Sunday, 18 February 2018

#CBR10 Book 8: "A Hope Divided" by Alyssa Cole

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Until she was thirteen, Marlie Lynch grew up with her mother, a freed slave and wise woman. After her white father's death, she was taken in by her half-sister and has been able to combine her knowledge of herbs and root magic with scientific principles. Three years into the American Civil War, Marlie and her half-sister are working surreptitiously to aid the cause of the Union, giving aid to runaway slaves and Freedmen, taking medicine and food to imprisoned Union soldiers, and with Marlie sending coded messages about troop movements and the Confederate Home Guard to the Resistance group the Loyal League.

Unfortunately for Marlie and her sister, their various anti-Confederate enterprises are endangered when Marlie's half-brother (and technically the heir) returns home with his unpleasant and racist wife, who is deeply loyal to the Confederate cause, to the point where she offers to let the Home Guard use their estate as their base of operations. While Marlie has always been a free woman, and has been treated more or less as a part of the family, she now sees how little protection she actually has, and how easily she can be ignored and mistreated because of the colour of her skin. Only a few trusted servants know that Marlie is hiding an escaping Union soldier, Ewan McCall in the laboratory in her private quarters. While McCall was imprisoned in the camp nearby, he and Marlie would exchange notes discussing ethics and philosophy. There was an attraction between them even before Marlie came to shelter him from danger in her rooms.

As Marlie's evil sister-in-law grows increasingly more controlling and jealous, and the cruel Captain of the Home Guard turns his eye more closely to Marlie, whose independence and spirit offends him, it becomes clear that Ewan can no longer stay on the Lynch farm and will have to escape. When Marlie's freedom is suddenly threatened as well, she has no choice but to go with him. While Marlie wants to believe that Ewan's feelings for her are true, she's very conflicted because of her own background, a product of the unequal union a slave-owner and her then enslaved mother. Can a relationship with a white man ever really last, no matter how sensitive and philosophical he seems?  Marlie has also dedicated her life to the healing and helping of others; how will she react when she discovers that Ewan was a torturer before he was taken prisoner?

This is the second book in Alyssa Cole's historical romance series The Loyal League, set during the American Civil War. As with the first book in the series, An Extraordinary Union, which I read back in July of last year, A Hope Divided was widely loved and gushed over on several romance review sites I follow. In the first book, we meet spies Malcolm McCall and Elle Burns, who work to bring down the Confederacy once and for all. Ewan McCall, the hero in this book, is Malcolm's younger brother, who clearly doesn't have the social graces of his brother (and frankly comes across as if he may be neuro-atypical). While he doesn't really want to fight, he believes in the Union cause enough that he joined the army, and was quickly discovered to have a knack for interrogation, due to his dispassionate and seemingly unfeeling manner. Ewan seems to have been very good at torture, but it's not something he enjoyed or is proud of, and he feels especially ashamed of having lost control of his temper and emotions when questioning the sadistic Captain of the Home Guard who later comes to plague Marlie's existence. 

Marlie also works for the Loyal League, but in a much less active role than Elle or Malcolm. With her white half-sister and some of their most loyal servants (all freed slaves), they do their best to help runaway slaves and Union soldiers get to the northern states, and Marlie sends coded letters, and feeds and treats wounded imprisoned Union soldiers, but otherwise has lived a very sheltered life on the family's farm. Her skin colour has always kept her from being a fully accepted part of the Lynch family, but she discovers how lucky and privileged her life has been when her half-brother's vicious and prejudiced wife takes control of the household and invites brutal and ruthless Home Guard soldiers to stay in their home. Her status as an intelligent and independent freedwoman and half white means nothing to these people and she grows increasingly more despairing due to their treatment of her.

Ms Cole has clearly done a huge amount of research for these books, and as I personally don't actually know the time period very well, it was very interesting to me to learn about all the various ways many of the people of the Southern states actually worked against the Confederate cause. While the romance between Marlie and Ewan is central to the book, both have a lot of emotional baggage before they are able to commit to anyone else, even before you add in the complications of an illegal bi-racial union. At one point in the story, I was honestly not sure how exactly they were going to find a satisfying HEA together, but I am very glad that they did.

While the first book in the series was good, I think I liked this one even more, and will be excited to see what Alyssa Cole has in store in her next novel (I'm wondering if the next book will be about the third McCall sibling, the sister). 

Judging a book by its cover: Now, this is a lovely cover for a romance novel and I really like it. The cover model portraying our heroine looks confidently out at the reader, surrounded by the herbs and tools of her trade. I cannot speak for the accuracy of her dress (Civil War era America not being one of the historical periods I know a lot about), but there's no unlaced back, nor implausible amounts of skirts (while still showing a remarkable amount of leg). Just a beautiful, confident woman at her work desk. I don't know if Ms. Cole has any say in the choices of these covers (most authors don't), but either way, she's lucked out.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

#CBR10 Book 7: "The Soldier's Scoundrel" by Cat Sebastian

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Jack Turner and his siblings grew up in the slums of London and they have all worked hard to get out from under the criminal enterprises of their parents. Jack's sister is a dressmaker, while his brother seems to keep very posh and rarefied company these days. Jack uses some of the skills he's learned over the years to help women in trouble. He can locate stolen items, deal with blackmail claims, even make an unpleasant husband disappear to somewhere far away - his only rule is that the women who hire him not question his methods, and let him deal with the guilty party, without involving the authorities. His services are not available to gentlemen or nobles of any kind.

