Sunday, 16 January 2022

CBR14 Book 1: "A Very Beery New Year" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 56 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Encouraged by his mother to socialise more, introverted software developer Gerald Nakamura goes to his local craft beer bar to sit by the bar, reading a book, not really interacting with anyone except the serving staff. He especially likes exchanging a few words with the pretty and vivacious bartender Kelsey. 

Kelsey lives with her rather exasperating grandmother (who just discovered Tik Tok and is determined to become a viral sensation) and works at the bar until she can find something more suitable to her skillsets. She notices the silent, scowling man and begins to ask him the occasional question about the books he reads. As the weeks and months pass, they interact more and eventually even exchange phone number to continue to conversations via text.

While both Gerald and Kelsey find the other attractive, neither wants to ruin a good friendship by assuming anything more. While he's clearly shy, Gerald nevertheless shows up to Kelsey's second job, selling d*ck-shaped donuts at a popup stand in the park. He also politely interacts with her matchmaking grandmother - but does that mean he LIKES likes her, or just that he's a perfectly nice guy? When she recieves an invitation from Gerald to spend New Year's Eve together, she hopes she hasn't misread the situation, and that he wants to be more than just friends.

A Very Beery New Year was a free novella for subscibers of Jackie Lau's newsletter and one of the protagonists, Kelsey, already appeared occasionally in book 3 of The Cider Bar Sisters, as Nicole's cousin in The Professor Next Door. The novella features pretty much everything you want in a Jackie Lau story, except in smaller doses, since this is a novella. There's likeable, dedicated professionals who find a spark and have excellent banter with one another. There's mention of lots of food and drink, in this story, the afore-mentioned d*ick-shaped donuts (with a creamy filling) play an important part. There's also mentions of various craft beers for those who care about that stuff, I don't drink, and even when I did, beer was NOT something I enjoyed. 

Jackie Lau's stories continue to be comforting reads that I know will amuse and entertain me, and I'm looking forward to the next books in the Cider Bar Sisters, out later this year. 

Judging a book by its cover: I know for a fact that Jackie Lau doesn't have an easy time of it, finding decent-looking cover models for her books when going through stock photos. There's just not as many photos of hunky-looking Asian guys out there, but I think she manages pretty well. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

Monday, 27 December 2021

#CBR13 Book 56: "Fated Blades" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 222 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

This was an ARC from Netgalley. My views and opinions are my own. 

On the alien planet of Rada, most of the powerful families have genetic abilities in some way or another, but the ones born with lethal combat abilities are the fiercest of rivals, and none more so than the Adlers and the Baenas. They are constantly vying to be the most dominant, and now both families are close to discovering the secrets behind their genetic abilities. 

Matias Baena, head of his house, is surprised when he is told that Ramona Adler, head of hers, has come to see him unannounced. He's even more shocked when she has undeniable proof that her husband has been having an affair with his wife, and the couple is currently on the run with the business secrets of both the Baenas and the Adlers. Matias and Ramona have no choice but to join forces in tracking down their cheating spouses, to prevent possibly universe-altering technology being leaked and exploited. 

It quickly becomes apparent that there are some very deadly groups wanting the business secrets, and Matias and Ramona do not have a lot of time. They need to keep their personal alliance hidden from their families and business rivals, escape the lethal forces trying to kill them, and resist the rapidly growing attraction between them. Not only are they both still married (although that's not going to be lasting long), but their families have been bitter rivals for more generations than anyone alive can remember.

Previous to releasing this novella, author-pair Ilona Andrews hadn't written or published anything in their sci-fi series Kinsmen since 2011. So I think it's fair to say that this story took a lot of their fans by surprise. At the same time, die-hard Ilona Andrews fans, affectionately nicknamed the Book-Devouring Horde on their website(of which I am certainly a member), will buy and probably love anything they publish. The good news for those readers who haven't read any previous Kinsmen stories is that this stands entirely on its own and can act as a jumping-on point to the other stories in the series or just act as a very nice taste of what the authors have to offer.

