Alexis Hall

Review: A Lady for a Duke by Alexis Hall

02:00

Title: A Lady for a Duke 
Author: Alexis Hall
Genre/Themes: historical romance / queer / trans heroine
Release Date: 24 May 2022

Author links: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Goodreads

My Rating: 5 Stars


Blurb 

When Viola Caroll was presumed dead at Waterloo she took the opportunity to live, at last, as herself. But freedom does not come without a price, and Viola paid for hers with the loss of her wealth, her title, and her closest companion, Justin de Vere, the Duke of Gracewood.

Only when their families reconnect, years after the war, does Viola learn how deep that loss truly was. Shattered without her, Gracewood has retreated so far into grief that Viola barely recognises her old friend in the lonely, brooding man he has become.

As Viola strives to bring Gracewood back to himself, fresh desires give new names to old feelings. Feelings that would have been impossible once and may be impossible still, but which Viola cannot deny. Even if they cost her everything, all over again.

Review 

Note: I am on friendly terms with the author on social media

Note 2: Alexis Hall's book usually touch me deeply and my reviews end up mostly personal reactions to the books rather than proper reviews and this one is no different.

Another gorgeous, gorgeous book by my favourite author!

This is a historical romance with a trans heroine that is pretty angsty and has dark moments but overall is hopeful and full of promise for happiness.

Viola has my heart from the start. Gracewood needed some time to grow and become the duke he was meant to be and I ended loving him as well. Together they are magic. Despite some hurts, despite the difficulties real poses in front of their happiness, they manage to achieve it.

The story was super angsty at the beginning things seem impossible - Gracewood has given up on life after losing his best friend at the battlefield. He is a disabled veteran, with serious childhood and war traumas, barely hanging onto life. Viola is a trans woman, a lady's companion to her sister-in-law, trying to find her place in a hostile world.

There is so much hurt and sadness between Viola and Gracewood, neither of them can a see a future for them, either as friends or as lovers. The deep love between best friends since childhood well into their adulthood grows into a romantic connection and sexual attraction and it was beautiful thing to see it developing on page.

This story is not about transphobia and I am so happy the author made that choice. Viola has a loving and supporting family. The focus was on her and how she navigates the world as a trans woman, rather than on how the world sees / reacts to her. These is no forced coming out, no gender-based violence, and I love that. The author shows the same kindness to Gracewood - his injury is a serious issue for him, his PTSD (undiagnosed and untreated at the time) causes him a lot of discomfort but we never really see other characters humiliating or degrading him over it.

The tension is high but all the physical violence is mostly in the past both for Viola and Gracewood. There is a fighting scene that was quite brutal but I felt it was balanced out by a number of tender moments (Viola and Gracewood dancing, her shaving him).

I rarely comment on sex scenes in my reviews but I want to say how much I liked the one in this book. It was so fitting to the characters, something that I don't find very often in romance. They were the same Viola and Gracewood that see in the rest of the story, they didn't magically transform into someone else. There was desire and need but also hesitancy and trepidation. They talked things through, explored each other, it was beautiful and touching.

I felt that despite the angst and trauma this was a very romantic romance - tender and intimate, the love confessions were amazing, his marriage proposal was all tenderness and care and forever kind of love with a touch of humour.

I appreciate the story as a whole with all the side characters. Viola and Gracewood are two soulmates who find a way to the HEA they want in a world that is ostensibly not made for them. But from the start they have people in their lives that love and support them and show them that happiness is a possibility. Badger and Louise are in happy marriage, Miranda finds a way to live the life she wants. I found all this very happy making and hopeful, exactly what I want in my romances.

The story ends with the perfect epilogue. Viola gets what she wants - marriage and children and a big sweeping love story.

