Friday, 30 July 2021

#CBR13 Book 26: "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams

Page count: 208 pages
Audio book length: 5 hrs 51 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Machinery (space ships, the guide, Marvin - a lot of examples)

Arthur Dent wakes up one morning to discover his house is about to be bulldozed. He's very upset about it and goes to lie down in front of one of the bulldozers, so it can't knock down his house, but is interrupted by his friend Ford Prefect, who has some very important things to tell him, and very little time left to do so.

It turns out Ford Prefect is an alien who's been stuck on Earth for much longer than planned, but he's just gotten news that a large fleet of spaceships are coming to destroy the planet, and he plans to hitch a ride with one of the ships. Would Arthur like to come along? If he stays, certain death is guaranteed. Soon, a very befuddled Arthur is on board a Vogon ship, learning about aliens, Babelfish, why you should always travel with a towel, as well as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a small electronic record of everything cool and important there is to know about the universe.

Through a very strange coincidence, Ford and Arthur later find themselves onboard the most expensive ship in the galaxy, stolen by the charming, ne'er-do-well and current president of the galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox, accompanied by the lovely Trillian (born Tricia McMillan and someone Arthur once tried to pick up at a party). The ship is run by a probability engine and onboard is also Marvin, a paranoid and very depressed (and depressing) android. How did all these people come to be aboard the same ship, and why did Zaphod steal it in the first place?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was published in 1979 and is therefore only a few months younger than I am. It coincidentally means it (and I, who will probably have to do some sort of book-themed birthday party) turns 42 this year, which is pretty significant to anyone who has read the book. Frankly, because of the internet, I suspect a lot of people who have never encountered any version of this story (there's been an radio comedy, this novel, a BBC TV series, a stage show, a comic book, a computer game and the incredibly disappointing movie adaptation starring Martin Freeman, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel and Yasiin Bey) know that 42 is the answer to "life, the Universe and everything", without really knowing why exactly that is. 

This was one of the selections for the most recent CBR Book Clubs, Young at Heart. I can't actually remember how old I was when I first discovered Hitchhiker's, but I am pretty sure it was some time in secondary school, most likely 9th grade - so I was probably about 14, but may have been as young as 13. I don't really think I was all that proficient in reading in English before that (I was one of these strange children who never had to be told by a teacher or otherwise knowledgable grown-up that it's good to read in a foreign language when you're trying to improve your skills and vocabulary, I just nerdily figured it out for myself). Off I went to our local library and to begin with, I read children's books I'd already read in Norwegian (like Roald Dahl and the like), before graduating to more advanced book. FYI, Agatha Christie, whose books I devoured as a tween and teen, are terrible "learner's books" in English. She did not simplify her language one jot. 

I think it was one of the boys in my class who saw that I read a lot of fantasy who asked if I'd ever read Douglas Adams. I had not, but sought out the books (the first Norwegian translation of the book is AWFUL, I believe there is a much better one now that captures the wit and cleverness of the original) and was quickly won over. While thinking back to my early reading, in Norwegian and Swedish, and later English, I can think of so many different books and series that can be classified as fantasy, but I really think Douglas Adams' strange, creative, and very funny series (which sadly diminishes in quality sharply after book 3) was among the first sci-fi books I read. 

Having read the books, I later also watched the TV series and listened to the radio show. My husband still maintains that the audio show is the best, I can't remember enough details to confirm or deny. Nevertheless, when I first read these books, I loved them, and they were unlike anything I'd ever read before. Now, revisiting the first book at least 25 years later, it doesn't really impress me as much. Although the audio version I listened to was excellently narrated by Stephen Fry, I kept getting distracted by how often Adams uses adjectives like 'mind-boggling' and while the book will have been very revolutionary in 1979, we now basically all carry devices way more powerful and useful than The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in our pockets (as far as I could tell from the novel, the guide can't be used as a camera, music player, GPS or all-round entertainment device). Although, true story, for at least some of my early Nokia phones, when they had start-up screen messages, mine said "Don't Panic". So Adams' influence is strong. 

I'm glad I discovered and read the book in the early 1990s. I'm not sure it would impress a teenager reading it for the first time today as much. 

Judging a book by its cover: Obviously, a book that's been out for over forty years has had a large variety of covers. The one that accompanied my audio version was very similar to the one I have on my own bookshelf, which is in an omnibus edition collecting all five Douglas novels (I know there was a sixth novel post-humously completed by Eion Colfer, I choose to ignore that). I like the bubble letters and the grinning green alien. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

#CBR13 Book 25: "Hør Her'a!" (Listen here) by Gulraiz Sharif

Page count: 178 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Free (borrowed at the library)

Official book description:
It is summer vacation and fifteen-year-old Mahmoud is imagining long days on the bench outside his building with his friend, one-eyed Arif. This summer will be different, however, because the family is getting a visit from Uncle-ji from Pakistan and Mahmoud's job will be to show his uncle around. Uncle-ji is very surprised at what he sees in Norway, and what is going on with Ali, Mahmoud's little brother, who is not behaving the way boys should? Over the course of the summer vacation, Mahmoud will be tested both as a brother and son in a Pakistani family. 

