Friday, June 28, 2024

Books Etc. is now on Substack

For years (and years...), I've wanted to change up the blog and I've made the decision to finally move Books Etc. over to Substack. 

You'll still find book reviews in my casual (and hopefully entertaining and informational) style, just on a different site. Bonus: you can subscribe (I'm not charging for subscriptions) and you'll get an email directly to your inbox whenever there's a new post. Don't want to subscribe? You can still find all the posts if you head to the direct link. 

Check it out and subscribe here:

See you soon!

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Review: The Secret History of Audrey James

I, like most people, fell immediately in love with Heather Marshall’s debut novel Looking for Jane when I read it back in 2022. It was intriguing and well-written and I loved that it featured a piece of Canadian history. I was also so surprised it was a debut because it was just so damn good. Obviously, I was looking forward to her sophomore novel. The time has come and The Secret History of Audrey James is now out in the world and it will be a huge hit with historical fiction fans. I absolutely adored it.

Here’s the book’s description:
Sometimes the best place to hide is the last place anyone would look.
Northern England, 2010
After a tragic accident upends her life, Kate Mercer leaves London to work at an old guest house near the Scottish border, where she hopes to find a fresh start and heal from her loss. When she arrives, she begins to unravel the truth about her past, but discovers the mysterious elderly proprietor is harbouring her own secrets…
Berlin, 1938
Audrey James is weeks away from graduating from a prestigious music school in Berlin, where she’s been living with her best friend, Ilse Kaplan. As she prepares to finish her piano studies, Audrey dreads the thought of returning to her father in England and leaving Ilse behind. Families like the Kaplans are being targeted as war in Europe threatens.
When Ilse’s parents and brother suddenly disappear, two high-ranking Nazi party members confiscate the Kaplans’ upscale home, believing it to be empty. In a desperate attempt to keep Ilse safe, Audrey becomes housekeeper for the officers while Ilse is forced into hiding in the attic—a prisoner in her own home. Tensions rise in the house and the chance of survival diminishes by the day. When a shocking turn of events pushes Audrey to become embroiled in cell of the anti-Hitler movement - clusters of resisters working to bring down the Nazis from within Germany itself - Audrey must decide what matters most: saving herself, protecting her friend, or sacrificing everything for the greater good.
Inspired by true stories of courageous women and the German resistance during WWII, this is a captivating novel about the unbreakable bonds of friendship, the sacrifices we make for those we love, and the healing that comes from human connection.
I know what you might be thinking. Another WWII novel? Told from dual timeline/perspectives? Does the world need yet another one of those? Perhaps I’m blinded by how much I loved Marshall’s debut but I definitely think we needed another one of those. (And I say this having recently DNF-ed a historical fiction by another author I loved that just wasn’t telling me anything new. So, yes, I can be objective.) A WWII historical novel has to prove it’s going to give me a new perspective on a time period that’s been written about time and time again. And I immediately got the sense that Marshall’s would be different as soon as I started it.

It helped immensely that Audrey and Kate both were intriguing characters. They both seemed like women I would like (how I wished I could have sat with them to watch Bake Off) and there were depths to them both that kept me curious about their pasts. And their pasts weren’t easy and they both made some decisions they probably would have liked to take back. And they both helped each other, too, which I liked. Kate allowed Audrey to finally tell her whole story and Audrey convinced Kate that hanging onto some of the feelings Kate had been keeping buried weren’t helping her and she needed to properly grieve and move on.

I also really liked that Audrey got the chance to tell Kate her story. Too often the “present” day character has to make guesses or rely on historical documents to figure out what happened during the war. But in this book, Audrey told the story herself and we, the reader, got to hear about it alongside Kate. It was surprisingly refreshing.

I mentioned that Audrey and Kate’s pasts weren’t easy. It was, as you’d imagine, especially hard to read some of Audrey’s memories from her time before and during the war. As I was reading about what was happening to the Kaplans and families like theirs, it hit me that Marshall was timing the start of the novel with Kristallnacht, which took place in November 1938. It was heartbreaking.

I loved The Secret History of Audrey James. Heather Marshall has firmly placed herself on my “favourite authors” list and I couldn’t be happier about it. She writes amazing historical fiction with immense talent and a feminist lens. I love that she looks back at history, asks, “But what were the women doing?” and then proceeds to tell us their stories. Historical fiction readers must pick up Marshall’s latest novel. I think you’ll love it.

