Saturday 30 March 2024

CBR16 Book 16: "Butcher & Blackbird" by Brynne Weaver

Page count: 360 pages
Audiobook length: 8 hrs 43 mins
Rating: 5 stars

CBR16 Sweet Books: Excited (I love this book and would like everyone I know to read it, but also understand that it's very much NOT for everyone).

Spoiler warning! I will do my best to review this without major plot spoilers, but if you want to experience this book without any prior knowledge of the contents, possibly skip this review until you've read the book.

Sloane "Blackbird" Sutherland and Rowan "Butcher" Kane have a rather unusual meet cute. He finds her locked in a cage, starved and desperate, and a decomposing corpse on the floor just outside the cage door. Sloane and Rowan are both serial killers, but only murder other killers. Obviously, they don't meet a lot of people who share their unusual hobby, and once they establish that they know of each other's reputations, end up having lunch and agreeing to a friendly competition. Once a year, they'll meet up to hunt the same killer. The first to five kills gets the honour of killing a particularly infamous one. 

Rowan is smitten with Sloane from their very first meeting, and Sloane certainly finds Rowan attractive. She's just so shy, paranoid, and socially awkward that she cannot imagine what a handsome, charming, outgoing, and flirtatious man like him might see in her. So they develop a friendship, which clearly starts developing into more with each meeting, but it takes more than four years before Sloane actually dares believe that Rowan likes her as more than just a like-minded friend. Can the two of them, restless, dark-souled, murderous, and obsessive, actually make a relationship work? And will they survive long enough to enjoy a HEA? It's not like their recreational activities are risk-free. 

There is a LONG list of trigger warnings at the very start of this book. If you find eyeballs and the removal of them unpleasant, then this book is probably not for you. These people are murderers, and there are graphic depictions of both a violent and sexual nature (there's a lot of mutual pining until about 60% into the book, and then they really make up for lost time and things get very 18+ afterwards). I tend to find suspense novels stressful, I don't really like horror. I never understood the fascination a lot of people have with True Crime. This book is basically what you'd get if Hannibal had a baby with a snarky romantic comedy. It's adorable, laugh-out-loud funny, very romantic, extremely spicy, and very very gross in parts. Both protagonists kill without remorse, and experience some pretty dangerous situations over the course of their strange murder quests. Yet I absolutely adored this book. 

Sloane is so shy, dorky, and socially awkward. She literally has one friend in the entire world, no siblings, and doesn't seem to talk or interact much with her parents. Since she seems to be bad with people in general, it's no wonder that she's intimidated and a bit confused by Rowan at first. He's outgoing, gregarious, charming, and very good-looking. He seems to flirt with everyone, so for a while, it's understandable that Sloane doesn't clue into the fact that he's clearly completely obsessed with her. 

I was completely hooked by this almost instantly. I bought the audiobook in an Audible sale in early January and thought it might be a fun and unusual read for Valentine's Day this year. I started listening in the morning on my way to work and stayed up late so I could actually finish the audiobook the same day. While I don't have as much time as I used to just for reading, I do occasionally finish a book in a day. But I can't remember the last time I finished a whole audiobook the very same day I started it, even listening at x1.5 speed.

I had a major book hangover and kept thinking so much about the book and the characters that I had to just start the audiobook all over again. That level of obsession only happens every few years for me, and should tell you something about how much I loved this book. The list of content warnings for this book is on the author's website, so if any of these seem like dealbreakers to you, it's probably best to skip it. On the other hand, I also have two friends who were disappointed that the book didn't go enough into detail about the planning and actual murdering, so that's also worth bearing in mind. 

Judging a book by its cover: The neon pink and purple against the black background is eye-catching even before you see the details, like the chainsaw, cleaver, axe, and obviously all the bones. It's sort of cute and sinister at the same time, which pretty much perfectly sums up this book. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday 29 March 2024

CBR16 Book 15: "The Write Escape" by Charish Reid

Page count: 291 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Nowhere Book Bingo: A book with a BIPOC author and main character
CBR16 Sweet Books: Cozy

In very short order, Antonia Harper has lost her job and discovered that her fiancée was cheating on her, very shortly before the wedding. The honeymoon was supposed to be in Ireland, and Antonia decides to travel there by herself. Her spiteful ex has cancelled their original reservations, but she rents a cottage to stay in instead. With nothing else to distract her, Antonia decides to make a stab at writing more of the romance novel she's been dreaming of completing (but never had time for, what with her busy job as an editor and trying to plan a wedding). She isn't exactly happy with men in general at present, but the handsome professor in the cottage next door is making her reconsider her wish to be alone.

Aidan Byrnes is a literature professor who is finding his job difficult at the moment. He's rented a cottage in the little town of Tully Cross to get some peace and quiet and to finally have the time and focus to complete an important academic paper. He first runs into Antonia in the tiny supermarket nearby and is both surprised and delighted to discover that she is staying in the cottage next to his. Still slightly weary of romantic entanglements after his girlfriend dumped him a year previous, Aiden nevertheless can't stop thinking about Antonia, who he discovers is not only gorgeous but clever, educated, and funny as well.

What starts out as a bit of a holiday fling begins to turn serious pretty quickly. Neither Antonia nor Aidan were expecting to meet anyone, let alone start falling for them in the sleepy village of Tully Cross. Yet Aiden has a job at an Irish university, and Antonia's life is back in America. Can their fledgling romance turn into something more permanent, with an entire ocean between them?

This is my first novel by Charish Reid and it was fun, but not exactly a perfect read. I really liked Antonia and Aiden as characters, both apart and together. Both are hard-working and devoted to their jobs (but obviously Antonia is unemployed for much of the book since she loses her job early on). Antonia is also very close to her family, especially her sister, which made it difficult when they clearly weren't enthusiastic about her upcoming wedding. I would love to read a sequel novel about her sister.

The majority of the book is set in Ireland, and while I'm sure Irish villages are very quaint and welcoming, it seems like a slightly exaggerated ideal of the place. No one is unpleasant, racist, or rude. I understand that those aren't exactly things that you would want in a fluffy escapist romance, but from my experience, not all small-town folk anywhere are open-minded and whole-heartedly welcoming to any strangers, certainly not those with darker skin colours. 

This was a quick breezy read, and I liked it a lot. There were a few things that annoyed me a bit, but nothing serious enough for me not to want to read more of her books. Firstly, Antonia is obviously using her vacation in Ireland to work on her romance novel. At one point, Aiden uses her computer and can't help himself from reading what she's written. Considering how unsure she is of her writing and how personal a book manuscript can be, this felt like he was reading her journal. When she eventually discovers what he's done, she seems to forgive him very quickly. SPOILER! Antonia also seems able to relocate her entire life to Ireland on very little notice, to be with a guy whom she's known for less than two weeks. Good to know that it's that easy to make a major life change when you finally meet the hot guy you decide is Mr. Right.

Judging a book by its cover: I really like the visible joy on the faces of both of the cover models here. This is exactly the sort of novel that would have a jewel-toned cover with cute cartoony characters on it now, and I'm not sure that trend is as great as publishers think it is. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 23 March 2024

CBR16 Book 14: "Illuminae" by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Page count: 602 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Nowhere Book Bingo: An epistolary novel
CBR16 Sweet Books: Binge (I have already bought the next two books in the series in paperback, so I can read all of them as soon as possible.)

Official book description:
Kady thought breaking up with Ezra was the worst thing she'd ever been through. That was before her planet was invaded. Now, with enemy fire raining down on them, Kady and Ezra are forced to fight their way onto one of the evacuating craft, with an enemy warship in hot pursuit.

But the warship could be the least of their problems. A deadly plague has broken out and is mutating, with terrifying results; the fleet's AI, which should be protecting them, may actually be their biggest threat; and nobody in charge will say what's really going on. As Kady plunges into a web of data hacking to get to the truth, it's clear only one person can help her bring it all to light: Ezra.

Kady is a talented hacker and is fully aware that the evacuated passengers aren't being told much of anything. She is determined to find out the truth of what is going on, especially after the AI of the leading evacuation ship, AIDAN, blows one of the other two up unexpectedly. Naturally, the remaining ship's crew are rather nervous about the incident being repeated and the AI needs to be shut down until they can figure out why it acted so erratically. Ezra is recruited as a fighter pilot, working to defend the evacuation fleet, not exactly a job without significant risks.

As Kady becomes more and more isolated, and the losses really start affecting her, her illegal communication with Ezra becomes one of the things that keep her going. Neither of them has anyone else significant left in their lives, and it becomes clear that the reasons why Kady dumped Ezra in the first place become very insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and now they would just like to be reunited, before they quite possibly die. 

