Friday 31 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 52: "Call Down the Hawk" by Maggie Stiefvater

Page count: 480 pages
Audio book length: 13 hrs 45 mins
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Orange

This is the start of a new series, so it stands alone. You don't have to have read Stiefvater's Raven Cycle series, starting with The Raven Boys, but it gives a lot of useful background to Ronan and the other Lynch brothers. 

Official book description:
The dreamers walk among us . . . and so do the dreamed. Those who dream cannot stop dreaming – they can only try to control it. Those who are dreamed cannot have their own lives – they will sleep forever if their dreamers die.

And then there are those who are drawn to the dreamers. To use them. To trap them. To kill them before their dreams destroy us all.

Ronan Lynch is a dreamer. He can pull both curiosities and catastrophes out of his dreams and into his compromised reality.

Jordan Hennessy is a thief. The closer she comes to the dream object she is after, the more inextricably she becomes tied to it.

Carmen Farooq-Lane is a hunter. Her brother was a dreamer . . . and a killer. She has seen what dreaming can do to a person. And she has seen the damage that dreamers can do. But that is nothing compared to the destruction that is about to be unleashed. . . . 

In this new Dreamer trilogy, Maggie Stiefvater takes some of the characters from her Raven Cycle, like the deeply spiky and hostile Ronan Lynch and his boyfriend Adam Parrish and writes a new story, which also gives more room and development to some who were very peripheral supporting cast, like Ronan's brothers Declan and Matthew. She also introduces a number of new characters, like the talented art forger Jordan Hennessey, who hides the fact that all the women she lives with, are in fact, copies of herself that she dreamed into being. Women who will become comatose shells if she ever dies - and with each dream where she brings forth a copy, she comes a little bit closer to that point. There's also Carmen Farooq-Lane, who works with a group of people determined to track down dreamers, and either make them stop dreaming (which is impossible, then they'll eventually die) or kill them. There is a dangerous prophecy, you see, that one or more dreamers will bring forth the end of the world. While she's unhappy about her assignment and haunted by the fact that she had to help bring down her own brother, she really doesn't feel she has a choice. She's helping to stop Armageddon. 

Ronan and Declan, always at odds, are both haunted by the legacy of their father, the charming, but dangerous Niall Lynch. He was killed very suddenly, and clearly didn't have the time, or possibly just didn't have the inclination, to teach his son the art of dreaming safely. Adam, Ronan's true love, has gone away to college, and due to the dangers that Ronan can manifest when he dreams, he cannot move from the family home, and unfortunate and difficult to explain away things happen when he goes to visit Adam at school, effectively banning him from campus. Now he basically starts having guest appearances in his dreams from another dreamer, who keeps setting him tasks and leading him on a merry chase, for reasons unknown. 

Declan, the eldest, left with the legal responsibility for his brothers when their father died, and their mother, a dream creation of his, drifted into sleep forever, tries desperately to appear as normal and inconspicuous as possible. He dresses to be non-descript, he makes sure to make himself invaluable to his employers in Washington D.C, but not so much so that he might get promoted into a position where people might take a good look at him or his family. Declan has trouble eating and sleeping and worries constantly, something neither of his brothers seem aware of at all. Declan comes to discover that there are more secrets in his past than even he suspected, and he and Ronan will need to find a way to work together to figure them out.

Sweet, good-natured Matthew Lynch has absolutely no idea that he isn't actually one of Niall's three sons, that he was dreamt into creation by Ronan as a child, and raised alongside the two young men he considers brother. If Ronan and Declan are united in anything, it's that Matthew is to be kept safe, and unaware of his own true nature. But something is up with Matthew. He keeps leaving his fancy prep school and running off to look at a particular river - and it may prove difficult to keep the truth from him for much longer.

As well as the Lynch brothers, we have Hennessey and her unfortunate dreamt sisters, whose doom is approaching all the quicker if Hennessey doesn't learn to control her dreams more. While Ronan learned little from his own father, Hennessey learned even less from her famous artist mother, who committed suicide in front of her. She sets a timer to keep herself from falling asleep for more than a few minutes at a time, knowing that each time she dreams properly, she brings out another copy of herself from the dreams, and comes one step closer to her own death.

There is also Carmen Farooq-Lane, who has to babysit a surly, German, teenage visionary, trying to figure out where the dreamer who is going to doom them all is located. She's dutiful, yet conflicted and frequently feels frustrated about her mission brief. 

I remember thinking that The Raven King, the fourth and concluding volume in the Raven Cycle wasn't everything I wanted it to be, and was a bit let down by the ending and pacing of the book. In October 2019, Maggie Stiefvater posted a lengthy, very honest blog post, explaining just how little of the book she actually remembers writing, because she was struggling with really debilitating health problems at the time, and nearly died before they figured out what was wrong with her. So it seems the fact that it works as well as it does is remarkable. 

Now that Stiefvater is healthy again, she writes as lyrically and vividly as always. She's hidden that Ronan is one of her favourite characters, and that there is a lot of her in him. He's a character who it's difficult to like, because he's so angry and defensive and sharp, but you can't help but love him. I really liked learning more about his brothers, and hope the family dynamics become something closer and healthier in the coming books, after some of the revelations in this one. 

I was glad to revisit characters I already knew, and it's always good to meet more of Stiefvater's creations. She writes so well, and I'm glad she's healthy and thriving and writing a new series of books for me to enjoy. Neither the title nor the release date for book 2 is out yet, so I shall just sit, impatiently waiting, for more about the Lynches, and Jordan and Hennessey and Farooq-Lane. I suspect they are all going interesting places. 
Judging a book by its cover: This is one of those books that I ended up owning both in paperback and audio format. The paperback I have is the UK edition, where the hawk on the cover (and of the title) looks a bit more stylised and the colour scheme is more peach than orange. Nevertheless, the audiobook cover is the US one, with a lot of orange both in the font used for the title and in the background for the swooping hawk. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR12 Book 51: "The Disasters" by M.K. England

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Violet

All Nax Hall has ever dreamed of is going Ellis Station Academy and qualifying as a pilot. Unfortunately, he fails his entrance exam and is sent packing after less than twenty-four hours. Sharing his fate are Rion, Case and Zee, and while they're all waiting for their one-way shuttle back to Earth, they are witness to a terrorist attack on the space station. The four teens manage to steal themselves a small shuttle and narrowly escape getting killed by the attackers. While they know that jumping their space ship into one of the new colony worlds means they can never return home, they have no other choice if they want to escape being exploded.

After crash-landing their shuttle on al-Rihla, one of Earth's earliest colony planets, the four runaways decide that they need to contact the authorities and warn them about the attack on the Academy. They quickly discover, however, that individuals on board the station were clearly working with the terrorists, have covered up the extent of the attack, and blamed what damages couldn't be hidden on Nax and his new crew, who after all, stole a space shuttle and did an unauthorised jump through space. All channels of communication to Earth are cut off, there is no way for our young fuck-ups to warn anyone about anything. They also only barely avoid getting arrested, helped by the mysterious Asra, who wants to help them, in return for some assistance with a heist - they need to steal another space shuttle and take her with them when they fly off-planet. 

The five young fugitives come to realise that the terrorists' plot is much wider-ranging than just taking over Ellis Station Academy. They only have a limited amount of time to track down help and try to save multiple colony planets from being destroyed. 

This was one of the four books selected for Cannonball Book Club's June meeting - The Future is Queer. There's a bunch of LGBTQIA-representation here, as well as representation of other kinds. Nax is bi, Rion is gay, Zee is trans. Nax and Asra (as well as their families) are Muslim. This was a fun book once it got going properly, but I'm not giving it more than 3.5 stars because I wish we'd had a bit more backstory and characterisation given to Rion, Case and Zee, and it took me quite a while to really get into the book (even with the action-packed start). I picked it up and put it down multiple times in the first few chapters. Once they all agree on their exciting space heist and the subsequent rescue mission, I read through the rest of the book quite quickly.

Nax has a complicated relationship with his parents and older brother. Asra's family situation is also very complicated. I wish I could tell you more about the others, but that wasn't really covered, which is one of the things I would have liked MORE of. 

Still, this is England's debut novel and I'm sure she's going to improve in time. It wasn't a bad book, it just could have been even better with a few improvements. 

Judging a book by its cover: Purple is my favourite colour, so I'm in no way complaining about the choice of background colour here. I just think that maybe the cover could have been a bit more elaborate than a space helmet with some spray paint on it. It's a bit too minimalist for my tastes. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday 30 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 50: "Beach Read" by Emily Henry

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 13 mins
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Pandemic (read what you want)

Official book description: 
Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.

