionally, financially. He works at a café and sleeps there too, on a mattress on the floor of an empty storage room upstairs. He knows that this is the god-awful chapter of his life that will serve as inspiration for when he’s a famous movie director but right this second the seventeen bucks in his checking account and his dying laptop are really testing him.

When Sam and Penny cross paths it’s less meet-cute and more a collision of unbearable awkwardness. Still, they swap numbers and stay in touch—via text—and soon become digitally inseparable, sharing their deepest anxieties and secret dreams without the humiliating weirdness of having to, you know, see each other.

This is recommended for fans of Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park and Jenny Han's To All the Boys I Loved Before. I can sort of understand the first comparison, as with Rowell's book, this is told in alternating chapter from Penny and Sam's points of view. The book also has a similar feel to some of Rowell's books, which is one of the highest compliments I can pay an author. I'm guessing the comparison to Jenny Han is because both are written by young women of Asian descent and there are young women of Asian descent in the books? As I wasn't exactly a massive fan of Han's admittedly very popular YA novel (I much prefer the film adaptation), I think it's nice if anyone who liked it picks up this book based on the comparison, because they'll get to read what I consider a much more entertaining book.

While both Sam and Penny are fun characters to figuratively hang out with, I must admit that both of them also annoyed me quite a lot at times, and I do not agree with the way they treated certain members of their families (close or extended - I don't want to go into detail because that would spoil the story). Penny really is far too quick to judge and pigeon hole those around her, and probably gets on so well with Sam via text message precisely because they get to know one another without spending actual time together. If they did, it seems as if Penny would have harshly judged him too quickly as well, and there would never have been any friendship, then romance, to get excited about.

Did the fact that Penny and Sam annoyed me in any way ruin or cause problems for my reading experience? No. In fact, because they felt complicated and multi-faceted and flawed, with the potential and need to develop and grow, just like actual young college age people do, I think I enjoyed the book more. This was apparently Choi's debut novel, and I will be excited to see what she writes next.

Judging a book by its cover: I think this cover is absolutely lovely and the characters are so well represented. The rose background and the gold font also fit, considering Penny uses a rose gold phone to communicate with Sam.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 22 December 2019

#CBR11 Book 90: "The Flatshare" by Beth O'Leary

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Tiffy Moore and Leon Twomey each have a problem and need a quick fix.

Tiffy’s been dumped by her cheating boyfriend and urgently needs a new flat. But earning minimum wage at a quirky publishing house means that her choices are limited in London.

Leon, a palliative care nurse, is more concerned with other people’s welfare than his own. Along with working night shifts looking after the terminally ill, his sole focus is on raising money to fight his brother’s unfair imprisonment.

Leon has a flat that he only uses 9 to 5. Tiffy works 9 to 5 and needs a place to sleep. The solution to their problems? To share a bed of course...

As Leon and Tiffy’s unusual arrangement becomes a reality, they start to connect through Post-It notes left for each other around the flat.

Can true love blossom even in the unlikeliest of situations?
Can true love blossom even if you never see one another?
Or does true love blossom when you are least expecting it?

This is one of those books that I saw on a lot of "Must Read" lists earlier this year, and I will not be surprised if it's on quite a few of the best of the year lists for various review sites either. As contemporary romances go, it has an unusual premise. The two protagonists don't even end up in the same room together until more than halfway through the book (and what a scene it is!). Initially, Leon has a girlfriend, not that he seems all that into her. She's the one who insists on handling all the rental stuff with Tiffy, not entirely comfortable with her boyfriend sharing not just his flat, but his actual bedroom and bed (Tiffy and Leon agree to sleep on separate sides of the bed). The agreement is also that Leon stays with his girlfriend during the weekends, so Tiffy can have the flat.

Tiffy has a toxic ex-boyfriend, Justin, and two extremely supportive best friends, Mo and Gerty. They both clearly utterly hated Justin and are willing to help her with money if it means she has a safe place to stay. Tiffy doesn't exactly make a lot of money in the first place, and has even less, since her ex is insisting she pay him back a bunch of money as well. Hence she ends up with the rather unusual rental arrangement, while merrily going about her job, trying not to think about her former boyfriend (although he does seem to pop up now and again, in all sorts of strange coincidences).  It takes Tiffy months and months to realise just how controlling, manipulative, emotionally abusive and gas lighting Justin was, and she falls apart a bit when she finally does start remembering all the things her brain conveniently shut away.

