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Wednesday, September 7, 2022

'Soul Taken' Mercy Thompson Book 13 by Patricia Briggs


 From the BLURB: 

The vampire Wulfe is missing. Since he's deadly, possibly insane, and his current idea of "fun" is stalking Mercy, some may see it as no great loss. But when he disappears, the Tri-Cities pack is blamed. The mistress of the vampire seethe informs Mercy that the pack must produce Wulfe to prove their innocence, or the loose alliance between the local vampires and werewolves is over.

So Mercy goes out to find her stalker - and discovers more than just Wulfe have disappeared. Someone is taking people from locked rooms, from the aisles of stores, and even from crowded parties. And these are not just ordinary people but supernatural beings. Until Wulfe vanished, all of them were powerless loners, many of whom quietly moved to the Tri-Cities in the hope that the safety promised by Mercy and Adam's pack would extend to them as well.

Who is taking them? As Mercy investigates, she learns of the legend of the Harvester, who travels by less-trodden paths and reaps the souls that are ripe with a great black scythe . . .

'Soul Taken' is the 13th book in Patricia Briggs' urban fantasy 'Mercy Thompson' series (which was recently optioned by Amazon Prime!)

So this book literally picks up where we last left off, following the events of 'Smoke Bitten' and what went down with the witch Elizaveta ... it also ties together the most recent instalments concerning a kidnapping to Italy, new treaties with the Gray Lords and Underhill, and Mercy & Adam's Columbia Basin Pack breaking with the Marrok to form their own little national of werewolves.

'Soul Taken' actually goes pretty intense into the most recent backstory, and while Briggs does helpfully fill out the background and provide a refresher on context, it is still *quite* overwhelming and I was just never sure where to look in this plot. Are ... are we meant to be focusing on the Gray Lords treaties? Is the break with the Marrok the thing here? Is it the uneasy alliances between wolves, goblins, witches, and vampires - oh my! And here's the thing; it's kinda ALL OF IT. Which is slightly chaotic messy overwhelming to read. It's also a little hard to follow because a lot of those involve machinations of diplomacy and there's a lot of ~talking~ and planning and thinking. Not necessarily a whole lot of action.

I will say; there's a really interesting development with the new werewolf Sherwood. This seems promising. Dare I say; I would potentially even like a novella, short-story or spin-off for Sherwood? Maybe in the same way we got Charles & Anna in 'Alpha & Omega'? At various times in this series I've been desperate for an Asil spin-off, and before his disappointing mate Ariana came on the scene (I'm SORRY, but that was a cop-out of a plot-point) I'd hoped for Samuel to get his own story-focus too. I wonder if Sherwood could fill that hole I have to further explore the werewolf world? I'd be down for it, 100%! Especially if he got some sort of HEA out of it.

Speaking of Samuel; something was established in the last 'Alpha & Omega' book 'Wild Sign' that I said would probably crossover into Mercy's world ... and it looks like it *might* but not in an overly big way. HOWEVER: the mention of it in 'Soul Taken' suggests it'll be the focus of Anna & Charles's next book. Keen!

Final thoughts on 'Soul Taken' are ... I like that we're seeing Adam & Mercy as a strong unit. And actually, this book reminds us that the Columbia Basin Pack are as strong as they are, as independent as they are, because Mercy has always had ties and been willing to treatise and compromise with all supernatural (from fae to vampires, humans and anyone in-between) we're now seeing the wider implications and benefits of that playing out within the politics of this world. And it just goes to show how much reach Mercy has had, and how much Adam benefited from it - is better because of it, and her. It's really nice and a surprisingly lovely way to get a bird's eye view of this series that's been going since 2006(!!!!!)

Adam & Mercy remain the absolute best, and I always love coming back to them in their books. Fingers-crossed for a TV series! I also can't wait for Anna & Charles' new book, but Adam & Mercy still just .... hit the right spot!

3/5

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

'So Far, So Good: On connection, loss, laughter and the Torres Strait' by Aaron Fa'Aoso, with Michelle Scott Tucker



From the BLURB: 

‘I am a descendant of the Samu and Koedal clans of Sabai Island. My people are warriors, but we are storytellers too.’


On his long path to success – from aspiring professional footballer to actor, director and producer – for every opportunity Aaron Fa’Aoso had, there were setbacks and heartache.

He was six when his father and grandfather both died. His fiercely proud mother and even fiercer grandmother dug deep to raise Aaron and his brothers. Belief in himself as a warrior – literally and metaphorically – made him into a fighter, for better and for worse.


