Monday 30 August 2021

#CBR13 Book 31: "Shifters in the Night" by Molly Harper

Page count: 300 pages
Audio book length: 6 hrs 43 mins
Rating: 3 stars

I was happily surprised when logging into Audible to discover that there was a new Mystic Bayou book out. Ever since a video went viral of a shifter going raging in a parking lot, the world at large has become aware that supernatural creatures exist and live among them. The existence of Mystic Bayou, a little southern town where humans and supernatural beings co-exist happily has also become public, and it's bringing in a lot more visitors, both through tourism and people who want to settle down in the town. 

Lea Doe is very good at her job, which involves getting affordable housing built in various locations. As a deer shifter, she has the ability to read most people and creatures' emotions, something that is extremely convenient when negotiating and trying to liaise with the locals in the various places New Ground Construction work. While her boss normally lets her run the show and mainly stays behind the scenes, he seems to be acting much stranger than usual in Mystic Bayou, and she's not sure she's happy with his more active (and interfering role). Luckily, the town officials, led by mayor Zed seem very pleased to welcome her and negotiate what the housing development should look like. This is good because Lea is unusually preoccupied with the mysterious man she met in the woods when running in her hind form upon her arrival in the town.

Jon Carmody has lived as a recluse for a long time. He's a selkie and used to be the only available mechanic in town. In his youth, he had a close encounter with a kraken which left him pretty badly scarred and this is the reason he's mainly kept to himself and had all his groceries and other necessities delivered to his house on the outskirts of Mystic Bayou. After his brother Will returned to town to become its resident doctor and settled down with the formidable Sonia Fong from the League of Interspecies Cooperation, he's been feeling more lonely. His brother keeps challenging Jon to push himself out of his comfort zone, to start interacting more directly with people again. 

Jon is very surprised to find a beautiful naked woman swimming on his property one evening, and can't really seem to get her out of his mind. He discovers that the beautiful woman is Lea Doe and despite his shyness and misgivings about his scars, he desperately wants to get to know her better. Will, Sonia and their other friends do what they can to arrange get-togethers where the two can meet up and circumstances also seem to keep throwing Lea and Jon together. 

I'm going to be entirely honest, by now, the plots of these books (all of which I read over a fairly short space of time MANY months ago) are all blending together a bit, and as such, I can't really entirely remember what I liked and didn't about this one. The ever-increasing group of supporting characters who now feel like the cast of some quirky Southern-set paranormal sitcom are still a delight, the main romance in this was perfectly fine, but nothing that now sticks in my mind two and a half months later. If you liked the rest of the series, and have Audible Plus, so the book is free, it's a fine way to while away a few hours. 

Judging a book by its cover: Not a huge fan. I'm guessing the characters are soaking wet on the cover because Jon is a selkie? Who knows. I don't think anyone is picking these books up because of the cover art. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 15 August 2021

#CBR13 Book 30: "Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake" by Alexis Hall

Page count: 449 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Libations (the whole setting of the book is a televised baking show, so there are a lot of both sweet and savoury baked treats in the story and featured on the cover)

Official book description:
Following the recipe is the key to a successful bake. Rosaline Palmer has always lived by those rules—well, except for when she dropped out of college to raise her daughter, Amelie. Now, with a paycheck as useful as greaseproof paper and a house crumbling faster than biscuits in tea, she’s teetering on the edge of financial disaster. But where there’s a whisk there’s a way . . . and Rosaline has just landed a spot on the nation’s most beloved baking show.

Winning the prize money would give her daughter the life she deserves—and Rosaline is determined to stick to the instructions. However, more than collapsing trifles stand between Rosaline and sweet, sweet victory.  Suave, well-educated, and parent-approved Alain Pope knows all the right moves to sweep her off her feet, but it’s shy electrician Harry Dobson who makes Rosaline question her long-held beliefs—about herself, her family, and her desires.

Rosaline fears falling for Harry is a guaranteed recipe for disaster. Yet as the competition—and the ovens—heat up, Rosaline starts to realize the most delicious bakes come from the heart.

