2017 – Part 2

My Yearbook of Awesome Books has come around again. I hope you find some favourites or some potential next reads.

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The Crofton Chronicles by Rebecca Cohen

When his sister reneges on her engagement to Anthony Redbourn, Earl of Crofton, actor Sebastian Hewel must play his most difficult role yet: impersonating his sister in order to restore the family name and pay off his father’s debt, inThe Actor and the Earl. But Anthony is shrewder than the siblings had guessed, and now Sebastian and Anthony have to decide how far they’re willing to play this part. InDuty to the Crown, Sebastian is happily playing the part of his sister Bronwyn, wife to the Earl of Redbourn, when the Queen asks Anthony to seduce Marie Valois to find out information about her father. With Marie and her brother, Lord Nicholas, both interested in seducing Sebastian, Anthony and Sebastian both have delicate roles to play if they’re to keep their secret. InForever Hold His Peace, Sebastian’s role as “Bronwyn” becomes more precarious when she is accused of witchcraft with planted evidence. Together, Anthony and Sebastian must decide if it’s time for Bronwyn to retire her place to protect their love. Over four centuries later, inSaving Crofton Hall, the current Earl of Crofton, Benjamin Redbourn, is not going to lose Crofton Hall without a fight. Ashley Niven is the perfect man to help make Crofton Hall pay for itself, if Benjamin and Ashley can get past their attraction to each other, and if the secrets that the house is hiding doesn’t destroy them first.

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Review:

Often when you have a series, the first book is fantastic and then the others slowly dwindle in interest or the first takes too long to introduce the characters, spending too much time letting us know them, and doesn’t have an interesting story while it takes either book two or three to pick up the reader’s interest. This series doesn’t do that. Right from page one of book one I knew I’d love it. And I was right to believe that, because it proved to be true.

I particularly loved the way that Sebastian was treated by those socially engaged with Anthony, how some looked down on him because they thought him too plain for a wife of a philanderer, while some thought it a perfect match because Sebastian’s family are known for their loyalty to the Queen. Yet, at the same time, there was this constant feeling of Sebastian being judged, the worry that Anthony might find more interest elsewhere and the concern of being caught and the consequences, should that happen. There was never a moment where drama wasn’t present, but I loved that there were such varying degrees of drama and for all kinds of reasons. Even the worry that Anthony’s son might not take to him was really well written and handled.

The historical accuracy was incredible. Not only through the clothing, style and the social engagements required of someone close to the Court, but in the concern over a gay relationship, the slightly skeezy bars and gambling halls that kept a tight lip about whatever went on inside, even Sebastian being mistaken for a prostitute was so well handled and historically accurate. There wasn’t one single detail that wasn’t properly explored and thought through.

There were strong LGBT members throughout all stories; bisexual, gay, straight, lesbian, poly. They were all represented in both the historical novels and the modern, which was great to see.

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Mythos Christos by Edwin Herbert

Alexandria, Egypt / AD 391 ─ When the great temple of Serapis and its library annex are destroyed by the Christian mob, the Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia becomes concerned the Great Library might suffer the same fate. She vows to save as much of the ancient knowledge as she can, especially certain telling documents concerning the origins of Christianity. But rather than merely hiding the heretical scrolls and codices in desert caves and hoping for the best, Hypatia contrives a far more ingenious plan. She sets up an elaborate sequence of burials, each of which is governed by actual ancient linguistic and geometrical riddles which must be solved to gain access. Only one steeped in Platonic mysticism would be capable of finding and unlocking the buried secrets.

Oxford, England / June, 2006 ─ American Rhodes scholar Lex Thomasson is sent to Alexandria to aid a mysterious Vatican group known only as “The Commission.” They require a specialist in ancient languages to solve a sequence of Greek Mystery puzzles in what soon becomes evident is Hypatia’s ancient treasure hunt. The Oxford paleographer demonstrates his unique talents by unlocking the secrets along the trail. It does not take long, however, for him to become suspicious of the Commission’s true motives, and the trail becomes a trial fraught with danger.

The scene alternates between the two time periods. In both, assassins lurk and fanatics abound. And all along, religious Faith and historical Truth struggle for supremacy.

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Review:

Right from the start, I was intrigued by this story. The blurb and cover made me request it and I wasn’t disappointed.

This is PERFECT! Full of realistic situations, adventure, intelligence, wit and flair when needed, it’s the perfect conspiracy theorist’s dream, a nightmare for the devoutly religious and an amazing adventure into Ancient Egypt, with a modern day tour guide with all the right keys to unlock the past.

Oh, and Herbert? Can we have another one, please? Just one more story for Lex?

