Tuesday, 12 November 2019

#CBR11 Book 79: "The School for Good and Evil" by Soman Chainani

Page count: 496 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Official book description:
The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before. Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each. But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear. One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own. The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth. An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.

This year, best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to discover where all the lost children go: the fabled School for Good and Evil, where ordinary boys and girls are trained to be fairy tale heroes and villains. As the most beautiful girl in Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of being kidnapped into an enchanted world her whole life. With her pink dresses, glass slippers, and devotion to good deeds, she knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and graduate a storybook princess. Meanwhile Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks, wicked pet cat, and dislike of nearly everyone, seems a natural fit for the School for Evil.

But when the two girls are swept into the Endless Woods, they find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School For Good, thrust amongst handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are…? 

There was a lot of potential here, and some very clever playing with traditional fairy tale tropes. Unfortunately, there was also quite a lot of things that didn't work for me - the chief one being Sophie, one of our two protagonists. I'm all for female characters getting to be as complex and potentially anti-heroic as male ones, but I don't think the author manages what he sets out to do with Sophie. She just comes across as a controlling, manipulative, prejudiced and narrow-minded b*tch for most of the book. She doesn't seem to care about anyone but herself and her own ambitions, completely unfazed by whom she hurts or takes advantage of to achieve her goals. She seemed like a very natural fit for the School of Evil.

On the flip side, Agatha, who is supposed to be the more palatable protagonist, is a little bit too timid and her lack of confidence grated on me after a while. Maya Angelou said "If someone shows you who they are, believe them" - well, Sophie time and time again shows herself to be an utterly awful "friend", a self-centred egomaniac with no real affection for Agatha. Our little emo Goth should have told Sophie to sod off, instead of spending most of the book risking herself to help her.

There's also a very contrived love triangle in this book, with Prince Whatshisface (I can't bother to look up his name - he's the son of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere - now that's a fun legacy) initially falling for Sophie based entirely on her looks, but unwillingly finding himself drawn towards Agatha again and again (he's a shallow jock, you can do way better, girl!).

Nevertheless, I liked the idea that famous fairy tale characters need to be trained for their jobs, be they the heroes and heroines or the villains and villainesses. That the ones that don't excel in their classes become henchpeople, helpers or even transformed into enchanted animals who help move the tales along. I liked a lot of the supporting characters, especially in the School of Evil (being able to summon chocolate at will is a cool magical power!), and the various classes and quests that the children had to participate in.

I wasn't really sure if these books were meant to be aimed at a YA or middle grade audience. Having now looked it up, these books appear to be marketed as middle grade, which I think is a bit strange considering some of the rather dark subject matter (Sophie straight up kills someone and apart from stabs of a guilty conscience, she never actually gets caught from this), Sophie's obsession with getting the attention of her prince and the way her outfits are described (let's just say that if these are meant to be characters under the age of 16-17, the suggestive nature of a lot of what Sophie fashions for herself is squicky AF). I really don't believe in controlling what teens read (please just read something, kids!), but I think some of the themes of this book are too mature for a middle grade audience.

There are also sections where the story rather drags and I kept putting the book down and forgetting about it. I know that there's a ton of books in this series, but at the moment, I'm not sure I'll keep reading. There are so many other shiny books out there competing for my attention.

Judging a book by its cover: The very cartoonish manga inspired covers for this series made me think they were meant for a much younger audience. As I mentioned above, it really wasn't made very clear what age the characters are supposed to be, and a lot of the themes read as if these were older teens, getting towards adulthood. I also thought that the dark-haired character on the cover was a boy, when it's supposed to be Agatha, one of our two protagonists.

Crossposted in Cannonball Read.

Friday, 1 November 2019

#CBR11 Book 78: "Pumpkinheads" by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

Page count: 224 pages
Rating: 4 stars (Malin), 2.5 stars (Mark)

#CBR11 Bingo: Two heads are better than one

For two months of the year, all through high school, Deja and Josiah are best friends, while working at the local Pumpkin Patch extraordinaire. For four years, from the start of September until Halloween, they've been dutifully serving customers in the Succotash hut, and sharing pretty much everything with one another for those two months. Once they go back to school, they don't really interact.

This year is different. Deja and Josiah are seniors, and will be going to college next year. They're not returning to the Pumpkin Patch next year, so this is their last shift together. Josiah (Employee of the Month for each year he's worked there - with one vexing exception) believes it's going to be a normal shift, but Deja has a clever plan. Instead of letting Josiah mope over a big pot of succotash, they're going to have an adventure. It's finally time for Josiah to pluck up the courage to talk to the girl from the Fudge Shoppe who he's had a crush on for his entire time at the Pumpkin Patch, and along the way, Deja intends to eat as many of the various delicious snacks the various food stands the Patch has to offer.

The course of true love never did run smooth, and finding the elusive girl of Josiah's dreams turns out to be quite the quest. Deja and Josiah get to visit pretty much all of the sights around the Pumpkin Patch, and they also need to stay out of the way of the out of control runaway goat.