A month into Aaron’s second marriage, and just as his acting career was flourishing, his new wife took her own life. In the dark years that followed, Aaron eventually found strength and meaning in his family and in his beloved Torres Strait community.


In So Far, So Good, he talks frankly about love, pain, making mistakes and finding happiness again, as well as the impacts of racism and the challenges of remote communities. A rich and vivid reflection on life told with generosity, humour, emotion and optimism.


⦿⦿⦿


Let me tell you; I am so proud of this book. In a career of highlights (which tends to happen when you get to work with books!) — seeing this memoir out in the world is a stand-out for me.
So Far, So Good: On connection, loss, laughter and the Torres Strait by Aaron Fa'Aoso, with Michelle Scott Tucker. 

Jacinta (di Mase) and I met Aaron many moons ago, we sat before him and basically said - we want your story. It took a while, but eventually he came around and once glorious Michelle Scott Tucker signed up to do the telling, the project ignited.

It’s the first memoir by a Torres Strait Islander to be released by a commercial publisher, in Pantera Press. They have also generously donated to Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation via their Pantera Press Foundation, in the book’s honour.
So Far, So Good absolutely undid me. It’s such a generous story - and in fact, Michelle Scott Tucker on her blog recently wrote about Aaron’s internal fight to reach inside himself for this story and his truth. I love this memory Michelle shares, when speaking with Aaron as he really decided and committed to unearthing his life for the page; “One thing I’ve learnt,” Aaron continued, “is that if you tell the truth, it remains in your past. Tell a lie, and it’s always going to haunt your future. And I have enough ghosts in my life already.”
That’s all here. His grief at a young age, losing his father and grandfather and being raised by the women in his life. The ways early pathways and cultures tried to shape him - like the football career he took initially, and then the media once he decided to become an actor - only to be cast as a villain, a bikie, a thug and criminal, constantly … until he decided to change things himself, write his own screenplays. The way grief followed him. His commitments now to telling the history of his family and the Strait, and that they are on the frontline of climate catastrophe.

For teachers & librarians, I'd also say this is a very good text for older teens. For a history of the Torres Strait. A look at the frontlines of climate catastrophe. And for someone of Aaron’s stature to have a really honest talk with young men in particular, about the paths they choose.

That's all in the book. And, I cannot even begin to tell you how much more is here, and what reading it will do to you - open in you. You have to read it for yourself. It’s a beautiful and bruising story, a groundbreaking one too.

It's out now. And the audiobook (which Aaron narrates) will be out on October 1.


My heart is exceptionally full of this book, and I hope it will fill you up too.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

'Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone' Outlander #9 by Diana Gabaldon


From the BLURB: 

Jamie Fraser and Claire Randall were torn apart by the Jacobite Rising of 1745, and it took them twenty years to find each other again. Now the American Revolution threatens to do the same.

It is 1779 and Claire and Jamie are at last reunited with their daughter, Brianna, her husband, Roger, and their children on Fraser's Ridge. Having the family together is a dream the Frasers had thought impossible.

Yet even in the North Carolina backcountry, the effects of war are being felt. Tensions in the Colonies are great and local feelings run hot enough to boil Hell's tea-kettle. Jamie knows loyalties among his own tenants are split and the war is on his doorstep. It's only a matter of time before the shooting starts.

Not so far away, young William Ransom is still coming to terms with the discovery of his true father's identity - and thus his own. Lord John Grey also has reconciliations to make and dangers to meet . . . on his son's behalf, and his own.

Meanwhile, the Southern Colonies blaze, and the Revolution creeps ever closer to Fraser's Ridge. And Claire, the physician, wonders how much of the blood to be spilt will belong to those she loves.

***

‘Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone’ is the 2021 and ninth book in Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ epic series – of romance, time-travelling, historic novels that have moved us from the Jacobite uprising in Scotland, to the American Revolutionary War unfolding … the last time we joined these characters was in ‘Written in My Own Heart's Blood’ from 2013, so it’s been very welcome indeed to finally be back with the Fraser’s, Murray’s, Grey’s and assorted others after eight odd years absence. 

However; at 902-pages I was quite intimidated (and too weak-wristed, literally sitting up in bed with this thing! … and yes, I know audiobook and ebook exist but I started this series as a 19-year-old uni student in paperback and I intend to finish that way darn it!) to jump into this book when it released in November 2021. I did start out strong and flew through a good 200-pages, but then I flagged and set it aside and only got back into a rhythm to finish it in August 2022 (despite being very keen and excited to know what was happening to some of my favourite characters in a favourite series of mine, that I’ve been reading since I was 19!) 

