Friday, July 1, 2022

Elizabeth Cadell - The Toy Sword

Edmund Forth, a wealthy architect, was already engaged to the beautiful and efficient Angela, but in Portugal he meets a penniless young girl who runs a boarding house in London. Fran Nash is devoted to her young brother and sister and her eccentric and talented boarders and she, it is, who teaches him that efficiency is not enough, that people are all important.

Comment: I've added this book to my TBR several years ago after positive reviews on it somewhere and, even more so, after I saw part of the plot would take place in Portugal. I always feel curious about how my country is portrayed in fictional books written by people from other nationalities, and I finally got tho this one.

When this story begins, we follow protagonist Edward as he leaves England to visit his inherited propriety in the south of Portugal. He has loved the estate from the start and travels once or twice a year when possible, but this time, while driving from Lisbon where he collects some business information to the estate, on the other side of the country, in hot Alentejo, he stops to aid  a couple of kids who seem to have traveled in a car which broke down. After some confusion he learns they are traveling with an elderly friend and their older sister but the car can't be fixed on time, so Edwards asks them to stay at the estate until the work is done. The days go as in a dream and while Edward feels put out at first, he can't help but enjoy the children's fascination with how life is so quiet there. He also feels curiosity over Fran, the older sister whom he thought younger but is actually 24. His life takes a turn when they leave, though, especially when things in England seem to have gone crazy... will Edward find a solution to his several problems? Will he find Fran again?

This book was published originally in 1962, the year my mother was born. It can be quite an experience, to think about the passage of time in relation to personal situations... this means the writing style is clearly dated, for I don't consider this to yet be an "historical". But the writing does seem to reflect the thoughts and behaviors of that time, although, to be fair, are they that different form the current ones? Perhaps now people disguise things more...

The story is sort of divided into two parts, although graphically no division exists. There is a part of the plot set in Portugal, where the main characters meet and start creating an idea of one another, and there is the other part set in England, where everyone lives and where most of the decisive plot happens too. 

I obviously loved the Portugal section, especially since it's clear the author knows her geography (I think I've read she lived here for a while) and what fun it was to recognize names in the region of Alentejo, where I happen to live as well..Some of the scenes in Edward's estate remind me of my own fond memories, well not in an estate, but in my grandparent's house, where summer and innocence seemed to be eternal...

Despite my enjoyment of this section, the more important moments of the story happen while the characters are in England. Edward is an architect and his work is there, as well as his fiance. Before Edward left, this woman, who we figure is someone independent and well established in life, has contacts and deals with the so-called polite society, made him agree to a certain decision, which by chance, isn't what happens. This means, Edward arrives and has several problems to deal with, but following the trend of what I came to expect from romance stories from the 60s, most things are more inferred and alluded, and not really seen on the page. We must connect dots to reach a conclusion, for the characters don't always explain.

This also means it can be difficult to sympathize with the characters, these stories don't seem to be focused on characterization but on what a character represents, so while we root for the protagonists, I still feel I didn't really got to know them that well. Their actions are often impulsive and odd to be accepted sometimes, so there's this sense of weirdness in the air, as if these people could never be real, although evidence from the time could prove otherwise. People just thought differently.

I think some situations were just not that interesting for me. Since some details were only shared at the end, it feels they didn't have to matter that much anyway. The interesting part would be to see how the characters would all deal with Edwards' new friends, how their personalities and character would confirm them as good/likable people and how that would affect the decisions as story moved along. I think there's a lot to be said about what kind of opinion we are supposed to have on others, based on their behavior and while this can be a little unfair at times, it did offer a good reading and, of course, we are supposed to already know who would be the best people for Edwards to be friends with.

The romance was very.... understated, as one would expect. Besides the traditional aspects and dynamics (older hero, younger heroine), what i think was the best between these two is precisely that they are different people, but Fran, despite her age, is considerably clever and intuitive. Perhaps impulsive, but with a strong moral code, so of course, a good lesson to present to readers at the time too.

It might take a certain frame of mind to appreciate this novel, but I think it had enough elements to convince me of its attributes. Some scenes are very well done and for that alone, I'll remember this book...as for the plot itself, perhaps it won't be as pronounced.
Grade: 7/10

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Avon Gale - Breakaway

Drafted to play for the Jacksonville Sea Storm, an NHL affiliate, twenty-year-old Lane Courtnall’s future looks bright, apart from the awkwardness he feels as a gay man playing on a minor league hockey team. He's put his foot in his mouth a few times and alienated his teammates. Then, during a rivalry game, Lane throws off his gloves against Jared Shore, enforcer for the Savannah Renegades. It’s a strange way to begin a relationship.
Jared’s been playing minor league hockey for most of his career. He’s bisexual and doesn’t care if anyone knows. But he’s determined to avoid another love affair after the last one left him devastated. Out of nowhere a one-nighter with rookie Lane Courtnall gives him second thoughts. Lane reminds Jared why he loves the game and why love might be worth the risk. In turn, Jared hopes to show Lane how to be comfortable with himself on and off the ice. But they’re at different points in their careers, and both men will have to decide what they value most.

