Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Kelly Jensen - Renewing Forever

Frankie and Tommy once dreamed of traveling the world together. But when seventeen-year-old Frank kissed Tom, their plans ended with a punch to the jaw and Frank leaving town without looking back. Thirty years later, Frank’s successful career as a journalist is interrupted by his uncle’s death and the question of his inheritance—the family resort where his childhood dreams were built. When he returns to the Pocono Mountains, however, he finds a dilapidated lodge and Tommy, the boy he never forgot.
Tom’s been keeping the resort together with spit and glue while caring for Frank’s uncle, Robert—a man he considered father, mentor, and friend—and his aged mother, who he refuses to leave behind. Now Robert is gone, taking Tom’s job with him. And Frank is on the doorstep, wanting to know why Tom is still there and why the old lodge is falling apart.
But before they can rebuild the resort, they’ll have to rebuild their friendship. Only then can they renew the forever they planned all those years ago.

Comment: In 2022 I've read the first book in the This Time Forever trilogy and I liked it enough (considering my grade for I barely remember anything), but I debated if I wanted to read the other installments. The opportunity happened and I thought why not, but this second story impressed me slightly less than the other. 

In this story we meet Frank, a journalist who has lived the life he always dreamed of, except he doesn't have Tommy, his childhood friend whom he thought could be more than that. When they were teenagers, Tommy punched him after a kiss and Frank decided to not go back, but now that his uncle died and left him the old lodge where he spent wonderful summers, he has to. That is why he reconnects with Tommy, who never left, and even helped around the lodge, but things aren't good and Frank realizes it will be necessary to do a lot to get the lodge back into something usable. However, someone wants the land and is making inquires and then there's Tommy and being around him brings back all those memories... could it be that now, thirty years alter, they can finally get their HEA?

At first I thought this would turn out to become a very appealing story, because while I don't really appreciate lovers reunited that much, Tommy and Frank were only at the cusp of a romantic relationship, they were never a couple in that sense, therefore the memories would certainly not be that boring to go through. However, the tone of this story is definitely one of mild angst and of regrets. Usually, I like these types of stories but something about this one didn't fully grab me.

The plot is a little predictable, especially if one has read many other romances where  a character comes back to take over some inheritance and, of course, finds love and so on.It's how the plot is developed that makes a difference but here I've found some parts to be a bit boring, in the sense that or the reminiscence would take too long or they would not actively be doing obvious/visible actions that could advance things. This meant that the slow pace, which could help develop their characterization, delayed things a lot, and added with the fear of communicating, made the story lack interest.

I liked Frank, for the most part, and I could certainly understand his decision to not go back to a place where he had something happening which affected his perception of who he was (by being rejected by Tommy, I mean), but all things considered, if as a mature man he could also understand how important his uncle was to him, and how much value he had for the lodge and the property where he had so many more good moments than bad ones, it also felt a little out of character he had stayed away so long.

Nevertheless, this "explained" the time passing by and why he wasn't aware of how things were at the lodge. It also seemed too convenient that he arrives at a time where things aren't immediately explained and when he finds out about Tommy and what happened, he simply doesn't start taking notes or doing something more diligent to see where things were and what could still be done regarding the lodge. I can see why Tommy being there would make him distracted, and it's true things can't change/improve in such a short amount of time, but... was that not the goal of being there?

Anyway, little details aside, until the guys really work on doing something about the lodge, they first need to deal with their relationship and how it got to be this way, as they are now only two people who know each other and who were best friends once. Anyone can guess that they rekindle their relationship, become important to one another once more and finally get their HEA. The whole process was sweet enough, yes, and there were times I was really glad for them, but their story didn't excite me that much.

In a way, perhaps I would say the biggest disappointment is Tommy. I liked the idea of his character because he clearly had some reason to punch Frank when they were teenagers and he liked his uncle as a father figure, he still lives at the lodge and cares for what he can, he still tries to do the best for his ill mother, even though we learn she has not been the most dedicated of mothers, and he struggles financially. All good reasons for me to like Tommy and root for him, but I felt he took too long - or the plot did - to take action, to have an eureka moment when he feels he needs to do something, and I suppose for plot reasons, he takes too long to trust Frank about this.

The dynamics of their relationship had interesting moments because it cannot be easy to juggle personal fears and thoughts (Tommy made it look he felt inferior to Frank somehow) but the love and the desire were still there somehow, and I liked this idea of caring for someone for so long. But the way things developed and the delay in explanations, as well as the motives for some actions just made their story feel a little too boring. There were also plenty of scenes where I wanted to turn the page because what I was reading wasn't as captivating.

I suppose I'll read the third and final installment, at least to have this feel of a task fulfilled, but I will certainly lower my expectations in relation to this second book.
Grade: 6/10

Monday, July 22, 2024

Julia Spencer-Fleming - All Mortal Flesh

Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne's first encounter with Clare Fergusson was in the hospital emergency room on a freezing December night. A newborn infant had been abandoned on the town's Episcopal church steps. If Russ had known that the church had a new priest, he certainly would never have guessed that it would be a woman. Not a woman like Clare. That night in the hospital was the beginning of an attraction so fierce, so forbidden, that the only thing that could keep them safe from compromising their every belief was distance---but in a small town like Millers Kill, distance is hard to find.
Russ Van Alstyne figures his wife kicking him out of their house is nobody's business but his own. Until a neighbor pays a friendly visit to Linda Van Alstyne and finds the woman's body, gruesomely butchered, on the kitchen floor. To the state police, it's an open-and-shut case of a disaffected husband, silencing first his wife, then the murder investigation he controls. To the townspeople, it's proof that the whispered gossip about the police chief and the priest was true. To the powers-that-be in the church hierarchy, it's a chance to control their wayward cleric once and for all.
Obsession. Lies. Nothing is as it seems in Millers Kill, where betrayal twists old friendships and evil waits inside quaint white clapboard farmhouses.