But finished I have! And I did make notes and collected my thoughts as I read, which I shall now present to you in sub-headers because otherwise I don’t quite know how to articulate my feelings about this sprawling EPIC. 

And, look, because this is the ninth book in a series that began in 1991 … expect that there are spoilers ahead (especially as I post this in August 2022 for a book that came out in November 2021!) I’m going to be delving into where these characters have come from and are going, so if you’re unfamiliar with the series (or, on the flipside, if you don’t want speculations on what might be coming!) this is probably not the review for you; 

Character Motivations 


I am in two minds about this. ‘Bees’ begins in 1779, and ends in 1781. The American Revolutionary War ends in 1783. A big part of me just wants everyone to stay safe on Fraser’s Ridge and not move until the war is over. And at times reading this evoked the same feelings as watching a horror movie where you just want to scream WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! STAY TOGETHER! NO – NO! DO NOT GO UP THE STAIRS ALONE! Because of course, in a 902-page novel, nobody is staying put and nobody is playing it safe in the lead-up to war because *of course not* this is fiction and it needs tension and drama. 

That being said – I do think Gabaldon found good character motivations for everyone to, at times, get off the Ridge and venture out into the great (and much more dangerous!) unknown. I think of all the motivations however, Young Ian Murray had the best – when he gets word from Indian friends that his ex-wife Emily was involved in a massacre and her husband killed but they don’t know of her whereabouts or health, nor those of her three children (one of whom is likely Ian’s own son). Given that Ian’s Quaker wife Rachel has just given birth (to placeholder-named ‘Oggy’) and she’s not thrilled with the idea of him traipsing off to check on his ex and the child they had together (benevolent as she is as a Quaker, she has her limits), so she insists on going with him. And since Jamie Fraser’s sister Jenny has come to the Americas and is living with Ian and Rachel and she doesn’t intend to see her grandson go off without her – she’ll tag along too. That’s a good motivation, I can definitely see Ian being compelled to check on his kin and people (no matter that Emily ‘put him out,’ and left him) and it’s a nice full-circle moment for him. 

Brianna, Roger and their children Jem and Manda also have pretty decent impetus in the form of a painting commission that Lord John Grey orchestrates for Brianna … which will conveniently take her to Savannah where Lord John Grey and his adopted son (Brianna’s half-brother, Jamie’s illegitimate son) William is also stationed. John Grey and William (though he recently handed in his officer’s commission) are part of the British army, Jamie and Claire knowing what’s coming think it’s a good idea for Brianna to see her brother before the war escalates … and if she can do some surreptitious gun-running and fund-raising while in Savannah, the better! Also if Roger can finally be officially ordained as a minister – it becomes a right old family affair! 

These are all good motivations, I still just wanted to tie everyone up in cotton-wool but, alas!, it’s a book and that will not do.  

The Hubris of Time Travellers


Partly why we believe these people are willing to take risks throughout the novel – even knowing what’s coming on the horizon of history! – is indeed that (false?) sense of security the time-travellers amongst them have, and have given. Brianna in particular is the daughter of a historian, married another, was raised with an American education recounting the war of independence and she assures herself that she knows the big players and moments in time. So when she goes to Savannah just as it’s about to be under siege, she constantly comforts everyone around her that she knows it will not fall. It will hold. 

Gabaldon makes a very clever couple of villains much clearer in this novel especially; one of them being everyone’s hubris, which is delightfully manifested also in the form of a history book written by Claire’s late first husband, and Brianna’s adoptive father, Frank Randall that Roger and Bri smuggled back with them through the stones. Frank (rather knowingly) made a name for himself studying the history of Scots in America, and particularly during the Revolutionary War. 

Jamie Fraser is convinced that this novel Frank wrote about exactly that, is talking to him specifically. He thinks Frank knew that Jamie lived, and that Bri and Claire would go back to him, so he made it his mission to study the history they’d be stepping into … ah. But; will Frank tell them the truth? Or is he hurt and bitter at the thought of his wife and adopted child returning to the man who – seemingly – took everything from Frank? 

OR; can history be altered? Is it set in stone? 


The True Villain is Time … or is it? 


I also think the reappearance of Frank has been cleverly done, where he looms like a spectre in the form of a history book he wrote and which Jamie is certain was written for him. Ah, we’re back to; “is Frank Randall friend or foe?” And I always think it’s worthwhile remembering that a big theme of the whole series is ~Legacy~ it creeps into everything (even the POV chapters we read — it’s Jamie and Claire’s blood-relations. ‘Blood of my blood.’) Even Frank; we first meet him when he’s tracking down his ancestors who fought for Queen & Country after he himself did the same in the Second World War. But we also know that Frank can’t father children. The line ends with him. How does he feel that Jamie has more left an imprint on history - world and family? - than Frank ever will? Is he bitter? Vengeful? How much of the Randall has been passed down … blood of my blood?