Comment: Since it appears as I'm a fan of the hockey theme in MM stories, this is the first book in yet another series, so of course I'd feel like trying it.

In this book, we meet young Lane Courtnall who, since joining a minor team, affiliated to the NHL, has had a bad time for he can't seem to control his mouth and says what he doesn't want. He has managed to alienate his team mates, who believe him to be arrogant, so now he wants to close the distance and his great idea to change things is to provoke Jared Shore, from the opposed team during a game. In fact, this helps more than he anticipated and he ends up the night talking to Jared at a seedy bar near the hotel. 
While Jared realizes Lane is way more into him than what he wants to convey, he thinks nothing good would come out of it anyway, but still he can't resist and they start seeing each other. Their teams play against each other often and that helps, but even though Lane seems to want to have a relationship with him, can Jared let go of a past heartbreak?

I think this was a cute story. As other readers have said, mild angst and the issues which could have added drama were more or less easily solved or talked about. I liked this, because it made reading easy but pleasant, in the sense it was a given these characters would get their HEA.

Most of the focus is on Lane, and it does seem Jared didn't have equal air time for us to understand his personality better...I suppose this can be a matter of perspective but the emotional growth Lane faces seems so much more obvious than the one done by Jared. It is true Jared is older, more mature, but since he still has some issues with how his hockey past played out because of someone he trusted, I think this situation should have had more explanations or an outcome, more so than just the fact Jared trusted Lane with his "story".

Nevertheless, the romance is cute. I loved all the silly/cute/funny scenes between them or how we got to see Lane in all his glory...he is definitely weird and without filters but in a self aware way, not because he says things to others in relation to them. I also liked how gradual their emotions develop, even what seems obvious to the reader isn't immediately shared by them. Still, sounding contradictory, they declare themselves rather soon in their relationship, but I think the notion we have of time and space is good enough to make this feel realistic.

In terms of writing style, this is not the first book I try by the author, but it was good to find it fluid and easy to go through, although sometimes it felt as if a topic could become complicated but this would be easily fixed, so I did feel a certain sense of quick solving of things, so that the plot would not get muddled. In a way, I guess this is good, makes for a better reading, but it can also mean some things could have had more meaning and didn't.

There is, as expected, a lot about hockey. The author even included a note on how teams work, what it means to be an affiliate and so on. In a way, I think the way this works can be seen in most team sports, even in soccer (the one I'm more familiar with) there are the A teams or the top league ones, and others, B teams or teams in younger/lower levels, which can upgrade or downgrade players, sort of. Still, it is always nice to learn something new so the next book with this theme won't be as difficult to imagine.

I actually liked how we got to have a good enough average of air time dedicated to the characters' personal lives and the professional one. After all, they can't exist without both and there did seem to exist a certain balance between what thr author included. I still think perhaps a bit more attention on Jared would have been nice, perhaps a bit more awareness from them with other issues, but in general, this was a satisfying read. I do plan on reading more books in this series.
Grade: 8/10

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Annette Blair - Sea Scoundrel

Independent Lay Patience Kendall had given up on love. Agreeing to help four hapless American girls find titled British husbands was only a cofortable way to earn her passage back to England. Life on board Captian Grant St. Benedict's ship was anything but comfortable, however. The arrogant mariner did nothing but infuriate Patience - and arouse her cuiosity about the rugged man beneath the captain's uniform. One kiss might not ruin her reputation, but it was a tempting invitation to claim even sweeter delights...

Comment: This book sometimes is a freebie on some retailers and during one of those moments, I got it, for the blurb did sound as if this story would be something fun and some comments by other readers intrigued me enough to feel i'd want to try it too.

In this story we meet lady Patience Kendall, who has sailed to America to marry but her intended dies before she even arrives. While this wouldn't be a love marriage, Patience is still left adrift in a place she doesn't know. In order to go back to England, and using her family name as an advantage, she promises the families of four young ladies that they will marry someone with a title, using the marquess of Andover as a name the others would recognize. However, the truth is Patience doesn't have those kind of connections, but she does plan on helping the ladies and, thus, they embark on captain Grant's ship, which is the beginning of her attraction to him and vice versa and a whole set of adventures and shenanigans. But once arrived in England, they must face the fact society has expectations and if they don't succeed, it could be the downfall of them all, including Patience...but will captain Grant be there to help again?

This book was first published in 1999 under a different name, for a specific romance line (I assume with limited page count and so on) but this most recent release has been edited by the author to include more scenes, which were not in the original publication. Since I didn't read the other publication, this would be all new to me anyway, but let it be said it is so, in case readers might find the original (smaller) edition.

The story is fun and I did smile in many scenes, especially the ones while the women were on the ship and how they would create or be in so many silly situations. In fact, the book is divided into two parts: while they are on the ship and what happens once they are among English society. Like other readers have said, I too preferred the ship part, for it offered the funniest and most entertaining scenes, as if the characters' ridiculous behavior could be more excused in such a setting, and which I felt turned into something less fun and more along the childish description, when they arrived in London.

