Monday, 23 January 2023

CBR15 Book 5: "The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy" by Megan Bannen

Page count: 453 pages
Rating: 5 stars

CBR Passport Challenge: New to Me author

In a world very unlike our own, most people live on islands and when people die, they are not buried in coffins, but rather placed in boats and sent out to sea (like when we bury someone in the ground) or the boats are cremated. So undertakers don't just need to know the rituals of cleaning and treating a body, there are rituals to follow and sacred words to be spoken - but they need to be able to work wood and construct a variety of different boats for the deceased. Additionally, most people have a key around their necks from birth until death, and once they die - the keys of their departed loved ones are placed on a family altar and revered or at least kept safe in the keeping of their families. 

There is also an enclosed wilderness called Tanria, where once the Old Gods were imprisoned and now contain enough precious resources that people still risk their lives to go there. Marshalls have to patrol the area because drudges, zombie-like creatures inhabited by the souls of those who have previously died in Tanria attack new people when the corpse-shell they're inhabiting is too rotted to be of use are a danger to anyone foolish enough to venture into the area. Being a Marshall is a demanding and dangerous job, but Hart Ralston has been doing it alone for a long time and fools himself that he's happy in his solitude. He's very annoyed when his supervisor forces him to take on an apprentice, but the enthusiastic young man soon grows on him, despite Hart's attempts to stay impersonal and distant.

There are very few people of note in Hart's life. He's a demi-god, his father was one of the many New Gods who once roamed the world, although Hart has never discovered exactly what god fathered him (his Mum claimed he was called Jeff). One of the gifts he was granted is the ability to actually see the souls of the departed. Very useful when killing drudges, as he can ensure the soul has definitely left the body. Now, with both his mother and his de-facto father figure, the Marshall who trained Hart from he was sixteen, dead, Hart pretty much only has his former partner, now his supervisor and her wife as friends and due to a heated disagreement some years before, he doesn't really feel like he can rely on his supervisor either. 

Hart also has a nemesis, a person who riles him up like no other. Mercy Birdsall, the woman who seems to be single-handedly running the struggling undertaking business of "Birdsall and Sons" after her father had a heart attack the year before (the son in question seems a lot more interested in cooking and baking than taking care of dead bodies) for some reason brings out the worst in him, every time. Every time Hart has to deliver a body to her business (an occurrence happening a lot more often since the drudge problem in Tanria seems to be worsening), they snipe at each other and trade vicious insults. 

One evening, after a particularly bad argument with Mercy, Hart starts writing a letter, pouring out some of his sadness and loneliness to an anonymous "friend". He feels better after confessing some of his emotions and posts the letter, but never expects a reply, as it's not actually addressed to anyone in particular. So imagine his surprise when about a week later, he receives a reply from "a friend", who also seems to be lonely and all too happy to share their similar feelings of loneliness. Now it doesn't take a genius to realise who the mystery correspondent is, but it takes months of exchanging letters and becoming closer and fond of one another before Hart discovers that his anonymous pen pal is none other than Mercy Birdsall, and of course, he's been in love with her for years already (his partner finds the whole situation both hilarious and tragic). Of course, Hart refuses to tell Mercy that he is her "friend" in return, which only gets more complicated once they leave their animosity behind and start falling for each other for real.

This was such a strange book. The world-building is very unusual, the characters are all rich and interesting, even fairly minor supporting ones who you don't really need to suspect have complex inner lives. In parts, it's sweet and romantic, in other parts it's gory and rather terrifying. Anyone who feels squeamish about corpses should probably give this book a miss. It has the You've Got Mail thing of two feuding enemies falling for one another over time in anonymous correspondence, and unfortunately that section of the plot where one of them has discovered the identity of the other, but for REASONS can't bring themselves to confess the truth, and the tension just keeps building and you know the reveal is going to be awful and your beloved characters are going to suffer (interestingly, in the movie You've Got Mail, I don't care one jot if the protagonists suffer because I'm so disgusted with them both committing emotional adultery towards their current partners). 

