Thursday, 31 December 2020

#CBR12 Book 104: "A Touch of Stone and Snow" by Milla Vane

Page count: 398 pages
Rating: TBA

Official book description (cause I haven't finished the book yet):
Danger lurks in the western realms. The Destroyer’s imminent return has sent the realms into turmoil as desperate citizens seek refuge—but there’s no safety to be found when demons and wraiths crawl out from the shadows. Even Koth, a northern island kingdom left untouched by the Destroyer a generation past, is besieged by terrors spawned from corrupt magics.

When Lizzan leads the Kothan army against these terrors, only to see her soldiers massacred and to emerge as the only survivor, she is called a coward and a deserter. Shunned from her home, Lizzan now wanders in solitude as a mercenary for hire, until she encounters a group of warriors seeking new alliances with the northern kingdoms—a group that includes Aerax, the bastard prince of Koth, and the man who sent her into exile.

Though they were childhood friends, Aerax cannot allow himself to be close to the only woman who might thwart his treacherous plan to save their island realm. But when a goddess's demand binds them together, Lizzan and Aerax must find a way to overcome their painful pasts. Or there will be no future for the western realms...

According to the reviewer over on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, this works fine as a standalone, because it was the first in the series she read. Be warned before you check any of the books out, however, that this is NOT for everyone. These books have a lot of violence and darkness and the order of the day is pretty much survival of the fittest and strongest. The world is still reeling from the terrible destruction wreaked by Anumith the Destroyer a few decades ago, and now there has been confirmation that Anumith is on the rise, returning to the Continent once more. The various peoples, countries, and tribes that live there need to form an alliance and fast, or they will all be swept away in the wake of the Destroyer's second invasion.

The protagonists of this book are Lizzan and Aerax and their romance keeps seeming impossible. They've known each other since they were children, and come from vastly different positions. As a royal bastard, Aerax wasn't officially acknowledged until a terrible epidemic came and killed most of the royal house. Lizzan's father was a high ranking army commander and her mother is a magistrate, before he got recognised as an actual prince, she would be seriously throwing away her future to be with him. Then came the incident that led to Lizzan's exile, where her father and much of the Kothan army led an attack to pacify nearby bandits but were surprised by a supernatural threat, leaving Lizzan as the only survivor. 

Lizzan was deemed a coward and a traitor, and her name was struck from the official records. No one from Koth is allowed to speak her name or even recognise that she is still alive. She had to leave Koth in disgrace and exile and hates Aerax for not speaking up in her defence at the trial. Aerax, having at that point been trained and come to know many of the island's official secrets, couldn't defend her, as it could lead to her death. He's adored Lizzan for as long as he can remember and will do anything to keep her safe, even if it means she despises him.

Lizzan has made her way, lonely and heart-broken, both physically and emotionally, using her warrior skills to protect refugee caravans and other travellers. She hears news of a Kothan delegation, including a white-haired prince (all of the Kothan royal family have tell-tale white hair) and does her best to get away. The book starts with Lizzan trying to flee, and Aerax wanting to catch her.

The Kothans need help from their neighbours to the South, and want to join the big alliance that's forming. But Aerax knows that they're going to need Lizzan's presence and her truth about the supernatural threat to convince others to risk themselves for an island and a people who withdrew when danger previously threatened. He also has motives of his own, that he's keeping from everyone, determined to see his course through, even if he ends up branded a villain by everyone, especially his true love.

Lizzan has by this point gotten sick enough of dishonour and scorn, and drunkenly demands a quest from the goddess Vela. The only way to fully be forgiven is to die gloriously in battle, and she asks Vela to help her accomplish this. Vela tasks her to protect the first person she casts her eyes on when she leaves the temple (one guess who she runs into seconds after leaving) and promises her death in a battle on the day of the first snow. So now both she and Aerax have purposes they must keep secret, and it seems unlikely that they'll ever have a future, as Lizzan is fated to die in a short while. 

I'm only about 50% through the book, yet I love what I've read so far. If it wasn't for having to finish a lot of reviews, help co-parent my demanding child and planning and prepping a three-course New Year's meal, I would be on the sofa with noise-cancelling headphones, blocking out the world and reading right now. I know so many reviewers have loved this book, including our own Emmalita, so I'm convinced it's going to be a satisfying final book for me to end 2020 with. 

