Sunday 31 December 2023

CBR15 Book 104: "Emily Wilde's Map of the Otherlands" by Heather Fawcett

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Spoiler warning! There will be some spoilers in this review for the first book in the series, so if you're not caught up, stop what you're doing and go read Emily Wilde's Encyclopedia of Faeries immediately. This review will be here when you return. 

Emily Wilde is back at her university in Cambridge, pleased with the success of her Faerie Encyclopedia. The proposal from her best friend Wendell Bambleby is still something she needs to consider, but after having her suspicions confirmed, that he isn't just a faerie, but a Faerie King gives her pause. Usually, nothing good happens to humans who get romantically involved with the Fey. She's determined to help him find a door back to his kingdom, though, and this is what most of her current research focuses on, when she's not working on her comprehensive map of the realms of Faerie.

Sadly, Bambleby's true identity wasn't just revealed to Emily, but to a whole host of villagers back in Hrafnavik as well. Now it seems the information is spreading, and his wicked stepmother, who usurped his throne and exiled him is sending assassins after him. Emily decides they need to get proactive about locating a back door to his kingdom, so they can stop his stepmother once and for all. This involves another journey, this time to the village of St. Liesl in the Austrian Alps, where several Faerie researchers are rumoured to have gone missing in the past. Along for the journey is Emily's niece Ariadne, who also wants to be a Faerie scholar, as well as Farris Rose, the head of Dryadology at Cambridge, who has pretty much blackmailed his way onto the expedition, threatening to have both Wendell and Emily discredited for falsifying sources for their academic publications (very much true in Wendell's case, very much not in Emily's). 

Will Professor Rose survive the dangerous expedition he has strongarmed his way onto? Will Wendell persuade Emily to actually be his wife? Will Emily manage to locate a door back to his kingdom? Will they manage to stop his wicked stepmother and counteract the poison affecting Wendell so that he and Emily even have a future together? 

I may have actually uttered an unladylike squeal of joy when I discovered this book on a shelf in the Waterstones in Morpeth (the English town where my parents-in-law live). I had seen on Heather Fawcett's Instagram that some UK readers got their pre-orders delivered early and some bookshops had received early deliveries of the book but never dared to hope that I was going to be lucky enough to go to one of those stores. Was I planning on buying this in hardback? No, now it doesn't go with my pretty paperback at all. Is the Norwegian kroner at a record low to the British pound (I seriously can't remember it being this bad for literal decades)? Absolutely. Did I snatch the book up and buy it anyway? Of course, I did! The book doesn't officially release until January 16th and I've wanted to read it pretty much since I finished book 1. There wasn't even a question in my mind.

Did it live up to my expectations? Yes, I am glad to say. I think I like it even better than the first book, even though it was a bit slow in parts and meanders a bit. I also wasn't as interested in the subplot about the missing scholars, but YMMV. Emily and Wendell are a delight together, and I liked that while Wendell had to rescue Emily in the first book, she was very much the rescuer here, even at the risk of her own safety and sanity. I don't know how many books Ms. Fawcett is planning for the series, but I was very happy to see that there will be at least one more book before I have to say goodbye to the characters. This was a really lovely book to finish off my reviewing year. 

Judging a book by its cover: Isn't this just the prettiest thing? The green is one of my favourite shades and the flowers and mushrooms and little items are so delicate and dainty. It also complements the colours of book 1 beautifully. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 103: "Heartstopper, vol 5" by Alice Oseman

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Nick and Charlie are closer than ever, but despite what their friends think, they still haven't done THAT. Lately, it's probably all either can think about, but it's a big step and neither wants to pressure the other.

Nick is also a year older than Charlie, and is having to consider which Universities he's going to apply to next year. His first inclination is living at home and going to his local Uni, so he'll be close to Charlie, but he goes on a road trip with Elle and Tara, and discovers that there are very appealing places elsewhere in the country too. Elle finds her dream University, and it will mean a long distance relationship with Tao. Can Nick and Charlie manage the same?

Mr. Farouk is encouraging Charlie to apply for Head Boy in his final year, saying that a lot of students at the school could use a role model like him. He also wants to have the occasional sleepover at Nick's, but his mother is feeling overprotective and her reluctance causes tension between them. In the end, she agrees that he can stay over at Nick's once he's done with exams.

Charlie, not exactly the most extroverted or confident, thanks to all the bullying, also agrees to play drums for a queer band during the end-of-year summer féte. It's a much more public role than he's ever been in before, and he's both nervous and excited about the opportunity.

I hadn't realised that there was going to be a volume of Heartstopper out this year, so finding out that this was coming out in December was a pleasant surprise (even more that I found the book at half price at a shop in the UK while visiting my parents-in-law for Christmas). As it turns out, I had already read a lot of the issues collected in this book online on Tapas. The only reason I hadn't read all of them is that I took a break so more issues of the webcomic could be collected (one issue a week is too short). Oseman has announced that volume 6 will be the final one, and I'm now thinking that I may just stop reading the webcomic, so as not to be spoiled for the ending. 

I love this comic. It's so heartwarming and cute and the issues in this book are very low angst, even with questions of long-distance relationships being discussed. Nick and Charlie and their friends are such great characters and I'm glad queer youth have some nice examples of LGBTQIA fiction to comfort them. 

Judging a book by its cover: All the other covers have shown Nick and Charlie from the back, getting a bit closer with each volume. This is the first one where they are actually fully embracing, and I think the image is adorable. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Books 100-102: Three audiobooks narrated by Kate Reading

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter -
Theodora Goss
Page count: 402 pages
Audio book length: 13hrs 38mins
Rating: 3 stars

Mary Jekyll finds herself orphaned and nearly destitute. Most of the servants have to be let go, and she's sold off most of what's valuable around the house. She hopes she can get some money by tracking down Edward Hyde, her father's infamous friend, but instead finds a young woman, Diana, who is apparently Hyde's daughter. The girl was raised by nuns, with monthly financial support from Mary's mother. Diana refuses to stay in the convent any longer, and mary has no choice but to bring the girl home with her. 

While trying to assist Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in investigating the gruesome murders of several women on the streets of London, Mary and Diana meet and befriend a number of unusual young ladies, all the results of strange experimentation - Beatrice Rappachini, whose touch and breath is poisonous; Catherin Moreau, literally a cat-woman, and Justine Frankenstein (Doctor Frankenstein did in fact create a bride for Adam, she decided not to marry him). The young women are all the results of unscrupulous experimentation by immoral scientists, and now it seems like the recent murders are also connected to the secret society of these scientists. Mary, Diana and their new friends have to help Holmes and Watson bring true monsters to justice. 

If this story hadn't been narrated by Kate Reading, I don't actually think I would have stuck with it. There are a lot of cool concepts in this book, but the execution of the story just didn't work out for me. I think it just took too long for the various parts to come together and for the various backstories of the women to be explored. Once they got to the point where they created a found family of sorts and continued the work with Sherlock Holmes, I became more interested. So I might check out the sequel and hope that the story gets better in that.

Miss Moriarty, I Presume? -
Sherry Thomas
Page count: 357 pages
Audio book length: 13 hrs
Rating: 4 stars

Listening to Ms Reading narrate a historical fantasy book set in Victorian times, featuring Sherlock Holmes, made me remember that I had two Lady Sherlock books to catch up on, and they would actually be entertaining. 

