Friday, May 17, 2024

Lynn Kurland - Star of the Morning

Darkness covers the north, since the black mage has begun his assault on the kingdom of Neroche.
Legend has it that only the two magical swords held by Neroche's king can defeat the mage. Now the fate of the Nine Kingdoms rests in the hands of a woman destined to wield one of those blades...
In this land of dragons and mages, warrior maids and magical swords, nothing is as it seems. And Morgan will find that the magic in her blood brings her troubles she cannot face with a sword-and a love more powerful than she has ever imagined.

Comment: I had this book in the pile since 2013, and I think I added it because it was a fantasy story and I tend to like the genre. If I remember correctly, I also saw some vague comments here and there which suggested there would be specific elements in it I would like too.

In this story we meet Morgan, a shied maiden, or warrior, who likes her easy life on the island of Melksam but her mentor and father figure sends her on a mission, to deliver a blade to the king of Neroche. On the way, she travels with a small group of friends and they get mixed up with all kinds of adventures but Morgan is wary of the blade she carries because it has magic and Morgan grew up to despise all types of magic.
At the same time, Adhemar, the king of Neroche is also traveling, dealing with some royal business but also trying to find someone who could carry a magical sword in his castle, since his own magical sword lost its power. His younger brother Maich, the arch-mage, decides to find his brother after he had gone for a while, and he finds him with Morgan's group. He can't help but be drawn to Morgan but decides to keep his identity of of his brother's a secret, because the more time he spends with Morgan, the more he realizes she is the person they are looking for... but what will she do when she finds out the truth?

It can be quite risky to start a book without reading enough information about it because while the idea of keeping things vague for better enjoyment and without possible spoilers is a great one, it can also mean when a less than positive surprise happens, then one can blame only oneself... 

I say this because I had this book in the pile for so long, I barely paid attention to it, and now while reading it felt the story dragged, and I saw myself as one of those readers we see in memes or cartoons who wonder how it will be possible the plot to end that well when there are only, like, twenty pages left... well, it cannot be, for there are more books after and, unlike the majority of series, which have stand alone stories as part of a sequential main arc, here this is truly the first part of an ongoing series, from what I could understand after investigating better.

This means that in this book we only have a part of Morgan and Miach' romance, as well as the overall plot. There is a second and third book with them as protagonists, so... I guess 'd have to read the three to have the full experience and it is true this doesn't have to be that bad, but since I thought I was saving myself from spoilers which might be included in the blurb of the following books, I wasn't aware of this and now I feel a little let down.

That aside, the story was interesting and fantastical enough to make reading it enjoyable, but since things were slow and dragged a little, I will admit there were times I felt I wasn't accomplishing that much. I liked the hints of romance and I liked that this was, at its base, a story about a quest and about love/courage triumphing and so on, but the writing style seemed to also be a little sparse. There were also times it felt as if nothing really was happening, or not quickly enough, considering the characters had some urgency in their goals.

I liked the magical details and I liked that Morgan was clearly someone who had magic bus she despised it. I've found her personality captivating enough and the reasons why she was so opposed magic seemed solid, which was made even more important the more we learned about her past. She is certainly easy to root for, and she is a practical person. Although humor is a subjective matter, I liked some of her comments and some things she did/said were funny in that context.

Miach is harder to read, but deep down he is a softie who wants to do his duty, which he learns later on that could affect his personal wishes. He falls in love with Morgan through actions and time shared, which I found great, and no intimacy happens between them, which highlights the depth of their emotions, but while this is being described, it still felt vague, slightly superficial... I suppose it has to do with the writing style and the fact things were not discussed between the two of them, and I surely miss this, it's something I would have liked seen oriented better at this point.

The whole magic stuff in this world isn't hard to grasp, there are evil guys who need to be stopped, but the sort of cliffhanger in the end, when Morgan finds out who Miach and Adhemar really are, and something about her own identity too, was annoying because I feel there was no real reason to finish the story that way, unless is shock factor. I'm still debating if I really want to read the next book, on one hand I'm curious to see what happens, on the other it seems it's not just one book, but two more I'd need to read to know what I want, so....
Grade: 6/10

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

TBR Challenge: Maeve Binchy - Circle of Friends

It began with Benny Hogan and Eve Malone, growing up, inseparable, in the village of Knockglen. Benny—the only child, yearning to break free from her adoring parents...Eve—the orphaned offspring of a convent handyman and a rebellious blueblood, abandoned by her mother's wealthy family to be raised by nuns. Eve and Benny—they knew the sins and secrets behind every villager's lace curtains...except their own.
It widened at Dublin, at the university where Benny and Eve met beautiful Nan Mahlon and Jack Foley, a doctor's handsome son. But heartbreak and betrayal would bring the worlds of Knockglen and Dublin into explosive collision. Long-hidden lies would emerge to test the meaning of love and the strength of ties held within the fragile gold bands of a...Circle Of Friends.

Comment: Here is the TBR Challenge post for May! This time the theme is "with a little help from my friends", which I interpreted at its more obvious meaning and chose a story where we would see the interactions of a group of friends. It also helped that the title of this book by Maeve Binchy was so suitable from the start as well!

In this story, set in 1957 if I saw correctly, we follow the lives of Eve Malone and Benny Hogan, two friends since childhood, as they embark on their college lives in Dublin. One tragic event brings them closer to Nan Mahon, Jack Foley and other young people who will form their circle of friends. However, as all go on with their more cosmopolitan lives, the roots and the links to each of their childhood homes remain, and sometimes dreams and needs can't match what they still carry with them... or can they? Some choices will be made, and some decisions will have to happen, for will these friends remain the same?