Having completed this book, the only Rainbow Rowell I have not yet read is her Runaways comics run. I will get there, have no fear. Any long time reader of my reviews, will know by now that Rainbow Rowell is one of my favourite authors currently writing books (sharing the coveted top spot with Ilona Andrews and Courtney Milan). Obviously this book was on my wish list as soon as I heard it was being created, and my lovely husband gave it to me for my birthday. It therefore seemed like a nice book for the two of us to review together, since I needed a co-writer to fill the last square of my Bingo Card. Let's just say that we had different opinions about the book. I'll pass the word along to my other half, shall I?

Mark: So, I like Rainbow Rowell, I like good young adult literature, I like comics, and I know Malin really enjoyed this, which is usually a good sign (our tastes are pretty divergent at times,  but it’s pretty rare for me to dislike something Malin rates highly). This should be a gimme, right?
Well…errr….actually, not so much. I didn’t actively *dis*like it, but it left me a lot more cold than I’d expected, and I’ve spent a few days since reading the book trying to figure out why.

Part of it is definitely the art. It’s not bad, by any means – the panel-to-panel storytelling is excellent, which is always a priority for me. But there’s a major problem with the character design, so far as I’m concerned. It was, as the afterword makes clear, a deliberate stylistic choice to make the two central characters look several years older than they’re supposed to be – there’s even an early sketch of what they originally looked like, and it was a lot closer to their ‘actual’ ages. But, in what I can only assume is a tribute to the late and sadly lamented Sideshow Luke Perry’s career-making, epoch-defining role in Beverly Hills 90210, Faith Erin Hicks consistently draws the lead male character, 17-year old Josiah, as though he’s being played by an actor in his mid-30s.

That’s not uncommon in comics, and there are good reasons to do it. But for this particular story, I think it becomes a problem, because Josiah is, to put it politely, a bit crap. Passive to the point of cowardice, self-absorbed to the point of narcissism, and entirely too willing to let his – far more capable and accomplished – female friend lead him, literally hand-in-hand, through life’s obstacles. It’s an all-too-common archetype, and while it’s a relatively common trap that socially awkward, shy, male teenagers can fall into – and, hopefully, work their way out of as they get older – it’s also, when it lingers into later life (as it all too frequently does), utterly toxic. And Josiah, in this book, looks too old for these character flaws to be as sympathetic or endearing as I suspect they’re intended to be. And then, at the end, he gets rewarded for it. I suspect it was intended to be a tale of growth – of him learning to be better, more self-confident, and all of that good stuff. But – and again, this is partly down to the art – I didn’t read it that way. It’s not a critique of the style, at all - cartoonish art like this can be incredibly expressive, and Hicks does a lovely job here with much of the characters’ body language, in particular. But the facial expressions given to Josiah aren’t, to my eyes, drawn with enough nuance or precision to really tell the story of that sort of internal change clearly enough. Sometimes, less is actually less.

I can see how, at a script level, this is a fairly cute story about teenage insecurity, friendship between very different personality types, and the bittersweet nature of that last, transitional stage of adolescence. But – almost entirely down to that one artistic choice – it reads, to me, like the story of a smart, capable, self-assured woman who takes on the responsibility of showing a hapless man how to be a less shit version of himself. And we’ve got too many of those stories already. Teenage boys, and especially teenage girls, deserve better. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, but it really did damage my ability to enjoy the book. It’s also, clearly by design, a very slight, inconsequential tale. That can be charming in its own right, but it means that there simply isn’t enough *there* that could have grabbed me hard enough to overcome the (subjective) obstacle presented by the art. Coupled with the fact that the setting – while extremely vivid and well-crafted, both visually and narratively – isn’t one that I particularly identify with, and you’ve got a book that, for reasons that have little to do with its actual quality, didn’t connect with me at all.

It’s well written, and (with the above-mentioned caveats) largely very well-illustrated. I’d like to read more work illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks – as I said, her panel-to-panel storytelling is crisp and clear, and she does a lovely job of evoking both the setting and the various characters (it’s a gratifyingly diverse cast, with a far wider variety of physical ‘types’ on display than is all-too-frequently the case in comics). But ultimately, it wasn’t for me. And…well, that’s OK. Not everything has to be aimed at me (and hey, I’m a middle-aged white man. Far too many things are aimed at me already). But, given how much I’ve enjoyed everything else Rainbow Rowell has written, I was still a little disappointed.

Malin: I will admit that I read through the book fairly quickly one afternoon and unlike my husband, who is a very analytical reader, I tend to read on much more of a surface level. While I see what Mark means about it being a rather slight story, I thought it was a sweet little adventure between friends and both the story and the art really evoked the best things about the autumn for me, the crisp air, colourful foliage, bundling up in cozy jumpers and coats (without having to wear quite the thickness of layers that you have to in winter), the comfort of certain foods or a nice cup of hot chocolate.

