About Lauren Willmore

For as long as I can remember I’ve had two passions: writing and design. After working for eight years in the greetings card industry, I decided to combine my two passions and begin work designing book covers. My days are divided between raising two young boys, and either writing or designing in the evenings (and nap times). I’m currently editing my first novel and hope to query it this year. It’ll be an incredibly nerve-wracking journey, but one I’ll share on here. That’ll be the lows and, fingers crossed, the highs too.

Reading Round Up – September

At the start of the year I set myself the challenge of reading one book a week, and am actually ahead of schedule – go me! For fun, I’ve started to number the books in my reviews.

46. 1984

George Orwell

Rating: 3 out of 5.
1984

Among the seminal texts of the 20th century, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a rare work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff’s attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell’s prescience of modern life—the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language—and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell. Required reading for students since it was published, it ranks among the most terrifying novels ever written.

Is my three star rating unfair given what a classic this book is? Perhaps. The world is terrifying (and given the current state of things, the reason I decided to read the book at last), but I had little interest in main character Winston, who served as no more than the vessel through which we see this terrifying world. Apologies for what is probably my unpopular opinion, but honestly, who has ever mentioned 1984 to discuss Winston and not Big Brother?


47. Half a King

Joe Abercrombie

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Half a King (Shattered Sea, #1)

Betrayed by his family and left for dead, prince Yarvi, reluctant heir to a divided kingdom, has vowed to reclaim a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains and the bitter waters of the shattered sea itself – all with only one good hand. Born a weakling in the eyes of a hard, cold world, he cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so has sharpened his mind to a deadly edge. Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast, he finds they can help him more than any noble could. Even so, Yarvi’s path may end as it began – in twists, traps and tragedy.

Thanks to this book, I’ve really pinned down my love of the Coming of Age trope. As a character, Yarvi is instantly relatable, which is not a surprise as this book is penned by Character Master Joe Abercrombie. What is a surprise is that not everyone in this book is a back stabbing stain on society, as I’ve also come to expect from Abercrombie, who can sometimes take Grimdark to such depressing depths I feel the need to shower in Rom Coms afterwards.

While I absolutely loved this book, I have two criticisms. First, was that the “surprise” twist at the end was so obvious it may have been flashing headlights and banging a drum. Second, I have no desire to read the next is the series. Perhaps one day I’ll read it and call myself an idiot, but right now reading the blurb of what’s to come… no interest.


48. 100 Days of Sunlight

Abbie Emmons

Rating: 4 out of 5.
100 Days of Sunlight

When 16-year-old poetry blogger Tessa Dickinson is involved in a car accident and loses her eyesight for 100 days, she feels like her whole world has been turned upside-down. 

Terrified that her vision might never return, Tessa feels like she has nothing left to be happy about. But when her grandparents place an ad in the local newspaper looking for a typist to help Tessa continue writing and blogging, an unlikely answer knocks at their door: Weston Ludovico, a boy her age with bright eyes, an optimistic smile…and no legs.

Knowing how angry and afraid Tessa is feeling, Weston thinks he can help her. But he has one condition — no one can tell Tessa about his disability. And because she can’t see him, she treats him with contempt: screaming at him to get out of her house and never come back. But for Weston, it’s the most amazing feeling: to be treated like a normal person, not just a sob story. So he comes back. Again and again and again.

Tessa spurns Weston’s “obnoxious optimism”, convinced that he has no idea what she’s going through. But Weston knows exactly how she feels and reaches into her darkness to show her that there is more than one way to experience the world. As Tessa grows closer to Weston, she finds it harder and harder to imagine life without him — and Weston can’t imagine life without her. But he still hasn’t told her the truth, and when Tessa’s sight returns he’ll have to make the hardest decision of his life: vanish from Tessa’s world…or overcome his fear of being seen.

100 Days of Sunlight is a poignant and heartfelt novel by author Abbie Emmons. If you like sweet contemporary romance and strong family themes then you’ll love this touching story of hope, healing, and getting back up when life knocks you down.

I decided to read this book after watching Abbie’s YouTube series about character and her mantra of ‘Why It Matters!’ I would say in this she has achieved to set out what she intended, with characters built to test each other, with Tessa and Weston (I keep wanting to say Tessa and Will) perfect for each other’s issues.

Is the book perfect? (Are any?) No. The opening is a tad cliched and all the characters are just too… good? Perhaps it’s that I lurk in the realms of Grimdark Fantasy that skewed my opinion here. I’m not asking for Weston to be Jorg Ancrath (poor Tessa if he were…), but I wish there was a little more lurking beneath the surface. But maybe that’s just me! Overall, a good read.


49. Great Expectations

Charles Dickens

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Great Expectations

‘In what may be Dickens’s best novel, humble, orphaned Pip is apprenticed to the dirty work of the forge but dares to dream of becoming a gentleman — and one day, under sudden and enigmatic circumstances, he finds himself in possession of “great expectations.” In this gripping tale of crime and guilt, revenge and reward, the compelling characters include Magwitch, the fearful and fearsome convict; Estella, whose beauty is excelled only by her haughtiness; and the embittered Miss Havisham, an eccentric jilted bride.

I knew enough about this book going in (thanks to adaptations and parodies) that I was familiar with the characters of Pip, Estella, and Miss Havisham. But I was not prepared for the character of Joe Gargery, who I absolutely fell in love with. Starting the book, I expected Joe to be Pip’s childhood antagonist (rather than Pip’s sister). How wrong I was and how I raged at Pip every time he treated Joe badly.

This novel was Grimdark before Grimdark was a thing, a complete study of character and human flaws. It could have done with an edit (I say, passing judgement on a classic), but in a book already so long did we need scenes about Pip and Herbert writing lists of debts, or the many, many characters there were to keep track of. 

The bonus of Dickens’ works (I say after reading just two of his novels) is that even when writing, he set his novels in the past already, and as a result explains how things are different. There’s no assumptions from the author as there are in Austen’s work, for example, where owning a chaise and four makes a gentleman of a certain wealth bracket. So it’s easy to read and understand, despite its age.