Mahmoud lives in a large high rise in the east of Oslo (from his descriptions, I'm going to guess it's very near where I myself live), where the majority of the population are first, second and third-generation immigrants. He describes the strict, overworked fathers, the worried, loudly gossiping mothers, and his wishes to just take it easy over the summer until school starts again. No such luck. His father's elder brother is coming to visit them from Pakistan, leading his mother into a cleaning, cooking, and baking frenzy to prove that she is a worthy wife (something her in-laws don't seem to believe). Mahmoud's father is a taxi driver and since he doesn't have the time to show his brother the sights of Norway's capital, Mahmoud is given the job, very much against his wishes.

Mahmoud's uncle clearly comes from a very traditional Pakistani background, and initially seems very taken aback by the liberal views and attitudes of Norwegians, even those of foreign descent. As the weeks pass, he seems rather seduced by the country, though, and keeps asking Mahmoud what it would take for him to be able to move there (as Mahmoud says, with the current rather strict immigration policies towards brown people, it's not likely to happen). While Mahmoud resents his given task, to begin with, he comes to enjoy the various outings he can drag his uncle along to. He also discovers that Uncle-ji may not be as strict and conservative as he appeared at first.

Which is a good thing, because it's becoming more and more clear that Mahmoud's little brother Ali isn't like all of the other boys his age. He mostly wants to play dress-up with his mother's clothes and experiment with make-up, and could there be a different reason he loves his Disney Princess dolls than the fact that he sort of fancies the way they look? Mahmoud's father will not tolerate anything but traditional masculine behaviours from his two sons, so a worried Mahmoud, aided by his mother, tries to cover up Ali's actions as much as possible. But it's proving to be more challenging than Mahmoud was prepared for and his little brother is clearly miserable. What's a guy to do?

I really don't read a lot of Norwegian (which is absurd, as I teach it every year), and when I do, it's usually a book that is relevant to my teaching in some way. This book, which has become a bestselling publishing sensation had me laughing out loud so hard I nearly fell off the sofa within its first few pages, because Mahmoud, our narrator is a very funny guy and has a very honest view of what he feels about Norwegian society, the way he is treated as compared to those born in Norway with white skin and a Scandinavian-sounding name. He also keeps speaking directly to conservative politicians like our current prime minister, Erna Solberg, to offer his opinions about her politics (he's not a huge fan). 

I didn't actually know all that much about the novel before picking it up at the library. I thought it was just going to be a rather humorous tale about a minority background youth growing up in the east of Oslo, and by all means, it is that. I was not prepared for the fairy serious LGBTQIA-heavy subplot that emerges and is dealt with in such a sensitive and insightful (as it appears to me, certainly) way. There is a high chance that we will be using this book as part of our curriculum in 10th grade next year, and if so, I'm really looking forward to teaching it. 

Judging a book by its cover: Considering that this is a YA novel written by a minority background Norwegian immigrant, which seems to be targeting teenage boys as part of its core audience, I'm surprised at how unassuming and neutral the book cover they've chosen for this is. I suspect the rather plain mono-coloured background with a picture of a high rise is in part inspired by the most successful "immigrant narrative" in Norway in the last decade, Tante Ulrikkes vei. There are a lot of similarities, but as someone who teaches teenagers, the majority of whom happen to be of the boy variety at the moment, I'm pretty sure none of them would voluntarily pick this book up because of the cover. This seems like a missed opportunity by the publishers, really. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read 

#CBR13 Book 24: "Broken (in the best possible way)" by Jenny Lawson

Page count: 288 pages
Audio book length: 8 hrs 18 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Rep (features honest and sometimes graphic descriptions of life with a variety of mental and chronic illnesses)
It's no secret that Jenny Lawson, known online and to her followers as The Bloggess, suffers from a large number of ailments, both physical and mental. She has dealt with various kinds of chronic illness throughout her life and manages to be mostly very light-hearted and humourous about it. 

I chose to get this book in audio, because Jenny Lawson narrates her own books, and hearing her voice talk about all these frequently absurd, yet also occasionally absolutely heart-breaking things makes me feel closer to her. Due to the pandemic, this book was recorded in a closet in her house that she turned into a recording booth, which led to its own challenges, mainly that her cats didn't necessarily want to give her privacy while recording. At least a few places, the mews have been left in the finished book.

