Saturday, 4 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 33: "The Unleashing" by Shelly Laurenston

Page count: 385 pages
Rating: 3 stars

#CBR12Bingo: Cannonballer Says (previously reviewed by alwaysanswerb, yesknopemaybe and teresaelectro)

Official book description:
Kera Watson never expected to face death behind a Los Angeles coffee shop. Not after surviving two tours lugging an M16 around the Middle East. If it wasn't for her hot Viking customer showing up too late to help, nobody would even see her die.

In uncountable years of service to the Allfather Odin, Ludvig "Vig" Rundstrom has never seen anyone kick ass with quite as much style as Kera. He knows one way to save her life--but she might not like it. Signing up with the Crows will get Kera a new set of battle buddies: cackling, gossiping, squabbling, party-hearty women. With wings. So not the Marines.

But Vig can't give up on someone as special as Kera. With a storm of oh-crap magic speeding straight for L.A., survival will depend on combining their strengths: Kera's discipline, Vig's loyalty... and the Crows' sheer love of battle. Boy, are they in trouble.

There are so many elements of this paranormal fantasy that should make it exactly my thing - a lot of references to Norse mythology; hunky fighter dudes; a diverse cast of kick-ass warrior women; a big lug of a loyal dog, a romantic subplot- yet, it took me nearly a week to finish The Unleashing, because I kept putting it down and there was nothing much enticing me to pick it back up again to keep reading. Maybe I just read it at the wrong time, because I do not seem to have responded to it as enthusiastically as previous Cannonballers.

Kera is an ex-marine. She's tough, independent and very organised. She finds herself part of a near-immortal group of warrior women sworn to the Norse goddess Skuld (one of the Norns, think three Fates in Roman or Greek mythology). The sisterhood are called Crows and they live in a big, gorgeous mansion in Malibu. While they can manifest wings and claws and are fearless fighters, a lot of them also seem like bitchy sorority girls a lot of the time, all very busy doing their own thing, and no one really seems to bother to explain much of her new and very strange existence to Kera. At least her rescue pitbull Brodie was also brought over with her, with the unexpected side effects that the dog can also manifest wings and supernatural fighting powers now. Of course, Kera barely ever sees her dog, as her various new battle sisters keep taking the dog with them on runs.

Kera discovers that the reason she didn't die in the alley behind the coffee shop where she worked is because the hot, silent guy who frequently showed up there (who she believed to be a veteran of some kind with severe PTSD) is, in fact, a Raven, one of a legendary group of warriors sworn to Odin. Ludvig "Vig" Rundstrom is a gifted blacksmith and seems to make weapons for all the various groups of viking warriors (there's a whole bunch of them). Vig was too late to stop Kera being stabbed, but since he has a big old crush on Kera, he begged Skuld to give her a new chance at life. Since the Crows are less than forthcoming about Kera's new afterlife, except to say that she'll grow wings and have to fight when the time comes, Kera very much appreciates having Vig basically explain all the nitty gritty and also offer to teach her how to fight, as the army training she possesses isn't going to cut it in the sort of fights the Crows get into.

Even before Kera got an unfamiliar new afterlife, she was attracted to Vig, and we discover that he went massively out of his way to go to the coffee shop where she worked just so he could see her. So obviously the two act on their mutual attraction to one another. They just sort of decide that they're crazy about each other, without the reader really ever getting to see how that attraction, or affection for the other, came to be.

Generally, while quite a bit of the world-building here is interesting, the relationships, whether the romantic or platonic are not well established enough for me. While it's clear that there's a lot of tight-knit friendships among the already-existing Crows, they are all initially mostly surprisingly unhelpful and in some cases, really rather bitchy to Kera. While I can see that to their free and chaotic, self-indulgent party lifestyle, her tendency to wander around with a clipboard, trying to impose order and regular schedules on them (because this is what she's used to) is annoying, but there are more mature ways of dealing with things than how it goes down here. It didn't really become clear to me why I was supposed to like any of these women.