Charlotte Holmes is contracted by Moriarty himself to track down his daughter, who seems to have joined a cult in a remote village in Cornwall. Charlotte's sister Livia is trying to decipher a clue left by Moriarty's son, Mr. Marbleton, and Mrs Watson and Lord Ingram are just trying their best to assist Charlotte in whichever way she best requires it. 

I really like how Charlotte and Ash's relationship develops in this one. Much as I like Livia, I don't really care about her tragic romance with Mr. Marbleton. I also don't understand why these books are so preoccupied with Moriarty, who is a boring character, no matter which version of Sherlock Holmes one encounters (I very much liked what Elementary did with the character, but even there, Moriarty did not dominate the plot as much as here). I don't care about the character and his stupid machinations. He's also barely in any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. I want Charlotte and her crew to deal with other mysteries and just move away from this tedious storyline. Sadly, based on the developments of this book, I doubt I'm going to get my wish any time soon.

A Tempest at Sea
- Sherry Thomas
Page count: 353 pages
Audio book length: 13hrs 47mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Charlotte is on a boat! Disguised as an outrageous old lady (for reasons that are obvious if you've read the previous book in the series, but I don't want to spoil that part). Mrs. Watson and Lord Ingram are also there, obviously. Charlotte and Ash are still bonking (yay!) For reasons of extreme plot contrivance, it seems like a large part of the people who have crossed paths with Charlotte in earlier books are also present on this voyage, including Livia and her mother; whatshisface who deflowered Charlotte and whose wife then made a massive scandal out of it; as well as the police detective who investigated the murder case involving Inspector Treadles. 

Surprising no one, there's a murder (during a terrible storm) and Charlotte cannot get directly involved. Lord Ingram has to act as stenographer for the police inspector who takes it upon himself to question everyone, to see if they can solve the murder before reaching land (where they have to let the passengers disembark, and the murderer will have a chance to escape). While there were quite a few early plot contrivances, I'm happy with it, because this book was a lot of fun, and the dreaded Moriarty was mostly entirely absent from the plot. I totally called the identity of plot moppet nr 2 relatively early on, but I'm sure lots of other people did too, this was clearly not supposed to be one of the central mysteries of the story. Charlotte had to solve a murder while having to remain in disguise and only gathering clues indirectly was really interesting. More like this, Ms. Thomas. Moriarty sucks. Fun, clever stories like this instead. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 30 December 2023

CBR15 Books 96-99: More books I read this summer and am only reviewing now to make it to 104

Cassiel's Servant
- Jacqueline Carey
Page count: 576 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Kushiel's Dart is one of my favourite fantasy books, and books in general, of all time. It stands up, I re-read it this summer in preparation for the release of this. Has Jacqueline Carey done exactly the same thing as Stephenie Meyer and E.L James did, and retold her already existing novel from the POV of another central character? Yes, she has. Was I pretty sure that this was going to be a lot more worthwhile and actually better written than those other books? Also yes. So much so that I pre-ordered this pretty much as soon as I heard about it. 

This is clearly a book written for Carey's existing fans. I'm not sure that a new reader would get as much out of the story, three-quarters of which is indeed a retelling of Kushiel's Dart, told through Joscelin's eyes. In case you are entirely unfamiliar with Carey's epic fantasy story, Joscelin is the loyal and oath-sworn bodyguard and companion to Phédre, our courtesan spy protagonist. Since he's a warrior priest sworn to celibacy, falling in love with a woman who considers sex an act of worship isn't exactly ideal.

The first section of the book gives us entirely new material, with Joscelin's childhood and training with the Cassiline brotherhood, which he has to join while still very young. The training is rigorous and while he makes some friends, it's not a life in which he makes many lasting connections. Seeing certain specific sections of the novel from Joscelin's POV certainly adds more depth to them, and Carey makes it clear that there was a certain understanding between Hyacinthe and Joscelin which Phédre wasn't necessarily aware of.

I'm not sure this book needed to be written, but it's a nice gift to Carey's fans, and it brought me a lot of joy. I really wouldn't recommend it to new readers of her work, though.

Codename Charming
- Lucy Parker
Page count: 382 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

I love Battle Royal. I agree with some people that it should have more Bake-Off scenes, but I absolutely adore it, and the baking-related challenges grouchy Dominic and cheerful Sylvie face while falling in love. Towards the end of that book, Dominic's diminutive younger sister Petunia "Pet" DeVere saves the life of Johnny Marchmont, then fiancée to Princess Rose. Marchmont's bodyguard, Mathias Vaughn, feels very guilty that she got injured on his watch. By the time this book starts, Princess Rose and Johnny Marchmont are married and Pet works as Marchmont's personal assistant. The man is clumsy to the point of parody, and when the ruthless press starts writing scurrilous gossip pieces that suggest that there may be something between Pet and her employer, Princess Rose concocts a scheme where Pet and Matthias start fake dating, preferably being spotted canoodling in public, so the gossip dies down. 

Pet thinks Matthias finds her irritating. Matthias keeps being called ugly and brutish and is dealing with a lot of demons from his past. The two like and respect their employers enough that they go along with the preposterous plan, and hijinks ensue. Since both protagonists have been pining for each other, the fake dating gives them the excuse to finally give in to their feelings. 

Normally I devour a Lucy Parker novel in 24-48 hours. That was also the case with this one, but because it's slow to start and there are absolutely parts that didn't entirely work for me, they were just too farcical. Don't get me started on the reverse parrot heist (IYKYK) and getting locked in a closet. Is it Parker's weakest novel? No, that would still be Making Up (which is still a perfectly fine novel, it just doesn't manage the greatness of most of Parker's other books).

With the Fire on High
- Elizabeth Acevedo
Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Emoni Santiago isn't exactly like other high school seniors. She's half African American, half Puerto Rican, and as well as juggling school and a part-time job to try to supplement her family's income, she's also raising her daughter Emma (whom she calls Babygirl). They both live with Emoni's Abuela, who raised Emoni after her mother died in childbirth. Emoni's father was absolutely devastated by the loss and left them both to go back to Puerto Rico. He returns every so often to visit, but Emoni has a very complicated relationship with her father. She has some contact with some relatives from her mother's side, but mostly, it's just her, Babygirl, and her Abuela, fending for themselves.

Emoni loves to cook, and frequently experiments with recipes, giving them her own twist from what feels right. People who eat her food often experience strong emotions, and she dreams of becoming a professional chef one day but also realises that it's a very far-fetched dream. However, when she gets a chance to take part in a special cooking elective in high school, and even travel abroad for a week to Spain, her horizons broaden and her dreams don't seem so impossible after all.

This was a lovely book, with some touches of magical realism. It wasn't quite the emotional gut-punch to me that The Poet X was, but it was a wonderful read and I can see why Acevedo is so highly rated among YA reviewers. I'm looking forward to reading more of her stuff.

Sleep No More
- Seanan McGuire
Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book 17 in the series, and absolutely under no circumstances the place to start. There will also be some spoilers for book 16, because I don't think I could review this book without mentioning what happened to Toby at the end of that one.