While I see why Mark was frustrated and a bit exasperated with Josiah, of all the characters in this comic, he's possibly the one I identify with. If I worked at a Pumpkin Patch, I would totally be the same, a bit too much of a goody two shoes, rule abiding, shy, kind of staying on the outskirts of things, because actually talking to people, especially someone I had a crush on, would be both exhausting and terrifying. I too need the brave, adventurous, extroverted friend to drag me along on adventures (this role has been filled by my BFF Lydia and/or my husband Mark for the last three decades, in Lydia's case, or two, in Mark's case) and make me take chances and really experience things. I am far too terrified of leaving my comfort zone, left to my own devices. So I see where my other half is coming from, but that is not the way this story read to me.

Is Deja way too awesome for Josiah? Yeah, she probably is. She's clearly the bee's knees (although being her friend might also be a bit exhausting at times) and I love her confidence, positivity, go-getting attitude. But I suspect a lot of people who don't know us very well wonder why my tall, handsome, charming, extroverted, eloquent and confident husband is married to someone who's as mousy, shy, introverted, and risk averse (and possibly quite dull seeming) as I am. So I'm all for pairings that seem mismatched on the surface.

Could there have been more depth and complexity to the story? Yes, probably. But I was never really expecting Watchmen-level subtlety or sophistication here. It's a cheerful autumnal adventure aimed at YA readers, celebrating friendship and romance and tasty fairground treats and fun. Reading this book made me happy - I liked the art and especially appreciated a lot of the background stuff going on throughout the story. I always love reading acknowledgements, and it's clear that this project was a great way for Rowell and Hicks to create something with a friend, and that they had a great time working together. I can see where my husband is coming from, but my take on this book is a much more positive one. I also really want to check out more of Faith Erin Hicks' work, I know she's done other graphic novels by herself and also written a YA novel now, if I'm not mistaken.

Judging a book by its cover: I think, overall, that Faith Erin Hicks' art throughout the book is very cute and mostly appropriate for the story. As my husband has pointed out, he thinks many of the characters are drawn to look older than the characters actually are, which is a bit of a shame, but it's still a very nice cover (although since it says Rainbow Rowell up there, I would have bought the book even if the entire thing was covered with actual spiders).

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

#CBR11 Book 77: "The Vagina Bible: The vulva and the vagina - separating the myth from the medicine" by Jennifer Gunter

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Does eating sugar cause yeast infections? Does pubic hair have a function?
Should you have a vulvovaginal care regimen?
Will your vagina shrivel up if you go without sex?
What's the truth about the HPV vaccine?

So many important questions, so much convincing, confusing, contradictory misinformation! In this age of click bait, pseudoscience, and celebrity-endorsed products, it's easy to be overwhelmed-whether it's websites, advice from well-meaning friends, uneducated partners, and even healthcare providers. So how do you separate facts from fiction? Obstetrician Jen Gunter, an expert on women's health-and the internet's most popular go-to doc-comes to the rescue with a book that debunks the myths and educates and empowers women. From reproductive health to the impact of antibiotics and probiotics, and the latest trends, including vaginal steaming, vaginal marijuana products, and jade eggs, Gunter takes us on a factual, fun-filled journey.

Discover the truth about:

· The vaginal microbiome
· Genital hygiene, lubricants, and hormone myths and fallacies
· How diet impacts vaginal health
· Stem cells and the vagina
· Cosmetic vaginal surgery
· What changes to expect during pregnancy, after childbirth, and through menopause
· How medicine fails women by dismissing symptoms

Plus:
· Thongs vs. lace: the best underwear for vaginal health
· How to select a tampon
· The full glory of the clitoris and the myth of the G Spot

... And so much more. Whether you're a twenty-six-year-old worried that her labia are 'uncool' or a sixty-six-year-old dealing with painful sex, this comprehensive guide is sure to become a lifelong trusted resource.

Even before my good friend Rochelle/Emmalita gave this a glowing review over on the CBR blog back in July, I sort of vaguely knew about the book, as I follow the author on Twitter (and what an informative and refreshing presence she is there). Emmalita's review of an ARC of this just made it all the more obvious that I would have to add the book to my TBR list. I didn't love it as much as she did (I possibly should have dipped more in and out of the sections that seemed the most interesting to me, rather than reading it cover to cover like I would a fiction book), I can absolutely see why this is such an incredibly important book for anyone who identifies as female (or has ever met one) to read.

Turns out that even though we have the parts, most women are not very well informed at all about how our genitals work and a lot of what we think we know is blatant falsehood and misinformation (thanks patriarchy!) So much of the world seems designed to make women feel guilty and ashamed about themselves, preferably so we'll buy things or spend tons of money surgically altering ourselves, to fit into some fictionalised ideal that is just impossible to achieve. This goes for everything from makeup, hair products, clothes, shoes and food, but hoo boy, is it extra true for anything to do with our lady gardens, our reproductive health or our periods.