I'm not the first Cannonballer to review this title, and I doubt I will be the last. Last year, I read and absolutely adored Hall's Boyfriend Material. It got me out of a reading slump and I loved both the two protagonists and all of the supporting cast around them. My rather high expectations of this book were somewhat tempered when fellow romance reviewer, Emmalita, read an ARC of the book and admitted to not being able to finish the novel. Naturally, that made me a bit wary, but the reasons she gave for not being comfortable with the contents are not things that necessarily upset me. 

Nevertheless, I went into the book with lowered expectations, and that might have been good because Rosaline Palmer is a very different book from Boyfriend Material. The first one is a straight-up romantic comedy, complete with a lot of the tropes we expect from that genre. In this book, there is absolutely romance, but the heroine does spend basically the whole first half of the book with the wrong guy, so to speak and the primary plotline in the book is more about Rosaline's journey of self-discovery and self-determination than it is about her finding lasting romance.

As a huge fan of the Great British Bake Off (or Great British Baking Show, as it is known in the US), the fake baking reality show, complete with esteemed judges, snarky hosts, foul-mouthed and ill-tempered producers and all manner of baking shenanigans was absolutely an added bonus. The fact that Hall is apparently going to write more Bake Off-inspired romances delights me to no end.  

One of Hall's strengths, I find, is how well he writes not only his protagonists but makes all the supporting characters feel real and essential as well. Rosaline's daughter could well have been an annoying plot moppet in less skilled hands (seriously, so many writers just don't know how to include realistic children, and should just refrain from including them in their books). Lauren, Rosaline's ex and now best friend was also great (as were the appearances of Lauren's current girlfriend when she occasionally popped up). The various other baking show contestants felt very real, and even Rosaline's demanding and occasionally overbearing parents felt very realistic. 

If you don't find self-centred, narcissistic, and emotionally manipulative love interests an instant turn-off (be assured that he is not Rosaline's HEA, and she gets a lovely guy when she just wakes up and stops second-guessing herself), and are OK with this romance being a lot more slow-burn than Oliver and Luc's, this is a fun book, especially for those of us who want more GBBO. 

Judging a book by its cover: Possibly in keeping with the central story of this book being Rosaline finding herself and discovering what she wants to do with her future, rather than the romance, this cover doesn't feature any male love interest, only our heroine herself, with a number of delicious baked goods and baking utensils floating in the air around her. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 9 August 2021

#CBR13 Book 29: "Neon Gods" by Katee Robert

Page count: 391 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Mythic (while this is pretty much a straight-up contemporary romance/erotica, the mythological influences are very much there throughout the book)

This book was granted to me as an ARC through NetGalley in return for an honest review. It's available now.

Persephone Dimitriou is a society darling, living in the lap of luxury in a stylish highrise in the city of Olympus. Her mother is Demeter, head of one of the thirteen ruling houses and while she seems to care for her four daughters, she clearly cares for ambition and power all the more. Persephone puts on a sunny and glamorous front and counts the days until she turns twenty-five when she will access her trust fund and bribe someone to get her out of Olympus forever. Imagine her shock when she is ambushed at a big society party with a public proposal from Zeus, heads of the thirteen houses himself (and a widower whose three previous wives all disappeared without a trace). Zeus makes Persephone's skin crawl and she leaves the party as soon as she's able, running away into the night to get away.

She finds herself chased by two of Zeus' henchmen towards the river Styx, the almost impossible to cross border between the glamourous upper city and the dark and neglected undercity. Utterly terrified, she forces herself to run across one of the few bridges, even as her feet are bleeding and her lungs are running out of air. A dark, mysterious stranger catches her and warns away her assailants, then bundles her up and literally carries her away to his home. The mystery man turns out to be none other than Hades, the believed to be dead scion of the thirteenth house. It's in the interest of the rulers of the other eleven houses (Hera doesn't rule her own house, that is the courtesy title that Zeus' wife holds) that Hades is kept as a shadowy sort of boogeyman, who only a few know of. He doesn't ever cross the river Styx to get to the upper city, they stay away from the lower city and his territory. 

