Friday 28 February 2020

#CBR12 Book 9: "Wonder" by R.J. Palacio

Page count: 410 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Official book description:
August Pullman wants to be an ordinary ten-year-old. He does ordinary things. He eats ice cream. He plays on his Xbox. He feels ordinary - inside.

But Auggie is far from ordinary. Ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. Ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go.

Born with a terrible facial abnormality, Auggie has been home-schooled by his parents his whole life, in an attempt to protect him from the cruelty of the outside world. Now, for the first time, he's being sent to a real school - and he's dreading it. All he wants is to be accepted - but can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, underneath it all?

This book has been on my TBR list for years and years, but this semester, we're teaching the book in 9th grade English, and I can't very well teach the kids a book I haven't read myself. So I spent a pleasant weekend in January reading it, and can see why it's gained such popularity and critical acclaim. It's a book that deals with a lot of important subjects, like living with a deformity, both personally or as a family member, bullying, friendship, loneliness and otherness. While August is the main character of the book and the first POV character we meet, there are also sections where other people who interact with him, his sister Via (Olivia), her boyfriend Justin, Auggie's friends Jack and Summer. We get to see not only how Auggie perceives the world and the way people treat him and interact with him, but also how it affects those around him.

This is a middle-grade book, so it's not like the characterisations of all the various people we meet are terribly deep, nuanced and subtle. While a lot of difficult topics are covered, I find I have to agree with some of the reviews I've seen, that point out that some of the ways in which the book approaches serious matters is a bit simplistic and not necessarily as nuanced as one might have wished. Because the POV characters are children, some of their thoughts and observations are a bit naive.

I watched the movie adaptation of this on a plane a while back now, can't remember exactly when, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Pullman family in the book is a lot more diverse than the movie's casting suggests. Julia Roberts is a good actress, but she doesn't exactly look Brazilian. One thing I really liked about the movie, which I was surprised to discover isn't in the book, is the focus on August's mother, who has put much of her life on hold to take care of her son in between his many surgeries, and homeschooling him until he's old enough to finally start going to a real school. In the movie, she starts working on her degree again and seems to re-visit her old career as a children's book illustrator, while in the book, it's unclear what she does with her time once August goes to school. Apart from worrying about her children (and Via mostly feels ignored by her), she doesn't seem to have much of a role, which is a bit sad.

I always try to read the source material before watching the TV or movie adaptation, but in this case, I watched the movie first. As far as I could tell, the movie (despite its somewhat white-washed casting) does a good job of adapting the book, and as I mentioned before, make some interesting changes that give at least Auggie's mother more of a presence and personality. Once the kids have actually managed to complete their reading, we'll probably watch the movie again. It will be interesting to see what I think about it then.

All in all, I would say this is a good book, and it works very well as something to use in school, as there are so many subjects that are relevant to the pupils' lives that we can discuss. I think it's a good book, if not necessarily great. 

Judging a book by its cover: I'm really not a huge fan of the rather abstract cover for this book. One of the reasons it took me so many years to actually read this book is that I thought the cover looked rather bland and non-descript. There was nothing there to excite me. I get that portraying Auggie's face was going to be almost impossible, but this is one of the rare instances where I almost prefer the movie tie-in cover, which has the little boy playing August wearing the big space helmet and covering up his tragically deformed face.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 24 February 2020

#CBR12 Book 8: "Sweep with Me" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 140 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This is the fifth story in the Innkeeper Chronicles series, and this review may contain spoilers for previous installments. If you want to start at the beginning, Clean Sweep is the first book.

For Innkeepers, the biggest and most sacred holiday of the year is the Treaty Stay, which commemorates the ancient treaty between the first Inns, their intergalactic guests, and the agreement to keep humans safe and completely unaware of the presence of alien visits to Earth. During a Treaty Stay, Inns have to open the doors to anyone who seeks lodging, which is how Dina and Sean, who have only barely managed to recover from the last very dramatic events at Gertrude Hunt, find themselves preparing to host not only a large flock of philosophically minded and argumentative space chickens (no, really) but an extremely powerful and notoriously difficult to please space warlord, who has some sort of important meeting she needs to attend to on Earth.

Orro, Dina's neurotic perfectionist of a chef drives himself nearly mad trying to produce the food request that the warlord has asked for as her first meal. He's also gotten himself addicted to fast-paced reality cooking shows. Sean is having fun upgrading the inn's defenses, which is urgently needed, considering the ruthless businessman that their alien guest is meeting with keeps trying to send mercenaries to break into the inn. Dina still feels a bit lost and out of touch with her Inn after the near-death experience she's still recovering from. She worries that she won't have the full control and power she requires to see to the safety and well being of all of her guests during the Treaty Stay.