They're polar opposites.

In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they're living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer's block.

Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She'll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he'll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really. 

I suspect quite a few people who picked up this book, based on the bright, colourful cover and the light-hearted title were in for quite a surprise if they hadn't read up on the book in advance. This book is not a light, funny, frothy summer read. It doesn't feature anyone sitting or lying on towels on golden sand (despite living in actual beach houses, Gus and January spend remarkably little time on the actual beach). It is nevertheless a good romance, where the characters spend a lot of time reconnecting (they used to go to college together) and becoming fast friends before they realise that they've fallen for one another.

It just seems like it's important to address that our heroine, romance author January Andrews, starts the book in a pretty dark place. When her beloved father unexpectedly died, she discovered that he'd been having an affair. Not only that, but her mother knew about it, did nothing, and helped hide the fact from January. In the months after his funeral, when she was overcome with grief, January's handsome doctor boyfriend dumped her. Now she's pretty much homeless, broke, and needs to write a new book in a few months, or her publisher may drop her. Unfortunately, her belief in true love, meet-cutes, and happily-ever-afters has been completely obliterated. Because she has nowhere else to stay, she's forced to go stay in the beach house in Michigan where her father used to meet up with his mistress. Living in the town where said mistress still resides, in fact. Living in her father's love nest isn't exactly inspiring her creative juices.

To make matters possibly worse, she discovers that the surly neighbour who plays loud music at late-night parties is none other than her old college critique partner, now bestselling author, Augustus Everett. January is used to her writing being dismissed and assumes acclaimed literary darling Augustus will think the same as most others. She's rather relieved when she discovers he suffers from writing block too. The neighbours make a bet - Augustus will try to write a romantic comedy with a happy ending, while January will write something dark and serious that will please literary critics. The first one to get their book published wins. The loser will enthusiastically promote the other's work. January will teach Gus about all the popular romance tropes, he will help her do serious research and allow her to sit in on his interviews with survivors of a death cult.

Changing pace and genre seems to invigorate both of them, and soon both January and Gus are writing more than they have in months. They develop a fast friendship and start talking to each other about a lot of things, but both of them take time to share the emotional scars of their pasts with one another, which is one of the reasons the romance hits a few snags before they find their happy ending. Who wins their little contest? You'll have to read the book to find out.

As far as I'm aware, this is Emily Henry's first adult book, she's previously written a number of young adult novels with some form of paranormal element. I'd only read A Million Junes before this, but have now really liked two books of hers and will absolutely be checking out more in the future. 

Judging a book by its cover: Both the title and the cover of this novel are highly deceptive and frankly actively misleading to the reader. The cover and title promise a fluffy rom-com with people lounging around on beaches, reading, and relaxing. It promises a low-stress, effortless, well, beach read. As this book is about grief, and frustration and overcoming emotional abuse and generally have two characters that at least initially start out some pretty dark places, this cover feels like false advertising. You are not going to get the book promised on the cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 29 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 49: "The Last Wish" by Andrzej Sapkowski

Page count: 360 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 27 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Repeat (since I've already covered the Adaptation square)

Geralt of Rivia is a Witcher. This means he roams about the countryside, travelling from place to place, killing monsters for profit. To become a Witcher, he was taken from his family as a child, and long training, magic and special potions make him a strong, fast and highly efficient killer. Based on the stories in this collection, it seems that once, there were a lot more Witchers, now they are rare and unusual, and Geralt is often feared and reviled by the villagers who hire him to help them. 

Geralt seems to have very few friends, with the exception of the bard Dandelion. He also seems to rest up at a convent, confiding his adventures to the Mother Superior every so often (this seemed to be the framing narrative of the stories).

I have very little knowledge of or experience with the popular series of games that were adapted from this. Nor have I yet started the Netflix series, despite the fine figure of Henry 'OMGHISGL' Cavill starring as Geralt. So I cannot tell you how accurate an adaptation of the source material the show is. I've heard good things, and while I found the frame narrative of this short story collection a bit confusing, I liked the way the author took various elements of folklore and established fairy tales and gave them his own twist. The original Polish books were written in the 1990s, and I wish the portrayal of women was a bit more nuanced. I've heard that the female characters of the TV show are quite varied, interesting and complex - so that's probably a good update.  

I listened to this in audio, and because it consisted of a series of short stories, it took me a few months to get through it. The narrator is generally fine, but I didn't much care for the way he does Geralt's voice, which becomes a bit of a problem when Geralt is the main character of the stories. I found the stories interesting enough that I'll probably get round to reading the rest in the future, but I'm not feeling any immediate need. 

Judging a book by its cover: Obviously, for something that has been out for as many years as this book, published in a number of countries and languages, there are also many different covers. After the Netflix series was produced, there are also several different tie-in covers available. On mine, Geralt is in the middle of fighting some legendary beastie, possibly a dragon. It looks dynamic and exciting. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday 28 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 48: "Places in the Darkness" by Chris Brookmyre

Page count: 416 pages
Audio book length: 14 hrs 42 mins
Rating: 3 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Book Club (this was a pick in my fantasy/sci-fi book club a few months back)

Offical book description:
Hundreds of miles above Earth, the space station Ciudad de Cielo - The City in the Sky - is a beacon of hope for humanity's expansion into the stars. But not everyone aboard shares such noble ideals.

Bootlegging, booze, and prostitution form a lucrative underground economy for rival gangs, which the authorities are happy to turn a blind eye to until a disassembled corpse is found dancing in the micro-gravity.

In charge of the murder investigation is Nikki "Fix" Freeman, who is not thrilled to have Alice Blake, an uptight government goody-two-shoes, riding shotgun. As the bodies pile up, and the partners are forced to question their own memories, Nikki and Alice begin to realize that gang warfare may not be the only cause for the violence. 

This book, a science fiction mystery from an author I'd never even heard of, was the June selection of my local fantasy/sci-fi book club. We met up in a park for the first time in several months, responsibly distanced at least six feet apart, to discuss it. As is often the case, I had started the book (in this case, the audio version), but had only gotten about ten chapters in and was unsure of whether I wanted to continue or not. The rule at our book club is that you're absolutely welcome to show up even if you haven't finished the book (or read it at all, which seems to happen a lot with a lot of the members), but you don't get to be upset if you get spoilers. I think it's a fair rule. Happily, the book club meeting and subsequent discussion made it clear that the story WOULD pick up and that the mystery was interesting and had an unusual outcome. 

So I kept going with the book, and while it isn't going to be one that I'm likely to remember for years to come, it ended up being entertaining. I liked that while the book was written by a man, both the main protagonists are women, and no point was there anything that made me think this author should be made fun of on one of those "men writing women badly" lists. The characters may be quite tropey for a mystery, one is a middle-aged former police detective with a haunted past who has now given up a bit and is involved in local corruption, while the other is the up-and-coming, talented and ambitious administrator from a privileged background - yet in so many of these stories, these characters would be men. That Nikki is also an openly queer woman, without it in any way seeming to be written for titillation was also encouraging. 

Alice Blake has been sent to Ciudad de Cielo as the new head of security and asks that her true rank and position is kept hidden when the murder is announced. She wants to observe Nikki Freeman, one of the few security officers with former homicide experience, without the other woman knowing she's being evaluated. They don't exactly hit it off and become friends, but when it seems as if Nikki is being set up as the culprit for the murders (because of course there is more than one) and Alice starts to question her memories and control of her own actions, the two women grudgingly agree to work together to figure out who is treating the space station as their own private murder party. 

All in all, this was a perfectly fine read. I doubt I'll be checking out any more books by the author (who mostly seems to do traditional, non-sci-fi mysteries), but considering I knew absolutely nothing about the book or author going in, save that it was set on a space station, it turned out to be a fun ride. 

Judging a book by its cover: There is no doubt, looking at the cover, that this is a sci-fi story, with the futuristic-looking space station floating in the darkness of space front and centre on the cover. That it's also a fairly clever mystery isn't as immediately obvious. 

#CBR12 Book 47: "Bitterblue" by Kristin Cashore

Page count: 576 pages
Audio book length: 16 hrs 33 mins
Rating: 3 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: UnCannon (YA fantasy, written by a woman, about dark-skinned heroine, with several queer characters as supporting cast)

Official book description: 
Eight years have passed since the young Princess Bitterblue, and her country were saved from the vicious King Leck. Now Bitterblue is the queen of Monsea, and her land is at peace.

