Monday, 12 October 2020

#CBR12 Book 74: "Solutions and Other Problems" by Allie Brosh

Page count: 528 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Back in 2013, Allie Brosh published Hyperbole and a Half named after the blog she kept (and has finally updated with a new post!). I pre-ordered the last book and bought it as a Christmas present for pretty much every single person my husband and I knew that year (now our own copy seems to have mysteriously gone missing - which distresses me). Allie's blog (we are clearly on first-name basis, and would be great friends if we ever met) and her book meant a lot to me, frequently made me laugh until I gasped and allowed me to lose many hours on the internet, just reading her older entries. So many of her posts and drawings are now memes.

Then, suddenly, Allie just seemed to vanish entirely from the internet. She stopped updating her blog. Her rumoured second book failed to appear and no one really knew what had happened to her. Because of her honest portrayal of depression and anxiety, there was every possibility that something serious was to blame for her complete disappearance from the web. Until earlier this year, when suddenly this book, Solutions and Other Problems had a cover and a confirmed publishing date and I think I genuinely screamed with joy - because it meant that no matter what else had happened, Allie was alive and had completed another book and was ready to share her thoughts with the world again.

You'd best believe I pre-ordered this the very second I saw the news. I feared that with the usual Covid-delays, my book wouldn't make it here in time for the release day, but I was wrong. Even if this book had been a series of blank pages with the occasional gibberish scrawled on them, I would have happily paid for the book, because I'm so relieved and happy that Allie is OK (in a manner of speaking) and ready to engage with the internet again. She posted one chapter of the new book on her blog. If this doesn't make you laugh like a loon until your stomach hurts, then maybe her way of telling stories isn't for you. 

For anyone wondering what happened to Allie, and why she's been gone for so long - it all gets explained in the book. Not everything she writes is laugh-out-loud funny. Like Jenny Lawson, Allie Brosh balances the hilarious and the tragic really well. She was honest about her struggles with depression and mental illness in the last book. When I reviewed her first book back in 2013, I had only the memory of my years of depression back at Uni and during my first years in Edinburgh. Now I'm fighting my way through another fairly major depressive episode and trying to navigate therapy and I feel like some sort of toxic rage monster has taken over my body and is slowly poisoning me and making me unable to control my thoughts and emotions. So this book probably meant even more to me now than Allie's first book did back in 2013. 

From what I can gather from my Facebook updates feed, I am not the only one who pre-ordered and has happily consumed this book. For those like-minded people who love Allie and her wonderful way with words (and illustration), she is also updating her Facebook page with pictures, sketches, little videos, and many other things to show her fans more of what she's been up to in the seven years since she last appeared "in public". 2020 has been a very difficult year, this book and Allie Brosh's reappearance feels like a true blessing.

Judging a book by its cover: Oh Allie and your strange little MS Paint style self-portraits, I've missed you so much! Before I read the book, I thought this image was of childhood Allie, but it turns out I was wrong. I don't really want to say anymore so as not to spoil anything. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday, 11 October 2020

#CBR12 Book 73: "The Diviners" by Libba Bray

Page count: 578 pages
Audio book length: 18 hrs 14 mins
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: The Roaring 20s

17-year-old Evangeline "Evie" O'Neill can sense people's secrets if she holds a personal object belonging to them and concentrates hard on it. She becomes decidedly unpopular in her home town when she gets drunk at a party and reveals that one of the town's golden boys knocked up a hotel maid and paid her to have the problem "dealt with". He accuses her of slander and threatens to sue her family. Evie can't very well reveal how she knows the details of the story and isn't exactly unhappy when her parents send her to stay with her bachelor uncle in New York City anyway. Evie dreams of going to parties, seeing shows, and gossipping with her best friend Mabel, daughter of radical socialists, who live in the same building as Evie's uncle Will. 

Before Evie even makes it to the museum that her uncle Will runs, she's been kissed and pick-pocketed by the roguish Sam Lloyd at Grand Central Station. At the museum, she's introduced to Jericho Jones, the tall and deadly serious young man that her uncle has taken under his wing (and who Mabel has a massive crush on). While Jericho seems just as scholarly and stick-in-the-mud as Evie's uncle, he has secrets of his own. Mabel and Evie also befriend Theta Knight, a glamorous Ziegfeld girl, and her "brother" Henry, a talented piano player who live in the same building as them. Important to the story is also Memphis Campbell, who used to have the gift of healing, until his mother was dying.

All of these young people from different social backgrounds and locations in the US meet up over the course of the story, as a comet is about to travel over New York City and a series of gruesome murders with occult connections catch the attention of reporters. The police ask Evie's uncle Will to consult, but it's not until Evie's party life style threatens to have her sent back home that she reveals her psychic powers and how she's able to read objects at the murder scenes (and feel a connection to the creepy murderer). 

This is a big book, with a lot of different point of view characters. It seems impeccably researched, with so many details about city life in the 1920s, complete with period slang (which got a bit confusing at times). January LaVoy, who narrates the book, did an excellent job differentiating between the large cast of characters of both genders. I've heard her narrate quite a few books now, and I really like her.

While I can see that Evie possibly can get on some people's nerves as a protagonist, there really is such a wide variety of significant characters set up in this book that everyone should be able to find someone to identify with. I think I was a lot more sympathetic to Mabel, the shy and bookish best friend rather than with the vivacious party girl Evie - but pretty much everyone in the large cast is well-drawn and interesting in their own right. Obviously, I don't think Evie appreciates a good museum enough (I would love to have access to the museum "of creepy crawlies" that uncle Will manages). 

As far as I'm aware, this is the first of four books of historical fantasy, setting up the various pretty young things we encounter in this book as "The Diviners" of the series title. Evie, Sam, Jericho, Theta, Henry, Memphis, and his younger brother all have unusual abilities of some kind. While the murderer is unmasked and stopped by the end of the story, it's made very clear that the looming evil that is awakening is not vanquished for good and Evie's adventures in the Big Apple are clearly just beginning by the end of this book.

This book has been on my TBR list almost since it came out, but I kept putting off reading it since I knew there would be more books in the series. It's now been completed, and based on the first book, I will absolutely be checking out more installments. I just need to summon up the energy for lengthy books with a fair amount of peril and grisly murders, which I'm not necessarily now. 

Judging a book by its cover: This book has been out since 2012, and as a result, has a number of covers by now, most of them in some shade of purple. This is the cover on my e-book copy, where you see the silhouettes of some of the prominent characters, as well as some background images of 1920s New York, where the book is set. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday, 4 October 2020

#CBR12 Book 72: "A Killing Frost" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book 14 in an ongoing series. You will be pretty hopelessly lost if this is the first one you pick up. This is an excellent paranormal fantasy series, but the place to start is with Rosemary and Rue. Also, there may be plot discussion about events that have happened earlier in the series, so don't read the review unless you're actually caught up.

Official book description:
When October is informed that Simon Torquill—legally her father, due to Faerie's archaic marriage traditions—must be invited to her wedding or risk the ceremony throwing the Kingdom in the Mists into political turmoil, she finds herself setting out on a quest she was not yet prepared to undertake for the sake of her future.... and the man who represents her family's past.

October 'Toby' Daye has been engaged to Tybalt, the King of Cats for a long time now, but has at least gotten to the stage where she's tentatively looking at dresses. When Tybalt takes her out for a surprise dinner date, the couple is interrupted by Dianda Lordan, Duchess of the Undersea and her husband. They inform Toby that unless her step-father Simon Torquill is invited to the wedding, Simon himself, or someone close to him, like his evil liege Eira Rosenwyhr, could claim offense and use the slight as an excuse to set off a supernatural war. Simon's whereabouts are currently unknown and all his memories of his home have been removed (and consequently any sense of family or his conscience are also missing) thanks to a rather complicated spell. Although Toby's relationship with Simon had started to improve, he is still the ruthless villain who transformed Toby into a fish for fourteen years (a time period in which she lost her human fiancee and child, as they believed her to have abandoned them), and she's not exactly thrilled to be told he needs a cordial invitation to her upcoming wedding.