In contrast to her previous two books, I found this one a bit slow to get into. She also covers some really rather serious topics, and lets her readers in on some of the 'secrets' of a long-lasting and successful marriage, when one of the partners has as many health considerations as Ms. Lawson does. She is very honest about the tolls her depression takes on herself and those close to her, and one of the most affecting parts of the book is her open letter to her insurance company, literally begging them to fund essential life-improving treatments for her. As Ms. Lawson points out, in many cases, she's privileged enough to be able to afford some of them, but the vast majority of Americans cannot, and in a lot of cases, this can literally lead to deaths. 

As I'm currently struggling with anxiety and depression as well, reading about Ms. Lawson's stuggles certainly puts things into perspective. My depression is (hopefully) a passing thing, which will get better with medication and therapy. I'm never going to have to resort to ketamine injections or transcranial magnetic stimulation to live a halfway normal life. Jenny Lawson has shared a lot of her life with readers already, not only on her blog, but in two previous memoirs, Let's Pretend This Never Happened and Furiously HappyBoth are highly recommended. However, if you read either or both of these before, and they didn't appeal to you, this book won't either. 

Judging a book by its cover: With her third book, Jenny Lawson wanted to do something different with the cover, and the very talented Omar Rayyan turned a photo where she's holding one of her many cats into this brilliant depiction of her and the monster that I think is supposed to symbolise her depression and/or chronic illness. Or possibly just the weirdness that is her life. Either way, I love it. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday, 26 July 2021

#CBR13 Books 22-23: "Eg snakkar om det heile tida" by Camara Lundestad Joof and "Ikkje ver redd sånne som meg" by Sumaya Jirde Ali

Eg snakkar om det heile tida (I talk about it all the time)
Page count: 94 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Official book description:
I call a friend. 
Did the man in the bar call me a black b*tch when I didn't want to give him my number? That time we had arranged to drink beer, but we drank tequila instead?
She goes quiet.
No. He called you the n-word.
Thank you, I say. Thank you for remembering.

I talk about it all the time is a witness statement, an appeal and a personal examination. Camara Lundestad Joof is born in Norway, with a Norwegian mother and Gambian father. This book describes how the racism she constantly experiences infects her everyday life and controls her thoughts. She searches her memories. What if she remembers something incorrectly, how will anyone believe her? How many details do you have to remember to seem credible? Does she believe in herself? And can she ever be free of the question of skin colour?

Ms. Joof is a stage performer and dramatist who works with documentary stage shows and deals with intersectionality, de-colonialism, and the criticism of common societal norms. While she is born and raised in Norway, and her mother is Norwegian, she has faced absolutely staggering acts of racism for much of her life. This short work of non-fiction is a series of short vignettes, some only a paragraph or two long, some covering a few pages, where she gives the reader insight into only a selection of all the 
insults, slurs, prejudice and micro-aggressions she faces on a daily basis.

I read this essay collection as part of my job, as we Norwegian teachers were looking for short and engaging texts in "nynorsk", a written variant of Norwegian that secondary and high school kids here are required to learn. For those students who don't live in one of the geographical areas where the language variant is the majority written language, there tends to be a lot of complaints and grumbling, and getting the pupils motivated to learn and write gets harder with each passing year, as English becomes more and more dominant in society. Nevertheless, the excerpts we used from this collection certainly sparked a lot of discussions, and also gave a lot of our minority background kids a chance to talk about difficult and unpleasant experiences they, friends or family members have faced over the course of their young lives. 

While I was able to borrow this book for free through the school, I bought my own copy, as I was deeply affected by Ms. Joof's words and her understandable anger, sense of despair and just disappointment that despite not ever wanting to, she keeps having to "talk about" new racist and prejudical experiences all the time. While Norway is a wonderful place to live in many ways, we have a long way to go when it comes to dealing with racism.

Ikkje ver redd sånne som meg
 (Don't be afraid of people like me)
Page count: 92 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Official book description: 
"It's only now, as a twenty-year-old, that I understand how crushing the 22nd of July was to me. To my identity. I was thirteen years old, and I did not escape the political. I carried it with my entire being"

Sumaya Jirde Ali came to Bodø (in the North of Norway) as a child and was treated like everyone else, she felt that she belonged. In this book she recounts the carefree days of her childhood. She tells about the schock when she heard about the terrorist attack in Oslo on the 22nd of July 2011 and what it did to change her self image and beliefs about belonging. She describes the feelings of shame and self contempt, of becoming dehumanised, and the need to belong. We also get insights into what she does to counteract hate, keep her spirits up and stand up for what she believes. 

