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