Sunday 29 September 2019

#CBR11 Book 68: "Daisy Jones and the Six" by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Page count: 368 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 3 mins
Rating: 4 stars

From Goodreads:
Everyone knows Daisy Jones & The Six, but nobody knows the reason behind their split at the absolute height of their popularity . . . until now.

Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock and roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things.

Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camila finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road.

Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend.

This is one of those books I've seen on pretty much all "Must Read" lists of books from 2019, and absolutely everyone seems very taken with it. Personally, I thought the book was entertaining, but if it hadn't been for the excellent work of the ensemble cast performing the audio book (including, among them, the wonderful Judy Greer), this would have easily been a three star book for me. Maybe it's just that I'm not all that interested in musicians and how music gets made?

Obviously, this is a fictional account of a famous musical collaboration, and every time I read about the book before I got the audio book for myself, it seemed like something my husband would really enjoy. He has wide and varied music tastes and buys and reads music magazines. With certain artists, he loves to listen to countless early versions of songs (or different live versions) that to me don't really sound all that different. Having been with my husband for nearly twenty years now, I've learned to tune a lot of music out, and even songs that I've probably heard hundreds of times, I can't necessarily remember the lyrics of, because I just don't really listen to the words. I certainly don't care much about how the music is played, or produced or mixed, as long as it sounds agreeable to me. Having now listened to the book, I'm still sure that he'd enjoy it more than I did - as he probably knows more about the sort of musical tradition it's fictionalising.

So I'm really not the target audience for this book, I think. I also found Daisy Jones annoying and spoiled for much of the book, while Billy Dunne was an arrogant, rather self-involved macho douche. What made me like the book at all were the supporting characters, and as I've already mentioned, that the various voice actors performing the audio book (seriously, there's like at least 20 different people involved) did an absolutely superb job. This is the first of two books by Ms. Jenkins Reid that I've listened to in audio book (I'm so far behind on my reviews again, you guys) and I much preferred the second, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. 

Judging a book by its cover: I'm going to guess that the red-headed woman on the cover is supposed to be Daisy, and can only say that based on the descriptions of her in the book, they either had a very different beauty standard in the 60s and 70s, or the publishing company could have tried to find a prettier cover model. I can only imagine that the book cover is meant to evoke one of the album covers of the fictional band this book covers, but I don't particularly like the image and think they should have picked something better for the cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 23 September 2019

#CBR11 Book 67: "The Bookish Life of Nina Hill" by Abbi Waxman

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

From Goodreads, because it's been over a month since I finished this:

The only child of a single mother, Nina has her life just as she wants it: a job in a bookstore, a kick-butt trivia team, a world-class planner and a cat named Phil. If she sometimes suspects there might be more to life than reading, she just shrugs and picks up a new book.

When the father Nina never knew existed suddenly dies, leaving behind innumerable sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews, Nina is horrified. They all live close by! They're all—or mostly all—excited to meet her! She'll have to Speak. To. Strangers. It's a disaster! And as if that wasn't enough, Tom, her trivia nemesis, has turned out to be cute, funny, and deeply interested in getting to know her. Doesn't he realise what a terrible idea that is?

Nina considers her options.

1. Completely change her name and appearance. (Too drastic, plus she likes her hair.)
2. Flee to a deserted island. (Hard pass, see: coffee).
3. Hide in a corner of her apartment and rock back and forth. (Already doing it.)

It's time for Nina to come out of her comfortable shell, but she isn't convinced real life could ever live up to fiction. It's going to take a brand-new family, a persistent suitor, and the combined effects of ice cream and trivia to make her turn her own fresh page.

This book is what I hoped, based on the description and many rave advance reviews, that Evvie Drake Starts Over was going to be. It was a perfectly fine book, and a decent romance, but it never really gave me the thrill that a really satisfying reading experience should. Now this book, on the other hand, I liked so many things about this book - the introverted heroine and her overwhelming love of books, obviously. Nina's trivia quiz hobby - I love a good trivia quiz and used to take part in a weekly one along with my brother and his friends (sometimes my husband would also take part). I really miss having a regular trivia quiz team.

I liked the weird and wonderful way that Nina's newly revealed family tree hung together. Her new relatives, even the rather antagonistic ones, were great supporting characters. I love that the author takes the time to give us an idea of who Nina's friends are, and that Tom, Nina's initial quiz nemesis, but whom she clearly really fancies, has his own distinct friend group and supportive family members too. A good supporting cast is a lot more important to the quality of a book than a lot of people think. It makes the world seem more real and while Nina is most certainly an introvert, it doesn't mean she doesn't have people in her life who help draw her out of her shell occasionally.

