Saturday 23 March 2019

#CBR11 Book 10: "Dare to Love a Duke" by Eva Leigh

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Thomas Powell has just become the Duke of Northfield and has to set aside his previously rakish ways to protect his father's legacy and ensure a good future for his younger sister. She's very much in love with the son of one of their father's most trusted allies in Parliament, who clearly expects Thomas to continue supporting him, whether Thomas actually agrees with his views or not. Torn between duty and his own conscience, Thomas is struggling. The one place he feels at ease, the Orchid Club, is a deeply inappropriate hang-out for a duke.

Lucia Marini has had to make her own way in the world. The illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Englishman and a poor Italian woman, she came to England when her mother died, only to find her grandparents refusing to take her in. Now she is known to all that visit the exclusive Orchid Club as "Amina", the beautiful and elusive proprietress. The Orchid Club takes visitors from all levels of society, and charges what the visitors feel they can afford. Everyone has to appear masked, and all the sexual acts are entirely consensual. The club was successful even before Lucia took over its management with some of her found family, but now they have received news that the club's noble patron has passed away, Lucia and the rest who work there are worried that they may find themselves homeless and without a way to make a living.

While Tom has been drawn to the beautiful Amina since he first visited the Orchid Club, he has never propositioned her in any way, quite happy for their friendship to be platonic (while they flirt shamelessly). Now that he knows he has to become all that is dutiful and responsible, and he comes to the club to say goodbye, he requests one night with her, before he and Amina go their separate ways forever.

I don't think I'm spoiling it for anyone who's ever read anything ever when I say that of course it turns out that the wealthy patron who died was in fact Tom's seemingly faultless father, and that now that Tom is his heir, he finds himself the unexpected owner of the sex club he's been visiting for the past year. His super conservative, family values father also had a pretty big secret, and Tom is rather shocked when he discovers it. Of course, it also means that he is Lucia's employer, which is very fraught for a number of reasons. They were only supposed to spend one night of passion together, but of course, as in all romance, that night was utterly transformative for both of them, and they're completely ga-ga for one another.

Even really rather disreputable dukes are unlikely to settle down and marry former sex workers, and the former Duke of Northfield was known as a pillar of propriety and Tom therefore has all sorts of expectations to live up to in society. He really does take his position seriously, and is extremely protective of his younger sister. He's quite willing to be utterly miserable, giving up any chance of his own happiness, if it means she gets to marry her sweetheart, even though said sweetheart's father is clearly an odious bully, whose political views are pretty much diametrically opposite to the progressive views Tom himself holds.

Family is an important theme throughout the book. Tom deeply loves his mother and sister, and comes to discover his father was a very different man than he believed. Lucia was rejected by first her father and her father's family and had to sell herself to survive, but has managed to find friends and confidantes who love her and care for her as much (or more) than an actual family would. They run the Orchid Club together, determined to make it a safe haven for people of all creeds and classes, and the main reason Lucia has for running the club is to make enough money to open a girls' school for poor and underprivileged girls, like she herself once was, vowing to give them lives better than she had when she arrived in England.

Does the storyline presented in this book require quite some suspension of disbelief? Yes, but no more so than in the majority of Tessa Dare's historical romances. Is it an entertaining read? Yes. Do Tom and Lucia work as a couple? Absolutely, they complement each other's strengths and weaknesses beautifully. Is pretty much all the supporting cast also fun to read about? Yes, I especially liked Tom's sister and the lesbian couple who Lucia run the club alongside. Does Tom's mother seem to accept her son's choice of bride, despite her 'colourful' past, unexpectedly quickly? Yup, but I didn't care.

Eva Leigh continues to write very entertaining historicals, and I'm excited to see what she's going to come up with next.