This book also doesn't underestimate the intelligence of its readers. You are not given a heavy info dump in the early chapters, giving you all the facts you need to understand how the world works, how the religion factors in, why people act the way they do and so forth. The relevant information is revealed when the reader needs it and they have to piece together the little snippets of knowledge to make up a bigger whole as the story progresses. As I've tried to explain in the plot summary, without spoiling too much, the world building and overall plot of the book is rather complex. There's a lot more to the story than two enemies finding each other through anonymous letters. What exactly is Tanria? Why are people so keen to keep going there, even though they might very likely be killed by drudges? How are the drudges possessed by the souls of the dead, and why are there suddenly so many more drudges appearing? Where are all these extra corpses in Tanria coming from? What's the story of the Old and the New Gods? How come some people are demi-gods and how are they different from the rest of the population? Why do Hart and Mercy hate each other so much? Why was Hart's unaddressed letter sent to Mercy in the first place?

The characters of the story, are as I mentioned, all interesting and fully fleshed out, even when they only appear in a few scenes. Mercy's family members are chaotic and lovely, and it's not cruelty or neglect that make them oblivious to her struggles at keeping the undertaking business from going under. Hart starts the book as an ornery and rather selfish person, but let's just say his heart grows a bunch of sizes after he is forced to first take on a bubbly apprentice and grows very fond of him, and then has to come to terms with his feelings for Mercy and their troubled past together. He also has to do a lot of reflecting on his relationship both with his dead partner who trained him and acted as the only father he ever knew, and the now strained relationship with his ex-partner and see if fences can be mended, despite the harsh words that were exchanged years ago. Then there's the whole issue of his real father. Does being a demigod mean that Hart is immortal (a lot of demi-gods aren't)? He certainly seems to heal very quickly from even really serious injuries. 

This book may not be for everyone, but for me, it was pretty much perfection. It offered up something different from your general paranormal fantasy (this one doesn't really fit into 'urban' fantasy, as any of the settlements in this world are rather small and separate from the others), it had a fun premise, great characters, it made me laugh, cringe and towards the end, almost ugly-cry. Books that make me feel that many things deserve five stars. As far as I can tell, this is the first non-YA novel that Megan Bannen has written. I'm going to have to seek out her two YA books now, to see if they're as creative and well-written as this one. I also hope that there may be more books coming about Hart and Mercy, since Goodreads lists this as the first in a series. I would love to read more from this world and about these lovely people. 

Judging a book by its cover: I'm not sure why the cover design and colour choices made me think this was a YA novel, but it really did. I love teal, so any book in that colour is likely to catch my eye, and the bright pink (which also seems to be on the spine) brings a bright splash to the centre of the cover. I love the contrast between the golden lines and flowers, and the naked, skeletal bones. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday, 22 January 2023

CBR15 Book 4: "Magic Tides" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 163 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

While this book is the start of a new chapter in the lives of Kate Daniels and her family, I suspect this book will work a lot better if you've read at least some of the previous thirteen books and various novellas. As always, I would recommend strongly skipping the first book (as do the authors themselves). Start with book 2, Magic Burns

Set seven years after Magic Triumphs (and about two years before the events of Blood Heir), Kate, her former Beast-Lord husband, and their extremely powerful shapeshifter son have moved to Wilmington to start a new life, determined to keep a low profile. This doesn't exactly last very long. When it turns out the nephew of their contractor has been abducted by human traffickers, Kate straps on her sword and goes to kick some ass. The boy's father accompanies her, very doubtful about this woman's promises, but after Kate beats several goons unconscious, beheads the gang leader, rescues a handful of children, and torches the compound to the ground, he's shell-shocked but a lot more optimistic.

Kate's rescue mission takes her first to the Order of Merciful Aid, and then she has to pay a visit to the vampire training ground of the People (her megalomanic magical overlord father's former minions), praying that no one there recognises her for who she really is (their now deposed and exiled god-king's even more powerful daughter) and either challenges her or decides to swear their undying allegiance to her. While Kate is off on her rescue mission, Curran and Conlan are left making sure their contractor's whole family is safe behind the walls of their fortified estate, waiting for the rest of the enraged human traffickers to show up and demand payment in blood. 