As it happens with so many of the things I read and that I end up not enjoying as much, I think the issue is the clash between the tone of the story and the supposed "rules" a society/world has, and that by ignoring it the story lacks stability or reason for being. The girls come from America and they are used to a certain way of life, but in England is different and I can't accept the idea that while they knew/were told about the marriage mart and titled gentleman they should marry and were not about other issues such as how to behave in such a society so they could be accepted.

I suppose the idea was to enhance even more the differences between them and the fun aspects of that. However, I quickly got bored with the lack of seriousness in some situations and the idea these girls, no matter how innocent, would not even have the common sense to understand some things by how others acted... it feels the silly scenes were just comic relief and this did ruin my enjoyment a little.

Then the romance... what started as promising, with secrets between them, with an attraction which was not initially something they both wanted but the more they got to know about and see each other in the ship, the more they realized this other person was special. Although some scenes were very unlikely for the time, it's like the ship was a world apart and I could more easily accept they would fall in love as if in a bubble. I even excused the lack of some better characterization.

Once in England, their relationship developed among even more unlikely scenarios, if that was even possible, and I felt the author could have done this so much better. I can't say or because this sort of edited for the recent publishing, so the adjustment to what existed might have had some flaws or because her writing style just didn't seem to be very cohesive. As individuals, both Grant and Patience were interesting people, but as part of a fun plot, I think what made them special was lost among too much lack of consistency.

This is the second book by the author I try, and I also have another one, all from different genres. Looking at what I thought of the other one I've read, it seems the main issue keeps on being the inconsistency of writing, the plot choices which don't always seem very necessary or important for that situation. It feels as if some things which the author might have thought as cute and well done in her head, might not have resulted so well to someone reading. I think better editing could have helped, as well as less confusing scenes and more evenness in the overall work.
Grade: 4/10

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

E.B. White - Charlotte's Web

Some Pig. Humble. Radiant. These are the words in Charlotte's Web, high up in Zuckerman's barn. Charlotte's spiderweb tells of her feelings for a little pig named Wilbur, who simply wants a friend. They also express the love of a girl named Fern, who saved Wilbur's life when he was born the runt of his litter.
E. B. White's Newbery Honor Book is a tender novel of friendship, love, life, and death that will continue to be enjoyed by generations to come. This edition contains newly color illustrations by Garth Williams, the acclaimed illustrator of E. B. White's Stuart Little and Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series, among many other books.

Comment: One more classic book, which I had not read before, and a challenge prompt was key to make me decide on finally get to it.

This children's classic is well known by many and its story already on TV cartoons or movies. Wilbur, the pig, is rescued by Fern, a young girl, from being killed only because he is the runt and then he is taken to her uncle's farm. There, Fern watches over the animals, hears their conversations and agrees with many of the plans they come up with. Charlotte, the spider, imagines a wonderful way for the humans to realize Wilbur is a special pig and should not be turned into bacon, but will they succeed in making it so? How can the farm animals join forces to help Wilbur?

I don't think it is necessary to say much about this book, that others haven't done before, or that I could say better than some of those did. This is a cute book, cute characters and a simple message which can captivate children and adults alike, even if by different reasons.

What comes to mind after reading this story is how I also imagined lives for my dolls and for the animals on my grandfather's house, where I'd spend so many afternoons. My parents worked and as a child I stayed with my paternal grandparents and, later on as a teenager, I liked going there and read my uncle's books or eat toast while listening to soccer on the radio. What memories! I think this is the most obvious consequence of reading this book, how the innocence of prose and content makes us travel back to our childhood...

Wilbur the pig is saved. He is promised a life of luxury, eating his favorite foods and playing around in his pen, and his established friendships with the other animals. If one reads this as a metaphor for our own existence, Wilbur has a very simple but steady life, but at the end of the road there is one certain thing: death comes to us all, and Wilbur might have his come sooner than later. However, while we are here, we should cherish those we care about, who care about us too and there is nothing more precious than a true friend.

At some point, Wilbur is able to run from his pen and the other animals tell him it's better to have little time free than a quiet but never ending lifetime enclosed. I found this passage important, because how many of us, with the possibility of choice a given, unlike animals, and we choose to be locked in to a place, to an idea, to a person? In comes Charlotte, a spider, who teaches Wilbur something, makes his innocence and curiosity something positive and not the naivete others would mock him for.

Charlotte helps Wilbur, devises a very clever plan and somehow, Wilbur's life might be saved. How wonderful we could have others around us to advice, to help, but only if we want to be helped in the first place anyway... this has a price, but aren't we all doomed to pay it at some point of out lives? I think the dynamics between these fantasy characters are kept simple but they do teach us a lesson: real friends are important and being a good person too, because if we do our best and don't cause harm to others, all little things feel so much better too.