As the back of the book says, the novel is "Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents—including emails, schematics, military files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more". I am very glad I got the paperback from the library, I'm genuinely not sure how in the world this book would work in audio, and I don't think I would have found it as engrossing a read on an e-reader screen. There were sections where I literally had to keep turning the book sideways or on its head to be able to read everything. It's a very interesting take on the epistolary format. 

I can absolutely see why this book wouldn't be a 5-star read for some people. It was a bit slow to catch my interest in the beginning, but since it's not divided into chapters like a traditional book, but interview transcripts, memos, chat logs, and the like, it's very easy to get tempted to read just a little bit more, since each individual section is so short. Once things really started escalating, I had trouble putting the book down. I stayed up until far too late o'clock on a work night just to finish it (and had to actually peek at the ending about halfway through the book because all the tension was going to kill me if I didn't know how it all turned out). So to me, this was a five-star read, even though some of the characterisation probably could have been deeper, and parts of the book were pure horror, and really upsettingly graphic when it came to the violence perpetrated by those afflicted with the virus. 

I have now bought this book for my keeper shelf, along with the two sequels, if they're even half as gripping as this one, I want physical copies of them for my very own. Also, having read the first one in a physical format, I'm not even sure it would be possible to get all the necessary information if you read them as an e-book or listened to it in audio. 

Judging a book by its cover: The reds and oranges are very eye-catching and I'm not entirely sure what the cover is supposed to show, but I think it might be a firestorm, suggesting either the original attack on Kady and Ezra's home world or the subsequent explosion of one of the evacuation ships. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 25 February 2024

CBR16 Book 13: "Bride" by Ali Hazelwood

Page count: 410 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Nowhere Book Bingo: One-word title
CBR16 Sweet Books: Exciting (This was one of my most anticipated book releases of the first half of 2024)

Misery Lark is the only daughter of a powerful vampyre councilman, and for much of her life, she lived among human strangers as a diplomatic hostage, to maintain the fragile peace between vampyres and humans. To make her a bit less lonely, an orphan named Serena came to live with her, and now that Misery is all grown-up, Serena is her only friend. She also has a twin brother, but since she's lived away from him for so long, they don't really know each other particularly well.

Misery is no longer a hostage, but Serena has gone missing and Misery is desperate to find her friend. When her father wants to use her to secure another alliance, this one a rather fragile one with the volatile werewolves, her first instinct is to say no. But then she discovers the name of the new werewolf Alpha, Lowe Moreland, and remembers a clue she found in Serena's apartment. Convinced that the werewolves must have something to do with her BFF's disappearance, Misery agrees to marry a complete stranger, a man she won't even meet until the wedding ceremony. 

Early in their marriage, Misery is convinced that Lowe is disgusted by her, and he tries to keep his distance from her as much as possible. It's difficult for her to snoop around and investigate since there are guards watching her at all times. A lot of the werewolves are suspicious and distrustful of Misery, but Lowe's little sister seems delighted by her and takes any opportunity to spend time with her (much to Misery's initial annoyance, she has no idea how to relate to a child, let alone a constantly chirpy one). 

While Misery is a very skilled hacker, she sucks at subterfuge and sneaking around. She also fails to account for her husband's excellent sense of smell - it's not really difficult for him to tell when she's been snooping in his quarters. She's forced to tell him why she agreed to the marriage, and while he's never even heard of Serena, he promises to help her search for her friend. Once they start working together, Misery and Lowe obviously have to spend a lot more time together, and once they do, Misery is about to discover that the reason her husband has been keeping her at a distance isn't because he hates her - rather the opposite.

By now, it should be clear to readers of my reviews that I am a big fan of Ali Hazelwood. I've read everything she's published, and when I found out she was doing a paranormal, I nearly lost it. I keep joking that I'd like her to switch things up and finally write a book with a short, shy, introverted hero. A novel featuring werewolves and vampires was never going to have that. Of course, Lowe is big and imposing, he's an alpha werewolf. However, Misery is at least not a petite waif with some sort of chronic condition, she's described as nearly six feet tall, which is a bit of a change from Hazelwood's normally pocket-sized heroines. 

I am vaguely aware that there is something out there called the Omegaverse, but I haven't really wanted to mess up my search history by actually looking up what it entails, and as far as I'm aware. I also don't read fan fiction (far too little time to read actual books, I don't have time to get distracted by fan fic), but I have read a fair amount of paranormal romance, many MANY of them which feature shapeshifters and were-creatures of some form or another. Even so, I have never come across the concept of 'knotting' before this book. It wasn't like I didn't understand from the sexual situations described in this book entailed, but I had to go on the interwebs and look up where the term originated, and this is the first book where I can say I've come across its use. Gotta say I'm not a fan. Apart from that, I really enjoyed this book, even with the fated mate stuff that's clearly happening (just because Misery doesn't understand what's going on, and keeps misunderstanding all the conversations involving Lowe's mate, doesn't mean that it's not pretty obvious from pretty much the wedding ceremony to anyone who's read any paranormal romance at all).

Hazelwood has in the past had some characters appear in more than one of her STEM romances, but so far she doesn't really seem to do sequels. However, now that she's written this paranormal, I'm desperate for her to write at least one more book set in this world, preferably two. It seems pretty obvious, from the final scene in this book, that Serena is likely to get her own novel. I want one for Owen, Misery's twin brother, as well though, as he's an intriguing character from what we get to see of him in this book. I want to see what romantic match Hazelwood has in mind for him. 

Judging a book by its cover: Compared to Hazelwood's previous novels, which all have bright almost candy-coloured covers with the lovers in fairly traditional embraces, this is very monochrome. The black, white, grey, and red colour scheme here is clearly yet another nod/wink to Twilight, however, and I for one think it's a fun one. Could it have had a more interesting image? Possibly, but I really like the wolf in the background with the glowing eyes. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 18 February 2024

CBR16 Book 12: "Raiders of the Lost Heart" by Jo Segura

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Nowhere Book Bingo: A Nowhere Book Club Pick
CBR16 Sweet Books: New (Jo Segura is a debut author)

Official book description: 
When archaeologist Dr. Socorro 'Corrie' Mejía is invited to join an all-expenses-paid dig in the Mexican jungle, she thinks her wildest dreams have come true. It's her life goal to lead an expedition in search of the long-lost remains of her ancestor, Chimalli, an ancient warrior of the Aztec empire. But as the world-renowned expert on the topic, Corrie should be leading the expedition, not sharing the glory with her disgustingly handsome nemesis.

Dr. Ford Matthews has been finding new ways to best her since they were in grad school, yet he isn't exactly thrilled either - with his life in shambles, the last thing he needs is a reminder of their rocky past.

As the dig begins, it becomes clear they'll need to work together when they realize a thief is lurking around their campsite, forcing the pair to keep their discoveries - and lingering attraction - under wraps. With money-hungry artifact smugglers, the Mexican authorities, and the lies between them closing in, there's only one way this all ends - explosively.

This is a debut novel where the heroine keeps being compared to Lara Croft and the hero is apparently named for Harrison Ford because his Dad loved the Indiana Jones movies. Doctor Corrie Mejía is a very intelligent and highly trained archeologist, but keeps having trouble being taken seriously because she's also a very attractive woman, and due to some recklessness in her past, there are all sorts of exaggerated stories about her wild adventures. A mysterious guy shows up in her office and tells her about a dig in Mexico, which she only discovers is headed by her career nemesis, Doctor Ford Matthews.

Ford has been digging in the Mexican jungle for three months, without anything real to show for it, and has had no choice but to recommend to his employer that they bring Corrie in on the job, as she is the expert on Chimalli, the warrior whose resting place they are trying to locate. In fact, she would have been the best person to lead the job, but desperate for money because his mother needs expensive cancer treatments, and his father died leaving a bunch of unpaid debts, Ford convinced the financial backers that he knew just as much, if not more than Corrie. Naturally, this lie and the subsequent deception are some of the things that present obstacles in the way to Ford and Corrie's eventual HEA.

As the cover promises, this book has quite a bit of adventure, as Ford and Corrie need to set off into the jungle to find the correct dig site (the reason Ford and his crew didn't find anything for three months is that they were looking in the wrong place). Their multi-day trek presents several dangers, like near-drownings, snake attacks, and a rather complicated situation that leads to "only one tent". Then there's the mystery of the possible artifact thief and trying to figure out the culprit before their expedition is sabotaged.

