Friday 29 May 2020

#CBR12 Book 23: "A Princess in Theory" by Alyssa Cole

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Naledi "Ledi" Smith's parents died when she was very little, and she was shuffled through a series of foster homes her entire childhood. She learned to rely on no one but herself. When she keeps getting persistent e-mails about some African country named Thesolo and how she's the crown prince's intended, she obviously assumes that these communications are spam and deletes them all. Now she's working hard to get her degree in epidemiology and waitressing on the side, in between worrying about her hard-partying best friend Portia, who seems to be going off the rails a bit.

Of course, what Ledi doesn't know is that she was born in Thesolo, and her mother was best friends with the current queen. For reasons known to no one but her now-deceased parents, they chose to break all ties to their former friends and family and flee to the United States. While Ledi has loving grandparents and an uncle and cousin in Thesolo, not to mention an actual royal fiancee, she was too little to ever be told about this, and as her parents were using fake names when they died, no one was able to track down Ledi's true family.

Her royal betrothed, prince Thabiso, keeps being pressured by his parents to find a suitable replacement to marry. He fondly remembers his childhood friend, and while he feels hurt and betrayed by her parents' actions, he keeps asking his hyper-efficient assistant to continue the search for her. When she is tracked down in New York, he decides to travel to see her and confront her about the perceived abandonment of her duty. When he meets her, Ledi mistakes him for someone else and he likes the idea of getting to know his fiancee without any of the trappings of his title and status in the way. He doesn't exactly make a great first impression on her, being absolutely dreadful at the job he impulsively decides to pretend he's applying for, but pays one of her neighbours to go on an extended vacation, so he can rent her flat and be just across the hall from Ledi. He discovers that Ledi has absolutely no idea where she came from and what is waiting for her in Thesolo, she is completely ignorant about what her heritage entails.

Ledi is undeniably attracted to the handsome guy who suddenly moved in across the hall from her, but suspects there may be something strange about him too. When she discovers the truth about his identity, she's already half on her way to falling in love with him and is furious about his deceptions. She nevertheless agrees to come with him to Thesolo to see her forgotten homeland, not because she has any intention of marrying him and becoming a princess, but because there is a mysterious illness spreading among the population, and as an epidemiologist in training, trying to find out what is causing the disease would be incredibly good for her future career. She agrees to pretend to still be Thabiso's fiancee, as it makes things easier for her when she returns to an unfamiliar country, but is pretty clear on the fact that she'll be going back to her life in New York once she's helped figure out what is causing the strange illness.

This is the first in Alyssa Cole's Reluctant Royals series, which keeps being lauded all over the romance review blogs. Her contemporaries just keep getting so much love and keep appearing on best-of lists, but neither of the other two books I've read in this series has done much to impress me. A Duke by Default (about Ledi's best friend Portia who cleans up her wild child act and tries to get her life in order in Scotland) ended up on my Worst of 2018-list because it kept pushing all of my "nope"-buttons and A Prince on Paper (about Ledi's shy cousin), while somewhat better, still didn't exactly wow me. So if I hadn't actually already paid money for this one, I may not have even given Ms. Cole a third chance. I like her historical novels better, and will still keep reading those, but at least, reading the series in the wrong order, meant that I finally got a book I actually liked, and may possibly, at some future point, consider re-reading. I can only imagine my disappointment if I'd read the series in the order it was published.

My friend and fellow reviewer Narfna points out in her review (she read the series in order) that the heroine is a lot more sympathetic and relatable than the hero. This seems to be typical in all of the Cole contemporaries I've read. I found Portia's surprise duke utterly insufferable and wished her to find her HEA with anyone else, and the flamboyant step-prince who woos Ledi's cousin also made me roll my eyes a lot. While Naledi is a wonderfully realised character with obvious hopes, dreams, ambitions and extremely understandable emotional baggage because of her childhood, Thabiso is a lot more slick and complex. While it's obvious to the reader why he might find a break from his regular royal routine and scrutiny refreshing, he has very high-handed ways, and pretty much stalks and keeps lying to Ledi in order to spend more time with her. He also didn't have much personality beyond being a handsome royal who refused to cave to his parents' persistent matchmaking.