To complicate matters further, Toby realises that both Tybalt and her sister May knew about this sticky piece of faerie etiquette and kept it from her, so she's not exactly pleased with her nearest and dearest. She certainly has no wish to have Simon at her wedding, but cannot risk the consequences if he's overlooked. The spell Simon is currently under is a modified one originally placed on his daughter, Toby's half-sister August, who set off to locate and bring Oberon, the missing King of Faerie, back to his people. With no way to find her home until she fulfilled the quest, she was believed utterly lost, until Toby and Simon found her. Now it's Simon who can't find his way home until Oberon is located, but luckily Toby has a pretty fair idea of where he's currently holed up, thanks to some prophetic dreams from a young acquaintance of hers. Said dream showed Toby going on a quest, only accompanied by her squire Quentin and sister May, so Tybalt has to stay home, whether he likes it or not. If he comes along, the quest is doomed to fail.

Toby reluctantly sets off to locate what amounts to her own personal bogey-man, helped only by her impulsive teenage squire and her former death-omen, now sister. She knows that she may have to do what Simon already did, and take the amnesia charm upon herself to free him. Unless they happen to locate the centuries-missing Oberon and bring him home as a side effect of the quest, of course, but that seems unlikely.

I'm starting to get worried that while McGuire has Toby and Tybalt as the ultimate romantic end game for this series, she has no intention of letting them stay happily together and get married for a good while yet (I'm not sure how long she's planning on the series stretching, but according to Goodreads, there's at least three more books to come and from the brief descriptions of these books, Toby and Tybalt are still unmarried at the end of them). Their betrothal has lasted a very long while already, and there always seems to be yet another obstacle thrown in the way of their wedded bliss. More than one character over the course of this book confronts Toby about her fear of real commitment and her unwillingness to settle down. 

It's obvious that Tybalt, for all that he adores her, is getting rather impatient with the many delays, and I'm not sure how much longer he'll put up with Toby putting everyone else in danger (and there are so many varieties of danger that could threaten) ahead of their relationship. It took McGuire long enough to get them together, I'm not sure I'm interested in reading a bunch more filler books with faerie intrigue (in which Toby slowly loses what little is left of her humanity) before we get to the conclusion. I don't mind reading about committed and/or married couples - it works in a number of paranormal series. I will probably take an extended hiatus from the series if McGuire breaks them up for plot reasons. 

I really do like that this series focuses just as much on found/felt family as it does on blood ties. May isn't technically Toby's sister (she could, in fact, qualify as one of her children). Raj, Quintin, and Dean aren't actually Toby's kids or younger brothers, but they fulfill that role in her life. Considering some of the really rather unpleasant betrayals Toby has faced over the course of the series from her actual family (Amadine is personified Toxicity), it's good that she now has a wide array of people who love her and will risk their lives to help her. 

Having read this and Peace Talks fairly close together, I'm struck at how much more effortlessly McGuire portrays queer characters and relationships in her books. I was reminded in this book(because they are not a major supporting character) that one of the tertiary characters in Toby's life is trans. It's mentioned in passing, and not made a big deal out of. Bisexuality seems to be almost the norm among the faerie races and in this book, there is even one example of polyamory, with a m/m/f relationship treated just as matter of factly as if there were only two partners in the relationship. Representation matters, and having a wide variety of gender identifications and sexual preferences covered in your book, without it feeling forced or tokenistic, is sadly still unusual. Butcher certainly has a LONG way to go here.

These books are books I eagerly await each September. I will obviously be reading the next one, but am getting a bit fed up with the central romantic relationship being strung out the way it is. It may be time for a bit of a break...but I hope McGuire proves me wrong. 

Judging a book by its cover: At first, I was convinced that they'd yet again replaced the cover model portraying Toby on the book, but a closer perusal of the more recent books in the series at my local nerd bookshop disproved me of this notion. It's clearly the same woman, she just looks a bit more emaciated in this one than some of the more recent book covers. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR12 Book 71: "The Duke Who Didn't" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 311 pages
Rating: 5 stars

This was an ARC sent to me by the author. I had already pre-ordered the book, and the free copy has not influenced my review in any way.

Official book description: 
Miss Chloe Fong has plans for her life, lists for her days, and absolutely no time for nonsense. Three years ago, she told her childhood sweetheart that he could talk to her once he planned to be serious. He disappeared that very night.

Except now he’s back. Jeremy Wentworth, the Duke of Lansing, has returned to the tiny village he once visited with the hope of wooing Chloe. In his defense, it took him years of attempting to be serious to realize that the endeavor was incompatible with his personality.

All he has to do is convince Chloe to make room for a mischievous trickster in her life, then disclose that in all the years they’ve known each other, he’s failed to mention his real name, his title… and the minor fact that he owns her entire village.

Only one thing can go wrong: Everything.

Chloe Fong is seen as strict, stern, intimidating, and demanding by everyone in the little village of Wedgeford Downs, where she lives with her father. Chloe's mother died when she was a baby, and Chloe's father was taken advantage of by unscrupulous businessmen, who have now gotten rich because of the sauce he developed for them. Chloe wants to help her father perfect his new sauce, launch a rival sauce production company and eventually achieve revenge over the men who left her father to fend for himself once he had used his culinary skills to their advantage. Her father is just as much of a perfectionist as she is, and loathe to accept help from anyone, least alone the child he promised her mother he would provide for and keep safe. 

The only man who ever seemed to show any romantic interest in Chloe was Jeremy Yu, also affectionately known in Wedgeford Downs as "Posh Jim". For nine years, he would come to visit during the big festival, charming everyone in general and Chloe in particular. However, once she asked him to go away until he could be serious, he disappeared, and for the last two years, despite Chloe trying to pretend that she doesn't miss him, he has stayed away. Now, when Chloe is facing possibly the most challenging weekend of her life, when the decades-long plans of her father and her may come to fruition (she just needs to figure out a name for the sauce first), he suddenly shows up again, and asks Chloe to make him a list. A list to help him find a wife...

The man known as Jeremy Yu or "Posh Jim" in Wedgeford Downs has several secrets. The fact that he is absolutely besotted with Miss Chloe Fong isn't really a secret to anyone who has ever seen them together, except to Chloe herself. No, his biggest secret is that he is, in actuality, Jeremy Wentworth, the Duke of Lansing, he owns the village of Wedgeford Downs, and everyone who lives there probably owes him about forty years worth of back rent. Jeremy was only a teenager the first time he came to Wedgeford during their famous Trials festival, and he was warmly accepted by everyone there and felt a sense of belonging he hasn't felt anywhere else, so he couldn't very well confess his true identity then. And with each passing year, confessing the truth became harder and harder.

Now Jeremy's aunt wants him to settle down and find a wife, and for him, there is only one candidate. He went away to try to be serious for Chloe, but can't seem to stop making jokes and looking for the positive in every situation. Jeremy knows he will need to tell her the truth about himself and his title before he proposes, but he is also aware that asking Chloe to become a Duchess is no easy thing. His mother hated the way she was treated by British high society and went back to China as soon as she could after his father's death. Nevertheless, if he must marry, Chloe is the only one he could imagine spending his life with. In order to get to spend as much time with her as possible, he promises her ten pounds if she'll write him a list with all of her qualities, as the only woman he'd consider marrying needs to have ALL of her qualities. He also insists on helping her and her father with their many tasks in preparing for the festival and the launch of their (hopefully soon to be famous) sauce. 

It's been a year and a half since Courtney Milan published anything at all, and two and a half years since she published a full-length novel. If you follow Ms. Milan on Twitter and other social media, or have read anything online about the complete implosion of the RWA (Romance Writers of America) over the last few years, you can see that she hasn't exactly had the best of times. While she was never tested, it also seems very likely that she had Covid-19 and was pretty seriously ill earlier this year. So the fact that she's written this new historical novel, which does not fit into her ongoing historical Worth Saga, nor her contemporary Cyclone series, was a wonderful surprise. As soon as the pre-order links were available, I rushed to make sure I'd have my copy on release day. It was therefore a wonderful surprise to open my e-mail about three weeks ago and discover an e-mail with an ARC of this book - I had completely forgotten that I had qualified to be on Ms. Milan's ARC mailing list.

I devoured the book in less than 24 hours. The book made me laugh out loud more than once because Ms. Milan is very funny when she wants to be. Moreover, reading this book filled me with a satisfying warmth, like being wrapped in a cozy blanket or given a really good hug (something I think many of us are starved of at present). It's such a ray of golden light in these dark times, the entire narrative is focused on finding, recognising, and seizing your happiness with both hands, and it felt like a balm. 