50. The Court of Miracles

Kester Grant

Rating: 4 out of 5.
The Court of Miracles (A Court of Miracles #1)

In the violent urban jungle of an alternate 1828 Paris, the French Revolution has failed and the city is divided between merciless royalty and nine underworld criminal guilds, known as the Court of Miracles. Eponine (Nina) Thénardier is a talented cat burglar and member of the Thieves Guild. Nina’s life is midnight robberies, avoiding her father’s fists, and watching over her naïve adopted sister, Cosette (Ettie). 

When Ettie attracts the eye of the Tiger–the ruthless lord of the Guild of Flesh–Nina is caught in a desperate race to keep the younger girl safe. Her vow takes her from the city’s dark underbelly to the glittering court of Louis XVII. And it also forces Nina to make a terrible choice–protect Ettie and set off a brutal war between the guilds, or forever lose her sister to the Tiger.

Les Misérables meets Six of Crows in this page-turning adventure as a young thief finds herself going head to head with leaders of Paris’s criminal underground in the wake of the French Revolution.

I decided to read this book after hearing about it at Voyager Con. I’m a huge fan of Les Mis, though I must admit to not having read Victor Hugo’s original (the audiobook is 57 hours! I’m daunted, okay!), and have always had a soft spot for Eponine. Author Kester Grant is right, she is the best. 

I had expected something more like the film Ophelia, with the novel simply playing out from Eponine’s point of view with scenes previously unseen. This was definitely better. I loved the story, but in a way would have preferred it to have been an original. That way, I wouldn’t have been constantly comparing changes. [SPOILERS AHEAD] For example, I love Val Jean and Cosette in the original, and to find that even in the two years they spent together they had no bond… crying… And perhaps controversially, I love the original Javert. I was a bit devastated to see the new Javert reduced to a woman scorned (she’s hunting Val Jean because he hit it and quit it; he banged her then canned her). This is supposedly a feminist retelling, and that one just didn’t sit right with me. But I loved the other changed involving Nina (Eponine) and Ettie (Cosette). [NO MORE SPOILERS]

I was disappointed with one aspect of the plot, where the reader is essentially tricked into believing something which it is later revealed POV character Nina knew was a lie all along. That knocked a star off for me.

One thing to point out, because for a while it confused the hell out of me, is that the blurb states the book takes place ‘in the wake of the French Revolution’. So you aren’t confused when Nina runs across the Dauphin, the novel is set in an alternative Paris where the French Revolution was only a failed uprising and the monarchy is still very much in play. 

Reading Round Up – August

The Secret Commonwealth

Philip Pullman

Rating: 3 out of 5.
The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust #2)

It is twenty years since the events of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One unfolded and saw the baby Lyra Belacqua begin her life-changing journey.

It is seven years since readers left Lyra and the love of her young life, Will Parry, on a park bench in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens at the end of the ground-breaking, bestselling His Dark Materials sequence.

Now, in The Secret Commonwealth, we meet Lyra Silvertongue. And she is no longer a child . . .

The second volume of Sir Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust sees Lyra, now twenty years old, and her daemon Pantalaimon, forced to navigate their relationship in a way they could never have imagined, and drawn into the complex and dangerous factions of a world that they had no idea existed.

Pulled along on his own journey too is Malcolm; once a boy with a boat and a mission to save a baby from the flood, now a man with a strong sense of duty and a desire to do what is right.

Theirs is a world at once familiar and extraordinary, and they must travel far beyond the edges of Oxford, across Europe and into Asia, in search for what is lost – a city haunted by daemons, a secret at the heart of a desert, and the mystery of the elusive Dust. 

I was surprised when I read the blurb for this that we didn’t stay with Malcolm’s story, a prequel to His Dark Materials, and instead jumped to events following this series, with a grownup Lyra. Perhaps I should have read His Dark Materials again during this break, but as I’d borrowed this from the library, I decided to read it, regardless.

Listening to this as an audiobook likely helped with my enjoyment of it. Had I been actually reading it, I might have struggled in places where the story meandered. Even when the relevance of the rose oil was revealed, I still couldn’t bring myself to care each time it was mentioned. I didn’t find Malcolm’s feelings for Lyra (and Lyra’s emerging feelings for Malcom) quite as icky as other readers did. Having read about Lyra as a baby and a child, it can be hard to remember that Lyra is now an adult. Once I reminded myself that I know people with this same age gap in their relationship (and at their ages – 21 and 32), I got over the initial uncomfortableness. However, was it necessary for Malcolm to have feelings for Lyra when she was still his student? Couldn’t his feelings be relatively new too?

My biggest gripe with the book, though, was that it didn’t end, it just stopped. There were so many story threads that should have been brought together and weren’t. I know there is supposed to be another book in the trilogy, but that doesn’t mean that The Secret Commonwealth shouldn’t be a complete book by itself. Very unsatisfying.


I went away on a few UK holidays this month, and during this time I found myself turning away from the darker fantasy books I usually choose and to romance. Traditional holiday reads (though, not my usual… I read The Dark Tower on honeymoon… so…)

Anyway, I returned to a series I accidentally jumped into the middle of at the start of the year when I started reading an extract on Facebook. That was the sixth book in The Boys of Jackson Harbor series by Lexi Ryan. So on holiday I read the previous five!


The Wrong Kind of Love

Lexi Ryan

Rating: 4 out of 5.
The Wrong Kind of Love (The Boys of Jackson Harbor, #1)

From New York Times bestseller Lexi Ryan comes a sexy new romance novel about a runaway bride, a single dad who’s sworn off love, and the kind of family secrets that can threaten to break even the deepest bonds.

You never forget your wedding day. Or the moment your twin sister pukes on your bouquet and confesses she’s pregnant… with your fiancé’s baby.