Hades already hates Zeus with every fiber of his scarred being. The only survivor of a horrible fire that killed his parents when he was a child, Hades has been a ruler of his house since he was very young, and he's spent most of his time making sure that the inhabitants of the undercity are safe and protected, and that he has contingency plans for whatever the other members of the Thirteen might come up with to mess with his people. He never expected to bring pretty princess Persephone half frozen to death with bleeding feet into his kitchen, furious about being abducted one minute and proposing an alliance and a very tempting bargain the next morning. Persephone has figured out that Hades hates Zeus, and what better way to stay safe from him (and provoke him massively in the process) than by offering herself to Hades as his lover. If she makes sure she is publically associated with Hades for the last three months of winter until she turns twenty-five, she's pretty sure Zeus will consider her damaged goods and no longer wish to marry her. Hades gets a chance to thumb his nose at his greatest enemy by "stealing" that which Zeus considers his by right.

While Zeus always made Persephone feel deeply uncomfortable, Hades makes her feel safe and clearly means to protect her, even from her own worst impulses. He's not at all impressed with her refusal to rest and wait for her feet to heal or her tendency to go for days without proper meals when she's stressed or processing things. While Hades may have the public persona of some dark lord of the seedy underworld, he's clearly a deeply lonely, physically and emotionally scarred man who protects all those he feels responsible for be they the various inhabitants in lower Olympus, his loyal staff...or Persephone.

Having had to make sure to hide her observant nature and sharp intelligence behind a facade of a beautiful, vacuous socialite in the years since her mother ascended to the position of Demeter, Persephone is both surprised and delighted to be able to be herself around Hades, even when that means being intentionally provoking and baiting him. She was drawn to him from the moment she first fell into his arms and rather eager at the chance to share his passions, even the darker, more public expressions of his desires. She agrees to his dominance when they are in public, but finds herself treated fully as a valued equal when they are alone together. With each passing week, the time they have left together becomes shorter and both Persephone and Hades fall more and more hopelessly for one another. Persephone has risked everything, including possibly the safety of her three beloved sisters,  to find freedom away from Olympus - there is no future for her and Hades long term. Or is there?

I'd heard positive buzz about Neon Gods on various romance review sites, so jumped at the chance to get an ARC from Netgalley. As readers of my reviews know, while I probably still read more than most people I know (outside the Cannonballers, a huge amount of people who read WAY more than me), I am reading so much less than I have in previous years. I've already abandoned several reading challenges because I'm just never going to be able to keep up with them. I certainly wasn't expecting to pretty much devour this book in the space of fewer than 24 hours. The first few chapters are a bit slow and set up Persephone's desperate situation. Once she flees across the river Styx, however, I was utterly hooked and read far longer into the night than planned, and then ignored pretty much everything except seeing to the well-being of my child the following day. Luckily, at three and a half now, he is perfectly able to entertain himself for some amount of time, both inside and outside (I can read while he's building trains or digging in a sandbox) and since he doesn't usually get a lot of TV, an afternoon of Octonauts was a real treat for him. Sexy kissing book for Mummy, animated oceanography cartoon for him. Win-win. 

I know that Katee Robert has written a series of erotica featuring a whole bunch of Disney characters and their smexy interactions. I read the first one, featuring Jasmine and Jafar, last year, but never really cared all that much, even if the levels of steam were rather higher than I tend to find in my novels. This new series, called Dark Olympus is apparently set in another part of the same world. It's a contemporary romance, with a dark edge, and as someone who has always loved the Hades and Persephone myth, it was a lot of fun to see how Robert retold it. It doesn't hurt that I loved both Hades and Persephone, as individual characters and as a couple. They compliment each other beautifully and their chemistry is off the charts. 

The world-building that is established, with the glossy, celebrity-obsessed glitz of the upper Olympus, reminding me a bit of the description of the Capitol in The Hunger Games, without the televised fight to the death of a bunch of teenagers every year. There's still the ruthless, powerful rulers of the elite and a complete disconnect between the upper and lower city. In the lower city, Hades' domain, people seem to live much simpler, yet probably more rewarding lives, much of the old architecture is preserved and while the place is believed to be filled with thieves, bandits, and sexual perversion, it's mostly just full of folks minding their own business, all worshipping the ground Hades walks on since he's willing to do whatever it takes to keep them all safe. They all seem to welcome Persephone since it's obvious that she is great for Hades.