I love pretty much everything about this book. I love how effortlessly sweet it is, how full of warmth and joy it is. I love that Ms. Milan imagined this tiny village in Kent filled mostly with immigrants from all over the world, making up a vibrant and diverse community. I love Chloe and Jeremy as protagonists, I love the supporting characters, especially Chloe's gruff father, who shows his deep affection for her by constantly nagging her to eat. He's not necessarily happy about Jeremy's interest in her, and he certainly doesn't like that he's keeping secrets. He keeps torturing Jeremy with excessive amounts of chili added to his food until the young man comes clean about the things he's been hiding from Chloe, and Jeremy, knowing that he deserves it, dutifully eats the fiery food and suffers in silence. 

I loved how determined, loyal and strong Chloe is and how Jeremy loves her exactly the way she is, not threatened or put off by her ambition and independence. I love that Ms. Milan gave us a half-Chinese duke, which may not be entirely historically accurate, but is no less implausible than the scores of dukes, viscounts and earls that already make up historical Romancelandia. I loved learning more about the Hakka people of China and as with Jackie Lau's contemporary romances, that frequently feature a lot of descriptions of food, reading about all the things that Chloe's father cooked made my mouth water. 

My only initial complaint when finishing this book was that it was possibly too free of conflict and effortlessly happy. Ms. Milan has said that she specifically set out to subvert the tradition that there needs to be some big third act complication, which frequently requires angst and emotional turmoil for the protagonists to work through. There are no big misunderstandings here, this book is decidedly anti-angst, and yes, maybe the path to true love actually does run too smooth here. Having thought about it for these last three weeks, I've come to the conclusion that I was wrong, and this book just being one long escapist fantasy isn't a flaw, it's a gift. This is exactly the sort of story we need right now and I'm so glad that I was able to read it a few weeks early. I sincerely hope Ms. Milan felt as happy writing the book as I did reading it. 

Judging a book by its cover: I've commented when reviewing Jackie Lau's books that you very rarely get to see Asian people represented on romance covers. While seeing a couple passionately embracing and looking as completely entranced by one another is something you can expect from a romance cover, the sad lack of representation for BIPOC people is such that this very sexy, super steamy cover is unusual, because both the cover models on it are Asian. It's also a far cry from a lot of Milan's covers, with poofy wedding dresses photo-shopped into various period gowns, so personally, I'm a huge fan, and hope this trend continues. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR12 Book 70: "The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle" by Stuart Turton

Page count: 519 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
"Gosford Park" meets "Groundhog Day" by way of Agatha Christie – the most inventive story you'll read this year.

Tonight, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed... again.

It is meant to be a celebration but it ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed.

But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot.

The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath...

This book, which was renamed The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle when it was published in the USA (so it wouldn't be confused with The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hugo) was the August selection in our fantasy/sci-fi book club. It very much mixes your traditional 1920s-1930s set house party cozy mystery at a country estate with a strange sci-fi element, where our protagonist wakes up in a new body every morning. The house party where Evelyn Hardcastle ends up murdered every night is set at a remote, rather worn down manor house surrounded by woods. Nearby is a graveyard, and the lake next to which one of the Hardcastle sons was brutally stabbed to death several decades ago. The house party is allegedly to celebrate Evelyn's betrothal, and there are a large number of posh guests convening to gossip, get drunk, hunt, and generally enjoy themselves at the Hardcastles' expense. All of these guests are also accompanied by servants, so there is no lack of murder suspects. 

Aiden, our protagonist, finds himself in a new host body every morning. Sometimes he's in the body of someone rich and influential, sometimes he's in the body of a servant. He inhabits each body from morning until evening but can switch back to an earlier body if his current host falls asleep or loses consciousness in a different way. He is deeply confused for quite a while (and the reader with him) until a mysterious figure dressed in an old plague doctor's costume explains to him that he has seven days to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. She dies at 11pm every evening, and if Aiden can figure out the name of the killer and give it to the plague doctor before the cycle is over, he is free to leave. If he fails, he will have his memory wiped and start the whole seven-day process over again. To further complicate matters, there are other individuals at the house party who are also trying to solve the murder, and it's not in their interest to co-operate with Aiden. Finally, to add a real slasher movie element to the proceedings - there's a psychopathic footman who is determined to kill all of Aiden's host bodies before he identifies the killer.

As well as being strongly influenced by Agatha Christie, there are elements of Black Mirror, Doctor Who, and Groundhog Day. When we discussed it during our book club meeting, we agreed that the book is very entertaining, even though very few of the characters we encounter in the book is especially likable and there is some truly egregious and very unfortunate fat-shaming in parts of the book (one of Aidan's host bodies is a very intelligent, but also very obese nobleman, and Aidan is clearly utterly disgusted to be "trapped" in that body). The book posits some interesting ideas on the nature of forgiveness and the efficacy of prisons as means of rehabilitation, but sadly doesn't really delve properly into them. The author seemed mostly concerned with his very high concept idea (Agatha Christie mystery meets Groundhog Day) and doesn't take a lot of time to really anything too deep or philosophical. 

Clever, unusual, and interesting as this book is, the fat-shaming aspect bothered most of the readers in my book club, and as far as I can see from online reviews has been enough of a problem to make it impossible for some readers to finish the book. Since I was pre-warned, so to speak, I forced myself to read, despite my intense discomfort, and I'm glad I continued because the central mystery of the book is cleverly structured, with just enough twists and turns that every time you think you've got an idea of what's happening, it turns out there's one final twist. 

This is the sort of book I would never have picked up on my own, so I'm glad I discovered it through my book club. This was Turton's debut novel and it won a bunch of awards. He has a new novel out any day now, which looks to be another unusual mystery. 

Judging a book by its cover: Not exactly the most exciting of covers, showing only the staircase in what seems to be an old house. The black and white floor tiles in the hall are a bit reminiscent of a chessboard, but the intricate game the characters in the book find themselves in is a lot more convoluted than a chess game. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR12 Book 69: "Emerald Blaze" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Green

Spoiler warning! This is the fifth book total in the Hidden Legacy series, and the second book about Catalina Baylor. This review may spoil details from previous books in the series. If you want to start at the very beginning, the book you want is Burn for Me. If you want to start with Catalina's books, the first book is Sapphire Flames

It's been about six months since the end of the last book, where Catalina Baylor made a very unfortunate, iron-clad deal with her evil grandmother to save Alessandro Sagredo's life, only to discover that he was so caught up in his quest for revenge that he packed up and left town pretty much immediately after, breaking her heart in the process. Not that Catalina has been wallowing in self-pity and comfort eating while contemplating her emotions, she's been busy strengthening the power of her house and barely surviving dangerous missions as the deputy warden of Texas. 

Now the heir to House Morton has been horribly murdered and members of four other prominent Texas houses are suspects. There are also strange mutated monsters running around Houston, controlled by an unknown force. Catalina is given the mission to find the guilty party, is deeply unhappy when she discovers that Lander Morton, the grieving patriarch of House Morton, has hired Alessandro to dispatch his son's killer, once the murderer is found. Alessandro is no longer the carefree, easy-going flirt he was six months ago, he seems hard and focused now, and is much more willing to share things, both information and his feelings with Catalina. He insists that someone is trying to kill her, and he is in Houston again to protect her. Since Linus Duncan, Catalina's boss agrees to let Alessandro act as her bodyguard, she doesn't really have a choice but to cooperate with him. 

The man that Alessandro has been hunting since he was a teenager is now openly planning to kill Catalina, and possibly Linus Duncan too. Alessandro is willing to do whatever it takes, even risk his own life, to keep Catalina safe. He is unaware of the bargain Catalina made with her grandmother to save his life, effectively giving up any chance they might have had for a future together. Can the two stop the danger that could destroy Houston, survive, and actually have an honest conversation about their feelings?

Once again, the husband and wife writing team that makes up Ilona Andrews have produced an action-packed, funny, and emotional novel. I never stop being amazed by their creativity when it comes to conjuring up new and truly bizarre supernatural threats for their protagonists to face off against. They always have the best monstrous beasties, but of course, the most monstrous threats facing any hero or heroine of theirs is thoroughly human. In this novel, we discover what Alessandro's quest for revenge actually consists of, and why he's been training to become one of the world's top assassins since he was a teenager. We discover the truth behind why Nevada suddenly resigned as head of House Baylor and more or less publicly severed ties with her siblings. Nevada, very heavily pregnant, is much more present in this book. Leon also gets a lot more to do, while Cornelius and Bern sadly take more of a backseat in this story. 

It's hard for me to review books I really love, and I feel that every time I review an Ilona Andrews book, I pretty much end up repeating the same superlatives again and again. If I haven't convinced the people who read these reviews to start reading Andrews' books by now, it will likely never happen. But you're missing out on some of the best (if not THE best) paranormal fantasy being written today.

