Thursday, November 30, 2023

Kathryn Freeman - A Little Christmas Faith

Is it time to love Christmas again?
Faith Watkins loves Christmas, which is why she’s thrilled that her new hotel in the Lake District will be open in time for the festive season. And Faith has gone all out; huge Christmas tree, fairy lights, an entire family of decorative reindeer. Now all she needs are the guests …
But what she didn’t bank on was her first paying customer being someone like Adam Hunter. Rugged, powerfully built and with a deep sadness in his eyes, Adam is a man that Faith is immediately drawn to – but unfortunately he also has an intense hatred of all things Christmassy.
As the countdown to the big day begins, Faith can’t seem to keep away from her mysterious guest, but still finds herself with more questions than answers: just what happened to Adam Hunter? And why does he hate Christmas?

Comment: This was an impulsive choice, because it would be a book with obvious Christmas content and it suits one of the challenges I'm doing. I think I have another book by the author in the pile as well...

In this story we meet Faith Watkins and she has recently accomplished her dream of opening a boutique styled hotel. Since Christmas is very close, her decoration is well into the spirit of things but her very first paying guest is not fond of it at all...
Adam Hunter is a man who is still being haunted by something that happened to him in a previous Christmas but he is realistic to know he can't dictate the will of others, so he is ready to endure the Christmas themes everywhere... and he can't ignore his interest in Faith either.. 
As the hotel and those who are drawn to it become more and more a part of Adam's life, is there any future for him and Faith?

I had absolutely no expectations on this story except that it would have a lot of Christmas content and references. I also assumed, by the blurb, that this might resemble one of those cutesy Hallmark-like plots where everyone ends up happy in the most unlikely of ways, and that love would conquer all. I also loved the cover, I think other readers might agree it's very charming.

Well, I do feel quite clever (lol I'm being sarcastic here) because this story did seem like a potential candidate for a Hallmark movie, but I imagine that if this were to happen, the sex scenes would not happen. Actually, I'm surprised that they existed at all, but I am not familiar with the author's style, perhaps this is something that is not surprising in her work. However, I must admit I feel they were rather meh, in the sense that they didn't added much to the level of intensity between the main characters, nor to the story as a whole.

The story is sweet and cozy and considering the premise, a lot more hopeful and cheerful than what I could suppose. Faith opens up a hotel, from what I understood by fixing up an old building so she probably had to install many new things, her family helped with the money factor, and she is ready to open. I confess I felt very worried for Faith, this seemed to be a huge thing for her to do alone (instead of a company or a known brand) and the chance of failure quite high, even more so since her family put personal money as well and they didn't act as if they were all millionaires.

Thankfully, this is the wonderful world of fiction and things start slow but they do carry on being positive for Faith and her hotel, despite my practical doubts on her management choices, and we could turn out attention to the personal dramas of those around Faith. She and Adam, obviously, start a romance which is meant to be a fling while he is there, but we more than guess things will progress to something stronger. The romance is... sweet and they show understanding for one another, but I cannot say I was marveled by how they decided to be a couple.

Things happen very easily and very quickly between then, they have to overcome some things but all this is done in a very basic way, without more depth and complexity to the writing and to the presentation of the elements, which I how I like a romance to be. There's nothing wrong with how this was written, let me be clear, but there isn't also enough depth, nor intensity, nor that eluded "x" factor that would make me recommend this story for anyone looking for something more substantial.

The book isn't big, so those who will read it won't be too bored, I think, and it's also expected that there are some minor conflicts, some situations where people have to respond positively even when they don't want to, Adam will have his own personal path of forgiveness and being forgiven, and secondary characters will be a reason or a vehicle for other sweet/redemption/closure/atonement situations or scenes. Basically, everything that one thinks would happen in a sweet seasonal story where Christmas and its due allusions should happen, more or less does.

I guess I should also be honest by saying I'm at a moment in my life I'm having some work worries, my cat has been ill, so perhaps I'm not in the right mood to appreciate the (very evident) message of this book. I can imagine it might feel so much better for a reader with a different mind frame, but details aside, this is one good story to feel the spirit of the season, for certain.
Grade: 6/10

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Nicky James - Rocky Mountain Refuge

Huxley is in hiding, but from who? Why? His worst enemy is his own mind, and it has driven him to a secluded cabin in the mountains. Trust is a fickle thing. For Huxley, everything and everyone is a threat, including the nosy biologist who has threatened his peace and quiet.
While closing up the final year of his grizzly bear research project, Aspen encounters a man who is as wild as the beasts he studies. An underlying sense of familiarity draws him in, and an insatiable attraction binds them together.
Can Aspen tame the mountain man and discover what makes him tick?
More importantly, can he unravel the mystery of Huxley’s distrust and convince him to go home?

Comment: I have seen good opinions on this author's work and that was the main reason I decided to try one of her books. After checking out her backlist, this was the title whose blurb caught my attention the most, so I took a chance on it.

In it we meet Aspen, who is a professor and investigator, when he suddenly joins a new team studying the bear population in a certain Canadian region of the mountains. One condition of the project is to not go into private properties or, when possible, having the authorization of the owners, so he is surprised when a house which was supposed to be empty shows signs of someone living there. That is how he finds out where Huxley is hiding, whom he can't help but try to help. Huxley is a man who suffers from a paranoid condition and when his husband was killed in front of him, he ran away and no one knew where he went. Coincidentally, Aspen was on the jury that convicted the culprit so he knows a little about Huxley's condition, but is he ready to really go the extra step to help him? What about the quick but strong attraction between them?

My first impression after a few pages was that the author was very competent in setting up the stage and in presenting the information. The narrative is told from both character's POV and they are very clearly different, and not only because of Huxley's condition. I think the story was fluid, engaging and apart from some situations close to the end, very appealing to read. Actually I preferred the section in which they meet in the mountains and interact there... when the plot switches to another location (it is obvious it had to be this way!) I wasn't as marveled.

