Under Currents by Nora Roberts, narrated by January LaVoy

A small rowboat is tied up at a wooden dock surrounded by reeds, on a lake at sunset, the colours are purples and redsWhy I read it:  I pre-ordered this one.

CW: Family violence, domestic abuse

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  Within the walls of a tasteful, perfectly kept house in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, young Zane Bigelow feels like a prisoner of war. Strangers—and even Zane’s own aunt across the lake—see his parents as a successful surgeon and his stylish wife, making appearances at their children’s ballet recitals and baseball games. Zane and his sister know the truth: There is something terribly wrong.

As his father’s violent, controlling rages—and his mother’s complicity—become more and more oppressive, Zane counts the years, months, days until he can escape. He looks out for little Britt, warning her Be smart. Be careful. In fear for his very life, he plays along with the insidious lie that everything is fine, while scribbling his real thoughts in a secret journal he must carefully hide away.

When one brutal, shattering night finally reveals cracks in the façade, Zane begins to understand that some people are willing to face the truth, even when it hurts. As he grows into manhood and builds a new kind of family, he will find that while the darkness of his past may always shadow him, it will also show him what is necessary for good to triumph—and give him strength to draw on when he once again must stand up and defend himself and the ones he loves.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  Every year I eagerly await the new stand-alone Nora Roberts romantic suspense. Sometimes they miss more than they hit, but when they work for me they really work for me. Under Currents worked.

While I found it a little predictable at the end, I enjoyed the listen so much. The subject matter, dealing as it does with family violence (including spousal abuse, sexual, emotional and physical and child abuse, emotional and physical) is pretty brutal so it won’t be a book for everyone. But at various points throughout the story I was so tense and fearful about what was going to happen, as well as just plain happy as the romance blossomed. There are a few little romances in the book actually – more than one HEA is always a good thing.

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary, narrated by Carrie Hope Fletcher and Kwaku Fortune

cartoon type cover with a red-haired white girl on the left and a brown-skinned guy in a blue shirt on the right with a wall in between where the titles are written as on the spine of a bookWhy I read it:  I received a review copy from the publisher.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  What if your roommate is your soul mate? A joyful, quirky romantic comedy, Beth O’Leary’s The Flatshare is a feel-good audiobook about finding love in the most unexpected of ways.

Tiffy and Leon share an apartment. Tiffy and Leon have never met.

After a bad breakup, Tiffy Moore needs a place to live. Fast. And cheap. But the apartments in her budget have her wondering if astonishingly colored mold on the walls counts as art.

Desperation makes her open minded, so she answers an ad for a flatshare. Leon, a night shift worker, will take the apartment during the day, and Tiffy can have it nights and weekends. He’ll only ever be there when she’s at the office. In fact, they’ll never even have to meet.

Tiffy and Leon start writing each other notes – first about what day is garbage day, and politely establishing what leftovers are up for grabs, and the evergreen question of whether the toilet seat should stay up or down. Even though they are opposites, they soon become friends. And then maybe more.

But falling in love with your roommate is probably a terrible idea…especially if you’ve never met.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  I’d had my eye on this book ever since a friend recommended it on Goodreads. I listened to a sample of the audiobook before agreeing though because new-to-me narrators can be a bit dicey and it’s not fun to slog through a bad audio and it’s not fun to write a review about it. I didn’t get to hear any of the male narrator, Kwaku Fortune, on the Audible sample but Carrie Hope Fletcher’s voice was enough to have me signing up. As it happened, both narrators were very good – although I do have a couple of quibbles which I’ll talk about later – and I’ll happily listen to each of them again.

Told in the alternating (but not always evenly) point of view of Tiffy Moore and Leon Twomey, both twenty-something Londoners. Leon needs some extra money and works as a palliative care nurse on night shifts at a hospice. He spends weekends with his girlfriend, so he rents out his one bedroom flat for the nights and weekends for £350 per month. He gets the flat between 9am and 6pm Monday to Friday. Tiffy rents the flat for the rest of the time.