Judging a book by its cover: I stand by what I said when commenting on the cover for Sapphire Flames, this is the first non-self-published series where Ilona Andrews actually have decent looking covers. I like the various shades of green and the female cover model's dress. I think they've kept the same woman portraying Catalina from the previous cover shoot, but it looks like the male model, portraying Alessandro, has been replaced. Also, it could just be unfortunate shading, but the male model appears to have a soul patch, which is NOT attractive. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday, 3 October 2020

#CBR12 Book 68: "Viscount Vagabond" by Loretta Chase

Page count: 228 pages
Rating: 2.5 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Shelfie

Official book description:
Catherine Pelliston simply would not abide by her father's wishes and marry the slovenly Lord Browdie. But her escape through the streets of London only seemed to lead her from bad to worse. First, she was robbed. And then, her supposed "rescue" by a kindly old woman stranded Catherine in a bordello -- where the handsome Viscount Rand was intent on sampling her wares! A dire predicament indeed-especially when the dashing aristocrat decided to assume full responsibility for the ravishing runaway by taking her, quite against her will, into his home. But little did Catherine know that her struggle to preserve her virtue had inflamed the debauched gadabout's heart ... and might well net her a husband worth desiring!

This is one of Loretta Chase's early romances, originally published in 1988, and later re-issued in e-book format in 2012. One of her most famous novels, Lord of Scoundrels, didn't come out until 1995. This book is both shorter, and a lot less sophisticated than her later, more famous works. It's also not terribly memorable. I finished this book in mid-August and even now, reading through the blurb, I can only barely remember plot specifics. 

Chase's early writing really doesn't have the same wit and spark as many of her later novels. There are no classic, bad-ass heroines like Jessica Trent, charming rogues like Rupert Carsington, or enigmatic spies like the Comte D'Esmond. Catherine is pretty painfully naive and very lucky that the nobleman she appeals to doesn't in fact ravish her, but rather takes pity on her, rescues her, and promptly deposits her with his very respectable sister, who can act as her chaperone. See, I remember that much. I also recall that the sister's husband has a much better grasp of the various notable families of the ton, and therefore knows immediately who Catherine actually is and which family she's run away from, and happily aids his wife's matchmaking attempt for the rest of the book. I remember there was a potential of scandal when someone (not entirely sure who now), possibly Catherine's not-quite-fiancee, figured out that she had spent some time in a brothel - but it all comes right in the end - natch, this is a romance novel.

Checking my records, I actually bought this e-book back in 2012 (when I was still discovering Ms. Chase's back catalogue) and it's been sitting on my shelf ever since. I could have used it for the White Whale square, but it's one of those books that I've had for so long, I'd more or less forgotten about it when I was planning my Bingo Card. It did, however, fit in my Alphabet Soup reading challenge for V, and once I looked it up on LibraryThing, I was surprised at how long it had been on my digital shelves, unread. It's not exactly easy to take a photo of a digital book, but here is a screenshot of the LibraryThing shelf - which is the best I can do to fulfil the demands of the Shelfie square. 


In conclusion, if you're not a true die-hard completist about Loretta Chase, this is a book that is entirely skippable. If it didn't fit into a number of my reading challenges (I can cross off a bingo square, it fits in my historical fiction challenge, in my two TBR challenges, as well as the alphabet challenge) and I already owned it, I doubt I would have ever read it. 

Judging a book by its cover: This is the rather generic cover given to the new digital edition when I got the book. The original 80s cover is a true marvel of pastels, a very brooding hero and a swooning heroine in his embrace (but wearing historically appropriate outfits, which is more than one can say for a large majority of more modern historical romances published today - Lisa Kleypas' Ravenel series and Tessa Dare's Girl Meets Duke, I am especially thinking about you right now. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday, 2 October 2020

#CBR12 Books 65-67: "The Sandman, part 1" by Neil Gaiman and Dirk Maggs

Page count: 632 (covers the collected volumes of Preludes and Nocturnes, The Doll's House and Dream Country)
Audiobook length: 10 hrs 54 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Happy (I never thought that Sandman could be adapted into an audio story, so this made me very happy indeed)

Official book description:

When The Sandman, also known as Lord Morpheus - the immortal king of dreams, stories and the imagination - is pulled from his realm and imprisoned on Earth by a nefarious cult, he languishes for decades before finally escaping. Once free, he must retrieve the three “tools” that will restore his power and help him to rebuild his dominion, which has deteriorated in his absence. As the multi-threaded story unspools, The Sandman descends into Hell to confront Lucifer, chases rogue nightmares who have escaped his realm, and crosses paths with an array of characters from DC comic books, ancient myths, and real-world history, including: Inmates of Gotham City's Arkham Asylum, Doctor Destiny, the muse Calliope, the three Fates, William Shakespeare , and many more. 

In July 1998, my life changed forever. In those days, I still lived in a suburb of Oslo and didn't necessarily visit the centre of the city all that often. When I did, I always took a trip to Avalon, the dedicated fantasy/sci-fi/all things nerd book shop there (the book shop sadly closed long ago now). On a display table near the front of the shop was Fables and Reflections, by no means the first volume in the long-running Sandman series, but an excellent introduction. I think Neil Gaiman had recently visited Oslo for the first time, and the shop was promoting his most famous work. I had never read any graphic novels before but was drawn by the description of the series. I bought the book, started reading it on the bus on the way home, and my mind was blown. I had never read anything like it before, and I was utterly hooked on the stories of dreams and nightmares, the family dramas with references to all manner of mythology, classical literature, comic books, and the like. 

This was a time when Norwegian libraries were not particularly well-stocked with fantasy of any kind, and certainly not English-language comic books and graphic novels (I'm happy to say that that's changed massively over the last 20 years - one of the public library branches in Oslo is now dedicated entirely to comics and graphic novels in different languages. Hence, I had to buy each volume before I could read the full story. My records show that it took me about a year to get all ten volumes of trade paperbacks, some of which I've now had signed by Neil Gaiman himself. 

Funny story, one of them isn't actually signed to Malin, because my dear friend Ben was a bit of an idiot back when he took my copy of Preludes and Nocturnes to a signing in Newcastle. This was back before I really knew him, and he was still just my then-boyfriend, now-husband Mark's school friend. See, Ben and another of Mark's school friends, Ruth, had initially joked that his Norwegian girlfriend's name was Helga. By the time Ben was taking one of my precious trade paperbacks to Newcastle to get it signed as a favour, he'd met me several times, and knew my name was Malin. But when he got to the front of the signing line, and Mr. Gaiman asked him who to sign the book to, Ben (lovable moron) blurted out Helga, and only after he'd left the shop remembered that it was not, in fact, my actual name. This is also why I have a signed copy of Anansi Boys, where Neil Gaiman apologizes to me for getting my name wrong. 

 

Anyway, the long and rambling introduction to this review is included to show just how long Sandman has been part of my life, and how much it means to me. It was my introduction to graphic novels and the writings of Neil Gaiman. It showed me a whole new way of storytelling. I never thought it could be adapted well in a million years (I'm still skeptical about the Netflix series). I've rarely been so happy to tell you I was wrong. This was an excellent adaptation, and I think I liked parts of it a lot more than the actual original comics issues (while a lot of the artists and artwork used in the series was state of the art back in the 1990s, it's sometimes a bit "grimy-looking" now - unless you have the stunning Absolute Sandman volumes, that cost a small fortune). 

So how do you successfully adapt what is both a written and a visual medium, you ask? You hire an excellent ensemble cast, so that all of the various characters we meet in the pages of the first three volumes of the graphic novel opus are voiced by different and distinct voices (there's a huge ensemble of people who do multiple voices over the course of the audio drama, but never in the same scenes, making it much easier to keep track of who's speaking at any given time). You also get someone to narrate and describe the various scenes and characters in them (or occasionally add descriptions of the setting and characters to the inner monologues of one or several of the people in a scene), so the listener is told what they would have seen on the page if they were reading the comic. That the narrator here is Neil Gaiman himself (whose voice I find very soothing) just seems extra fitting.

I read several reviews of this audio drama that complained that with very few exceptions, everything is kept exactly as it was in the original 90s comics, with no attempts to adapt or bring it more up to date. This was mentioned as a criticism, I didn't think it was a problem. I also know the source material being adapted exceptionally well, having read the comics multiple times. Even so, as I kept listening, I actually pulled my trade paperbacks off the shelf to halfway follow along. To someone who's never read the original graphic novels, it may be harder to follow the plot, even though the team who adapted did a very good job in filling in with background sounds to give you an idea of action and plot.

