Tuesday 25 April 2023

CBR15 Book 17: "Chick Magnet" by Emma Barry

Page count: 302 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR15 Passport Challenge - Different genres (contemporary romance)

Readers of my blog know that all my reviews are crossposted over on the Cannonball Read, which celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this year. I have been a participant since year two. To celebrate these momentous fifteen years, a comment diversion was suggested - where we were challenged to write fifteen-word reviews. No matter the length of the book, the review could only be fifteen small words. Now, long-time followers of my blog know that I have trouble writing a single sentence in fewer than fifteen words, let alone a full review. Nevertheless, I decided to use the comment diversion to try to help myself through my review backlog (which is now on 12 books and counting). So until I've caught up - my book summaries are going to be very short and succinct, and then I'll try to say what worked and possibly didn't work so well for me in the books.

Chick Magnet: Hot, but struggling small-town vet and earnest chicken influencer fall in love after the pandemic.

If you want a longer summary, there are over two hundred reviews of this on Goodreads. This book was recommended to me by my good friend and fellow romance aficionado Emmalita. There were so many parts of it that I liked, but I really couldn't get past what a central part chickens played in the story. I don't like birds. I have always found them pretty creepy. That I frequently got dive-bombed by seagulls every summer visiting my grandmother in the west of Norway probably didn't help. I'm very fond of eggs, they're very tasty, but I really don't like chickens. I find them unnerving. So the fact that Nic's whole life revolves around chickens was somewhat of a downside to me. Now, this is unlikely to be a big deal for most readers, but I still wanted to explain why this wasn't higher than four stars for me. 

Will is very handsome (described basically as a big, blond viking) and really loves the job he's doing as a small-town vet. However, with the pandemic massively reducing the number of clients his clinic receives and so many more customers ordering their pet supplies online, he's really having a hard time making ends meet. He feels awful about not being able to keep his business afloat or being able to afford to pay his employees. It takes him quite a while to face up to the depression that he's feeling as a result of this. While he tried to resist, he watched his new neighbour Nicole "Chick Nic" Jones' videos about chicken keeping and was taken with her beauty and charm. Her videos caused a lot of people to adopt chicks during the pandemic, and then get bored with them as they grew bigger and harder to take care of. Hence he's a bit judgmental and dismissive when he first meets her, and pretty rude when she comes to his clinic with a sick chicken. 

Nic has moved across the country to escape her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend, who broke up with her in a video that went viral. His gaslighting and lies convinced even her best friend that Nic was the villain of the piece and she needs a fresh start. She meets Will when chasing an escaped chicken in the rain, and finds him rather attractive, but his rudeness when she's vulnerable and terrified for the health of her chicken makes him seem a lot less appealing. 

However, they live across from each other, and it's hard to avoid each other in a small town. They strike up a friendship and as they get to know each other better, they try to help the other, making their lives easier in whatever way they can. Nic is pretty nervous about getting involved with someone new, based on her previously very toxic relationship. Will is depressed enough and feels like so much of a failure that he doesn't seem to realise that he deserves to be loved. Neither of them is healed by the power of love, but both of them feel better when they spend time with the other person.

Emma Barry is a good writer and her characters feel like real people, even the ones who are less nice. While Will gets along well with his sister, he has a strained relationship with his father and brother, and as his clinic keeps getting closer to bankruptcy, family dinners get more and more difficult for him. Nic has chosen to move to the town where her beloved grandmother once lived but has no real connections there. Thanks to Will, she meets a lot of like-minded people and can work on setting down actual roots in her new hometown.

The author herself apparently keeps chickens, so I get why she writes so affectionately about the birds and keeping them. As I mentioned, this is unlikely to be a big issue for most people. This is a lovely book, which deals with several heavy topics in a sensitive way without ever making the book seem too angsty or challenging. 