October "Toby" Daye doesn't remember her real life. She doesn't remember her husband Tybalt, or her many friends and allies. She believes herself to be a lowly changeling servant, handmaiden to her pureblooded sister August, and living a sheltered life in her mother Amadine's tower. She is not a hero of the Faerie realms or a brave and resourceful fighter. She is meek, and timid and doesn't do a thing without permission. Her entire life is a lie created by a vengeful Titania, determined to shape all of Faerie to her demands. 

It thankfully doesn't take too long for things to start unravelling, little by little. When she accidentally tastes her own blood, she sees things that entirely contradict her current memories. A lot of people start telling her unbelievable things, about who she is and what she has done before. Even so, it takes four months for Toby's friends to reach her and start the complicated work of defeating Titania. Sadly, it takes her far too much of the book to remember her life with Tybalt and the poor man can barely look at her because it hurts him so much.

McGuire also published a book from Tybalt's POV, where we find out what he did in those four months and how he coped with the challenge of losing his beloved. I haven't read it yet, because there's usually pretty much a year between new books in the series, and I want to spread out the goodness so the wait for book 19 won't be so interminable. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Books 92-95: A bunch of romantic books I read this summer and didn't get round to reviewing

Fangirl, the Manga: Volume 3 -
Rainbow Rowell and Gabi Nam
Page count: 224 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This August saw the release of the third installment of Rainbow Rowell's manga version of Fangirl, my absolute favourite of her books (did I just buy a fancy tenth-anniversary edition, even though I own it in three other formats, NOT counting the mangas? You betcha). Cath is still struggling at college. Her writing partner Nick steals the story they've been working on together and makes her seem unreasonable for being upset about it. Her father has a mental breakdown and has to be hospitalised, and she has no choice but to ask Levi for a ride to visit him, even though she'd rather avoid him now, considering what she saw in his kitchen during the party. Now she's considering dropping out, so she can go back home and take care of her father. She's also feels betrayed by Wren, who wants to reconnect with their estranged mother.

This is a much more emotional issue to read, because Cath isn't exactly having a great time of it, and there are a lot of emotional stakes for her, what with this coming three-quarters through the story of the novel. She manages to talk things through with Levi, however, and her Dad forbids her from giving up and quitting college to take care of him. Her professor also refuses to let her quit the course and extends her deadline to make sure she can submit something wholly original to her fiction writing class, not just her fan fiction. So things are looking better by the end of the issue - and at least now she knows that Nick is a manipulative, lazy weasel. The interludes with Baz and Simon from this fictional universe's versions of Baz and Simon (not to be confused with Rainbow Rowell's OTHER versions of Baz and Simon) also feel less frustrating than they do in the novel, as they are very cute in the manga illustrations.

Deal with the Devil
- Kit Rocha
Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

In a post-apocalyptic version of America, Knox, the leader of a group of genetically enhanced supersoldiers has a difficult choice to make. He and his elite strike force went AWOL because they were sick of being used to terrorise and murder innocent civilians, but that also means that the implants they have that give them their enhanced powers can't be adjusted without help from a very talented hacker. If the implants aren't adjusted regularly, the soldiers with eventually die, painfully. Their hacker friend has been kidnapped, and to get her ransomed, Knox needs to deliver Nina, the leader of a group of high-tech librarians.

Nina is a clone who escaped from a secret research facility. As is Nina. All of their clones are dead, due to the experiments carried out on them. Maya is their third partner and a technical wiz with perfect recall of everything she's ever read or heard. The three women act as high-tech librarians, offering free information (music, books, videos) to the population of post-apocalyptic Atlanta, but to pay the bills, they also basically act as archeologists for other groups who want to find hidden vaults, like the lost Library of Congress servers.

This book is a lot of fun and has two groups of really enjoyable characters. The tagline claims it's "Orphan Black meets the post-apocalyptic Avengers" and for once, that's actually a fairly good description. We have two groups of tight-knit found families who start out nominally working towards different objectives, but who then have to join forces and cooperate. The series is a trilogy, and the authors are not really very subtle about hinting about which characters will be paired up in future novels. 

I liked the world-building, and the chemistry between the various characters and the main couple have understandable obstacles to work through since one is luring the other one into a trap to save his teammates. That several of his teammates think this is a dumb idea and they should just let the clever and resourceful women they've met work out a better plan speaks in their favour. 

I own all three novels in the series and look forward to reading more of them in the next year. 

How the Wallflower Was Won -
Eva Leigh
Page count: 380 pages
Rating: 2.5 stars

This is another of those historical romances where the hero has to get married in a certain amount of time to not get disinherited/inherit a bunch of money, and from what I can gather, this entire series is about three different men in the same pickle. Finn Ransome has been told he's stupid his entire life (he has dyslexia), but has no problem calculating the odds at the gambling tables, where he makes enough to allow him to live comfortably. He starts the novel planning to set his friend (who also has to get married to inherit money) up with a prim bluestocking, but of course, ends up falling for her himself. 

Tabitha Seaton wants to join the Stirling Society, a snooty group full of influential thinkers (all men, naturally). She needs to be married for them to even consider allowing her into the group, and she much prefers Finn to his brooding friend Dom. They get married, and obviously, it's supposed to be a marriage of convenience only, with them never likely to ever catch warmer feelings for one another. 

I barely remembered this book two months after I read it. Now, nearly six months after I finished it, I could only make a summary after looking at reviews on Goodreads. I have downgraded my rating of it accordingly, because I can't really give 3 stars to a book I have this much trouble remembering the plot of. I seem to recall that the hero kept bringing the heroine to libraries, and making sure their new house had a really nice library - which is an excellent quality in a man. Tabitha kept trying to impress the idiotic white men of the Stirling Society, who were never going to accept her in a million years. In the end, she and Finn create their own, much more inclusive society and live happily ever after. I think. I don't care enough to look up further details. Eva Leigh has written some romances I really enjoyed in the past (I seem to recall there are cameos from some of her previous couples in this one), but this was a very forgettable one.

 - Sarah Maclean
Page count: 404 pages
Rating: 4 stars

We have finally reached Lady Imogen's book, and what a delight it was. In her current series, Sarah Maclean writes about four clever young women who have worked to create vast network of women all over London, to help their sisters in need. They save young noblewomen from disastrous marriages, they take down corrupt individuals and they make sure there is justice when the poor and helpless are taken advantage of. The press has dubbed them Hell's Belles. In the previous two books in the series, Lady Sesily Talbot finally persuaded Caleb Calhoun to be her husband, and puzzle-solving Adelaide Frampton, daughter of one of London's most notorious crime bosses, ended up marrying a duke. 

Lady Imogen Loveless is the daughter of an eccentric earl who didn't mind his only daughter learning about science and chemistry. As a result, Imogen is really good with explosives and uses her knowledge to help the Belles. When her father died, her much older brother inherited the title, and he never really knew how to relate to his brainy sister. He wants her to keep out of trouble, and possibly find a husband, and hires detective Thomas Peck to act as her bodyguard and keeper. Of course, Thomas Peck is the last person who should be guarding Imogen's virtue, and he certainly doesn't relish the thought of her finding herself a husband who isn't him. But Thomas is a commoner and could never be good enough for Imogen, could he?

