Monday, 23 September 2019

#CBR11 Book 67: "The Bookish Life of Nina Hill" by Abbi Waxman

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

From Goodreads, because it's been over a month since I finished this:

The only child of a single mother, Nina has her life just as she wants it: a job in a bookstore, a kick-butt trivia team, a world-class planner and a cat named Phil. If she sometimes suspects there might be more to life than reading, she just shrugs and picks up a new book.

When the father Nina never knew existed suddenly dies, leaving behind innumerable sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews, Nina is horrified. They all live close by! They're all—or mostly all—excited to meet her! She'll have to Speak. To. Strangers. It's a disaster! And as if that wasn't enough, Tom, her trivia nemesis, has turned out to be cute, funny, and deeply interested in getting to know her. Doesn't he realise what a terrible idea that is?

Nina considers her options.

1. Completely change her name and appearance. (Too drastic, plus she likes her hair.)
2. Flee to a deserted island. (Hard pass, see: coffee).
3. Hide in a corner of her apartment and rock back and forth. (Already doing it.)

It's time for Nina to come out of her comfortable shell, but she isn't convinced real life could ever live up to fiction. It's going to take a brand-new family, a persistent suitor, and the combined effects of ice cream and trivia to make her turn her own fresh page.

This book is what I hoped, based on the description and many rave advance reviews, that Evvie Drake Starts Over was going to be. It was a perfectly fine book, and a decent romance, but it never really gave me the thrill that a really satisfying reading experience should. Now this book, on the other hand, I liked so many things about this book - the introverted heroine and her overwhelming love of books, obviously. Nina's trivia quiz hobby - I love a good trivia quiz and used to take part in a weekly one along with my brother and his friends (sometimes my husband would also take part). I really miss having a regular trivia quiz team.

I liked the weird and wonderful way that Nina's newly revealed family tree hung together. Her new relatives, even the rather antagonistic ones, were great supporting characters. I love that the author takes the time to give us an idea of who Nina's friends are, and that Tom, Nina's initial quiz nemesis, but whom she clearly really fancies, has his own distinct friend group and supportive family members too. A good supporting cast is a lot more important to the quality of a book than a lot of people think. It makes the world seem more real and while Nina is most certainly an introvert, it doesn't mean she doesn't have people in her life who help draw her out of her shell occasionally.

The one thing that keeps this book from being a full five star read for me is that the romance could have been more developed. The family and friend stuff is all excellent and amused me greatly, but Tom is clearly a really great guy and pretty much perfect for Nina, so I missed having more scenes of just the two of them, developing their relationship (there were a little too many complications, and not enough actual couple time). A stronger romance plot would have made this book pretty much perfect for me.

Judging a book by its cover: I've mentioned the trend of cutesy, cartoony covers for romances that the publishers seem to want to market to a wider, more mainstream audience, but this one, I don't actually mind. I like the warm, happy colours of it, and I love that the glasses double as the Os in bookish. If I hadn't already heard a lot about this book on various book review sites I follow, this cover would guarantee that I would notice the book in a store and pick it up to see what it was about.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

#CBR11 Book 66: "The Wallflower Wager" by Tessa Dare

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lady Penelope Campion lives quite happily alone in London, aided only by an old, pretty much deaf housekeeper and surrounded by her unusual menagerie of rescued animals. There's a highland cow, a goat, an otter, several chickens, a dog with only the use of his front legs, a whole bunch of kittens and a particularly foul-mouthed parrot. Her friends dote on her and even politely try to eat her horrendous vegetable meat substitutes without complaining or making a fuss. So when Penelope's aunt comes to announce are demanding Penelope's return to the family estate in the country, she's devastated. She makes a wager with her aunt that she'll stop being a strange reclusive wallflower, get all the animals re-homed, purchase a new wardrobe and start being seen at social engagements around town again - even balls.

Gabriel Duke grew up in abject poverty and has used his cleverness and guile to become a force to be reckoned with in London society. He's known as the Duke of Ruin after having schemed, manipulated and used his financial savvy to ruin several important and influential families. Now he's bought a grand mansion right next door to where Lady Penelope lives and is having it refurbished, planning to sell it for a fortune, in part because he can boast about the peers nearby. Not that he'll ever be able to sell the house if there's a veritable zoo of strange creatures in the neighbouring house. He demands that Penelope get rid of her animals, and since that works out well with her aunt's already stated demands, Lady Penelope negotiates Gabriel's help in assisting her.

Of course sparks fly pretty much instantly. Lady Penelope and Gabriel's first meeting involves her breaking into his house in the middle of the night to retrieve her sweary parrot, and walks in on him wearing only a towel. They're deeply attracted to one another, but Gabriel doesn't believe he could ever be good enough for Penelope, and she's got some trauma in her past that she needs to work through, and has never really allowed herself to feel attracted to a man before, certainly not to let go and give into her desires.

I liked Gabriel (seriously, romance authors, start picking other names for your heroes, the cognitive dissonance is just too strange when I have to read kissing books starring dudes with the same name as my sweet little boy), who despite presenting himself as gruff and ruthless is clearly just a marshmallow at heart, desperately wanting to be loved. For all that he claims to be annoyed by Lady Penelope and her many rescue animals, he also keeps going above and beyond for her, and has absolutely no time for anyone criticising her in any way. It's quite clear that for all that her friends love her dearly, they sometimes infantilise Penelope a bit too often. Gabriel treats her like an intelligent, adult woman who should take charge of her own life. He also gets massive kudos for the way he reacts when Penelope finally tells him the secrets of her past, although then he goes an alphas it up a bit too far, creating over the top drama towards the end.

Lady Penelope is very cute, but sadly here I think Ms Dare has turned the quirky knob past even eleven and gone too far. The many different rescue animals are funny in moderation, but there may be a bit too many of them. I also the shtick with her vegetarianism and array of utterly inedible meat substitutes just a bit too much. It's shown later in the book that it's perfectly possible to eat a completely meat-free diet even in Regency times without resorting to creating food no one in their right mind would consume. I did appreciate that despite her past unfortunate experiences, Penelope is entirely frank about her sexual attraction to Gabriel and once she decides she wants him, doesn't let anything stop her from having a good time.

There are the obligatory cameos by the previous heroes and heroines in the series. There's a particularly amusing scene in the final part of the book involving all three very manly heroes trying to figure out what to do when faced with a goat in labour. I thought this was better than The Governess Game, but nowhere near as good as The Duchess Deal (which, for all its Tessa Dare crazy, utterly worked for me). It'll be fun to see what happy ending is in store for our final heroine of the series, some time next year.

Judging a book by its cover: OK, Avon cover designers, have you actually just given up now? There is NOTHING on this cover that suggests that it's a historical romance set in the Regency era. Nothing! The female cover model is wearing what appears to be a negligee and the male model looks, well, just like a male model. From the 21st Century. There have been a lot of romance cover trends that annoyed me, but using a cover that could pretty much just as easily fit on a contemporary is a new low. Additionally, the weird effect where they've made it look like the couple are glowing is not a good feature - it makes me worry the couple are faintly radioactive, or possibly aliens.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

#CBR11 Book 65: "A Rogue by Night" by Kelly Bowen

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Sir Harland Hayward, Baron Strathmore, is something of an oddity among the nobility, in that he insists on not only continuing to run a shipping company, but he works as a practising physician, treating aristocrats and commoners alike. A less widely known fact is that he also helps his sister, the headmistress of the prestigious Haverhall School for ladies (a profession she has kept up with, even after becoming a duchess) to each year train some select students who are interested in becoming doctors as well. Harland knows that women can be just as capable, if not better, at certain things than men. He doesn't have a lot of illusions left after surviving and treating survivors on the battlefields of the Napoleonic wars.

When his parents died, Harland discovered that the family fortunes were nearly gone. He tried his best to save the family shipping business, but after some devastating losses, had no choice but to make a deal with ruthless underworld crime boss King. Now he has no choice but to run a smuggling operation along the Kentish coast, taking advantage of many of the people on his lands. When one of his smugglers, Matthew, is shot during an operation, he shows up to help in his guise as the local benevolent physician, only to discover that Katherine, Matthew's sister, has the situation well at hand. She's able to deal with the complicated gun shot in a way that shows she has a lot more skills and experience than your regular village healer and wise woman. Harland is both impressed and intrigued by Katherine, but his guilty conscience for the situation he's put her family in wars with his attraction for her.

