Thursday 8 August 2019

#CBR11 Book 63: "Spinning Silver" by Naomi Novik

Page count: 480 pages
Audio book length: 17 hrs 56 mins
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Listicle (on a bunch of best of 2018 lists, including NPR, Bustle and Bookbub).

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of Jewish moneylenders, but her father is a dreadful one, who doesn't have the heart to actually claim back the debts that the villagers owe, even when his daughter is starving and the long, cold winters are making his wife sicker and sicker. Miryem refuses to see her mother die due to her father's weakness, hardens her heart and takes over her father's duties. Unlike him, she refuses to listen to excuses and starts forcing people to pay back some of what they owe. If they can't contribute coin, she'll take goods.

Wanda is the daughter and eldest child of a violent, drunken farmer who borrowed money from the moneylender when his wife was sick, but drank most of the money away, so she died. Now he abuses Wanda and her two brothers, who barely have enough to survive on, since what the tax collectors don't take away, their father spends on drink. When Miryem comes calling to collect on the debt, she decides Wanda will come work in her parents house as a servant, a maid of all work, and will gradually pay off the debt that way. Neither Mireym, nor Wanda's father realise how happy Wanda is about this change in her circumstances. Wanda is away from her father's violent presence for much of the day, she gets more to eat (even if she sometimes has to steal bread meant for the chickens), her father can't marry her off to anyone (as then no one will be paying off the debt) and gradually, she steps in as an assistant to Miryem, and slowly learns the intricacies of the numbers in her ledger.

Because Miryem is ruthlessly efficient, she manages to start reclaiming her mother's dowry. A savvy businesswoman, she sells everything her family can't directly use, making a profit, so that soon her family has gone from abject poverty to modest wealth again. Her grandfather is immensely proud of her, and lends her silver for more loans, which she is able to return to him as gold. Getting a reputation as someone who can start with silver and end up with gold is dangerous, though. Miryem finds herself challenged by the Staryk, the cold creatures who haunt the woods and terrorise people in the winter. The first time he brings her a small pouch of six silver coins to be returned as gold. If Miryem succeeds, she will be rewarded, if she fails, she will be turned to ice. Miryem takes the coins to a young jeweller in the city where her grandfather lives. He turns the magic silver into a ring, which they sell to the local duke, and not only do they manage to get the six gold coins the Staryk demands, but they both make a profit.

The second time, the Staryk lord comes, he demands sixty silver coins transformed and claims it is the second of three tests. Miryem is bold enough to ask what her reward will be if she actually succeeds, and is shocked to discover that should that come to pass, the Staryk lord making the demands will take her as his wife. She doesn't really want that (he's terrifying), but neither does she want to die. She goes back to the jeweller, who makes a beautiful necklace, which he also presents to the duke. The duke, who has never really thought he'd be able to make an especially good match for his plain daughter Irina, discovers that with the Staryk silver ring and necklace, she may not be beautiful, but she's striking and mesmerising in a way he can clearly capitalise on. He demands a silver crown from the jeweller, and since the third time the Staryk lord arrives, he wants 600 silver coins turned to gold, Miryem has no problem providing enough metal. As soon as she has presented the gold the Staryk lord (who turns out to be the king of his people), she is whisked away to his kingdom, and her family in the human world are left with only vague memories of her.

The jeweller makes a crown fit for a queen which the duke gifts to Irina, and when the tsar comes to visit, it is decided that he will take Irina as his bride. Sadly, Irina discovers that the reason the tsar was so ready and willing to agree to marry a minor duke's unremarkable daughter has nothing to do with her magical silver jewelry, but rather her distant Staryk ancestry. The tsar is possessed by a demon, who craves the Staryk cold within her. He intends to murder Irina and eat her life force. Luckily for Irina, she discovers that wearing her silver, she can slip through mirrors into the cold, snow covered Staryk kingdom, hiding away from the demon when he comes every night. In the daytime, her husband is human, and she puts up a very credible show of them being wildly infatuated, while trying desperately to figure out a way she can tempt the demon with something else, so she, or those she loves, don't become victims of the demon instead.