There is interesting world-building, which even in a story this short, feels perfectly established. There are intricate power struggles. The protagonists are both extremely capable at what they do, top of their field and also start out as antagonists. The chemistry between the leads and the dialogue, both between primary and supporting characters, sparkles. In this story, there is a clear goal, some very impressive action sequences, some hot personal moments, and a wholly satisfying ending. Well, if I was going to quibble, the ending came a bit too soon for my taste and I would have loved to spend more time with Matias and Ramona than a longish novella. 

This story is available now and has been since late November. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to review it, but I am hoping to do better with my reviews in the coming year. 

Judging a book by its cover: After seeing this cover, and the one for Blood Heir, from the start of the year, I am of the opinion that Louisa Pressler should design and create all of Ilona Andrews' covers. Considering so many of their books are eye-sores, these recent self-published books are a welcome change. I love Pressler's art and even if Ilona Andrews were number one on my pre-order list, I would have bought the book based on this cover. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday, 16 December 2021

#CBR13 Book 55: "Donut Fall in Love" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 366 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! This was an ARC from Netgalley. My views are my own, and I had already pre-ordered the book before getting the advanced reader copy.

Ryan Kwok is grateful for the opportunities he's been given. While his latest movie, a romantic comedy, isn't getting the ravest of reviews, he's fully aware that it's unusual enough for rom coms to star Asian actors and he's lucky to have gotten the chance as a romantic leading man. He'd also like to be famous for more than his abs (which someone's started a Twitter account on behalf of). He's hoping to take some much-needed time off in Toronto, though, supporting his sister who just had her first baby, coming to terms with the loss of his mother, and trying, somehow, to reconnect with his father, who never seems to want to talk or fully acknowledge his grieving children. 

Lindsay McLeod is working hard to figure out new flavours and keep customers coming to her donut bakery, while her best friend/business partner is away on honeymoon. Her mother insists on bringing her dates to the bakery, to the embarrassment of both Lindsay and said awkward suitor, not to mention Lindsay's brother, who still shares a home with their mother. Lindsay certainly does not need some clumsy oaf crashing into her and knocking over two dozen of her speciality matcha tiramisu donuts, completely ruining hours of hard work. She doesn't care how handsome his smile is or how apologetic he seems. 

Ryan's agent suggests that he do a celebrity episode of the popular show Baking Fail, and he agrees because it was one of the shows his mother really used to enjoy watching. He doesn't want to make a complete fool of himself on air, however, so he's clearly going to need someone to give him some baking lessons. Who better to ask than the very attractive, yet prickly bakery owner he'd love to have an opportunity to see again? If she's giving him baking lessons, Ryan will have a chance to see her regularly and get a chance to get to know her better.

I feel so very guilty about this review. I got the ARC months ago, and finished the book in October, just before its October 26th release date. Only now am I getting round to actually reviewing it, which isn't in any way ideal. The even worse part is that I really enjoyed the book. Jackie Lau is quickly becoming one of my favourite contemporary romance authors. She combines likeable leads with great chemistry and usually excellent banter, absolutely amazing descriptions of food and beverages, there's always a fun supporting cast and usually an undertone of something a bit more serious to keep the books from being too frothy and forgettable. 

In this book, the more serious subplot is the way both Ryan and Lindsay have to process grief from losing a parent. Ryan's loss is a lot more recent than Lindsay's, but since her mother is now dating regularly again, she's still forced to come to terms with the death of her father. Ryan is also struggling with how to forge a new relationship with his father, without his mother there to act as an emotional bridge. Add to that worrying about his sister, who really seems to be having a hard time as the mother of a new-born boy, Ryan has more than enough things on his plate without also having to worry about being mixed up with other Canadian Asian actors on social media, and concerns that his career isn't going as well as it might because audiences just won't accept an Asian leading man in anything but an action movie.

This is a lovely romance, and I very much enjoyed it. I'm sorry that work stress, depression, corona, and familial responsibilities have kept me from posting a review until now. My normal warning about reading Ms. Lau's books while hungry applies - you WILL want donuts or other sweet treats when reading this book. 

