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