Sunday 26 January 2020

#CBR12 Book 4: "Red, White & Royal Blue" by Casey McQuiston - audio book edition

Page count: 425 pages
Rating: 12 hrs 15 mins
Rating: 5 stars

My original, and extremely enthusiastic review of this book, can be found here.

This was my first re-read (of what I'm sure will be many) and this time, I chose to listen to the audio book. When I first listened to the sample available on Audible, I was honestly not sure if I liked Ramon de Ocampo's narration, but after seeing the audio book of this highlighted on a bunch of best of the year lists, I decided to give him a chance. Of course, the samples never really turn out to be representative, as I always listen to the books in 1.5 speed (it takes far too long to get through the books otherwise). The long and short of it is, I needn't have worried, he turned out to be a great narrator. If I wanted to be super picky, I could note that some of his British accents were a bit less consistent and could have been better in places (note that I'm married to an Englishman and lived in the UK for six years, so I possibly have higher standards than some for this).

Re-reading this book just brought home once again that I was entirely correct to choose this as my top book of 2019. It's funny, touching, emotional, deeply romantic, very sexy. I didn't know that much about the author when I first read the book, and having since read more about her, it's great to see how pleased and surprised she is about the staggering success of her debut novel. The (frankly hilarious) chapter where Alex is coming to terms with his bisexuality and in the end realises that "straight people usually don't spend this much time telling themselves they're straight" is in part based on her own realisations in her early twenties that she was queer and she's had a lot of very positive responses from readers about it too, which just proves that the book reads true to a lot of people. I love that part of what she wanted with the book was to subvert the image of the perfect Prince Charming, and created Henry, who uses his looks and charm to hide to the world how conflicted, gay, rebellious and prone to depression he is.

Of the two protagonists, I love Henry the most. I just want to wrap him up in a warm hug and tell him everything is going to be ok, and he needs to stay brave, because everything WILL work out in the end. Alex is a bit much and can absolutely get a bit exasperating at times, but the two guys are just so perfect together and the semi-epistolary sections towards the second half of the book, when they communicate through text messages and poetic e-mails to one another make me swoon.

I mentioned in my original review that pretty much every single supporting character is solid gold as well. I would quite happily read whole novels about Alex' sister June, their best friend Nora, Henry's sister Bea or his best friend Pez, as well. I would happily read a book about President Ellen Claremont and how she met her husband, or the romance between Henry's parents, the princess with a doctorate and the actor who played James Bond. Even tertiary characters like the White House Chief of Staff, Alex' bodyguards or Henry's equerry are fully fleshed out and interesting to me. That barely ever happens in a novel and I both love and slightly hate McQuiston for giving me this perfect cast of characters and then never letting me find out what happens to all of them after Alex and Henry find their happy ending at the end of the book.

This book ended up not just on my (and tons of other) best of the year list, but won both the "Best Debut novel" and "Best Romance" at the 2019 Goodreads Choice Awards. It's an utter delight and very good escapist literature during these dark days of ours. I cannot recommend it warmly enough.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

#CBR12 Book 3: "The Unhoneymooners" by Christina Lauren

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Olive Torres loves her twin sister Ami, but while her sister, the eternal winner has been able to finance her entire wedding through various contest winnings, Olive is eternally unlucky. The bridesmaid dress she's going to have to wear is a truly luminous green monstrosity (but it was free!), she has just been laid off from her job, and the best man, who she'll have to spend much of her sister wedding day alongside, is the groom's brother, Ethan Thomas, probably Olive's least favourite person on the planet.

The catering at Ami's wedding is a seafood buffet (won in yet another contest), but Olive has a shellfish allergy and Ethan refuses to eat buffet food. Consequently, they are the only two people not affected by the horrifying, crippling food poisoning resulting from said seafood. It also means that the all-expenses-paid honeymoon is up for grabs, and Ami wants Olive to go in her place. While Olive has qualms, she's certainly not going to let Ethan have the dream vacation to himself (he has no hesitation in accepting his brother's place), even if it means spending ten days in the same resort as the man she loathes. It's not like they'd need to spend that much time together, right?