Judging a book by its cover: Not sure whether Eva Leigh has made some sort of unholy covenant, but the covers for her historical novels are pretty much always, without exception, gorgeous. The cover models portraying the heroines actually look like pretty much like the women inside the cover are actually described, and the dresses they wear are absolutely sumptuous. The utterly stunning blue dress on this cover takes my breath away.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 9: "Wintersong" by S. Jae-Jones

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Liesl dreams of becoming a famous composer, but is left to write compositions for her talented younger brother to play instead. Her beautiful younger sister is set to be married to the most eligible young man in the village, while Liesl helps her long-suffering mother and bitter father run their inn, their days of musical success and glory behind them. Jealous of her sister's beauty and brother's opportunities, Liesl becomes careless and suddenly, it seems her sister has been enchanted by the goblins, and taken away by the Goblin King. Even worse, no one seems to even remember that her sister has ever existed. Liesl has until the next full moon to figure out a way to retrieve her sister.

Once Liesl joins the kingdom of the goblins underground, she begins to remember more of her past, and her previous encounters with the Goblin King. As a little girl, she used to roam the woods, and play her music for a strange, pale boy, always slightly older than her. He kept asking him to marry her, and she would refuse. Growing up and being burdened with more responsibilities, becoming a supporting character in the lives of her more vivacious siblings, Liesl forgot all about the Goblin King. Tradition demands that he take a bride, however, and if Liesl won't come to him willingly, he will lure her there by threatening to take her sister instead. The Goblin King requires a mortal bride. Will it be Liesl, or her beautiful younger sister? And if she does decide to give in to the Goblin King, will Liesl really be fine with never seeing her family or the human world ever again?

This book, which is apparently Ms Jae-Jones' debut novel, was very favourably reviewed on several of the review sites I follow regularly, like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Forever Young Adult. This book isn't a retelling of just one story, but a bit of a mish mash of several familiar tales. As the Smart Bitches review points out, you can find elements of the Hades and Persephone myth in here, some Beauty and the Beast, some Phantom of the Opera and the Goblin King, or Erlkönig, is clearly visually modelled on David Bowie in Labyrinth. Even his eyes are two different colours.

The story is set in a historical Bavaria, around the 19th Century, where there are clearly faeries or goblins (complete with changelings and the like), who like to play mischief with humans. Over the course of the story, we discover that there have been a series of Goblin Kings, and that he has to have a mortal bride, or the seasons will stop turning. Liesl's childhood playmate is the last in a long line of Erlkönigs, and she is the last in a long line of mortal brides who have given up their humanity and entered into a marriage sure to end tragically.

Liesl's parents were both talented musicians in their youth, but time has taken its toll and her father's drinking has made it so that they have had to retire to a small village, running an inn and hoping their talented young son will be the next person to carry on the family legacy. That Liesl is clearly a talented composer seems to be entirely ignored. Always finding herself falling short in comparison to her brother's musical talents or her sister's beauty and charm, Liesl is quite the abrasive, jealous and bitter young woman. While she loves her family, and especially her siblings, she's also deeply envious of them and sick of having to sacrifice herself and her dreams in order to take care of them. She goes underground to retrieve her ensorcelled sister, but also to experience adventure and while she has to sacrifice a lot to become the Goblin King's bride, she also gets to be selfish. He clearly wants her, and she wants him back. She isn't choosing to stay with him out of selflessness, but rather to finally put herself first.

Liesl and her Goblin King don't exactly settle down into harmonious and happy domesticity, but Liesl does get the chance to truly devote herself to her music, and there is certainly passion between her and her supernatural spouse. I don't know entirely what I was expecting from this book, but the story took turns I was not expecting and the romance was a lot more thorny and challenging than I was hoping for. I liked the book, but I didn't love it and I'm not sure I'm in any urgent rush to read the sequel, for all that this one ends on quite the cliffhanger. It was a good book, but not quite the magical fairy tale I was hoping for. Maybe I was still working through my book hangover from The Winter of the Witch?

