Tuesday, 20 September 2022

CBR14 Book 23: "The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes" by Cat Sebastian

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 5 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Gaslight (Marian was lied to and manipulated by the duke, book also set in the Georgian era)

Spoiler warning! I'm going to do my best to review this book without spoiling major plot points from The Queer Principles of Kit Webb or this book, but if you want to remain fully unspoiled, you'd probably want to skip this review until you've actually read the book. Which you should (read the book, I mean), it's absolutely marvellous.

Marian Hayes, believed to be the Duchess of Clare until the truth about her husband's first marriage comes out, is on the run. The Duke of Clare was critically injured during a highway robbery, and Marian is not going to stay behind at the duke's estate to wait for the loathsome man to actually die, nor to be asked intrusive questions about the incident where the duke ended up with a bullet in his gut. Unfortunately, Marian doesn't have a lot of people to turn to in her hour of need, and so ends up fleeing her husband's deathbed aided by none other than the man who revealed the truth about the duke's bigamy in the first place - Robert "Rob" Brooks, scoundrel, con artist, former highwayman and currently Marian's (not exactly unwilling) kidnapping victim.

Rob has been on the wrong side of the law for most of his life, and what was supposed to be a rather simple blackmailing plot turned into a months-long correspondence with his blackmailing victim. It also involved her tailing him through the seedier side of London during various nighttime jaunts, and culminated in her drugging him and leaving him tied to a bed just as he was about to assist his former best friend and Marian's sort of stepson-in-law rob the Duke of Clare. So when she shows up in the rooms she rented to keep him captive (he managed to get out of her rather inept knots without too much trouble), covered almost head to toe in blood, utterly furious and infuriatingly enchanting, what's a charming rogue like Rob supposed to do? Leave her to fend for herself?

Marian insists she needs to check on the safety and welfare of her father and she and Rob set off, picking pockets, drinking, bickering (on Marion's part), and flirting (on Rob's part), trying to stay ahead of the law and completing the process that began with their unusual correspondence. Rob was pretty smitten with Marian even before he really spent any time with her. During their unorthodox road trip, his feelings deepen and increase. Marian, on her part, has never exactly been what was considered the feminine ideal. She is deeply disillusioned by her relationship with the Duke of Clare, which wasn't exactly a romantic dream even before she discovered that he was a bigamist with a wife alive somewhere, either in the French countryside or somewhere in England. She's acerbic, sarcastic, deeply practical, and believes herself to be pretty unlovable, her best friend Percy's affections notwithstanding. That living golden retriever Rob, with his good looks, and cheerful demeanour, not to mention a flirtatious look and/or word for everyone claims that he loves her, she has trouble both believing herself worthy and in returning his affections as she feels he deserves. 

An additional potential complication in the relationship between Rob and Marian is that, while Marian survived her very difficult pregnancy and the birth of her daughter Elizabeth (who is safely in the care of Kit and Percy, for those of you worried about Marian haring off without her baby), it's also clear that she would not necessarily survive another pregnancy and therefore traditional intercourse could have life-threatening consequences for her. While the Duke doesn't seem to have cared about his young wife's safety at all, Rob is all about respect and consent and is more than creative enough to make sure that he and Marian can enjoy themselves without Marian ever having to be at risk. Both in this and in the rather wounded and seemingly spiky heroine, this book reminded me of The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan, where a rather abrasive (on the surface) heroine has experienced a lot of trauma in marriage and finds true love with a clever, handsome man who utterly adores her. I didn't even know that this was a trope I cherish, but it clearly is when handled deftly by a good writer.

I'm sure this book isn't going to be 5 stars for everyone. The opening correspondence between Rob and Marian is excellent, as is their banter throughout, but I can see that some might find the somewhat disjointed road trip narrative, not to mention Rob and Marian's subsequent further forays into criminal endeavours and trying to find justice for the little people by threatening the rich (it was only after reading a comment on another's review of this on the Cannonball Read that I actually realised that Rob and Marian are obviously meant to be inspired by Robin Hood and Maid Marian, at no point while actually reading the book did this cross my mind). Meanwhile, I had trouble putting the book down, and on the occasions when I had to do so, to eat, sleep, do actual paying work, or take care of my family, I still kept thinking about Rob and Marian and wanting to spend more time in their company. To me, this was a pretty perfect read, and will in high probability be one of my top three reads of the year. So glad I finally read these books. 