Of course, the honeymoon is technically non-transferrable and non-refundable, so Ethan and Olive have to pretend to be newlyweds. While they have access to a luxury suite, there's only the one bedroom (and bed). Most of the complementary activities are couples-orientated. And through a series of unlucky (or are they secretly lucky) coincidences, both Olive and Ethan run into people they need to keep up the pretense in front of. As they keep being thrown together during their luxury vacation, Olive and Ethan discover they don't mind the other's company all that much and start actively looking for excuses to spend time together. Also, that the source of their mutual animosity may have been fuelled and encouraged by an unlikely source.

New reading year, a new set of reading challenges. As per usual, I am doing the Monthly Motif Challenge, which for January is "Winter Wonderland" - read a book set in a place you've always thought was wonderful. Maui (where Olive and Ethan travel on their fake honeymoon) most definitely qualifies here. Added bonus, the theme for Ami's ill-fated, ends in food poisoning wedding is, in fact, Winter Wonderland. It also didn't hurt that the book has been on my TBR list since it came out, Christina Lauren's books are usually a treat, and the enemies to lovers trope is a favourite of mine.

While this was a fun read, and both Olive and Ethan were likable protagonists, there were things that annoyed me. Ethan's complete inability to remember Olive's name (he keeps calling her Olivia). As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that this may, in fact, be a defence mechanism to hide how much he actually likes her, and Olive starts fighting back in her own way, beginning to call him pretty much any random guy's name beginning with E. It began reminding me a bit of Colin and Minerva in Tessa Dare's A Week to Be Wicked, and suddenly it wasn't that much of a problem anymore.

I don't agree with the authors' choice of villain, so to speak, without wanting to go too much into detail here, because it's a huge spoiler. While I understand the narrative need for some third act complication to keep our lovers apart for a while, I really didn't like what was revealed, and how it had such major repercussions not just for Olive and Ethan, but other characters in the book, as well. I wish they'd chosen to go in a different direction entirely here.

 If you've enjoyed Christina Lauren's more recent entries (where they seem to be moving away from really steamy and rather graphic love scenes, and more towards the more vanilla mainstream), you're probably going to like this too. It's a sweet book and made me very much want my own tropical vacation.

Judging a book by its cover: While it's bright, cheerful and fun-looking, there's nothing much, except the title to hint at this actually being a romance novel. I'm not sure I wouldn't have preferred a book cover that related to the contents a bit more than random tropical flowers and birds.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Reading challenge wrap-up post 2019

While I may not have completed as many books, or read as many pages as I entirely would have liked (I may just have to accept that I simply don't have as much time to read anymore - sob) in 2019, I signed up for a wide array of Reading Challenges (they really do help me read more diversely and get through more of my infinite TBR list), and I can happily say that I completed most of them. Now, some might say that counting my first and second Cannonball as separate challenges is cheating, but since I honestly didn't know if I was going to make it to 104 reviews this year, I'm going to say it counts.

Total list of Reading Challenges for 2019 - all of these challenges have separate lists on Goodreads, which I simply cannot be bothered to all link here. Anyone who searches for me on there can find them, though:
1. The Cannonball Read: As I said, I'm going to count this as two separate challenges. I finally completed my first Cannonball, 52 reviews on the 23rd of July, which I think is the latest in the year that's ever happened. So I feel I deserve to count 52 more as an added achievement, finally reached on the 29th of December. As it turned out, I managed to finish in the top 10 of reviewers, which considering the winner read and posted reviews for a staggering 730 books, I count as a win.

2. The Goodreads Reading Challenge: I signed up for 104 books (I'm so glad Goodreads finally counts re-reads towards your total tally) and hit that goal towards the end of December.

3. The Audiobook Challenge 2019, hosted by Caffeinated Reviewer:  I really wanted to motivate myself to listen to books more this year, and to help myself along, I signed up for "Socially Awkward" - 15-20 books. As it turns out, I listened to a whopping 25 in total, hitting my lower goal of 15 on the 20th of July.