*An ARC of this novel was provided by the publisher, Simon & Schuster Canada, in exchange for review consideration. All opinions are honest and my own.*

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Review: The Love Code

I love a good, lighthearted romance and that’s what I expected with Susannah Nix’s The Love Code. It’s pretty much what I got but I still found myself wanting more from the story.

Here’s the book’s description:
Opposites attract in this STEM romantic comedy when a super intelligent geek girl meets a bad boy billionaire.
The last thing Melody expects when she accepts a dream job offer is to run into her college one-night stand again. Not only does the hunky blast from her past work at the same aerospace company in LA where she's just started in the IT department, he's the CEO's son.
Jeremy's got a girlfriend and a reputation as a bad boy, so Melody resolves to keep her distance and focus on building a new life for herself in Los Angeles. But despite her good intentions, she can't seem to stay away from the heavenly-smelling paragon of hotness.
As the two begin to forge an unlikely friendship, Melody's attraction to Jeremy grows deeper than she's ready to admit. Can the woman who always plays it safe take a risk on the man who's all wrong for her in all the right ways?
This is the second novel I’ve read this year that had been republished/repackaged several years after it had originally been written. I knew going in that The Love Code had previously been published but I was still surprised that there were no updates made to the content since it had first come out in 2017. You may think that wasn’t that long ago but, trust me, seven years in contemporary fiction is a lifetime. There were references that kept pulling me out of the story and I didn’t love some of the comments Melody’s mom made (from a place of love and Melody tried to explain they were offensive but…). Melody would not have used “online dating” and even a slightly out of touch mom would know that apps are the way dating has gone. I had totally forgotten Emma Watson had had a pixie cut until Melody referenced it as the reason she had cut her hair. And any time TV shows are mentioned? I find it immediately dates a story. I just really wish the publisher had made some edits to update the story for 2024.

I can understand why the series is being republished though. STEM romances are still having a moment and I think that’s important. It’s not a field women typically work in so it’s nice to see it in the genre that is predominately read by women. That, yes, you too can work in a STEM role. Representation matters.

It’s important to know going in that Melody is fresh out of college which makes this novel a New Adult story (my personal rule for NA is the characters must in in/just graduated from college/university or be of that age, 19-24 or so). I’m usually pretty open to NA books but Melody seemed so…unprepared for her first Big Girl job. She kept talking about how she grew up being poor but then goes out and leases a brand new car? And frets about being responsible with her money but completely furnishes her new apartment immediately instead of adding piece by piece? It was just so contradictory that I couldn’t get my head around it.

As for the romance? I adored how Melody and Jake met. Slightly unrealistic, perhaps, but not unreasonably so. But Jake was an idiot. I did not think he proved himself to be a reliable partner and whether that’s his fault or the fault of the writer and Melody? I’m not sure. I think he could have had the chance to change and explain himself but Nix didn’t really give him that space. So, to me, he was a spoiled rich boy who charmed everyone and always landed on his feet. That didn’t really make for a great romance for me.

All in all, The Love Code was a miss for me. I’m still interested in reading more from Susannah Nix but I don’t think I’ll be checking out the rest of this series. I’ll stick to some of her newer stuff.

*A copy of this novel was provided by the Canadian distributor, PGC Books, in exchange for review consideration. All opinions are honest and my own.*

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Review: Tomorrow is for the Brave

It’s been awhile since I’ve devoured a book in one sitting but the long weekend was too good an opportunity to pass up and I just could not put down Tomorrow is for the Brave! I’ve read a number of Kelly Bowen’s novels and this one definitely gripped me the most!

Here’s the book’s description:
1939, France: Lavish parties, fast cars, and a closet full of the latest fashion—to the average eye, socialite Violet St. Croix seemingly has it all. But what she truly wants is a life full of meaning and purpose. So when France falls to Germany, Violet defies her parents’ wishes and joins the war effort. With her impeccable skill for driving under pressure, she is soon sent to North Africa to shepherd French Foreign Legion officers carrying valuable intelligence through dangerous territory.
But as the Allies encounter one mishap after another, Violet becomes convinced there is a spy in their ranks. And when her commanding officer is murdered, Violet realizes she might be the only one who can uncover the traitor and save the lives of countless soldiers on the front lines. Convincing others to believe her is difficult enough. Finding someone she can trust just might be impossible.
This is a historical fiction novel for those who like a lot of action along with their history (Kate Quinn fans, I’m looking at you). Violet’s work is dangerous - and that’s before she finds out there’s a spy in their midst. Between the battles and the traitor storyline, it’s no wonder I was flipping pages quickly to find out what on earth was going to happen!

