Wednesday 24 June 2020

#CBR12 Book 28: "A Murderous Relation" by Deanna Raybourn

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the fifth book in the Veronica Speedwell series. There will absolutely be spoilers for some of the previous books in the series. Skip this review if you're not up to date. It's an excellent series; if you want to start at the beginning, pick up A Curious Beginning

Official description:
Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian colleague Stoker are asked by Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk to help with a potential scandal so explosive it threatens to rock the monarchy. Prince Albert Victor is a regular visitor to the most exclusive private club in London, known as the Club de l'Etoile, and the proprietress, Madame Aurore, has received an expensive gift that can be traced back to the prince. Lady Wellie would like Veronica and Stoker to retrieve the jewel from the club before scandal can break.

Worse yet, London is gripped by hysteria in the autumn of 1888, terrorized by what would become the most notorious and elusive serial killer in history, Jack the Ripper--and Lady Wellie suspects the prince may be responsible.

Veronica and Stoker reluctantly agree to go undercover at Madame Aurore's high-class brothel, where another body soon turns up. Many secrets are swirling around Veronica and the royal family--and it's up to Veronica and Stoker to find the truth before it's too late for all of them.

Back in London after their near-death experience, not to mention declarations of affection for one another, Veronica and Stoker nevertheless never really seem to find the time or privacy to actually act on their out in the open emotions. You'd think snooping around a high-class brothel and trying to locate a precious gemstone, so they can soothe the worries of Lady Wellie and none other than the Princess of Wales. While they become certain rather quickly that the royal heir has nothing to do with the gruesome serial murders taking place, there is clearly someone trying to blacken the young prince's name, and as their investigation deepens, Veronica and Stoker discover that the culprits are known to them from a previous case.

It should be absolutely no surprise to anyone reading Deanna Raybourn that she writes very slow-burn romances and that readers have to be patient because her romantic pairings take a good long while to get around to anything but the occasional kiss and a whole lot of unresolved sexual tension. In A Dangerous Collaboration, Veronica finally gave up on her strange notion that she must flit about the world, free as the butterflies she likes to hunt, and admitted to herself, and Stoker, that she loves him. His feelings, and thoughts on monogamy, have been pretty obvious to readers for several books now. Being utterly fiendish, Ms. Raybourn strings the readers along for pretty much this entire book as well, before we finally get the very satisfying consummation of Veronica and Stoker's relationship.

Another important relationship that is formed in this book, is that of Veronica and Prince Albert Victor, her secret half-brother. Tasked initially by Lady Wellie to retrieve a fancy diamond that Albert Victor gifted to his mistress, matters are complicated by murder and kidnapping and a truly hare-brained plot to depose the current royal family. While they are in captivity together, some secrets are revealed to the royal heir, and rather than being upset, he seems quite happy to discover their kinship.

There's a dark minor subplot involving the Jack the Ripper murders, and without spoiling too much, over the course of their sleuthing, Veronica and Stoker come into contact with one of the women who end up being one of the murder victims. Some readers might find it a bit forced, I thought it worked very well and lent the book an extra emotional beat.

By now, I'm going to be reading these for as long as Ms. Raybourn feels like writing them. I find the continuing adventures of Veronica and Stoker (not to mention the small cameo appearances that we get from other members of his family) incredibly entertaining and am already happily anticipating the next installment.

Judging a book by its cover: I've commented before that I really like these woodcut-inspired covers, and this black, white and red one is particularly striking. It's nice that the little figure that's supposed to be Veronica has her little butterfly net, although I don't recall her doing much lepidoptery at all in this book. Also not sure what's up with the dog next to her. Even with these niggles, cool cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 23 June 2020

#CBR12 Book 27: "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Official book description:
The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb.
News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.

Civilization has crumbled.

A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe.

But now a new danger looms, and he threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild.

Moving backwards and forwards in time, from the glittering years just before the collapse to the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after, Station Eleven charts the unexpected twists of fate that connect six people: famous actor Arthur Leander; Jeevan - warned about the flu just in time; Arthur's first wife Miranda; Arthur's oldest friend Clark; Kirsten, a young actress with the Travelling Symphony; and the mysterious and self-proclaimed 'prophet'.

Thrilling, unique and deeply moving, this is a beautiful novel that asks questions about art and fame and about the relationships that sustain us through anything - even the end of the world. 

