Tuesday, 27 October 2020

#CBR12 Book 77: "His Grumpy Childhood Friend" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 197 pages
Rating: 4 stars

I was given an ARC of this by the author. That has in no way influenced my review.

Charlotte Tam doesn't really leave the house unless it's to meet her friends at the local cider bar and even then, she sort of resents having to change out of her pajama pants. She mainlines coffee and is clearly the grouchiest and most pessimistic of the friend group, but is starting to miss a more personal connection, having sworn off dating after her former boyfriend proposed to her publically during a baseball game (a genuinely literal recurring nightmare for her, since she saw one on TV when she was a little girl). She's aware that she's pretty rusty in the dating department, so one of her friends suggests she ask a male friend for dating lessons, low-pressure "practice dating" to get her confidence back.

Charlotte initially rejects the idea, until she runs into her former childhood bestie, Mike Guo, at the bar that night. Twenty years ago, they lived next door to one another, pretty much inseparable until Mike's family suddenly moved away one day and Charlotte never heard from him again. Mike is handsome and charming and they pretty much instantly fall back into their comfortable rhythm, so Charlotte decides to ask him if he'll agree to give her dating lessons. She's sure that someone as good-looking and easy-going as him has tons of experience with women and dating, and will therefore be the perfect teacher. 

Mike is very surprised to meet his former childhood crush at the bar and rather taken aback when she proposes that they go on a series of practice dates to ease her back into the dating game. So happy to finally have reconnected with her again, Mike doesn't tell Charlotte that he doesn't really have the suave ladies man image she seems to think he has, rather he's gone through years of therapy to come to terms with the emotional abuse heaped on him by his parents all through his childhood and he's never really found a woman who he felt comfortable committing to because deep down, he's still unsure if he's worthy of anyone's love and affection. He really wants to spend more time getting to know grown-up Charlotte, though, so agrees to her dating plan so he can see as much of her as possible.

Of course, the two of them very quickly realise that the practice dates are becoming more serious and they develop feelings for one another. But can Charlotte and Mike get over their former emotional traumas and make a relationship work for real?

His Grumpy Childhood Friend is the second book in Jackie Lau's Cider Bar Sisters but works perfectly well as a standalone novel. It's not quite as light-hearted and frothy as Her Big City Neighbor, mainly because of the emotional abuse Mike suffered in his childhood. I don't tend to trigger warning my reviews, but people who are sensitive to these sorts of things should know that while it's not a big part of the story, there are flashbacks to the ill-treatment that Mike and his sister suffered and it could be upsetting to some.

Like Amy in the book before this one, Charlotte is supported and cheered on by her fellow Cider Bar Sisters, who give her dating advice and in general try to take care of her and accept her for who she is,  without letting her give in to her impulses to become a caffeine-fuelled misanthropic hermit who never leaves her house. Charlotte also has a younger sister and expectant, but very kind parents.

Mike has cut all ties to his horrible parents, and the only family he's now in contact with is his sister and niece. He has good friends who support him and give him advice, however, and it's always encouraging to read about characters who have struggled with issues and sought out the help of mental health professionals to deal with their problems. Therapy can work wonders, but it takes a lot out of a person, and a childhood like Mike's and the self-esteem issues he's developed aren't cured in an instant. 

Having now read two books in this series, I'm now eagerly awaiting the books featuring the rest of the Cider Bar Sisters. I also hope that Charlotte's younger sister might get a happy ending in a future book of Lau's because I really liked her too. His Grumpy Childhood Friend is released today and is well worth your time and money.

Judging a book by its cover: While Charlotte is the title's titular grumpy childhood friend, the cover model portraying her doesn't exactly look too morose, which to be fair, isn't exactly Charlotte's overall mood when she's with Mike. The happiness and easy chemistry between the two very attractive models on the cover is one of the things I really like about it. Even if I hadn't already loved the author and been given an ARC of this, this cover would very likely have made me buy the book. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR12 Books 76: "Her Big City Neighbor" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 213 pages
Rating: 4 stars

I was given a free copy of this by the author. It has not in any way influenced my review.

Amy Sharpe always wanted to go to graduate school, but when her grandmother got sick, she gave up on those plans and stayed in her small home town to take care of her. After both her grandmother and great aunt has passed away, she has now inherited her great aunt's house in Toronto, and despite the fact that her entire family seems to disapprove of the idea, she is determined to move there and go back to school.

Since the house is more than big enough for two people, Amy gets herself a roommate, Sierra Wu, and in short order makes friends with Sierra's engineering friends from college, who all meet at a local cider bar (hence the title of the series, The Cider Bar Sisters). Amy is a very positive and upbeat person and she clearly delights in all of the treats that a big city like Toronto can offer. As well as trying to sample as much of the food and drink that Toronto's many fine dining establishments can offer, Amy becomes determined to befriend her introverted and surly neighbour Victor Choi, who keeps cutting the grass shirtless. 

Victor was never the most outgoing of people, but after his brother died, he became a bit of a recluse. He goes to work, but rarely sees the need to talk to others. To begin with, he finds Amy and her perkiness incredibly annoying, but just as she openly ogles him when he takes his shirt off, he appreciates the sight of her in her adorable sundresses, as she insists on trying to make friends with him by standing by their shared garden fence and telling him about her adventures around the city. 

While the two neighbours seemingly couldn't be more different, it doesn't take too long before they give into their mutual attraction and start making out in the garden and proceed to an even more intimate relationship. Amy is still getting over her previous relationship, where her boyfriend took her for granted and never treated her the way that she deserved. She doesn't want to get into another relationship unless she can be certain she doesn't have to do all the work, both physical and emotional. Victor isn't ready to admit how much he still hurts from losing his brother, and how afraid he is to open himself up to strong emotions once more. Can these two get over their differences and find a happy ending?

