Tuesday, 23 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 49: "If I Was Your Girl" by Meredith Russo

Page count: 272 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Own Voices (the book is about a trans girl, written by a trans woman)

Official book description:
Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school. Like anyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret, and she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.

But when she meets sweet, easygoing Grant, Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she realizes just how much she is losing by guarding her heart. She finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself, including her past. But Amanda’s terrified that once she tells him the truth, he won't be able to see past it. 

Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It's that at her old school, she used to be Andrew. Will the truth cost Amanda her new life, and her new love?

Amanda is going to live with her father and trying to start fresh, after having been beaten up in her former home town. She misses her mother a lot and as she starts to make friends feels guilty that she cannot share the big secret of who she is, and used to be.

Amanda was born Andrew, but from an early age knew that she was trans. Amanda tried to commit suicide, but was lucky enough to receive help and counselling and eventually, transition treatment and surgery. The only way anyone is going to know that she was born a boy is if they see her original birth certificate, or if she tells them her secret.

Making close friends and falling in love when you cannot be entirely honest about who you are and where you came from must be very difficult, as this book explores. As Meredith Russo points out in her afterwards, the trans experience she writes about in this book is far from the reality for a lot of teens and older people out there. Amanda knows from an early age, she has no doubts about her identity. Her parents are, after some difficulties coping, very supportive. She can "pass for female" and has the expensive surgery to make her transition complete. This is not the case with many trans people out there.

I am a nearly forty year old cis-gendered straight woman. I know very little about the trans experience, for all that I now know several trans people. I do know that for all that Norway is incredibly progressive and accepting of lesbian and gay rights, it's fairly deplorable when it comes to the rights and treatment of trans people. While being trans is no longer classified as a mental illness (no, really), I know for a fact that there is a lot of fear and discrimination, and that our glorious universal health care system isn't all that easy to manoeuvre for trans individuals. It makes me deeply sad. 

For Pride Month, I wanted to make an effort to read diversely on the LGBTQIA spectrum. I cannot say that I've read a lot of books with trans characters before (Courtney Milan's Hold Me being a notable and excellent exception), but I'm trying to continue to grow and explore more. This book was good, but for all that I'm glad Amanda's experience was largely positive and she was met with love and support, the book's conflict seemed to resolve a bit too easily (and I'm not sure that quite so many people in rural America are that progressive and open-minded). 

Judging a book by its cover: I think this cover is simple, striking and lovely, and from what I gather from the author's acknowledgements, the model used for this photograph is also trans, which seems only right and fitting.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Books 47-48: "Neanderthal Seeks Human" and "Neanderthal Marries Human" by Penny Reid

Total page count: 720 pages

#CBR11 Bingo: Reading the TBR (has been on my TBR list since 2015)

Neanderthal Seeks Human - 3.5 stars

There are three things you need to know about Janie Morris: 1) She is incapable of engaging in a conversation without volunteering TMTI (Too Much Trivial Information), especially when she is unnerved, 2) No one unnerves her more than Quinn Sullivan, and 3) She doesn't know how to knit.

After losing her boyfriend, apartment, and job in the same day, Janie Morris can't help wondering what new torment fate has in store. To her utter mortification, Quinn Sullivan- aka Sir McHotpants- witnesses it all then keeps turning up like a pair of shoes you lust after but can't afford. The last thing she expects is for Quinn- the focus of her slightly, albeit harmless, stalkerish tendencies- to make her an offer she can't refuse.

This box set has been on my shelf since early 2015. Since then, Penny Reid has published at least sixteen additional stories (I want to say novels, but think some of them may be novella length), so she's clearly rather prolific. I know that several of the kissing book set among the Cannonballers have read and reviewed several of her books, among them Mrs. Julien and Emmalita, but this is my first foray into Ms. Reid's writing.

As far as I can tell, this is Penny Reid's first book and I suspect some of the flaws in the writing can be chalked up to this. There's a lot to like about the book, but also quite a few things that annoyed me, both as I was reading the book, and have kept bugging me in the weeks since I finished the books.

I liked that Janie, for all that she was painfully socially awkward (not kidding, I full body cringed on occasion when reading about her), was extremely intelligent and very good at her job. I do like a good bit of competence porn, and the fact that she is so very skilled at her chosen profession helped alleviate some of the things that bugged the shit out of me about her.

I also really liked the heavy focus on friendship in the book, like the close and supportive community of the knitting group. Janie doesn't even do any kind of yarn crafts, be they knitting or crochet, but just hanging out with an awesome group of supportive ladies, talking about guys and other problems and drinking a lot of wine - they were all great. I also did like that while Janie doesn't do any crafting, Penny Reid's references to needles and various types of yarns suggest that she does. While the members of Janie's knitting group are important supporting characters, her most important support is obviously her BFF, Elizabeth, who lets Janie move in when she catches her boyfriend cheating on her AND loses her job, all on the same day. I probably liked Elizabeth more than I did Janie, overall.

Janie's pretty immediate and close friendship with her new colleague Steven was great, as well.

In the first book, I think there was more I disliked than actually liked. Janie's continued belief that she was some sort of hideous troll, despite all evidence to the contrary and all of her friends assuring her that this is not the case. I hate heroines who are clearly gorgeous, but refuse to believe it. That Janie would believe herself to be impossible to date because of her tendency to spout weird trivia at all times, and that she frequently also puts her foot in her mouth, figuratively speaking - that I could have believed. But thinking that she's some sort of uggo - just no! Generally, Janie spends far too much of the book being mean to herself. The "neanderthal" in the title of both books is how she refers to herself. You're never going to find lasting love until you learn to at least like yourself, lady.

Quinn is a little bit too much of an alphahole for me to really like him in this book. That he's impressed with Janie's intelligence speaks in his favour (but we've also already covered that she's a redheaded, hourglass-shaped bombshell, so he probably doesn't just like her for her brains), but some of the secrets he kept from her and the way he dealt with them when they came to light were not great.

Janie's judgement of Quinn's bachelor ways and the heavily implied slut-shaming of the women he used to hook up with also pissed me off. Sorry, "slamps", because apparently Janie needs to make up her own words when she's judgy of other women and their lifestyle choices. I got more annoyed every time that term was used. Janie's attitude is somewhat redeemed in the second book, when she not only has a conversation with one of Quinn's former lovers, but ends up helping this woman (and in the end, being helped in return), but in the first book, it was pretty dire. Women should be helping and building up each other up, not tearing one another down.

The plot in the first novel also goes all over the place. Why did we need the subplot with the Boston gangsters and Janie's sociopath sister? How is THAT the romance complication you present before getting the couple firmly together? I did like how the knitting group banded together to deal with the thugs, but it would have been a better and more realistic group without that interlude altogether.

Neanderthal Marries Human - 4 stars

There are three things you should know about Quinn Sullivan: 1) He is madly in love with Janie Morris, 2) He’s not above playing dirty to get what (or who) he wants, and 3) He doesn’t know how to knit.

After just five months of dating Janie, Quinn—former Wendell and unapologetic autocrat—is ready to propose marriage. In fact, he’s more than ready. If it were up to Quinn, he would efficiently propose, marry, and beget Janie with child all in the same day—thereby avoiding the drama and angst that accompanies the four stages of pre-matrimony: engagement, meeting the parents, bachelor/bachelorette party, and overblown, superfluous wedding day traditions. But Janie, much to Quinn’s dismay, tosses a wrench in his efficacious endeavors and challenges him to prove his devotion by going through the matrimonial motions, no matter how minute and mundane.

Will Quinn last until the wedding day? Or will he yield to his tyrant impulses?

Regardless, one thing is for certain, Quinn Sullivan will have to learn to expect the Spanish Inquisition (i.e. the unexpected) if he plans to have and keep Janie Morris as his wife.

This book is described as Knitting in the City 1.5 and cannot be read as a standalone, according to the author. It's a direct continuation of Neanderthal Seeks Human. In this book, we occasionally get the POV of Quinn, which gives us more insight into his way of thinking, and made me like him a lot more. The plot is also structured somewhat better, with fewer of the things I was unhappy about in the first book.