I wanted to get away, to hide until my heart mended. I found myself in a strange town with a mysterious stranger whose talented mouth and hands almost made me forget it was supposed to be my wedding night.

Afraid to go home to face my broken life, I pretend to be my twin so I can take her job in Jackson Harbor caring for a six-year-old girl. Imagine my surprise when I find out my new boss is my mysterious stranger — Dr. Ethan Jackson.

I never meant for Ethan to discover my secrets. I never meant for them to matter. But the longer I work with him and his sweet daughter, the harder I fall, and the clearer it becomes that I’m not the only one carrying a secret that could tear us apart.

Get ready to fall for the boys of Jackson Harbor in Lexi Ryan’s sexy new contemporary romance series. These books can all be read as standalones, but you’ll enjoy reading them as a series!

This had all the elements of the classic romance that pulled me into this series. A love pulled apart by personal baggage and almost ridiculous circumstance. It’s interesting to see in this book and those that follow how Lexi crafts couples that are ultimately perfect for one another, yet their problems are perfectly matched too. Growing up in foster care, Nic is desperate for family. Ethan is one of six and has a strong family unit that she fits into easily. Lexi also knows exactly the buttons to push to tear relationships apart (which is absolutely perfect in the sixth installment in the series). It’s definitely something I’m paying attention to. A great read.


Straight Up Love

Lexi Ryan

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Straight Up Love (The Boys of Jackson Harbor, #2)

From New York Times bestselling author Lexi Ryan comes a sexy new standalone romance about a woman who’d do anything to have a baby and the man who’d do anything to have her…

For my 30th birthday, I’m giving myself the one thing I want most: a baby. Sure, this would be easier if I had a husband—or even a boyfriend—but I refuse to be thwarted by minor details.

When I drunkenly confess my plans to my friends, they convince me to ask Jake Jackson for help. Jake, the best friend who’s been there for me through thick and thin. Jake, who also happens to be smart, funny, ridiculously good looking, and the winner of all the genetic lotteries.

So when Jake takes me up on my request—with the stipulation that we get the job done the old-fashioned way—I’d be a fool to decline.

The only problem? I don’t know if I can separate sex from all the things I feel for this amazing man. If I can’t keep my heart under lock and key, I risk losing the relationship I need the most.

Jake has his own reasons for granting my baby wish. But when I discover his secrets, it could mean the end of us. I have to choose—run or stay and fight for love.

While the previous book focused on Ethan Jackson, this book followed his younger brother, Jake Jackson. It was good to see characters carrying over into the next novels (and have them explained a little better. You can apparently jump into the series wherever, and while this is true, the family dynamics became a lot clearer as I went through the series compared to when I started on book 6).

Unlike the last book, which was farfetched in its premise, this one was almost a little too close to home for me. Female lead Ava and I just had too similar a background. Not everything was the same, of course, but there were certain aspects of her family that mirrored mine, as well as having once been stung by a friend wanting more, as Jake is to Ava. So personally, I didn’t find the same escape in this book as I did with the previous one, though objectively, it was still a good read.


Dirty, Reckless Love

Lexi Ryan

Rating: 2 out of 5.
Dirty, Reckless Love (The Boys of Jackson Harbor, #3)

I’m in love with a man who tried to kill me. At least that’s what they tell me . . .

Six weeks ago, paramedics found me unconscious in my apartment. Beaten. Bruised. Hardly breathing. When I woke up, I couldn’t remember the last three years or anything about my life in Jackson Harbor. They tell me my fiancé, Colton McKinley, is on the run for what he did to me. They tell me I’m safer if I stay away. 

I don’t care if my memories ever come back. I want nothing to do with those missing years . . . until a sexy stranger with angry eyes shows up on my doorstep and demands I stop ignoring him. 

Levi Jackson is my fiancé’s best friend, but seeing him sparks something inside me. As the truth unravels in my mind, I know they’re wrong about Colton. My own secrets are far more dangerous than the man I was engaged to.

I return to Jackson Harbor to search for answers and find myself running from a faceless boogeyman and seeking refuge in Levi’s arms. And in his bed. 

I can’t deny my feelings for Levi. But as the pile of lies between us grows, I realize that sometimes the truth can’t set us free. Sometimes, it’s the very thing that can destroy us.

This book took what I said about Ava’s family having a similar dynamic to mine and made that an absolute lie. We now follow Ava’s best friend Ellie and Jake’s younger brother Levi as they attempt to find love in circumstances that went from being farfetched to just too much. Ellie has been seeing Ava’s brother, and is entangled in that family’s business, which includes the father I had seen some similarities to my own… except now the father is some sort of criminal mastermind, paedophile, and rapist. The change is explained by daughter Ava not seeing this side of her father, and while I’m sure my own father has secrets, he’s certainly not this guy!!!

The downside of this novel was that it was a romance trying to be a thriller. I’ve read thrillers, this is not it. Perhaps if I only read romance I might have been gripped by this book, but honestly, to me it fell flat. I guessed every twist, and what should have been the high stakes of the thriller were constantly undermined by the romance, and vice versa. They didn’t work together, they worked against each other. The weakest of the series.


Wrapped In Love

Lexi Ryan

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Wrapped in Love (The Boys of Jackson Harbor, #4)

A one-night stand with the boss was never in her plans. Neither was falling in love . . . 

The rumors are true. I am a hot mess with an awful track record at love. Single mom. Down on her luck. Yeah, I’m bad news. 

So if the hardest part of moving back home to Jackson Harbor was going to be people talking? I’d be fine. I’ve kept my chin up through worse than their decade-old gossip. 

I was wrong. The hardest part is resisting my boss. Brayden Jackson is the very picture of tall-dark-and-handsome. And thanks to an ill-advised one-night stand we had seven months ago, I know exactly what I’m missing when I turn him down. Every. Single. Delicious. Inch. 

But I have my son to care for and my job to keep, so I’ll keep on saying no. 