Judging a book based on its cover: With cartoony covers still being all the rage in the publishing world, you don't see a lot of naked man chest anymore. So I appreciate this book doing its own thing and giving the female gaze some eye candy. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday 13 April 2023

CBR15 Book 16: "I Love You, I Hate You" by Elizabeth Davis

Page count: 288 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Of all the decisions brilliant lawyer Victoria Clemenceaux has made in her life, an unforgettable one-night stand with her opposing counsel Owen Pohl is either the worst...or the best.

One thing is certain: these long-standing rivals aren't going to let their searing attraction stop them from winning the biggest case of their careers. Thankfully Victoria and Owen have someone to vent to about their nemeses. But they have no idea that their online 'friends', Nora and Luke, are the very people they hate in real life.

As Nora and Luke grow closer online, and Victoria and Owen find their undeniable attraction harder to resist, the lines between love and hate blur. When the truth comes out, will their online chemistry work in the real world, or will their constant rivalry sever their connection?

I seem to find myself drawn to enemies-to-lovers romances with a You've Got Mail influence, despite the fact that I don't particularly like the romantic comedy much. I've mentioned in reviews before that I find the emotional infidelity that Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks' characters commit while flirting and falling in love online, while both are still in committed relationships, icky. However, most contemporary romances (be they YA or not) take the communicating with someone online and developing a friendship/attraction with someone they loathe in real life (but secretly want to bang) aspect, and thankfully most have the protagonists be single while this happens.

In some enemies-to-lovers romances, there isn't all that much enmity. One party perhaps kind of dislikes the other, but the other actually always found the other one attractive. Or there's been some sort of misunderstanding that gets cleared up pretty quickly. In this book, the protagonists really do despise each other, stemming from a long-running professional rivalry (he's a prosecutor working for the public good, and she's the defense attorney for a large, soulless corporation) and constantly trying to one-up one another in court. Little do they know that they're each other's closest confidantes online.

The friendship on social media aspect of this book, reminded me a lot of the online friendship between Bee and Levi in Ali Hazelwood's Love on the Brain. The actual hate-f**king aspect of the book (because Victoria and Owen REALLY still hate each other the first few times they hook up) was very reminiscent of Kate Canterbary's The Worst Guy. Because the dislike between the characters is so genuine, the author has to do more work to convince the reader that all that hate is actually just sublimated lust and longing. It's not an easy feat, but I think Elizabeth Davis managed it well here. The fact that this seems to have been her debut novel (Goodreads tells me she's written short stories in the past) makes it even more impressive. Her next romance features a fake relationship between seeming opposites, and while I'm less fond of that trope, I'd be willing to give her a chance based on how well she pulled off enemies to lovers in this book. 

Judging a book by its cover: Not exactly fond of either the pink and blue background here or the rest of the cover design. Also, the little cartoon that's supposed to be Owen should have had redder hair. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 15: "The Worst Best Man" by Mia Sosa

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

When wedding planner Carolina "Lina" Santos was mere moments from her own wedding, the best man, the groom's younger brother came to tell her that his brother had cold feet and would not be showing up to the ceremony. Since that moment, Lina has kept a very tight check on her emotions and is now proud of her reputation as trusted, efficient, and very unflappable  She obviously doesn't want anyone to know about her own wedding disaster a few years back.  So it's not all that surprising that she panics a bit, when offered a very lucrative and potentially life-changing opportunity, and finds herself face to face with her former fiancĂ©e and his brother, the best man. She lies and claims never to have met either of the men before, and agrees to work with Max Hartley (the best man, she really can't even contemplate having to work with her ex) for the next few weeks. 

Max was looking forward to a chance to really show the client (the managing director of a very successful hotel chain) that he is better at marketing and promotion than his brother. For years now, Max has felt like he's basically doing all the work, with his brother keeps getting most of the credit, since their boss, who also happens to be their mother (no, it's not a good look), keeps insisting that they work together. So when their client insisted that she wanted two teams, with each of the brothers working separately to prepare a presentation with different wedding planners, it should have been Max' sure win. Except the person he has to work with to land the deal that might secure his career, is a woman who (quite rightly) hates him. 