Katherine hates that her father and brother are involved in smuggling, and determined to get them to go straight, if she can just ensure that her brother survives being shot (and the possible following infection). Like Harland, Katherine has extensive battlefield experience in France, having fallen in love with and followed a manipulative nobleman to war, only to discover he only saw her as a passing fancy, and ended up abandoning not only her, but his dying men on the field towards the end of the war. So Katherine doesn't trust handsome nobles anymore, and clearly being the most intelligent member of her family, seems to be the only person who questions why the local baron suddenly shows up to offer medical assistance after her brother's "accident". Who exactly told him there was a need?

Ignoring Katherine's animosity, Harland offers to let her brother recover at Avondale House, the manor house his brother in law owns, and from which his sister Clara houses her summer students. The authorities won't think to look for him there. Harland also suggests that Katherine help with instructing the medical students and once his sister enthusiastically supports the idea (and Katherine is sure it's not just a strange way for him to seduce her), she grudgingly accepts the job.

Katherine has barely started her instructor job when Harland comes to her, asking for help with a dangerous mission he's been given by King. There are French prisoners who need to be rescued from prison in London and escorted back to France. Harland needs an extra physician with him to ensure he can treat the wounded prisoners, and Katherine is the most skilled person he can think of. As it turns out, her past smuggling experience and quick wits make her even more invaluable partner on the mission.

Katherine's distrust and animosity towards Harland doesn't last very long, and while they don't plummet into insta-love, they haven't spent much time in each other's company before they are pretty hopelessly in love. Sadly, the early smugglers vs corrupt and violent authorities sub-plot, followed by the more adventurous escape and rescue heist takes up most of the story, with less time to properly pace and develop Katherine and Harland's relationship.

King has been the enigmatic sort-of-villain in a lot of Bowen's books by now, and he's always fun (I'm really hoping he's getting his own book sometime soon). It was extremely refreshing to see Katherine taking him on head on, not even vaguely intimidated by him. Harland, bless him, for all that he's compassionate and deeply feminist, is clearly not all that clever and never stood a chance against King, getting mired in a deal that keeps forcing him to take advantage of his Kentish tenants and putting them at risk. Katherine, whose mother (before her death) successfully masterminded the local smuggling long before Harland got involved, taught her daughter well (for all that Katherine hates smuggling, it doesn't take away from the fact that she's very good at it). Once she understands the full truth behind Harland's predicament and how it impacts on her own family, she goes toe to toe with the London crime lord, basically saving the day before Harland even realises what's going on.

Sadly, I don't think either of the books in Bowen's The Devils of Dover series have been as strong as those in her Season for Scandal trilogy, but it continues her trend of having interesting, unusual and extremely proficient women fall for powerful men who utterly adore them, and rather than feel threatened by them just want to use their power and resources to make sure that the women in their lives can live their best lives and continue to be awesome. While she's not on my auto-buy or pre-order list yet, Kelly Bowen is a historical author whose books I've come to look forward to and I'm excited to see what she's going to come up with next.

Judging a book by its cover: None of the books in this series have had particularly great covers, but this is just a bit sad. First of all, the cover model looks very little like our hero (his hair, for instance, is described as red - not the dirty blond of this guy). Putting some boyband reject in a period shirt and dark trousers and asking him to scowl for the camera, before photoshopping him over a nice generic old timey house background - it's scraping the bottom of the barrel, ideas wise. Kelly Bowen is lucky that by now she's proven herself good enough that I'll read her books regardless of what the cover looks like.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

#CBR11 Book 64: "Evvie Drake Starts Over" by Linda Holmes

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Reader's Choice (in place of Back to School)

Eveleth "Evvie" (rhymes with 'chevy') Drake has packed the car and is about to leave her husband when she gets a phone call that he's been in a car accident. Before she can make it to the hospital, he is dead. About a year later, everyone thinks Evvie has kept to herself, isolated in her big house, because she's overcome with grief. She never told anyone that the town's beloved son, a popular and charming doctor, was in fact an emotionally abusive asshole whom she was in the process of leaving when he died. She doesn't feel grief, she feels guilty - about all the sympathy almost smothering her. About NOT grieving.

Her best friend Andy, single father of two little girls, is puzzled that the good doctor didn't seem to have left any life insurance, he knows Evvie is almost broke. He suggests she rents out her downstairs apartment to a childhood friend of his, former baseball pro Dean Tenney, who needs to get away from the media spotlight and could use some relaxing downtime in Maine. Dean used to be a Major League pitcher, but finds himself struck down by the 'yips' and can no longer pitch reliably. He's tried every possible treatment under the sun, and needs to get away from it all to start rethinking his future.

Dean and Evvie make a deal: he won't ask her about her marriage and late husband, she won't ask him about baseball. As they become more friendly, that rule rather quickly gets broken, though, and Evvie finds that she can tell Dean, an almost stranger, things that she has never felt comfortable sharing with her dad or Andy. The couple of months Dean was going to stay keep getting extended, and gradually, his and Evvie's friendship starts evolving into something more, at the same time as some of the secrets Evvie's been keeping come out and start driving a wedge in the friendship between her and Andy.

While Dean seems to enjoy his time with Evvie and the quiet life in Maine, the rest of his life is back in New York. Evvie claims she is perfectly fine and totally over her former relationship - but can she really fully put her trust in another man after the things her husband put her through?

This book has been on so many 'Must Read' lists this year, and I'm assuming that so much of the hype comes from the fact that Linda Holmes is a well-known podcaster and NPR presenter. She also used to write for Television without Pity back in the day (man, I miss some of those recaps!), but to me, she's a complete unknown. I'm always happy to give a well-reviewed romance a chance, and it didn't take me long to see why this book has become so popular.

As an introvert with social anxiety, I totally understand and relate to Evvie's instincts to stay inside and shield herself from the outside world. Her job is transcribing audio tapes and interviews for other people, which sounds like a fascinating way to make a living, if one that doesn't exactly lend itself to an active social life. In the year after her husband's death, she pretty much only sees her friend Andy or her father, and even after Dean moves in, her interactions with others than these three men isn't exactly frequent.

I found it interesting that there was not one, but two, portrayals of mothers who chose to leave their children behind after a divorce. In general, it always seems to be the mother who has the main custody of the kids, but both Evvie's mother and Andy's wife are more than happy to leave the child rearing to the men and going off to do their own thing, which certainly results in Evvie having a lot of complicated feelings towards her mother and feeling abandoned and ignored by a person she wishes to be closer to. Her father is great, but so caring and protective that Evvie has never felt she could tell him the truth about her marriage, and what she was about to do on the night her husband died.

I also liked that while this is absolutely a romance, with the developing relationship of Evvie and Dean at the centre of the story, the book is just as much about Evvie slowly healing from the emotional abuse she has suffered and learning to become a bit more open and adventurous. This is presented as a gradual and slow change, and very refreshingly, it's not because she suddenly falls in love with someone new, who "heals" her magically with his presence. Evvie just comes to realise how much of the solitude she now has told herself she enjoys comes from the fact that she was being isolated from other people by her husband, and that in fact, her life will be more exciting and richer if she has more people to share it with. Over the course of the book, she also comes to accept that she's not weak for accepting the help from others, including a professional therapist who can help her work through her past trauma better than anyone else.

While Dean isn't really able to "heal" Evvie from the scars brought on by her emotionally (and occasionally physically) abusive marriage, neither is Evvie able to fix Dean's 'yips', for all that she tries and tries. They change each others' lives, and make them richer and happier, and both characters end the book in a much more hopeful place than where they started, but this is not a story where love magically solves everything.

I can see why this book has become so popular, but all the hype made me expect something more than just a well-written contemporary romance. I kept waiting for it to blow my socks off, and to really suck me in, and that never happened. I liked the book a lot, but based on other reviews, I was expecting to love it, and that never happened. It's good, it deals with a lot of important issues, but I doubt I'm going to revisit it in years to come.

Judging a book by its cover: This is one of the many romance novels being marketed for a wider audience by giving it a cute cartoony cover, in this case, there aren't even people on it, embracing and sending the signal that you may catch 'romance cooties' if you read it. This book is a romance, through and through, and it's a shame that other books of similar quality are overlooked because of the stigma associated with the genre.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

#CBR11 Book 63: "Spinning Silver" by Naomi Novik

Page count: 480 pages
Audio book length: 17 hrs 56 mins
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Listicle (on a bunch of best of 2018 lists, including NPR, Bustle and Bookbub).