The spy part of the story probably could have been a little bit stronger. I could see that Bowen was trying to toss in some red herrings and even I wasn’t sure who the spy was. I did have it narrowed down to two people quite early on and some of the hints Bowen was giving seemed a little heavy handed. But I think that’s just me (someone who enjoys a good mystery as much as a historical novel) being very particular and perhaps a tad nitpicky. It didn’t take away my enjoyment of the story.

The author’s note in this novel was just as robust as I hoped it would be. Bowen explains which timelines she adjusted slightly and gave a lot of insight into her inspiration. I absolutely must find out more about Susan Travers, the real life woman who inspired Violet’s role in the war.

Given all the WWII novels I read (and there have been A LOT of them), I always appreciate when an author gives a new perspective on the battles. In Bowen’s case, she focused on what was happening in Africa during the war. I didn’t know much beyond the fact that fighting took place in North Africa so was interested to have a different look at WWII. I also appreciated that there was a focus on the French Foreign Legion, something else I wasn’t very familiar with. I’ll have to do some more research!

Violet was, to start, a tad…I’m going to say insufferable but that’s not quite the word I’m looking for here. She was just so sheltered - not that I blame her for her lack of worldliness. She wasn’t seen as a daughter - or even her own person - in her family. She was a pawn, a thing, to her father who only took interest in her to make sure she wouldn’t embarrass the family name and would someday marry someone suitable - of his choosing - who would make the family "stronger". Her thoughts and feelings did not matter at all. Which, naturally, made my blood boil. It can be so hard to read stories like this from a modern, feminist perspective and not feel enraged. I just had to hope that Violet would come to her senses and realize that she could absolutely survive on her own and live her own life.

Tomorrow is for the Brave was an entertaining and gripping historical fiction novel that I could not put down. Kelly Bowen is very talented and I think every historical fiction fan should make sure to pick up a copy of her latest book.

*An egalley of this novel was provided by the publisher, Forever, via NetGalley in exchange for review consideration. All opinions are honest and my own.*

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Review: The Roommate Risk

I’m so glad I found Talia Hibbert’s Brown Sisters books way back in 2019. The series was an absolute delight and I’ve since purchased a couple more of her books. So, when I had the chance to review the audiobook of The Roommate Risk, I took it!

Here’s the book’s description:
Jasmine Allen believes in bad luck, great wine, and the seductive power of a stiletto heel. What she doesn’t believe in is love. Her life is perfect without all that romance rubbish—until a plumbing disaster screws everything up and leaves Jas homeless. Luckily, she has someone to turn to: her best friend Rahul.
For seven years, Rahul Khan has followed three simple rules.
  • Don’t touch Jasmine if you can help it.
  • Don’t look at her arse in that skirt.
  • And don’t ever—ever—tell her you love her.
He should’ve added another rule: Do not, under any circumstances, let Jas move into your house.
Now Rahul is living with the friend he can’t have, and it’s decimating his control. He knows their shared dinners aren’t dates, their late-night kisses are a mistake, and the tenderness in Jasmine’s gaze is only temporary. One wrong word could send his skittish best friend running.
So why is he tempted to risk it all?
The audiobook was narrated by Rooke Kingston and Keval Shah. I do love when a romance with dual perspectives is a dual narration. It adds so much more to the story. That said…I think both Kingston (who narrated Jasmine) and Shah (who narrated Rahul) are talented. I just don’t know if I enjoyed listening to them tell me this story. One of the issues I had - and a really, really hard one to get over - was that Jasmine was 28 but Kingston sounded so much older. Is it a weird thing to fixate on? I’m honestly not sure. But I do know it didn’t help me really get into the story.

While I didn’t love the narration, I did really like the actual story. I liked Jasmine and Rahul and their relationship. The book was mostly told from the present day but there were flashbacks to important moments during their friendship. I really liked that Hibbert did this because it allowed the reader to really get to know the couple and how their relationship started and changed over the years.

Hibbert mentions in the author’s note that this is the angstiest novel she’s written. That she tried to pull back on it but the story just wasn’t having it. And honestly? The angst is a huge part of what makes it so great. Jasmine so clearly has issues to work through but Hibbert portrayed her in such a way that the reader knows that, eventually, she’s going to figure her shit out. And she’s doing it for herself, not for a man. Even if (not) being with Rahul is the catalyst. Rahul isn’t perfect either but he has less obvious work to be done. He has some honest conversations with those he needed to but…I think there’s more he needs to do, to heal himself, to become healthier, that wasn’t really addressed as much as the efforts Jasmine was putting in.