A great deal of research has gone into this, to supply texture, knowledge, a wealth of realism and authenticity. It’s not overwhelming in description, info dumps or the technical terms. As someone who has studied history, forensics, archaeology and worked in a museum, although I understand all of these terms, any other reader will be able to read, follow and understand this.

As someone who has studied archaeology, Ancient Egypt and who is a big conspiracy buff, I was scared that I’d know too much and see into all the cracks left over from underwhelming research or attempts to make history seem more magical and sparkly than it really was, or that I’d know too little for the subject area and not be able to tell if it was real or not. I needn’t have worried.
The author did such an incredible job of being authentic, knowledgeable and approachable for all – whether the reader knew about the history/procedures or not – that even someone who had no prior knowledge of anything related to the themes of the story – religion, history, archaeology, theology – could follow and understand the story perfectly.

I loved the way that the flashbacks were used and explored. They allowed me to connect to Lex’s discoveries in a very visceral way. When he wonders who last saw/did or experienced the events of his quest, I knew the answers and it gave me a sweet, fluttery connection that the historian in me loves.

The amount of research and planning needed to devise the locking mechanisms and their codes is mind-bogglingly staggering and totally genius.

I love the addition of quotes at the head of chapters, offering a diversity of sources and quotes relating to God and the mission. Each one added a little bit of extra insight or understanding or the material we were about to read and explore with Lex.

I didn’t want to finish this book and yet, I did. I needed desperately to know what happened, but at the same time, I didn’t want it to be over. There was so much in here that spoke to me, as a person, a historical, an Ancient Egyptian fan, a reader and a writer. It spoke to all the academic parts of me that make me who I am and I never wanted it to end.

This was one large but entertaining read full of adventure, excitement, history and passion that touched on the very cornerstones of humanity and challenged every strongest held belief that we humans hold dear. Our faith. Whether that’s for religion or something else, this story will challenge you in all kind of ways. If you’re deeply religious, prepare to have your beliefs chopped up, churned into butter and spat out into a pretty cupcake, because they’ll come out looking so different to how they went in.

One very large part of the story is the proof that religion and religious disagreements are the biggest cause of pain and bloodshed in the human world. Religion, more than any other belief, causes more evil and violence than anything else. But another part is that humans hold our beliefs dear and God help anyone who dares to take that away.

If you like The Da Vince Code, Lara Croft, National Treasure and/or Indiana Jones then you’ll love this. It’s the perfect blend of intellect, conspiracy and adventure for any historian, archaeologist, theologist or just any reader who loves a good conspiracy and who doesn’t mind challenging the concepts of Christianity and religion. If you do mind, then you might find that the well researched and intelligent arguments leave you questioning everything or at least with a more open mind than when you started.

If nothing else, you’ll feel and think. Because that’s what this book does. It makes you care, belief and feel for the characters and their quest. It makes you question and calculate and wonder over every small detail.

Prepare to question everything.

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Bitterwood by Rowan Speedwell

Outrunning a winter storm in the north, Captain Faran of the King’s Guard leads his men and a young mage named Meric to shelter at Bitterwood Manor, the ancestral home of the Daenes. Faran and his troops have been searching for weeks for a mysterious, lion-like beast that reportedly haunts the uncharted northern woods. For Meric, finding that prophesied cat is a matter of life and death.

Though Faran is deeply focused on their mission, the enigmatic Joss Daene, Lord of Bitterwood, fascinates him. Strong and proud, Joss is everything Faran wants in a lover. More, if he were honest. But Joss belongs to Bitterwood, and Faran to his duty.

Together they will need to brave the oldest, darkest part of the Bitterwood in the coldest, deepest snows of winter to find the legendary cat. But time is running out—for Meric, for the kingdom, and for Faran and Joss’s fledgling love.

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Review:

I loved the mystery of it all and how little tips were given throughout the story to help us make up our own mind, without giving it all away too quickly. The way the plot was so well paced and offered us just enough to keep us interested was perfect. As was the length of the book. It didn’t drag or overly explain incidents that we really didn’t need to see, nor did it avoid lingering where it needed to, such as at the beginning of the story where there was more character building and exploration than adventure. Yet, by the time the adventure began, it was at a point where we were already captured by the characters and invested in their well being. We worried over their survival.

As for the characters themselves, right from the start I loved Meric and Eissa; they were both young enough to be a little naïve and excitable, while playing, deceptively strong, emotional and entertaining. Daene and Faran were the grown ups who acted like it; strong and opinionated, fiery and feisty. Their chemistry together was scorching hot, adding in the sex scenes that fanned the flames of their relationship.