While all of Demeter's daughters have separate fathers, they are incredibly close and have each chosen their own way to survive in the spotlight of being a scion of a ruling house. Taking some liberties with the actual mythology, Robert has made Callisto, Psyche, Persephone, and Eurydice sisters in this world. The four women adore each other and feel very protective towards one another, so Persephone obviously has to keep her sisters updated about her whereabouts and the truth of her situation. I liked the close bonds between the women and will be interested to see where the series goes next (seems to be the story of Psyche and Eros, which has a lot of elements of one of my favourite fairy tales East of the Sun, West of the Moon, so I'm pretty much one-clicking as soon as the book becomes available for pre-order). 

This book has a compelling romance between a cheerful, sunshiny heroine who isn't always all that sunny and a seemingly very grumpy, but very caring and protective hero who both enjoy some kink as well as a lot of more regular smexy times. Both protagonists appear to be bi and think back to same-sex relationships they have had in the past. There are frolicking puppies and a secret greenhouse garden, a lot of banter, and a compelling story surrounding the main romance as well. 

If you like modern retellings in your romance, this is a really good one and worth checking out. 

Judging a book by its cover: Very fitting for a book about the king of the underworld, the cover is in dark blue and purple tones, with a throne-like leather armchair front and centre. Hades does in fact have a throne of sorts, and it sees some pretty steamy action over the course of the story. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

Sunday 8 August 2021

#CBR13 Book 28: "The Professor Next Door" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 236 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Pandemic

This book was granted to me as an ARC from the author in return for an honest review. I had already pre-ordered the book, as Jackie Lau is now an auto-buy for me.

While this is technically the third entry in the Cider Bar Sisters series, each of the books in the series works perfectly well as a stand-alone. The first book in the series, Her Big City Neighbor is currently available free, however (as of me writing this), so if you're curious to try the series, that's probably the best place to start.

Nicole Louie-Edwards is very happy to be single and having casual sex with a number of eligible men. She has absolutely no wish to be saddled with a relationship and the one romantic relationship in her past (to a much older man) did not end well. She's getting a bit sick of her hook-ups letting her down gently once they've found someone they'd like to commit to, though, although she tells herself that's because it means she has to find a new bed partner. 

On her birthday, she gets trapped in the lift with her new neighbour, who she discovers is a geology professor. While the quiet, nerdy-looking man isn't Nicole's type at all, she's touched when he shows up on her doorstep with birthday cake, and they gradually develop a friendship while meeting up for weekly dinner, either at his or hers.

David Cho used to be married but divorced his wife once it became clear she was never going to take his side against her racist family. He didn't realise how thin some of the walls in the apartment building he recently moved into were until he started hearing his neighbour have sex through them, something she seems to do frequently, and with enthusiasm. While it embarrasses him, David can't deny getting turned on by the sounds and he starts fantasizing about his neighbour and what he'd do if he got to be the one to produce her passionate responses. When they get trapped in the elevator together and later develop a friendship he does his very best to hide this dirty secret, but eventually he feels he has to tell the truth. Rather than be shocked or put off, Nicole seems amused by the revelation. She correctly surmises that David would actually like to listen in while she has sex, and gives him explicit permission not just to do so, but to take matters into his own hands while doing so, so to speak.

It doesn't take long before Nicole's curiosity makes her invite David into her bedroom and is delighted to discover that while he's rather shy, respectful, and nerdy during their friendly dinners together, he's quite dominant and very creative in the bedroom. The sex is much hotter than anything either of them has had for ages, and their one-time hook-up soon becomes a regular thing. 

As most of Nicole's friends seem to be finding someone to settle down with, she becomes more restless about her own single status. She can't imagine that David would ever want an actual relationship with someone like her (despite all evidence to the contrary, with him plying her with amazing take-out and dessert every chance he gets and putting up with her meddling family without complaint). He even takes part in Tik-Tok videos with her eccentric grandmother. It's not until she cooks him home-cooked food when he's ill that she begins to wonder if her pants feelings for him have turned into something more all-encompassing.

A common denominator in Jackie Lau's romances tends to be strong friendships and familial ties, even if some of those families are more of the found than the biological variety. There will be amazing descriptions of all manner of delicious food (thanks to her books, I now really want to go to Toronto and just EAT. ALL. THE. THINGS!) and desserts. Her books are very sex-positive, and in this book, there are quite a lot more of the smexy times than in some of her others. There is, refreshingly, absolutely no slut-shaming of Nicole, from any of her partners, friends, or family members, although her family seems to be very eager for her to get a steady boyfriend. 