This is my favorite book of the series, and even with this, I have quite a lot of quibbles and misgivings. I'm not sure I'm going to re-read even this one, which I liked better than both the other main books in the series (there are also two novellas). Hence I can't give the book four stars, and I'm a bit reluctant in wholeheartedly recommending it. Still, while these books just aren't for me, Alyssa Cole does not lack for enthusiastic supporters online. Based on her Twitter feed, she's a great lady, I'm just sorry I couldn't really fall for her brand of escapism. 

Judging a book by its cover: While most of Alyssa Cole's contemporaries in this series just have not been working out for me, I cannot deny that the covers for the various books are gorgeous. The colourful dresses that the cover models wear are all breathtaking, and there is such a sense of joy in each of the images. This book (the first in the series) is no exception.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 19 May 2020

#CBR12 Book 22: "Dark Lover" by J.R. Ward

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 2 stars

Official description:
In the shadows of the night in Caldwell, New York, there's a deadly turf war going on between vampires and their slayers. There exists a secret band of brothers like no other-six vampire warriors, defenders of their race. Yet none of them relishes killing more than Wrath, the leader of The Black Dagger Brotherhood.

The only purebred vampire left on earth, Wrath has a score to settle with the slayers who murdered his parents centuries ago. But, when one of his most trusted fighters is killed-leaving his half-breed daughter unaware of his existence or her fate-Wrath must usher her into the world of the undead-a world of sensuality beyond her wildest dreams.

Where do I even begin with this book? J.R. Ward is a big name in the paranormal romance circles. This book came out in 2005. There are now 18 books in the series, which does not seem to be wrapping up any time soon. Am I going to be reading any of the rest of the series, two more of which I own (but thankfully only paid e-book sale prices for)? Unlikely. I knew about Dark Lover long before I bought it, on sale, back in 2014. I enjoy a lot of paranormal fantasy, although the romance sub-genre frequently tends to feature the "fated mate" trope a lot more often than I like. It's not a genre trope I am fond of. I like to believe that the characters I read about have some kind of choice about who they end up with.

I didn't know too many details about the series, except that it's been running for a long time, has a huge amount of devoted fans, and the vampire protagonists all tend to have implausible names, often featuring an unnecessary letter or two (seriously: Rhage, Zsadist, Vishous, Phury, Tohrment, the list goes on). In contrast, Wrath has a perfectly normal spelling to his name, but he does get to be the super-tormented king of the vampires. Wrath is a trademark alphahole hero. He is in fact even referenced in the very entertaining little essay that Ilona Andrews wrote and published on their blog. He's nearly seven feet tall, and built like a tank and is all tortured because his parents were killed while he was hidden away and unable to stop the killers. The only feelings he allows himself are those of brotherhood and fraternity, anything softer is clearly far beyond him.

Elizabeth "Beth" Randall is a journalist who grew up in a series of foster homes. She never knew her parents. She's also half-vampire and her father is blown up in a car bomb by vampire hunters at the start of this book. Vampires and half vampires don't come into their full powers until they're in their early twenties. Beth is clearly going to go through her transition soon, and a letter to Wrath, her father begs him to find her and help her through the change (which could be deadly for her). Initially, Wrath has no interest in this, but loyalty and honour to his dead friend compels him to seek Beth out, and once he sees her, it's pretty much inevitable where things will be going.

Beth, who starts the book narrowly escaping sexual assault, has never really been interested in any guy, even though they seem to be throwing themselves at her, left and right. One of her potential suitors is a cop named Butch, who beats up the arrested suspect in her assault case. However, once Beth meets Wrath, it becomes clear that she has a thing for tall, muscular, brooding dudes with rage and commitment issues.