While Leon's girlfriend seems to be impatiently waiting for him to resign himself to the fact that his brother Richie is in prison now, and won't be getting out, so he can work less and spend more time with her. Once Leon realises that she doesn't, in fact, believe that Richie was wrongfully accused, that's pretty much it for their relationship. He still keeps finding other places to stay during the weekends, though, so Tiffy can have the flat.

In contrast, Tiffy is wholly convinced of Richie's innocence, having spoken to him early in her stay in the flat, and later having corresponded with him. She convinces one of her two BFFs, a very successful criminal lawyer, to look into the case, which seems to have been pretty badly mismanaged by

While the two roommates never meet, they draw conclusions about the other based on what they find around the flat, and they keep leaving Post-It notes (at first one or two, soon a whole load) to communicate. As the months pass, they have long conversations via Post-It. They get to know each other's likes and dislikes and become friends, even though they've never met. Then, once they finally do, there is definitely a spark there, but Tiffy has a lot of emotional healing left to do, and Leon has far too much experience with toxic relationships thanks to his mother's dating history to try anything with a woman who's fully ready.

This was a fast read for me, and while it had some pacing issues, the alternate chapters from Tiffy and Leon's points of view allow the reader to get to know them both really well. The conceit of their communicating via Post-Its makes it almost strange when you realise how long they go without actually meeting face to face.

While the emotional abuse story line, complete with gas lighting and manipulation seemed entirely believable, as did Tiffy's gradual realisation of what she'd gone through, I'm not sure I found Justin's increasingly more crazy antics towards the end of the book all that convincing. This felt like an overly complicated way to create extra tension in Tiffy and Leon's beginning romantic relationship and I did not care for it.

I really haven't read all that many romances that fully entertained me and that I would wholeheartedly recommend this year, but I really liked this book, and will be keeping an eye out for whatever Beth O'Leary does next. Fingers crossed she becomes another Lucy Parker.

Judging a book by its cover: There seems to be a growing trend in cutesy cartoony romance covers at the moment. I like this one because it doesn't feel cartoony or overly cute, but rather elegant. If anything, the painted characters feel almost too simplistic. I'm not sure I would have picked it up in a bookstore based on the cover alone.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 15 December 2019

#CBR11 Book 89: "Milk and Honey" by Rupi Kaur

Page count: 208 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
milk and honey is a
collection of poetry about
and femininity
it is split into four chapters
each chapter serves a different purpose
deals with a different pain
heals a different heartache
milk and honey takes readers through
a journey of the most bitter moments in the life
and finds sweetness in them
because there is sweetness everywhere
if you are just willing to look

Poetry is just one of those genres I don't really read, at all. So when the Diversify Your Reading Challenge asked me to read one or more collections of poetry in November, I was initially a bit stumped. However, one of my keywords in my Monthly Keyword Challenge (so many reading challenges, you guys!) for November was food, and this poetry collection, which is very highly rated on Goodreads, by a woman of colour I had actually heard of even before I picked up the book, fit perfectly.

Obviously, this was a very quick read. I have to be honest, and say that in the first section, which deals with sexual abuse and trauma, I mostly skimmed the poems to get through quickly, because I do not have the mental head space to deal with that right now. The other sections were nowhere near as traumatic, and some of the poems are absolutely lovely.

I can see on Goodreads that while some people have found the contents of the book rather trite and cliched and simple, a whopping 49% have rated the collection a full 5 stars. I would not quite go that far with effusive praise, but as I said, poetry just really isn't a genre that tends to do much for me. I'm glad this reading challenge made me open up to something new, but I still don't see myself reading a lot of verse in the years to come.

Judging a book by its cover: It's not exactly the most exciting of covers, but the bees make you think of honey, which is, after all, highly relevant to the title. The illustrations on the cover are in the same simple style as the ones throughout the volume, accompanying the poetry.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 88: "Wolfsong" by T.J. Klune

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Ox was twelve when his daddy taught him a very valuable lesson. He said that Ox wasn’t worth anything and people would never understand him. Then he left.

Ox was sixteen when he met the boy on the road. The little boy who talked and talked and talked. Ox found out later the little boy hadn’t spoken in almost two years before that day, and that the little boy belonged to a family who had moved into the house at the end of the lane.

Ox was seventeen when he found out the little boy’s secret and it painted the world around him in colors of red and orange and violet, of Alpha and Beta and Omega.