At least a couple of the main reviewers over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books really rave about these books and talk about how funny and action-packed they are. Same with a lot of reviewers on Goodreads. I get the action part, there's quite a lot of fighting, but I really don't think this book was all that funny. It takes quite a while before the reader gets a clear picture of what has actually happened to Kera. The whole situation with a bunch of warrior tribes dedicated to various Norse gods is also not very clearly established until quite a long way into the book. There's a lot of switching between POVs, we don't just see things through the eyes of Kera and Vig, but a whole bunch of other supporting characters, including some antagonists. The book also ends really rather abruptly, on quite the cliff-hanger, so while the romantic subplot involving Kera and Vig is resolved, the reader is clearly going to have to keep going with the series if they want to see how the big battle between some ancient evil and what I'm assuming is going to be the united front of all the various Norse battle groups. Not a huge fan of that either. I have heard really good things about Laurenston's writing, and I already own the full trilogy (thanks, frequent e-book sales!), so I probably will keep reading, but I'm not entirely sold on this just yet.

Judging a book by its cover: First of all, I genuinely don't know if this is the first book to use what seems to be a stock image of that shirtless, very ripped guy in a hoodie, but I've seen variations of this exact image on a bunch of books during the last few years. Obviously, the others don't have a bunch of birds in the background, but otherwise, it really an image that's been doing the rounds.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 3 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 32: "Any Old Diamonds" by K.J. Charles

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR12Bingo: Money!

Official book description (because I'm still reviewing books I read three months ago): Lord Alexander Pyne-ffoulkes, the younger son of the Duke of Ilvar, holds a bitter grudge against his wealthy father. The Duke intends to give his Duchess a priceless diamond parure on their wedding anniversary — so Alec hires a pair of jewel thieves to steal it.

The Duke's remote castle is a difficult target, and Alec needs a way to get the thieves in. Soldier-turned-criminal Jerry Crozier has the answer: he'll pose as a Society gentleman and become Alec's new best friend.

But Jerry is a dangerous man: controlling, remote, and devastating. He effortlessly teases out the lonely young nobleman's most secret desires, and soon he's got Alec in his bed—and the palm of his hand.

Or maybe not. Because as the plot thickens, betrayals, secrets, new loves, and old evils come to light. Now the jewel thief and the aristocrat must keep up the pretence, find their way through a maze of privilege and deceit, and confront the truth of what's between them... all without getting caught.

Despite owning several of them, and having even more of them on my TBR list (because they are seemingly universally loved among the various romance reviewers I follow, not to mention several fellow Cannonballers whose opinions I trust), I have actually only read one single novel by K.J. Charles, The Magpie Lord, back in 2016 when it was a book club pick for Vaginal Fantasy. Back in April, this fit with one of my other reading challenges, and now, with the launch of the third Cannonball Bingo, my massive review backlog is suddenly rather useful, as quite a few of the books I've read, yet sadly not had time to write about yet, during the past quarter of a year can be used to tick off squares on the Bingo Card.

But Malin, what did you think about the book? This book has an average rating of 4.32 on Goodreads, and unlike some books, where that number is utterly baffling, in this case, it's very deserved. This is a very enjoyable read, and while it seems like a fairly straight-forward story where a well-born, somewhat naive young man is forced to rely on unscrupulous and devious criminals in order to enact revenge on his unfeeling father, the plot proves to be a lot more delightfully twisty than it first appears. I don't want to dwell on the way in which the narrative diverged from my expectations, as that would obviously be spoilery, just be aware that this is not necessarily the book it seems to be at the beginning.

I think The Magpie Lord is one of Charles' early novels, and while I liked it fine, her writing seems a lot more sophisticated and developed now. The plot is tight, the characters are all complex and interesting, the villains of the story are utterly loathsome (seriously, just when you think there is no way they could actually be as bad as they seem, something happens and they somehow sink to even further lows) and the romance, which seems a bit unbalanced to begin with develops seamlessly as the plot unfurls and we get to know Alec and Jerry better.

I'm a huge fan of a heist story, and if you can throw in a good romance at the same time, so much the better. This was exactly what I needed from a book when I read it, and I'm going to have to make sure it doesn't take me five years before I read any more from K.J. Charles.