Comment: This is the 5th installment in the series featuring reverend Clare Fergusson and chief police Russ van Alstyne. I have had a great time going through these books, because they have both engaging little mysteries and complex personal development.

Attention: spoilers from previous books will be included.

In this story, following the events from the previous one, Russ has been staying with his mother while his wife Linda thinks of what he told her, about him being in love with someone else. Things are stressful for everyone, including Clare, who didn't plan on loving Russ either and their decision to not see each other again is as hurtful as it would be to not care. Then, things turn upside down when Linda is found murdered in her house and Russ starts a run against the clock to find the culprit and, at the same time, to prove his innocence since several people start wondering if he or Clare did it. However, something evil lurks around and perhaps that is why Linda was killed... but what will happen when the truth is discovered?

Reading this story was quite the ride! The author held nothing back and probably wrote one of the strongest installments in the series, and the only reason I didn't graded it higher is because, clearly, the goal here is to delay certain things, and sometimes that feels a little too manipulative.

The plot is a direct sequel of what happened in the previous book. The mystery investigation is related to definitive and separated situations, each case a new case, but parallel to the investigation we have the development of the characters and those they interact with, and here there is always a lot going on too, and this time, in this book, this aspect of the novels went into a very surprising road. I say surprising in the sense that what happened was somehow expected, but I did not think it would happen now, this way.

Basically, Clare and Russ have worked together in some cases, and their initial friendship blossomed into love, but since he is married, neither wants to compromise integrity and morality by doing something they would be ashamed of. In the last book Russ finally told his wife what he felt and they separated. I kind of expected something like to happen because if the reader is being led into thinking Clare and Russ are that much destined to be together romantically, something needs to happen to allow them to be a couple without shame nor worries, but I thought, then, the way to go would be for him to get a divorce and after a book or two they would assume their relationship.

Well, the author went a step further and Linda, Russ' wife, is killed in the first chapters after an apparent random attack. The investigation begins due to this situation, so that Russ has the chance to investigate what happened and who killed his wife, but it turns out, after a few details become known, things are much more complicated than that and, perhaps, the attack was not that random.

I will have to say, the author did a great job in connecting this case with the personal feelings the protagonists had and the actions they took which, somehow, linked to this again. I think the author was quite clever because the way the plot is sequenced, the reader really sees the story as being linear and then some things happen to prove it wrong. This means there are surprises and some twists happening with frequency and it felt as if the action was non stop.

Added to this, as I've said, the main characters are also dealing with their feelings and this whole thing is happening because Russ and Clare didn't want to betray their personal values nor the commitments they had done; Russ to his wife and Clare to her church. Life isn't that simple and it got to a point they didn't want to lie but they couldn't hide their feelings for one another and this is quite an important par of why the stories have been so appealing to me, the characters have depth and consistency in their personalities.

The investigation also allows for some secondary characters' development and so on, which adds flavor and complexity to the overall plot line. The killer they are looking for ends up being quite another clever twist, which I only started suspecting from a certain scene on, almost at the end of the book. It was quite incredible in a way, because by then of course my attention was on the personal dramas, and that was like a surprise from practically nowhere. Very clever, indeed.

I won't spoil it, but the end was shocking in a way, and mildly surprising in another. I'm quite eager to know what happens next! This series is really quite well thought, well worth the emotional and the time investment, at least until now.

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

TBR Challenge: Mercedes Lackey - Magic's Pawn

Though Vanyel has been born with near-legendary abilities to work both Herald and Mage magic, he wants no part of such things. Nor does he seek a warrior's path, wishing instead to become a Bard. Yet such talent as his if left untrained may prove a menace not only to Vanyel but to others as well. So he is sent to be fostered with his aunt, Savil, one of the famed Herald-Mages of Valdemar.
But, strong-willed and self-centered, Vanyel is a challenge which even Savil can not master alone. For soon he will become the focus of frightening forces, lending his raw magic to a spell that unleashes terrifying wyr-hunters on the land. And by the time Savil seeks the assistance of a Shin'a'in Adept, Vanyel's wild talent may have already grown beyond anyone's ability to contain, placing Vanyel, Savil, and Valdemar itself in desperate peril...

Comment: One more month gone, just like that! No wonder one feels time is passing by...
For July, the TBR post theme is "what a wonderful world" and my mind went immediately to fantasy, which doesn't have to be synonym with wonderful of course, but often it can be. My choice was simple; I have heard many good things about this author and I had added this to my TBR because it would feature a LGBT character, at a time I was super focused in reading stories which would include the theme. Thus, the mix of fantasy and of wonderful in this world sounded promising.

In this magical world, Vanyel is a young man who feels misunderstood by those around him. He isn't interested in the things his siblings are but he is still his father's heir and he knows expectations are on him. His life is pretty much organized into what his family hierarchy demands of him, but his true dream is to become a Bard. When he defies the norm in combat against someone his father trusts, he is sent away to his aunt Savil, a Herald Mage of Valdemar, who has magic and powers and who might teach Vanyel while he stays with the mages.
Vanyel isn't too happy with this, but he prefers to go than to get into more disputes he won't win, although he is wary since his aunt in the past had said he didn't show evidence of having magical ability. Things change when he meets Tylendel, another student, and someone who changes his whole world. The problem is that magic can have another side, one people might not control, and events will lead to Vanyel discovering precisely what happens when magic is out of control...

I suppose I can say this was, indeed, a wonderful world, but perhaps - to me - not exactly with the positivism one tends to think of when we associate the word wonderful to good things. I say this because this story didn't end up being as great as I expected, both when it came to my personal imagination and due to the accolades given to the author. Perhaps I have not chosen the best book by her to have that impression, but the overall tone of the story was not as captivating as I thought it would be.

Vanyel is, for all purposes, described as being slightly arrogant or entitled and I struggled to like him in the beginning. I can understand he feels his family, well his father in particular, doesn't respect his wishes to develop his musical skills and become a Bard, which apparently is important enough in this fantasy world. A lot is set on him becoming a lord like his father, and he knows others only are his friends because of who he is and not for himself. This makes him also hide a little beneath this facade of haughtiness, which might drive some people away.