Normally, I'd feel bad about reviewing a book I haven't finished yet, but the clock is ticking and the deadline for CBR12 is just around the corner. Time and the double Cannonball waits for no person. The continued adventures and just how Aerax and Lizzan get past their challenges to find true happiness together at last shall have to wait a few hours, until I've tidied, cooked, we've eaten and are settled down to wait for the fireworks. That's one good thing about this wretched year, we have no guests who will disapprove if I read for a while until the clock strikes midnight. 

And with this rambling review, I declare my reading goal for 2020 reached (double Cannonball achieved and a total of 25 out of 26 reading challenges completed), and wish you all a Happy New Year!

Judging a book by its cover: Yeah, I just can't take this cover seriously. Why is he wearing armour on his arms, and a big chainmail/armour hood thing, yet leaving his very ripped abs entirely exposed? It's like the whole discussion about superheroine costumes. This is just dumb. Cool sword, though, dude.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR12 Book 103: All the books I DNF'd this year

Dear readers, I'm not going to lie, I'm racing against the clock to get all of my reviews finished in time for the CBR12 deadline (12 noon EST - or 6 pm Oslo time). I also need to finish 25% of the final novel I'm reviewing, co-parent my autocratic, demanding, and rather clingy almost-three-year-old, plan and prep a three-course New Year's meal, and possibly do some last-minute shopping. No pressure, right? So when fellow Cannonballer Pixifer posted a review with all of her DNF's for the year, I realised that that's the only way I'm going to reach my goal in time. I probably read enough of each of these books for the total of one whole one - possibly even quite a big one.

DNF nr 1: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke

English magicians were once the wonder of the known world, with fairy servants at their beck and call; they could command winds, mountains, and woods. But by the early 1800s they have long since lost the ability to perform magic. They can only write long, dull papers about it, while fairy servants are nothing but a fading memory.

But at Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire, the rich, reclusive Mr Norrell has assembled a wonderful library of lost and forgotten books from England's magical past and regained some of the powers of England's magicians. He goes to London and raises a beautiful young woman from the dead. Soon he is lending his help to the government in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte, creating ghostly fleets of rain-ships to confuse and alarm the French.

All goes well until a rival magician appears. Jonathan Strange is handsome, charming, and talkative-the very opposite of Mr Norrell. Strange thinks nothing of enduring the rigors of campaigning with Wellington's army and doing magic on battlefields. Astonished to find another practicing magician, Mr Norrell accepts Strange as a pupil. But it soon becomes clear that their ideas of what English magic ought to be are very different. For Mr Norrell, their power is something to be cautiously controlled, while Jonathan Strange will always be attracted to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic. He becomes fascinated by the ancient, shadowy figure of the Raven King, a child taken by fairies who became king of both England and Faerie, and the most legendary magician of all. Eventually Strange's heedless pursuit of long-forgotten magic threatens to destroy not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything that he holds dear.

I first read this book back in 2010, but don't appear to have ever reviewed it (must have been before I reviewed pretty much everything I read). I remember being absolutely enchanted by it (which is nice, since it's all about magic), but I was also childless and had a lot more energy back in 2010. I know that several of my friends have tried to start it repeatedly and never managed to get very far into it, which makes sense, as it's written in the style of a rather dense Victorian novel, complete with footnotes, and it's an intimidatingly huge book (my paperback copy has over a thousand pages). This was my fantasy/sci-fi book club's selection for February, so I started listening to the audiobook, and about 20% of the way through realised that I neither had the time nor the patience to get through it in time for the meeting, so I gave it up. Luckily, several of the other members had gotten through the whole thing, and we also had an interesting comparative discussion about the book and the TV series (which I really do need to watch at some point.

DNF nr 2: Trelegemeproblemet (The Three-Body Problem) - Liu Cixin

Set against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

This was my book club's selection for August, and I really did valiantly try my very best to read it. I got the Norwegian translation at my local library (if the book is originally in Chinese, it feels like I should read it in my actual mother tongue, rather than translated into English). Science fiction is never going to be my favourite genre, although I keep finding exceptions that entertain and engage me. The type of sci-fi I like tends to be adventure-based, frequently things that could just as easily be some other kind of genre fiction (fantasy and/or romance) set in the future/space. This is very much not that sort of book. 