Judging a book by its cover: While Ms. Lau normally self-publishes her romances and tends to be pretty good about finding good stock photos to illustrate her covers, this book is traditionally published and therefore has the pretty common cartoony illustrated romance cover instead. While I'm sometimes not a huge fan of these, this one is very cute. I love the background colour, the positioning of the characters and the playful swirl of the no-doubt delectable scent of the donuts on Ryan's tray. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday, 15 December 2021

#CBR13 Book 54: "Breaking Badger" by Shelly Laurenston

Page count: 378 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! This was an ARC from Netgalley. It has in no way influenced my review. 

This is the fourth book in an ongoing series. While this book works on its own, it will be much more enjoyable if you've read the first three books in the Honey Badger Chronicles, which start with Hot and Badgered. 

While the first three books in the Honey Badger Chronicles introduce us to the three MacKilligan sisters Charlie, Stevie, and Max who have different mothers but the same utterly irredeemable deadbeat dad. Not only do a lot of people hate and shun the women because of actions perpetrated by their father, or seek them out to hurt them in some misguided attempt to get revenge on him, but on more than one occasion, he tried to sell Stevie to drug cartels or Max into domestic slavery. No matter how bad the scrapes he gets himself into, their horrible dad seems to manage to survive against all odds to every so often pop up in the women's lives like a malevolent jack in the box to disrupt their peace. In the first three books, the sisters each find a romantic partner, and they also settle down in a New York suburb mostly populated by shapeshifters. Their closest neighbours are all various kinds of bears who are willing to put up with Max stealing honey from their hives because of the huge amount of baked goods provided when Charlie stress bakes (which she does a lot). 

In book 3, Badger to the Bone, the MacKilligan sisters discover that they have another half-sister, a young deaf woman with a devious mind and truly exceptional computer skills. Her entire family is comprised of Siberian tiger shifters and she has her three eldest half-brothers, known in the shifter community as the Black Malones, wrapped entirely around her scheming little finger. Only her youngest half-brother, who is also constantly berated and underestimated by the older Malones, has any idea of his sister's true nature. In Breaking Badger, Laurenston, having already paired up her first three MacKilligan sisters, moves on to the members of Max' basketball team, all honey badgers (they are also Max' gun-toting backup crew who get her out of trouble)

Finn Malone and his two eldest brothers are determined to find out not only how their father was killed but are out to avenge his death.  In this book, Finn is thrown together with Mads Galendotter, one of Max' best friends. Because of her truly awful family, Mads has a number of trust issues and has trouble even trusting that her basketball crew (they are clearly all sisters from different misters) won't abandon and disappoint her. However, by now the truly bonkers adventures of the MacKilligan sisters and their various loved ones take up most of the plot. The romance between Finn and Mads is rather secondary, and I didn't even mind, because I just love spending time with these characters. Learning more about the various women in Max' basketball team was enlightening, and it's very obvious that Laurenston has plans for at least a few more of these dangerous ladies and the other two Black Malone brothers.

In April 2020, I read The Unleashing by Shelly Laurenston, the first in a series of books especially beloved by several of the reviewers on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. I had trouble getting into the story and didn't find the romance particularly convincing. I was therefore a bit reluctant to start the Honey Badger Chronicles, but I shouldn't have worried, they are incredibly entertaining, ridiculously violent and the plots are completely crazy. The bonds between the MacKilligan sisters and later the found family of Max' basketball team was a lovely touch, as are the various ways in which these women are all utterly kick-ass. You do not want to mess with honey badger shifters, but you especially don't want to get on Charlie MacKilligan's bad side. There's a scene in this book that had me literally gasping out loud at the audacity of Laurenston, and if I wasn't completely sold on the books by now, that scene probably ensured that I will be buying and reading these books in perpetuity.

This book came out in late August 2021. Thanks to circumstances really keeping me apathetic much of the time, I didn't find the time to finish reading the book until early October and I feel really bad that it's taken me so long to finish this review. If you're unsure of whether these books are for you - ask yourself this - do you like the Deadpool movies and James Gunn's The Suicide Squad? Then you'll love them. I firmly believe that Harley Quinn and Max MacKilligan would be BFFs. 