But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisers, who have run the country on her behalf since Leck's death, believe in a forward-thinking plan: to pardon all of those who committed terrible acts during Leck's reign, and to forget every dark event that ever happened. Monsea's past has become shrouded in mystery, and it's only when Bitterblue begins sneaking out of her castle - curious, disguised and alone - to walk the streets of her own city, that she begins to realise the truth. Her kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year long spell of a madman, and now their only chance to move forward is to revisit the past.

Whatever that past holds.

Two thieves, who have sworn only to steal what has already been stolen, change her life forever. They hold a key to the truth of Leck's reign. And one of them, who possesses an unidentified Grace, may also hold a key to her heart . . .

This book, the eagerly awaited follow-up to Graceling and Fire, came out in 2012, three years after the release of Fire. Now, in some book circles, like those of us who are STILL waiting (albeit a lot less patiently and now just sort of sadly resignedly) for books from authors like George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss or Diana Gabaldon, a mere three years is nothing, but it's still long wait between books. This means that when this book finally came out, I'd sort of moved on from Cashore's universe and was busy with other things (there's always so many more out there to distract me). I wasn't really expecting it to stay on my TBR list for eight years, but here we are. I think that if I'd read it upon release, my disappointment would have been all the greater. I loved the first two books in the series, and Bitterblue was a very interesting character when she was introduced, so having a whole book centred around her seemed promising. 

Sadly, while it was lovely to see young princess Bitterblue all grown up (although still young) and now a queen, determined to be the best ruler possible to her subjects, the book as a whole was a bit of a disappointment, and I'm pretty sure that if I'd read this as it just came out, the disappointment would have been all the greater. The book is simply far too long, and the plot takes ages to get anywhere and there are several sections where it feels like nothing is happening. If the book had been a more standard length, of 350-400 pages, with the story stream-lined a bit more, I think it would have been a much better book.

There is absolutely a lot of things to like about the book. Cashore is good at creating memorable characters and an interesting atmosphere. The subject matter that this book deals with, grief and PTSD, for an entire country even, is unusual. Bitterblue is a great heroine. She's lived a sheltered life, so is inexperienced in so many areas, but really works to learn and develop. She wants to be the best queen she can possibly be to her subjects and she wants more control of her life, only to discover that most of the people who she is meant to rely on and trust keep lying to her at every turn. The long and utterly terrifying reign of her father has left so many people devastated both mentally and physically, and there are a lot of people in her kingdom and on her council who would prefer it if the past was left entirely forgotten and unexplored.

Another high point of the novel is the inter-personal relationships, between friends and family members. Bitterblue feels rather lonely and longs for connection and affection, and sees how happy other people are with their families and loved ones. She is an orphan without siblings, whose awful tyrant of a father murdered her mother right in front of her when she was a child. As Bitterblue goes rebellious and starts sneaking out of the palace at night, befriending actual commoners and regular people, she learns so much about the horrors that her father inflicted on people, and as she investigates further, she comes to realise that his atrocities were truly shocking, and there are good reasons why the surviving members of his court would want to just forget about all the things that happened and just move on without further delving into it.

Speaking of the atrocities committed by king Leck, they are manifold and as the book uncovers them, truly horrifying. The fact that he literally possessed a kind of mind control meant that he didn't even need to do all the terrorising himself, he could (and did) get others to do it for him, leaving survivors of his reign with a number of physical and emotional scars. I was surprised at just how graphic and detailed the descriptions of his various misdeeds were, in a book aimed at young adult readers. 

While Bitterblue sneaks out and starts exploring her own capital city, she befriends two young men, who turn out to be thieves. However, they only steal back things that king Leck or people influenced by him already stole from other people, trying to reunite the former owners with their lost possessions. Sadly, in a lot of cases, the stolen items are children or other family members, now lost forever because of Leck's cruel experiments and psychotic games. While I'm very glad to see the sex positivity of the previous books continued, where a young woman can take control of her own desires and take a lover without there being anyone shaming her for it, I didn't really like the romance sub-plot between Bitterblue and the Lienid former sailor, Saf, all that much (mainly because he was a bit too cagey and also judgy of her). I much preferred the hints that in the future there may be something between Bitterblue and Giddon, Katsa and Po's friend and co-conspirator. 

I've seen rumours that Cashore is writing another book set in her Graceling universe, set to be released in the next year. I hope it's more tightly plotted and edited than this one was, and hopefully focuses on slightly less gruesome topics for most of it. 

Judging a book by its cover: The American edition of this book has three keys on the cover, which is suitable, because keys, both literal and figurative (used in code-breaking) play an important part in the story. This UK edition has another female cover model in a bit of an action-heroey pose, which seems a bit out of character for Bitterblue. The hooded cloak is absolutely fitting, as is the dagger (she's been trained in self-defense by Katsa for years), but there's something about the pose that still seems too aggressive and brash for our heroine.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 22 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 46: "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" by Jesse Andrews

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 2 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Adaptation (was turned into a movie in 2015 - the film is way better than the book)

Official book description:
Greg Gaines is the last master of high school espionage, able to disappear at will into any social environment. He has only one friend, Earl, and together they spend their time making movies, their own incomprehensible versions of Coppola and Herzog cult classics.

Until Greg’s mother forces him to rekindle his childhood friendship with Rachel.

Rachel has been diagnosed with leukemia—-cue extreme adolescent awkwardness—-but a parental mandate has been issued and must be obeyed. When Rachel stops treatment, Greg and Earl decide the thing to do is to make a film for her, which turns into the Worst Film Ever Made and becomes a turning point in each of their lives.

And all at once Greg must abandon invisibility and stand in the spotlight.

Fair warning and a slight spoiler, just in case the title and book summary hadn't already tipped you off - Rachel suffers from leukemia, and she does NOT miraculously make it and beat the cancer at the end of this book. In many ways, a book with one of the three protagonists suffering from cancer seems like a very suitable reading choice for a Cannonball Reader. The book certainly shows what a sucky disease it is, and what an impact it can have both on patients and those around them.

Sadly, unlike The Fault in Our Stars, another YA book about teens with cancer, which was also released in 2012, this book isn't all that good. I watched the film adaptation on a plane a few years ago and found it diverting and quite funny and very sad in places (I really need to learn not to watch movie or read books that will make me ugly cry while flying). Having now read the source material, this is yet another example where the film is, in fact, better than the book, which doesn't happen all that often. 

The main problem is that our narrator and main protagonist, Greg, isn't a very likable person. All the way throughout the narrative he keeps telling the reader what a bad story this is, calling the reader stupid and generally putting you right off the story. I get that it's supposed to be a quirky narrative choice, showing what low self-esteem Greg has and so forth, but after the second or third time it happens (seriously, it's every few chapters, it gets old real fast), it did, truthfully, make me want to give up and stop reading the book. However, I needed to read it for a number of reading challenges, I had liked the movie, and so I persevered, hoping that perhaps Greg and the book would improve if I continued.

Sadly, not so much. Greg remained a whiny, fairly emotionally stunted, really not aware of his privilege twerp throughout. I would much rather have wanted to read the story through his friend Earl's eyes, or even Rachel's. I don't know what else Jesse Andrews has written (this is his debut novel), but based on this, I'm not very keen to find out. As I said, the movie adaptation of this is perfectly sweet and has managed to make all the three teen characters likable. Watch that instead of reading this book. 

Judging a book by its cover: Since this has now been filmed, there are editions with the inevitable movie tie-in cover, and there's also a fairly dull yellowy-green one with little white figures. I much prefer the one on my e-book which is colourful and fun and the three main characters are all shown as little paper dolls in what looks like some sort of puppet theatre. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR12 Book 45: "The Rosie Project" by Graeme Simsion

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: White Whale (on my TBR list since early 2014)

Don Tillman lives his life on a fairly rigid schedule. He eats the same things every week, he has set aside a certain amount of time for work, exercise, cleaning his flat and so forth, and any deviations that force him to change the schedule makes him annoyed. He doesn't socialise much, except for the occasional dinner with his best (and pretty much only) friend Gene and his wife Claudia. The few times he has been on dates, it has tended to be disastrous because the woman always turns out to drink too much, or smoke, or show up late or have some other absolutely unforgivable flaw. Yet Don would like a wife, as he is rather lonely. He creates a multi-page, detailed questionnaire, created specifically to rule out all the women with which he will clearly be incompatible. Gene helps him process the many responses he gets and promises to send some of the promising candidates that pass, to meet him.