I've enjoyed the majority of Maclean's historical romances, and even consider some of them essential reading for anyone interested in this subgenre, but she's also written some real duds. Thankfully, this series has been very enjoyable, and I think Knockout is my favourite one so far. Maclean is also great at teasing the final book in a series with a heck of a cliffhanger, which she also does here. Thanks to the final lines of this book, I'm now impatiently awaiting the release of Duchess' book, hopefully out in August 2024. 

Speaking of releases - I was lucky enough to find a paperback copy of this in a US bookstore more than two weeks before its actual release date, to much rejoicing. I was visiting my BFF Lydia in Vermont at the time and had time to read half before I sadly forgot the book in the stress of packing and returning home, so had to wait until she had a chance to ship it back to me (which was some time actual the release date). It was probably hubris for being too smug about getting it early. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday 29 December 2023

CBR15 Books 87-91: "Spy x Family, vol 1-5" by Tatsuya Endo

Total page count: 1040 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Agent Twilight is the best spy in the business and he's willing to do absolutely anything to protect his country. For his latest mission, Operation Strix, he needs to get close to high-ranking politician Desmond Donovan. To do this, he needs to be married and have a child and said child needs to be admitted to the prestigious Eden Academy, where Desmond Donovan's son Damien is a pupil. Agent Twilight creates the alias Loid Forger, a clinical psychiatrist, to complete the mission. Since he has to have a child, he adopts a young girl from an orphanage. The adorable Anya turns out to be a telepath and can read minds. She desperately wants a family and reads Twilight's mind to try to be the perfect daughter to him. Twilight/Loid also requires a wife, and so enters into a marriage of convenience to Yor Briar, seemingly a timid office clerk. Unbeknownst to Twilight, Yor is also a skilled assassin, working under the code name "Thorn Princess". Only Anya knows about the secret identities of her adoptive parents, and neither of them knows she can read their minds. 

In the first volume, Twilight needs to create his Loid Forger persona and acquire the family necessary to pull off his mission. He adopts Anya, who he needs to tutor well enough to pass the entrance exam to Eden Academy. He marries Yor Briar, to have a suitable wife and stepmother to his "daughter". After a lot of shenanigans, they get through the family interview at Eden Academy, but it's unclear whether Anya will actually get accepted.

In volume 2, it becomes clear that Anya has in fact got a spot at the Academy. Twilight/Loid wants her to befriend Damien Desmond, the son of his target, but that really doesn't work out too well. The children pretty much become antagonists, but Anya befriends the wealthy Becky instead. Twilight/Loid is a bit despondent, but being a master spy, doesn't let small obstacles hinder him from achieving success. Yor's younger brother Yuri comes to visit the family and is deeply jealous of anyone taking away his sister's attention from him. Twilight/Loid discovers that Yuri works for the Secret Police.

At the beginning of volume 3, Yor and Twilight/Loid have to work together to convince Yor's brother Yuri that they are a happy couple, and have in fact been married for over a year. Yor asks her co-workers for help to be a better wife, and Twilight/Loid is reassured that despite her brother working for the Secret Police, his wife is not a threat to his mission. Anya manages to earn a Stella star, an important academic achievement at school and tells Twilight/Loid that she wants a dog as a reward.

In volume 4, the Forger family acquires a dog for Anya, the fluffy and courageous Bond, who can occasionally see the future. Bond is part of a gang of dogs trained by terrorists (who also kidnap Anya for a while), but Bond and Anya work together to foil the terrorists, with some assistance from both of Anya's parents.

In volume 5, Yor tries to become a better cook, since her cooking efforts hitherto have been dreadful. Anya manages to help Damian win an art prize at school but is terrified when she realises she will have to sit the midterm during the dark of the moon, the one time of the month when her telepathic powers don't work. Yuri, trying to impress his sister, offers to tutor Anya. Twilight/Loid is prepared to break into the school to alter her results, making sure she passes, but instead runs into another (much more inept spy) who is trying to alter the exam results of the Desmond brothers, making it seem that they would fail. Anya passes her exams, and Twilight/Loid makes sure that the Desmond brothers' results remain unaltered. In the final chapter of the story, we are introduced to Fiona Frost, one of Twilight/Loid's fellow spies. She secretly loves Twilight and wants to scare Yor away, so she (Fiona) can take her place in the mission as Twilight's wife. 

These manga adventures are ridiculously entertaining, and I've had a lot of fun reading them since I started this summer. I know there is also an anime series, but since it's a right faff making my VPN work properly so I can watch them, I haven't yet gotten around to watching the show (my BFF Lydia loves it, though). I would love for there to be more actual romance between Twilight/Loid and Yor (everyone knows that marriages of convenience eventually lead to actual love, right?), but these stories are so much fun and I can't wait to see where the story goes next. 

Judging the books by their covers: I really like the art style of this manga, and each volume features one of the characters on the cover. Volume 1 has Agent Twilight/Loid Forger on the cover, volume 2 has Anya, volume 3 has Lor (dressed in her elegant assassin costume), volume 4 has Bond (best doggo!) and volume 5 has Lor's extremely unhealthily attached brother Yuri. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday 28 December 2023

CBR15 Book 86: "Make You Mine This Christmas" by Lizzie Huxley-Jones

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 5 stars

#CBR15 Passport Challenge: Recommended by a friend (I'm not sure if I would have ever discovered this book if it wasn't for the amazing Narfna/Ashley

A lot of contemporary romances get described as rom-coms, and in a lot of cases this is just lies, spouted by the publishers to get more people to pick up the books. Make You Mine This Christmas, on the other hand, is both romantic and very funny. I could easily see it as a film in my head.

Haf (it's a Welsh name) lives in York and is overworked and underappreciated doing social media for an environmental charity. She's depressed because her parents are going to Madeira for Christmas, and she is probably going to have to face Christmas all alone. Her non-binary flatmate and best friend Ambrose drags her along to a holiday party, where she meets the handsome Christopher, who is clearly very posh and admits to working in finance in London. The two hit it off, in a deeply platonic way, but quite a bit of booze makes them decide to kiss (awkwardly) under a piece of mistletoe anyway. Because fake relationships have to start somewhere, they are seen kissing by Christopher's ex-girlfriend Laurel, who is there with her boorish new boyfriend Mark, and Laurel just assumes that Haf is Christopher's new girlfriend. To save her new pal from a mortifying explanation to his ex, Haf plays along and agrees that yes, they are dating.

By the next morning (the two fell asleep on Haf's couch watching TV), Laurel has apparently told everyone who knows Christopher about his new flame, and his parents insist that he bring her along to family Christmas. Haf doesn't have any plans, Christopher clearly doesn't feel comfortable telling his parents that what Laurel saw was just a big understanding, and the agreement to fake date is formed. Ambrose thinks they are both idiots. Ambrose is not wrong.