This was a very unexpected surprise from my favourite author team, announced in mid-December, only a few weeks before the actual release date. After a five-year break from the main Kate Daniels series and about two years since the first book in the sequel series about Julie, Kate's adopted daughter (all grown up and a magical powerhouse of her own), it was a delightful treat to discover that there would be a series of novellas about Kate and her family in their new home. I have said before, and will no doubt say it again, I will pre-order and probably buy in multiple formats anything that Ilona Andrews publishes. In my eyes, they can do no wrong.

As with all their books, this has an excellent mix of quips, action, strange mythological enemies, and a great family dynamic and it was just so nice to revisit already familiar characters. My reason for withholding half a star is just that I'm petty, and I wanted more than a 163-page novella. Like the rest of the Book-Devouring Horde, I'm insatiable. 

Judging a book by its cover: This fits into the other books about Kate in that it features a skinny, dark-haired chick with a sword and there's a ghostly lion on the cover as well. I did like the treasure chest of gold in the lower right corner, but generally, this slots into the many many bad covers these authors have had over the years. I get that it's even harder to get good covers when you self-publish, but this seems pretty generic. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

CBR15 Book 3: "Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute" by Talia Hibbert

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR15 Passport Challenge: Books from different countries (the UK)

Celine Bangura and Bradley "Brad" Graeme used to be best friends until Brad callously decided to ditch Celine and get with the popular crowd (this is Celine's interpretation of past events, anyway). Now, every time they are near each other, they trade insults or compete academically. Their mothers are still best friends, though, which means they keep hearing glowing accounts of any accomplishment the other has achieved. 

One of Celine's dreams is to become a lawyer, like her role model Katherine Breakspeare. She wants to become powerful and successful, so she can pay back her mother for the decades of hard work of raising two daughters after Celine's dad left (to start a new family with his mistress). Rubbing her success in her dad's face wouldn't exactly be a downside either. Brad's parents think he wants to be a lawyer, but secretly he wants to become a science fiction writer. When it turns out that the Breakspeare Enrichment Program, a demanding survival course involving several hikes in the woods and a strong focus on cooperation, is opened up to high schoolers, Celine becomes determined to nab a spot. The top three graduates of the BEP are given full scholarships at the university of their choice, while other graduates are almost always guaranteed internships at a number of fancy businesses. Imagine Celine's surprise when Brad turns out to go for the same program. 

To Celine, a scholarship would ensure her place at a top university; to Brad, it would allow him to afford a flat by himself (Brad struggles with anxiety and germophobia, so the idea of sharing a living space with someone who doesn't understand him is a nightmare to him). Multiple-day hikes in the woods will of course present their own challenges to both teenagers, but they are both stubborn and very determined to succeed. As they are forced to spend a lot more time together, they start to rediscover what once made them such good friends, and as is so often the case with enemies, the jump to love isn't that far. However, Celine is plagued with emotional baggage and insecurities from when her father left and while deep down, she's head over heels for Brad - she insists on them playing it casual. Can Brad convince her that he would never leave her, like her rat of a dad? And can Brad and Celine survive all the challenges of the BEP to win the exclusive scholarships?

I haven't read all that many Talia Hibbert books, but all the ones I've read are great, and Take a Hint, Dani Brown was one of my top three books of 2020, while the follow-up, Act Your Age, Eve Brown, was in my top ten of 2021. So she hasn't just achieved auto-buy status with me, she's now one of the few authors from whom I will make sure to pre-order her next release. Naturally, I was excited when I heard she was writing YA book, and the title and the cute cover did nothing to dispel my excitement.

Was the book perfect? Not really. Was it sweet and enjoyable and dealt with Brad's anxiety and mental health issues in a good way. Yup. One of my main complaints is that due to Celine's obsessive need to rub her potential success in her absentee father's face (despite being told by multiple people that this will in no way bring her joy or satisfaction) and her many issues about having been abandoned by a parent, the actual romantic relationship between Brad and Celine is side-lined for much of the book and poor Brad deserved better. Also, it meant that I got a lot less smooching (this being YA, I'm not expecting anything spicier) than I wanted. 