Quinn proposes to Janie after they've been together for five months and wants a short engagement. She argues that it's impossible for them to know whether they are going to be able to survive long term if their relationship hasn't gone through some of the stressful situations that people with longer engagements have. She agrees to a three month engagement on the condition that they have a massive wedding, where they put their relationship truly to the test with all manner of stressful wedding planning and family events, so they can be sure that they really ARE ready for "the better and worse" when they get to their wedding day.

As someone who had been with my now husband for eight years (engaged for a year and a half) before we finally got married, I cannot argue with Janie here. I'm sure there are people who find lasting love at more or less first sight, and who successfully stay together despite having a short courtship period. But knowing more about the person you've decided to live with and share your life with is a good idea.

Meeting the families comes with their own set of problems. Janie's not really in touch with either of her sisters (the youngest one is a hardened criminal who tried to blackmail Quinn in the final third of the first book), her mother is dead and her father seems entirely indifferent to her. Quinn is very close to his rather peculiar sister, but is entirely estranged with his parents after they blamed him for the death of his older brother back in the day. For all that she struggles in a lot of social situations, Janie manages to charm Quinn's parents and mend the rift between them rather well over the course of the story - that was possibly my favourite bit of the entire book.

I saw some people complain that the love scenes in the first book are fade to black. That is certainly not the case in the second book. Let's just say, I hope Quinn pays the staff of his private air plane a LOT for what they have to put up with.

Based on these two first books (that I have as a box set) and some of the reviews from trusted fellow romance readers, I will probably check out at least some of Reid's other romances. One of the benefits of being late in discovering a writer a lot of reviews have been written about already, is that I can be more picky in which books I choose to give my time and money to.

Judging the books by their covers: Both of these books claim to be "smart" romance. I genuinely don't know what supposedly makes these in any way smarter than other contemporary romances out there. By now, I see from Ms Reid's website that the books have gone through at least one cover redesign, but I kind of like the original covers, with the heroine's face on the first book and the couple (who seem to be kissing) on the second book blocked off with big hearts. It's just the right amount of cute and quirky, and made them stand out to me in a positive way.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 22 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 46: "The Lawrence Browne Affair" by Cat Sebastian

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Science! One of the protagonists is a scientist and his scientific experiments plays an important part throughout the story.

Official book description:
Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is mad. At least, that’s what he and most of the village believes. A brilliant scientist, he hides himself away in his family’s crumbling estate, unwilling to venture into the outside world. When an annoyingly handsome man arrives at Penkellis, claiming to be Lawrence’s new secretary, his carefully planned world is turned upside down.

Georgie Turner has made his life pretending to be anyone but himself. A swindler and con man, he can slip into an identity faster than he can change clothes. But when his long-dead conscience resurrects and a dangerous associate is out for blood, Georgie escapes to the wilds of Cornwall. Pretending to be a secretary should be easy, but he doesn’t expect that the only madness he finds is the one he has for the gorgeous earl.

Challenging each other at every turn, the two men soon give into the desire that threatens to overwhelm them. But with one man convinced he is at the very brink of madness and the other hiding his real identity, only true love can make this an affair to remember.

Georgie Turner is the younger brother of Jack Turner from The Soldier's Scoundrel. He needs to get out of London in a hurry, as his underworld employer is none too pleased that he grew a conscience and refused to swindle the little old lady that was his mark. Jack's partner Oliver has recently received a letter from a concerned acquaintance, the vicar in the village near where the Earl of Radnor lives. There are concerns about the Earl's mental state, and the vicar would like it proven that the Earl is in fact not insane, like his father and brother were rumoured to be. The Earl has already scared away several secretaries and most of his household staff, so thanks to Jack and Oliver, Georgie knows there's a place in the Cornish countryside where he can hide out. As he arrives at the Earl's manor, which seems to have been left to fall into total ruin, he notes that he can always steal a number of valuables if he suddenly has to leave in a hurry.

Lawrence Browne, the current Earl of Radnor, just wants to be left in peace. He currently has only one maid and a housekeeper, and have them trained to leave his simple food on a tray outside his door. He knows he's likely to fall victim to the family madness sooner or later, but would prefer it if he manages to complete his latest invention before he goes stark raving mad. When his most recent secretary arrives, a very pretty man who doesn't behave anything like any of Lawrence's former secretaries, he's pretty sure he can scare the man off quickly enough with his wild temper, the state of the house and the sheer impossibility of getting his papers and affairs in order.

Of course, Georgie can't leave, unless he risk life and limb, so a temperamental nobleman is easy enough to deal with. While he may not have the education or qualifications a gentleman would have, he is intelligent, fastidious and very organised and simply cannot stand the mess that his new employer surrounds himself with. Besides, if he sorts through all the paperwork and tidies up the place, he might be able to ignore the obvious attraction between them.

Lawrence is not mad, but he does suffer from pretty crippling anxiety. Georgie figures this out pretty quickly and helps him find ways of coping. Working as a con man for most of his adult life has taught Georgie a little bit about a good many things, and it doesn't take him long to realise that the Earl of Radnor not only isn't insane, but he's really quite the unappreciated genius, who could be making a fortune of his brilliant inventions. Why Radnor has scared nearly all the serving staff and is letting his house literally crumble to pieces around him is more of a mystery.

Much of the book focuses on the interaction between Georgie and Lawrence, but there are a few other supporting characters who make the story more interesting as well. While there is instant attraction between the two men, they are also wary of each other and Lawrence has come to believe that his forbidden attraction to his own sex is one of the signs of his impending madness. It takes a while for him to get over his fears and what society has taught him about the evils of homosexuality, but in the meantime, he and Georgie can get to know each other better in other ways.

I think I liked this book even more than I did The Soldier's Scoundrel and I can see why Cat Sebastian has become so popular in romance reading circles so quickly. From what I can see, two of the supporting characters from this book will be the romantic pairing in the third novel, and I can't wait to see how that works out, as they seem about as unlikely a pairing as any I've seen.

Judging a book by its cover: While it's always nice to see two dudes on a historical romance cover (not something that happened until recently), the two guys on this cover look absolutely nothing like what either of our heroes within the pages of the book are described. At least this is a better cover than the one for The Soldier's Scoundrel. These two men at least look comfortable in each other's presence.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 45: "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" by Grace Lin

Page count: 260 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Far and Away (book set in fantasy version of historical China)

Official book description:
In the valley of Fruitless mountain, a young girl named Minli lives in a ramshackle hut with her parents. In the evenings, her father regales her with old folktales of the Jade Dragon and the Old Man on the Moon, who knows the answers to all of life's questions. Inspired by these stories, Minli sets off on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man on the Moon to ask him how she can change her family's fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest for the ultimate answer. 

This is an utterly lovely middle grade fantasy book, inspired by a lot of the Chinese folklore tales that Grace Lin herself read while growing up. The main story is about young Minli who leaves the only home she's ever known to try to find a way to ensure a better, richer life for her hard working and desperately poor parents. There are also countless stories within the story, that all link up in clever ways as the main story progresses. Minli's father tells her stories, people and creatures she encounter along her journey tell her stories - there are so many various tales that make up the whole of this delightful book.

As well as follow Minli on her quest to find the Old Man on the Moon, we see how her worried parents fare and think about her while she's gone. While Minli goes on a long and occasionally hazardous journey by herself, her mother is forced to go on an emotional journey of sorts, to figure out what role she may have played in her daughter's sudden disappearance (initially she wholeheartedly blames her husband and his "filling the girl's head with silliness and dreams"). It's not often we see those left behind while our hero or heroine goes off on their quest narrative, and as a parent myself now, I appreciated seeing how the parents kept trying to cope at home.

Minli has a difficult and often dangerous trip ahead of her, and meets many individuals along the way. There are dragons, mischievous monkeys, kind villagers, scrappy orphans, a king, a vengeful tiger spirit, just to name a few. As with Western fairy tales, being kind, polite, helpful and courteous will usually lead to good things for our protagonist, and one of the things I just really love about folklore are the similarities, for all that a lot of the finer details are different.

I very much enjoyed this book and as far as I can tell, Grace Lin has written a number of other books, both for young and middle grade readers. I can't wait to check out more of her stuff.