I know, I know, that my little summary is vague, but as it happened to other books I've read by the author, her stories are pretty much a study in character's interactions and dynamics, not as much about a complex plot. I feel that explaining better might spoiler a few things too much, and that is not my main goal with my comments. I think the real wonder of this book is in how small things can create big problems and how trusting the right person or not can influence a lot. Isn't this the bread and butter of everyone's lives?

Benny and Eve are the main characters for they are the ones we see developing/evolving the most, even though there are more characters besides them from which we have a POV. Benny is trustworthy, a little naive but friendly and self conscience of her size and how others see her. Eve, on the other hand, feels she might not be recognized enough because of her parent's relationship and the fact she was not legitimated by her rich mother's family. Their personalities should not make for a lasting friendship, but somehow they do and I liked seeing their development for the most part.

This was, in my opinion, a longer book than it needed. We have a full chapter dedicated only to the girls' childhood and how they became friends, which I didn't mind, but from the moment the setting is 1957, when they are about to go to college and all the difficulties that entailed, I felt the author left the setting up of things for too long. I get it that this is her style and in a way I can accept the technique as  valid one, for it does explain very well why some characters behave the way they do, but I think a few less scenes, few pages would not have changed much. There was a point where I did struggle a little to feel focused on what was going on, and I persisted because I kind of expected it to improve, but not every little detail was necessary.

Since the story is set in Ireland and in the late 50s, there is obviously a lot of content related to this era or to the expectations of society in this time. I think that, in part, this does help to create an atmosphere which justifies a few decisions the characters make regarding several things, and one can more easily accept why those and why not something else, after all the pressure of others and of families and society in general influenced a lot of people's choices.

Benny and Eve each have a path to go and of course, a good element was to see their growth into adult women who thought about what they could and should do. I liked that their personalities weren't compromised by the experiences they went through. This aspect was better achieved, i'd say, with the character of Nan, whose alcoholic father colored a lot of her life at home, and while I can understand her actions and thoughts throughout the novel, she is clearly made to look worse by comparison... in fact, the whole group of friends only seem to be more or less something when near someone else. Apart from Eve, Benny and Nan, everyone else had less depth and was more obviously secondary.

Did I like this story? I liked reading it for the most part, but it wasn't exciting all the time, no. I'm aware this is meant to be cozy drama, if I can use this expression, but in terms of writing, there were moments where things simply dragged too long. I also think that someone hoping to be amazed or thrilled by any kind of conclusion or climax will be disappointed, for I don't think the author aimed the plot towards any kind of big reveal. Despite my less favorite aspects, I'll probably read more by this author.
Grade: 7/10

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

JL Merrow - Pressure Head

Tom Paretski’s not just a plumber with a dodgy hip courtesy of a schoolboy accident. He also has a sixth sense for finding hidden things. Called in by the police to help locate a body near Brock’s Hollow, he’s staggered to encounter Phil Morrison, his old school crush—and the closeted bully whose actions contributed to Tom’s accident.
Phil’s all grown up now, and Tom’s unwilling attraction to him is back with a vengeance. Phil’s now openly gay—and what’s more, he’s interested in Tom’s personal charms as well as his psychic talents. As a private investigator called in by the dead woman’s parents, Phil is sceptical about Tom’s unusual gift, but nevertheless quick to spot its potential to aid him in his work.
The further they go with the investigation, the less they can ignore their shared past, and the more the pressure and the heat build between them. But Tom isn’t certain he wants to know the secrets he’s helping to uncover, while there’s a murderer on the loose who won’t hesitate to kill again—and this uneasy couple is moving right into his sights.

Comment: I've decided to try this story after seeing some positive reviews and the premise made me curious enough: a plumber who has some mild psychic abilities teams up with a private investigator who happens to have been one of his old school bullies...

Tom Paretski is a normal guy with a normal job but he has this weird ability to sense hidden things. His police friend Dave asks his help with a case and that is how Tom reconnects with Phil, his former school bully and the first guy he had a crush on. Phil is now openly gay, which makes his homophobic gestures in the past something understandable, but nevertheless a terrible memory for Tom, even more so because it was due to it that he had an accident which caused his limp. Tom and Phil agree to try to see if they can find some information for Phil's case, but Tom can't help being charming and helpful, perhaps too much, placing him in sometimes complicated positions when talking to others... but will his help prove necessary? And what will happen between Tom and Phil after all these years?

I will confess that reading the blurb made me create certain expectations about how this story would be and I thought the combination of romance and cozy investigation would have been slightly more charming. It turns out that the mystery wasn't that complicated but I struggled to remain focused on what was happening, and, I'd say, part of why was my lack of time to read this in a more consecutive progression but also the jarring writing options here and there.

The beginning was quite promising because Tom is a regular guy and he doesn't have any glamorous work or life situation and I was quite interested to see how this would be a part of his personality or development. I liked the whole setup of why he decided to become a plumber and I thought that his old story with the bullies and the accident which caused his limp would have more attention. In truth, things weren't as simple but also not as exploited as that. I think the author really intended to make this a story where the reader would infer stuff from actions, that notion of the "show, don't tell" but I felt some things were too subtle or too vague for this tactic to feel a good choice for me.

Perhaps it's safer to say that I didn't engage with the characters or the story as easily because the writing was a little hard to get into sometimes. Clearly, this is a British author writing very British words in a very British style (meaning, with idiomatic expressions and wording related to British English) and I'll say a few passed me by and others were too strong and constant (the constant drink of tea in every social occasion, the use of expressions such as "darling" or "dear" in dialogues) that instead of putting me in the move and the feel of a British environment, kept reminding me of precisely that and I got distracted.

Likely, this a personal problem and not one related to the story itself, but there was a time I just could not get past that. At the same time, the plot went on, the mystery was related to a woman's body and of course the investigation approached those closer to her... I can appreciate the author's choices of making this a simplistic plot, but the red herrings were just too convenient and some secondary characters felt caricatures... or maybe they were meant to be distracting? Either way, I wasn't really focused on the mystery and discovering who was the culprit didn't make me any happier I was reaching the end.