Irina is not the only one who ends up with an undesirable husband. Miryem is taken to the centre of the Staryk lands, and it turns out that while she could metaphorically turn silver into gold in the 'sunlit lands' because she was a clever negotiator and drove a good bargain, in the Staryk kingdom, she can literally turn silver into gold with a touch. This makes her an important asset to the Staryk king, who clearly resents the fact that she succeeded with his three impossible tasks in the first place, and ended up as his wife. They barely interact, except every evening, when Miryem gets to ask him three questions.

As the story progresses, Irina, Miryem and Wanda's stories become even more intertwined than in the beginning. Miryem needs to stop the Staryk king from covering the human world in pretty much eternal winter, and try to find a way to get back to her parents. Wanda and her brothers end up orphaned after a truly horrible accident and need to find a way to survive. Irina needs to figure out how to save her spoiled, indifferent husband and the kingdom she now feels responsible for from the ravages of the demon.

This is the follow-up to Novik's Uprooted, which while it felt like it should be, wasn't actually a retelling of any fairy tale. In Spinning Silver, however, Novik takes on the fairy tale of Rumplestiltskin, but mainly by using many different elements of the old tale in a completely new way in this novel. It's not straw being turned into gold, but silver. In the story, the desperate young woman forced by the king to spin the straw, pays the little imp first with a necklace and then with a ring, and finally, she's forced to bargain her firstborn child to succeed in her impossible tasks. The Staryk silver that Miryem is asked to transform as her initial tests, are turned into a ring, a necklace and a stately crown. She is later set an even bigger, seemingly impossible task, involving her new-found magical powers, but succeeds through her own cleverness. There are marriages (to an otherworldly king and a tsar) because of magical interference, and I was surprised and delighted that there was even callbacks to the promise of a firstborn child as the story progressed. The danger of revealing your true name to someone, and how it can grant others terrible power over you is a factor, as it is in so many faerie stories. There are also some elements of the Hades and Persephone myth (always a good one) in the second half of the book.

I found it interesting, that while female friendship is so central to the story in Uprooted, this book, which can be said to have three different female protagonists have all three struggling alone, without much support from others of their sex at all. Miryem loves her mother, but has no female friends. Wanda lost her mother to childbirth, and while she is given a job by Miryem, they never become close - it is entirely an employer/employee relationship. Irina also lost a mother to childbirth, and is only really close to the nurse who raised her, Magreta. The three women's stories weave into each other more tightly as the story progresses, but even towards the end, they each seem to stand alone, just helping each other a bit to achieve the same end goals.

While I liked this book a lot, and think it's probably structured better than Uprooted, overall (there were no sections that felt like they dragged unnecessarily, like I remember from the previous book), there was one thing that was annoying, and rather distracting, throughout the book.  The point of view changes suddenly from one character to the other, without any warning for the reader. It can take a while to realise who you are reading about when you get to a new section. I listened to the book in audio, but because all of these women have vaguely Eastern European accents, there wasn't a lot of differentiation there either. This book, which in total has six different points of view (Miryem, Wanda, Irina, Wanda's younger brother, Irina's nurse Magreta and, only once, the tsar), may have been better served by multiple narrators, so it would be clear when the voices changed which character's section you were moving into.

I also thought that the ending was a bit rushed, and would not have complained if there was a bit more romance throughout the story. Being married off to a supercilious winter king who seems to loathe you for your humanity because of a strange magical bargain seems like the ultimate enemies to lovers story, doesn't it? I never got beyond the first of Novik's Temeraire books, despite my general fondness for dragons. Now, I hope Novik keeps writing fairy tellings or her own original folklore interpretations for many years to come.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover design is in the same style as Uprooted, but with much cooler colours (since so much of this is set in winter) and because silver plays such an important part in the story. The central image is clearly Miryem, using her magical powers to turn silver into gold. There's also one of the Staryk pouches of coins, the haughty face of the Staryk king and a rain of gold coins, all central elements of the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 7 August 2019

#CBR11 Book 62: "Ride with Me" by Ruthie Knox

Page count: 328 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Travel

Tom is a brooding loner with a past, who gave up the corporate life and now works as a bike mechanic. He's estranged from most of his family, with the exception of his sister. Determined to cycle the Trans-America trail, from Oregon to Virginia, he's annoyed when he discovers said sister has been e-mailing someone (as him) to arrange for a riding partner. When he finds out that the "Alex" his sister has been e-mailing is, in fact, a Lexie, he is even more frustrated. He doesn't want company, but he also feels bad about leaving Lexie without any sort of protection on the journey. They agree to cycle together until Tom can find someone else for Lexie to ride safely with.