There's a lot to like here, and some fun supporting characters. Once Ford and Corrie stop ignoring their obvious chemistry and act on the massive sexual tension between them, the book also gets pretty steamy. There are still elements that make it pretty obvious that this is Ms. Segura's first novel, for instance, a strange fake-out towards the end that seemed unnecessary to me, since one of the protagonists, no matter how much danger they appear to be in, is going to end up dead just before the epilogue. It was still a fun novel, with an unusual premise, so I'll keep a look out for other novels by Ms. Segura in the future. 

Judging a book by its cover: The cover is colourful and cute, and you can really see the pop culture references clearly in the way the two main characters are portrayed (although I'm pretty sure Ford is holding a rope rather than a whip). I like it a lot more than a lot of cartoony covers. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 17 February 2024

CBR16 Book 11: "Canadian Boyfriend" by Jenny Holiday

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 52 mins
Rating: 4 stars

This was an audio ARC from Netgalley. My opinions are my own.

CBR16 Sweet Books: Exciting (I've been looking forward to this for a long time, and was VERY excited to get an ARC shortly before the release date. 

Nowhere Bingo: A book with multiple POVs

When Aurora "Rory" Evans was a lonely teenager, she ran into a handsome Canadian hockey player while she was selling coffee at the Mall of America. She took his name and pretended to have an actual Canadian boyfriend, making her loneliness and ostracism seem more bearable, because even if she had been invited to things, she wouldn't have been able to come, since she was probably visiting her boyfriend, in Canada. And obviously, he couldn't come to school dances or her ballet recitals, living in Canada and all. To keep up the ruse, she also wrote her fictional boyfriend long letters, basically making them a sort of journal for some difficult years in her life.

Now an adult, having given up on ballet as it was making her sick, Aurora works as a dance teacher in a small town. She still struggles with her years of disordered eating, and occasionally gets panic attacks, but she's doing a lot better and enjoys teaching children the joys of dance. To her great surprise, the tragically widowed Mike Martin, whose daughter comes back to dance classes after some time away (what with the grief and the dead mum and soforth), is none other than the handsome young man she took as inspiration for her fake boyfriend. To her credit, it takes her a while to confirm to herself that the Mike she met as a teenager and this Mike are the same person, but even when she does, she doesn't tell him the truth about her teenage coping mechanism. 

Mike loved his wife and is still dealing with a lot of emotions after her sudden death in a car accident. Olivia, Rory's dance student, is his step-daughter and while he's the only father she's ever known, he's had to fight his parents-in-law for custody, which hasn't exactly made the grieving process easier. It's clear that Olivia adores her father, but she's also a tween who lost her mother and is prone to tantrums and sudden outbursts. Dance classes with "Miss Rory" are one of her favourite things. Mike likes that Aurora doesn't fawn over him (unlike many of the dance mums) and he sees the easy rapport she has with Olivia, and when he discovers that Aurora is working multiple jobs to make ends meet, offers to hire her to be Olivia's sort-of nanny while he's off resuming his hockey career. 

So the romance here takes a while to develop. Aurora is keeping the secret that she basically used Mike as a template for a fantasy boyfriend for a long time as a teenager, a truth that becomes more difficult to tell the longer she knows him and the closer they become. Mike is also Aurora's employer (she refuses to take a paycheck, but lives in his basement, has access to a car whenever she needs it, and gets health insurance) for a lot of the book, which certainly complicates the situation between them somewhat. Mike also feels like he can't date again until his daughter is older, possibly even until after she's old enough to move out. He doesn't feel like he can introduce a new woman into her life, in case they break up and she would have to deal with losing another person. When they do finally decide to become more than friends, they do address the employer/employee complication, so it's very much not a case of anyone being exploited or taken advantage of. 

There's so much to like in this book. The close friendship between Aurora and her best friend (who owns the dance studio where she works). Mike has been in therapy since his wife died, and once Aurora gets health insurance, she can also afford to see a therapist. She has a long list of reasons as to why she needs to, beginning with the relationship with her very controlling mother, who still makes her feel guilty for giving up a career as a dancer, because of all the time and money her mother put into "supporting" her daughter. There's the disordered eating, which still creates problems for her occasionally, although I liked how she tried to get more comfortable with allowing herself sugary things and her anxiety. And after a while, it's actually her complicated feelings about her relationship with Mike. 

By the way, notice how I keep calling the male protagonist simply Mike in my review? My major complaint about this book, the main reason I cannot give it five stars, even though I really enjoyed it and it did so many things well, is that consistently, throughout the entire book, up to and including the epilogue, Aurora calls Mike by his full name. He is Mike Martin EVERY single time she refers to him. I get it when they are still just acquaintances, and he's the father of one of the girls she teaches. But once she moves into his house to take care of his daughter? Once they actually start engaging in spicy recreational activities? Why? Who does that? 

I do not call or think of my husband as Mark Patterson, he's just Mark. Possible exception if I have to fill out official paperwork or something, then I guess I'd use his full name. Why, Aurora? What is your deal? What is up with that? This strange quirk started bothering me about halfway through the book when I really started noticing it, and by the end of the book, I was annoyed enough that it made me want to scream. So no five stars for you, book. 

It's been a while since I listened to an audio book with two narrators, but to me, this had an unusual audio format. I'm used to romance novels that have alternating POVs between the protagonists, and if the audiobook has two different narrators, they read the entire chapter from "their" character's POV. That is not the case here. Emily Ellet narrates the chapters where Aurora is the POV character and Joshua Jackson narrates Mike's. In all the chapters, Ellet does all the female voices and Jackson does all the male voices. So it becomes a sort of hybrid between a standard audio book and an audio drama. I really liked it. I've now come across another romance audio that did the same thing. If this is a new trend in dual-POV books in audio, whether romance or not, I'm a big fan. It makes the whole thing a lot more entertaining. 

Both narrators for this are really good and make the story more engaging. Normally, I only listen to audiobooks when I'm going to and from work, or am out doing errands, or if I'm doing chores. Now, I kept finding excuses to listen more. I know there was a lot of excitement on social media because THE  Joshua Jackson (of Dawson's Creek and Fringe fame) was doing the male part. Is this actually his first time doing audiobooks? If so, he did a good job. I enjoyed the audiobook enough that I used one of my precious Audible credits on it once I finished listening. So even if this was an ARC originally, Ms. Holiday got another sale.

Niggles about Aurora's weird name quirk aside, this was really good and I liked how Mike's character actually got the space and time to work through his many issues because of his wife's death. Neither Aurora nor Mike are magically healed by the love of another, and keep going to therapy because even once they work through the final act complications, both of them need mental health support. In so many books, one or both of the main characters should have intense and comprehensive therapy to deal with their MANY issues - that is not the case here.

I think the next book in the series is about Gretchen, Aurora's best friend. I can't wait. Hopefully, she'll not refer to her romantic partner with first and surname constantly. 

Judging a book by its cover: By now, I can pretty much recognise a Leni Kaufmann-illustrated cover at a glance. I always love her covers, and this one is particularly cute. Not entirely sure why the guy (clearly Mike) looks like the twin of Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation, but the pink and the mint-green and Aurora's lovely ballet slippers - the playful way she sits and glances over at Mike. It works for me on every level. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 12 February 2024

CBR16 Book 10: "En enda natt" (All In) by Simona Ahrnstedt

Page count: 495 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Nowhere Book Bingo: First in a finished series
CBR16 Sweet Books: New (new author AND first time reading romance in Swedish)

Financial bad boy and seemingly ruthless venture capitalist David Hammar is a self-made man and has acquired his wealth and power for one purpose, which he is close to achieving. He is determined to take over Investum, one of the biggest companies in Sweden, owned and controlled by the powerful De la Grip family. Since the takeover might go smoother if his company has at least one member of the family on their side, he arranges to meet the daughter of the family, Natalia De la Grip, for a business lunch. 

Natalia is extremely good at her job and keeps getting great references from current and previous employers. Working as a financial analyst, she desperately wants to prove herself capable and skilled enough to earn a place on the board of Investum. After her fiancée left her, she more or less lives at her work. She has no idea why David Hammar, considered a dangerous young upstart by her father, would want to meet with her, but is curious enough to go to the appointment (especially after her best friend Åsa goes on about how handsome and sexy David is). It doesn't take David long to conclude that Natalia is far too eager to please her father to ever betray the family name and join his revenge plot. The two have undeniable chemistry, however, and although he knows it's a terrible idea, he goes out of his way to do her a personal favour, even though he should forget about her and continue with his takeover plans.

Natalia knows her father and brother consider David Hammar some sort of personal nemesis, but when he claims to have double-booked so he won't be able to attend a concert (this is a total lie), offering her the tickets instead (an intimate concert with her favourite artist), they start texting, and soon he's invited her to dinner, which ends with them spending a passionate night together. It's only supposed to be one single night (the Swedish title of the book, in fact), but despite both knowing it's a terrible idea, they keep meeting and gradually falling for one another. David's best friend and business partner, Michel, is deeply uncomfortable about the rapidly escalating situation and keeps asking his friend to let Natalia down gently, before she discovers he's been lying to her the whole time, and his major personal and professional motivation is to ruin her family.