This was a holiday novella that Ilona and Gordon (the writing team that make up Ilona Andrews), as always first released in free installments on their website and then published for fans to buy. It made my Christmas and New Year's holidays a happier place to be, certainly.

I love how, even in a fairly short story, the authors manage to balance humour, romance, friendship and the importance of family (Caldenia and Orro's presence at the inn is clearly a given for Dina, and I suspect she considers them family just as much as Maud, Helen and now Arland), with suspense and action. As always, there were laugh out loud bits, and there were some action sequences that would make your jaw drop if you saw them play out on a movie screen.

These are bonus stories that IA generously bestow on their fans, in between writing their other ongoing series, and I've come to really enjoy the extended cast and the strange little fantasy/sci-fi blend they contain. I don't want to become complacent and take these books for granted, but I hope the authors continue to occasionally release new installments, especially now that they've teased us with the possibility of Klaus, the elusive, missing Demille brother.

Judging a book by its cover: The covers for the Innkeeper Chronicles continue to be among the best that Ilona Andrews have for their books, probably because they pay someone to make them, so they have full creative control. While I think Sean looks uncharacteristically pouty, I like Dina's powerful stance and her sweeping (see what I did there) robe, as well as the festive (and plot appropriate) lanterns in the background.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR12 Book 7: "A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 104 pages
Rating: 4 stars

After the active interference of his parents and grandparents with the matchmaking extravaganza over Thanksgiving, Zack Wong is very worried that something similar will be repeated for Chinese New Year, especially since two of his brothers now have girlfriends, and the family seem determined that all four Wong children end up in happy couples. To make sure his family can't meddle in his personal life a second time, he talks his good friend, Jo MacGregor, into posing as his fake girlfriend. They even go on a couple of fake dates around town so the story will be more believable.

Jo MacGregor, Mosquito Bay's dentist, doesn't really miss her lackluster fiancee and has tried really hard not to pine over Zach Wong when they meet at the pub once a week to chat and commiserate over their continued single status. She can't really refuse when Zack asks her to pose as his girlfriend, considering her fondest wish is that he ask her to be his for real. If she can't have him forever, she'll settle for being his pretend girlfriend for a short while - it's better than nothing, right?

Of course, with this being a romance, the fake dating between two people with a close friendship and obvious chemistry, soon turns into something a lot more real.

In these very cozy novellas that focus heavily on family and togetherness as well as romance, Jackie Lau keeps playing with popular romance tropes. In this story, she covers the fake dating plot, as well as long-time friends to lovers. Zach has convinced himself he's very happily single after his fiancee left him years back. He doesn't really have time for dating, working as a high school teacher and football coach, but cherishes his friendship with Jo.

Jo keeps herself busy, having taken over her father's dentist's practice in the little town. She doesn't really feel the need to live anywhere more exciting or vibrant, having gone away for a few years for college and work training. For the past four years, she and Zack have had a "support group" as such, meeting up for drinks and chatting about everything at the local pub. Unbeknownst to Zack, however, Jo has been crushing on him for the past two years, but since she knows full well he wants to stay single, she's not going to reveal her true feelings and ruin their solid friendship.

It obviously doesn't take long before the fake dating becomes a lot more like real dating, but Zach takes quite a while to realise his true feelings for Jo, because otherwise, where would the complication be? There are some pretty adorable and hilarious scenes involving Zack and Jo and the extended Wong family, especially a laugh out loud moment during a competitive game of Pictionary. Jo certainly has more of a drive to win than I would.

Only one more of these novellas to go - little sister Amber's turn.

Judging a book by its cover: These little cartoon covers continue to be really nice, this one with lots of amazing food to tempt me, just in case the description of the food over the course of the novella wasn't enough. Just look at that spread, doesn't it make your mouth water?

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 23 February 2020

#CBR12 Book 6: "Unsung Heroine" by Sarah Kuhn

Page count: 121 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Lucy Valdez is many things: fight trainer/bodyguard to superheroines, fabulous vintage fashion plate, undisputed karaoke queen at local joint, The Gutter. She is also one of the toughest fighters in all of San Francisco without superpowers. So why can't she seem to confess her feelings to her longtime crush Rose Rorick, head of the San Francisco Police Department's Demon Unit?

Well.... actually, she knows why. She's afraid Rose won't like the real Lucy, the Lucy underneath all the fabulous bravado. (She is still fabulous underneath that bravado--just in a different way.)

