Monday 31 October 2022

CBR14 Book 33: "Hot Rabbi" by Aviva Blakeman

Page count: 212 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Hot (hot features in the title, and a lot of the contents are also decidedly spicy)

Official book description: 
For fifteen years, Shoshana Goldman has avoided her childhood synagogue. Her successful custom-furniture store keeps her busy enough, and the synagogue brings bad memories not peace. It will take nothing short of a minor miracle to change her mind.

Intrigued by her friends’ convictions that the new “hot Rabbi” is that minor miracle, Shoshana agrees to attend a service. It’s only one service, right? But meeting the new Rabbi changes everything.

David Freedman is settling into his new town and his new job easily. As a single dad and a Rabbi, his priorities are his daughter and his congregation. He doesn’t have time for romance, especially with the sexy pink-haired Shoshana whose tendency to say whatever she’s thinking is a breath of fresh air.

But his attraction to Shoshana is a distraction he doesn’t want to give up. He knows a romance with a congregant is a bad idea. So it’s a very good thing Shoshana isn’t a member.

As David and Shoshana grow closer, Shoshana’s troubled past threatens to destroy their happiness. Will David be the miracle she needs to live fully in the present?

There don't seem to be a lot of romance novels, contemporary and certainly not historical, that feature Jewish protagonists. I certainly can't remember reading many of them. The Jewish faith is pretty much front and centre in this book, what with the hero being a rabbi and the heroine being raised in the faith (she considers herself an atheist). This means there were quite a few words and terms that I wasn't immediately familiar with. Did it in any way impact my enjoyment of the book? Not even a little bit. 

As well as being a really well-plotted and sexy book, I was surprised at how funny and emotional it is. Shoshana's dad reacted badly when her mother died, and as a result, Shoshana doesn't feel comfortable going to the local synagogue, even if it also means she's lost touch with a lot of people. She is convinced she manages fine on her own, running her family's custom-furniture business more or less single-handedly. Her entire social network consists of her two best friends and her loyal employee.

Her friends insist that she has to come and check out the new "hot rabbi" and Shoshana lets herself be persuaded. Shoshana and David, recently divorced and the primary caregiver of a little girl, form a pretty instant connection. David has been deftly avoiding all attempts to set him up, as he doesn't want to get romantically involved with anyone in his congregation. So the fact that Shoshana isn't part of said congregation anymore is perfect. They are both a bit flabbergasted at how quickly they seem to fall for one another but meeting this funny, intelligent, understanding and caring man brings up a whole host of insecurities in Shoshana, whose life is also further complicated when her loyal sidekick at work announces that he's quitting and Shoshana needs to learn to deal with the business side of her furniture shop in less than a month. 

Confession - I know the author of this book and consider her a friend. That has not influenced my review (rather made it more intimidating to write, frankly) and I am only sorry that it's taken me so long to actually read and review this book. My friend wrote this clever, funny, sexy, and emotional book and published it and sold it and I'm so very proud of her. If I have any criticism at all about this book it's that it's a bit short, and I wanted to spend more time with pretty much every single character in it. Now I can look forward to checking out the next book in this series (about a hot lumberjack, who I think was mentioned in passing at least once in this book) and hopefully keep being amazed by Aviva's writing skills. 

Judging a book by its cover: This book has more than one cover, but I prefer the one where you can see the protagonists more clearly (the other one has them in shadow, almost silhouetted against the cover). While I imagine Shoshana's hair as a bit curlier, and with several different shades of pink in her hair, I really like this cover. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 32: "Love Lettering" by Kate Clayborn

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Fonts (Meg's whole livelihood involves lettering, fonts, and calligraphy. Also, this was the first book on my TBR I could think of when I saw the bingo prompt.)

Meg Mackworth is known as "the Planner of Park Slope" and uses her hand lettering skills and creativity to design custom journals and planners for the rich and influential in New York City. Lately, she's really feeling the pressure of all the work and suffering from a creative block - not exactly a good thing when she's trying to complete the pitch of a lifetime. She's not sure why she keeps growing more and more estranged from her best friend and roommate. So when a former client shows up at the shop where she works and confronts her about the wedding program she designed for him and his fiancée, a beautifully decorated piece where she hid the word "mistake" from everyone, or so she believed. Reid Sutherland is a financial analyst who's excellent at spotting patterns, and he wants to know how Meg could be so sure that his relationship was doomed even before the wedding took place.

Meg obviously feels bad for Reid and admits that her action was rather unprofessional. She apologises and reckons that she's unlikely to ever see the handsome man again. She's surprised to hear that not only is he not married, but he's also shortly going to be leaving New York, claiming he never really liked it there. As Meg adores New York, she decides to apologise to Reid by trying to make him see the magic of the city, which she figures might help her find new inspiration for her work, as well. She plans a number of walking tours and invites Reid along. He not only agrees to come with her, but he also challenges her to little games and friendly competitions while they wander. The more time they spend with each other, the more their attraction grows. But is there any future for the two of them if Reid is going to be leaving the city soon? 