So this book has been on my actual physical bookshelf since 2016. I tracked down a copy and bought it in paperback after reading this very favourable review over on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and since then it's lingered unread. More fool me, this book was a cracking read, with so many soap opera elements. It not only kept me up far too late at night reading after I started reading it, but I spent most of a Sunday doing almost nothing but reading to finish it. 

I'm trying to severely limit my reading challenges this year, after a few years of having most of my reading choices dictated by them. Nevertheless, I need to set myself SOME guidelines, especially to keep chipping away at my TBR list, and one of the goals I've set for myself is to read at least one of the Swedish or Norwegian books on my shelf per month. I barely ever read anything but English, which I'm starting to feel rather guilty about, especially considering how many Norwegian and Swedish language books have accumulated on my shelves. I've made some attempts at reading Norwegian contemporary fiction, much of it very critically lauded, and with very few exceptions, I'm bored senseless. One would think the answer would instead be to read the genres I enjoy in my first and second languages, especially since I literally already bought and paid for the books. Romance, fantasy, historical fiction - it's all there, being ignored because of all the shiny English-language books I let distract me. 

TL, DR - I decided to finally read this book, and should clearly have done so sooner. Ahrnstedt started out writing historical romances (must see if I can track those down as well) and it clearly made her good at research. I don't know all that much about high finance or corporate shenanigans, but all of the stuff included in the book felt very realistic. It probably doesn't hurt that I spent much of the second half of last year finally watching all four seasons of Succession. So many deplorable rich people, intrigue, double-dealing, and betrayal. It made all of the stuff that happens in this book seem highly plausible.

Being used to reading English-language romance, I'm used to there being only one or maybe two POV characters. We usually only get the story from the heroine and/or hero's perspective. Here, Ahrnstedt gives us insight into quite a few characters, not just Natalia and David, our protagonists, but also Natalia's best friend, Åsa; David's best friend and business partner, Michel, occasionally also one of Natalia's brothers. There's a also very slow-burn secondary romance developed between Åsa and Michel, who used to be friends in their university days. 

Because of some seriously bad stuff in his and his family's past, David's anger towards Gustav and Peter De la Grip (Natalia's father and eldest brother) is understandable, but even his best friend and partner doesn't know the full extent of his animosity and why he's so determined to take over their company and ruin their lives. He keeps being told by his best friend and mentor that vengeance won't actually give him the satisfaction he thinks it will, especially if it means absolutely devastating a woman he clearly cares for. It takes him a long time to realise that they are correct. 

Natalia is a very engaging romance heroine. She's driven and very competent, and while I don't know anything about high finance, the author clearly did her research and shows us in a number of ways, rather than just telling us how capable Natalia is. She really wants to work for the family business, unfortunately, her father, the CEO of Investum, is infamously sexist and doesn't believe women can hack it in business. He keeps proving this to himself by occasionally hiring women, making it so difficult for them to do their jobs, ending with them quitting, usually utterly crushed. The only one of his children he even vaguely has to have time for is his eldest son and heir, Peter, and only because he wouldn't dare do anything to piss off dear old dad. 

Both Natalia's mother and Peter's wife are women who support Gustav's old-fashioned and draconian view of gender roles, happily staying at home and expressing disbelief over women like Natalia who want careers and professional recognition. Why can't she just find herself a nice, rich husband who will support her, so she can live a life of leisure and settle down to have babies?

Basically, if Natalia wasn't so likable, I think I would be entirely in David's corner, cheering on his plan to take down and humiliate the De la Grip family, who are also part of the Swedish nobility and pretty much perfect examples of selfish and clueless rich assholes. Natalia has always felt like the odd one out of her family. The only one who seems to care for her at all is her younger brother Alexander, the handsome wastrel son who revels in drinking and carousing and never seems to stay in one place for very long. Her only friend is another driven career woman, who due to terrible personal losses early in life, seems to have difficulties showing affection or closeness to anyone (and hence acts like a b*tch a lot of the time when Natalia could use support).

Becoming more socialist with every passing day, a plot to take down and humiliate rich people very much appeals to me. The fact that David is a superwealthy venture capitalist tarnishes his halo a tad, and he ends up really breaking Natalia's heart. I do not think he groveled nearly enough towards the end of this novel and that Natalia was far too quick to forgive him for his many thoughtless actions, which is why I can't rate this higher than four stars. That, and the book just felt too long. I'm very glad I have the next two books in the series on my bookshelf, though. The next one is about Alexander, the playboy who is apparently haunted by mysterious shit, and a beautiful doctor lady who works in wartorn countries, and who from their encounters in this book seems to loathe him. So that promises to be fun.

Judging a book by its cover: It's not that the red evening dress on the cover isn't striking, and I love the way it flows down like some lush wave to the bottom of the cover image, but our heroine wears exactly one red dress over the course of the story, and there is a detailed description of how much leg said dress shows. This dress, for all its prettiness, shows absolutely no leg. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 11 February 2024

CBR16 Book 9: "The Widow of Rose House" by Diana Biller

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Nowhere Book Bingo: Came out more than 4 years ago
CBR16 Sweet Books: New (new author)

It's 1875 and Professor Samuel Moore is doing marvellously, thanks to the many inventions he and his family are coming up with. What he really wants to do, though, is investigate and possibly prove the existence of ghosts, and to do that, he requires an introduction to the infamous Mrs. Alva Webster, a widow with a scandalous reputation. Sam doesn't really care about Mrs. Webster's apparently lurid past, he just wants to set up his instruments and investigate the old house she has purchased in upstate New York. Liefdehuis is rumoured to be haunted, possibly by multiple ghosts and he'd love a chance to make new discoveries. He does notice that Alva Webster is very beautiful, but at least initially, the science angle is the most important to him.

Alva Webster does indeed have a terrible reputation and a dead husband. All the rumours and scandalous gossip were started by her abusive husband after she took the courage to leave him once they lived in Paris. She was even looking into getting a divorce when he was killed during a robbery in Monte Carlo. Now her dream is to restore the once grand mansion, Liefdehuis, and document her process while doing so, hopefully resulting in a book on decorating and interior design. However, her odious brother-in-law is blackmailing her and the contractors she hired to start the restoration work at the house refuse to work, claiming there are ghosts there who scared them all nearly out of their wits. Samuel Moore keeps sending her letters, wanting access to the house, and eventually, she relents and lets him have access to the house, provided he promises to exorcise any ghosts he may discover as part of the process. 

Sam Moore is clearly a scientific genius, and while he's largely oblivious to social cues and what is considered polite and proper, he's also very observant and good at reading people. Having grown up in a loving family who all share a love of science and exploration, his life has been a very different one from that of Alva. The daughter of rich, but cold and status-hungry parents, she was married off to her husband (who needed a rich wife) after he seduced her when she was only 17 and who certainly didn't want anything to do with her once all the scandalous rumours reached them from across the ocean. The few times she's tried to contact them, her mother sends a harried maid out to shoo her away. She went from an emotionally abusive home to a physically abusive husband and even when she's trying to move on with her life and pick up the pieces of her tattered reputation, she's unable to forget because of her blackmailing brother-in-law. So she's naturally rather bitter and skittish, and while it's obvious that Sam finds her very attractive (he's not a man to hide his intentions or feelings), she is reluctant to get involved with anyone new.

This is set in the Gilded Age, mostly in New York, but with some flashbacks to Alva's life in Paris. While not as wealthy as her parents, Alva still has some of the fortune she came into her marriage with, but if she keeps having to pay her unscrupulous brother-in-law every month, she will struggle unless she manages to get her book finished and published. She keeps the truth from Sam as long as she can, since she's not used to having anyone to rely on or to support her.

Sam Moore is basically a big golden retriever of a man. He's tall and blond and clearly neuro-divergent in some way (most of his family seem to be, as well). Most of the time, he is accompanied by his best friend, Henry Van de Berg, a lawyer who makes sure that his patents are registered and that he and his family are paid what they are supposed to for their brilliant engineering solutions. Henry isn't exactly sure that making Mrs Webster's acquaintance is a good idea, but once Sam gets an idea in his head, he will pursue it tirelessly. So despite the potential complications of Sam's involvement in Alva Webster's life, he supports his friend. 