Obviously, it's set in China, so there's a lot of unfamiliar names to keep track of (this may sound racist, but I feel the same way when reading classical Russian novels - there are just so many names and pet names and sometimes the characters are referred to by their first names, sometimes by their surnames) and I got confused. Then there's the fact that a lot of the science fiction here is heavily science-based and it would probably help to have a much firmer grasp of physics than I do to really enjoy and appreciate it. The book also felt very male-dominated. 

I stuck with it for a full third of the book, with the date for the book club discussion looming nearer and nearer. In the end, I gave in and checked out a detailed plot synopsis online. I'd found the book really boring, and I found the book summary to be the same - it was quite clear that the book wasn't suddenly going to turn into something a lot more to my taste. I know this book is very critically acclaimed, that it's won a Hugo and a bunch of other awards. But I found it way too boring, and will never finish it, or its sequels.

DNF nr 3: Of Curses and Kisses - Sandhya Menon
Will the princess save the beast?

For Princess Jaya Rao, nothing is more important than family. When the loathsome Emerson clan steps up their centuries-old feud to target Jaya’s little sister, nothing will keep Jaya from exacting her revenge. Then Jaya finds out she’ll be attending the same elite boarding school as Grey Emerson, and it feels like the opportunity of a lifetime. She knows what she must do: Make Grey fall in love with her and break his heart. But much to Jaya’s annoyance, Grey’s brooding demeanor and lupine blue eyes have drawn her in. There’s simply no way she and her sworn enemy could find their fairy-tale ending…right?

His Lordship Grey Emerson is a misanthrope. Thanks to an ancient curse by a Rao matriarch, Grey knows he’s doomed once he turns eighteen. Sequestered away in the mountains at St. Rosetta’s International Academy, he’s lived an isolated existence—until Jaya Rao bursts into his life, but he can't shake the feeling that she’s hiding something. Something that might just have to do with the rose-shaped ruby pendant around her neck…

As the stars conspire to keep them apart, Jaya and Grey grapple with questions of love, loyalty, and whether it’s possible to write your own happy ending.

I really liked When Dimple Met Rishi and Menon's other YA romances have also been very favourably reviewed. So when I heard she was making something more fantasy inspired, and a Beauty and the Beast retelling set at a boarding school, it seemed like something I had to read. Sadly, a month and a half after starting it, I was only about 21% through it, because it just wasn't engaging me, and I had yet to care about a single character. Every time I picked it up and read one or two chapters, I kept being distracted by something else, and then it would be days or even weeks before I read anymore. In mid-October, I finally gave it up entirely.

I can see from Goodreads that I was by no means the only person who found the beginning slow and rather boring and the characters unremarkable. I just didn't care about any of them, or how the plot was going to develop and resolve. I may revisit the book at some point in the future, but it feels unlikely.

DNF nr 4: American Demon - Kim Harrison
What happens after you've saved the world? Well, if you're Rachel Mariana Morgan, witch-born demon, you quickly discover that something might have gone just a little bit wrong. That the very same acts you and your friends took to forge new powers may have released something bound by the old. With a rash of zombies, some strange new murders, and an exceedingly mysterious new demon in town, it will take everything Rachel has to counter this new threat to the world--and it may demand the sacrifice of what she holds most dear. 

Back in 2014, Kim Harrison seemingly ended her 13-book paranormal fantasy series The Hollows with The Witch With No Name. That was also back in the day when I'd be able to complete a double Cannonball by late September, rather than scrambling like a loon to get enough reviews in before the deadline on New Year's Eve. But back to the review, such as it is. Back in 2017, Harrison revisited her fantasy world with a prequel, The Turnfocusing on the disastrous event where all the supernatural beings in society actually came forward and revealed their existence to humanity. There were questions about whether she was planning other prequels, but going back and continuing the story about Rachel Morgan is what she seems to have decided to do instead.