Lina starts out determined to make Max' life difficult, but he seems to so gamely accept that it's her due to gently torment and blame him, and before long, she can't really make herself stay too angry with him. Once she discovers that Max isn't exactly his brother's biggest fan and that he feels awful about possibly having influenced his brother into jilting Lena, she tries her best to make their partnership work. Of course, the more time they spend together, the more their chemistry sizzles. Of course, Lena is determined to stay single, and she certainly has no plans to ever fall for a Hartley again, while Max, for all the attraction he feels towards Lena, can't forget that she was with his brother first, and can't stand the idea of being in his brother's shadow.  

After a promising start to my reviewing year, I'm now back trying to write reviews for books I read several months ago. Since reading this book, I've also read a LOT of romances, nearly all of them contemporary, so it can be a bit tricky to keep the various characters and plot lines straight in my head. This book purported to be about enemies to lovers (which is one of my favourite romance tropes), and while starting out, Lina absolutely considers both Max and his brother (I can't remember his name, and I certainly can't be bothered to look it up now - he's just the weaselly ex) her enemies. Max, on the other hand, always sort of liked Lina, and doesn't even blame her for her rather impulsive actions and pranks at the start of their partnership. Of course, he has a whole host of complicated feelings about his brother, so finding said brother's ex irresistibly attractive is a problem that he tries manfully to deal with until his and Lina's pants feelings take over and they can't keep their mouths and hands off each other anymore. 

What I remember liking:
- Lina's support network - her assistant and her family. They were fun and protective but never went too far.
- Lina and Max, separately and together. They feel like fully-rounded characters and the build-up of their relationship was good.
- The competence porn aspect. Lina and Max are forced to work together on a presentation that is extremely important to both of them. They have to set aside their differences and any old grudges because neither of them can afford for the other one to half-ass it. They are both dedicated to their work and good at what they do.

What I didn't like:
- Max' brother, Lina's ex. I get that Ms. Sosa possibly needed him to be extra weaselly so that there was no doubt that Lina wouldn't have any lingering feelings about him, and his actions would also cause Max to see that he wouldn't be overstepping by entering into a relationship with Lina - but the character didn't really work for me.
- I think I was annoyed at whatever third act obstacle that appeared in the path of our lovers' HEA, but having read so many romances in the past few months, I'm not entirely clear on the details of said complications.

This was a fun book that had been on my TBR for quite some time. I'm happy a couple of reading challenges finally gave me the push to read it. Ms Sosa has apparently written a follow up novel about Lina's cousin, involving another wedding. Not sure I liked this enough to check that out unless I find it in a sale, though. The premise doesn't sound as interesting.

Judging a book by its cover: Of course, it's another cartoony cover, that's just how romances look nowadays. At least this one is rather playful and funny. It definitely caught my eye and made me interested in the book in the first place. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 9 April 2023

CBR15 Book 14: "Legendborn" by Tracy Deonn

Page count: 544 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Bree Matthews applied to an early admissions residential program at the same college that her mother attended, only to discover that her mother strongly objected to her going there. They had a blistering argument, and Bree's mother died in a car accident before they had a chance to settle things. Bree blames herself for her mother driving when angry. Her grief and guilt are overwhelming, so Bree hopes that being away from home is the best way forward. She has barely arrived at the college before witnessing a magical attack at a party. An imperious young man calling himself 'Merlin' attempts to wipe her memory, but fails to do so.

The incident instead makes Bree remember something strange from the night her mother died when she and her father were told the news in the hospital. Bree is certain that there was a Merlin (it's a title that all powerful wizards sworn to protect the Legendborn share) there as well, manipulating her and her father's memories. She becomes determined to find out what really happened to her mother, and if that means infiltrating the secret society calling themselves the Legendborn, then she'll do so. She discovers that Nick, her college-appointed tutor, has connections to the society and persuades him to help her get selected as an initiate. 