This was our very first Cannonball Book Club pick back in 2015, and I read and reviewed the book back then too. My original review can be found here. It took me a while back then to decide that I actually wanted to read the book for myself, and I'm not going to lie, re-reading it while a pandemic swept from Asia towards Europe and the USA, was making me a bit nervous. Looking back at the dates when I re-read this book, it was exactly during the time when Norway literally shut down, when the most drastic measures in post-World War II society were implemented, all over the course of a few days. I began my re-read of this on the 12th of March, on my way to work. By the afternoon, we'd been told that the nurseries, schools and universities, not to mention pretty much all major businesses, would be closed until further notice, and everyone was encouraged to just remain indoors, in a kind of pre-quarantine.

Of course, I'm reviewing the book some three months later, and while the pandemic is currently under control in certain parts of the world, it's still spreading wildly and terrifyingly fast in other parts of the globe. While I would love to believe the hopeful views on humanity and survival that are explored in this novel, the current news cycle shows that most people are short-sighted, egotistical, self-centred and careless. It's boring and difficult, not to mention very inconvenient to shelter in place and stay away from people for months. It's much nicer if you can just go about your business instead.  It's hot and uncomfortable to wear a mask to protect others, so a whole bunch of people are just not going to do that, despite all the factual evidence that we could massively halt the spread of the virus if everyone (especially the ones who don't feel sick, but may be asymptomatic carriers) just wore a face mask, washed their hands a lot and tried to keep their distance when out and about.

Station Eleven is a science fiction novel, it's set in a post-apocalyptic society, but it is nevertheless a hopeful and uplifting read. I don't think Emily St. John Mandel would dream of the situations that Covid-19 has created world-wide back when she wrote her book, and as I said, right now, the things that seem the most far fetched and fictional to me, are how well the "Fifteen years later" societies are managing. Of course, we're currently in the middle of "Year One" of this scenario, so perhaps, in the future, when a terrifyingly tragic percentage of the population has died (even if it's not 99%, like in this book), people will again focus mainly on re-building communities and re-discovering art and beauty and togetherness.

This wasn't supposed to be quite such a depressing whinge about how bafflingly selfish a lot of people currently are, but rather a review of my re-read of the book. In my mind, I'd built up the bits I disliked, with the 'Prophet', into a much larger part of the story. So much of the book looks back on the lives of a lot of the people before the Georgia flu hit and subsequently make us care when they are either killed by the flu themselves or lose other loved ones from the illness. It's still a wonderful book, and I'm glad we revisited it for Book Club.

Judging a book by its cover: I own three copies of this book. An e-book copy, an Audible audiobook and the UK paperback copy, which I was gifted in a Cannonball Book Exchange. This is the cover of the paperback I have, which seems extra timely now that an actual pandemic is sweeping the world and we saw that in places where people were forced to isolate during the lockdown, wild animals really did end up roaming the urban streets, undisturbed by people. So the deer facing the reader among the high rises of a city doesn't seem as strange as it may have once done. It doesn't take long for nature to start reclaiming the space we take up.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR12 Book 26: "Ninth House" by Leigh Bardugo

Page count: 476 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Leigh Bardugo has become a popular name in YA fantasy, with her Grisha trilogy, the duology Six of Crows, as well as the Nikolai duology (which is still incomplete). This is her attempt of paranormal fantasy aimed at adults, and in case the black and grey cover left you in any doubt, it doesn't take long before the reader is made very aware that this book is "not for kids". Our protagonist, Galaxy "Alex" Stern has the rather unusual ability to see ghosts, which has mostly been a horrible burden throughout her life so far, making her a seemingly mentally unstable outcast who ended up hanging with the wrong crowd and numbing her senses with drugs just to get some peace.

Nevertheless, the sole survivor of a horrible multiple homicide in a sketchy drug den, Alex is given the opportunity to come to prestigious Yale, precisely because her ability to see and sense ghosts is useful to those in power there. There are nine secret magical societies at the university, and Alex is a member of Lethe, the one that "polices" the others. It's also the smallest of the societies, with hardly any members. The senior member, who trains the younger one, is known as Virgil. The younger member is Dante. Alex is the Dante to Daniel "Darlington" Arlington's Virgil, and they don't exactly have the warmest or friendliest of relationships. Unlike Alex, Darlington has to drink a special potion to see ghosts. The potion is both foul-tasting and can be lethal if over-used. There's also the fact that Darlington seems to come from a privileged and wealthy background, while Alex was pretty much literally living on the streets before she got the chance to come to Yale. There's also Dawes, the shy research assistant who seems infatuated with Darlington and rather hostile towards Alex.

