Thursday, 20 May 2021

#CBR13 Book 15: "The Devil Comes Courting" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Disclaimer! This was an ARC granted to me by the author, which has in no way influenced my review. I had also pre-ordered the books many months ago, because Courtney Milan is an auto-buy for me, every time.

Amelia Smith is a Chinese woman raised by English missionaries in China. When she was just a little girl, her birth mother, a woman fleeing during one of the many conflicts in the country, asked Mrs. Acheson, the woman who Amelia has thought of as her mother ever since, to help her child and take care of her. Amelia has faint memories of her birth mother asking her to wait for her, promising to return, but it's been nearly two decades and Amelia has long since given up hope. In her mid-twenties, she has already been widowed once, after a marriage to a much older missionary who worked in India. Now it looks like marriage to another missionary is imminent, although she hasn't actually met the man himself, only his prim and officious mother. Amelia didn't particularly enjoy marriage, and isn't exactly happy about the thought of another one to a complete stranger. So she fairly jumps at the chance at a different fate when an unusual job offer is presented to her.

The alternative fate in question comes thanks to Captain Grayson Hunter, an African American man in Asia to lay cables for an overseas telegraph line. He's told by Amelia's brother that Amelia has a brilliant mind and criminally underestimated potential, so comes to the town where she lives to find her. He doesn't actually know the person he's looking for is a woman at first but doesn't let his initial attraction to Amelia get in the way of his business plans. He finds her beautiful and enthralling, but what he desires most is her mind and the possibility that she may be able to find a way to encode Chinese characters for his telegraph network, a feat no one has yet to achieve. Grayson is used to burying his true emotions and pushing on to make his business plans become a reality, not just in matters of romance and sexual attraction, but also with regards to the serious losses he has suffered so far in his life. A relationship between him and the intriguing Mrs. Smith would be impossible, so he tries his best to ignore their obvious mutual attraction and chemistry. 

The Devil Comes Courting is the third full novel in The Worth Saga, published a full three years after the second novel in the series, After the Wedding. The Worth family, who we first meet in Once Upon a Marquess are mostly side-lined in this story, which focuses on Captain Grayson Hunter, brother of the hero in After the Wedding, and his ambitious plans to establish a world-spanning telegraph network. Unfortunately, most of the people he laid the initial plans with, including two of his brothers, are now dead and Grayson suffers terribly from survivor's guilt. We do have a member of the Worth family as a secondary character in the story - young Benedict Worth is now seventeen years old, and has left his home in England, where he was always miserable (your noble father and brother being convicted of treason will make life a lot less fun). He is now working for Captain Hunter under the pretense of looking for his sister Theresa, who ran off to Asia many years ago in search of their previously unheard-of half-sister. He doesn't feel like he can return to Europe until he has exhausted his search, so he diligently looks (but not too hard) for his sister in every port they come to. Captain Hunter assigns him to be Mrs. Smith's liaison in Shanghai and the two strike up a close friendship.

In her afterword, Ms. Milan says that this is the novel she structured her entire series to centre around. That probably explains why neither Once Upon a Marquess nor After the Wedding, the two first books in the series, felt entirely up to her gold standard of historical romance writing. However, I would gladly take ten slightly underwhelming (but still good) romances if the result I get is this masterpiece of a novel. Apparently, it's her longest novel yet, clocking in at over 400 pages. It doesn't feel long at all, the pages just fly by and both Amelia and Grayson are such amazing protagonists to spend time with, so you don't even mind (too much) that for much of the story they are separated and often on the other side of the world from one another. Grayson spends a lot of his time on ships, getting telegraphic cable pulled across the ocean floor. Amelia is stuck in Shanghai, trying to puzzle out a way to encode Chinese for the telegraph, since Grayson's dream is that the telegraph should make communication available for everyone, both in the interior of China and around the world. 

One of the obstacles in the way of their telegraphic empire is, in fact, to convince Chinese officials to allow telegraph lines within China, not exactly an easy task when the Chinese (pretty rightfully, in many cases) saw foreigners as barbarians and had two European-caused wars in their recent past to make the animosity towards outsiders even greater. Luckily, both Amelia and Grayson are brilliant and driven and work diligently both together and apart to achieve their goals, which means they have both professional and personal triumphs to celebrate by the end of the book.

There are so many issues covered in this book, so much interesting and unusual history explored and I'm not going to lie, I cried several times, both sad and happy, moved tears. Amelia and Grayson are impossible not to love, both separate and together, and they've both been through a lot throughout their lives. Amelia, already separated from her birth family and believing them to be lost forever, comes to realise several difficult truths about her new adopted family that forces her to reassess entirely who she believed herself to be and what she's going to do with her life going forward. Grayson, as I mentioned earlier, suffers terribly from survivor's guilt and believes that his surviving family, especially his mother, only sees his dead brothers and laments their deaths whenever he's around. So he ignores his family's frequent requests that he visit them in the States and spends most of his time away, laying telegraph cables. He believes he may finally find some peace and satisfaction if he finishes what he and his dead brothers started, and is prepared to go without close personal relationships or affection until that dream is achieved.

Courtney Milan is my favourite historical romance writer currently working. Every time she releases a new book, it's a treat, and this book just blew me away with how good it was. It almost rivals my absolutely favourite of her books, The Suffragette Scandal. Once I reread it, who knows, it may even overtake it? I'm only sorry that my hectic personal life and struggles with depression and executive dysfunction mean it has taken me so long to review the book. This should be read by absolutely everyone - you don't even need to have read anything by Milan before, it works marvelously on its own. This will clearly be in my top 10 at the end of the year. 