When Rosie Jarman shows up at Don's office, he is baffled. Rosie quite clearly fits none of the criteria Don looks for in a life partner. She's messy. She smokes. She doesn't exercise regularly. She clearly enjoys way more alcohol than is advisable. Yet assuming that Gene sent her as one of the women who had "passed" the questionnaire, Don invites her to dinner at a fancy restaurant, but it has to be moved to his flat, as he refuses to wear the jacket stated in the restaurant dress code, has a physical altercation with one of the bouncers and they are forced to leave. Rosie seems to think it's all very amusing.

Despite Rosie not fitting any of Don's carefully selected criteria, he had a wonderful evening with her and can't stop thinking about her. Then he discovers that Gene sent her to talk to him about a genetics question (he's a DNA expert), not at all because she might be a suitable life mate for him. She is frankly appalled when she hears about the Wife Project survey, and wonders how any woman would be willing to complete such a thing. She is, however, looking for her biological father, and Don has the knowledge and tools available to help her. He's not even sure why he decides to offer to help her find her father, but it allows him to spend much more time in her company. As the search continues, and Rosie and Don keep having strange and wonderful adventures, trying to collect the necessary DNA samples they need, Don is forced to consider whether the scientific method might not always be the correct way to approach life.

This is one of those books that has been on my TBR list pretty much since it came out. I bought it as an e-book in 2014 and have almost started it a bunch of times, but for some reason, it just never happened. It wasn't even that I was worried I wasn't going to like it. It's a romance, after all (even though it is, unusually, written by a man). 

It's a sweet opposites attract stories, and while he's never diagnosed as such in the book, it's very clear that Don is neuro-atypical and that he has ASD (formerly known as Asperger's). I've seen a lot of comparisons to Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, probably because he's the best pop culture example of someone neuro-diverse. I also liked this book tons more than The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, a historical romance that famously features a hero with ASD. Don is a much more likable, if somewhat initially inflexible and set in his ways, hero.

As the story progresses, it becomes very clear that Don is perfectly able to change his ways to accommodate others, he just needs longer to get used His friend Claudia is absolutely right when she says that he'd make someone a very good husband someday. He's extremely intelligent, he's very physically fit, he's a great cook, he's a loyal friend (even when said friend keeps behaving in a manner Don disapproves of). He has an excellent memory and gives thoughtful gifts. He just needs to learn that all relationships require compromise and some give and take.

Rosie is a great character, but she too needs to develop and grow and has quite a few unresolved issues because of her uncertain parentage. It's clear that she loves her stepfather and he her, but they are very different people and it's understandable that she wants to try to discover who her real dad is. 

My least favourite character in the book was Don's friend Gene, who has an absolutely amazing wife, but nevertheless has a project where he needs to sleep with women from as many countries in the world as possible. It's clear that while Claudia may have initially agreed to an open relationship, the openness is pretty one-sided (she does not seem to have other partners) and Gene keeps lying to his wife about where he's been and what he's been doing, which I found infuriating. Thankfully, he too improves over the course of the story.

Since this book came out in 2013, Simsion has written two sequels about Don and Rosie. I'm not sure I feel the need to read those, this works perfectly well as a self-contained story. 

Judging a book by its cover: Like many other of my books, this one has had a number of different covers over the years. There's a bright red one with a heart trail and a little cyclist, there is one with a lobster featuring prominently (I'm assuming this is because Don eats lobster regularly), but I really like this cheerful yellow cover with the main characters (Don with his trusty bike) and Rosie with her wild hair facing each other in colourful silhouettes.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 20 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 44: "Fire" by Kristen Cashore

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 12 hrs 39 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Official book description:
It is not a peaceful time in the Dells. The young King Nash clings to his throne while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. The mountains and forests are filled with spies and thieves and lawless men.

This is where Fire lives. With a wild, irresistible appearance and hair the color of flame, Fire is the last remaining human monster. Equally hated and adored, she has the unique ability to control minds, but she guards her power, unwilling to steal the secrets of innocent people. Especially when she has so many of her own.

Then Prince Brigan comes to bring her to King City, The royal family needs her help to uncover the plot against the king. Far away from home, Fire begins to realize there's more to her power than she ever dreamed. Her power could save the kingdom.

If only she weren't afraid of becoming the monster her father was.

I read and reviewed this back in 2010. My original review is here. I didn't remember the plot all that clearly, except that I really liked it and that it was a very unusual fantasy YA novel, with some really interesting topics being discussed. Re-reading it, I was struck at how many of the characters in the story are trying to get over some sort of trauma. Fire is desperately fighting the fear that she will become like her father, a Monster both in name and deed. Her father cared for nothing but his own petty pleasures and nearly ruined a kingdom because of his ruthless manipulations. Fire has kept herself mostly isolated and surrounded by people who can guard their thoughts against her. She understands why Prince Brigan resents and fears her, and she is exasperated and feels helpless about the attraction his brother, the current king, feels towards her. She is used to both men and women falling for her, unable to resist her strange charms.

King Nash and Prince Brigan are also dealing with traumas, having grown up in the court where their father was nothing but a puppet, and having had to fight to survive. Fire's foster father lost the ability to walk thanks to her dear old dad, and her best friend Archer, the man he is raising as his son, is the product of a brutal and malicious rape by a stranger, again due to the vengeful manipulations of Cansrel and his ability to influence the now-dead king Nax.

Yet even with so many damaged people, they step up and do their duty. Fire is scared, but can't say no to helping the king and his brother. In leaving her safe home and travelling to the capital, she risks herself in more ways than one, but also comes to know herself in an entirely new way, and falls in love along the way. The romance in this book is very slow-burn, but utterly lovely, as are many of the friendships that Fire makes throughout the book.

There is also darkness and sadness and loss as part of this book. As with Graceling, I'd forgotten how dark it got in places, and exactly how it connected the two books (this one is actually a prequel of sorts). I listened to the audiobook this time and possibly liked this book even more now than when I first read it. Highly recommended, although for it to really work, you should probably read Graceling first.

Judging a book by its cover: As with Graceling, I own the UK paperback of this. I think the lone female cover model is more suitable on this cover, with the woman portraying Fire in a flowing red dress, holding a bow, her spectacular red hair blowing in the wind. Fire does wear a beautiful gown like that at one point. She's also quite skilled with a bow. At no point are these two things in the same scene, certainly not while Fire stands on a cliff's edge with her hair swirling in the breeze.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 15 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 43: "The Boyfriend Project" by Farrah Rochon

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Fresh Start (the beginning of a new series, AND my first book by this author)

I got a free ARC of this on Netgalley in return for an unbiased review. I also liked the book enough that I have now paid money to own it.

Samiah Brooks is getting ready for a date, while her pregnant sister reads her hilarious updates from another woman's disastrous first date on Twitter. Samiah is mortified to discover that not only is the man she's getting ready to meet at that very moment seeing another woman, but they're at the very restaurant he took Samiah on their first date. She storms over to confront the creep, and during the confrontation, a third scorned woman appears as well. The three women take turns telling their cheating companion what they think of him, then go off together with take-away sushi (paid for by the three-timing scum) to get drunk. The morning after, they nurse their hangovers, promise to keep in touch, and discover that their confrontation with the dude has gone viral in a major way.

Samiah, London and Taylor decide that they are swearing off men and working on themselves for the next six months. Only then will they give the dating scene another chance. Samiah is finally going to develop the app she's been thinking about for years, and if it weren't for the new hire at her work, the handsome and charming Daniel Collins, her vows to stay single would be easy to uphold.

Daniel Collins is a federal agent, trying to figure out who at Samiah's tech company is funnelling funds for money launderers. He's working undercover as a computer programmer, and while he normally has no problems staying objective and focused on the task at hand, he's smitten with Samiah the first time he sees her. The more time he spends with her, the more blown away he is by her intelligence, her drive, her passion for helping other women of colour succeed in her field. It's always nice to see the protagonists of a romance fall for more than the other person's looks, and in this book, both leads are extremely good at their jobs and professional to the point that it might get in the way of the romance.

I thought the book was a bit slow to get started, and in the beginning, more focus is given to Samiah's new friendship with London and Taylor than in building her relationship with Daniel. However, neither of the women clearly have a big support network and so desperately need each other, and it was really encouraging to see three women who may have seen each other as rivals instead embrace their found sisterhood and support and build each other up, rather than tearing one another down. Support from other women is especially important to Samiah, as, in order to be seen as a good colleague and a valuable team player at work, she keeps having to keep her mouth shut about a scheming female co-worker repeatedly taking credit for her work (there is a very satisfying scene later in the book where Daniel steps up and defends Samiah during a presentation, and the other woman is called out most deservedly).