Ox was twenty-three when murder came to town and tore a hole in his head and heart. The boy chased after the monster with revenge in his bloodred eyes, leaving Ox behind to pick up the pieces.

It’s been three years since that fateful day—and the boy is back. Except now he’s a man, and Ox can no longer ignore the song that howls between them.

Ox' father is an alcoholic and a complete waste of space, who leaves his wife and son and manages to leave his son with some serious emotional scars that take him a very long time to heal from. Luckily, his mother is amazing, supportive, hard-working and kind and does her very best to counteract her husband's poison. Also helping to build Ox up and make him feel loved and valued, is Gordo, the owner of the garage where Ox starts helping out and later working part-time, to help his mother with the bills. Gordo, as well as the three other guys who work there pretty much become Ox' found family.

When Ox is sixteen, his life changes as the big house next door to the little cottage where he and his mother live suddenly have residents again. The large Bennett family, husband, wife, uncle, three sons, including the extremely energetic, talkative and exuberant Joe, the baby of the family. Joe pretty much idolises Ox from the very first moment he sees him, and Ox is shocked to discover that while the kid simply wouldn't shut up when they first met, that was the first time he spoke in two years. Having been abducted and tortured by a very sadistic and cruel man, trying to influence Joe's parents, the child is traumatised in a number of ways, and habitually plagued with nightmares. Meeting Ox seems to start bringing him out of his shell, and from their first meeting, there's a special connection between the sixteen- and the eleven-year-old.

As a result of the connection between Joe and Ox, the Bennetts pretty much adopt Ox as one of their own. The two older brothers go to high school with him, and Ox finds he is no longer the sad loner, but part of a tight knit group, suddenly getting positive female attention because he keeps company with the handsome Bennett boys. Gordo knows the Bennetts from before (they used to live in the big house, but moved away) and keeps warning Ox to stay away. He, however, refuses to listen.

When he turns seventeen, Ox discovers why Gordo is so hostile to the Bennetts. They are all werewolves, while Gordo is a witch, whose family used to have ties to the family, until his father betrayed Joe's grandfather, and went off with the psycho werewolf who eventually kidnapped and tortured Joe. Gordo and Mark, the Bennett boys' uncle, have a romantic past that they're now both studiously ignoring.

As Ox grows older and more confident, he comes to realise that he's most likely bisexual. No matter who he seems to flirt with, Joe gets furiously jealous. When Ox turns 23, and Joe is close to 18, Ox is shocked to discover that the person he really fancies is the kid who used to follow him around like a puppy. He's extremely uncomfortable, while the entire Bennett pack, who have seen it coming for years, are highly amused that it's taken him so long to catch on. Joe is going to be the next alpha of the pack, and while it's unusual that an alpha have a human, non-shifter mate, the entire family love Ox and already accept him as part of the family.

Sadly, before Ox and Joe have a chance to really explore their changed, much more sexually charged relationship, tragedy strikes, and Ox is left behind to grieve and try to pick up the pieces of the Bennett pack when Joe takes his brothers and Gordo and runs off to get revenge on the psycho who has haunted him for most of his life.

It takes three years for Joe and his revenge posse to return, and in that time, Ox has taken on responsibilities he never thought he'd have to face, mainly because he had no choice. Impossible though it should be, Ox is now an alpha in his own right, even though he is still human. His pack includes both wolves and other humans, who all support each other and defend their little town from any rogue shifters who try to come to challenge them. Can Joe and Ox heal the bond they had, which was torn apart by grief, pain and anger? Will they be able to protect their pack and their town from the dangers following close on Joe's heels, or are they doomed?

I wanted to like the romance between Joe and Ox, but felt a bit uncomfortable because a) Joe is a child and Ox is a teenager when they first meet, and b) the whole fated mate aspect is one I've never been a huge an of. Also c), Joe does the whole "I have to leave you to keep you safe" and runs off and abandons Ox for more than THREE years, right after Ox has already suffered two absolutely crushing losses and is reeling from grief. I get that the kid wants revenge, but it's still a super shitty thing to do. Ox is amazing and a big cinnamon bun and I honestly think he deserves better than Joe, even after he comes back, all tough and manly and eventually apologises. He does not grovel enough, is all I'm saying. I might have been more forgiving of Joe if the entire book hadn't been from Ox' POV. If I had more insight into Joe's actual thoughts and emotions, I may have taken his side a bit more.