CW: war trauma, violence, kidnapping, PTSD, war injury, drug abuse


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1001 nights

The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

02:30

Title: The Stardust Thief 
Author: Chelsea Abdullah
Date of publication: 17 May 2022
Genre / Themes: Fantasy / Jinns 

Author's links: Website / Twitter / Instagram / Goodreads

My rating: 5 Stars



Blurb 

Neither here nor there, but long ago…

Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.

With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.


Review

This is a debut adult fantasy inspired by 1001 Nights stories that I enjoyed a lot. It's an engaging adventure story, fast paced, entertaining, full of magic - jinns and ifrits and magical relics

The world building is outstanding, it transports right into the desert in a very real and very magical way. The desert with all its secrets and magic was like a living character in the story. The magic system is not overly complicated, it made sense to make and was easy to follow which is not always the case in high fantasy.

We have a group of different, even opposite characters brought together by the circumstances together on a quest through the desert. Aisha stood out to me with her loyalty and revenge that fueled her action in the story. She starts a a jinn hunter with a single focus on her mission only to learn things are not always what they seem to be, there is more than loyalty and revenge. There is friendship and trust and tentative even if elusive happiness.

Mazen is a gentle, bookish second son of the sultan, carrying his mother's love of love of stories, dreaming of adventure but being completely ill-suited for it - he is shy, pampered and protected. He doesn't become a fearless warrior but he learns how to go for things he wants, he learns to act instead of always hiding. He suffers betrayal and loss but gains friends (sort of) that he wants to keep safe and protect.

Loulie - is everything - a force of nature unstoppable, independent but also vulnerable, we see her completely defeated and in despair only to find her strength again, not without the help of Qadir. Her resilience is formidable but it's her vulnerability that broke me. Her grief, her sense of loss, of her own self included, was heart-breaking.

Qadir is a very interesting character in this story - Loulie's sullen bodyguard for those who don't know them but in truth he is her most trusted friend, her guardian. Yet, he remains mysterious, secretive almost till the end. Theirs was really the most interesting relationship for me. They are very close, they are each other's destiny (not in a romantic sense). He needs her as much as she needs him.

The story plays a lot with lies and deception, the different personas the characters assume and I loved seeing that the world is not just black and white, it's all about nuance. People have many sides, they are always changing and growing.

Another central element in the story was the storytelling itself, the power of words to shape our world. I have always loved 1001 Nights for the magic of the stories Scheherazade tells, they create worlds and save lives. Mazen is Scheherazade's son and he carries her heritage as a storyteller.

There is no cliffhanger but the ending made me excited for the sequel. The desert has so many more stories to tell. Mazen and Loulie's adventure is far from over.

CW: parental death, patricide, violence, torture

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Historical Romance

Review: To Marry and to Meddle by Martha Waters

02:30

Title: To Marry and to Meddle
Author: Martha Waters
Date of publication: 5 Apr 2022
Genre / Themes: Historical Romance / Romcom

Author's links: Website / Twitter / Instagram / Goodreads

My rating: 5 Stars



Blurb 

Lady Emily Turner has been a debutante for six seasons now and should have long settled into a suitable marriage. However, due to her father’s large debts, her only suitor is the persistent and odious owner of her father’s favorite gambling house. Meanwhile, Lord Julian Belfry, the second son of a marquess, has scandalized society as an actor and owner of a theater—the kind of establishment where men take their mistresses, but not their wives. When their lives intersect at a house party, Lord Julian hatches a plan to benefit them both.

With a marriage of convenience, Emily will use her society connections to promote the theater to a more respectable clientele and Julian will take her out from under the shadows of her father’s unsavory associates. But they soon realize they have very different plans for their marriage—Julian wants Emily to remain a society wife, while Emily discovers an interest in the theater. But when a fleeing actress, murderous kitten, and meddlesome friends enter the fray, Emily and Julian will have to confront the fact that their marriage of convenience comes with rather inconvenient feelings.

