Wednesday 31 July 2019

#CBR11 Books 56-58: "The Hat trilogy" by Jon Klassen

Total page count: 136 pages

#CBR11 Bingo: Award Winner 

I Want My Hat Back has won award in at least three countries, including the Selezionato Mostra Internazionale d'Illustratazione per infanzia di Sarmede in 2011, E.B White Award Read Aloud Award for Picture Books in 2012, Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis for Bilderbuch in 2013.

This is Not My Hat won the Caldecott Medal and the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award for Children's Picture Book in 2013, and the Premi Llibreter de narritiva for Album illustrat and the Kate Greenaway medal in 2014.

I Want My Hat Back - 5 stars

A bear is sad. His hat is missing and he wants it back. He goes and politely enquires of all the animals he meets whether they've seen his hat. They all try to help, but none of them have the answer he is looking for. A helpful deer asks him to describe the hat, and which triggers the bear's memory: He has seen his hat! You will be relieved to hear that the story ends happily, with the bear and his hat reunited.

Of all the books my husband and I read to our son, this is our favourite. While I was pregnant, I asked friends for recommendations of good children's books to get for our boy. This came warmly recommended to us by an old friend from university, who works as a librarian and has children of her own. She claimed that she would probably read  and recommend these books, even if she didn't have little girls to read them to. We have (as most parents probably do with children's books) by now lost count of the number of times we've read this book, but neither of us ever gets sick of it. I have probably written more words about this book than the entire forty pages contain. It's not a particularly complicated tale.

The whole story takes place in simple dialogue. "Have you seen my hat?" and "Thank you anyway." are the phrases most often repeated. While the bear is distressed and really wants his hat back, he's also unfailingly polite throughout. The illustrations in the book are simple and delightful, the variety of animals the bear comes across during his search (there's a frog, a snake, what we're pretty sure is an armadillo, a rabbit, a fox, a tortoise and of course the helpful deer) are not exactly your standard Northern European forest selection.

I promise I am not lying when I say that the tension builds over the course of the story, and there's a delightful twist ending that tends to make people who encounter the book for the first time laugh out loud (we have shown the book to pretty much all of our guests in the last eighteen months).

This is Not My Hat - 4.5 stars

A little fish wearing a fetching blue hat zips through the water. It confesses that the hat it's wearing does, in fact, not belong to it. It stole it from a much bigger fish, who was sleeping at the time of the audacious theft. The little fish feels that the small blue hat suits it much better, as it was much to small for the big fish. Now the little fish is making his hasty escape, but is pretty confident that the big fish isn't going to wake up for a while, and when it does, it may not even notice that the hat is missing. Spoiler! The big fish does wake up, immediately notices its missing hat, and seems to have a pretty good idea who the thief is. The little fish swims to where the plants are big and tall and close together. Nobody will ever find it there. Will the little fish get away? Will the big fish catch up with him and retrieve his hat?

This is Not My Hat has a more open ending than I Want My Hat Back. In the first book in the series, there is very little doubt in the reader's mind what the fate of the hat thief is. In this book, it's more open to interpretation whether the little fish gets away or not, but the big fish DOES have its hat back in the end, and the big fish seemed none to pleased to discover it was missing in the first place. There is a very high chance of the little fish having come to an unpleasant end, just as it thought it was safe in the tall plants.

As with the first book, the fairly simple and brief story is illustrated beautifully. My favourite page is probably the one that shows the crab, who apparently promised not to say anything about having seen the little fish, clearly pointing its claw in the direction of where the little fish has swum, helping the big fish find it. Because I am a huge nerd, this page is usually accompanied by a "Curse your sudden, but inevitable betrayal." line being added to the story when I read it to our son. Gabriel likes This is Not My Hat, but he doesn't love it as much as he does I Want My Hat Back.

We Found a Hat - 4 stars
This book is actually divided into clear sections. Part one: Two tortoises, wandering in a barren landscape, find a hat. They try it on, it looks good on both of them. However, there are two of them and only one hat, so they decide that the best course of action is just leaving the hat behind. Part two: The tortoises are watching the sunset together. One of the tortoises claims to be thinking about the sunset, whilst the other claims not to be thinking about anything at all (but it's clear that the tortoise is really thinking about, and missing, the hat they found earlier). Part three: The tortoises are lying on rocks, about to go to sleep. As one of the tortoises is nearly asleep, the other is sneaking away towards the hat, until inquiring about the first tortoise's dream. When the second tortoise hears what the first tortoise is dreaming about, it lies down peacefully and goes to sleep next to its friend. It is a good dream, resolving the possible conflict about the hat entirely (but I'm not going to spoil the particulars, because that would ruin the punchline of the book).

We Found a Hat is quite a bit longer than the other two books in the trilogy. The focus here also seems to have shifted from clear hat ownership and attempted theft to aspirational hat ownership, friendship and togetherness. It's a much gentler and friendlier story, but possibly, because it lacks the edge and bite of the previous two books, it's also the book we least often seek out for reading to our son. Although, his attention span is also very short at the moment, so this book, with it's slightly longer story line and added demand on sitting still for story time may become more of a favourite as he gets a bit older.

It's probably encouraging that the trilogy ends on a lighter, sweeter and friendlier note.

For anyone with kids, my husband and I highly recommend all these three books. I have not regretted purchasing them for a second and all three books are already well loved by all the members of our little household.

Judging the books by their covers: Each of the covers gives a pretty good idea of the spare and simple, yet very engaging style in which Jon Klassen illustrates his books. The animal or animals on the cover are cute and look like creatures you'd want to read about.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 55: "A Closed and Common Orbit" by Becky Chambers

Page count: 512 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Cannonballer Says (recommended by Carriejay, faintingviolet, emmalita, dAvid, tillie, badkittyuno and Narfna, among others)

Official book description:
Lovelace was once merely a ship's artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who's determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.

Last year, for Cannonball Bingo, I chose one of the books that had been on my TBR for several years, Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. When trying to decide on my book for the "Cannonballer Says" square for this year's Bingo, it seemed fitting to read the second book in the Wayfarer series. This book isn't so much a sequel, as it is a companion novel set in the same universe, sort of involving one of the characters we met in that book. 

Lovelace, who was the near-sentient A.I (artificial intelligence) on board the Wayfarer, finds herself housed no longer on board a space ship, but in an artificial body, made to look and sound completely human. Due to a series of unfortunate events, leading to a complete systems reboot, Lovelace no longer remembers being the consciousness who wanted a physical body, and instead finds herself confused and unmoored, helped away from the spaceship that was once her home by Pepper, an engineer and mechanic who promises to help her.

Lovelace renames herself Sidra and is brought to the home that Pepper shares with Blue, her artist partner (I think he's her boyfriend, but they may just be platonic life mates - the story really doesn't focus on that aspect of their relationship). A.I.s are not considered sentient individuals with rights and feelings, and it's highly illegal to do what the techs aboard the Wayfarer did, in trying to put Lovelace in a body. So if anyone finds out the truth about Sidra, Pepper and Blue could face serious trouble, and Sidra would probably just find herself shut down permanently.

Sidra struggles with the limitations of her new body and in trying to figure out who she is, and what she wants from her life. She gradually gets more outgoing and adventurous, makes at least one friend who isn't Pepper or Blue and starts to come to terms with her new "humanity".

 In alternating chapters to Sidra's story, we follow Pepper's life  in flashback from she was a young clone, enslaved on a backwater planet, who escapes the life of servitude and ignorance she was born into, befriending and in effect being raised by an A.I, and the struggle she has to educate herself, find enough scrap material on the industrial waste planet she finds herself on, fix up the space shuttle containing her A.I. parent to a degree where they can actually leave and make a better life for themselves somewhere else in the universe. 