Judging a book by its cover: I really like the covers for these books, looking like old theatre posters or the like. The two men appear to match the descriptions of Lord Alexander and Jerry Crozier well. I also like that the cover hints at the romance between the characters without being too obvious.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

#CBR12 Books 29-31: The "Chance of a Lifetime" trilogy by Kate Clayborn

A group of three close-knit friends buy a lottery ticket together one night and end up winning a considerable amount of money. Not enough to never have to worry about money again, but certainly enough that they can fulfill some life-long dreams and still live comfortably afterwards.

Beginner's Luck
Page count: 246 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Ekaterina "Kit" Averin is if possible the least risk-averse person there is. She's very happy working as a research assistant at a university, co-writing the occasional article and generally happily hiding her technical brilliance in order not to attract undue notice. She doesn't want fame, she wants stability. When she and her friends win the lottery, she buys herself a house, her first proper home. The house needs a lot of work, which she can thankfully also afford. She isn't expecting the person to help her out the most is also the person who's trying to tempt her away from her safe, comfortable university job.

Ben Tucker is back in his hometown because his father had a bad accident on his salvage yard and needs some help until he recovers from the injuries. Rather than take over the family business, Ben has moved out of state and works as tech industry recruiters for Beaumont Materials. He agrees to try to smooth-talk one K. Averin into joining his company but is surprised to discover that the brilliant tech mind is a beautiful woman, and one who is completely unimpressed with Ben's tempting offers and handsome face. Ben's bosses really want Kit recruited, however, and keep badgering him to persuade her. Initially, he's determined to succeed, but as he gets to know her, since she's a frequent visitor to his father's salvage yard, trying to find pieces to help her refurbish her house, he realises that he may be willing to sacrifice his own career dreams rather than persuade Kit into a job she's not interested in.

Kit's dad was an addict and from she was fairly little, Kit was basically raised by her older brother Alex, as the family moved to a new place every year or so. She's never known safety and stability until she herself became an adult. She's very uncomfortable being in the spotlight and remains a research assistant at the university despite having more knowledge and experience than many of the grad students she helps. She keeps co-writing scientific articles with her mentor, who is getting increasingly more insistent that her name should be the main one featured since it's her work that's being written about and lauded. It's thanks to some of those articles that Ben is sent by Beaumont Materials in Texas to recruit her. Taking the job would mean a lot more money, both for Kit and her mentor at the university (they're willing to pay a lot to sweeten the deal). Nevertheless, moving to yet another new place, away from her dream house and her best friends is a terrifying and unthinkable prospect for Kit.

Ben grew up in the little town that Kit has fallen for and wants to live in permanently. He had quite the reputation as a wild child and didn't like the negative attention he was attracting, so moved away as soon as he was able. He clearly loves his dad, and worries about the hard work of running the salvage yard. There's also some guilt there for not leaving his dad with anyone to take over the family business. So when his dad gets injured, he arranges for leave from his recruiter job to go home and take care of his father. Meeting and fairly quickly falling for Kit Averin is obviously not part of his plans. He does seem to find any excuse to help her around her fixer-upper of a house, though, and tries not to think too much about how his and her dreams about the future seem to be mutually exclusive.

As well as Kit and Ben, we get to know the supporting characters of  Zoe and Greer, Kit's best friends (and fellow lottery winners). There's also Ben's dad, and the surly teenager he hires to help out around the yard after the kid tries to vandalise some stuff (without much success). Finally, there's Alex, Kit's older brother, who travels the world as a photographer. Having spent much of his childhood and adolescence basically raising his younger sister, Alex now seems allergic to staying in one place for too long. One of the subplots of the book is the disagreement they have when she wants to share her lottery winnings with him and he flatly refuses to even consider it.

Despite Kit and Ben's seemingly incompatible visions of the future, this was a cozy and comfortable romance without too much drama. Kit's childhood was clearly utterly awful, so the found family she created in her friends and the security she looked for made perfect sense to me.