A "complaint" I have made about previous Jackie Lau books is just how hungry I get when I read most of her novels. Food plays such an important part in her stories, and in this novel, I think she's outdone herself. There is such a thing as food porn, and the description of all the amazing things that Amy, from a small town and absolutely thrilled with all the culinary delights that a big city like Toronto has to offer, keeps eating and drinking the most delectable things. As Liz Lemon would say: "I want to go to there". 

As well as giving the readers a very entertaining opposites attract romance, where Victor comes to appreciate Amy's bubbly and cheerful personality, while Amy slowly draws Victor out of his curmudgeonly shell little by little, this book has the added bonus of the female friendships found in the group that makes out the Cider Bar Sisters. Amy is seamlessly included in their already established group speech and it seems pretty certain that each of the five women will get her own book down the line. Smart, ambitious, diverse and kick-ass women being there for one another and supporting the other members of the group is always going to draw me in, whether they are overlooked wallflowers in a Regency historical or engineering graduates in modern Canada, like here.

I really enjoyed this book and devoured it in less than 24 hours. I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a nice reprieve from the constant awfulness that 2020 keeps throwing at us, but you may want to make sure you're not reading it on an empty stomach because I assure you, you'll get hungry.

Judging a book by its cover: I like how the cover model meant to portray Victor appears to be holding a sign with the cover of the book. I'm going to be entirely honest and say that considering a big plot point in the early stages of the book is about how attractive Victor is with his shirt off, it feels like a missed opportunity to have the cover model wearing a shirt on the cover, even if his sleeves are rolled up and you can see his attractive, tattooed forearms. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday, 25 October 2020

#CBR12 Book 75: "Star Dust" by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner

Page count: 313 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Official book description:
Houston, 1962

Anne-Marie Smith wanted normal: a loving husband, two beautiful kids, and a well-kept house. But when she catches her husband cheating, she decides that normal isn’t worth it. Now in a new city with a new job, she’s trying to find her new normal—but she knows it doesn’t include the sexy playboy astronaut next door.

Commander Kit Campbell has a taste for fast: fast cars, fast planes, and even faster women. But no ride he’s ever taken will be as fast as the one he’s taking into orbit. He’s willing to put up with the prying adoration of an entire country if it will get him into space.

But Anne-Marie and Kit’s inconvenient attraction threatens both normal and fast. As the space race heats up, his ambitions and their connection collide and combustion threatens their plans… and their hearts.

I feel like Kit is presented as a bit too much of a shallow playboy in the book description. He doesn't particularly seem to enjoy casual sex or the attention of shallow astronaut groupies all that much, and mostly, he seems super focused on his career, not the party lifestyle. Misleading book blurbs annoy me.

This book was a perfectly fine read, but the romance didn't exactly blow me away. What I enjoyed the most about this book was Anne-Marie trying to make an independent life for herself, getting a job, supporting her family, eventually making supportive female friends who didn't judge her for doing the unusual thing of taking her kids and divorcing her cheating husband, rather than stay in an unhappy marriage because divorces weren't really common back in the 1960s. Good for you, Anne-Marie, for looking out for yourself.

I kind of wish Anne-Marie had been childless. Her two plot-moppet children are not particularly engaging and feel sort of non-descript. I'm not sure they brought much to the story.

It was interesting to read a historical novel set in the mid-20th Century, most of my historical novels seem to be set in the 18th or 19th Century. I basically had the visuals for Mad Men in my head the whole time I was reading this. I got the whole series bundled in an e-book sale but still haven't made my mind up if I'm going to read the rest. This was OK, but really not much more than that

Judging a book by its cover: I think the original cover for this book features a photo of a couple embracing, but since I much tend to prefer my own mental image of the characters to whatever the book designer tends to come up with, I really like this stylised cover with period details. The silhouette of the stylish 60s lady, leaning nonchalantly on the title. The little space ship cartoon and the font, it all works for me. To top it off, the background is teal, a colour I really like. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday, 12 October 2020

#CBR12 Book 74: "Solutions and Other Problems" by Allie Brosh

Page count: 528 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Back in 2013, Allie Brosh published Hyperbole and a Half named after the blog she kept (and has finally updated with a new post!). I pre-ordered the last book and bought it as a Christmas present for pretty much every single person my husband and I knew that year (now our own copy seems to have mysteriously gone missing - which distresses me). Allie's blog (we are clearly on first-name basis, and would be great friends if we ever met) and her book meant a lot to me, frequently made me laugh until I gasped and allowed me to lose many hours on the internet, just reading her older entries. So many of her posts and drawings are now memes.

Then, suddenly, Allie just seemed to vanish entirely from the internet. She stopped updating her blog. Her rumoured second book failed to appear and no one really knew what had happened to her. Because of her honest portrayal of depression and anxiety, there was every possibility that something serious was to blame for her complete disappearance from the web. Until earlier this year, when suddenly this book, Solutions and Other Problems had a cover and a confirmed publishing date and I think I genuinely screamed with joy - because it meant that no matter what else had happened, Allie was alive and had completed another book and was ready to share her thoughts with the world again.

You'd best believe I pre-ordered this the very second I saw the news. I feared that with the usual Covid-delays, my book wouldn't make it here in time for the release day, but I was wrong. Even if this book had been a series of blank pages with the occasional gibberish scrawled on them, I would have happily paid for the book, because I'm so relieved and happy that Allie is OK (in a manner of speaking) and ready to engage with the internet again. She posted one chapter of the new book on her blog. If this doesn't make you laugh like a loon until your stomach hurts, then maybe her way of telling stories isn't for you. 