I don't know much about the personality disorder Huxley suffers from and how exactly one would need to cope but I think the author investigated and this was explained competently throughout the novel. Obviously in these things each case is unique but this version of it on Huxley's character felt well researched. Mental health is popular now as a battle to fight for or to highlight awareness about it, but if there is one good thing about books or other forms of art is in how that can help inform people as well and I think the author did well in this regard... Especially since this is not a book about Huxley's condition alone, it's a romance and while his disorder was a huge part of his personality, it's not the only focus of the story.

The romance is globally positive for me. I liked how it started, how slowly it developed and how realistically is was shown after they reach a compromise. Change isn't easy to accept for the most part, we do like to be in control of ourselves and our circumstances, but Huxley's mind doesn't work that way, it's not that linear and in some moments he can't control it. This is a romance so things end up well and in what feels like a healthy place for both guys, but I have to wonder how really those around someone suffering any kind of mental health issue can truly cope... closer to the end this possibility started to play havoc between them and while believable, it did make the story feel less balanced.

Huxley is a complex character and not only for his condition. Apart from it, he has suffered trauma, he only has his mother as a support system and it's not easy for him to accept the need for clinical help. Bt besides this, he is quite confident in other areas and his feelings for Aspen seem so organically demonstrated that I was surprised. I had assumed the romance would be a bigger effort from Aspen than Huxley but no, Huxley was actually quite certain about what he wanted...

Aspen is a good guy, almost 40, loves biology and doing field work... we don't know much about his youth years, only that he is now happy with where his life led him. He is happy to help Huxley and their relationship seems sweet when seen from his POV but he isn't perfect and I think the author tried to show it when Aspen wasn't always perfectly patient and understanding about Huxley, even though it is a given he reacted and helped a lot more than the average person might. I feel conflicted, though, because I did admire he spoke for himself when he admitted he didn't do the best he could in a certain situation, but he wasn't a doormat either. On the other hand, this attitude made him seem a little unfair... again, I'd place this on the "competence" side of how to portray human nature... after all, no one is perfect.

As I've said, closer to the end things seem to lose some interest for me, but I think this is due to the more realistic (and not always sweetly romantic) need to showcase likely scenarios on how people like Huxley, and those around them, might deal with crises or bad moments/times. It's not easy, it's not... good to read about this, but I think it was a good decision by the author. Was it always a positive reading experience? Perhaps not, but I ended up appreciating what this story is about, so...
I'll investigate other books by the author to see if anything else might look enjoyable for me to read.
Grade: 8/10

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Jessa Maxwell - The Golden Spoon

Production for the tenth season of Bake Week is ready to begin at the gothic estate of host and celebrity chef Betsy Martin, and everything seems perfect. The tent is up, the top-tier ingredients are aligned, and the crew has their cameras at the ready.
The six contestants work to prove their culinary talents over the course of five days, while Betsy is less than thrilled to share the spotlight with a new cohost—the brash and unpredictable Archie Morris. But as the baking competition commences, things begin to go awry. At first, it’s merely sabotage—sugar replaced with salt, a burner turned to high—but when a body is discovered, everyone is a suspect.
A deliciously suspenseful thriller for murder mystery buffs and avid bakers alike, The Golden Spoon will keep you guessing until the very last page.

Comment: This book has had some hype since its release and I just saw that a mini series or something similar might be produced based on it, so having the chance to read the book, I jumped right in. Besides, this is not long and it was a relatively quick read.

In this story we meet the six contestants of a baking reality show (similar to the famous The Great British Bake Off) and they are going to compete for a monetary prize and the title of the best baker. Each contestant seems to have a reason to participate in the show, but all are in awe of the judge, Betsy Martin, who is a renowned baker and cook in the country. The show is also behind filmed at Betsy's family manor which adds some interest to everyone, even more so now, that with the renovation of this season, the show requests that Betsy has a co-host, someone who has judged other competitions, but with a much more aggressive look. Will the judges work well together, will the contestants do a good job and who will be killed even before the contest is over?

I think the idea of this novel is quite fun and interesting. I have only watched one season of the British show in which this book is based, but I have watched other baking and cooking competitions and I admit I am a fan of some of these types of shows. There seems to exist a general style of presenting these shows: or they are family oriented, and the competition is all about the cooking, the passion for food, or the goal is to entertain the viewers with something more about the drama and the personality of those involved. 

I actually think the author tried to mesh these two ideas here, and those who have watched any cooking show probably find those references, but I must also say that the end result wasn't as well accomplished as I imagine the author might have intended. I've found the plot to be extremely weak, and the addition of the murder (plus all the secrets around it) made it to be over the top or, in other words, the plot was not planned well and the story just doesn't have enough power to sustain itself, in my opinion.

The six contestants are from different ages and backgrounds and I thought their differences would have a bigger importance, but it turns out that the author went for a very.... let's use the word "cliché", tactic in creating the characters. I feel they have no real substance, no real depth and their purpose was to present a point or to take the plot into a very predictable place. I wonder if this had been just woman's fiction for instance, if things could have been developed better.

My impression is that the characters had to fit a certain idea to explain why the crime was committed. The rest of the story was a convenient and interesting set, that's all, and this means that while the book is easy and pleasant to read, it's not really special nor complex. With such hype and many people reading it, I assumed it would be a stronger work. The crime committed has an interesting reason and that section of the story had a good base, but the execution did disappoint me. I also liked the role of one or other character, but as I've said, in the big picture things didn't really seem convincing.

I would have liked more about the baking competition, more about baking and cooking... to be fair, I think there's enough of this to make the plot believable and it's not too much that a reader without that interest would find it annoying, but perhaps a bit more setting up.... the page count isn't high either, so that helps. There some specific scenes which I've found engaging and certain things seemed to lead to a good plot point, but because I feel the execution wasn't great, those possibilities were not used well either.