Luck of the Draw
Page count: 300 pages
Rating: 4 stars

When she unexpectedly won the lottery along with her two best friends, cutthroat corporate attorney Zoe Ferris quits her job, having long been uncomfortable with the sort of things she has to spend her days doing. Of the three women, Zoe is by far the one most comfortable financially, and despite her grand promises to herself about travelling the world or making a distance, Zoe doesn't really do a lot once she quits her job. Eventually, she realises that the only way she's ever going to feel better about herself is if she makes amends for a lot of the bad behaviour she exibited in her past life as a high-powered lawyer. She makes a "guilt jar" with the names of everyone she feels she's wronged in some way, and determines to try to apologise and make peace with each and every person whose name is on the little slips of paper, from her harried former personal assistant, to the barista she frequently yelled at and so forth.

The slip of paper she draws out first is that of the O'Leary family, however. A family Zoe dreads facing because of the horrible way her company handled the case of their son's wrongful death. She remembers both the wife and husband crying at the negotiation table. She goes to see them, only to discover that they've moved to Florida, and their remaining son, Aiden O'Leary is living in their house. He's not interested in her apology, but since she's so hell-bent on doing anything to gain some measure of forgiveness, he asks her to pose as his fake fiancee over the next couple of months instead. Aidan wants to buy the campground he and his brother used to spend their summers at and turn it into a rehab retreat in his dead brother's memory. Yet the couple who still own and run it are very conservative and all the other potential purchasers are married couples with solid families. As a single man, Aidan's certain he won't stand a chance. So he gets Zoe to agree to help him. Of course, he wasn't expecting to fall for the beautiful, intelligent woman who he was determined never to forgive.

Luck of the Draw has a bit of an enemies to lovers feel, as Aiden is certainly very antagonistic towards Zoe, to begin with. Initially, the couple only spends time together on the weekends they're going up to the campground where they pretend to be a couple and listen to the various other buyers' pitches for the future of the property. Once Zoe has decided to be a fake fiancee, she's certainly going to be the best and most supportive one she can be. While Aidan is reluctant to listen to her, at first, she makes a lot of good suggestions for how he should pitch his idea to the current owners. She also uses all of her considerable people skills to charm and socialise with the current owners and other guests up at the campground.

Zoe's best friends are not exactly enthusiastic about how she's chosen to spend her weekends, but remain supportive because they respect her wishes. Aiden's closest co-workers in the EMT services also think the fake fiancee plan is a bad idea. Things certainly don't get any easier once Zoe and Aidan start falling for one another. Zoe hates having to lie to the very nice couple that own the campground, Aidan hates keeping things from his parents. He doesn't think they'd react well to knowing that the unfeeling harpy who outlined their dead son's legal settlement is now someone their remaining son is falling for.

Since quitting her job and winning the lottery, Zoe has been aimless and without purpose. Once she starts opening herself up a bit more when away with Aiden, she begins to have ideas about how she can best help others going forward. She figures out what she'd like to work with and how to continue making amends, in some ways, to the society at large.

Aidan has obviously in no way fully processed his grief about losing his twin. The fact that his brother was a drug addict, so the decline was gradual and there were many instances where Aidan feels he maybe could have stepped in and made his brother stop, but didn't, certainly doesn't make it better. He comes to realise that a lot of the hostility he feels towards Zoe is obviously because of the guilt he feels about his own inability to do something for his brother while he was still alive. It also becomes clear that he believes buying the campground and turning it into a rehab facility is the only way he can really atone, whether he's actually the best person to be developing such a place or not.

Both the protagonists in this book have a lot of unresolved issues and need to work through a lot of pain over the course of the story. Their happy ending felt all the more deserved once they got that far. 

Best of Luck
Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

When Greer Hawthorne wins the lottery with her two best friends, not only does she get the opportunity to pay off a lot of her family's debts, but she can finally complete her college education. With her dream job secured after she graduates, Greer is devastated to realise that because she's missing one arts credit, she may not be allowed to complete her education after all. Her only chance is a photo course offered by one of the department chairs, or she won't be graduating.

Alexander "Alex" Averin was only really planning on staying in town a couple of days for his sister's wedding, but when he has a panic attack during the rehearsal dinner and Greer helps him work through it, suggesting he see a therapist she can recommend, he decides to stick around for a little while. When it also turns out that to get into the photography class that can give her that coveted arts credit needed to graduate, Greer may need some help from a world-famous photojournalist, there's all the more reason for him not to go away on new adventures. He's very much trying not to notice how attractive his sister's best friend is, but the more time they spend together, the more difficult it gets.