Vampires in this world only really survive by feeding on other vampires. In a very heteronormative twist, men seem to have to feed on women, and vice versa. Hence, Wrath has a mournful lady vampire who he feeds from but refuses to in any way treat with respect. Since he's the king of the vampires, she's bound to him and can't go elsewhere and is generally pretty miserable. She's initially a bit upset, then very relieved, once Wrath sets his sights on Beth and she goes through her transition. Sad lady vampire never did anything to stir Wrath's desires, but between him and Beth things are very different.

There's a lot of world-building here, much of which is really annoyingly old-fashioned. This world does not seem to be very progressive or feminist. Vampires are a separate race from humans, but can clearly mate and create offspring with them. As I mentioned before, the vampires come into their full powers in their early twenties. Not everyone survives the transition. There's a secret society of vampire hunters, who all seem to be incels, trying to kill all the vampires. They are controlled by a being called the Omega, and have to sacrifice their hearts and humanity (literally) to their cause. Based on the representatives we see in this book, the vampire hunters are really not much of a threat, unless they're deploying car bombs.

This is a fun enough, but really rather dumb book. Other people have reviewed it WAY better than I have. See, for instance Navessa's review on Goodreads or romance author Alexis Hall's review over on Dear Author. While 18 books and counting might at one point have been appealing to me, now it's a strong deterrent, and the official book descriptions of most of the sequels had me rolling my eyes so hard it hurt. I really don't see myself spending more time reading about Ward's alphahole heroes and the women and/or men that fall for them.

Judging a book by its cover: This cover couldn't belong to any genre but paranormal romance, really and one featuring vampires at that. Bladed weaponry - check. Neck biting pose - check. Tattoos - check. And just in case you hadn't already figured out that it was about vampires, the cover is nice and bright red. At least you're unlikely to think this is a chick-lit book about a twenty-something single woman in the big city (although our heroine fits all those descriptors as well).

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 11 May 2020

#CBR12 Book 21: "Brown Girl Dreaming" by Jacqueline Woodson

Page count: 368 pages
Audiobook length: 3 hrs 55 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Official book description:
Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

This unusual autobiography, written in verse, is absolutely lovely. I chose to listen to it in audiobook, narrated by Ms. Woodson herself, mainly because I find poetry is always more accessible when it's read to me, rather than when I have to read it myself. Possibly my only complaint with this book is that it was much shorter than I was expecting, mainly because it's by no means a full autobiography of Ms. Woodson's life. It covers her childhood and adolescence and tells the story of how, although she had big problems learning to read, she found a love of books and stories and became determined to become an author.

A book written in verse may seem a bit daunting, but the language that Ms. Woodson uses throughout is descriptive, evocative, and in no way dense. Each chapter is relatively short, so you can easily break up your read if you want to. I found the short chapters made it even more tempting to keep going for longer, which made me finish the book sooner than I was expecting.

In general, while parts of Ms. Woodson's early years were sad and dramatic, most of the stories in this book are hopeful and heartwarming. I can easily understand why the book has been so critically acclaimed and been nominated for and won a ton of awards. I suspect this is the sort of book that will work very well for a number of reading challenges - written by an African American woman, dealing with various kinds of marginalisation and racism, it's autobiographical, it's aimed at YA/middle-grade readers, it's won a bunch of awards AND it's written in verse.

Judging a book by its cover: It's almost difficult to find an image of the plain cover for this book, considering that the standard cover now seems to be covered in little medals announcing the many awards this book has won or been nominated for. The silhouette of the little girl, reading a book, and butterflies and golden swirls seemingly erupting from its pages seems very appropriate. The colours of the sky behind the girl are lovely and evoke hopefulness and optimism, in my mind.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 5 May 2020

#CBR12 Book 20: "Chasing Cassandra" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Official book description:
Railway magnate Tom Severin is wealthy and powerful enough to satisfy any desire as soon as it arises. Anything—or anyone—is his for the asking. It should be simple to find the perfect wife—and from his first glimpse of Lady Cassandra Ravenel, he’s determined to have her. But the beautiful and quick-witted Cassandra is equally determined to marry for love—the one thing he can’t give.