4. The Backlist Reader Challenge 2019: For this challenge, books have to be published in 2017 or earlier and they have to have already have been on your TBR. In the end, I read 41 books that qualified for this list, and completed it on New Year's Eve.

5. Beat the Backlist: This one is obviously rather similar to the one above, but books have to be from 2018 or earlier. I love challenges that overlap heavily. The books had to be started and finished in 2019 to count, and I completed my last one on New Year's Eve.

6. #Bookiary 2019 Challenge: Read and review at least 52 books in a year. Books have to be more than 100 pages long. Reviews have to be at least 150 words long. Comics and graphic novels don't count. I really liked it when Cannonball Read decided that you could read whatever you wanted, short or long, as long as you could write 250 words about it. Still, this challenge didn't ask me to do anything I wasn't already going to be doing - I completed it on the 7th of August.

7. Color Coded Reading Challenge: This is one of the reading challenges I pretty much do every year. It's become slightly easier to complete since the rules were changed so the colour can be the main one on the book cover, rather than one that has to be mentioned in the book title (seriously, green and brown were super hard to complete before that change). The challenge is to read at least nine books, one per category (blue, red, yellow, green, brown, black, white, any other colour, implies colour). The book's title has to feature the colour, or dominate the cover of the book. This year, I completed the challenge on the 30th of April.

8. Contemporary Romance Challenge: I was always going to do well in a contemporary romance challenge, even one that doesn't let you count anything from a sub-genre like elements of historical, paranormal, time travel, fantasy, science fiction, mystery/suspense/thriller) The  books/novellas had to be at least 100 pages. I signed up for "3rd base" - 11-15 books, and ended up reading 21 books that qualified. I completed it on the 26th of May.

9. Diversify Your Reading 2019: This one actually pushed me out of my comfort zone, I really doubt I would have read poetry without it. Each month of the year was given a different category and genre, and the goal is to read at least one book from each of them. Ironically, December's prompt of fantasy should have been an easy one to complete, and then I became super busy with work (and knocked out by illness) and in the end, I only managed to read one book that would straight up qualify as fantasy, completed, you guessed it, on New Year's Eve.

10. 2019 Diversity Reading Challenge: This challenge does exactly what it says on the tin: read more diversely. Read books featuring characters with or by authors including, but not limited to People of colour/non-caucasian background, Native American or other indigenous background, LGBTQIA, gender fluid/transgender/non-binary, refugees, ethnic or religious minorities, mental illness, neurodiversity, feminist issues, physical/mental disabilities. I'm a white, cis-gendered, coming up on middle age, lower middle class woman (who to be fair, after I realised I was asexual fits in on the queer spectrum, but that's about it). I need to challenge myself in my reading. I set myself a goal of 40 books and completed it at the end of October. In the end, I read 51 books that qualify for the list, so a bit under half of my total for the year. I'm happy with that.

11. E-book reading challenge: Read e-books. I signed up for the "Terabyte" - 75 books, and this is one of the few challenges I didn't manage to complete. At the end of the year, I was on 71 e-books, close, no cigar. So while I surpassed my audiobook goal, I failed on this one.

12. For the love of E-books Challenge: I did manage to complete this one, where the goal was simply  40+ e-books. This one, I completed at the end of July.

13. Finishing the Series: The goal was to finish series you've already started before 2019. For an ongoing series, the goal was to catch up to the most recently published book by the end of 2019. I signed up for the "B-list" - finish 5-8 series over the course of the year, and ended up completing 24 whole series in the end. I think that's pretty good.

14. Historical Fiction Reading Challenge: As a big fan of historical fiction (especially romance), this is one of my favourite challenges. This year, I aimed a bit lower than in previous years, and signed up for "Ancient History" - 25-50 books. I hit my goal of 25 on the 12th of August, but would never have managed the next level up of 51 or more books - as I ended the year on 38 historical novels.

15. Literary Pickers Challenge 2019: This is one challenge that I've really enjoyed in the past few years, it's pretty much a literary scavenger hunt of sorts. The books need to be romance or have a strong romantic element. Only one item per book is allowed. As in previous years, I signed up for level 2- "Garage sale guru" - 25 items or more. I completed the challenge requirements at the beginning of August, and managed to tick off 47 items on the list at the end of the year.