I was also betting my enjoyment on the romance development but two things made it seem less vibrant than what I hoped for: first, the story is narrated only by Tom and while I liked him overall and his "voice, of course his views on the past and about Phil were too limited and I've finished the book very unsure about whether they could have a future together or not. Second, I don't really consider that they spoke enough about what had happened and abut other situations in their lives to make their romance a solid one, now. I guess the fact there are more books might address this, but I can't say I feel that curious now, to keep reading...

I guess I wanted a little more angst, a little more emotional development, and perhaps a third person narrator might have helped, or if the story were to be more about the romance/personal issues with the mystery as a secondary element.... I don't really mind the narrative style or the intention, but the execution didn't wow me... I feel the details I wanted to see explored weren't so, or not the way i imagined... I might read the second book one day, but now I'm doubtful about how rewarding the series might be in the end.....
Grade: 6/10

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Nora Roberts - The Awakening

In the realm of Talamh, a teenage warrior named Keegan emerges from a lake holding a sword—representing both power and the terrifying responsibility to protect the Fey. In another realm known as Philadelphia, a young woman has just discovered she possesses a treasure of her own…
When Breen Kelly was a girl, her father would tell her stories of magical places. Now she’s an anxious twentysomething mired in student debt and working a job she hates. But one day she stumbles upon a shocking discovery: her mother has been hiding an investment account in her name. It has been funded by her long-lost father—and it’s worth nearly four million dollars.
This newfound fortune would be life-changing for anyone. But little does Breen know that when she uses some of the money to journey to Ireland, it will unlock mysteries she couldn’t have imagined. Here, she will begin to understand why she kept seeing that silver-haired, elusive man, why she imagined his voice in her head saying Come home, Breen Siobhan. It’s time you came home. Why she dreamed of dragons. And where her true destiny lies—through a portal in Galway that takes her to a land of faeries and mermaids, to a man named Keegan, and to the courage in her own heart that will guide her through a powerful, dangerous destiny…


Comment: This is the first book in the Dragon Heart Legacy trilogy by Nora Roberts. I've finally got the chance to purchase the third book and will now read the trilogy in three consecutive months. 
(as is my usual tactic with series or trilogies, if I can)

In this first story we meet Breen Kelly, a young woman who is tired and has a rather sad life, she is a teacher and isn't eager to think she needs to this her whole life, but things are what they are. Everything changes when she accidentally finds some paperwork at her mother's house claiming she has a lot of money in the bank, in her own name. After a phone call, she finds out her father had been sending money from Ireland but her mother never told her about it and more, she has not helped Breen, who had to work several jobs at the same time she studied. When she is able, Breen decides to take advantage of this newfound money and travels to Ireland, to find her father or information about him and she ends up discovering more than she imagined, for her father came from another world, a fantastical place where the Fae and other types of beings exist. Breen is actually welcomed by a grandmother and others she forgot existed when her mother decided to take her away as a child. But it turns out not everyone in her family liked this and her grandfather is a terrible enemy, one Breen is supposed to help defeat... but how?  

Considering the years and the experience the author has with writing, her craft - as she likes to say - is as superb as always and if there was a reason why I feel in love with her books and why she is certainly the author whose books I've read the most so far, is her ability to write an engaging story. It does help she is prolific, but even the books I liked less weren't badly written, perhaps just less appealing. This means that this story is as fascinating and as engaging, but I must say the pace was a bit too slow.

Unlike her usual trilogy tactic, this one seems to be about Breen and her discovering of her roots, skills and powers. It doesn't seem this will be divided into three main couples, one book pr couple while the ongoing plot develops sequentially. I can't say if I like this way better or not, but thinking of the amount of pages and how so much was happening so slowly, I got the impression the whole setting up of the plot points took too long.

As a matter of fact, I did like the slower beginning, when we are given scenes of Breen struggling, mostly emotionally, about her days and I think this set up the mood well enough, especially for when she finds out about what her mother kept from her. Perhaps what wasn't as interesting to me, and this is something I've noticed or felt like in regards to other more recent books by her, is that everything is a little too well done, the writing took a very smooth and staged path, which means her style is easily recognizable, but perhaps a little too repetitive. Her older books seemed to be more spontaneous, or the scenes/situations felt like it. Now, her writing is as great, as I've said, but it feels less intrinsic.

Things obviously change when Breen travels to Ireland (reading this author's books through the years, so many set in this country, did make me want to visit, that is true about how captivating her words are) and discovers the new world Tamlah, which I saw as being parallel to ours, where the Fae and other beings co exist, but where magic and paranormal are the norm. This is something done in other series too, but it was interesting to see Breen did feel a little conflicted about the two worlds, about what she should do in regards to her options. The fact Tamlah has an evil man to defeat, her own grandfather means she needs to prioritize this, but I think it's not hard to see where the main story is going.

It is true that Breen isn't an immediately perfect student learning about her powers and her fighting skills, but everything is described in such a way that I can't help think Breen is a perfect heroine. I don't know how to say this but a different type of interaction with others, different dynamics to her surroundings instead of having this incredible task to defeat the bad guy would make for a more compelling story and having Breen deal with these changes in her life in a more realistic way might make for a fresh type of story for the author. I think some ideas are wonderful, or seem so, and then they don't go to any exciting place. I can't say I dislike the author's choices - I like her books - but sometimes the execution is too perfect, too flawless and the characters seem to blend among each other.