This is one of those romances that pretty much got rave reviews all over the place when it came out, and I didn't have the opportunity to read it back then but snapped it up in a sale, whereupon I of course promptly forgot about it, until the Bingo challenge came along and made me examine my digital library when planning my reading list. Having now finished it at last, I think it may be my favourite of Clayborn's books so far. 

I wouldn't describe the romance as angsty as such, but both Meg and Reid have some baggage to work through, and it turns out that the very private Reid has also been keeping some secrets from Meg that are revealed in the final act and complicate their relationship quite a bit. I'm not sure I was entirely happy with that whole plot strand, I thought it made things a bit too melodramatic. Apart from that, I liked the slow burn of Meg and Reid getting to know one another on their walks all over New York, and the little games they made up with letters and signs to pass the time. I also liked Meg's growing friendship with her movie star client (who I will insist in my head is Anne Hathaway, and you can't tell me any different) and the other found family friendships she had to support her. The most angsty aspect of this book was probably Meg's sort of relationship breakdown with her roommate, but I thought that was solved really well at the end of the book as well.

I'm glad I finally got round to reading this one. Clayborn is a good writer, and while she might not blow my socks off, I had a good time reading the book, and can recommend it for anyone wanting a cozy read. 

Judging a book by its cover: The cover is cute, but I think that a book that is so focused on writing and fonts could have a more exciting cover, featuring more interesting graphics. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday 27 October 2022

CBR14 Book 31: "She Who Became the Sun" by Shelley Parker-Chan

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Star (Zhu might be described as something of a rising star within the Chinese power structure of the day, and also the sun is literally a star. I'm so very clever).

Back in the 14th Century, the Mongols had conquered and ruled Imperial China. In a small village, drought and famine have killed the majority of the population. A nameless girl (one of the few children left in the village) has managed to stay alive thanks to her ingenuity. When her older brother, who had been prophecied a glorious future and her father die, the girl is has the choice to accept death as well, or to fight fate itself by assuming her dead brother's identity and striving to achieve the greatness likely. Zhu Chongba walks to the nearest monastery and despite all of the monks' attempts to drive her away, waits patiently outside, taking no food nor water for three days and three nights, until the monks relent and take her in as a novice.

Several years later, when novice Zhu Chongba has just been anointed as a monk, the Mongol's infamous eunuch general comes to the monastery and demands enough tribute in support of the ongoing war that the abbot there flatly refuses, and as a result the general orders the whole place burned to the ground. Zhu survives and has to seek out the Red Turban rebels, the Chinese warriors who oppose the Mongols. Small and ridiculed, Zhu ends up in the army vanguard as they are off to fight the Mongols, and through a combination of cleverness and pure luck (or is it the fates looking out for her), Zhu sets in motion a series of events that lead to a very unlikely victory for the Red Turbans. Zhu Chongba's rise toward success continues.

Zhu may be smaller than most warriors (and obviously hiding a big secret), but she is very intelligent and uses her smarts to maneuver the intricate politics of the Red Turbans, steadily rising in the ranks, until she is leading a large part of their army herself. Again and again, her path seems to cross with that of Ouyang, the eunuch general, and with each encounter, Zhu relentlessly finesses herself closer to her ultimate goal, the greatness her young, long-dead brother was promised. 

This is Shelley Parker-chan's debut novel, which she herself described as" a queer reimagining of the rise to power of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty. It’s also a fun story about gender". So She Who Became the Sun is a fantasy retelling of actual historical events. Some of the people in my book club thought the book was almost more of a straight historical fiction with some fantastical elements (there are ghosts and a smattering of magic) rather than a straight fantasy. Even if the book title hadn't given a pretty strong hint as to how our protagonist is going to fare (it's not called The little peasant girl who died nameless and forgotten), history itself may provide some spoilers. The novel has been nominated for a number of big literary awards, like the Locus, Aurealis and Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction. Parker-Chan is the first Australian author to be nominated for a Hugo award for Best Novel, and while the book didn't win that award, it won both Best Newcomer and Best Fantasy Novel at the 2022 British Fantasy awards. 

The book was the September book in my local fantasy and sci-fi book club, and we had a record number of attendees for the actual meeting, with the majority of participants having really liked the novel. The discussion continued way longer than the normal hour we usually spend because so many people had interesting things to say about it. Some of the readers thought that a lot of the Chinese terms and descriptions of the culture were a bit complicated, and could have been explained better. It was pointed out that similar things happen in more Euro-centric fantasies all along, with no one batting an eyelid, and the fact that the author just assumes that the readers will figure out what terms like "the Mandate of Heaven" entails, and how Mongol and Chinese cultural norms and values are similar or different from context clues was one of the book's strengths. 

It was very interesting to read an unashamedly queer novel where two of the central characters, our protagonist Zhu Chongba and her antagonist General Ouyang are both fascinating, complex, ambitious, and driven. Both are rather amoral and at times very unsympathetic, willing to sacrifice pretty much everything to achieve their goals. In Zhu's case, this is to achieve the greatness that was promised to her dead brother, to be able to fool heaven itself into letting her assume his identity. In the case of the general, an ethnically Chinese man who was enslaved by the Mongols, and castrated rather than murdered along with the rest of his family for perceived treason, is seemingly loyal to the Mongols but has secretly been plotting to avenge his kin by overthrowing his Yuan masters. 