Judging a book by its cover: While I'm really not a fan of the continued tradition of "find a stock image of a woman in a wedding dress and then colour it in with any colour required to make a period-style dress, sort of" on these covers, at least this one is better than whatever was going on with After the Wedding, which might be the worst cover on any Courtney Milan novel ever. There's also the fact that Asian protagonists feature front and centre on romance covers, so yay for that, no matter how anachronistic the dress she's wearing is. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday, 15 May 2021

#CBR13 Book 14: "Second First Impressions" by Sally Thorne

Page count: 354 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Ruthie Midona is mid-twenties going on old-age pensioner, dressing like a Golden Girls-cosplayer, and has dedicated the last six years of her life to the Providence Luxury Retirement Villa. She doesn't just work the front desk there and go out of her way to make life flow smoothly for the residents, she also lives on-site and hasn't really had any complaints. In her spare time, she cares for the endangered turtles who populate the grounds of the retirement community, having given up on her dreams of becoming a vet because of a lack of funds. The arrival of two new people at Providence, who are both young, vibrant, and exciting in different ways makes Ruthie question her choices. Could there be more to life than just catering to wealthy retirees' every need?

Theodore "Teddy" Prescott has very different plans for his future than his father does. His father is the wealthy property developer who recently bought the Providence Retirement Villa, and he would like nothing more than for his son to one day be part of the family business. Teddy, on the other hand, has spent the last few years mostly living a life of leisure, crashing on the couches of friends, acquaintances and other benevolent guardian angels. He's an artist by nature and wants to save up enough to buy a share in his own tattoo studio. Teddy is tall, handsome, and incredibly charming and generally used to life working out for him. Now that he needs a place to stay, his father makes him get a job at Providence, hoping his son might come to his senses.

Ruthie is the daughter of a minister and only ever had one boyfriend, and a deeply religious one at that. So she doesn't exactly have a lot of experience with men, but even she knows that a man like Teddy is not for her. He may shower her with compliments, but he's obviously going to have very different plans for his future than being a homebody at a retirement home, so while she can practice her flirting on him, she'd do well to stay far away from him romantically. Melanie Sasaki, the temp also working at Providence absolutely agrees. She's beautiful, confident, and stylish, all qualities Ruthie wishes she possessed. Melanie decides to take Ruthie under her wing and help her find lasting love through "The Sasaki Method" a multi-step matchmaking program of Melanie's own making.

It's obvious to both Ruthie and Melanie that Teddy could use some humbling. Since Mr. Prescott wants him to find a job, they introduce him to the elderly and eccentric Parloni sisters, who have had a series of errand boys, none ever surviving a week, due to the absolutely preposterous tasks the old ladies ask them to perform. The wealthy women are bored and devious, and no one expects Teddy to last very long. However, he happily cuts their Big Macs into bite-size pieces, buries unwanted clothing of theirs in the garden, runs their errands, wears whatever they tell him to, and keeps up his cheerful demeanour and charm. 

While Ruthie is fully aware that Teddy seems destined to break her heart, and everyone around her, from the Parlonis to Melanie tells her the same thing, she can't really stay away from him (a task made more difficult since he lives next door to her and the walls are paper-thin). Is Teddy going to mend his roving ways, or is Ruthie doomed to a life of loneliness once he leaves to start his tattoo studio?

The Hating Game is one of my favourite contemporary romances. I adore that book. It may not be perfect, but every single aspect of it works for me. 99 Percent Mine was Sally Thorne's difficult second novel, so eagerly anticipated by everyone, and it was fine. Not awful, not something I regret devoting my time to reading, but also not a book I've ever found myself wanting to re-read. There are very few authors who write books I pretty much without exception adore. I can count them on one hand (probably even if I lost a few fingers). So my expectations should probably have been lower for the follow-up. This is Thorne's third romance, and I'm happy to say that I liked it more than 99 Percent Mine, and I wasn't really expecting to love it as much as The Hating Game. 

There is a lot to like in this book. Ruthie is a wonderful protagonist and I felt for her and the way she'd made herself a safe haven at Providence, unpleasant experiences in her past made it so she barely ever felt comfortable leaving the grounds. Her absolute dedication to her job, or to her favourite TV show in her spare time. Since I moved back to Norway in 2004, I haven't had regular access to a bathtub, and I have to respect and adore a woman whose idea of a good time is nightly soaks. Man, I miss having a bathtub. Anyway, I digress. 

Ruthie is great. Melanie would probably be rather exhausting to work with, but she is a hoot to read about. I would happily read her romance at some point, as well. The Parlonis are also great, although they seem like they might be rather nightmarish as employers. They are apparently a result of Sally Thorne and one of her best friends dreaming up what it would be like if they were wealthy elderly ladies with too much time on their hands. 

Teddy is the weak link here. While he is gorgeous, charming, and quite sensitive, I wasn't entirely convinced he was a good match for Ruthie. Yes, he kept complimenting her, and he worked hard for the Parlonis and made enough money to start his own tattoo studio, but he also seemed quite happy to ingratiate himself into Ruthie's house, eating her food and lounging on her sofa, and I wasn't convinced by his quick turnaround at the end of the book when he's suddenly all in on committing to her. Romances, where I'm not sure the hero is worthy of the heroine, are never going to work fully for me.

Still, your mileage may vary, and I've seen a lot of very enthusiastic reviews of this book. So just because I thought it was merely fine, if more enjoyable than 99 Percent Mine, it doesn't mean it's not going to work better for someone else. 

Judging a book by its cover: I really think the cover designers missed out when portraying these little cartoon people. Frumpy woman, seen from above. Perfectly fine. Turtles, also fine (although at least one of them should have had some sort of red markings on the shell). Guy seen from above - this can't possibly be our hero, who is described as having beautifully rendered ink on his hands and arms - where are the tattoos, cover designer? Where are the tattoos?

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 10 May 2021

#CBR13 Book 13: "Shit, Actually: The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema" by Lindy West

Page count: 272 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
New York Times opinion writer and bestselling author Lindy West was once the in-house movie critic for Seattle's alternative newsweekly The Stranger, where she covered film with brutal honesty and giddy irreverence. In Shit, Actually, Lindy West returns to those roots, re-examining beloved and iconic movies from the past 40 years with an eye toward the big questions of our time: Is Twilight the horniest movie in history? Why do the zebras in The Lion King trust Mufasa--who is a lion--to look out for their best interests? Why did anyone bother making any more movies after The Fugitive achieved perfection? And, my god, why don't any of the women in Love, Actually ever fucking talk?!