This book was exceptionally steamy. *fans self* It’s NSFW and make sure your headphones stay paired otherwise you might be in for some awkward moments! For the most part, I felt the sex scenes made sense in the book - they weren’t overly gratuitous. That kind of changed near the end of the novel but I think that’s because I was over the narration and ready for the official HEA.

The Roommate Risk wasn’t the winner I was hoping it would be but I’m still glad I read it. Talia Hibbert is always going to be an author I search out because she’s so talented. Her books are steamy, funny, and full of heart and characters you don’t often get to see in romance novels. All things that I think are really important in my romance reads!

*An ALC was provided by the publisher, Dreamscape Audio, via NetGalley, in exchange for review consideration. All opinions are honest and my own.*

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Review: Love, Lies, and Cherry Pie

It is a truth universally acknowledged that I will enjoy a book *that* much more when there’s a nod to Jane Austen (it’s also a truth that I will absolutely always overuse that opening). I hadn’t realized there was a hint of Pride and Prejudice in Jackie Lau’s latest novel before I started it but, not surprisingly, I was totally into it. Love, Lies, and Cherry Pie is by no means a P&P adaptation but it does take some of the best parts of Austen’s most well-known novel and uses them to make a modern rom com that was an absolute joy to read.

Here’s the book’s description:
Mark Chan this. Mark Chan that.
Writer and barista Emily Hung is tired of hearing about the great Mark Chan, the son of her parents’ friends. You’d think he single-handedly stopped climate change and ended child poverty from the way her mother raves about him. But in reality, he’s just a boring, sweater-vest-wearing engineer, and when they’re forced together at Emily’s sister’s wedding, it’s obvious he thinks he’s too good for her.
But now that Emily is her family’s last single daughter, her mother is fixated on getting her married and she has her sights on Mark. There’s only one solution, clearly : convince Mark to be in a fake relationship with her long enough to put an end to her mom’s meddling. He reluctantly agrees.
Unfortunately, lying isn’t enough. Family friends keep popping up at their supposed dates—including a bubble tea shop and cake-decorating class—so they’ll have to spend more time together to make their relationship look real. With each fake date, though, Emily realizes that Mark’s not quite what she assumed and maybe that argyle sweater isn’t so ugly after all…
You may not have read Pride and Prejudice but I think there’s a better chance you’ve probably watched Bridget Jones’ Diary (bonus points if you’ve read both novels and watched the movies). Bridget is also a nod to P&P and is one of the most fun adaptations of Austen’s work. Lau’s felt like that too - right down to the main male character being named Mark and having a penchant for sweaters - and it was much fun.

Like Elizabeth and Darcy, Emily and Mark got off on the wrong foot. Way wrong. Luckily, they eventually realized how boneheaded they had been (Emily especially) and actually communicated with each other. About fake dating and lying to their families, but communicating nonetheless! It was really enjoyable to watch them put their guards down and start to become friends - and something more.

I always, always struggle when a main character’s family and/or friends tries to force them into being in a relationship. That there’s no way they could be happy without someone special in their life. I can handle some of it because the family really does mean well and it really is coming from a place of love. But when the family refuses to take no for an answer? And won’t listen to the main character, who they claim to love so much that they want them to be happy? That’s when I get frustrated. And I know it wouldn’t be a romance book without conflict and a couple getting together but…it can be really hard for me to read a MC being ignored by those who claim to love them that they’re forced to lie or do other ridiculous things just to please their family. As an aside to the whole family thing - I did NOT buy the excuse for Emily’s eldest sister’s behaviour. I was so irritated at her and the reasoning behind it was not good enough and there were no consequences for how she was behaving towards Emily.

The first third or so of the novel was told from Emily’s perspective but then it starts to switch back and forth between Mark and Emily. I do like when romances have dual perspectives but it had been solely Emily’s POV for so long that it was kind of jarring to finally get Mark’s thoughts - as appreciated as they were to get a better sense of him and how he was feeling about the whole fake dating thing.

I really liked that Emily was an author and Lau showcased how tough it can be to become (and stay) published. It shouldn’t be a surprise that I liked the bookish element of this novel but I find that Lau was a lot more honest and realistic than other rom com authors are when their main characters are writers. As much as I hated that Emily had to keep justifying her job and how she spends her time to her friends and family, it seemed more honest that way. But the way Mark was so supportive of her writing and was protective of her time? Swoon.