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of Jewish moneylenders, but her father is a dreadful one, who doesn't have the heart to actually claim back the debts that the villagers owe, even when his daughter is starving and the long, cold winters are making his wife sicker and sicker. Miryem refuses to see her mother die due to her father's weakness, hardens her heart and takes over her father's duties. Unlike him, she refuses to listen to excuses and starts forcing people to pay back some of what they owe. If they can't contribute coin, she'll take goods.

Wanda is the daughter and eldest child of a violent, drunken farmer who borrowed money from the moneylender when his wife was sick, but drank most of the money away, so she died. Now he abuses Wanda and her two brothers, who barely have enough to survive on, since what the tax collectors don't take away, their father spends on drink. When Miryem comes calling to collect on the debt, she decides Wanda will come work in her parents house as a servant, a maid of all work, and will gradually pay off the debt that way. Neither Mireym, nor Wanda's father realise how happy Wanda is about this change in her circumstances. Wanda is away from her father's violent presence for much of the day, she gets more to eat (even if she sometimes has to steal bread meant for the chickens), her father can't marry her off to anyone (as then no one will be paying off the debt) and gradually, she steps in as an assistant to Miryem, and slowly learns the intricacies of the numbers in her ledger.

Because Miryem is ruthlessly efficient, she manages to start reclaiming her mother's dowry. A savvy businesswoman, she sells everything her family can't directly use, making a profit, so that soon her family has gone from abject poverty to modest wealth again. Her grandfather is immensely proud of her, and lends her silver for more loans, which she is able to return to him as gold. Getting a reputation as someone who can start with silver and end up with gold is dangerous, though. Miryem finds herself challenged by the Staryk, the cold creatures who haunt the woods and terrorise people in the winter. The first time he brings her a small pouch of six silver coins to be returned as gold. If Miryem succeeds, she will be rewarded, if she fails, she will be turned to ice. Miryem takes the coins to a young jeweller in the city where her grandfather lives. He turns the magic silver into a ring, which they sell to the local duke, and not only do they manage to get the six gold coins the Staryk demands, but they both make a profit.

The second time, the Staryk lord comes, he demands sixty silver coins transformed and claims it is the second of three tests. Miryem is bold enough to ask what her reward will be if she actually succeeds, and is shocked to discover that should that come to pass, the Staryk lord making the demands will take her as his wife. She doesn't really want that (he's terrifying), but neither does she want to die. She goes back to the jeweller, who makes a beautiful necklace, which he also presents to the duke. The duke, who has never really thought he'd be able to make an especially good match for his plain daughter Irina, discovers that with the Staryk silver ring and necklace, she may not be beautiful, but she's striking and mesmerising in a way he can clearly capitalise on. He demands a silver crown from the jeweller, and since the third time the Staryk lord arrives, he wants 600 silver coins turned to gold, Miryem has no problem providing enough metal. As soon as she has presented the gold the Staryk lord (who turns out to be the king of his people), she is whisked away to his kingdom, and her family in the human world are left with only vague memories of her.

The jeweller makes a crown fit for a queen which the duke gifts to Irina, and when the tsar comes to visit, it is decided that he will take Irina as his bride. Sadly, Irina discovers that the reason the tsar was so ready and willing to agree to marry a minor duke's unremarkable daughter has nothing to do with her magical silver jewelry, but rather her distant Staryk ancestry. The tsar is possessed by a demon, who craves the Staryk cold within her. He intends to murder Irina and eat her life force. Luckily for Irina, she discovers that wearing her silver, she can slip through mirrors into the cold, snow covered Staryk kingdom, hiding away from the demon when he comes every night. In the daytime, her husband is human, and she puts up a very credible show of them being wildly infatuated, while trying desperately to figure out a way she can tempt the demon with something else, so she, or those she loves, don't become victims of the demon instead.

Irina is not the only one who ends up with an undesirable husband. Miryem is taken to the centre of the Staryk lands, and it turns out that while she could metaphorically turn silver into gold in the 'sunlit lands' because she was a clever negotiator and drove a good bargain, in the Staryk kingdom, she can literally turn silver into gold with a touch. This makes her an important asset to the Staryk king, who clearly resents the fact that she succeeded with his three impossible tasks in the first place, and ended up as his wife. They barely interact, except every evening, when Miryem gets to ask him three questions.

As the story progresses, Irina, Miryem and Wanda's stories become even more intertwined than in the beginning. Miryem needs to stop the Staryk king from covering the human world in pretty much eternal winter, and try to find a way to get back to her parents. Wanda and her brothers end up orphaned after a truly horrible accident and need to find a way to survive. Irina needs to figure out how to save her spoiled, indifferent husband and the kingdom she now feels responsible for from the ravages of the demon.

This is the follow-up to Novik's Uprooted, which while it felt like it should be, wasn't actually a retelling of any fairy tale. In Spinning Silver, however, Novik takes on the fairy tale of Rumplestiltskin, but mainly by using many different elements of the old tale in a completely new way in this novel. It's not straw being turned into gold, but silver. In the story, the desperate young woman forced by the king to spin the straw, pays the little imp first with a necklace and then with a ring, and finally, she's forced to bargain her firstborn child to succeed in her impossible tasks. The Staryk silver that Miryem is asked to transform as her initial tests, are turned into a ring, a necklace and a stately crown. She is later set an even bigger, seemingly impossible task, involving her new-found magical powers, but succeeds through her own cleverness. There are marriages (to an otherworldly king and a tsar) because of magical interference, and I was surprised and delighted that there was even callbacks to the promise of a firstborn child as the story progressed. The danger of revealing your true name to someone, and how it can grant others terrible power over you is a factor, as it is in so many faerie stories. There are also some elements of the Hades and Persephone myth (always a good one) in the second half of the book.

I found it interesting, that while female friendship is so central to the story in Uprooted, this book, which can be said to have three different female protagonists have all three struggling alone, without much support from others of their sex at all. Miryem loves her mother, but has no female friends. Wanda lost her mother to childbirth, and while she is given a job by Miryem, they never become close - it is entirely an employer/employee relationship. Irina also lost a mother to childbirth, and is only really close to the nurse who raised her, Magreta. The three women's stories weave into each other more tightly as the story progresses, but even towards the end, they each seem to stand alone, just helping each other a bit to achieve the same end goals.

While I liked this book a lot, and think it's probably structured better than Uprooted, overall (there were no sections that felt like they dragged unnecessarily, like I remember from the previous book), there was one thing that was annoying, and rather distracting, throughout the book.  The point of view changes suddenly from one character to the other, without any warning for the reader. It can take a while to realise who you are reading about when you get to a new section. I listened to the book in audio, but because all of these women have vaguely Eastern European accents, there wasn't a lot of differentiation there either. This book, which in total has six different points of view (Miryem, Wanda, Irina, Wanda's younger brother, Irina's nurse Magreta and, only once, the tsar), may have been better served by multiple narrators, so it would be clear when the voices changed which character's section you were moving into.

I also thought that the ending was a bit rushed, and would not have complained if there was a bit more romance throughout the story. Being married off to a supercilious winter king who seems to loathe you for your humanity because of a strange magical bargain seems like the ultimate enemies to lovers story, doesn't it? I never got beyond the first of Novik's Temeraire books, despite my general fondness for dragons. Now, I hope Novik keeps writing fairy tellings or her own original folklore interpretations for many years to come.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover design is in the same style as Uprooted, but with much cooler colours (since so much of this is set in winter) and because silver plays such an important part in the story. The central image is clearly Miryem, using her magical powers to turn silver into gold. There's also one of the Staryk pouches of coins, the haughty face of the Staryk king and a rain of gold coins, all central elements of the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

#CBR11 Book 62: "Ride with Me" by Ruthie Knox

Page count: 328 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Travel

Tom is a brooding loner with a past, who gave up the corporate life and now works as a bike mechanic. He's estranged from most of his family, with the exception of his sister. Determined to cycle the Trans-America trail, from Oregon to Virginia, he's annoyed when he discovers said sister has been e-mailing someone (as him) to arrange for a riding partner. When he finds out that the "Alex" his sister has been e-mailing is, in fact, a Lexie, he is even more frustrated. He doesn't want company, but he also feels bad about leaving Lexie without any sort of protection on the journey. They agree to cycle together until Tom can find someone else for Lexie to ride safely with.

