Deal with the Devil by Kit Rocha (Mercenary Librarians #1)

40078832._SY475_The United States went belly up 45 years ago when our power grid was wiped out. Too few live in well-protected isolation while the rest of us scrape by on the margins. The only thing that matters is survival. By any means. At any cost.

Nina is an information broker with a mission: to bring hope to the darkest corners of Atlanta. She and her team of mercenary librarians use their knowledge to help those in need. But altruism doesn’t pay the bills—raiding vaults and collecting sensitive data is where the real money is.

Knox is a bitter, battle-weary supersoldier who leads the Silver Devils, an elite strike squad that chose to go AWOL rather than slaughter innocents. Before the Devils leave town for good, they need a biochem hacker to stabilize the experimental implants that grant their superhuman abilities.

The problem? Their hacker’s been kidnapped. And the ransom for her return is Nina. Knox has the perfect bait for a perfect trap: a lost Library of Congress server. The data could set Nina and her team up for years…

If they live that long.

Review:

I held on to this advance copy for a while, sure I would like it – and what’dya know, I love it.

The good:

  • Yay for science fiction to take us away from our current world. Sure, it depicts an America where government has been taken over by corporations, infrastructure has collapsed, and it’s every chemically and mechanically enhanced person for themselves… but at least it’s not our reality! I kid (kinda…) but it was nice to be so fully immersed in another world, even one as gritty as this.
  • The worldbuilding is solid. There’s one slight info dump early, but this America is so different from ours it felt justified. After that we learn things in bits and pieces, and by the end of the book I feel like I have a solid grasp of the world.
  • I love all of these characters, and they’re all fleshed out as people with different abilities, likes, and quirks. Bonus for found family vibes and casually mentioning that someone has had both boyfriends and girlfriends, because that’s totally a thing.
  • The structure helps introduce us to the characters one-on-one, as in addition to chapters from the two main characters’ point of view we also get interstitial chapters from everyone else. Being inside each person’s head let me get a better grasp for who they are while hinting at potential future conflicts and love interests.
  • Yes love interests, because Deal with the Devil is a great blend of science fiction and romance. I get the impression that we’ll be following a different couple in each book while the overall story arc continues. There isn’t as much sex as in Rocha’s other works, but what’s here is hot and advances the story as it should.
  • And the plot! Things are always happening. At 65% or so I was worried because many books would have ended things there, but the story afterward was just as important and maybe even more interesting.
  • The fights are so well done. They’re gripping but also made me cackle with joy.
  • And the banter! Once the band is together the wit and one liners fly – this is my love language.

The neither-here-nor-there:

  • Be ready for a bunch of tragic pasts with torture and abuse, along with the murder and death you’d expect in a story with mercenaries. The fights are about action, not gore, so I wasn’t grossed out.

The not-so-good:

  • The documents placed between each chapter could have been a little more clear – I’m know I’m going to get more out of them on a reread.

In short, Deal with the Devil takes place in a gritty, post-apocalyptic world where librarians and their friends save the day while maybe falling in love. I wasn’t sure if escaping to a different hellish world would work for me but I blew through pages and enjoyed the ride.

Thanks to Tor and Edelweiss for providing an advance copy.

Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall (True Colors #1)

Luc O’Donnell’s rock star parents split when he was young, and now that the father that he’s never met is making a comeback, Luc’s back in the public eye, and one compromising photo is enough to ruin everything.

To clean up his image, Luc has to find a nice, normal relationship…and Oliver Blackwood is as nice and normal as they come. He’s a barrister, an ethical vegetarian, and he’s never inspired a moment of scandal in his life. In other words: perfect boyfriend material.  So they strike a deal to be publicity-friendly (fake) boyfriends until the dust has settled.

But the thing about fake-dating is that it can feel a lot like real-dating.

 

I wasn’t completely with this book at the start – Luc is a bit of a disaster in more  ways than one, and I was looking forward to the stability Oliver was sure to bring. And what’dya know, he did.