Until my string of bad luck continues, and suddenly my precious four-year old and I find ourselves with nowhere to live. At Christmas, no less. It’s for my son that I accept Brayden’s offer to stay at his place. One by one, my defenses are falling, as fast as I am. If Brayden was smart, he’d run, because it’s only a matter of time before he realizes he deserves better than what a girl like me can offer. 

Unless, for once, my bad luck is leading me exactly where I need to be.

Now we return to the oldest of the Jackson boys, big brother Brayden. He falls for Ava’s step-sister (it’s a small town, so the book says, everyone knows everyone so basically everyone shags everyone). Sadly, Ava’s sister Molly was the victim of the child abuse and rape in the previous book, and while that book had me considering whether to take a break from the series, this book was so well done I launched into the next.

Back on form, each characters insecurities played off the other, making them perfect for one another once they could pull their heads out of their arses (or if Brayden gets his head out of Molly’s you-know-where…). Thumbs up!


Crazy For Your Love

Lexi Ryan

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Crazy for Your Love (The Boys of Jackson Harbor, #5)

A family wedding with a fake boyfriend, meddling parents, and an obsessive ex . . . What could go wrong? 

The only thing worse than being single at my sister’s wedding is finding out that my ex will be there too. Not just any ex—the guy everyone expected me to marry, the man I came to Jackson Harbor to escape.

Now I need a date, and fast. Enter Carter Jackson—the firefighter who’s dealing with an unwanted five minutes of fame ever since a shirtless photo of him saving a puppy went viral. He’s warding off propositions left and right, and he needs a fake relationship as much as I do.

Sweet and sexy, Carter is completely off-limits. See, I have a rule. A no heartache rule. Not only is Carter my friend and a known heartbreaker, but his job as a firefighter puts him in danger daily, and that’s something I just can’t handle. 

The commitment between us might be pretend, but the passion all too real. As crazy as it makes me, I have to keep Carter at an arm’s length. Even that might not be enough to spare my heart.

Only slightly fatigued from finishing my fourth romance in a week, I began this book carefully, and really fell for it. My firm favourite in the series is still the one I started with, but I think Lexi’s improvement in the series really kicks in here. The book had great highs and lows, and fun shenanigans. The issues keeping the couple apart felt a little forced compared to the rest (Teagan’s secret was a good one, one she lied to keep, but Carter doesn’t like lies… I mean, who doesn’t but in the circumstances, just let it go). But other than that, a great book.


If It’s Only Love

Lexi Ryan

Rating: 5 out of 5.
If It's Only Love (The Boys of Jackson Harbor #6)

From New York Times bestseller Lexi Ryan comes a sexy new standalone romance in the bestselling Boys of Jackson Harbor series. Meet single dad Easton Connor as he leaves the NFL and returns to Jackson Harbor to fight for another chance with the love of his life.

***

I don’t regret much. 

Not my decision to enter the NFL draft before finishing college. 
Not fighting custody of my daughter—even if, biologically speaking, it turns out she’s not mine. 
And certainly not seducing my buddy’s little sister ten years ago. 

But when it comes to Shayleigh Jackson, my no-regrets attitude stops there. I screwed up royally where she’s concerned. Then I made another mistake when I let her shut me out of her life. 

Now after more than a decade living in different time zones, I’m coming home to Jackson Harbor. My first priority is getting my daughter away from the media circus in LA, but the moment I see Shay, I know I’ll stop at nothing to win her back.

So what if she won’t speak to me? So what if she’s changed? So what if she’s fallen for some douchebag professor? I’ve never gotten over her and I know she feels the same about me. I’ve let her go twice. I won’t make that mistake again.

If It’s Only Love and all other books in this series can be read as standalones, but you’ll enjoy reading them together.

I didn’t read this one during this stint, but as I’ve reviewed the rest here, I thought I may as well give my thoughts on this one. 

Now that all the Jackson brothers have been paired off, we finally focus on Shay, the baby sister. I went into this book knowing nothing, but was gripped by the opening chapter, an extract I stumbled across. Here we follow a couple that started so well, but through a series of flashbacks we learn where life got in the way. I could not put this book down. Up till 3am reading! The dilemma for the two characters… as this was my first introduction to the series, I hadn’t yet cracked that the couple always end up together, and let me tell you, the worry I felt for these two was an actual ache in my chest. When we hit the present timeline and Shay discovers the issue that threatens to keep the two apart – perfection! It was so well crafted into the story. I felt dread leading to the discovery, pain at its revelation, and tears of happiness as it was resolved. I absolutely loved this one. 

Reading Round Up – July

Another month, another round of reviews. Despite spending the first half of the month concentrating on writing, I did manage to find a little time as the summer holidays started to sit down and read. And I mean read a physical book, which is a rarity for me. As I usually work my design job with an audiobook on the go, I tend to let the pile of physical books build up, but with the weather good, I was able to get into two of them, swinging in my hammock while the boys played or drew in the garden. Success!

The Ivies

Alexa Donne

Rating: 4 out of 5.
The Ivies

Everyone knows the Ivies: the most coveted universities in the United States. Far more important are the Ivies. The Ivies at Claflin Academy, that is. Five girls with the same mission: to get into the Ivy League by any means necessary. I would know. I’m one of them. We disrupt class ranks, club leaderships, and academic competitions…among other things. We improve our own odds by decreasing the fortunes of others. Because hyper-elite competitive college admissions is serious business. And in some cases, it’s deadly.

Alexa Donne delivers a nail-biting and timely thriller about teens who will stop at nothing to get into the college of their dreams. Too bad no one told them murder isn’t an extracurricular.

I started watching Alexa Donne’s YouTube channel a few years ago, not only for her writing tips but her insight into traditional publishing. Her previous two books (sci-fi retellings of classics) were more my usual read, but when her latest book came out, I decided to take a look regardless of the genre. And the book did not disappoint. 

I wouldn’t say I was on the edge of my seat (or hammock), but I was pretty close. There were just the right amount of clues dropped that I was able to guess most of the twists (though not all), but that’s perfect for me. I love being able to guess what comes next. 