Judging a book by its cover: The cover is lovely, with the delicate rose preserved inside a snow globe. Not entirely sure what the cover is supposed to represent, as there are no snow globes of any kind in the actual novel, but it's a very arresting and inviting cover nonetheless.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 20 March 2019

#CBR11 Book 8: "99 Percent Mine" by Sally Thorne

Page count: 368 pages
Audio book length: 11 hrs 23 mins
Rating: 3 stars

From the blurb, because it's now a month and a half since I finished the audio book:

Crush: a strong and often short-lived infatuation, particularly for someone beyond your reach…

Darcy Barrett has undertaken a global survey of men. She’s travelled the world, and can categorically say that no one measures up to Tom Valeska, whose only flaw is that Darcy’s twin brother Jamie saw him first and claimed him forever as his best friend. Despite Darcy’s best efforts, Tom’s off limits and loyal to her brother, 99%. That’s the problem with finding her dream man at age eight and peaking in her photography career at age twenty—ever since, she’s had to learn to settle for good enough.

When Darcy and Jamie inherit a tumble-down cottage from their grandmother, they’re left with strict instructions to bring it back to its former glory and sell the property. Darcy plans to be in an aisle seat halfway across the ocean as soon as the renovations start, but before she can cut and run, she finds a familiar face on her porch: house-flipper extraordinaire Tom’s arrived, he’s bearing power tools, and he’s single for the first time in almost a decade.

Suddenly Darcy’s considering sticking around to make sure her twin doesn’t ruin the cottage’s inherent magic with his penchant for grey and chrome. She’s definitely not staying because of her new business partner’s tight t-shirts, or that perfect face that's inspiring her to pick up her camera again. Soon sparks are flying—and it’s not the faulty wiring. It turns out one percent of Tom’s heart might not be enough for Darcy anymore. This time around, she’s switching things up. She’s going to make Tom Valeska 99 percent hers.

Oh, Sally Thorne. You wrote my absolutely favourite book of 2016, a book I still comfort read every so often. It was always extremely unlikely that your second novel was going to surpass or even match The Hating Game in quality. Sadly, by including a little bonus epilogue for said novel at the end of this one, you just made it even more obvious to me that this book was a sad disappointment. I felt more satisfaction and joy reading that short chapter featuring Lucy and Josh than an entire novel about Darcy and Tom. So, thank you for that extra little glimpse into their world and relationship, but you didn't do yourself any favours.

If that's not become clear already, my expectations for this second romance from Sally Thorne were very high. At least one person I know online managed to score an ARC, and because her comments weren't exactly gushing, I tried to not get my hopes up unreasonably high, but even so, this book was not was I was wanting or hoping for. This is by no means a bad book. To someone who doesn't rate The Hating Game in their top 20 romances of all time (it may even be in the top 10, I haven't re-ranked my romance preferences in quite a few years now), this is probably a perfectly enjoyable and fun little book. I just loved Lucy and Josh and their journey from work foes to lovers so intensely. My reviews are subjective, your mileage may vary.

Unfortunately, to me, this book was merely OK. I struggled with Darcy as a protagonist and I really didn't think Tom was the perfect man, no matter how hard Darcy tried to tell me that he was. I suspect I may have liked both protagonists more if this entire book hadn't been from Darcy's POV (just like Lucy is the only POV character in The Hating Game.). If I had been able to see Darcy through Tom's eyes, and been privy to his thoughts and observations, not just Darcy's, I think the story may have appealed to me more. I generally always prefer the POVs of both sides of the couple in a romance, since it helps me get to know the characters better.

The character I liked the most in the book (barring Darcy and Jamie's now deceased grandmother, who seemed pretty awesome) was Truly, Darcy's best friend. Not sure I liked the reveal late in the story about her and some of the things she kept from Darcy, but she was sweet and interesting, and I would like to read a romance with her as the main character (as long as the love interest was not who it's sort of hinted at here).

While I found Darcy difficult to like, I actively disliked her twin brother Jamie, who is a forceful presence off screen for the first half of the novel and possibly even more annoying and supercilious when he actually appears. The revelation that Darcy's whole family would go off on vacations without her, leaving her with her grandmother, just because she had a heart condition, was just appalling to me. I pretty much hated Darcy's whole family, and cannot believe Tom had so much of his ideas of self and confidence tied up in what Darcy and Jamie, let alone their parents, might think.