Judging a book by its cover: Grace Lin isn't just a very talented middle grade author, she's also an illustrator who makes the beautiful pictures that accompanies her writing throughout the story. On the cover of the book, we see our heroine, Minli, riding on the back of her loyal dragon friend. I also love the intricate top and bottom border of the cover, with a number of other little details from the story.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 44: "Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte" by Kate Williams

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: True Story

From Goodreads:
Their love was legendary, their ambition flagrant and unashamed. Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife, Josephine, came to power during one of the most turbulent periods in the history of France. The story of the Corsican soldier’s incredible rise has been well documented. Now, in this spellbinding, luminous account, Kate Williams draws back the curtain on the woman who beguiled him: her humble origins, her exorbitant appetites, and the tragic turn of events that led to her undoing.

Born Marie-Jos├Ęphe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie on the Caribbean island of Martinique, the woman Napoleon would later call Josephine was the ultimate survivor. She endured a loveless marriage to a French aristocrat—executed during the Reign of Terror—then barely escaped the guillotine blade herself. Her near-death experience only fueled Josephine’s ambition and heightened her  determination to find a man who could finance and sustain her. Though no classic beauty, she quickly developed a reputation as one of the most desirable women on the continent.

In 1795, she met Napoleon. The attraction was mutual, immediate, and intense. Theirs was an often-tumultuous union, roiled by their pursuit of other lovers but intensely focused on power and success. Josephine was Napoleon’s perfect consort and the object of national fascination. Together they conquered Europe. Their extravagance was unprecedented, even by the standards of Versailles. But she could not produce an heir. Sexual obsession brought them together, but cold biological truth tore them apart.

I knew virtually nothing about Josephine Bonaparte before I read this book. I had no idea she was born in the Caribbean. I didn't know that she had been married and had a son and a daughter before she ever married Napoleon. I didn't know how unhappy her first marriage was, or how she had to keep adapting and changing everything about herself to survive the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.

The woman who became known for her style and wit throughout Europe started out as illiterate, provincial and clumsy, but abandoned by her first husband, spent a lot of the time on her hands educating herself and learning how to be entertaining and pleasing, to both men and women. Once her husband died, the only way she was going to be able to support herself and her children was by acquiring a wealthy protector and she made sure she was a desirable mistress for increasingly more powerful men.

Napoleon Bonaparte was not a particularly impressive general by the time he first met the woman he would call Josephine, but unlike most women, who seemed utterly repulsed by him, she actually seemed interested in him when they conversed and listened intently and treated him well, so he became utterly obsessed with her. Did you know that before he became a successful general, Napoleon wanted to write romantic novels? Yup, Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who conquered most of Europe and took multiple battles to fully defeat - his early career was spent writing romance. I certainly had not expected to learn that.

Josephine clearly did not have an easy life, either before or after she shackled herself to Napoleon. I'm sure no one would be surprised to hear that he was a tyrant not just to his military troops, but also at home. In their early life together, he adored and was utterly obsessed with Josephine, much to the dismay of his utterly horrendous family (who were all greedy, scheming, odious, power hungry ingrates). Then it was proven conclusively that she'd had a lover when he was off conquering somewhere, and his rose-tinted view of his wife appears to have altered somewhat. He still wanted and needed her, but started taking mistresses of his own, while Josephine had to put up with it and coped with her sorrows by spending truly mind-boggling amounts of money.

Despite their rather tumultuous relationship, the couple seem to have genuinely loved one another. Sadly, due to the starvation and hardships Josephine went through during the Terror, she was incapable of having more children. She spent much of her time travelling to various spa resorts around Europe, trying all manner of treatments to conceive a child. Eventually, Napoleon's scheming relatives and his advisers managed to convince him that he had to divorce Josephine and marry another, so he could provide an heir to his empire.

Historical biographies can be rather dry and boring, but once I got past the rather slow section of Josephine's early life, I was pretty much hooked and kept picking up the book every chance I got. I got through this book in just under a week, which I hadn't expected. Again, it didn't surprise me that Napoleon was a horrible person whose views on consent were utterly non-existent, but it was fascinating to read about the woman he chose to spend much of his adult life with.

A lot of the time, I listen to historical biographies in audio, but this I read as an e-book. The Napoleonic era is a very popular setting for historical romance novels, but it was fascinating to discover more about one of the most famous actual romances of the period. I can happily recommend this book.

Judging a book by its cover: Josephine Bonaparte was not considered one of the beauties of her time, rather she was described as striking and handsome, and apparently had great charisma. Of course, when you are the empress of France, you have the opportunity to influence fashion trends to they flatter you as much as possible. If the portrait they've used for the cover is at all accurate, then I agree that Josephine wasn't exactly a stunning woman, but it's not like she was some hideous troll either.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 43: "Red, White & Royal Blue" by Casey McQuiston

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 5 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: I Love This

First Son Alex Claremont-Diaz is the closest thing to a prince this side of the Atlantic. With his intrepid sister and the Veep’s genius granddaughter, they’re the White House Trio, a beautiful millennial marketing strategy for his mother, President Ellen Claremont. International socialite duties do have downsides—namely, when photos of a confrontation with his longtime nemesis Prince Henry at a royal wedding leak to the tabloids and threaten American/British relations.

The plan for damage control: staging a fake friendship between the First Son and the Prince. Alex is busy enough handling his mother’s bloodthirsty opponents and his own political ambitions without an uptight royal slowing him down. But beneath Henry’s Prince Charming veneer, there’s a soft-hearted eccentric with a dry sense of humor and more than one ghost haunting him.

As President Claremont kicks off her reelection bid, Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret relationship with Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations. And Henry throws everything into question for Alex, an impulsive, charming guy who thought he knew everything: What is worth the sacrifice? How do you do all the good you can do? And, most importantly, how will history remember you?

What DIDN'T I love about this book? I honestly can't think of a thing. It's been a month and a half since I finished it, and I still think about it ALL the time. I've sent it to several of my friends to make them read it too, just so I'd have someone to gush about its awesomeness with. I know at least two of them have gifted friends and/or family members with copies of the book as well, so at least Casey McQuiston is doing good business out of my enthusiasm. Without a shadow of a doubt, this will be on my "Best of the Year" list come December. It would not surprise me if it ends up in the top three. There was no other book I had in my review backlog that more perfectly fit in the "I Love This" square than this book.

This book is funny, romantic and so affirming. Set in a slightly alternate world I think we all wish was real right now, Ellen Claremont from Texas won the Presidential election after Obama's final term. Her two half-Mexican kids are social media superstars. In the UK, there is still a Queen, but her name is Mary. There's no Prince Charles, only her daughter (who married a famous actor, who played James Bond in the 80s and tragically died of cancer a while back). The queen's eldest grandson is the heir to the throne. There is also Princess Beatrice, who wanted to become a rock star and got a little bit too carried away with cocaine. Then there's everyone's idea of Prince Charming, Henry, the youngest son. If Alex is the most eligible bachelor in the US, Henry is probably the most sought after in all of Europe. Except he has a secret - Henry is extremely and decidedly gay, and has been in love with Alex Claremont-Diaz since they first met at the Rio Olympics when they were in their early teens.

Alex both obsesses over and hates Henry at first, but after a rather monumental New Year's Eve at the White House and a very steamy kiss in the gardens, he's forced to re-evaluate everything he thought he knew about himself and his very confused feelings towards Henry.

Alex and Henry are both great protagonists. If there was one thing that could make this book EVEN better, it's if there had been POV chapters for Henry as well, especially because what we did get to see from his perspective (in his texts and e-mails) was lovely.

There is also a great supporting cast - Alex' sister June, his best friend Nora (the Vice President's brilliant granddaughter), Henry's sister Bea and his best friend Pez are all great. Alex is lucky enough to have three supportive parents. I liked how non-dramatic his parents divorce was and how well they deal with all his revelations (his Mum's powerpoint was both amazing and incredibly cringe-worthy ("Planned Parenthood sent leaflets! They used a bike messenger"). Nora might be the best friend a guy can have. Not sure if she was supposed to be on the spectrum, but her intense fascination for numbers possibly suggested it. Her reaction to Alex' big dramatic "Am I bi?" was hilarious and absolutely amazing and I cannot deny having re-read the scene and snickered several times.

I am frankly blown away by the fact that this is Casey McQuiston's first novel. As far as I can tell, this book is stand-alone, which I'm both relieved with, because I want it to exist as a perfect little nugget of its own, but also conflicted about because I want to see who end up being June, Nora, Bea and/or Pez' happy endings. Suffice to say, I'm going to internet stalk Ms. McQuiston and await her next book with bated breath.