I'm really enjoying the continued exploration of the friend group who meets up at the Cider Bar and share their lives with one another. There is clearly something being set up with Nicole's friend Sierra and her super-rich boyfriend, but I assume that is set up for a future book. This is another book that managed to hold my attention and get me out of my ongoing reading slump for a little while. I finished it in less than 24 hours, a rarity for me these days. I highly recommend it. 

Judging a book by its cover: I'm always fond of a nerdy romance hero, especially one who proves to be a force to be reckoned with in the bedroom. Who doesn't love a bespectacled man reading a book? It's not exactly something you see too often on a romance novel, however, so well done, Jackie Lau.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR13 Book 27: "Ghost Squad" by Claribel A. Ortega

Page count: 288 pages
Audio book length: 5 hrs 31 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Lucely (pronounced Lu-sell-i, at least by the audio book narrator) Luna may be living alone with her father (her mother left them when Lucely was little) but due to an unusual family legacy, she's able to see the presence of all the family's departed members. Her father, who once had the gift, can only see them as fireflies but accepts that they're there and cooks massive meals to provide for all the extended members who keep Lucely company. The family spirits are all tied to the large tree in the family's backyard, so when a member of the bank comes and announces that if Lucely's dad can't cover his mortgage payments any longer, the family will be evicted, it doesn't just mean potential homelessness for Luna and her dad, but they'll be separated from the family spirits forever. 

Lucely really needs to figure out a way for her father's failing ghost tour business to get more customers and she and her best friend Syd are trying to wrack their brains. Halloween is coming up, and something sinister is brewing in the little town of St. Augustine, where they live. Lucely's grandmother delivers a very ominous warning to her granddaughter and then seems to fade away, her firefly lazy and lethargic. Lucely and Syd rummage through the secret collection of Syd's very alive and formidable grandmother, Babette (rumoured to be an actual witch). They find a spell that they hope will make Lucely's grandmother come back, but it turns out to be something a lot more sinister, and soon the girls are forced to come clean to Babette and enlist her help, and that of her cat Chunk, to reverse the spell and send the malevolent ghosts back where they came from - otherwise the town will be overrun on Halloween.

One of my goals for my seven-week-long summer vacation was that I was going to get on top of my massive review backlog. Now, here we are, with me starting work again tomorrow morning, reviewing books I read in the middle of May. I'm generally trying really hard to focus on the many things my husband and I have achieved during the holiday, while also both struggling with depression, corona-induced cabin fever, and the challenge of constantly entertaining and responsibly raising a boisterous three-year-old. So, not couning this one, there are still fifteen reviews left for me to do before I catch up. My memory of the finer plot points of this middle grade adventure novel, which I read as part of the CBR Book Club this spring, Young at Heart

I'm obviously not the main target audience for this book, but every time I read children's or middle grade books, I am struck by how much more diverse and imaginative they are than most of the ones I remember from my own adolescence. The official book description for this book tries to sell it as a sort of mix of Coco meets Ghostbusters, which as is often the case with these quick pitches is at least halfway misleading. There are a lot of Latinx family vibes in the story, absolutely, and there is absolutely a supernatural element, but the Ghostbusters side of the pitch is more accurate, if those busting the ghosts are two determined girls, an over-weight cat and a grandmother with a lot of arcane knowledge.

Family is a huge focus in the story. The Lunas may only have two living members, but the various ghost relatives who show up to support Lucely in different ways (even willing to risk their afterlife to fight bad ghosts with her) are great. We don't see much of her overworked father, but he clearly cares a lot about her. There's also the family you choose, Lucely's best friend Syd, and Babette, who not only has a house full of cats (all named for characters from The Goonies), but also may or may not be an actual dyed in the wool witch.

This book was fast-paced, adventurous and suitably creepy, I'm sure I would absolutely have adored it if I read it in my tweens. Almarie Guerra does a very good job with the narration, and I shall keep a look-out for her on future audio books.

Judging a book by its cover: I don't have a lot to say about this, except I love the art style and the depiction of the girls, not to mention Chunk, in all their (don't remember what gender the cat is) overweight glory. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read