Judging a book by its cover: While the first three books in the series have dudes (who are clearly meant to be the various heroes of the books) prominently featured on the covers, I really like the cover redesign which just has a tiger and a stylised heart - so the reader can use their own imagination to picture the protagonists. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday, 1 November 2021

#CBR13 Book 53: "Lumberjanes, vol 1: Beware the Kitten Holy" by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis

Page count: 128 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR13 Bingo: The Wilds

Official book description:
FRIENDSHIP TO THE MAX!
At Miss Qiunzilla Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s camp for hard-core lady-types, things are not what they seem. Three-eyed foxes. Secret caves. Anagrams. Luckily, Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley are five rad, butt-kicking best pals determined to have an awesome summer together… And they’re not gonna let a magical quest or an array of supernatural critters get in their way! The mystery keeps getting bigger, and it all begins here.

I’m not outdoorsy in the slightest. Like even a little bit. I pretty much resent having to go outside into the woods, which makes me a very atypical Norwegian. So I was never in any form of Scouts. I know my husband was in the Scouts growing up in the north of England and it sounds like there was a lot of hiking and sleeping outdoors in all sorts of horrible conditions, not to mention extremely ruthless games of Capture the Flag where people may or may not have gotten limbs broken. So I can’t really relate to the five hard-core young lady types that we meet in this book, because spending a summer at a camp in the woods sounds like some sort of special hell for me. 

Nevertheless, this book, which has been on my TBR list since at least 2016 and on my physical bookshelf since mid-2018 was a wonderful portrayal of why some types of outdoorsy adventuresome persuasion (as well as the Lumberjanes, there's a camp of suspiciously friendly guys who may or may not be possessed by something) might enjoy camp life. Each issue is introduced by an excerpt from the Lumberjanes Field Guide, explaining the skills that they are meant to achieve, all at least tangentially relevant to the adventure they go on in the issue.

I wish there were more than four issues collected in this first trade. Thankfully, I have the next two in my collection and can get more volumes at my local library. It's taken me a very long time to start this comic, but I'm looking forward to reading more and getting to know the five young protagonists better.

Judging a Book by its Cover: The cover image is done by Noelle Stevenson herself, and at the back of the trade, there are a number of variant covers that were also really interesting. I like Stevenson's art and the slightly off-beat looks of all the various Lumberjanes. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday, 31 October 2021

#CBR13 Book 52: "When Sorrows Come" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Flora (there are a number of trees in the background and Toby appears to be holding a rose in her left hand. She also has a belt of roses on her dress)

Spoiler warning! This is book 15 (!) in the ongoing October Daye series. So very much not the place to start. There will be spoilers for previous books in the series in this review, although I shall try to avoid any big ones for the contents of this current book. Rosemary and Rue is the place to begin. 

It is finally time. October "Toby" Daye is going to marry her long-time fiancee, Tybalt, King of Cats and because she specifically asked everyone involved not to bother her with any details about the wedding, except when and where to show up, she is rather taken aback when she's told that she and all her friends will be travelling to Toronto, to the seat of the High King in less than 24 hours, for her nuptials to take place at the end of seven days. She is also very surprised to discover that Quentin, her loyal squire and pretty much adopted son at this point, has gone and changed not just his face by magic, but his entire self and faerie species, to be able to stand by her side at her wedding, without anyone at his home realising who he really is. Quentin's deal with the Luideag can only be reversed after he sees her duly married to Tybalt. They both have to stay alive and the event has to take place before the magic can be undone. The Sea Witch isn't going to let Toby find any further excuses to get out of her own wedding.