Each issue of the comic is one approximately 30-minute long episode, with little audio credits and everything. It felt like I was listening to an old-fashioned radio play, and I loved it. How well the adaptation works for you may also depend on how you feel about James McAvoy. I love him and his voice, and think he did a splendid job voicing Lord Morpheus. Kat Dennings worked surprisingly well as Death. The only one I wasn't entirely happy with was the guy playing Desire, whose voice just didn't "fit" with my mental image of what it should be. 

A brief trigger warning towards the end. In both Preludes and Nocturnes, The Doll's House and Dream Country, there are elements of horror. The issue 24 Hours, for instance, where a number of people are kept trapped in a diner by an escaped Arkham Asylum inmate in control of Dream's ancient ruby and are slowly driven increasingly more insane over the course of the story was even more horrifying than it is on the page because all the various people got their own voices and felt more real than they do when you just read them. It was harder to stay detached. There are also stories of serial killers, and child abuse and women being raped and beaten - so be aware of that. 

Now I'm left impatiently waiting and hoping that this becomes enough of a success for Audible that they'll choose to adapt the rest of the series as well. Recording audio dramas must be something that should be perfectly doable even now, with production halted on so many things due to Covid-19.

While I'm choosing to use this for my "Happy" square for this year's bingo, it could just as easily have fit with "Nostalgia", since this was such an important part both of my adolescence and so ground-breaking for comics in general during the 1990s. 

Judging a book by its cover: I have tried to track down the name of the cover artist for the dark, broody image of Dream, without any luck. It's a good depiction of Lord Morpheus, and I like that it looks like he himself is made up of sand or dust and kind of blurring at the edges a bit. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday, 28 September 2020

#CBR12 Book 64: "Peace Talks" by Jim Butcher

Page count: 352 pages
Audio book length: 12 hrs 52 mins
No rating until I've read the second part of the story.

Spoiler warning! This is book 16 in a long, ongoing series. This really isn't the place to start. Normally, I'd recommend that you start with book 1, but the first three books of The Dresden Files are pretty bad, so you'd be better off starting with book 4, Summer Knight. I highly recommend the audio books, narrated by James Marsters. They're what finally sold me on the series. 

Official book description:

When the Supernatural nations of the world meet up to negotiate an end to ongoing hostilities, Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard, joins the White Council's security team to make sure the talks stay civil. But can he succeed, when dark political manipulations threaten the very existence of Chicago--and all he holds dear?

It's been six full years since Butcher published the previous Dresden Files novel, if you don't count the short story collection Brief Cases (and I don't). Unless you're one of the people who still haven't given up on George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss (which I'm honestly close to doing, just finish the books, guys), that's a very long wait in between installments of an ongoing fantasy series. 

It's certainly long enough that I had to go online and read detailed plot summaries of the last few books in the series because I remembered only the barest hints of what happened in them. This is most definitely not the book you want to pick up if you're a Harry Dresden newbie. 

As the brief book description says, there's going to be a big supernatural peace summit in the middle of Chicago, and Harry Dresden has been selected to be on the White Council's security team, despite the fact that there are clearly a whole bunch of wizards who distrust him and question where his true loyalties lie. Harry doubts that the various parties meeting for the summit can ever find common ground, but he also has bigger worries to deal with, when Thomas Raith is taken down after trying to assassinate the leader of the Svartalves, causing a major supernatural diplomatic incident. Thomas' sister Lara certainly doesn't intend to let her brother be sentenced to death and uses favours owed to her by the Winter Court to get Harry to help her rescue him.

I haven't really looked into why it took Butcher so long to write this book. I know that Peace Talks and Battle Ground (out tomorrow) were originally intended to be one book, that just grew far too big and subsequently was split in two. As a result, this book very much feels like one of the many YA movies they decided to split in two to make more money. There's very few efforts made by Butcher to make this storyline wrap up neatly, and while some things seem a bit more resolved at the end of this book, it's clear that there's a whole lot more coming in the next book, making it impossible for me to rate the book, or even get proper closure to the story.

I listened to the book in audio, because to me, James Marsters is now the voice of The Dresden Files, and it felt very comforting to hear him telling me the story once more. For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me (maybe Butcher just had a weird misogynistic backslide), there's a whole lot more of the rather uncomfortable male gaze that happened all the time in the earliest books in the series. If this isn't explicitly explained to be something that's happening to Harry because he's losing control of his baser urges because of the Winter mantle, I'm going to be pissed. 

I like that Butcher has a number of interesting and different female characters make up part of the supporting cast now, but I really wish we didn't need to feel like Harry is leering at all of them, all the time. I'm a big fan of the further developments between Harry and Murphy and will rage quit the series if something bad (or at least worse than she's already suffered) happens to my girl Karrin. 

It's taken me long enough to get round to this review of a book that came out at the end of July, that the second half, Battle Ground, will be released tomorrow. I hope that the various story strands left dangling come to a slightly more satisfying conclusion, and am very curious to see what Butcher has planned - it sounds like it could have wide-reaching ramifications for the rest of the series.

Judging a book by its cover: These books have very little variety when it comes to cover design. Broody dude with a dark coat, big black hat and a staff, supposed to portray our hero Harry. This cover is even more forgettable than some others earlier in the series, with the cover model crouching down and random debris apparently flying around him. It gives you little to no idea of what the book will be about, except that it's yet another installment in The Dresden Files. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday, 26 September 2020

#CBR12 Book 63: "Boyfriend Material" by Alexis Hall

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Reader's Choice (replaces How-To)

Official book description:

Wanted:

One (fake) boyfriend

Practically perfect in every way

Luc O'Donnell is tangentially--and reluctantly--famous. His rock star parents split when he was young, and the father he's never met spent the next twenty years cruising in and out of rehab. Now that his dad's making a comeback, Luc's back in the public eye, and one compromising photo is enough to ruin everything.

To clean up his image, Luc has to find a nice, normal relationship...and Oliver Blackwood is as nice and normal as they come. He's a barrister, an ethical vegetarian, and he's never inspired a moment of scandal in his life. In other words: perfect boyfriend material. Unfortunately, apart from being gay, single, and really, really in need of a date for a big event, Luc and Oliver have nothing in common. So they strike a deal to be publicity-friendly (fake) boyfriends until the dust has settled. Then they can go their separate ways and pretend it never happened.

But the thing about fake-dating is that it can feel a lot like real-dating. And that's when you get used to someone. Start falling for them. Don't ever want to let them go.

A lot of contemporary romances are marketed as rom-coms nowadays, but very few of them actually feel as if they fit the description. Boyfriend Material, on the other hand, is frequently laugh out loud funny (and not just if you went to university with a bunch of British poshos, so parts of this feel terribly familiar) and the plot is even structured as a traditional British rom-com, complete several quirky and supportive secondary characters (one group for each protagonist, with some overlap) and a plot with big third act complications, grand gestures to win the other back and so forth. 

While I have known of Alexis Hall as a writer since he briefly reviewed new to him classic romances in a very witty way over on Dear Author a long time ago now, I've only actually read one other of his books, and that was back in 2014. That was also a m/m romance, but it was, if I recall, considerably more angsty and Hall's writing skills have greatly improved since then. 

The vast majority of contemporary romance that gets published is set in the US, and that's not surprising. Yet this book is very British, and as someone who lived in the UK for six years, and lived in dorms with and interacted with a lot of the same people as several supporting characters in this book, it felt refreshing and very comforting that this was set in London, and people drank cups of tea when they were upset and did other things that felt very familiar to me. 

Luc and Oliver work as a couple because they are both absolutely hopeless but in very different ways. They're just sort of getting by until they meet the other, who both complicates and improves their life. I loved both of them and had absolutely no problem understanding why they each had a number of very supportive friend groups, who invested a lot in getting their fake relationship to blossom into something actually real. 

If The Right Swipe felt like it just wasn't entirely for me, at least not at the time when I read it, this book, however, seemed like it was exactly what I needed and just hadn't realised until the moment when I picked it up. I stayed up way too late into the night reading this, which in itself is unusual these days, when it takes a lot more for a book to catch and hold my attention. As I have already mentioned, it made me laugh out loud several times while reading it. That's not to say that there isn't seriousness throughout, as well. 