When I started the book, I kept thinking I should recommend the book to a friend’s daughter in a similar schooling situation to the main character Olivia. She’s at a competitive private boarding school, but not one of the rich kids. But as the book progressed, revealing the dark underbelly of the fictional Claflin School, Olivia’s friends’ treatment of her, and Olivia’s own faults, I reconsidered! 

At first I disliked the ending. It wasn’t the conclusion I expected, and after such an intense read I was almost deflated. Until I hit the last page. That ending! It was perfect.


Breach of Peace

Daniel B Greene

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Breach of Peace (The Lawful Times, #0.1)

When an imperial family is found butchered, Officers of God are called to investigate. Evidence points to a rebel group trying to stab fear into the very heart of the empire. Inspector Khlid begins a harrowing hunt for those responsible, but when a larger conspiracy comes to light, she struggles to trust even the officers around her.

I was clearly on a YouTube kick, so went from The Ivies into Breach of Peace. A few years ago I went into a panic that I didn’t read enough. It was probably true. At one point I read all the time, but in writing my first book, having two young children, and just life in general, my reading levels had dropped. But I felt like I’d been out of the game for so long I didn’t know where to start. I stumbled across Daniel’s YouTube channel while on the hunt for reviews, and love his honest and helpful reviews (if he dislikes something, the reason is clearly explained and we’re not just told ‘the book was shit’).

To start, I don’t often read novellas, so I’m not certain how the book compares on that level. When reading it, I often wished more time could be spent on world building, or certain aspects of the investigation, or with the characters. When bad things happened to characters, I didn’t feel invested enough in them to care. But the time we did spend with each character was great, and something really special was being forged. There just wasn’t enough of it for me. I would have preferred a full novel.

I had heard the opening was fairly brutal (it opens on a crime scene). It definitely set the tone of the novel, though it did in part feel gratuitous—there’s a reason I don’t watch Saw movies. There were a few too many characters introduced too quickly, but again the novella format likely played a role in this.

But overall, I was impressed. It was a good introduction to the world, and it was the world really loved in this one. Very dark. My kinda read!


La Belle Sauvage

Philip Pullman

Rating: 4 out of 5.
La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1)

Malcolm Polstead is the kind of boy who notices everything but is not much noticed himself. And so perhaps it was inevitable that he would become a spy…

Malcolm’s father runs an inn called the Trout, on the banks of the river Thames, and all of Oxford passes through its doors. Malcolm and his dæmon, Asta, routinely overhear news and gossip, and the occasional scandal, but during a winter of unceasing rain, Malcolm catches wind of something new: intrigue.

He finds a secret message inquiring about a dangerous substance called Dust–and the spy it was intended for finds him.

When she asks Malcolm to keep his eyes open, Malcolm sees suspicious characters everywhere; Lord Asriel, clearly on the run; enforcement agents from the Magisterium; an Egyptian named Coram with warnings just for Malcolm; and a beautiful woman with an evil monkey for a dæmon. All are asking about the same thing: a girl–just a baby–named Lyra.

Lyra is the kind of person who draws people in like magnets. And Malcolm will brave any danger, and make shocking sacrifices, to bring her safely through the storm.
 

This one has been on my bookshelf since it was released, so finally I found time to read it. But did I read the physical book? No. Despite all my best intentions on the day I added it to my Christmas list, it was the notification from the library letting me know the audiobook was available that kicked me into gear. Some design work had come in, so the timing was perfect.

It was great to revisit this world so many years after reading his Dark Materials. I will always remember telling my mum how much I wanted to see a film of Northern Lights (back when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was being turned into a movie), and she said it would never happen because training all those animals would be too hard. Lucky for me technology did the work of an animal trainer, though unluckily the resulted in The Golden Compass… still the BBC series was much better. I digress only to say that I purposefully haven’t reread His Dark Materials as I didn’t want to spend my time watching the series comparing the two, so stepping back to Lyra’s Oxford in La Belle Sauvage was very welcome.

The book started slow, meandering as Malcolm did in his canoe. Having completed this book and started the next one, I can see exactly why La Belle Sauvage started as it did. I wouldn’t say I was bothered by the slow start, I enjoyed enough about it that I was gripped. Once things heated up (or should I say once things were flooded and destroyed) in the middle, I was glued to my headphones. Certain parts of the book lost me a little. I was thrown by the inclusion of fairies, but then when I think back to His Dark Materials, it wasn’t completely out of place. 

I made the mistake of thinking the book was middle grade, so when the shit really hit the fan I was completely thrown—do we normally drop f-bombs and rape and paedophilia in MG?—but no. It’s an adult book. Not that that meant I was happy reading about these subjects, but I wasn’t quite as baffled by their inclusion.

After leaving it so long to read this book, I dove straight into the sequel. I’m still reading The Secret Commonwealth at the moment, so shall post a review next month.

Saturday Cake Day – Gin and Tonic Cupcakes

This Saturday Cake Day, I’m looking back to Father’s Day (I know, I’m a little late posting this one!). Anyone who’s kept up with my other cake blogs knows it’s not been the easiest time recently, so Father’s Day came with a strong hit of emotions, which given that I love writing, I didn’t struggle to express at all… (and as you may have guessed, I also love sarcasm). 

So this Father’s Day weekend, my little family of four celebrated Father’s Day on the Saturday, which included a trip to a restaurant. The boys began the meal almost in shock, after so long away from a eating out, and by the end of it they begged to come again. On the Sunday, my brother and I made the drive to the Royal United Hospital in Bath to visit our dad. As he enjoys a tipple (possible understatement), I brought Gin & Tonic cupcakes, which went down very well. I also baked extras, to ensure there was some for the nurses taking great care of him, which he could either give as gifts of trade for favours, like cigarettes in prison. 