The one thing that keeps this book from being a full five star read for me is that the romance could have been more developed. The family and friend stuff is all excellent and amused me greatly, but Tom is clearly a really great guy and pretty much perfect for Nina, so I missed having more scenes of just the two of them, developing their relationship (there were a little too many complications, and not enough actual couple time). A stronger romance plot would have made this book pretty much perfect for me.

Judging a book by its cover: I've mentioned the trend of cutesy, cartoony covers for romances that the publishers seem to want to market to a wider, more mainstream audience, but this one, I don't actually mind. I like the warm, happy colours of it, and I love that the glasses double as the Os in bookish. If I hadn't already heard a lot about this book on various book review sites I follow, this cover would guarantee that I would notice the book in a store and pick it up to see what it was about.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 22 September 2019

#CBR11 Book 66: "The Wallflower Wager" by Tessa Dare

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lady Penelope Campion lives quite happily alone in London, aided only by an old, pretty much deaf housekeeper and surrounded by her unusual menagerie of rescued animals. There's a highland cow, a goat, an otter, several chickens, a dog with only the use of his front legs, a whole bunch of kittens and a particularly foul-mouthed parrot. Her friends dote on her and even politely try to eat her horrendous vegetable meat substitutes without complaining or making a fuss. So when Penelope's aunt comes to announce are demanding Penelope's return to the family estate in the country, she's devastated. She makes a wager with her aunt that she'll stop being a strange reclusive wallflower, get all the animals re-homed, purchase a new wardrobe and start being seen at social engagements around town again - even balls.

Gabriel Duke grew up in abject poverty and has used his cleverness and guile to become a force to be reckoned with in London society. He's known as the Duke of Ruin after having schemed, manipulated and used his financial savvy to ruin several important and influential families. Now he's bought a grand mansion right next door to where Lady Penelope lives and is having it refurbished, planning to sell it for a fortune, in part because he can boast about the peers nearby. Not that he'll ever be able to sell the house if there's a veritable zoo of strange creatures in the neighbouring house. He demands that Penelope get rid of her animals, and since that works out well with her aunt's already stated demands, Lady Penelope negotiates Gabriel's help in assisting her.

Of course sparks fly pretty much instantly. Lady Penelope and Gabriel's first meeting involves her breaking into his house in the middle of the night to retrieve her sweary parrot, and walks in on him wearing only a towel. They're deeply attracted to one another, but Gabriel doesn't believe he could ever be good enough for Penelope, and she's got some trauma in her past that she needs to work through, and has never really allowed herself to feel attracted to a man before, certainly not to let go and give into her desires.

I liked Gabriel (seriously, romance authors, start picking other names for your heroes, the cognitive dissonance is just too strange when I have to read kissing books starring dudes with the same name as my sweet little boy), who despite presenting himself as gruff and ruthless is clearly just a marshmallow at heart, desperately wanting to be loved. For all that he claims to be annoyed by Lady Penelope and her many rescue animals, he also keeps going above and beyond for her, and has absolutely no time for anyone criticising her in any way. It's quite clear that for all that her friends love her dearly, they sometimes infantilise Penelope a bit too often. Gabriel treats her like an intelligent, adult woman who should take charge of her own life. He also gets massive kudos for the way he reacts when Penelope finally tells him the secrets of her past, although then he goes an alphas it up a bit too far, creating over the top drama towards the end.

Lady Penelope is very cute, but sadly here I think Ms Dare has turned the quirky knob past even eleven and gone too far. The many different rescue animals are funny in moderation, but there may be a bit too many of them. I also the shtick with her vegetarianism and array of utterly inedible meat substitutes just a bit too much. It's shown later in the book that it's perfectly possible to eat a completely meat-free diet even in Regency times without resorting to creating food no one in their right mind would consume. I did appreciate that despite her past unfortunate experiences, Penelope is entirely frank about her sexual attraction to Gabriel and once she decides she wants him, doesn't let anything stop her from having a good time.

There are the obligatory cameos by the previous heroes and heroines in the series. There's a particularly amusing scene in the final part of the book involving all three very manly heroes trying to figure out what to do when faced with a goat in labour. I thought this was better than The Governess Game, but nowhere near as good as The Duchess Deal (which, for all its Tessa Dare crazy, utterly worked for me). It'll be fun to see what happy ending is in store for our final heroine of the series, some time next year.

Judging a book by its cover: OK, Avon cover designers, have you actually just given up now? There is NOTHING on this cover that suggests that it's a historical romance set in the Regency era. Nothing! The female cover model is wearing what appears to be a negligee and the male model looks, well, just like a male model. From the 21st Century. There have been a lot of romance cover trends that annoyed me, but using a cover that could pretty much just as easily fit on a contemporary is a new low. Additionally, the weird effect where they've made it look like the couple are glowing is not a good feature - it makes me worry the couple are faintly radioactive, or possibly aliens.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 19 September 2019

#CBR11 Book 65: "A Rogue by Night" by Kelly Bowen

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Sir Harland Hayward, Baron Strathmore, is something of an oddity among the nobility, in that he insists on not only continuing to run a shipping company, but he works as a practising physician, treating aristocrats and commoners alike. A less widely known fact is that he also helps his sister, the headmistress of the prestigious Haverhall School for ladies (a profession she has kept up with, even after becoming a duchess) to each year train some select students who are interested in becoming doctors as well. Harland knows that women can be just as capable, if not better, at certain things than men. He doesn't have a lot of illusions left after surviving and treating survivors on the battlefields of the Napoleonic wars.