These are great, wispy, conceptual villains pottered throughout the novel. As a history nerd myself, I loved them and I loved wondering how I would be in the past … cocky and cock-sure of my place in time and ability to manipulate and read those tea-leaves? Would that be my downfall? Who knows? But I love how the Battle of Culloden playing out exactly as history remembered it, is now giving everyone a false sense of security about history always being stagnate and fixed.

Aforementioned 


Gabaldon keeps great time in this book (I say, with one eyebrow raised at the behemoth 902-pages of it all!) but truly … I think it’s been very well done — time — Gabaldon has the Fraser’s in particular reminding us of the ticking timer (“two years until Yorktown,” as well as Jem and Germain’s ages - as though that will save them from the frontlines) it’s a very subtle and clever device to remind us where the goal-posts and finish line are right now. Especially guessing as we all have been, that Herself (Gabaldon) probably intends to wrap this series up with the next and tenth book. We’re all waiting for that moment that will surely signal the end – Jamie’s ghost below Claire’s window. When will it come, and what will it mean – who knows? 

I also appreciated that since the last book came out, ‘Hamilton’ the Musical has given me a mini-history lesson and every time I saw ‘Yorktown’ written down, I heard the line ‘battle of Yorktown …’ in the back of my mind. 

Oh, William


William Ransom is the secret illegitimate son of Geneva Dunsany and Jamie Fraser. And just as he’s pretty much been from the jump … he remains a bit of a wet-blanket. Definitely the weak-link in the series. And in more ways than one does William really miss out here.

His chapters are such a bore - something about being tasked with finding his cousins’ body after he’s reportedly dead? I barely paid attention. He’s the descendant I care the least about and I only worry that I think his purpose is to set him on a collision course with Jamie during this war … I was partly looking forward to reading William get a love-interest (after loving his little triangle with Ian and Rachel Hunter) and feeling majorly bummed that he fell for prostitute Jane who sadly took her own life in the last book (bummed because she dies, not because she’s a prostitute – to be clear!) 

William kinda gets a love-interest in ‘Bees’. The bad news is; it also sucks. Her name is Amaranthus (thanks, I hate it) I wish he got to be more dashing and suave and have an epic love story like everyone else got, but … I guess William is a walking, talking case-study in Nature vs. Nurture? 

Lord John Grey and his brother Hal also take up a lot of William’s chapters and I literally only cared when he and Brianna’s stories converged. BUT – there’s a glimmer of hope in the cliff-hanger ending for William. 

The MVPs, The Murray’s! 


Rachel Hunter and Ian remain my faves (that aren’t Jamie and Claire!). I just love them; Young Ian is one of my favourite characters in any book of all time EVER and I continue to crave as much of him and Rachel Hunter as possible! We got a fairly good chunk here, *however* I was frustrated that the storyline of Ian taking his family to go and find Emily (and his son) really had Rachel questioning a few things about them and their relationship (which she believes in, of course she does!) but I wanted some outward declarations from Ian and I reckon he’s more perceptive and attuned to Rachel than he is here, where he left a lot unsaid. And I wanted more sexy times for them. 

I also felt like the focus on their story ended rather abruptly, probably because it’ll be revisited in the next book – but I really felt like in the last quarter they were barely mentioned, after having a fairly exciting and exhilarating journey that carried a lot of the middle of ‘Bees’. 

But, look, I recognise that because they’re my faves I will always want more, more, more. 

Comedic Timing 


Totally random; but I did not think I’d get such a laugh out of a prolapsed uterus and hand-crafted pessary scene. Which … hats-off to you, Gabaldon. That was gold. 

All Filler? 


I’ve glanced at a few YouTube reviews of ‘Bees’ where I can see people’s biggest complaint is that it is rather ‘boring’ and not a lot happens. And, look, yeah. Like I said – Gabaldon is keeping time in this book and wanting to give us that impending joy (or doom?) that the war is nearly at its end. Two years. Two years. Two years. But in the interim we have – this. A book in which she moves all the players where they need to be on the board, but we get very much a sense that the game hasn’t yet started in earnest. And that feeling permeates ‘Bees,’ … I wonder if Avengers: Endgame and Infinity War have conditioned all of us to brace for the worst in the one *before* The End, that I think we went into ‘Bees’ expecting more heightened stakes and drama to carry us through to the likely finale tenth instalment? But we really don’t get that here. We get a lot of … moving around on that chess-board. We get a lot of set-up and it is somewhat toothless. Case-in-point is the literal last 50-pages or so is a Hail Mary! reminder of threats from previous books who are now coming home to roost. But I feel like my memory was not sufficiently jogged for them and I got whiplash from being forced to see them as high-stakes danger. 