So when Oliver Rivington, formerly a captain in his Majesty's army, shows up in Jack's offices, convinced that Jack has to be some sort of con artist who has swindled Oliver's sister out of a large sum of money, Jack wants nothing to do with him. He lets Oliver sit in on an interview with a Mrs Wraxhall, who claims she's being blackmailed and needs Jack's help. Still convinced that Jack Turner is a no-good scoundrel, Oliver takes it upon himself to befriend Mr. Wraxhall, to make sure Turner isn't able to take advantage of the couple, but he soon discovers, like Jack, that there is a lot more to Mrs. Wraxhall's dilemma than first meets the eye and while Oliver doesn't initially approve of the man and his methods, he also can't seem to stay away from him. Jack has no intention of getting involved with some pampered nobleman's son, but as they start investigating the case together, neither of them can deny their attraction.

This is Cat Sebastian's debut, and in the last year, I've seen so many positive reviews of this and her follow-up books on a number of websites. While there are quite a few authors out there who write M/M romance now, many of them self-publish. That Ms. Sebastian's books are actually published by Avon intrigued me (even if the covers of the books are usually quite bad) and when I found this and the sequel on sale, I snapped it up immediately. I've only now found the time to read one, and based on this book, I'm glad to have more to look forward to.

Both Jack and Oliver are well-rounded and interesting characters. Oliver has fought all over Europe during the Napoleonic war, and is thoroughly heart-sick of all the violence and deplorable behaviour he's been witness to. He struggles with a painful leg injury, and until he confronts Jack and gets more and more interested in both the man and his investigation, he's not really had a lot to focus on or care about.

Jack shares his office space and private rooms in a building with his sister, whose dressmaker studio seems to be on the ground floor. They share a servant and eat most of their meals together. It's quite clear that his sister cares deeply for Jack, but worries about him, especially his homosexual proclivities. That's one thing Jack and Oliver have in common, despite being different in so many other ways, not just social status. They both have very caring and possibly surprisingly, for the time period, supportive younger sisters, who don't seem to care with whom they fall in love, even when homosexuality among men was still very much illegal (obviously women couldn't be gay - some women just lived their whole lives as spinsters with other spinster companions - nothing strange going on there).

The plot of the book is quite slow, and while there is a mystery to be solved, it unfolds slowly, with Jack and Oliver travelling around the countryside getting more besotted with one another. It almost felt a bit jarring when the danger gets ramped up rather suddenly towards the end of the book, and there are gunshots and wounds to be tended. This is also one of those stories where one party is so very convinced of their unworthiness of the other that they do everything they can to convince their lover that their union is impossible and it takes far longer than should be necessary for them to actually find their HEA at the end.

I still liked the book a lot, and will eagerly be reading more of Ms. Sebastian's novels in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: I agree with Narfna, my book twin on the internet, that Avon just doesn't seem to know what to do when they have to put two men on the cover instead of the standard pairing of a man and a woman. First of all, neither of the cover models look particularly like anyone inside the book (although that's pretty par the course for any romance). Secondly, they both just look so awkward. If I hadn't seen the book and author raved about on a number of romance review sites, it's unlikely I'd have picked it up on my own.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

#CBR10 Book 6: "Speak Easy, Speak Love" by McKelle George

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From Goodreads, because I'm lazy, and it sums up the book nicely:

Six teenagers' lives intertwine during one thrilling summer full of romantic misunderstandings and dangerous deals in this sparkling retelling of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

After she is kicked out of boarding-school, seventeen-year-old Beatrice goes to her uncle's estate in Long Island. But Hey Nonny Nonny is more than just a rundown old mansion. Beatrice's cousin, Hero, runs a struggling speakeasy out of the basement - one that might not survive the summer. 

Along with Prince, a poor young man determined to prove his worth; his brother, John, a dark and dangerous agent of the local mob; Benedick, a handsome trust-fund kid trying to become a writer; and Maggie, a beautiful and talented singer; Beatrice and Hero throw all their efforts into planning a massive party to save the speakeasy. Despite all their worries, the summer is beautiful, love is in the air and Beatrice and Benedick are caught up in a romantic battle of wits that their friends may be quietly orchestrating in the background.

Hilariously clever and utterly charming, McKelle George's debut novel is full of intrigue and 1920s charm. 

In the end notes of this novel, McKelle George refers to Much Ado About Nothing as Shakespeare's most romantic play. I don't think she's wrong, and despite Hero being rather a drip in the play (and the way her storyline resolves isn't really romantic at all - she should have told Claudio where to stuff it), but the banter between Beatrice and Benedick is solid gold and one of the best examples of enemies to lovers I can think of. Back in December 2016, I read a modern YA adaptation of the play, The Only Thing Worse Than Me is You, which I liked a lot. When I saw this reviewed on Forever Young Adult, I was intrigued (1920s America is a time period I really don't know all that much about). What I can tell you (having read the end notes and seen the bibliography at the back of the book), Ms George seems to have really done her research before writing the novel.

The Lily Anderson modern adaptation was obviously a lot more loosely based on the play. Here, every chapter heading is taken from the play, and despite being set in a very different time period than the original, with a much more diverse cast, Speak Easy, Speak Love really does follow the major beats of the play very faithfully. In the original, it's clear that Beatrice and Benedick have a long history of bickering, here they meet for the first time towards the beginning of the novel. Beatrice wants to become a doctor, but money troubles has made it impossible for to complete her schooling. She cannot understand how Benedick can skip out on his final exams and blithely ignore his graduation, throwing away the privilege and opportunity he has because of his dreams of becoming a writer.

Margaret, or Maggie, is not Hero's faithful servant here, but an ambitious young black woman who dreams of becoming a jazz singer. In the play, John is pretty much an irredeemable villain, trying to ruin everything for everyone else for no particularly good reason (as far as the audience is told). Ms George has made him a much more complex character, although his motivations and the reasons for many of his actions are only gradually revealed, but his rivalry with his brother is a lot more nuanced and he's a lot more than just a stock bootlegging mob member. The author even finds a creative way to incorporate Dogberry and Verges, the rather silly comic relief characters in a believable way, which I was rather impressed with.