From Forrest Gump, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and Bad Boys II, to Face/Off, Top Gun, and The Notebook, West combines her razor-sharp wit and trademark humor with a genuine adoration for nostalgic trash to shed new critical light on some of our defining cultural touchstones--the stories we've long been telling ourselves about who we are.

At once outrageously funny and piercingly incisive, Shit, Actually reminds us to pause and ask, "How does this movie hold up?", all while teaching us how to laugh at the things we love without ever letting them or ourselves off the hook. Shit, Actually is a love letter and a break-up note all in one: to the films that shaped us and the ones that ruined us. More often than not, West finds, they're one and the same.

This is the first book I have ever read by Lindy West. I should undoubtedly read both Shrill and The Witches are Coming, but in this corona-ridden dystopia we are currently living in, fighting my reading slump rather ineffectually since depression keeps kicking my ass, I was in need of something easy and fun to read. Snarky movie reviews seemed absolutely perfect, and I'm happy to report that I finished this book in less than 48 hours, which is almost a record for me this year. Sad, but true.

Had I watched all the movies that West covers? No, but the vast majority, because I am a huge fan of big trashy, blockbuster cinema. I'm upset that she doesn't cover gems like Pacific Rim in her book, because that is a glorious movie spectacle. Nevertheless, I did get her opinions on The Fugitive (which between West's write-up in this book, and John Mulaney's stand-up, I don't really feel I need to ever watch - I've gotten all that is best about it already), The Rock (I'm never going to apologise for how much I love this film), Twilight (frankly better than it should be, shame the director didn't get to continue the series), Face/Off (so dumb) and a number of other great and not-so-great movies.

Pre-corona, going to the cinema was one of my treats. It really was a kind of self-care for me, and while going to the cinema with my husband or friends was good, going by myself and sitting in a dark theatre, with my popcorn, overly sugared beverage and quite probably my knitting is one of my favourite things to do. Thanks to the excellent baby cinema program here in Oslo (on weekdays around lunch time, they offer screenings for parents with babies/toddlers), where the lights are dimmed rather than turned off entirely and the sound isn't as loud), I went to the cinema as soon as possible after having my baby (about three weeks after my c-section) and kept going once every two weeks or so until my little boy was too energetic and demanding for me to get anything out of the movie. The things I miss the most from pre-corona society are probably hugging and going to the cinema.

As I don't drink alcohol and am generally quite indifferent to a lot of music, I don't really miss bars/pubs or going to concerts, but man, I miss the cinema. So Lindy West's book allowed me to revel in the joys of prepostrous plots, over the top action sequences, cheesy characterisation and all the other things you frequently find in really popular movies. Is this book great art? No. But it's a fun read, especially if you have at least a passing knowledge of most of the film she covers in the book and it made me forget about our rather dreary present for a little while. 

Judging a book by its cover: Very appropriately, this cheerful, butter yellow cover is sprinkled all over with popcorn, which a guide (however irreverent) to modern cinema probably should be. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR13 Book 12: "An Unexpected Peril" by Deanna Raybourn

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book 6 in an ongoing series. There will be minor spoilers for earlier books in the series. You can read these without having any background, but it's always best to start at the beginning, which happens to be A Curious Beginning

Intrepid lepidopterist and sometime crime solver Veronica Speedwell and her grouchy partner and now lover Revelstoke Templeton-Vane (goes by Stoker) are working on preparing a memorial exhibition at the Curiosity Club for one of its recently deceased members, pioneer mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene. Veronica finds evidence that suggests the woman was sabotaged and her accidental death while climbing in the tiny European principality of Alpenwald was, in fact, murder. While Stoker strongly opposes them getting embroiled in yet another potentially dangerous investigation, Veronica feels she must bring her findings to the attention of the exhibit's patron, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald. The royal chancellor of Alpenwald doesn't seem to think that there is much to investigate, but is soon forced to approach Veronica on a sensitive matter of state.

Shortly before the opening of the memorial exhibition, princess Gisela has disappeared without a trace. This is apparently something she does on occasion, but her current disappearance comes at a critical time. As well as opening the exhibit, meant to highlight the beauty and mountaineering opportunities in Alpenwald, the royal delegation was in London to sign a secret peace treaty. It's essential that Princess Gisela is seen publically at a number of important functions, and coincidentally, Veronica looks enough like the princess to act as her double with the right jewelry, outfits, and makeup. Sensing a chance to continue her investigation, Veronica agrees to masquerade as the princess and help the peace treaty become a reality. Naturally, as Veronica and Stoker seem to be magnets for danger and complications, the mission isn't exactly as simple and straightforward as it seems, and our brave protagonists find themselves in danger more than once before they are able to unmask Miss Baker-Greene's murderer.

I'm not going to lie, I'm delighted that Stoker and Veronica are now romantic as well as investigative partners. Of course, while they have now both declared their feelings for one another and acted on them, it's not necessarily smooth sailing in all aspects of their relationship, especially because Veronica has no wishes of ever getting married and fears being trapped. This could present a big problem for the couple, if Stoker wasn't so very observant and aware of all things Veronica. Considering his ugly and public divorce, it's not like her reputation would be noticeably more tarnished if they continue to live in sin, rather than tie the knot at a future date.

Stoker, however, would really prefer it if they stay out of the danger that investigating possible murders always brings. Veronica needs to work diligently to prove to him that there even is a case to investigate, but once they are both persuaded that a murder has taken place, they're not going to stop until justice has been served.

I don't exactly think this book did anything new, but if you're already a fan of Raybourn's brand of historical mystery with a romantic twist, you're going to get exactly what you want from this book. I was amused by all the moustaches adorning the Alpenwald contingent, and the fake one that Stoker was made to wear when out and about in disguise. 