We also learn, at some point, that his father might have pushed him even more towards a reality in which he will be a lord and such, by making him practice weaponry skills, and fighting skills, which he doesn't care for, because he suspects Vanyel might not like girls, and this way he would not be as easily exposed to less manly things, such as music I suppose, and, therefore, to other boys and men who might be like him. I mean... I guess this might make sense for the world in question, and for the characters' personality but it certainly put me off and I wasn't as interested in the story from them on.

As it happened with other books, the writing style also affected my perception of the story. Things are told in a direct way, but not in one I'd say is engaging, and adding this to my lack of interest and the more boring sections where nothing was really happening made reading the book sometimes dull. When things finally happen, mostly magic related, to turn everything upside down, I confess I felt it was a bit too confusing and the sequence of events hard to imagine in my head.

After the big shocking situation happens, Vanyel is a changed young man and he does discover he has had magic all along, but the way he now must deal with them is quite hard, for he was not prepared for the intensity of the powers, nor is he skilled enough to deal with them nor with the consequences of using them. This part did interest me more, and I also liked he had a Companion, magical horses who can bond with a magical human, and they helped each other. But the plot seems to be going in the direction of Vanyel being set up for something due to his powers and I'm not really curious about that.

I've seen reviews by some readers who claim this was groundbreaking for its time (published in 1989, I was 4 year old) and I can see that, and perhaps, again, I'd have loved it more had I read it when I was going through the hype of the genre, but the truth is that this story didn't seem well written to me. I feel this wasn't engaging and what is being described felt it lacked real importance, which is a shame considering the amount of angst and drama that keeps happening.

I suppsoe I can also say I'm perhaps not seeing the story as it was intended, but I thought this would be so much cozier, not in the sense everyone only does humble, quiet tings, but the sense of cumminity, of family, of life... I was hoping for something more like that, but so complex that I would not even notice the pages turning. It is also possible this does happen more along these lines in other books in this world, but now I'm not as invested in finding out, which means this wonderful world wasn't as wonderful as I wished.
Grade: 6/10

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Steven Rowley - The Guncle

Patrick, or Gay Uncle Patrick (GUP, for short), has always loved his niece, Maisie, and nephew, Grant. That is, he loves spending time with them when they come out to Palm Springs for weeklong visits, or when he heads home to Connecticut for the holidays. But in terms of caretaking and relating to two children, no matter how adorable, Patrick is honestly a bit out of his league.
So when tragedy strikes and Maisie and Grant lose their mother and Patrick's brother has a health crisis of his own, Patrick finds himself suddenly taking on the role of primary guardian. Despite having a set of "Guncle Rules" ready to go, Patrick has no idea what to expect, having spent years barely holding on after the loss of his great love, a somewhat-stalled career, and a lifestyle not-so-suited to a six- and a nine-year-old. Quickly realizing that parenting--even if temporary--isn't solved with treats and jokes, Patrick's eyes are opened to a new sense of responsibility, and the realization that, sometimes, even being larger than life means you're unfailingly human.

Comment: I've decided to read this book after seeing several positive reviews (including by some people I know don't read fiction as much as I do) and because the cover is super cute and summery. I also somehow created this idea in my head there would be some hint of romance and I wanted to see how the plot would focus on an uncle caring for his nephew and niece while falling in love.

In this story we meet Patrick O'Hara, whom we learn used to be a conceited actor in Hollywood, he was on a show that many people still remember, but Patrick is now living alone in Palm Springs, where he doesn't have to deal with anyone. His life changes again when his brother announces, right after the death of his wife Sara - who was Patrick's best friend first - he will be in rehab due to his pill addiction. Patrick is meant to take care of the kids for that long, but is he really that ready to be a carer? His lifestyle doesn't seem to match living with young children, but perhaps they will need to learn to live together and deal with their sorrows. Could this be the way for all of them to cope with Sara'a death and, eventually, move on?

Now I've finished reading, I can say I understand the positive reviews and why this appealed to so many readers. Sadly to me, I just didn't fully vibe with the humor and I feel the story is one of those that "didn't quite get there", in the sense that whatever goal the author had, the story didn't really reach that place.

Patrick is certainly a great main character and he brings the whole thing to live, but he is also a person who has had losses, even more than just his friend's Sara, and he is an actually sad person, who hides under the humor and the apparent carefree existence. Since we do have his thoughts, I should say I liked how he felt he had to leave his state of things so he could do something to help his brother and his children, and not only because he felt he had to help family.

In fact, Patrick is a very caring person, who has had disappointments but those didn't change his personality nor his need to help those he likes; only he feels now anything could hurt too much and he isn't willing to cope with what he believes he doesn't have to. He also had a career that made him famous and he wants to preserve his privacy, especially since he lost Joe, the man he was in love with, and that wound has never fully healed.

These elements all make for an interesting and richly complex plot, but I was still not fully on board. Perhaps the element that wasn't as thrilling as I imagined is how the humor just didn't seemed particularly on point, or maybe I just wasn't in the right mood. I also think all the movie references, which is something I can see why would make sense for Patrick to think/use, were a bit too much. I suppose I wanted Patrick to interact with more people instead of speaking so often about things that don't really interfere with the plot.

As the story developed and Patrick started to bond with the kids, we learn about why he is sad and why he seemingly stopped working. We know he has money but we also know he feels he needs to help his family, so he can't simply not earn more, but while this is addressed later on, I feel the reasons for why he chose to live mostly alone were delayed too long, and when he finally does something, I wasn't as invested in the story anymore. We are also told about other situations Patrick feels affected his will to be around people, and I can sympathize, but his decision to live alone didn't make s much sense once we discover why. I mean, not to me, in this context.