All things considered, this was more a cozy mystery with a very weak mystery, not really developed characters and a simple but unlikely end. I think it's certainly readable and easy, quite fluid but... not the best it could be. Since it's the author's debut perhaps she will improve and her next books will be more consistent.
Grade: 6/10

Friday, November 24, 2023

Alice Borchardt - The Silver Wolf

Into decadent Rome of the Dark Ages comes Regeane, an enigmatic young woman distantly related to Charlemagne. But the blood she has inherited from her murdered father makes her much more than a child of royalty. Regeane is a shapeshifter—woman and wolf, hunter and hunted—possessed of preternatural agility and strength, primal memories extending back thousands of years, and senses so keen they can pierce the veil of death itself.
Betrothed to a barbarian lord she has never seen, Regeane is surrounded by enemies. But outside the gates of Rome, baying at the moon, there is a mysterious dark wolf whose scent awakens the animal in Regeane. Now, as deadly plots tighten like a noose around her neck, Regeane must fight to live with dignity as the proud creature she civilized and savage, partaking of both, yet infinitely more than either...

Comment: One more title I got years ago when I was dedicated to get as many PNR and UF paperbacks I could, in the hopes I'd become fan of all those series... this one had the added bonus of having been written by the sister of Anne Rice, even though I must ask my younger self, why would it matter anyway...

In this book we meet a cast of characters living in Rome, after the fall of the empire. Charlemagne is amassing his army and Regeane is a potential political pawn for what is left of her family. Her uncle manages to find a way to secure her marriage to a man living in the Alps, an important and strategic location for and when Charlemagne decides to expand his territory. The problem is that Regeane has a secret, which was a sort of inheritance from her late father: Regeane can shape shift into a wolf at night. While she was alive, her mother had desperately tried to find a way to help and cure her but now that she is gone, Regeane's uncle is eagerly greedy for the marriage contract to be done, but Regeane discovers that there is still a lot she must do before she is ready to accept the idea of marriage...

I usually prefer to read historical books set in times closer to our own, such as the 19th century on. I've  kind of told myself that whatever happens, no matter how unfair to my contemporary vision, is still easier to process and accept  - especially if in a romance - when I think that life in general was still better than what happened to the the laws and social demands of past eras. This to say that I don't really look for stories set in such ancient periods as those that happened before medieval times, but this one found its way to me.

In fact, if this book had not been more a PNR/UF than an historical, I might not have even looked at it, but somehow it ended up in the pile. Now that I have finished, I must say I was surprised by how fluid and easy the story ended up being, although the content not always to my preference. Probably, what made it easier to be likable is the focus on Regeane's ability to shift into a wolf and how that is the reason she is afraid of marrying a stranger, after all how could he react?

Of course, the author doesn't hide away from some of the costumes of the time and I had the feeling she tried to be correct in using situations and features of how life used to be for people in Rome at the time.  This aspect, I'd say, didn't end up being as heavy as I imagined it would, because the main focus is in the characters and in what they do. At the same time, I couldn't help but notice that there was some repetition and some dragging here and there and for such a simple plot, it surely took Regeane a lot of time to accept her wolf side and to understand that it didn't have to be a issue.

Perhaps it would be more correct to say the plot is more about Regeane finding her own way, her own strength, and on the way her interactions with some characters is a way to help her achieve that. Even the "bad guys" such as her uncle and another character who seems to want to attack the city, thus deposing the pope feel like too secondary. I know, I sound contradictory in saying this, but I don't wish I had more scenes with secondary characters interacting... I think the way tog o could have been to not drag this path to "self awareness" by Regeane to take so long...

I will chance a mild spoiler by saying that Regeane only meets her future fiancé/husband in the last chapters, even though we did have his POV here and there throughout the book, in short passages. This is to say that the potential for romance is really simply that, no matter how obvious the perfection and suitability of their bond is from a certain point on. I was also a little annoyed at some plot choices, namely regarding punishments and violence....perhaps historically accurate, but terribly unnecessary in my point of view. The antagonism could have been demonstrated differently, in my opinion.

Regeane is a very traditional heroine, if one considers her path. She goes from being afraid and controlled by an evil uncle to learn about herself and understanding her power. In terms of personality, she is a person who wants to help others and prefers to avoid confrontation, but I can't say there is any specific detail about her that stands out. The secondary characters who become part of her circle as her character develops are intriguing and offer an interesting contraposition to her, so that her... spirit evolves more brilliantly.

I was curious to know what would happen next, it's true. The story didn't feel lacking but I do wish less time had been spent on certain things, and more on others. I see there are two more books, one seems to be a prequel to this one, the other a sequel... either way, I don't feel the need to read them, but I do like that this one was better than what I anticipated, in general.
Grade: 7/10

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Jorge Amado - The War of the Saints

Jorge Amado has been called one of the great writers of our time.  The joyfulness of his storytelling and his celebration of life's sensual pleasures have found him a loyal following.  With The War Of The Saints ,  he has created an exuberant tale set among the flashing rhythms, intoxicating smells, and bewitching colors of the carnival. The holy icon of Saint Barbara of the Thunder is bound for the city of Bahia for an exhibition of holy art.  As the boat the bears the image is docking, a miracle occurs and Saint Barbara comes to life, disappearing into the milling crowd on the quay.  Somewhere in the city a young woman has fallen in love, and her prudish guardian aunt has locked her away--an act of intolerance that Saint Barbara must redress.  And when she casts her spell over the city, no one's life will remain unchanged.

Comment: This book was given to me many years ago by a family member who used to work at a newsstand. This book was part of a collection which compiled the best work by this author and this book somehow was left uncollected, and since my uncle knew I liked books, he gave it to me. It has been in the shelf for a long time but this month I picked it up because it suits one challenge I'm doing.