Judging a book by its cover: This series always has lovely woodcut-inspired covers and this one is particularly pretty. The blue colour is inspired by the official sky blue of the fictional principality of Alpenwald from the novel. The same with the delicate white flowers, which I'm assuming is supposed to be the St. Othild's wort flowers. I'm sad there aren't any otters, really. I get why the little Veronica silhouette is still sporting her trusty butterfly net, but she really hasn't done a lot of lepidoptery for quite a few books now, so I'm not sure it's entirely appropriate anymore. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday, 29 March 2021

#CBR13 Book 11: "Full spredning: en legeroman" (Natural Causes) by Nina Lykke

Page count: 282 pages
Rating: 2 stars

Elin has worked as a GP in the centre of Oslo for more than two decades. She's married to Aksel, an orthopedist who seems obsessed with either cross country skiing in the winter and roller skis in the summer. They met during med school, and have lived in the same house long enough to see the little residential area that used to be full of idealistic and progressive residents become distinctly upper-middle class (as have they). They are now empty nesters after their two daughters (also medical students) moved away. 

However, at the moment, Elin is literally living in her office  She's sleeping in a chair or on her examination table, sneaking out in the mornings and evenings to wash in the employee bathroom. She's refusing to answer texts or calls from her irate husband, her concerned neighbour and sometime drinking buddy, or her lover, having moved out after her husband discovered that she's been having a year-long affair with Bjørn, her ex-boyfriend from before she met Aksel. Since Bjørn seemed rather freaked out about the revelations that their affair was out in the open, he seems to have decided to just stay with his wife, so Elin is feeling abandoned and even more disillusioned with life and people than she did before she stumbled into her affair. 

A bit over a year ago, Elin added Bjørn as a Facebook as a drunken impulse one evening. Back then, she would go through the motions with her patients in the office all day, then go buy a box of white wine on the way home, and spend her evenings and weekends drinking heavily and binge-watching television, while her husband focused on his skiing. Once she and Bjørn actually met up again, after decades apart, and she discovered just how much chemistry there still was between them, she replaced the heavy drinking with another obsession, her secret love affair with her ex. 

Literally translated, the title for this book means "Complete (or total) spread" and the subtitle is a "doctor novel". Traditionally, 'doctor novels' are a subsection of romance novels in Norway, starring handsome doctors and nurses who find love while saving the lives of their poor patients. 'Total spread' is also the term used to cancer patients when the disease has taken over and spread throughout the body, making the disease inevitably terminal. So the author uses a common term associated with a devastating cancer diagnosis, coupled with an ironic subtitle - this book is pretty much the opposite of brave, selfless, and altruistic doctors finding love while caring for the less fortunate. Instead, our protagonist is a fifty-something pessimist whose internal monologue (so much of this novel is told in internal monologue or flashbacks) constantly makes her indifference, if not her outright disdain for her patients and vocation very obvious. Going through a kind of midlife crisis, experiencing the consequences of being caught in an affair - the title very much gives a lie to the contents of the book.

Considering my rather impressive reading slump and how difficult it is for me to pick up a book and read it (even listening to an audiobook feels like far too much effort than I'm able to give, most of the time), the fact that I not only read the whole book, despite low-key resenting our protagonist throughout is certainly some testament to the author's ability to keep me curious. This novel has generally received rave reviews from not only Norwegian book reviewers, but the book has been translated into multiple languages and won both Norwegian and international book awards.

Pretty much every time I try to read an acclaimed literary novel, it just proves to me that I'm much happier reading speculative fiction, be it romance, fantasy, or science fiction. I'm sure this book was a satirical masterpiece, showing us the petty complaints of most patients nowadays, not to mention how incredibly first world the so-called problems of well-to-do doctors are. It was a well-written book, I suppose, but it was just so bitter and the tone throughout was generally nasty, I'd much rather read a romance (and will, as a palate changer). The fact that this book was due back at the library is one of the reasons I actually motivated me to read and finish the book, and it's certainly much easier reviewing something I didn't much like than something I love. 

I don't really feel that I can recommend this book, but if the sales numbers I found are correct, the author doesn't need my recommendation anyway. I'm sure she's laughing all the way to the bank, no matter what I thought of her book or not.

Judging a book by its cover: There isn't exactly a lot to make a reader interested or curious about the contents of this book. On the library copy I had, there were also various review quotes and a reminder that this won the Brage prize (the Norwegian book award) for 2019. I'm assuming the publishing company went with a "Less is more" approach and figured people might pick up the book based on word of mouth. Because there really is nothing here to make a reader interested.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

Friday, 26 March 2021

#CBR13 Book 10: "Act Your Age, Eve Brown" by Talia Hibbert

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Eve is the youngest and seemingly flightiest of the three privileged Brown sisters. She's always felt like the odd duck in the family, neither as focused nor as intelligent as her two older sisters and completely unable to settle on anything for very long. When she abruptly closes down her wedding planning business after one single event (a generally very successful wedding, that nevertheless descended into some chaos after Eve took it upon herself to liberate all the doves that the bride had wanted, and was left with a large bill to reimburse the animal wranglers), her long-suffering parents have had enough. They demand that Eve get a job, any job, and hold it down for at least a year. They'll freeze her trust fund payments until she can prove herself thusly. Deeply frustrated with herself and the whole situation, Eve goes driving and ends up a bit lost.

Jacob Wayne needs to hire a new chef for his B&B asap, after his previous one won the lottery and popped off to Scotland with her boyfriend. None of the candidates he's seen so far live up to his exacting perfectionist standards, and no matter what his best friend (the local pub owner) tries to do to persuade him of each candidate's virtues. Jacob knows he's not easy to work for or with (his autism makes it difficult for him to casually interact with people), but he's not willing to settle when it comes to the quality of his B&B's food. Eve comes barrelling in, soaked through because of a sudden rainstorm, with no apparent resume, and applies for the job. It takes him about two seconds to conclude that she's 1) wholly inappropriate for the job and 2) that he finds her inexplicably and incredibly attractive. After a series of unfortunate events lead to Eve backing into Jacob with her car and breaking his arm, she feels that she pretty much has to stay around to help him with the running of his B&B until he is better, even though she finds him insufferable and robotic and he finds her unreliable and chaotic.