Judging a book by its cover: See, I'm torn between thinking that the pepto bismol pink cover is a cute touch, and being worried that it's virulent pinkness is going to scare off potential readers who may miss out on this amazing reading experience just because they don't want to read something with a cover that colour. The little cartoon dudes seem like pretty good representations of Alex and Henry, though, that's good.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 42: "The Bride Test" by Helen Hoang

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From Goodreads:
Khai Diep has no feelings. Well, he feels irritation when people move his things or contentment when ledgers balance down to the penny, but not big, important emotions—like grief. And love. He thinks he’s defective. His family knows better—that his autism means he just processes emotions differently. When he steadfastly avoids relationships, his mother takes matters into her own hands and returns to Vietnam to find him the perfect bride.

As a mixed-race girl living in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, Esme Tran has always felt out of place. When the opportunity arises to come to America and meet a potential husband, she can’t turn it down, thinking this could be the break her family needs. Seducing Khai, however, doesn’t go as planned. Esme’s lessons in love seem to be working…but only on herself. She’s hopelessly smitten with a man who’s convinced he can never return her affection.

With Esme’s time in the United States dwindling, Khai is forced to understand he’s been wrong all along. And there’s more than one way to love. 

This novel has an unusual and interesting concept for a story. There is the autistic hero - which you don't see too often in romance. The only book I can remember reading with one was The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, which I really didn't like much at all. Obviously, in Helen Hoang's previous novel, The Kiss Quotient, the heroine is on the autism spectrum. Khai, the hero of this book, is the cousin of Michael (the hero of The Kiss Quotient). 

It's very difficult for me to say how authentic Khai is as an example of someone on the autism spectrum, but since this is an #Ownvoices story, and the author became really huge with The Kiss Quotient, I cannot imagine she hasn't done her research properly. While Khai frequently struggles with social interaction, he's clearly not someone to really be pitied and he's clearly doing excellently business wise. One of the things I like about the book is that we never actually have it confirmed just how wealthy and successful Khai is, it's all just hinted at.

We also have an immigrant heroine, from a very poor background, in a situation that veers closely towards the arranged marriage trope. Esme (this is the Westernised name our heroine gives herself, because her favourite Disney movie is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Her Vietnamese name is given as M. From now on I will refer to her as M/Esme.) works at a cleaner at a fancy hotel. She lives with her mother and grandmother, as well as her little girl, and everyone (except the child) has to work hard to make ends meet. The amount of money Khai's mother is willing to pay her, even if she never makes a match with her son, is staggering. M/Esme would be able to secure a much better life for her child and extended family, especially if she gets a job while in the States (which she insists on, as she doesn't want to be useless and a burden). M/Esme also has a vague hope of being able to track down her own father, who may or may not be connected with Stanford university in some way.

There are huge cultural and social differences between the main couple. The whole book is pretty much nothing but misunderstandings from either side. Yet while something like that could annoy the crap out of me in a different book, here it's entirely understandable, as the couple are separated by background, culture, language - one of them is neuro divergent, the other is desperately trying to rise above her lack of education and impoverished background. Early on, M/Esme lies and claims to have a background in accounting, because a successful, handsome man like Khai couldn't possibly come to love her if he knew she was just a hotel maid. She works diligently not just to learn English as perfectly as possible during her stay, but also starts taking evening classes to make the lie a reality.

M/Esme is the real star of this story, she's such a fierce, wonderful, determined heroine. Even when she's desperately poor, she has morals and while she keeps her daughter a secret from Khai's mother and Khai himself for much of the book, she feels so guilty about it. She also makes it clear early on that she is not a prostitute and that Khai needs to be a willing suitor, she's not going to lie and manipulate him, just because Khai's mother wants him to get married. It made me sad that M/Esme always took pretty much every misunderstanding between her and  Khai as criticism of her and her background, but also served to make her all the more determined to make something more of herself.

I would say that more important than the actual romance in this book is M/Esme's journey of self discovery. Her learning to appreciate her self worth, that even if she's a poor, uneducated single mother from a small Vietnamese village, she deserves respect, love and happiness. She works so hard to make herself something, setting an example for her daughter. The sections where she thinks about her little girl or talks to her over the phone, broke my heart a little bit.

Is it always going to be like this when I read or watch TV and movies now? Because I have a child of my own, I'm going to find stories of motherhood and especially mothers sacrificing for their children, so incredibly painful. M/Esme has recurring nightmares about her daughter's father (who has a rich wife) showing up and taking the little girl away from her. She really has no choice but to leave her daughter for a few months, but I still found it difficult to read about, in a way I can't remember feeling before I had a little boy of my own.

In the afterword, Ms. Hoang says this story is inspired by her mother, who came to America after the Vietnam war and worked tirelessly to create a future for herself, her family and her future children. I cannot imagine a better tribute to what sounds like a very impressive woman. Hoang also confesses that M/Esme wasn't initially meant to be the heroine, but the third in the love triangle who lost out, so to speak. I'm so glad she changed her mind and the story, because while Khai was perfectly fine, M/Esme is who made the entire book for me.

Of the two books Ms. Hoang has written so far, this is now my favourite. The next book in the series is going to be about Khai's non-neuro divergent brother, who plays an important supporting part in this one. I don't think Helen Hoang has proven herself worthy of my pre-order list yet, but if her third novel is as satisfying, she won't be far off.

Judging a book by its cover: There seems to be a trend at the moment for a lot of "mainstream" contemporary romance to be packaged with illustrated covers, which sometimes works better than others. It can sometimes come off as a bit too twee, but I really like this one. The warm yellow background, the woman intently studying. The whimsical aeroplanes and their trails across the page, with the most prominent making a heart-shape. It makes me happy to look at and that's not a bad thing at all.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 41: "Serious Moonlight" by Jenn Bennett

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

From Goodreads:
Mystery-book aficionado Birdie Lindberg has an overactive imagination. Raised in isolation and homeschooled by strict grandparents, she’s cultivated a whimsical fantasy life in which she plays the heroic detective and every stranger is a suspect. But her solitary world expands when she takes a job the summer before college, working the graveyard shift at a historic Seattle hotel.

In her new job, Birdie hopes to blossom from introverted dreamer to brave pioneer, and gregarious Daniel Aoki volunteers to be her guide. The hotel’s charismatic young van driver shares the same nocturnal shift and patronizes the waterfront Moonlight Diner where Birdie waits for the early morning ferry after work. Daniel also shares her appetite for intrigue, and he’s stumbled upon a real-life mystery: a famous reclusive writer—never before seen in public—might be secretly meeting someone at the hotel.

To uncover the writer’s puzzling identity, Birdie must come out of her shell…discovering that the most confounding mystery of all may be her growing feelings for the elusive riddle that is Daniel.

Birdie has grown up on a small island outside Seattle, raised by her grandparents after her mother died. Her mother's best friend, an eccentric artist, has also acted as a sort of unofficial co-parent. Birdie also suffers from narcolepsy, but after her grandmother's death, she's managed to convince her grandfather to let her have a part-time job, working the night shift at one of the hotels in the city.

Birdie is taken aback to discover that one of her new co-workers is Daniel, the handsome young man she met and had an impulsive one-night-stand with, assuming she'd never see him again. Instead, he seems very interested in becoming friends (and possibly more) and when he discovers that she's a mystery aficionado, he tempts her with a mystery in the very hotel they work. He's pretty sure he's discovered the real identity of an elusive crime writer, who seems to have secretive meetings regularly at the hotel. He enlists Birdie's help to try to figure out who the writer really is, and what the meetings at the hotel are all about.

Alex, Approximately, the first novel I'd read by this author, ended up on my best of 2017 list. While Serious Moonlight was sweet and I liked it well enough when I read it, it's once again proven that with a little time passing, I barely remember what the book was about and books that can't stay in my memory after two months, are probably not full four star books. I really do need to get better about taking notes while, or certainly straight after I finish a book, to help me review them when I inevitably fall behind, like I have ALL year. I'd like to be able to say that the second half of the year will be different and I will be better, but we all know that's a big fat lie.