I would love to see this book turned into an actual movie. Netflix seems to be doing big business resurrecting the rom-com as a profitable genre. Get on this, will you?

Judging a book by its cover: I've seen this cover compared to the cover for my beloved Red, White and Royal Blue several places online, which I find amusing, because with the exception of both books featuring two cartoon dudes on the cover, they look very little alike. The former book is bright pink, while this book is actually red, white and blue - so perhaps that is the source of the confusion? I do like the various nods to London sights on the cover, not to mention the absolutely essential cup of tea. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday, 25 September 2020

#CBR12 Book 62: "The Right Swipe" by Alisha Rai

Page count: 400 pages

Rating: 3.5 stars

Having been burned pretty comprehensively in the past, both in her personal life and in business, Rhiannon Hunter has now worked hard to make her dating app one of the main competitors on the market. Now she'd like to buy the large, successful, but nevertheless a lot less modern company of one of her competitors, and she goes to a big tech conference with that in mind. Unbeknownst to Rhi, the owner and co-founder of this company is very eccentric and also suffers from social anxiety. So instead of appearing at the conference herself, she sends her nephew to act in her stead. Rhiannon is dismayed to discover that the handsome man is none other than the man who she shared a very steamy night with a few months ago, and who then ghosted her, never to be heard from again. To discover that he is now a spokesperson for the company she wants to acquire, and seems very close to the owner means having to spend more time with him, and Rhi is not one to forgive and forget once she's been hurt.

Samson Lima is a former football pro who made himself very unpopular with a lot of fans and supporters when he quit in the middle of a major game because his best friend was seriously injured on the field and the only way Samson could protest the owners of the team risking his friend's life by putting him back in the field was by walking out and throwing the game entirely. Samson lost his father and more recently his uncle to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). He had no intention of ghosting Rhiannon after their hook-up but was told his uncle was dying and had to rush to his bedside. Since Rhi never uses her real identity when occasionally using her dating app to meet guys, and certainly hadn't given Samson her phone number, he had absolutely no way of contacting her when it became clear that she'd blocked him in the app. Now he's trying to help his uncle's widow to drum up publicity for her flagging matchmaking company by publicly looking for love. Of course, as soon as he sees Rhi at the tech conference, the only woman he's really interested in spending more time with is her.

Rhi eventually reluctantly gives Samson a chance to apologise, and some internet research proves that he's really not lying about his uncle's recent passing. Barely healed emotional wounds from her past makes it very difficult for her to trust men, but she can't deny the attraction she still feels for the handsome, charming, athletic, and obviously caring man. When Samson, after one disastrous first date where he can't take his mind off Rhi, suggests a series of social media videos where Rhiannon, the dating expert, coaches him on modern dating, to promote both the companies they represent, he has the perfect excuse to keep spending time with Rhi and slowly convince her that she's the only woman for him. 

This book has thousands of positive reviews on Goodreads, and I'd heard many good things about it on the various review sites I follow. Nevertheless, it never really connected with me emotionally, the way the best romances do. It was just ok, and now, about a month later, I'm struggling to remember plot details. I think this is a definite case of just the wrong book at the wrong time for me with this one. I've liked books by Alisha Rai before, and it's not like I have anything violently against it. I may even re-read it at some point, to see if I like it better a second time when my brain is in a more receptive place for the story it tells. 

There's a lot to like here - a strong, yet slightly prickly heroine, who has worked hard and faced a lot of adversity in a male-dominated and sexist industry. There's the close friendship between Rhi and her best friend, who was able to fund her business thanks to a healthy inheritance from her husband (the BFF is the heroine of the next book in the series). Samson is a very nice beta hero, who cares deeply about his family members and getting justice for other athletes facing the same problems that eventually killed his dad and uncle. All of these things make me pretty sure that I may just not have been in the mood for this book when I read it, but it fit into several of my reading challenges, so onto the list, it went. 

I may give it another chance in a year or so. Based on the sample chapter for the next book in the series, I'm very much looking forward to that one - a reclusive, plus-size ex-model and her handsome bodyguard. 

Judging a book by its cover: Another contemporary cartoon cover, this one almost Pepto-Bismol pink. At least the little cartoon heads of the protagonists look pretty cute. I don't think there can be any doubt that this is a romance novel, aimed firmly at a female demographic. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR12 Book 61: "A Heart of Blood and Ashes" by Milla Vane

Page count: 555 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description: 
A generation past, the western realms were embroiled in endless war. Then the Destroyer came. From the blood and ashes he left behind, a tenuous alliance rose between the barbarian riders of Parsathe and the walled kingdoms of the south. That alliance is all that stands against the return of an ancient evil - until the barbarian king and queen are slain in an act of bloody betrayal.

Though forbidden by the alliance council to kill the corrupt king responsible for his parents’ murders, Maddek vows to avenge them, even if it costs him the Parsathean crown. But when he learns it was the king’s daughter who lured his parents to their deaths, the barbarian warrior is determined to make her pay.

Yet the woman Maddek captures is not what he expected. Though the last in a line of legendary warrior-queens, Yvenne is small and weak, and the sharpest weapons she wields are her mind and her tongue. Even more surpri sing is the marriage she proposes to unite them in their goals and to claim their thrones—because her desire for vengeance against her father burns even hotter than his own…

This book is pretty much your ultimate enemies to lovers story. There isn't just the flirty banter of rivalling colleagues in an office or dislike growing into attraction and affection, Maddek, our grouchy and grieving hero really is initially prepared to kill Yvenne, our clever and vengeful heroine, when they first meet. He hates her father and brothers and believes she is the reason his wise and brave parents were tricked away from the safety of their own lands and into enemy territory, where they were betrayed and killed.

Yvenne may be the daughter of a king and a legendary warrior queen, but she has not been raised in pomp and privilege, rather kept captive in a tower and forced to watch her father's abuse of her mother for years. Both her father and most of her brothers have abused her horribly, both physically and emotionally and desperate for a marriage alliance with a powerful and honourable tribe, Yvenne begged for Maddek's parents' help to get her away from her family. Her plan backfired spectacularly, and she feels terrible guilt about her role in their deaths, and the suffering they went through at the hands of her father, brothers and the men loyal to them. While she is physically weak and crippled, she nevertheless has her mother's blood in her veins, and the gifts of the goddess that bless the women of her line, and she's determined to be a worthy queen to her people. She just needs a man strong enough to defeat her father to marry her, so she can claim her birthright and inheritance.

Maddek's tribe values truthfulness above all, and before she died, Maddek's mother made Yvenne swear never to lie to him. Unfortunately, Maddek's grief and anger make it impossible for him to trust or believe anything Yvenne says, and he makes her swear never to even utter his mother's name (or he'll cut out her tongue). The massive distrust between the two doesn't exactly create a fertile ground for a good and strong relationship. Nor does it help that thanks to her father's mistreatment of her mother, Yvenne was born too early and barely survived her childhood. She's also been additionally crippled by her family after trying to help Maddek's mother escape. She's a far cry from the legendary warrior queens that make up her ancestors, nor is she anything like the independent, strong and capable warrior women of Maddek's nomadic tribe. When they meet, she's never even ridden a horse. 

What Yvenne does have is a fierce intelligence, a burning ambition, and the years spent being trained by her mother in the statecraft, manipulation and intrigue that a good queen will need to excel at. Her mother possessed psychic abilities and was able to see far and wide outside the tower she and Yvenne were captives in, and she told Yvenne everything and taught her as well as she could, to prepare her for her future. Yvenne loves her people and works very hard to get to know Maddek's loyal companions as well, knowing that she needs to learn as much about her new tribe as possible to be a worthy queen to them, even if she's nothing like what they value in a woman. 

This is not exactly a light-hearted or carefree book. In this barbarian world, an alternate reality where humans live side by side with pre-historic lizards and other dangerous beasts, physical strength and prowess in battle is valued. The gods that the various people believe in are very real and occasionally interfere directly in the lives of their followers. Some characters are blessed by the gods, others make horrible sacrifices to gain unholy magical powers for their own gain. 

There has been a lot of war, and death and all manner of atrocities and war crimes. Unscrupulous and evil men use rape as a weapon to demean and torture women (not directly described in the story, but there have clearly been loved one's raped in both the protagonists' pasts). A generation ago, the near-unstoppable and ruthless warlord known as the Destroyer was vanquished, but he didn't die, and there are rumours that he is on the move, coming back for another invasion. The various tribes of this world need a strong alliance to stand against him, and as prophecy would have it, Yvenne and Maddok are central to mounting a defense against him. 