As I said, the whole "Hero is ruined" story strand of the original play is not one I'm overly fond of, so I was very interested in seeing how Ms. George was going to deal with it. In Lily Anderson's book, the "Hero" character is accused of cheating and temporarily expelled from her fancy prep school. In this book, I really liked the slightly convoluted way it came about that she was accused of faithlessness, and temporarily abandoned by some of her supporters, but even better how she is eventually and much more believably redeemed (no faked deaths here).

This is McKelle George's debut novel and I think she did a really good job with it. I'm absolutely going to keep an eye out for whatever she decides to write next.

Judging a book by its cover: While I'm not entirely sure why the stylised silhouettes dissolve into artful swirls of smoke below thigh level, I generally really like this cover. It's got an art deco feel that suits the Jazz Age/Prohibition/swinging 1920s era the book is set in. I'm not sure which of the characters the silhouettes are supposed to portray (there are three main romantic couples in this book, after all), but I can't imagine that pragmatic tomboy Beatrice would ever wear such an elaborate flowery headdress as the female cover model. Now if she was in overalls, maybe.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

#CBR10 Book 5: "Heart on Fire" by Amanda Bouchet

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is the third and final book in the trilogy, and will without a doubt contain spoilers for the earlier books in the series. Don't read this review if you want to remain unspoiled and aren't caught up with the previous two books. If you want to start at the beginning, book 1 (by far the best book in the series) is A Promise of Fire.

Cat and her warlord husband Griffin have defeated the rulers of tyrannical Tarva and united two thirds of the ancient realm of Thalyria. Their biggest challenge is still before them, however, with Cat's absolutely ruthless and megalomaniac mother ruling the third realm of Fisa with an iron fist. She's the only thing Cat truly fears and she's not about to let her long estranged daughter and the mortal Cat's chosen to share her life with topple her from her throne and remove her from power.

Before they can get far enough to mount an offencive against Fisa, it turns out that Cat and Griffin have challenges closer to home. Griffin's brother is none too happy about how his family's life has changed since Cat came into their lives and takes drastic steps to try to have her neutralised. It really doesn't go as he expects, but Griffin is left badly shaken by his betrayal (not to mention the revelation of some of the very, well divine, protectors Cat has had watching over her throughout her life).

Defeating the Queen of Fisa will take everything Cat and Griffin has, and it seems impossible that they are going to manage without losses along the way. It's quite clear that Cat has gifts from the gods much more powerful and unpredictable than she had been made aware of, but even they won't be much help if she doesn't learn to control them properly and get over her childhood terrors and survivor's guilt once and for all.

While I really enjoyed A Promise of Fire despite the rather problematic premise of Griffin kidnapping Cat and keeping her as his prisoner for much of the book, and Breath of Fire ended up being entertaining, again despite some problematic elements, and a rather unsatisfying beginning, sadly, I think this, the final book in the trilogy, is the weakest book in the series. The structure of the book is disjointed and after a lot of conflict of various kinds throughout the narrative, the final show-down ends up feeling rather anti-climactic and a bit too easy.

I've seen at least one other reviewer being annoyed at Cat and everyone around her refer to Cat's unborn (and yet creepily sentient) child as "Little Bean", which seems strange in a fantasy society with strong elements of Greek mythology. Pretty sure they had no idea what unborn children look like in the early stages of pregnancy. It felt very anachronistic.

I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting from the conclusion of this trilogy, but it seems to me that both Cat and Griffin should maybe have spent less time being conflicted about their relationship at this stage and there's a few decisions they make that border on TSTL, where they are lucky to get out alive, and their various supporters should have kicked their asses for going off into dangerous situations on their own. There's an extended section where Cat is separated from everyone else she cares about for overreaching her new god-given powers which, while interesting, I felt went on for too long.

I also wish we'd gotten a little bit more resolution on the lives on some of the supporting cast, as I'm pretty sure (based on the preview of at the end of the book of what appears to be a new science fiction series) that this is Bouchet's last entry into this world. I'd have liked to have some hint as to what was in store for Griffin's various brothers and sisters, who have been important supporting characters throughout the series, but alas, that was not to be.

Judging a book by its cover: While it's nice to see a muscular and powerful looking woman with a sword on a cover for a fantasy romance, I'm not sure what's up with the flaming sword (with pregnancy brain, I'm pretty forgetful, but I'm 98% sure Cat doesn't have a flaming sword at any point in the book) or all the pastel coloured...smoke? The pink and turquoise doesn't really fit in with the warm red and orange tones of the rest of the cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

#CBR10 Book 4: "The Cruel Prince" by Holly Black

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 12hrs 36mins
Rating: 4 stars

When Jude was seven years old, her life and those of her sisters, were irrevocably changed. Lord Madoc, the Faerie King's general, showed up on their doorstep, intent on claiming back his long-lost heir and Jude and Taryn's parents were murdered as a result. Madoc took them and his daughter Vivienne to Elfhame, where they were all raised as part of his household.

Most humans in Elfhame are servants (or even slaves) be-glamoured not to realise that they're trapped in a magical realm. That Madoc has demanded that Jude and Taryn be raised alongside the children of the Fae, and treated as his own kin, is highly unusual. Vivi, his actual daughter, still does her best to provoke and oppose her father and scoff at Faerie traditions as much as she can. The twins, on the other hand, always so very aware of their otherness, do their best to fit in and adapt. Ten years after the death of their parents, Jude is wanting to fight in the trials to prove herself worthy to become a knight, while Taryn wants to find a faerie lord to marry. Vivi, on the other hand, keeps sneaking off to the mortal realm and has a human girlfriend who she's keeping secret from Madoc and her stepmother.