A novel featuring ghosts and a haunted house might be more of a paranormal fantasy. This is more of a straight historical romance with some supernatural elements. Minor spoilers, Alva's house actually IS haunted, and she and others are not imagining the horrible experiences they have with the ghost. But it's not the main focus of the story, for all that it plays an important part.

I really enjoyed this book and loved pretty much all the characters in the story. As far as I can see, Biller has written a novel about Sam's brother, but I hope she decides to give Henry a novel in the future as well. Possibly Sam's younger sister, as well. Either way, this delightful book ensures that I will check out Biller's other novels sometime later this year. 

Judging a book by its cover: Based on the cover image, I would have believed this book to be a much more straightforward historical novel. I certainly didn't expect a romance with paranormal elements. I suspect some readers picking this up would be surprised at getting a romance, while a lot of romance fans may have missed out on this one since it looks rather very different from most historical romance covers.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR16 Book 8: "The Secret Service of Tea and Treason" by India Holton

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Alice Dearlove works for the secret organisation the Agency of Undercover Note Takers, or A.U.N.T., staffed by spies and agents disguised as ladies' maids, butlers, footmen, and other household staff who mostly go unnoticed by the higher classes, but are usually in a position to see and hear everything. She's one of their top agents, known within A.U.N.T only as Agent A. Usually, Miss Dearlove works alone and gets excellent results while doing so.

Now she faces one of the biggest challenges of her career. Not only does she have to cooperate with someone on her next mission, but her partner is none other than her biggest rival within A.U.N.T., the elusive Agent B, Daniel Bixby. Now Agents A and B have to learn to work together, while also pretending to be married. There's a plot to assassinate the queen, and Alice and Daniel have to pretend to be pirates, happily married, and fool an entire houseparty full of eccentric, murder-happy ladies and their husbands while trying to locate the potential weapon and foil the plot. 

Since they're consummate professionals, both Alice and Daniel are determined to complete the job quickly and efficiently while remaining strictly platonic the whole time. When more public displays of affection aren't necessary to play their parts, of course. Obviously, wanting to be convincing in their assumed roles, they might have to practice the duties of husband and wife in the privacy of their own rooms, as well. It's not like they'd get carried away and fall for one another, just because they are forced to be fake married, sharing a bedroom (with just one bed). After all, A.U.N.T doesn't allow for any affection between agents, and once their mission is done, Alice and Daniel will be going their separate ways, possibly never seeing one another again.

This might not be a 5-star book for all readers, but as the culmination of the Dangerous Damsels trilogy that India Holton started with The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels works on pretty much every level for me. Alice Dearlove and Daniel Bixby, whose acquaintance the reader makes briefly in The League of Gentlewomen Witches get their own novel and a chance at their own HEA, since clearly from their first meeting in the previous novel, they are perfect for one another. 

Both found in orphanages by A.U.N.T and raised under the strict tutelage of the organisation's teachers and trainers to become secret agents for the crown, neither Alice nor Daniel have ever really felt like they fit in among their fellow spies or people in general. It's quite clear from the description of them,  and their reactions to and thoughts about certain things, that they are both neurodivergent, and while this is not something likely to have been acknowledged in Victorian times, be they the real ones or the alternate history one we meet here, it's nevertheless a fact and makes them both excellent at their jobs, but not very good at making personal connections. 

Daniel Bixby worked undercover for several years as the butler of charming pirate captain Alex O'Reilly, gathering intel for A.U.N.T and making sure the pirates never caused too much havoc and destruction. He has great difficulty admitting that he and Alex actually became friends and that he cares for both the now-reformed rogue and the witch the pirate fell in love with. 

Alice Dearlove is the perfect ladies' maid and can serve the most infuriating of spoiled aristocrats, devious pirate matrons, or meddling witches. She hasn't really ever had any friends since the organisation doesn't exactly encourage emotional attachment to anything or anyone. She also gets very defensive by light touches and has no understanding of idioms or metaphorical language. Once Daniel discovers this, he's very helpfully tells her "Idiom" every time someone uses figurative language that baffles her. It was a very cute recurring gag and endeared me further to the man.

In various flashbacks, the reader is given insight into the rather dark upbringing both agents have had, in an organisation that doesn't really care for its employees as people, only pawns to move about on a large political gameboard. It helps that they share a lot of the same experiences, albeit in slightly different ways, but it also makes them both very aware of how difficult a potential happy ending would be for them, as A.U.N.T certainly wouldn't let them marry and be together.

Of course, Alice and Daniel, helped in parts by Ned, Cecilia, Alex, and Charlotte, end up with a very lovely HEA in the end. Alice has actual friends who care about her and they're all part of a bigger found family they have dreamed of for their entire lives. This book was a very quick read and made me very happy. India Holton's writing has gotten sharper and wittier with each book, and I'm very excited to see what she will publish next. 

Judging a book by its cover: Once again, it is an adorable cover and I really love the lavender shade of the background. I especially like the traditional spy movie poses of Bixby and Dearlove, with them in period-appropriate servants' attire instead of evening wear. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 4 February 2024

CBR16 Book 7: "The League of Gentlewomen Witches" by India Holton

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Everyone knows there's no such thing as witches, but if there were, they probably wouldn't use magic in flashy and extravagant ways to fly houses around and try to rob and assassinate one another. If there were witches, they would probably use their magic in tidier ways, ensuring polite society was functioning properly. Possibly liberate those who have excessive financial resources of some of it to the betterment of those with less of it (like say, themselves). If there were witches, Charlotte Pettifer would be the next prospective leader of their League. There's even a prophecy that she's the natural successor to Black Beryl, the woman who first discovered the magic spell that the pirates use to make their houses fly. 

Charlotte makes the acquaintance of the dashing pirate captain Alex O'Riley when she is, in fact, trying to liberate him of his briefcase. After a very exciting pursuit, she manages to fly away on a bicycle, only to discover that the briefcase is empty. When the legendary amulet of Black Beryl is found and exhibited in a museum, Charlotte and Alex's paths cross once more, since any witch or pirate worth their salt is trying to be the first to get the amulet. When both are thwarted in their goal, Alex to his dismay, discovers that Charlotte has stowed away in his flying cottage, and refuses to leave until they retrieve the amulet together. 

Soon rumours are flying that Charlotte has been abducted by the roguish pirate, when all the witches know full well that Charlotte must have been the one doing the abducting. Neither group of opinionated, magic-wielding women is going to suggest that something untoward has taken place, as a marriage between a prominent witch and a pirate would possibly lead to peace between the two factions, a fate much worse than a young lady (or rakish gentleman) maybe being compromised. All the while, Charlotte and Alex are fighting and kissing and doing a fair bit of acrobatic compromising of each other, beginning to dread what will happen if they actually do manage to find the amulet and have to stop chasing it together. Because the future leader of the witches, and a prominent pirate, couldn't actually have a future together? Perish the thought.

While the first book in the Dangerous Damsels series was full of Brontë references, this one leans heavily into Jane Austen. Charlotte has lived a lonely life, strictly regimented to become the perfect leader of the League, and certainly hasn't been allowed to indulge in anything so frivolous as strong emotions or close friendships. So, like many other lonely people, she has sought solace in books and keeps wondering what Elizabeth Bennet, Eleanor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, or even Fanny Price would do, and early on, at least, she keeps comparing Alex to Austen's heroes (who surprisingly quickly come up short to an actual, living, breathing, fencing, flirting and bantering man). 

While there has long been an animosity between witches and pirates, Alex's reasons for disliking witches are more personal than most. Having lost his mother at an early age, and acquired a wicked stepmother of the witch persuasion instead, he has sworn never to get near any more witches but finds his promise difficult to keep once Charlotte invades his cottage and starts tidying up his abode and life. 

It took me a while to figure out what in the world was going on when I read the first book in the series. I don't know if it had a much more far-fetched storyline (probably not) or that I'm now just much more attuned to the sort of delightful quirkiness that features in India Holton's writing. Maybe I just liked "Lottie" and Alex more as a couple. Austen references are also always going to be more of a hit with me than Brontë ones. 

I already know that the third and final book in the series is about Alex's very efficient butler, Bixby, and the ladies' maid with unusual abilities, Miss Dearlove. I can't wait to see what silly shenanigans the two of them get up to. 

Judging a book by its cover: The covers for these books are adorable. I love the little details in the margins, such as Alex's cottage (which looks rather cozy, and not at all as run-down as a lot of people in the story would have you believe), the teacup, the broom, and so forth. And obviously Alex and Charlotte fencing at the bottom. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR16 Book 6: "Winter's Orbit" by Everina Maxwell

Page count: 496 pages
Audio book length: 15 hrs 24 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Nowhere Bingo Card: A book that's been on my shelf for more than a year

Prince Kiem, a minor royal in the Iskat Empire is called before the Emperor and told in no uncertain terms that he will be getting married to secure a valuable political alliance. The Empire is about to renegotiate its treaty agreements with all the planets in its dominion, and the representatives all have to be married to be accepted (that bit wasn't entirely clear to me). So Kiem has to marry his cousin Taam's widower, a Thean called Jainan. Oh, and he has to do it the day after he is told.