Very few people realise that Zhu is a woman assuming the identity of a man, and she doesn't really embody any of the virtues and qualities her society ascribes to women. She's also described from the start as small and ugly (frequently like a cricket) Meanwhile, General Ouyang is described as uncommonly beautiful and despite his gift for strategy and his military successes is reviled and mocked by the majority of the Yuan elite. He fights his attraction to his best friend (unfortunately also the son and heir of the man who killed his family and enslaved him) and strives to be the epitome of masculinity. Another interesting contrast to Zhu Chongba is Ma Yingzi, the woman Zhu ends up marrying. Also very intelligent and observant, and sadly ignored and overlooked by most people in her life, Ma fulfills the more traditional feminine ideal in society. 

There are a lot of interesting explorations of identity and gender in the book, which is also a relatively fast-paced and action-packed novel that explores a period of history in a part of the world most Western readers certainly rarely know a lot about. In my book club, several people commented that they were surprised at how short the section where Zhu is in the monastery ends up being, while the plot moves our protagonist into the company of the Red Turban rebels and starts charting Zhu's uncommonly rapid progression through the military ranks until she is a Commander. 

If I'm not mistaken, this is the first in a duology (although I won't exactly be surprised if it ends up being a trilogy - it wouldn't be the first time), and based on this, I'm very much looking forward to seeing where the story goes next. 

Judging a book by its cover: There are two main covers for this book, both in shades of yellow and orange. I much prefer this one, with its big windy Chinese dragon, to the other one, where you see the silhouettes of a bunch of horse-mounted warriors, led by a shadowy figure. There's a big orange sun in the sky and some dark banners floating in front of it. I much prefer the dragon cover. I'm not super happy about the "tag line", as I'm really not sure the third part - hero, is applicable to anyone in this story, certainly not Zhu.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday 26 October 2022

CBR14 Book 30: "Be the Serpent" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Series (this is book 16 in an ongoing series, do NOT start here). 

Spoiler warning! This is book 16 in the series. It's impossible to review the book without referring to events in earlier books, so if you want to remain completely unspoiled, skip this one. I'll try to avoid any big spoilers for this book.

October "Toby" Daye not only survived her wedding, but so did her husband, Tybalt, King of Cats, and all her friends and found family as well. She and Tybalt get to enjoy a brief period of wedded bliss before trouble comes calling once more. Rayselline Torquill is about to be woken from her elf-shot-induced sleep, and there are a lot of faeries who have a score to settle with the unstable young elf woman, including Toby, whose boyfriend died because of Raysel's actions. However, time (and a new husband) heals a lot of wounds, and Toby wants to make peace and for Rayselline to have somewhere safe to recover, so she shows up and demands service for a year and a day from the newly awakened woman (so that Rayselline can seek refuge in Toby's house rather than return to  old home and her parents' expectations and worries). 

While at court, it becomes very obvious that something very bad is happening or soon to happen to one of Toby's best friend's family. Stacy Brown is one of the changelings that Toby grew up with and part of her large and self-created family. For reasons no one entirely understands, Stacy and her husband Mitch (also a changeling) have several children who seem to be clairvoyant in some way. Two of them are at court with Toby, and both have horrifying visions at the same time. Something is threatening Toby's friend, and it turns out to involve very old and unpredictable magic. The honeymoon is most certainly over, and while Toby is brave and heroic and has faced a lot of dangers in the past, it seems unlikely that she'll get through this adventure without suffering some truly staggering losses.

In a long-running series like this (how is this already book 17? How long have I actually been reading these books?), there are some books that are more "adventure of the week" and some that focus on major events that shake up the whole series. From her author's notes, it's clear that McGuire has had a lot of things for this series planned from the very beginning, and keeps portioning out these huge plot changers with care. Now, after a few books where we've been building up towards Toby's wedding, McGuire now unveils another of her really big continuity events, and this one brings with it some pretty staggering losses for our heroine and her friends. So while there was a happy ending to the last book, be prepared for the fact that some bad sh*t goes down in this one and the ending especially is quite the mind f*ck. 

During the last few books, some of the big bads making existence difficult for Toby and her crew have either been neutralised or have made peace with her, so it makes sense from a storytelling perspective that some new (or possibly very old) enemies were introduced instead. The revelations in this book certainly open up for taking the series in some intriguing directions. These books still remain a high point of my reading calendar each year, and I'm always looking forward to a new installment. It helps that McGuire releases a new one every September. In contrast, after book 16 and 17 of Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files (which the readers had to wait more than six years for) I find that I'm rather bored of that world, and unsure of whether I'm actually going to continue when the next book eventually comes out. 