It's doubtful that every chapter in this book will be relevant to each and every reader (as I mentioned, I suspect I would have found bits of the book less dull if I hadn't forced myself to read each and every page even in the sections that were less relevant to me), this is a goldmine of scientific facts and research, presented in a very no nonsense way. Of course the title has forced Gunter and her publisher to get rather creative about advertising it on social media, but the book is apparently selling very well, and I'm very happy about Dr. Gunter's success.

Judging a book by its cover: While the cover image is very striking, I really don't like the idea that the vulva is likened to a zipper (as it has neither jagged "teeth" on either side, nor can it be zipped shut). I understand that with the rather bold title, they couldn't really choose anything more anatomically correct, but I nonetheless wish something else had been chosen as a symbol for our lady parts.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 76: "Sangen om en brukket nese (The Ballad of a Broken Nose)" by Arne Svingen

Page count: 207 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Bart is about to turn thirteen. He's named after Bart Simpson, because it seems his mother wanted him to be tough and clever and able to handle himself. This is also why she's signed him up for boxing lessons. He dutifully  goes to practise several times a week, and one of these days, he may actually start hitting. His boxing coach suggests he may want to try out for some other sport, which Bart can understand, as except for having a pretty good guard, Bart is pretty dreadful at boxing. He refuses to give up, however.

What Bart is actually rather excellent at is opera singing. The downside is that he can only sing well without an audience. This means he mostly sings locked in his tiny bathroom, since Bart lives alone with his morbidly obese, mostly unemployed mother (who is clearly an alcoholic) in a tiny one-room flat, where privacy isn't easy to come by. Bart and his mother live in an old building where the hallway floors are covered in old rubbish, broken syringes and other unpleasant things that make it very clear that Bart can never actually make any close friends, because God forbid one of them ever wanted to come round to his after school one day. He's not exactly a bullying victim, but pretty firmly on one of the lower rungs of the social ladder.

Bart's life takes a turn for the more dramatic when Ada, the pretty, popular and persistent girl he sits next to at school (it's not that she likes Bart THAT way, she has a boyfriend in another town, besides, she's so well-liked and popular their differing social statuses pretty much span a galaxy) figures out that not only does Bart enjoy listening to opera, but he sings it as well. Since he's unable to sing in front of others, he makes her a recording, but forgets to make her promise not to share it with anyone else. It turns out that Ada is pretty bad at keeping secrets. First, she shares the recording with the entire class, and Bart's enthusiastic teacher won't stop nagging until he agrees to perform at the end of year school performance. Then, she unexpectedly shows up on his doorstep and stays for dinner. Sadly, the next day, most of the school knows that Bart lives in a terrible wreck of a building and his mother is an overweight shut-in.

Then, on the very day he turns thirteen, Bart wakes to find his grandmother bearing sad news. His mother, who went out the evening before, has been hospitalised and needs an operation to get better. His grandmother will have to stay with him until his mother recovers. It's at this point Bart break down and tells his grandmother the truth (which she's been pretty aware of for a long time) about his rather dismal living situation, and having unburdened himself, immediately feels like things might actually start looking up. Ada keeps wanting to spend time with him, trying to figure out ways to help him overcome his stage fright (including managing to sneak him into the hotel room of his music idol, Bryn Terfel, when the opera singer is in Oslo about to perform). Bart may even have managed to track down the man who might be his father, after all these years.

This is a book my colleagues and I decided to read out loud to our eighth graders this term. I have read other books by Arne Svingen, a hugely popular YA and middle grade Norwegian author before, but this book is by far my favourite. It's impossible not to love Bart fiercely, because he stays so achingly optimistic despite all the sad and horrible things in life. His mother is dangerously obese, clearly partially disabled, barely works and comes home drunk several nights a week. They live in a tiny, crowded one-room flat in a building full of junkies and society low lifes. He makes very sure to keep everyone at school at a safe distance, desperate to hide his dismal home situation.

Bart and his mother constantly lie to his grandmother about the true state of affairs, claiming his mother has a steady job and healthy finances. His mother refuses to take any handouts from the grandmother. Opera singing is his secret escape, but after just a few weeks of getting closer to Ada, all his secrets are out in the open and unless he overcomes his stage fright and puts on the performance of a life time at the school performance, he'll go from anonymous nobody on the fringes of the school yard to favoured bullying victim for the whole school.

Bart spends much of his free time searching the web for the father he never met. Unfortunately, all his mother would tell him is that the man is called John Jones, and that he's an American. It's obvious that his parents didn't spend long together, and naturally, there are a LOT of search results for such a common name. However, Bart steadfastly keeps searching, occasionally sending off e-mail enquiries in the hopes that THIS time, he's found the right man, the John Jones who is missing his Norwegian teenage son.