While I occasionally read a novel where I find the hero unworthy of the heroine, here I found myself in the opposite situation. Tom would have been vastly better off without Darcy or Jamie in his life. It's been a month and a half since I finished this book, and I still feel sad and disappointed every time I think about the book. I know Ms Thorne suffered from writer's block for a while trying to write this, and it cannot be easy to write a follow-up when your first novel has been so widely embraced by a community as utterly awesome. While this didn't work for me, I also know a lot of people who still enjoyed it. I haven't given up on Sally Thorne, but will try to temper my expectations a bit more with her next novel. I also hope she'll allow herself to include the hero's POV there as well.

Judging a book by its cover: I know it's probably meant to be cute, but I find the almost cartoonish representation of the characters, with their vague and undefined facial and physical features to be a bit annoying. I think a drawn cover can work very well, and these depictions leave more to the imagination about the main characters' physical appearance than a photo would, but this seems almost too impressionistic. I like the cheerful yellow colour, though. That's nice.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 19 March 2019

#CBR11 Book 7: "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?" by Agatha Christie

Page count: 279 pages
Audio book length: 7 hrs 12 mins
Rating: 4 stars

When out golfing one afternoon, young Mr Bobby Derwent finds a handsome stranger at the bottom of a cliff, near death. While his golfing companion goes to get help, Bobby sits with the stranger, who soon expires, but not before uttering: "Why didn't they ask Evans?" While looking for signs of identification, Bobby finds the photograph of a very beautiful woman in the dead man's pockets, but nothing else to give him a sign of the man's identity.

The local inquest rules the man's death a tragic accident. Yet Bobby can't entirely shake the feeling that there's something else afoot. Strangely, shortly after the inquest, the slightly aimless young vicar's son is offered a lucrative job in a law firm in South America, but feels he must decline. The next thing he knows, he wakes up in hospital, having been the victim of an attempted poisoning while eating a picnic lunch. It's almost miraculous that he survived. By this point, both Bobby and his childhood friend Lady Frances "Frankie" Derwent are convinced that the stranger was murdered. They decide to team up to discover why the stranger was murdered and what the significance of his last words were.

Over the course of my early teens, I pretty much read every Agatha Christie book that I could get my hands on. This is the very first one of Ms. Christie's books that I ever read. I got my love of books from my mother, and through my adolescence, I was a member of a subscription book of the month club. Only once I got older, did I realise just how generous my Mum actually was. I was rarely interested in every book, but if I asked for a book, she never said no. I'm pretty sure she easily gave me six to eight hardback books a year, just because I shared her love of reading (neither of my brothers are great readers).

After reading and very much enjoying this story, I went through my Mum's collection of Agatha Christie books (she's always enjoyed mystery as a genre and had quite a few). Then I took out any I could find at the local library. As I mentioned in my review of The Murder on the Orient Express, I was a big enough fan of Ms. Christie that I chose to write my 9th grade in depth term paper on her. I think I have also mentioned in a previous review that Christie's stand alone mysteries (not featuring Miss Marple, Poirot or even Tommy and Tuppence), usually with a romantic subplot are my favourite of her books.

Not that the romance is at the forefront here. Bobby and Frankie are very good friends, and grew up together, but she's the younger daughter of an Earl, while he's the third son of the local vicar and co-owner of a garage, they're not exactly social equals. There's some mild jealousy on both of our protagonists' part when the objects of their affection gets a briefly smitten by a handsome gentleman murder suspect (Frankie) and the soulful, sensitive and slightly harried wife of a sinister country doctor who runs an asylum (Bobby). Naturally, it all works out in the end.

Bobby and Frankie go through quite a few elaborate plots in order to try to solve the mystery. There's several likely suspects, some handsome, some sinister. Frankie stages a car accident in order to worm her way into the household of one of the potential murderers. There's attempted murders, and abductions and all manner of hijinks before the mystery is finally solved and our intrepid amateur sleuths get their well deserved happy ending.