I read this back in April (yup, that's how far behind I am on my reviews right now) and it feels very strange to review only a few days after the tenth anniversary of the terrible tragedy that features so prominently in this little book. As a teenager, Ms. Ali, whether she wanted to or not, was forced to face up to the knowledge that Anders Bering Breivik, the white supremacist who ended up killing a total of 77 (8 with a bomb in the centre of the Oslo government district, 69 at Utøya, a small island where the Labour Party Youth Association were having their annual summer camp) did it because he believed it was wrong for Norway to accept immigrants like her and others like her. While this horrific terrorist attack was so shocking and devastating to the Norwegian public, this book highlights how much worse it must have been for people with an immigrant background. Ms. Ali came to Norway as a young child, her family were refugees, she didn't ask to move here. However, after the events in July 2011, despite a relatively idyllic childhood in the North of Norway, she very much did not want to stay here. She had terrible guilt, just because of her immigrant status and the colour of her skin. 
As someone not directly affected by the terrorist attack, it's staggering to me how many people had their lives irrevocably changed by it, and still deal with the aftermath. Ms. Ali eventually accepted that her family were not going to listen to her pleas about moving back to Somalia, and got involved in public debates and tried to make a difference with her life - which sadly has led to her facing a lot of harassment in public and online. Like Ms. Joof, she's had to have police protection on occasion, and she admits to now having several mental health issues, anxiety among them, because of all the verbal persecution she has faced. 

Both of these books are short essay collections as part of a series called Norsk Røyndom, which translates as Norwegian secrets. The series asked a number of prominent members of society from a number of minority and discriminated groups to write and tell their stories. As well as these books about racism and racial harassment, there are books covering disability, LGBT+ issues, religion in modern society and other kinds of otherness in Norway today. It's a very informative and interesting project and I suspect I will seek out more after seeing the high quality of these two books. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday, 23 July 2021

#CBR13 Books 16-21: "Mystic Bayou series" by Molly Harper

CBR13 Bingo: Home (so many of the various characters come from very unstable family backgrounds and are only too happy to settle in Mystic Bayou, having finally find somewhere they can properly call home)

This is going to be a bulk review for the first six stories (four novels, two novellas) in the Mystic Bayou paranormal romance series by Molly Harper. I listened to all the books in audio, as they are available as part of the Audible Plus catalogue. Considering that I already pay quite a lot for that one credit a month, you'd best believe I jumped at the chance of getting all these extra audiobooks as a bonus. I also just discovered that there is a new book in the series, that was released earlier this week, so I know what one of my next listens is going to be.

I'll write a short plot summary of each of the stories, then do a sort of joint review of the series as a whole. 

Every story in the series is narrated by the same people, Jonathan Davis and Amanda Ronconi. This is a series of interconnected stories, all set in the same town, but starring different couples in each new installment. While at first, I thought it might be strange, the narrators mostly manage the various roles really well, different accents and personalities of the various characters included. It also means that the continuity throughout the series, where the protagonists from earlier books pretty much make up the core supporting cast. I was especially fond of the portrayal of the town's large and burly bear shifter mayor, and glad his accent and voice remained consistent throughout.

How to Date Your Dragon
Page count: 248 pages
Audio book length: 6 hrs 24 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Doctor Jillian Ramsey is preparing for her first field assignment in South America for the League of Interspecies Cooperation (a secret government body making sure that the existence of any and all supernatural creatures stays hidden from humanity in general) when she is suddenly told she's being sent to a small town in Louisiana instead. Mystic Bayou is a small town where the residents mostly keep to themselves, but it's very unusual in that supernatural creatures and humans live openly side by side without any major conflicts and even frequently inter-marry. The League knows full well that the truth about the supernatural will come out eventually, and want Jillian to write a research report on what exactly works and how the locals interact with one another, to use as a guide when some supernatural finally get themselves caught on camera in such a way that the wider world figures out that all the things that go bump in the night also live among them. 

Having prepared to only study one tribe of South American supernaturals, Jillian feels a bit unprepared to meet a small town full of all kinds of beings, but since she thrives on research and loves observing new places and meeting new people. She's rather overwhelmed by the hearty welcome she gets from the outgoing and very loud mayor, Zed Barron, a bear shifter, but rather more intrigued by his best friend, the more guarded and almost hostile sheriff, Bael Boone. She also can't figure out what kind of supernatural being Bael is (it's terribly rude to ask a supernatural about this), to the amusement of Zed and many other of the townsfolk (no points for guessing what he actually is, considering the title of the book).

Part of the reason there are so many supernaturals in Mystic Bayou and the surrounding area is a mysterious rift in the swamp, which seems to call to them and draw them towards the area. Recently, however, the rift seems to be changing, growing bigger and more overpowering. It also seems to not only cause supernatural babies to be born in fully human families, but also change the DNA of humans in the area, so they suddenly become supernatural creatures. As well as writing her report, Jillian tries to figure out what in the world could be causing this, by interviewing as many of the affected individuals as possible. 

While Jillian is pretty much adopted by Zed and his formidable Mama, it's Bael she keeps feeling drawn towards. While he keeps her at a distance initially, it's clear that the attraction is mutual, and once dead bodies start appearing among several of the people Jillian has been interviewing, Bael gets mighty protective, while also trying to figure out what links the serial killings to the anthropologist. 