Despite all this, and perhaps because I watched the movie years ago, I admit I didn't feel as charmed as I expected not as seduced by the simplicity of this. I kind of imagined I would feel more emotional while reading, but at the same time, my grown up brain still recognizes the beauty and the magic in a story like this so... never a wasted opportunity to read a classic for the memories it evokes.
Grade: 8/10

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Rachel Joyce - The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Recently retired, sweet, emotionally numb Harold Fry is jolted out of his passivity by a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old friend, who he hasn't heard from in twenty years. She has written to say she is in hospice and wanted to say goodbye. Leaving his tense, bitter wife Maureen to her chores, Harold intends a quick walk to the corner mailbox to post his reply but instead, inspired by a chance encounter, he becomes convinced he must deliver his message in person to Queenie—who is 600 miles away—because as long as he keeps walking, Harold believes that Queenie will not die.
So without hiking boots, rain gear, map or cell phone, one of the most endearing characters in current fiction begins his unlikely pilgrimage across the English countryside. Along the way, strangers stir up memories—flashbacks, often painful, from when his marriage was filled with promise and then not, of his inadequacy as a father, and of his shortcomings as a husband.
Ironically, his wife Maureen, shocked by her husband's sudden absence, begins to long for his presence. Is it possible for Harold and Maureen to bridge the distance between them? And will Queenie be alive to see Harold arrive at her door?

Comment: This book has a very good average of positive reviews and between that and the blurb, I felt interested enough to want to read it, and that is why I added it to my TBR.

This story begins when Harold Fry, a sixty something old man, receives a letter from Queenie Hennessey, an old co-worker he had for a while at the brewery where he worked all his life. Queenie went away after a problem and now, after decades of not knowing what happened to her, she writes a letter telling him goodbye because she is dying. 
This acts as a switch on Harold's brain and although he planned on going out to post a reply letter, something happens and he just can't seem to want to spot walking. He decides in that moment he will just keep on walking, without any preparations nor plans, until he reaches Berwick upon Tweed, where the nursing home where Queenie is staying is located. 
The problem is that Harold lives in Kingsbride, the complete opposite of Berwick upon Tweed on the map and the road is quite long... will Harold be successful on his journeys? The physical and the emotional one?

This is a road trip kind of novel, where the main character - and those who know him - is traveling with a purpose but clearly there's another journey going on, namely related to the character's emotions and feelings. The difference is that the main character is walking, nor driving, and there's more time to think on what kind of things cause and caused him worry and pain and sorrow.

The title says it well, Harold is on a pilgrimage, as one would do when paying a penitence or a promise as we sometimes hear about modern pilgrims doing religious paths. It is true people can now do those as just an experience, as curiosity, as a challenge, without ulterior motives associated with them, but in this case Harold spontaneously decides to walk convincing himself that if he does so, Queenie will wait - he sends postcards letting her know about his progress - so she can live and he can still say goodbye.

I just can't ignore the need practical logistics, to be honest.... someone just leaving the house with everyday clothes and shoes and walk to the opposite side of England...on the other hand, this is the most whimsical and dreamlike part of the story. That someone can do something so special and radical. Harold starts by staying in small hotels or pensions but at a certain point, he decides to not carry as much weight with him, both in physical objects and in worries. Of course one can read this as a way of him processing his past pain and regrets and wanting to advance with less guilt.

Although it isn't said until the last part of the story, it is rather obvious Harold is carrying guilt over something in his past, in particular his relationship with his son, which is non existent. We get glimpses and passages of Harold's memories and we know his marriage with his wife Maureen isn't good either. There are some chapters focused on her back home and how she reacts to all this, so the picture starts to make sense... I'll be honest: I kind of figured the whole thing just by how the author wrote some things. It's just difficult to keep a secret when the story is structured this one and with more than one central character involved.

An interesting element is, as expected, the kind of people Harold meets on his journey or what he is made to feel or think because of that. Interactions with others, knowing a little of their life stories does not erase Harold's past but gives him perspective and while emotional pain might never truly go away, there are ways to cope, to let it simmer instead of pinching and I think this was done in a very sensitive way, no harsh or radical actions making everything unrealistically fine.

The end is what one would expect, considering how the plot moved along and what was said about the characters' conditions. I liked that the author didn't fantasized other possibilities, because it did give credit to Harold's choices and the meaning of what he did. Some details still surprised me and added something extra to this whole situation, but I felt happy with how the story ended.

Another interesting element, for me, was to check the path Harold took, not only because at the end of the book there was a map (I think it should have been included before the story begins, though) but also because I was able to check google maps and see where he was going. The path wasn't the quickest I suppose, but it allowed Harold to meet interesting people and I could imagine I might be walking alongside him in some of those areas.

All in all, this was a satisfying book to read, somewhat bittersweet but I think this is not a surprise for any reader, thinking about the tone of the story alone. I would recommend this to other readers, but I'll be honest and say that, despite there being a book about Queenie, I don't feel like getting it on purpose...perhaps if I were to find it at the library....
Grade: 8/10

Friday, June 24, 2022

Shawna Yang Ryan - Green Island

Taipei, February 28, 1947: As an uprising rocks Taiwan, a young doctor is taken from his newborn daughter by Chinese Nationalists, on charges of speaking out against the government. Although he eventually returns to his family, his arrival is marked by alienation from his loved ones and paranoia among his community. Years later, this troubled past follows his youngest daughter to America, where, as a mother and a wife, she too is forced to decide between what is right and what might save her family--the same choice she witnessed her father make many years before. A stunningly lyrical story of a family and a nation grappling with the nuances of complicity and survival, Green Island raises the question: how far would you go for the ones you love?