This was a sweet book, and both Birdie and Daniel were likable protagonists. Birdie has suffered some pretty tragic losses in her life, and because she's been home schooled and kept very sheltered by her grandparents, she has some difficulty socialising with new people and she certainly seems terrified of actually making a real and lasting connection with anyone. While she's clearly eager to get out into the world to experience new things, she also seems terrified of real change.

This is a nice little YA romance, but unless 2019 turns out to be a pretty sad reading year, I doubt this book is going to end up on my "Best of the Year" list.

Judging a book by its cover: Jenn Bennett's publisher seems to be very good about finding cozy and inviting looking covers for her books. As several of the important scenes in this book take place in a diner, this seems like a very appropriate choice. The cover models they've chosen look pretty much like the protagonists of the novel, too, which is always nice.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 15 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 40: "A Prince on Paper" by Alyssa Cole

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Birthday (Alyssa Cole's birthday is August 12th)

From Goodreads:
Nya Jerami fled Thesolo for the glitz and glamour of NYC but discovered that her Prince Charming only exists in her virtual dating games. When Nya returns home for a royal wedding, she accidentally finds herself up close and personal—in bed—with the real-life celebrity prince who she loves to hate.

For Johan von Braustein, the red-headed step-prince of Liechtienbourg, acting as paparazzi bait is a ruse that protects his brother—the heir to the throne—and his own heart. When a royal referendum threatens his brother’s future, a fake engagement is the perfect way to keep the cameras on him.

Nya and Johan both have good reasons to avoid love, but as desires are laid bare behind palace doors, they must decide if their fake romance will lead to a happily-ever-after.

I keep reading such effusive reviews about Alyssa Cole's Reluctant Royals series, and I really do want to like the book. At it turns out I like this better than A Duke by Default, but it still took me nearly a week to read it, which is an really unforgivably long time, considering the book has fewer than 400 pages, and shows that the book just isn't capturing my attention all that much.

The heroine of this book is Nya, who is very sweet and possibly a bit too perfect. She is inexperienced and has grown up very sheltered, because her father would actually secretly poison her every time she showed any signs of independence. She'd get ill and feel insecure, and only after her father was arrested after some sort of nefarious plot in book one (which I still haven't read) did Nya realise the truth and come to see that she needed to expand her horizons. Due to her sheltered upbringing, she doesn't really want to put herself out there, and plays a number of fantasy romance games on her phone instead of talking to, you know, real men. While Nya was clearly very kind, and open minded, and altruistic and understanding and so forth,  I wanted her to maybe be a bit more flawed, and have more of a personality. She was just a bit dull, if I'm completely honest.

Oh, the thing that annoyed me the most about her - while we're not quite in the realms of Anastasia Steele, who can't even think about her lady parts except as "down there", Nya is apparently so "charmingly innocent" that she seriously refers to sexual organs as aubergine and peach emoji. This would MAYBE be ok if it had happened once, but nope, it's a recurring thing throughout the book, and completely took me out of the scene every time. Not sexy in the slightest.

Johan, is the playboy prince with a bunch of emotional baggage because of unresolved issues after his Mum died. He as a very public persona that he uses to keep the press attention away from his younger brother, but doesn't actually speak with said brother all that much anymore and as a result, they've grown apart. Johan spends most of his free time working with charities (but doesn't want public to know he's actually a super good guy, because that would interfere with his shallow himbo image). In truth, Johan is really very private and dealing with a lot of anxiety - he's terrified to properly love ever again because the loss of his mother still affects him so much. He should clearly desperately see a therapist. Of course, for all that he is terrified of attachment, he clearly cares deeply about his brother and is upset about their estrangement, and he's a very caring and considerate fake boyfriend to Nya, letting her set the pace and making sure he has her enthusiastic consent for every new step of their relationship.

This book is pretty much the contemporary equivalent of the rake and the wallflower (to the point where Johan calls Nya "wallflower" for part of the book), but it was a lot less interesting to me than most historicals with the same trope.

Johan's stepfather is the king of the little fictional European country of Lichtenbourg. The country is about to have a big referendum about whether to abolish the monarchy once and for all, and one of the primary reasons given for Nya and Johan to have their big, public pretend relationship is so the Royal family gets positive press. There is a subplot involving  figuring out who's been working to sabotage the referendum, with anti-Royal graffiti and a number of negative and hostile posts on social media. I don't even want to call it a mystery, as it's really extremely obvious who the responsible individual is.

I don't really want to spoil the nature of the identity crisis that Johan's younger brother is experiencing. Suffice to say, he feels that Johan and his dad, the king, have unrealistic expectations of him, and doesn't feel like he can talk to his brother. Because of this, he is acting out in creative and pretty typical teenage ways, but when the fate of the future monarchy is at stake, having a public temper tantrum may not be the best idea.

Nothing in A Prince on Paper evoked anything like the stabbing rage I felt when reading the previous book in the series, but there were things that made me roll my eyes a lot. Nya's aforementioned inability to refer to human sexual organs by their actual names; the fact that "Lichtenbourgian" was really just a hodge podge of French and German (although this is actually jokingly acknowledged in the book) and Johan's weird tendency to go Oh la la (sometimes with a lot more las). Also, I just super hate the nickname Jo Jo for Johan. It's the opposite of sexy.

I should probably just accept that when it comes to Alyssa Cole, her historical romances are more my jam than her contemporaries. She's not on the "stay away at all costs" list, like Bella Andre and Sonali Dev (they know what they did). I still own the first book in the series, though, so will probably end up reading it at some point. My expectations will not be swayed by gushing internet reviews anymore, though.

Judging a book by its cover: For all that I seem incapable of feeling anything but fairly lukewarm towards these novels, I cannot deny that the covers for this series are excellent. Ginger romance heroes aren't exactly the norm, so it's always nice to see an attractive redheaded dude on a cover (and in a book). The dress that the female cover model is wearing is utterly gorgeous (and I love that Alyssa Cole wore it for at least one of her promotional appearances for this book).

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 39: "Someone Like You" by Lauren Layne

Page count: 249 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

From Goodreads:
Lincoln Mathis doesn’t hide his reputation as Manhattan’s ultimate playboy. In fact, he cultivates it. But behind every flirtatious smile, each provocative quip, there’s a secret that Lincoln’s hiding from even his closest friends—a tragedy from his past that holds his heart quietly captive. Lincoln knows what he wants: someone like Daisy Sinclair, the sassy, off-limits bridesmaid he can’t take his eyes off at his best friend’s wedding. He also knows that she’s everything he can never have.

After a devastating divorce, Daisy doesn’t need anyone to warn her off the charming best man at her sister’s wedding. One look at the breathtakingly hot Lincoln Mathis and she knows that he’s exactly the type of man she should avoid. But when Daisy stumbles upon Lincoln’s secret, she realizes there’s more to the charming playboy than meets the eye. And suddenly Daisy and Lincoln find their lives helplessly entwined in a journey that will either heal their damaged souls . . . or destroy them forever.

Lincoln Mathis is the best man at his friend Alex's wedding. The bride, Emma, specifically asks Lincoln, who has a reputation as a bit of a man ho to stay away from the maid of honour, Emma's twin sister Daisy. Daisy finds it amusing that she's being told to stay away from Lincoln, so of course the two of them end up running away from the reception and getting drunk together. When Daisy wakes up in Lincoln's bed the next day, she puzzles over his Lothario reputation, as during their whole evening together, he talked to a number of women, but was never once anything but respectful, and nothing about his apartment suggests that he has frequent female visitors. In fact, he seems to be covering for something.

Because of the connection they seem to have formed over drinks, Lincoln reveals something to Daisy that he hasn't told anyone else about, the reason why he makes everyone around him think that he sleeps with pretty much any woman who crosses his path. Unlike Bruce Wayne, billionaire philanthropist, who does much the same, it's not because Lincoln is Batman - it's because he needs to stay completely unattached, as he's not exactly free to be in a relationship. I don't really want to spoil the full details of Lincoln's complicated secrets, though.

Daisy has secrets of her own and is trying to recover from both a difficult divorce and the reasons for why the marriage fell apart in the first place. While she certainly finds Lincoln attractive, she appreciates the honesty and vulnerability he shows her, that he's clearly not ready to share with any of his New York friends. The two build a friendship through texting and soon get very close, but since Daisy knows Lincoln's secret, she also knows not to get too attached.