16. Monthly Keyword Challenge: This is another of the challenges that I do each and every year, because it helps me read from my TBR list. Each month, you get a bunch of keywords. The goal is to read at least one book per month that features one (or several) of the words. At the beginning of every month, I make a long list of potential books (some months make for VERY long lists) and then I do my best to read as many as possible from it. This year, I managed 33 books, finishing the last on New Year's Eve.

17. Monthly Motif Challenge: Very similar to the one above, and another challenge that helps me read from my TBR list. Each month is assigned a motif or theme. The goal is to read at least one book a month that fits. For December, I finished the challenge on New Year's Eve and I read 20 books over the course of the year that fit into this challenge.

18. 2019 New Releases Challenge: To make myself feel slightly less guilty about reading new and shiny books, I signed up for this challenge. I chose level "New Release Pro" - 31-60 books. For a long while, I wasn't sure I was going to hit my goal, but I managed 38 books from 2019 by the end of the year.

19. Outdo Yourself Challenge 2019: I so wanted 2019 to be a better reading year than 2018. I signed up for the "Breaking a Sweat" category - to read 11-15 more books or 2750-3999 more pages than in 2018. This is one of the challenges I failed, and rather spectacularly too. I read fewer books and pages in 2019 than in 2018, I will need to step up my game in 2020.

20. Pages Read 2019: I seriously doubted I would be able to complete this challenge, where I chose  "Dwarf Peach" - 36 000-48 000 pages. In the end, I only just managed to clear 36 000 pages, but I managed, and since I thought I would fail, that feels extra satisfying. Once again, this challenge was completed on New Year's Eve itself.

21. Pick a Theme: For this challenge, I picked historical romance as my theme, and because I read enough of that each year, I couldn't really aim lower than the highest level, "Expert" - 8+ books. I completed the challenge my mid-June and by the end of the year, I had read 16 historical romances in total during the year, which long-time readers of my blog will know is a shockingly low number.

22. 2019 Retellings Challenge: I absolutely love retellings of all kinds, and had so many on my TBR list already. So this challenge pretty much seemed made for me. I signed up for level 2 - "Warrior Princess" - 6-10 retellings and hit my goal at the beginning of March. By the year's close, I'd read 11 books that qualified for the challenge, and I think this is one of the reading challenges I'm going to repeat in 2020.

23. #Tackle My TBR: My TBR list is always out of control (it has more than a thousand books on it now) and as a result, I always strive to cut down a bit on it every year. Hence this challenge, where I signed up for level "Field Goal" - 37-48 books. I completed my 37th book by the 20th of July and read 54 books (about half of my total) from my TBR list this year. I'm very happy with that.

24. Virtual Mount TBR Reading Challenge: Overlapping challenges are the best, I get twice the credit for doing exactly the same thing. "Mount Munch" 36-48 books, again completed by mid-July.

25. You Read How Many Books? - I signed up for "Teen" - 104 books, which a few years ago would have been low-balling it. This year, I only got that far by the very end of December. If I repeat the challenge, I probably have to aim for an even lower number.

26. RIP 14 Reading Challenge: A autumnal challenge where readers are encouraged to read books from the mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror and supernatural genres. I always sign up for 7 books, and completed the challenge by the 26th of October.

27. Cannonball Read Book Bingo: For the second year in a row, my book blogging buddies launched a Bingo Card in the second half of the year to keep review numbers fairly stable even in the months when a lot of people are losing their motivation. The Bingo ended on the 31st of October this year, and mainly thanks to the fact that my husband kept promising to read the books we were going to co-review and then failing to do so, I only got my last reviews in just before the deadline.

28. Reading Challenge Addict: Out of This World - 16+ Reading Challenges signed up for and completed. As you can see, I signed up for WAY more, and even with two failures, I more than adequately completed this goal, by the 31st of October.