Judging a book by its cover: I absolutely adore this cover, the way Marian is basically jumping into Rob's arms. It's passionate and playful at the same time and makes me smile every time I see it. I know I gripe a lot about cartoony covers, but this is basically perfection. Love it! 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday, 19 September 2022

CBR14 Book 22: "The Queer Principles of Kit Webb" by Cat Sebastian

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR14: Rec'd (this has been recommended by multiple Cannonballers and pretty much every romance review blog I can think of)

Edward Percival "Percy" Talbot, Lord Holland, returns to England after several years abroad in Europe to discover that his mother died in his absence, and his deeply unpleasant father hastily remarried, to Percy's best friend from childhood, Lady Marian Hayes, who also had time to birth Percy a baby sister. Furthermore, Marian reveals that a blackmailer has contacted her with proof that the Duke of Clare was already married when he married Percy's mother, and subsequently Marian. Neither Percy nor the baby Elizabeth are the duke's legal offspring and Marian has unwittingly married a bigamist. 

It's not as if Percy or Marian have the funds or any intention to pay off the blackmailer, but Marian hatches a scheme that involves robbing the duke, to steal the journal of Percy's late mother (which the duke apparently keeps in an inner pocket at all times. The journal would give them enough material with which to blackmail the duke themselves to secure financially independent futures for all three (Percy, Marion and baby Eliza). 

To assist them in their outrageous plot, Percy is tasked with recruiting Christopher "Kit" Webb, formerly (allegedly the highwayman 'Gladhand Jack', now a respectable (and seemingly rather boring)) owner of a coffee house. Nevertheless, on his many trips to the coffee house to observe Kit, Percy begins to find him rather fascinating. 

Kit has retired from his life of crime, crippled by a leg wound and rather disillusioned once his partner in crime died on the job. Now he runs a respectable coffee house along with his former fence, Betty, a formidable young woman who not only makes sure he takes care of himself but keeps him from slipping too far into depression and self-pity. Kit wants nothing to do with the hare-brained plot of some bored aristocrat until he finds out who Percy actually wants to rob. Due to his leg, Kit can't actually do the job himself, but he offers to train Percy to do the robbery himself. Initially, Kit assumes that a pampered nobleman like Percy would have no fighting experience, and this proves true when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. When it comes to fencing, on the other hand, Percy is way more proficient than Kit expected.

A soon-to-be disgraced noble and a working-class former highwayman might not have a lot in common, but even in their early meetings, there's palpable chemistry between Percy and Kit. One of the reasons the Duke of Clare has always been so disapproving of his son is Percy's obvious disinterest in women altogether. Kit doesn't seem to have felt desire for men before Percy, but spends more time being conflicted about being a class traitor (and later, when he discovers who Percy's father actually is, about falling for the son of the man who ruined his life). 

While Percy and Kit are busy trying to prepare for the heist on the duke of Clare, it's obvious that Marian, Percy's best friend, is up to schemes of her own. She keeps showing up in Percy's bedroom late at night, dressed in breeches, and handing him bags full of small items to fence to get them money. As the story progresses, it becomes obvious to Percy that she seems to have kept corresponding with their blackmailer, as well, for reasons that are opaque to him. The identity of the blackmailer is revealed over the course of the story and said person has ties to Kit and Betty, which is not exactly surprising when one considers their criminal pasts (and Betty's ongoing source of income - working for Kit at the coffee shop is clearly her side-hustle). I'm very glad I waited until both this and its companion novel about Marian was out, so I didn't have to wait for Marian's story. I had originally rated this five stars, but after starting The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes, which I found almost painful to have to put down and stop reading, it became clear that that novel has the edge for me. 

Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed this (I don't think I've come across a Cat Sebastian book yet that I didn't really like). I can now join the throng of people who have recommended this book. 

Judging a book by its cover: I obviously love the beautiful minty green of the cover, it's one of my favourite colours. However, I must admit, the cover artist could possibly have done a better job at making both of the characters a bit more masculine-looking. When I first saw this cover, I assumed it was a f/f romance, with the women in breeches, because both the people look so feminine to me. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday, 6 September 2022

CBR14 Book 21: "The Sugared Game" by K.J. Charles

Page count: 292 pages
Rating: 4 stars
 
CBR14 Bingo - Shadow (spies and all sorts of murky shenanigans throughout the story)
 
This is book two in a series, and it really doesn't work very well on its own. To start from the beginning, read Slippery Creatures first.

Will Darling has settled more comfortably into his role as a London bookseller but has seen nor heard anything from the mysterious Lord Arthur "Kim" Secretan for several months. He has done his best to forget all about the man and get on with his life, agreeing to take his dressmaker friend Maisie to a nightclub, to dance and drink and forget their troubles. At the club, Will encounters an old army mate, who now works as a waiter after returning from the war. He reveals that not everything is above board at the club, and Will's observations while he's there only confirm the impression. 

It's only after his visit that Kim suddenly appears in his bookshop again, claiming to have stayed away from Will to protect him, but now needing his help to unravel and unmask yet another dangerous conspiracy. Part of Will wants to tell the handsome aristocrat to go to the devil and take his spy plots with him, but another part is pretty thoroughly smitten with both Kim Secretan and the perilous lifestyle he leads, so of course, he agrees to help, keeping the full truth of the investigation from Maisie and Lady Phoebe (Kim's fiancee), at least until the two women find themselves inextricably threatened by sinister forces.

Will is naturally very exasperated and a bit sick of Kim's proclivity for secrecy and double-dealing, but quietly running a bookstore and being a respectable citizen who doesn't end up in fights and break into places in the dead of night is also pretty boring, so when Kim comes knocking, it doesn't take long for Will to agree to help him once more. He has a lot less patience with Kim's secrecy this time around, but once the full truth of the matters Kim has been hiding is revealed, Will can understand why the man has been keeping his card extremely close to his chest, and why he's been worried about endangering others by sharing the secret. 

In Kim's absence, Will's friendship with both Maisie and Lady Phoebe has also further developed and he's come to be very fond of both women, as well as feel deeply protective of them. He thinks it's wonderful that Phoebe wants to go into business with Maisie and give her a chance to take her eye for couture to Paris, yet also worries that interacting too much with the wealthier classes will end in disappointment for his friend. As it happens, the secrets that Kim's keeping this time around very much have a chance to ruin not only Maisie and Phoebe's business plans, but could end up with one or both of them in lethal danger. 

While I found the pacing of this second book somewhat more uneven than that of the first and, like Will, had less patience for Kim's shifty behaviour, in the final third of the book, when everything is revealed (and you understand what Kim has been forced to keep entirely secret, not able to burden anyone with the terrible knowledge he holds) and there's a thrilling race to see how things are going to turn out, I was on the edge of my seat, so to speak, and very excited to see how everything would play out. The actual ending is bittersweet but very realistic. I'm decided a little bit to read the final volume of the series, mainly because I don't want to be done with these characters just yet. However, having now remembered how much I enjoyed the story when writing this review, I suspect book 3 will be moving swiftly to the top of my TBR list. 

Judging a book by its cover: This cover doesn't have me imagining that one of the characters is in a wheelchair, so that's a step up. I like the men in profile, and I very much like the silhouettes of the women at the centre (I'm assuming they're meant to be Maisie and Lady Phoebe). The art deco details are still excellent. Mainly, I find myself annoyed by the huge sideburns on our dude to the right (Will?) Can't tell you why, I just don't like them. 
 