Teach Me by Olivia Dade

cartoon cover of a scowling/smirking fat white woman in a black dress and a slim white man in a grey cardigan and a blue tie against an aqua background with the tagline "even ice queens can melt"Why I read it:  I have enjoyed the author’s earlier books. Spoiler alert: this one is her best yet.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  Their lesson plans didn’t include love. But that’s about to change…

When Martin Krause arrives at Rose Owens’s high school, she’s determined to remain chilly with her new colleague. Unfriendly? Maybe. Understandable? Yes, since a loathsome administrator gave Rose’s beloved world history classes to Martin, knowing it would hurt her.

But keeping her distance from a man as warm and kind as Martin will prove challenging, even for a stubborn, guarded ice queen. Especially when she begins to see him for what he truly is: a man who’s never been taught his own value. Martin could use a good teacher–and luckily, Rose is the best.

Rose has her own lessons–about trust, about vulnerability, about her past–to learn. And over the course of a single school year, the two of them will find out just how hot it can get when an ice queen melts.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  I’m going to try not to gush but it’s going to be difficult. From the first page, I settled in to happily enjoying Teach Me. The characterisations are rich and layered, the messaging is strong without being preachy, the inclusivity is just there without it having to be a thing, an analog to the real world we live in.

As a hero-centric reader, I fell almost immediately for Martin who is a gorgeous cinnamon roll of a hero with his own vulnerabilities and pain points. He is ever and always respectful of Rose, of her desires and wishes and needs, of women in general in fact.

Not a single word from her mouth was objectionable. Not a single word from her mouth was personal, either. She didn’t ask him about himself. She didn’t tell him about herself. She didn’t smile. She didn’t do anything but give him necessary, job-related information.

And that was absolutely, unequivocally her choice. She didn’t owe him, a near-stranger, smiles or warmth or personal information or interest.

He’d told his daughter Bea the same thing many, many times over the years. Being a woman didn’t obligate her to make men—or anyone—comfortable in her presence. People who said otherwise could contemplate their terrible life choices while she shoved their arrogant presumption somewhere exceedingly painful.

Rose’s chilliness didn’t offend him. Not at all.

It did worry him, though.

November Round Up

Monthly Mini Review

face and upper chest of a hot rock star wearing dark sunglasses and a leather jacket but no shirt, his visible chest tattooedInfamous by Jenny Holiday, narrated by Michael Fell – A- On the face of it, Infamous isn’t a particularly revolutionary story: slow burn romance between an out gay guy and a bisexual rock star whose image is decidedly straight. But what it does it does very very well. It delivers all the feels and kept me glued to my earbuds.

Rocker Jesse Jamison has made a deal with the manager of his dreams to tow the line and stay away from liaisons with men in order to project the ideal image for superstardom. After meeting Dr. Hunter Wyatt, a paediatric hospitalist on the way to Toronto one day, the pair strike up a somewhat unlikely friendship. The book skips forward two years after that initial meeting and the bulk of the story takes place as the pair become buddies and when Jesse’s career has really taken off. Hunter left a relationship with a closet case in Montreal and moved to Toronto for a fresh start. He won’t go back in the closet for anyone – not even Jesse.

It’s not really a surprise what happens but this is one of those cases where the what isn’t as important as the how. The characterisations are strong, the connection between the two men is built up over a long period of time and is based on a solid friendship that is completely believable notwithstanding their differences. While I was dismayed by the predictable black moment I was pleased that Jesse’s decision to come out was about being himself and not “for” anyone and it was a book where the grand gesture had appropriate context and worked really well.

The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland by Rebekah Crane, narrated by Caitlin Kelly

Cartoony type picture of the silhouette of a kissing boy/girl couple in a tent outside among the trees.Why I read it:  I picked this one up cheap when it was an Audible Daily Deal.

Content warning: The book contains themes of suicide, disordered eating, homophobia, abuse/neglect and self-harm.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  According to sixteen-year-old Zander Osborne, nowhere is an actual place—and she’s just fine there. But her parents insist that she get out of her head—and her home state—and attend Camp Padua, a summer camp for at-risk teens.