This wouldn't be a very good romance if our protagonists didn't overcome their initial antipathy towards one another and found some common ground. Because of Eve's many different attempts at a career over the years, she turns out to actually be really good in the kitchen. While her charm and bubbly personality don't really do anything for Jacob, to begin with (she did land him in the hospital with a broken arm and a minor concussion, after all), she seems to be a big hit with the guests at the B&B and aptly handles not just the various breakfast orders, but baking for the afternoon teas. Jacob's not exactly thrilled to discover that she's living in his spare room, but despite his suspicions and misgivings, has to admit that Eve is a good cook and that she throws herself into helping with the housekeeping and other duties in the establishment while Jacob recovers. 

Having been presented with Jacob's big pile of handwritten employee handbooks (that he never really intended for anyone to read), Eve comes to understand how important order, a clear system and predictability is for Jacob. She has no problem with his neurodiversity, having grown up with sisters who are clearly both also on the spectrum. Over the course of the story, Eve comes to realise that her own struggles are also due to her being on the autism spectrum, without ever having been diagnosed as such in the past. She finds a connection and acceptance with Jacob that she's never felt in her own family, for all that her sisters love her deeply. 

Take a Hint, Dani Brown was one of my very favourite books last year, and I was very eagerly expecting this third book in the series, despite having found Eve a bit annoying as a supporting character in her sisters' books. I needn't have worried, however, because once I got to read about Eve as the star of her own book, I came to love her just as much, if not more than both of her unusual sisters, since Eve, despite having grown up in a wealthy and loving family, always felt like a failure and the black sheep. She needed my love more, if you will. 

As well as having a wonderful pair of protagonists, who start out as short-term enemies, this romance has a great cast of supporting characters, from Jacob's best friend and said friend's formidable twin sisters (all three characters will be the stars of Hibbert's next romantic trilogy, and I am super excited), to Jacob's aunt, who ended up raising him and his brother after his parents just really abandoned them on her doorstep. Eve's two sisters and their lovely boyfriends also make appearances, of course, as does her colourful grandmother and yoga teacher/wife. I feel like we didn't really get a sense of the Brown parents until this book, and while I understand their frustration with Eve, feel like they could maybe have made a bit more of an attempt to get to know their youngest in a more in-depth way rather than just wash their hands of her temporarily. 

Because 2021 seems determined to constantly challenge me, this is so far the ONLY book I have been able to finish, all month. I can already see myself revisiting it often. I am so happy I have discovered Talia Hibbert as an author, and hope that some of the earlier books of her career can help break me out of my extended reading slump. This was a great read, and I heartily recommend it to anyone wanting a good romance to take their minds off the seemingly never-ending pandemic.

Judging a book by its cover: I don't love this cover as much as I did the one for Take a Hint, Dani Brown, but the whole series has adorable covers, in very pleasing colours and has made me at least partially rethink my antipathy to the cartoon trend that is so popular now. For these books, the covers really fit. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

#CBR13 Book 9: "How to Catch a Queen" by Alyssa Cole

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 53 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

Official book description:
When Shanti Mohapi weds the king of Njaza, her dream of becoming a queen finally comes true. But it’s nothing like she imagined. Shanti and her husband may share an immediate and powerful attraction, but her subjects see her as an outsider, and everything she was taught about being the perfect wife goes disastrously wrong.

A king must rule with an iron fist, and newly crowned King Sanyu was born perfectly fitted for the gauntlet, even if he wishes he weren’t. He agrees to take a wife as is required of him, though he doesn’t expect to actually fall in love. Even more vexing? His beguiling new queen seems to have the answers to his country’s problems—except no one will listen to her.

By day, they lead separate lives. By night, she wears the crown, and he bows to her demands in matters of politics and passion. When turmoil erupts in their kingdom and their marriage, Shanti goes on the run, and Sanyu must learn whether he has what it takes both to lead his people and to catch his queen.

The engagement/marriage of convenience is quite a common trope in historical romance, it's harder to pull off in contemporary ones (although, by all means, it happens all the time, even though the author tends to have to get a bit more creative). Shanti has wanted to become a queen since she was a little girl, and has worked very hard to become a beautiful, poised, fit, and well-educated woman who would be the prize of any ruler. She doesn't want to become queen for the prestige, wealth, or title, but because she genuinely wants to take part in the day-to-day ruling of a kingdom, and trying to make the world a better place for as many as possible. When her profile is picked on Royalmatch.com and she is married off to Prince Sanyu of Njaza literally on his father's deathbed, she has already done thorough research into the country's resources, infrastructure, social conditions, and what challenges the country, still trying to recover from centuries of colonisation, are facing. Sadly for her, however, the tradition in Njaza is for women to be seen and not heard and this applies at all levels of society.

Sanyu's role models for marriage were his now-dead father, who kept replacing his queen every four months or his father's closest advisor (now Sanyu's), who never married. Sanyu's mother disappeared after she bore him, seemingly quite happy to be free of the kingdom, and the two ex-revolutionaries raised Sanyu to believe that any expression of softer emotion or personal need is unforgivable softness. Having fought a civil war to liberate Njaza from colonial rule, the two elder men were big on spreading propaganda about how strong, glorious, and unbeatable the nation was, and Sanyu's father ruled with an iron fist. Sanyu, who suffers from occasional crippling anxiety, doesn't even want the throne but has no choice but to step up upon his father's death. While he finds Shanti very attractive the first time he sees her, before the wedding, he then barely gives her a thought for several months after the coronation, grieving his father and trying to get some sort of idea of what the job of the king actually entails. Not that his royal council or advisors seem to want him to think too hard for himself, they seem to have very firm ideas of how the country should be ruled (no changes whatsoever from his father's rule). Meanwhile, the country's finances are suffering, a lot of the populace are starting to be unhappy with the lack of progress and innovation, while the royal council's isolationist views are keeping Njaza from making lucrative international deals that would benefit them both diplomatically and economically. 