Finale 


Look, I think a lot of ‘Bees’ hinges on how the next book is looking … I think the more conceptual ‘villains’ of this book being time (and Frank Randall’s documenting of it?) are going to be the tricky aspects that upon re-reading when the series is properly concluded, will most impress readers for the groundwork Herself was laying. But for now; it is a somewhat placid instalment in one of my (still) favourite series. 

I am still sorry that I was so long to get around to reading, but – therein lies the rub! – I’ve changed a lot since ‘Written in my Own Heart’s Blood’ came out and even more since I was that uni student reading a second-hand copy of ‘Outlander’ for the first time. When ‘Own Heart’s Blood’ came out I wasn’t yet a published author or even working as a literary agent. Now, I am. My time is more finite … I wish I could have spent a fortnight lounging around in a Melbourne summer to read this behemoth book when it first came out, the way I used to, but – the passage of time is a funny thing, I feel like I don’t have as much of it anymore. 

But it is nice to know that when I do find my reading-groove with this series (and a comfortable reading position!) I can fall into this story and these characters so easily. Like I’ve never been away, and they’ve always been right there – waiting for me to return. 

3.5/5



Tuesday, August 2, 2022

'The Bodyguard' by Katherine Center


 

From the BLURB: 

She’s got his back.
Hannah Brooks looks more like a kindergarten teacher than somebody who could kill you with a wine bottle opener. Or a ballpoint pen. Or a dinner napkin. But the truth is, she’s an Executive Protection Agent (aka "bodyguard"), and she just got hired to protect superstar actor Jack Stapleton from his middle-aged, corgi-breeding stalker.

He’s got her heart.
Jack Stapleton’s a household name—captured by paparazzi on beaches the world over, famous for, among other things, rising out of the waves in all manner of clingy board shorts and glistening like a Roman deity. But a few years back, in the wake of a family tragedy, he dropped from the public eye and went off the grid.

They’ve got a secret.
When Jack’s mom gets sick, he comes home to the family’s Texas ranch to help out. Only one catch: He doesn’t want his family to know about his stalker. Or the bodyguard thing. And so Hannah—against her will and her better judgment—finds herself pretending to be Jack’s girlfriend as a cover. Even though her ex, like a jerk, says no one will believe it.

What could possibly go wrong???
Hannah hardly believes it, herself. But the more time she spends with Jack, the more real it all starts to seem. And there lies the heartbreak. Because it’s easy for Hannah to protect Jack. But protecting her own, long-neglected heart? That’s the hardest thing she’s ever done.

***

'The Bodyguard' is US author Katherine Center's ninth published book, a contemporary romance stand-alone. 

We follow Executive Protection Agent (aka "bodyguard") Hannah Brooks as she experiences among the worst months of her life - her mother dies after a long battle with alcoholism, her boyfriend dumps her the day after the funeral, and her work-life is on the line as she's up for a big promotion that all of these personal hurdles could get in the way of. And Hannah is someone who very much prioritises work-life over home-life, and is in a real tail-spin as all of that is upended. 

Her one chance to redeem herself comes with a new job-offer that her boss, Glenn, assigns her to. But it's not the international jaunt she was hoping for; rather it's a home-base Texas job for international movie-star heartthrob, Jack Stapleton, who apparently has a corgi-breeding stalker on his tail right when he's trying to return home and be with his family as his Mum receives cancer-treatment. Also because it's a delicate home-life situation, part of Hannah's job will be to pose as Jack's girlfriend ... so as not to alarm the family. 

Rom-com ensues.

This was great, and I really enjoyed it and appreciated that Center in an author's note at the back says she wrote this in the thick of Covid pandemic and lockdowns, so she reached for the fluffiest and swooniest of stories to occupy her mind. And this is very much that! It's fun, flirty, carefree. Not a hard-hitter like some of Center's other books have been (my personal favourite that I think tugs on heart-strings as well as keeps heart fluttering is 'Things You Save in a Fire' but I am also a huge fan of 'Happiness for Beginners'). 

'The Bodyguard' (despite the Costner/Houston title!) reminds me strongly of Mhairi McFarlane's 'Who's That Girl?', with a dash of new book 'Funny You Should' by Elissa Sussman, and 'The View Was Exhausting' by Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta. All in that famous-person dates an ordinary rom-com niche (very 'Notting Hill'!) and Center does it very well! 