Overall, it was a fantastic fantasy story, exploring a little bit of the paranormal during Meric’s journey towards his future, along with the romanticism of his other journey into adulthood. Although Faran was the main character and the main POV, it was also quite clear that everything he was doing was for Meric’s sake and that the two were about the best of friends as they could hope for in their situation. Their lives changed once they entered Bitterwood, but only for the better.

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We Met in Dreams by Rowan McAllister

In Victorian London, during a prolonged and pernicious fog, fantasy and reality are about to collide—at least in one man’s troubled mind.

A childhood fever left Arthur Middleton, Viscount Campden, seeing and hearing things no one else does, afraid of the world outside, and unable to function as a true peer of the realm. To protect him from himself—and to protect others from him—he spends his days heavily medicated and locked in his rooms, and his nights in darkness and solitude, tormented by visions, until a stranger appears.

This apparition is different. Fox says he’s a thief and not an entirely good sort of man, yet he returns night after night to ease Arthur’s loneliness without asking for anything in return. Fox might be the key that sets Arthur free, or he might deliver the final blow to Arthur’s tenuous grasp on sanity. Either way, real or imaginary, Arthur needs him too much to care.

Fox is only one of the many secrets and specters haunting Campden House, and Arthur will have to face them all in order to live the life of his dreams.

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Review:

What can I say about this one? It blew my mind.

Right from page one, the story grabbed me and didn’t let go even after the end. Now, I’m not a fan of 1st person; it’s just me and a quirk I have, because usually so much information is left out because it’s expected that we already know it or it’s not as easy to insert naturally. I never have that problem with Rowan’s writing. The 1st person provided here, for Arthur’s POV, was absolutely vital to the telling of the story as well as the information it needed to provide the reader. And it was captivating. I never once thought about it being 1st person; I was too sucked in to do anything by start the journey and see where it led.

For me, Arthur was not only the MC of the story but he was the star of the show. Not once did he never let me down, get on my nerves or have an annoying switch of personality, like some books I’ve read recently, but he was loveable and relatable. He was consistent, pleasant to read, disturbed to the perfect degree and fully accepting of his shortcomings. I felt for him every step of the way, for the battles he faced, for not being listened to or understood. I could see why Fox had become this bright spark in his life that he didn’t want to lose.

Fox himself was amazing. Intriguing, mysterious and full of that charm and charisma that Arthur had never really been around before. He was precisely what Arthur needed. I love how he played along and let Arthur believe he wasn’t real because it soothed him and made him feel more comfortable. Opening up to Fox was just the beginning of Arthur’s journey, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Fox’s understanding and the way he listened without judgment, even when things seemed impossible. He pushed Arthur’s boundaries, but didn’t hesitate to stop or apologise if he thought he’d made his condition worse or frightened him.

I really loved the side characters. ALL of them.

The way Arthur grew from a meek, ill young man so sure that he would spend his life that way to becoming brave and challenging the status quo made me feel so proud. It was so naturally done, so well explored with set backs and achievements, little things that he found victory in, that I shared every joy and every loss with him.

Now, in the nature of total transparency, I have to confess…I cried. Probably not a surprise, but I did. Twice. The first was when Arthur found out the truth about the ghostly woman in white and the second time was when he first spoke to her. And…okay, a third time…that park bench moment totally got me in the feels. Hard. With a sledgehammer. And, yeah I’ll admit that I held my breath enough times to make me dizzy. But that’s the genius of the writing and I will never complain about that.

Overall, the writing was first class. The plot growth was spellbinding and intriguing, never leaving me wondering too long. The world building and historical accuracy for the time period was perfect. Utterly perfect. I normally wax lyrical about the writing and the editing and plot, but I don’t need to. This story speaks for itself. “We Met in Dreams” is the best historical fiction I’ve ever read in this genre so far. One day McAllister might write another to knock it off the top spot, but until then, this one takes the crowning glory.

From the feels, the way I repeated quivered and quaked with apprehension, held my breath in fear or surprise, to the sizzling hot chemistry that built slowly, to the absolutely stunning exploration of mental health, suicide, death and memory issues of the time, there was nothing I didn’t love. In fact, I couldn’t have loved it more. If I could have given it a hundred stars I would have.

I nearly broke down when Arthur met Dorian and, for a situation at 88% of the story, it’s proof that this story didn’t fail to keep captivated right until the last word. And I still wanted more.

This was perfection from beginning to end.

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Damned If You Do by Marie Sexton

The path to temptation is paved with a hellish amount of paperwork.

Soul acquisition is a drag, but if Abaddon doesn’t catch up on his quota, he could be demoted to scooping poop for the Hounds of Hell. With a deadline hanging over him, he heads for the Bible Belt, looking for the perfect combination of sweetness and challenge.