Lexie's parents met on the Trans-Am trail during the seventies, and she and her brother had always planned on doing the ride together. Then her brother went and married a woman with no interest in cycling, and Lexie has to decide whether she wants to do the ride by herself. Since no one answers her initial ad for a companion when it's obvious that she's a woman, she places a new one that seems more ambiguous. She figures that once all the details are ironed out, whomever agreed to ride with her could be persuaded to go along with the plan. She's not really expecting to meet a really hot, but taciturn and angry guy, with what seems to be very sexist views of female cyclists. Because he seems to take it as read that she'll be attracted to him, Lexie makes up a fictional husband to make sure the arrogant man is put in his place.

While both are incredibly annoyed by the other, they eventually grow to like one another and become friends over the course of their journey. Tom manages to get Lexie to relax more and rely a lot less on fixed plans, maps and her bike computer. Lexie gets Tom to open up more and gradually begin to interact with the people around him. Of course, the more time they spend together, the more the attraction between them grows, as well, and that fictional husband of Lexie's becomes quite the obstacle. Tom was cheated on by his now ex-wife and is determined never to be a part of any form of adultery. Having cycled thousands of miles together perpetuating the lie, Lexie is worried about how Tom will actually react if she tells him the truth.

As far as I can recall, this is the first romance novel I've ever read focused on cycling. It's a road trip romance, but the mode of transportation is bicycles, rather than a car, and these people are pretty serious about their hobby. On the other hand, as cycling cross country is a time consuming process, there is really not a smidge of the insta-love here. Tom and Lexie's journey takes many months and they have a lot of time to initially annoy each other, before the sparks fly, the truth comes out and they begin to get on (and get it on) passionately. During the first half of the book, the conflict is Tom and Lexie's differing views of how the journey should be conducted and them being seeming opposites. Once they start steaming up the tent every night (not to mention apparently having as much amorous time al fresco as possible), they are both in agreement that neither is looking for long term commitment, and their affair will end as soon as they reach Virginia. They seem to have very different plans for the future, and initially it seems impossible that they could continue a relationship after completing their long journey.

I've read a fair few Ruthie Knox novels in previous years, but she's not as prolific as a lot of other contemporary writers out there, and so I have a tendency to forget about her, only to rediscover her again every so often. Each time I pick up one of her books, I'm surprised by how witty and enjoyable it is to read, with great chemistry between the leads, clever dialogue and some really steamy smexy times. I still have a few of her older books on my TBR list, and should probably do myself the favour of reading them before I completely forget how much I tend to like her books.

Judging a book by its cover: See, it's not just hockey romances that have prominent man-titty on the cover. A book about cycling can too, even though the hero is described as wearing t-shirts for most of the scenes that aren't *insert funky bass line here*. Also, since the hero is described as having several prominent tattoos, it would have been nice to have that reflected in the cover image.

Crossposted by Cannonball Read.

Monday, 5 August 2019

#CBR11 Book 61: "My Sister, the Serial Killer" by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Page count: 240 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Pajiba (reviewed by Kayleigh here)

Official book description:

Korede is bitter. How could she not be? Her sister, Ayoola, is many things: the favorite child, the beautiful one, possibly sociopathic. And now Ayoola's third boyfriend in a row is dead. Korede's practicality is the sisters' saving grace. She knows the best solutions for cleaning blood, the trunk of her car is big enough for a body, and she keeps Ayoola from posting pictures of her dinner to Instagram when she should be mourning her "missing" boyfriend. Not that she gets any credit.

A kind, handsome doctor at the hospital where Korede works, is the bright spot in her life. She dreams of the day when he will realize they're perfect for each other. But one day Ayoola shows up to the hospital uninvited and he takes notice. When he asks Korede for Ayoola's phone number, she must reckon with what her sister has become and what she will do about it.

This is not a mystery novel. It says right there in the title what the book is about. While Korede, our protagonist, tries to figure out the WHYs of the three men her young sister Ayoola has killed so far (until she calls Korede after the third time, Korede could at least pretend to herself that her sister just had very bad luck with men and had killed the first two in self defense), there is no question of WHO or HOW.

Korede may seem constantly frustrated by her younger sister, and at times rather jealous of her, but there is no doubt about the love the sisters share, or the harrowing upbringing that forged their relationship. Korede would clearly like a good man who loves her, but when the doctor she pines for falls for Ayoola after one brief meeting and becomes just as obsessed as the previous suitors, it becomes clear that he's really not looking for depth and personality and is no where near good enough a partner for Korede, really.

The novel is short and satirical and a lot of people a lot more clever than I have already talked about the way it challenges gender roles, beauty ideals and the like in modern day Nigeria. It's certainly very feminist, none of the men in the story come across particularly well, with the possible exception of Femi, but he's dead as the story begins. I thought this was an interesting portrayal of a very close, but complex sibling relationship. Korede keeps despairing that she needs to take care of her sister and (literally) clean up her messes, but for all her doubts, she keeps showing up and her loyalty to her sister trumps anything else in her life. She may feel frustrated that Ayoola have men falling for her and women clambering to be friends with her, just because of her looks and charm, while Korede works hard (even gets promoted to head nurse) and inhabits a lot of the virtues and skills a perfect wife should have, but keeps being ignored and overlooked. Nevertheless, she can't give up on her sister.The ending of the book, which almost seemed inevitable, made me rather sad.

This book has been reviewed by many Cannonballers already, and on the basis of several of those recommendations, I got the book in an e-book sale back in April. It seemed only suitable that I find a square for it somewhere on the Bingo card. I didn't love it as much as many have, but I thought it was funny and clever and it's such a very fast read.

Judging a book by its cover: I like the cover, with its contrast between the warm browns and the bright, almost neon green. I don't know if the rather elegant-looking woman on the cover is meant to be Korede or Ayoola, but she looks good.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

#CBR11 Book 60: "Brazen and the Beast" by Sarah Maclean

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: History Schmistory (set in the Victorian era)

On the eve of her twenty-ninth birthday, Lady Henrietta "Hattie" Sedly, aided by her best friend Lady Eleonora (Nora), the daughter of a duke, is planning on going to an exclusive brothel in Covent Garden catering to women. She needs to lose her virginity, so her father will stop trying to pressure her into marriage. Firmly on the shelf, Hattie has discovered that despite a generous dowry, no one actually wants to marry her. She's too tall, too voluptuous, her face is too plain, she's too smart, too opinionated, too interested in running a business - really, there are a number of stumbling blocks. Hattie has worked her ass off trying to prove to her father (an Earl, a lifetime peer) that she's the right person to take over his shipping business. Her younger brother is a complete idiot and a wastrel, but he does have that important y-chromosome (and a penis), which means he doesn't need to work hard to be first in line to take over.

Hattie and Nora are rather taken aback to find a big, strong and exceedingly attractive man unconscious and tied up in the carriage they intend to use to get Hattie to Covent Garden. Hattie persuades Nora to drive the coach anyway and does a bit of flirting with the angry, clearly dangerous man when she wakes him up. Then she impulsively kisses him, cuts the ropes that tie him and throws him out on a street corner.

Whit, brother and partner in crime (literally) of Devil from Wicked and the Wallflower is trying to find out who keeps stealing the shipments of contraband that the Bareknuckle Bastards are transporting. Having lost three valuable lots of goods (as well as several loyal men) already, he's none too pleased to find a fourth shipment snatched. Not to mention finding himself knocked out and tied up (although he managed to throw a knife at one of the thieves before they got him). He tries to question the opinionated woman in the carriage, convinced she's somehow connected to one or several of the thieves (he's not wrong). She frustrates him by refusing to answer any of his questions, but luckily dumps him out on a corner of his own turf, where his many spies easily can tell him where her carriage ends up.

Whit shows up in Hattie's room at the brothel and tries to continue his questioning. She's figured out exactly who is stupid enough to knock out one of the kings of Covent Garden, and promises Whit that his missing property will be returned to him, but she refuses to give up the name of the guilty party (spoiler - it's her moron brother and his manservant). In return, Whit promises to divest Hattie of her unwanted virginity and try to help her achieve the rest of her plan for the Year of Hattie.