I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting from this book, but it was very different indeed from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. This book was a lot more introspective, and a lot of the plot is concerned with forging new identities and struggling to make a place for oneself in the world, rather than with an exciting space journey. The first third or so of the book felt a bit slow, and I wasn't all that interested in the early chapters about tiny Pepper (who was one of many Janes back then), but in the second half of the book, I was hooked enough that I didn't want to stop reading, be it the chapters about Sidra or Jane/Pepper. 

I can see why Becky Chambers' books are so very popular. I'm glad I still have one more in her Wayfarers series to read before I'm caught up with her back catalogue.

Judging a book by its cover: The books in this series all come with two different cover versions. One has a big, clunky, ugly font that takes up much of the front page of the book and completely ruins the effect (although really does get across what the title of the books are, I guess). The other covers are these stunning skyscapes with a couple of individuals in silhouette and the most amazing star and light shows dominating the images. My e-book versions all have the covers I prefer, and I genuinely can't understand why there is such a massive difference in tone and design. Who would want the big, ugly font covers when they could have such beauty and simple elegance?

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday 29 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 54: "We Are Never Meeting in Real Life" by Samantha Irby

Page count: 288 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 17 mins
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: The Collection

Official book description:
Sometimes you just have to laugh, even when life is a dumpster fire. With We Are Never Meeting in Real Life., "bitches gotta eat" blogger and comedian Samantha Irby turns the serio-comic essay into an art form. Whether talking about how her difficult childhood has led to a problem in making "adult" budgets, explaining why she should be the new Bachelorette--she's "35-ish, but could easily pass for 60-something"--detailing a disastrous pilgrimage-slash-romantic-vacation to Nashville to scatter her estranged father's ashes, sharing awkward sexual encounters, or dispensing advice on how to navigate friendships with former drinking buddies who are now suburban moms--hang in there for the Costco loot--she's as deft at poking fun at the ghosts of her past self as she is at capturing powerful emotional truths.

Things I knew about Samantha Irby before reading this book:
- Literally NOTHING.

Things I now know about Samantha Irby, having finished her book (in audio, she reads it herself):
- Her narration is not as good as Jenny Lawson's, but she's pretty good at it anyway.
- She's black, queer and describes herself as fat
- She has a number of medical issues that, among other things, make it impossible for her to have children
- Even if she could have children, she wouldn't want them anyway
- She grew up in Chicago and lived there for much of her life
- Her childhood was really quite awful (poverty, abuse, drunken, dead beat dad)
- Scattering her father's ashes on a road trip to Nashville did NOT go as planned
- She doesn't know how to make a budget and often spends money irresponsibly
- She worked as a receptionist at an animal hospital for more than 11 years
- She's convinced me that I never want to be the receptionist at an animal hospital
- She's bisexual, and has been in serious relationships with both men and women
- She (as of the writing of this book) now seems to live somewhere rural with her wife and said wife's children from a previous relationship
- She's very funny, and seems to not give many f*cks about anything much at all
- I should probably check out some more of her stuff.

If I knew nothing about Samantha Irby, why did I decide to read this book? This year, despite seeming to struggle to read even half as much as in previous years, I am taking part in a large number of reading challenges (I may have a serious reading challenge addiction), including the "Diversify Your Reading" challenge, where each month is dedicated to a specific genre. This month, it's humour, and since I had seen this book recommended by several Cannonballers in the past, and Jenny Lawson also speaks highly of it, it seemed like a good choice. That it also fits into the "Collection" square for Bingo is an additional bonus.

I like a good, clever internet blogger and anyone who appeals to a number of Cannonballers and the amazing Ms. Lawson is probably worth some more of my time. This was a fun, quick read and can be recommended to others who are looking for a non-fiction collection for the Bingo.

Judging a book by its cover: The book has an eye-catching bright yellow background and a scruffy-looking kitten that seems to be complaining about something. I'm assuming this is supposed to be Helen Keller, Samantha Irby's mean and dysfunctional cat, who she talks about at some length in the book. Bright colours and a cute animal is more than enough to get a person to pick up a book, so it's not a bad choice.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 26 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 53: "Sweep of the Blade" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This book, which was originally intended as a novella, is book 4 in the Innkeeper Chronicles. While it's not necessary to have read the entire series to fully appreciate this book, it might be helpful to at least have read book three, One Fell Sweep, where Maud and Arland meet for the first time.

Official book description:
Maud Demille is a daughter of Innkeepers—a special group who provide ‘lodging’ to other-planetary visitors—so she knows that a simple life isn't in the cards. But even Maud could never have anticipated what Fate would throw at her.

Once a wife to a powerful vampire knight, Maud and her young daughter, Helen, were exiled with him for his treachery to the desolate, savage planet of Karhari. Karhari killed her husband, and Maud—completely abandoned by his family—has spent over a year avenging his debts. Rescued by her sister Dina, she's sworn off all things vampire.

Except... In helping Dina save the world, she met Arland, the Marshal of House Krahr, one of the most powerful vampire houses. One thing led to another and he asked for her hand in marriage. She declined. Arland is not used to hearing the word ‘no;’ and try as she might, Maud can't just walk away from Arland. It doesn't help that being human is a lot harder for Maud than being a vampire.

To sort it all out, she accepts his invitation to visit his home planet. House Krahr is extremely influential and Maud knows that a woman—a human, with a very questionable past—who's turned down a proposal from its most beloved son won't get a warm reception. Maybe she’s not sure about marrying Arland, but House Krahr isn’t going to decide for her. Maud Demille has never run from a fight, and House Krahr will soon discover that there's a lot more to Maud than they’re expecting. 

As with all the other Innkeeper Chronicles books, this started as a free online serial on Ilona Andrews' website. The authors had intended it to be a bonus novella, but it clearly took on a life of its own and by the time they had finished it, it had become a short novel. With the published book, they have added a prologue showing the readers some of Maud's time on Karhari, and also how she reacted to the potentially world-ending threat that Arland risked his life to twart in the conclusion to One Fell Sweep. To some, it may feel like an unneccessary retread, as it repeats scenes from the previous book - but all of those were told from Dina, Maud's sister's POV, and as someone who doesn't exactly have photographic recall of all the books I read, it was nice to have my memory refreshed (with some pretty kick-ass action sequences, as well).

I feel like with every new Ilona Andrews review I write, I gush and go on about what amazing writers they are and how I am literally willing to hand them my money for absolutely everything they write (sometimes in multiple formats). Yet it's so incredibly comforting to know that with each new release, I'm going to get something that makes me laugh, makes my heart race, makes me excited and sometimes genuinely touched. I love their dialogue and the family dynamics they always manage to create, even though the families they portray in their various books and series often are wildly different. The children in their stories feel real, never like annoying plot moppets. Helen, Maud's precocious half-vampire daughter, is a delight.

Maud has had a very difficult time of it, and to say that she's been burned in her previous relationship is an understatement. Her husband royally f*cked up, and Maud and her daughter paid the price for that. The space vampire clans in these books value strength and martial prowess, and while Maud may be human, she became extremely adept at killing and defending herself and her child while exiled on Karhari. She swore off all things vampire, yet can't help but fall for Arland, who is everything her first husband could only dream of becoming. Maud and Helen were abandoned entirely by her first husband's family, and left to die in an uncivilised back water of the universe. The things Maud had to do to keep them alive haunts her. She cannot risk that happening again. So she knows it would be better if she outright rejected Arland, but he also makes her feel good and safe for the first time in years, and is clearly a much better man than the weasel she used to be married to.

With the exception of Arland's uncle, who has met Maud and seen how perfect she is for him, most of Arland's family are extremely hostile to the idea that he's bringing a human girlfriend home for a big wedding celebration, a woman who had the temerity to say no to his proposal. They're convinced she's some sort of scheming gold digger, and also, because she's human, that she must be weak and/or very stupid. Arland is convinced that if his family just gets to meet Maud and Helen, they'll be as crazy about them as he is. He loves and wants Maud, he understands her reluctance and the reasons for her misgivings, but he wants to be with her any way he can, and will therefore patiently wait until she is ready to accept him. While he is the military leader for his entire vampire clan and the beloved son and heir to an ancient and prestigious family, he's also found the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with, and any ultimatums issued by his mother or other member of his family will not go in their favour.