I suspect fans of Talia Hibbert will enjoy this, although if you have an antipathy towards YA, it may be better to stick to her contemporary romances for adults. The steaminess level of this book is certainly very mild compared to her Brown Sisters novels. I'm just happy Ms. Hibbert is in a mental health space to write and publish novels again, it's been a long wait since Eve Brown to the release of this one. 

Judging a book by its cover: Multiple shades of pink on the cover give you some idea of how sweet the contents of the book are. As cartoon covers go, I don't hate this one. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday, 9 January 2023

CBR15 Book 2: "The Stolen Heir" by Holly Black

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Wren thought she was a normal human girl until the night when scary monsters out of a nightmare came and claimed she was in fact their daughter and had to come back to Faerie with them. Lord Jarel and Lady Nore of the Court of Teeth rip away her human glamour and make sure that Wren sees her human parents reject her faerie self (bluish skin, blue hair, mouth full of razor-sharp teeth) with horror and disgust. The cruel faeries, accompanied by the fearsome Stormhag threaten the lives of Wren's human family, and though only nine years old, Wren is forced to go with them to keep her loved ones safe. 

In the Court of Teeth, she is Queen Suren, but queen in name only. She is kept captive and tortured both physically and emotionally until she's barely a shell of her former self and an angry, vicious feral child. Her faery parents keep her literally chained and controlled with a magic bridle and their plan is to marry Suren to Prince Oak, heir to the Greenbriar Throne, and then have him (and probably Wren/Suren) murdered, so they can be High King and Queen. Their plan fails spectacularly, High Queen Jude publicly chops off the head of the giant serpent that used to be her husband and saves not only High King Cardan but increases his power and their joint hold on Elfhame. During the brief time of negotiations and attempted betrayals, Wren/Suren gets to know Prince Oak a bit better. He doesn't seem scared of her and treats her with kindness, but after the Battle of the Serpent, as it comes to be known, Suren is still forced back to the now disbanded Court of Teeth, with Jude having ordered that henceforth Lady Nore and Lord Jarel need to obey all of Suren's commands. Terrified and despondent that she couldn't find safety in the High Court, Wren basically nopes out and runs away to the human world, living homeless in the woods and trying to engage with Faerie as little as possible.

At nineteen, Wren survives by foraging for food in the woods, eating leftovers she finds in rubbish bins, or stealing food from the house of her un-family (what she has learned to call her human family), who she's unable to let go of. She can never forget the horrified reaction of her parents (even though she now knows they were spelled to react so badly) and she fears that they or her former sister would react just as badly if they saw her again. Nevertheless, she keeps creeping around their house, breaking in when they're asleep. Wren has discovered she has the power to dissolve spells and curses if she works hard enough, so she tends to try to save foolish humans from faerie curses when she's able.

Then one night, the Stormhag is coming for her, and to her surprise, the one who rescues her is none other than Prince Oak, all grown up and very formidable. He claims to need her help, as Lady Nore has reclaimed power in the North, now using dark magic to animate hideous creations from sticks, snow, and the body parts of the dead. She's clearly building an army and will be looking to Elfhame for revenge and conquest. As the deeply reluctant heir to the throne, Oak has spent his adolescence making himself into the perfect target for all the assassins coming for the royal family. He's taken it upon himself to stop Lady Nore and rescue his captured father, former Grand General Madoc. He needs Wren, as she is the only one with the power to control her mother. 

While the thought of going back to the Court of Teeth and seeing Lady Nore again fills Wren with dread, she also can't allow the psychotic creature who claims to be her mother to succeed in her sinister, necromantic plans. Nor can she forget that she and Oak seemed to be friends for a very short while as children and that he's now grown into a very handsome, charming, and manipulative young man, who's clearly not going to hesitate to get her to agree, one way or the other. Bogdana, the Storm hag, catches up with them before they've gotten very far on their quest, and shocks Wren/Suren with the truth of her "birth". Faeries can't lie, and Wren, who's never exactly been happy in her own skin, comes to doubt herself further. 