The book's plot is not told chronologically. The prologue is set in early spring, while other chapters are set in the autumn and winter, with alternating POVs from Alex and Darlington. It's clear from the prologue that Alex in the spring is in a pretty bad place, so it's going to be quite the ride to figure out how she ended up in such a tight spot.

As well as introducing us to some very interesting world-building, with a lot of creepy supernatural stuff going on, there is a murder mystery to be solved. A young girl is murdered on the Yale campus, and while a lot of people seem to brush it off as a lovers' quarrel gone wrong, Alex knows that there's more to the story and keeps poking her nose into places it doesn't belong.

As I mentioned in my first paragraph, while Bardugo has previously written for teens, this book is much darker and more serious, complete with all sorts of adult themes. I was surprised at how gory and f**ked up it got, on occasion. I should probably also add that while the main mystery of the story is solved at the end, there is very much a cliff-hanger sort of a feel to the ending, with the purpose of the sequel very much established. I'm already looking forward to seeing where Alex ends up next.

Judging a book by its cover: I know I finished the book about three months ago, but I'm trying to remember if there was a snake prominently featured in the story at any point, and coming up blank. I think the snake may have been put on the cover to create a cool visual, and I do like the black on black, with the grey font. It may be that the snake is a metaphor I'm too stupid to have understood, of course.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 6 June 2020

#CBR12 Book 25: "Queenie" by Candace Carty-Williams

Page count: 336 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 45 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper, where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle-class peers. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie seeks comfort in all the wrong places…including several hazardous men who do a good job of occupying brain space and a bad job of affirming self-worth.

As Queenie careens from one questionable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be?”—all of the questions today’s woman must face in a world trying to answer them for her.

I'm not the first Cannonballer to read Queenie and thanks to the reviews of others, I knew that the only thing this book seemed to have in common with Bridget Jones' Diary is that they are both about young British women with a supportive friend group. I suspect a lot of people who picked up the book based on such a comparison would have been shocked, and quite possibly put off. Poor Queenie is a mess, personally and professionally. Her white boyfriend has broken up with her, but she keeps telling herself that they are just on a temporary break and will be getting back together again after some months apart. From Queenie's own flashbacks to the relationship, not only did her boyfriend's family contain several blatant racists, but they were never a particularly healthy couple and it's probably best in the long run for Queenie to be rid of him.

Not that she realises this, and she deals with being single by pretty much hooking up with and having unprotected sex with increasingly more awful and unsuitable guys (including one who is really violent towards her). She wants to be taken seriously at work and write about serious issues like racism, police brutality and the gentrification of previously immigrant-rich areas, but also comes in late, takes super long lunches, spends a lot of her day on social media and is generally a hot mess. Despite all this, her boss really does seem to want to keep giving her chances. Queenie also has a group of loyal and supportive friends (the chat group is called "the Corgis", which is just super cute) who keep trying to be there for her, even as she keeps spiralling further and further into bad decision territory.

One of the major issues in Queenie's relationship with her unsuitable boyfriend was that she would have nightmares and occasionally freak out when he touched her. It becomes clear the further into the book we get that Queenie's mother also made bad choices with regards to men, and a violent stepfather in Queenie's past has left her deeply traumatised. She's currently estranged from her mother but has grandparents who take her in and try to help her when she can no longer to afford her flat. Several of the nurses at the free clinic that Queenie has to keep visiting because of her impulsive and unprotected hook-ups start showing concern for her and recommend that she see a therapist. It's made very clear that in the Jamaican culture, you don't go talking to strangers about your problems, and it takes Queenie a really long time to convince herself (not to mention her concerned grandparents) that this is a necessary step in her road towards healing and self-improvement.

I finished this book in early March, before the corona pandemic really erupted in the western hemisphere and the world changed completely. Reviewing it now, as multiple cities in America have literally been burning and there are protests all over the world to protest police brutality and to express solidarity with #blacklivesmatter, I wonder what Queenie would think if she were a real character and saw what was happening? Would she feel hopeful? Would she fear that it was only a momentary distraction and soon the world would have moved on, allowing the systemic racism to continue?

For the first two thirds at least, this book is dark and miserable and there are graphic descriptions of emotional and physical abuse and some of Queenie's sexual encounters could probably be classified as rape. She keeps making terrible choices, both personally and professionally and if I'd started this book a month later, in the midst of lock-down with all the worries about corona and my anxiety constantly spiking, I'm genuinely not sure I would have been able to finish the book. It's certainly NOT a light, frothy, comedic romp about a woman just trying to find love. It's a harrowing description of an individual in crisis with a lot of undiagnosed mental issues, and we follow along until she hits rock bottom. If you can get through the difficult parts, I can assure you that the book goes to a much more hopeful and encouraging place once Queenie starts accepting that she needs professional help, and needs to start loving herself and staying away from her terrible life choices.