House Krahr is having to host a wedding between two formerly feuding families. There's clearly something fishy going on, but it's difficult to find out exactly what without offering mortal offence to one or both parties. Arland knows that pretty much all the vampires will be underestimating Maud, yet eager to prove themselves better than her and constantly trying to provoke her. So she is his best weapon to finding out what is going on in a timely manner.

I love that Arland is a big, strong alpha hero who can take on a horde of armed combatants single-handedly, and who is also entirely devoted to Maud, loving her perseverance, intelligence, strength and love for her family, on top of the physical attraction he clearly feels for her. He respects and defers to her wishes, but is also willing to completely sever ties with his own family if they don't welcome Maud and Helen properly. He understands that Maud will have to prove herself, both in a fight and by showing just how intelligent she is, but he never doubts for a second that she will succeed in this.

It sounds like Ilona Andrews will be busy with other writing commitments in the next year, so I'm not sure when the next instalment of The Innkeeper Chronicles will see the light of day. Since they tantalisingly hinted that Dina and Maud's previously missing brother Klaus has just turned up, I really hope they get round to writing more eventually, but as these bonus stories are already a generous gift, I will be happy if these four books end up being what we get, as well.

Judging a book by its cover: See, as Ilona Andrews covers go, this isn't a complete eyesore, probably because they self-publish these books and therefore commission the cover art themselves. Maud looks pretty bad-ass, but I don't think the armour looks tough or durable enough (especially compared to the way it's described in the book) enough, she just looks like she's wearing a weirdly patterned body suit. Also not sure why there appears to be flaming meteorites raining down around her, that is not something that happens at any point in Maud's story.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 23 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 52: "Not Another Family Wedding" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 225 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Summer Read

Official book description:
Natalie Chin-Williams might be a cranky professor of climatology who thinks the world is doomed, but she believes in lasting love…just not for herself. She has a long history of failed relationships, plus the men she dates inevitably want children and she doesn’t. 

Now thirty-six and single, Natalie expects endless comments about her love life when she attends her baby sister's wedding. Worse, weddings are always drama-filled disasters in her family. She needs emotional support to get through the weekend, so she enlists the help of her friend Connor Douglas, the dependable family doctor.

The wedding reception goes south when a drunk aunt announces a family secret that sends Natalie reeling and shakes her faith in love. Luckily, she has her long-time friend to lean on—a man she somehow ends up kissing. But there’s no way this could turn into anything lasting, is there? That’s impossible for her, especially now…

Fellow Cannonballer, kissing book enthusiast and long-time internet friend Emmalita has reviewed several Jackie Lau books this year, which is what made me really take note of the name. During the discussion of the very super depressing anti-abortion legislation being passed not that long ago, Jackie Lau put this book up for sale for $0.99, because of its pro-choice message. I bought it, and since it also fit into my Keyword Challenge this month, it didn't end up forgotten on my TBR list like so many other sale books do.

So yeah, minor spoiler, the heroine of this book has had an abortion. If that's a deal breaker for you, this is probably a book to avoid. In so much of romance, coupling with a man and having a baby seems to be the goal. The pregnancy epilogue is a popular trope for a reason (especially in historical romance). When I was struggling with fertility problems myself, even contemporary romance novels seemed to be bursting with insultingly fertile couples - women getting knocked up from one-night stands (while using protection and/or on contraception). When you've spent time, money and tremendous amounts on emotions on unsuccessful fertility attempts, that just seems extra hurtful.

We are constantly bombarded with proof that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and much faster than we previously believed or predicted. So many people are choosing not to have children, and now that I do have a child, I'm constantly wracked with guilt about bringing him into this world when we're clearly all going to die, and possibly before he sees adulthood. I'm so sorry, Gabriel. I know many women who don't want children (and who didn't want children even before it became clear that we live in a dystopian nightmare). So if reading romance is difficult for women with fertility issues, I can't imagine how rarely voluntarily childless women find themselves represented.

Natalie is one such woman. She's a climate scientist, so it's no wonder that she doesn't want to bring children into this world, but even before she started researching all the ways in which our planet seems to be doomed, she'd made up her mind. Her mother suffered post-partum depression after having her younger sister, and her father just didn't seem to care about the baby at all, so Natalie took responsibility and pretty much raised her sister for the first year. Even after her parents seemed to step in and do their job, Natalie always felt extra responsible for the girl, and while she likes children and doesn't in any way resent her friends who chose to have them, she never wanted any of her own. Which is why she had an abortion when she accidentally got pregnant, which also resulted in the relationship breaking up.

Now Natalie is worried that she'll never find someone to spend her life with. All the guys she's been dating seem to want kids and a family, that's a total deal breaker for her. She takes her best friend Connor (they've known each other for more than a decade) with her as a date to her sister's wedding, and keeps explaining to well-meaning friends and family that they're "just friends". But after a drunken aunt blurts out a big secret, Natalie is shocked and rattled, and finds comfort in Connor's arms. After a pretty steamy night together, their long friendship seems to be evolving into something more. But Natalie's convinced that Connor must want kids, and her faith in long term relationships having a chance have been further shattered by the drunken wedding revelations.

While I fully respect Natalie's wishes not to have children, and absolutely in no way judge her for having an abortion (you go, girl!), she still annoyed me with her judgemental attitude towards her sister, who clearly wanted different things from her, and her persistent beliefs that she was fundamentally unlovable and would never find (or deserve) lasting love. Even after it becomes clear that Connor can't father and doesn't want children of his own (relationship hurdle avoided), she keeps insisting they won't work out - and it just got on my nerves. I get that she had issues she needed to work though, but to me, it dragged out a bit too long.

There are a few more Jackie Lau books on my TBR list, after I've picked them up cheaply in e-book sales. One of them is the sequel to this one, with Natalie's cousin Iris as the heroine. I liked this book well enough, and keep trying to read more diversely, so will absolutely be checking out more from the author in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: I don't really have a lot to say about this cover. It's cute, it shows you that the heroine is of Asian descent (which, to be fair, might be an important selling point for some). While I'm not a fan of full on smooches on a romance cover, this pose is sweet, intimate and romantic without being too intrusive, I think.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 51: "Circe" by Madeline Miller

Page count: 400 pages
Audio book length: 12 hrs 8 mins
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Remix 

Official book description:
In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.

When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe's place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing a golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.

There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe's independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

I really didn't know a whole lot about Circe before coming to this book. I read The Odyssey in my first years of university in Scotland, when I studied Classics (so much more entertaining than that snooze fest The Aeneid), where Circe of course appears in a whole chapter, famously turning most of Odysseus' men into pigs. Of course, the power of Odysseus' charisma was such that by the end of his visit on Circe's island, she was pretty much his devoted handmaiden.

Madeline Miller, award-winning author of The Song of Achilles (which I also need to read, but I just can't deal with unhappy endings right now), goes through the known myths about Circe and gives the tales her more modern and feminist interpretation. I think we all know that being a woman in any Greek myth is pretty much the pits. It's also been clear throughout history that any woman who dares to stand up for herself, show independence and power of her own is probably going to be feared and vilified. So it's no wonder that Circe, a strong, independent woman who had the temerity to transform drunken sailors into beasts would become a cautionary tale.

As I said, I didn't really know anything about Circe except that she found Odysseus' men "turn into pigsable". So it was really interesting to discover that she was apparently responsible for turning fellow nymph Scylla into the terrifying sea monster that murdered so many sailors (again, only prior knowledge comes from The Odyssey), that she was the sister of Aeetes, keeper of the Golden Fleece or Pasiphae (and therefore maternal aunt to the Minotaur of Crete). Madeline Miller writes about how Circe and her famous siblings came to discover their knack for sorcery, why Circe was exiled and isolated on her island of Aiaia (where she's really rather happy - her father's court wasn't exactly kind to her).