Since this is the first in the trilogy, nothing definitive really happens and the book ends on a slight cliffhanger. It's nothing radical, and I can wait one more month to read it, and I predict it will have more content and scenes set on Tamlah, probably so that Breen can get used to this "world" and her role as a supposed savior. I'm still hopeful to see great scenes and more excitement...
Grade: 7/10

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Steven Harper - Offspring

The lush and beautiful forest planet of Bellerophon is home to a cacophony of noises, but its resident psychics are known as the Silent. Previously they could travel to the Dream, a telepathic plane of existence where they could twist the laws of reality. But that time is over...
One madman's lust for power tore the Dream asunder. Now only a handful of the Silent can enter it. Kendi Weaver is one of them.
As an election for the governorship of Bellerophon begins, Kendi is caught in the crossfire. Attempts on his life—and a rash of Silent kidnappings—point to a political enemy...or a personal one. Either way, the future of the Dream is at stake. And Kendi fears it may become a nightmare.

Comment: This is the fourth and final installment in the Silent Empire series by Steven Harper. I have enjoyed the series quite a lot, even though none of the books were totally perfect. Nevertheless, what joy it has been and I'm quite glad I've managed to read this sci fi/fantasy series.

In this final story, the events take place a while after what happened in the third book. Kendi and Ben are looking for to become fathers but the discovery that the cryo embryos are the direct descendants of pioneer Irfan Qasad and her betraying husband still weight heavily on Ben's mind, even more so when he is in the same situation himself. Things might not be so bad if not fore the political situation on the planet, and the fact Ben's grandmother Reza Salman is running for governor put the spotlight on everyone in her family, including Ben and Kendi. At first Ben believes he can stay under the radar, but someone starts blackmailing them... is this a random event or is it connected to the political situation? Once again, Kendi and Ben must use the Dream to try to find out more before something irreversible happens...

Clearly, since this is the fourth book in a complex fantasy series, this isn't the best place to start and I'd advise a new reader to read this in order. Having read the other books, I've come to conclude that it looks as if the author truly planned for the series to not be a simple linear plot, I think he is writing specific sub plots which happen to be part of the overall world; however, reading out of order might make this seem very confusing.

I feel invested in these characters because the author's writing style is appealing to me and reading was engaging. Perhaps a different author might have done certain things better and others the opposite, but I like this style in which we follow sympathetic characters like Kendi and Ben into what should be a boring domestic episode and it turns out that there is more to think of while they do debate on their personal issues. I liked being immersed in their lives and of those around them.

The guys are obviously worried and eager to have their child and at some point it felt as if the story would only be about that and how the parentage would be such a shock for everyone, but the author thought about a few more ideas to keep the pace. I can't say that some of those options were the best - in fact it did feel as if some ideas were just fillers - but to be fair I can't think of what should have been done instead. I also think the author must have planned to tidy up loose ends, for there is one big missing link from the past books which was solved definitely here, although I think that situation wasn't tackled as well as it could. There are also things which weren't solved...

It's true a few situations were rushed and the importance of why they were included felt like a missed opportunity. Perhaps the author wanted to write more stories and a few situations would have a resolution then. I feel satisfied enough with what happened, and my overall appreciation of this book is a positive one, but yes, I admit I did think about what else might have been done...

Kendi and Ben are a steady couple and I actually like this aspect of the stories so well. There isn't any specific focus on romance nor on intimacy, but I still feel they are a happy couple, who happen to be able to still go to the Dream, but deep down they only want to have a happy family. I liked how this panned out for them, in terms of the decision to have children and how, and the way they found friends who would be the children's mothers. It might sound silly, but I felt happy reading about people who were friendly and good and who wanted to be in a situation where everyone would be respected.

In regards to the whole Dream thing (in book #2 a major event happened which affected the Dream dimension) I think the author could have been braver and more incisive in what could happen. I suppose perhaps he might have wanted to exploit this further in following books and had to compromise if this was to be the last? I have not investigated, but it does feel that this element could have been solved in a much better way, considering the importance it had throughout the series.

Well, things are what they are and if this is the end result, as I've said, I feel satisfied with the general options. Let it be said things end well for our protagonists and I've finished the book thinking that, despite what wasn't included, the way things ended was good enough to make me feel as if I could let go of this world with a happy sigh.
Grade: 8/10

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Chloe Liese - Only and Forever

Viggo Bergman, hopeless romantic, is thoroughly weary of waiting for his happily ever after. But between opening a romance bookstore, running a romance book club, coaching kids' soccer, and adopting a household of pets—just maybe, he’s overcommitted himself?—Viggo’s chaotic life has made finding his forever love seem downright improbable.
Enter Tallulah Clarke, chilly cynic with a massive case of writer’s block. Tallulah needs help with her thriller’s romantic subplot. Viggo needs another pair of hands to keep his store afloat. So they agree to swap skills and cohabitate for convenience—his romance expertise to revive her book, her organizational prowess to salvage his store. They hardly get along, and they couldn’t be more different, but who says roommate-coworkers need to be friends?
As they share a home and life, Tallulah and Viggo discover a connection that challenges everything they believe about love, and reveals the plot twist they never saw happily ever after is here already, right under their roof.

Comment: This is the latest (and last) installment in the Bergman Brothers series by Chloe Liese. I have buddy read these books with a friend and we have enjoyed them tremendously, but I will say that a few details weren't always as engaging. This time, for the last book, I had great expectations but I fear it ended up being my least favorite.

Viggo is the last single sibling and he is just now finished with deciding what he wants to do. It's no surprise he wants to be in the world of romance novels, considering how much he likes them, and that is why his dream is to open up a bookstore, which is is close to do. As for his love life, he believes his met cute will happen at any moment, although he can't forget Tallulah Clarke, whom he met at college and never forgot. Conveniently, she is the sister of Charlie, a good friend of his own sister Ziggy and due to Charlie's upcoming wedding, Tallulah enters his life again. Although she sees herself as cynical and unsuited for love, she and Viggo still decide to work together; she will help him at the bookstore and he will help her with writers's block, but they agree no more than that will exist between them. Or will it?

