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.

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