I haven't really said much about the excellent world-building or the cast of interesting (and diverse) supporting characters, because this review is already getting long and if I'm ever to get through my backlog, I need to get better at being brief in my write-ups. Suffice it to say, two thumbs up for this too.

Milla Vane also wrote paranormal romances as Meljean Brook, whose Iron Seas novels, set in a Steampunk alt-Victorian world, are among my all-time favourites of the paranormal genre. As far as I can tell, she (like so many others) have had a difficult few years since she last published a novel back in 2014. I know she's been working on this new, pre-historic barbarian world for a long time, and thankfully for the reader, there are already two full novels and a novella to enjoy. My friend and fellow reviewer Emmalita absolutely raves about the books (and was lucky enough have her review quoted in Ms. Vane's social media promos). I have enough trust in the author after four novels and a few novellas set in the Iron Seas that I've already purchased everything Ms. Vane has published so far, but due to the darker subject matter and slightly grimmer feel to these books, I also don't feel in the mood to binge all three available stories in one go. I'm going to need a month or two to recover between books. 

Judging a book by its cover: Anyone seeing this cover, has to have at least a vague inkling that it's not your run of the mill Regency romance novel. There's the title, which suggests some dark subject matters. Then there's the cover model, who is wearing very little, except for some scraps of leather, scraps, and a whole lot of dirt and grime. The author describes this as "barbarian romance" and I think the cover sells that aesthetic very well indeed. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday, 24 September 2020

#CBR12 Book 60: "Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen

Page count: 528 pages
Audio book length: 18 hrs 12 mins
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Music

Official book description:
In 2009, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed at the Super Bowl’s halftime show. The experience was so exhilarating that Bruce decided to write about it. That’s how this extraordinary autobiography began.

Over the past seven years, Bruce Springsteen has privately devoted himself to writing the story of his life, bringing to these pages the same honesty, humor, and originality found in his songs.

He describes growing up Catholic in Freehold, New Jersey, amid the poetry, danger, and darkness that fueled his imagination, leading up to the moment he refers to as “The Big Bang”: seeing Elvis Presley’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. He vividly recounts his relentless drive to become a musician, his early days as a bar band king in Asbury Park, and the rise of the E Street Band. With disarming candor, he also tells for the first time the story of the personal struggles that inspired his best work, and shows us why the song “Born to Run” reveals more than we previously realized.

Born to Run will be revelatory for anyone who has ever enjoyed Bruce Springsteen, but this book is much more than a legendary rock star’s memoir. This is a book for workers and dreamers, parents and children, lovers and loners, artists, freaks, or anyone who has ever wanted to be baptized in the holy river of rock and roll.

When this book came out in December 2016, it was a natural Christmas present for both my husband and my mother. I always had plans to read it for myself but was in no immediate hurry to do so. Nevertheless, when there was a bingo square devoted to music, it seemed like the perfect book to choose. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Springsteen himself, and featuring snippets of some of his most well-known music. Springsteen is an excellent storyteller, as evidenced in much of his lyrics over the years, and I already knew that he could be funny and self-deprecating from interviews I've seen or live shows I've been lucky enough to go to myself. I'd also experienced some of his openness and honesty about his life in the Springsteen on Broadway show, but this book gives you so much more detail about his life and career.

I've been listening to Bruce Springsteen's music since long before I knew what it really was. For all that Norway has fewer than 6 million inhabitants, he really does have a very large following of die-hard fans in this country. My mother is one of them. We would listen to cassette tapes of Springsteen's music in the car on longer journeys (by no means only Springsteen, there was Abba and Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and a bunch of other artists too), The Boss holds a special place in my mother's heart, and as I've grown older, in mine too.

My husband, the man I've been together with for twenty years at this point, also loves Bruce Springsteen. He's camped outside ticket offices in all kinds of weather many times, which is one of the reasons we've been lucky enough to see Springsteen live almost every time he's toured Norway since we moved back here from Scotland in 2004. Buying concert tickets online is too risky, you see, the systems inevitably crash and get overloaded. Springsteen sells out arenas in Norway in minutes (I think the record is seriously something like 6 minutes for 30 000 tickets) and the best way to be guaranteed tickets is buying in person at the arena ticket office (where they reserve a small amount of the tickets). Springsteen is an amazing live performer, and he has never given less than an absolutely awesome show when he tours.

Bruce Springsteen and Steve van Zandt (who starred in the Norwegian-set and produced drama Lillyhammer for several seasons) were also the only international artists to perform during the 2012 memorial concert for the victims of the 22nd of July 2011 mass shooting. Springsteen and the E-Street Band had done a concert in Oslo the day before and wanted to show their respect to the victims and their families. So it's no wonder he's beloved by his Norwegian fans.

I don't listen to or care about music in the way my husband does. For him, music is absolutely essential and he can't believe how often I can listen to a certain song, yet never seem to pick up specifics from the lyrics. He wrote his Masters' Thesis on the lyrics of Bob Dylan. To me, music is something perfectly nice to have on in the background when I'm reading or doing chores or wandering around, but I might just as well listen to an audio book. Music rarely moves me to tears or gets me emotional, in the way it affects my husband. Hence, I don't really tend to read in-depth artist interviews and the like, and this is the first musician autobiography I've read. Even having seen the Springsteen on Broadway show, where he's very honest about his rather dark childhood and his own struggles with depression, I hadn't realised the extent to these things. 

Things I learned while reading this book: despite being famous for writing about cars and driving, Springsteen didn't learn to drive until he was in his 20s. His father was a paranoid schizophrenic who wasn't diagnosed until late in life. Springsteen has had several really serious bouts of crippling depression, but touring is one of the things that helps him combat them. Springsteen wrote The River, possibly one of my two favourite songs of his (the other being Thunder Road) about his sister Virginia and her husband, who are still happily married to this day. The politicians working to make Born to Run as the official song of New Jersey really haven't listened very well to the lyrics of the song. Springsteen didn't realise that Courtney Cox was an actress hired to be in the Dancing in the Dark video until much later, he just thought she was a fan of his selected to dance on stage with him. Patty Scialfa is clearly an awesome lady. 

I really don't know how this book would work for someone who isn't at least a casual fan of Bruce Springsteen, as I'm not sure you'd care all that much about his life and career if you're not. It's an entertaining and really well-told book, however, and I can very much recommend listening to the audio.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover photo of Springsteen was taken in 1978, a year before I was born. By this point, Springsteen had released four studio albums, including Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. The car he's sitting on is a Corvette, a car he could well afford, as his career was really starting to take off. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR12 Book 59: "Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging" by Louise Rennison

Page count: 272 pages
Rating: 3 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Nostalgia (set in the 1990s, when I was a teenager)

Official book description: 
Angus: My mixed-breed cat, half domestic tabby, half Scottish wildcat. The size of a small Labrador, only mad.

Thongs: Stupid underwear. What's the point of them, anyway? They just go up your bum, as far as I can tell.

Full-Frontal Snogging: Kissing with all the trimmings, lip to lip, open mouth, tongues ... everything.

Her dad's got the mentality of a Teletubby (only not so developed). Her cat, Angus, is trying to eat the poodle next door. And her best friend thinks she looks like an alien -- just because she accidentally shaved off her eyebrows. Ergghhhlack. Still, add a little boy-stalking, teacher-baiting, and full-frontal snogging with a Sex God, and Georgia's year just might turn out to be the most fabbitty fab fab ever!

If I read this book (the first in a long series about opinionated teenage girl Georgia Nicholson) at the right time, i.e. when I myself was a teenager, or near enough to it, I probably would have liked it a lot more. As a woman who recently turned 41, I'm very obviously not the target audience, I think this would probably be most suitable for the younger segment of the YA readers (I think older readers would want something a bit more sophisticated). 

We follow Georgia Nicholson for a full year, through her diary entries. She complains a lot about her parents, especially her painfully exasperating dad, as well as her toddler sister, whom she clearly also loves a lot. Georgia is preoccupied with being popular, wearing make-up and getting the attention of boys. Since she goes to an all-girls school, with strict uniform requirements, being fashionable and cool, not to mention meeting boys regularly, is a bit of a challenge. 

In many ways, Georgia and her friends, as described in this book, reminded me a lot of the girls we see in the delightful British sit com Derry Girls and meant, that while I didn't exactly relate a lot to her, neither did I find Georgia as exasperating as I suspect some adult readers might. She clearly has a lot of maturing to do, and could clearly be a slightly more understanding and patient daughter and certainly a more supportive friend. Alas, she is a teenage girl, one of the most self-absorbed and narcissistic creatures on the planet. 