When a mysterious new karaoke star rises up at The Gutter and eclipses her, Lucy finds her confidence further shaken--and when strange, seemingly supernatural happenings threaten both this new star and The Gutter's very existence, she must rise to the challenge and investigate alongside Rose. Will Lucy be able to vanquish the demonic threat to her beloved karaoke haven, confess her true feelings to Rose, and reclaim her karaoke throne?

Back in August 2018 (my, how time flies) I read and very much enjoyed the Heroine Complex trilogy, a series of romantic, paranormal fantasy books featuring superheroes in an alternate version of San Francisco. It seems Sarah Kuhn is going to be writing a second trilogy and this novella is a bridge between them, as well as giving readers more background and time with Lucy, Aveda Jupiter, and Evie Tanaka's personal trainer and bodyguard. There are cameo appearances from Aveda and Evie, as well as their husbands, and even Evie's little sister Bea, but mostly this story is all Lucy, trying to figure out why there appear to be strange demon possession events at her local karaoke joint, while also fighting her feelings for police detective Rose Rorick.

While it seems pretty obvious to all around Lucy that Rose is crazy about her, Lucy doesn't believe she could ever be good enough for Rose, and thanks to some serious baggage, Lucy is also convinced she could never be the settling down type. So she keeps trying to set Rose up with someone else, trying desperately to ignore the chemistry and obvious attraction between them. Luckily, her friends (and Rose) are having none of that, and work to make sure that the two women find their happy ending, while also solving the mystery demon attacks at the Gutter.

While this was a cute little novella (there really isn't all that much f/f romance out there), I'm not entirely sure how it works as a bridge to the next series of books, but that may become more clear once book 4, Haunted Heroine, is released in July. I'm certainly very excited to see where Ms. Kuhn takes our various heroines next.

Judging a book by its cover: I really like the brightly colourful, cartoony covers for Sarah Kuhn's books. Her cover artist has a very distinct style and it suits the books and the series well. It's a really good collaboration, and I hope the style continues with the new series.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 19 February 2020

#CBR12 Book 5: "What I Did for a Duke" by Julie Anne Long

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 23 mins
Rating: 5 stars

I first read and reviewed this book back in 2011 (when it came out), during Cannonball III. My original review, which among other things contains a plot summary, can be found here.

If you do take a look at my previous review (or just check my rating of this book), you can see that the rather unlikely romance between Miss Genevieve Eversea Lord Alexander Moncrieffe, the Duke of Falconbridge is one of my absolute favourites. I loved it utterly when I first read it back in 2011 and when re-reading several times since then. While I used to be a bit unnerved by listening to romance in audio format, I have had a change of heart in recent years, and especially like owning books I particularly enjoy in audiobook as well, so I can listen to the book when I want a comfort re-read.

Sadly, this has not been possible with Julie Anne Long's popular historicals before now. For years, literally, I've been looking for and bemoaning the fact that Julie Anne Long's Pennyroyal Green books were not available in audiobook. However, this changed towards the end of 2019, when once a month, another book in the series became available, and at the end of December, What I Did for a Duke was finally released (you had better believe I clicked that pre-order button the second the news was announced).

Checking Goodreads, I could see that when I started my current re-read, I hadn't really revisited this favourite for over five years. Many romances have been published since then, would it still retain its coveted position as one of my all-time favourites? Would Justine Eyre's narration add to or take away from my enjoyment?

I'm relieved to say that the book was just as good as I remembered it, if maybe a bit slow in the set-up (I mean, who really cares about dumb Ian Eversea?) and Ms. Eyre's narration is great. Considering how long I've been wanting an audio version of this book, it's good that I can have one that I can listen to repeatedly.

The quality of Julie Anne Long's Pennyroyal Green books is variable. Some of them are merely ok, some are a delight, and a very few are absolute romance classics. This may be my favourite of the entire series (although I may have to revisit It Happened One Midnight and The Legend of Lyon Redmond when they come out as audiobooks too.

Judging a book by its cover: Goodreads didn't seem to have an image for the cover that accompanies my audiobook version (and is utterly dreadful), so I'll just comment on the original paperback cover for this instead. I don't even know where to begin with the WTF here. Not sure who these people on the cover are, but they seem very unlike the way Alex and Genevieve are actually described in the book. There is also no scene at any point where they make out in what appears to be a wind tunnel, with Gen wearing a sheet? A weirdly bunched up chemise?  Something else entirely? It's such a bad cover - so, so bad.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.