While many of the Faerie youths that Jude and Taryn are educated alongside are happy to mostly ignore them, there are others who don't like humans, and resent that the twins are given such elevated status. They take extra pleasure in torturing them and making their lives difficult. Chief among these are Cardan, the High King's youngest son, and his little band of hangers-on. When Cardan discovers that Jude wants to compete in the Knight trials, he steps up his harassment. He wants Jude to promise to bow out, and she only becomes more determined to defy him. As Taryn just wants to be left in peace, she keeps trying to persuade her sister to bow to the prince, to no avail. The sisters start growing apart.

Madoc has no intention of allowing Jude to become a knight, he says she's not ruthless enough. So when Jude gets an offer from one of the older of the High King's sons, an offer that can help keep her safe from Cardan and some of his more ruthless allies, she accepts, even if it might put her in danger of a different kind. Then there's an announcement that the High King will step down, and cede the throne to one of his heirs. Will this trigger a power struggle among the King's children?

The first Holly Black book I ever read was Tithe, back in 2010. While my absolute favourite of her books is about vampires, Ms Black has written about faeries a number of times, and they are not the pretty and romantic kind, but rather the dark, dangerous, yet oh so seductive ones that humans should stay far away from, but rarely can. So when I heard that her new series was also going to be about the Fae, I was excited.

When I say that these are not your nice, delicate sort of faeries, that's no joke. Even in the prologue of the book, defenceless children see their parents brutally struck down and then they are abducted by their parents' murderer. Some of the stuff that Cardan and his cronies put Jude through in the book was genuinely difficult to read about and while Prince Cardan is eventually given just a little bit of depth and backstory to make you understand both his strange hatred of Jude and his malicious cruelty (probably because he's clearly going to become a much more central character in the sequel), most of his friends seem to be just sadistic creeps.

There's also several descriptions of the very callous treatment the majority of faeries have for humans in general. While under the current High King, there are rules about making bargains with mortals before they can be lured away to Elfheim, it's also made clear that this was not always the case, and there are many who would love to go back to the old ways, where humans could be easily lured away and exploited, until they waste away for lack of rest and proper nourishment. Humans are playthings to most of the Fae, and it's really only the high position that Madoc has at court and his power that means he can demand that his faithless human wife's offspring be raised as his own flesh and blood.

While I liked Jude a lot, I would have loved a bit more characterisation of her two sisters. While as someone who is extremely averse to conflict myself, you'd think I'd sympathise with Taryn, she comes across as almost too cowardly and willing to submit, and Vivi's chief trait seems to be sullen defiance. I hope we get more insight into both characters in the sequels, as I the stubborn and headstrong loner protagonist, without friends or support of any kind get a bit boring after a while. To be fair, Jude does find herself some interesting allies as the plot progresses, but it would be sad if she becomes entirely estranged with her actual sisters.

This is not really a romantic book (unlike several of Black's previous novels), but there are absolutely hints of possible romantic interests in the books to come. The main story in this book is Jude's desperate struggle to amass enough power and influence for herself that she can survive in Elfheim without being harassed, while having to deal with increasing amounts of complicated intrigue along the way. She's certainly in a very different position at the end of the book than at the beginning, with all manner of interesting implications for the books to come.

Judging a book by its cover: There's a Barnes & Noble exclusive cover for this book, where the background is black, rather than white, and I think that one looks a lot more striking. It's not that I mind the white, but black and gold seems so much more dramatic, and there is a fair amount of drama in this book. They could also have put a more elaborate crown in the picture, the one described in the book is quite a lot more intricate than the one pictured here.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

End of year review 2017

Yes, I know it's already the 6th of January and I've already posted three actual book reviews before getting around to this post. It's my blog, and I do what I want. Besides, there's quite a bit of calculation and tallying and careful consideration as to what books deserve to be included on my best of the year list and so forth, so if I want to take some time to get this done, that is my right. It is my blog, after all.

2016 was a pretty sucky year. As it turns out, at least on a global scale, 2017 was so MUCH worse. As my gloomy, pessimistic husband has been saying for years, we're living in a dystopian novel, it just became really obvious to everyone this year. The President of the United States is an unstable, vain, frightfully narcissistic and incredibly stupid man, who is probably suffering from dementia and god knows what else. He keeps trying to provoke North Korea into nuclear war (and getting closer with each new and dumb statement). Global warming is increasing, natural disasters just keep getting more and more devastating, it seems like if there isn't a news story every day that can pretty much be interpreted as "We're all going to die", then it certainly appears once a week.

So with all of this external stuff to worry about, it was obviously time for the IVF treatments to finally work, and for me to get pregnant. In May, having completed my third hormone ordeal and had a record 17 eggs harvested (yay, ovaries), they put two fertilised embryos into my womb, and one decided to stick around! Thankfully all has gone well along the way (not everyone I know this year has been as lucky, that's part of the suckiness, no matter how natural and common miscarriages are, even if they're not talked about all that much) and I am now 35 weeks pregnant. Which also means that the wee baby Moomin (as he is currently known) is just biding his time and could arrive at any moment.

Now, I don't want to draw an exact link between my pregnancy and the fact that in the second half of the year, my ability to do much of anything seemed to go out the window. By the end of October, my pelvic girdle pain was bad enough that I was no longer able to work at all, so I've been on 100% sick leave since then. What a lovely opportunity to get more reading done, you might say. Well, my brain did not agree. I've still probably read more of my real life friends here in Norway, but compared to people I know online or you know, myself a few years ago, my reading and reviewing output has been pretty poor. I have gotten a lot of knitting done and watched quite a bit of TV, but sadly, much of my time has simply been procrastination and constant updates of my social media feeds to see what horrible thing I need to be worried about next.