Sadly for me, there isn't any romance here. There is a slight hint, which is better than nothing, but nothing to contrast to Patrick's apathy until the kids show up. It's true most of the plot is centered on the children and how that makes Patrick decide to take actions, I can clearly see the cause and effect of what is happening, but I didn't really connect with Patrick's personality and the children are cute most of the time but I wasn't dazzled by them either.

This is meant to be a feel good type of story and there are moments I think this was accomplished, but it also hinted at fun and light content and it wasn't so, most of the time. I feel there were too many similar scenes or situations and not as cozy sweet things as I would expect. This said, the story is good, yes, and interesting, but I wasn't left as positively surprised as I imagined I would. I also wanted Patrick to be a bit more approachable both in terms of his personal life (as in opening up to meet more people so he could heal about his past tragedies) and personality wise, but he was a little too focused on his personal world, and on what his career used to be, for me to warm up to him.

Since all the elements were good enough on their own, one would expect them to wok out as a whole, but I feel this didn't happen. Was the goal for Patrick to realize life is short and he should be happy despite the things he can't change? If so, the author chose a very unappealing way (to me) to get there...
Grade: 6/10

Friday, July 12, 2024

Jenna Levine - My Roommate is a Vampire

Cassie Greenberg loves being an artist, but it’s a tough way to make a living. On the brink of eviction, she’s desperate when she finds a too-good-to-be-true apartment in a beautiful Chicago neighborhood. Cassie knows there has to be a catch—only someone with a secret to hide would rent out a room for that price.
Of course, her new roommate Frederick J. Fitzwilliam is far from normal. He sleeps all day, is out at night on business, and talks like he walked out of a regency romance novel. He also leaves Cassie heart-melting notes around the apartment, cares about her art, and asks about her day. And he doesn’t look half bad shirtless, on the rare occasions they’re both home and awake. But when Cassie finds bags of blood in the fridge that definitely weren’t there earlier, Frederick has to come clean...
Cassie’s sexy new roommate is a vampire. And he has a proposition for her.

Comment: Last Christmas I was given this book as a gift and even though I had seen references to it on friend's lists or in suggestions because of that feature on GR "readers who liked this also read...", I confess I wasn't specially eager to see what it was about.

In this story we meet Cassie, a young woman about to be evicted from her apartment for lack of payment. Cassie is a complicated situation, she works two jobs but still can't make ends' meet and although she loved her arts college degree, she is aware it's not the easiest option to get a steady job. While speaking to her friend Sam, they see the advert of someone looking for a roommate, but the rent is so low for the area, they are wary of the veracity of the offer. Still, Cassie replies and agrees to meet the person there. That is how she meets Frederick, who seems to be a very weird person, and not only because he speaks as if he is a character in a period drama. As they deal with getting along, Cassie realizes Frederick is hiding a big secret, but will she be able to cope with learning he is actually a vampire?

I have nothing against colorful or cartoonish covers if they suit the tone or the content of the story. In fact, some are really cute and everyone knows book covers can be as appealing to enjoy as a plate of food might seem before one starts eating. Sadly, as it so often happens, sometimes the content isn't as bright nor as tasty and I'll have to say the content of this story was not as good as the cover is (for me).

Cassie is a likable enough heroine. She embodies the adult life of many people, who probably studied what they love in school/college and then real life isn't as easy, especially if one doesn't already have an obvious path or a lined up job. Cassie works two jobs and it's still difficult to pay rent and other things, so when she sees the opportunity to live in a good area of Chicago for a cheap rent, she believes it must be too good to be true, but she still feels she needs to try it. Of course, this being romanceland, the offer is genuine and the roommate is weird but seems to want to be friendly. 

I think this was a good premise and the beginning was interesting enough, but I will say I wasn't immediately caught by what was happening. Something about the writing just didn't seem to make this story truly engaging, and I felt things were develop on a superficial level, which can be tricky and nowadays isn't my preferable style of story. I also disliked that the story was being told in first person by Cassie, both for the reasons I often write about in my comments, but also because of the writing style; it just didn't feel as if the way this was being told would be the best way to tell this story.

The premise is cute enough, two strangers meet and, on top of it, one of them is a vampire. I was quite curious to see how this would play out and how the author would make it work between them but since we don't have Frederick' POV, things feel very one sided. The author also chose to make Frederick a vampire who was woken from a coma, if I understood correctly, and now he needs help to navigate the 21st century. This is, again, a great idea and if the goal of this story was for this to be a romantic comedy, that would make it quite original, but the execution wasn't really well achieved, in my opinion.

The dynamics between them weren't very consistent. I could not be led to believe that they were really falling in love, and not even close proximity, which often is why these types of plots are designed for, helped. Frederick was too lost in a new reality, I'd say, and his lack of knowledge about so many things was not as endearing as I think the author imagined, particularly since part of the interactions between them happened because he wanted her help to blend in. 
The vampire condition was also a theme I found lacking because it wasn't developed at all, nor were those who were vampires like Frederick. He had a "friend" who I didn't connect with either, for instance.

The situations they see themselves in as the story moves along, the progress of their relationship, the specific details about Frederick's vampire status and abilities were very weakly developed elements. I think the author had all these ideas in her head but the actual transition into a written text didn't really compute. Two thirds of the story gone and I was already convinced this would not be a good story overall, but then the author adds this last third drama regarding Frederick's family and a supposed marriage between him and another vampire from his past. I am really sorry to say it, but this was the most ridiculous thing the author might have invented!