She reluctantly accompanies Oak and his two companions. Tiernan is Oak's bodyguard (not that he gets to do much guarding, the way Oak throws himself headfirst into danger) and Hyacinthe, their prisoner, is a former soldier of Madoc's, now under a curse and able to give them information about the Ice Needle Citadel, as he served Lady Nore there for many years. Tiernan clearly doesn't trust Wren one bit, and Wren is only too aware that Oak has several hidden agendas and if his pleasant looks and manners are a deception, she could end up a captive in the Court of Teeth once more. Faeries can't directly lie, but as a result, they become very skilled at twisting the truth, and Oak, for all that he is only seventeen, has clearly been hardened by years of near-successful assassination attempts and interacting with two-faced courtiers. Desperate for love and belonging, Wren is all too aware that if she's not careful, she'll lose her heart to his honey-tongued words, and considering all the pain and loss she has suffered so far in her short life, she doesn't think she'll survive the pain of having her heart broken by the prince.

I've been eagerly anticipating the release of this book for months and months, since it first came to my attention that Holly Black was writing more from her dark and twisted Elfhame universe. Toxic and damaged as they are, Jude and Cardan shouldn't work as a couple, yet ended up doing after all and after such a feat, Black (whose writing I was already pretty enamored with) owns my eternal loyalty. Turns out, that shocking and brutal as the opening to The Cruel Prince is for Jude and her sisters, Wren/Suren has it SO much worse. Seriously, Jude and Cardan played mind games and tried to kill one another before they kind of reluctantly fell madly in love with each other, and both got some serious baggage growing up in Faerie. Neither of them had to face a fraction of the f*cked up sh*t Suren has to go through before she's even 12 and when you add to her torment some of the stuff she eventually suffers in this book - let's just say the girl has my metaphorical sword and I wan to eviscerate anyone who harms a blue hair on her head henceforth. 

In interviews, Black has said that this is the first part of a duology, and while Wren/Suren is our point of view character in this book, the next book is Oak's, and we're going to see a lot of the same events that we see in this one through his eyes instead. While all of the books in the Folk of the Air trilogy were sort of exhausting because Jude and Cardan are really extreme personalities and not necessarily pleasant people to spend time with, in this I loved Wren from the start, but was also very aware that there were clearly a whole lot of things under the surface, and people waiting to double-cross or manipulate and all sorts of twists and turns, and even when a lot of things became clear, it's obvious that there is so much more going on that we won't know about until the second book. Based on how this book ends, I cannot imagine that Oak's book won't also continue the story, because if Wren and Oak's relationship ends where this book left it, I may have to burn some things down. 

As of now, I've rated this book four stars, but which rating it's ultimately going to end up with very much depends on whether Black can deliver with the second part of the story (which based on her previous novels, I'm pretty sure she can). There is no release date for Oak's book on Holly Black's website and I don't even know if she's started writing it yet. So I guess I'll just have to pine listlessly until the next book comes out, hopefully early next year. 

Judging a book by its cover: Is it a cage? Is it Wren's hidden willow den in the woods? I love that the cover image easily evokes both images. I'm also guessing that since this cover is mostly white (some of the limited special editions are all black), Oak's book is going to be mostly black. Although based on the way he's described in this book, maybe the theme will be heavy on the gold instead. It'll be interesting to see in a year if my prediction holds true.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday, 8 January 2023

CBR15 Book 1: "After Dark with the Duke" by Julie Anne Long

This book was published by an imprint of HarperCollins and I’m withholding my review until the HarperCollins Union gets a contract. I will update this post then.

Some Do’s & Don’ts if you want to help

Do’s:

  • Donate online to the strike hardship fund.
  • Sign the Strike Solidarity Open Letter.
  • Talk about the HarperCollins Union. Share their graphics on social media, put information in your newsletters, and invite friends to do the same.
  • Email peopleteam@harpercollins.com and brian.murray@harpercollins.com and tell them you support the union getting a contract as a reader and reviewer.
  • Join/visit the picket line if you’re in NYC.
  • Follow @hcpunion on social media.