I liked this book, let it be said right away. However, it is also true that I wasn't as engaged with this story as I was with the others. I will sound unfair, but the author does a good work in terms of trying to represent specific situations in the most correct way possible, but sometimes it felt the story could have been better focused on the romance or in their interactions instead of in the "message" of presenting things in a correct way, one which can be seen as politically correct by all.

Of course this is important and it's a huge step in contrast to when boundaries or limits were not taken into consideration in romance, but sometimes it feels as if the goal is this and not as much the fictional aspects, which turns them into something less "organic". Or, perhaps, I'm the one being picky...

Viggo and Tallulah had known each other in college, both liked the other but had personal issues (a self conscience notion of themselves) which prevented them from believing the other person could want to be with them. Now they reconnect, even if slightly reluctantly on Tallulah's side, and slowly become closer. It's quite convenient that both have jobs dealing with books, which is another reason why they are "meant to be" but while I tend to love stories about or with bookstores and writers, somehow the conjunction of factors here didn't seem to be as cute as I would have liked.

I think that the main issue for me is that Tallulah as a heroine was likable enough but not exceptional. I can certainly relate to her more cynical view of life and I can commiserate with how her parents' complicated relationship affected her and her siblings. I also liked that she was a writer and that she didn't want to do things just because. There is actually enough about her personality to make her someone I should like more, but even taking that into consideration, somehow all the elements together were not enough for me to like reading about her romance with Viggo.

Yes, Viggo is part of the equation but perhaps the fact he had interacted with his siblings before in their books makes him more clear in my head. At the same time I must agree with the readers who said he is a bit too perfect most of the time, and what is supposed to be his flaws (some lack of confidence and ADHD) were not made to look as if they truly mattered. I do think he has a lot on his plate and perhaps the conjunction of all the elements and the romance made for a  busy plot and sometimes I felt there was too much going on for me to really connect with them.

I suppose I can say I expected more from a story which has so many elements I tend to like in romances... but somehow the result was not as addictive to me as I hoped. I found myself distracted easily and unlike my experience with a few of the other books in the series, if I had to put the book down, it wasn't done reluctantly. I wanted more romantic scenes but not in a way that I felt like I was given an explanation for what was happening, as it felt like while reading the main characters' thoughts. I wanted more chemistry and helplessness in falling in love if they were so clearly the right person for each other but because this was all so correct and proper, it seemed to lack spontaneity. Again, perhaps I'm not expressing myself well.

This is the final story and I feel bad about how I see it ending, but I can only suppose if there were to be more stories after this one, I have the same opinion. This way I can still think about my favorite stories in the series fondly instead.
Grade: 6/10

Saturday, May 4, 2024

L.J. McDonald - The Battle Sylph

He is one of many: a creature of magic, unrelentingly male. He is lured through the portal by pure female beauty, a virgin sacrifice. She is killed, and he is silenced and enslaved.
Such a dark ritual is necessary. Unlike their elemental cousins—those gentler sylphs of wind and fire—battlers find no joy in everyday labor. Their magic can destroy an army or demolish a castle, and each has but one goal: find his queen, then protect and pleasure her at any cost. What would a maiden do if she were given such a servant? What would befall that kingdom foolish enough to allow a battler to escape? Young Solie and the people of Eferem are about to find out.

Comment: One more title which had been on the shelf for years, although this one I have not written down when. It's yet another PNR story which I bought in the hopes I'd love the world and would want to keep up with the series.

In this fantasy world - I say this is PNR because it does have paranormal elements, but it's more fantasy oriented - some people can have sylphs, which are beings from a different dimension and sometimes they can be summoned up in certain rituals. There are many different types of sylphs and they can take up different shapes, but the most dangerous are the battle ones and it has been known that men are the ones who could control them, usually after a terrible ritual. 
At one such event, a new sylph is being summoned for the king's son and Solie, the young virgin girl about to be sacrificed to make it happen, suddenly tries to defend herself and the summoning goes awry. Somehow, Solie manages to bond with the sylph, names him Heyou, and they run, leaving chaos behind. Now they need to protect themselves but also understand what happened, something everyone would not believe could be possible... but as they go along, Solie and Heyou find others who might have answers. Will they be able to learn everything before the king's men find them?

I will have to say I was very positively surprised about this book and how much I liked reading it. I say this because after some disappointments with other books in the genre, and the fact I've kind of moved on to prefer different types of books nowadays, that this one was so appealing was quite the good surprise after all. I especially liked how so much of this story is about world building and how entertaining it was to see what would happen.

The story is fascinating and does prove the author had quite a clever idea. In this world humans can summon up the sylphs and they can be as handy and helpful as air or earth or fire sylphs who help with everyday tasks, to the battle sylphs, known to be aggressive and powerful. Usually these are meant for men with some importance, linked to the military and such, or aristocrats. Not everyone knows how to do this, nor would be allowed to, so to have a sylph can be quite prestigious. However, the sylph comes at the price of a death, for that is how they can be bonded and controlled, or is it?

As the plot moved along, certain things were developed and explained and we learned that most characters we initially met didn't have all the answers after all. I loved the fact things aren't so black and white and that this wasn't so superficially a story about good people vs bad people. I also liked how the sylphs aren't just mindless creatures, they have a voice, they have a "soul" so to speak and the ritual that binds them isn't as strict as it is described at first. In fact, I loved the fact the major battle sylphs we know in the story had a voice and we could understand what they felt about many subjects.