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

Monday, 22 August 2022

CBR14 Book 20: "Shards of Earth" by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Page count: 558 pages
Audio book length: 18 hrs 43 mins
Rating: 4 stars
 
CBR14 Bingo: Cold (the majority of this novel is set in space, which is famously very cold)
 
Official book description:
Idris has neither aged nor slept since they remade his mind in the war. And one of humanity’s heroes now scrapes by on a freelance salvage vessel, to avoid the attention of greater powers.

Eighty years ago, Earth was destroyed by an alien enemy. Many escaped, but millions more died. So mankind created enhanced humans ­such as Idris - who could communicate mind-to-mind with our aggressors. Then these ‘Architects’ simply disappeared and Idris and his kind became obsolete.

Now, Idris and his crew have something strange, abandoned in space. It’s clearly the work of the Architects – but are they really returning? And if so, why? Hunted by gangsters, cults, and governments, Idris and his crew race across the galaxy as they search for answers. For they now possess something of incalculable value, and many would kill to obtain it.

Shards of Earth was the July book club pick of my fantasy/sci-fi book club, and unusual for me, I had actually finished the book BEFORE the meeting. Right? I was as shocked as I'm sure you were. The general consensus of the people at the meeting who had finished the book (most of them) was that it was entertaining, but that the beginning of the book was rather slow and info-dumpy and that the plot narrative didn't necessarily benefit from each new section of the book arresting the plot momentum by going into a flashback, giving the reader background info relevant to this planet/section of space. A couple of people were especially annoyed by this, I think I'd gotten used to it by the third time the book changes location.

As is the case with a lot of sci-fi adventure, we follow a ragtag bunch of space farers, some of the more prominent being Idris, a man who was surgically and genetically modified early in the war against the huge and unfathomable Architects and for reasons I'm sure will be revealed in a later book in the series, has neither slept nor aged since his surgery. Idris and the others who were modified during the war were called Intermediaries, shortened to 'Ints' as the fighting wore on. Their mission was to try to telepathically connect with the giant, destructive moon-sized Architects in the hope to stop them from turning inhabited planets and settlements into abstract works of art, devoid of life. Idris was part of group of Ints who actually managed to mind meld with an Architect eighty years ago, and as a result, the massive alien disappeared, no Architects seen or heard from since. 

The surviving Ints also had an unprecedented ability to navigate ships through space, managing to find paths through the Void that others can't. This makes them extremely prized pilots, and caused the institute who created the first Ints to continue their experiments even after the war, creating in effect an indentured slave class forced to work as pilots until their brains give in. Idris is one of extremely few original Ints left, and bound to no one. To make sure he doesn't get kidnapped or stolen into slavery, he travels with his own lawyer, who can get him out of any scrape. They both reside the salvage vessel The Vulture God with a number of colourful rogues. 

Our other major POV character in the story is Solace of the Partheni. The Partheni are elite female soldiers, all genetically engineered by a scientist shortly before the start of the Architect War. They proved to be extremely useful in fighting the Architects and Solace was there when Idris and others took on an Architect in the final battle of the war. She hasn't aged noticeably either, but only because she's been kept in suspended animation. Now her superiors have need of her and a rather sensitive job they need her to perform, and Solace will need to locate and reunite with Idris.

Solace and the crew of the Vulture God find something very unexpected on what was supposed to be a routine salvage mission. Now they seem to be hunted through space by various groups of space mafia and criminals, as well as government officials and Idris can sense very worrying things in the Void that suggest that the decades of peace may be coming to an end. 

I listened to this book in audio and was surprised to find that the narrator is Sophie Aldred. To most people, that name means very little. But married as I am to the biggest Doctor Who nerd of my acquaintance, to me, Sophie Aldred will always be Ace, the Seventh Doctor's companion (who famously beat up a dalek with a baseball bat in one story). Because she was the main companion on Doctor Who when my husband was a child and first watched the show, he's obviously especially fond of that era, and I've seen pretty much all the stories with her. I've also listened to a lot of audio dramas with her, because we don't play at being Doctor Who fans in our household. Big Finish Audios are an important supplemental source of stories. So it was really strange to me, and probably took me about an hour or so of the novel to get used to Ace telling me the story, except of course, she wasn't Ace at all. Aldred is in fact a very good narrator, who manages to give the various characters, no matter what origin (there are quite a few aliens and cybernetic characters). I suspect listening to book 2 will be less of an adjustment. 