Don’ts:

  • Don’t boycott HC titles. It hurts authors and the union loves the authors they work with.
  • Don’t post reviews of books from HarperCollins or HarperCollins imprints (see below)

HarperCollins Imprints:

  • Allida
  • Amistad
  • Anthony Bourdain Books
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  • Clarion Books
  • Custom House
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  • Ecco
  • Editorial Vida
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  • Harper Alley/Books/Business/Children’s Audio/Children’s Books/Design/Festival/Luxe/Perennial/Teen/Voyager/Wave/Audio/Collins 360/Collins Espanol/One/Via
  • Harvest
  • HQN Books
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  • Love Inspired
  • Mariner
  • MIRA Books
  • Olive Tree
  • Park Row Books
  • Quill Tree Books
  • Thomas Nelson
  • Tommy Nelson
  • VERSIFY
  • W Publishing Group
  • Walden Pond Press
  • WestBow Press
  • William Morrow
  • Zonderkidz
  • Zondervan
  • Zondervan Academic

Saturday, 31 December 2022

CBR14 Book 52: "The Sandman, Act III" by Neil Gaiman and Dirk Maggs

Page count: 444 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Act III of the full-cast audio adaptation of The Sandman was suddenly released with what felt like absolutely no fanfare or previous advertising. Suddenly, one day, it was just there on Audible. This installment covers the two collections Brief Lives and World's End, as well as some of the stories collected in the anthology volume Fables and Reflections (the very first volume I ever read). It means we finally get the full and tragic story of Dream's son Orpheus and his beloved Euridyce, whose love story is doomed on their wedding day and only gets worse from there. The Song of Orpheus is a much better introduction to Sandman and the Endless than Preludes and Nocturnes, in my opinion, but I may also be biased, as this is where my love affair with the graphic novel began. 

Regé-Jean Page really does an amazing job as Orpheus. His voice is incredibly pleasant, even when he's just talking. And when he sings, you really can believe he could persuade the king and queen of the Underworld to stretch their rules, just once. 

In Brief Lives, the youngest of the Endless, Delerium (who was once Delight) wants to go searching for the missing member of the family, Destruction. She tries to appeal to several of her siblings, but is rejected by both Desire and Despair. Dream, who has recently broken up with a mortal lover, is even broodier than normal, and agrees to come with her mainly to distract himself from his wounded feelings. The journey doesn't entirely go as they expected, and a lot of people end up dead in their wake. The price Dream has to pay to finally keep his promise to his youngest sister is a high one, indeed, and sets in motion events that will reverberate through the rest of the series. 

World's End is Gaiman's tribute to The Canterbury Tales, with a number of travelers from all over time and different worlds, stuck in a large inn at the end of the world. There is a mystical supernatural storm that has stranded them all there, and they spend their time telling stories. There are stories, within stories, within stories. Quite a few of them feature one or several of the Endless or other characters we've come across over the course of the story in some way, and all are imaginative and fantastical. Our POV character for this section is Brant Tucker, voiced really well by Wil Wheaton. 

I haven't checked, but I'm assuming that at some point, possibly completely unannounced, Audible will release Act IV, which I'm guessing will collect the longest of the Sandman stories, The Kindly Ones (possibly my favourite, even though it's deeply tragic) and The Wake. As I'm highly doubtful that Netflix will commit enough time and money for the TV adaptation to ever get that far, I'm going to be waiting with bated breath, to finally hear the entirety of one of my favourite graphic novels finally adapted. 

If you're not already a fan of Sandman and the audio drama adaptations, this is not the place to start. If you liked what you heard in Acts I and II, I don't think you'll be disappointed with this installment either. 

Judging a book by its cover: Not really my favourite of the images they've used, but I like that if you look closely at the figures swirling around the big head, you get some hints of the stories within. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 51: "Season of Love" by Helena Greer

Page count: 390 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Ten years ago, Miriam Blum cut all ties with her entire family, including her eccentric great-aunt. Now she turns antique junk into creative and incisive art and has a loyal following on Instagram. She has a beautiful and wealthy fiancée and while they're never going to share a passionate romance, they love each others as friends and support one another. Miriam is working towards finally opening her own art studio in Charleston when she is informed that her great-aunt Cass died (no one had even told Miriam that Cass was ill) and she drops everything to go to her aunt's large Christmas tree farm in upstate New York to sit shiva. She's terrified at the prospect that her father might be there, but also needs to see her remaining relatives.