The good:

  • Once I got into the groove of things I laughed out loud every few chapters – some of the characters are ridiculous and over the top in good ways. If you’re looking for a rom com bordering on lovingly silly this book is for you.
  • There’s complex emotional stuff going on here with both heroes, including with their families. Luc and Oliver support each other as best as they are able and pull away when they need a break, but it’s never left to fester long. Both are dealing with some fairly major stuff and we get to watch them talk about it and grow, both as people and in the relationship.
  • I love that some situations aren’t cut and dry – hard conversations with no right answers. No best way to console someone who’s crying his heart out. But our heroes do their best and it ends up being enough. More than enough.
  • I think it’s interesting that while Luc and Oliver are both gay they surround themselves with completely different kinds of people. Luc found a home in the LGBTQIA+ community when he needed one most, while Oliver’s circle of friends is almost completely straight. Both are presented as okay and valid – having mostly straight friends doesn’t make you any less queer.
  • The side characters are fleshed out and interesting. From Luc’s parents to the posh donors at a charity party, we get a solid feel for everyone as people.
  • There’s a nod at how difficult family can be when a couple decides they don’t want children (‘but we want grandbabies!’) and as someone without children myself I appreciate it.
  • Thanks to libro.fm I received the audiobook for review and my god, Joe Jameson does an amazing job with the narration. Luc’s fumbling is natural, more natural than it looks printed on a page, Oliver’s baritone is sexy, and the voices of women, especially, blew me away.

The neither-good-nor-bad:

  • The sex is infrequent and of the fade-to-black variety. If you’ve been wanting to try an m/m romance but were looking for something more tame in that department, this book is a great place to start.

The not-so-good:

  • I’m sad that we don’t have any chapters from Oliver’s point of view. At first I wanted to get out of Luc’s head for a while – he really is a disaster in the beginning – but I think seeing some scenes from Oliver’s POV would have added some depth.
  • It wouldn’t have worked for plot reasons, but I was dying to see Oliver get mixed up in Luc’s group of friends. How would he react? Would he become looser or clam up? Love them or like them? (There are no other options, natch.)
  • Some scenes got long, especially in posh dining rooms.

I ended up reading Boyfriend Material in a combination of print and audio and with such amazing narration I ended up liking the latter more. Three stars for the print, four stars for the audio, averaging out to 3.5 overall.

Thanks to Sourcebooks Casablanca and libro.fm for providing review copies.

Binding Shadows by Jasmine Silvera (Tooth and Spell #1)

49231123._SY475_Hunting lost books is more than a job; it’s a way for Barbara to hide her powers in the mundane world of the university library. But the prickly new professor in charge of her latest assignment proves more than he seems, and rules are no match for her growing fascination.

After years of battling to cage the beast within him, Tobias returns to Prague and the safety of his pack of brothers. But keeping his family safe means never revealing his dual nature, not even to the irresistible research assistant with a nose for rare books.

Now, a 400-year-old witch’s revenge threatens to reveal everything they’ve concealed. Trapped between a witch and a necromancer, Barbara and Tobias must choose: embrace the powers that could expose them or allow their secrets to destroy them.

Review:

3.5 stars

I have been all about paranormal and science fiction romance lately so when the author asked if I’d be interested in a werewolf romance featuring people of color, written by a person of color I was all, yes please!

The reading process was utterly enjoyable – interesting characters in a world with a unique magic system, with enemies and happenings left and right. As soon as I finished I thought, four stars!, but unfortunately the book hasn’t stuck with me.

Why, though? I’m not sure. It’s probably me – a pandemic ramped up while I read this and heaven knows I was distracted. Regardless, I am excited to return to the world whenever the next book comes out, and hopefully I have a bit more brain space to give it its proper due.

Thanks to the author for providing a review copy.

Just Like That by Cole McCade (Albin Academy #1)

49875508._SY475_Summer Hemlock never meant to come back to Omen, Massachusetts. But with his mother in need of help, Summer has no choice but to return to his hometown, take up a teaching residency at the Albin Academy boarding school—and work directly under the man who made his teenage years miserable.