Zander does not fit in—or so she thinks. She has only one word for her fellow campers: crazy. In fact, the whole camp population exists somewhere between disaster and diagnosis. There’s her cabinmate Cassie, a self-described manic-depressive-bipolar-anorexic. Grover Cleveland (yes, like the president), a cute but confrontational boy who expects to be schizophrenic someday, odds being what they are. And Bek, a charmingly confounding pathological liar.

But amid group “share-apy” sessions and forbidden late-night outings, unlikely friendships form, and as the Michigan summer heats up, the four teens begin to reveal their tragic secrets. Zander finds herself inextricably drawn to Grover’s earnest charms, and she begins to wonder if she could be happy. But first she must come completely unraveled to have any hope of putting herself back together again.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  What a lovely surprise this audiobook was. I didn’t really know what to expect going in to be honest. I tend to be more adventurous with audiobooks though and the title and blurb promised some romance so I took the plunge.

While there is a romance, it isn’t the major theme of the book and it’s not even the most prominent relationship. It was sweet and I enjoyed it but Zander and Grover are only 16 so it wasn’t the fall-in-love-and-be-together-forever-and-ever-happily-ever-after I mostly read. It did end on a happy hopeful note but the point of the book wasn’t really about Zander having a HEA romantically.

The story is told in first person present tense which I don’t mind at all (in fact, I quite like it, especially on audio) but not everyone does, so it’s worth  mentioning here. Each chapter begins with a brief letter, most often from one of the campers home but the rest of the book is told from Zander’s POV. For most of the book, we don’t know why Zander is at Camp Padua, a summer camp in Michigan for at-risk teens. We know there’s something but not exactly what. We slowly find things out as the story progresses until the full truth is revealed. At times I found it slightly frustrating (because I’m impatient) but I understood why, from a narrative and story perspective, the reveal took time. Zander wasn’t going to tell anyone until she trusted them. And trust takes time. Also, the impact of why Zander came to camp is so much more once you’ve spent some time in Zander’s head.

Firestorm by Rachel Grant, narrated by Greg Tremblay

A lightning storm lights up a dark jungle scene. The colours are purple, blue and black with pink lightning. Why I read it:  I received a review copy via the author. I was so excited to listen I immediately bumped it up the queue.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  CIA covert operator Savannah James is after intel on a potential coup in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but she needs a partner fluent in Lingala to infiltrate the organization. Sergeant First Class Cassius Callahan is the perfect choice, except he doesn’t like her very much. He doesn’t trust her, either, despite the sparks that flare between them, fierce and hot. Still, he accepts the assignment even though their cover requires Savvy to pose as his mistress.

They enter battle-worn Congo to expose the financing for the coup. A trail of cobalt, gold, and diamonds leads them into the heart of a jungle in which everyone is desperate to find the mother lode of ore and gems. Betrayal stalks them as they follow the money, but Savvy will stop at nothing to bring down the would-be dictator before he can ignite a firestorm that will engulf all of Africa.

Deep in the sultry rainforest, spy and Green Beret forge a relationship more precious than diamonds, but Cal knows Savvy is willing to sacrifice anything—or anyone—to complete her mission. As they near the flashpoint, Cal will have to save her from the greatest threat of all: herself.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  The short answer to the question of “what worked for me” is “pretty much everything”.  Firestorm is a cracking good listen, with excellent narration and smart, consistent characters and a thrilling story. I do think Firestorm works better in the context of the whole series but it’s not essential.

The blurb tells listeners what they need to know so I don’t want to spend time rehashing the plot. There are plenty of excellent reviews which do that already (here’s one). TW: Listeners should be aware that there is some difficult subject matter involving sexual assault and sexual and other forms of slavery and harm to children, which could be triggering.

I decided to talk about other aspects of the book to do something a bit different. It was something a lot on my mind as I’ve been considering diversity and representation in romance lately. I don’t assert I’m an expert however (after all, I’m a white middle-class Australian) and as always, I’m happy to listen to other voices who have a stake in the subject matter. While I do think that some stories are best left for authors of colour to tell, my starting point is that I don’t subscribe to the view that white authors should never ever write books set in nonwhite countries.  I also believe that if a white author is going to set a book in a nonwhite country (and/or featuring nonwhite characters) then that author should do careful research and be sensitive to the representation they are presenting.

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