As someone who grew up with an alcoholic father (who thankfully gave up drinking more than 30 years ago now), parts of this book hit very close to home for me, and I had to actually read the last few pages of the book to assure myself that everything was going to turn out well in the end. Very perceptively, one of my students observed yesterday, when I was asking them how they thought the story would continue and end (we're now about halfway through), that the book has to end on a happy note, because what we've read so far, has been really rather sad and bittersweet and the story won't work unless things turn around and get better for Bart in the second half of the story. While I have read the whole book, my class as of yet have not, and I thought that was a very mature (and entirely correct) observation, which shows this kid has a very good grasp of how narratives are structured. I'm honestly not sure I was as insightful a reader (or in his case, listener) when I was in my early teens.

All the way throughout reading this book, I kept comparing it to About a Boy by Nick Hornby. I remember being surprised at how much darker and more serious the book was to the delightful movie adaptation. Bart, unlike the Marcus of the book (and film) doesn't befriend someone as cool as Will (Hugh Grant's character), although he does strike up a friendship with one of the heroin addicts who live in his building, and who mobilises many of the fellow residents to show up and take part in a day of volunteering to clean up the hallways and back yard of the building in honour of Bart's birthday. They even get him a bike (with the serial number neatly filed away) and a brand new bike lock they actually paid money for(!). It's not exactly the same as the expensive trainers Will gifts Marcus, but in many ways, a lot more touching.

I'm so glad we decided to read this to the students this term, and I'm also happy that my class seems to mostly be enjoying the book as much as I do. This book has now been translated into a number of different languages and has been nominated for multiple awards, both in Norway and internationally. So if you're looking for a quirky, bittersweet and very heartwarming read, I can very much recommend this one.

Judging a book by its cover: This book comes with several different covers, but this is the one we use on one of the editions we're reading to the pupils in y school, and thus seemed appropriate. The boxing gloves and the microphone are both very relevant to the plot, and nothing on the cover gives too much away about the story.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

#CBR11 Book 75: "Wayward Son" by Rainbow Rowell

Page count: 416 pages
Audio book length: 8 hrs 57 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is the second book in a series, and this review will contain spoilers for the first book, Carry On. If you haven't already read it, you should do yourself a favour and do so.

Simon Snow was the Chosen One, destined to bring an end to the threat to all magic. Of course, it turned out that he himself was in fact the thing that was threatening the magic in the first place, and his mentor/father figure (and actual biological father, although none of the characters in the story ever found out that part, only the readers did), the Mage, died in the process. As did Ebb, one of Simon's only true friends. Saving the world also meant Simon losing all his previously unlimited reserves of magic, so now he's just a normal human, albeit one with big red wings and a devil's tail. Dealing with the aftermath of saving the world is not going well for Simon. He spends most of his days on the couch, drinking cider and not really engaging with his boyfriend Baz or Penelope, his best friend and flatmate. He's not entirely sure why they bother with him anymore, considering how powerless and useless he is right now.

Basilton "Baz" Pitch spent most of his time growing up loving his roommate Simon in secret, hiding the fact that he was a vampire and mentally preparing to probably have to face Simon in some cataclysmic battle. Instead, he and Simon became boyfriends and he helped Simon stop the Mage. Unfortunately, Simon no longer seems to want to talk to Baz, or even be touched by him. He's clearly pulling away and in serious need of help in some way, but Baz really doesn't have the faintest idea how to help.

Penelope Bunce was so relieved when she, Simon and Baz managed to save the world without any major casualties (except poor Ebb, of course, and the Mage, but he was the villain, so he probably deserved to die). She couldn't really face going back to Watford for her final semester, but nevertheless graduated with top marks, and is really enjoying her time at University. It's a terrible shame that Agatha, Simon's ex-girlfriend and Penelope's sort-of friend, abandoned her wand and swore off magic and moved all the way to California, where she now pretty much refuses to answer Penny's calls or texts. Penelope also can't help but observe how miserable both Simon and Baz are, and desperate measures are clearly required to snap everyone out of their funk. She breaks multiple laws of magic to secure them tickets to the USA, and even magically forges a passport for Simon.

Agatha Wellbelove did indeed travel about as far away from Britain and her former life as she was able. Now she's enjoying her time as a college student in San Diego and trying to forget all the times she was kidnapped and/or threatened as a result of being Simon's girlfriend. She wishes Penelope would just take the hint and just leave her alone. Agatha's managing fine without magic, and has human friends now, like Ginger. It's not even like Agatha will be home when Penelope and the others are planning to visit, she's going with Ginger to some exclusive corporate retreat in the desert, along with Ginger's tech mogul boyfriend Josh. There will be yoga, and vegan cupcakes and all manner of chances of 'levelling up'. Agatha is doing just fine, she doesn't need any ties to her old life.