Comment: My latest impulse purchase. I was actually investigating some historical fiction books for another reason and this one caught my eye, for it is about Taiwan and here it is a location/country I don't know much about, except plenty of things are imported from there, the "made in Taiwan" tag quite known.
I figured the author would include historical events in her fictional tale and I was curious to learn something new.

In this novel, starting in 1947 when Chinese Nationalists decide to take control of the island many knew as "Formosa", the lives of its inhabitants are changed forever. The story is focused on one family and how they must cope with a new existence where everyone seems to be spied, especially those with some knowledge or positions where they influenced others. Free thinkers aren't well seen anymore and many are taken out of their houses. Such is the case of our protagonists's father and it's years before he returns, with everything already different. Years later, the protagonist marries and goes to live in America, but it turns out the suspicion and control of those in power in the island follow those who leave anyway...

I think this story was told in a rather dry manner. I don't mean to say it isn't engaging or interesting because it is certainly that, but it clearly shows how much time the author dedicated to the historical research and the amount of information used around the fictional parts. For me, this means there are parts which read a little too much as an history lesson or a non fiction, rather than a fictional tale of a family surviving those times.

In a way, I can't truly fault it, since I was able to learn much, even though it still feels confusing to distinguish dates between Republic of China (Taiwan's official designation) and People's Republic of China. I suppose looking at a chronological timeline of events would help, but I confess I was a little lost in some parts of the novel, with the amount of names and designations and historical situations alluding to all these things which also often happened in different moments.

Once the main heroine, whom we meet as a baby and then a child when the story begins, travels to America as an adult, I think things became easier for me, for there are some contextual situations making reference to western placed events and, obviously, that makes it easier to situate and compare things, since I'm used to hear about events located in western areas.

In terms of content, I can't say much with proper knowledge but let if be said that, as always, when something radical happens (such as wars or annexations or whatever one calls geo-political hostile decisions) it is those who don't have power who suffer the most. I believe the author did a good enough job portraying this when allowing us to follow the family and how the father's abduction by the Nationalists affected everyone for so long. I especially noticed how the emotional aspects were dealt with. Asian cultures in general, from what books and movies have appeared to show, are not as demonstrative of their inner thoughts and feelings, so I felt there was always a certain detachment between what we read and what the characters must have gone through.

Still, I felt empathy towards some of them, for sometimes they had to make decisions that only later on would actually be perceived by others for what they were: or sacrifice or a fight for a belief. Most of the story is told in first person by the protagonist or the POV is focused on her side of things. On one hand, I found this ineffectual because the other family members were as interesting, probably had a good POV to be addressed and often were really just secondary. I feel I didn't get to know them all, and all were affected by the plot's events.  

On the other hand, by following just one POV, we got to have a more clear image of events and of how history follows people, even when their lives go in different directions and countries. I confess I feel a little disappointed with the protagonists' decisions in America (I admit: I forgot her name), mainly the emotional ones, but what do I know of being in constant fear and stress over my family? Nevertheless, since this is fictional, I would have liked to see some more...positive - I know romantic or light might be too much for this story's tone - things happening, so that this sense of hope some characters pursue would have been validated even more.

I might sound confusing myself describing my thoughts on this one, but the story is very rich, very detailed, very profound with historical content, I feel I can't do it justice. I think it's a very good read for those who like different, realistic types of stories... but the fictional part of this historical fiction wasn't always as captivating as I would want.
Grade: 7/10

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Tessa Dare - The Governess Game

After her livelihood slips through her fingers, Alexandra Mountbatten takes on an impossible post: transforming a pair of wild orphans into proper young ladies. However, the girls don’t need discipline. They need a loving home. Try telling that to their guardian, Chase Reynaud: duke’s heir in the streets and devil in the sheets. The ladies of London have tried—and failed—to make him settle down. Somehow, Alexandra must reach his heart . . . without risking her own.
Like any self-respecting libertine, Chase lives by one rule: no attachments. When a stubborn little governess tries to reform him, he decides to give her an education—in pleasure. That should prove he can’t be tamed. But Alexandra is more than he bargained for: clever, perceptive, passionate. She refuses to see him as a lost cause. Soon the walls around Chase’s heart are crumbling . . . and he’s in danger of falling, hard.

Comment: This is the second installment of the Girl Meets Duke series by Tessa Dare.

In this story, following the events of the first book after a while, we focus on another one of the girls from the quartet of friends whose lives have not been as traditional nor as formal as one would expect from the regency period. Alexandra Mountbatten was raised in a ship by her captain father and now she dreams of the stars and also of Chase Reynaud, with whom a random clash at the bookstore never left her thoughts. However, he does seem to have forgotten her, especially when he hires her as a governess for the two girls he is in charge of. However, as their relationship also gets more intimate, can Alexandra find in Chase the person to trust and believe in? Can this happen, since their positions in society are so different? Will Chase also be able to let go of his own fears and believe in happiness with her?