This was my first novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It clearly won't be the last. 
 
Judging a book by its cover: There was some discussion during our book club about the cover of the novel. About half of the members think it was a bit too generically sci-fi, especially with the cold shades of blue and a lot of black with some scattered spacecraft. I personally think it's quite cool, especially with the planet in the lower right corner in the process of being opened up and rearranged by the Architects. The second cover is mostly in shades of red, and my bet is going to be that the third novel in the trilogy is dominated by green.
 
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

Saturday, 30 July 2022

CBR14 Book 19: "Fangirl, the Manga, vol 2" by Sam Maggs, Rainbow Rowell and Gabi Nam

Page count: 224 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Bodies (Cath and Levi become a lot more aware of each other's bodies in this volume - not like THAT. Get your mind out of the gutter!)

Cath has started getting more comfortable at college and with her classes, but she still finds it difficult to reconcile the fact that her twin, Wren, is having such a great time without her. Wren is embracing the party lifestyle and seems to spend a lot of evenings out drinking with her roommate. Meanwhile, Levi keeps coming round to Cath and Reagan's room and hanging out, being incredibly friendly, helpful, and charming, making friends with Cath even when she tries to resist him. He's willing to drive her places late at night, he brings her free coffee and he even wants to hear about her Simon Snow fan fiction. 

In fact, Cath might be growing to like Levi a bit too much. He's Reagan's boyfriend, after all. Or is he? After a very confusing night, when Cath ends up reading the entirety of The Outsiders to Levi because the audiobook isn't available, he and Cath end up kissing before falling asleep and when a tearful Cath confesses this to her roommate, Reagan is unsurprised and admits that she and Levi are very good friends, but haven't been a couple since before they came to college. Could the reason Levi has been hanging around Cath and Reagan's room all this time be because he really likes Cath? 

Sam Maggs continues to adapt Fangirl the novel beautifully, aided by the lovely artwork by Gabi Nam. It seems suitable that Levi graces the cover of this volume since he's a very important character throughout. I can repeat my complaint from my review of the first volume that it takes a depressingly long time between these volumes, and there is absolutely no news as to when volume 3 will be available. Readers should be aware that this book ends on one heck of a cliffhanger - those who have read the novel probably know which scene I'm referring to. It'll be a long wait to continue the story. 

Judging a book by its cover: Volume 2 has Gabi Nam's version of the wonderful Levi, complete with sensible winter boots and cozy knitwear. Where the cover of volume 1 was a warm, autumnal yellow, this cover is a wintery blue, with each volume following a season of Cath's first year of college.
 
Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 18: "Slippery Creatures" by K.J. Charles

Page count: 264 pages
Rating: 4 stars
 
CBR14 Bingo: Snake (SPOILER: being a thoroughly disreputable sort, Kim also turns out to betray Will at least once during the story)

Will Darling has inherited his late uncle's bookshop and is grateful for the fact. After serving in World War I, most of his skills involve killing swiftly and efficiently, not really a commodity on the post-war job markets back in England. Now he just needs to get some idea of all the books actually in the shop and get on with being a bookseller. Then some very shifty people show up and demand that Will give them information, or very bad things might start happening. Will has no idea what information they want, and he certainly doesn't react well to threats.

The thuggish criminals are followed by officious men from the war office, claiming that Will is in possession of secret information and that he'd do well to pass it on to them. Even if he knew what they were talking about, Will isn't in the mood to just be ordered about - it's peacetime now, and he's done being the obedient soldier. He's puzzled by the threats and demands and sets about going through his uncle's very disordered correspondence to find some clues. He also befriends the charming and handsome Kim Secretan, who offers to help with the search for the mysterious and likely dangerous information. 