After being accepted as an initiate of the Legendborn, in part because of Nick's sponsorship of her (he's the son of the current leader, and his rejection of the group has long upset a lot of people) Bree discovers that magic is very much a real thing, most of the members of the Legendborn are descendants of the knights of King Arthur (Nick and his dad are apparently directly descended from King Arthur himself), and they are fighting a war to prevent demons from escaping from another realm to overwhelm the world and humanity. She also discovers that the reason she seems able to withstand the Merlin's mindwiping is that she comes from a long line of witches herself, and the root magic she has access to is very different from that of the Legendborn. Of course, the Merlin is convinced that she is possibly a demon herself and refuses to trust her. 

Having finished this back in February, there are quite a few elements of the story that are now a bit hazy to me. So I'm going to list what I liked and what didn't work so well for me.

I liked:
- This took a lot of the tropes of YA fantasy and in part subverted them, and in part just did something new and interesting with them. Yes, Bree is a lot more powerful than she initially seems and she has access to two different kinds of magic. She's also a very conflicted young woman who struggles with rage and grief and figuring out how to move forward after her mother's death. 
- The way the casual racism Bree has to deal with a lot of the time isn't brushed over or ignored. Also how the history of chattel slavery is explicitly tied into the various powers that Bree is discovering within herself. The flashbacks to her various descendants were very interesting, if rather harrowing.
- The whole 'descendants of King Arthur' have their own secret society and are protecting humankind from demons and evil was pretty well done.
- The reveal towards the end of the story absolutely makes me interested in reading more of the series. 
- This book gets rather violent in places and the danger the characters faced felt very real. Always good to see that not everyone is protected by plot armour.

What I didn't like:
- The insta-love between Nick and Bree. Come on, children, you've barely met. Even with the proximity to danger, you shouldn't head over heels that quickly.
- The inevitable love triangle. I like everyone involved outside of the forced romantic situation, but I don't really care who ends up with whom (although it would be very progressive and surprise the heck out of me if the other two parties decided to hook up and leave Bree as the forgotten party altogether). 

Having waited until book two was out, I now have to decide if I want to read book two and have to wait for heaven knows how long for book three to come out, or whether I'm going to wait patiently until the trilogy is completed. It worked out well for me with The Scholomance, so we'll see how it goes. 

Judging a book by its cover: I think this cover is stunning. Even if this book hadn't gotten very good reviews all over the place, this very spooky and cool cover (which captures Bree perfectly) would have made me pick up the book. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 8 April 2023

CBR15 Book 13: "By the Book" by Jasmine Guillory

Page count: 325 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Isabelle (her friends call her Izzy) was so elated when she got a job as an assistant editor for a big publishing company. It was like a dream come true. Several years later, when she's overworked, underappreciated and still living with her parents at twenty-five, without even getting a promotion, she is starting to wonder if she should change careers. After having her own attempts at writing a book politely criticised by one of her more senior colleagues, that's another dream she's shelved, and now, despite her generally optimistic attitude, she is starting to consider giving up the whole publishing business.

After a conference in LA, Izzy hears her boss Marta complain loudly about one of their most difficult clients, infamous wild child Beau Towers, who got a massive advance on his celebrity memoir and then hasn't delivered so much as a page for over a year. Izzy impulsively offers to stay behind an extra day, drive to Santa Barbara and confront Towers personally, on the company's behalf. She's hoping that this extra effort might make her more likely to get a promotion, and if nothing else, it's another day in sunny California, rather than in wintery New York. 