Penelope's plan is that they go visit Agatha, to ensure that she is actually doing as well as she claims she is. They'll start their journey in Chicago, so Penelope can catch up with Micah, her long distance boyfriend of many years. Of course, everything starts off badly (Micah has in fact tried to break up with Penelope for ages, and even has a new girlfriend already) and just keeps getting worse. Our three young wizards (as Penelope says, Simon is still a wizard even if he can't do magic anymore, just like an air plane doesn't stop being a plane just because it's on the ground) have absolutely no idea how magic really works in the USA, they don't really have a lot of money, and they are completely unprepared for just how vast the country is. All three of them are shocked to discover just how long the trip from Chicago to San Diego will be, although Simon is excited about the road trip.

They slay vampires at a Renaissance Faire, they get cornered by mysterious supernatural creatures with big guns in a magical dead spot, they have a rather tense run-in with an actual honest to God-dragon and discover that Penelope may have been right about Agatha, she really IS in trouble. Our intrepid trio also Shepard, a human with an all-consuming curiosity about magic and magical creatures of all kinds. He's not as easy to ditch as they were hoping, and comes to be an invaluable ally to them. Will he be able to get them to Agatha before it's too late, and she's turned into a vampire by corporate tech-vamps?

Carry On was my favourite book of 2015, and remains (with heavy competition) my favourite of Rainbow Rowell's novels. So Wayward Son is by far my most anticipated book release of 2019. Since it came out in September, I have now read it once in e-book, and re-listened to it in audio format (Euan Morton's interpretation of the various characters is now how I hear the voices in my head). When I greedily started devouring it, I had no idea that the book isn't just a long-anticipated sequel (four years is a long time), but in fact a bridging book, the second part in a planned trilogy. The book starts with an epilogue, and ends with a prologue. This made me very hopeful, and only a few days after the book's official release, Rowell announced the title of the third (and probably final book, Any Way the Wind Blows). Re-reading the book, knowing that this story isn't meant to be the end point for Simon, Baz, Penelope, Agatha and now also Shepard means that a lot of the questions and misgivings I had about the pacing and plot of Wayward Son were put to rest.

With Carry On, Rainbow Rowell wrote her own very clever take on the Chosen One story. Of course, we rarely, if ever, find out what happens to the Chosen One, and his allies and sidekicks afterwards. I can't really think of any other author who has explored the aftermath of surviving the big, cataclysmic events at the end of such a story, and what it would do to the characters left standing. So much of this book is exploring PTSD, and depression, uncertainty and fear. Anyone who was hoping for sunshine and kittens and Baz and Simon living happily ever after will have been disappointed.

While it was exciting and romantic and lovely that Simon and Baz got together during Carry On, there is no denying that their history prior to suddenly kissing and holding hands was a very fraught one. They believed themselves to be destined enemies, and even ignoring that, the sort of trauma Simon was put through throughout his childhood had to cause damage, even before he was forced to confront the fact that the only father figure he'd ever known was evil and had in fact murdered several people to get into and maintain power. As Baz observes at one point during Wayward Son, Simon is a warrior, a blunt instrument. He was never allowed to be anything else, trained by the Mage to fight and kill any threat. Simon was never particularly intellectual, but he didn't need to be, because he was so tremendously powerful, with inexhaustible magical reserves.

Simon never needed to really fear injury or death when facing off against terrible creatures, because his magic always allowed him to pull through. Of course, he discovered that he never ran out because he was literally sucking the magic out of everything around himself, and that would obviously have to stop. Simon Snow has completed the task he was chosen to do, now he has no magic anymore, no purpose and absolutely no idea what he's going to do with himself for the rest of his life. Now he feels like a burden, and is constantly reminded of what he's lost, because Baz and Penelope are both such powerful and effortless magicians.

Baz was only spoken of, but didn't appear until a full third into Carry On. He's by far my favourite character (Rainbow Rowell doesn't really hide the fact that he's her favourite too) and steals pretty much every scene he's in once he actually shows up, having escaped a kidnapping.  In Wayward Son, not only do we get him for the whole of the book, he is probably even more of a protagonist than Simon is. Baz is that incredible and forbidden thing, a vampire who can do magic. The mages of Britain hate vampires and hunt them down. In the USA, Baz discovers that not only do the wizards really mainly keep to themselves, in parts of the country, vampires pretty much rule whole cities. Having been bitten and turned as a child, Baz has always had to hide who he is, and feared and loathed the part of himself that needs to drink blood to stay alive. He only ever drinks animal blood, and he always kills the animal, terrified he may accidentally turn the animal otherwise. He comes to discover that he knows very little about what being a vampire actually means, and that in America, the furtive way he's been forced into hiding his true self may not be necessary.