In this magical realism novel, Jorge Amado writes about saint Barbara who, in the city of Bahia, decides to fix some wrongdoings with her power. Then, as her spell reaches the whole city, several characters are influenced by her and some even go as far as to change their decisions, or their ways of thinking, all while the everyday life must go on too. However, some people are too obstinate and they will not easily accept change. And, when the saint decides her work is done, how will everyone cope with the results of this strange spell?

This is actually the second book by Jorge Amado that I read. I remember trying another one of his novels back in 2001 or 2002, when I found the book by chance at my school's library. I confess I don't remember much, only that I was disappointed I could  not find more obvious and immediate resemblances to the soap opera which happened to have been partially based on the book. You see, at the time the most famous example of Brazilian art in my country were the soap operas which, to this day, are known for their incredible plots and development.

However, my teenager self could not really grasp the idea of "based on" and I felt that book to be quite boring. That is the only notion I keep, but I was determined to look at this other title through different eyes and, as a matter of fact, I did like the reading experience now a lot more. As for liking the story more? That I cannot really say, because despite enjoying magical realism novels and having enjoyed some segments of this book, as a final product I feel it wasn't as inspiring as it might have been meant to be.

The plot seems very simple: the saint is just like any other holy image traveling to a holy art exhibit and when the boat carrying it arrives, the saint leaves the altar in which it was resting and travels through the city. As an idea, this was quite interesting but I'm afraid the possibilities were lost among such a huge cast of characters and different settings. I know this is the hole point, but the author diverts our attention into so many things, explaining inconsequential stuff and spending time with characters who don't really add much, that I started to feel lost and uninterested.

The fault is actually mine, because I don't know that much about the history of Brazil apart from what we learn in school, and mostly related to our own side of things. My contemporary knowledge also stays in relation to the news of each day and a superficial notion so when the author mentioned so many other saints and different names for the same or for new ones (and how many they were!), I just could not follow what was going on. When the story would stick to three or four characters, whose personalities and importance seemed better constructed, I actually liked the prose. But when things went a new road...perhaps it's my lack of knowledge, but I've felt that not having a better understanding of the cultural background left me in disadvantage.

I kept going and some things were, indeed, rewarding to read, and in the end the saint does accomplish whatever she was meant to do. I did get the idea there were happy endings and the "happy for now" potential for others, but aside from a few other elements, which were more to the point, I fear a lot passed me by, especially the more cultural and historical details. Or perhaps I just cannot be a fan of the author's style... 

I might try another book one day, one of those based on another soap opera which has been a huge success here, actually the first soap opera to be aired on the single Portuguese channel that existed at the time. My father tells me that he missed one day of work back in the late 70s, when that soap opera was on, so he - along with how many more people! - could watch the final episode. 
I don't think the talent and the cleverness of this author is in question, but I suppose I just cannot really see it for myself...
Grade: 5/10

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Sarah Lotz - The Impossible Us

This isn't a love story. This is Impossible.
Nick: Failed writer. Failed husband. Dog owner.
Bee: Serial dater. Dress maker. Pringles enthusiast.
One day, their paths cross over a misdirected email. The connection is instant, electric. They feel like they've known each other all their lives.
Nick buys a new suit, gets on a train. Bee steps away from her desk, sets off to meet him under the clock at Euston station.
Think you know how the rest of the story goes? They did too . . .
But this is a story with more twists than most. This is Impossible.

Comment: The blurb of this book caught my attention last year, and then I read some comments which were praising the plot and I was sold. Finally, I had the chance to read it.

In this book we meet Nick and Bee, who start talking by email after Nick wrongly sends an email to Bee. His intention was to scold a man who had asked him to ghostwrite a book and has not replied nor paid after a long time. Bee replies to let him know he had the wrong address and they start exchanging emails and become friends of a sort. As they keep sharing things about their lives for a while they then notice they have become each other's best friend and, perhaps, even more than that. Despite some odds and issues in their lives, they decide to go forward with this apparently instant connection and agree on a meeting, to finally see each other face to face for the first time. The problem? That day, they both arrive at the right location but they cannot physically find each other! How can this be...?

I think the real impact of this book's plot can only be gained by having the reader ignore all reviews before starting, just like I did. I can't even remember what was it that caught my attention when I checked out those comments last year, but I went into this book expecting a contemporary romance and when the first twist came - I mean, the big surprise - I was not speechless, but it was a great turn of events!

This book is divided into several parts, and this big surprise happens right at the end of the first one. This means most of the plot is about the characters dealing with what they learn and how to process things, what they do and how those around them react. I think this idea was very clever because at the back of my mind I kept thinking, how will this work out unless the author finds a solution so great that everyone would so amazed and would ignore the holes in it, or something deus ex-machina would have to be added at some point. Well, I'm still debating what I feel about the solution, but the ride towards that was certainly engaging.

I had a great time reading this book and was quite immersed in the lives of the characters. I suppose this book might not be considered worthy literature for many, but who should care about that, if the simple act of reading and spending time following the characters' steps is so much fun and entertaining? Although, I must say that if one really picks up all the little unlikely things - plot wise I mean, not about the genre - then perhaps this isn't the best, but I think the author did a good planing and was able to organize things in a way that made reading this novel a pleasurable experience. I think that yes, there were a couple of situations which were kind of glaring on how obviously they would be used later on, and I was proved right about then, but that didn't ruin my appreciation of the whole thing.

Bee and Nick are facing an impossible situation, they can't be together as easily as it feels like as we read the first part, where we get to know about them. The idea is not original - if there are other books I cannot specify, but one movie immediately comes to mind when I think about the plot - but I think the true interest is precisely on the characters. In the midst of all the email exchanges, we also have narration from both their POVs, so we can follow them easily and their personalities start to become very defined the more we read.