I say this because the choice to make Frederick deal with this problem by meeting his mother and his supposed fiancée, and then making things go wrong, so that the solution was to have Cassie "rescue" him was so incredibly juvenile and childishly written, I cannot understand how the author's friends and her editor might have approved (I've read the thank yous at the end). I will be truly honest: the only reason why I don't give this book a negative grade is because it was easy to read this story. There's no real development, no real evolution for the characters, no real intensity nor complexity to their characters or their actions. I will certainly not remember much about it after a while...
Grade: 5/10

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Anne Gracie - Marry in Scandal

A shy heiress and a well-known rake face a scandal-forced marriage that might be true love in the latest irresistible romance from the national bestselling author of Marry in Haste.
Shy young heiress, Lady Lily Rutherford, is in no hurry to marry. She dreams of true love and a real courtship. But when disaster strikes, she finds herself facing a scandal-forced marriage to her rescuer, Edward Galbraith, a well known rake. Despite his reputation Lily is drawn to the handsome Galbraith. In the gamble of her life, she agrees to marry him, hoping to turn a convenient marriage into a love match. As heir to a title, Galbraith knows he must wed, so a convenient marriage suits him perfectly. But there is a darkness in his past, and secrets he refuses to share with his tender-hearted young bride. All Lily's efforts to get close to him fall on stony ground, and in desperation she retreats to his childhood home--the place he's avoided for nearly a decade. Must Lily reconcile herself to a marriage without love? Or will Galbraith realize that this warm-hearted, loving girl is the key to healing the wounds of his past--and his heart?

Comment: Practically one year later, I'm finally keeping up with the Marriage of Convenience series by Anne Gracie. I enjoyed the first book and I'm quite hopeful for the next ones.

In this second story we follow the story of Lily, one of Cal's sisters we've met in the first book. Lily is a dreamer, she wants to marry for love, especially now that she can see her brother is so happy with his wife, whom he married for convenience but the match evolved into love. The problem is that she feels she might not find a special enough man, for she is heiress and that attracts a certain type, and also because years of listening to her aunt saying she should diet makes her feel self conscientious.
Things change when a former school mate introduces her to her cousin and somehow this man kidnaps Lily, hoping to marry her to take over her inheritance, She is finally rescued by mr Edward Galbraith, a friend of her brother, and despite his fame of being a rake, he is considerate and helps her. However, the wrong witness on their way home starts the gossip and they decide to marry. But will this man prove to be as special and hero worthy for a marriage as Lily found when he rescues her?

Again, this was a fluid, sweet story, mostly light in tone even bearing in mind certain themes (Edward feels guilty over some war situations), and I had a great time reading. I would say some things are a bit too simplistic and I'd have preferred another direction for how the author dealt with that, but overall this was captivating and easy to read.

Lily is a shy young woman who is likely dyslexic because she hasn't learned how to read. The story starts with a prologue where we see young Lily and young Rose (her sister) reporting to their father and the governess claims Lily can't be taught. This, and their father's words, left Lily feeling down and worried her future will always be marked by this "failure" of hers and her self esteem isn't healthy. She is also, as indicated by other characters, not that thin and even tried diets, which clearly paints a picture of how she is seen, but I found it so amazing she is still a sunny person.

However, those who know her "flaws" usually defend Lily and protect her, but when this story begins, she reconnects with a former school mate, whom we learn was not a friend at all, but Lily is too agreeable to refuse speaking with her, and this leads to Lily being abducted because she can't read a supposed message her sister had sent, and thus she is deceived. While all this happens, we can follow some of her thoughts and we see how amazing and sweet-natured she is and how much she deserves to find her happiness, which makes her a very likable heroine and someone one wants to root for.

The "rescue" is one of those coincidences of romance and the hero, supposedly a rake, or at least not the most suitable for a sweet young lady, is actually a wonderful man. He has had his past indiscretions, and has been at war, which is often linked with this weird secret vibe because he doesn't talk about it, whose explanation is actually not that surprising to any lifelong romance reader and I only wonder why the author felt like keeping it up for so long until the end.

It is also true the development of this story is predictable and a reveals to us a slightly too naive Lily but I think these elements are easily overlooked when I think the intention here was to present a sweet romance, more about their relationship than the solution of their "personal demons". In fact, I would say I found it a little disappointing that Edward's valid reasons to not want to talk about the war times or to go back to his grandfather's estate were so quickly solved at the end. Even more surprising was how Lily's illiteracy was not more obviously mentioned and I confess, I hoped for someone to help her somehow in trying again and in finding a way for that to make sense to her.

The romance is actually very sweet because Edward is very considerate and he thinks about Lily as someone he should respect and cherish. I did find it tremendously irritating, however, how he kept thinking he should keep her at an emotional distance, in the sense she should not expect him to fall in love with her as she have always said she would want to love a husband, thus, himself. I mean, it is more than obvious this is what would happen and I think for such a clever and resourceful man, despite his emotional fears, this should not be that hard, considering his personality. If had really been a terrible man or an actual rake... but since he isn't, I've found his behavior only a way to delay their HEA.

Still, despite the little things I'd change and some ridiculous choices when it came to catch the man who kidnapped Lily, this was a very predictable but enjoyable read and, to be honest, sometimes this is a better option than more incredible stores which perhaps are more complicated to read... well, perhaps depends on one's mood...
Grade: 7/10

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Hailey Turner - The Prince's Poisoned Vow

Every country is built on revolution.
THE WARDEN. Soren is a nameless, stateless man, tasked with keeping watch over Maricol’s borders.
He isn’t meant for politics, only dealing with the dead. His past was buried in the poison fields, but after a fateful encounter with a prince, Soren comes to realize he can’t keep what magic burns inside him hidden forever.
THE PRINCE. Vanya Sa’Liandel was the spare who survived the Houses’ murderous games to become the Imperial crown prince of Solaria. He has a duty to his country, but he’ll owe his life to the wardens. Payment of any kind is costly, especially when he’s at risk of losing his heart to the man who saved his life.
THE COG. Caris Dhemlan hears the siren song of clarion crystals better than anyone in Ashion. That skill for inventing has enriched her bloodline, but it’s who she can become that will ultimately entangle her with the Clockwork Brigade.
THE PRINCESS. Eimarille Rourke should have been raised to be queen of one country; instead, she is prisoner of another. Guided by a star god, Eimarille bides her time in a gilded cage, spinning a political web to gain a throne and start a war the world isn’t ready for.