I was happy enough with the ending of the original series and especially liked the "20 years after" epilogue, which showed how the characters ended up. In this new book, she seems to brush that off as being a strange dream, which immediately put my figurative hackles up, because I don't want that future to change. In theory, I'm very happy to have more books about Rachel, Jenks, Ivy, and the rest of this world, but only if Rachel stays with Trent. I don't need anyone else to come in and interfere with their hard-earned HEA. Hence, I was probably not in the right mindset to give this book the chance it deserved, and after weeks of listening to the audiobook and only progressing about 22% (it's never a good sign when I start more than one audiobook, splitting my attention). With this one, I will give it another try, sometime in 2021 - but Harrison had better not be messing with my headcanon.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

#CBR12 Book 102: "The Prince and the Dressmaker" by Jen Wang

Page count: 288 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Official book description:
Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:

Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride―or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia―the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances―one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family.

Sebastian has just turned sixteen. He wants to be a dutiful son and does his best to please his parents, but he really doesn't feel comfortable with all the match-making they're suddenly doing. He doesn't dare tell anyone that in the evenings, alone in his chambers, he likes dressing up in women's clothing. At his birthday ball, he sees a young, confident noblewoman wearing a very avant-garde dress. He knows what he needs to do.

Frances is a young seamstress, and about to lose her job. Instead of listening to the wishes of the noble lady PAYING for the dress she was making, she asked the young lady who would be wearing the outfit what she would like and designed a frock accordingly. It was unusual and shocking and her employer is furious. Luckily, as she's about to be shown the door, a tall gentleman arrives at the dress shop to enquire who made the dress in question, and discovers it was Frances. He offers her a huge sum of money to leave her job at the dressmaker's (not really a problem, as she was seconds away from being fired) and come work for an anonymous employer. While Frances is nervous, she doesn't really have any choice. 

During their first meeting, Frances' employer wants her to be blind-folded. Frances explains that she can't really fully do her job if she can't see who she's designing for, so her employer appears wearing a thick veil instead. However, some clumsiness and unfortunate timing means the veil is ripped off during the meeting, and her mystery employer is revealed to be none other than Prince Sebastian. He expects her to run off, disgusted, but instead, she is intrigued. She doesn't really care why he wants to wear or why, she just wants a chance to design some stunning and original outfits.

Sebastian starts going out at night, donning a wig and wearing Frances' amazing creations. He takes the name lady Crystallia and very rapidly becomes a fashion icon. Soon, Frances is seeing her creations recreated everywhere, but no one knows that she is the designer of the beautiful outfits and she has no chance of ever becoming famous and making a grand career as long as no one must connect the prince's personal dressmaker with lady Crystallia's creative modiste, lest they figure out lady Crystallia's true identity. 

One benefit of being strapped for time and needing to read things that I could get through quickly at the end of the year is that I've been able to read more of the comics/graphic novels on my TBR list, including this one. I saw some reviewers on Goodreads criticise the fact that it's never addressed as part of the story how Sebastian identifies. Are they trans, non-binary, or in some other way gender-fluid? Does Sebastian not want to get married because of his/their sexual orientation, or is it just that sixteen really is quite young to have a parade of young, accomplished ladies presented to you and be asked to make a choice that will impact the rest of your life. Sebastian's parents may not have started out as a love match (this is never addressed), but they clearly have an affectionate and strong partnership now and seem to be good role models to aspire towards in a relationship sense. As teenagers, many are still questioning and determining their true identities. Asking someone to decide who they're going to spend the rest of their life with at that age is unfair, whether the individual is straight or queer.

The story is lovely, sad in places, but ultimately very heart-warming. The art is absolutely stunning, and I'm glad the illustrations were in colour, so I could fully appreciate Frances' design genius in Crystallia's gorgeous outfits throughout. This is set in a sort of alternate turn of the century (the 19th to the 20th, that is, not 20th to the 21st), where royalty and noble titles are becoming a bit more obsolete, and modern inventions and department stores are beginning to emerge. It also seems to be a world in which royal parents are surprisingly accepting and progressive, given a bit of time to think and reflect.

My main complaint is that I wanted more romance - which is barely present at all! Whine, whine, whine. Still, it's a lovely story with amazing art. I'm glad this was one of the last things I read in this dreaded year.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover gives you a really nice impression of Jen Wang's art style in the book, with the silhouette of Lady Crystallia sort of looming over prince Sebastian and Frances. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read
 

#CBR12 Books 99-101: "Heartstopper, vol 1-3" by Alice Oseman

Total page count: 992 pages

Heartstopper, vol 1: 4.5 stars
Charlie, a highly-strung, openly gay over-thinker, and Nick, a cheerful, soft-hearted rugby player, meet at a British all-boys grammar school. Friendship blooms quickly, but could there be something more...?