Circe the daughter of a god and a nymph, and while she apparently has the voice of a mortal, she is immortal and eternal like the other Greek gods. She has centuries in which to perfect her magic arts. When travelling to Crete to help her sister deliver the monster the island would become so famous for, she also befriends the craftsman Deadalus, who gifts her a loom. She has frequent visits from Hermes, and after Odysseus and his men finally leave her island, she has a son to raise (according to Wikipedia, the myths suggest that Odysseus actually gave Circe two sons - I guess Miller thought one boy was enough trouble to deal with).

In some of the sections of the book, not a lot happens - it's just Circe on her island thinking and discovering things. I can see how that might get boring for some readers, but I thought this book was great. I especially liked the final bit, when Circe's son brings Telemachus and Penelope back with him to Aiaia. The famous poem about Odysseus doesn't really dwell on what happens once your father/husband comes back after several decades of war, having lost about half of the promising young men on the island and proceeds to murder the other half. PTSD is a terrible thing, and Homer's epic doesn't really talk about what comes next.

I listened to Circe in audio book. Perdita Weeks is an excellent narrator, with a very soothing voice. This book has already won multiple awards and been favourably reviewed by many Cannonballers. I can just add my recommendation to the list.

Judging a book by its cover: So, confession time - I don't really like the colour orange. Like, at all. But I see why it's such an effective colour to use, it's warm, bright, draws the eye. So I can't really blame them for choosing to make the stylised woman's head and the sheaves of grain on this cover that colour. Especially since on old Greek pottery, the patterns are often an orangey brown against black. It makes sense - but I still don't like the colour orange.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 50: "Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel" by Sara Farizan

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Rainbow Flag (author is a lesbian, as is the main character)

Official book description:
Leila has made it most of the way through high school without having a crush on anyone, which comes as something of a relief. Her Persian heritage makes her different enough; if word got out that Leila liked girls, life would be twice as hard. And what would her parents think? It’s bad enough she’s not even going to become a doctor. But when a sophisticated, beautiful new girl, Saskia, shows up, Leila starts to take risks she never dreamed of, especially when it looks as if the attraction between them is mutual. 

Struggling to sort out her growing feelings and Saskia’s confusing signals, Leila confides in her old friend, Lisa, and grows closer to Tomas, whose comments about his own sexuality are frank, funny, wise and sometimes painful. Gradually, Leila begins to see that almost all of her classmates are more complicated than they first appear to be, and many are keeping fascinating secrets of their own.

One of my goals for Pride month was to read more diversely from my TBR shelf. So I wanted to read at least one book with gay protagonists, one with a trans character and this is my book about lesbians. This is another one of those books that has been on my TBR shelf for years and years. I bought it in an e-book sale because it had decent reviews and sounded cute, and then I forgot about it. Sorry, book, you deserved to be read.

Leila struggles to fit in at the fancy prep school where she's a student. She doesn't feel like she fits in, and while she knows her father wants her to get good grades in science, so she can become a doctor (her father is a doctor, her older sister is a med student), she really just cannot muster any enthusiasm for the subject. Then there's the fact that she's gay. There's pretty much only one openly gay kid, Tomas, in her school and Leila finds him rather insufferable. There's also the fact that Leila's family are Muslim, her parents are from Iran and the one family in their friend group whose son came out as gay now no longer speaks about him. It's not even like he died, it's as if the guy never existed in the first place. Leila is terrified that something similar will happen to her if her family discover she's a lesbian.

But then Saskia transfers into Leila's school, and everything changes. Because of Saskia, Leila finds herself doing school theatre (she accidentally farts loudly during her audition, so becomes an understudy) and finds that she really enjoys being a stage technician. She gets to know Tomas better, as he's the other stage director, and maybe he's not so bad, after all? The strange and often hostile female tech crew (who it's rumoured are all lesbians) welcome Leila with open arms (spoiler - not a single one of them are gay - they just don't care to conform to the usual high school standards). Saskia also takes Leila shopping and invites her to big, unsupervised parties, where Leila, to be honest, is quite uncomfortable.

As time passes, it becomes clear that Saskia may be a bit too much of a cool girl for Leila to handle. She seems to send very mixed signals, has a very mercurial temper and eventually ends up seducing one of Leila's close friends. This upsets both Leila, who thought Saskia genuinely liked her, and her best friend, who had been unhappily pining about said guy for ages. It becomes pretty obvious that while she's beautiful and alluring, Saskia is a Regina George. Leila is far better off with her other friends.

There was so much I liked about this book. While Leila constantly worries about her parents' approval, they really did seem very loving and supportive throughout. I was not at all surprised that her seemingly perfect sister had struggles of her own, and might not be quite as goody goody as she seemed at first, and she always had Leila's back, even when she was doing things they both knew their parents would be unhappy about.

For all that Leila feels rather alone at school, she has some very good friends, and when she starts working with the drama crew, she makes a bunch more of them. She's dazzled by Saskia at first, but comes to see just how toxic she is and how important it is to have people who really care about you (even if they might seem a bit boring in day to day interactions).

Sara Farizan has written several more books and short stories about queer teens, and I'm going to be on the lookout for more of her stuff. This book ticks a lot of diversity boxes (heroine and author of colour, culture clash between Muslim family and American high school life, LGBTQIA etc), but was also just an entertaining and good read.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm going to be entirely honest and say that the rather boring cover is probably one of the reasons why this book languished so long on my TBR shelf. All that pastel pink, with barely a hint of some faces at the top and bottom - it's not the most exciting or inviting of covers, is it?

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 49: "If I Was Your Girl" by Meredith Russo

Page count: 272 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Own Voices (the book is about a trans girl, written by a trans woman)

Official book description:
Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school. Like anyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret, and she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.

But when she meets sweet, easygoing Grant, Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she realizes just how much she is losing by guarding her heart. She finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself, including her past. But Amanda’s terrified that once she tells him the truth, he won't be able to see past it. 

Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It's that at her old school, she used to be Andrew. Will the truth cost Amanda her new life, and her new love?

Amanda is going to live with her father and trying to start fresh, after having been beaten up in her former home town. She misses her mother a lot and as she starts to make friends feels guilty that she cannot share the big secret of who she is, and used to be.

Amanda was born Andrew, but from an early age knew that she was trans. Amanda tried to commit suicide, but was lucky enough to receive help and counselling and eventually, transition treatment and surgery. The only way anyone is going to know that she was born a boy is if they see her original birth certificate, or if she tells them her secret.

Making close friends and falling in love when you cannot be entirely honest about who you are and where you came from must be very difficult, as this book explores. As Meredith Russo points out in her afterwards, the trans experience she writes about in this book is far from the reality for a lot of teens and older people out there. Amanda knows from an early age, she has no doubts about her identity. Her parents are, after some difficulties coping, very supportive. She can "pass for female" and has the expensive surgery to make her transition complete. This is not the case with many trans people out there.

I am a nearly forty year old cis-gendered straight woman. I know very little about the trans experience, for all that I now know several trans people. I do know that for all that Norway is incredibly progressive and accepting of lesbian and gay rights, it's fairly deplorable when it comes to the rights and treatment of trans people. While being trans is no longer classified as a mental illness (no, really), I know for a fact that there is a lot of fear and discrimination, and that our glorious universal health care system isn't all that easy to manoeuvre for trans individuals. It makes me deeply sad. 

For Pride Month, I wanted to make an effort to read diversely on the LGBTQIA spectrum. I cannot say that I've read a lot of books with trans characters before (Courtney Milan's Hold Me being a notable and excellent exception), but I'm trying to continue to grow and explore more. This book was good, but for all that I'm glad Amanda's experience was largely positive and she was met with love and support, the book's conflict seemed to resolve a bit too easily (and I'm not sure that quite so many people in rural America are that progressive and open-minded). 