As Will and Kim grow closer, it becomes obvious that Kim is more than he seems at first, not to mention that there is a mutual attraction between them. Their search for answers uncovers secrets that could mean very real danger for tens of thousands of people, and Will is determined to keep it out of the hands of the criminals. Will's friendship with occasional benefits with Kim comes to a halt as he discovers that the attractive man has betrayed him. He wants nothing more to do with the man, but might not have a choice when he finds himself chloroformed and abducted to a remote house in the country. 

I've seen so many positive write-ups of K.J. Charles' Will Darling Adventures and this summer, I was determined to finally get through the series. Slippery Creatures is the first in a trilogy, with the working class Will Darling as one of our protagonists and the aristocratic Kim Secretan (what a great name for a man who's so full of secrets) as the second. There is a developing romance, secrets, organised crime, violent thugs, officious government agents, any number of dusty books that might hide vital information, kidnapping, loyal supporting characters and more. 

I really liked that Charles has set her books in the post World War I-era, not a time period where you find as many historical romances or mysteries. Will is rather adrift after serving on the battlefields in France for four years, and finding his feet in the new post-war world would be challenging for anyone, even if there weren't sinister thugs and government types badgering you for information you're not even sure exists, or if it does, where in the thousands of books in your store it may be hidden. It's no wonder he turns to the genial, charming, handsome and very helpful Kim, who of course has his own agenda.

I really like both Will and Kim as characters, for all that Kim is a bit of a snake. I love Maisie, Will's seamstress friend from Wales, and lady Phoebe, Kim's bubbly and incredibly friendly fiancee. This was a fast-paced and exciting book, with a very promising developing romance. There is no HEA or even really a HFN, but since this is the first of a trilogy, I wasn't really expecting it. I'm sure that all will be resolved by the end of book three.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm really sure if it's just me, but every time I look at this, even thought I know that Will is just sitting on a regular chair, my brain insists, just for a fraction of a second, as seeing it as a wheelchair. Which is a bit odd, no? I think it's because of the dagger, the metal of it makes me want to think it's a wheel. Apart from that, cracking cover design. 
 
Crossposted by Cannonball Read


Tuesday, 5 July 2022

CBR14 Book 17: "I Kissed Shara Wheeler" by Casey McQuiston

Page count: 368 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 25 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

It's not exactly easy being Chloe Green, the bisexual girl with two mums when also trying to become valedictorian at Willowgrove Christian Academy in a small Alabama town. She keeps trying to protest against the school's puritanical rules with frequent dress code violations, but also has to make sure she doesn't actually end up expelled. Chloe has friends, having quickly befriended the other queer kids at Willowgrove, but she's mostly avoided interacting too much with the rest of the student body. 

Everything changes when her academic nemesis, the most popular girl in school, prom queen, not to mention the school principal's perfect daughter, Shara Wheeler, pulls Chloe into a maintenance elevator, kisses her with some serious intent, then slips away. Two nights later, just as she is about to be announced prom queen, Shara disappears without a trace. One month before graduation, Shara is nowhere to be found. Chloe is furious (and rather confused about the kiss). She refuses to win valedictorian by forfeit. That would be an empty victory. Oh no, Chloe needs to see Shara's face when she discovers that she's been beaten, which means finding her. 

Chloe breaks into Shara's bedroom to look for clues and is startled when Rory Heron, the bad boy from next door climbing in through the window. It turns out that Shara kissed him too, one night before Prom, and now he's wondering what happened to her. Chloe and Rory find a note on Shara's distinctive stationery addressed to Rory, but the note also mentions Chloe, as well as Smith, Shara's quarterback boyfriend. Rory isn't exactly wild about the idea of telling Smith Parker, Shara's longtime boyfriend, that both he and Chloe kissed Shara. Chloe, however, wants to get to the bottom of Shara's cryptic clues, so insists Smith needs to be told. Smith gets over the fact that his girlfriend cheated on him with two others remarkably quickly and is persuaded by Chloe to join in on the strange scavenger hunt Shara seems to have arranged. 