Saturday 11 January 2020

Year in review 2019

For all that I achieved last year (had a baby! returned to work!), I felt bad that I read fewer books and pages than at any point since I started logging all my reading back in 2008. Well, if only past Malin could see me now, with an even lower tally this year. Turns out that holding down a full-time job as a language teacher, who frequently has up to ninety essays or oral presentations to be graded at any given time, as well as the mother of an energetic and ever more demanding toddler leaves much less time to read than expected. I know I shouldn't be so hard on myself, I still read more than most (non-Cannonball) people I know, but it feels a bit like a defeat.

So I should probably focus on all the goals I set for myself that I did achieve. Even though I was behind on my reviews pretty much the entire year, I managed to complete a double Cannonball towards the very end of December. For a while, I wasn't sure I was even going to manage that, so I suppose I should focus more on, and be happy about, the things I achieved, rather than the things I failed at. I also took part in a total of 29 different reading challenges over the course of the year, and only failed to complete two of them, so I should probably be proud of that too (separate post coming about all of them).

I got 253 new books in 2019. 221 were e-books, 17 were audio books, 15 were dead tree. Of these books, 31 were gifts and 6 were free.

Total pages read in 2019: 36 381
Total books read: 106
New books read: 98
Audio books: 25
Comic books/graphic novels: 5
Novellas: 6
Re-reads: 8

Of the books I read in the last year, 83% were written by women, 11% were written by men, while 6% were by a husband and wife writing team. 22% of the books were by authors of colour, which is lower than I would have liked. I didn't actually do a count on how many included queer or otherwise marginalised characters, but I probably should keep track of that too.

Genre breakdown for 2019:
Romance (both historical and contemporary): 32%
Young adult: 14%
Fantasy (not paranormal/urban): 12%
Science fiction: 9%
Paranormal/urban fantasy: 8% (lower than sci-fi, what is even happening to me?)
Mystery: 10%
Non-fiction: 5%
Historical fiction: 4%
Children's books: 3%
Horror: 2%
Poetry: 2%

I briefly considered doing a "Best of the decade" list of books, but decided it would take too long and I would probably have to leave out books that meant a lot to me, so all you're getting is my "Best of 2019". As usual, I allowed myself ten books published in 2019, and ten books with earlier publication dates (you get to mention so many more books that way).

10. Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks
Rainbow Rowell's sweet and autumnal graphic novel, accompanied by Faith Erin Hick's cute and heart-warming art worked really well for me, and less so for my husband, who rated the book 2.5 stars to my 4. So you know, your mileage may vary on this one.

9. King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo
Oh, Nikolai, what troubles you get yourself into. There is every chance I may rate this lower once I know what happens in the second part and how everything plays out, but so far, I really liked this adventurous fantasy novel focusing on three very different characters.

8. The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan by Sherry Thomas
I have always really liked Disney's Mulan, while knowing that like the fairy tales they adapt, it is probably a very loose interpretation of the original story. I really liked Sherry Thomas' YA retelling, which I suspect is rather more close to the source material.

7. Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell
Baz, Simon and Penelope's further adventures were unlikely not to show up on my best of the year list. Even so, until I re-read Eleanor & Park and possibly adjust its rating, this is still among my lowest-rated novels by her. There was so much angst, I hope she gives them a happier ending in the sequel.

6. The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
While I thought this was an OK little romance when I first finished it, this book has stayed with me in my thoughts, popping up unexpectedly now and again. I really liked that the main focus is just as much the heroine's self-realisation as her eventual HEA with the hero.

5. Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews
Oh, House Andrews, you just keep getting better with each book. While I liked Nevada and Rogan in the first trilogy, I suspect, based on this, that Catalina and Alessandro will surpass them in my affections, if they don't already.

4. Mrs. Martin's Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan
I didn't know I needed a historical romance novella featuring heroines pretty close to my mother's age, falling in love and smashing the patriarchy, but I really did. This was a wonderful read.

3. The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden
I have been really impressed with all three of Arden's medieval Russian-set fantasy novels, and this book finished off the trilogy beautifully, with Vasilisa really coming into her own. The romantic subplot didn't hurt either.