What I did like was the different take on werewolves that this book presented, and also the bond between wolf packs and witches (can be both genders). Not all of that was as fully explored in this book as I would have liked, and I'm hoping to find out more in Gordo's book (one of the sequels).

While I thought the villain was far too moustache-twirly and psychotically evil, without really any good nuance, the supporting characters were all absolutely amazing and I loved each and every one of them. They are a large reason why I will absolutely be reading the follow-up novels to this, as I want to spend more time with all of them.

Judging a book by its cover: I kind of like the simplicity of this cover. The black background with the pale paw prints as a contrast. It's not fancy or elaborate, but it doesn't need to be. The orange of the title draws the eye in.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 13 December 2019

#CBR11 Book 87: "Angel in a Devil's Arms" by Julie Anne Long

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
He has devil's blood in his veins. At least, that's always been the legend. How else could the Duke of Brexford's notorious bastard son return from the dead? The brutal decade since Lucien Durand, Lord Bolt, allegedly drowned in the Thames forged him into a man who always gets what—and who—he wants. And what he wants is vengeance for his stolen birthright...and one wild night in Angelique Breedlove's bed.

Angelique recognizes heartbreak when the enigmatic Lord Bolt walks into The Grand Palace on the Thames, and not even his devastating charm can tempt her to risk her own ever again. One scorching kiss drives home the danger.

But in the space between them springs a trust that feels anything but safe. And the passion—explosive, consuming—drives Lucien to his knees. Now his whole life depends on proving his love to a woman who doesn't believe in it...because his true birthright, he now knows, is guardian of Angelique Breedlove's heart.

This is the second book in Julie Anne Long's return to historical romances, her The Palace of Rogues series. While this book works perfectly fine on its own, it follows on pretty much directly from the first, Lady Derring Takes a Lover, which is also very worth reading. In a year when there really haven't been many romances that impressed me much, the fact that Long has written two is both remarkable and encouraging.

While Angelique Breedlove was quite the fallen woman before she entered into a partnership with the widow of her recently deceased lover, at the start of this book, she has a home, a business she's proud of, friends and a lovely found family. Delilah, the former Lady Derring, who should probably have hated her for being her husband's mistress, is instead her best friend and staunchest supporter. Captain Tristan Hardy, the naval hero who swept Delilah off her feet in the previous book, is a trusted friend. The ladies' boarding house, the Palace on the Thames seems to be doing well enough that the ladies are even thinking of expanding, hoping to buy the property next door.

So it's rather a surprise when the mysterious man who's been paying them to keep their nicest suite of rooms available shows up, with proof that he's in fact the scandalous Lord Bolt, who possesses a marquess' title, despite being the illegitimate eldest son of the Duke of Brexford. Everyone believed him to be dead, but instead he's been off making himself frightfully wealthy in the far East. Now he's back, bent on revenge on the people who had him set upon in the night, stabbed and pushed in the icy Thames. He believes the mastermind behind the plot against him is his own stepmother, the Duchess of Brexford (not a popular person in the Palace on the Thames after trying to steal their cook on more than one occasion) and he's determined to make it uncomfortable for the guilty parties by showing London that he's back, he's very much alive, and he's just as scandalous as ever.

Of course, while Angelique finds him extremely attractive, she has no wish to involve herself with a scandalous rake, no matter how handsome and wealthy he might be. She's had her share of drama, and now wants to live comfortably, happily unnoticed by the ton, securing the boarding house's reputation as a place of high standards and impeccable morality. She and Delilah explain their house rules to Lucien, believing he will choose to move elsewhere. They are surprised when he agrees to abide by the curfew, show up to the joint dinners and the communal evenings in the drawing room. He further impresses them by being pleasant to the other guest and quickly making friends with his charm and entertaining stories.

While revenge might have been Lucien's initial goal, he comes to realise that his provocative behaviour is keeping Angelique at arm's length. Against his wishes, he also meets his younger brother and finds that he likes the young man. His plans of causing a scandal and exposing the Duchess of Brexford to all of society would be very damaging to more than one person he has come to care about. To his credit, he uses his charm, intelligence and ruthlessness to redeem his former scandalous image instead, showing Angelique that he can be a worthy partner for her. When he gets a bit too alpha male and tries to defend her reputation in public, ending up confirming the gossip about her past, he works very hard to grovel and earn her forgiveness.