So the outgoing and exuberant Kiem, who has quite a reputation as a playboy and for getting into scrapes finds himself married to Jainan, a reserved and extremely polite man, his exact opposite. Jainan has multiple degrees and is knowledgeable about engineering and advanced mining techniques, Kiem barely made it through school without getting expelled. Kiem assumes Jainan is still grieving his partner of five years, so tries to keep his distance. Jainan is certainly still affected by memories of his former partner and also assumes that a handsome, charming man like Kiem could never be attracted to someone as quiet and boring as him.

Both men are actually very attracted to the other but keep misunderstanding each other's signals and therefore growing further apart. To add to the complications, it turns out that their hastily arranged marriage might also have been for nothing, as the other-worldly arbitrators might not even accept them as representatives. It turns out that there is suspicion that Prince Taam was murdered, and Jainan is the main suspect. There's also a whole bunch of unique alien artifacts that have been replaced with convincing fakes, making the arbitrators furious. If Kiem and Jainan can't figure out whether Taam was actually murdered, and if so, by whom, as well as help the Empire locate the stolen artifacts, the whole Empirial alliance could be dissolved and war is likely to break out.

I mostly really liked this, and it's narrated very well by Raphael Corkhill, who does a really good job of giving the characters distinctive voices and accents. However, it also made it clear that extreme slow burn just isn't the trope for me. Reading about two characters who clearly care for each other and find one another attractive, but keep misunderstanding the other for a large part of the story just annoys me. Drawn-out mutual pining might work for some readers, but to me, it decreases my enjoyment of the story. That's not to say that very good in-story reasons are given for the miscommunications. Being thrust into a marriage of convenience to a stranger isn't necessarily going to make for lots of honest and open conversations right off the bat, and given Jainen's previous marriage, it's no wonder he's careful and has difficulties trusting Kiem at first. 

The world-building in this story is nicely done, even though I didn't entirely understand how the various political alliances worked. The titles are all non-gendered, from Emperor to Prince to Count and so forth, no matter what gender identity the individual has. There's also a whole system of wearing wood or glass or flint to indicate which gender every individual is, and in the Thean culture, it involves tying scarves in different ways. The author possibly overdoes the explanation with the gender markers, it's repeated quite a few times throughout the story. Trust your readers, lady.

This book is full of political intrigue, there's a murder mystery, and there were clearly suspicious things going on with the mining operation that Prince Taam was involved in (so they have to figure out what that was all about too). Throughout the story, there are near-death experiences, having to trek through the wilderness (there's only ONE tent), someone gets abducted by villains and having to be rescued by a band of rag-tag heroes, as well as the arranged marriage and opposites attract tropes as previously mentioned. So the book has a lot going on. For me, it would have been better if the pining had been resolved earlier in the proceedings, but to each their own. 

I already have the sequel to this, Ocean's Echo, on my bookshelf, but having really enjoyed the audio version of this, I may end up having to get it in audio at some point soon as well. 

Judging a book by its cover: The cover is fine but I think it's also a bit non-descript. It's obviously a sci-fi novel, with strange vistas and multiple heavenly bodies in the sky. I don't know if I'm projecting about the colours of the bisexual flag being used in the title, but considering that this is an unashamedly queer romance, I would be surprised if it wasn't intentional. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR16 Book 5: "The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen" by KJ Charles

Page count: 353 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Gareth Inglis was abandoned by his father when he was about six years old, sent to live with his uncle, who clearly didn't much care for him. Now he works as a clerk in his uncle's company but dislikes his job. When his father suddenly dies, Gareth becomes a baronet and inherits a home in Romney Marsh, a remote area on the coast. There he discovers that he has a half-sister whom he'd never previously heard of (who'd also never heard of him) and that neither the young lady nor her aunt, his father's housekeeper and former mistress have been left a penny. Gareth promises to do right by the women, who in their own way were also abandoned by his father.

Being a gentleman of leisure agrees with Gareth, who never really liked living in London. He spends his days trying to figure out his father's finances and reading through his research into local flora and fauna. Soon he finds himself rambling, trying to explore the nature his father loved so much. While Gareth very much disapproves of law-breaking and smuggling, his housekeeper calmly informs him that such things are a way of life in Kent, especially in Romney Marsh, where the Doomsday smuggling clan controls pretty much everything. Once Gareth finds himself about to testify in court against a young woman he witnessed smuggling one evening, he finds himself threatened with blackmail by a former lover, a handsome man he only ever knew as Kent back in London. 

Kent is in fact Joss Doomsday, the de-facto leader of the Doomsday clan, who is not about to let his sister get convicted of smuggling. He didn't really want to confront his former lover in a public courthouse, but having tried to contact Gareth by messenger earlier and being rebuffed, he didn't have much choice. Gareth is naturally rather embarrassed and angry about the whole thing, and it takes quite a bit of apologising from Joss before they become friendly, and then more.

Obviously, there are a number of obstacles in the way of Joss and Gareth's eventual happy ending. Gareth is fiercely law-abiding, and Joss basically makes his living illegally. There is also the class difference, not to mention their love for each other being seen as a crime. Gareth's father was apparently up to nefarious things before he died, and now a rival smuggling band keeps threatening him and his family. Gareth's uncle and odious cousin show up to visit him, making it obvious that they were also involved in the underhanded dealings somehow, and Gareth and Joss have a hell of a time sorting dealing with no-good uncles and all sorts of shenanigans.

KJ Charles is an excellent writer, and I very much enjoyed this historical romance. According to an overeager publisher, this is Bridgerton meets Poldark in a sweeping LGBTQIA+ Regency Romance. I'll give you the Poldark, at least a bit, but this is pretty far from the drawing rooms of Julia Quinn's Bridgerton novels - but everything set in the Regency era now gets the Brigerton description. I'd also not really call it sweeping. Who gets paid to come up with these tag lines, anyway?

Judging a book by its cover: I really like the shade of blue on the background and the little borders with plants and various wild animals are a nice touch considering how taken Gareth is with all the nature on the Marsh. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 3 February 2024

CBR16 Book 4: "You, Again" by Kate Goldbeck

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Nowhere Book Bingo: Starts with J, K, Q, U, V, W, X, Y or Z

Ari and Josh first meet and develop an intense dislike of one another when Josh arrives at the apartment where Ari is staying, to cook a meal for his girlfriend, who happens to be Ari's roommate and occasional hook-up. Ari likes to keep things very casual, never spends the night with her hook-ups and is trying to make it as a stand-up comedian. Josh is quite neurotic, a trained chef, who wants to become world famous. Unlike Ari, he's a romantic and he really wants to impress his girlfriend by cooking something really complicated for her.

The two keep meeting over the years and don't exactly become more friendly with one another (one time, Josh overreacts and fires Ari's best friend after blaming her for messing up a dish for a food critic), until the time when they are both depressed and getting over failures both personally and professionally. They form an unlikely friendship and soon they are texting each other daily, often watching movies together while talking on the phone and trying to encourage the other to get back into dating. Things are going great until one New Year's Eve when they end up kissing and it becomes clear that their feeling for one another is clearly more than platonic. Unfortunately, Ari, previously commitment-phobic, now recovering from a disastrous marriage, can't really handle the emotional upheaval she feels for Josh and avoids dealing with it by taking a job away from New York. Is the connection between her and Josh strong enough that it will survive her emotional cowardice?

Confession time. While I like When Harry Met Sally, I don't love it. It's probably not even in my top 10 romantic comedies, mainly because I find both Harry and Sally too annoying to really care about either of them much (and certainly not whether or not they become a couple). I appreciate the movie as the genre classic it has become, and I adore Carrie Fisher in it. I think there are a lot of very funny and well-observed scenes in it, but I don't rate it all that highly as a romance. Because the couple are just friends for most of it. This is the same reason why, although I really wanted to love this book, I merely like it. Parts of it were great, but Ari and Josh spent far too much of the book, especially the second half when I wanted them to just be a couple, apart and wallowing. 

There are some very fun supporting characters, most notably Ari's best friend Radhya (and Josh's sometime nemesis, after being fired by Josh that one time. She does not react well when she discovers that he and Ari are becoming friends) and Josh's little sister Briar, who appears to be an airhead influencer initially but turns out to have hidden depths. Ari's friend Gabe keeps being mentioned, but I never really felt like he appeared enough to become a proper character. 