While there have been a lot of sad things happening this year, there have also been happy things - first and foremost of all obviously the fact that medical science finally made me a baby. He's running out of space in there and getting pretty squirmy. I said goodbye to a lovely class of teenagers when my 10th graders graduated in June, and got to know several nice new ones when I took over a new 10th grade class in August (I still feel bad that they were stuck with substitutes for nearly two months this term because my body is contrary). My husband and I went to Berlin in August for four days and I got to practise my German with actual natives. My DuoLingo streak is now more than 700 days long, and in honour of the New Year, I started Italian, having already gone through French, Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish and German (twice). While I can't quite keep up with a page a day in my Moleskine journal, I update it every few days, so I'm more or less keeping on top of that. My husband and I both went to two weddings in August.

My brother married his girlfriend of fifteen years (we have two nephews, nine and four), so this has been a long time coming. While there's been quite a few years without a single wedding invitation, it just so happened that one of Mark's best friends Liz was also getting married, in England, the very same weekend. Hence we went to separate weddings, but both had a lovely time. I don't think I've ever had a meal (anywhere) as nice as the four-course meal at my brother's wedding, it was simply heavenly. It was also nice to see so many of my relatives again, especially since I could finally share my happy baby news with all of them. I'm sorry I missed out on seeing many old friends at Liz and Simon's wedding in Durham, but I also didn't want to get disowned by missing my brother's big day. Two weeks later, a day before my birthday, our good friends Erica and Mario finally tied the knot after seventeen years together. This was also a lovely party and gave me the chance to reconnect with a lot of people I haven't seen in a long time.

In May, my BFF Lydia came to visit, bringing her husband Michael (who's been busy with work all the other times) and their son (and my godson) Malcolm, to celebrate Norway Day, the 17th of May, with us and much enjoyment was had. We went to visit them during the first week of October, when Lydia was as pregnant as I am now (I have no idea how she had the energy to go out and do stuff with me at all) and I was still relatively mobile (the pelvic girdle pain hadn't really kicked in properly yet). I have four friends who have had babies over the course of the year - so baby Moomin will have friends in several countries to play with when he gets older.

So even in a year of doom, gloom and "we're all going to die" reminders popping up constantly, there's been a lot to be pleased and happy about as well. There were a lot of good movies, and TV shows to watch (many are still on my To Be Watched-list), and while I didn't read as much as I may have wanted, I still did read.

I got 323 new books in 2017. 273 were e-books, 33 were actual physical books (8 of them comic books/graphic novels) and 17 were audio books. 12 were gifts, 14 were free from websites or in various 2 for 1 or 3 for 2-sales.

Total pages read: 48276 pages
Total books read: 132
New books read: 109
Novellas: 2
Re-reads: 23
Audio books: 22
Comics/graphic novels: 12

My genre breakdown for 2017:
Romance (historical and contemporary): 37.6%
Paranormal/urban fantasy: 22.6%
Young adult: 17.3%
Fantasy: 11.3%
Historical fiction: 3.8%
Mystery/suspense: 2.3%
Sci-fi: 2.3%
Horror: 1,5%
Non-fiction: 1,5%

I completed a record of 29 different reading challenges, and know from the #Shelflove one that 35% of the books I read this year, were books that I owned and had gotten in some way before 2017 began. Considering how easily tempted I am by new and shiny releases, I think that's pretty good.

This year, because I have read a lot of books that I like, my "Best of 2017" list is going to be ten entries published IN 2017 and ten from previous years. I say entries, because it turns out that I suck at choosing, so in some cases, whole series have been included. My lists, my rules. I did actually rank them this year, though.

Best books from 2017:
10. The Thing About Love by Julie James. Pretty much always solid and reliable within the field of contemporary romance, Ms. James writes about rival FBI-agents who have to work together and discover that they don't in fact hate each other after all.

9. Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett. While I am hugely fond of many romantic comedies, I never really liked You've Got Mail. This YA retelling of said story, on the other hand, delighted and entertained me and made me determined to read more of Jenn Bennett's books.

8. Saga, vol 8 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. What would a "best of the year" list be without at least one volume of Saga included? I read this so late on New Year's Eve that I wasn't able to get the review done in time for the CBR9 cut-off. Hence it's my first review of CBR10. This graphic novel is always excellent, but vol 7 was so gut-wrenching and sad to me that I couldn't really rate it more than five stars. This volume is a lot more uplifting, and deals with some pretty sensitive and tricky issues in a very good way, while still entertaining the reader and bringing the story to new places.

7. The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli. Ms. Albertalli has only published two novels so far, but is becoming someone who is worth paying attention to in YA circles. This book is a very sweet YA romance, featuring twin sisters who couldn't be more different, with very different romantic histories. The protagonist and her friends and family are all great and I very much enjoyed this book.

6. The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare. By mid-August, when this book came out, I was in a pretty serious reading slump. This book, however, I read in less than half a day, and I was amused and delighted at every turn. Ms. Dare is not the historical romance writer you turn to if you want angsty, grittily realistic romances, but she writes amazing escapism. A scarred warhero duke needs a wife, and proposes to a ruined clergyman's daughter seamstress. Hijinks ensue. I loved it.

5. Dating You/Hating You by Christina Lauren. A workplace romance featuring enemies to lovers? Similar to, yet very different from my favourite book of 2016, Sally Thorne's The Hating Game? Give it to me. While Christina Lauren often write enjoyable and steamy romances, I was not expecting quite such a strong feminist message to run throughout the book, making an already good story even better and much more relevant in today's environment.

4. Forbidden Hearts series by Alisha Rai. Having never read anything by Ms. Rai before, both Hate to Want You and Wrong to Need You really impressed me this year. Sexy, steamy, very satisfying romance that nevertheless also deal with depression, anxiety, grief, dysfunctional families, parental expectations and more, featuring a cast of characters who are diverse in all sorts of ways. While the slightly soap opera-y framing story took a little bit too much of the attention away from the main couple in the first book, it was still a very good read and some of the personal issues that Sadia and Jackson both had to deal with in the second book, before they were ready to commit to one another, actually had me in tears. Highly recommended - both books. The third book comes out in early 2018.