Resigned to the fact that she'll be sent packing after her four month marriage trial is over (after about three months she's barely seen her husband), Shanti is nevertheless doing what she can to make a difference in the country. She's been sneaking out of the palace in disguise at night, trying to help out a group of women organising protests and trying to affect change from a local bookstore. She is rather surprised when Sanyu shows up at her private rooms one evening, asking to hear her suggestions and plans, and suddenly wanting to act on the clear attraction that's been there between them since their first meeting. However, he keeps their growing closeness a secret and only shows up at her quarters at night. Is he ever going to work through his anxiety and stand up to his advisors, becoming the husband that Shanti wishes for and the progressive king that Njaza needs?

It seems to me that a common theme in all of Alyssa Cole's contemporary romances featuring fictional royals and the people they fall in love with, is that the heroes rarely, if ever, prove themselves worthy of the awesome heroines. Despite almost throwing my e-reader across the room because of my frustration with A Duke by Default, I ended up reading all of the main novels in Cole's previous series, Reluctant Royals, and I found things to like in each book. Having once again heard many great things about this new book, I gave it a try, and mostly liked it, even though the "runaway royals" of the series title is a stretch in this book. While Shanti eventually gets sick of Sanyu's inability to confront his sort-of-uncle/head adviser and leaves the palace for a little while, she doesn't exactly go very far, and I would say calling her actions running away is exaggerating wildly. 

While there are a lot of dumb men in this book, Sanyu's close friend and one of the junior members of his council is very cool. I also liked the Njazan tradition of triad marriages, which I would happily have seen explored in more detail. There are sort of cameo appearances from quite a few of the protagonists in the previous series via a group chat Shanti is accepted into, and it was nice to "hear from" some of the other women that I'd come to quite like. 

While I found this to be a perfectly OK novel, I'm not sure I'll be re-reading it any time soon. One of the two heroines for the next books shows up in a very memorable scene, though, and I hope that her book, having a lesbian couple at the centre may escape the unworthy partner trope, since both protagonists are women. We shall see. I'm not willing to give up on Ms. Cole yet, but she's now on "get books from the library until they are on sale for less than 3 bucks" list.

Judging a book by its cover: The frocks on Alyssa Cole's contemporary novels are always amazing. The female cover model they've used to portray Shanti seems pretty spot on, in looks and general bearing. The dude who I'm supposing is meant to be Sanyu doesn't look anything like what our hero is described as (my mental image was Winston Duke as M'Baku). He's far too skinny looking and only has designer stubble, no actual beard. Do better, cover designers!

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 26 February 2021

#CBR13 Book 8: "Guards! Guards!" by Terry Pratchett

Page count: 412 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 8 mins
Rating: 5 stars

The Night Watch of the sprawling city of Ankh-Morpork consists of only three people (although people might question if Nobby Nobbs is entirely human) led by the depressed and shambolic Captain Samuel Vimes. No one is more surprised than he when he finds out that they have a new recruit from the mountains who actually volunteed for the Watch. No one ever does that. The fact that young Carrot Ironfunderson claims to be a dwarf, even though he's 6 foot 2 and seems to keep misunderstanding how the city is run is something Vimes really doesn't really have time to worry about. He's busy either getting drunk or recovering from a hangover. 

Then, a series of mysterious incidents around the city leave people entirely vaporised, with wall tiles melted from high heat. Now everyone knows there's no such thing as actual dragons, that they disappeared a very long time ago, but it sure looks like there may be a dragon terrorising innocent (and not so innocent city dwellers). The city's patrician is very clear that the Watch leave the situation alone, no need to investigate and cause critical questions to be asked. One of the reasons why Vimes is the drunken leader of a sad bad of unwanteds, however, is that he doesn't really like to conform to what people expect of him. He enlists the help of Lady Sybil Ramkin, who knows everything there is about the only dragons that SHOULD exists, tiny swamp dragons. 

Not that anyone, let alone Vimes, is very happy when it turns out that there is in fact a big, dangerous dragon threatening the citizens of Ankh-Morpork. Now normally, these sort of situations seem to require a hero to be revealed to slay the dragon, and win the hand of the daughter of the king, but the Patrician doesn't even have a daughter (only an elderly aunt, who doesn't seem to want to marry anyone) and the ransom offered really isn't very high, so none of the regular heroes feel motivated to show up for the job. It might be up to Vimes and his rag-tag squad to save the city, the unlikeliest heroes of all. 

Reviewing a book I really love is much harder than reviewing one I hated or even one that was just fine. Terry Pratchett's Discworld books have been such an important part of life for the last 25 years or so. Reading my first one was a wholly different experience to any other fantasy novel I'd read before, and after moving to the UK for university, and especially after meeting the man who is now my husband (21 years together this year, baby!), the books became even more special to me, as he grew up with the series and loved them all. 

I knew no one else who read them when I was a teen in Norway. In the UK, Pratchett was a best-selling author every time he released a new novel. He did frequent signing tours (which is why many of my books are signed by him - Pratchett used to say it was rarer to find an unsigned copy of his works since he toured so much. My husband even has Good Omens signed by both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, not as easy a feat, since Gaiman didn't use to tour places near us very often). 

This was the first time I re-read Guards! Guards! for probably 15 years or so. Of the 40+ Discworld novels (if you include the various YA books he also wrote in the world, which I do), this is book 8, and probably the one where the series goes from being an interesting experiment where Pratchett tries to satirise traditional classic adventure novels and fantasy to something truly genius. From this book onwards, the books pretty much all keep getting better and better and sharper and more observant of human nature, modern society, politics, and generally the world at large, all delivered in the guise of humorous fantasy. Only with the last few books, written after the Alzheimer's really started affecting him, is the quality noticeably lower than in the rest. 