Once she arrives at Carrigan's, her aunt's big farm, she discovers that Levi, her childhood friend not only dated her cousin and former best friend Hannah for years, then took off and broke her heart, but that Hannah has been pretty much running the farm with the assistance of the capable and rather hostile Noelle. Noelle found a warm welcome, a second (more supportive family) and a new home at Carrigan's and cannot understand how Miriam could have hurt everyone so much by just disappearing for a decade, cutting herself off from everyone. The fact that Miriam seems to be welcomed back by everyone with open arms, her long absence forgiven without any consequences, riles Noelle up even more. Luckily, Miriam won't be staying long - she'll go back to her art scene in Charleston and marry her perfect lawyer fiancée and Noelle won't have to deal with her or admit to her very inconvenient attraction to the woman.

Of course, Cassiopeia Carrigan loved to meddle and match-make, and once her will is read, it turns out she has left the Christmas tree farm in equal shares to Noelle, Hannah, Miriam, and Levi. Not only did she go back on her promise to leave it to only Noelle and Hannah, but she also hid the fact that the farm was financially struggling and that she wants all four of her heirs to work together to save the place (and in the case of Hannah and Noelle, their home). Miriam is flabbergasted, Noelle is furious, Levi is off somewhere in the world, unable to be reached - while Hannah is just exhausted. Miriam understands the shock of the other two women, but after some consideration, might just have an idea to save Carrigan's and make it a financial success, she just needs to get her cousin/former best friend and her cousin's new best friend (who seems decidedly anti-Miriam) to agree to let Miriam stay, at least until Thanksgiving. 

If this seems like an overly detailed plot summary, relax, all of this is revealed within the first 20% of the book. The story is told through both Noelle and Miram's points of view, starting with Miriam getting her upsetting news and moving on with the plot at rather breakneck speed. Despite pretty much every single character in this story having a trailers worth of emotional baggage, trauma to process, and due to Cass' recent death, recent grief to work through, this book feels like a warm hug, and even though there are absolutely sections where heartbreak, alcoholism and/or severe emotional abuse is covered, it never gets too heavy or angsty and I never once had to put the book down because it was overwhelming me with the sads.

Helena Greer is basically writing a pretty standard romantic comedy here, but the protagonists are both lesbians, and one of the protagonists, as well as much of her actual and found family is Jewish. Obviously, because Cass owned and ran a Christmas tree farm, there are a bunch of both Jewish and more traditionally Christian holiday traditions explored, in a really cozy way. I would happily have read an entire book about any of these characters and was delighted to discover that the next book will be about Hannah and her globe-trotting ex, Levi. I also hope that Miriam's amazing BFF Cole gets a book of his own because he was a scene-stealing marvel and I refuse to believe that he can be contained as only the supporting role in someone else's novel. I would also like Miriam's ex Tara to get her own book, as she was a pretty awesome lady, who just happened to have her 'marriage of convenience' partner go off and fall for someone else. 

As well as being a lovely, rather slow-burn romance, there is such wonderful friendships and although very few of the family connections are biological, it shows all the more how important it is to have people who love and support you. A lot of queer people have experienced rejection from their born families, and have had to find their new families elsewhere. This is absolutely the case for both Noelle and Miriam, who have a lot of things in common while they are also extremely different. 

The whole book is peppered with pop culture references that seem like they were tailored especially to me. I take this to mean that Helena Greer and I would get on like a house on fire, and not only would I be great friends with all the various characters in this book, but I would be a perfect best friend for Ms. Greer. So you know, if you're in the market for that, Ms. Greer, send me a message!

It's a shame I read this so late in the year, as it very likely could have ended up in my top three favourites of the year over on Cannonball Read otherwise. It will absolutely be in my top ten and I will be impatiently awaiting Hannah and Levi's book sometime in 2023. 

Judging a book by its cover: While I still think the trend for cutesy cartoon covers should be over soon, please, this one is really quite adorable. Both Noelle and Miriam look pretty much exactly as described, and Kringle the cat is also in the picture. The couple wrapped up in a garland of coloured lights with small signifiers of most of the characters' Jewish background seemingly floating in the air around them, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that this book is very Jewish and also very queer. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read