Charlie Spring is in Year 10 at Truham Grammar School for Boys. The past year hasn't been too great, but at least he's not being bullied anymore. Nick Nelson is in Year 11 and on the school rugby team. He's heard a little about Charlie - the kid who was outed last year and bullied for a few months - but he's never had the opportunity to talk to him.
They quickly become friends, and soon Charlie is falling hard for Nick, even though he doesn't think he has a chance. But love works in surprising ways, and sometimes good things are waiting just around the corner...

For my birthday this year, my BFF Lydia (I miss you, babe!) sent me the first three volumes of Heartstopper, which I hadn't even heard of before, but have come to realise has become quite the big deal. Beginning as a web comic, where the author managed to kickstart enough funds to self-publish the first volume, she now has a publishing deal with Hachette UK. The comics are also available to read online in a number of places before they're collected in paperback. 

Charlie and Nick, the protagonists of Heartstopper, first appeared in one of Alice Oseman's YA novels, about Charlie's older sister. I'd not read anything by Oseman before now, but based on these sweet and heart-warming comics, I need to check out her YA fiction as well. 

Volume 1 of Heartstopper shows us Charlie and Nick at school and show us their growing friendship, which develops into mutual infatuation (although it takes a long time for the two to admit it to one another). Charlie seems to be the only openly gay pupil at his school and faced quite a lot of bullying when he was accidentally outed the previous school year. Now, he's not really being directly targeted but doesn't exactly feel confident. He keeps hooking up with Ben in secret but is starting to realise that Ben is just toying with him, and has no intention of leaving his girlfriend or coming out as bi. 

Charlie has a few close friends but isn't exactly popular. So he's rather wary when handsome Nick Nelson from the rugby team asks him to try out for the team. Apart from being a very fast runner, Charlie isn't exactly an athletic star, but he discovers that he's quite good at rugby, and the other boys on the team seem to accept him. Of course, Charlie's crush on Nick is pretty immediate, but Nick is straight and nothing can come of it, so he just pines in silence, occasionally venting to his friends. 

To begin with, Nick just really likes spending time with Charlie, but comes to realise that he's spending more and more time with the younger boy. He feels like he can be entirely himself in Charlie's company, something that isn't always the case in high school. They keep hanging out, mostly alone, and Nick needs to start re-assessing what he believed about himself and who he's attracted to.

This volume contains chapter 1 and 2 of Nick and Charlie's story, and ends in quite the cliffhanger.

Heartstopper, vol 2: 5 stars
Nick and Charlie are best friends. Nick knows Charlie's gay, and Charlie is sure that Nick isn't.

But love works in surprising ways, and Nick is discovering all kinds of things about his friends, his family ... and himself.

Heartstopper is about friendship, loyalty and mental illness. It encompasses all the small stories of Nick and Charlie's lives that together make up something larger, which speaks to all of us.

Thankfully, Lydia sent me all three volumes, so I could dive straight into the second one - no waiting. Charlie and Nick get over the confusion and awkwardness at the end of the first volume, and decide to see where things are going. Nick isn't really ready to openly admit to his same-sex attractions yet though, and Charlie is terrified that Nick might face anything like the bullying he himself did last year, so the boys agree to keep their relationship secret. 

Charlie's friends have noticed how much time he's spending with Nick, but since they don't know how far the relationship has actually developed, they're worried that Charlie is just torturing himself by spending lots of time with a straight boy he can never have. 

Heartstopper, vol 2 deals with Nick's realisation that he's probably not entirely straight, since all he wants to do is spend time with Charlie and kiss him constantly, to making peace with the idea of being bisexual and coming out to someone. Chapters 3 and 4 are even sweeter and this is an even more heart-warming volume than the first. 

Heartstopper, vol 3: 5 stars
In this volume we’ll see the Heartstopper gang go on a school trip to Paris! Not only are Nick and Charlie navigating a new city, but also telling more people about their relationship AND learning more about the challenges each other are facing in private…

Meanwhile Tao and Elle will face their feelings for each other, Tara and Darcy share more about their relationship origin story, and the teachers supervising the trip seem… rather close…?