My fellow Cannonballer, Jen K, found Penelope especially insufferable and annoying in this book. I can see where she's coming from, but I disagree. Penelope, even in Carry On, was always a bit self centred and oblivious to the true state of affairs. It takes her the longest time to actually catch on to the fact that Simon and Baz' relationship has changed and she has truly staggering capacities for denial if there is something unpleasant she doesn't want to face up to. She refuses to stop contacting Agatha, despite all hints and signs suggesting that Agatha has no wish to maintain a friendship. She impulsively decides they all need to go to the USA for a change of pace, breaking any number of magical laws to do so (despite the fact that her mother is the current head of the Coven and would be beyond appalled if she discovered what her daughter had done).

Penelope has been used to being the brains to Simon's brawn and thanks to a lot of luck and Simon's magical powers, they clearly got through a lot more scrapes than they should have. In America, she is completely adrift, with nothing working out the way she has planned and society functioning in entirely different ways to what she's used to. While she tries for the longest time to avoid it, Penelope needs to take a good hard look at who she is and take steps to change, because the person she was makes terrible decisions and ignores the well being of others. She needs to stop being selfish and so blindingly sure of her own rightness, and start listening more to those around her.

I very much liked the introduction of Shepard, the "normal" who thanks to kindness, politeness and a healthy curiosity has discovered all manner of magical secrets. Through him, it becomes obvious just how arrogant, prejudiced and unaware of their own privilege the British magicians are. Seeing Simon, Baz and Penelope through his eyes was fun, and he's quite obviously being set up as a new, better love interest for Penelope. She took Micah entirely for granted and has hopefully learned that she needs to be a bit more present in a relationship to actually make it work. There are a lot of loose threads surrounding Shepard, but I have no doubt they will be tied off nicely in book 3.

In Carry On, Midwestern Rowell takes on the UK and boarding schools and does a truly excellent job at writing characters that feel properly British, complete with class differences, snobbery and the like. In Wayward Son, she gets to expand her world building and show how the magical system she has created works in a large, decentralised country like America. Baz' list of things he hates about road tripping through the Midwest is comedy gold, and I really liked the idea of magical dead zones in places too far away from humans for magic to work.

Discovering that of course all the other magic-possessing creatures and beasties don't much like the "speakers", as the magicians are known, because of their arrogance and their belief that their control over and ability to do magic is the only one that really counts. Getting to read about the various different attitudes of vampires, and how sheltered poor Baz has been. Penelope seems shocked that Shepard knows so much about magic and the supernatural, and that there are internet message boards discussing these things. Wizards and magical abilities are topics that should be totally secret, she cannot imagine that normal humans might be fascinated by it and want to learn more.

This book is a lot shorter than Carry On, but also moves at a much quicker pace, since it doesn't need to spend as long setting the stage as the first book. Jen K complains that the ending is rushed, and I agree with her, but I still liked that against staggering odds, mostly disillusioned and deprived of their magic, our intrepid heroes still banded together and did their best to rescue their friend, even knowing they might all die in the attempt. I can't wait to see what the third book holds, and desperately hope that having set her various characters on a path of self discovery and gradual healing, we get a more hopeful tone as the series wraps up. This turned out to be a very different book than I was expecting, but since it turns out that there's more Baz, Simon, Penelope, Agatha and Shepard in my future, I'm happy.

Judging a book by its cover: This book has been released with a huge variety of alternate covers, depending on which country it's coming out in, or what book store is selling it. All of the covers feature amazing artwork by the very talented Kevin Wada, and I absolutely love both Simon and Baz' looks here. My only complaint is that the little car at the bottom doesn't seem to contain Penelope, although I suppose the scene could be from when she was lying down in the back seat of the car, all depressed and gloomy.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

#CBR11 Book 74: "Locke & Key, vol 6: Alpha & Omega" by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

Page count: 192 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Not My Wheelhouse (horror)

Spoiler warning! This is the sixth and final volume in the Locke and Key series. It is absolutely NOT the place to start. This review will probably contain spoilers both for earlier and this collection, so don't read it unless you're completely caught up. The first volume is Welcome to Lovecraft

In this final volume, the Locke kids have to confront the evil that has been haunting their family for over a generation. If there was any doubt that it was going to have a heavy cost, even the first few pages dispels that notion. So much death, so much horror, some truly noble sacrifices, and so many emotional scenes, really f*cking me up. I ugly cried through parts of this, because while I only read one volume a year (I don't think I can handle the intensity otherwise), Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez have really made me care about these characters.

For anyone wondering, is this a good ending to the series, the answer is a resounding yes. All the various story strands established in previous volumes are given attention and are given a conclusion, some adressing situations and characters I had almost forgotten. I started reading Locke and Key back in 2014, and I really haven't been able to read much more than a volume each year, because the horror that Joe Hill conjures up and Gabriel Rodriguez so cleverly illustrates really does freak me out so much, I can't read too much of it in one go. So this series has been part of my life for a long time. Obviously, when I started the series, I had no children of my own. I genuinely don't know if my extra strong emotional response to this final volume is because now that I have a little boy of my own, reading about children in peril (even teenage children) affects me so much more. As someone suffering from anxiety, I have to constantly force myself not to run through all the horrible things that could potentially happen, and Locke and Key presents some pretty terrifying what ifs?