2. The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker
Lucy Parker is my favourite contemporary romance author at the moment and well-deserving of her auto-buy, pre-order status (so rare!). This clever and funny romance with a gruff, sarcastic theatre critic hero falling almost despite himself for a bubbly, cheerful actress, while they have to solve a mystery involving their family histories and a possible scandal was almost perfection for me.

1. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
Absolute and utter perfection, however, was achieved by this book, which made me happier than any other book I read all year. Pretty much an alternate history fan fiction, with the half-Mexican son of the first female President of the United States first obsessively hating, then becoming friends with and ultimately falling completely and utterly in love with the youngest Prince of England, and third in line for the throne. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me want sequels starring most of the supporting cast. I am amazed that it's McQuiston's debut novel, because it's so utterly great in every way. If you haven't already read it - do so!

Best of earlier years, in alphabetical order, because ranking the books is actually REALLY hard.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
Such a sweet middle grade fantasy novel, with a large majority of female characters dominating the book.

Whatever Life Throws at You by Julie Cross
This was one of those books that had been on my TBR list forever and that I didn't think was going to amount to much. It was a really good NA romance.

Wolfsong by T.J. Klune
This was probably the book I was most unsure about putting on my "Best of" list, but I really did love Ox so much, and it was a very interesting variation of a werewolf story.

Where the Mountains Meet the Moon by Grace Lin
Such a great little fairy tale, with lots of influences from Chinese folklore

Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
I don't really watch The Daily Show (I probably should), but this autobiographical collection of essays from Noah was really engaging and educational to me.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
I liked this a lot when I listened to it over the summer, I grew to like it even more after we discussed it in my book club, and we found so many layers and nuances to it. Wonderfully feminist fantasy.

Becoming by Michelle Obama
Oh, Mrs. Obama, how we miss you and your husband. I hope you are enjoying your time out of the public eye, doing good works. You certainly deserve it.

The Lawrence Brown Affair by Cat Sebastian
I haven't read enough of Cat Sebastian's books to know if she's on my auto-buy list, but with every new one I complete, she edges ever closer.

Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor
This was a great conclusion to the duology started in Strange the Dreamer. Occasionally sad, magical and very satisfying.

A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas
I'm not actually sure if this was the best of the first three Lady Sherlock novels, but it was easiest to include because it's the first in the series.

There you have it. I hope to waste less time on social media in the coming decade, and devote myself more to reading again.

Saturday 4 January 2020

#CBR12 Book 2: "Tikka Chance on Me" by Suleika Snyder

Page count: 72 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

This novella was exactly what I needed in the stressful weeks starting the new year, when I'm massively behind on my work (thanks, ill-timed Christmas illness), still fighting a horrible cough and cold (at this stage, I'm not entirely sure I'm not suffering from a new cold that I caught on the heels of the first one). I have so many mediocre English essays left to grade, with the deadline of the 12th of January (when all the grades for term 1 have to be in) fast approaching. So, of course I'm procrastinating and writing a book review instead.

Pinky Grover was away at grad school when her mum got sick, so she dropped everything and returned home to help out in her family's Indian restaurant. Now her life is on hold and there is very little to excite her, back in the tiny town where she grew up, feeling her potential waste away. The only bright spot to her days is the frequent visits from Trucker Carrigan, resident bad boy biker. Of course, getting involved with someone who works as an enforcer for a biker gang is entirely out of the question, but he sure is nice to look at, and low-key flirt with.

Trucker Carrigan went away to the army and got recruited into the ATF. Now he's undercover in a motorcycle gang and counting the days until he finishes his mission to take down the right-wing racist nut-jobs he's had to spend oh so many months with and pretend to be friends with. His only bright spot is visiting the local Indian restaurant and flirting with the owners' daughter, the gorgeous Pinky. He knows full well he needs to stay away from her, as he'll be leaving town as soon as his mission is completed, and a nice girl like her shouldn't look twice at the sort of guy he's currently pretending to be. Nevertheless, he can't help himself, and after a chance meeting at the local Walmart, where they trade nerdy banter, it seems like it was always inevitable they'd end up in the back of his truck.