3.  Pretty Face by Lucy Parker. This one came out early in the year, which means I've had time to re-read it as well. In 2016, Lucy Parker became a firm favourite with romance readers everywhere with Act Like It. Pretty Face is a longer book, which gives us more time to get to know the characters and see the romance develop properly. While workplace romances with older guys and younger women could be seen as completely squicky after all the sexual assault allegations that have come out in the second half of this year, Parker deals brilliantly with the issue and writes a very romantic, incredibly satisfying story.

2. Hidden Legacy by Ilona Andrews. The first book in this series, Burn for Me, was actually published in 2014, but due to a number of circumstances, the authors weren't able to complete the rest of the trilogy as planned. Hence, the first book was re-released in early 2017 and I was lucky enough to get two new (and excellent books) during the first half of this year. I thought the first book was promising, but the middle and final instalment exceeded my expectations. While White Hot might have the worst cover of any book I own, it was a cracking read, and Wildfire finished the story (so far?) excellently. I really can't choose between them, so the whole series gets included.

1. Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. It should tell you something about my fairly epic reading slump in late July-mid-August that I was reading this book, which ended up being my very favourite of the year at the time, and it still took me nearly two weeks to get through it. The world-building is beyond compare, the prose is lyrical and lovely, the story is fascinating. There's a mythical, hidden city and fairy-tale like creatures, there's our poor orphaned, creative, dreamer hero and the star-crossed romance he finds himself part of. It's my favourite book of the year, despite ending on a horrible cliff-hanger, with the sequel not even having a release date yet.

Best of the rest (published pre-2017):
10. True North by Liora Blake. I got this in an e-book sale years ago and promptly forgot about it. Even as I started it, I didn't have very high expectations, but before I knew it, it was the early hours of the morning, and I was halfway through the book. Rock star romances don't tend to be all that memorable, but this story, with a widow still working to get over the death of her husband several years before and the surprisingly sensitive and caring "bad boy" rocker really entertained me. I am absolutely going to read the rest of the books in the series.

9. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab. I wanted to wait to start this series until the trilogy was completed (which it now is, with the third book appearing on several best of-lists), so I wouldn't have to wait ages to read the rest, if I so chose. The world-building is excellent, the main characters are interesting and the villains were very menacing.

8. Charlie All Night by Jennifer Crusie. While she doesn't seem to write them anymore, Jennifer Crusie is an undisputed queen of contemporary romance, so I shouldn't have been surprised at how fun and easy a read this book turned out to be. The my backlist of Crusie-books that I have yet to read is getting shorter, but it seems there is still more gold to be found.

7. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. One of the very first books I finished in 2017, this book is a delight. Part romance, part coming of age-story, the tale of "Ari" and "Dante", excellently narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda still lingers in my memory. It made me feel the full range of feels and is well worth your time.

6. A Duke to Remember by Kelly Bowen. In her Season for Scandal series, Ms. Bowen has clearly decided to feature extremely professional and competent heroines and the men who are just incredibly impressed by them, and rather than feel threatened by their many skills, just fall all the harder for them instead. Of all three enjoyable books, this is my favourite.

5. Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff. I'd seen this book recommended in a number of places, but the dumb pastel-pink cover and the randomly floating teens on it didn't really inspire me to pick it up. I'm glad I finally did, though, as the story of the rather unpleasant and highly strung Waverley and her unlikely romance with class stoner Marshall was an excellent read, even if Waverley kept making me want to shake her, and took the longest time to realise what a catch she had in Marshall.

4. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, vol 1: Squirrel Power by Ryan North and Erica Henderson. My double Cannonball this year was reached with this delightful and slightly bonkers volume, featuring a wonderfully upbeat and cheerful super-heroine, with all the powers and abilities of a squirrel. When Doreen goes off to college, she doesn't just have to juggle her superhero duties, she also has to adapt to a prickly roommate and go to classes. Funny, cute, exciting and feminist - I love this comic and can't wait to read more of it.

3. A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas. If you told me at the start of the year that a Sarah J. Maas book would be included on my "Best of the Year" list, I would not have believed you. Ms. Maas writes two different fantasy series, the Throne of Glass books about silver-haired super assassin Celaena and the many dudes that seem to love her, and the Court of Thorns and Roses books where mortal girl Fayre is forced to live in the courts of Faerie after killing an enchanted wolf. I read the first book in the series in 2016, and while it was slow to start, it got more interesting as poor Fayre really has to prove herself and try to rescue not just her faerie lover, but the entire realm from the evil queen. Then this book turned pretty much everything that had happened in the first book on its head, and nothing was entirely what it seemed, and poor Fayre had to deal with tons of PTSD and the whole book was so amazing and compelling and I couldn't put it down. It really doesn't work as a stand-alone novel, but the entire trilogy so far is well worth a read.

2. 84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff. These two books were published together in one volume, so they pretty much count as one. Pretty much a must-read for any book-lover, the story of the outgoing American writer and the restrained English book seller who correspond for years, beginning in 1949 and develop a beautiful friendship, based in their mutual love of books - it's so lovely. In the second half of the story, Ms. Hanff finally gets to visit London and meet so many of the people she heard about and corresponded with, even if her good friend the bookseller, Frank Doel, has passed away by this point.

1. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. I finished this book in April, before my last round of fertility treatments and my subsequent pregnancy, and am pretty sure I wouldn't have been able to read it later in the year. I have yet to be able to watch more than the trailers for the Hulu TV-show, no matter how much critical acclaim it's gotten. While by no means a pleasant book, this science fiction story from the mid-1980s is turning out to be more prescient that anyone could have imagined. Most of the books on this list were pleasant reads, I really can't say that this was the case here - but it's an important book and it's warnings should be heeded.