I don't regret waiting this long to get to the end. This final volume has literally been waiting on my shelf for more than two years, but I really wasn't ready to read it until now. I'm glad the wait was worth it, and the ending was a worthy one, even if it made me feel all sorts of painful feels while reading it.

Judging a book by its cover: This cover is one of the simpler in the series, and pretty much black on black, with the details sort of embossed. The dark and gloomy colour scheme fits for the concluding volume of the series, when all the things come to a head and evil must be confronted.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

#CBR11 Book 73: "The Goblin Emperor" by Katherine Addison

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 3.5 star

Official description:
The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an "accident," he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the na├»ve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend . . . and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne–or his life.

I'm not sure it would come as a surprise to anyone reading my reviews that I am an introvert, and even before I had a child, who now requires me to spend a lot of time at home, I would tend to prefer curling up on the sofa, either binge watching something or reading. While I work as a teacher (which works fine, because I know and am comfortable with my colleagues, and I am in control of the interactions in my classroom), I also suffer from social anxiety and find going out and meeting new people faintly terrifying. Frankly, going out and spending close friends requires a lot of mental preparation, trying to interact with strangers can be quite the ordeal for me.

Nevertheless, most of my real life friends are either very busy raising their own little humans, so we don't get to hang out much, or they live far away in other countries, sometimes on other continents, and that can lead to me feeling lonely on occasion. So my father in law, who is also an introvert with even worse social anxiety than me, set me a challenge and gave me "homework" the last time he and my mother in law visited us. I was to socialise with someone I hadn't really spent much time with before, and I needed to go out and join something new, without the support of my husband or an existing friend.

Step one, I managed by going to dinner with my new work team, where most of my colleagues are either new to the school entirely or ones I've never worked closely with before. It was lovely, even though I was nervous before going. My second, and scarier step, was joining something new. The fantasy/sci-fi/comics/nerd stuff shop in Oslo has a monthly book club, which has been running for years now. I've followed their Facebook page on and off, occasionally considering joining, but have always found excuses as to why I couldn't do it. Now, needing to find a new thing that didn't terrify me too much, I determined to finally go to a meeting. After all, hanging out with nerds who like books, even if all of them are strangers, couldn't be too horrible, right? The book of the month for September was this one, The Goblin Emperor, which had been on my TBR list for years. It was pretty much a sign from the universe.

Of course, by the time the book club met, I had, thank to a series of complicating factors in my life, only read the first twenty percent of the book or so. I forced myself to go anyway, and had a great time, discovering that I wasn't even the only new person there and that the veteran members were really happy about new recruits. Everyone was very welcoming and according to them, this was the first book in as long as anyone could remember they actually spent the whole hour discussing, without fairly rapidly digressing into other nerd topics, like comics, TV shows and movies.

Now, having sat in on a discussion of the book before I was even halfway through it, probably didn't exactly help motivate me to then pick the book back up and keep reading. I already knew the major beats of the plot and as several people in the book group pointed out, there's a lot of complicated court stuff going on, with the reader not really getting all the information they might want, since we only get the point of view of Maia, our young and deeply inexperienced protagonist, who has lived most of his life exiled to a small rural estate, only accompanied by an alcoholic, abusive, bullying cousin. Neither Maia, nor anyone else, ever expected him to become emperor, and he is wholly unprepared and has never received any of the training or education required. In one way, it's a good way of explaining to the reader, we know as little as Maia. But it is also inappropriate for him to have in depth conversations with his new servants, bodyguards and subjects, we are restricted in our knowledge about everyone else in the plot.

There is also a huge cast of characters in the book, who are difficult to tell apart because they are frequently referred to by different nicknames or titles in different scenes, making it really confusing and sometimes frustrating to keep track. There is a comprehensive guide to characters and a pronunciation guide at the start of the book, but as everyone is listed by full name, not necessarily title or nickname, it's not as helpful as it could have been.

I had a lot going on both at work and at home while reading this book, and a rather slow and intricate description of court life, spanning hundreds of pages with long stretches of not much happening (except descriptions of ceremonial garb, jewelry, courtly etiquette etc) failed to hold my attention. Seriously, every so often, there will be something very exciting happening, like a kidnapping, or an attempted coup, or an assassination attempt, but for the majority of this book, this is an exploration of a young man trying to learn to be a good ruler, in a very complicated and tradition bound society.

I suspect that if I read this at another time, my rating of it would be higher. Maybe I'll give it a re-read in a while to see. The principal characters were all very enjoyable and the world building is fascinating, so I'll be very excited to see what Katherine Addison does next.

Judging a book by its cover: I really like this cover, where the elaborate palace is also the crown on the goblin's head (possibly hinting at just how heavy the weight of responsibilities is for our young and inexperienced new ruler). The airship to the right hints at the sort of steampunky elements of the story. I think this whole design works.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.