Forbidding, aloof, commanding: psychology instructor Iseya is a cipher who’s always fascinated and intimidated shy, anxious Summer. But that fascination turns into something more when the older man challenges Summer to be brave. What starts as a daily game to reward Summer with a kiss for every obstacle overcome turns passionate, and a professional relationship turns quickly personal.

Yet Iseya’s walls of grief may be too high for someone like Summer to climb…until Summer’s infectious warmth shows Fox everything he’s been missing in life.

Review:

Just Like That is this month’s addition to the Carina Adores line, huzzah! I’ve been meaning to read McCade and this is a fine introduction.

Before I go any further I want to point out that there are tropes with squick potential including age gap (24/pushing 50) and the fact that this is a teacher/former student romance. The content warnings are detailed at the front, but I especially want to point out anxiety (including a panic attack on the page) and suicidal ideation.

The romance is hurt/comfort in both directions – Summer has a bright, soft personality and is continuing a lifetime struggle with anxiety, while Fox has built up prickly armor around a traumatic event from his past. Both are psychology teachers, so it should be no surprise that the conflict is entirely internal. Expect lots of talking and ruminating with a fair side of angst.

Let’s start with the good, at least for me. McCade’s writing is descriptive and flowery, and it won’t be for everyone. It was just what I wanted right now, though – flowing and lyrical in a way that felt comforting.

Fox is half-Japanese/half-Western and grew up in Japan to age 14. I found one small bobble in the Japanese culture references, which is pretty good considering how much authors usually get wrong.

As for the not-so-good, the believability isn’t quite there for me. Fox and Summer have make out sessions in their classroom on the regular, the assistant principal doesn’t even blink an eye when he walks in on them. There’s a side character that shares living space with Summer, but he disappears as soon as he’s not needed for the plot. And while I get the romance, I’m not completely sold on Summer and Fox as a couple.

Speaking of, to the reviewers saying that a formerly straight guy goes gay for his student – stop. Fox never said he was straight. There is something called bisexuality, let’s not forget it.

Between the squick potential and the writing style it’s hard to recommend Just Like That to everyone, but I’m sure it will have its fans. I’m looking forward to reading another book by McCade to get a better feel for what he can do.

Thanks to Carina Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh (Foreigner #1)

13274939The first book in C.J. Cherryh’s eponymous series, Foreigner begins an epic tale of the survivors of a lost spacecraft who crash-land on a planet inhabited by a hostile, sentient alien race.

From its beginnings as a human-alien story of first contact, the Foreigner series has become a true science fiction odyssey, following a civilization from the age of steam through early space flight to confrontations with other alien species in distant sectors of space.

Review:

Foreigner is my first foray into Cherryh’s work and the beginning sucked me in. A lost spaceship is stranded in orbit around a planet that supports life. They know they shouldn’t disrupt the native peoples but after years and years of sticking it out they send a few folks down, and then a few more.

First contact does not go as planned, but now Atevi and humans have an uneasy peace. The translator/ambassador between the two races is our main character Bren. It’s a stressful but quiet job spent attending meetings, filing reports, and trying to understand Atevi culture and language as best he can. One day his life is put in danger, though, and the story spirals from there.

The good:

  • Cherryh’s worldbuilding is wonderful. We learn tons of detail about Atevi language and history in passages that could feel like info dumps, but don’t. She’s thought things out in great detail, from how Atevi language influences their thought (there’s no word for “trust” or “friend”) to how such different cultures would exchange information over time.
  • Likewise, the characters are complex and the emotional beats ring true. Some people go through a heckuva lot over the course of the novel and they get just as mad and frustrated and sad as you would expect.
  • The beginning and the end of the book, especially, are exciting and kept me glued to the page.
  • I’m curious about and invested in this world.

The good-for-me:

  • I buddy read Foreigner with Rachel from Kalanadi which was amazing. She has read through much of the series before and provided context and encouragement when I needed it.