Love and Other Wild Things 
Page count: 300 pages
Audio book length: 6 hrs 41 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Energy witch Danica "Dani" Teal is sent by the League to investigate the strange energy rift in Mystic Bayou that seems to keep expanding and is causing more supernatural babies to be born to regular humans, not to mention humans transforming into various shifters unexpectedly. She can see and manipulate energy and needs the commission she'll earn on the job to help pay off the debts on her grandparents' farm. Dani's irresponsible and shiftless father tricked her vulnerable grandmother into taking up loans at multiple banks, before running off somewhere, possibly India. Dani's grandfather, cousin, and herself didn't discover the truth until after her grandmother's death.

Dani easily strikes up a friendship with Jillian and has instant chemistry with the Mystic Bayou mayor, the large and enthusiastic bear-shifter Zed. Because of Dani's complicated past and family history, she really isn't looking for anything permanent, she just wants to do her job for the League and move on. Yet when she starts properly examining the energy flowing from the rift, she discovers that someone or something seems to be manipulating the strange portal, trying to open it wider and undoing all the work Dani puts in. This individual seems to also want to get Dani out of the way. Luckily, Zed isn't about to let anything harm the woman he's fallen for.  

Even Tree Nymphs Get the Blues
Page count: 106 pages
Audio book length: 3 hrs 3 mins
Rating: 3 stars

Ingrid Asher is a solitary Norwegian tree nymph intent on setting up her own dairy and ice cream production in the little town of Mystic Bayou. Having a very negative romantic encounter in her past, which she and her tree barely survived, she certainly isn't looking for romance. 

Rob Aspern, head of the League of Interspecies Cooperation's data science department is pretty literally stunned when he first encounters the beautiful Ingrid (she can control the trees in her vicinity and uses them well when it comes to defending her territory). He absolutely respects her need for privacy and independence, but they keep running into one another and their chemistry is undeniable. Encouraged by the enthusiastic female members of the League who have decided to take Ingrid under their wing, he tries to figure out why she's quite so reserved and uses his considerable intelligence to lay a plan to woo her.

Selkies are a Girl's Best Friend
Page count: 218 pages
Audio book length: 6 hrs 33 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Sonja Fong is human, but there are many in the League of Interspecies Cooperation who nevertheless feel that her abilities to plan, organise and procure unusual items is nothing less than uncanny, possibly supernatural. As the League's operations in Mystic Bayou are expanding, Sonja accepts a job as director of the League's research center, in part so she can be closer to her BFF, Dr. Jillian Ramsay. 

Sonja's love interest is the long-sought-after town doctor, who while new in the job, is actually a previous resident of Mystic Bayou. Will Carmody, a selkie or seal shifter, grew up in town and was very close with both Mayor Zed and Sheriff Bael, but left town several decades ago (shifters live a loong time and don't noticeably age much once they reach adulthood) and has worked in big cities like Seattle. He's sick of hiding his supernatural side and is happy to accept the job as the much-needed town doctor. 

While Sonja and Will flirt and their romance develops, the big energy rift that has been causing trouble in the Bayou is also becoming more dangerous. The rift appears to be unraveling, and Sonja, Will, and their friends and family have to work to try to save the town.

Always Be My Banshee
Page count: 226 pages
Audio book length: 7 hrs 11 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

Cordelia Canton doesn't really do field assignments for the League of Interspecies Cooperation, she's much more used to working in the archives and keeping out of sight. She's a touch-know psychic and her abilities are sorely needed in Mystic Bayou to figure out the origins of and use for a mysterious artifact that has been pulled out of the strange and chaotic energy rift there. As merely being in the presence of the artifact has led other supernatural beings to end up in the hospital, Cordelia needs to be careful as she examines and tries to solve the mystery of the artifact.

Working with her is Brendan O'Connor, a male banshee, who is there to make sure the artifact doesn't harm Cordelia or anyone else. They discover that the artifact is, in fact, sentient and has an agenda of its own, but trying to communicate with it is difficult, and it soon becomes clear that someone is intent on stealing the box and won't let a psychic or a banshee stand in the way of their success. 

One Fine Fae
Audio book length: 3 hrs 10 mins
Rating: 3 stars

Another novella-length story, this book is as of yet only available in audio format, but like the rest of the series can be accessed for free if you have an Audible Plus subscription (which I do). 

Charlotte McBee is a fairy and a supernatural midwife and has come to Mystic Bayou because it is nearly time for Dr Jillian Ramsay, wife of sheriff Bael Boone to give birth, and as far as records show, there has never been a phoenix/dragon baby before now. Hence the pregnancy and impending birth can definitely be classified as unusual and challenging, but Charlotte isn't particularly worried. She's sure she can get the mother through the ordeal, she just has to hope the dragon shifter father doesn't get so stressed he eats her before the baby is safely delivered.