There's a number of entry points into the Discworld books, depending on what takes your fancy the most. There are the Death books, the Witches books, the Rincewind (and later Wizards of the Unseen University) books, there are a number of excellent sort of standalone one, like Pyramids or Small Gods. Later in the series, there are the Moist von Lipwig books, and the wonderful YA Tiffany Aching books. Guards! Guards! is the first of the City Watch books. The fact that this, not even the best of the ones featuring those characters, is a five-star book for me should tell you how amazing some of the later ones are. If you're a Pratchett novice, there are a number of guides online for where you could start (I don't really recommend just reading the series in chronological order, as some of the first ones just aren't that good compared to what came later). If you can't be bothered to look up any guides, however, this is a very good place to start. 

Judging a book by its cover: This book was first published in 1989, so it's obviously had a ton of different covers, depending on what country it was published in or what audience the publishers were trying to attact. Most of my Discworld novels have the original cover designs by Josh Kirby, which I can see might appear a bit chaotic and messy to some, but holds a lot of sentimental value to me. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

 

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

#CBR13 Book 7: "Love at First" by Kate Clayborn

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Disclaimer! I got this book as an ARC from NetGalley. That has in no way influenced my review.

Sixteen years ago, Will Stirling first cast eyes on Nora Clarke and was instantly smitten. He was standing under a shaded tree, listening with a sinking heart to his mother pleading with the uncle he hadn't even realised existed, while she was up high on a balcony, throwing little tomatoes at thieving squirrels. 

Cut to the present day, when Will is an overworked doctor and has inherited his uncle's apartment. With the exception of seeing his intriguing mystery girl in the garden, he has nothing but bad memories associated with the place and he doesn't like the run-down building or location. The terms of his late uncle's will states that he can't sell the place for the first year, but he's planning on having it modernised and put up for short-term rentals, so he can go on with his life.

Nora Clarke and the other residents of the building where Will has inherited are appalled when they realise that Will wants nothing to do with the place, and is going to use his unit as a rental. Nora is still grieving for her grandmother, whose apartment she inherited and now lives in, having barely changed a thing since her dear Nonna was alive. Having always had a safe haven in the building, and feeling a strong sense of kinship with the other long-time residents, Nora can't understand why Will wouldn't want to be enveloped by their quirky community. She and the other owners decide to try to sabotage Will's efforts as much as they can.

As it turns out, of course, Nora and Will have a lot in common. Both grew up with distant and preoccupied parents, the difference was that Nora had a loving grandmother and the other residents in her Chicago apartment building. Will had no one else and was completely orphaned in his late teens. He's used to having to fend for himself, putting himself through college and medical school through hard work and dedication. He's never had any long-term relationships and seems frankly baffled by the many slightly off-beat traditions that the residents of his uncle's apartment building seem attached to. He's very attracted to Nora, though, even more so after he discovers that she is, in fact, the same person he saw on that balcony all those years ago.

The blurb for this romance describes it as a second chance story, but it's not like Nora and Will have this complicated past and just need to find back to one another. Their past encounter consists of one single encounter, where they didn't even speak or even see each other - Will is the only one who is aware of it having taken place. So it's more of a love at first sight story, as having seen the vivacious teenage Nora all those years ago seems to have made Will uninterested in all other women. 

I liked a lot of things about this book, but unfortunately, the actual romance between Will and Nora is probably third or fourth down on that list. Will and Nora on their own are both interesting and complex characters, both with a lot of emotional baggage they need to work through before being able to commit to a romantic relationship and finding a happy ending. The various supporting characters in the book are all awesome and made the book really come alive. They include Nora's best friend and colleague Deepa (who I will happily read a book about) and Will's starchy superior who's trying to reconnect with his ex-wife. There are the various individuals who live in the apartment building, all of whom are great and act as Nora's extended family and support network. I loved reading about all of them - I didn't really feel swept away by the actual central romance.

Kate Clayborn is a good writer and seems very skilled at writing memorable characters. I still clearly remember and think about several of the protagonists in her Chance of a Lifetime trilogy. There was a lot to like about this story as well, but the romance that should have been front and centre kind of came second to the found family narrative that I found most compelling. It was still a lovely read, and I'll keep my eyes open in case Clayborn decides she wants to give Deepa a book next. 

Judging a book by its cover: It's become quite clear that cute, animated covers for romance novels are the popular thing right now, and this is a really nice example. I may be biased because purple is my favourite colour and just look at that rich plummy colour, lightening towards the bottom. Gorgeous. It may be that I also prefer the covers not to have actual little cartoon people on them. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

#CBR13 Book 6: "Dancing at Midnight" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 2 stars

Lady Arabella Blydon is staying with her newly married cousin in the country when she runs into the brooding and mysterious Lord John Blackwood, a former war hero who turns out to be friends with her cousin's husband. She quickly ascertains that he is just as attracted to her as she is to him, and cannot understand why he refuses to give in and admit his feelings. Frustrated that he seems utterly besotted by her one second and determined to stay away from her the next, she devises a plan to make him declare his intentions once and for all.

John Blackwood is tormented by the events of his past and has nightmares about some of the dreadful situations he was helpless to prevent as a soldier. As a younger son, he's not entirely sure he feels like he deserves the title and estate he's been granted by the crown as thanks for his service. When he meets Lady Arabella, he is instantly smitten, both by her beauty and her intelligence, but he knows he could never be deserving of her and does his best to try to convince her of this fact. When he hears that she has returned to London and likely close to a betrothal with another man, he doesn't waste much time in getting to the capital to win his lady.

Since Netflix adapted Julia Quinn's The Duke and I into the first season of the very popular Bridgerton, she's been mentioned in a lot of articles recently. She's been writing Regency romances since 1995, publishing more than 30 different stories (if you count books and novellas), yet this novel is only her second one ever. While I have greatly enjoyed a lot of Quinn's novels since I rediscovered my love of romance novels in 2007-2008, it really shows that this is an early effort of hers, and neither the plotting, characterisation, or wit from many of her later novels is really present here. 