Yet again, it feels like I'm just churning out generalities about a book I can only partially remember. At least I've caught up enough in my reviews to be reviewing books I read "only" TWO months ago, rather than three. Here we come to another romance that was perfectly fine at the time of me reading it, which I can only fuzzily remember details about now. This book is also the third book in a series, Oxford, about the men who work for a New York based men's magazine, in itself a spin-off of Lauren Layne's four-book Stiletto series, about the writers of Oxford's "sister" magazine. From the Goodreads reviews, I gather there are cameos from pretty much all of the previous couples in the books that have gone before, making the pages of this book rather crowded with characters who aren't all that necessary for the central story.

From what I can gather from other reviews on Goodreads, this was an anticipated book, and Lincoln has been a scene stealing supporting characters earlier in the series. Obviously, having no foreknowledge of the books that came before, I don't know if the secrets revealed about him come as a satisfying reveal or if it seems a bit forced. I liked his relationship with Daisy, and that they became friends before they fell in love. This book deals with different kinds of grief and trauma as well, and if I remember correctly, it was all sensitively handled.

I should probably read some other books in Layne's Stiletto and Oxford series, then this book may feel more meaningful to me.

Judging a book by its cover: Ah, a contemporary romance cover focusing on the chiseled face of a male model, heavily channeling Ben Stiller's Zoolander. Look at that face, so sensitive, so earnest. See his hidden man pain. I like to make my own mental images of the characters, so this cover does very little for me. The teal in the background is nice, though.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 38: "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret" by Judy Blume

Page count: 160 pages
Rating: 3 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Banned/Challenged (has been on the list among the most banned/challenged books for several decades now)

Margaret Simon, almost twelve, has just moved from New York City to the suburbs, and she’s anxious to fit in with her new friends. When she’s asked to join a secret club she jumps at the chance. But when the girls start talking about boys, bras, and getting their first periods, Margaret starts to wonder if she’s normal. There are some things about growing up that are hard for her to about, even with her friends. Lucky for Margaret, she’s got someone else to confide in . . . someone who always listens.

Eleven-year-old Margaret moves to the New Jersey suburbs with her parents and is very worried about fitting in. She misses her colourful grandmother and the things she's used to in New York City. Nevertheless, she seems to make friends quickly enough, but is slightly worried when asked about what church she goes to. Margaret's parents don't believe in God. Her paternal grandmother is Jewish, her maternal grandparents (who the family is estranged from) are Christian, but Margaret's parents don't seem to hold with any religion, and it makes Margaret confused and questioning. She keeps talking to God, pretty much using her one-sided conversations like a sort of journal, and asking questions, not really sure if he's up there somewhere or not.

Margaret and three of her new friends form a secret club, where they are mostly concerned with talking about boys, chanting mantras to get their chests to grow and worry a lot about menstruation and what it will be like when one of them gets it. They have a lot of rules (like you can't wear socks with shoes - that way blisters lie) and gossip about other girls in their year (often very unfairly). It all seems pretty standard pre-teen stuff, especially in how much they talk about things they really know very little about.

Margaret spends much of the book questioning a lot of things and desperately wanting to start puberty. As someone who developed fairly early, I would probably have been more like some of the girls Margaret and her friends gossiped about (if I hadn't been so very nerdy and completely unnoticed by any boys). I do remember being super curious about having your period, and both wanting and dreading its arrival. It's really quite sad how much time and energy young women over the years seem to have expended on wishing for something that is a literal and figurative pain, when they should instead be thanking their lucky stars for as long as they can remain free of it.

This book is older than I am, and seems to have been controversial for a long time. It's appeared on the list of banned and challenged books for decades (I'm assuming both for its questions about religion, and its frank depiction of menstruation and how to deal with it) and I suspect that if I'd read it when I was closer to Margaret's age, rather than nearly forty years old, it would have made a lot more of an impact on me. As it was, I kept waiting for Margaret to get a clue about her judgy so-called friends an realise what a good thing she had with her supportive parents and cool paternal grandmother. I should probably read more Judy Blume, but I fear I'm far from the target audience anymore.

Judging a book by its cover: This isn't a particularly exciting cover, and it has very little to do with anything the book is actually about. Yes, Margaret is searching for answers and questioning things, but this isn't a romance, where she's risking her heart, so I'm not sure why the cover model is holding a paper one. A bit too generically YA here, and not great.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 37: "Nobody But You" by Jill Shalvis

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the third and final book in the Cedar Ridge series. I have reviewed the first two books in the series, Second Chance Summer and My Kind of Wonderful for previous Cannonballs. You don't have to have read these to get the book to make sense, but it has more emotional resonance if you've at least read book 2 (which is about this hero's twin brother).

Jacob and Hudson Kincaid's mother started getting dementia at an early age, and it became very difficult for the twins to manage the household with an absent father and a sick mother. As it turns out, they were not their father's only family, and Jacob and Hudson were pretty much adopted by the matriarch of the Kincaids at Cedar Ridge. She takes them, and their mother, in and the boys help out with the family business. Nevertheless, Jacob can't wait to get out of town when he's old enough, something his twin can't understand. They have a truly epic argument when they turn eighteen, and Jacob goes off to join the army, believing his brother (and extended family) want nothing to do with him ever again.

Jacob has not been completely off the grid, however. Unbeknownst to Hudson, and the rest of his family, he has been calling his mother once a week, visiting her in secret at her care home when he had leave, and has also been sending as much money as he can to help with her treatment and hospital stays. So while he hasn't seen any family members except his mum for the last decade or so, Cedar Ridge is the natural place for him to go when his partner is killed in a horrible accident and he's placed on extended bereavement leave.

Sophie fell in love with and married a rich and handsome man that her parents didn't approve of. She moved to Cedar Ridge with him and did everything she could to please him, only to discover that he became more and more consumed with his status and career, and less and less happy with Sophie. When she discovers that he's been using his precious boat to have affairs with not one, but several women, she is furious. In the divorce proceedings, she refuses to accept anything but her husband's precious boat, knowing that's the only thing that will really hurt him. Unfortunately, because her husband is very powerful, she's suddenly left without a job and a bad reputation in town, forced to live on a boat she hates, when she suffers from seasickness. Spite is all well and good, but it doesn't really pay the bills. She doesn't really have the money for docking fees, so keeps sailing the boat around and sneakily parking it where she thinks no one will catch her - like at the dock by the empty rental cottage - that turns out to be rented by Jacob Kincaid.

Jacob needs to grieve his best friend and try to reconnect with his family after far too many years away. Sophie needs to find a job, a permanent home and regain trust in men and relationships, after her ex-husband did a number on her. They are very attracted to each other, and quickly decide to act on their pants feelings, both assuring the other that it can't be anything but a fling, as they are incapable of feeling real love. I'm sure you can guess where the story goes from there.

This is an entertaining and fun read, and it finished off the story of the extended Kincaid clan (there is also a secondary romance in the book involving the wild Kincaid sister, which was very sweet). As I mentioned before, you can read the book as a stand alone, but the bigger story threads that are finished off, will be better if you've read the first two books as well.

Judging a book by its cover: The only thing I can say in favour of this cover is that it's still better than the twee pastel illustrated thing that they've chosen for the UK cover of this series. This just smacks of excessive photoshopping, and the cover designer throwing something together at the last minute. Um, we need some mountains and idyllic landscape in the background, a lake would be good too. Does it matter if the scenery looks like it's from three different pictures? Nah, I'm sure no one notice. Then just find some rugged dude to paste in front. Bonus if he has dog tags around his neck, since the hero of this book is in the armed forces. No, you don't need to make sure it's neat or seamless - it's perfectly adequate and that'll have to do.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 8 July 2019

#CBR11 Books 35-36: "Ms. Marvel, vol 3: Crushed" and "Ms. Marvel, vol 4: Last Days" by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona and others

Total page count: 240 pages

#CBR11 Bingo: Illustrated

Ms. Marvel, vol 3: Crushed - 4 stars

Kamala faces a new, terrifying threat: Excessive feelings!