For anyone wondering what happened to Allie, and why she's been gone for so long - it all gets explained in the book. Not everything she writes is laugh-out-loud funny. Like Jenny Lawson, Allie Brosh balances the hilarious and the tragic really well. She was honest about her struggles with depression and mental illness in the last book. When I reviewed her first book back in 2013, I had only the memory of my years of depression back at Uni and during my first years in Edinburgh. Now I'm fighting my way through another fairly major depressive episode and trying to navigate therapy and I feel like some sort of toxic rage monster has taken over my body and is slowly poisoning me and making me unable to control my thoughts and emotions. So this book probably meant even more to me now than Allie's first book did back in 2013. 

From what I can gather from my Facebook updates feed, I am not the only one who pre-ordered and has happily consumed this book. For those like-minded people who love Allie and her wonderful way with words (and illustration), she is also updating her Facebook page with pictures, sketches, little videos, and many other things to show her fans more of what she's been up to in the seven years since she last appeared "in public". 2020 has been a very difficult year, this book and Allie Brosh's reappearance feels like a true blessing.

Judging a book by its cover: Oh Allie and your strange little MS Paint style self-portraits, I've missed you so much! Before I read the book, I thought this image was of childhood Allie, but it turns out I was wrong. I don't really want to say anymore so as not to spoil anything. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday, 11 October 2020

#CBR12 Book 73: "The Diviners" by Libba Bray

Page count: 578 pages
Audio book length: 18 hrs 14 mins
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: The Roaring 20s

17-year-old Evangeline "Evie" O'Neill can sense people's secrets if she holds a personal object belonging to them and concentrates hard on it. She becomes decidedly unpopular in her home town when she gets drunk at a party and reveals that one of the town's golden boys knocked up a hotel maid and paid her to have the problem "dealt with". He accuses her of slander and threatens to sue her family. Evie can't very well reveal how she knows the details of the story and isn't exactly unhappy when her parents send her to stay with her bachelor uncle in New York City anyway. Evie dreams of going to parties, seeing shows, and gossipping with her best friend Mabel, daughter of radical socialists, who live in the same building as Evie's uncle Will. 

Before Evie even makes it to the museum that her uncle Will runs, she's been kissed and pick-pocketed by the roguish Sam Lloyd at Grand Central Station. At the museum, she's introduced to Jericho Jones, the tall and deadly serious young man that her uncle has taken under his wing (and who Mabel has a massive crush on). While Jericho seems just as scholarly and stick-in-the-mud as Evie's uncle, he has secrets of his own. Mabel and Evie also befriend Theta Knight, a glamorous Ziegfeld girl, and her "brother" Henry, a talented piano player who live in the same building as them. Important to the story is also Memphis Campbell, who used to have the gift of healing, until his mother was dying.

All of these young people from different social backgrounds and locations in the US meet up over the course of the story, as a comet is about to travel over New York City and a series of gruesome murders with occult connections catch the attention of reporters. The police ask Evie's uncle Will to consult, but it's not until Evie's party life style threatens to have her sent back home that she reveals her psychic powers and how she's able to read objects at the murder scenes (and feel a connection to the creepy murderer). 

This is a big book, with a lot of different point of view characters. It seems impeccably researched, with so many details about city life in the 1920s, complete with period slang (which got a bit confusing at times). January LaVoy, who narrates the book, did an excellent job differentiating between the large cast of characters of both genders. I've heard her narrate quite a few books now, and I really like her.

While I can see that Evie possibly can get on some people's nerves as a protagonist, there really is such a wide variety of significant characters set up in this book that everyone should be able to find someone to identify with. I think I was a lot more sympathetic to Mabel, the shy and bookish best friend rather than with the vivacious party girl Evie - but pretty much everyone in the large cast is well-drawn and interesting in their own right. Obviously, I don't think Evie appreciates a good museum enough (I would love to have access to the museum "of creepy crawlies" that uncle Will manages). 

As far as I'm aware, this is the first of four books of historical fantasy, setting up the various pretty young things we encounter in this book as "The Diviners" of the series title. Evie, Sam, Jericho, Theta, Henry, Memphis, and his younger brother all have unusual abilities of some kind. While the murderer is unmasked and stopped by the end of the story, it's made very clear that the looming evil that is awakening is not vanquished for good and Evie's adventures in the Big Apple are clearly just beginning by the end of this book.

This book has been on my TBR list almost since it came out, but I kept putting off reading it since I knew there would be more books in the series. It's now been completed, and based on the first book, I will absolutely be checking out more installments. I just need to summon up the energy for lengthy books with a fair amount of peril and grisly murders, which I'm not necessarily now. 

Judging a book by its cover: This book has been out since 2012, and as a result, has a number of covers by now, most of them in some shade of purple. This is the cover on my e-book copy, where you see the silhouettes of some of the prominent characters, as well as some background images of 1920s New York, where the book is set. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday, 4 October 2020

#CBR12 Book 72: "A Killing Frost" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book 14 in an ongoing series. You will be pretty hopelessly lost if this is the first one you pick up. This is an excellent paranormal fantasy series, but the place to start is with Rosemary and Rue. Also, there may be plot discussion about events that have happened earlier in the series, so don't read the review unless you're actually caught up.

Official book description:
When October is informed that Simon Torquill—legally her father, due to Faerie's archaic marriage traditions—must be invited to her wedding or risk the ceremony throwing the Kingdom in the Mists into political turmoil, she finds herself setting out on a quest she was not yet prepared to undertake for the sake of her future.... and the man who represents her family's past.