When she arrives at the gorgeous mansion where Towers is apparently hiding away, she is met by the man's assistant. Towers himself doesn't even want to see her. How is she going to give him an optimistic and motivating pep talk if he won't even come out of his room? After Michaela, Towers' assistant trips and sprains her ankle as she's walking Izzy to her car, Izzy has no choice but to stay behind at the house to help ice and bandage the injured limb, and gets to see first how angry and terrifying Beau Towers can be to strangers, but also how friendly and gentle he is to his friends. Once he realises Michaela is hurt (he calls her Kettle), he completely changes from an angry grump to someone considerate and caring. He reluctantly agrees to let Izzy stay for dinner and listens to one of her pep talks, only to mock her mercilessly, causing Izzy to flee to the luxurious second-floor bedroom set aside for her. Having drunk too much wine with dinner, Izzy has no choice but to stay the night, and in the morning, Beau apologises for his rude behaviour and persuades her to stay for a few more days. 

The few days keep being extended, to one month and then another, and while it's clear that Towers has a volatile temper and can be rather grouchy, Izzy quickly realises that he's actually determined to write his memoir without any assistance from ghostwriters or the like, he just has no idea where or how to start. As the son of a famous supermodel and an award-winning screenwriter/director, Towers has lived a life of privilege and luxury. He clearly has no idea how much Izzy has to work just to make ends meet and how lucky he is to be able to isolate himself from the world in a ginormous mansion, without ever having to worry that his money is going to run out. However, he's also very lonely, having only interacted with Michaela for the past year, and as Izzy gets to know him, she discovers how conflicted he is about his dead father and the way both his dad and he treated his mother in the past. The main reasons for his failure to deliver any book pages isn't laziness, it's guilt and shame.

Even when Beau starts listening to Izzy's pep talks (she also discovers that he's been reading her weekly e-mails, despite them getting more and more informal as she became convinced they ended up in his spam folder) and they start working together to get him to write, it takes him several tries and quite a few temper tantrums before he's ready to really be open, honest and emotional in his writing. Beau's efforts at writing his memoir also motivates Izzy to consider her own writing again, and after being persuaded by Beau that her editor colleague clearly meant to sabotage her efforts with his harsh critique, she reassesses what she wrote and starts accepting that her own writing may have merit. 

Spending literally months together in a big house, working together daily in the gorgeous library, and having dinner together every night obviously make the two grow closer. Izzy fights her growing attraction to Beau, however, convinced she's only imagining the increasing moments of sizzling chemistry. She's also determined to stay professional. Besides, Beau is a rich recluse living in California and Izzy's life and job are still waiting for her back in New York. Once she gets Beau to complete the book, she'll never see him again. Right?

There are a lot of very clever and cute nods here, as you would expect. Our heroine is called Isabelle (Belle). She feels so lonely in Beau's big mansion during her first weeks there that she starts having imaginary conversations with the furniture. Beau calls his cook/housekeeper Kettle. There's a sweeping staircase up to the second floor. At one point, Izzy walks down it wearing a beautiful yellow dress. There's obviously a gorgeous library. There's even a rose garden. At work in New York, the colleague who keeps trying to sabotage Izzy (although it takes her so long to realise it) is called Gavin (Gaston). Nevertheless, the story also works in its own right, and I thought it was a fun twist on a well-known story, without ever getting too dark or angsty. 

I should note that this book is completely fade to black in terms of love scenes. The only heat you get is some passionate kisses, and this romance is a very slow burn, it takes Izzy and Beau a frustratingly long time to actually realise that they both feel the same way about each other, and smooching would be totally OK (and even strongly encouraged, in this reader's case). I'm guessing that's the Disney influence, can't have impressionable readers overwhelmed by actual sexy times happening (they clearly are, we just don't get to read about them).

This is the second book in the Meant to Be series, contemporary romance novels commissioned by Disney to retell their most famous animated movies. I've not read the first in the series, a Cinderella retelling written by Julie Murphy, but after this, I'm probably going to check it out, because this was charming as heck. I love a good fairy tale retelling and have a large collection of historical romances, contemporary romances and fantasy books that are all variations on Beauty and the Beast. It's important to note that this is a retelling of the Disney movie, not the original fairy tale. But since the Disney Beauty and the Beast was one of my favourite Disney movies growing up, this didn't present any problems for me. This might not be for everyone, but I thought it was a lovely February read (where I try to combine it being Valentine's Day - so romance, with Black History Month, so books by black authors, preferably with protagonists of colour). 