I can absolutely understand that a new reader could be a bit intimidated by the many books in the series and the fact that McGuire seems to have quite a few books left before she's done telling her story. With my current mental headspace, I don't think I'd embark on a similarly long series now. However, I've been a fan of these for books for over a decade and each new book feels like reuniting with old friends. I'd keep reading even if this book hadn't ended on a fairly big cliff hanger (which it does). Outside of the books of Ilona Andrews, these are my favourites. 

Judging a book by its cover: Whoever is responsible for the covers for the last few October Daye books is doing excellent work. As paranormal fantasy covers go, these are among the best out there. I really like seeing Toby in full defender mode. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 22 October 2022

CBR14 Book 29: "Ti kniver i hjertet" (Ten knives in the heart) av Nora Dåsnes

Page count: 250 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuva is about to start seventh grade (age 11-12 here in Norway) and is very much looking forward to seeing her best friends Linnea and Bao and catching up after a long summer apart. She shares all of her hopes and fears writing and drawing in her diary. 

When she gets back to school, however, nothing is as she was expecting. Linnea has a boyfriend now, and doesn't really want to hang out, playing in their secret treehouse in the woods. She just wants to talk about boys, and lipgloss and tries to make Tuva figure out who her type is. Bao wants nothing to do with all the talk about boys and girly stuff, and soon Tuva is torn between her two best friends.

Tuva isn't all that interested in boys or makeup, she still likes listening to music and playing in the woods and spending time with Bao. But she's also rather dazzled by Linnea's pretty older sister, who has an Instagram account and wants to be an influencer. In the really rather difficult phase between being a child and a young adult, Tuva is easily swayed by ideas of how a girl should behave, who and what she should like. She doesn't want to have to pick sides when her two friends seem to have diametrically opposite viewpoints. Then a new girl starts in her class, and Tuva begins to feel some of the stuff Linnea has been going on about - but can a girl really be "her type"?

While there is a hint of queer romance in this story, the main themes are the difficult friendships between girls and the very confusing process of coming of age, when you're no longer exactly a carefree child, when hormones make you confused and you're not quite old enough to be a teenager either. This is Nora Dåsnes' debut graphic novel, aimed at at a younger audience than her YA graphic novel Ubesvart Anrop. The themes here are less heavy than the collective grief of a nation, survivor guilt and depression, but they are still important for young readers to face head-on. 

As a teacher in secondary school, I teach kids in 8th to 10th grade. They come to our school when they are 12 or 13 years old, and many are still very immature and rather childish. By the time they graduate at the end of 10th grade, they are 15 or 16 and have gone through massive changes, both physically and emotionally. It's both a fascinating and deeply frustrating age to be responsible for their learning. While these girls are a year younger than the kids I teach, it's really not just a myth that a lot of girls mature faster than boys (by no means all, but in many cases). So it seems realistic that this sort of identity crisis between who one is and who one is going to become might happen earlier for a lot of girls. 

I thought this was a stand-alone story, but it turns out that Dåsnes had been working on a sequel for a while now, showing the further adventures of the three girls. In the new book, which was released only a few weeks ago, Bao gets involved in school politics to save the river and woods behind the school, so it sounds like one of the major themes is environmentalism. It's nice to know that someone is making engaging and well-told stories for middle graders. I hope that Dåsnes has a long and successful career ahead of her.

Judging a book by its cover: I like Dåsnes' art and the cover gives a good idea of what it looks like. It's a cute cover with inviting colours. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday 18 October 2022

CBR14 Book 28: "Svarte-Mathilda" (Black Mathilda) by Tor Arve Røssland

Page count: 154 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Twenty years after a teenage girl was brutally murdered in a small town near Bergen, Elizabeth moves into the long-empty flat with her mother. Elizabeth's parents are going through a divorce, and in a tragic accident a while back, Elizabeth's older brother died in a fire. She hates that they had to move away from her old home and her friends in Bergen, that her mother doesn't seem to want to talk to her at all, and she certainly doesn't like their new home. The flat never seems to get warm, even if they keep a fire on in the fireplace and turn the heating up to high. In addition, Elizabeth's phone doesn't seem to be holding its charge and has very spotty reception, so she can't call or message her friends.

In the first few days there, Elizabeth also experiences some really scary things. She's convinced the sees blood all over the bathroom floor at one point and gets locked in there while she feels long clawed fingers reaching for her. She also hears voices whispering and is getting very freaked out. Meanwhile, her mother hasn't noticed anything out of the ordinary, except the unusually cold temperature in the flat, and she thinks Elizabeth may have a delayed grief reaction and considers getting the girl a therapist.

When Elizabeth starts her new school, the teacher seems shocked when she announces where she lives, and one of the boys, Philip, claims that her flat is known as the "murder place". He recounts how twenty years earlier, Marie van Vleet was found locked in the bathroom, stabbed multiple times, with her face all scratched up. Philip's dad is a policeman and this was his first murder case, so it made an impression on him. Elizabeth is a bit skeptical, but at the same time, her new home being the location of an unsolved murder might explain some of the strange paranormal stuff she's been experiencing. When she gets home, after spending several hours at the local burger joint listening to Philip recounting grisly murder details, her mother is upset that she's late, but also happy she seems to be making a friend. Later, Elizabeth once again finds herself locked into a room, this time, it's her own bedroom and a voice seems to be whispering warnings to her. She feels something shoved into her hand and discovers that it's the library card of Marie van Vleet. 