Basically Solie, the heroine, unknowingly rescues Heyou from a life as a slave and they bond, and later one he makes her his queen. I saw this comparatively with the bee hives - that word is even used too - in which a queen is revered and helps maintain the peace, the control and so on, and Heyou is her sort of concubine/protector. To be fair, it's a little bit more complex than this, but the author managed to give sense to this idea and for the world to be interesting, even more so with all the secondary characters, many of which with a POV we also follow.

Perhaps the element that kind of disappointed me the most is the fact Solie and Heyou read as young (she is 17 if I remember correctly and sylphs have no age, I guess) and that meant their decisions and thoughts read as too young and juvenile. I understand the concept but I would have liked them to appear older, because many plot situations would have seem stronger options then. Thankfully, they have other characters around to help and, like I said, with POVs of several, this was quite an engaging read for me, although I can see how other readers might feel it is confusing.

While Solie and Heyou and other characters learn about what happened, and we peel off more layers about this world and other situations, the king wants revenge for the failed summoning, and they are chased. The final part of the story ends up well enough, and the "bad guys" are defeated as I hoped. I was also delighted over what had been shared regarding the future for most characters, how Solie and Heyou and their new family were practically a community now. I think that even taking into consideration the less interestign elements or the less achieved scenes, this was mostly a complex and intriguing world.

I was quite impressed with how humans and sylphs could kind of help each other by the end, even knowing some humans might want to simply enslave sylphs anyway. I'm now a little scared of reading more... I feel quite a satisfaction on how this was done that I fear the next story or all of them afterwards will be frustrating and if so, should I stick to this and keep the good impressions? But now I'm curious to know about what will the live of a secondary character be and will there be a HEA... decisions, decisions...
Grade: 8/10

Friday, May 3, 2024

João Tordo - A Hundred Years of Forgiveness

Comment: I brought this book from the library, it's by a Portuguese author whose work I've been reading for the past months, and once in a while one more goes. The title can be literally translated into A Hundred Years of Forgiveness.

He has written a few thrillers, or what one would classify as such, and for many readers here this is a novelty of sorts, because the thriller genre isn't one many Portuguese authors try. The fact this author does and that he does have the luck of having a good publicity team and even good covers (in my opinion) certainly helps with that assumption.

This story is a kind of sequel to another I've read in January (here) by the author. The main character is Pilar, who was a police officer in the first book and now is simply trying to cope with what happened to her in that other book. When the story begins she is in Finland but then travels to the UK when a message arrives from her friend Cicero (who helped her in the other book), but the problem is that he is in prison. While there he meets Max Loar and is told about his story, for he is a young man who apparently killed his own brother by crucifixion on the island of St Dismas. The island is known for the St Dismas cult, a group of people who believe the true Messiah was the good thief and not Jesus, and how this affects the lives of everyone, even those who left. Pilar joins forces with Noah, a police officer, to try to find out what really happened to the Loar brothers and what is truly behind the cult. The problem is that someone is paying attention and doesn't want the truth to come out...

In terms of writing, since I'm already used to the author's style, I can say I just go full speed while reading these books, especially these that are more about action that inner musings. The book has more than 500 pages but the style and my having chosen my days off to read it meant I finished as quickly as my usual. If the book had not been appealing, of course this might have been different. Therefore, I liked the overall premise, the structure, most of the content, the epilogue where we learn how Cicero and Pilar are doing....

If I think about it in general terms, I liked it and that is why I gave it four stars on GR. But I can't help but thinking a lot of specific stuff while reading. The most glaring one is why was a Portuguese man imprisoned on a British prison and why wasn't he sent to Portugal instead. And then, of course, what are the real odds that a person not British, not on official work or while not having an official role with the police anymore could really join the investigation on British soil that easily! I suppose "literary creativity" could be the answer, but it just felt too weird, even when the author finds ways to explain these possibilities.

That aside - although it was difficult to not think about it - the story was quite fascinating and the two elements that I liked the most for what they meant was the whole cult thing, always an interesting theme in fiction, and the cult's identity about St Dismas. I'm a catholic and of course I am aware of the story of the good thief (didn't know his name though!) but I had never heard of such a sect/cult and I imagine the author invented this to suit his story. If this had been published decades ago I bet it would have been banned for what it says about Jesus and all that.

I think this content and all the stuff developed from that regarding the characters and their actions and, as expected, the bunch of secrets around and about the cult made for a very entertaining story. I think the police procedures and scenes weren't as believable, even if not considering the nationality issue I've mentioned. The final twist was also not as surprising and the explanation was a little contrived... as for the imprisoned Cicero, he has quite an adventure...

All in all, entertaining but with several flaws (to my personal taste), although not so much that I won't read more by him, when possible.
Grade: 7/10

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Jesi Lea Ryan - Surreal Estate

Sasha Michaels is a psychic with an affinity for houses. And he’s homeless. Go figure. After months of sleeping rough, he stumbles upon an abandoned house, and the lonely place beckons him inside. He’s finally safe . . . until someone comes blundering in to his hideaway.
House-flipper Nick Cooper lost everything in the recession. Desperate to revive his business, he turns to a loan shark to fund his comeback project: flipping an abandoned house full of potential. But it turns out the house has an unexpected occupant.
Nick and Sasha make a deal: Sasha can stay in exchange for helping with the renovation. To both of their surprise, the closer they get to the loan shark’s due date, the stronger their feelings for each other grow. Problem is, Nick isn’t the only one with feelings for Sasha, and now the house doesn’t want to let Sasha go.

Comment: This book went into my TBR after I saw a positive review about it and decided that a story about a homeless psychic guy and a renovation expert down on his luck would be quite the challenge...