Like a lot of the Agatha Christie audio books on Audible, this one is narrated by Emilia Fox. She does a better job with the many varied voices in this one than in The Man in the Brown Suit, where she sadly had the love interest's voice be so gravelly, he sounded like full on Christian Bale Batman. Not the most attractive of qualities.

I'm glad I finally found the time to revisit this favourite of my early teens, and even more glad that it held up as well as I remembered.

Judging a book by its cover: This isn't exactly the most exciting of covers, is it? A colour palette in shades of distinctly brown, with the exception of the silhouette of the couple in the centre of the cover. Doesn't exactly scream excitement and mysterious goings on. I remembered this book fondly, and was glad to see that it lived up to my memory. The book deserves a more inviting cover design.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 4 March 2019

#CBR11 Book 6: "Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood" by Trevor Noah

Page count: 304 pages
Audio book length: 8 hrs 44 mins
Rating: 4 stars

In this very engaging autobiography, Trevor Noah opens up about growing up in South Africa, born from a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father at a time when this was literally a crime punishable with several years in prison. The Apartheid regime ended while Noah was still young, but his childhood was still deeply affected by the fact that he was a mixed race child in a society where the races were not supposed to mix at all, to the point where his mother had to walk behind her own child and a mixed race woman when they were out in public, so no one would guess at their family relationships.

Noah's parents obviously were never married (as this was completely out of the question), but he has several stories of his mother's eventual marriage to his alcoholic, violent stepfather, and the dramatic and truly astounding consequences this eventually had for his family. One of the impressions I came away with is just what a formidable lady Noah's mother was (and probably still is), and what an unusual upbringing he had as a result of his mixed race parentage. As well as sharing a lot of childhood recollections that could have been merely depressing and sad if recounted in a different, less humorous light, Noah gives his reader/listener a lot of interesting facts about the colonisation of South Africa, the Apartheid period and huge changes the country went through once the racist system of segregation was dissolved.

I didn't really have a lot of prior knowledge or experience with Trevor Noah, having not really watched The Daily Show much after he took over after Jon Stewart. I'd seen him in a lot of clips on the internet, naturally, but got this audio book mainly because of several glowing recommendations from various people I know on the internet. I didn't really know what to expect, but have enjoyed a lot of celebrity autobiographies in the past without a lot of foreknowledge of the people in question, and figured this would fall in the same category. I did not really expect for the book to be as educational as it turned out to be. Noah is five years younger than I, which means that all the things he talks about happened within my lifetime. Reading is so incredibly important to help us learn about different places and times and to learn to empathise with people who have different experiences from our own. Noah's childhood stories took place within my lifetime, but on the other side of the world, and it's amazing what a difference that can make.

I'm so glad I used one of my Audible credits on this book. I can recommend it highly, even if you don't think that the life story of a sometimes glib talk show host is something that might interest you.

Judging a book by its cover: Making the cover look like a wall mural on the wall in South Africa is a nice touch. I like the cracked concrete wall and the rather informal pose of Noah's portrait, as well as the African woman in the foreground, looking directly at his face.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 5: "The Winter of the Witch" by Katherine Arden

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is the third and final volume in the trilogy, and the action starts immediately after the second book. This is not the place to start. If you are not caught up, drop everything and start from the beginning with The Bear and the Nightingale

Vasilisa "Vasya" Petrovna managed to defeat one enemy, but at a great cost. Releasing the legendary firebird has caused much of Moscow to catch fire and the citizens, spurred on by the vengeful and jealous Father Konstantin are looking for a scapegoat. Vasya is dragged from the safety of her sister's home by an angry mob and accused of witchcraft. Suffering a great personal loss in the process, she is determined to protect those she loves from further harm, and goes along with the crazed crowd.

Yet it is not Vasya's fate to die in a fire on the outskirts of Moscow. In a desperate attempt to keep his beloved safe, the frost demon Morozko has made a deal with his demonic brother Medved and freed the giant bear, dooming himself in the process, all in order to keep Vasya from burning. However, no helpless damsel, Vasya finds unexpected reserves of her own and rescues herself, fleeing into the realm of the supernatural to heal up, figure out how to undo Morozko's bargain, save the people of Moscow from Father Konstantin's toxic influence and make sure no more harm come to her family. As if that were not enough for one young woman to carry on her shoulders, a war is looming and Vasya may be the only one who can stop it.