Finally, if you're still here reading:
Worst books of 2017:
The Devourers by Indra Das. So many interesting ideas, so many bodily fluids. Tried to like it, couldn't.
For Your Arms Only by Caroline Linden. No book with a former spy hero should be so dull.
The Rebel Heir by Elizabeth Michels. Slow, messy plot. Dislikable hero. Tons of anachronisms. Thank heavens I didn't actually pay money for it.

Reading Challenge Round-up 2017

Despite a number of useful resources that help me keep track of my books and my reading like Librarything and Goodreads, since 2007, I have used a spiral-bound notebook where I write down everything I read. From 2009, I actually started writing down page numbers and checking how much I read per month and per year, and became interested in how many physical vs e-books I read and so on. Thanks to this book, it became very clear to me that from about July of this year, my capacity for reading was suffering. I was reading fewer books than in previous years, and my capacity for longer books seems to have gone straight out the window. Despite all this, I have taken part in and completed more reading challenges in 2017 than ever before. Below you can see all of the various challenges, and a short summary of how I did. I must admit, in the second half of the year, I've been absolutely rubbish about linking my reviews to the various challenge blogs (some of which have sadly also disappeared over the course of the year), so all my books will be collected here.
  1. The Cannonball Read is the reason I actually have a blog. The Cannonball Read or #CBR (sign-up here for #CBR10 if you're interested) is an online race to read and review 52 books in a year (or 26 or 13, if 13 is too big a commitment) with a mission to donate profits to the American Cancer Society. We’re essentially a virtual book club where participants read what they want and write what they want, all while shouting “F— Cancer!”. My goal has always been at least a double (104 books), which I reached in mid-October and as my reading slowed down massively in the second half of the year, I was starting to wonder if I was going to have the energy to keep going after that. In the end, I actually managed 2 and a half Cannonballs (130 books), with the last book posted on New Year's Eve.
  2. The Goodreads Reading Challenge. Since I had my goal of reading and reviewing to a double Cannonball, my Goodreads goal this year was 104 books, which I reached on 22/10/17. It's been bigger in previous years, it's going to be a lot lower in 2018.
  3. The Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge. Read a total of 26 books, with a title starting with each of the letters of the alphabet (removing A, and or the). The exception to the rule are letters Q, X and Z, where the letter can be anywhere in the title. While early in the year, it's very easy to find books for the list, it gets harder as the year progresses. I finished the last of the books here on Christmas Eve. List of books here.
  4. The Backlist Books Reading Challenge. I have so many books on my TBR-list and books that I own, so this challenge, to read backlist books - defined as anything published a year before you read it, was good. To count for this challenge, the book had to have been published at least one year before the reading dates. I wanted 2/3 of the books I read this year to fit into the "backlist" category, that didn't quite work out. It ended up being a little more than half, which I've decided to be happy with. List here
  5. Color Coded Reading Challenge Read books with the colour in the title or as the dominant colour of the cover (the challenge became so much more doable once they changed this rule). Brown always seems to be the colour it takes me longest to get round to, I finished this challenge in early October. The colours in question are blue, red, yellow, green, brown, black, white, any other colour in the title/on the cover and a title/cover that implies colour. Full list of books here.  
  6. E-books Reading Challenge. This one was a given, as I read mostly e-books nowadays. I signed up for Terabyte - at least 75 books in a year, and was surprised to see that I didn't actually finish the challenge until the start of December, probably because I did a lot of audiobook listens over the course of the year as well. List here
  7. Flights of Fantasy Reading Challenge. Fantasy has always been one of my preferred genres to read. I challenged myself to read at least 12 books and this was the first challenge I completed in 2017, in early March. In total, I ended on 48 books
  8. 10th Annual Graphic Novel & Manga Reading Challenge. At the start of the year, I had a lot of unread comics/graphic novels. I really wanted to motivate myself to read through more of them, but ended up reading the bulk of the books in late November, early December. I signed up for Modern Age - to read and review at least 12 books during the year, and finished the very last book (and review) in the afternoon on New Year's Eve. Full list here
  9. Historical Romance Reading Challenge. I do like a reading challenge that basically lets me keep reading exactly the genres and books that I already enjoy. It'll come as no surprise to people following my reviews that I read a lot of historical romance, but this year, the majority of the romance I read seems to be contemporary. I signed up for level 4 - Marchioness - 26-35 books, and ended the year with 31 books towards the end of November. 
  10. Diverse Reads Reading Challenge. Every year, I try to remind myself that I could do a lot better about reading books by and about people who are not cis-gendered, straight white women. In 2017, I challenged myself to read least 30 books that are written by or about characters including but not limited to LGBTQIA, persons of colour, gender diversity, people with disability (including physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual or developmental; chronic conditions, mental illnesses and addiction) and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities. By the end of June, I'd read 30 books, at the end of the year, my total came to 54, which is not bad at all. 
  11. Literary Pickers Reading Challenge. This challenge is basically a scavenger hunt, where you get a list of items (or characters, or story tropes) to check off of a list. The books you use to "pick" things off the list have to be romances, or books with a heavy romantic elements. I signed up for 25 items (the middle level) and managed to complete that by mid-June. In the end, I found 40 items in different books. What I absolutely sucked at, was updating once a month with my progress. Mea culpa. 
  12. Monthly Keyword Challenge. This has been one of my favourite challenges for several years now, and it allows me to do one of the things I love almost as much as reading - making lists about things I'm planning to read each month. With five or six keywords for each month of the year, you read books that contain one or more of said keywords. Sadly, this is one of the challenges where the hosting website just seems to have "died" at some point during the year, but my complete list of books can still be found here