I baked these not only with gin in the cake mix but also included a syrup, made by boiling tonic water, sugar, lime and juniper berries. Gin was to be added after the boiling, but given the circumstances, I thought it best to add during the boiling to burn off the alcohol but keep the flavour. I had loads of the syrup left, so mixed with extra tonic it made fab cocktails.

Reading Roundup – June

June’s book selection is a little smaller than last months, but my reading levels do vary depending on whether I’m working the day job (always done with an audiobook), or writing. I can’t read fiction while writing, I find it too distracting, and given that halfway through the month I started a new project, the reading stopped. But here’s the round up 🙂

We Ride the Storm

Devin Madson

Rating: 4 out of 5.
We Ride the Storm (The Reborn Empire #1)

In the midst of a burgeoning war, a warrior, an assassin, and a princess chase their own ambitions no matter the cost in Devin Madson’s visceral, emotionally charged debut.

War built the Kisian Empire. War will tear it down.

Seventeen years after rebels stormed the streets, factions divide Kisia. Only the firm hand of the god-emperor holds the empire together. But when a shocking betrayal destroys a tense alliance with neighboring Chiltae, all that has been won comes crashing down.

In Kisia, Princess Miko Ts’ai is a prisoner in her own castle. She dreams of claiming her empire, but the path to power could rip it, and her family, asunder.

In Chiltae, assassin Cassandra Marius is plagued by the voices of the dead. Desperate, she accepts a contract that promises to reward her with a cure if she helps an empire fall.

And on the border between nations, Captain Rah e’Torin and his warriors are exiles forced to fight in a foreign war or die.

As an empire dies, three warriors will rise. They will have to ride the storm or drown in its blood.

This was a multi-POV book that really made me look at and evaluate how I might use multi-POVs in writing. Some multi-POVs are different views on one immediate story, this one was different POVs that lead their own story, until they all eventually collided. From time to time I found that my interest in some of the characters stories was dropping, and I was reading their chapters in order to reach the characters I preferred, though equally a few chapters later my interest would have risen in them and it was their chapters I devoured. But occasionally I did feel like some characters had filler chapters in order for the reader to keep checking in with them.

That being said, I did really enjoy the book. It took me a while at the start to sort who was who, and how they and their countries related to the rest. Some parts of the book had my mouth hanging, and I blazed through the finale. I would have preferred the ending to feel a little more concluded, but it is the first in a series (not certain a series of how many, but given that it’s called We Ride the Storm, The Reborn Empire #1, I assume it’s not a standalone!) so I’ll just have to wait and see what happens next.


The Bone Maker

Sarah Beth Durst

Rating: 3 out of 5.
The Bone Maker

Twenty-five years ago, five heroes risked their lives to defeat the bone maker Eklor—a corrupt magician who created an inhuman army using animal bones. But victory came at a tragic price. Only four of the heroes survived. 

Since then, Kreya, the group’s leader, has exiled herself to a remote tower and devoted herself to one purpose: resurrecting her dead husband. But such a task requires both a cache of human bones and a sacrifice—for each day he lives, she will live one less.

She’d rather live one year with her husband than a hundred without him, but using human bones for magic is illegal in Vos. The dead are burned—as are any bone workers who violate the law. Yet Kreya knows where she can find the bones she needs: the battlefield where her husband and countless others lost their lives.

But defying the laws of the land exposes a terrible possibility. Maybe the dead don’t rest in peace after all.  

Five warriors—one broken, one gone soft, one pursuing a simple life, one stuck in the past, and one who should be dead. Their story should have been finished. But evil doesn’t stop just because someone once said, “the end.”

This was an enjoyable read, and I got quite into guessing at twists before they came (always good fun). It couldn’t pick fault with joy in the fun of the story, but I struggled with the originality of it. Likely it’s because I’d just read both The Bone Shard Empire and Kings of the Wyld, but comparison niggled at me. Given the release dates of the books, I’m sure The Bone Maker and The Bone Shard Daughter were coincidences, but given that there was even an overlap of terminology, I occasionally found myself confusing the magic of both books. 

But until about halfway through this book, I was fairly convinced I was reading a gender swapped Kings of the Wyld. We follow our hero who, who is well past the glory days, who must get the band back together to save someone they love. The story to switch thing up about halfway through and went in a different direction, but for a while I was matching up characters, etc.

Overall, I preferred The bone Make to The Bone Shard Daughter, but Kings of the Wyld wins hands down. Is that fair? I don’t know; I guess female protagonists just can’t accidentally get hit by erectile dysfunction potions mid battle. And I’m immature, so that will always win!


Peaky Blinders: The Legacy

Carl Chinn

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Peaky Blinders: The Legacy

The Peaky Blinders as we know them, thanks to the hit TV series, are infused with drama and dread. Fashionably dressed, the charismatic but deeply flawed Shelby family have become cult anti-heroes. 

Well-known social historian, broadcaster and author, Carl Chinn, revealed the true story of the notorious gang in his bestselling Peaky Blinders: The Real Story and now in this follow-up book, he explores the legacy they created in Birmingham and beyond. What happened to them and their gangland rivals?

In Peaky Blinders: The Legacy we revisit the world of Billy Kimber’s Peaky Blinders, exploring their legacy throughout the 1920s and 30s, and how their burgeoning empires spread across the UK. Delve into the street wars across the country, the impact of the declaration of War on Gangs by the Home Secretary after The Racecourse War in 1921, and how the blackmailing of bookmakers gave way to new and daring opportunities for the likes of Sabini, Alfie Solomon and some new faces in the murky gangland underworld.

Drawing on Carl’s inimitable research, interviews and original sources, find out just what happened to this incredible cast of characters, revealing the true legacy of the Peaky Blinders.

No reading fiction while writing, I’m turning to non-fiction. I recently binged Peaky Blinders, loving the atmosphere of the early seasons and then hooked by the story. So one a late night browse of the history section on Borrow Box, I stumbled across this one, and thought why not? Let’s get the true history behind the series (and I love history, so it has to be done).