I'm trying to not share too much, so that I don't ruin the surprise for anyone who might feel like reading the book, but let it be said that most of the plot does have a contemporary feel, as if this is a romance and the book should be treated as such. Nick is an interesting character because he feels he didn't accomplish enough in his life and Bee feels she is only going through the motions since her mother died. I think these two might not be an obvious pair from the start but it's not only the tricky shared experience that brings them together, we start noticing that even without that, they would be able to become a couple, which ends up being a key element in making this a story where we root for the characters to find a way to be together.

Closer to the end, certain details start bringing things to a climax and I admit there was a moment there I felt this would not go the way I envisioned for most of the book. Then, I thought, what if not? It wouldn't be that bad to be honest, because the true beauty of this type of novel is often in the road, and not in the fact things are achieved or not, but if they were, that would be a great plus. I will simply say that I liked how this ended, but if the end had been slightly different I would not have felt betrayed or annoyed by that choice. I really think this was a good story to read and while I have been as vague as possible, I still hope someone might want to try it too...
Grade: 8/10

Monday, November 20, 2023

Stephanie Laurens - Scandal's Bride

Catriona Hennessy wants an heir. Richard Cynster wants the rights of a husband. But neither wants the inconvenience of a wedding.
Catriona is aghast to learn that her guardian's will decrees that she must marry Richard Cynster . . . within the week! How could the proud Scottish lass possibly consent to a union with the English rake they call "Scandal," a masterful man with a deplorable reputation? It is true his commanding presence charms her, his heated kisses excite her--and the mysterious Lady of the Vale whom she serves has prophesied that they will wed. But Catriona will never give up her independence!
Richard is equally stunned by the will's command, since marriage was not on his agenda. But lately he's been feeling strangely restless--and perhaps taming the exquisite lady is just the challenge he needs. He burns for Catriona--but can he entice her into the marriage bed without making any binding and revealing promises of love?
And when passion and love are truly destined, can even the most stubborn of hearts resist?

Comment: I was browsing my books and stumbled on Stephanie Laurens, an author I had forgotten I had read two books already, so I decided to get the next one in the series...

In this third installment in the Cynster series, we have the story of Richard Cynster, brother to the hero of book #1, a baby everyone knew was not legitimate but his stepmother Helena decide to raise him as her own. If this shocked many, no one really gave it a second thought, considering the influence of the family and Richard has had a good life, even if something in him has always longed for stability, for a path...
Catriona Henessey has been responsible for a special area in Scotland, a region where many still worship The Lady, and Catriona is her heir of some kind. Catriona's guardian has always wanted to see her married but she is independent and has resisted those schemes. Her guardian is dead and his son doesn't have the same willpower to keep suitors away, but everything changes when her guardian leaves his will, demanding she marries Richard Cynster, the illegitimate son of her guardian's first wife...

Again, as it had happened with the previous two novels, the main characters meet in special circumstances and their relationship starts based on what I'd say is attempts of power plays. Both have firm beliefs and want things their own way and the reason whey they now must interact - Richard has a week to think about the will's clauses - is only a setup for their romance to not begin right away. I say this because they have an immediate connection, which the author doesn't delay in any way...

I have to say this setup is a little annoying now, after three books. In the first I liked the idea the main characters were "meant to be a couple" because the way they met forced the issue - Honoria and Devil were in a compromising situation - but in the second and now in this third one, it feels as if the author only wanted lust and attraction to be so overwhelming that there could not be any other option but have the main characters interact in such a way the reader has to see they are an everlasting couple.

Richard is an independent man but with a lot of love and respect for the family who loves him back, despite how he came to live with them (I won't even get started on the why his father slept with his mother despite both having been married and how no one seemed to care about it?) and at his core, he is a good and worthy man. I cannot argue with the characterization but Richard also has a strong personality and he wants to have his own way. He deters to Catriona as the story moves along so he can show her he doesn't want to steal her authority but before they marry, I was not very fond of his behavior, especially in how he thought about Catriona.

I can see the author's heroes - perhaps only the Cynsters? - will all be alike, but despite what others say about them, despite the descriptions of their actions, I still have the feeling they are too controlling and while this might be realistic for such a family, I still wanted them to have a softer side when it comes to the heroines, but this only happens after a while, as a way to convince us the couple is perfect if only they talk and are honest with one another. Something about this whole tactic feels uneven and I felt a bit annoyed while I was reading certain sections.

I have to confess Catriona is a heroine that got on my nerves, often her choices felt very silly and unfair when it came to Richard. I did like how she wanted to do her job and how she managed for a long time, but I would have easily accept she would need Richard's help, as she had to from a certain moment on, if their romance had developed in a different way. Something about how they are meant to be together, or the interactions they have, feels very stilted and I didn't really warm up to them. I wasn't fond of how their romance begins either.

The author clearly has a specific style which works out in some scenes, and does not in other, for me. I think this mix of presenting things in a likely realistic and historically accurate mood with the characters' actions and the whole seduction thing feels very weird at times and makes me dislike certain elements. In this novel, what I liked the best and that saved the overall book for me was the dedication the characters had to do a job well done and the competence they demonstrated when doing something not related to the romance.