Arabella is just a little bit too perfect, she's well-read, opinionated, charming, beautiful, has had scores of suitors and quite a few proposals, yet just hasn't found that one right guy yet. She appears to have no flaws and as such, she's not all that interesting. Blackwood, on the other hand, is a complete mess and while I get that war is hell and all that, his constant shifts from basically seeming madly in love with Arabella to pushing her away the very next second got pretty exhausting. While she wasn't all that interesting to read about, I genuinely don't see why she would ever fall for a broody curmudgeon like Blackwood, and that's coming from someone who normally tends to like broody, tormented heroes.

There's also a subplot where someone from Blackwood's past has been sending him threatening notes and is out for revenge. This felt wholly unnecessary and the villain might as well have been a mustache-twirling caricature. It made an already rather lack-lustre plot even more preposterous and I did not care for it.

Since this is a book I've owned since 2016 and it fits into more than one of my many reading challenges this year, I made myself finish the book, even as I was rolling my eyes a lot. It is not a book that anyone save rabid Julia Quinn-completists need to read. The fact that it took me 12 days to finish should speak for itself. I have in the past read more than one Quinn novel a day - this was a slog. 

Judging a book by its cover: Julia Quinn's UK publishers have used these adorable cartoony covers long before this became the trend in pretty much all things romance. I like the indigo background colour and the pattern on the lady's dress is rather lovely. In fact, I think I like the cover of the book a lot more than its general contents. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR13 Book 5: "Lore" by Alexandra Bracken

Page count: 532 pages
Audio book length: 15 hrs 47 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Every seven years, the Agon begins. As punishment for a past rebellion, nine Greek gods are forced to walk the earth as mortals, hunted by the descendants of ancient bloodlines, all eager to kill a god and seize their divine power and immortality.

Long ago, Lore Perseous fled that brutal world in the wake of her family's sadistic murder by a rival line, turning her back on the hunt's promises of eternal glory. For years she's pushed away any thought of revenge against the man--now a god--responsible for their deaths.

Yet as the next hunt dawns over New York City, two participants seek out her help: Castor, a childhood friend of Lore believed long dead, and a gravely wounded Athena, among the last of the original gods.

The goddess offers an alliance against their mutual enemy and, at last, a way for Lore to leave the Agon behind forever. But Lore's decision to bind her fate to Athena's and rejoin the hunt will come at a deadly cost--and still may not be enough to stop the rise of a new god with the power to bring humanity to its knees. 

Melora "Lore" Perseus has been trying to stay away from the brutal world she was raised in after her entire family was ruthlessly slaughtered seven years ago just as the previous Agon was about to end. She's living in a Brooklyn brownstone left to her by the kindly old man she worked as a caretaker for, who passed away about six months ago. Her only friend is Miles, a young man completely unaware of her dangerous background. Now it seems, her past is determined to catch up with her. She discovers that her old friend Castor didn't die of leukemia after all, but is in fact not only strong and healthy but has taken on the mantle of Apollo after the last Agon. She also finds the goddess Athena brutally stabbed on her literal doorstep and when the goddess offers her a bargain that will allow her revenge on the man who is responsible, Lore is reluctant at first but realises that she can't really refuse. She agrees to bind her fate to that of Athena, so giving her extra strength and resources. However, if either of the two dies, the other one will too.

Over the course of the next week, Lore and Athena work together to try to track down the man who has taken on the power of Ares and is systematically trying to wipe out all other gods (or those who have their power now) in the Agon. They are aided by Castor, his friend Evander and Miles, who insists on helping, even though he's the only mortal not trained from childhood in this strange deadly tournament. As they work on achieving their goal, Lore comes to discover that her childhood goal of becoming a legend may be achievable after all, but it will only come after even greater cost than she has already paid.

I don't know if this book is being marketed with 'Percy Jackson meets the Hunger Games', but it probably should be. The concept of the story, the Agon, is explained at the beginning of the book. I don't entirely remember why the descendants of all the great heroes have to keep hunting down the occasionally fully mortal Greek gods in order to earn power and glory, but that's the world we find ourselves in here. A world that sadly still considers only male fighters truly worthy, and which won't allow any women to be the head of a house and very few as acceptable as Hunters. Until her family was killed at the end of the last Agon, Lore was determined to prove everyone wrong and become legendary. After she found her father, mother, and two younger sisters brutally slaughtered in their small New York apartment, however, she determined to have nothing more to do with the Agon or the rivaling families vying for power. 

While Lore has spent most of the last seven years estranged from the world she once knew and is quite lonely, she has a very solid friendship with Miles, and it's good to see her reconnecting with Castor, Van (Evander) and later her old friend Iro as well. These teenagers have all been raised with some truly warped values and this last round of the Agon seems to be making all of them, not just Lore, realise that the old traditions cannot continue. Changes need to be made.

This book seems to be entirely stand-alone, which is unsual in and of itself nowadays. I enjoyed it and found the mix of Greek mythology, action adventure and death race interesting and enjoyable. The audio book is narrated by Fryda Wolff, who does a good job with the sprawling cast of characters. 

While I think this book absolutely fits into the YA genre with many of its character archetypes and plot beats, it should probably be recommended for older readers, as there are some really very violent scenes throughout. I remember being surprised that Pierce Brown's Red Rising series was being marketed as YA, and this is a bit in the same vein. Lore, Castor, Evander and Miles have neither of them turned twenty yet, but a lot of the themes and action set pieces are distinctly gory. So be aware of that.

Judging a book by its cover: I have always found Medusa a very fascinating character, and this cover, where a statue appears to be coming to life and staring straight at the reader was one of the things that first struck me when I decided to check out the book. Any cover image arresting enough to make me interested in picking up and reading the book has done its job well. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read