There is a strong element of competence porn to this book, both protagonists are career-minded and very good at what they do. There is an instant physical attraction between them, but they are both reluctant to act on it right away (Daniel because he knows his assignment is temporary and he'll have to keep lying to Samiah about his true identity, Samiah because she's sworn off dating and men for the next six months). So they spend time getting to know one another, starting with work lunches and the occasional hike, before eventually giving in and taking the relationship to the next level. For readers who want a lot of *insert funky bass line here*, be aware that it takes more than half the book before the couple gets to that point, the focus on this book isn't exactly on the physical.

I've previously mentioned in reviews that romances, where one or both of the protagonists are lying to or deceiving the other, makes it harder for me to like them. In this case, Daniel is working undercover, and it's part of his job not to reveal his true identity or motives to anyone at Samiah's company, and therefore it didn't bother me. He's not doing it out of self-serving reasons. The closer they get, the worse he feels about having to continue his deception and the steps he has to take to use Samiah to achieve his goals. He does some quality grovelling to make up for it, even though (unbeknownst to him), she's pretty much forgiven him already, as he was doing an important job and making sure some very bad people were brought to justice.

This is my first Farrah Rochon novel, and based on the epilogue, I'm assuming that Taylor is the next heroine we'll read about. I am absolutely going to check out the next two books in the series, and will also be looking into Rochon's back catalogue.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm still of two minds about the animated cover trend, but this is a really nice example of it. The bright colours, the suggested text bubbles, the cute couple, with the woman very appropriately holding a phone front and centre. Based on this cover, I would have given the book a second look, even if I hadn't been granted a free copy on Netgalley.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR12 Book 42: "Graceling" by Kristin Cashore

Page count: 481 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Katsa lives in a series of kingdoms where a small percentage of the populations have a unique ability or grace. These people are known as Gracelings, and the abilities can be benign and useful, like being extremely skilled at baking, cooking, sewing, or in one case, being able to smell exactly what the person in question wants to eat or drink. They can also be dangerous, like Katsa's extreme fighting ability, which was discovered when she accidentally killed someone in self-defense when she was only eight years old. All Gracelings are clearly identified by eyes of different colours, but it can take a few years for the eyes to change colour, and even longer for the grace to actually become obvious. It is the rule in the various seven kingdoms (with the exception of the island kingdom of Lienid) that Gracelings pretty much become the property of their king, forced to serve him in return for room and board. Katsa is the niece of king Randa of the Middluns, and he forces her to use her abilities to threaten and sometimes even kill for him. The older she gets, the more unhappy she is about this, so she secretly also runs an underground group, of resistance fighters, the Council, in the various kingdoms, trying to secure justice for the ordinary people.

The book begins as Katsa and some of her allies are breaking into the dungeons of king Murgon of Sunder to rescue Prince Tealiff of Lienid, the elderly father of the current king of Lienid. Neither Katsa, nor her friends understand why in the world king Murgon would kidnap the kindly old man. While on the mission, Katsa also encounters Prince Po of Lienid for the first time, who is also in the kingdom looking for his missing grandfather. Katsa is trying to escape detection, so is forced to knock the handsome young man out, but when he later shows up at king Randa's court, suspecting that Katsa and her friends may know more about the whereabouts of his grandfather, they strike up a friendship. Po's grace makes him remarkably skilled at fighting, and he becomes one of the few people Katsa can really spar with, without having to worry that he won't be able to hold his own and she'll accidentally kill him.

Katsa's friendship with Po makes her realise that she's deeply unhappy with what she is constantly forced to do, and after king Randa sends her on a particularly unfair mission to threaten a good man into doing his bidding, Katsa instead disobeys his orders and subsequently confronts her uncle and refuses to work for him any longer. She knows she has enough friends and allies in the various kingdoms to manage perfectly well on her own, she was never comfortable with the privileged life of a princess anyway. She is determined to find out why Prince Tealiff was abducted and who could benefit from it, and Po accompanies her on her quest. As they travel through the various kingdoms, they come to the conclusion that there is something strange going on in Monsea, the most remote of the seven kingdoms. King Leck, who rules there, is married to one of Tealiff's daughters, who is said to have locked herself and her daughter away, grieving because of the uncertain fate of her father. King Leck is rumoured to be a kind and beloved ruler, especially fond of children and animals, but the more Katsa and Po investigate, the stranger some of the stories coming out of Monsea become, and there is clearly something very strange going on there. Why would the kindly Leck pay a fellow king to have his father-in-law kidnapped?

I first read Graceling back in 2009, about six months after it was first released. I remembered some of the details of the story and world-building, but there was also a lot that I had forgotten, such as how dark this book gets in places. It may be Young Adult, but there are a lot of serious issues covered over the course of the story, such as physical and emotional abuse, violence, manipulation, and coercion. In the second half of the book, where Po and Katsa start discovering the truth about Po's grandfather's abduction, they have to travel through very inhospitable terrain to Monsea, where they face some very unique dangers.

There is a lovely, slow-burning romance as part of the story as well, as Katsa, who has always been fiercely independent and very reluctant to ever marry, comes to discover that Po loves her, and to her surprise, she returns his feelings. Katsa never got to have much of a childhood, once it was discovered that she had a lethal grace, and she is determined never to have any children of her own who might inherit her abilities. She can't imagine why a charming, handsome and clearly very popular prince (even though he is the youngest of many) would want her. Po, on the other hand, doesn't see a ruthless thug and killer when he looks at Katsa. He sees her strong spirit, her desire for justice, he knows she started the Council and has worked tirelessly for years behind her uncle's back to stand up for the poor, downtrodden, and those who can't fight for themselves. He sees how determined she is to discover the truth behind his grandfather's kidnapping, even willing to risk her life to get to the bottom of things. It's not at all surprising that he falls for her.

One thing I didn't really realise when I first read this book, is how well the entire series by Cashore deals with female agency and control over their own lives and bodies. There is a seed that women can eat to prevent conception, and neither Katsa nor the heroines of the subsequent books are in any way shamed when they decide that they are ready to have sex. There is clearly some societal expectations that Katsa will start acting more feminine in time, and that she should settle down, marry someone and have children, but Po seems quite happy to just be with her for as long as she's willing to have him, whether they are married or not.

I remembered this as a very good example of YA literature, with a strong and admirable protagonist and a sweet romantic subplot, but I had not remembered just how complex and dark it got, and how much trauma the various characters are put through over the course of the story. So it's absolutely a book I recommend, but with some content warnings for those thinking it's just a straight-forward fantasy adventure story.

Judging a book by its cover: I have the UK paperback edition, where a girl with flowy hair and a very large sword appears to be partially clad in armour, but also ill-prepared for the snowy landscape around her, what with the bare arms and all. A lot of the other editions of this book have a stylised dagger on the cover, which seems to fit much better, as Katsa never uses a giant broadsword, but frequently relies on her daggers.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 12 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 41: "The House in the Cerulean Sea" by TJ Klune

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 5 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: I Wish (Travelling anywhere right now seems like an utter impossibility, but I would love to be able to hang out on Marsyas Island with its cast of unique residents)

Linus Baker does not live an exciting or interesting life. When he's not visiting orphanages and checking up on children and teens with unusual abilities or magical powers, he sits in his utterly anonymous cubicle and writes detailed and thorough reports. He goes home to his non-descript little house, occasionally exchanges words with his crabby neighbour, takes care of his vicious cat and the only thing he has that brings his life any brightness are his old records, which he listens to after work at night. He doesn't even dream of anything different, he just goes about his routine life, getting a bit older every day.

Then he's given a highly unusual assignment. He's summoned by the Extremely Upper Management at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, who feel he'd be the perfect person to carry out a very confidential mission for them. He needs to travel (for the first time ever!) to Marsyas Island, to visit the orphanage there and determine whether or not the six children who live there are dangerous, and write his usual comprehensive reports, both on the life in the orphanage and about the enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, the man who runs it. He's not allowed to tell anyone about this assignment (not that he'd have anyone to share the news with) and he has to promise to be as forthright and thorough as he always has been in the past.

Linus packs up the Department's giant book of rules and regulations, a small suitcase of clothes and his anti-social cat and takes the train, from the dreary city where he lives (and it always seems to be raining) to the stunning coastal town of Marsyas, where everything looks like a stunning postcard and it seems like everything is in bright jewel-tone colours. He's met by a rather hostile young lady who escorts him over to the island and drives him to the orphanage. She knows who he works for and doesn't seem to believe that he has the children or the orphanage's best interests at heart.