Of course, this is a major event involving Sir Toby Daye, hero of several realms, now known as a king-breaker in more than one capacity. Of course, the seven days before the wedding aren't going to pass quietly with Toby just having to attend dress fittings or try to figure out the various details involving strange etiquette that the ceremony will contain. Oh no, when Toby shows up somewhere, there are suddenly surprise insurrection attempts, people having been replaced by deadly doppelgangers, assassination attempts and so many bodies starting to pile up. Toby is forced to try to figure out who is trying to murder High King Sollys, the father of her beloved squire, not to mention try to steal his throne and kingdom. She also needs to make sure no one realises that Oberon, the King of all Faerie is one of the guests at the wedding (the Luideag insisted on bringing him along in disguise) or that the Crown Prince currently looks like a stranger. 

Toby herself is almost impossible to kill (she's not even sure she CAN die, at this point), but it would be nice to make it to her wedding day without anyone else in the wedding party being killed in the hunt for the traitors. It would also ruin the ceremony if the hosts, the High King and Queen (who also happen to be Quentin's parents) are dead and their rule usurped by some power-hungry rival. So Toby proceeds to do what she does best, investigate while trying to provoke as many people as possible, hoping to find the guilty parties before it's too late, and her own wedding is ruined. 

I'm not going to lie, the title of this book and the fact that McGuire has been finding reasons for this binding union between Toby and Tybalt to be postponed for so many books by now had me actually peeking at the last pages, just to make sure Tybalt actually survived long enough to make it to the altar. I was terrified that one of the "sorrows" of the title was going to be Toby becoming a widow before she was even a wife, and I was not ready to see Tybalt getting fridged. So SPOILER, I guess - Tybalt lives and he and Toby end this book as man and wife, which did not seem a given at the beginning of the story.

I also don't think Toby got disembowelled a single time in this book, which makes for a welcome change. She mostly manages to keep all of her blood inside her body. Aided by Tybalt, May, Raj, the disguised Quentin and a bunch of her other close friends and hangers-on, Toby is able to figure out who is replacing valued members of the High King's court with doppelgangers and trying to assassinate him before it's time for her to walk down the aisle (except faerie wedding ceremonies are a lot more complicated than the bride just walking down a straight stretch of ground). 

Because I had peeked at the ending, I was able to enjoy the book entirely, since I didn't need to worry that Tybalt, Raj or Quentin suddenly kick the bucket. There's a lot of different court officials for Toby to negotiate with to be allowed to do her job properly and my impression of the High Court of Toronto is that Quentin can't have had all that much fun growing up. There are some very touching scenes both between him and Toby and Tybalt and Toby in the book. Toby also has a very cathartic talk with her stepdad, Simon, now legally considered her father in all the ways that matter in faerie. 

There is also a novella at the end of the book, which really just acts as an extended epilogue, where we get to see what Toby and Tybalt's actual wedding feast is like. I'm guessing it was added as an optional extra to keep the page count of the novel within acceptable limits, but it's still a very fun read and it makes sense to just keep reading once you get to the end of the book proper. 

Since this is book 15, and storylines that were set up several books ago are finished off, this is not a book for beginners. If you're already a fan of the Toby Daye books, however, you should enjoy this installment as well. 

Judging a book by its cover: Upon first glance, I thought the cover was badly designed and inappropriate, for reasons I don't want to go into without spoiling some lovely details of the plot. Upon closer inspection, I can see that some of my objections are due to unfortunate colour choices when it comes to shading and the like for Toby's dress, and I may in fact have been completely wrong. It's a suitably dramatic cover, as always. I really like the cover art on these books. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday, 30 October 2021

#CBR13 Book 51: "Ubesvart anrop" (Unanswered call) by Nora Dåsnes

Page count: 283 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Official book description (translated by me):
Oslo, late summer 2011

Barely a month after the terror attacks on the 22nd of July, Rebekka and Fariba are starting high school. Rebekka doesn't know any of the people who died, and thinks she should be one of the ones who are ready to claim back their peace of mind. So when Fariba signs up for the Labour Party Youth Movement, Rebekka tries to get involved with drama club, with Daniel with the curly hair, with parties and school and friends. 

The only problem is that Rebekka thinks about it (the 22nd of July) all the time. 

Unanswered call is a graphic novel about being a teenager in the time after the 22nd of July. It's a story about looking for reason in the face of the unreasonable, about being an outsider, about grief and anxiety. About how hard it is to reach out to one another, and how important it is when we manage it. 