Severin is the most compelling and attractive man Cassandra has ever met, even if his heart is frozen. But she has no interest in living in the fast-paced world of a ruthless man who always plays to win.

When a newfound enemy nearly destroys Cassandra’s reputation, Severin seizes the opportunity he’s been waiting for. As always, he gets what he wants—or does he? There’s one lesson Tom Severin has yet to learn from his new bride:

Never underestimate a Ravenel.

The chase for Cassandra’s hand may be over. But the chase for her heart has only just begun...

I had originally rated this book 4 stars, but since I can barely remember a single detail about the plot less than three months after finishing the story, I don't think the book is worthy of such a high rating. This is the sixth and final book in the Ravenel series, but the book stands on its own just fine.

Lady Cassandra Ravenel is the last of the sheltered young ladies of the family to get married. Unlike her brilliant twin who always wanted to be a businesswoman, inventing board games, Cassandra has never wanted anything but a loving husband, a cozy home and some children to love. Having grown up in an abusive household, she wants safety and security and is happy that her sisters and cousins all now have loving relationships, exactly what she wants for herself. So, while she finds Tom Severin fascinating, his self-professed inability to love seems to rule him out as a suitable future partner for her.

Tom Severin is a brilliant businessman, who only allows himself to feel five different emotions at any given time. Love certainly isn't one of them. He's a self-made man and utterly ruthless in the pursuit of his goals, even when it on occasion hurts his friends or associates. He is utterly mesmerised by Cassandra from the first moment he sees her, and wants nothing more than to make her his wife. However, for all his claims of being without softer emotions, once he realises that he's not the man to give Cassandra the love and family life that she wants, he insists on her forgetting all about him and finding someone else. He then spends much of the book pining for her, adopting a street urchin and reading various novels that Cassandra or others of his friends have recommended, to learn about love and other finer feelings.

Kleypas has said in earlier interviews that Severin may be a bit of a sociopath. He certainly comes across that way in earlier books. He's also written in such a way here that he seems to be neuro-atypical side, where it's not that he doesn't feel emotions the same way as everyone else, he just has more difficulty understanding them. Kleypas has taken heroes with villainous traits and made them work just fine in the past - one of the problems with this book is that Severin and Cassandra spend a lot of the middle of the book apart. It's only once Cassandra is faced with scandal, having been slandered by a young nobleman, that Severin comes to see that he may be the only one able to help save Cassandra's reputation. He swoops in, offers to marry Cassandra to save her reputation, and buys the newspapers that printed the scurrilous rumours about her so he can expose the guilty parties and save the day.

Once Cassandra realises the changes Severin has made during their time apart, changes he doesn't think mean much at all, but gives her hope that his heart of ice can eventually be thawed, she agrees to marry him and fiercely defends him from the concerns of the rest of her family. She knows that she'll be able to do a lot of good in society with Severin's scads of money, and the fact that he's taken in an orphan (despite claiming not to care what happens to the boy) and read a slew of novels to try to understand just what everyone else (especially Cassandra) sees in them gives her hope that he may come to be the husband she needs.

Lisa Kleypas is one of the more famous romance novelists out there, but if you're new to her books, I would recommend starting with her Wallflower series, or the Hathaways (although stay away from Seduce Me at Sunrise, which is awful). There are a few decent books in the Ravenel series, but her back catalogue of classic historicals is much more likely to give you quality reading material.