October 'Toby' Daye has been engaged to Tybalt, the King of Cats for a long time now, but has at least gotten to the stage where she's tentatively looking at dresses. When Tybalt takes her out for a surprise dinner date, the couple is interrupted by Dianda Lordan, Duchess of the Undersea and her husband. They inform Toby that unless her step-father Simon Torquill is invited to the wedding, Simon himself, or someone close to him, like his evil liege Eira Rosenwyhr, could claim offense and use the slight as an excuse to set off a supernatural war. Simon's whereabouts are currently unknown and all his memories of his home have been removed (and consequently any sense of family or his conscience are also missing) thanks to a rather complicated spell. Although Toby's relationship with Simon had started to improve, he is still the ruthless villain who transformed Toby into a fish for fourteen years (a time period in which she lost her human fiancee and child, as they believed her to have abandoned them), and she's not exactly thrilled to be told he needs a cordial invitation to her upcoming wedding.

To complicate matters further, Toby realises that both Tybalt and her sister May knew about this sticky piece of faerie etiquette and kept it from her, so she's not exactly pleased with her nearest and dearest. She certainly has no wish to have Simon at her wedding, but cannot risk the consequences if he's overlooked. The spell Simon is currently under is a modified one originally placed on his daughter, Toby's half-sister August, who set off to locate and bring Oberon, the missing King of Faerie, back to his people. With no way to find her home until she fulfilled the quest, she was believed utterly lost, until Toby and Simon found her. Now it's Simon who can't find his way home until Oberon is located, but luckily Toby has a pretty fair idea of where he's currently holed up, thanks to some prophetic dreams from a young acquaintance of hers. Said dream showed Toby going on a quest, only accompanied by her squire Quentin and sister May, so Tybalt has to stay home, whether he likes it or not. If he comes along, the quest is doomed to fail.

Toby reluctantly sets off to locate what amounts to her own personal bogey-man, helped only by her impulsive teenage squire and her former death-omen, now sister. She knows that she may have to do what Simon already did, and take the amnesia charm upon herself to free him. Unless they happen to locate the centuries-missing Oberon and bring him home as a side effect of the quest, of course, but that seems unlikely.

I'm starting to get worried that while McGuire has Toby and Tybalt as the ultimate romantic end game for this series, she has no intention of letting them stay happily together and get married for a good while yet (I'm not sure how long she's planning on the series stretching, but according to Goodreads, there's at least three more books to come and from the brief descriptions of these books, Toby and Tybalt are still unmarried at the end of them). Their betrothal has lasted a very long while already, and there always seems to be yet another obstacle thrown in the way of their wedded bliss. More than one character over the course of this book confronts Toby about her fear of real commitment and her unwillingness to settle down. 

It's obvious that Tybalt, for all that he adores her, is getting rather impatient with the many delays, and I'm not sure how much longer he'll put up with Toby putting everyone else in danger (and there are so many varieties of danger that could threaten) ahead of their relationship. It took McGuire long enough to get them together, I'm not sure I'm interested in reading a bunch more filler books with faerie intrigue (in which Toby slowly loses what little is left of her humanity) before we get to the conclusion. I don't mind reading about committed and/or married couples - it works in a number of paranormal series. I will probably take an extended hiatus from the series if McGuire breaks them up for plot reasons. 

I really do like that this series focuses just as much on found/felt family as it does on blood ties. May isn't technically Toby's sister (she could, in fact, qualify as one of her children). Raj, Quintin, and Dean aren't actually Toby's kids or younger brothers, but they fulfill that role in her life. Considering some of the really rather unpleasant betrayals Toby has faced over the course of the series from her actual family (Amadine is personified Toxicity), it's good that she now has a wide array of people who love her and will risk their lives to help her. 

Having read this and Peace Talks fairly close together, I'm struck at how much more effortlessly McGuire portrays queer characters and relationships in her books. I was reminded in this book(because they are not a major supporting character) that one of the tertiary characters in Toby's life is trans. It's mentioned in passing, and not made a big deal out of. Bisexuality seems to be almost the norm among the faerie races and in this book, there is even one example of polyamory, with a m/m/f relationship treated just as matter of factly as if there were only two partners in the relationship. Representation matters, and having a wide variety of gender identifications and sexual preferences covered in your book, without it feeling forced or tokenistic, is sadly still unusual. Butcher certainly has a LONG way to go here.

These books are books I eagerly await each September. I will obviously be reading the next one, but am getting a bit fed up with the central romantic relationship being strung out the way it is. It may be time for a bit of a break...but I hope McGuire proves me wrong. 

Judging a book by its cover: At first, I was convinced that they'd yet again replaced the cover model portraying Toby on the book, but a closer perusal of the more recent books in the series at my local nerd bookshop disproved me of this notion. It's clearly the same woman, she just looks a bit more emaciated in this one than some of the more recent book covers. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR12 Book 71: "The Duke Who Didn't" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 311 pages
Rating: 5 stars

This was an ARC sent to me by the author. I had already pre-ordered the book, and the free copy has not influenced my review in any way.

Official book description: 
Miss Chloe Fong has plans for her life, lists for her days, and absolutely no time for nonsense. Three years ago, she told her childhood sweetheart that he could talk to her once he planned to be serious. He disappeared that very night.

Except now he’s back. Jeremy Wentworth, the Duke of Lansing, has returned to the tiny village he once visited with the hope of wooing Chloe. In his defense, it took him years of attempting to be serious to realize that the endeavor was incompatible with his personality.

All he has to do is convince Chloe to make room for a mischievous trickster in her life, then disclose that in all the years they’ve known each other, he’s failed to mention his real name, his title… and the minor fact that he owns her entire village.

Only one thing can go wrong: Everything.