While Chloe has barely spoken to Smith, star quarterback and one of the most popular guys in school or Rory, well-known deadbeat and rock musician, she's now forced into an unlikely alliance with both of them in order to locate all of Shara's infuriating notes. She has to go to popular people parties, break into the principal's office, crawl through air ducts (like in an action movie) and before she knows it, she suddenly knows a lot more about both Smith and Rory. She also, unfortunately, has to keep lying to her mums, not to mention her loyal friends. 

Finding Shara becomes an obsession for Chloe (much more so than for Smith and Rory) and while searching for her nemesis, she discovers a lot of unexpected truths about Smith, Rory, Shara and herself. Will Chloe find Shara in time for final exams and graduation, so she can show Shara once and for all who is best? 

I'm not sure there are enough words for me to describe how much I love and cherish Red, White & Royal Blue, Casey McQuiston's debut novel. I adore every single character in it and would read any follow up McQuiston chose to write. Of course, they don't seem interested in writing any sequels and would rather move onto other things. Typical. One Last Stop, McQuiston's second novel was fine, but it never wowed me the way that I was hoping for. I've read lots of positive reviews for it and am glad that it worked for a lot of people, but I kept wanting to love it and only managed to kind of like it. 

This book, though, McQuiston's first YA novel, pretty much had me instantly hooked. I alternated between reading it in e-book and listening to it in audio, all to get through it faster. Natalie Naudus, the audio narrator is really good and managed to give distinct voices to a large cast of characters. 

Chloe is an interesting protagonist. She would probably get along well with Tracy Flick from Election, as well as Amy and Molly from Booksmart. Alternatively, she'd instantly decide to compete against them and crush them. While Amy and Molly really only have each other, Chloe has her little group of queer friends. It becomes obvious that she hasn't really gotten to know many others at Willowgrove because she has pre-judged them rather harshly without really knowing much about them at all. Her mental image of Shara Wheeler also doesn't correspond much with the truth, but over the course of the scavenger hunt, it becomes clear to her, Smith and Rory that no one really knew Shara and the image she projected to everyone, even her parents, was a very elaborate act. Neither Smith, her boyfriend of several years, nor Rory, the boy next door with a major crush on her, had any idea how much Shara was hiding. 

I really wish that Chloe wasn't the only POV character we got in the book (we get some insight into Shara's thoughts and wishes through her notes). Smith and Rory are awesome characters and I would have loved to read more about their inner lives. The same goes for Georgia, Chloe's mostly closeted lesbian friend and Benjy, her gay buddy. These two get more or less forgotten about by Chloe in her obsession to find Shara, and it would have been great to read more about how that made them feel. Other great supporting characters include Chloe's mums and at least one of the teachers at Willowgrove. I shouldn't really be surprised that the book is full of wonderful and engaging characters, both primary and supporting, writing interesting people seems to be one of the things McQuiston does best. 

There is a romance in this book, but anyone picking up the book hoping for the intense swoon of Red, White & Royal Blue will be disappointed. The main focus of the story is on friendships, new and old, and an exploration of being a queer teen in a small, very close-minded and judgemental community. For the first two thirds of the book, there is obviously also the mystery of where Shara Wheeler disappeared to, and why. If there had been a stronger romance, this would have easily been a five-star read for me. It's still a great book, though and when I re-read it, which I known I will, knowing what the book is rather than what I initially was wanting it to be I may yet upgrade it to a full five stars.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm guessing, from the description of her in the book, that the young woman on the cover is meant to be the titular Shara herself, although while her face is partially obscured, this does not look like the most stunningly beautiful high school senior you ever saw. I also find the big obvious lipstick kisses on the envelope annoying, as they are not on any of the envelopes in the book. My least favourite of all of McQuiston's covers.
 
Crossposted on Cannonball Read