Comment: In the last three years I've managed to read the Metahuman series by this author, a sci-fi military plot with romance elements, which I liked a lot. I'm determined to read the author's other work and saw her Soulbound series has seven full length installments and I confess I wasn't too keen on starting that series right away. That means I turned to her other series, the Infernal War Saga, which is a trilogy (so far/already finished?).

In this book we meet a huge cast of characters, in a world of magic and paranormal elements, but whose vibe goes more along the lines of what we might see as steampunk and fantasy. When the story begins, everyone is dealing with the shock of a terrible war, and in this world where six gods rule over different reigns, plans are in motion to place those they favor on the throne of their influence. Although each country is independent, they all have commerce and one of these countries uses debt bondage (= slavery) as an important part of the economy. One of the gods plans for his champion to take over more than one country, no matter the cost, but there are secrets to maintain until it's time for the truth of what happened to be revealed. Will everyone make the right decisions until that happens?

Well. This was truly an epic-styled story, in which we follow everyone and someone else, it seems, as all characters follow their destiny - or the plans of the gods. I'm still unsure if these gods are really manipulative for personal reasons, such as any big scheme we cannot yet understand, or if the whole thing is planned by them from the start so that the human characters can do what they are supposed to.

I should say that the edition I've read had almost 600 pages and this was truly immersive and detailed and we have the POV of countless characters. Until the very end I can say that it didn't feel as if there was an obvious villain. Some characters do unsavory things but it felt their reasons (or "help" from the gods) always had some specific necessary base and at any point their actions might not have such a bad result, which clearly wasn't the case when the last chapters came in. Now, I do feel I know who the bad guys are, and they do truly despicable things in the big scheme of things, but do I hate them? Not completely, even though one character I came to like suffered a lot at the very end as a consequence.

I think to myself, how long must have taken for the author to plan and write all this? And there are two more books, which I assume might have similar page counts? Really impressive... and the development reminded me of stories like Game of Thrones, which I have not read nor watched but know enough about it, culturally speaking, to be able to compare. Everything in this world is connected and layered and at the same time I felt frustrated over some decisions or some scenes, it felt things were following a quiet and unassuming way, I even wondered why so many pages, what more could happen, but when I realized what was going on, the author had already taken things into an impossible situation!

I'm now thinking about this book from time to time, wondering what will happen next, considering how shocking this installment ended, and what will be the characters' next step. I'm especially thinking about a few characters and what will they do once they learn a few truths... I really need to get my hands on the next book, although I'm dreading possible heartbreak too, since  some characters' decisions are clearly leading to problems and hard roads.

To summarize a little, and from what I understood, there was a queen in one of the countries who was driven to end the businesses which dealt with debt bondage. This caused a rift and the country which depends on it attacked. The gods took the opportunity to save the children of that queen, who were not only rightful heirs, of noble lineage, but who also have the starfire power, the magical ability to use a special type of fire without being affected. 

The oldest child, Eimarille, was placed among the royal family of the country which attacked hers, as a sort of hostage, and adult Eimarille is bent on getting her throne back, but on her own terms. The middle child Alesainder was placed with the Wardens, a group independent of the countries, which takes over the battle against the revenants (because, of course, zombies). And the youngest child, baby Caris was placed with a noble couple, in exchange with their own daughter, so she could grow up undetected.

I know it sounds vague said this way, but the lives of these three as adults (well a teenager Caris) are as complex and busy as one can imagine, and even more so after they start making their own plans or after they meet specific people. I'm especially fond of Alesainder - now with a different name - and the person he falls in love with, because their romance is the one I'm more invested in and I 
to see how his intended will react when he learns who Aleisander (now Soren) truly is. The siblings don't know about each other, and many secondary characters don't know either, but as the story progresses, some clues start to come out, and that information can be good and bad, depending on who knows.

I could go on and on, but this is too complex and complicated to explain properly, at least without many spoilers for context, but I admit I was not expecting such an elaborated plot and world building. What I had read before by the author had been great, but this is another level. I'll have to bite the bullet and read the other series too, perhaps next year. I think this is a truly talented writer, and unless the content really doesn't appeal, in terms of skill and execution, five stars for certain.
Grade: 8/10

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Nora Roberts - The Choice

Breen Siobhan Kelly grew up in the world of Man and was once unaware of her true nature. Now she is in Talamh, trying to heal after a terrible battle and heartbreaking losses. Her grandfather, the dark god Odran, has been defeated in his attempt to rule over Talamh, and over Breen--for now.
With the enemy cast out and the portal sealed, this is a time to rest and to prepare. Breen spreads her wings and realizes a power she's never experienced before. It's also a time for celebrations--of her first Christmas in both Talamh and Ireland, of solstice and weddings and births--and daring to find joy again in the wake of sorrow. She rededicates herself to writing her stories, and when his duties as taoiseach permit, she is together with Keegan, who has trained her as a warrior and whom she has grown to love.
It's Keegan who's at her side when the enemy's witches, traitorous and power-mad, appear to her in her sleep, practicing black magick, sacrificing the innocent, and plotting a brutal destruction for Breen. And soon, united with him and with all of Talamh, she will seek out those in desperate need of rescue, and confront the darkness with every weapon she has: her sword, her magicks--and her courage...

Comment: This is the third and final installment in the Dragon Heart Legacy by Nora Roberts. I think it was a very predictable conclusion to the main story.

In this final installment, Breen and the others are still dealing with the shock of what happened during the battle at the end of the previous installment. Now it's time to mourn and to pay homages, but also to move forward and plan what will be necessary to fight Odran. Everyone knows he will try to do things in unfair and uncaring ways, but Breen happens to discover something during one of her visions and she now believes she might know what to do to defeat him. The question is, will she manage or will the price be too high to pay?