Greer struggles with a chronic illness and an over-protective family who have had to sacrifice a lot for her health. That's one of the reasons why she's so determined to pay her parents back and help her siblings when she wins the lottery. She's also determined to get a degree, secure herself a good job and find a place of her own to live, since living with her sister still feels a lot like being checked up on all the time. Discovering that all of her dreams may be ruined by one missing course, shortly before graduation is gutting to her. She doesn't really want to use her friendship with Alex to convince the department chair to accept her, but she's run out of other options.

Alex spent much of his childhood raising his younger sister Kit. Now he travels the globe taking pictures in some pretty dangerous areas. While he's been trying to ignore it, he's been struggling with his mental health for a long time, and the panic attack just before Kit's wedding just makes it impossible for him to ignore any longer. He understands that unless he can get the anxiety and panic attacks under control, he's unlikely to be able to continue his career as he used to. Having always been deeply self-sufficient and independent, it's difficult for Alex to admit to vulnerability and accept help, but for some reason, when Greer offers it, he doesn't see it as pity and listens to her advice.

I'm not a huge fan of sibling's best friend/best friend's sibling romances, of which this is clearly one. I thought Greer and Alex in many ways were more interesting as separate people than as a couple, but the book was really interesting when it dealt with both Greer's quest for independence and Alex' struggles to improve his mental health. I'm always a big fan of people addressing their mental health in a serious manner instead of just brooding about their secret pain. Therapy should be normalised and feature much more in both romantic and other contemporary fiction.

Judging the books by their covers: The cover designers have been pretty good about finding cover models that more or less match the protagonists of each book. Each of the women being placed in front of a wall of some sort is a nice common motif and each of the women's body language also says quite a bit about their attitudes and confidence, especially at the start of the books.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

#CBR12 Book 28: "A Murderous Relation" by Deanna Raybourn

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the fifth book in the Veronica Speedwell series. There will absolutely be spoilers for some of the previous books in the series. Skip this review if you're not up to date. It's an excellent series; if you want to start at the beginning, pick up A Curious Beginning

Official description:
Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian colleague Stoker are asked by Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk to help with a potential scandal so explosive it threatens to rock the monarchy. Prince Albert Victor is a regular visitor to the most exclusive private club in London, known as the Club de l'Etoile, and the proprietress, Madame Aurore, has received an expensive gift that can be traced back to the prince. Lady Wellie would like Veronica and Stoker to retrieve the jewel from the club before scandal can break.

Worse yet, London is gripped by hysteria in the autumn of 1888, terrorized by what would become the most notorious and elusive serial killer in history, Jack the Ripper--and Lady Wellie suspects the prince may be responsible.

Veronica and Stoker reluctantly agree to go undercover at Madame Aurore's high-class brothel, where another body soon turns up. Many secrets are swirling around Veronica and the royal family--and it's up to Veronica and Stoker to find the truth before it's too late for all of them.

Back in London after their near-death experience, not to mention declarations of affection for one another, Veronica and Stoker nevertheless never really seem to find the time or privacy to actually act on their out in the open emotions. You'd think snooping around a high-class brothel and trying to locate a precious gemstone, so they can soothe the worries of Lady Wellie and none other than the Princess of Wales. While they become certain rather quickly that the royal heir has nothing to do with the gruesome serial murders taking place, there is clearly someone trying to blacken the young prince's name, and as their investigation deepens, Veronica and Stoker discover that the culprits are known to them from a previous case.

It should be absolutely no surprise to anyone reading Deanna Raybourn that she writes very slow-burn romances and that readers have to be patient because her romantic pairings take a good long while to get around to anything but the occasional kiss and a whole lot of unresolved sexual tension. In A Dangerous Collaboration, Veronica finally gave up on her strange notion that she must flit about the world, free as the butterflies she likes to hunt, and admitted to herself, and Stoker, that she loves him. His feelings, and thoughts on monogamy, have been pretty obvious to readers for several books now. Being utterly fiendish, Ms. Raybourn strings the readers along for pretty much this entire book as well, before we finally get the very satisfying consummation of Veronica and Stoker's relationship.