I also liked seeing the family interactions closer to the end of the book, I can really understand the appeal when so many people who care for one another are around and how the author demonstrates this with small details or by having cute and domestic scenes.
However, the book cannot be only about this... I won't go into the plot and all the things that happen because in this case that feels almost secondary. The romance disappointed me and Catriona and Richard didn't feel like such amazing people while I was seeing them in a romance mode or interacting in that regard, before and after they get married. Their relationship feels bumpy throughout the story and even though I can accept their HEA, I was not amazed by how it got to happen.
All things considered, this didn't quite got there for me, but there were positive elements nevertheless... I do hope the next story is better, I'll pray it can be closet to the aspects I've liked in book #1.
Grade: 6/10

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Ashlyn Kane & Morgan James - String Theory

For Jax Hall, all-but-dissertation in mathematics, slinging drinks and serenading patrons at a piano bar is the perfect remedy for months of pandemic anxiety. He doesn’t expect to end up improvising on stage with pop violinist Aria Darvish, but the attraction that sparks between them? That’s a mathematical certainty. If he can get Ari to act on it, even better.
Ari hasn’t written a note, and his album deadline is looming. Then he meets Jax, and suddenly he can’t stop the music. But Ari doesn’t know how to interpret Jax’s flirting—is making him a drink called Sex with the Bartender a serious overture?
Jax jumps in with both feet, the only way he knows how. Ari is wonderful, and Jax loves having a partner who’s on the same page. But Ari’s struggles with his parents’ expectations, and Jax’s with the wounds of his past, threaten to unbalance an otherwise perfect equation. Can they prove their double act has merit, or does it only work in theory?

Comment: I have to say I can't remember why I was interested in this book except that I have read something else by Ashlyn Kane and liked it, therefore I must have thought this would be a good book too...

This story begins when violinist Ari Darvish is about to start a small performance at a bar, where he used to work while he was studying, but one of his fellow musicians can't make it. Luckily, bartender Jax Hall is working and he does have some piano knowledge. After a really quick reading of Ari's work, they do the performance and not only does it go well, but Jax and Ari even so some fun experiences, which is a little bit the extension of their attraction. Days later, they meet again at the bar and after a while, they start seeing each other. However, both have had disappointments in the past and although Jax has this happy persona going on, he is actually anxious about things he need to do, such as defending his thesis. It seems the more they get to know one another, more differences there are, but will they face them and try to go for happiness?

Looking at the cute and colorful cover, I imagined this would be a more laid back type of novel, with a sweet romance being the focus but while this is a romance, it wasn't the easy angst free novel I imagined, no. In fact, there were moments that seemed to go into a road where I couldn't see how the authors would solve it in a convincing way.

Ari and Jax are both musicians but Ari is a professional, unlike what his Iranian parents wanted for him. They are proud of what he has accomplished but they still wish he could be closer to home and they still dream a life for him that isn't what he wants. As for Jax, he only needs to defend his thesis but everything was put on hold when the pandemic hit and he is still not able to process the fact his adviser died during those terrible months.

The two are at different moments in their lives - Jax still unsure and fearing he can't measure up to others' expectations, Ari not wanting to confront his parents he feels happy with his work - but they have more in common than just the interest for music. As their relationship developed, I could see how slowly they were taking things and I must say I can't remember if this style is close to the other book by Ashlyn Kane I had read, and I suppose the input of Morgan James must be influential in this regard, but I think the end result was quite appealing to me.

With this I mean that the mood of the story isn't one of melancholy but this is still present in the story. The story isn't superficial but there are silly scenes here and there too. I'd say the balance is well achieved overall and I did like how Jax and Ari were apparently compatible and wished to be with one another in the long term. However, I wasn't always truly impressed with them as a couple... I must say I liked the scenes where they were simply talking or debating issues, rather than the ones where they were a couple, sex scenes included. I mean, I could easily put that aside....

The real conflict here is how each guy sees himself. Ari has deep roots in what it means to be dedicated to one's family and how traditions play a big role. His parents are OK with him being gay but they still see him in a role he doesn't and push him to find a doctor husband. I suppose this must be culturally meaningful but it did left me with a slightly bad taste because it still feels very...archaic. This ended up causing the big problems between the guys and there was a moment where I felt that a solution would only happen by downsizing the real extent of the issues, because a HEA had to happen no matter what.

Jax seemed to be a bit more complex character to me and not only because of his memories of what went down during the pandemic. Truthfully, this isn't the focus of his vulnerabilities but it is mentioned in a way that added up to his sense of inadequacy so I saw myself being more curious about him and how would be move forward. He had things left undone to finish and he also had to somehow make others understand why he wasn't more ambitious or motivated to do what they felt he had to... I really felt more in sync with Jax as a character than with Ari.

Since this is a romance, after the big conflicts and complications, the guys make up and get their HEA. I was invested in them so I was glad they could overcome the difficulties. Closer to the end, though, we had secondary characters act in ways I think were only for the sake of resolution, and others did some revelations which seemed to exist only to increase drama... along with some elements which border on cultural unfairness (to not use other words), I feel the authors could have written certain situations better.

Still, despite the issues I had, I was still invested in knowing what would happen next and how would the guys find a way to be together without sacrificing other elements in their lives.
Grade: 8/10

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Jorn Lier Horst - Closed for Winter

William Wisting has a new case to solve during the off-season. 
Ove Bakkerud, newly separated and extremely disillusioned, is looking forward to a final quiet weekend at his summer home before closing for winter but, when the tourists leave, less welcome visitors arrive. Bakkerud's cottage is ransacked by burglars. Next door he discovers the body of a man who has been beaten to death.
Police Inspector William Wisting has witnessed grotesque murders before, but the desperation he sees in this latest murder is something new. Against his wishes his daughter Line decides to stay in one of the summer cottages at the mouth of the fjord. Wisting's unease does not diminish when they discover several more corpses on the deserted archipelago. Meanwhile, dead birds are dropping from the sky.

Comment: I've purchased this book at a book fair last year, and although it was the 7th of a series, I decided I would still want to try it. Since it isn't a long book, I was sold.

In this book we follow Norwegian police detective William Wisting as he goes about investigating another case. When a man who traveled to his vacation house finds it robbed, he decides to check the neighbors' as well and realizes it might have been a calculated crime and calls the police. Things are especially dire because there is one dead person in one of the houses. As the investigation continues, William and his team find out that there are more clues they should add, especially when Line, William's daughter, breaks up with her boyfriend and decides to spent some time thinking at their own vacation house,and she also discovers a dead body. The police is starting to think there's more to this case than what they anticipated and perhaps there's more than one crime to bear in mind here... but how to connect the dots?