Lexie's parents met on the Trans-Am trail during the seventies, and she and her brother had always planned on doing the ride together. Then her brother went and married a woman with no interest in cycling, and Lexie has to decide whether she wants to do the ride by herself. Since no one answers her initial ad for a companion when it's obvious that she's a woman, she places a new one that seems more ambiguous. She figures that once all the details are ironed out, whomever agreed to ride with her could be persuaded to go along with the plan. She's not really expecting to meet a really hot, but taciturn and angry guy, with what seems to be very sexist views of female cyclists. Because he seems to take it as read that she'll be attracted to him, Lexie makes up a fictional husband to make sure the arrogant man is put in his place.

While both are incredibly annoyed by the other, they eventually grow to like one another and become friends over the course of their journey. Tom manages to get Lexie to relax more and rely a lot less on fixed plans, maps and her bike computer. Lexie gets Tom to open up more and gradually begin to interact with the people around him. Of course, the more time they spend together, the more the attraction between them grows, as well, and that fictional husband of Lexie's becomes quite the obstacle. Tom was cheated on by his now ex-wife and is determined never to be a part of any form of adultery. Having cycled thousands of miles together perpetuating the lie, Lexie is worried about how Tom will actually react if she tells him the truth.

As far as I can recall, this is the first romance novel I've ever read focused on cycling. It's a road trip romance, but the mode of transportation is bicycles, rather than a car, and these people are pretty serious about their hobby. On the other hand, as cycling cross country is a time consuming process, there is really not a smidge of the insta-love here. Tom and Lexie's journey takes many months and they have a lot of time to initially annoy each other, before the sparks fly, the truth comes out and they begin to get on (and get it on) passionately. During the first half of the book, the conflict is Tom and Lexie's differing views of how the journey should be conducted and them being seeming opposites. Once they start steaming up the tent every night (not to mention apparently having as much amorous time al fresco as possible), they are both in agreement that neither is looking for long term commitment, and their affair will end as soon as they reach Virginia. They seem to have very different plans for the future, and initially it seems impossible that they could continue a relationship after completing their long journey.

I've read a fair few Ruthie Knox novels in previous years, but she's not as prolific as a lot of other contemporary writers out there, and so I have a tendency to forget about her, only to rediscover her again every so often. Each time I pick up one of her books, I'm surprised by how witty and enjoyable it is to read, with great chemistry between the leads, clever dialogue and some really steamy smexy times. I still have a few of her older books on my TBR list, and should probably do myself the favour of reading them before I completely forget how much I tend to like her books.

Judging a book by its cover: See, it's not just hockey romances that have prominent man-titty on the cover. A book about cycling can too, even though the hero is described as wearing t-shirts for most of the scenes that aren't *insert funky bass line here*. Also, since the hero is described as having several prominent tattoos, it would have been nice to have that reflected in the cover image.

Crossposted by Cannonball Read.

Monday 5 August 2019

#CBR11 Book 61: "My Sister, the Serial Killer" by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Page count: 240 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Pajiba (reviewed by Kayleigh here)

Official book description:

Korede is bitter. How could she not be? Her sister, Ayoola, is many things: the favorite child, the beautiful one, possibly sociopathic. And now Ayoola's third boyfriend in a row is dead. Korede's practicality is the sisters' saving grace. She knows the best solutions for cleaning blood, the trunk of her car is big enough for a body, and she keeps Ayoola from posting pictures of her dinner to Instagram when she should be mourning her "missing" boyfriend. Not that she gets any credit.

A kind, handsome doctor at the hospital where Korede works, is the bright spot in her life. She dreams of the day when he will realize they're perfect for each other. But one day Ayoola shows up to the hospital uninvited and he takes notice. When he asks Korede for Ayoola's phone number, she must reckon with what her sister has become and what she will do about it.