Review 

I have enjoyed the first two books in the series immensely and was super excited for the third one. It absolutely lived up to my expectations and went well beyond them. It's delightful, fun and whimsical. there are some ridiculous shenanigans though less than in the previous two book. There is a stronger internal conflict coupled with great banter and awesome friendships. I appreciate how the whole series avoids series drama and gives us a doze of pure fun instead. 

I was already a fan of both MCs whom we meet back in book 1. Belfry was interesting and just a cinnamon roll under the disguise of a rogue but it was Emily was stole the show for me. I liked everything about her, her journey to be herself (that she could only undertake once she got married), her curiosity, her boldness couple with occasional doubts and hesitation. 

It was the fact that Belfry was he was (supportive, kind, open-minded) that in turned led Emily to be more outspoken, more confident in her opinions and desires.

As I have come to expect, the writing was great, the story flowed easily and had me laugh out loud numerous times. The supporting cast was interesting, full-fledged even if we see them for just a couple of pages.

Ii don't read enough historical romance to compare this story to other books in the subgenre but I am very much becoming a fan of the author and I am excited to see what she will write next. I hope there will be more books in the series, I desperately want to read West and Sophie's story

In short, this is an exquisite historical romance - passionate marriage of convenience, some friendly shenanigans, a bit of family drama. I can highly recommend the whole series (so far :) if you are looking for an escapist, feel-good historical romance, I highly recommend all three books. 

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PS: The image of the most glaringly yellow vest in the world will forever me a symbol of love to me






Dark

Review: Only a Monster by Vanessa Len

02:59

Title: Only a Monster
Author: Vanessa Len
Date of publication: 17 Feb 2022
Genre: Urban fantasy

Author's links:

My rating: 5 stars





Blurb

In every story there is a hero and a monster.

It should have been the perfect summer. Sent to stay with her late mother's eccentric family in London, sixteen-year-old Joan is determined to enjoy herself. She loves her nerdy job at the historic Holland House, and when her super cute co-worker Nick asks her on a date, it feels like everything is falling into place.

Then a Good Samaritan attempt gone wrong sends Joan spinning through time, and her life quickly begins to unravel.
Her family aren't just eccentric: they're monsters, with terrifying, hidden powers.And Nick isn't just a cute boy: he's a legendary monster slayer, who will do anything to bring them down.

As she battles Nick, Joan is forced to work with the beautiful and ruthless Aaron Oliver, heir to a monster family that hates her own. She'll have to embrace her own monstrousness if she is to save herself, and her family. Because in this story . . .

. . . she is not the hero.

Review

What an absolutely gorgeous book!

On the surface the story is similar to most YA (a girl discovers magical/monster world, goes on a quest, is thorn between two boys, finds her true self) but the author took the familiar tropes and twisted on its head making a truly original work.

This is dark, not bloody or gory but really dark and I was hesitant to pick it because of that (all the red and black on the US cover made think it might not be the book for me) but now I am so glad I trusted my friends who praised it highly and decided to read it.

It's a mesmerizing tale, not so much suspenseful as full of unexpectedness. I could neve predict what will happen next, yet when it did, it all felt natural, fitting to the story and the characters. Masterful writing and plotting, even more impressive considering it is a debut.

I loved the writing and the rich world building, London, where I have never been - modern and old, 90s fashion that I am all too familiar with.

Beside the great plot development, it is the characters that really stood out to me. Morally grey, complex, changing and growing. The story is effortlessly diverse, queer (so happy we got happy gays, and not bury the guys side plot).

Joan is amazing. The story is told from her POV and we really got to experience it all - her confusion, pain and hope and determination. What I loved most about her was her innocence, her naivete of sorts that made her never give up and always look for solutions, helped her see things outside the rules of the monster world.

Aaron and Nick were fantastic characters as well. So were all the side characters. It's one of those stories where readers feel the need to pick teams and I am team Aaron all the way. I understand Nick might be her soulmate and I have all the sympathy for him but Aaron completely won me over. We know less about him, we got only bits from his past and the trauma but he was someone who knew what the consequences would be and still did what he did for Joan. That is jus the ultimate love for me (in books at least).