My Portuguese edition of this book was quite informative, for even before the first chapter, the editor decided to add a little bit of background to key elements of past books, so the reader who would find this book (like me) would understand some details better. Of course this was done because, from what I could see, this is the first book in the series the publisher picked up, but as a secondary effect it is quite nice to have context.

The author is also Norwegian and it seems he is quite well liked, and this series in particular well received. While reading, the style reminded me of authors like Michael Connolly and Jeff Abbott, authors I've tried before and whose books were entertaining but not fully engaging to me. This is to say that I did like this book, I don't think this being the 7th affected my overall enjoyment, for I have the idea the plots must be independent from book to book, and the development of the main characters' private lives more an addition than a need to the books, but the final result is one of competence, not exactly brilliance.

I would love to have been immersed in the lives of the characters and in the development of every situation in the book but while reading this story was a quick activity - the book isn't long either, to be fair - it wasn't difficult to stop when I had to, for instance. I did like learning about Norway and some society behaviors, some police procedures and that kind of stuff. However, the writing is to the point, quite assertive and without much room for reflections and musings. This doesn't have to be a negative aspect, quite the opposite; but I was not as dedicated to the story and when everything was explained, I cannot say I was blown away by the sequence of events nor about the way the detectives got there.

Portuguese cover
I have to say some details were intriguing, such as the fact some birds kept dying and some characters commented on this from time to time and I could not see why it would matter, so when they explain why this was actually intentional, I was like... ohhh, but even this supposedly strange information was given in such a clinical way... I can see the author isn't interested in a more complex prose, but sometimes it might improve the reading experience.

At some point of the plot, William has to travel to Lithuania, which is admittedly a country not often mentioned in the news, so I have to confess I don't know much about it, just like William didn't. I suppose the author has his own views on travel, emigration and immigration but I was a little discomforted when he wrote things, from William's POV, on Lithuania and the people, about why people would travel to other countries to commit crimes... he even went on to mention the European Union's decisions if the EU accepts more countries... OK, I won't go into it because one situation leads to the next and this isn't a blog on politics, but I think there were other ways to write about this subject without coming across as he has. I just felt he wasn't being very fair, since he was mentioning a certain group of people and it can be true some people are universally bad, no matter where they come from, but this felt like an unfair generalization.

Anyway, this aside, I actually had a good enough time reading. Nothing felt truly exciting nor vibrant, but competence is certainly much better than not having it at all. There were, indeed, two different crimes to investigate and one of them was not interesting to my preferences, whereas the other was but it wasn't dealt with in the same way, since it was almost like an afterthought, just one little thing to bring closure to the whole investigation. I wish this sub plot, kind of, had been the key one, I think the book might have been more appealing to me if it had been so.

I can't say if I would look for the next book on purpose. Perhaps if I find the other books with discount at another fair or even at the library... it's entertaining at least, yes.
Grade: 7/10

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

TBR Challenge: Alix E. Harrow - The Ten Thousand Doors of January

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.
Comment: The year is almost over and there are two last themes left in the TBR Challenge for 2023. 
In November the theme is "once upon a time" and what immediately came to mind was a story with magical elements, just like the fairy tales of my childhood. I had my chosen book in the pile since 2019 and I felt this was a good opportunity to get to it at last.

In this fantasy book we meet heroine January who is living with her warden in a big house, with all the things she needs, except her father, always traveling for work, and freedom to do what she wants. She has been told she needs to stay there for her own protection, but one day she finds a weird door and can cross it, arriving at a completely different world, to her amazed surprise. Then, that door disappears and her progression to find the truth about herself, and what her father really does for mr Locke, her warden, begins. The problem is the more January learns, the more dangerous everything is, including being around people who help her. What can January do to survive, to learn and to find her parents, which has been her dream all along?

I had been captivated by the cover of this book when it was originally released. I also liked the opinion of some readers and the theme alone would be one I'd want, since there were references to those who love books and stories. I can now understand these descriptions but I will be honest: I was confused for a good part of the story and not because of the content. I just could not find a way to follow the sequence of events shared, and this made me wonder if, perhaps, a different type or editing would have made a difference.

The plot is quite fascinating, especially for a reader who constantly listens to or reads about that old saying "to read is to escape into a new world" or something like that. I do like this idea and, in fantasy stories, this is even more appealing. Basically, we follow January as she grows up in a fancy house which isn't loving but is secure, until she starts noticing the doors which lead into different places. At the same time, we have a different POV by someone sharing the life of another character who was able to do the same thing as January.

I'll say I was absolutely not impressed with the supposed twists (perhaps this isn't the best word), since they seemed to be so very obvious. Some things that take time to be presented and developed just felt very easy to follow and I was annoyed here and there with how the author tried to make it more poetic or whimsical or something, instead of placing things in a more linear narrative. I guess this is what worked so well for many readers to give them that notion of magical realism - which I also like - but here just got on my nerves and confused me.

I did like the idea of the story and the different characters, it's clear the author wanted to use diversity in her novel, and the characters' background and origins was a way to accomplish this. I think that, really analyzing the story, there are many subjects to pick up and discuss, namely about race, racism, exploration and stealing, colonialism and freedom, and all this is quite worthy of being called to attention but I kind of wanted January to get things quicker and she took a long time to understand what was going on and that, from a certain moment on, became obvious.