I love the cover, how it’s clearly not affiliated, but they’ve done their absolute best to match the characters in the show.

Saturday Cake Day – Rum Ham

Today I look back at the previous weekend and the cake I made for my brother’s birthday: a pineapple upside-down cake. And believe me, on that day, cake was needed.

I’ve said before about my father being terminal, and though doctors gave him this year, we’ve really no idea (experience tells me you never really know). The cancer caused an infection in his hip, damaging the bone enough that it needed to be removed. Not replaced. Removed. And thanks to Covid, this was not a night of family getting together in the hospital. Instead it was an evening of waiting by the phone to see if he’d pull through the Hail Mary of an operation. To cut the tension, he did make. I remained glued to my phone, only to wake Saturday morning to news from my uncle, not about Dad, but Grandma. Taken to hospital during the night with heart failure. Ringing my brother to give him the update, and fitting in a Happy Birthday, was not easy. But the week has seen the situation improve, with my grandma able to return home, and my father managing to walk around his hospital room with a zimmer frame.

Oh, and because bad things come in threes, my brother had a reaction to some bug bites and had swollen and blotchy legs the whole day. He rated it his second worse birthday, so apparently, it could have been worse.

Now to move on from the trauma of the day, lets get to the cake. Like me, Little Bro is a huge It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fan. How does that link to a pineapple upside-down cake? Loosely at best! But link it, I did. Those familiar with the show will know of Rum Ham, Frank’s alcoholic snack he’s forced to bid farewell to Wilson style. 

Rum Ham GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

See the comparisons? Yeah, I did say it was loose, but the pineapple went down a treat on the hot day. And the fruit basically made it healthy, right?

But in conclusion… Happy Birthday Little Bro!

May be an image of 1 person, sitting and outdoors

Saturday Cake Day – Playdough and Pride

I looked through the back catalogue of cakes, and given that it’s June and Pride Month, I thought I’d share enough rainbow cake.

My oldest is rainbow mad, so I made him this cake on his 4th birthday. And yes, for the observant readers, he also had a Frozen cake, but that was for his party and this on his actual birthday.

Remember when we could go places? We visited the Sea Life Centre, had sushi (his favourite), and came home for cake. Good, so far. Except… The buttercream icing is meant to be made using unsalted butter, and I may have picked the wrong butter up at shops. Salted! The cake tasted like playdough and no one ate it! Whoops! But it looked okay, which is odd for me, as before I started trying to make decent looking cakes, mine were always ‘tastes good, looks awful’.

Saturday Cake Day – A Frozen Birthday

As I’ve just finished the busiest period of the year for birthdays in my family, I thought I’d take a look back at the second busiest month – January. And I’m going way back, back when Covid was just something on the news that would probably just blow over (yeah right…). So we’ll travel back to early 2020, to my oldest son’s fourth birthday, when the only thing he had any interest in was Frozen.

Absolutely everything was Frozen. Frozen bouncy castle, Frozen decorations, Frozen dressed, and of course a Frozen Cake. My son lived in the Elsa dress he’d gotten for Christmas, and with his friends coming dressed up too, we had Elsas everywhere!

As a Frozen cake had been requested, I set about coming up with ways I could make the cake look icy. In the end I went with the geode cake, using sugar crystals and food colouring to create the frozen look. I must admit I wasn’t completely sure what to do about the top of the cake, and the candle arrangement always makes me think of the Iron Throne, perhaps if the Night King claims it.

My son talks non-stop about the idea of having another birthday party. This year we were able to blow out candles with the family over Zoom, so we’ll have to wait and see what next year brings. He’s moved on from his Frozen phase, but if his current likes are anything to go by, I’ll be making either a rainbow cake, unicorn cake, She-Ra cake, or a cake that encompasses all three!

Reading Roundup – May

As a new feature on the blog, I’ve decided to add reviews of all the books I’ve read in the month. I need to give myself a kick up the bum to remember to leave reviews, and hopefully this’ll also help me to get better at writing them. The amount of books I read each month will not doubt be varied. I listen to audiobooks while working the day job (artworking greeting cards and designing book covers), but don’t tend to read at all while I’m writing. There may be months where I’ve nothing to review, and there may be months like this one, where there’s a whole bunch of them!

The Rage of Dragons

Evan Winter

Rating: 5 out of 5.
The Rage of Dragons (The Burning, #1)

The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for almost two hundred years. Their society has been built around war and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.

Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war. Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn’t get the chance. Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him. 

I wanted to start reading this one after watching an interview with author Evan Winter. The story sounded right up my street, and it didn’t disappoint in the slightest. Tau is a character driven by his own selfish reasons, who would likely let the world burn as long as he got his vengeance in the process. I found myself often comparing it to The Poppy War, with the main character joining the military, being overtaken by war, and being hell bent on their quest. Even when Tau made decisions so terrible I shouted at my phone (listening via Audiobook), I understood exactly where he was coming from. I couldn’t get enough of this book, which is why I immediately started the sequel.

It’s also worth noting that while this book is now published by Orbit, it was originally self-published. This book is a shining example of just how good self-published books can be.


The Fires of Vengeance

Evan Winter

Rating: 5 out of 5.
The Fires of Vengeance (The Burning, #2)

Desperate to delay an impending attack by the indigenous people of Xidda, Tau and his queen craft a dangerous plan. If Tau succeeds, the queen will have the time she needs to assemble her forces and launch an all-out assault on her own capital city, where her sister is being propped up as the ‘true’ Queen of the Omehi.

If the city can be taken, if Tsiora can reclaim her throne and reunite her people, then the Omehi might have a chance to survive the coming onslaught.

A fab sequel, just as strong as its predecessor. I loved the direction the story took, especially getting to know the rest of Tau’s troop. I’m also a bit of a sucker for a romantic subplot, and just as with the last book, this one was very well done. I’m now impatiently awaiting the third in the series! 


The Winter Road

Adrian Selby

Rating: 4 out of 5.
The Winter Road

The greatest empire of them all began with a road.