This is not a mystery novel. It says right there in the title what the book is about. While Korede, our protagonist, tries to figure out the WHYs of the three men her young sister Ayoola has killed so far (until she calls Korede after the third time, Korede could at least pretend to herself that her sister just had very bad luck with men and had killed the first two in self defense), there is no question of WHO or HOW.

Korede may seem constantly frustrated by her younger sister, and at times rather jealous of her, but there is no doubt about the love the sisters share, or the harrowing upbringing that forged their relationship. Korede would clearly like a good man who loves her, but when the doctor she pines for falls for Ayoola after one brief meeting and becomes just as obsessed as the previous suitors, it becomes clear that he's really not looking for depth and personality and is no where near good enough a partner for Korede, really.

The novel is short and satirical and a lot of people a lot more clever than I have already talked about the way it challenges gender roles, beauty ideals and the like in modern day Nigeria. It's certainly very feminist, none of the men in the story come across particularly well, with the possible exception of Femi, but he's dead as the story begins. I thought this was an interesting portrayal of a very close, but complex sibling relationship. Korede keeps despairing that she needs to take care of her sister and (literally) clean up her messes, but for all her doubts, she keeps showing up and her loyalty to her sister trumps anything else in her life. She may feel frustrated that Ayoola have men falling for her and women clambering to be friends with her, just because of her looks and charm, while Korede works hard (even gets promoted to head nurse) and inhabits a lot of the virtues and skills a perfect wife should have, but keeps being ignored and overlooked. Nevertheless, she can't give up on her sister.The ending of the book, which almost seemed inevitable, made me rather sad.

This book has been reviewed by many Cannonballers already, and on the basis of several of those recommendations, I got the book in an e-book sale back in April. It seemed only suitable that I find a square for it somewhere on the Bingo card. I didn't love it as much as many have, but I thought it was funny and clever and it's such a very fast read.

Judging a book by its cover: I like the cover, with its contrast between the warm browns and the bright, almost neon green. I don't know if the rather elegant-looking woman on the cover is meant to be Korede or Ayoola, but she looks good.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 4 August 2019

#CBR11 Book 60: "Brazen and the Beast" by Sarah Maclean

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: History Schmistory (set in the Victorian era)

On the eve of her twenty-ninth birthday, Lady Henrietta "Hattie" Sedly, aided by her best friend Lady Eleonora (Nora), the daughter of a duke, is planning on going to an exclusive brothel in Covent Garden catering to women. She needs to lose her virginity, so her father will stop trying to pressure her into marriage. Firmly on the shelf, Hattie has discovered that despite a generous dowry, no one actually wants to marry her. She's too tall, too voluptuous, her face is too plain, she's too smart, too opinionated, too interested in running a business - really, there are a number of stumbling blocks. Hattie has worked her ass off trying to prove to her father (an Earl, a lifetime peer) that she's the right person to take over his shipping business. Her younger brother is a complete idiot and a wastrel, but he does have that important y-chromosome (and a penis), which means he doesn't need to work hard to be first in line to take over.

Hattie and Nora are rather taken aback to find a big, strong and exceedingly attractive man unconscious and tied up in the carriage they intend to use to get Hattie to Covent Garden. Hattie persuades Nora to drive the coach anyway and does a bit of flirting with the angry, clearly dangerous man when she wakes him up. Then she impulsively kisses him, cuts the ropes that tie him and throws him out on a street corner.

Whit, brother and partner in crime (literally) of Devil from Wicked and the Wallflower is trying to find out who keeps stealing the shipments of contraband that the Bareknuckle Bastards are transporting. Having lost three valuable lots of goods (as well as several loyal men) already, he's none too pleased to find a fourth shipment snatched. Not to mention finding himself knocked out and tied up (although he managed to throw a knife at one of the thieves before they got him). He tries to question the opinionated woman in the carriage, convinced she's somehow connected to one or several of the thieves (he's not wrong). She frustrates him by refusing to answer any of his questions, but luckily dumps him out on a corner of his own turf, where his many spies easily can tell him where her carriage ends up.