I don't normally like insta-love stories, and Pinky and Trucker go from low-level flirting and longing glances to an extremely steamy car encounter and motel hook-ups very suddenly. The fact that they grew up in the same town and went to the same school (although Trucker was a few years ahead of Pinky) makes up for it somewhat. These people aren't complete strangers to one another, they just don't really know what the other has been up to since they grew up and tried to escape out into the real world. So it didn't feel exactly like insta-love, but it wasn't exactly "I secretly loved you my whole life and now we're finally together" either.

While Trucker pretends to be a low-life criminal, right-wing domestic terrorist as his cover, he's clearly a caring, sensitive, funny and deeply nerdy cinnamon roll of a man in actuality. Pinky Grover may seem like the perfect and dutiful desi daughter, but she has never been shy about admitting her wants and needs to herself, and has clearly suffered a dry spell since she had to quit college and return home. She has no intention of flaunting her new lover in front of her friends or family, but neither is she going to apologise for or deny herself the pleasure of hooking up with Trucker as many chances as she gets before their time together runs out.

I got this at the beginning of last year after a very positive review from my fellow kissing book fan, Emmalita. With the current train wreck situation in the RWA, it seemed like it would be a good time to read some romance, and especially from somone who had been outspoken in supporting my beloved Courtney Milan. I'm not the least bit surprised that I enjoyed something Emmalita recommended, now I need to see what else I can find by Snyder, as this first taste was very good, indeed. Also, I desperately crave curry now.

Judging a book by its cover: I have what I assume is the original cover for this novella. It has since been re-issued with a cute animated cover, which seems to capture the characters really well, but I prefer this simple one. I love that we don't actually see more of the characters than their feet and a little bit of the legs. The image still says so much, and from the angle, you can tell that they are locked in an embrace, without actually having to see any more of their bodies.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 3 January 2020

#CBR12 Book 1: "Archangel's Viper" by Nalini Singh

Page count: 367 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is book 10 in an ongoing series, so really not the place to start. The first book in the series is Angels' Blood. This review will contain some spoilers for that book.

Holly Chang, who for a while renamed herself Sorrow, was the only survivor of the terrible carnage perpetrated when the archangel Uram went crazy and kidnapped her and all her friends and proceeded to torture and kill most of them. He forced Holly not only to drink his blood, but to watch the atrocities he visited on her friends. The archangel of New York, Raphael, challenge and defeated Uram in a battle above New York, his consort Elena becoming an angel in the process. Elena, a former Guild Hunter, also found and rescued Holly, who was forever changed by her ordeal, not just emotionally, but physically.

Not really a vampire, but certainly not entirely human either, Holly now has lightning reflexes, small fangs, can paralyse her victims with extremely potent venom and while she enjoys and still consumes human food, she also has to drink blood to not lose control. While she's worked to process her traumas, reconnected with her family and is working with the Tower to help the less fortunate in society (so she can feel useful, and the Tower can make sure she doesn't lose control, Holly still feels like she's being kept on too tight a leash, while also being terrified of the changes she's still experiencing inside. She doesn't dare tell anyone of the strange voice that seems to be speaking to her, for fear that she will be deemed crazy and put down for the safety of everyone.

The only other individual working for the Tower with any understanding of venomous toxins and bloodlust is Venom, one of Raphael's Seven, the ones closest to him and most trusted. Turned into a vampire in India by the archangel Neha after she discovered he seemed to be immune to snake venom, Venom is a wholly unique creature, a vampire with snake eyes, whose saliva is also highly venomous. Interestingly, the Tower scientists have concluded that Holly and Venom's toxins cancel each other out. While they are both extremely dangerous to most others, they are immune to one another. Hence Venom has been given special responsibility in Holly's training, and adores frustrating and teasing her every chance he gets. For the past few years, their weekly lessons have been by phone, but now Venom is back in New York.

While Holly finds Venom extremely annoying, she cannot deny that he, like all of Raphael's Seven, is also gorgeous and very attractive. If she's being totally honest with herself, he also seems like the only one who doesn't treat her like a victim or some volatile thing about to explode and that he does seem to have useful things to teach her. Venom and Holly have to spend a lot more time in each others' company once it becomes clear that someone has put a five million dollar bounty on Holly's head. She's to be taken alive, and it seems very likely that the reason she's to be abducted is because someone wants to to figure out exactly what surviving Uram did to change her physically. Venom is assigned as her bodyguard, and the two work together to find out who's hunting her.