Chloe Fong is seen as strict, stern, intimidating, and demanding by everyone in the little village of Wedgeford Downs, where she lives with her father. Chloe's mother died when she was a baby, and Chloe's father was taken advantage of by unscrupulous businessmen, who have now gotten rich because of the sauce he developed for them. Chloe wants to help her father perfect his new sauce, launch a rival sauce production company and eventually achieve revenge over the men who left her father to fend for himself once he had used his culinary skills to their advantage. Her father is just as much of a perfectionist as she is, and loathe to accept help from anyone, least alone the child he promised her mother he would provide for and keep safe. 

The only man who ever seemed to show any romantic interest in Chloe was Jeremy Yu, also affectionately known in Wedgeford Downs as "Posh Jim". For nine years, he would come to visit during the big festival, charming everyone in general and Chloe in particular. However, once she asked him to go away until he could be serious, he disappeared, and for the last two years, despite Chloe trying to pretend that she doesn't miss him, he has stayed away. Now, when Chloe is facing possibly the most challenging weekend of her life, when the decades-long plans of her father and her may come to fruition (she just needs to figure out a name for the sauce first), he suddenly shows up again, and asks Chloe to make him a list. A list to help him find a wife...

The man known as Jeremy Yu or "Posh Jim" in Wedgeford Downs has several secrets. The fact that he is absolutely besotted with Miss Chloe Fong isn't really a secret to anyone who has ever seen them together, except to Chloe herself. No, his biggest secret is that he is, in actuality, Jeremy Wentworth, the Duke of Lansing, he owns the village of Wedgeford Downs, and everyone who lives there probably owes him about forty years worth of back rent. Jeremy was only a teenager the first time he came to Wedgeford during their famous Trials festival, and he was warmly accepted by everyone there and felt a sense of belonging he hasn't felt anywhere else, so he couldn't very well confess his true identity then. And with each passing year, confessing the truth became harder and harder.

Now Jeremy's aunt wants him to settle down and find a wife, and for him, there is only one candidate. He went away to try to be serious for Chloe, but can't seem to stop making jokes and looking for the positive in every situation. Jeremy knows he will need to tell her the truth about himself and his title before he proposes, but he is also aware that asking Chloe to become a Duchess is no easy thing. His mother hated the way she was treated by British high society and went back to China as soon as she could after his father's death. Nevertheless, if he must marry, Chloe is the only one he could imagine spending his life with. In order to get to spend as much time with her as possible, he promises her ten pounds if she'll write him a list with all of her qualities, as the only woman he'd consider marrying needs to have ALL of her qualities. He also insists on helping her and her father with their many tasks in preparing for the festival and the launch of their (hopefully soon to be famous) sauce. 

It's been a year and a half since Courtney Milan published anything at all, and two and a half years since she published a full-length novel. If you follow Ms. Milan on Twitter and other social media, or have read anything online about the complete implosion of the RWA (Romance Writers of America) over the last few years, you can see that she hasn't exactly had the best of times. While she was never tested, it also seems very likely that she had Covid-19 and was pretty seriously ill earlier this year. So the fact that she's written this new historical novel, which does not fit into her ongoing historical Worth Saga, nor her contemporary Cyclone series, was a wonderful surprise. As soon as the pre-order links were available, I rushed to make sure I'd have my copy on release day. It was therefore a wonderful surprise to open my e-mail about three weeks ago and discover an e-mail with an ARC of this book - I had completely forgotten that I had qualified to be on Ms. Milan's ARC mailing list.

I devoured the book in less than 24 hours. The book made me laugh out loud more than once because Ms. Milan is very funny when she wants to be. Moreover, reading this book filled me with a satisfying warmth, like being wrapped in a cozy blanket or given a really good hug (something I think many of us are starved of at present). It's such a ray of golden light in these dark times, the entire narrative is focused on finding, recognising, and seizing your happiness with both hands, and it felt like a balm. 

I love pretty much everything about this book. I love how effortlessly sweet it is, how full of warmth and joy it is. I love that Ms. Milan imagined this tiny village in Kent filled mostly with immigrants from all over the world, making up a vibrant and diverse community. I love Chloe and Jeremy as protagonists, I love the supporting characters, especially Chloe's gruff father, who shows his deep affection for her by constantly nagging her to eat. He's not necessarily happy about Jeremy's interest in her, and he certainly doesn't like that he's keeping secrets. He keeps torturing Jeremy with excessive amounts of chili added to his food until the young man comes clean about the things he's been hiding from Chloe, and Jeremy, knowing that he deserves it, dutifully eats the fiery food and suffers in silence. 

I loved how determined, loyal and strong Chloe is and how Jeremy loves her exactly the way she is, not threatened or put off by her ambition and independence. I love that Ms. Milan gave us a half-Chinese duke, which may not be entirely historically accurate, but is no less implausible than the scores of dukes, viscounts and earls that already make up historical Romancelandia. I loved learning more about the Hakka people of China and as with Jackie Lau's contemporary romances, that frequently feature a lot of descriptions of food, reading about all the things that Chloe's father cooked made my mouth water. 

My only initial complaint when finishing this book was that it was possibly too free of conflict and effortlessly happy. Ms. Milan has said that she specifically set out to subvert the tradition that there needs to be some big third act complication, which frequently requires angst and emotional turmoil for the protagonists to work through. There are no big misunderstandings here, this book is decidedly anti-angst, and yes, maybe the path to true love actually does run too smooth here. Having thought about it for these last three weeks, I've come to the conclusion that I was wrong, and this book just being one long escapist fantasy isn't a flaw, it's a gift. This is exactly the sort of story we need right now and I'm so glad that I was able to read it a few weeks early. I sincerely hope Ms. Milan felt as happy writing the book as I did reading it. 