On her way to meet Christopher in London, Haf browses a bookstore at a train station and has the perfect meet-cute with a very beautiful and mysterious woman, with whom she flirts awkwardly, and who recommends she buy Carol by Patricia Highsmith (excellent lesbian flirting strategy there). Unfortunately, the alluring bookshop woman disappears before Haf can get any contact details from her. Cue a little time later, when it turns out that the sexy bookshop lady is none other than Christopher's older sister, who will also be spending Christmas with the family. Haf is pretending to date Christopher but fancies the pants off his sister. Neither sibling seems able to be entirely honest with or able to stand up to their wealthy, but well-meaning parents, who welcome Haf into the family with open arms. 

This book has:
- Fake dating, and the many lies that accompany such a scheme
- A whole bunch of excellent queer representation, including our bisexual heroine and her non-binary bestie (Ambrose is amazing, and they steal every scene they are in or mentioned in)
- Lovely fat representation. Haf is plus-size and entirely unashamed about it. The imposing Laurel ends up sewing her a ballgown (for reasons) and there is quite a bit of conversation about how hard it is for larger-sized women to find clothing that isn't either a sack or purchased online
- A very nice sibling relationship between Christopher and Kit 
- The awkwardness of pretending to date one sibling (who you feel nothing sexual about at all) and wanting to jump the other sibling (who you very much feel a lot of sexual things for)
- A lot of rich people, who mostly are very nice, if a bit clueless
- Disastrous gingerbread house construction
- Successful gingerbread house construction
- A ridiculous chase sequence through an outdoor Christmas fête, which ends with our heroine having to wade into an icy cold and slimy duck pond to save a baby reindeer from a vicious goose
- A fair amount of pining
- An actual, honest to god, Christmas ball
- Loyal dogs
- Children forced to pull on their big-person pants and be honest with their parents about what they want to do with their lives
- Some final act complications, resulting in a very touching declaration of love at a London train station

There were absolutely parts of this that gave me the same feeling as when reading Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall. That is by no means a bad thing. I absolutely see why Narfna/Ashley was so enthusiastic about this book, and the many quotes she included in her own review of the book are so much funnier in context. This is clearly going to be a book I revisit for comfort re-reads in the years to come. Now I need to see what else this author has written - I want more!

Judging a book by its cover: As cartoony covers go, I actually think this one is very sweet. We only see the characters from the back, yet to the reader, it's very obvious who each of them is supposed to be. I love that the little cartoon Kit has her walking stick and emerald green coat and that it's obvious that Haf is indeed plus-size. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Books 84-85: "The Shepherd King duology" by Rachel Gillig

Total page count: 913 pages
One Dark Window - 3.5 stars
Two Twisted Crowns - 4 stars

Spoiler warning! Some minor spoilers for One Dark Window in this review. 

20-year-old Elspeth Spindle (all the noble families have surnames taken from trees) lives in the kingdom of Blunder, most of which is now enveloped in a thick, sinister fog. Most people who venture out into the fog without a talisman (bones, feathers, animal feet, braided horsehair, etc) go mad and run off into the forest, never to be seen again. The only ones who seem able to walk in the fog without nasty side effects are the survivors of a mysterious fever (which also grants the survivors some sort of magical ability), but such survivors are few and far between since the king has ordered all afflicted with the disease to be rounded up and taken to the palace (where they are experimented on and killed). Being found to have harboured a fever survivor is considered treason. 

However, Elspeth is one such survivor. Her father used to be the captain of the king’s Destriers (think a Royal Guard crossed with Secret Police). He couldn’t bring himself to have his eldest daughter killed, so sent her into the woods to live with her aunt and uncle. Remember how I said all survivors of the fever gained a magical power? Elspeth’s ability made it possible for her to absorb the essence of Providence cards, which is why she has an unwanted cohabitant in her head – known as the Nightmare.

A brief history lesson: Back in the olden times, Blunder was ruled by The Shepherd King (also the name of this fantasy duology). In the woods of Blunder there was an ancient power, The Spirit of the Forest, who people used to turn to for help and who could grant wishes and the like. All magic had a price, because balance is necessary and such trades with the Spirit should not be undertaken lightly. The Shepherd King, in an attempt to safeguard his kingdom, negotiated with the Spirit of the Forest and created a magical deck of cards, called Providence Cards. To create each of the cards, he had to sacrifice something, like years of his life, his memories, his ability to sleep, all his hair, and eventually his own soul. 

"Twelve different Providence Cards made up the Deck. Chronicled in our ancient text, The Old Book of Alders, Providence Cards were not only Blunder’s greatest treasures but the only legal way of performing magic. Anyone could use them – all it took was touch and intention. Clear your mind, hold a Card in your hand, tap it three times, and the Card is yours to wield. Pocket the Card or place it elsewhere, the magic would still hold. Three more taps, or the touch of another person, and the flow of magic would halt. But use a Card too long, and the consequences were dire. The cards were exceptionally rare, their numbers finite."

With some of the cards in the Providence Deck, there are multiple copies. There are only two Nightmare Cards, which grant the user the ability to speak telepathically to others. Eleven years ago, Elspeth touched a Nightmare card in her uncle’s library, and basically absorbed its essence, the werewolf-like creature depicted on its surface. The creature speaks to her, gives her warnings, and in cases of extreme danger, she can grant The Nightmare control over her body, so she gets stronger, faster and can defend herself. Of course, everything has a price, so each time she does this, The Nightmare gains a bit more control over her, and she starts having trouble controlling her own body. When Elspeth is in control, she has dark, nearly black eyes. When The Nightmare is in control, her eyes are yellow. 

Elspeth has stayed far away from the royal court for years, afraid that anyone will discover that she is a survivor of the fever. This Solstice, however, her uncle has finally decided to trade his very precious Nightmare card (the second one is believed to be lost – but is it?) to the King, in return for his daughter, Elspeth’s beloved cousin Ione, to be betrothed to the Crown Prince, a psychotic bully. Ione gets access to a Maiden card, which turns the user flawlessly beautiful but is rumoured to have the side effect that the user becomes cold and heartless. Obviously, with her uncle’s family suddenly guests of honour, Elspeth also has to join the festivities at the palace. She meets a number of new people, like Prince Elm, the younger prince, who doesn’t seem particularly fond of his father or brother. She also comes into contact with Elm’s cousin, Ravyn Yew, the current Captain of the King’s Destriers. He figures out that she’s a survivor of the fever, but doesn’t arrest her. Instead, he invites her to be part of a plot that can only be described as treasonous.

Raven Yew and most of his family are working with Prince Elm to locate one card of each of the ones that make up the Providence Deck. If all twelve cards of the deck can be united, the curse on Blunder will be lifted and the fog will no longer threaten the land. It is believed that those suffering aftereffects of the fever will also be cured.  Elspeth obviously can’t reveal to anyone that she has The Nightmare lurking around in the back of her brain, but reveals to Ravyn and Elm that she can «see» Providence Cards. Thanks to The Nightmare, Elspeth can see the colours of the various cards, even when a person has them hidden. This makes her incredibly useful to the conspirators, and they promise to keep her safe if she agrees to help them. 

It’s agreed that Elspeth come stay at the residence of the Yew family, under the pretext that Ravyn is courting her. Of course what starts out as pretense doesn’t take long before it becomes a reality, although Elspeth has to keep lying to her new friends, and the man she’s falling for about the extent of her magical abilities. 