Once he's at the orphanage, Linus meets the unusual charges who reside there: a gnome who keeps threatening to murder him and bury him in her lush garden; a forest-sprite; a wyvern who collects coins and buttons; a peculiar gelatinous green blob who wants to be a bellhop more than anything in the world; a nervous, young man who turns into a Pomeranian when startled; and last, but not least, the literal Antichrist. He also meets the charismatic and charming Arthur Parnassus, who unlike the woman who drove Linus to the island, doesn't seem all too worried about Linus' reports or the fact that he's there to report back to the Department in Charge of Magical Youth.

For the entirety of the first week, Linus is rather unsettled and worried, but as he spends more time on the island, getting to know its unusual residents, as well as the tensions they face with the residents of the nearest town, he starts to loosen up, opening himself up to new experiences and change. He begins to see that while the children all have abilities that may be considered a threat, they are also still just children, who need love, protection, acceptance, and a family, which Arthur provides for them. Yet Linus comes to understand that Arthur may be too over-protective, as well, and that the only way for the locals and the orphanage to co-exist peacefully, is if there is more openness and understanding between them.

The world is a truly miserable place the moment, even in the parts of Europe where we've successfully managed to flatten the curve enough to more or less go back to the way it was before Covid-19 hit (although everyone is strongly recommended not to travel abroad anywhere unnecessarily, and I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable doing it even if the government said it was safe). Reading can be a wonderful escape from the constant onslaught of depressing news stories, and this book is truly a blessing in dark times. It's clearly going to be on my top 10 best books of the year, and it's such a delightful, magical little story.

This book is all about the need for a proper home, for someone to understand you and support you and nurture the best qualities in you, while curbing your bad impulses. Linus has been alone for so long, living such a dreary life, he doesn't even know what to do with himself when that begins to change. All the children at Marsyas Island are so strange and unusual that they don't fit anywhere else. Some of them have been shuffled from place to place, without any sense of security. Arthur meets them with love and understanding, but clearly also sets firm rules and boundaries for them. He does, of course, also have a history and reasons for acting the way he does, and once his secrets are revealed, it's not surprising that he's wary about letting the children interact more with the wider world.

As well as a lovely story about finding your true home and the blessings of found family, there is a slow-burning romance at the centre of the story. Drab, self-conscious Linus doesn't entirely know what to do with himself around the glamorous Arthur, but it becomes clear that the attraction is mutual, if very slow-burning. There is also a sweet, unexpected secondary romance revealed towards the end of the book. I absolutely loved this book and can already see myself re-reading it for comfort in the years to come. If you're looking for a respite from the horrors of reality right now, it's well worth picking up.

Judging a book by its cover: While I love the cover image, with its pastel skies and beautiful, quirky scenery, I don't recall the orphanage described as perching precariously on a cliff's edge like that, ready to plummet into the ocean the next time a violent storm swept past. I can see that it adds to the fairy tale feel of the story, but would possibly have preferred if the house looked a bit less like a potential death trap.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 10 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 40: "My Favorite Half-Night Stand" by Christina Lauren

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 7 hrs 8 mins
Rating: 3 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Friendship (the friendship between the two protagonists and the rest of their group is really central to the story)

Official book description:
Millie Morris has always been one of the guys. A UC Santa Barbara professor, she’s a female-serial-killer expert who’s quick with a deflection joke and terrible at getting personal. And she, just like her four best guy friends and fellow professors, is perma-single.

So when a routine university function turns into a black-tie gala, Mille and her circle make a pact that they’ll join an online dating service to find plus-ones for the event. There’s only one hitch: after making the pact, Millie and one of the guys, Reid Campbell, secretly spend the sexiest half-night of their lives together, but mutually decide the friendship would be better off strictly platonic.

But online dating isn’t for the faint of heart. While the guys are inundated with quality matches and potential dates, Millie’s first profile attempt garners nothing but dick pics and creepers. Enter “Catherine”—Millie’s fictional profile persona, in whose make-believe shoes she can be more vulnerable than she’s ever been in person. Soon “Catherine” and Reid strike up a digital pen-pal-ship...but Millie can’t resist temptation in real life, either. Soon, Millie will have to face her worst fear—intimacy—or risk losing her best friend, forever.

While Christina Lauren's contemporary romances used to be a sure hit with me, and always seemed to entertain and give me the requisite levels of swoon, ever since they went away from really rather explicit and steamy books after completing their Wild Seasons series, their output has been decidedly up and down in quality. While some still really work for me and I would happily recommend them, like Dating You/Hating You and Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating, others are best left forgotten entirely, like Roomies. This one, I suspect, falls somewhere in the middle, but it didn't really fully work for me at the point when I was reading it, certainly.

For a romance to work, I need to be able to root for both protagonists and want them to have a happily ever after. Unfortunately, for most of the book, Millie is basically lying not only to her larger group of friends, but to Reid, her best friend and the man she keeps secretly communicating with through the dating app. The authors try to give the readers reasons for why she keeps up the charade for as long as she does, but it made it difficult to like her and I certainly didn't feel like she deserved a happy ending for far too much of the book's runtime. That is a major problem in a romance novel.

Now, our hero, Reid, is fine. I also really liked the bigger group of mutual friends who surround Millie and Reid and make up a very important part of the story too. While Millie and Reid are the only POV characters (narrated by a woman and a man on the audio), the book would not work half as well without the many hijinks of their circle of friends. They were part of the reason I kept reading, even when I was pretty unsure about whether Millie and Reid would ever work as a couple. Open and honest communication is incredibly important, Millie sucks at open and honest communication.

There are reasons given for Millie's emotional reticence, I just found myself getting increasingly more frustrated with them. She was a text book case of "See a therapist!" and so many of her hang-ups could have been fixed if she'd been sensible and just talked to someone about all of this. She does realise that she's done a bad thing by deceiving Reid for much of the book, and does some quality grovelling towards the end. It was enough to earn the book a full three stars, which, considering there were sections where I wasn't sure I even wanted to finish the book, seemed unlikely the book would achieve until the final third or so. Having now finished the book, I don't necessarily regret reading it, but I wouldn't recommend anyone but die-hard completist Christina Lauren fans read it, and even then, only if they can find it on sale or at a library.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm not wild about this cover, it's very non-descript. Is it yellow? Is it lime green? Who knows? The little text bubbles are a nice touch since the characters communicate a lot with each other on their phones, but I think this cover is yet another sign that Christina Lauren are trying to move more into women's fiction or chick lit, rather than straight out romance. If it wasn't for the actual title of the book, you'd never guess that this was a romance novel.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 9 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 39: "First Comes Scandal" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is the fourth and, I'm assuming, final book in the Rokesby series. All the books work fine on their own, you do not need to read any others for the story to make sense.

Nicholas Rokesby, the fourth son of the Earl of Manston, is studying to be a doctor in Edinburgh. When he receives an urgent summons from his parents while he's in the middle of taking important exams, he assumes someone may be dead or at least dying, so he travels back home as quickly as possible. There he is told that Georgiana "Georgie" Bridgerton, his father's goddaughter and Nicholas' lifelong friend, was abducted by a desperate suitor, and although nothing actually happened, she is now compromised in the eyes of society and will either be forced to remain a spinster forever or marry her abductor to save her reputation, unless Nicholas does the honourable thing and offers to marry her instead. All of Nicholas' siblings have married for love, and he is rather appalled that his parents are expecting such a sacrifice from him. On the other hand, it's not like it's Georgie's fault that some over-eager idiot decided to try to kidnap her and force her into marriage, and while he views her almost as a sister, they have always been fast friends. There are worse fates.

Georgiana "Georgie" Bridgerton never wanted a London season. She's pretty sure she'd be bored stiff and it always seemed to her to be a waste of time and money. Nevertheless, she was flattered when Freddie Oakes danced with her while she was in London with her mother, and offered to take her to a bookshop. She didn't suspect for a second that he'd literally kick her maid out of the carriage and drive off towards Gretna Green, intent on forcing Georgie into marriage, so her generous dowry could cover his gambling debts. Georgie incapacitated him and tied him to a chair and managed to escape once they got to a coaching inn, but having spent most of a day in a carriage with him, her reputation is ruined and the scandal is inevitable.