What I liked the best was the idea of traveling through doors into other worlds. What a pity - to me! - that this was a story about the act of traveling and not about where the travel leads to. There's a metaphor there, I'm sure, but the more I read, the more I wanted this to go a different direction and I will say that in the back of my mind there was this memory... 
I just had to google it and I've quickly came across the name of a TV series from the 90s, of which I remember watching some episodes, titled Sliders. It was about characters traveling into other worlds through a wormhole of some kind. The series was about them trying to go back to their world and while they were stuck on another, the episode would be about that. I think I can say the idea of this book is quite similar in the concept, if not in the execution.

This said, the mrs Harrow's story is more about how January learns things and starts to think for herself and how that might lead her to a future where he helps others with some skills she develops in the meantime, as well as looking for her parents whom she believes were killed but she still hopes perhaps this isn't true. As I've said, I liked the story in general and many of the situations described, I liked the pace from a certain point on, but as a whole I did expect this to be better. I also agree with some readers who wish the heroine had been older, since other elements could have been achieved better if that had been the case.

All things considered, this wasn't too bad and in the end I have to say it was a worthy reading experience, but I did hope for a slightly different type of narrative, yes.
Grade: 7/10

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Barbara Claypole White - The Unfinished Garden

James Nealy is haunted by irrational fears and inescapable compulsions. A successful software developer, he's thrown himself into a new goal-to finally conquer the noise in his mind. And he has a plan. He'll confront his darkest fears and build something beautiful: a garden. When he meets Tilly Silverberg, he knows she holds the key...even if she doesn't think so.
After her husband's death, gardening became Tilly's livelihood and her salvation. Her thriving North Carolina business and her young son, Isaac, are the excuses she needs to hide from the world. So when oddly attractive, incredibly tenacious James demands that she take him on as a client, her answer is a flat no.
When a family emergency lures Tilly back to England, she's secretly glad. With Isaac in tow, she retreats to her childhood village, which has always stayed obligingly the same. Until now. Her best friend is keeping secrets. Her mother is plotting. Her first love is unexpectedly, temptingly available. And then James appears on her doorstep.
Away from home, James and Tilly forge an unlikely bond, tenuous at first but taking root every day. And as they work to build a garden together, something begins to blossom between them-despite all the reasons against it.

Comment: I decided I would want to read this book after seeing a very high praise of it in one blog I follow. I have not paid much attention to reviews so I would not be influenced, but now that I have read the book, I must say I still expected a bit more...

In this contemporary romance, we meet Tilly, a young widow with a son, who is still feeling the guilt over the way her husband died. Tilly is from England but has been living the US for years and she has a small nursery business, although her partner wants them to expand, she feels what she has is enough, since she doesn't really want others to notice her. Things change when James Nealy, a 45 year old man, already retired because of his financial security, asks her to help him with a garden. The thing is, James has OCD and he believes that facing his huge fear of dirt will be an important step to quiet down his thoughts, but Tilly's "no" is in no way whatsoever a deterrent to him.
Suddenly, Tilly has the perfect excuse, her mother back in England fell and now needs some help, so Tilly and her son Isaac go back and this might mean James will give up. However, James now has the obsession of getting Tilly's help and the truth is that there is some spark between them...

This a slow paced novel, with interesting subjects being presented and a romance developing between two people who are dealing with personal issues which aren't as easy as they might seem to those not going through similar situations. I was quite curious to see how the author would mix up everything and still achieve a good result. I think that the important things were well done but I confess I expected the overall effect to have more harmony.

The plot isn't complicated, Tilly knows about gardening, has a small business and James feels she might be able to help him. Both have issues which could not be quickly solved but I imagined the slow pace at first would be a hint things would develop cautiously but sweetly. I think the decision to move things to England and have such a huge part of the story there fit certain needs (like Tilly having closure on a past relationship), but most of the time it sounded more as if things were being delayed, as if being there was simply an interlude. I was also not fully on board with the odds of someone like James being able to simply travel to meet a compulsion. The fact he is very rich helps, but...

While in England, Tilly needs to think about her past and besides her friend Rowena she needs to deal with former boyfriend Sebastian, not about to be divorced and father of two children. They had their chance while young but it slipped away and now it's hinted perhaps they can reunite. I'm not a fan of love triangles, especially when one of the intended isn't clearly a bad match (this does make impressions simpler) but more than this, I felt this supposed need for closure was a convenient way to delay solving other issues. The truth is that I wanted to see the romance developing between Tilly and James and this was a bit more subtle than what I think would need to be.

In fact, the romance is always there, but this is a novel more focused on thinking about feelings, not as heavy on the demonstration of them. I feel conflicted because I also like it better when love stories aren't only about sex, but here I got the feeling they talked a lot and what was meant to be convincing about their feelings for one another was too vague. There are some scenes yes, in which we can see them interacting in a way that is meant to say "we like one another", but it didn't seem enough, considering the big issues in their personal lives.

Tilly is still mourning her husband and the way things happened still causes her to feel guilt, for he had a living will. What came after still haunts her and I could understand some of her behavior and choices because of this, but on the other hand, I felt glad she wasn't as obsessed with this to ignore the possibility of finding someone else. I think her side of things, with the exception of some stuff in England which I feel was mostly unnecessary, was understandable and logically presented.

I used the word "obsessed" back there on purpose, since James does feel genuinely obsessed with Tilly and in how she can help him deal or control his OCD somehow. This element was very intriguing because it's not one often seen in romance novels, or it isn't such a heavy part of the overall plot. I could accept the reasons why James had this condition and how unlikely it is to find a solution, his best chance is to find ways to deal, to process and go on with his life. He tried many things, and meditation helps. I kind of liked seeing this debated in the novel, but James also had money to try alternatives to a day where this is a huge part of it... how can people without similar means deal with something which is so time consuming or that affects daily routines so much?

Despite the little things I'd change, I still liked reading this book. I did read a few pages in the diagonal, especially some things related to the English house or to the past of the characters... I wanted more action with the protagonists actively getting the same path... still, this was a different read and parts of it were special indeed.
Grade: 7/10