It's been ten years since one very determined and angry Norwegian man planted a car bomb in the very heart of the capital, right outside the building where the prime minister's office is located. At 3:25 pm on the 22nd of July 2011, the bomb went off and caused tremendous amounts of damages. The sound of the explosion and the shock wave resulting from it could be felt all over greater Oslo, and even in some neighbouring counties. A total of eight people are killed, nine people were critically injured and more than two hundred sustained physical injuries in some way. Pretty much every window in the buildings nearby is shattered. Police and emergency services work quickly to try to evacuate as much of the area as possible and the police start working on figuring out the culprit and motive for the attack.

As it turns out, the bomb was just a distraction, if a frightfully effective one, at that. The terrorist, 32- year-old Anders Behring Breivik (he has since changed his name) was already on his way out of Oslo when the bomb went off and by 5:20 pm, he had made his way to Utøya, a small island about an hour's drive from the capital, where the Labour Party Youth Movement held their annual summer camp. He was dressed as a police officer and told the driver of the boat that took people out to the island (it is still only accessible by boat) that he was there to help secure the island after the attack in the capital. He was finally arrested at 6:35 pm, having wandered the idyllic little island shooting, killing or injuring as many people as possible. After his rampage, 69 of the 564 people on the tiny island were dead. The youngest victim was only 14. 32 of the dead were under 18. As well as the people who died, about 32 people were critically injured and there are hundreds of people, direct victims or their loved ones, who even now live with the physical and psychological trauma that the event caused.

I was also 32 years old when it happened, and while I didn't know anyone directly involved in any of the attacks, it's one of those events that has left scars. I still get affected talking about it or reading about the event. In about a week's time, the 10th graders in my school are all going to visit Utøya, where there is now a visitor's centre, and we're in the process of teaching them more about the attacks and their aftermaths. The kids I teach were only 5 at the time it happened, so for most of them, it's not in any way as affecting or upsetting for them as it is for me and several of my colleagues. Let's just say I'm probably going ugly cry when we have to watch the Norwegian film version of what happened later this week, and I suspect I'm going to be very shaken by the visit to the island as well.

This graphic novel came out earlier this year, and the author/artist was herself about to start high school about a month after the attacks took place. The entire country was still reeling, and the feelings of collective grief and trauma were strong. The book features three different teenagers, and the ways in which they try to go about their lives, trying to process the shocking events and pretending to be unaffected, despite being everything but. Rebekka, our androgynous protagonist, suffers occasional panic attacks and spends a lot of time online doing research to try to figure out why one young man got angry enough to perpetrate something so horrific. Fariba, her best friend, gets involved with youth politics and joins the youth organisation that was so cruelly targeted on the island. She wants to ensure that the world is a better place going forward. Daniel, the slightly older student Rebekka meets as part of drama club is more of a supporting character, but he, like so many others, is having trouble just moving on. 

This proved to be an excellent book to introduce the students to, as the art is very clear and easy to follow and a lot of the story is told by wordless panels and the body language and facial expression of the characters. While most of the panels are done in a bluish grey and white, all the flashbacks that characters have to the 22nd of July, thinking about where they were during the attack, are in a vivid red and white. Even the students who really struggle with reading managed to read and comprehend the story perfectly well, and we had some really good discussions as a result. 

Myself, I read the whole book in less than an hour. I borrowed it at our school library, planning to check it out a week or two before we were going to talk about it in class, and after looking at a few pages, I was sucked in and read the whole thing in one sitting. I think my only complaint about the book is that the ending feels rushed, and a lot of the story threads wrap up a little bit too quickly and neatly for my taste. I wish the author would have added ten-twenty more pages to make the ending a bit less sudden, but otherwise, this was an excellent read and I may buy myself a copy once it's released in paperback. 

Judging a book by its cover: The cover shows the book's protagonist, Rebekka, as well as her best friend Fariba and Daniel, the boy that Rebekka fancies. The cover gives a good impression of the art style the author uses throughout the book. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.