When his parents died, Harland discovered that the family fortunes were nearly gone. He tried his best to save the family shipping business, but after some devastating losses, had no choice but to make a deal with ruthless underworld crime boss King. Now he has no choice but to run a smuggling operation along the Kentish coast, taking advantage of many of the people on his lands. When one of his smugglers, Matthew, is shot during an operation, he shows up to help in his guise as the local benevolent physician, only to discover that Katherine, Matthew's sister, has the situation well at hand. She's able to deal with the complicated gun shot in a way that shows she has a lot more skills and experience than your regular village healer and wise woman. Harland is both impressed and intrigued by Katherine, but his guilty conscience for the situation he's put her family in wars with his attraction for her.

Katherine hates that her father and brother are involved in smuggling, and determined to get them to go straight, if she can just ensure that her brother survives being shot (and the possible following infection). Like Harland, Katherine has extensive battlefield experience in France, having fallen in love with and followed a manipulative nobleman to war, only to discover he only saw her as a passing fancy, and ended up abandoning not only her, but his dying men on the field towards the end of the war. So Katherine doesn't trust handsome nobles anymore, and clearly being the most intelligent member of her family, seems to be the only person who questions why the local baron suddenly shows up to offer medical assistance after her brother's "accident". Who exactly told him there was a need?

Ignoring Katherine's animosity, Harland offers to let her brother recover at Avondale House, the manor house his brother in law owns, and from which his sister Clara houses her summer students. The authorities won't think to look for him there. Harland also suggests that Katherine help with instructing the medical students and once his sister enthusiastically supports the idea (and Katherine is sure it's not just a strange way for him to seduce her), she grudgingly accepts the job.

Katherine has barely started her instructor job when Harland comes to her, asking for help with a dangerous mission he's been given by King. There are French prisoners who need to be rescued from prison in London and escorted back to France. Harland needs an extra physician with him to ensure he can treat the wounded prisoners, and Katherine is the most skilled person he can think of. As it turns out, her past smuggling experience and quick wits make her even more invaluable partner on the mission.

Katherine's distrust and animosity towards Harland doesn't last very long, and while they don't plummet into insta-love, they haven't spent much time in each other's company before they are pretty hopelessly in love. Sadly, the early smugglers vs corrupt and violent authorities sub-plot, followed by the more adventurous escape and rescue heist takes up most of the story, with less time to properly pace and develop Katherine and Harland's relationship.

King has been the enigmatic sort-of-villain in a lot of Bowen's books by now, and he's always fun (I'm really hoping he's getting his own book sometime soon). It was extremely refreshing to see Katherine taking him on head on, not even vaguely intimidated by him. Harland, bless him, for all that he's compassionate and deeply feminist, is clearly not all that clever and never stood a chance against King, getting mired in a deal that keeps forcing him to take advantage of his Kentish tenants and putting them at risk. Katherine, whose mother (before her death) successfully masterminded the local smuggling long before Harland got involved, taught her daughter well (for all that Katherine hates smuggling, it doesn't take away from the fact that she's very good at it). Once she understands the full truth behind Harland's predicament and how it impacts on her own family, she goes toe to toe with the London crime lord, basically saving the day before Harland even realises what's going on.

Sadly, I don't think either of the books in Bowen's The Devils of Dover series have been as strong as those in her Season for Scandal trilogy, but it continues her trend of having interesting, unusual and extremely proficient women fall for powerful men who utterly adore them, and rather than feel threatened by them just want to use their power and resources to make sure that the women in their lives can live their best lives and continue to be awesome. While she's not on my auto-buy or pre-order list yet, Kelly Bowen is a historical author whose books I've come to look forward to and I'm excited to see what she's going to come up with next.