Elizabeth convinces Philip to accompany her to the local library the next day, where they make up a story about Philip's bedridden aunt who really wants to find a book she borrowed over twenty years ago. The junior librarian, Viggo, helps them but is reprimanded once the senior librarian discovers what he has done, and whose book records he's shown the two nosy teenagers. She explains that Marie van Vleet is long dead, and the teenagers should stop lying and leave the library. Viggo, however, is quite intrigued and offers to help the kids do research. Marie was clearly doing some research of her own, having read a lot about local history and a lot about folklore and the supernatural. They find a picture of a dark-haired and dark-eyed young girl called Mathilda from the 1880s and Viggo remembers an urban legend of a "Bloody Mary" style ghost called Black Mathilda. Supposedly, if you go into a dark room with a mirror, holding a lit candle or a flashlight, and call her name seven times, she will appear. He claims it's all coincidence and superstition, but Elizabeth is not so sure. Viggo has also found what seems to be Marie's diary among the library archives, and gives it to Elizabeth, as it's not really library property.

When reading the diary, Elizabeth discovers that the ornate and creepy mirror in their bathroom, which seems very old and not at all in the style of the other bathroom fittings, was in fact put there by Marie, who found it in the attic along with some old paintings. She, like Elizabeth, was living with her mother after her parents split and seemed determined to do as much as possible to aggravate her Mum. Putting in an ancient mirror seems to have done the trick. Further reading of the diary seems to suggest that there might be a link between the 19th Century Mathilda and the mirror, and the urban legend might not be so fictional after all. When Philip suggests they test the theory by locking themselves in the bathroom with a flashlight and calling for Mathilda, Elizabeth reluctantly agrees, and unsurprisingly, some really creepy and very much supernatural stuff goes down.

Parallel with the story of Elizabeth, Philip, and their investigation of Marie's murder, the readers get the story of a young happy couple in the 1880s settling on a large, prosperous farm in the west of Norway, a few hours away from the town where Elizabeth now lives. The wife has a baby, whom they name Mathilda, but she dies while Mathilda is very young, and a persuasive and slightly scary governess is hired, who brings her own daughter with her to the farm. Mathilda befriends the girl, who is disabled and seems to be feared by the other local children. As the years go by, the governess comes to wield a lot of power in the household and keeps persuading the father, who is also the local magistrate, to spend more time away from the farm. Then one by one, the local children start disappearing and are found dead and mutilated in the woods. How does this sinister tale intersect with that of Elizabeth and Marie?

Svarte-Mathilda is the first book in a trilogy about Elizabeth and her scary experiences with Black Mathilda. In the first book, Elizabeth's friend Philip disappears without a trace after they foolishly perform the ritual. Elizabeth is left stabbed in the stomach with her mother convinced Philip attacked her and ran away. Elizabeth needs to figure out the connection between the scary mirror in her flat, her friend's disappearance, and the historical events she has read about, or the curse of Black Mathilda will end up with her dead. 

This is a really rather creepy ghost story, with the suspense gradually building and some really nice touches throughout. All three books in the series have apparently been bestsellers and very popular among teens, and nominated for "Uprisen", a national book award voted for by teenage readers throughout Norway. My colleagues and I who teach Norwegian are currently all reading a little bit of the book out loud to our Norwegian class each lesson, and I obviously had to read the book myself before teaching it in class. Since our second theme of the year (very suitably for autumn) is going to be Scary things, reading a horror mystery seemed fitting. Some of the kids have already read the book, but are very good about not spoiling things for the rest of the class. 

I can see why this book has remained popular among teens since it was released in 2010. At under 200 pages long, it's a quick read and it mixes historical fiction with a contemporary murder mystery and a ghost story really well. Some of the contemporary mystery stuff could easily have been the plot of a 'monster of the week' episode of Supernatural. 

While my TBR list for the coming months is pretty packed, I'm absolutely going to find the time to read the two sequels as well. I need to find out more about how Mathilda became a vengeful ghost and whether Elizabeth is successful in locating and saving her friend Philip.

Judging a book by its cover: While maybe a bit simple, the cover strikes a nice tone for a mystery, with the font being very old-fashioned, in keeping with the historical side of the story. The fancy frame of the mirror, complete with a creepy child and blood-red background seems like a very obvious choice. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 16 October 2022

CBR14 Book 27: "Love on the Brain" by Ali Hazelwood

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Mind (Bee, as well as Ms. Hazelwood herself, is a neuroscientist and there's a whole lot of brain science happening in the book)

Bee Köningswasser, a young pink-haired neuroscientist, is offered pretty much her dream job on a NASA project and accepts joyfully. Her excitement is cut short when she realises that while she's the lead on the neuroscience part, her nemesis from grad school, Levi Ward, is the engineering lead on the same project. Nevertheless, Bee can feel herself wasting away in her current job, with a sexist boss and not exactly supportive colleagues, so off she goes with her surly gloom-cookie research assistant Rocio (think if April Ludgate from Parks and Recreation had a baby with Wednesday Addams). 