Whit shows up in Hattie's room at the brothel and tries to continue his questioning. She's figured out exactly who is stupid enough to knock out one of the kings of Covent Garden, and promises Whit that his missing property will be returned to him, but she refuses to give up the name of the guilty party (spoiler - it's her moron brother and his manservant). In return, Whit promises to divest Hattie of her unwanted virginity and try to help her achieve the rest of her plan for the Year of Hattie.

Of course, Hattie hasn't realised that her brother is responsible for four valuable shipments having been stolen from the Bareknuckle Bastards, nor does she know who's ultimately responsible or just how dangerously unhinged this individual is. Whit, on the other hand, is pretty sure who is stealing his wares and killing his men, and he cannot take the chance of getting too attached to Hattie, for fear that she get injured as collateral damage in his rather complex family rivalries.

The books in the Scandal & Scoundrel series went from middling to bad, and so I was very relieved to see that Sarah Maclean appears to be back on more familiar ground with the second book in her Bareknuckle Bastards trilogy. Whit may call himself Beast, but in reality, he's a big softie, desperate to protect all those he cares about, always trying to make up for being the smallest and weakest during his super shitty childhood (the details of the Duke of Marwick's "child rearing" attempts continue to be appalling, and I'm sure the next book is really going to delve into the depths of depravity the guy was capable of in order to get himself a "worthy" heir).

Even before the book's release, I'd seen several write-ups of how great Hattie was as a heroine, and she's pretty awesome. Like so many larger women, she has a ton of hang-ups about her body and her looks, not that Whit seems to be bothered by any of them. As is only right and proper in a romance hero, he adores every part of her, from her brain to her larger than average body.

If there's a weak part of this novel, it's the villains of the piece. Hattie's brother is a complete imbecile and the actual power behind him is going to come as no surprise to anyone who's read the first book in the series. His motivations now seem to be that he's gone pretty much completely crazy after the events towards the end of the previous book, which begs the question why Hattie escaped completely unscathed after a direct conversation with him. Maclean is also going to have to do some serious heavy lifting to make this guy a believable and satisfying hero in the concluding volume of the trilogy, out next year.

What I'd REALLY want, though, is a novella about Annika (Nik), the Bareknuckle Bastards' capable lieutenant, and Hattie's BFF Nora (Nik and Nora, see what she did there). There's clearly something brewing there, and I want the whole story.

Judging a book by its cover: Us larger ladies don't often find ourselves represented in the pages of romance fiction, so it's nice to see a plus size model on the cover of this, in a beautiful (if not entirely period appropriate gown - these books are Victorian, not Regency). The colour is even the same as of the dress our heroine is wearing in the opening chapters, which is always a nice detail when they manage to swing it. This cover really is tons better than the one for Wicked and the Wallflower. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 3 August 2019

#CBR11 Book 59: "A Study in Scarlet" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Page count: 124 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

#CBR11 Book Club: Classics

Spoiler Warning! There WILL be mild spoilers for the plot of this story (which is from 1887, so you know, if you wanted to know the details, you've had enough time to look them up or just read the damn story). This is also the Cannonball Book Club selection for August, so I'm going to assume that most people who are interested in participating will read the book before then. If, however, you have NOT read the book yet, maybe skip this review until you have done the required reading. Proceed at your own risk.

So, for those, who like me, have never actually read A Study in Scarlet (I know I'm not the only one), a brief summary of the plot: Doctor John Watson is injured on service in Afghanistan and honourably discharged with a pension. Because he doesn't have a ton of money to live on, he requires someone to share a lodging with. A friend introduces him to the rather peculiar Sherlock Holmes, who for all his strange interests seems to be a perfectly fine living companion.

It turns out that Mr Holmes is a consulting detective, and will solve cases for people using the method of deduction. He usually only needs to hear the particulars of a case from the people who come to see him to solve their little problems, and this is how he supports himself. He is very proud of his intellect and proves to Watson that his methods are sound. Watson accompanies Holmes when he is approached by the police in a strange murder case.