Of course, Hattie hasn't realised that her brother is responsible for four valuable shipments having been stolen from the Bareknuckle Bastards, nor does she know who's ultimately responsible or just how dangerously unhinged this individual is. Whit, on the other hand, is pretty sure who is stealing his wares and killing his men, and he cannot take the chance of getting too attached to Hattie, for fear that she get injured as collateral damage in his rather complex family rivalries.

The books in the Scandal & Scoundrel series went from middling to bad, and so I was very relieved to see that Sarah Maclean appears to be back on more familiar ground with the second book in her Bareknuckle Bastards trilogy. Whit may call himself Beast, but in reality, he's a big softie, desperate to protect all those he cares about, always trying to make up for being the smallest and weakest during his super shitty childhood (the details of the Duke of Marwick's "child rearing" attempts continue to be appalling, and I'm sure the next book is really going to delve into the depths of depravity the guy was capable of in order to get himself a "worthy" heir).

Even before the book's release, I'd seen several write-ups of how great Hattie was as a heroine, and she's pretty awesome. Like so many larger women, she has a ton of hang-ups about her body and her looks, not that Whit seems to be bothered by any of them. As is only right and proper in a romance hero, he adores every part of her, from her brain to her larger than average body.

If there's a weak part of this novel, it's the villains of the piece. Hattie's brother is a complete imbecile and the actual power behind him is going to come as no surprise to anyone who's read the first book in the series. His motivations now seem to be that he's gone pretty much completely crazy after the events towards the end of the previous book, which begs the question why Hattie escaped completely unscathed after a direct conversation with him. Maclean is also going to have to do some serious heavy lifting to make this guy a believable and satisfying hero in the concluding volume of the trilogy, out next year.

What I'd REALLY want, though, is a novella about Annika (Nik), the Bareknuckle Bastards' capable lieutenant, and Hattie's BFF Nora (Nik and Nora, see what she did there). There's clearly something brewing there, and I want the whole story.

Judging a book by its cover: Us larger ladies don't often find ourselves represented in the pages of romance fiction, so it's nice to see a plus size model on the cover of this, in a beautiful (if not entirely period appropriate gown - these books are Victorian, not Regency). The colour is even the same as of the dress our heroine is wearing in the opening chapters, which is always a nice detail when they manage to swing it. This cover really is tons better than the one for Wicked and the Wallflower. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

#CBR11 Book 59: "A Study in Scarlet" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Page count: 124 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

#CBR11 Book Club: Classics

Spoiler Warning! There WILL be mild spoilers for the plot of this story (which is from 1887, so you know, if you wanted to know the details, you've had enough time to look them up or just read the damn story). This is also the Cannonball Book Club selection for August, so I'm going to assume that most people who are interested in participating will read the book before then. If, however, you have NOT read the book yet, maybe skip this review until you have done the required reading. Proceed at your own risk.

So, for those, who like me, have never actually read A Study in Scarlet (I know I'm not the only one), a brief summary of the plot: Doctor John Watson is injured on service in Afghanistan and honourably discharged with a pension. Because he doesn't have a ton of money to live on, he requires someone to share a lodging with. A friend introduces him to the rather peculiar Sherlock Holmes, who for all his strange interests seems to be a perfectly fine living companion.

It turns out that Mr Holmes is a consulting detective, and will solve cases for people using the method of deduction. He usually only needs to hear the particulars of a case from the people who come to see him to solve their little problems, and this is how he supports himself. He is very proud of his intellect and proves to Watson that his methods are sound. Watson accompanies Holmes when he is approached by the police in a strange murder case.

A man has been found in an abandoned building. There is blood on the floor, but none of it is from the victim. The victim has not been robbed, he has all his money and valuables and there is even a woman's wedding band by the corpse. There are no signs of a struggle, but in a different room of the house from where the corpse was found, someone has scrawled "Rache" on the wall in blood. The two detectives on the case each have different theories. Holmes is smugly certain that he will solve the mystery easily for them, yet the two policemen will get all the credit from the authorities and public.

Within three days of first visiting the scene of the crime, Holmes has proven to Watson that his methods work brilliantly, and the murderer is in police custody (after having been lured to Watson and Holmes' lodgings). Watson, furious that his friend will not get proper credit, decides to write down and publish their adventure.

When we voted for book club this time, I voted for Jane Eyre. It came second, and this won out instead. I have never actually read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, and I don't even entirely know why. I love Victorian-set novels featuring lady sleuths, I tend to very much enjoy the modern TV and movie adaptations about one of the most famous literary detectives of all time, and I have even read a number of modern YA retellings. Yet, I seem to have convinced myself that the original source material would be dull and probably rather objectionable, owing to the sexism, racism, the belief in the superiority of the British Empire and so forth.

As it turns out, I was both correct and incorrect in my assumptions. For much of this story, I was a lot more entertained than I was expecting to be. While I have not seen the first episode of the BBC Sherlock series, A Study in Pink, for many years (the one starring Cumberbatch and Freeman), I have seen it enough times that I remembered the major plot beats. It was fun to see what the modern adaptation had chosen to keep from the source material, and which things were entirely different.

I will say that I actually thought the motive of the murderer was WAY better in A Study in Scarlet than in Moffatt's modernised TV adaptation. Can't really say that I was super happy about the fridging of a young lady (I am never going to be), but you have to respect the drive, tenacity and determination of a guy who is so sworn to vengeance and retribution that he spends the next twenty years of his life, and chases the guilty over quite a lot of two continents, refusing to give up, even when his own health is at risk. The method and elaborate staging of the crime scene, especially of the first murder, is also very well done.

What I didn't like so much was the incredibly clunky change of pace in the second half of the novel, when our intrepid investigators have in fact caught their man, and the novel decides to take the reader on an extended, slow and not all that interesting flash back to America, containing a rather ludicrous and false portrayal of Mormonism. It seems that Conan Doyle later in life admitted that he had been misled about the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, and he may also have issued an apology, but to a modern reader, it still smacks of poor research and unfortunate sensationalism (which is exactly the sort of thing I was worried about when reading something written by a man in the late 19th Century - their views were certainly not progressive or open-minded).

I don't think the structure of the book benefits from having an extended and drawn-out flashback for five out of the book's fourteen chapters, just as the story is getting really exciting. Especially when so much of what is relayed in those chapter is just patently false misinformation about a religious faith not that many of the readers in the United Kingdom necessarily knew all that much about at the time of the book's publication. Having a bit of the murderer's back story explored helps to understand his motive, but we didn't need a full third of the book devoted to this, one chapter would have been more than enough.

In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by this reading experience. It also doesn't hurt that the winning book for book club ended up being about a quarter of the length of the book I voted for. While it would have been nice to have an excuse to re-read Jane Eyre again, I'm not at all sorry I was finally pushed out of my comfort zone to read this - and I may in fact seek out some of the shorter (and hopefully slightly better structured Sherlock Holmes stories) in the future.

After reading this, it's was also amusing to discover that while neither of the Guy Ritchie movies (with Robert Downey Jr as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson) are based directly on the Conan Doyle stories, Downey Jr's portrayal of the detective may be the closest to what Holmes is like in the source material. Both he and Cumberbatch's characters spend a fair amount of time deducing, something Johnny Lee Miller's Holmes from what the husband and I have dubbed The Adventures of Mr. Elementary and Joan (because it really is more of a mystery of the week procedural with private detectives rather than a plausible adaptation of Sherlock Holmes - no one spends any time deducing, and they just do a lot of actual investigating). Reading this did make me want to catch up on the recent seasons that we're behind on, which isn't a bad thing, in itself.

Judging a book by its cover: Since it was originally published in the late 19th Century, this book has had a wide variety of covers over the years. This is from one of the Penguin editions, and features magnifying glasses and measuring tapes, both of which Sherlock Holmes frequently employs during his thorough searches of crime scenes.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

#CBR11 Books 56-58: "The Hat trilogy" by Jon Klassen

Total page count: 136 pages

#CBR11 Bingo: Award Winner 

I Want My Hat Back has won award in at least three countries, including the Selezionato Mostra Internazionale d'Illustratazione per infanzia di Sarmede in 2011, E.B White Award Read Aloud Award for Picture Books in 2012, Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis for Bilderbuch in 2013.