I gave this book a positive grade and I think of it as a good one, simply because I am a fan of the author, I know what to expect of her, but to be really honest, this story was too slow and too predictable. I say this knowing her books are always formulaic, yes, but as mrs Roberts likes to say, one simply must work on "one's craft" and I came to expect to always appreciate hers. However, perhaps in an attempt to go outside of the norm when it comes to her usual trilogies' strategies, I think the end of this one was a little too bland.

The first book was quiet promising and I think it was developed in a way I expected but there were still some elements which I felt could be both better and more surprising. In the second book there were a few scenes which surprised me, and I thought this had to be a great sign for what would come next, but now this story delivers what was promised, yes, but in a very unassuming way. I did expect the final battle between Breen and the villain to be more interesting, or for things which would lead to it to be more engaging, but everything takes a long time to happen and, then, the end is in one chapter or two! It makes it seem as if things build up and up and then deflated quickly, like a balloon.

Usually, the authors' trilogies are divided into three main couples, one to each book. This trilogy wasn't like that, we have Breen as the main character and there's a male counterpart, and then perhaps I can think of two other couples who have some attention, but are clearly meant to be secondary. I really can't say if I like or dislike one method more than the other, both offer different types of development, but the center of attention being on Breen and on her learning means the romance also took a secondary role.

This said, it was also more than obvious how things would progress for them, and at first Breen wasn't impressed with Keegan. I admit I was surprised they started being intimate before anything had been agreed between them, even though it was clear they would go on to become a couple and to join forces to defeat the villain. I have read many books, older and newer, by this author, both in series and in standalone, where the romance was just so special, almost as magical as the magic included in those types of stories, but here I need to say I was not convinced.

Breen and Keegan are good teammates, they work well enough when needed, and Breen has a lot to learn about this new world, and Keegan is often a teacher figure. That they wanted to be intimate and that it would develop into being a couple was expected, but it was not magical. This book ends, they win the fight and they exchange some loving words but I can only accept that they will be happy because I know this is the goal of the story and the author's style. Nothing among them besides some hints here and there suggests at how deep their emotions are. We need to infer that.

I suppose, in part, my slight disappointment is due to the writing itself. The author is certainly amazing, experienced, has written so many books, and for me the majority so great!... it feels as if now, the dialogues are so unnatural, the characters go through the motions, the situations are always the same, everyone is so perfect or so evil... the magic of her writing is still there but feels it's underwater... I know I might not be explaining myself properly, but it feels this story could have been epic and it wasn't.

I wish this had been stronger, yes. It's especially disappointing because the author has done better, and with such a great premise... but things are what they are. I hope her next series will be more interesting in the end.

Saturday, July 6, 2024

Friday, July 5, 2024

Brit Bennett - The Mothers

Set within a contemporary black community in Southern California, Brit Bennett's mesmerizing first novel is an emotionally perceptive story about community, love, and ambition. It begins with a secret.
"All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we'd taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season."
It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother's recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor's son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it's not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.
In entrancing, lyrical prose, The Mothers asks whether a "what if" can be more powerful than an experience itself. If, as time passes, we must always live in servitude to the decisions of our younger selves, to the communities that have parented us, and to the decisions we make that shape our lives forever.

Comment: I got this book at the library. I had heard many good things about the author's second novel, which I have not read yet, but when I saw this one available, I decided I wanted to try it.

I will include some spoilers.

In this story we meet Nadia, Luke and Aubrey, who all live in California, and when the story begins, Nadia's mother had recently committed suicide. This clearly affected her daughter and she started behaving differently, not as dedicated to the church nor the community anymore, but things only really change when she and Luke start dating. Well, more hanging out in fact, and then Nadia becomes pregnant and considers having an abortion. As they deal with their decision, the secret of what they did affects them but also those around them, until Nadia starts college on the East Coast. As the years go by, their lives move on towards different paths, but is their secret hidden that well? And what about the fact Aubrey, who is Nadia's best friend but who knows nothing about the abortion is now going to marry Luke?

As I've said, this is the author's debut, which was praised immensely when it was published, but then the author wrote another book which seems to have been received even better. I have heard enough about the author to recognize her name on the cover and decided to read it so I could see what the fuss was about. I must say that, while the writing style and narrative choice are clever choices, the content just didn't interest me that much.

The setting is a Black community in California and the story is partly narrated by the mothers of the title, a collective group of women, who seem to know what happens and there are several passages with the "we", which is really not that common. Then, there are also parts where the narrator is the more traditional singular third person, but I didn't mind this and found the switch obvious enough to make it easy. The tone is interesting, I've seen some readers comment that the "we" seems judgmental, slightly critical, as a way to expose the flaws or the difficulties the teenagers faced, but I didn't see it that way, and was more focused on the writing style, rather than the moral message.

Differences and novelties aside, the plot of this book was a little annoying to me because I agree with the readers who said the characters show no real growth from their experiences. I think that between this and the fact the story jumps in time without any graphic evidence (such as a simple division in parts or something), makes the change so indistinct that I didn't immediately realize the characters were older. This did put me off a little, true, but I'd say the real issue is that I just didn't like Nadia nor Luke and I feel they learned nothing from what happened to them.

I suppose today's society lives in a very numb way, it's as if any situation is so common, it's so mundane that however people react it's not a big deal unless for context, as described in this book. This community seems to live faith and values very closely, Luke is even the son of a pastor, and there is some talk about appearances and genuine behavior, and then Aubrey is a good girl, a churchgoer and does many good deeds and such, I think the contrast to Nadia is a little too obvious, but I guess that the point was precisely that.

The big secret is no secret after all, I think, because Nadia does choose to have an abortion and Luke isn't there to pick her up afterwards, as promised. This put them at odds, at first because Luke thought his part was done - giving Nadia the necessary money - but it turns out he would have preferred her to have the baby... well, that is what I got from the whole talk on the subject. I also think the obvious pro-life content was the real goal the author might have aimed for with this story, but I confess I can't tell if it's that intentional or if it's only a radical opposition to Nadia's choices for her body and what not having an abortion would have meant to her life.