Oh, and bonus! The novel is set in Toronto. Three cheers for romances taking place in Canada!

Love, Lies, and Cherry Pie was so much fun to read. I was entertained by Jackie Lau’s novel from start to finish. I wouldn’t call this a super memorable novel or the best rom com I’ve ever read but it was fun and I enjoyed it - and that’s all that matters when it comes to reading!

*An egalley of this novel was provided by the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via Edelweiss in exchange for review consideration. All opinions are honest and my own.*

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Review: Every Time We Say Goodbye

I’ve been reading Natalie Jenner’s work since her debut novel, The Jane Austen Society, was released in 2020. She writes really thoughtful and quite interesting historical fiction stories with characters who feel so familiar even though they lived so long ago. Every Time We Say Goodbye is her latest and readers will recognize some of the characters in this tale and will feel as though it’s like revisiting an old friend.

Here’s the book’s description:
In 1955, Vivien Lowry is facing the greatest challenge of her life. Her latest play, the only female-authored play on the London stage that season, has opened in the West End to rapturous applause from the audience. The reviewers, however, are not as impressed as the playgoers and their savage notices not only shut down the play but ruin Lowry's last chance for a dramatic career. With her future in London not looking bright, at the suggestion of her friend, Peggy Guggenheim, Vivien takes a job in as a script doctor on a major film shooting in Rome’s Cinecitta Studios. There she finds a vibrant movie making scene filled with rising stars, acclaimed directors, and famous actors in a country that is torn between its past and its potentially bright future, between the liberation of the post-war cinema and the restrictions of the Catholic Church that permeates the very soul of Italy.
As Vivien tries to forge a new future for herself, she also must face the long-buried truth of the recent World War and the mystery of what really happened to her deceased fiancé. Every Time We Say Goodbye is a brilliant exploration of trauma and tragedy, hope and renewal, filled with dazzling characters both real and imaginary, from the incomparable author who charmed the world with her novels The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls.
There was something niggling at me while reading this one, making me wonder why I wasn’t loving it as I expected to. As talented as I think Jenner is, I didn’t feel like she quite brought all the stories together in a cohesive way. There was a lot going on - in two timelines - with a lot of characters. Probably too many characters. I appreciated that Jenner wanted to include some of the real folks who would have been in Italy at that time (Sophia Loren and Ava Gardner to name two), but I felt they didn’t really add anything to the story. Another blogger put it well when we were talking about why this one didn’t hit as we expected. We both love Natasha Lester’s novels and she is a master at sharing information about a specific topic (usually fashion in Lester’s case and the film industry in Jenner’s) and weaving a historical story around it. The weave in Jenner’s story was loose and I think that’s why we were struggling a bit.

All that said, I didn’t find this to be a bad book. I was still interested in the story and wanted to find out how it all ended. I was invested in Vivien’s life and wondered how the tale of la scolaretta would unfold. How did a young, female resistance fighter tie into Vivien’s story? (You’ll have to read it to find out, obviously!)

I remember learning about the Hollywood blacklist and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) way back in university. It’s a fascinating and heartbreaking part of history. So many folks in the film industry were pressured to give up information on their colleagues during the witch hunts simply because Hollywood was trying to prove they were patriotic and not supporting communism. Jenner’s novel didn’t feature the hearings or what was happening in Hollywood. Instead, it showcased how many American filmmakers fled to Europe (the reverse of what happened during the war) to avoid persecution. I don’t think I’ve come across many novels that feature this so heavily and I’d be interested in reading more fiction stories about it.

Even with the inclusion of the WWII storyline, Jenner’s novel is a quieter historical fiction tale. She’s explored topics and a point in time that some may not have read about (I certainly haven’t seen it often in novels) and gives us a glimpse of what life could have been like in 1950s Rome. The war is behind them, but the effects of it were still being felt strongly and on an almost daily basis. It’s not going to be for everyone but if you’re genuinely interested in history and getting a feel of what the time period could have been like? Jenner’s novels are for you.

Every Time We Say Goodbye by Natalie Jenner wasn’t a winner for me but I’m still glad I read it. I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the film industry of 1950s Rome and revisiting characters I had met in her previous novels.

*An egalley of this novel was provided by the publisher, St. Martin's Press, via NetGalley in exchange for review consideration. All opinions are honest and my own.*