Another important relationship that is formed in this book, is that of Veronica and Prince Albert Victor, her secret half-brother. Tasked initially by Lady Wellie to retrieve a fancy diamond that Albert Victor gifted to his mistress, matters are complicated by murder and kidnapping and a truly hare-brained plot to depose the current royal family. While they are in captivity together, some secrets are revealed to the royal heir, and rather than being upset, he seems quite happy to discover their kinship.

There's a dark minor subplot involving the Jack the Ripper murders, and without spoiling too much, over the course of their sleuthing, Veronica and Stoker come into contact with one of the women who end up being one of the murder victims. Some readers might find it a bit forced, I thought it worked very well and lent the book an extra emotional beat.

By now, I'm going to be reading these for as long as Ms. Raybourn feels like writing them. I find the continuing adventures of Veronica and Stoker (not to mention the small cameo appearances that we get from other members of his family) incredibly entertaining and am already happily anticipating the next installment.

Judging a book by its cover: I've commented before that I really like these woodcut-inspired covers, and this black, white and red one is particularly striking. It's nice that the little figure that's supposed to be Veronica has her little butterfly net, although I don't recall her doing much lepidoptery at all in this book. Also not sure what's up with the dog next to her. Even with these niggles, cool cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

#CBR12 Book 27: "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Official book description:
DAY ONE
The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb.
News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.

WEEK TWO
Civilization has crumbled.

YEAR TWENTY
A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe.

But now a new danger looms, and he threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild.

STATION ELEVEN
Moving backwards and forwards in time, from the glittering years just before the collapse to the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after, Station Eleven charts the unexpected twists of fate that connect six people: famous actor Arthur Leander; Jeevan - warned about the flu just in time; Arthur's first wife Miranda; Arthur's oldest friend Clark; Kirsten, a young actress with the Travelling Symphony; and the mysterious and self-proclaimed 'prophet'.

Thrilling, unique and deeply moving, this is a beautiful novel that asks questions about art and fame and about the relationships that sustain us through anything - even the end of the world. 

This was our very first Cannonball Book Club pick back in 2015, and I read and reviewed the book back then too. My original review can be found here. It took me a while back then to decide that I actually wanted to read the book for myself, and I'm not going to lie, re-reading it while a pandemic swept from Asia towards Europe and the USA, was making me a bit nervous. Looking back at the dates when I re-read this book, it was exactly during the time when Norway literally shut down, when the most drastic measures in post-World War II society were implemented, all over the course of a few days. I began my re-read of this on the 12th of March, on my way to work. By the afternoon, we'd been told that the nurseries, schools and universities, not to mention pretty much all major businesses, would be closed until further notice, and everyone was encouraged to just remain indoors, in a kind of pre-quarantine.

Of course, I'm reviewing the book some three months later, and while the pandemic is currently under control in certain parts of the world, it's still spreading wildly and terrifyingly fast in other parts of the globe. While I would love to believe the hopeful views on humanity and survival that are explored in this novel, the current news cycle shows that most people are short-sighted, egotistical, self-centred and careless. It's boring and difficult, not to mention very inconvenient to shelter in place and stay away from people for months. It's much nicer if you can just go about your business instead.  It's hot and uncomfortable to wear a mask to protect others, so a whole bunch of people are just not going to do that, despite all the factual evidence that we could massively halt the spread of the virus if everyone (especially the ones who don't feel sick, but may be asymptomatic carriers) just wore a face mask, washed their hands a lot and tried to keep their distance when out and about.

Station Eleven is a science fiction novel, it's set in a post-apocalyptic society, but it is nevertheless a hopeful and uplifting read. I don't think Emily St. John Mandel would dream of the situations that Covid-19 has created world-wide back when she wrote her book, and as I said, right now, the things that seem the most far fetched and fictional to me, are how well the "Fifteen years later" societies are managing. Of course, we're currently in the middle of "Year One" of this scenario, so perhaps, in the future, when a terrifyingly tragic percentage of the population has died (even if it's not 99%, like in this book), people will again focus mainly on re-building communities and re-discovering art and beauty and togetherness.