They are teenagers when they go through this, then at some point, the next chapter is with them already older, having different lives, although Nadia keeps thinking about (regretting?) her choice. Somehow Aubrey, who is still Nadia best friend despite the geographical distance, gets to spend time with Luke after he decides to help more at church, and they plan on getting married. The author went the opposed way now, and they have a very traditional type of relationship, to the point they aren't intimate until their wedding day. I thought, is the secret's reveal going to be the big climax of the story, but things got muddled when Nadia attends the wedding and.. well, some stuff happens.

Until this point, I was already convinced this was not going to be a book I'd think fondly of, but I was still seeing it positively. But then, Nadia, Luke and even Aubrey act in a way that is so... juvenile and reveals their inability to grow up and understand what maturity is supposed to be, preferring to rehash their old errors and I was really annoyed. What was the point of the story after all, of going through all that? I was already irritated over their reactions about a choice which was supposed to be mutual, not that those reactions weren't valid, but that they were used to convey the teenagers' confusion and such. Now, as adults they keep behaving in ridiculous ways?

I think that, in part, the issue might be how the author decided to write this. The elements I liked so much and that seemed interesting in the beginning only got worse as the pages went by, and the characters lacked more and more depth, the more I read. Of course, this can be my problem, but with so many serious and life changing subjects to discuss/use in this story, the execution ended up very poor, in my opinion.

I still hope that I got this impression because it was a debut, and the second book will be as great as so many more readers say, and that I will enjoy reading it more than I did this one.
Grade: 4/10

Thursday, July 4, 2024

Anna Lee Huber - A Study in Death

Scotland, 1831. After a tumultuous courtship complicated by three deadly inquiries, Lady Kiera Darby is thrilled to have found both an investigative partner and a fiancé in Sebastian Gage. But with her well-meaning—and very pregnant—sister planning on making their wedding the event of the season, Kiera could use a respite from the impending madness.
Commissioned to paint the portrait of Lady Drummond, Kiera is saddened when she recognizes the pain in the baroness’s eyes. Lord Drummond is a brute, and his brusque treatment of his wife forces Kiera to think of the torment caused by her own late husband.
Kiera isn’t sure how to help, but when she finds Lady Drummond prostrate on the floor, things take a fatal turn. The physician called to the house and Lord Drummond appear satisfied to rule her death natural, but Kiera is convinced that poison is the real culprit.
Now, armed only with her knowledge of the macabre and her convictions, Kiera intends to discover the truth behind the baroness’s death—no matter what, or who, stands in her way…

Comment: Following the buddy read of the Lady Darby mysteries series by Anna Lee Huber, with a friend, this is book #4.

In this story Kiera and Gage are still living the bliss of their engagement, but Kiera is worried for her sister, who is going to give birth soon, but whose health has not been the best. When the story begins, Kiera is painting the commissioned portrait of lady Drummond, but a glimpse into her marital relationship allows Kiera to realize the lady's husband isn't treating her well. Things progress quickly into a mystery when lady Drummond dies in front of Kiera a few days later, and while the doctor summoned claims it was an apoplexy, Kiera believes lady Drummond was actually poisoned. It seems the husband doesn't want to investigate, but Kiera is certain someone deliberately murdered lady Drummond, the problem is to prove it...

The fascination of a series which becomes addictive is that there are always elements that are so well combined, they make the story feel cohesive and engaging, even when there are situations one doesn't feel as invested in. I liked the first book in this series because of several aspects, among them the promise of a romance. It is certainly rewarding to see the character growth of the characters through their interactions, but also the physical changes of their decisions and, in this book, Gage and Kiera are happily discussing their wedding plans.

Although, I should say, that isn't the focus of the story - the romance itself seems secondary, even if the emotions and the personal conversations convey a lot more to the reader - but it does help in understanding where the characters are, what they think and feel and how will that imp'act other things or how they go on to act on something. I say this because yes, while these stories aren't as detailed on the romance as other "historical mysteries with elements of romance" as one might politely describe this genre, it's still a great way to see character evolution.

Regarding the mystery, I think it was plotted and developed well enough. I only think that, even bearing in mind specific details such as Kiera being known to have helped investigations before, and her past as the wife of a anatomist, and the familiarity with lady Drummond and the servants in her house, she could get inside awfully easy anyway when necessary... social norms or hierarchies alone would help her? I found it too easy for her to go to lady Drummond's house when she died and even later on to investigate, without the police, for instance. But, perhaps, this is a minor flaw that affected only me...

The plot turns out to be quite simple and the reason why lady Drummond was killed a very basic one. I can somehow accept the reason given by the killer when we learn it, but because it was necessary to keep that person's identity a secret until the end, of course that when that happens, some details don't seem to match and in the big scheme of things, I've found the explanation flimsy.

As Kiera and Gage investigate, they have conversations with many characters and interactions with secondary ones we've met before... there was a moment or two, I'll admit, that some of the situations seemed a little farcical, as if the unlikeliness of it had no other escape, but it did move things alone. I say this because, despite the fact I do like the books and what happens, there are times when things are clearly done for plot's sake, and not because they are that sequential to what could happen... well, I guess in a book one cannot wait weeks or months for the experts to finally place the clues together properly...

Two interesting subjects in this story were more personal related to the main characters. First, the whole issue of Alana's risky pregnancy provided a good enough debate on what it meant for women to go through so many pregnancies, even against doctor's advice (Alana was on her fourth, after a third one which had complications), but of course the goal was to highlight the need for her husband to be with her in this difficult time, instead of away, as was the norm.
Another subject was Gage's father showing up on the page and how he seemed against his son's marriage with Kiera. Considering the end of the book, this is, perhaps, not as important, but I wonder if it will still be an issue in future installments.

All in all, another good story overall, fluid, easy to read and for me to be interested in reading... I'm hoping the next one has the same quality.
Grade: 8/10