Things got really complicated after Elspeth had her wrist broken when Ravyn, Elm, and their gang of fake highwaymen tried to stage an ambush to steal another Providence Card. Elspeth came into close contact with the Crown Prince, who broke her wrist. Elspeth only got away because she let the Nightmare take over, and he clawed the Prince savagely. While everyone claims Elspeth broke her wrist falling off a horse, this cover story isn’t really very convincing to anyone, least the cruel Crown Prince. He may be a psycho, but he’s sadly not stupid. He’s suspected his brother and cousins of being up to something treasonous, and he gets his claws into Elspeth both to question her and use her as bait to capture her co-conspirators.

As a result of that rather unpleasant encounter, Elspeth has to let The Nightmare take over permanently, and the Crown Prince is found nearly torn to pieces. Elspeth is taken prisoner, but the Nightmare, now in total control, reveals to the enraged King that he knows where the Twin Alders, the only unique card in the Providence Deck is hidden. It will be impossible for anyone to unite the Deck and break the curse on Blunder without this card. Ravyn pretends to still be loyal and offers to take The Nightmare/the husk that was once Elspeth to find the card. The blood of someone afflicted by the fever will also need to be spilled to break the curse, and the King plans for that to be Elspeth, once the card is found.

Prince Elm, who hates his family, now has to step up and act as heir, as his elder brother is horribly injured and may not survive. He’s unable to accompany Ravyn to find the final Providence Card, but to make his time back at the palace more bearable, he makes a deal with Ione, his brother’s unwilling betrothed, to help her find the missing Maiden card that still has her under an enchantment. Thanks to Ione, Elm also discovers a previously unknown benefit the Maiden card grants those under its spell.

Will Ravyn manage to locate the missing Providence Card required to unite the Deck and break the curse on Blunder? Will he be able to exorcise The Nightmare from Elspeth’s body and save his beloved from being sacrificed by the king? Will Elm and Ione find the missing Maiden card, and return Ione to her former self? Will our stalwart heroes triumph over corruption and evil and live happily ever after? 

While One Dark Window is told entirely from Elspeth’s POV (with little snippets from The Old Book of Alders at the start of each chapter, giving us helpful information about the magic system and the Providence Cards), Two Twisted Crowns is told through Elm, Ravyn and The Nightmare’s POVs. There are brief glimpses of Elspeth's consciousness, but she's pretty firmly stuck deep in what seems to be The Nightmare's subconscious.

One Dark Window was the November pick in my fantasy book club. For the first half of the book, it was really only the interesting magic system that kept me going. Elspeth is not the most dynamic of heroines and her romance with Ravyn really didn't grab me all that much. Her strange connection with The Nightmare helped keep me interested, and I really wouldn't have expected the first book to end the way it did. The second book is miles better, especially because all three POV characters are more interesting, especially Elm. He develops a romance with Ione, which is complicated because she's promised to his loathsome brother. Since I liked both Elm and Ione a lot more than drippy Elspeth, that storyline worked better for me than Elspeth and Ravyn's. 

I'm always happy when a fantasy series can be contained in two, rather than three books. In this case, I would highly recommend readers stick with it, even if One Dark Window isn't entirely grabbing them. The world-building and magic system is very interesting, and everything develops so well in Two Twisted Crowns, finishing off the story in a really satisfying way. 

Judging the books by the covers: I think the cover for One Dark Window is supposed to be a red-clad woman (most likely Elspeth) in the middle of a bridge. The black smoke is probably something to do with the Nightmare? It's not a great choice - it looks like a tiny volcano. The cover for Two Twisted Crowns is much better, with the twisty trees adding to the spooky atmosphere. If the woman on the cover is supposed to be Elspeth, her hair should really be cut short - but you can't have everything.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday 27 December 2023

CBR15 Book 83: "Forget Me Not" by Julie Soto

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Ama Torres is an excellent wedding planner, who really gives her all to make sure the weddings she arranges go off without a hitch. However, personally, she doesn't believe in marriage or in relationships that really last a lifetime. Probably because her mother has been married so many times (Ama has arranged a lot of her weddings). Now she has a whole host of former step-siblings, some of which she works with, others who she can rope in when she needs a favour. Despite Ama usually doing fairly small, intimate weddings, she is contracted to arrange the wedding of a famous Instagram star (a woman Ama sees as a personal role model). It will be Ama's biggest job yet, and her former employer is making things difficult by booking up a lot of the available vendors on the date in question.

Another complication is that the brides have contracted Elliot Bloom to do the flowers for the wedding. Ama and Elliot have a history - which ended when Ama broke Elliot's heart several years previous. Now she's going to have to arrange the biggest, most high-profile wedding of her career while working closely with a man who most likely hates her. 

Romances starring commitment-phobic wedding planners seem to be a subgenre of its own. Ama (not going to tell you her full name, but it's a great one) has a lot of issues with relationships, mainly due to her mother's many many marriages. She prefers simple flings until she meets Elliot, who is the complete opposite. When Elliot falls for someone, it is forever - which doesn't work out so well for either of them.

This is a really fun second chance romance, where about half of the story is told in flashbacks, so we see the beginning of Ama and Elliot's relationship, and discover what finally went wrong between them. The present-day story, with Ama ultra-competently finding solutions to all of the wealthy brides' many demands, even being sabotaged by her former boss, is a lot of fun too, although it becomes painfully clear that Ama needs a ton of therapy. She is far too much of a workaholic, and then there are all the commitment issues because of her mom's serial monogamy. I would have liked there to be some kind of acknowledgment that at some point, after the story's end, she would deal with some of these issues, to make sure she doesn't get cold feet and hurt poor Elliot again.

I know Ms. Soto has another romance coming out in the summer of 2024, but nothing about what it will be about. I hope she at some point in the future writes a book about Ama's beautiful and funny photographer stepsister, because she seems like she would be a great heroine. 

Judging a book by its cover: The US cover for this makes it seem like Reylo fan fiction because the guy on the cover is yet another Adam Driver look-alike. The UK cover has both characters looking far too cutesy (although Ama is described as looking a lot like a teenager). I don't think either cover really fits the book very well. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 82: "A Christmas Affair to Remember" by Mia Vincy

Page count: 202 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Sylvia Ray was married to a charming, persuasive man, who died and left her destitute. Because he lied to his family, they believed she was the reason he had ended up with massive debts, so they refused to give her any financial assistance after his death. After years of trying to support herself and keep herself from starvation, she's found a man who wants to marry her, and who can give her a secure future. 

Isaac DeWitt went to see as a young boy and was forced to leave his career in the navy when he damaged his leg. Now he works as an investigator and would like to settle down with a wife - but having grown up surrounded solely by men, women are a complete mystery to him. He enjoys flirting, but has absolutely no idea how to go about actually kissing or wooing a woman - what if he turns out to be disappointing?

Sylvia discovers Isaac's dilemma, and though she knows she shouldn't, she makes him a wicked proposal. The man she is marrying is sickly and her future union is unlikely to be passionate. Having one final fling before she marries again may be irresponsible, but she can't help herself. Isaac is more than happy to take her up on her offer, he'll get experience and confidence enough to find himself a wife, and she'll get some pleasant memories to think back on once she's married in the countryside, taking care of a hypochondriac.