Judging a book by its cover: None of the books in this series have had particularly great covers, but this is just a bit sad. First of all, the cover model looks very little like our hero (his hair, for instance, is described as red - not the dirty blond of this guy). Putting some boyband reject in a period shirt and dark trousers and asking him to scowl for the camera, before photoshopping him over a nice generic old timey house background - it's scraping the bottom of the barrel, ideas wise. Kelly Bowen is lucky that by now she's proven herself good enough that I'll read her books regardless of what the cover looks like.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 14 September 2019

#CBR11 Book 64: "Evvie Drake Starts Over" by Linda Holmes

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Reader's Choice (in place of Back to School)

Eveleth "Evvie" (rhymes with 'chevy') Drake has packed the car and is about to leave her husband when she gets a phone call that he's been in a car accident. Before she can make it to the hospital, he is dead. About a year later, everyone thinks Evvie has kept to herself, isolated in her big house, because she's overcome with grief. She never told anyone that the town's beloved son, a popular and charming doctor, was in fact an emotionally abusive asshole whom she was in the process of leaving when he died. She doesn't feel grief, she feels guilty - about all the sympathy almost smothering her. About NOT grieving.

Her best friend Andy, single father of two little girls, is puzzled that the good doctor didn't seem to have left any life insurance, he knows Evvie is almost broke. He suggests she rents out her downstairs apartment to a childhood friend of his, former baseball pro Dean Tenney, who needs to get away from the media spotlight and could use some relaxing downtime in Maine. Dean used to be a Major League pitcher, but finds himself struck down by the 'yips' and can no longer pitch reliably. He's tried every possible treatment under the sun, and needs to get away from it all to start rethinking his future.

Dean and Evvie make a deal: he won't ask her about her marriage and late husband, she won't ask him about baseball. As they become more friendly, that rule rather quickly gets broken, though, and Evvie finds that she can tell Dean, an almost stranger, things that she has never felt comfortable sharing with her dad or Andy. The couple of months Dean was going to stay keep getting extended, and gradually, his and Evvie's friendship starts evolving into something more, at the same time as some of the secrets Evvie's been keeping come out and start driving a wedge in the friendship between her and Andy.

While Dean seems to enjoy his time with Evvie and the quiet life in Maine, the rest of his life is back in New York. Evvie claims she is perfectly fine and totally over her former relationship - but can she really fully put her trust in another man after the things her husband put her through?

This book has been on so many 'Must Read' lists this year, and I'm assuming that so much of the hype comes from the fact that Linda Holmes is a well-known podcaster and NPR presenter. She also used to write for Television without Pity back in the day (man, I miss some of those recaps!), but to me, she's a complete unknown. I'm always happy to give a well-reviewed romance a chance, and it didn't take me long to see why this book has become so popular.

As an introvert with social anxiety, I totally understand and relate to Evvie's instincts to stay inside and shield herself from the outside world. Her job is transcribing audio tapes and interviews for other people, which sounds like a fascinating way to make a living, if one that doesn't exactly lend itself to an active social life. In the year after her husband's death, she pretty much only sees her friend Andy or her father, and even after Dean moves in, her interactions with others than these three men isn't exactly frequent.

I found it interesting that there was not one, but two, portrayals of mothers who chose to leave their children behind after a divorce. In general, it always seems to be the mother who has the main custody of the kids, but both Evvie's mother and Andy's wife are more than happy to leave the child rearing to the men and going off to do their own thing, which certainly results in Evvie having a lot of complicated feelings towards her mother and feeling abandoned and ignored by a person she wishes to be closer to. Her father is great, but so caring and protective that Evvie has never felt she could tell him the truth about her marriage, and what she was about to do on the night her husband died.

I also liked that while this is absolutely a romance, with the developing relationship of Evvie and Dean at the centre of the story, the book is just as much about Evvie slowly healing from the emotional abuse she has suffered and learning to become a bit more open and adventurous. This is presented as a gradual and slow change, and very refreshingly, it's not because she suddenly falls in love with someone new, who "heals" her magically with his presence. Evvie just comes to realise how much of the solitude she now has told herself she enjoys comes from the fact that she was being isolated from other people by her husband, and that in fact, her life will be more exciting and richer if she has more people to share it with. Over the course of the book, she also comes to accept that she's not weak for accepting the help from others, including a professional therapist who can help her work through her past trauma better than anyone else.

While Dean isn't really able to "heal" Evvie from the scars brought on by her emotionally (and occasionally physically) abusive marriage, neither is Evvie able to fix Dean's 'yips', for all that she tries and tries. They change each others' lives, and make them richer and happier, and both characters end the book in a much more hopeful place than where they started, but this is not a story where love magically solves everything.

I can see why this book has become so popular, but all the hype made me expect something more than just a well-written contemporary romance. I kept waiting for it to blow my socks off, and to really suck me in, and that never happened. I liked the book a lot, but based on other reviews, I was expecting to love it, and that never happened. It's good, it deals with a lot of important issues, but I doubt I'm going to revisit it in years to come.

Judging a book by its cover: This is one of the many romance novels being marketed for a wider audience by giving it a cute cartoony cover, in this case, there aren't even people on it, embracing and sending the signal that you may catch 'romance cooties' if you read it. This book is a romance, through and through, and it's a shame that other books of similar quality are overlooked because of the stigma associated with the genre.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.