Charlotte is quickly smitten by Leonard, Sonja Fong's incredibly clumsy executive assistant. Charlotte, being used to bestowing benevolent fairy gifts on the babies she delivers, can recognise the victim of a fairy curse when she sees one, and becomes determined to help Leonard break his, even if he chooses that he doesn't want to be in a relationship with her (due to his family being cursed for generations, he's naturally rather wary of fairies).

What I thought of the series:
Considering the difficulties I've had finding time and motivation to read this past year, finding a fun and light-hearted audiobook series I could pretty much glom was a true blessing. These books are pretty much pure fluff and the relatively short length of each book (even shorter for the novellas) didn't make any of the listens a major commitment. The fact that I always listen at x1.5 speed helps with that. 

I think the early books in the series were stronger and more enjoyable than the later ones, possibly because there was more establishing world-building. By Always Be My Banshee, some of the obligatory peril that the characters had to experience as part of finding their HEA seemed a little bit forced. 

As I mentioned in my introduction, the series has the same narrators for each book, but they do an excellent job at embodying the various characters and ensure that previously established characters in the series also feel and sound the same. With each new story, the cast of returning supporting characters gets bigger, with the heroines from the first books, Jillian and Dani, making a concerted effort to adopt each new lonely soul in the Bayou into their circle of friends. The focus on friendship and found family is absolutely one of the things that won me over with this series. 

I get the impression that the fictional version of the Southern states of the USA is about as accurate as that portrayed in the Sookie Stackhouse books (i.e. a lot of liberties taken). With the exception of the occasional thrown-in Scandinavian word (all of them pronounced atrociously), I can't really speak much for the various accents or dialects used. Zed felt like he was possibly a little bit too much of a parody Cajun, but he's also one of my favourite supporting characters and a real darling, so I'm not going to complain too much. 

As we know, just as any body can be a beach body as long as it appears on a beach, any book you choose to read on a beach can be a beach read. Likewise, if you choose to read a book in the summer, it becomes a summer read, no matter what marketing tells you. However, these books really are excellent brain breaks and very frothy, entertaining, and none too serious reads, excellent for any time you need some lighter fare to get you through life. If you're looking for some fun paranormals and have access to Audible Plus, you could do a lot worse. 

Judging the books by their covers: Considering the first book was published in 2018 and the last novella I've reviewed here came out in late 2020, there's been quite a change in cover design over the course of the series. My least favourite of the lot is probably Love and Other Wild Things, where the male model looks like he's trying to attack someone, and the female model (neither of which look anything like how the characters in the book are described) looks constipated or gassy. Always Be My Banshee is also pretty bad, with a dude badly photo-shopped in front of some trees. If I have to choose a favourite (not wild on any of them, to be honest), it would be Selkies are a Girl's Best Friend, where the cover model at least looks to be of Asian descent and there isn't an awkward clinch or bad photo-shopping involved. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday, 20 May 2021

#CBR13 Book 15: "The Devil Comes Courting" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Disclaimer! This was an ARC granted to me by the author, which has in no way influenced my review. I had also pre-ordered the books many months ago, because Courtney Milan is an auto-buy for me, every time.

Amelia Smith is a Chinese woman raised by English missionaries in China. When she was just a little girl, her birth mother, a woman fleeing during one of the many conflicts in the country, asked Mrs. Acheson, the woman who Amelia has thought of as her mother ever since, to help her child and take care of her. Amelia has faint memories of her birth mother asking her to wait for her, promising to return, but it's been nearly two decades and Amelia has long since given up hope. In her mid-twenties, she has already been widowed once, after a marriage to a much older missionary who worked in India. Now it looks like marriage to another missionary is imminent, although she hasn't actually met the man himself, only his prim and officious mother. Amelia didn't particularly enjoy marriage, and isn't exactly happy about the thought of another one to a complete stranger. So she fairly jumps at the chance at a different fate when an unusual job offer is presented to her.

The alternative fate in question comes thanks to Captain Grayson Hunter, an African American man in Asia to lay cables for an overseas telegraph line. He's told by Amelia's brother that Amelia has a brilliant mind and criminally underestimated potential, so comes to the town where she lives to find her. He doesn't actually know the person he's looking for is a woman at first but doesn't let his initial attraction to Amelia get in the way of his business plans. He finds her beautiful and enthralling, but what he desires most is her mind and the possibility that she may be able to find a way to encode Chinese characters for his telegraph network, a feat no one has yet to achieve. Grayson is used to burying his true emotions and pushing on to make his business plans become a reality, not just in matters of romance and sexual attraction, but also with regards to the serious losses he has suffered so far in his life. A relationship between him and the intriguing Mrs. Smith would be impossible, so he tries his best to ignore their obvious mutual attraction and chemistry. 