This wasn't supposed to be quite such a depressing whinge about how bafflingly selfish a lot of people currently are, but rather a review of my re-read of the book. In my mind, I'd built up the bits I disliked, with the 'Prophet', into a much larger part of the story. So much of the book looks back on the lives of a lot of the people before the Georgia flu hit and subsequently make us care when they are either killed by the flu themselves or lose other loved ones from the illness. It's still a wonderful book, and I'm glad we revisited it for Book Club.

Judging a book by its cover: I own three copies of this book. An e-book copy, an Audible audiobook and the UK paperback copy, which I was gifted in a Cannonball Book Exchange. This is the cover of the paperback I have, which seems extra timely now that an actual pandemic is sweeping the world and we saw that in places where people were forced to isolate during the lockdown, wild animals really did end up roaming the urban streets, undisturbed by people. So the deer facing the reader among the high rises of a city doesn't seem as strange as it may have once done. It doesn't take long for nature to start reclaiming the space we take up.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR12 Book 26: "Ninth House" by Leigh Bardugo

Page count: 476 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Leigh Bardugo has become a popular name in YA fantasy, with her Grisha trilogy, the duology Six of Crows, as well as the Nikolai duology (which is still incomplete). This is her attempt of paranormal fantasy aimed at adults, and in case the black and grey cover left you in any doubt, it doesn't take long before the reader is made very aware that this book is "not for kids". Our protagonist, Galaxy "Alex" Stern has the rather unusual ability to see ghosts, which has mostly been a horrible burden throughout her life so far, making her a seemingly mentally unstable outcast who ended up hanging with the wrong crowd and numbing her senses with drugs just to get some peace.

Nevertheless, the sole survivor of a horrible multiple homicide in a sketchy drug den, Alex is given the opportunity to come to prestigious Yale, precisely because her ability to see and sense ghosts is useful to those in power there. There are nine secret magical societies at the university, and Alex is a member of Lethe, the one that "polices" the others. It's also the smallest of the societies, with hardly any members. The senior member, who trains the younger one, is known as Virgil. The younger member is Dante. Alex is the Dante to Daniel "Darlington" Arlington's Virgil, and they don't exactly have the warmest or friendliest of relationships. Unlike Alex, Darlington has to drink a special potion to see ghosts. The potion is both foul-tasting and can be lethal if over-used. There's also the fact that Darlington seems to come from a privileged and wealthy background, while Alex was pretty much literally living on the streets before she got the chance to come to Yale. There's also Dawes, the shy research assistant who seems infatuated with Darlington and rather hostile towards Alex.

The book's plot is not told chronologically. The prologue is set in early spring, while other chapters are set in the autumn and winter, with alternating POVs from Alex and Darlington. It's clear from the prologue that Alex in the spring is in a pretty bad place, so it's going to be quite the ride to figure out how she ended up in such a tight spot.

As well as introducing us to some very interesting world-building, with a lot of creepy supernatural stuff going on, there is a murder mystery to be solved. A young girl is murdered on the Yale campus, and while a lot of people seem to brush it off as a lovers' quarrel gone wrong, Alex knows that there's more to the story and keeps poking her nose into places it doesn't belong.

As I mentioned in my first paragraph, while Bardugo has previously written for teens, this book is much darker and more serious, complete with all sorts of adult themes. I was surprised at how gory and f**ked up it got, on occasion. I should probably also add that while the main mystery of the story is solved at the end, there is very much a cliff-hanger sort of a feel to the ending, with the purpose of the sequel very much established. I'm already looking forward to seeing where Alex ends up next.

Judging a book by its cover: I know I finished the book about three months ago, but I'm trying to remember if there was a snake prominently featured in the story at any point, and coming up blank. I think the snake may have been put on the cover to create a cool visual, and I do like the black on black, with the grey font. It may be that the snake is a metaphor I'm too stupid to have understood, of course.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 6 June 2020

#CBR12 Book 25: "Queenie" by Candace Carty-Williams

Page count: 336 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 45 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper, where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle-class peers. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie seeks comfort in all the wrong places…including several hazardous men who do a good job of occupying brain space and a bad job of affirming self-worth.