Does it get *slightly* ridiculous with the high-hilarity and unlikely situations? Yeah, sure. The final half especially felt tonally "off" in a way I think is hard to explain, and I just don't think she quite nailed the dénouement. I also keep wanting Center to write like .5% more spice. Not full-blown, still 'cut-away-to-the-curtains,' but just a *pinch* more paprika to bring her in line with a Beth O'Leary or Mhairi.

But those are niggling little thoughts I had, and also that this wasn't my favourite of Center's books ... it's very much low of the middle for me, in rankings. But I think plenty of readers will have LOTS of fun with this one! 

3/5

Saturday, April 23, 2022

'The No-Show' by Beth O'Leary

 

From the BLURB:

Three women. Three dates. One missing man... 

8.52 a.m. Siobhan is looking forward to her breakfast date with Joseph. She was surprised when he suggested it - she normally sees him late at night in her hotel room. Breakfast on Valentine's Day surely means something ... so where is he? 

2.43 p.m. Miranda's hoping that a Valentine's Day lunch with Carter will be the perfect way to celebrate her new job. It's a fresh start and a sign that her life is falling into place: she's been dating Carter for five months now and things are getting serious. But why hasn't he shown up? 

6.30 p.m. Joseph Carter agreed to be Jane's fake boyfriend at an engagement party. They've not known each other long but their friendship is fast becoming the brightest part of her new life in Winchester. Joseph promised to save Jane tonight. But he's not here... 

Meet Joseph Carter. That is, if you can find him.

‘The No-Show’ is the new and fourth stand-alone novel from UK-author, Beth O'Leary.

Since the release of her bestselling, break-out debut novel ‘The Flatshare’ in 2019, Beth O'Leary has released one-book-a-year. Which is no easy feat, and very savvy marketing to her primarily romance-reading audience who are more used to that fast turn-around in their favourite genre. I will say that nothing O’Leary has written since quite reaches the giddy heights of ‘The Flatshare’ for me – but to be fair, that was a remarkably clever concept executed beautifully and I’m also not surprised that it’s the one of her books currently in-production as a six-part series (I do believe ‘The Switch’ has also been optioned, but is not yet filming.) So all of this is to say … I didn’t love ‘The No-Show’ as much as ‘The Flatshare,’ but also take that with a grain of salt because it was her first and (in my opinion) strongest.

The thing with Beth O’Leary books now also, is that in ‘The Flatshare’ she established a ‘trick’ to the narrative. Admittedly it’s one that readers were “in” on from the get-go (that her two protagonists – destined to be love-interests – were renting a flat together, but due to their work-schedules hadn’t actually encountered each other face-to-face, and the ‘trick’ was the build-up to that moment.) So that’s what Beth O’Leary established as a kind of subversive slice of romantic trope playing and something of a ‘trick’ has been present in all her books since (I say ‘trick’ to avoid ‘gimmick,’ which doesn’t seem at all fair). To varying degrees and magic. It’s the same in ‘The No-Show’ and if you (like me) pick up on ‘the trick’ pretty early on (I blame being a devotee of ‘This is Us’ TV series) then it won’t wreck the story for you by any means, but you may feel yourself getting slightly fed-up with the build-up. 

The premise being; three different women, stood-up for a Valentine’s Day date by the same guy. One of these women is Joseph Carter’s London hook-up (Siobhan), one is his committed girlfriend (Miranda) and one is just a friend (Jane). The story switches between each POV of these women as they navigate their increasingly tricky relationships with Carter. And herein lies one slight problem that’s quite usual when you get multi-person POV books … I really only liked, and was interested in, one of these women’s stories. Miranda. 

Miranda is an arboriculturists (or, ‘tree lopper’) – she climbs into a harness and climbs trees to lop off branches for a living. She’s very cool, and has just started a steady job with a new tree-lopping crew. She’s also been in a relationship with Joseph Carter for a few months now, and is happy, even if she often feels like Carter is compartmentalising parts of himself and she doesn’t really know him … When Miranda starts her new job; she also encounters ladies-man and tattooed lumberjack-type, AJ, who makes very clear early on that he’s taken a fancy to Miranda. 