Judging a book by its cover: I think this cover is simple, striking and lovely, and from what I gather from the author's acknowledgements, the model used for this photograph is also trans, which seems only right and fitting.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Books 47-48: "Neanderthal Seeks Human" and "Neanderthal Marries Human" by Penny Reid

Total page count: 720 pages

#CBR11 Bingo: Reading the TBR (has been on my TBR list since 2015)

Neanderthal Seeks Human - 3.5 stars

There are three things you need to know about Janie Morris: 1) She is incapable of engaging in a conversation without volunteering TMTI (Too Much Trivial Information), especially when she is unnerved, 2) No one unnerves her more than Quinn Sullivan, and 3) She doesn't know how to knit.

After losing her boyfriend, apartment, and job in the same day, Janie Morris can't help wondering what new torment fate has in store. To her utter mortification, Quinn Sullivan- aka Sir McHotpants- witnesses it all then keeps turning up like a pair of shoes you lust after but can't afford. The last thing she expects is for Quinn- the focus of her slightly, albeit harmless, stalkerish tendencies- to make her an offer she can't refuse.

This box set has been on my shelf since early 2015. Since then, Penny Reid has published at least sixteen additional stories (I want to say novels, but think some of them may be novella length), so she's clearly rather prolific. I know that several of the kissing book set among the Cannonballers have read and reviewed several of her books, among them Mrs. Julien and Emmalita, but this is my first foray into Ms. Reid's writing.

As far as I can tell, this is Penny Reid's first book and I suspect some of the flaws in the writing can be chalked up to this. There's a lot to like about the book, but also quite a few things that annoyed me, both as I was reading the book, and have kept bugging me in the weeks since I finished the books.

I liked that Janie, for all that she was painfully socially awkward (not kidding, I full body cringed on occasion when reading about her), was extremely intelligent and very good at her job. I do like a good bit of competence porn, and the fact that she is so very skilled at her chosen profession helped alleviate some of the things that bugged the shit out of me about her.

I also really liked the heavy focus on friendship in the book, like the close and supportive community of the knitting group. Janie doesn't even do any kind of yarn crafts, be they knitting or crochet, but just hanging out with an awesome group of supportive ladies, talking about guys and other problems and drinking a lot of wine - they were all great. I also did like that while Janie doesn't do any crafting, Penny Reid's references to needles and various types of yarns suggest that she does. While the members of Janie's knitting group are important supporting characters, her most important support is obviously her BFF, Elizabeth, who lets Janie move in when she catches her boyfriend cheating on her AND loses her job, all on the same day. I probably liked Elizabeth more than I did Janie, overall.

Janie's pretty immediate and close friendship with her new colleague Steven was great, as well.

In the first book, I think there was more I disliked than actually liked. Janie's continued belief that she was some sort of hideous troll, despite all evidence to the contrary and all of her friends assuring her that this is not the case. I hate heroines who are clearly gorgeous, but refuse to believe it. That Janie would believe herself to be impossible to date because of her tendency to spout weird trivia at all times, and that she frequently also puts her foot in her mouth, figuratively speaking - that I could have believed. But thinking that she's some sort of uggo - just no! Generally, Janie spends far too much of the book being mean to herself. The "neanderthal" in the title of both books is how she refers to herself. You're never going to find lasting love until you learn to at least like yourself, lady.

Quinn is a little bit too much of an alphahole for me to really like him in this book. That he's impressed with Janie's intelligence speaks in his favour (but we've also already covered that she's a redheaded, hourglass-shaped bombshell, so he probably doesn't just like her for her brains), but some of the secrets he kept from her and the way he dealt with them when they came to light were not great.

Janie's judgement of Quinn's bachelor ways and the heavily implied slut-shaming of the women he used to hook up with also pissed me off. Sorry, "slamps", because apparently Janie needs to make up her own words when she's judgy of other women and their lifestyle choices. I got more annoyed every time that term was used. Janie's attitude is somewhat redeemed in the second book, when she not only has a conversation with one of Quinn's former lovers, but ends up helping this woman (and in the end, being helped in return), but in the first book, it was pretty dire. Women should be helping and building up each other up, not tearing one another down.

The plot in the first novel also goes all over the place. Why did we need the subplot with the Boston gangsters and Janie's sociopath sister? How is THAT the romance complication you present before getting the couple firmly together? I did like how the knitting group banded together to deal with the thugs, but it would have been a better and more realistic group without that interlude altogether.

Neanderthal Marries Human - 4 stars

There are three things you should know about Quinn Sullivan: 1) He is madly in love with Janie Morris, 2) He’s not above playing dirty to get what (or who) he wants, and 3) He doesn’t know how to knit.

After just five months of dating Janie, Quinn—former Wendell and unapologetic autocrat—is ready to propose marriage. In fact, he’s more than ready. If it were up to Quinn, he would efficiently propose, marry, and beget Janie with child all in the same day—thereby avoiding the drama and angst that accompanies the four stages of pre-matrimony: engagement, meeting the parents, bachelor/bachelorette party, and overblown, superfluous wedding day traditions. But Janie, much to Quinn’s dismay, tosses a wrench in his efficacious endeavors and challenges him to prove his devotion by going through the matrimonial motions, no matter how minute and mundane.

Will Quinn last until the wedding day? Or will he yield to his tyrant impulses?

Regardless, one thing is for certain, Quinn Sullivan will have to learn to expect the Spanish Inquisition (i.e. the unexpected) if he plans to have and keep Janie Morris as his wife.

This book is described as Knitting in the City 1.5 and cannot be read as a standalone, according to the author. It's a direct continuation of Neanderthal Seeks Human. In this book, we occasionally get the POV of Quinn, which gives us more insight into his way of thinking, and made me like him a lot more. The plot is also structured somewhat better, with fewer of the things I was unhappy about in the first book.

Quinn proposes to Janie after they've been together for five months and wants a short engagement. She argues that it's impossible for them to know whether they are going to be able to survive long term if their relationship hasn't gone through some of the stressful situations that people with longer engagements have. She agrees to a three month engagement on the condition that they have a massive wedding, where they put their relationship truly to the test with all manner of stressful wedding planning and family events, so they can be sure that they really ARE ready for "the better and worse" when they get to their wedding day.

As someone who had been with my now husband for eight years (engaged for a year and a half) before we finally got married, I cannot argue with Janie here. I'm sure there are people who find lasting love at more or less first sight, and who successfully stay together despite having a short courtship period. But knowing more about the person you've decided to live with and share your life with is a good idea.

Meeting the families comes with their own set of problems. Janie's not really in touch with either of her sisters (the youngest one is a hardened criminal who tried to blackmail Quinn in the final third of the first book), her mother is dead and her father seems entirely indifferent to her. Quinn is very close to his rather peculiar sister, but is entirely estranged with his parents after they blamed him for the death of his older brother back in the day. For all that she struggles in a lot of social situations, Janie manages to charm Quinn's parents and mend the rift between them rather well over the course of the story - that was possibly my favourite bit of the entire book.

I saw some people complain that the love scenes in the first book are fade to black. That is certainly not the case in the second book. Let's just say, I hope Quinn pays the staff of his private air plane a LOT for what they have to put up with.

Based on these two first books (that I have as a box set) and some of the reviews from trusted fellow romance readers, I will probably check out at least some of Reid's other romances. One of the benefits of being late in discovering a writer a lot of reviews have been written about already, is that I can be more picky in which books I choose to give my time and money to.

Judging the books by their covers: Both of these books claim to be "smart" romance. I genuinely don't know what supposedly makes these in any way smarter than other contemporary romances out there. By now, I see from Ms Reid's website that the books have gone through at least one cover redesign, but I kind of like the original covers, with the heroine's face on the first book and the couple (who seem to be kissing) on the second book blocked off with big hearts. It's just the right amount of cute and quirky, and made them stand out to me in a positive way.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 22 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 46: "The Lawrence Browne Affair" by Cat Sebastian

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Science! One of the protagonists is a scientist and his scientific experiments plays an important part throughout the story.