Love is in the air in Jersey City as Valentine’s Day arrives! Kamala Khan may not be allowed to go to the school dance, but Ms. Marvel is! Well sort of--by crashing it in an attempt to capture Asgard’s most annoying trickster! Yup, it’s a special Valentine’s Day story featuring Marvel’s favorite charlatan, Loki! And when a mysterious stranger arrives in Jersey City, Ms. Marvel must deal with...a crush! Because this new kid is really, really cute. What are these feelings, Kamala Khan? Prepare for drama! Intrigue! Romance! Suspense! Punching things! All this and more! The fan-favorite, critically acclaimed, amazing new series continues as Kamala Khan proves why she’s the best (and most adorable) new super hero there is! Plus, see what happens when S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jemma Simmons goes undercover at Kamala’s school!

While the first two trades explained how Kamala got her superpowers and figured out her costume, and how to hide her secret identity (from nearly everyone), this trade deals more with the fact that Kamala is a teenage girl, who frequently crush on cute boys. The boy in question is the son of family friends, who Kamala is initially none too excited to meet (who wants someone your parents heartily approve of), but he turns out to have grown up hot, and Kamala is smitten. Then she discovers that there is more that meets the eye about him as well, but alas, a happy romance isn't in the cards for our heroine. Her crush is more of a supervillain in training than a fellow superhero, which isn't exactly a good thing.

There is also a minor subplot with Bruno, Kamala's best friend, with his unrequited crush on Kamala, being told that whether Kamala returns his feelings or no, her family are never going to accept him as a proper suitor for her. They are from different cultures and religions, and while Kamala is a teenage girl growing up in New Jersey, she's also a devout Muslim girl. Her parents would not want her to date a non-Muslim boy. Of course, they don't know that their suitable candidate is a villainous douchebag, but that's a different issue altogether.

We also get to see the current comics incarnation of Loki in the first issue of this trade. He's rather different from the movie version, played by the lovely Tom Hiddleston, but ever the naughty trickster god nonetheless. I also liked the little hints we got about the current power structures in Asgard, no Allfather in charge there. There was a also a pretty throwaway issue crossing over with the Agents o S.H.I.E.L.D, which might have made more of an impact on me if I a) had watched so much as an episode of the TV show (I have not) or b) read more Marvel universe comics (I have not).

Ms. Marvel, vol 4: Last Days - 4.5 stars

From the moment Kamala put on her costume, she's been challenged. But nothing has prepared her for this: the last days of the Marvel Universe. Lucky she's got the help of Carol "Captain Marvel" Danvers! Between teaming up with her personal hero to rescue her brother and trying to keep her city from falling into an all-out frenzy, Kamala has barely had time to come to terms with the fact that the world is literally collapsing around her. But the truth will catch up to her, and soon. When the world is about to end, do you still keep fighting? Kamala knows the answer. Let's do this, Jersey City.

I'm deducting half a star because while the actual Ms. Marvel issues of this were top-notch and really excellent, there is also a not-very-interesting Spider-man crossover included, which just feels entirely out of place after the fairly serious emotional stuff we've read just before.

A big alien planet has appeared in the sky and things are getting very chaotic. Kamala gets to team up with her biggest hero, Captain Marvel (it's just as adorable and heart-warming as you can imagine). As of yet, Ms. Marvel is not really one of the heavy hitters of the Marvel Universe, and therefore sticks to trying to keep her own little part of New Jersey safe (this feels much more realistic than if she'd been off with a full Avengers team or something).

The impending doom of the situation also makes it necessary for her to take stock of what really matters to her and she has some very emotional scenes with both friends and family. There's an especially moving scene involving her mother (I may have cried a bit) and it just emphasised exactly why I love this comic so much and keep reading it. G. Willow Wilson balances the big, action-packed sequences with less spectacular quiet moments, which nevertheless pack serious emotional punches so well. I'm very excited to see where the comic goes next.

Judging the books by their covers: There's one rather fun and silly cover here, and one rather dark, gloomy and serious. While the cover for Last Days is fine and very atmospheric, I still prefer the more light-hearted and comical one for Crushed. Sadly, I'm too lazy to look up the artists for each to credit them here - sorry guys.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 34: "All the Bright Places" by Jennifer Niven

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Youths!

From Goodreads:
Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.

Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.

This book was basically described as The Fault in Our Stars meets Eleanor & Park, but it suffers in comparisons to both of those novels, which several years after being published are still among the best of YA novels out there. Neither of the teens in this book battle a terrifying and terminal disease (#Fuck cancer!), nor do either of them have as fraught and depressing a home life as Eleanor in Eleanor & Park. Finch has genuine and very difficult struggles with depression, however, and Violet is trying to process a very deep and genuine grief, missing her vibrant and inspiring older sister, while also battling survivor's guilt (her sister was driving Violet home when they had a car accident. Violet survived, her sister got killed).

Violet isn't really suicidal, Finch occasionally very much is. He keeps researching different ways to kill himself, because when his anxiety and depression really take over, he loses months to the illness and he is finding it harder and harder to find reasons to continue living. No one in school knows the truth about Violet and Finch's meeting at the ledge of the school bell tower. The official story is that Violet persuaded Finch not to jump, no one knows that she was in fact there first, and it was Finch who talked her down (when he arrived to possibly do the same thing she was contemplating). When they are paired up for a school project (Violet has usually been able to get out of any course work in the past year, because of her "special circumstances") and Finch refuses to let Violet get away with half-assing it, they eventually build an unlikely friendship that begins to blossom into something more.

Violet stops counting the days until she graduates and can get away to college. Finch finds he has things to look forward to, and the friendship/romance with Violet keeps the darkness at bay for at least a while. I guess the reason this book has been compared with The Fault in Our Stars is that depression is a ticking time bomb for Finch, the way cancer was for Hazel and Augustus. A lot of people can manage anxiety and depression with the aid of family members, good therapists and medication. Sadly, Finch doesn't really seem to engage much with therapy, has a mother who is entirely unable to handle her son's serious malady and seems deeply sceptical and reluctant to medication. All of that spells danger on the horizon. Without wanting to spoil anything, don't go expecting a happily ever after for the young teens of this book.

This is another of those books that had been on my TBR list for years and years, and it could have fitted on several of the squares of the Book Bingo card. It's not a bad book, but while I felt like the reader got a pretty good insight into what Finch is going through, Violet remained rather bland and anonymous throughout. I get that she was pretty much utterly consumed with grief to begin with, but even as the book develops, it was difficult to see what her interests were or what she really cared about. She stayed too anonymous for me throughout, and therefore I couldn't really seem to care about her or what happened to her.

While this was a good book, it was neither great nor particularly memorable. As I said, I don't think it benefits from being compared to two of the most well-written and emotionally wrenching young adult books in the last decade, because it doesn't hold a candle to either of them. Nevertheless, it's good to see depression and grief dealt with as topics in YA literature - these things need to be destigmatised and seeing them in literature and film makes them less scary concepts.

Judging a Book by its Cover: While this cover might seem a bit generic YA (there was a lot of books with similar covers for a while), the blue background colour and the various post-it notes are actually really on point and relevant to the story

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 33: "What Angels Fear" by C.S. Harris

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Book Bingo: And So It Begins

From Goodreads, because it's nearly three months since I finished this baby:

It's 1811, and the threat of revolution haunts the upper classes of King George III's England. Then a beautiful young woman is found raped and savagely murdered on the altar steps of an ancient church near Westminster Abbey. A dueling pistol discovered at the scene and the damning testimony of a witness both point to one man, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, a brilliant young nobleman shattered by his experience in the Napoleonic Wars.

Now a fugitive running for his life, Sebastian calls upon his skill as an agent during the war to catch the killer and prove his own innocence. In the process, he accumulates a band of unlikely allies, including the enigmatic beauty Kat Boleyn, who broke Sebastian's heart years ago. In Sebastian's world of intrigue and espionage, nothing is as it seems, yet the truth may hold the key to the future of the British monarchy, as well as to Sebastian's own salvation...

I like a historical mystery. I've read so many of them, but most, unless you include the Hercule Poirot books, are about lady sleuths. Amelia Peabody, Lady Julia Grey, Lady Emily, Veronica Speedwell and most recently, the Lady Sherlock books. I've known about the Sebastian St. Cyr books for ages, and kept wondering about them, but never got round to starting the series. I'm really making an effort this year to read TBR books that I actually own, though, and since this had been on my digital bookshelves since 2015(!) and fit into several of my reading challenges, it felt like it was time to give a male detective a chance. That it then also fitted into the Cannonball Read Bingo card was an added bonus.