Georgie is certainly not expecting Nicholas Rokesby, her brother's best friend and someone she grew up with to suddenly show up, having taken time away from his medical studies in Scotland, to offer to marry her. Georgie doesn't want to be pitied by anyone. She doesn't want to feel indebted to the man who "saves" her reputation. She hates that through no fault of hers, she is suddenly considered damaged goods and only marriage to someone can "cleanse" her in the eyes of society. Initially, she refuses Nicholas' proposal and is angry, but after an eventful night seeing how capable he is in a crisis and having had time to think about their long friendship and how comfortable they are in each other's company, she decides that marriage to him is better than a life alone, or worse, married to the odious Freddie Oakes.

This is the fourth book in the Rokesby series, a prequel to Quinn's incredibly popular Bridgerton novels. For long-time fans of the series, there are cameo appearances from Edmund, Violet, Anthony, Benedict and baby Colin (who eats constantly, even as an infant). I have sadly found most of the earlier books in the series rather tame and forgettable and am hard-pressed to remember many details from any of them now (not the case with most of Quinn's more classic novels). This one was possibly my favourite of the four, probably because of the friendly banter between Georgie and Nicholas and some fun side characters. The fact that I read the whole book in less than twenty-four hours is in itself remarkable, in a time when my mind can barely concentrate on anything at all, thanks to the super depressing news cycle, the continued stress of lock-down and working from home (more than a month and a half and counting), the rising death tolls worldwide - you get my drift. It's a sweet and easy story to read, possibly almost too lacking in conflict throughout. The scandal has already happened to Georgie when the book opens, because she and Nicholas have known one another since childhood, they're very comfortable with one another.

If you're looking for a romance with a lot of hijinks and drama, this is not the book for you. If you're looking for a pleasant, relaxing read to while away a few hours during a time when everything around us seems to be depressing and horrible, you could do worse than this. Not by any means one of my favourite Julia Quinn novels, but much better than her last few novels.

Judging a book by its cover: I always prefer the UK covers for Quinn's books, with the cursive font, the little animated characters in their period-appropriate outfits and frequently other cute decoration as well.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR12 Book 38: "House of Earth and Blood" by Sarah J. Maas

Page count: 816 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Red

Official book description:
Half-Fae, half-human Bryce Quinlan loves her life. By day, she works for an antiquities dealer, selling barely legal magical artifacts, and by night, she parties with her friends, savoring every pleasure Lunathion—otherwise known as Crescent City— has to offer. But it all comes crumbling down when a ruthless murder shakes the very foundations of the city—and Bryce’s world.

Two years later, her job has become a dead end, and she now seeks only blissful oblivion in the city’s most notorious nightclubs. But when the murderer attacks again, Bryce finds herself dragged into the investigation and paired with an infamous Fallen angel whose own brutal past haunts his every step.

Hunt Athalar, personal assassin for the Archangels, wants nothing to do with Bryce Quinlan, despite being ordered to protect her. She stands for everything he once rebelled against and seems more interested in partying than solving the murder, no matter how close to home it might hit. But Hunt soon realizes there’s far more to Bryce than meets the eye—and that he’s going to have to find a way to work with her if they want to solve this case.

As Bryce and Hunt race to untangle the mystery, they have no way of knowing the threads they tug ripple through the underbelly of the city, across warring continents, and down to the darkest levels of Hel, where things that have been sleeping for millennia are beginning to stir…

House of Earth and Blood is the first volume in Sarah J. Maas' new series, Crescent City, and surprisingly, her first book fully aimed at adults. Considering the really very graphic descriptions of both sex and violence in the Court of Thorns and Roses series, I puzzled at that, but it turns out that when Ms. Maas writes for adults, she writes pretty much exactly the same way, but the characters swear a whole lot more. I guess that's how you know it's aimed at grown-ups instead?

There's a lot to like about this book, and I stand by the 4-star rating I gave it back in April, when I finished reading it. It does, however, have quite a few flaws as well, such as the constant swearing to indicate the change in its intended audience.

Secondly, NO way the book needed to be over 800 pages long. Just absolutely no need for it. The first third of the book or so is super slow and Maas pretty much does the opposite of info-dumping, she portions out little bits of relevant plot information so slowly it's infuriating. It isn't until the final 150 pages or so that the reader actually starts getting a clearer picture of everything that is going on and is able to fully engage with the characters and the story. Spending as long as Maas does introducing a bunch of characters that will then not be appearing in the rest of the story, except in flashbacks, seems a little redundant, even if she wants to show just how important they are to Bryce.

Thirdly, I don't want to speculate on whether it's patriarchal expectations or the author's own preferences that make her basically write descriptions of every female character as an exaggerated parody of the male gaze. We get it, Bryce and her various female friends are all super hot, while all looking completely different, they're clearly sexual fantasy fodder for anyone who fancies women. To be fair, most of the dudes seem to be pretty heavily objectified too, but the descriptions of them didn't seem to go into so much detail.

Finally, I understand that in books like this, there is by now an expectation of a central romance. I didn't really see that Bryce and Hunt needed to get together and found their romance a lot less interesting than pretty much all the other inter-personal relationships of the book.

So, what did I like? The world-building is excellent and I found both the ancient history and the details of the way Crescent City is built up really interesting. The various supernatural creatures and the Houses that belonged to was very cool and I'm sure we'll discover more about this in later stories. The failed rebellion and the harsh way the former rebels were punished was also intriguing, and once she actually got the plot underway, and didn't just establish background info, so to speak, the mystery that Bryce and Hunt have to unravel was rather fiendish.

I liked Bryce and her relationship with her brother, for all that it's fraught, shows a lot of promise. Friendship and loyalty is a very prominent theme throughout the book, and Bryce and Danika's friendship, in particular, was incredibly strong and important. The way Bryce eventually reconnect with her other friends after processing her grief was also very encouraging to me.

Once the plot really kicked into gear, I had trouble putting the book down and blazed through the final parts. Not entirely sure that the ending played by the rules as previously established in the story, there seemed to be some "deus ex" involved, but it was nevertheless very moving, and just like I will forgive rather a lot from big dumb action movies that entertain me, I can forgive quite a bit from books like this too (this is TOTALLY the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster, at least if you ignore the too long, super slow start).

In conclusion, as the start of a new series, I liked it more than I liked Throne of Glass and A Court of Thorns and Roses. Now, Maas completely blew me away with book 2 of ACoToR, so I have high hopes that this series may improve exponentially now that the parameters of this new fantasy world have been established.

Judging a book by its cover: I know Maas herself loves this cover, and it's certainly elaborate. I just think that there may have been too much red used, and honestly have trouble making out all the details. I can see why the intention to make it look as if the cover image is pretty much saturated with blood is there, there's some pretty bloody and gruesome murders to be solved over the course of this book, but it seems like the various intricacies of the cover image might have been easier to distinguish if there wasn't quite so much red.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR12 Books 34-37: "The Murderbot Diaries" by Martha Wells

Total page count: 650 pages
Total rating for the series: 4.5 stars

#CBR12Bingo: Gateway (this would work as an excellent gateway into sci-fi fiction)

All Systems Red - 4.5 stars
I have reviewed this first novella before, back in 2018, and my original post can be found here. I decided to re-read this first Murderbot story and then read the following three novellas in preparation of the full novel about everyone's favourite misanthropic sec unit, being released in May 2020. By now, when I've finally gotten around to writing my review, the book has of course been out for several months, and I have yet to find the time to read it (June REALLY wasn't a particularly good month for me, reading-wise).

Murderbot, of course, wishes that everyone would just leave it alone to enjoy all its downloaded entertainment, but instead, the humans they're supposed to protect keep getting into scrapes and it has to do its job as a Sec Unit. Once we went into lockdown, I would have happily just self-isolated at home and binge-watched Netflix and HBO, but instead I had to take care of and entertain a rapidly developing two-year-old, and remote teach up to ninety teenagers a week (15 of which I also had to call at least once a week to make sure they were doing OK), while my own mental health steadily deteriorated. Honestly, Murderbot is way better at performing its duties in a high-pressure environment than I have been for the last few months.

It was nice to revisit the beginning and get re-familiarised with the crew that got Murderbot to start feeling all those inconvenient feelings and emotions.

Artificial Condition - 4.5 stars
Murderbot doesn't want to become anyone's "pet" Sec Unit, instead, it goes off on its own, trying to figure out what actually happened in the mining disaster where it killed a number of humans and actually became Murderbot. Discovering the truth of the past will also help Dr Mensah, the kind human who technically now owns Murderbot, as further evidence against the big corporation that may or may not have tried to kill Dr Mensah, Murderbot and their entire crew can only come in handy.