I liked this novel, as I expected to. Although it has been said more than once by many readers that this author's work isn't accurate historical at all, it doesn't mean it's not fun and appealing to read. I think it's good escapism and makes for an easy time reading something we know will end well. To be fair, however, I can't help but thinking why couldn't this be contemporary, only a few changes and it would still be a wonderful romance and with less room for criticism, I suppose...

The story is, as always, a game between what the characters do and how they act and the depth of their personalities and good features, which we unravel as the plot advances. Chase and Alex begin as apparent simple characters, who live their lives and have their struggles - of different levels - but as the situations they face keep coming, we discover they aren't as superficial or as easy to read as one might expect. I do think the author does this very well, this peeling of layers as things go by.

Alexandra is part of the group we've met in the previous story and she dreams of owning her own cottage where she can look at the stars and remember the good times with her father, a sea captain. She can't stand the thought of being in a boat or ship, though, for that reminds her of the trauma of losing her father during a storm. In order to accomplish her dream she must work, but after declining the offer to be a governess to the girls Chase is responsible for, something happens and she changes her mind, meaning she will be able to spend more time with him.

In a believable world, this would not have been done as easily and they, in opposed sides of society's class, would not have that much chance to spend time together, but of course that is exactly what happens and they fall in love. I think the conflicts between them were made a bit too simple and I do wish there was some more care in how they interact, so easily in the reach of secondary characters who could expose what was happening... I know this is meant to be as light as it is, but I still worry and can't help thinking that the tone isn't always up to what is being described.

Chase is, I'm sorry to say, a forgettable hero for me. I liked him and the worries he faced, the guilt over something he believes was his responsibility making him someone much more caring than what he lets others perceive. I liked he fell in love despite his decisions in the beginning and there were plenty of scenes where his presence was definitely a plus, but I don't think he was one of those larger than life characters one can't ignore either.

The romance was pretty much standard for the author, cute and with some easily overcome conflicts, where love and the unexpected take more attention than practicality. I liked Alexandra and Chase together but the process of how they fell in love didn't dazzle me as much as it happened with couples from other books by the author. I can't tell if it felt there wasn't enough chemistry or their personalities just didn't mesh as obviously as others did... the overall feeling for me is along the lines of average, not amazing.

The children were great, there were many cute and fun scenes to go through, this is meant to be adorable and entertaining and the author always accomplishes that, but I also think this book could have been even better.
Grade: 7/10

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Ava Gray - Skin Game

Kyra is a con woman and a particular kind of thief. She steals with a touch, but she only takes one thing: her target’s strongest skill. Which means she can be a fighter, an athlete, a musician, an artist—anything she wants… for a limited time. Heartbroken, she turns her gift toward avenging her father’s murder; with deadly patience, Kyra works her way into casino owner Gerard Serrano’s inner circle. After pulling off the ultimate con, she flees with his money and his pride.
Reyes has nothing but his work. Pity for Kyra, he’s the best and mercy never sways him once he takes a job. He’s been hired to find out where Kyra hid the cash—and bring her back to face Serrano’s “justice.” Dead will do, if he can’t locate the loot. He’s never failed to complete a contract, but Kyra tempts him with her fierce heat and her outlaw heart. So Reyes has a hell of a choice: forsake his word or kill the woman he might love.

Comment: I wrote down that I got this book in 2010 and it has been waiting in the pile since then. At the time, pretty much anything that sounded romantic with paranormal elements or content would have sounded appealing, that is probably why it was added to the pile.

In this book we meet thief Kyra, who has a special ability, she can touch someone and "steal" the best ability that person has, making her temporarily great at anything. Kyra has become a thief because she wants to avenge her father's death, caused by a casino owner, and when the story begins she is running from the perfect con job. 
Reyes is a mercenary man these days, hunting down people, bringing them dead or alive and any job is only a job. When he is tasked with looking for Kyra, he feels it might be easy work and his contract will be finished successfully, as usually is. However, he soon discovers she is more intriguing than what he expected and the more he gets to know her and spend time with her, the more he realizes she isn't as guilty as she was made to look... could they find a way to be together?

At some point, the idea of this story would have been catnip for me, and I'd look for to see how these two would fall in love in the midst of so many complications, but while I still liked the idea of this novel, I wasn't too excited with how it was developed, and in the end it was only meh to me.

I would say the biggest issue was the relationship between the protagonists. I just didn't warm up to them nor did I feel their connection was that believable. I can accept the wariness and tension when they start spending time together but what was told about them as individuals and how they were connecting didn't feel very special. I suppose that if their pasts or their personalities had made a bigger emotional impact on me, so I could sympathize more, I'd have cheered for them too. The way things went, I wasn't too focused on whether they would end up together or not. (I knew they would, though)

Kyra is the most interesting character, simply because of her ability. I admit: I can't remember if it was shared why and how she has that ability to steal other's best feature but it was still a nice detail. Of course, I would be interested in seeing how this affected her life but her thievery career just didn't interest me and while I can understand why she felt like avenging her father, the whole con work and such isn't something I really appreciate, unless it's comedy movies like "ocean's 11" or something...