The Devil Comes Courting is the third full novel in The Worth Saga, published a full three years after the second novel in the series, After the Wedding. The Worth family, who we first meet in Once Upon a Marquess are mostly side-lined in this story, which focuses on Captain Grayson Hunter, brother of the hero in After the Wedding, and his ambitious plans to establish a world-spanning telegraph network. Unfortunately, most of the people he laid the initial plans with, including two of his brothers, are now dead and Grayson suffers terribly from survivor's guilt. We do have a member of the Worth family as a secondary character in the story - young Benedict Worth is now seventeen years old, and has left his home in England, where he was always miserable (your noble father and brother being convicted of treason will make life a lot less fun). He is now working for Captain Hunter under the pretense of looking for his sister Theresa, who ran off to Asia many years ago in search of their previously unheard-of half-sister. He doesn't feel like he can return to Europe until he has exhausted his search, so he diligently looks (but not too hard) for his sister in every port they come to. Captain Hunter assigns him to be Mrs. Smith's liaison in Shanghai and the two strike up a close friendship.

In her afterword, Ms. Milan says that this is the novel she structured her entire series to centre around. That probably explains why neither Once Upon a Marquess nor After the Wedding, the two first books in the series, felt entirely up to her gold standard of historical romance writing. However, I would gladly take ten slightly underwhelming (but still good) romances if the result I get is this masterpiece of a novel. Apparently, it's her longest novel yet, clocking in at over 400 pages. It doesn't feel long at all, the pages just fly by and both Amelia and Grayson are such amazing protagonists to spend time with, so you don't even mind (too much) that for much of the story they are separated and often on the other side of the world from one another. Grayson spends a lot of his time on ships, getting telegraphic cable pulled across the ocean floor. Amelia is stuck in Shanghai, trying to puzzle out a way to encode Chinese for the telegraph, since Grayson's dream is that the telegraph should make communication available for everyone, both in the interior of China and around the world. 

One of the obstacles in the way of their telegraphic empire is, in fact, to convince Chinese officials to allow telegraph lines within China, not exactly an easy task when the Chinese (pretty rightfully, in many cases) saw foreigners as barbarians and had two European-caused wars in their recent past to make the animosity towards outsiders even greater. Luckily, both Amelia and Grayson are brilliant and driven and work diligently both together and apart to achieve their goals, which means they have both professional and personal triumphs to celebrate by the end of the book.

There are so many issues covered in this book, so much interesting and unusual history explored and I'm not going to lie, I cried several times, both sad and happy, moved tears. Amelia and Grayson are impossible not to love, both separate and together, and they've both been through a lot throughout their lives. Amelia, already separated from her birth family and believing them to be lost forever, comes to realise several difficult truths about her new adopted family that forces her to reassess entirely who she believed herself to be and what she's going to do with her life going forward. Grayson, as I mentioned earlier, suffers terribly from survivor's guilt and believes that his surviving family, especially his mother, only sees his dead brothers and laments their deaths whenever he's around. So he ignores his family's frequent requests that he visit them in the States and spends most of his time away, laying telegraph cables. He believes he may finally find some peace and satisfaction if he finishes what he and his dead brothers started, and is prepared to go without close personal relationships or affection until that dream is achieved.

Courtney Milan is my favourite historical romance writer currently working. Every time she releases a new book, it's a treat, and this book just blew me away with how good it was. It almost rivals my absolutely favourite of her books, The Suffragette Scandal. Once I reread it, who knows, it may even overtake it? I'm only sorry that my hectic personal life and struggles with depression and executive dysfunction mean it has taken me so long to review the book. This should be read by absolutely everyone - you don't even need to have read anything by Milan before, it works marvelously on its own. This will clearly be in my top 10 at the end of the year. 

Judging a book by its cover: While I'm really not a fan of the continued tradition of "find a stock image of a woman in a wedding dress and then colour it in with any colour required to make a period-style dress, sort of" on these covers, at least this one is better than whatever was going on with After the Wedding, which might be the worst cover on any Courtney Milan novel ever. There's also the fact that Asian protagonists feature front and centre on romance covers, so yay for that, no matter how anachronistic the dress she's wearing is. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday, 15 May 2021

#CBR13 Book 14: "Second First Impressions" by Sally Thorne

Page count: 354 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Ruthie Midona is mid-twenties going on old-age pensioner, dressing like a Golden Girls-cosplayer, and has dedicated the last six years of her life to the Providence Luxury Retirement Villa. She doesn't just work the front desk there and go out of her way to make life flow smoothly for the residents, she also lives on-site and hasn't really had any complaints. In her spare time, she cares for the endangered turtles who populate the grounds of the retirement community, having given up on her dreams of becoming a vet because of a lack of funds. The arrival of two new people at Providence, who are both young, vibrant, and exciting in different ways makes Ruthie question her choices. Could there be more to life than just catering to wealthy retirees' every need?