Bee is determined to do her best on the project and hopefully ignore Levi Ward as much as possible. Of course, while looking around the labs before the project has even officially started, she's saved from being crushed under a falling pile of boxes by whom else - Mr. Tall, Dark, Handsome, and apparently completely repelled by Bee (SPOILER - he very much does NOT hate Bee). Bee literally swoons (she has a problem maintaining blood pressure and seems to faint every time she gets stressed, scared, or overwhelmed). I think we can all see where this is going - even those of us who may never have picked up a romance novel ever before. If any of my readers actually have picked this as your very first romance novel - congratulations on taking the chance on something with such a vibrant, pepto-bismol pink cover. 

Now, where was I? Oh yes, Bee - the perky neuro-scientist who worships Marie Curie, and Levi, the brooding engineer who seems painfully awkward every time he's anywhere near Bee. They're co-leads on something called BLINK- a fancy helmet astronauts will use in space, where their brains can be stimulated while they wear it for better performance (or something, I am very much NOT a science person). To begin with, Bee finds obstacles at every turn, her lab isn't ready, her and Rocio's computers aren't working properly, e-mails and meeting invites keep going astray, but after finally getting deeply frustrated and yelling at Levi (who Bee is convinced is causing all the delays), but then overhearing him actually confronting the NASA boss on the subject, she finally seems able to get somewhere with the work. Bee starts to settle in, making friends (there's Kaylee, the bubbly NASA project manager - think Elle Woods in Legally Blonde and the charming head astronaut on the project, Guy), but still can't quite figure out what is going on with Levi.

As they start spending more time together, it becomes obvious to Bee that she may have been wrong about Levi and his antipathy toward her. Of course, Levi also seems to be of the opinion that Bee is married (having not heard the rather harrowing break-up story once Bee caught her fiancee with her then-best friend). While Bee is very much single, she also believes Levi to be attached, and the father of a child, for the first half of the book. Once all of those misunderstandings are out of the way, with their professional relationship working smoothly, they can finally face up to their romantic attraction to one another. 

I really liked The Love Hypothesis, Hazelwood's first novel. It's obvious that she really does know the science that is part of the plot in each of the books, and competent and ambitious protagonists are always fun to read about. However, there does seem to be a bit of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" in this book, with quite a few similarities in this and her debut, especially with regards to the heroes, their looks and the way they interact with the heroines (seemingly aloof and very disinterested in them, when in fact the exact opposite is the case). I haven't read any of Hazelwood's STEMinist novellas yet, so I don't know if all of her heroes are of the same mold, but I'm hoping that for her third novel, enjoyable as this was, she changes up the formula somewhat. I am 100% for clever ladies in STEM and the men who love them, but maybe have a different hero archetype next time? Short, dumpy blond guys need love too, Ms. Hazelwood. 

There's a good supporting cast in this and a lot of women supporting women. Bee anonymously runs the Twitter site "What would Marie Curie" do, where a lot of women in STEM can vent about the ways they are mistreated or overlooked in their fields, and Bee also has some great phone calls with her twin, who seems to be addicted to travel, supporting herself by tutoring rich children in the various locations. Rocio and Kaylee are both hilarious, Rocio in her morbid goth-sensibilities, while Kaylee is like a human ray of sunshine and cheer. 

I am very much looking forward to seeing what Ms. Hazelwood does next. As I mentioned, I hope it's in a slightly different vein from her first two novels, it's good to stretch your metaphorical wings, lady. I will probably check out the STEMinist novellas while I wait. 

Judging a book by its cover: As I mentioned further up in my review, this cover really is an extremely vivid pink, for the most part. I do like that on The Love Hypothesis, the cover was mainly blue with pink writing, while here it's pink with mostly blueish-green writing (like a dark teal). I'm still not a huge fan of the animated covers, but Ms. Hazelwood is lucky to have a talented cover artist, and the image of Levi carrying Bee (which happens multiple times in the story) is pretty darn adorable. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday 13 October 2022

CBR14 Book 26: "Her Unexpected Roommate" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 234 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Elephant (the elephant in the room very much being Rose's depression)

CW: mental illness, death of a parent from suicide (in the past)

Disclaimer! This was an ARC from the author. My opinions are my own. 

Rose has treatment-resistant depression but nevertheless manages her job as an electrical engineer with the support of her therapist, her friends, and her collection of plush animals. Having watched all of her friends couple up, she's feeling rather lonely and sad, but rather than stay home and wallow, she gets dressed up and goes out. Her impulsive move pays off, and to her surprise, she meets charming and sexy Cal. They end up at his, spending a hot night together. Cal doesn't even seem freaked out when Rose wakes in the middle of the night and confesses that she needs a plushie to hug to sleep. They exchange numbers, and Cal promises to text her, and then never does. Rose, who thought they'd had a real connection and had gotten her hopes up, spirals further into depression as a result of her heartbreak.