Official book description:
Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is mad. At least, that’s what he and most of the village believes. A brilliant scientist, he hides himself away in his family’s crumbling estate, unwilling to venture into the outside world. When an annoyingly handsome man arrives at Penkellis, claiming to be Lawrence’s new secretary, his carefully planned world is turned upside down.

Georgie Turner has made his life pretending to be anyone but himself. A swindler and con man, he can slip into an identity faster than he can change clothes. But when his long-dead conscience resurrects and a dangerous associate is out for blood, Georgie escapes to the wilds of Cornwall. Pretending to be a secretary should be easy, but he doesn’t expect that the only madness he finds is the one he has for the gorgeous earl.

Challenging each other at every turn, the two men soon give into the desire that threatens to overwhelm them. But with one man convinced he is at the very brink of madness and the other hiding his real identity, only true love can make this an affair to remember.

Georgie Turner is the younger brother of Jack Turner from The Soldier's Scoundrel. He needs to get out of London in a hurry, as his underworld employer is none too pleased that he grew a conscience and refused to swindle the little old lady that was his mark. Jack's partner Oliver has recently received a letter from a concerned acquaintance, the vicar in the village near where the Earl of Radnor lives. There are concerns about the Earl's mental state, and the vicar would like it proven that the Earl is in fact not insane, like his father and brother were rumoured to be. The Earl has already scared away several secretaries and most of his household staff, so thanks to Jack and Oliver, Georgie knows there's a place in the Cornish countryside where he can hide out. As he arrives at the Earl's manor, which seems to have been left to fall into total ruin, he notes that he can always steal a number of valuables if he suddenly has to leave in a hurry.

Lawrence Browne, the current Earl of Radnor, just wants to be left in peace. He currently has only one maid and a housekeeper, and have them trained to leave his simple food on a tray outside his door. He knows he's likely to fall victim to the family madness sooner or later, but would prefer it if he manages to complete his latest invention before he goes stark raving mad. When his most recent secretary arrives, a very pretty man who doesn't behave anything like any of Lawrence's former secretaries, he's pretty sure he can scare the man off quickly enough with his wild temper, the state of the house and the sheer impossibility of getting his papers and affairs in order.

Of course, Georgie can't leave, unless he risk life and limb, so a temperamental nobleman is easy enough to deal with. While he may not have the education or qualifications a gentleman would have, he is intelligent, fastidious and very organised and simply cannot stand the mess that his new employer surrounds himself with. Besides, if he sorts through all the paperwork and tidies up the place, he might be able to ignore the obvious attraction between them.

Lawrence is not mad, but he does suffer from pretty crippling anxiety. Georgie figures this out pretty quickly and helps him find ways of coping. Working as a con man for most of his adult life has taught Georgie a little bit about a good many things, and it doesn't take him long to realise that the Earl of Radnor not only isn't insane, but he's really quite the unappreciated genius, who could be making a fortune of his brilliant inventions. Why Radnor has scared nearly all the serving staff and is letting his house literally crumble to pieces around him is more of a mystery.

Much of the book focuses on the interaction between Georgie and Lawrence, but there are a few other supporting characters who make the story more interesting as well. While there is instant attraction between the two men, they are also wary of each other and Lawrence has come to believe that his forbidden attraction to his own sex is one of the signs of his impending madness. It takes a while for him to get over his fears and what society has taught him about the evils of homosexuality, but in the meantime, he and Georgie can get to know each other better in other ways.

I think I liked this book even more than I did The Soldier's Scoundrel and I can see why Cat Sebastian has become so popular in romance reading circles so quickly. From what I can see, two of the supporting characters from this book will be the romantic pairing in the third novel, and I can't wait to see how that works out, as they seem about as unlikely a pairing as any I've seen.

Judging a book by its cover: While it's always nice to see two dudes on a historical romance cover (not something that happened until recently), the two guys on this cover look absolutely nothing like what either of our heroes within the pages of the book are described. At least this is a better cover than the one for The Soldier's Scoundrel. These two men at least look comfortable in each other's presence.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 45: "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" by Grace Lin

Page count: 260 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Far and Away (book set in fantasy version of historical China)

Official book description:
In the valley of Fruitless mountain, a young girl named Minli lives in a ramshackle hut with her parents. In the evenings, her father regales her with old folktales of the Jade Dragon and the Old Man on the Moon, who knows the answers to all of life's questions. Inspired by these stories, Minli sets off on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man on the Moon to ask him how she can change her family's fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest for the ultimate answer. 

This is an utterly lovely middle grade fantasy book, inspired by a lot of the Chinese folklore tales that Grace Lin herself read while growing up. The main story is about young Minli who leaves the only home she's ever known to try to find a way to ensure a better, richer life for her hard working and desperately poor parents. There are also countless stories within the story, that all link up in clever ways as the main story progresses. Minli's father tells her stories, people and creatures she encounter along her journey tell her stories - there are so many various tales that make up the whole of this delightful book.

As well as follow Minli on her quest to find the Old Man on the Moon, we see how her worried parents fare and think about her while she's gone. While Minli goes on a long and occasionally hazardous journey by herself, her mother is forced to go on an emotional journey of sorts, to figure out what role she may have played in her daughter's sudden disappearance (initially she wholeheartedly blames her husband and his "filling the girl's head with silliness and dreams"). It's not often we see those left behind while our hero or heroine goes off on their quest narrative, and as a parent myself now, I appreciated seeing how the parents kept trying to cope at home.

Minli has a difficult and often dangerous trip ahead of her, and meets many individuals along the way. There are dragons, mischievous monkeys, kind villagers, scrappy orphans, a king, a vengeful tiger spirit, just to name a few. As with Western fairy tales, being kind, polite, helpful and courteous will usually lead to good things for our protagonist, and one of the things I just really love about folklore are the similarities, for all that a lot of the finer details are different.

I very much enjoyed this book and as far as I can tell, Grace Lin has written a number of other books, both for young and middle grade readers. I can't wait to check out more of her stuff.

Judging a book by its cover: Grace Lin isn't just a very talented middle grade author, she's also an illustrator who makes the beautiful pictures that accompanies her writing throughout the story. On the cover of the book, we see our heroine, Minli, riding on the back of her loyal dragon friend. I also love the intricate top and bottom border of the cover, with a number of other little details from the story.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 21 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 44: "Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte" by Kate Williams

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: True Story

From Goodreads:
Their love was legendary, their ambition flagrant and unashamed. Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife, Josephine, came to power during one of the most turbulent periods in the history of France. The story of the Corsican soldier’s incredible rise has been well documented. Now, in this spellbinding, luminous account, Kate Williams draws back the curtain on the woman who beguiled him: her humble origins, her exorbitant appetites, and the tragic turn of events that led to her undoing.

Born Marie-Jos├Ęphe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie on the Caribbean island of Martinique, the woman Napoleon would later call Josephine was the ultimate survivor. She endured a loveless marriage to a French aristocrat—executed during the Reign of Terror—then barely escaped the guillotine blade herself. Her near-death experience only fueled Josephine’s ambition and heightened her  determination to find a man who could finance and sustain her. Though no classic beauty, she quickly developed a reputation as one of the most desirable women on the continent.

In 1795, she met Napoleon. The attraction was mutual, immediate, and intense. Theirs was an often-tumultuous union, roiled by their pursuit of other lovers but intensely focused on power and success. Josephine was Napoleon’s perfect consort and the object of national fascination. Together they conquered Europe. Their extravagance was unprecedented, even by the standards of Versailles. But she could not produce an heir. Sexual obsession brought them together, but cold biological truth tore them apart.