Judging a book by its cover: I've commented when reviewing Jackie Lau's books that you very rarely get to see Asian people represented on romance covers. While seeing a couple passionately embracing and looking as completely entranced by one another is something you can expect from a romance cover, the sad lack of representation for BIPOC people is such that this very sexy, super steamy cover is unusual, because both the cover models on it are Asian. It's also a far cry from a lot of Milan's covers, with poofy wedding dresses photo-shopped into various period gowns, so personally, I'm a huge fan, and hope this trend continues. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR12 Book 70: "The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle" by Stuart Turton

Page count: 519 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
"Gosford Park" meets "Groundhog Day" by way of Agatha Christie – the most inventive story you'll read this year.

Tonight, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed... again.

It is meant to be a celebration but it ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed.

But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot.

The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath...

This book, which was renamed The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle when it was published in the USA (so it wouldn't be confused with The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hugo) was the August selection in our fantasy/sci-fi book club. It very much mixes your traditional 1920s-1930s set house party cozy mystery at a country estate with a strange sci-fi element, where our protagonist wakes up in a new body every morning. The house party where Evelyn Hardcastle ends up murdered every night is set at a remote, rather worn down manor house surrounded by woods. Nearby is a graveyard, and the lake next to which one of the Hardcastle sons was brutally stabbed to death several decades ago. The house party is allegedly to celebrate Evelyn's betrothal, and there are a large number of posh guests convening to gossip, get drunk, hunt, and generally enjoy themselves at the Hardcastles' expense. All of these guests are also accompanied by servants, so there is no lack of murder suspects. 

Aiden, our protagonist, finds himself in a new host body every morning. Sometimes he's in the body of someone rich and influential, sometimes he's in the body of a servant. He inhabits each body from morning until evening but can switch back to an earlier body if his current host falls asleep or loses consciousness in a different way. He is deeply confused for quite a while (and the reader with him) until a mysterious figure dressed in an old plague doctor's costume explains to him that he has seven days to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. She dies at 11pm every evening, and if Aiden can figure out the name of the killer and give it to the plague doctor before the cycle is over, he is free to leave. If he fails, he will have his memory wiped and start the whole seven-day process over again. To further complicate matters, there are other individuals at the house party who are also trying to solve the murder, and it's not in their interest to co-operate with Aiden. Finally, to add a real slasher movie element to the proceedings - there's a psychopathic footman who is determined to kill all of Aiden's host bodies before he identifies the killer.

As well as being strongly influenced by Agatha Christie, there are elements of Black Mirror, Doctor Who, and Groundhog Day. When we discussed it during our book club meeting, we agreed that the book is very entertaining, even though very few of the characters we encounter in the book is especially likable and there is some truly egregious and very unfortunate fat-shaming in parts of the book (one of Aidan's host bodies is a very intelligent, but also very obese nobleman, and Aidan is clearly utterly disgusted to be "trapped" in that body). The book posits some interesting ideas on the nature of forgiveness and the efficacy of prisons as means of rehabilitation, but sadly doesn't really delve properly into them. The author seemed mostly concerned with his very high concept idea (Agatha Christie mystery meets Groundhog Day) and doesn't take a lot of time to really anything too deep or philosophical. 

Clever, unusual, and interesting as this book is, the fat-shaming aspect bothered most of the readers in my book club, and as far as I can see from online reviews has been enough of a problem to make it impossible for some readers to finish the book. Since I was pre-warned, so to speak, I forced myself to read, despite my intense discomfort, and I'm glad I continued because the central mystery of the book is cleverly structured, with just enough twists and turns that every time you think you've got an idea of what's happening, it turns out there's one final twist. 

This is the sort of book I would never have picked up on my own, so I'm glad I discovered it through my book club. This was Turton's debut novel and it won a bunch of awards. He has a new novel out any day now, which looks to be another unusual mystery. 

Judging a book by its cover: Not exactly the most exciting of covers, showing only the staircase in what seems to be an old house. The black and white floor tiles in the hall are a bit reminiscent of a chessboard, but the intricate game the characters in the book find themselves in is a lot more convoluted than a chess game. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR12 Book 69: "Emerald Blaze" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Green

Spoiler warning! This is the fifth book total in the Hidden Legacy series, and the second book about Catalina Baylor. This review may spoil details from previous books in the series. If you want to start at the very beginning, the book you want is Burn for Me. If you want to start with Catalina's books, the first book is Sapphire Flames

It's been about six months since the end of the last book, where Catalina Baylor made a very unfortunate, iron-clad deal with her evil grandmother to save Alessandro Sagredo's life, only to discover that he was so caught up in his quest for revenge that he packed up and left town pretty much immediately after, breaking her heart in the process. Not that Catalina has been wallowing in self-pity and comfort eating while contemplating her emotions, she's been busy strengthening the power of her house and barely surviving dangerous missions as the deputy warden of Texas. 

Now the heir to House Morton has been horribly murdered and members of four other prominent Texas houses are suspects. There are also strange mutated monsters running around Houston, controlled by an unknown force. Catalina is given the mission to find the guilty party, is deeply unhappy when she discovers that Lander Morton, the grieving patriarch of House Morton, has hired Alessandro to dispatch his son's killer, once the murderer is found. Alessandro is no longer the carefree, easy-going flirt he was six months ago, he seems hard and focused now, and is much more willing to share things, both information and his feelings with Catalina. He insists that someone is trying to kill her, and he is in Houston again to protect her. Since Linus Duncan, Catalina's boss agrees to let Alessandro act as her bodyguard, she doesn't really have a choice but to cooperate with him. 

The man that Alessandro has been hunting since he was a teenager is now openly planning to kill Catalina, and possibly Linus Duncan too. Alessandro is willing to do whatever it takes, even risk his own life, to keep Catalina safe. He is unaware of the bargain Catalina made with her grandmother to save his life, effectively giving up any chance they might have had for a future together. Can the two stop the danger that could destroy Houston, survive, and actually have an honest conversation about their feelings?