I also thought the book was just a bit too long. Sections of it dragged. I don't want to think "just get on with it" when I'm reading a romance. Nevertheless, I don't regret going across town to a specific bookstore just to track down my copy, and there is a lot to like here. I will absolutely be looking for future books from Ms. Goldbeck. 

Judging a book by its cover: While I absolutely love the autumnal colours of the trees on this, there is something about the way the two characters (who are clearly supposed to be Ari and Josh are depicted that completely rubs me the wrong way. They look unfinished somehow, it's like their faces lack proper definition. It's one of the reasons I took so long to actually pick up this book, I just didn't like the way the cover looked. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 27 January 2024

CBR16 Book 3: "Dance with the Devil" by Kit Rocha

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

After his father died, Rafael "Rafe" Morales basically sold himself to TechCorps and agreed to become a technologically enhanced supersoldier, so he could make enough money to keep his widowed mother and younger siblings safe. He didn't really know what signing away his life would entail, and given the choice again, he probably would have chosen differently. He hasn't been able to see them for years, certainly not since he and his team, the Silver Devils, had to fake their own deaths to get away from their cruel superiors.

Unlike Rafe, Danijela "Dani" Volkova didn't really have external pressures that made her sign up with TechCorps. She was just curious and driven, and once their scientists had experimented sufficiently on her, she became super fast, agile, and graceful and lost the ability to feel pain, at all. This made her the perfect elite bodyguard for the rich and powerful, until she just couldn't handle the cruelty and corruption she was witness to and broke away. She joined Nina and Maya to become one of the mercenary librarians of Atlanta. Dani feels like TechCorps turned her into a monster. She appreciates the love that her chosen sisters and the former supersoldiers who share their lives offer her, but deep down she knows she doesn't deserve it. 

Since their very first meeting, when Dani may have "accidentally" stabbed Rafe a little bit, the chemistry between them has been off the charts. But Rafael doesn't want a quick fling, Dani doesn't do long-term commitment, and neither is willing to risk screwing up their new big, unusual family unit with relationship drama. Keeping everything casual and platonic becomes a lot more difficult when the two have to go undercover among the rich and deplorable of Atlanta. After the death of Tobias Richter, the VP of Security for TechCorps, and the one who sat with most of the power, the organisation is desperately scrambling to maintain control, and our enhanced heroes and heroines have decided that it's time to start fighting back. 

Having come into unexpected wealth at the end of the previous book, Maya is using all of her considerable resources and brains, her wealth of sensitive information burned into her brain after growing up in the loving arms of TechCorps and learning a lot of its dirty secrets, as well as calling in all the favours from her vast network of informants and allies. It's one such ally, a head researcher at TechCorps, whom Rafe and Dani are trying to contact when they go undercover, as a married couple. Once on the mission, they not only discover that Rafe's little sister is in terrible danger, but it also becomes impossible for them to keep their hands off each other. 

This is the third and probably final (there is a suggestion at the end of the epilogue in this one that there may be new dangers facing our intrepid band of heroes, but it seems like the author duo has moved on to new projects now) novel in the Mercenary Librarians series. As such, it's not the best place to start. This might very well not be an almost five-star read to someone else but as the end chapter of all that has been established in the previous two books, with all the seeds sown and the principal cast, as well as the various supporting characters, joining together to launch a full-scale revolution, I loved this book. The romance between Dani and Rafe has been teased from the beginning and didn't disappoint. 

Both Dani and Rafe got turned into lethal weapons by TechCorps, but Rafael grew up in a loving family and always knew that the sacrifices he made were for them. Dani was rejected by her parents once they realised the choices she had made, and was honed into a ruthless killing machine by the scientists. She is fiercely loyal and has vast capacities for love and emotion, all of which she is worthy of, but takes her quite some time to come to terms with. 

I loved this book, and its action-packed and thrilling finale, where the downtrodden of Atlanta join with our protagonists to kick ass and take names, in order to secure a better future, free of the dominance of TechCorps and their controlling ways. 

Judging a book by its cover: The cover for this one at least has slightly more of a sci-fi feel than the last one, but it's still a pretty generic image and I certainly would never have picked up this book from the cover alone. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR16 Books 2: "The Devil You Know" by Kit Rocha

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Maya used to be Marjorie Chevalier, but had to change her identity after she escaped the evil super scientists at TechCorps, where she was trained as a data courier (basically a human hard drive), with her senses specially enhanced to remember flawlessly everything she hears, reads, sees, hears and experiences. She used to work for one of the Vice Presidents of TechCorps who was secretly orchestrating a rebellion, However, her boss (also the only maternal figure Maya ever knew) was caught and executed, and Maya had to be smuggled to safety. 

She found that safety with Nina, now one of the sisters she never had. Along with the lethal Dani, they have been working to help the residents of post-apocalyptic Atlanta by passing on free information (books, videos, music) and technical know-how. They also occasionally go off on adventures to recover more books and resources. After the events of the previous books, their little found family has expanded a lot, with the former supersoldiers from the Silver Devils squad having settled down in a warehouse next to the librarians' headquarters. The group is hired to retrieve what turns out to be a genetically modified child, and it turns out that Rainbow (which is the name the child chooses for herself) is not the only one. Since Maya doesn't have super speed or strength, she stays back home holding the fort, accompanied by Grey, the former sniper of the Silver Devils, who can't be trusted on a tense mission since his body might betray him.

All the Silver Devils have technical implants that have enhanced their senses. Supersoldiers like them don't normally have a very long lifespan, but in rare cases, their bodies might start rejecting the implant after decades of being used to them. This is what is happening to Grey now. He can suddenly be struck with seizures and an operation to replace the implant has a less than 5% chance of survival, even if they could find a surgeon skilled enough to perform the operation. So Grey is accepting that he doesn't have long to live. One of the things he wants to do with his final days is make sure Maya has the skills and confidence to defend herself and keep herself safe. She's always been told that she needs to be careful not to overload her brain, or she can pretty much short-circuit, but Grey suspects that she's limiting herself out of fears told to her to control her and keep her from reaching her full potential. He shows her that not only is she an absolute wizard with all things technical, but her perfect recall is a superpower in itself, if not as physically intimidating as those of her chosen sisters.

There is a very strong attraction between Maya and Grey, however, the only man Maya ever loved before was literally tortured to death in front of her in an attempt to get her to reveal the secrets buried in her brain after her boss was executed. She's also prone to sensory overload and doesn't really know how she'd react in a physically overwhelming situation, like having sex. Letting herself fall for a man who's dying is bound to lead to heartbreak, but not acting on the attraction before it's too late might be a bigger mistake than keeping her distance.

While Maya and the Silver Devils all had very skillful people hiding their tracks and faking their deaths (complete with falsified bodies with their DNA planted), Tobias Richter, the VP of Security at TechCorps is a ruthless and deeply driven man, convinced (rightly so) that he can find them if he searches hard enough. When a video from a farmer's market surfaces, proving to him that his quarries are still alive, Maya and Grey's days together might be numbered sooner than they think. 

I enjoyed Deal with the Devil, which introduced the world and all these characters to each other. Now the super soldiers and the high-tech murder ladies all live together as a big, ruthlessly efficient, and deadly family, doing their best to right wrongs and improve their local community. Maya has always felt like the weakest of the group, and the lies to her by her former boss to keep her from showing too much of her excellence to Tech Corps means she hasn't been able to reach her true potential until Grey comes along and makes her see how truly remarkable she is, even in a dangerous situation. She's not just brains and perfect recall. Their romance develops slowly since Grey is likely to die soon, and Maya has some understandable emotional scars from her first and only romantic relationship so far.

The villain in this book is a complete psycho, and once he discovers that Maya and the Silver Devils are alive, he lures them into a trap to get his clutches on Maya. Of course, Maya is no longer a delicate flower raised in a sheltered environment and beats Tobias Richter at his own game. Things look dicey for Grey for a while (who to be fair already thought he was dying, so wanted to save Maya with the grandest of gestures), but this is a romance, and our brave, self-sacrificing hero doesn't actually end the book dead. 

By the end of this book, our altruistic heroes and heroines have some difficult choices to make. Their attempts to stay hidden from TechCorps have clearly failed, and a confrontation is inevitable. Are they ready to go to war?

Judging a book by its cover: This is about as generic as covers go. Nothing about this says post-apocalyptic action adventure with kick-ass murder ladies and supersoldier dudes. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 14 January 2024

CBR16 Book 1: "Before the Coffee Gets Cold" by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Page count: 224 pages
Rating: 1.5 stars 

Warning! This review will contain spoilers, because after my book club discussion yesterday, I'm actually quite cranky about this book, and it's impossible for me to rant properly if I can't spoil the heck out of these stories. Don't worry, you don't actually want to read this book anyway.