Murderbot makes a new friend, who is even smarter than it is, a Research Vessel going by ART. After a slightly tense and antagonistic start to their relationship, Murderbot and ART bond over their love for space soaps.

Along the way on its new mission, Murderbot also encounters some new humans that it starts feeling protective of. It's all very inconvenient.

Of course, Murderbot's further adventures are just as entertaining, if not better, than the first novella. I really liked ART, and the friendship that developed between it and Murderbot. I also really like how Martha Wells manages to include slower, more introspective passages with tense and fast-paced action scenes, as well as more chances for Murderbot to develop and become more of its own individual.

Rogue Protocol - 4.5 stars
Murderbot continues in its quest to gather evidence against the evil GreyCris corporation and ends up on another mission, protecting hapless humans who don't know to take proper care of themselves. Murderbot needs to find an identity of its own because it's certainly no longer a proper SecUnit, but it's also not a human, nor does it want to become one. In this story, Murderbot meets a group of people travelling with a bot, who they treat with kindness and respect, a bit like a pet (the very fate Murderbot wishes to avoid). Yet Miki the bot, who is all that is optimistic and naive, so pretty much the diametrical opposite of Murderbot, comes to teach Murderbot some important lessons.

While Miki was an interesting character to introduce, I missed Murderbot's snarky friendship with ART in this one. It's also clear that the story is moving towards reuniting Murderbot with its first crew, and I kind of just wished the story would get to that place. Of the four novellas, this was my least favourite. By all means, very good, but it felt more of a bridging story than the others.

Exit Strategy - 5 stars
Murderbot still fights the notion that it has emotions or feelings, but it's pretty much the only thing that can explain why Murderbot decides to expose itself to danger when its actions in the previous story now means that GreyCris, the corrupt corporation that previously tried to kill Dr Mensah and her crew (while Murderbot was hired to protect them) in fact means has been able to take Dr Mensah hostage. Murderbot still doesn't want to be anyone's pet android, but Dr Mensah and her crew always treated Murderbot with respect and sometimes even kindness, and it cannot stand by and let GreyCris win.

Murderbot has to reunite with its old crew, convince them that it wants to help, then they have to find Mensah and rescue her, with everyone hopefully making it back to Preservation in one piece. Of course, Murderbot doubts it will be joining the others, it seems like GreyCris are pretty determined to take it down, once and for all.

As a lot of long-time readers of my reviews know, I don't tend to read a lot of sci-fi. I'm reading more of it since I started going to my local nerd bookstore's monthly book club since we alternate a fantasy and a sci-fi book every other month. Yet the Murderbot novellas are sci-fi that I thoroughly enjoy, probably because it's very heavily character-driven (even if our protagonist is not a human) and there is a very good balance of exciting action scenes and quieter introspective scenes where Murderbot has to interact with others and further develop as an individual. I'm very glad that Martha Wells has written a full-length novel about Murderbot now, and that there seems to be another coming out in 2021. I adore Murderbot's snary, misanthropic but secretly emotional self. I will happily keep reading whatever Ms. Wells chooses to publish.

Judging the books by their covers: All the novellas in the Murderbot series have very elegantly designed covers with a thoroughly science fiction feel. I don't think you'd doubt for a second what genre of book this was, with any of them.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 4 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 33: "The Unleashing" by Shelly Laurenston

Page count: 385 pages
Rating: 3 stars

#CBR12Bingo: Cannonballer Says (previously reviewed by alwaysanswerb, yesknopemaybe and teresaelectro)

Official book description:
Kera Watson never expected to face death behind a Los Angeles coffee shop. Not after surviving two tours lugging an M16 around the Middle East. If it wasn't for her hot Viking customer showing up too late to help, nobody would even see her die.

In uncountable years of service to the Allfather Odin, Ludvig "Vig" Rundstrom has never seen anyone kick ass with quite as much style as Kera. He knows one way to save her life--but she might not like it. Signing up with the Crows will get Kera a new set of battle buddies: cackling, gossiping, squabbling, party-hearty women. With wings. So not the Marines.

But Vig can't give up on someone as special as Kera. With a storm of oh-crap magic speeding straight for L.A., survival will depend on combining their strengths: Kera's discipline, Vig's loyalty... and the Crows' sheer love of battle. Boy, are they in trouble.

There are so many elements of this paranormal fantasy that should make it exactly my thing - a lot of references to Norse mythology; hunky fighter dudes; a diverse cast of kick-ass warrior women; a big lug of a loyal dog, a romantic subplot- yet, it took me nearly a week to finish The Unleashing, because I kept putting it down and there was nothing much enticing me to pick it back up again to keep reading. Maybe I just read it at the wrong time, because I do not seem to have responded to it as enthusiastically as previous Cannonballers.

Kera is an ex-marine. She's tough, independent and very organised. She finds herself part of a near-immortal group of warrior women sworn to the Norse goddess Skuld (one of the Norns, think three Fates in Roman or Greek mythology). The sisterhood are called Crows and they live in a big, gorgeous mansion in Malibu. While they can manifest wings and claws and are fearless fighters, a lot of them also seem like bitchy sorority girls a lot of the time, all very busy doing their own thing, and no one really seems to bother to explain much of her new and very strange existence to Kera. At least her rescue pitbull Brodie was also brought over with her, with the unexpected side effects that the dog can also manifest wings and supernatural fighting powers now. Of course, Kera barely ever sees her dog, as her various new battle sisters keep taking the dog with them on runs.

Kera discovers that the reason she didn't die in the alley behind the coffee shop where she worked is because the hot, silent guy who frequently showed up there (who she believed to be a veteran of some kind with severe PTSD) is, in fact, a Raven, one of a legendary group of warriors sworn to Odin. Ludvig "Vig" Rundstrom is a gifted blacksmith and seems to make weapons for all the various groups of viking warriors (there's a whole bunch of them). Vig was too late to stop Kera being stabbed, but since he has a big old crush on Kera, he begged Skuld to give her a new chance at life. Since the Crows are less than forthcoming about Kera's new afterlife, except to say that she'll grow wings and have to fight when the time comes, Kera very much appreciates having Vig basically explain all the nitty gritty and also offer to teach her how to fight, as the army training she possesses isn't going to cut it in the sort of fights the Crows get into.

Even before Kera got an unfamiliar new afterlife, she was attracted to Vig, and we discover that he went massively out of his way to go to the coffee shop where she worked just so he could see her. So obviously the two act on their mutual attraction to one another. They just sort of decide that they're crazy about each other, without the reader really ever getting to see how that attraction, or affection for the other, came to be.

Generally, while quite a bit of the world-building here is interesting, the relationships, whether the romantic or platonic are not well established enough for me. While it's clear that there's a lot of tight-knit friendships among the already-existing Crows, they are all initially mostly surprisingly unhelpful and in some cases, really rather bitchy to Kera. While I can see that to their free and chaotic, self-indulgent party lifestyle, her tendency to wander around with a clipboard, trying to impose order and regular schedules on them (because this is what she's used to) is annoying, but there are more mature ways of dealing with things than how it goes down here. It didn't really become clear to me why I was supposed to like any of these women.

At least a couple of the main reviewers over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books really rave about these books and talk about how funny and action-packed they are. Same with a lot of reviewers on Goodreads. I get the action part, there's quite a lot of fighting, but I really don't think this book was all that funny. It takes quite a while before the reader gets a clear picture of what has actually happened to Kera. The whole situation with a bunch of warrior tribes dedicated to various Norse gods is also not very clearly established until quite a long way into the book. There's a lot of switching between POVs, we don't just see things through the eyes of Kera and Vig, but a whole bunch of other supporting characters, including some antagonists. The book also ends really rather abruptly, on quite the cliff-hanger, so while the romantic subplot involving Kera and Vig is resolved, the reader is clearly going to have to keep going with the series if they want to see how the big battle between some ancient evil and what I'm assuming is going to be the united front of all the various Norse battle groups. Not a huge fan of that either. I have heard really good things about Laurenston's writing, and I already own the full trilogy (thanks, frequent e-book sales!), so I probably will keep reading, but I'm not entirely sold on this just yet.

Judging a book by its cover: First of all, I genuinely don't know if this is the first book to use what seems to be a stock image of that shirtless, very ripped guy in a hoodie, but I've seen variations of this exact image on a bunch of books during the last few years. Obviously, the others don't have a bunch of birds in the background, but otherwise, it really an image that's been doing the rounds.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.