During their search, it's clear that whatever alien thing is within Holly is trying to manifest in some way. She starts having acid green lines glowing on her chest, and the voice inside her is becoming more insistent. Holly has no choice but to confide in Venom and Dimitri, the head of Raphael's Seven, and they need to figure out if she's going to be overtaken by whatever bloodlust drove Uram crazy.

I finished this at around 2.30 am on January 1st 2020, meaning I can count it both as my last book of 2019 (anything finished before sleep belongs to the day before - them's the rules), but also don't feel too bad about reviewing it as my first entry in Cannonball 12. Based on what a scramble it was for me to reach the double in the final days of December, I'm not going to have the luxury to skip reviewing anything I read this year (I'm aiming for a single Cannonball, but hoping for a double).

The Guild Hunter books started out focusing on Elena Devereaux, a smart and fierce warrior who through extremely unusual circumstances became an angel (believed to be impossible) and fell in love with the archangel Raphael. Some of the books in the series focus on her and Raphael and the wider changes going on in the world and the complicated politics between the archangels. Other books in the series, such as Archangel's Blade, Archangel's Storm and Archangel's Enigma focus more one particular member of Raphael's Seven, and how they end up with the love of their life. There is also Archangel's Shadows, about Elena's fellow hunter Ashwini and how she gets her man. The quality of the various instalment vary, and how interested you are in the protagonists in question absolutely play into how effective the books end up being.

In the case of Holly and Venom, the romance very much takes the backseat to the twin mysteries of what exactly is happening to Holly and what the changes she's going through will mean, and figuring out who wants to kidnap her and why. Venom always seemed overly arrogant and smug to me, and as I find snakes kind of unnerving, he wasn't exactly one of the supporting characters that appealed to me all that much. Holly has appeared as a supporting characters in a few of the books, as she works through her horrible trauma and tires to reclaim her life.

Venom insists on calling her "Kitty", "Kitten" or "Hollyberry", all to get a rise out of her. Even when Holly repeatedly asks him not to, he keeps up this "fun" game, which got really tiresome to me. Good-natured ribbing is one thing, but continuing with patronising nicknames despite the express wishes of the other person in question is akin to bullying and a d*ck move. I seriously think he calls her by her actual name exactly once in the entire book. Another frustrated book reviewer on Goodreads claims that he calls her variations on kitty/kitten over ninety times over the course of the book. The really bad thing is that a few of the other supporting characters do it too, and he has the gall to be annoyed, because that's HIS thing. Urgh

For enemies to lovers to work, I need to be convinced that the initial antagonism and dislike stems in part from repressed feelings, which I really didn't get here. Venom seems to consider Holly more as a child than a grown woman in the early chapters, although he keeps having to re-check his assumptions. Holly finds Venom a pain in the ass, and considering the way he keeps patronising her and ignoring her wishes, that's not really surprising. Once Venom notices that Holly seems terrified of really using her new abilities, he starts pushing her and showing her that repressing will probably be more harmful in the long run than exploring her them in a controlled environment.

One of the things I really did like with the book was Holly's interactions with her family, who love her profusely no matter how different she is now, as well as with her new found family at the Tower. Venom's flashbacks back to his own family and how he ended up being turned into a vampire were also interesting, and I would have liked him a lot more if Singh hadn't insisted on him keeping up the "kitty"-thing throughout.

The next two books in the series (I'm really quite a ways behind, I used to read one of these a year) both seem to focus more on the bigger picture and Raphael and Elena again. I should probably get round to reading those at some point.

Judging a book by a cover: Oh heavens, does the cover model they've gotten to portray Venom look smug and self-satisfied and douchy on this. Which to be fair, seems pretty in character. I think the only think they should possibly have changed is the style of sunglasses, these don't really look like the wrap-around ones that Venom keeps being described as wearing.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.