Once again, the husband and wife writing team that makes up Ilona Andrews have produced an action-packed, funny, and emotional novel. I never stop being amazed by their creativity when it comes to conjuring up new and truly bizarre supernatural threats for their protagonists to face off against. They always have the best monstrous beasties, but of course, the most monstrous threats facing any hero or heroine of theirs is thoroughly human. In this novel, we discover what Alessandro's quest for revenge actually consists of, and why he's been training to become one of the world's top assassins since he was a teenager. We discover the truth behind why Nevada suddenly resigned as head of House Baylor and more or less publicly severed ties with her siblings. Nevada, very heavily pregnant, is much more present in this book. Leon also gets a lot more to do, while Cornelius and Bern sadly take more of a backseat in this story. 

It's hard for me to review books I really love, and I feel that every time I review an Ilona Andrews book, I pretty much end up repeating the same superlatives again and again. If I haven't convinced the people who read these reviews to start reading Andrews' books by now, it will likely never happen. But you're missing out on some of the best (if not THE best) paranormal fantasy being written today.

Judging a book by its cover: I stand by what I said when commenting on the cover for Sapphire Flames, this is the first non-self-published series where Ilona Andrews actually have decent looking covers. I like the various shades of green and the female cover model's dress. I think they've kept the same woman portraying Catalina from the previous cover shoot, but it looks like the male model, portraying Alessandro, has been replaced. Also, it could just be unfortunate shading, but the male model appears to have a soul patch, which is NOT attractive. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday, 3 October 2020

#CBR12 Book 68: "Viscount Vagabond" by Loretta Chase

Page count: 228 pages
Rating: 2.5 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Shelfie

Official book description:
Catherine Pelliston simply would not abide by her father's wishes and marry the slovenly Lord Browdie. But her escape through the streets of London only seemed to lead her from bad to worse. First, she was robbed. And then, her supposed "rescue" by a kindly old woman stranded Catherine in a bordello -- where the handsome Viscount Rand was intent on sampling her wares! A dire predicament indeed-especially when the dashing aristocrat decided to assume full responsibility for the ravishing runaway by taking her, quite against her will, into his home. But little did Catherine know that her struggle to preserve her virtue had inflamed the debauched gadabout's heart ... and might well net her a husband worth desiring!

This is one of Loretta Chase's early romances, originally published in 1988, and later re-issued in e-book format in 2012. One of her most famous novels, Lord of Scoundrels, didn't come out until 1995. This book is both shorter, and a lot less sophisticated than her later, more famous works. It's also not terribly memorable. I finished this book in mid-August and even now, reading through the blurb, I can only barely remember plot specifics. 

Chase's early writing really doesn't have the same wit and spark as many of her later novels. There are no classic, bad-ass heroines like Jessica Trent, charming rogues like Rupert Carsington, or enigmatic spies like the Comte D'Esmond. Catherine is pretty painfully naive and very lucky that the nobleman she appeals to doesn't in fact ravish her, but rather takes pity on her, rescues her, and promptly deposits her with his very respectable sister, who can act as her chaperone. See, I remember that much. I also recall that the sister's husband has a much better grasp of the various notable families of the ton, and therefore knows immediately who Catherine actually is and which family she's run away from, and happily aids his wife's matchmaking attempt for the rest of the book. I remember there was a potential of scandal when someone (not entirely sure who now), possibly Catherine's not-quite-fiancee, figured out that she had spent some time in a brothel - but it all comes right in the end - natch, this is a romance novel.

Checking my records, I actually bought this e-book back in 2012 (when I was still discovering Ms. Chase's back catalogue) and it's been sitting on my shelf ever since. I could have used it for the White Whale square, but it's one of those books that I've had for so long, I'd more or less forgotten about it when I was planning my Bingo Card. It did, however, fit in my Alphabet Soup reading challenge for V, and once I looked it up on LibraryThing, I was surprised at how long it had been on my digital shelves, unread. It's not exactly easy to take a photo of a digital book, but here is a screenshot of the LibraryThing shelf - which is the best I can do to fulfil the demands of the Shelfie square. 


In conclusion, if you're not a true die-hard completist about Loretta Chase, this is a book that is entirely skippable. If it didn't fit into a number of my reading challenges (I can cross off a bingo square, it fits in my historical fiction challenge, in my two TBR challenges, as well as the alphabet challenge) and I already owned it, I doubt I would have ever read it. 

Judging a book by its cover: This is the rather generic cover given to the new digital edition when I got the book. The original 80s cover is a true marvel of pastels, a very brooding hero and a swooning heroine in his embrace (but wearing historically appropriate outfits, which is more than one can say for a large majority of more modern historical romances published today - Lisa Kleypas' Ravenel series and Tessa Dare's Girl Meets Duke, I am especially thinking about you right now. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday, 2 October 2020

#CBR12 Books 65-67: "The Sandman, part 1" by Neil Gaiman and Dirk Maggs

Page count: 632 (covers the collected volumes of Preludes and Nocturnes, The Doll's House and Dream Country)
Audiobook length: 10 hrs 54 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: Happy (I never thought that Sandman could be adapted into an audio story, so this made me very happy indeed)

Official book description:

When The Sandman, also known as Lord Morpheus - the immortal king of dreams, stories and the imagination - is pulled from his realm and imprisoned on Earth by a nefarious cult, he languishes for decades before finally escaping. Once free, he must retrieve the three “tools” that will restore his power and help him to rebuild his dominion, which has deteriorated in his absence. As the multi-threaded story unspools, The Sandman descends into Hell to confront Lucifer, chases rogue nightmares who have escaped his realm, and crosses paths with an array of characters from DC comic books, ancient myths, and real-world history, including: Inmates of Gotham City's Arkham Asylum, Doctor Destiny, the muse Calliope, the three Fates, William Shakespeare , and many more. 