This is Not My Hat won the Caldecott Medal and the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award for Children's Picture Book in 2013, and the Premi Llibreter de narritiva for Album illustrat and the Kate Greenaway medal in 2014.

I Want My Hat Back - 5 stars

A bear is sad. His hat is missing and he wants it back. He goes and politely enquires of all the animals he meets whether they've seen his hat. They all try to help, but none of them have the answer he is looking for. A helpful deer asks him to describe the hat, and which triggers the bear's memory: He has seen his hat! You will be relieved to hear that the story ends happily, with the bear and his hat reunited.

Of all the books my husband and I read to our son, this is our favourite. While I was pregnant, I asked friends for recommendations of good children's books to get for our boy. This came warmly recommended to us by an old friend from university, who works as a librarian and has children of her own. She claimed that she would probably read  and recommend these books, even if she didn't have little girls to read them to. We have (as most parents probably do with children's books) by now lost count of the number of times we've read this book, but neither of us ever gets sick of it. I have probably written more words about this book than the entire forty pages contain. It's not a particularly complicated tale.

The whole story takes place in simple dialogue. "Have you seen my hat?" and "Thank you anyway." are the phrases most often repeated. While the bear is distressed and really wants his hat back, he's also unfailingly polite throughout. The illustrations in the book are simple and delightful, the variety of animals the bear comes across during his search (there's a frog, a snake, what we're pretty sure is an armadillo, a rabbit, a fox, a tortoise and of course the helpful deer) are not exactly your standard Northern European forest selection.

I promise I am not lying when I say that the tension builds over the course of the story, and there's a delightful twist ending that tends to make people who encounter the book for the first time laugh out loud (we have shown the book to pretty much all of our guests in the last eighteen months).

This is Not My Hat - 4.5 stars

A little fish wearing a fetching blue hat zips through the water. It confesses that the hat it's wearing does, in fact, not belong to it. It stole it from a much bigger fish, who was sleeping at the time of the audacious theft. The little fish feels that the small blue hat suits it much better, as it was much to small for the big fish. Now the little fish is making his hasty escape, but is pretty confident that the big fish isn't going to wake up for a while, and when it does, it may not even notice that the hat is missing. Spoiler! The big fish does wake up, immediately notices its missing hat, and seems to have a pretty good idea who the thief is. The little fish swims to where the plants are big and tall and close together. Nobody will ever find it there. Will the little fish get away? Will the big fish catch up with him and retrieve his hat?

This is Not My Hat has a more open ending than I Want My Hat Back. In the first book in the series, there is very little doubt in the reader's mind what the fate of the hat thief is. In this book, it's more open to interpretation whether the little fish gets away or not, but the big fish DOES have its hat back in the end, and the big fish seemed none to pleased to discover it was missing in the first place. There is a very high chance of the little fish having come to an unpleasant end, just as it thought it was safe in the tall plants.

As with the first book, the fairly simple and brief story is illustrated beautifully. My favourite page is probably the one that shows the crab, who apparently promised not to say anything about having seen the little fish, clearly pointing its claw in the direction of where the little fish has swum, helping the big fish find it. Because I am a huge nerd, this page is usually accompanied by a "Curse your sudden, but inevitable betrayal." line being added to the story when I read it to our son. Gabriel likes This is Not My Hat, but he doesn't love it as much as he does I Want My Hat Back.

We Found a Hat - 4 stars
This book is actually divided into clear sections. Part one: Two tortoises, wandering in a barren landscape, find a hat. They try it on, it looks good on both of them. However, there are two of them and only one hat, so they decide that the best course of action is just leaving the hat behind. Part two: The tortoises are watching the sunset together. One of the tortoises claims to be thinking about the sunset, whilst the other claims not to be thinking about anything at all (but it's clear that the tortoise is really thinking about, and missing, the hat they found earlier). Part three: The tortoises are lying on rocks, about to go to sleep. As one of the tortoises is nearly asleep, the other is sneaking away towards the hat, until inquiring about the first tortoise's dream. When the second tortoise hears what the first tortoise is dreaming about, it lies down peacefully and goes to sleep next to its friend. It is a good dream, resolving the possible conflict about the hat entirely (but I'm not going to spoil the particulars, because that would ruin the punchline of the book).

We Found a Hat is quite a bit longer than the other two books in the trilogy. The focus here also seems to have shifted from clear hat ownership and attempted theft to aspirational hat ownership, friendship and togetherness. It's a much gentler and friendlier story, but possibly, because it lacks the edge and bite of the previous two books, it's also the book we least often seek out for reading to our son. Although, his attention span is also very short at the moment, so this book, with it's slightly longer story line and added demand on sitting still for story time may become more of a favourite as he gets a bit older.

It's probably encouraging that the trilogy ends on a lighter, sweeter and friendlier note.

For anyone with kids, my husband and I highly recommend all these three books. I have not regretted purchasing them for a second and all three books are already well loved by all the members of our little household.

Judging the books by their covers: Each of the covers gives a pretty good idea of the spare and simple, yet very engaging style in which Jon Klassen illustrates his books. The animal or animals on the cover are cute and look like creatures you'd want to read about.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 55: "A Closed and Common Orbit" by Becky Chambers

Page count: 512 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Cannonballer Says (recommended by Carriejay, faintingviolet, emmalita, dAvid, tillie, badkittyuno and Narfna, among others)

Official book description:
Lovelace was once merely a ship's artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who's determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.

Last year, for Cannonball Bingo, I chose one of the books that had been on my TBR for several years, Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. When trying to decide on my book for the "Cannonballer Says" square for this year's Bingo, it seemed fitting to read the second book in the Wayfarer series. This book isn't so much a sequel, as it is a companion novel set in the same universe, sort of involving one of the characters we met in that book. 

Lovelace, who was the near-sentient A.I (artificial intelligence) on board the Wayfarer, finds herself housed no longer on board a space ship, but in an artificial body, made to look and sound completely human. Due to a series of unfortunate events, leading to a complete systems reboot, Lovelace no longer remembers being the consciousness who wanted a physical body, and instead finds herself confused and unmoored, helped away from the spaceship that was once her home by Pepper, an engineer and mechanic who promises to help her.

Lovelace renames herself Sidra and is brought to the home that Pepper shares with Blue, her artist partner (I think he's her boyfriend, but they may just be platonic life mates - the story really doesn't focus on that aspect of their relationship). A.I.s are not considered sentient individuals with rights and feelings, and it's highly illegal to do what the techs aboard the Wayfarer did, in trying to put Lovelace in a body. So if anyone finds out the truth about Sidra, Pepper and Blue could face serious trouble, and Sidra would probably just find herself shut down permanently.

Sidra struggles with the limitations of her new body and in trying to figure out who she is, and what she wants from her life. She gradually gets more outgoing and adventurous, makes at least one friend who isn't Pepper or Blue and starts to come to terms with her new "humanity".

 In alternating chapters to Sidra's story, we follow Pepper's life  in flashback from she was a young clone, enslaved on a backwater planet, who escapes the life of servitude and ignorance she was born into, befriending and in effect being raised by an A.I, and the struggle she has to educate herself, find enough scrap material on the industrial waste planet she finds herself on, fix up the space shuttle containing her A.I. parent to a degree where they can actually leave and make a better life for themselves somewhere else in the universe. 

I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting from this book, but it was very different indeed from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. This book was a lot more introspective, and a lot of the plot is concerned with forging new identities and struggling to make a place for oneself in the world, rather than with an exciting space journey. The first third or so of the book felt a bit slow, and I wasn't all that interested in the early chapters about tiny Pepper (who was one of many Janes back then), but in the second half of the book, I was hooked enough that I didn't want to stop reading, be it the chapters about Sidra or Jane/Pepper. 

I can see why Becky Chambers' books are so very popular. I'm glad I still have one more in her Wayfarers series to read before I'm caught up with her back catalogue.

Judging a book by its cover: The books in this series all come with two different cover versions. One has a big, clunky, ugly font that takes up much of the front page of the book and completely ruins the effect (although really does get across what the title of the books are, I guess). The other covers are these stunning skyscapes with a couple of individuals in silhouette and the most amazing star and light shows dominating the images. My e-book versions all have the covers I prefer, and I genuinely can't understand why there is such a massive difference in tone and design. Who would want the big, ugly font covers when they could have such beauty and simple elegance?