I'm very glad that I read the book. I really liked the narrator and being fore-warned, I knew I was going to have to get through some unpleasant stuff before Queenie began to work towards a better life for herself. I will say that times are tough and depressing right now, and if you're looking for some light escapism, this is not the book for you. It's an excellent story, but very unpleasant in places.

Judging a book by its cover: I've seen this cover with a bright, almost neon-pink background and this warm orange-red one. In both, you have the same central image, an elaborate hairdo of intricate braids piled on top of a young woman's head. We don't get to see her face, only her hair and an ear with some piercings. I love how it looks as if the title is woven into the braids, like some sort of ornamentation in itself. Queenie is very protective of her hair (and why shouldn't she be?), yet she keeps having to suffer micro-aggressions like people touching it without her permission. So it's a good choice to have the hair featured on the cover of the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 5 June 2020

#CBR12 Book 24: "The Ultimate Pi Day Party" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 236 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
If there’s one thing that might get my dad, a retired math teacher, to visit Toronto and have a real conversation with me for the first time in seventeen years, it’s a big nerdy Pi Day party. And hopefully this party—and seeing the tech company I built from nothing—will finally be enough to impress him and make him forgive me for everything I did when I was a teenager.

But it’s got to be a really great party.

That’s where Sarah Winters comes in. She owns Happy As Pie, a sweet and savory pie shop, and wants to get into catering. She makes an amazing lamb-rosemary pie, cherry pie, lemon-lime tart…you get the idea. She’ll provide the food and help me plan the party, nothing more. No matter how much time we spend together, I’m not going to fall in love with her.

At least, that’s what I tell myself…

Josh Yu has worked very hard to become successful. He's now the CEO of his own tech company in Toronto and employs a lot of people, but he feels like his achievements are meaningless, since he lacks his father's approval. Josh's dad, now a retired math teacher, has given him the silent treatment since he was in high school and accidentally got his girlfriend knocked up. Josh's girlfriend chose to have an abortion and is now happily engaged to someone else. Josh's mother and sisters all love and support him, but his dad still literally refuses to acknowledge him, even when he's home for the holidays. Pi Day was always a big deal for his dad, so Josh wants to arrange a Pi Day party for his company, and invites his parents to come visit him.

Josh hires Sarah Winters to cater his party. She owns and runs a small pie shop in Baldwin Village in Toronto. While she's dreamed of branching out into catering, Sarah's shop is as of yet mainly a bit infamous because someone bought a banana cream pie there that they used to throw at a politician. Sarah also feels like she has something to prove to her mother, who didn't really like that Sarah was going to move to a big city and risk everything by opening her own pie shop. Catering Josh's party will be a great opportunity for Sarah, although also the biggest event she and her employees have ever had to prepare for.

Sarah and Josh are pretty much instantly attracted to one another and get adorably flustered in each other's presence. There are several scenes where these two, who are both very good at what they do, bumble and get discombobulated by the presence of the other. Like most of Lau's other romances, there's a lot of delicious food descriptions, in between people falling in love with one another. Sadly, it takes Josh a bit longer to understand that just because his father is a withholding idiot, it doesn't in any way mean that Josh is unworthy of affection or deserving of love. Just because his dad is a bit toxic, doesn't mean that Josh hasn't felt love and approval from the rest of his family. It made me sad that it took him so long to get over the emotional scars his dad caused him.

The thing I liked the most about the book was probably Sarah's developing friendship with two other women who are setting up businesses in Baldwin Village (and will clearly be the heroines in the next books in the series). Sarah has moved to Toronto from a small town and while she has her employees, she's rather lonely and has been so busy establishing and building her pie shop to really make any new friends. So seeing her meet supportive, like-minded women was nice.

I was lucky enough to get this book for free (Lau every so often makes one of her books available for free for a limited period). While it's not the best of her stories that I've read, there were a lot of positives and it did make me really crave some pie.

Judging a book by its cover: While shirt-less beefcake cover models are pretty standard on contemporary and paranormal romance covers, you very rarely see hot, shirtless Asian guys featured. That makes this an unusual cover, and in this, like in all other aspects of romance, diversity and representation are important. Not sure why the CEO of a tech company would stand around randomly shirtless at night, but it's a good image, so I'm not going to complain too much.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.