It's been a few years since I read any romances by Mia Vincy, but she always writes her characters so well. In this holiday novella, which was free on her website, we meet the younger brother of Joshua DeWitt, the erstwhile grouchy hero of A Wicked Kind of Husband. Here he is an affectionate older brother and dotes on his wife and children. 

Several of my reading challenges for December asked for books set around winter and/or holiday time. This seemed like a good fit (and made me realise I probably want to re-read some of Vincy's novels). The older, experienced partner who offers to tutor the younger, virginal character in the amorous arts isn't an unusual trope, but the gender reversal where the woman is the experienced one and the man is the virgin is not one I can remember coming across very often. Of course, Sylvia is a widow and all of 33 years old. That's an OLDER woman in historical romance. I'm basically a crone now. 

Isaac and Sylvia have excellent chemistry and of course, start to fall for one another. The main conflict in the story is Isaac's inability to understand why Sylvia is determined to go through with her marriage to a sickly man who will never appreciate her, and why lust, and even love, isn't going to be enough to make her change her mind.

If you haven't read any Mia Vincy, this is a nice place to start. While there are cameos from other couples from her books, you don't need to have read any of their stories to enjoy this one. 

Judging a book by its cover: Mia Vincy's covers always seem to be done in gentle watercolours, with one specific colour dominating. On her other covers, there's pink, yellow, purple, and blue, while here the dominant colour seems to be a sepia-tinted orange. The covers always seem to suggest much more gentle stories than Vincy often delivers, but they are pretty. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 81: "Consort of Fire" by Kit Rocha

Page count: 398 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Disclaimer! This was an ARC from Netgalley (but I have also paid to buy the book myself, after reading it). My opinions are my own.

Every one hundred years, the king of the Sheltered Lands has to send one heir to serve as consort to the ancient dragon god who acts as its protector and guardian. The previous consort went mad with fear not long after bonding with the Dragon, and Ash, the Dragon, worries that history will repeat itself. Ash has lived for over three thousand years, and even with successful unions, his consorts, being mere mortals, grow old and die. Yet the tradition must continue or the protective spells on the land can't be renewed.

The consort is obviously supposed to be of royal blood, but this time, the king has sent an impostor. Sachielle and her handmaiden Zenya were orphans, adopted, and trained to be the perfect weapons. Sachi has been trained to seduce and beguile, Zenya to be a ruthless and highly efficient assassin. Both young women have faced a very harsh and torturous upbringing, with the safety of the other used to keep them under control during training. Their secret mission is to murder the Dragon when he is most vulnerable, and they have only five weeks to complete their task. If they fail, the king's high priest has placed a curse on Sachi. She will die painfully and her soul will be consumed. Zenya has never known love in her life, except from Sachi, and will do anything and everything to keep her safe - even something as impossible as murdering a living god.

Of course, Ash turns out to be nothing like what the young women have been led to expect, nor are the other living gods of the pantheon, all of whom do their best to make the young women feel welcome. The Dragon is not the ruthless tyrant that they feared, he is beloved of his followers and treats both of them with kindness and solicitude. Nor is he even vaguely threatened when he discovers that his bonded bride and her handmaiden are lovers - he just becomes determined to seduce both of them. The more time they spend together, the more willing Sachi is to just give up on the assassination plot, but Zenya isn't going to let her beloved be consumed by the curse, no matter how charming and hot the Dragon is.

I've only read one previous book by Kit Rocha, and while it was entertaining, it was nothing like this. The Mercenary Librarians is a post-apocalyptic urban fantasy, this is pure fantasy. I found the world-building intriguing and loved pretty much all the characters (except the dastardly high priest - but he was clearly supposed to be pond scum). All the living gods were once mortals who did something great and self-sacrificing to protect the land and/or their people, and now they're like a big, vaguely incestuous family who tease each other and hang out at each other's palaces. The other gods are all aware of Ash's melancholy and worries about his new union. Sachi and Zenya are not the first to try to assassinate him either, so none of them are too worried until it becomes clear that if she gets her hands on the right weapon, Zenya could actually present a real threat.

If you are a fan of clean romance, this is not the book for you. This book is so steamy that it should possibly be kept in the freezer when you're not reading it. So many sex scenes, including an actual orgy at one point. Yet as is the case with good writers, every sex scene also furthers the plot in some way.

I wasn't expecting to be so completely engrossed by this. The second I finished the book, I went online to order the sequel, which sadly isn't out until August. I think the series was originally going to be a trilogy, now it looks like it may just be a duology. I'm not complaining, as long as I get more smexy fantasy in this world. I would love sequels featuring others in the pantheon as well. 

Judging a book by its cover: As covers go, there is little here to suggest how steamy (and fun) the contents are. The hourglass with the red sand is very central to the plot, however. Each moment of Sachi's remaining life until the curse takes her is shown in a magical hourglass that Sachi and Zenya carry with them. Sachi prefers not to look at it too often, Zenya is almost obsessed with it. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 80: "Her Majesty's Royal Coven" by Juno Dawson

Page count: 452 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

From the official plot description:
At the dawn of their adolescence, on the eve of the summer solstice, four young girls--Helena, Leonie, Niamh, and Elle--took the oath to join Her Majesty's Royal Coven, established by Queen Elizabeth I as a covert government department. Now, decades later, the witch community is still reeling from a civil war and Helena is now the reigning High Priestess of the organization. Yet Helena is the only one of her friend group still enmeshed in the stale bureaucracy of HMRC. Elle is trying to pretend she's a normal housewife, and Niamh has become a country vet, using her powers to heal sick animals. In what Helena perceives as the deepest betrayal, Leonie has defected to start her own more inclusive and intersectional coven, Diaspora. And now Helena has a bigger problem. A young warlock of extraordinary capabilities has been captured by authorities and seems to threaten the very existence of HMRC. With conflicting beliefs over the best course of action, the four friends must decide where their loyalties lie: with preserving tradition, or doing what is right.

I really wanted to like this book, but due to some of the characterisation and plotting, and certainly the way the book ended, I merely think it's OK. The book tells the story from the POVs of all the main witches. Niamh is a country vet, Elle is a housewife trying to get used to the idea that her eldest daughter is manifesting powers. Helena runs HMRC and has to deal with politics and power struggles, while Leonie is trying to run her smaller, intersectional coven, whilst panicking slightly because her girlfriend seems to want to start a family. 

Both Niamh and Helena lost their romantic partners during the magical civil war and are still mourning them in their ways. Niamh's twin sister has been in a coma since the war and is kept under constant supervision. Elle mostly wants to forget about her magical nature. Now there is a terrifying prophecy looming, and a young troubled teen seems to be at the centre of it. Helena and her coven are convinced this person may bring forth the apocalypse, Niamh, who no longer wants to work with the coven, thinks they just need some stability and understanding, having clearly suffered a lot in their young life. As the plot develops, their diametrical views on young Theo will create a lot of conflict between them. 

Intersectional feminism is clearly important. TERFs are horrible. Juno Dawson is obviously allowed to feel and write whatever she wants regarding these things, but I didn't particularly enjoy some of the twists and turns this story took as a result of her needing to work through some things. I've heard that the second book is better, though, so I will give her one more chance. 