  13. Monthly Motif Challenge. Very similar to the monthly keyword challenge, except you get 12 different motifs featured over the course of the year. Some months I managed several books, other months I only barely managed one. This is another challenge where I completely failed to link up my reviews in the second half of the year (I was struggling just to review at all). My complete list came to 30 books
  14. New Author Reading Challenge. I do like to try new things, and this year challenged myself to reading books by at least 30 different new authors. I completed the challenge by mid-October, and in total discovered books by 39 authors in 2017.
  15. New to Me Reading Challenge. This challenge isn't just for new authors, but also genres or series as well. I wanted to discover at least 40 different new things (which I managed by 22/10, but by the end of the year, I had 52 different "new to me" items, which is a decent result. 
  16. Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. This challenge is all about historical fiction of all kinds. If it's set in the past, it counts. It's one of the ones I can normally do fairly easily, without really changing my reading habits at all. As always, I signed up for the highest level (Prehistoric) of 50+ books and I reached it by the beginning of November. At the end of the year, my total was 61 books.
  17. Pick Your Genre Challenge. Because I couldn't find a specific challenge for all the various romances I read, I made this my Romance Challenge for both 2016 and 2017. The minimum amount to read here is also 12 books, but knowing how much romance I tend to get through, I set myself the challenge of 50 books, which I reached in early September. By the end of the year, I'd read 75 books
  18. Paranormal Reading Challenge. As with romance, paranormal/urban fantasy books are a genre I read a lot of. So it seemed pretty natural to sign up for a challenge I'd probably be able to ace without doing anything new. I challenged myself to read at least 24 books, and ended up with 41 at the end of the year. 
  19. Pages Read Reading Challenge. In 2016, I didn't read as much as in previous years, and therefore set myself a lower level on this challenge, just in case. I signed up for level 4 - Apple Tree - 48 000 pages. It turns out that was a good idea, as this year, I read fewer pages than since I started actually checking that sort of thing in 2009. I had to read a lot in December to make sure I would even make this goal (which I reached on December 30th). In total, I read 48276 pages, which only just covered this goal. Suffice to say, it's not been a great reading year for me.
  20. Review Writing Challenge. Since the whole point of the Cannonball Read is both to read and review, to make money for charity, signing up for a review writing challenge seemed like a good idea. I hadn't counted on how much of the year book reviewing was going to be a massive chore, and I spent far too much of 2017 trying to remember a book I read two months ago when it finally came time to blog it. My goal for this challenge was the same as on my blog - a minimum of 104 reviews, but since I frequently review more than one book in a post, it took me much longer to complete this challenge than to get to my double Cannonball. Having gone back and checked, I didn't actually complete my 104th review until the 23rd of December.
  21. #ShelfLove Challenge 2017. This challenge was all about reading the books you actually own already. At the start of 2017, I had 544 books listed as "To Read" in my personal library (according to LibraryThing). In 2016, 28% of the books that I read were ones I'd acquired before 2016, so I wanted my goal for this 2017 to be at least 30% of the total. Because of that, I signed up for level 5 of this challenge, "My shelves are now my BFF (41-50 books)". By Christmas Eve, I'd read 41 books, and by New Year's Eve, I'd read 46 - which means a whole 35% of the books I read this year, were books I physically owned and acquired before 2017. I'm happy with that result. 
  22. #RockMyTBR Challenge 2017. After a heroic cull of my Goodreads TBR shelf, said shelf still contained 947 books at the start of 2017, so more books than I could read in about six years, even if I didn't keep adding to it. Now, at the start of 2018, it's on 1096 (Ha! It's never getting smaller) One of the side effects of the Cannonball Read is that I keep discovering authors and books that seem so tempting, and that's before you count all the other ones I find on the many other review sites I frequent. December, with it's many "best of the year" lists is especially dangerous. I set myself a goal of at least 50 books from my TBR list, which I reached in mid-October. At the end of the year, I'd read 68 books (no one message me to say just how many more I actually added to the list over the course of the year). 
  23. What an Animal Challenge. A reading challenge that I've taken part in for years was made a tiny bit harder this year as you can no longer count a book if it just has an animal in the title or on the cover. The animal has to play a major part of the plot, or a character has to turn into an animal or creature or some sort. Nevertheless, I was pretty confident that I could manage the highest level - 21 or more books, and I completed my 21st book by early May. By the end of the year, I'd read 54 books that qualified. 
  24. What's in a Name 2017 Challenge. I failed to complete more than two of the seven categories of this in 2016, because I just didn't feel inspired. I liked the categories for 2017 a lot more, so decided to try again. I completed the challenge on the 9th of July
  25. Women Challenge 2017. This reading challenge is clearly geared towards people who don't already read primarily female and female-identifying authors. I still sign up for it, and try to make it a tiny bit harder by only allowing myself to list each female author once on the list. As in many years before, I signed up for level 4, Wonder Woman, 20 or more books written by a woman. I'd hit that number by the end of April, and by the end of the year, I had read books by 66 different female authors
  26. 2017 YA Reading Challenge. I read a lot of YA literature as well, so I challenged myself to read at least 12 books in 2017. I hit that goal by the end of April, but by the end of the year, I'd only read a total of 26, so I really haven't been hitting the YA books as much this year as in previous ones. 
  27. #RIPXII Reading Challenge. Hosted by Estella's revenge. Read books in the mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, Gothic, horror and supernatural genres. I sign up for all three reading levels, totalling 7 books
  28. You Read How Many Books? 2017. In 2016, I failed in my goal to reach level 2 of this (150 books), so for 2017, I signed up for level 1, 100 books. As it turns out, this was a good plan, as I was far from reaching level 2 this year. 
  29. Reading Challenge Addicts 2017. The highest level for on this challenge is "Out of This World - 16 challenges entered and completed by the end of 2017". While I may have read fewer books and total pages in 2017 than at any point since 2009, I still successfully took part in and completed 29 separate challenges, as this post proves. I'm still not sure if that's sad or impressive.