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday, 29 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 54: "We Are Never Meeting in Real Life" by Samantha Irby

Page count: 288 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 17 mins
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: The Collection

Official book description:
Sometimes you just have to laugh, even when life is a dumpster fire. With We Are Never Meeting in Real Life., "bitches gotta eat" blogger and comedian Samantha Irby turns the serio-comic essay into an art form. Whether talking about how her difficult childhood has led to a problem in making "adult" budgets, explaining why she should be the new Bachelorette--she's "35-ish, but could easily pass for 60-something"--detailing a disastrous pilgrimage-slash-romantic-vacation to Nashville to scatter her estranged father's ashes, sharing awkward sexual encounters, or dispensing advice on how to navigate friendships with former drinking buddies who are now suburban moms--hang in there for the Costco loot--she's as deft at poking fun at the ghosts of her past self as she is at capturing powerful emotional truths.

Things I knew about Samantha Irby before reading this book:
- Literally NOTHING.

Things I now know about Samantha Irby, having finished her book (in audio, she reads it herself):
- Her narration is not as good as Jenny Lawson's, but she's pretty good at it anyway.
- She's black, queer and describes herself as fat
- She has a number of medical issues that, among other things, make it impossible for her to have children
- Even if she could have children, she wouldn't want them anyway
- She grew up in Chicago and lived there for much of her life
- Her childhood was really quite awful (poverty, abuse, drunken, dead beat dad)
- Scattering her father's ashes on a road trip to Nashville did NOT go as planned
- She doesn't know how to make a budget and often spends money irresponsibly
- She worked as a receptionist at an animal hospital for more than 11 years
- She's convinced me that I never want to be the receptionist at an animal hospital
- She's bisexual, and has been in serious relationships with both men and women
- She (as of the writing of this book) now seems to live somewhere rural with her wife and said wife's children from a previous relationship
- She's very funny, and seems to not give many f*cks about anything much at all
- I should probably check out some more of her stuff.

If I knew nothing about Samantha Irby, why did I decide to read this book? This year, despite seeming to struggle to read even half as much as in previous years, I am taking part in a large number of reading challenges (I may have a serious reading challenge addiction), including the "Diversify Your Reading" challenge, where each month is dedicated to a specific genre. This month, it's humour, and since I had seen this book recommended by several Cannonballers in the past, and Jenny Lawson also speaks highly of it, it seemed like a good choice. That it also fits into the "Collection" square for Bingo is an additional bonus.

I like a good, clever internet blogger and anyone who appeals to a number of Cannonballers and the amazing Ms. Lawson is probably worth some more of my time. This was a fun, quick read and can be recommended to others who are looking for a non-fiction collection for the Bingo.

Judging a book by its cover: The book has an eye-catching bright yellow background and a scruffy-looking kitten that seems to be complaining about something. I'm assuming this is supposed to be Helen Keller, Samantha Irby's mean and dysfunctional cat, who she talks about at some length in the book. Bright colours and a cute animal is more than enough to get a person to pick up a book, so it's not a bad choice.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 26 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 53: "Sweep of the Blade" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This book, which was originally intended as a novella, is book 4 in the Innkeeper Chronicles. While it's not necessary to have read the entire series to fully appreciate this book, it might be helpful to at least have read book three, One Fell Sweep, where Maud and Arland meet for the first time.

Official book description:
Maud Demille is a daughter of Innkeepers—a special group who provide ‘lodging’ to other-planetary visitors—so she knows that a simple life isn't in the cards. But even Maud could never have anticipated what Fate would throw at her.

Once a wife to a powerful vampire knight, Maud and her young daughter, Helen, were exiled with him for his treachery to the desolate, savage planet of Karhari. Karhari killed her husband, and Maud—completely abandoned by his family—has spent over a year avenging his debts. Rescued by her sister Dina, she's sworn off all things vampire.

Except... In helping Dina save the world, she met Arland, the Marshal of House Krahr, one of the most powerful vampire houses. One thing led to another and he asked for her hand in marriage. She declined. Arland is not used to hearing the word ‘no;’ and try as she might, Maud can't just walk away from Arland. It doesn't help that being human is a lot harder for Maud than being a vampire.

To sort it all out, she accepts his invitation to visit his home planet. House Krahr is extremely influential and Maud knows that a woman—a human, with a very questionable past—who's turned down a proposal from its most beloved son won't get a warm reception. Maybe she’s not sure about marrying Arland, but House Krahr isn’t going to decide for her. Maud Demille has never run from a fight, and House Krahr will soon discover that there's a lot more to Maud than they’re expecting. 

As with all the other Innkeeper Chronicles books, this started as a free online serial on Ilona Andrews' website. The authors had intended it to be a bonus novella, but it clearly took on a life of its own and by the time they had finished it, it had become a short novel. With the published book, they have added a prologue showing the readers some of Maud's time on Karhari, and also how she reacted to the potentially world-ending threat that Arland risked his life to twart in the conclusion to One Fell Sweep. To some, it may feel like an unneccessary retread, as it repeats scenes from the previous book - but all of those were told from Dina, Maud's sister's POV, and as someone who doesn't exactly have photographic recall of all the books I read, it was nice to have my memory refreshed (with some pretty kick-ass action sequences, as well).

I feel like with every new Ilona Andrews review I write, I gush and go on about what amazing writers they are and how I am literally willing to hand them my money for absolutely everything they write (sometimes in multiple formats). Yet it's so incredibly comforting to know that with each new release, I'm going to get something that makes me laugh, makes my heart race, makes me excited and sometimes genuinely touched. I love their dialogue and the family dynamics they always manage to create, even though the families they portray in their various books and series often are wildly different. The children in their stories feel real, never like annoying plot moppets. Helen, Maud's precocious half-vampire daughter, is a delight.

Maud has had a very difficult time of it, and to say that she's been burned in her previous relationship is an understatement. Her husband royally f*cked up, and Maud and her daughter paid the price for that. The space vampire clans in these books value strength and martial prowess, and while Maud may be human, she became extremely adept at killing and defending herself and her child while exiled on Karhari. She swore off all things vampire, yet can't help but fall for Arland, who is everything her first husband could only dream of becoming. Maud and Helen were abandoned entirely by her first husband's family, and left to die in an uncivilised back water of the universe. The things Maud had to do to keep them alive haunts her. She cannot risk that happening again. So she knows it would be better if she outright rejected Arland, but he also makes her feel good and safe for the first time in years, and is clearly a much better man than the weasel she used to be married to.

With the exception of Arland's uncle, who has met Maud and seen how perfect she is for him, most of Arland's family are extremely hostile to the idea that he's bringing a human girlfriend home for a big wedding celebration, a woman who had the temerity to say no to his proposal. They're convinced she's some sort of scheming gold digger, and also, because she's human, that she must be weak and/or very stupid. Arland is convinced that if his family just gets to meet Maud and Helen, they'll be as crazy about them as he is. He loves and wants Maud, he understands her reluctance and the reasons for her misgivings, but he wants to be with her any way he can, and will therefore patiently wait until she is ready to accept him. While he is the military leader for his entire vampire clan and the beloved son and heir to an ancient and prestigious family, he's also found the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with, and any ultimatums issued by his mother or other member of his family will not go in their favour.

House Krahr is having to host a wedding between two formerly feuding families. There's clearly something fishy going on, but it's difficult to find out exactly what without offering mortal offence to one or both parties. Arland knows that pretty much all the vampires will be underestimating Maud, yet eager to prove themselves better than her and constantly trying to provoke her. So she is his best weapon to finding out what is going on in a timely manner.

I love that Arland is a big, strong alpha hero who can take on a horde of armed combatants single-handedly, and who is also entirely devoted to Maud, loving her perseverance, intelligence, strength and love for her family, on top of the physical attraction he clearly feels for her. He respects and defers to her wishes, but is also willing to completely sever ties with his own family if they don't welcome Maud and Helen properly. He understands that Maud will have to prove herself, both in a fight and by showing just how intelligent she is, but he never doubts for a second that she will succeed in this.

It sounds like Ilona Andrews will be busy with other writing commitments in the next year, so I'm not sure when the next instalment of The Innkeeper Chronicles will see the light of day. Since they tantalisingly hinted that Dina and Maud's previously missing brother Klaus has just turned up, I really hope they get round to writing more eventually, but as these bonus stories are already a generous gift, I will be happy if these four books end up being what we get, as well.