It's a story about the nature of memories, the process of remembering and forgetting and this led to some powerful scenes that brought tears to my eyes. It's a fast paced adventure, there was no time to feel melancholic or contemplative while reading, I was in a hurry to see what would happen next. After I finished it though, I had all the time to think about my own memories. I love it when a book stays with me like that after I finish it

The story opens with a gentle start and then boom! magic and it's go, go, go from there till the very end. The rare moments of calms were so achingly tender, intimate, I will cherish them forever.

The story is self contained, yet full of possibilities. I have been discussing it with friends and enjoy seeing the different interpretation, details I missed and others saw and vice versa, theories of what might happen next.

In short, this book has been a glorious reading adventure and I highly recommend it to fans of YA Urban fantasy.

CW: murder, violence, blood, imprisonment, torture, brainwashing, death of parents of MCs (in the past)

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Beth O'Leary

Review: The No-Show by Beth O'Leary

02:30

Title: The No-Show
Author: Beth O'Leary 
Date of publication: 12 April 2022
Genre: Women's Fiction, UK setting 

Author's links:

My rating: 3 stars





Blurb

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

8.52. Siobhan's been 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 with Joseph on Valentine's Day surely means something ... so where is he?

14.43. 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 grown-up life is finally falling into place: she's been dating Carter for five months now and things are getting serious. But why hasn't he shown up?

18.30. Joseph Carter agreed to be Jane's fake boyfriend at a colleague's 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 brilliantly funny, heart-breaking and joyful new novel from Beth O'Leary about dating, and waiting, and the ways love can find us. An utterly extraordinary tearjerker of a book, this is O'Leary's most ambitious novel yet.

Review 

Prefacing this review to say that I read an eARC of the UK edition, so I went in expecting women's fiction and this is pretty much what I got. I will into more details about this towards the end of my review.

I will keep my review vague to avoid spoilers because this story relies on the unexpected and the reader needs to figure things for themselves as the story develops,.

This was a first for me by this author and I found it very readable with strong mystery/suspense element. It is masterfully written with an interesting choice of story-telling, keeping the reader questioning, guessing, trying to figure out what is happening. I liked the disjointed timeline, the unreliability of all the narrators kept me guessing and I was completely engrossed in the story.

I found all the characters to be very well drawn, with strong, distinctive voice, each of them on its own unique journey. Joseph, on the other hand, remained elusive till the final section of the book. It was done on purpose to keep the mystery but it also made it harder for me to relate to him.

I really, really liked the women's stories, different but also similar in their focus on love/family/professional success. They were touching stories about wanting, and loving, the curveballs life throws at us and the way we dodge or take them head on.

At the center of it all were the lies we tell - to others and to ourselves, the time we stay silent for our own sake or for others and ultimately gaining the strength to speak up.

After this praise, I have come to the point near the end that completely threw me off and I couldn't quite accept it. Spoilers ahead:

A main characters dies tragically and then the timelines come together to focus on the hero. I didn't see it coming and I wish the author made a different choice regarding this character. It was framed as necessary for the overall story to happen but deep down it felt wrong to me to kill a main character struggling with mental illness just when they were on the mend and seeing a path forward towards the future they wanted. I felt cheated, this death tainted the HEA for the other characters.

I still want to read more from this author, it is just that I had different expectations of this book based on the blurb.

Now, I want to discuss the marketing of this book. The US blurb describes it as "cute romcom" and I feel this disingenuous and misleading, even harmful to the romance readers. I didn't find the story funny beside a couple of jokes here and there but humour is subjective and I don't want to debate the comedy aspect. My issue is that this story despite being very emotional and moving, exploring different romantic relationships, is not a romance because there is no HEA for all MCs.

CW: mental breakdown, sexual predator, manipulation, side character with dementia, death of an MC

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