In July 1998, my life changed forever. In those days, I still lived in a suburb of Oslo and didn't necessarily visit the centre of the city all that often. When I did, I always took a trip to Avalon, the dedicated fantasy/sci-fi/all things nerd book shop there (the book shop sadly closed long ago now). On a display table near the front of the shop was Fables and Reflections, by no means the first volume in the long-running Sandman series, but an excellent introduction. I think Neil Gaiman had recently visited Oslo for the first time, and the shop was promoting his most famous work. I had never read any graphic novels before but was drawn by the description of the series. I bought the book, started reading it on the bus on the way home, and my mind was blown. I had never read anything like it before, and I was utterly hooked on the stories of dreams and nightmares, the family dramas with references to all manner of mythology, classical literature, comic books, and the like. 

This was a time when Norwegian libraries were not particularly well-stocked with fantasy of any kind, and certainly not English-language comic books and graphic novels (I'm happy to say that that's changed massively over the last 20 years - one of the public library branches in Oslo is now dedicated entirely to comics and graphic novels in different languages. Hence, I had to buy each volume before I could read the full story. My records show that it took me about a year to get all ten volumes of trade paperbacks, some of which I've now had signed by Neil Gaiman himself. 

Funny story, one of them isn't actually signed to Malin, because my dear friend Ben was a bit of an idiot back when he took my copy of Preludes and Nocturnes to a signing in Newcastle. This was back before I really knew him, and he was still just my then-boyfriend, now-husband Mark's school friend. See, Ben and another of Mark's school friends, Ruth, had initially joked that his Norwegian girlfriend's name was Helga. By the time Ben was taking one of my precious trade paperbacks to Newcastle to get it signed as a favour, he'd met me several times, and knew my name was Malin. But when he got to the front of the signing line, and Mr. Gaiman asked him who to sign the book to, Ben (lovable moron) blurted out Helga, and only after he'd left the shop remembered that it was not, in fact, my actual name. This is also why I have a signed copy of Anansi Boys, where Neil Gaiman apologizes to me for getting my name wrong. 

 

Anyway, the long and rambling introduction to this review is included to show just how long Sandman has been part of my life, and how much it means to me. It was my introduction to graphic novels and the writings of Neil Gaiman. It showed me a whole new way of storytelling. I never thought it could be adapted well in a million years (I'm still skeptical about the Netflix series). I've rarely been so happy to tell you I was wrong. This was an excellent adaptation, and I think I liked parts of it a lot more than the actual original comics issues (while a lot of the artists and artwork used in the series was state of the art back in the 1990s, it's sometimes a bit "grimy-looking" now - unless you have the stunning Absolute Sandman volumes, that cost a small fortune). 

So how do you successfully adapt what is both a written and a visual medium, you ask? You hire an excellent ensemble cast, so that all of the various characters we meet in the pages of the first three volumes of the graphic novel opus are voiced by different and distinct voices (there's a huge ensemble of people who do multiple voices over the course of the audio drama, but never in the same scenes, making it much easier to keep track of who's speaking at any given time). You also get someone to narrate and describe the various scenes and characters in them (or occasionally add descriptions of the setting and characters to the inner monologues of one or several of the people in a scene), so the listener is told what they would have seen on the page if they were reading the comic. That the narrator here is Neil Gaiman himself (whose voice I find very soothing) just seems extra fitting.

I read several reviews of this audio drama that complained that with very few exceptions, everything is kept exactly as it was in the original 90s comics, with no attempts to adapt or bring it more up to date. This was mentioned as a criticism, I didn't think it was a problem. I also know the source material being adapted exceptionally well, having read the comics multiple times. Even so, as I kept listening, I actually pulled my trade paperbacks off the shelf to halfway follow along. To someone who's never read the original graphic novels, it may be harder to follow the plot, even though the team who adapted did a very good job in filling in with background sounds to give you an idea of action and plot.

Each issue of the comic is one approximately 30-minute long episode, with little audio credits and everything. It felt like I was listening to an old-fashioned radio play, and I loved it. How well the adaptation works for you may also depend on how you feel about James McAvoy. I love him and his voice, and think he did a splendid job voicing Lord Morpheus. Kat Dennings worked surprisingly well as Death. The only one I wasn't entirely happy with was the guy playing Desire, whose voice just didn't "fit" with my mental image of what it should be. 

A brief trigger warning towards the end. In both Preludes and Nocturnes, The Doll's House and Dream Country, there are elements of horror. The issue 24 Hours, for instance, where a number of people are kept trapped in a diner by an escaped Arkham Asylum inmate in control of Dream's ancient ruby and are slowly driven increasingly more insane over the course of the story was even more horrifying than it is on the page because all the various people got their own voices and felt more real than they do when you just read them. It was harder to stay detached. There are also stories of serial killers, and child abuse and women being raped and beaten - so be aware of that. 

Now I'm left impatiently waiting and hoping that this becomes enough of a success for Audible that they'll choose to adapt the rest of the series as well. Recording audio dramas must be something that should be perfectly doable even now, with production halted on so many things due to Covid-19.

While I'm choosing to use this for my "Happy" square for this year's bingo, it could just as easily have fit with "Nostalgia", since this was such an important part both of my adolescence and so ground-breaking for comics in general during the 1990s. 

Judging a book by its cover: I have tried to track down the name of the cover artist for the dark, broody image of Dream, without any luck. It's a good depiction of Lord Morpheus, and I like that it looks like he himself is made up of sand or dust and kind of blurring at the edges a bit. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read