In this story we meet Sasha Michaels, who left home and became homeless when his he had a fallout with his mother, especially because he could not live with her addiction and what that meant. He has a small psychic power, though, a connection to houses, which made everything worse, as the vibe inside the house where his mother did things he doesn't want to imagine proves to be too strong. He stumbles upon an abandoned house one day and feels welcomed enough to try to sleep there, but is still surprised when Nick Cooper shows up and tells him he will flip the house to sell it.
Realizing Sasha's condition, Nick decides to let him stay in exchange for some with the renovation, but Sasha's family issues, his psychic issues and now Nick's deal with a loan shark make for a good reason to spend time together, and Nick learns he might not be as straight as he imagined, but is there any future for them?

At first, I felt this was quite the story and I confess I pictured many scenarios in how this plot would go, but the reality wasn't as smooth as I would have preferred. I should also say that I thought the loan shark part would be minimal and the story would be more focused on the romance, but that clearly was not the author's intention. That means that while the beginning was great and the end happier than what I assumed at some point, it still grated on my nerves how many pages included the loan shark and the negative aspects of Nick's deal, which is an elements I tend to dislike.

The story isn't bad if I only think about it in general terms. I don't mind that both protagonists were in a low moment of their lives but it is true that it would have been easier if one of them had been more at ease or had more confidence in his life, because that way the extra things to the romance could have meant more emphasis on it, instead of in trying to fix up some problems. I also would have liked that Nick could be at a better stage of his professional life for that, because then the story could more about the house flipping details - which I would have liked more - than the issues he had with shady deals.

The romance was also a little disappointing. Sasha is gay and is attracted to Nick, but Nick never saw himself as such, perhaps he contemplated the bi idea, but only now, and being divorced, is he seeing Sasha as more than just a guy who needs some help. There is also a small age gap between them, which doesn't tend to be a deal breaker for me if done convincingly, but I just could not see how their connection could be that amazing from the start. I don't think the author wrote things as well as it could be to give me the notion they were truly a devoted couple. Yes, they supported each other with actions, but I just could not be emotionally invested in them as a couple.

Nick has his money issues but he is a good guy, has a supporting family... he just read as a little immature (in my opinion) for someone who is in his mid to late 30s. Despite having problems and worries, I just could not see him as seriously as his character would have demanded.
As for Sasha, he is homeless but by his own decision, after certain circumstances which I can accept. He was more intriguing, and not only because of his affinity to houses. I think his family issues were dealt with in a good enough way, at least until the end.

Once the biggest conflicts about the house and Nick's issues are sort of solved (or oriented towards a positive outcome), the only big issue to fix is related to Sasha's mother and I'll say that the way this was done was incredibly thin in my opinion, not that believable, to be honest. I think the author wanted to portray things in a hopeful way, but to me it read as lacking plausibility. To me, the story would have been better if focused on the main characters's differences and what could bring them together. I'd also have preferred more house stuff and more psychic content, than the secondary family issues and the loan shark deal.
Still, this was readable.... perhaps not as wonderful as I imagined, but it did entertain enough.
Grade: 6/10

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Kerry Rea - Lucy on the Wild Side

Lucy Rourke has two great loves in her life: the gorilla troop she cares for as a primatologist and the laundry list of reality TV shows she watches to escape the fact that her actual love life doesn’t exist. And like a reality contestant gunning for the final rose, Lucy’s laser-focused on one thing: getting promoted to head keeper. So when a wildlife docuseries hosted by hotshot TV personality Kai Bridges chooses her zoo as its summer filming location, she sees an opportunity to showcase her beloved gorillas to the world and land a starring role in her department.
When Kai and his film crew arrive, however, it's obvious to Lucy that Kai cares more about sky-high ratings than the gorillas, and he considers her a camera-averse know-it-all whose wardrobe consists entirely of khaki. But she’s surprised to discover there’s more to him than his rugged good looks and cheesy catchphrases...and that maybe a promotion isn’t the only thing she wants. But when secrets from their pasts threaten to complicate everything, Lucy discovers that happiness and success aren’t the same thing—and that finding joy just might mean getting a little wild.

Comment: I got this book because it was on a list I was checking with contemporary romances. This one sounded interesting, both for the theme and the possible enemies to lovers trope, and I was sold.

Lucy is a junior assistant at the zoo, being her specialty the primates, namely the gorillas, and she is looking for to have a promotion and to watch the zoo being featured on the famous TV show On The Wild Side with Kai Bridges. The show is renown for its approach and it has gained many fans, not only for the content but also for Kai, a handsome man and the son of a famous investigator, so much that his like of his mother's were portrayed in a Hollywood movie.
However, Lucy is left disappointed when she meets Kai and believes he isn't anything at all like his TV persona, to the point he tells her the information on the book written by his mother, which Lucy loves, isn't all true. This means they can't seem to get along after all, and Lucy isn't keen on being on camera, but when she is told she must for work reasons, Kai decides to offer his help. But is he being genuine or does he want to catch Lucy failing? Is there any hope for them?

I had a good time reading this story. I think it was fun and had many interesting scenes and there wasn't a dull moment. This doesn't mean it was all action when, in fact, there was plenty of situations where we could follow the characters' personalities through their actions. The story is narrated by Lucy and I do think the author could have gone a step further by having Kai's too, because there are situations in which not having his POV makes Lucy sound a little condescending and unfair.

The plot is quite engaging because a huge part of the story happens at the zoo. Anyone who has visited one probably did it for the fun experience and not as much for the educational factor, and here we have information on both things, which tells me the author certainly interviewed people who work at a zoo and collected information on many things one would not think of, such as the diet of the gorillas or other animals. I also liked all the little animal related factoids Lucy and Kai at some point exchange, both the amusing and the simply weird, because they offered information on animals and I would never think of investigating that information specifically.