Reyes is a very traditional type of hero, in the sense he isn't perfect but hides a better heart than he lets on, at least he does start thinking he should help Kyra when they talk and learns why she is this way. I don't have much to say about him, he is rather forgettable to me, but he does follow the pattern one comes to expect from heroes who start one way but change course to help/save the heroine.

The plot develops very easily, like a certain cat and mouse game, and in between we have some passages from the casino owner's POV, nothing much about him, he is a very simple type of villain, just someone looking for power and getting the upper hand on everyone.

I'd say the most fascinating element in this whole thing was a secondary character, Foster as he calls himself, someone who I figured was infiltrated in the casino business also to bring down the casino owner. He acted very shady and secretively but we learn he did what he could for a woman he considered his mother, as well as his sister, both confined to a bed in a nursing home, due to illness. 
I can't remember either why he considered the casino owner guilty but this Foster guy's actions and how he used Mia, a friend of Kyra, to get information felt wrong but clearly this is a romance in the making and I saw by the blurb of the next story, they will be the main couple. I can't say if I feel like reading it though, considering the writing style and the fear I might be disappointed.

One detail I found weak is the paranormal content. I really don't think this should be considered paranormal romance (there's an author's note explaining this was an attempt to write something different from her usual style) because it's not the big deal it could be in the story, or at least it's not developed as it could. I suppose I wouldn't have minded seeing Kyra using her ability for better reasons or to help others somehow...

Anyway, this ended up being a rather boring story for me, I wasn't that interested in the main characters nor in what they were doing or how they could join forces to escape or punish the bad guy. I'd say the best thing about having read it is that it is now one less book on the pile.
Grade: 5/10

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Ginn Hale - Wicked Gentlemen

Belimai Sykes is many things: a Prodigal, the descendant of ancient demons, a creature of dark temptations and rare powers. He is also a man with a brutal past and a dangerous addiction.
And Belimai Sykes is the only man Captain William Harper can turn to when faced with a series of grisly murders.
But Mr. Sykes does not work for free and the price of Belimai’s company will cost Captain Harper far more than his reputation.
From the ornate mansions of noblemen, where vivisection and sorcery are hidden beneath a veneer of gold, to the steaming slums of Hells Below, Captain Harper must fight for justice and for his life.
His enemies are many and his only ally is a devil he knows too well. Such are the dangers of dealing with the wicked.

Comment: I've added this to my TBR years ago, after some positive reviews by some people whose taste in books I share. I liked the story but the writing style is definitely one to get used to.

In this story we find an alternate reality where Prodigals, descendants from ancient demons, live among humans, more or less liked or respected, but certainly feared and often persecuted. Belimai Sykes is such an individual and he joined human society with hopes and dreams, sadly quickly dashed. Now he is someone without much hope but sometimes accepts work investigating subjects related to other Prodigals. That is how captain William Harper finds and contracts him, he wants to know if Prodigals were responsible for his sister Joan's disappearance. However, as they join forces to investigate both the human and the Prodigal sides, they can't help but noticing the other is someone special, indeed... but can they put personal feelings aside and discover what has been going on?

There is no doubt this is a cleverly thought plot and the author had plenty of imagination to devise such a world, not too far from any historical type of world, but with enough differences to make it interesting to know more about and to see what would happen next.

I think the true worth of this novel was how the characters were developed and depicted but I must say that this element still came second, in terms of how my attention was grabbed, to the writing style. It's just something I couldn't ignore and I'm not certain my impressions were always all that positive. The idea of how this is written is, I think, to offer enough details and information, with each sentence, so that the reader can judge what is happening and what everything can mean to the characters but it was often quite a struggle to stay focused when so many things were simply... alluded, referenced or mentioned without a real emotional connection or inner thoughts to justify their importance. I assume this was meant for us to read between the lines, but I'm not certain this style really worked out for me.

The characters are truly special. The story is divided into two segments, the first as Belimai and William investigate Joan's disappearance and the second, with the aftermath of that investigation and what it meant fore their lives.

William is a natural protector, he is a good man, wants to do the right thing but he is not so strict that he doesn't see the good in others or in how they can be flawed. He wanted to know how he could help his sister and I must say I must not be paying enough attention because when we learn what happened to her being gone and why, it was quite a surprise. Still, he did his best to do well for everyone involved and that means his fellow police officers weren't always the right side just because they are lawful enforcers. I liked how William was presented as a quite fair man, trying to gain justice for all, even if that included defending Prodigals, often used as scapegoats.

Belimai is a Prodigal, making him having a different way of living and seeing himself, physically speaking what I remember the most is how his nails are always black, but he and other Prodigals aren't that much different from humans. He has a terrible past, especially since he was tortured by the police while trying to not betray a friend and why he is now addicted to drugs. However, he can't help but appreciating William's personality and need for help, even if he thinks that might lead to more disappointment. The first segment is told by his POV and his personality is unique and a lot of what we learn is aided by what he shares.