The not-so-good:

  • Once things get set into motion the reader is presented with a million things to puzzle over and wonder about but precious few answers. This, combined with Bren having next to no agency, made the middle third a little tough to get through. At the end of Book Three, Chapter Ten, though, things click into place and the meaning of many earlier events comes into focus. It was worth it for me, but may be annoying to some.
  • One way the Atevi are othered is that they have jet black skin, and that didn’t sit well with me, especially at first. Once we learn more of the history it’s obvious that the Atevi in no way correspond to people of color on Earth, but it’s not the best look. The book did come out in 1994, so keep that in mind, as well.
  • …it doesn’t help that the humans are all super duper white, though.

There are a lot of details to keep straight so I’ll be diving into book two, Invader, right away. Apparently Cherryh wrote the books of this series as trilogies, so I’m curious to see how the three book arc shakes out.

Crux by H.E. Trent (Jekh Saga #2)

32335970._SY475_Erin McGarry fears she’s becoming the very thing she hates. She travelled to the planet Jekh to get her big sister, Courtney, out of a jam, and now Erin has become a colonist, too. To complicate her ordeal further, as one of very few women on a planet of desperate men, people expect Erin to pick a lover – or two – and settle down. With the Jekhan race having nearly been obliterated by Terran colonists, Erin refuses to help further dilute their culture. But at least two men think Erin’s objections don’t hold water….

Review:

This felt solid, largely because the heavy worldbuilding was taken care of in book one. I love the overarching plot, the themes of colonization and how best to rebuild a society that’s in trouble at a genetic level. The issues explored hark back to historical situations in the US but are completely different at the same time.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the romance, however. I wasn’t on board with Esteben because while he and Erin have a power exchange-esque dynamic it’s never discussed as such. As a result it feels creepy and kind of wrong, especially compared to her sweet relationship with swoon-worthy Headron.

There are a couple of elements that carried over from the first book that I wish didn’t, including native English speakers blithely using hard to understand idioms in front of people learning the language. I find it disingenuous that Erin and Courtney care so much about preserving Jekhan culture but don’t bother to learn their language, not even single words. They spend a lot of time reflecting on their position as colonizers, and at the same time expect all Jekhans to speak perfect English. GAH.

All that being said I’m excited to read the next book. I’m not sure the romance (m/f, not m/m/f) will be for me, but the large-scale story has me hooked.

Well Met by Jen DeLuca (Well Met #1)

43189874._SY475_Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The faire is Simon’s family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?

Review:

I was excited to read this book after hearing some wonderful reviews, but I have to admit, for the first 40% I was wondering what the fuss was about.

The beginning is all first book awkwardness, the scaffolding of an enemies-to-lovers romance bare and hanging in the wind. Simon is shown as an arse early and often, and other plot elements are predictable. The love triangle fake out dude, the reason Simon’s brother left – all incredibly obvious, at least to me.

But once the Ren Faire starts, look out! Simon’s character, a swashbuckling pirate, is out to woo Emily’s character, a tavern wrench. Sparks fly, but as soon as they get out of their costumes it’s back to the bickering status quo.

These two have plenty of stuff happening in their real lives – Emily was recently dumped in an ugly way by her near-fiancee, and Simon feels like his life has been set into motion for him with no choice but to go with the flow. The Faire lets them shed the baggage, but the real trick is working through that emotional load once the festival is over.

There’s a lot to like – competence porn, fun secondary characters, grand gestures, and good grovel when it’s required. Hot sex, dramatic human chess match scenes, and people talking through their problems? All here.

I wasn’t a fan of Emily’s thinking near the end, though. She’s suddenly riddled with misgivings, questioning and misinterpreting every little thing that’s said to her by both Simon and others. I’ve encountered this in several romances recently so I may be more sensitive to it, but I’m not a fan of driving conflict by having the heroine think, ‘he doesn’t love me after all’ after a single stray comment. The women are strong until they get buried in self-doubt. Gah.

Still, this is a strong showing for a debut. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series – several of the secondary characters are due their own Happily Ever Afters, methinks.

Thanks to Berkley and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

43092891Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. Another item? Do something bad. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.

Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.

But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior…

Review:

Trigger warning for discussion of a previous abusive relationship.

How I love this book. Let me count the ways.

The good:

  • First and foremost is the rep. Some of it is own voices (both Hibbert and the heroine are Black British women with chronic pain) but every single bit feels well considered and empathetic and full of love. Other rep includes fibromyalgia, migraines, fat rep, positive depictions of therapy, and other stuff I’m surely missing. There are some great reviews by own voices folks, which gives me even more confidence, and just seeing the way she handles wearing glasses made me, as a useless-without-my-specs person, feel seen.
  • The book is British without screaming it. The spelling is American (I’m going to guess that was the publisher’s call) but there’s much more emphasis on class differences than you find in American romance, or even Britain-set romances written by Americans. It felt real and not the least bit stereotypical.
  • Their relationship is a slow burn in the way I like – getting to know the other person, and finding them more attractive the more you know.
  • Red is a-ma-zing. He expertly walks a line of being considerate of Chloe and her limitations without being mothering or infantilizing her. His consent is first rate and the respect and love he feels are all over the page.
  • There is a cat and it’s actually important to the plot, not forgotten as the romance heats up. Huzzah!
  • The banter is good, but the communication is better. There’s a bit of foot-in-mouth syndrome going on, but after the initial anger passes they get together to talk things out like adults. I am not a fan of Big Miscommunications, so the way romance has been evolving away from it has been amazing.
  • Do you need a warm hug right now? Of course you do. This book is that warm hug, full of love.

I inhaled Get a Life, Chloe Brown during a 24 hour readathon and have no regrets on the binge. It’s an easy recommendation for almost any romance fan, as well as for those who are thinking about getting into the genre.

Thanks to Avon and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

873920Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe’s capitals, part swan…or all fake?

Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extraordinaire and star of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover the truth behind her identity. Dazzled by his love for her, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser has no choice but to join the circus on its magical tour through turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, St Petersburg and Siberia.

Review:

I know this is a well-loved book but man, I couldn’t get into it and ended up hate reading near the end. My only consolation was that my buddy reader Cara agreed with me!

The setup and the underlying question are interesting – is Fevvers actually a woman with wings, or simply a sideshow fraud? My interest was quickly worn away as journalist Walser joins the circus in order to find out. The plot jumps the rails (literally), and by Part Three I ceased caring about the mystery – I just wanted it to be over.

Now and again there are beautiful images and nice turns of phrase, but most of the time it feels like Carter is trying to be clever, waving and pointing at her sentences as she does so. “Look at this! Isn’t it great?” Sometimes it is, but most of the of the time I’m nonplussed.

One and a half stars rounded up to two – not for me at. all.

Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

37969723._SY475_The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. Briseis was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war, all of them erased by history. Pat Barker offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations.

Review:

This was my first read for the Booktube Prize finals and I gotta say, my expectations were pretty low. I’m not a fan of Greek mythology, though I have been pleasantly surprised in the past (see: The Rose). And while the book is obviously good enough to make it through to the finals, I haven’t heard anything in reviews that made me want to pick it up.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed myself, following the actions of Achilles and the Greeks as they try to take Troy. The plot is solidly put together and I kept getting drawn back to the page in spite of myself.

I’m lukewarm on the writing because it doesn’t stick to a historical tone, throwing in modern idioms and speech. On one level this may be a good thing, making the text more accessible, but it pulled me out of the setting.

The hype around this book stresses that it focuses on the women, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s a re-framing of the myth, but not a reclaiming. Achilles is very much the hero and the protagonist, and hearing the tale from Briseis, standing in the corner, doesn’t change that. Everyone once in a while, though, a passage shines:

As later Priam comes secretly to the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the return of his son Hector’s body, he says: “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.”
Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”

This ended up being a book that I’m glad I read as it was an interesting introduction to The Iliad. I put The Song of Achilles on my TBR as soon as I finished because the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles was one of my favorite parts of the myth. Not amazing enough to rise to the top of my ranking, but enjoyable all the same.