Judging a book by its cover: Every so often, a cartoony cover comes along to completely charm me, despite my general dislike of these sorts of designs. This is very much one that I adore, it's just so cute. The flowers, the heroine sitting up at the top, the flowing pages, the hero catching them. More of this, please, publishers. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 12: "Cemetery Boys" by Aiden Thomas

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR15 Passport Challenge: Different genres (paranormal fantasy)

Being a queer teen can be difficult enough, even if you don't come from a long line of magic users with very traditional gender roles. In Yadriel's family, the brujos can summon the spirits of the dead and help them find peace in the afterlife. The brujas have tremendous healing powers. However, Yadriel's family won't let him go through the traditional rite for brujos, because of the gender he was born with. The only ones who seem to fully support him are his uncle, who never really seemed able to tap into the family's magic in the first place, and his cousin Maritza, who is vegan and refuses to use blood of any kind (chicken blood is traditional) to perform her healing spells. 

Yadriel and Maritza sneak into their church and perform the ritual themselves. Yadriel appeals to Lady Death, their family's patron saint to grant him the abilities of a brujo, and is both a bit shocked and elated when his chosen gender is accepted and he gains the powers to raise the dead. Of course, the first spirit he raises refuses to be sent off to his final rest - he wants to know both how he died so suddenly and unexpectedly and make sure that his friends are safe. So Yadriel is forced to hide the ghost boy from his family, who can all see the spirits of the dead, and help Julian (the ghost) try to figure out how his little gang/found family of outcasts is doing.

It helps that most of Yadriel and Maritza's family members are busy both preparing for the upcoming annual holiday that they all celebrate and trying to figure out what has happened to Yadriel's cousin Miguel, who seems to have disappeared without a trace. Of course, because this is a young adult novel, there is also the rather impractical and rather impossible attraction that Yadriel feels for Julian (who may not be gay, who may have an issue with Yadriel being trans, and most importantly, who is already dead and supposed to be sent on to his final resting place). Without spoiling too much, the first two issues don't turn out to be problems, the third is rather insurmountable. 

This was the February pick for my local fantasy/sci-fi book club, but I was unable to go to the meeting to discuss it, as my mother very suddenly passed away on the very day that I was going to help chair the meeting. So no book club for me that month. From what I gathered from the other members, however, the book was fairly well received, although some felt it was not exactly aimed at them. Trine, the lovely lady who founded the book club in the first place, said that she very quickly needed to find out more about the author and the author's background, as there is so much in this book about being Latinx, and also about being trans, and it set her mind at ease that this was very much an #ownvoices story based in part by the author's own experiences (pretty sure the raising the dead part is creative licence, though). 

I liked the central characters, Yadriel, Julian, Maritza (so great), Maritza's "boys", the little group of queer kids who Julian has been the leader of. It may be just that I've read a lot, but the overarching mystery of what happened to Julian, or what was up with Miguel's disappearance, and who was behind it all was not very difficult to figure out. It didn't really ruin the book for me that I had both the guilty party and the circumstances surrounding the crimes all figured out but to some readers, it might be annoying. I'm assuming some of it may come down to the fact that this is the author's debut novel. 

It should come as no surprise to anyone that a young adult novel about a gay, trans Latinx kid falling in love with a ghost boy has appeared on a bunch of Banned Books lists in the USA, especially in Texas. I hope it means that a lot more teenagers get tempted to read it because it was a very worthwhile read (even with the partially predictable ending).

Judging a book by its cover: I really like the cover, and the characters look very much like they are described in the novel. I think my favourite part is the rather macabre depiction of Lady Death in the background. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read