Still, the story isn't only about the zoo or Lucy'a work with the gorillas, although we do have a lot on that, and every information included in the story makes it richer and more complete. There is also a lot on Lucy as a person, about her personality and about her personal live. She lives with her grandmother since she broke up with her last boyfriend and she tries her best to not create a bond with half sister Mia, because her mother Karina left Lucy with her grandmother to become an actress, and now she is finally being a mother to someone else. There's food for thought here, of course, all these things pack a punch and force Lucy to think. 

I'd say this element is quite realistic and done well enough (no melodramatic scenes I mean), but it also meant that Lucy had this way of thinking that made her seem adamant on being alone and of not having closer bonds than friendship. I get it but it means a romance would always feel as if she would be giving in to those feelings instead or keeping her independence and higher posture. I don't think this was intentional but it was how I saw it.. so much focus on why she felt like being alone made her change of heart later on something a little... forced.

Kai is also a fascinating character, and not only for the romance element. He has a famous mother (made me think of Jane Goodall for her work with gorillas) but what people know about his childhood and the events that propelled his mother to one day rescue him instead of a troop of gorillas, whose leader was killed, isn't all correct. It is true this happened and later on was turned into a movie, but Kai still remembers the guilt his mother never let him get over, of having to have made a choice then, her son or the gorillas that were her life.

I think this was quite the complex situation but since the book is primarily a romance, this was dealt with in a way I didn't find enough. Closer to the end, after all the big conflicts are solved and the HEA is coming, we learn about Kai and Lucy's decisions about the future, which I liked well enough, but at the back of my mind this issue with his mother remained and I can't help feeling it's like something which wasn't truly solved. Perhaps it was only my impression.

Anyway, all things considered, this was good story to read, had a good enough balance of serious plot situations and fun scenes and I might look for something else by the author one day.
Grade: 8/10

Friday, April 26, 2024

Deanna Raybourn - A Grave Robbery

Lord Rosemorran has purchased a wax figure of a beautiful reclining woman and asks Stoker to incorporate a clockwork mechanism to give the Rosemorran Collection its own Sleeping Beauty in the style of Madame Tussaud’s. But when Stoker goes to cut the mannequin open to insert the mechanism, he makes a gruesome discovery: this is no wax figure. The mannequin is the beautifully preserved body of a young woman who was once very much alive. But who would do such a dreadful thing, and why?
Sleuthing out the answer to this question sets Veronica and Stoker on their wildest adventure yet. From the underground laboratories of scientists experimenting with electricity to resurrect the dead in the vein of Frankenstein to the traveling show where Stoker once toured as an attraction, the gaslit atmosphere of London in October is the perfect setting for this investigation into the unknown. Through it all, the intrepid pair is always one step behind the latest villain—a man who has killed once and will stop at nothing to recover the body of the woman he loved. Will they unmask him in time to save his next victim? Or will they become the latest figures to be immortalized in his collection of horrors?

Comment: This is the most recent installment in the Veronica Speedwell series by author Deanna Rayburn. I have enjoyed the books a lot and would not miss a new one!

In this new adventure, Veronica and Stoker are busy with their work when their employer lord Rosemorran arrives with a wax figure he asks them to fix with a mechanism, so it could seem alive, a sort of Sleeping Beauty doll for his daughter Rose. The problems begin when they find out the image isn't a wax figure, but a real person who was preserved in artificial conditions. This starts them off in a new investigation and the more clues they follow, the more troublesome facts they uncover. They also find some confusing information is being given to them, but whom should they trust? Veronica and Stoker have a hard work ahead but they will do what is necessary to give peace to the poor woman and finally lay her to rest...

As it happened with the previous installments, so did this one engage me in a perfect way and I was easily immersed in the story and in what the main characters were doing. I think the themes and situations explored were fascinating enough, if not slightly too macabre, but I must say that the way the plot went on to justify the villain's acts and behavior was not as brilliant to me. With this I mean to say that the villain was easy to identify and the psychological factors for why were a bit exaggerated.

That didn't ruin the reading experience, though, and I think the fact Stoker and Veronica seemed quite amorous compensated for the other details I might have liked less. That means this was a story I expected to like and thankfully, it did have plenty of scenes to simply savor the story.It was also interesting to notice that while some things have been established, namely the protagonist' relationship, there is still room to add layers. I wonder where the author wants to go, will their relationship ever change, considering their personalities and Veronica's independence? I would not mind things to go into a more formal scenario between them, but would that change who they are as characters and why fans like the series? Food for thought...

In regards to the plot, tit had its ingenious content, and it's always fascinating to see the result of the author's investigation and research. There is always some interesting theme and facts associated with it, and how secondary characters present themselves in relation to it. This time, the wax figures and the attempts to give life back to the dead were the focus but while creating the plot, a lot more about the late 19th century went into it and it seemed to me that the historical research was used very competently. Well, it always is in these books, but sometimes the juxtaposition of themes/facts isn't as entertaining.

The story of the wax figure was quite tragic when we learn what happened to the woman whose body was preserved that way. It does make one think how embalming is done and what procedures go into it. I confess I'm not a particular fan of this theme but what the author chose to use here was enough to paint a picture and it does make one think about what these so called scientists did and how they experimented on subjects which now we know to be unethical and lacking any kind of method. Despite this, the descriptions give credit to innovation and knowledge of these people, stuck in a time where the obvious lack of mechanisms and machines made everything a gamble or a risk.

I'd say the most interesting element would be the motifs of the villain and how things came to be. I think this was a little disappointing because it feels as if the author wanted to give the impression the villain acted out of obsession, lack of control... which I can accept as likely, but in a way it made things look rather simplistic and without the proper psychological depth that certainly had to be part of any reasoning. Perhaps the author wrote it for the reader to see it implied but if so, it was too subtle and to me, the result was one of making the villain look more mad than logical.

All in all, this fit all the expectations I had in general, but I did wish for some things to be different anyway... nevertheless, another good installment and here I'll wait for the next one...
Grade: 8/10