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.

Monday, 7 September 2020

#CBR12 Book 56: "I Hope You Get This Message" by Farah Naz Rishi

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Seven days. Seven days. The Earth might end in seven days.

When news stations start reporting that Earth has been contacted by a planet named Alma, the world is abuzz with rumors that the alien entity is giving mankind only few days to live before they hit the kill switch on civilization.

For high school truant Jesse Hewitt, though, nothing has ever felt permanent. Not the guys he hooks up with. Not the jobs his underpaid mom works so hard to hold down. Life has dealt him one bad blow after another — so what does it matter if it all ends now? Cate Collins, on the other hand, is desperate to use this time to find the father she’s never met, the man she grew up hearing wild stories about, most of which she didn’t believe. And then there’s Adeem Khan. While coding and computer programming have always come easily to him, forgiveness doesn’t. He can’t seem to forgive his sister for leaving, even though it’s his last chance.

With only seven days to face their truths and right their wrongs, Jesse, Cate, and Adeem’s paths collide even as their worlds are pulled apart.

This was yet another of the book club suggestion for our June CBR book club, with the theme The Future is Queer. I had nothing to go on except the book description but thought it sounded interesting and the short chapters and multiple POVs made it a relatively quick read. 

So the premise of this book is that it turns out Earth and all the people and creatures living on it is basically some big science experiment for a bunch of aliens, who now deem the project a failure (mostly because humans have bollocksed things up pretty badly at this point) and want to basically press the big red destruct button which will end all human life on the planet. However, the proper procedure has to be followed, and there are those who are for full-scale destruction of the humans and those that feel it would be unethical and wrong. So they send a message that Earth has seven days to get its affairs in order, so to speak, before the final verdict will be delivered.

Naturally, not everyone believes in the aliens, but the vast majority of people do and naturally start panicking. We follow three teenagers in the week that leads up to the final decision. Jesse lives in Roswell, New Mexico and decides to help his struggling single mother get enough money to pay their bills by setting up a fancy-looking device and claiming he can send messages to the aliens. The people flocking to Roswell seem more than willing to pay, even the ones who suspect it's most likely a hoax. Cate is forced to watch her schizophrenic mother turn herself over to the authorities to be committed and decides to go looking for her missing father. Along the way, she starts travelling with Adeem, a young man looking for his sister, who left without leaving any forwarding address after coming out to the family as gay.

A lot happens over the course of the seven days with each of the three characters. While Jesse's story is more separate, Cate and Adeem go on quite the road trip together, getting into increasingly worse trouble until they manage to reach their mutual destination, Roswell, and eventually also interact with Jesse. Obviously, for a story where each of the protagonists (as well as everyone around them) are forced to contemplate their own mortality and the very short time they may have left, there is also a lot of introspection and internal development for each of them. 

Of the two new books I read for June's book club, this was probably the one I liked the best (I would rate The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet - yet another of the selections, which I read back in 2018, highest of all). So far, this appears to be the author's only novel, but I shall keep my eye out for anything new she releases. 

Judging a book by its cover: I like to be able to use my imagination when picturing the characters in the books I read. So having all three protagonists portrayed on the cover art, especially because I don't really think they match what I have in my mind's eye, is a bit distracting. I did like them all sort of randomly posed on a big radio antenna (radio plays a big part in the story), with a cityscape in the background, though. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

#CBR12 Book 55: "Ayesha at Last" by Uzma Jalaluddin

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been overtaken by a demanding teaching job. Her boisterous Muslim family, and numerous (interfering) aunties, are professional naggers. And her flighty young cousin, about to reject her one hundredth marriage proposal, is a constant reminder that Ayesha is still single.

Ayesha might be a little lonely, but the one thing she doesn't want is an arranged marriage. And then she meets Khalid... How could a man so conservative and judgmental (and, yes, smart and annoyingly handsome) have wormed his way into her thoughts so quickly?

As for Khalid, he's happy the way he is; his mother will find him a suitable bride. But why can't he get the captivating, outspoken Ayesha out of his mind? They're far too different to be a good match, surely...

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen must be one of the most popular classic novels to retell by modern authors. There are contemporary retellings, like Bridget Jones' Diary (the more comical), Eligible (the serious literary take), there are YA versions, like Pride and Prom and Prejudice. There are fantasy versions, like Heartstone or horror ones, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Then there are the contemporary retellings set in different cultures than the original, like Unmarriageable; Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors, and this one. 

Uzma Jalaluddin has set her modern retelling of the classic romance in Canada, with the headstrong and loyal Eliza Bennett becoming the hardworking Ayesha Shamsi, whose family (consisting of a grieving mother, ambitious programmer brother, and Ayesha) living with loving grandparents and feeling indebted to their richer relatives who helped them move to Canada after the unfortunate death of Ayesha's father. Because of both the financial and emotional debt to her aunt and uncle, Ayesha has trained as a teacher and is determined to make this career work, even though she struggles as a substitute teacher and her true passion is beat poetry. Having seen how much her mother still grieves the death of her father, Ayesha's not sure she ever wants to get married, but she can't help but be a bit jealous of all the attention her younger cousin (the Lydia character) is getting with her multiple suitors. 

Through a series of coincidences, Ayesha ends up being mistaken for her younger cousin when volunteering for a project at the local mosque. That's also the second time she meets Khalid, who upon their first encounter seemed cold, judgemental, and condescending. As in the original novel, the couple's first encounter is very unfortunate, and then they gradually warm up to one another once they get to know each other better. The fact that Khalid doesn't actually know Ayesha's real name and believes her to be her younger cousin definitely creates some complications as the story progresses, as does the fact that his ambitious, snobbish mother manages to manipulate the situation so that Khalid ends up engaged to Ayesha's actual cousin. 

This works well as an #ownvoices story, as Jalaluddin herself is Muslim, with great familiarity with the various cultures and traditions she's describing. She hasn't kept all of the story beats, nor all the same characters from the original novel. Ayesha has just the one brother, no sisters. The Lydia character is her rebellious cousin, not her sister. There is a Wickham parallel, who is pretty much as dastardly as his classic counterpart. The closest we get to Lady Catherine de Burgh is Khalid's mother. 

I think this book works better precisely because it doesn't try to retell Pride and Prejudice exactly, just moved to a modern, mostly Muslim environment. Jalaluddin's novel also looks at different views of what it means to be a good and dutiful daughter, the expectations of Muslim society on both men and women, the cultural clashes between different cultures in a modern city, the racism and intolerance still present towards Muslims in certain circles of Western society. 

This is Jaluluddin's debut novel, and Goodreads tells me she has a new 'rom com' loosely retelling You've Got Mail out next year. Based on this, I'll absolutely put it on my "To check out" list. 

Judging a book by its cover: I think this cover is really pretty. The golden background, the purple hijab, flowing over the page like a river, the pink lips which look good with but isn't exactly the same as the headscarf. The font used for the title. I prefer it to the alternate cover, which is pale blue. It also has a woman's head in profile, but as a dark silhouette, but neither the colour choices, nor the layout appeal to me as much. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.