The second segment is told by William and he doesn't feel as special, personality wise, but of course this is why these two make for an interesting couple. I liked knowing they were developing feelings but the clues are really subtle, and while I don't mind slow nor subtle, I think here everything was a bit too inferred, and I wish there could have been more obvious details, or conversations, instead of the just expected finale with them deciding they could be together. It's almost as if, sure I know this is the intention, but how did they go from one scenario to this one?

Still, I liked reading this, it's not a big book, it can easily read... and I've seen the author wrote two short stories, accessible on her website and which can sort of complement what we read in the book. I liked this world and story but I must confess I wanted to be even more captivated.
Grade: 7/10

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Friday, June 17, 2022

Philip Wilson - The Librarian

A shy librarian accidentally stumbles on a conspiracy by a group of rogue cops. Assaulted, framed and sent to prison to ensure her silence, Sarah discovers a fierce will to live and a startling capacity for violence that enables her to survive the harsh prison environment. On her release, Sarah learns her father died alone and her old life is gone forever. Heartbroken and enraged, Sarah devises a chilling revenge for the men who destroyed her world. As she prepares, she meets Paul Taylor, an ex US navy seal, who teaches her the skills she needs; but also shows her love and the promise of a new life. As Sarah begins her hunt, the cops’ disbelief turns to terror as they realize they are being stalked and killed by a librarian.

Comment: I no longer remember when this book got on my radar or my friend H.'s. Still, it was the agreed read for our buddy read this month and I was especially curious because it's not a type of book we gravitate to in our choices. But since the heroine was a librarian, we still went for it.

In this book we meet shy librarian Sarah Andrews as she is returning on the late train from visiting her ailing father at his elderly home. There is only one other male passenger (Paul) until a group of young guys enters and starts messing with her. The other man helps Sarah and they talk until her exit, something she surprises herself with, considering he seems so much more confident. However, Sarah's life soon takes quite a turn when she is framed for a crime she didn't commit by some corrupt cops, simply because she was at the wrong place at the wrong time. She can't believe when she is charged and sent to prison but this will certainly change her look on life and what she is losing will make her want revenge...

I'm certain that it isn't the case, but it does feel as if the plot of this contemporary story is the most unlikely ever to be plausible, much less accomplished or legal in reality. Despite that, and the several out of character situations portrayed, I was still captivated and eager to know what would happen next, as if this was one of those movies where we follow the hero through a road of revenge by getting the upper hand on those who caused him harm. In this case, we see Sarah going that road.

Sarah is a shy librarian, we soon understand she hasn't had anything special nor mysterious happening to her. She is a plain Jane but devoted to her parents, now her father since her mother's death, and she works in a job she didn't want but that now is something she is good at and makes her feel good. Basically, she is a good citizen, not breaking laws, and she even has the help of a man, whom we know has military experience in his past, helping her  one night, on the train. I figured this would be a very cozy type of story, I didn't even pay attention to the blurb, so when Sarah sees herself in the middle of a corrupt deal gone wrong, she is easily framed by cops and the lawyer they hire to condemn her.

From this on - even though this framing situation alone is rather difficult to manage so quickly - Sarah has to face a new reality, has to go prison but before that she connects all the dots and realizes what is happening is not a matter of the cops not believing her, but they actively wanted to use her and she can't forget how they harmed and humiliated her on purpose. She goes to prison and her stay there felt like a mix of comedy and revenge, for she manages to overcome all challenges and possible problems, such as a new person in prison wouldn't be able to. The situations are so exaggerated they border on fantasy but at the same time, and this is what I think to be the author's strongest element, I still wanted her to survive and leave and go on pursue of those who put her there.

When she does leave prison, she goes on her revenge plan, not without some personal losses, but mostly with the help of Paul, whose number she still remembered. Conveniently, he has the money to help her although while on her revenge path, she does have to face some setbacks. While this isn't as dire as one would think, I'm actually glad because it means the biggest changes on Sarah are mental, as she understood the psychology of what happened to her and is processing in a radical manner. I confess this part of the story was the most unlikely one, how could Sarah, with no background on violence and despite trauma happening, could still change so quickly.

I would say the writing style is very easy and direct, making the read a quick experience, and things happen without much confusion. For instance, we don't have that many pages with Sarah on prison, only enough for us to get an idea of how it affected her and why it mattered for the plot. However, this tactic also makes for a very mercurial read, almost as if the characters had no real personality nor time to develop ideas or for us to connect with them emotionally. I certainly expected more in this regard, there's even a slight romance content, but if I think instead that the author's goal was to write a story which could be readily turned into an action movie...

It might sound as if I only say negative things about it, but this was a fast paced story I actually enjoyed reading. Like I said, it borders on fantasy in some moments, but it's amazing escapism, it's one of those plots where you really want the "good guys", sort of, to win and turn things around for the villains. I can't say if I'd re-read the whole thing, but I certainly won't forget some elements.
Grade: 8/10