Skip to a few months later, when Rose's roommate Sierra is moving out (to live with her boyfriend). Because of Rose's depression, Sierra and Amy (their friend and landlord) deal with all the hassle of finding a new housemate for Rose. So imagine Rose's surprise when the nice, friendly, and easy-going candidate they picked out turns out to be Cal. He claims he was going to text her and even excitedly told his friends about her, but then his phone got run over by a truck. He understands that Rose might find it awkward to live with him, so offers to move, but asks for a grace period of a few weeks to find a new place. Rose reluctantly agrees and hopes she can keep her heartbreak from showing.

Cal is determined to show Rose that he can be trusted but isn't going to try any romantic overtures if she's uninterested in him. He does his best to be the ideal housemate, doing chores, and cooking meals he knows Rose will enjoy when she comes home late from work. Not only does he not seem freaked out or put off by Rose's fondness for plush animals or her Instagram account for her big plush alpaca, he even joins in by buying plushie himself and making an account for it, "friending" Rose's alpaca. Rose becomes comfortable enough with his presence to agree to let him stay, but despite trying her best to tamp down on her inconvenient attraction, it only seems to grow. However, if she agrees to date him and things go wrong, she won't just be risking heartbreak again, she'll be losing a really great roommate in the bargain. 

A lot of Jackie Lau's romances are very light-hearted and fun and focus on friendships, great chemistry between the lead, and lot and lots of descriptions of delicious food. This book has a darker subject matter, with Rose's really serious depression, and her fears that she might never find the kind of lasting relationships that her friends have because her illness makes her impossible to be with long-term. There is no suggestion that falling for Cal, who is understanding, supportive and sweet, is in any way going to cure Rose. She lives in the shadow of her mother's suicide, worried that if things get really bad, she might be tempted to make a similar choice.

This is the final book in the Cider Bar Sisters and it was nice to see all of the ladies get their happy endings over the course of the series. The supportive friendships of the women throughout the books is one of my favourite things about them (I don't drink alcohol and even when I did, cider wasn't really my thing, but it doesn't mean that I can't enjoy reading about good friends meeting for drinks). Having read a lot of her books over the last few years, I think Ms. Lau's writing keeps getting better and I can't wait to see what she's going to write, now that this series is completed. 

Judging a book by its cover: I know Ms. Lau uses stock photos for the covers of her self-published novels and I wonder if she finds a suitable image BEFORE she starts describing the character in question. Because the guy on this cover looks so exactly like the hero in the novel that it would be almost uncanny if she wrote the book, then found the cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 8 October 2022

CBR14 Book 25: "Heartbreaker" by Sarah Maclean

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Heart (it's right there in the title, and this is a romance)
Adelaide Frampton was once the unappreciated daughter of one of the East End's most notorious criminals, which led her to acquire a number of illegal skills that now come in handy as she frequents London's high society posing as the unassuming and plain spinster cousin of a duchess. She uses her time on the sidelines of ballrooms and society events to observe and acquire information and can also put her top-notch pickpocketing skills to good use, should it be required. No one knows that the boring Miss Frampton is also The Matchbreaker, a woman who seemingly uses her vast resources to help the rich make sure their offspring don't make unfortunate matches, but in reality making sure unwilling brides are given an avenue of escape.
The supercillious and always correct Duke of Clayborn doesn't have time for society gossip, but even he's heard of the Matchbreaker. When the infuriating woman tries to ruin the happiness of his beloved brother, however, he takes notice and unlike the rest of the ton, who don't seem to pay much attention, he knows instantly who the meddling woman is, despite Miss Frampton's disguise. That he recently found the same woman trying to break into the safe of a London gangster (when he himself was rather unsuccessfully trying to steal something back from the criminal) and had to escape with her through alleyways and across roof tops, angry thugs in pursuit, makes him very curious as to what in the world Adelaide is up to.
The two set off on a race to make it to Gretna Green to stop the marriage of Clayborn's younger brother to his lady love, and circumstances and complications soon have them joining forces rather than competing. Still pursued by criminal thugs, they have to face danger along the way and achieving their goal of stopping (or ensuring) the match will not be easy.
While there is a lot of found family and strong female friendships in the book, the main plot features a Victorian road trip with our main couple in a lot of confined carriages and small rooms (with only one bed), bickering, bantering and flirting. Both have a wealth of secrets they'd rather the other not discover, both will do anything and everything for the people they love and they fall in love over the course of the story (although, spoiler, it's clear that Clayborn has been rather smitten with Adelaide for years before the start of the story - she's just never realised it because they haven't exactly interacted all that much). 

Maclean's romances are absolutely not the best books to read if you want strict and accurate depictions of historical times. There's a lot of anachronisms, her characters tend to be a lot more progressive than was common at the time and her plotting is sometimes a bit all over the place. Nevertheless, I'm a sucker for a road trip, especially one involving carriages and posting inns. So much time for our couple to be stuck in each other's company, learning all sorts of delicious secrets about one another as they travel towards their destination.