Now – I far preferred Miranda’s chapters to Siobhan and Jane’s. So much more. Partly because I imagined her as Rose Matafeo because Rose Matafeo was in this great New Zealand rom-com movie called ‘Baby Done’ about a tree-lopper who is so good at her job that she also competes in tree-lopping at a professional level, but her future is derailed when she falls pregnant and suddenly her and her devoted partner (Matthew Lewis, otherwise known as Neville Longbottom!) have to make very grown-up life decisions, and it’s just great. But from the moment that Miranda locks eyes with AJ on the page, I was way more invested – these two have *chemistry* and each time I had to be waylaid by Siobhan and Jane’s chapters and taken away from what was building between Miranda and AJ, I got frustrated. Now – could Miranda’s story have maintained an entire book? Unlikely. While reading, would I have liked Beth O’Leary to try? Absolutely. 

Like I said – it’s just an oft-encountered problem when you write multi-person POV books that readers will want to spend the most time with one in particular, but have to share page-time with others. 

So between that and guessing the ‘trick’ probably too early, this book just stumbled a couple times for me, personally. Very much about my taste and where my head was at when reading. I did also realise that Beth O’Leary’s romance writing isn’t quite on-par with favourite author Mhairi McFarlane for me, I actually think O’Leary is more up there alongside Jojo Moyes. Take away the fact that Moyes mostly writes historical-fiction; I posit that she and Beth O’Leary both similarly write ‘tricks’ in their romantic fiction, and they both tend to prefer the sweet-bitter stuff. 

All up … I enjoyed my time with ‘The No-Show’ especially because I do love Beth O’Leary’s world-building and writing generally. Miranda and AJ were MVP’s for me however, and given that that was only one-third of the story meant this was an unbalanced read for me. But still good. Just not as good as ‘The Flatshare.’ 

3.5/5


Tuesday, March 8, 2022

'This Side Of Murder' Verity Kent #1 by Anna Lee Huber

 

From the BLURB:

The Great War is over, but in this captivating new series from award-winning author Anna Lee Huber, one young widow discovers the real intrigue has only just begun . . .

An Unpardonable Sin?

England, 1919. Verity Kent’s grief over the loss of her husband pierces anew when she receives a cryptic letter, suggesting her beloved Sidney may have committed treason before his untimely death. Determined to dull her pain with revelry, Verity’s first impulse is to dismiss the derogatory claim. But the mystery sender knows too much—including the fact that during the war, Verity worked for the Secret Service, something not even Sidney knew.

Lured to Umbersea Island to attend the engagement party of one of Sidney’s fellow officers, Verity mingles among the men her husband once fought beside, and discovers dark secrets—along with a murder clearly meant to conceal them. Relying on little more than a coded letter, the help of a dashing stranger, and her own sharp instincts, Verity is forced down a path she never imagined—and comes face to face with the shattering possibility that her husband may not have been the man she thought he was. It’s a truth that could set her free—or draw her ever deeper into his deception . . .

'This Side of Murder' is the first book in American author Anna Lee Huber's 'Verity Kent' series, which currently stands at five books, with a sixth due out this year.

The series kicks off in England 1919 - the end of the Great War and following war-widow Verity, whose rich husband has left her an enormous fortune she cares not two wits about, since losing him in the Battle of the Somme some 15-months ago. Verity has been drowning her sorrows in hard-drinking, occasional flirtations, and brushes with opium and cocaine (though she doesn't like the way those made her feel). 'This Side of Murder' has us meeting Verity on her way to a house-party on the remote Umbersea Island where an assortment of her late husband - Sidney's - surviving regiment are congregating for a weekend away. Some of them have spouses and partners, and they've seemingly invited Verity along out of respect for Sidney's memory and to let her know she still has friends amongst his old Battalion. The renovated manor house on Umbersea is owned by one of these old servicemen and friend's of Sidney, and Verity is intrigued enough by this random assortment of people congregating in one place post-war to go along.

Ah, but Verity has ulterior motives for attending - she's also received cryptic messages from a stranger, alluding to Sidney's part in espionage that may have been the reason he was killed in battle at the Somme. Not the over-the-trenches tragedy and enemy-fire she always assumed.

This turns the island party into a fantastic potential murder-mystery, that gets even better when wild weather traps the party on the Island ... it becomes a real Agatha Chrisite-esque mystery, tied to its location and the various players involved. Verity has to go gently picking amongst the guests to both establish their connections to each other during the war and post, what they felt about Sidney, and what could also have lured them to this party.

This was exactly the kind of book I'd been craving; a quaint murder-mystery just the right side of cozy, but not too twee. Indeed; nothing gets too grotesque or morbid, but there are hard-hitting discussions had about shell-chock, PTSD, grief, suicidal ideation and so much more. It's a thoroughly fascinating time-period for such a mystery series to unfold; post-war, and with Verity having tentative tendrils to the upper-echelons of a struggling British aristocracy.