Seth is a blind musician, part of a traveling tent revival. He’s cute, mystically talented, and quotes the Bible at every turn. His soul is pure enough to fill Abaddon’s quota for months to come, and Abaddon is determined to claim it.

The problem? There’s the revival foreman who watches Abaddon’s every move. Then there’s the mystery of Seth’s many unusual talents. Lastly, there’s Abaddon himself. He’s beginning to like Seth a bit too much. Maybe Seth deserves something better than damnation.

But Hell’s agenda isn’t negotiable, and time is running out. If Abaddon doesn’t play his cards right, he could condemn both of them to the worst fate of all—an eternity apart.

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Review:

Damned If You Do is a beautiful story about defying the odds, following your heart and fighting for what you believe in.

What follows is a surprisingly tender, sweet and sometimes funny story about how Seth can see more than a person with full sight and how Abaddon is the worst devil to ever exist.

I loved the characterisation of both main characters. Seth is warm, trusting, but not naive, and simply shines with beauty in all facets of his life. Abaddon is deceptively tender and caring, more interested in skating by in his job than suckering innocent people into devilish deals. I loved the way that their characters grew and that we were told a little more about who they were as the story progressed, both through their own thoughts/admissions, as well as through the eyes of others. The chemistry between them was sweet and simmering at the same time, something that definitely kept me interested all the way through. It had a subtlety about it, as well as a growing build of anticipation.

I liked the minor characters of Zed and Baphomet and how their parts were minor but pivotal to the story.

The writing was right up my alley. It had all the description, attention to detail, and the feeling and heart that I love from stories. The important things were shown in what I call ‘real time’ – aka, with the right attention, time and dedication to the description and exploration of the scenes – while the minor events were shown in perfect proportion, not taking up too much space, but not being glossed over or ignored, either. It was nice to see that some of the most important clues we were given about the story happened in these small moments.

Overall, it was just fantastic. I cried multiple times. I will re-read it multiple times and I’ll be buying it on paperback, if it exists. Seth captured my heart with his faith and his innocence, and won’t be letting go any time soon, while Abaddon offered the humour and the tenderness that meant this is a story to remember.

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Hearts Alight by Elliot Cooper

Dave Cunningham hates the rampant consumerism that’s come to dominate his family’s Hanukkah celebrations. But a chance to bring a bit of a holiday happiness to his long-time crush, Amit Cohen, helps put him in a more festive mood.

In the quest to craft the perfect gift, Dave tries to urge a few personal details out of stoic Amit. Unintentionally, he learns the Cohen family’s secret: Amit is a golem. But Amit has a problem that runs deeper than his magical origin, and a Hanukkah miracle might be the only thing that will keep the budding flame between him and Dave from going out.

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Review:

This was a gorgeous little Hanukkah/Christmas story that doesn’t disappoint. I’m a firm fan of Elliot Cooper’s writing and this story was just as brilliant as every other I’ve read.

There was a great depiction of the holiday – Hanukkah – without it being a lecture on what the holiday or what it meant to people. Some books tend to be more of a lesson, but this one had a nice natural feel that allowed for a personal description of what the holiday meant to Dave, without being over-done. There was excellent writing style, description and characterisation. I loved the chemistry between Dave and Amit. The entire story is a really original twist on the “in love with the best friend/brother-in-law’s uncle” idea.

I loved Jake, who was an excellently written trans character, as well as Dave’s best friend and brother-in-law. Dave’s bisexuality was nicely explored without being in-your-face. I love how both were mentioned, how they were dealt with in terms of the family’s religious views and family setting. I also absolutely love the fact that there’s an entire paragraph challenging all the thoughts I have in stories like these – is it weird, because of their legal relationship? Was Amit asexual, aromantic, straight? And did any of it matter if there was a connection. Major kudos to Elliot for adding that, because I’m always asking myself these questions in other stories and I didn’t have to here, because it was done for me.

I loved the golem aspect of the story. It was a surprise, well written, and really well explained without, again, being over-done or a history lesson. At the same time, I really loved that Dave’s love of pottery painting and his experiences with it had already been really nicely explored before the revelation.

I’m not a D&D player, but there was a really nice description of the game that will appeal to players and non-players alike, as it shows some really nice bonding time between Dave and Amid. I didn’t need to follow it, because it wasn’t overly technical, but more of a conversation that had nice balance.

And can I just say YES! to the fact that Dave’s favourite childhood movies are Willow and The Princess Bride? It’s like we had the same childhood!

Adorable, beautiful, and with great characters. There was a perfect ending, that left the story open and not at all clean cut and “forever” but still gave it the feel of hope and a future together. I’m never disappointed by this author and this one proves why. A perfect Christmas Day read.

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