I knew virtually nothing about Josephine Bonaparte before I read this book. I had no idea she was born in the Caribbean. I didn't know that she had been married and had a son and a daughter before she ever married Napoleon. I didn't know how unhappy her first marriage was, or how she had to keep adapting and changing everything about herself to survive the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.

The woman who became known for her style and wit throughout Europe started out as illiterate, provincial and clumsy, but abandoned by her first husband, spent a lot of the time on her hands educating herself and learning how to be entertaining and pleasing, to both men and women. Once her husband died, the only way she was going to be able to support herself and her children was by acquiring a wealthy protector and she made sure she was a desirable mistress for increasingly more powerful men.

Napoleon Bonaparte was not a particularly impressive general by the time he first met the woman he would call Josephine, but unlike most women, who seemed utterly repulsed by him, she actually seemed interested in him when they conversed and listened intently and treated him well, so he became utterly obsessed with her. Did you know that before he became a successful general, Napoleon wanted to write romantic novels? Yup, Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who conquered most of Europe and took multiple battles to fully defeat - his early career was spent writing romance. I certainly had not expected to learn that.

Josephine clearly did not have an easy life, either before or after she shackled herself to Napoleon. I'm sure no one would be surprised to hear that he was a tyrant not just to his military troops, but also at home. In their early life together, he adored and was utterly obsessed with Josephine, much to the dismay of his utterly horrendous family (who were all greedy, scheming, odious, power hungry ingrates). Then it was proven conclusively that she'd had a lover when he was off conquering somewhere, and his rose-tinted view of his wife appears to have altered somewhat. He still wanted and needed her, but started taking mistresses of his own, while Josephine had to put up with it and coped with her sorrows by spending truly mind-boggling amounts of money.

Despite their rather tumultuous relationship, the couple seem to have genuinely loved one another. Sadly, due to the starvation and hardships Josephine went through during the Terror, she was incapable of having more children. She spent much of her time travelling to various spa resorts around Europe, trying all manner of treatments to conceive a child. Eventually, Napoleon's scheming relatives and his advisers managed to convince him that he had to divorce Josephine and marry another, so he could provide an heir to his empire.

Historical biographies can be rather dry and boring, but once I got past the rather slow section of Josephine's early life, I was pretty much hooked and kept picking up the book every chance I got. I got through this book in just under a week, which I hadn't expected. Again, it didn't surprise me that Napoleon was a horrible person whose views on consent were utterly non-existent, but it was fascinating to read about the woman he chose to spend much of his adult life with.

A lot of the time, I listen to historical biographies in audio, but this I read as an e-book. The Napoleonic era is a very popular setting for historical romance novels, but it was fascinating to discover more about one of the most famous actual romances of the period. I can happily recommend this book.

Judging a book by its cover: Josephine Bonaparte was not considered one of the beauties of her time, rather she was described as striking and handsome, and apparently had great charisma. Of course, when you are the empress of France, you have the opportunity to influence fashion trends to they flatter you as much as possible. If the portrait they've used for the cover is at all accurate, then I agree that Josephine wasn't exactly a stunning woman, but it's not like she was some hideous troll either.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 18 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 43: "Red, White & Royal Blue" by Casey McQuiston

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 5 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: I Love This

First Son Alex Claremont-Diaz is the closest thing to a prince this side of the Atlantic. With his intrepid sister and the Veep’s genius granddaughter, they’re the White House Trio, a beautiful millennial marketing strategy for his mother, President Ellen Claremont. International socialite duties do have downsides—namely, when photos of a confrontation with his longtime nemesis Prince Henry at a royal wedding leak to the tabloids and threaten American/British relations.

The plan for damage control: staging a fake friendship between the First Son and the Prince. Alex is busy enough handling his mother’s bloodthirsty opponents and his own political ambitions without an uptight royal slowing him down. But beneath Henry’s Prince Charming veneer, there’s a soft-hearted eccentric with a dry sense of humor and more than one ghost haunting him.

As President Claremont kicks off her reelection bid, Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret relationship with Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations. And Henry throws everything into question for Alex, an impulsive, charming guy who thought he knew everything: What is worth the sacrifice? How do you do all the good you can do? And, most importantly, how will history remember you?

What DIDN'T I love about this book? I honestly can't think of a thing. It's been a month and a half since I finished it, and I still think about it ALL the time. I've sent it to several of my friends to make them read it too, just so I'd have someone to gush about its awesomeness with. I know at least two of them have gifted friends and/or family members with copies of the book as well, so at least Casey McQuiston is doing good business out of my enthusiasm. Without a shadow of a doubt, this will be on my "Best of the Year" list come December. It would not surprise me if it ends up in the top three. There was no other book I had in my review backlog that more perfectly fit in the "I Love This" square than this book.

This book is funny, romantic and so affirming. Set in a slightly alternate world I think we all wish was real right now, Ellen Claremont from Texas won the Presidential election after Obama's final term. Her two half-Mexican kids are social media superstars. In the UK, there is still a Queen, but her name is Mary. There's no Prince Charles, only her daughter (who married a famous actor, who played James Bond in the 80s and tragically died of cancer a while back). The queen's eldest grandson is the heir to the throne. There is also Princess Beatrice, who wanted to become a rock star and got a little bit too carried away with cocaine. Then there's everyone's idea of Prince Charming, Henry, the youngest son. If Alex is the most eligible bachelor in the US, Henry is probably the most sought after in all of Europe. Except he has a secret - Henry is extremely and decidedly gay, and has been in love with Alex Claremont-Diaz since they first met at the Rio Olympics when they were in their early teens.

Alex both obsesses over and hates Henry at first, but after a rather monumental New Year's Eve at the White House and a very steamy kiss in the gardens, he's forced to re-evaluate everything he thought he knew about himself and his very confused feelings towards Henry.

Alex and Henry are both great protagonists. If there was one thing that could make this book EVEN better, it's if there had been POV chapters for Henry as well, especially because what we did get to see from his perspective (in his texts and e-mails) was lovely.

There is also a great supporting cast - Alex' sister June, his best friend Nora (the Vice President's brilliant granddaughter), Henry's sister Bea and his best friend Pez are all great. Alex is lucky enough to have three supportive parents. I liked how non-dramatic his parents divorce was and how well they deal with all his revelations (his Mum's powerpoint was both amazing and incredibly cringe-worthy ("Planned Parenthood sent leaflets! They used a bike messenger"). Nora might be the best friend a guy can have. Not sure if she was supposed to be on the spectrum, but her intense fascination for numbers possibly suggested it. Her reaction to Alex' big dramatic "Am I bi?" was hilarious and absolutely amazing and I cannot deny having re-read the scene and snickered several times.

I am frankly blown away by the fact that this is Casey McQuiston's first novel. As far as I can tell, this book is stand-alone, which I'm both relieved with, because I want it to exist as a perfect little nugget of its own, but also conflicted about because I want to see who end up being June, Nora, Bea and/or Pez' happy endings. Suffice to say, I'm going to internet stalk Ms. McQuiston and await her next book with bated breath.

Judging a book by its cover: See, I'm torn between thinking that the pepto bismol pink cover is a cute touch, and being worried that it's virulent pinkness is going to scare off potential readers who may miss out on this amazing reading experience just because they don't want to read something with a cover that colour. The little cartoon dudes seem like pretty good representations of Alex and Henry, though, that's good.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 42: "The Bride Test" by Helen Hoang

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From Goodreads:
Khai Diep has no feelings. Well, he feels irritation when people move his things or contentment when ledgers balance down to the penny, but not big, important emotions—like grief. And love. He thinks he’s defective. His family knows better—that his autism means he just processes emotions differently. When he steadfastly avoids relationships, his mother takes matters into her own hands and returns to Vietnam to find him the perfect bride.

As a mixed-race girl living in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, Esme Tran has always felt out of place. When the opportunity arises to come to America and meet a potential husband, she can’t turn it down, thinking this could be the break her family needs. Seducing Khai, however, doesn’t go as planned. Esme’s lessons in love seem to be working…but only on herself. She’s hopelessly smitten with a man who’s convinced he can never return her affection.