The Circle – a thousand miles of perilous forests and warring clans. No one has ever tamed such treacherous territory before, but ex-soldier Teyr Amondsen, veteran of a hundred battles, is determined to try.

With a merchant caravan protected by a crew of skilled mercenaries, Amondsen embarks on a dangerous mission to forge a road across the untamed wilderness that was once her home. But a warlord rises in the wilds of the Circle, uniting its clans and terrorising its people. Teyr’s battles may not be over yet . . .

All roads lead back to war.

Not an easy one to read, with certain scenes requiring me to make an effort towards emotional distance to get through them. I shall avoid spoilers, but if you can’t read books where children are killed, this one may not be for you. Still, despite that, this book did something I really appreciated. I’ve read a few books recently where it seemed that part of what made the strong female lead so strong was a refusal to have children. Sometimes it’s because of society, sometimes it’s because they’ll get in the way of the quest, but it grates on me. I don’t think it should be the case that when I try to name strong females in fantasy that are also mothers, only the likes of Cersei Lannister come to mind… So this book, with a lead who could be both badass and care for her adopted children, was much needed. All in all the book is brutal and heart wrenching, but worth it.


The Bone Shard Daughter

Andrea Stewart

Rating: 3 out of 5.
The Bone Shard Daughter (The Drowning Empire, #1)

The emperor’s reign has lasted for decades, his mastery of bone shard magic powering the animal-like constructs that maintain law and order. But now his rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands.

Lin is the emperor’s daughter and spends her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and dark secrets. When her father refuses to recognise her as heir to the throne, she vows to prove her worth by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.

Yet such power carries a great cost, and when the revolution reaches the gates of the palace, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her birthright – and save her people.

In this book, I found the magic more interesting than the characters (at least until about half way in). The book follows four story lines, and I must admit I was only particularly interested in one of them (Jovis), until another character’s story joined his. Main character Lin has lost her memories, and once I pieced together the mystery surrounding this one I found myself far more interested in the book, which I found to end on a stronger note than it started. I’m still intrigued by the story enough to be interested in a sequel, but in a month of strong reads, this one became forgettable.


Conjure Women

Afia Atakora

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Conjure Women

A mother and daughter with a shared talent for healing—and for the conjuring of curses—are at the heart of this dazzling first novel

Conjure Women is a sweeping story that brings the world of the South before and after the Civil War vividly to life. Spanning eras and generations, it tells of the lives of three unforgettable women: Miss May Belle, a wise healing woman; her precocious and observant daughter Rue, who is reluctant to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a midwife; and their master’s daughter Varina. The secrets and bonds among these women and their community come to a head at the beginning of a war and at the birth of an accursed child, who sets the townspeople alight with fear and a spreading superstition that threatens their newly won, tenuous freedom.

Magnificently written, brilliantly researched, richly imagined, Conjure Women moves back and forth in time to tell the haunting story of Rue, Varina, and May Belle, their passions and friendships, and the lengths they will go to save themselves and those they love.

I found this book while going through the Fantasy section on BorrowBox, which definitely led me to believe this book was something it wasn’t. That isn’t a bad thing, the story was great, but where I had expected a story of essentially mother and daughter witches with the American Civil War as a backdrop, this was an in-depth story of a mother and daughter struggling through slavery and ‘freedom time’. Another difficult read which including many dying children. After one such death around the middle of the book, I considered whether or not to stop reading, but I persevered and it was well worth it. It’s harrowing and cuts deep in a way history book can’t. I picked this one up mistakenly, and I’m glad I did.


Kings of the Wyld

Nicholas Eames

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Kings of the Wyld (The Band, #1)

Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best — the meanest, dirtiest, most feared crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld. 

Their glory days long past, the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk – or a combination of the three. Then an ex-bandmate turns up at Clay’s door with a plea for help. His daughter Rose is trapped in a city besieged by an enemy one hundred thousand strong and hungry for blood. Rescuing Rose is the kind of mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for.

It’s time to get the band back together for one last tour across the Wyld.

Given that my previous read had been a tough one, this book was well needed. So many laugh out loud moments (especially the scene involving an erectile disfunction potion thrown mid battle). The humour is just as juvenile as I am, and I’m giggling in nearly every scene. My other half is a musician, so I’ve been recommending this one to all his fantasy loving bandmates. This book skirts the edges of grimdark with its characters, but unlike many others that are great but harrowing, this is just so much fun, and sometimes that’s all you need in a book.

Saturday Cake Day – Happy Birthday Me!

On my actual birthday, my other half decided I shouldn’t have to make my own birthday cake, and so he and my boys chose one from the local supermarket. In my humble opinion, it was a tad dry, but I shan’t hold that against them. My youngest helped blow out the candles (he’s a little obsessed with that) and managed not to spit across the whole thing. Bonus.

Compared to last year’s birthday in a full lockdown, this year my birthday fell the week restrictions were lifted and I ate inside a restaurant for the first time in over a year! Quite the surreal experience. I should also have been able to have 30 in the garden, with a BBQ planned, but I didn’t get so lucky with the weather. Blooming rain. but these cupcakes were made with such things in mind, as I figured cupcakes could more easily be given away at the door or saved for another day. My oldest is rainbow and unicorn mad, and seeing as he has a winter birthday, I made this tower with him in mind–something for him while the rest in the family all do our birthday’s within one star sign.

I also can’t resist showing off all the books I have piling up to read, along with a few other pressies. These days most of my reading is done via audiobook, whether through Audible or BorrowBox, but come Birthdays and Christmases I put a little list together to get a few physical books. I’m also enjoying my nerdy T-shirts. I’m sure most can recognise Grogu (or at least Baby Yoda), but for reference, the other is the Wanderer from Shadow of the Colossus (so I got two Shadow of the something presents!), which I may or may not have played through 4 times in a month….

So in conclusion, Happy Birthday me. I’ve got lots of reading to do now!