I said in my review of the first book as well, but I'm SO glad that Long is back to writing historical romances. Her contemporaries were perfectly fine, but her Regency romances truly shine. It seems that really good and memorable romances are fewer and far between these days, but I suspect I will enjoy re-reading this one.

Judging a book by its cover: I think the only thing I like about this whole cover is the font, and I'm not entirely sure about that one either. I hate the awkward posture of the dude in the background (who looks nothing like Lucien is described, apart from having dark hair). I hate that he looks like a cheap lookalike for Antoni from Queer Eye. While the female cover model's face is pretty enough, there's something about her posture and facial expression that makes me think they found her picture in some advert for a phone sex ad and photo shopped it onto the cover, then pasted the dress on paper-doll style. While I normally like yellow and it can be nice and cheerful, this whole ensemble just rubs me the wrong way. I think this cover actively detracts from the really excellent story inside the book and hope Ms. Long is luckier with her next one.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 12 December 2019

#CBR11 Book 86: "Midnight Crossroad" by Charlaine Harris

Page count: 320 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 26 mins

Official book description:
Welcome to Midnight, Texas, a town with many boarded-up windows and few full-time inhabitants, located at the crossing of Witch Light Road and Davy Road. It’s a pretty standard dried-up western town.

There’s a pawnshop (someone lives in the basement and is seen only at night). There’s a diner (people who are just passing through tend not to linger). And there’s new resident Manfred Bernardo, who thinks he’s found the perfect place to work in private (and who has secrets of his own).

Stop at the one traffic light in town, and everything looks normal. Stay awhile, and learn the truth...

I really have read a LOT of Charlaine Harris' books. For my sins, I managed to force myself through the entirety of her Sookie Stackhouse series, just to see how it would end, long after I derived any enjoyment from them anymore. I've read her Lily Bard books, where apparently the character Bobo Whinthrop originates (I don't remember him, or much of the plot of the books at all). I have also read all of her Harper Connolly books, where Manfred Bernardo first appears (I vaguely remember him, but nothing of consequence). Generally, I find Harris' books perfectly entertaining while I'm reading them (except some of the later Sookie books, that pretty much just annoyed me), but shortly after reading them, I remember little to nothing of the plots.

Midnight Crossroad, which was adapted into the TV series Midnight, Texas on NBC (cancelled after two seasons) features a bunch of peculiar individuals living in the little town of Midnight in, you guessed it, Texas. Manfred Bernardo, a genuine psychic who makes his living telling fortunes over the phone and internet, moves there after the death of his grandmother. His new landlord is Bobo Winthrop, owner of the local pawnshop. One of Bobo's other tenants is a vampire, who lives with a gorgeous, but apparently very dangerous woman who travels a lot. There's Fiji Kavanaugh, who is a very powerful witch, but hides her actual powers by running a magic shop full of nick knacks. She has a talking cat. There's a nice gay couple, the rather strange reverend who gives non-denominational services at the local chapel (and conducts a lot of pet funerals), and Manfred falls pretty hard for Creek Lovell, the beautiful young woman whose overprotective father runs the gas station.

Harris' books always have a mystery element to them, as well. In this book, there's a group of neo nazis trying to harass Bobo, because they believe he knows the location of his crazy grandfather's legendary weapons arsenal. There's also a dead body found about a third of the way through the story, which turns out to belong to Bobo's ex-girlfriend, who he believed got sick of him and just up and left him one day. No one really believes that Bobo is guilty of murdering her, but it still takes quite a lot of time to figure out the guilty party.

As well as having been on my TBR list for years and years, this book fit into my Monthly Keyword Challenge in October. I listened to it on audiobook and it was perfectly fine, but really nothing more than that. Now, a month and a half later, I am hard pressed to remember any particular details - although I really did like Fiji's cat a lot - and the lisping way the narrator voiced him. My records show that over the years, I've acquired the entire series in various e-book sales, so I will most likely read the second two books eventually, as well, but I'm in no particular hurry to do so.

Judging a book by its cover: As with a lot of books, this one comes with several different versions of cover art. I think I like this one, with it's weird, crooked bird's eye view (which gives me a headache if I look at it for too long) of parts of the little town is my least favourite. Still, I own it in e-book, so it's not like I'll actually look at the cover a lot. I suspect Harris could sell books no matter what the cover art actually looks like.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read