A man has been found in an abandoned building. There is blood on the floor, but none of it is from the victim. The victim has not been robbed, he has all his money and valuables and there is even a woman's wedding band by the corpse. There are no signs of a struggle, but in a different room of the house from where the corpse was found, someone has scrawled "Rache" on the wall in blood. The two detectives on the case each have different theories. Holmes is smugly certain that he will solve the mystery easily for them, yet the two policemen will get all the credit from the authorities and public.

Within three days of first visiting the scene of the crime, Holmes has proven to Watson that his methods work brilliantly, and the murderer is in police custody (after having been lured to Watson and Holmes' lodgings). Watson, furious that his friend will not get proper credit, decides to write down and publish their adventure.

When we voted for book club this time, I voted for Jane Eyre. It came second, and this won out instead. I have never actually read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, and I don't even entirely know why. I love Victorian-set novels featuring lady sleuths, I tend to very much enjoy the modern TV and movie adaptations about one of the most famous literary detectives of all time, and I have even read a number of modern YA retellings. Yet, I seem to have convinced myself that the original source material would be dull and probably rather objectionable, owing to the sexism, racism, the belief in the superiority of the British Empire and so forth.

As it turns out, I was both correct and incorrect in my assumptions. For much of this story, I was a lot more entertained than I was expecting to be. While I have not seen the first episode of the BBC Sherlock series, A Study in Pink, for many years (the one starring Cumberbatch and Freeman), I have seen it enough times that I remembered the major plot beats. It was fun to see what the modern adaptation had chosen to keep from the source material, and which things were entirely different.

I will say that I actually thought the motive of the murderer was WAY better in A Study in Scarlet than in Moffatt's modernised TV adaptation. Can't really say that I was super happy about the fridging of a young lady (I am never going to be), but you have to respect the drive, tenacity and determination of a guy who is so sworn to vengeance and retribution that he spends the next twenty years of his life, and chases the guilty over quite a lot of two continents, refusing to give up, even when his own health is at risk. The method and elaborate staging of the crime scene, especially of the first murder, is also very well done.

What I didn't like so much was the incredibly clunky change of pace in the second half of the novel, when our intrepid investigators have in fact caught their man, and the novel decides to take the reader on an extended, slow and not all that interesting flash back to America, containing a rather ludicrous and false portrayal of Mormonism. It seems that Conan Doyle later in life admitted that he had been misled about the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, and he may also have issued an apology, but to a modern reader, it still smacks of poor research and unfortunate sensationalism (which is exactly the sort of thing I was worried about when reading something written by a man in the late 19th Century - their views were certainly not progressive or open-minded).

I don't think the structure of the book benefits from having an extended and drawn-out flashback for five out of the book's fourteen chapters, just as the story is getting really exciting. Especially when so much of what is relayed in those chapter is just patently false misinformation about a religious faith not that many of the readers in the United Kingdom necessarily knew all that much about at the time of the book's publication. Having a bit of the murderer's back story explored helps to understand his motive, but we didn't need a full third of the book devoted to this, one chapter would have been more than enough.

In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by this reading experience. It also doesn't hurt that the winning book for book club ended up being about a quarter of the length of the book I voted for. While it would have been nice to have an excuse to re-read Jane Eyre again, I'm not at all sorry I was finally pushed out of my comfort zone to read this - and I may in fact seek out some of the shorter (and hopefully slightly better structured Sherlock Holmes stories) in the future.

After reading this, it's was also amusing to discover that while neither of the Guy Ritchie movies (with Robert Downey Jr as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson) are based directly on the Conan Doyle stories, Downey Jr's portrayal of the detective may be the closest to what Holmes is like in the source material. Both he and Cumberbatch's characters spend a fair amount of time deducing, something Johnny Lee Miller's Holmes from what the husband and I have dubbed The Adventures of Mr. Elementary and Joan (because it really is more of a mystery of the week procedural with private detectives rather than a plausible adaptation of Sherlock Holmes - no one spends any time deducing, and they just do a lot of actual investigating). Reading this did make me want to catch up on the recent seasons that we're behind on, which isn't a bad thing, in itself.

Judging a book by its cover: Since it was originally published in the late 19th Century, this book has had a wide variety of covers over the years. This is from one of the Penguin editions, and features magnifying glasses and measuring tapes, both of which Sherlock Holmes frequently employs during his thorough searches of crime scenes.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.