Judging a book by its cover: See, as Ilona Andrews covers go, this isn't a complete eyesore, probably because they self-publish these books and therefore commission the cover art themselves. Maud looks pretty bad-ass, but I don't think the armour looks tough or durable enough (especially compared to the way it's described in the book) enough, she just looks like she's wearing a weirdly patterned body suit. Also not sure why there appears to be flaming meteorites raining down around her, that is not something that happens at any point in Maud's story.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 52: "Not Another Family Wedding" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 225 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Summer Read

Official book description:
Natalie Chin-Williams might be a cranky professor of climatology who thinks the world is doomed, but she believes in lasting love…just not for herself. She has a long history of failed relationships, plus the men she dates inevitably want children and she doesn’t. 

Now thirty-six and single, Natalie expects endless comments about her love life when she attends her baby sister's wedding. Worse, weddings are always drama-filled disasters in her family. She needs emotional support to get through the weekend, so she enlists the help of her friend Connor Douglas, the dependable family doctor.

The wedding reception goes south when a drunk aunt announces a family secret that sends Natalie reeling and shakes her faith in love. Luckily, she has her long-time friend to lean on—a man she somehow ends up kissing. But there’s no way this could turn into anything lasting, is there? That’s impossible for her, especially now…

Fellow Cannonballer, kissing book enthusiast and long-time internet friend Emmalita has reviewed several Jackie Lau books this year, which is what made me really take note of the name. During the discussion of the very super depressing anti-abortion legislation being passed not that long ago, Jackie Lau put this book up for sale for $0.99, because of its pro-choice message. I bought it, and since it also fit into my Keyword Challenge this month, it didn't end up forgotten on my TBR list like so many other sale books do.

So yeah, minor spoiler, the heroine of this book has had an abortion. If that's a deal breaker for you, this is probably a book to avoid. In so much of romance, coupling with a man and having a baby seems to be the goal. The pregnancy epilogue is a popular trope for a reason (especially in historical romance). When I was struggling with fertility problems myself, even contemporary romance novels seemed to be bursting with insultingly fertile couples - women getting knocked up from one-night stands (while using protection and/or on contraception). When you've spent time, money and tremendous amounts on emotions on unsuccessful fertility attempts, that just seems extra hurtful.

We are constantly bombarded with proof that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and much faster than we previously believed or predicted. So many people are choosing not to have children, and now that I do have a child, I'm constantly wracked with guilt about bringing him into this world when we're clearly all going to die, and possibly before he sees adulthood. I'm so sorry, Gabriel. I know many women who don't want children (and who didn't want children even before it became clear that we live in a dystopian nightmare). So if reading romance is difficult for women with fertility issues, I can't imagine how rarely voluntarily childless women find themselves represented.

Natalie is one such woman. She's a climate scientist, so it's no wonder that she doesn't want to bring children into this world, but even before she started researching all the ways in which our planet seems to be doomed, she'd made up her mind. Her mother suffered post-partum depression after having her younger sister, and her father just didn't seem to care about the baby at all, so Natalie took responsibility and pretty much raised her sister for the first year. Even after her parents seemed to step in and do their job, Natalie always felt extra responsible for the girl, and while she likes children and doesn't in any way resent her friends who chose to have them, she never wanted any of her own. Which is why she had an abortion when she accidentally got pregnant, which also resulted in the relationship breaking up.

Now Natalie is worried that she'll never find someone to spend her life with. All the guys she's been dating seem to want kids and a family, that's a total deal breaker for her. She takes her best friend Connor (they've known each other for more than a decade) with her as a date to her sister's wedding, and keeps explaining to well-meaning friends and family that they're "just friends". But after a drunken aunt blurts out a big secret, Natalie is shocked and rattled, and finds comfort in Connor's arms. After a pretty steamy night together, their long friendship seems to be evolving into something more. But Natalie's convinced that Connor must want kids, and her faith in long term relationships having a chance have been further shattered by the drunken wedding revelations.

While I fully respect Natalie's wishes not to have children, and absolutely in no way judge her for having an abortion (you go, girl!), she still annoyed me with her judgemental attitude towards her sister, who clearly wanted different things from her, and her persistent beliefs that she was fundamentally unlovable and would never find (or deserve) lasting love. Even after it becomes clear that Connor can't father and doesn't want children of his own (relationship hurdle avoided), she keeps insisting they won't work out - and it just got on my nerves. I get that she had issues she needed to work though, but to me, it dragged out a bit too long.

There are a few more Jackie Lau books on my TBR list, after I've picked them up cheaply in e-book sales. One of them is the sequel to this one, with Natalie's cousin Iris as the heroine. I liked this book well enough, and keep trying to read more diversely, so will absolutely be checking out more from the author in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: I don't really have a lot to say about this cover. It's cute, it shows you that the heroine is of Asian descent (which, to be fair, might be an important selling point for some). While I'm not a fan of full on smooches on a romance cover, this pose is sweet, intimate and romantic without being too intrusive, I think.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 51: "Circe" by Madeline Miller

Page count: 400 pages
Audio book length: 12 hrs 8 mins
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Remix 

Official book description:
In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.

When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe's place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing a golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.

There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe's independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

I really didn't know a whole lot about Circe before coming to this book. I read The Odyssey in my first years of university in Scotland, when I studied Classics (so much more entertaining than that snooze fest The Aeneid), where Circe of course appears in a whole chapter, famously turning most of Odysseus' men into pigs. Of course, the power of Odysseus' charisma was such that by the end of his visit on Circe's island, she was pretty much his devoted handmaiden.

Madeline Miller, award-winning author of The Song of Achilles (which I also need to read, but I just can't deal with unhappy endings right now), goes through the known myths about Circe and gives the tales her more modern and feminist interpretation. I think we all know that being a woman in any Greek myth is pretty much the pits. It's also been clear throughout history that any woman who dares to stand up for herself, show independence and power of her own is probably going to be feared and vilified. So it's no wonder that Circe, a strong, independent woman who had the temerity to transform drunken sailors into beasts would become a cautionary tale.

As I said, I didn't really know anything about Circe except that she found Odysseus' men "turn into pigsable". So it was really interesting to discover that she was apparently responsible for turning fellow nymph Scylla into the terrifying sea monster that murdered so many sailors (again, only prior knowledge comes from The Odyssey), that she was the sister of Aeetes, keeper of the Golden Fleece or Pasiphae (and therefore maternal aunt to the Minotaur of Crete). Madeline Miller writes about how Circe and her famous siblings came to discover their knack for sorcery, why Circe was exiled and isolated on her island of Aiaia (where she's really rather happy - her father's court wasn't exactly kind to her).

Circe the daughter of a god and a nymph, and while she apparently has the voice of a mortal, she is immortal and eternal like the other Greek gods. She has centuries in which to perfect her magic arts. When travelling to Crete to help her sister deliver the monster the island would become so famous for, she also befriends the craftsman Deadalus, who gifts her a loom. She has frequent visits from Hermes, and after Odysseus and his men finally leave her island, she has a son to raise (according to Wikipedia, the myths suggest that Odysseus actually gave Circe two sons - I guess Miller thought one boy was enough trouble to deal with).

In some of the sections of the book, not a lot happens - it's just Circe on her island thinking and discovering things. I can see how that might get boring for some readers, but I thought this book was great. I especially liked the final bit, when Circe's son brings Telemachus and Penelope back with him to Aiaia. The famous poem about Odysseus doesn't really dwell on what happens once your father/husband comes back after several decades of war, having lost about half of the promising young men on the island and proceeds to murder the other half. PTSD is a terrible thing, and Homer's epic doesn't really talk about what comes next.

I listened to Circe in audio book. Perdita Weeks is an excellent narrator, with a very soothing voice. This book has already won multiple awards and been favourably reviewed by many Cannonballers. I can just add my recommendation to the list.

Judging a book by its cover: So, confession time - I don't really like the colour orange. Like, at all. But I see why it's such an effective colour to use, it's warm, bright, draws the eye. So I can't really blame them for choosing to make the stylised woman's head and the sheaves of grain on this cover that colour. Especially since on old Greek pottery, the patterns are often an orangey brown against black. It makes sense - but I still don't like the colour orange.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.