I got this book for free in an e-book offer several years ago. It was a fun enough read, but I doubt I'll be seeking out more books in the series. There are too many other books out there, aimed more at my demographic, that I could be reading instead. 

Judging a book by its cover: The cat on this cover is nowhere near as big or mean-looking as the Angus of the book is described. Georgia claims he's the size of a small golden retriever. I imagined him a bit like Greebo from Pratchett's Discworld books, myself. They could really have done with making the cover a bit more exciting, actually. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

#CBR12 Book 58: "Bellweather Rhapsody" by Kate Racculia

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: No Money (in fact, won in the prize raffle for the first annual CBR Bingo)

Official book description:
Fifteen years ago, a murder-suicide in room 712 rocked the grand old Bellweather Hotel and the young bridesmaid who witnessed it, Minnie Graves. Now hundreds of high school musicians have gathered at the Bellweather for the annual Statewide festival; Minnie has returned to face her demons; and a blizzard is threatening to trap them all inside. When a young prodigy disappears from infamous room 712, the search for her entwines an eccentric cast of conductors and caretakers, teenagers on the verge and adults haunted by memories.

As I mentioned above, I won a signed (!) copy of this a few years ago in the first Cannonball Bingo raffle. It's also been favourably reviewed by a bunch of people I trust, and so it felt appropriate to read it for this year's bingo. 

Because I never seem to learn, I'm back to reviewing things I read about two months ago, and despite promising myself that I will be good and take notes while reading and especially after finishing a book, I never do. It's not like I'm lacking in pens or notebooks (I have SO many!), I just can't seem to find the time or energy to actually sit down and jot down my thoughts upon completing a book. So this review will be a bit of a jumble of things I remember liking in the book.

As I'm sure you can guess from the book description, this is a mystery novel featuring a large and eclectic cast of characters in an old, rather spooky hotel. There are strong personalities both among the teenage and adult cast, there are mysterious disappearances, there are unreliable narrators, strange coincidences, and unexpected connections between individuals who initially seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with one another. 

We meet the wonderfully named Hatmaker twins, Alice and Rabbit, who are both going to the now pretty delapidated Bellweather hotel (think the hotel from the Shining) for a weekend retreat for talented young musicians. Alice is ambitious, outgoing and despite wanting to be a star actress, struggles with empathising with anyone else. Her twin Rabbit is introverted, reserved, nerdy and devoted to his instrument. He also very much wants to come out to his sister at some point during the weekend, but has no idea how to begin approaching the subject. 

There's also the Hatmaker's chaperone, a woman with a lot of buried trauma and violence in her past. There's Alice's roommate, a child prodegy with a very contentious relationship to her icy and controlling mother, the eccentric conductor of the student orchestra (a former prodigy himself), the aging concierge at the hotel who wants everything to run smoothly and fondly remembers the hotel's glory days, as well as the mystery guest with her emotional support dog who shows up right as things start getting really dramatic.

All the characters felt wonderfully real and complex. Some of them are deeply dislikable, but they all seem like actual people, and just seeing the various ways in which they interacted would have kept me turning the pages, even if there wasn't a mystery to be solved. There are a lot of twists and turns. I think I'd figured out a couple before they were actually revealed, but mostly, I was frequently surprised and entertained by this story. I can see why so many people have rated it highly.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover of this unusual mystery might not make a lot of sense until you've actually finished the novel. The big hotel in the background, all the snow, and the lonely grand piano, with the knocked over piano stool. The choices the cover designer has made make more sense after you've finished the story. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

#CBR12 Book 57: "Daring and the Duke" by Sarah Maclean

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Official book description:
Grace Condry has spent a lifetime running from her past. Betrayed as a child by her only love and raised on the streets, she now hides in plain sight as queen of London’s darkest corners. Grace has a sharp mind and a powerful right hook and has never met an enemy she could not best, until the man she once loved returns.

Single-minded and ruthless, Ewan, Duke of Marwick, has spent a decade searching for the woman he never stopped loving. A long-ago gamble may have lost her forever, but Ewan will go to any lengths to win Grace back… and make her his duchess.

Reconciliation is the last thing Grace desires. Unable to forgive the past, she vows to take her revenge. But revenge requires keeping Ewan close, and soon her enemy seems to be something else altogether—something she can’t resist, even as he threatens the world she's built, the life she's claimed…and the heart she swore he'd never steal again.

Spoiler warning! I don't think I'll be able to properly review this book without going into quite some detail about what I think worked, and in what ways the story just didn't deliver for me. So if you haven't read the book and would prefer to remain unspoiled about plot specifics, probably best if you skip this review.

Still here? Cool cool. Daring and the Duke is the concluding volume in Sarah Maclean's Bareknuckle Bastards trilogy. The man the rest of world knows as Robert Matthew Carrick, the Duke of Marwick and his half-brothers and the woman he loves knows as Ewan, has been the villain in the preceding two novels in the series, trying his very best to ruin his two half-brothers both financially and personally while trying to track down the woman they consider their sister and he, Ewan, loves obsessively. When told in Wicked and the Wallflower that she had died, Ewan's shattering grief turned to rage and he became unhinged and deeply destructive. By the end of Brazen and the Beast, Ewan's quest for revenge against the two men with whom he shared a father, who he had trusted to keep his beloved safe and then was fooled into thinking had failed at that task, had ended up costing six people their lives and his half-brothers a considerable amount of money.

But of course, Grace, the illegitimate daughter of the former Duchess of Marwick (presented as a baby the world as Marwick's son and heir and her true identity hidden) never died. Along with the two men she's chosen to consider her brothers, she rules Covent Garden as Dahlia, the owner of an extremely profitable pleasure house catering to women. She's observed Ewan's increasingly more out of control attempt to find her and later to avenge her apparent death, and she's unimpressed. She intends to show him once and for all how little he means to her, crush his spirit and send him packing. But first, she personally nurses him back to health after the explosion he caused on the docks, which nearly killed Grace's brother's fiancĂ©e. Once he's strong enough, she stages a public boxing match, where he refuses to fight back as she beats him up. 

She believes him to be gone for good and tells herself that this is fine. Of course, about a year later, he's back in London, claiming to be looking for a wife. He arranges a grand ball, with the sole intention of luring Grace into his presence once again. She lies to herself that as long as she's masked and disguised, hooking up with him won't be a problem. He shows up in Covent Garden with a big chest full of money to pay reparations to the families of the men he killed and starts doing manual labour on the docks for Whit's wife, to show that he's a changed man now and wants to make amends for all the damage he did.

This is the second of Maclean's romance trilogies where a really shitty duke needs to make amends and grovel on an epic scale to be a satisfying hero in the final volume. While the duke of Haven in Day of the Duchess caused less death and destruction overall, I still found him even more loathsome than Ewan (who is at least super messed up because of the continual torture he was subjected to by his father throughout his life). I did not, however, feel that Ewan's grovelling and atttempts to make up for his former actions were enough to redeem him. I also found Grace's plan of first tenderly nursing him back to health only to beat him up publically to be deeply unsatisfactory. I will say that Ewan's final plan for getting rid of the family legacy he so detested to get his happy ending with Grace was pretty hardcore. 

The reason this book is three stars is that I really enjoyed the presence of Devil, Beast and their interaction with the families they've now established. Otherwise, it's unlikely it would have gotten more than two and a half stars. Once upon a time, Maclean was an auto-buy and pre-order author for me. Now she's on "buy on sale", which makes me sad. I still like her championing the romance genre publically as much as she does, but it's been a long time since she wrote a book I loved as much as One Good Earl Deserves a Lover

Judging a book by its cover: I know some people really like these covers, I find them way too anachronistic. On this one, I love the cover model's stunning red hair (like our heroine Grace/Dahlia sports), but the dress is simply all wrong. First of all, I would have loved to see a cover model wearing what Grace/Dahlia wears for most of the book, tight breeches, leather boots, elaborate silk corsets with a fancy overcoat. If Avon felt they had to put the cover model in a dress, they could have at least tried to find something that didn't look like a prom dress made from a rain slicker. Grace/Dahlia does wear a GOLDEN gown at one point in the book, but it looks nothing like the dress portrayed on the cover, nor is it bright canary yellow. Yellow and gold are NOT the same colour!

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.