Our Vasya has come a long way from her rural upbringing in the Russian forest. Truly a worthy example of "what doesn't kill us, makes us stronger", Vasya is turning into a force to be reckoned with. She has learned a lot about herself and her heritage, and escaping Father Konstantin and the furious mob determined to end her leads her further down the path of her family history. Previously just accused of witchcraft because of her ability to see and communicate with the many hearth and nature spirits around, Vasya's several trials and tribulations appear to have actually made it possible for her to tap into magic. Now she just has to make sure it doesn't drive her utterly mad, which the demon bear Medved seems to be gleefully hoping for.

Not realising just how resourceful an individual Vasya actually is, he formed a foolish bargain with his formerly imprisoned brother to ensure her survival. It led to the chaos-hungry demonic entity being free to cause further mischief, primarily by causing plague to spread through Moscow and zombie-like vampires to roam the streets, only held back by the seemingly super powered Father Konstantin. Once Vasya heals up, she needs to locate the now imprisoned frost demon she has come to love, before figuring out how to stop Medved and Father Konstantin.

Her entire life, Vasya has seen how the modern world and especially the spread of Christianity seems to be threatening the adherence to the old ways, and the spirits and supernatural entities who have helped her throughout her life are fading away. With the Mongol army threatening to conquer Russia once and for all, High Prince Dimitri needs to unite his people against the external threat. He needs all the help he can get, and Vasya, along with the unusual allies she has acquired, can lend invaluable aid.

While I thought it had a slow start, I was amazed at how much the story of The Bear and the Nightingale stayed with me. The Girl in the Tower was an amazing second volume, expanding on the world building, history and folklore. My expectations for The Winter of the Witch were very high, but amazingly, this book managed to exceed them. I'm very far behind on my reviews, and finished this book more than a month and a half ago, yet the story has stayed with me, and I keep thinking about little details on and off, still marvelling at how well all the story strands were tied up and the trilogy was concluded.

The series is an amazing way to learn more about medieval Russian political and social history, mythology and folklore. as well as be thoroughly entertained. Vasya is such a complex and fascinating protagonist, and I love how Katherine Arden resists the temptation to populate her novels with one-sided character tropes. There are complex reasons for the antagonists acting the way they do, there is never simply good or evil, but a fascinating array of motivations. Vasya's stepmother, Father Konstantin, Medved - none of them are wholly irredeemable. The supporting cast are all excellent, which raises the stakes when the action becomes tense, as you don't want anything bad to happen to them either. Without saying too much, this book had me in tears very early on, after a gut punch of an event, showing just how much Arden makes you care for the various human and non-human characters in the story. I loved discovering more about Vasya's family history and seeing her reach her full potential, in full feminist glory, was so satisfying.

While this was one of the very first books I read this year, I'm going to be very surprised if it doesn't end up on my 'Best of' list of 2019. If you haven't read Arden's books yet, do yourself a favour and check them out - the trilogy is completed, so you can have so much satisfying story without any pesky waiting for the next book.

Judging a book by its cover: Having recently studied all three covers for the series quite carefully (the cover art is so gorgeous), I can't help but notice that the tone changes from dark to light over the course of the books. As our heroine, Vasya, grows and matures and properly comes into her own, the covers become brighter and lighter. The cover for The Bear and the Nightingale shows the darkened woods in the middle of winter. The Girl in the Tower shows the outskirts of Moscow at dusk, with the sky in reds and oranges from the setting sun. This depicts Vasilisa Petrovna alone, yet unafraid, facing an army, with the firebird lighting up the sky ahead of her. I can't imagine these choices aren't deliberate. With each book, despite all the harrowing and horrible things that happen to Vasya along the way, her future gets brighter and more open.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.