As Queenie careens from one questionable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be?”—all of the questions today’s woman must face in a world trying to answer them for her.

I'm not the first Cannonballer to read Queenie and thanks to the reviews of others, I knew that the only thing this book seemed to have in common with Bridget Jones' Diary is that they are both about young British women with a supportive friend group. I suspect a lot of people who picked up the book based on such a comparison would have been shocked, and quite possibly put off. Poor Queenie is a mess, personally and professionally. Her white boyfriend has broken up with her, but she keeps telling herself that they are just on a temporary break and will be getting back together again after some months apart. From Queenie's own flashbacks to the relationship, not only did her boyfriend's family contain several blatant racists, but they were never a particularly healthy couple and it's probably best in the long run for Queenie to be rid of him.

Not that she realises this, and she deals with being single by pretty much hooking up with and having unprotected sex with increasingly more awful and unsuitable guys (including one who is really violent towards her). She wants to be taken seriously at work and write about serious issues like racism, police brutality and the gentrification of previously immigrant-rich areas, but also comes in late, takes super long lunches, spends a lot of her day on social media and is generally a hot mess. Despite all this, her boss really does seem to want to keep giving her chances. Queenie also has a group of loyal and supportive friends (the chat group is called "the Corgis", which is just super cute) who keep trying to be there for her, even as she keeps spiralling further and further into bad decision territory.

One of the major issues in Queenie's relationship with her unsuitable boyfriend was that she would have nightmares and occasionally freak out when he touched her. It becomes clear the further into the book we get that Queenie's mother also made bad choices with regards to men, and a violent stepfather in Queenie's past has left her deeply traumatised. She's currently estranged from her mother but has grandparents who take her in and try to help her when she can no longer to afford her flat. Several of the nurses at the free clinic that Queenie has to keep visiting because of her impulsive and unprotected hook-ups start showing concern for her and recommend that she see a therapist. It's made very clear that in the Jamaican culture, you don't go talking to strangers about your problems, and it takes Queenie a really long time to convince herself (not to mention her concerned grandparents) that this is a necessary step in her road towards healing and self-improvement.

I finished this book in early March, before the corona pandemic really erupted in the western hemisphere and the world changed completely. Reviewing it now, as multiple cities in America have literally been burning and there are protests all over the world to protest police brutality and to express solidarity with #blacklivesmatter, I wonder what Queenie would think if she were a real character and saw what was happening? Would she feel hopeful? Would she fear that it was only a momentary distraction and soon the world would have moved on, allowing the systemic racism to continue?

For the first two thirds at least, this book is dark and miserable and there are graphic descriptions of emotional and physical abuse and some of Queenie's sexual encounters could probably be classified as rape. She keeps making terrible choices, both personally and professionally and if I'd started this book a month later, in the midst of lock-down with all the worries about corona and my anxiety constantly spiking, I'm genuinely not sure I would have been able to finish the book. It's certainly NOT a light, frothy, comedic romp about a woman just trying to find love. It's a harrowing description of an individual in crisis with a lot of undiagnosed mental issues, and we follow along until she hits rock bottom. If you can get through the difficult parts, I can assure you that the book goes to a much more hopeful and encouraging place once Queenie starts accepting that she needs professional help, and needs to start loving herself and staying away from her terrible life choices.

I'm very glad that I read the book. I really liked the narrator and being fore-warned, I knew I was going to have to get through some unpleasant stuff before Queenie began to work towards a better life for herself. I will say that times are tough and depressing right now, and if you're looking for some light escapism, this is not the book for you. It's an excellent story, but very unpleasant in places.

Judging a book by its cover: I've seen this cover with a bright, almost neon-pink background and this warm orange-red one. In both, you have the same central image, an elaborate hairdo of intricate braids piled on top of a young woman's head. We don't get to see her face, only her hair and an ear with some piercings. I love how it looks as if the title is woven into the braids, like some sort of ornamentation in itself. Queenie is very protective of her hair (and why shouldn't she be?), yet she keeps having to suffer micro-aggressions like people touching it without her permission. So it's a good choice to have the hair featured on the cover of the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.