Theodore "Teddy" Prescott has very different plans for his future than his father does. His father is the wealthy property developer who recently bought the Providence Retirement Villa, and he would like nothing more than for his son to one day be part of the family business. Teddy, on the other hand, has spent the last few years mostly living a life of leisure, crashing on the couches of friends, acquaintances and other benevolent guardian angels. He's an artist by nature and wants to save up enough to buy a share in his own tattoo studio. Teddy is tall, handsome, and incredibly charming and generally used to life working out for him. Now that he needs a place to stay, his father makes him get a job at Providence, hoping his son might come to his senses.

Ruthie is the daughter of a minister and only ever had one boyfriend, and a deeply religious one at that. So she doesn't exactly have a lot of experience with men, but even she knows that a man like Teddy is not for her. He may shower her with compliments, but he's obviously going to have very different plans for his future than being a homebody at a retirement home, so while she can practice her flirting on him, she'd do well to stay far away from him romantically. Melanie Sasaki, the temp also working at Providence absolutely agrees. She's beautiful, confident, and stylish, all qualities Ruthie wishes she possessed. Melanie decides to take Ruthie under her wing and help her find lasting love through "The Sasaki Method" a multi-step matchmaking program of Melanie's own making.

It's obvious to both Ruthie and Melanie that Teddy could use some humbling. Since Mr. Prescott wants him to find a job, they introduce him to the elderly and eccentric Parloni sisters, who have had a series of errand boys, none ever surviving a week, due to the absolutely preposterous tasks the old ladies ask them to perform. The wealthy women are bored and devious, and no one expects Teddy to last very long. However, he happily cuts their Big Macs into bite-size pieces, buries unwanted clothing of theirs in the garden, runs their errands, wears whatever they tell him to, and keeps up his cheerful demeanour and charm. 

While Ruthie is fully aware that Teddy seems destined to break her heart, and everyone around her, from the Parlonis to Melanie tells her the same thing, she can't really stay away from him (a task made more difficult since he lives next door to her and the walls are paper-thin). Is Teddy going to mend his roving ways, or is Ruthie doomed to a life of loneliness once he leaves to start his tattoo studio?

The Hating Game is one of my favourite contemporary romances. I adore that book. It may not be perfect, but every single aspect of it works for me. 99 Percent Mine was Sally Thorne's difficult second novel, so eagerly anticipated by everyone, and it was fine. Not awful, not something I regret devoting my time to reading, but also not a book I've ever found myself wanting to re-read. There are very few authors who write books I pretty much without exception adore. I can count them on one hand (probably even if I lost a few fingers). So my expectations should probably have been lower for the follow-up. This is Thorne's third romance, and I'm happy to say that I liked it more than 99 Percent Mine, and I wasn't really expecting to love it as much as The Hating Game. 

There is a lot to like in this book. Ruthie is a wonderful protagonist and I felt for her and the way she'd made herself a safe haven at Providence, unpleasant experiences in her past made it so she barely ever felt comfortable leaving the grounds. Her absolute dedication to her job, or to her favourite TV show in her spare time. Since I moved back to Norway in 2004, I haven't had regular access to a bathtub, and I have to respect and adore a woman whose idea of a good time is nightly soaks. Man, I miss having a bathtub. Anyway, I digress. 

Ruthie is great. Melanie would probably be rather exhausting to work with, but she is a hoot to read about. I would happily read her romance at some point, as well. The Parlonis are also great, although they seem like they might be rather nightmarish as employers. They are apparently a result of Sally Thorne and one of her best friends dreaming up what it would be like if they were wealthy elderly ladies with too much time on their hands. 

Teddy is the weak link here. While he is gorgeous, charming, and quite sensitive, I wasn't entirely convinced he was a good match for Ruthie. Yes, he kept complimenting her, and he worked hard for the Parlonis and made enough money to start his own tattoo studio, but he also seemed quite happy to ingratiate himself into Ruthie's house, eating her food and lounging on her sofa, and I wasn't convinced by his quick turnaround at the end of the book when he's suddenly all in on committing to her. Romances, where I'm not sure the hero is worthy of the heroine, are never going to work fully for me.

Still, your mileage may vary, and I've seen a lot of very enthusiastic reviews of this book. So just because I thought it was merely fine, if more enjoyable than 99 Percent Mine, it doesn't mean it's not going to work better for someone else. 

Judging a book by its cover: I really think the cover designers missed out when portraying these little cartoon people. Frumpy woman, seen from above. Perfectly fine. Turtles, also fine (although at least one of them should have had some sort of red markings on the shell). Guy seen from above - this can't possibly be our hero, who is described as having beautifully rendered ink on his hands and arms - where are the tattoos, cover designer? Where are the tattoos?

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.