I like the whole concept of Maclean's Victorian girl gang, of ladies banding together to help the more unfortunate of their sisters in every way they can. I liked Clayborn and Adelaide's romance more than Sesily and Caleb's in Bombshell. Was it anywhere near as good as One Good Earl Deserves a Lover, my all-time favourite of her romances? Not even slightly, but it was still a fun and diverting read, and I keep hoping that some day, Maclean is going to live up to her earlier potential.

Judging a book by its cover: The cascading red hair, the cheerful yellow of the dress, the nice blue background - it's very striking. But let's not pretend that either the outfit or the long flowing locks are period appropriate to the Victorian era. I wish they'd let her wear her spectacles, or at least have her hold them, rather than that big key on a ribbon. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 7 October 2022

CBR14 Book 24: "Ruby Fever" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 380 pages
Rating: 5 stars

CBR14 Bingo: New (could also have been used for Series - last in a series, and Mind - a lot of minds are manipulated by various powers throughout)

Spoiler warning! This book finishes off a bunch of storylines that started six books and a novella earlier in Burn for Me. It's technically the third book in a trilogy, but to fully get the emotional heft of the story, you should have read the whole series up until now. Besides, don't you like fun? Ilona Andrews writes the best paranormal fantasy on the market. If for some reason you just want to read Catalina's trilogy, the first book is Sapphire Flames

The book opens with the House Baylor taking a tour of the large estate that will be their new home. Thanks to the eccentricities of the former owner, there's a variety of places to stay, from impressive towers that appeal to Arabella and Leon, to small guest cottages where Bern and his girlfriend Runa, as well as Runa's younger siblings, can stay. There's ample room for their security forces, a space where grandma Frida can continue to work on her vehicles, and some lovely grounds, including a pool, not to mention a house where the head of House Baylor, Catalina, and her assassin fiancé can live away from the prying eyes of the rest of her family.

Six months later, Catalina and Alessandro find themselves with a very complicated situation on their hands. There's a very expensive spider on the loose in the Baylor compound, which needs to be found and returned to her owners. That's relatively simple compared to the fact that someone has very publically murdered the Speaker of the Texas assembly, which is likely to cause panic in the city. When trying to notify Catalina's boss, the Warden of Texas about this, Catalina and Alessandro discover that he has been gravely poisoned and may not recover. This elevates Catalina to acting Warden, a position the young woman had been hoping she wouldn't have to assume for years yet. As if that wasn't enough to deal with, a handsome, yet arrogant prince from the Russian Emperium shows up and complicates things by using his shapeshifting abilities to make the assassin warlord Arkan (the man Alessandro has sworn to kill to avenge his murdered father) think Catalina and the Baylors have access to one of his's closest allies, basically making it inevitable that the ruthless man will stop at nothing to kill Catalina, Alessandro, and the whole Baylor clan.

As I already mentioned, not only is this book the final volume in Catalina's trilogy, but it wraps up storylines that started as far back as Burn for Me, the first book about Nevada Baylor and Connor "Mad" Rogan. Since they are Catalina's sister and brother-in-law, Nevada and Connor obviously show up, but the writers have created a plausible reason for why the powerful couple can't really step in and help fight Arkan or solve the murder mystery, or which someone poisoned Linus Duncan and why. They nevertheless do get a pretty satisfying extended cameo, without taking up too much space in Catalina and Alessandro's final adventure. Several long-running mysteries that have occupied the imaginations of the Book-Devouring Horde (the self-styled name of Ilona Andrews' fans) for years and years now are finally given satisfying answers, and I didn't mind in the slightest that thanks to spending a lot of time on various fan sites on Goodreads and Facebook, none of the big reveals really came as a surprise.  

Because Catalina and Alessandro are a much more established couple in this book, some of the romance takes a backseat to the action and mystery plots. I didn't really mind this, as we got more than enough romance in Emerald Blaze and this book also seems to focus more on Catalina's growing powers and her learning to adapt to and control them. She's always had the ability to entice people to love her and do what she wants with her green wings, but she needs to learn to use her black wings and their accompanying sinister powers or risk losing control entirely during a very critical time. 
This book probably won't be a 5-star read for a lot of people. I've seen others complain about pacing problems and elements of the plot they didn't think worked so well, but to me, this book is a wonderful conclusion to a series I've been reading since 2014. As readers of my reviews will know, I'm an unashamed Ilona Andrews fangirl and would happily pay if they decided to publish and sell their shopping lists. So it's probably wise to take my rating with a grain of salt, but anyone who's read the earlier books and wondering if they stick the landing - yes, I would very much say they do. 

Judging a book by its cover: While I breathe a sigh of relief that the second trilogy in the Hidden Legacy series has had vastly better covers than the first one, I'm not exactly a big fan of this one. This is also the only book of the three where Catalina isn't at any point described as wearing the evening dress they've put the cover model in. I'm happy that they have the same two people on the cover for each of the three books. I like red, it's a great colour. Not super happy about the jazz hands or weird lightning suddenly streaming from the female model who's supposed to portray Catalina. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.