Judging a book by its cover: I don't think I'm particularly fond of this cover, or the alternative cover which is black, white, and red, with a turquoise font. The neon pink is certainly eye-catching, but I certainly didn't get this book because of the cover. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday 26 December 2023

CBR15 Book 79: "For Never & Always" by Helena Greer

Page count: 369 pages
Rating: 5 stars

When she was little, Hannah Rosenstein's parents traveled all over the world, and the only place she ever felt safe and settled was at the Christmas tree farm owned by her father's great-aunt Cass. At Carrigan's Christmas Tree Farm, she would also get to spend time with Levi, whose parents were the cook and groundskeeper at Carrigan's and who in practicality ran the farm for Cass. When Hannah got older, she persuaded her parents to let her go live at Carrigan's so she could go to high school in one place, and she finally felt like she had a home and a safe haven. She, Levi, and her cousin Miriam were together in the summers, and Cass began talking about leaving the farm to Hannah someday.

Levi "Blue" Matthews never felt at home at Carrigan's or in the little town where he went to school. It was impossible for him to forget that his parents, and he and his siblings were "the help". Hannah and Miriam were his favourite people in the world and kept saying that the Matthews were family, but Cass always made it clear that Levi would never be good enough for her Hannah, and he should stay far away from her.

Despite Cass' dire warnings, Levi and Hannah's obvious love for one another wasn't going to go away, but they always wanted fundamentally different things. Hannah never wanted to leave Carrigans, and Levi couldn't wait to get away and make something of himself out in the wide world.

After four years away, Levi is returning to Carrigans (now an All-Year destination, not just a Christmas tree farm), because Cass, not content to meddle in his life only when she was alive, left a quarter of the farm to him, Hannah, his cousin Miriam and the general manager Noelle. He has travelled all over the world and is now an internationally famous chef (internet famous because of his participation in Australia's Next Top Chef). He has finally achieved his goal of becoming someone worthy of Hannah and has every intention of winning her back. Except Hannah's heart was well and truly shattered when Levi left her behind, and she has spent a long time rebuilding her life. All she wants is for Levi to sign over his shares of Carrigans, grant her a divorce (oh yeah, they got secretly married), and leave her alone forever.

Levi has his work cut out for him. There's a very high-profile bride who would love it for world-famous Chef Matthews to cater her wedding in three months, and since Carrigans All-Year needs the money and the publicity the wedding will bring, Hannah has to reluctantly agree to let Levi stay that long. He challenges her to a Shenanigan (read Seasons of Love to fully get an idea of what Shenanigans entail), and she has to grant him five dates. If he doesn't manage to get Hannah to fall back in love with him, he'll sign the divorce papers and divide his shares between her, Miriam, and Noelle. But if he succeeds, he gets the only woman he's ever loved back.

To say that I've been waiting for this book for a long time is an understatement. I read Helena Greer's debut romance, about Miriam and Noelle around Christmas time last year. That book ends with Levi returning to Hannah at Carrigans. Back in June, I got the offer of an ARC of this book, but because of geographical restrictions, neither the NetGalley link they sent me nor the direct widget Ms. Greer's publisher tried to send me worked. I'm not going to lie, I was pretty gutted. Still, I had the book pre-ordered and the second it arrived on my Kindle I spent most of the day enjoying my time back at Carrigans. This book starts right where the previous one left off. You don't have to have read it to enjoy this one, but it's one of the best romances I read in 2022, so why wouldn't you read it too?

Seasons of Love pretty much does your traditional Hallmark movie, except the protagonists are both queer and most of the characters are Jewish. In this novel, we have a second-chance romance, where the protagonists are secretly married and one of the central questions is whether that marriage can be saved or not. The problem Levi and Hannah had was not that they didn't love each other enough, it was that they wanted and needed fundamentally different things, and didn't communicate well enough to explain those wants and needs to each other. 

By the time Levi decided that he had to go off into the world to make something of himself, Carrigans hadn't just become Hannah's safe haven, it was a place she literally couldn't leave because of severe anxiety. Miriam and Hannah were always doted on by Cass, and no one, not even his closest family, knew how uncomfortable and unwanted Cass made him. To Hannah, living at Carrigans and going to high school in a stable environment was great. To Levi, who understood early that he was queer and never really had any friends who accepted him wholeheartedly except Hannah and Miriam (who never got to spend too much time at Carrigans, thanks to her controlling father), in addition to the feeling that while Hannah and Miriam were family to Cass, the Matthews family were mere servants.

Four years apart have given both sides of our couple a lot of time to reflect on their wants and needs, but until they reunite and begin to actually try talking to one another about the things that really matter, they won't have a chance for a future together. I love Hannah and Levi, together and apart. I liked seeing Miriam and Noelle as supporting characters instead of as the main focus of a story. The cameo appearances from Cole, Miriam's best friend, and Tara, her ex (who is getting her own romance next year - with a book that has my absolute favourite cover of the three) were also great. This book will absolutely become a comfort re-read for me in the years to come. 

Judging a book by its cover: Leni Kauffman has a gift and pretty much always makes cute and inviting romance covers. Hannah and Levi look exactly as described, and the purple background doesn't hurt either. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 78: "My Fair Concubine" by Jeannie Lin

Page count: 288 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Fei Long is in desperate straits. His sister has been selected to be sent to a foreign court to secure an important political alliance through marriage but has instead eloped with her lover. Once Fei Long catches up to the runaway couple, he doesn't really have the heart to force his sister back home, so instead, he lets her and her new husband go. However, if he doesn't present a princess candidate to the imperial court, his family's reputation will be ruined.

So when he encounters Yan Ling, a beautiful serving girl at the tea house he rests after sending his sister off, he hatches a plan. Not many people have actually seen his sister in the last few years. If he manages to train Yan Ling enough in courtly manners and etiquette to pass for a young noblewoman, they can pretend she is his sister, and he won't have to worry about the wrath of the emperor.

Of course, they don't have a lot of time, and Yan Ling doesn't even know how to read and write, so a lot of work has to be done. To complicate matters further, it turns out that Fei Long's recently departed father had a massive gambling problem and has left the household with massive debts that are now Fei Long's responsibility to deal with. A high-ranking city official also wants to monitor the progress that Fei Long's "sister" is making, to make sure she is a suitable candidate to send off to secure the alliance.

Of course, despite their initial social standings and animosity, Fei Long and Yan Ling fall for one another, and both try bravely to resist the attraction, as their love is impossible, and they only have a few months together before Yan Ling needs to be sent off to a foreign country to marry someone else.

This is my second Jeannie Lin novel this year, and while it was fine, I didn't enjoy it as much as The Dragon and the Pearl. It's another of the novels that originally were published by Harlequin, and anyone looking for high spice should probably look elsewhere. This book is mostly pining. 

I really liked the bits with Yan Ling working to become delicate and sophisticated enough to pass for a noblewoman. The subplot with Fei Long dealing with his father's gambling debts and dealing with a mob boss and having to do a bunch of archery dragged the story out, however. Could have done with less of that. 

Judging a book by its cover: This cover feels pretty generic, except for the fact that it has Chinese people in historical costumes on it, rather than white people in period garb readers are probably more familiar with. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read