I will say; the twist halfway through took me by (delighted) surprise. And it ensured I'd be coming back for more in this fantastic series ...

5/5

Sunday, February 13, 2022

'Good Girl Complex' by Elle Kennedy

 

From the BLURB: 

She does everything right. So what could go wrong?

Mackenzie “Mac” Cabot is a people pleaser. Her demanding parents. Her prep school friends. Her long-time boyfriend. It’s exhausting, really, always following the rules. All she wants to do is focus on growing her internet business, but first she must get a college degree at her parents’ insistence. That means moving to the beachside town of Avalon Bay, a community made up of locals and the wealthy students of Garnet College.

Twenty-year-old Mac has had plenty of practice suppressing her wilder impulses, but when she meets local bad boy Cooper Hartley, that ability is suddenly tested. Cooper is rough around the edges. Raw. Candid. A threat to her ordered existence. Their friendship soon becomes the realest thing in her life.

Despite his disdain for the trust-fund kids he sees coming and going from his town, Cooper soon realizes Mac isn’t just another rich clone and falls for her. Hard. But as Mac finally starts feeling accepted by Cooper and his friends, the secret he’s been keeping from her threatens the only place she’s ever felt at home.

'Good Girl Complex' is the new book and first in a contemporary romance series by author Elle Kennedy.

So this was solidly "fine."

Elle Kennedy is a hybrid-author who had 42 of her early works 'traditionally published' before finding breakout success as an indie, self-published author with her New Adult 'Off-Campus' series that really blew up and led the charge for that new-wave of evolving NA and pushed it more solidly into a romance realm (VS. its original intention of being a "stepping stone" readership out of YA for ageing teen readers)

With 'Good Girl Complex', Kennedy is back in the traditionally published fold with St. Martin's Griffin press; and from the plot to the book-cover, you can kinda tell that she's chasing this new-new wave of new adult gentler romances and kind of re-introducing herself to a whole new crop of readers who have been welcomed into the romance fold, but maybe haven't been as genre-cluey to go digging through the grassroots indie wave that helped to largely shape current trends - and which Kennedy was very much apart of. The illustrated-cover is very on-trend with Emily Henry, Lyssa Kay Adams, Abby Jimenez, Tessa Bailey, Talia Hibbert and so many more - and that's clearly the market Kennedy is ingratiating herself with here.

And that also extends to the series set-up and first story overall. Rich girl attending stuffy university with requisite awful rich-boy boyfriend, journeys into the college town and through a rather convoluted back-story of revenge-dating, ends up getting cozy with the townie bad-boy from the wrong side of the tracks.

It's very Anna Todd 'After', 'The Longest Ride' by Nicholas Sparks (which is also a more modern 'The Notebook' take) and even *gulp* 'Beautiful Disaster' by Jamie McGuire. It's a story that also feels very much in that mid-00s mix, like it could have come out alongside McGuire's in 2011 or Todd's in 2014 when that New Adult college-set romance was taking off ... because of course, Elle Kennedy *was* releasing books like this then too, with self-published title 'The Deal' coming out in 2015. That's why it feels like a rehash, for people familiar with Kennedy's work it feels like we're getting a slightly watered-down remix, more aimed at a new crop of romance readers. Except this series is a little more sanitised too, for the 'traditionally published' crowd. There's head-nods to more diverse and inclusive characters, but they're periphery at the moment - rather than an understanding that one of them could take the reins and headline their own instalment in this new series.

Because 'Good Girl Complex' is indeed the first book in what will be a new contemporary series from Kennedy, 'Avalon Bay' - with second book 'Bad Girl Reputation' coming in October of this year and continuing to expand on the townie friendship group introduced in 'Complex'. Which is ... fine.

It's all fine. It will no doubt be a crowd-pleaser for people looking for exactly this kind of story, maybe after the algorithm has sent them here by way of 'The Love Hypothesis' by Ali Hazelwood ... because it does read a bit like chasing the romance/BookTok trends. Which is again - fine. Commendable. Elle Kennedy is a damn good writer, and deserves more mainstream recognition and the way to do that is probably by writing a book directly aimed at mainstream audiences in the traditionally published romance realms.

BUT. If you're a long-time fan of hers, then I can't say that this series looks to match 'Off-Campus' or 'Briar U' or the series by her friend and sometimes co-author, Sarina Bowen ('Ivy Years' is *amazing*). I hope that people like 'Good Girl Complex' enough to go through Kennedy's backlist and push those earlier series onto the BookTok algorithm too ... but for me, personally? Eh. It was all fine. Nothing to write home about. I'll see if the mood takes me to pick up Book 2.

3/5

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