With Esme’s time in the United States dwindling, Khai is forced to understand he’s been wrong all along. And there’s more than one way to love. 

This novel has an unusual and interesting concept for a story. There is the autistic hero - which you don't see too often in romance. The only book I can remember reading with one was The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, which I really didn't like much at all. Obviously, in Helen Hoang's previous novel, The Kiss Quotient, the heroine is on the autism spectrum. Khai, the hero of this book, is the cousin of Michael (the hero of The Kiss Quotient). 

It's very difficult for me to say how authentic Khai is as an example of someone on the autism spectrum, but since this is an #Ownvoices story, and the author became really huge with The Kiss Quotient, I cannot imagine she hasn't done her research properly. While Khai frequently struggles with social interaction, he's clearly not someone to really be pitied and he's clearly doing excellently business wise. One of the things I like about the book is that we never actually have it confirmed just how wealthy and successful Khai is, it's all just hinted at.

We also have an immigrant heroine, from a very poor background, in a situation that veers closely towards the arranged marriage trope. Esme (this is the Westernised name our heroine gives herself, because her favourite Disney movie is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Her Vietnamese name is given as M. From now on I will refer to her as M/Esme.) works at a cleaner at a fancy hotel. She lives with her mother and grandmother, as well as her little girl, and everyone (except the child) has to work hard to make ends meet. The amount of money Khai's mother is willing to pay her, even if she never makes a match with her son, is staggering. M/Esme would be able to secure a much better life for her child and extended family, especially if she gets a job while in the States (which she insists on, as she doesn't want to be useless and a burden). M/Esme also has a vague hope of being able to track down her own father, who may or may not be connected with Stanford university in some way.

There are huge cultural and social differences between the main couple. The whole book is pretty much nothing but misunderstandings from either side. Yet while something like that could annoy the crap out of me in a different book, here it's entirely understandable, as the couple are separated by background, culture, language - one of them is neuro divergent, the other is desperately trying to rise above her lack of education and impoverished background. Early on, M/Esme lies and claims to have a background in accounting, because a successful, handsome man like Khai couldn't possibly come to love her if he knew she was just a hotel maid. She works diligently not just to learn English as perfectly as possible during her stay, but also starts taking evening classes to make the lie a reality.

M/Esme is the real star of this story, she's such a fierce, wonderful, determined heroine. Even when she's desperately poor, she has morals and while she keeps her daughter a secret from Khai's mother and Khai himself for much of the book, she feels so guilty about it. She also makes it clear early on that she is not a prostitute and that Khai needs to be a willing suitor, she's not going to lie and manipulate him, just because Khai's mother wants him to get married. It made me sad that M/Esme always took pretty much every misunderstanding between her and  Khai as criticism of her and her background, but also served to make her all the more determined to make something more of herself.

I would say that more important than the actual romance in this book is M/Esme's journey of self discovery. Her learning to appreciate her self worth, that even if she's a poor, uneducated single mother from a small Vietnamese village, she deserves respect, love and happiness. She works so hard to make herself something, setting an example for her daughter. The sections where she thinks about her little girl or talks to her over the phone, broke my heart a little bit.

Is it always going to be like this when I read or watch TV and movies now? Because I have a child of my own, I'm going to find stories of motherhood and especially mothers sacrificing for their children, so incredibly painful. M/Esme has recurring nightmares about her daughter's father (who has a rich wife) showing up and taking the little girl away from her. She really has no choice but to leave her daughter for a few months, but I still found it difficult to read about, in a way I can't remember feeling before I had a little boy of my own.

In the afterword, Ms. Hoang says this story is inspired by her mother, who came to America after the Vietnam war and worked tirelessly to create a future for herself, her family and her future children. I cannot imagine a better tribute to what sounds like a very impressive woman. Hoang also confesses that M/Esme wasn't initially meant to be the heroine, but the third in the love triangle who lost out, so to speak. I'm so glad she changed her mind and the story, because while Khai was perfectly fine, M/Esme is who made the entire book for me.

Of the two books Ms. Hoang has written so far, this is now my favourite. The next book in the series is going to be about Khai's non-neuro divergent brother, who plays an important supporting part in this one. I don't think Helen Hoang has proven herself worthy of my pre-order list yet, but if her third novel is as satisfying, she won't be far off.

Judging a book by its cover: There seems to be a trend at the moment for a lot of "mainstream" contemporary romance to be packaged with illustrated covers, which sometimes works better than others. It can sometimes come off as a bit too twee, but I really like this one. The warm yellow background, the woman intently studying. The whimsical aeroplanes and their trails across the page, with the most prominent making a heart-shape. It makes me happy to look at and that's not a bad thing at all.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 17 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 41: "Serious Moonlight" by Jenn Bennett

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

From Goodreads:
Mystery-book aficionado Birdie Lindberg has an overactive imagination. Raised in isolation and homeschooled by strict grandparents, she’s cultivated a whimsical fantasy life in which she plays the heroic detective and every stranger is a suspect. But her solitary world expands when she takes a job the summer before college, working the graveyard shift at a historic Seattle hotel.

In her new job, Birdie hopes to blossom from introverted dreamer to brave pioneer, and gregarious Daniel Aoki volunteers to be her guide. The hotel’s charismatic young van driver shares the same nocturnal shift and patronizes the waterfront Moonlight Diner where Birdie waits for the early morning ferry after work. Daniel also shares her appetite for intrigue, and he’s stumbled upon a real-life mystery: a famous reclusive writer—never before seen in public—might be secretly meeting someone at the hotel.

To uncover the writer’s puzzling identity, Birdie must come out of her shell…discovering that the most confounding mystery of all may be her growing feelings for the elusive riddle that is Daniel.

Birdie has grown up on a small island outside Seattle, raised by her grandparents after her mother died. Her mother's best friend, an eccentric artist, has also acted as a sort of unofficial co-parent. Birdie also suffers from narcolepsy, but after her grandmother's death, she's managed to convince her grandfather to let her have a part-time job, working the night shift at one of the hotels in the city.

Birdie is taken aback to discover that one of her new co-workers is Daniel, the handsome young man she met and had an impulsive one-night-stand with, assuming she'd never see him again. Instead, he seems very interested in becoming friends (and possibly more) and when he discovers that she's a mystery aficionado, he tempts her with a mystery in the very hotel they work. He's pretty sure he's discovered the real identity of an elusive crime writer, who seems to have secretive meetings regularly at the hotel. He enlists Birdie's help to try to figure out who the writer really is, and what the meetings at the hotel are all about.

Alex, Approximately, the first novel I'd read by this author, ended up on my best of 2017 list. While Serious Moonlight was sweet and I liked it well enough when I read it, it's once again proven that with a little time passing, I barely remember what the book was about and books that can't stay in my memory after two months, are probably not full four star books. I really do need to get better about taking notes while, or certainly straight after I finish a book, to help me review them when I inevitably fall behind, like I have ALL year. I'd like to be able to say that the second half of the year will be different and I will be better, but we all know that's a big fat lie.

This was a sweet book, and both Birdie and Daniel were likable protagonists. Birdie has suffered some pretty tragic losses in her life, and because she's been home schooled and kept very sheltered by her grandparents, she has some difficulty socialising with new people and she certainly seems terrified of actually making a real and lasting connection with anyone. While she's clearly eager to get out into the world to experience new things, she also seems terrified of real change.

This is a nice little YA romance, but unless 2019 turns out to be a pretty sad reading year, I doubt this book is going to end up on my "Best of the Year" list.

Judging a book by its cover: Jenn Bennett's publisher seems to be very good about finding cozy and inviting looking covers for her books. As several of the important scenes in this book take place in a diner, this seems like a very appropriate choice. The cover models they've chosen look pretty much like the protagonists of the novel, too, which is always nice.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.