In a small, dark basement café in Japan, visitors can travel briefly back in time, if they observe a series of very careful rules.
  1. They can only go back to meet and interact with someone who has also been to the café. 
  2. Nothing that happens in the past will change the present. No matter what they go back to do or say, the present will remain unchanged
  3. They have to sit in one specific seat in the café. This seat is usually occupied by a silent lady reading a book. The lady is in fact a ghost, and if you try to forcefully move her, she will place a curse on you. She leaves her seat about once a day, to visit the toilet (and yes, you can keep giving her coffee to speed the process along), that's when a person has their chance.
  4. You cannot leave the seat when you are in the past, then you will immediately be returned to the present.
  5. You travel back to the past when you are poured a cup of a special coffee. You have only until the coffee gets cold before you have to return. You also have to drink the entire cup of coffee, or you become a ghost and replace the current ghost lady.
  6. You only get to do the time travel thing ONCE - no do-overs.
Suffice it to say, most people can't actually be bothered, considering all the rules and how short a time they get to visit a past moment in their lives. Nevertheless, this book is split into four stories, with four different people who choose to use the magical option. 

The first story is called The Lovers. At the start of it, a couple go to the café and the man dumps the woman. Quite a lot is made of how beautiful and accomplished the woman is (she could apparently be a model on the cover of magazines). Nevertheless, she is dumped by her programmer boyfriend who is going to America for a job. A week later, she's back at the café, desperate for a chance to go back in time, because she froze when confronted by the bad news, and she never got a chance to tell her man "Don't go!". You'd think a beautiful, successful woman (who it is described always has guys trying to get her attention) would look at what a big sea there was out there for her to explore, and how many figurative fish there were in said sea for her to potentially date. But no, even knowing that going back in time will NOT CHANGE the present, so her man will still be off in America pursuing his career rather than being with her, she chooses to go. 

By the end of her time travel meeting, he tells her to wait, and he'll be back in three years. The point of a lot of the first story is obviously info-dumping for the readers how the time travel thing actually works. We also get flashbacks to the couple's early days of their relationship. It seems it took something like ten coffee dates for the guy to even realise they were dating, so he wasn't the most perceptive of dudes. Our beautiful, kind, and successful career lady, who could clearly find a more deserving man at the drop of a hat is perfectly happy to be kept on the hook for THREE years, waiting for a guy who didn't have the guts to tell her he was going to America until the SAME DAY he was leaving. 

The second story is about a husband and wife, who have both appeared as supporting characters in the first story. The husband is a landscape gardener who suffers from Alzheimer's. He frequently spends his days in the café, reading gardening magazines and taking notes. His wife, a nurse, comes in to pick him up, but a lot of the time recently, he no longer remembers who she is. Someone overhears him saying he wants to use the time travel chair to give his wife a letter. So she decides to go back in time instead, and while you can't change anything about the present by visiting the past, you can apparently take back objects without any difficulties. She meets her husband of several years ago, and he gives her a letter. The letter is significant because, in their relationship, she was always the one who wrote long intricate letters. He is apparently barely literate and would normally respond to her with just a sentence or two. But now he's written her a letter, and it's all about how he knows that he's sick and his greatest fear is that she because she is a nurse, will stop being his wife once he stops remembering her, and just act in the role of his carer and nurse. He doesn't want that, and pretty much gives her his blessing to move on with her life, if need be. Wifey is very touched and insists that everyone go back to calling her by her married name. She proceeds to basically go on dates with her husband, whether he remembers her or not

The third story is about two sisters. Another of the recurring characters in the stories is a woman who frequently sits at the counter with her hair in curlers. She runs a hostess bar nearby and is clearly an exuberant person. It's mentioned that she makes people feel comfortable and welcome, and that's one of the reasons the little hostess bar she runs is so successful. Hostess lady has a younger sister, who comes around every few months, trying to see her older sister. During her most recent visit, Hostess lady hid behind the counter for several hours, just to avoid seeing her. This is because Hostess lady is convinced her younger sister must hate her. Their parents owned a successful inn somewhere in the countryside and always expected older sister to take over and run it one day. But she wanted no such thing and left the family about a decade ago, so now her parents have pretty much disowned her, and it became the younger sister's duty to run the inn. Hostess lady is convinced her younger sister hates her because she is stuck fulfilling the wishes of their parents, while Hostess lady is off in the big city, enjoying a life of independence. 

The reason Hostess lady suddenly wants to travel back in time is that younger sister dies. She's killed in a car accident on her way back from the city, and now Hostess lady's parents hate her even more, because they blame her for their youngest daughter's death. Hostess lady feels bad that she kept trying to avoid awkward conversations, so she wants to go back to her sister's last meeting and tell her she loves her. This time, when the sister arrives, Hostess lady is sitting in the magic time travel chair and they have a heartfelt conversation. Turns out little sister doesn't hate Hostess lady, she just misses her and had always dreamed of the two of them running the inn together. Which is sweet, I guess. Now comes the bit that's less sweet. After returning to the present, Hostess lady (who has spent the last decade or so happily living an independent life in the city, desperately avoiding having to run an inn in the countryside just to please her parents) decides that she must return and beg her parents' forgiveness and take over running the inn in the countryside, because it was her sister's dying wish. Which it wasn't even! Her sister (now dead) dreamed of them running the inn TOGETHER. Little sister is dead, it's sad and tragic and a horrible waste. Hostess lady pretty much ran away from home so she wouldn't have to ever succeed her parents and become an inn manager. They already hate her - so what if they hate her a bit more and blame her wrongfully for her sister's death? Instead of staying in the city, enjoying her single lifestyle, and doing her dream job, she goes back home and becomes an inn manager. But it's ok, she sends the people at the café a picture where she looks happy - so everything ended up OK in the end? Really... that's the moral here?

The fourth story is about the wife of the café owner, who is portrayed as this friendly, cheerful woman, who has always been sickly and in and out of hospital because of a weak heart. Now she's pregnant, but it's obvious that the pregnancy is taking a massive toll on her. Her husband doesn't want to make a choice between his wife or the baby (i.e. tell her to get an abortion), and the wife wants this baby, even if she is most likely going to die giving birth to it. Wifey wants to use the very unusual option of going FORWARD in time, a much more tricky situation, as when you go back in time, you can think about a specific event, where you know the person you want to meet will be there. Going forward in time - who knows what will happen? 

The waitress who works at the café, and who is always the one to pour the special coffee for the time travelers, promises Wifey that she will make sure her daughter is in the café at the agreed-upon time and place in the future. Even so, there is a mix-up, with the date and time, and neither the waitress nor Wifey's husband is present when she pops into the future. The café even seems to be run by someone else. However, in a stroke of luck for Wifey (it's her only chance to travel in time, remember?), her daughter appears to be working in the café part-time and enters with enough time for her mother to see her and talk to her. Instead of jumping forward to when her daughter would be about ten, Wifey has jumped to when her daughter is a teenager. A teenager who has actually appeared in the café as a time traveler to the past, showing up to take a selfie with herself and Wifey (no one understood the significance at the time). Wifey is reassured that her daughter is doing well and that neither she nor her father seems to resent Wifey for the choice of having a baby, and then leaving her husband as a widower and single father, and her daughter mother-less. In fact, it seems like the woman from story nr one, The Lovers, now works in the café and has been something of a foster mother for the daughter. So maybe she doesn't get back with her dead-beat boyfriend? Who knows? 

One of the members of my book club ended up listening to the entire series of these books (there are four translated into English so far) and while he agreed that on the surface, some of these stories might seem quite nice, the core values expressed by the author throughout the stories are deeply conservative and pretty much all amount to women conforming to the traditional values of good wives and daughters. If a sacrifice has to be made, it's always the woman who makes it. I didn't think too hard about the various stories as I read the book (during the two days before our book club meeting), but during our one-hour discussion, we discussed each of the stories in more depth and agreed that most of them ended up being quite unsettling. This was supposed to be a nice, cozy winter read, and instead turned out to be a rallying call for the patriarchy, apparently. So I'm not going to apologise for spoiling all the stories. I don't plan to read any more from the author, and I don't think anyone else should either. 

Judging a book by its cover: The cover image doesn't capture the fact that on the hardback copies at least, the teal green is all shimmery, and the wallpaper looks like actual brocade. This is still a cozy cover, but the hardback book is so pretty. The cat on the cover is a total lie, however. There is no cat at any point in any of the stories. They'd probably be better if there had been. Most books are better with cats.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read