Of course, the main problem of me reviewing this nearly three months after finishing it, is that I no longer very clearly recall what I thought while I was reading it (I need to get much better about taking notes to help me with my reviews) and a lot of the finer plot details also now escape me. I do remember that the book starts with the grisly murder (post death sexual assault, because murder clearly wouldn't be horrible enough) of a beautiful actress who is blackmailing someone. Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is believed to be the killer and is immediately wanted by the authorities.

Obviously, St. Cyr is very invested in clearing his name, and fairly quickly comes to believe that someone in his family is the likely culprit instead. Could it be his father? His wastrel nephew? His supercilious brother in law? Or someone who just wants to get St. Cyr out of the way? As the investigation continues (with St. Cyr on the run), there are other women who turn up dead. While trying to solve the case and clear his name, St. Cyr ends up more or less adopting a young and resourceful street urchin who helps him, and reconnects with a former lover, the beautiful actress Kat Boleyn.

While I don't remember all too much about the finer details now, I did enjoy the story while I was reading, and will absolutely be checking out more books in the series. One of the benefits of starting a series late in the game, is that there are a lot of books to look forward to. As far as I can see, there are currently 14 books so far about the dashing Viscount (I certainly hope he isn't the main suspect in each book), so I have a lot of catching up to do.

Judging a book by its cover: It's not a great cover. A scowling man in period gear against a blurry, possibly foggy background. I'm not sure if the cover model is supposed to be our hero, I certainly imagined Sebastian more handsome and less sullen than this. I think historical mysteries with lady detectives have better cover art, generally.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 28 June 2019

#CBR11 Book 32: "Muse of Nightmares" by Laini Taylor

Page count: 514 pages
Audio book length: 15 hrs 54 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Spoiler warning! While I'm going to try very hard not to spoil THIS book in my review, this is the second book in a duology, and it will be impossible for me to write about the book without spoiling events and plot for book 1, Strange the Dreamer. Both books are absolutely wonderful, so you should absolutely check them out, if you haven't already.

But seriously, there will be plot spoilers for book one in the coming paragraphs, so go away if you're not caught up:

In the wake of tragedy, neither Lazlo nor Sarai are who they were before. One a god, the other a ghost, they struggle to grasp the new boundaries of their selves as dark-minded Minya holds them hostage, intent on vengeance against Weep.

Lazlo faces an unthinkable choice--save the woman he loves, or everyone else?--while Sarai feels more helpless than ever. But is she? Sometimes, only the direst need can teach us our own depths, and Sarai, the muse of nightmares, has not yet discovered what she's capable of.

As humans and godspawn reel in the aftermath of the citadel's near fall, a new foe shatters their fragile hopes, and the mysteries of the Mesarthim are resurrected: Where did the gods come from, and why? What was done with thousands of children born in the citadel nursery? And most important of all, as forgotten doors are opened and new worlds revealed: Must heroes always slay monsters, or is it possible to save them instead?

Love and hate, revenge and redemption, destruction and salvation all clash in this gorgeous sequel to the New York Times bestseller, Strange the Dreamer.

Strange the Dreamer was one of my favourite books of 2017, and the mind of Laini Taylor is like no other when it comes to conjuring up fantastical and unbelievable new worlds and ideas. The first book ended on a hell of a cliffhanger, and after we'd come to root for the tender romance between Lazlo and Sarai, it seemed their happy ending would be ruined forever, just as Lazlo also discovered that everything he had believed about himself was a lie.

I genuinely had no idea where the story was going to go in this book, and really don't want to go into details, as the experience of having the story gradually revealed to you is so much better. While I read the first book on my e-reader, I chose to get the audio version of Muse of Nightmares once I discovered that it's narrated by Steve West, whose voice work I really enjoy. He's also excellent with various accents, which helps a lot.

We discover that a lot of the established truths revealed in the first book are in fact something completely different. In what some might consider a mild spoiler, I can say that what seemed like a straight fantasy story in the first book, is revealed to have distinct science fiction elements in this second part. I'll say no more than that.

While there is a lot of darkness, pain and sadness in this second part, there is also hope, friendship, love, the chance at forgiveness and chances of a better future, at least for the characters who make it until the end of the narrative.

I don't know what Laini Taylor is working on next, but based on these two books, I'll be pre-ordering her next book as soon as there's a release date.

Judging a book by its cover: In much the same design style as the previous cover, this has a primary colour and a beautiful image (which is significant for the contents of the story) traced over it. The red is almost angry, and could play into the various feelings of anger, fear, grief and rage that different characters feel over the course of the story. I liked the previous, peaceful blue cover better, but they make a nice matched set.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

#CBR11 Book 31: "Love in the Time of Scandal" by Caroline Linden

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

From Goodreads:
Penelope Weston does not like Benedict Lennox, Lord Atherton. He may be the suave and charming heir to an earl, as well as the most handsome man on earth, but she can't forget how he abandoned a friend in need—nor how he once courted her sister, Abigail. He's the last man she would ever marry. If only she didn't feel so attracted to the arrogant scoundrel...

Once upon a time, Benedict thought he and Penelope got along rather well. Though he needs a wealthy bride to escape his cruel father's control, spirited Penelope just doesn't suit his plans for a model marriage—until a good deed goes awry, and scandalous rumors link his name to Penelope's. She might not be the quiet, sensible wife he thought he wanted, but she is beautiful . . . beguiling . . . and far more passionate than he ever imagined. Can a marriage begun in scandal become a love match, too?

I'm going to be honest with you, people. I read the synopsis for this book and had a hard time remembering even reading the book. I literally had to glance at two or three reviews already on Goodreads to remind myself of the finer details of the plot, because my mind was a complete and utter blank. Now, it's been a bit over two months since I finished the book, but I shouldn't need to question whether I in fact read the book in the first place. It really doesn't speak too well for the plot that it's quite so forgettable.

When I had refreshed my memory, I also remembered one of my biggest problem with this romance. Benedict, the hero, has an absolute monster of a father. His entire family was held hostage to the man's cruel treatment, and while Benedict's sisters and mother weren't necessarily physically abused (Benedict was not so lucky), they were deeply emotionally scarred. Penelope keeps being hurt because her husband doesn't want to introduce her to his parents, and even after she meets his father and can tell that there's something really rather wrong with him, she still doesn't really believe Benedict's warning and out of weird politeness puts herself into a situation where not only she, but her husband, nearly ends up dead.

I get that it can be difficult to understand a dysfunctional family situation if you've grown up in a loving, supportive home, but Penelope seems to think that Benedict is overreacting or exaggerating when he is reluctant to admit the true awfulness of his former home life, and she seems bemused even after one of Benedict's sisters (now happily married and away from her father's evil presence) confirms just how bad things were. Like, why would someone make something like that up?

That's the thought that now remains with me - it's genuinely like someone took an eraser and smudged out the actual romance part of this story. Benedict starts the novel courting someone else, but because Penelope believes him to be untrustworthy, she warns the young woman away. Trying to help a family friend in a tense situation, she is then put in a deeply uncomfortable, near sexual assault situation that Benedict conveniently rescues her from. Penelope's dress is torn (I think) and some gossip or other walks in on them, cue scandal and pretty much having to marry to save Penelope's reputation. She claims she doesn't like him because he was once her sister's suitor (who in an earlier book in the series ended up with someone else), but it's clear that deep down, she was jealous of her sister and liked Benedict a bit too much.

I honestly don't know if it's because I've had a LOT to do and my mind has been busy with other things that makes it so impossible for me to remember the plot, or if the book is in fact completely forgettable. I didn't like the domestic abuse subplot with Benedict's family, not sure it's the strongest recommendation that that's the bit that sticks most in my mind.

Judging a book by its cover: Oh mercy, how I hate these romance covers with the people on the cover so awkwardly positioned that you just twist your brain trying to figure out the anatomy. How is the majority of the skirt spread out like a sail when he also has it bunched up so much you can pretty much see all of her legs? Why is her upper body facing one way and her legs the other? It's not great, guys.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.