Judging a book by its cover: All of the books in this series have had absolutely infuriating covers, with women in highly anachronistic and inappropriate attire considering the time period the books are set in. On this one, the cover model, supposed to portray a sheltered Victorian woman, appears to be wearing a modern-day wedding dress while running (see the book title features the word "chasing" and she seems to be running - so clever!) through an ice cave full of candlesticks? With her long hair flowing free behind her like the mane of some spirited horse? Seriously, Avon, you failed miserably with these.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 4 May 2020

#CBR12 Book 19: "Xeni: A Marriage of Inconvenience" by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Page count: 292 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
She just wanted to claim her inheritance. What she got was a husband…

Xeni Everly-Wilkins has ten days to clean out her recently departed aunt’s massive colonial in Upstate New York. With the feud between her mom and her sisters still raging even in death, she knows this will be no easy task, but when the will is read Xeni quickly discovers the decades-old drama between the former R&B singers is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Secrets, lies, and a crap ton of cash spilled on her lawyer’s conference room table all come with terms and conditions. Xeni must marry before she can claim the estate that will set her up for life and her aunt has just the groom in mind. The ruggedly handsome and deliciously thicc Scotsman who showed up at her aunt’s memorial, bagpipes at the ready.

When his dear friend and mentor Sable Everly passed away, Mason McInroy knew she would leave a sizable hole in his heart. He never imagined she’d leave him more than enough money to settle the debt that’s keeping him from returning home to Scotland. He also never imagined that Sable would use her dying breaths to play match-maker, trapping Mason and her beautiful niece in a marriage scheme that comes with more complications than either of them need.

With no choice but to say I do, the unlikely pair try to make the best of a messy situation. They had no plans to actually fall in love.

OK, I'm now trying to review books I finished almost three months ago, which isn't exactly easy at the best of times, and all the harder now, when my brain frequently feels like a sieve and I have a very small supply of figurative spoons to get me through my days, and each time the spoon reserves fill up, it feels like a few more have gone missing, and the ones that are left are a bit battered and tarnished. Yes, I know there are things like review amnesties, but to get to my Cannonball, I need to review what I've read. So I apologise if this and upcoming reviews are a little bit less amusing or informative - I'm just trying to get by here.

This is one of the many books I read in February (still my best reading month of the year so far, when we still had no idea what was coming), while I was trying to expand my horizons and discover more books by talented black ladies. Fellow Cannonballer and good friend Rochelle/Emmalita reviewed this back in October 2019 and as pretty much all of her recommendations have been solid gold for me, this seemed like a natural book to try, especially since I'm also doing an A to Z Reading Challenge this year, and finding books starting with X is almost impossible. So, thank you for that, Rebekah Weatherspoon, and thank you for a lovely read.

The official book description make it seem like there's a lot more tension and coercion going on with the arranged marriage between Xeni and Mason. It's not like anyone is standing there with a shotgun. The will of Xeni's deceased relative simply states that if they marry and stay married for thirty days, Xeni will inherit a huge estate, including tens of millions of dollars, several houses and assorted other goodies, while Mason will get enough money to cover his student debts and set him up comfortably in the future. It's more like good-natured meddling and match-making from beyond the grave. The will in no way states that the couple needs to consummate the marriage or even live together, just stay married for one month, to see if they hit it off. It's a clever conceit to do a modern marriage of convenience story (harder to find plausible situations in a contemporary setting, when social ruin for unwed ladies isn't so common).

With the amount of money on the line, neither Xeni nor Mason feel like they can refuse, and it doesn't hurt that they find their potential temporary spouse attractive. Xeni gets a lot of unexpected information thrown at her during the will reading, and having a strong and supportive shoulder to both literally and figuratively cry on doesn't seem like such a bad idea. The couple agree to marry and have a sexual relationship while they are wed, but agree that the relationship will be temporary and they will go their separate ways once the thirty days are up. I'm sure it's no spoiler to say that things don't necessarily end up that way.

Weatherspoon is an author I'd heard of several times before, but never read. Based on this, I will be tracking down more of her books (but probably not the one with the cowboy on the cover and an amnesia storyline, because that's just a big ol' nope for me). My friend and fellow Cannonballer Teresa, who is lucky enough to work part-time at the Ripped Bodice in California, also speaks very highly of Weatherspoon, so the woman clearly deserves some of my time and money.

Judging a book by its cover: I am ambivalent about this cover. On the one hand, it doesn't feature little cartoon characters. On the other hand, it seems needlessly pastel, and the cover model doesn't look anything much like Xeni is described in the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.