Coming out is a gradual process. Just because Nick has told one family member that he's bisexual and Charlie's his boyfriend, doesn't mean that he's ready to be out to the whole world yet. Nevertheless, he and Charlie start gradually telling some of Charlie's friends. In this volume, which is one long chapter 5, the boys' school is going on a trip to Paris along with the neighbouring girls' school, where several of their friends go. Being limited to all-girls' or all-boys' rooms is a lot less of a problem if you're dating someone of the same gender as yourself. 

Charlie has held off telling his friend Tao about his relationship with Nick, mainly because he suspects the reason he was accidentally outed all over school a year ago is that Tao spoke a bit too loudly about him on one occasion, and the news spread from there. However, Tao is the last of the friend group to know Charlie and Nick's real relationship status, Charlie can't really keep the secret any longer. There is briefly some hurt feelings, but Tao is preoccupied with his own crush and fairly quickly forgives Charlie for keeping secrets. 

Charlie and Nick keep discovering new sides to the other, and Charlie confesses some of how difficult the time during his bullying was. He confesses to having self-harmed on occasion. Spending whole days in one another's company, Nick also starts noticing how little and how infrequently Charlie actually eats and begins to be concerned about his boyfriend. 

These comics are really well-told and drawn and the cast keeps being gradually expanded to include more of Nick and Charlie's friends and family members. The books are effortlessly diverse, both in terms of race, gender identity and sexual orientations. I don't know if Alice Oseman herself is queer or if she just does a lot of research, but she seems to write a very realistic and respectful depiction of what coming out gradually actually entails, as well as the trauma that can be caused by bullying and harassment. The teenagers depicted here feel very real, and behave in believable ways. I can see why this comic has become such a success.

Now that I'm all caught up, I'll have to wait for the release of volume 4, which isn't out until May. I guess I can check out some of Oseman's other books while I wait.

Judging the books by their cover: It took me quite some time to find an image featuring all three covers. I like that the boys are facing away in all three images and that you see how their relationship changes and develops over the course of the series, from platonic school friends with mutual crushes in the first one to a tentative couple in the second and more confident, open boyfriends in the third. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR12 Book 98: "Wrapped Up in You" by Talia Hibbert

Page count: 127 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
William Reid is nothing special, except for his billion-dollar acting career and his, you know, face. (Apparently, it’s a good one.) Winning ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ was nice, but this Christmas, he has more important goals in mind... like finally winning over his best friend’s little sister, the super-smart and kinda-scary Abbie Farrell.

When a blizzard leaves Will and Abbie alone at Grandma Farrell’s house (if bunking with 27 pets counts as ‘alone’), it’s the perfect opportunity to pull off a Christmas miracle. Convincing clever, frosty Abbie to give Will a chance will take more than mistletoe, but hiding his lifelong crush on her is no longer an option.

Will and Abbie have known each other since they were children. Will and Abbie's twin brother are best friends. It turns out that both Will and Abbie have been in love with each other since they were teens, but neither had the guts to tell the other. Will went off to become a big-time movie star in Hollywood, Abbie met and married someone else (and later went through a painful divorce with said someone).

It's been two years since they saw each other, as Abbie isolated herself after her divorce and didn't even come to family Christmas (yes, Will is basically honourary family by now). Will has quit acting and decided to move back to the UK. He has a plan for how he's going to woo and win Abbie. Abbie's brother thinks the plan is absolute rubbish (mainly because Will's plan has a timeline of a YEAR) and says he should just tell Abbie how he feels. It doesn't quite work out like that, but when the rest of the family are prevented from arriving as planned because of a snowstorm, at least they get more time alone together (especially because Abbie's grandmother keeps pushing them together every chance she gets).

Discovering Talia Hibbert is one of the things I'm grateful in 2020. I really liked Get a Life, Chloe Brown and I absolutely adored Take a Hint, Dani Brown. So when this Christmas novella was free on Kobo, it felt like a gift from the universe. Unsurprisingly, it was fun and well-written. There's not too much angst and the characters are grown-ups who really just need to talk to one another. Now I just need to start counting the days until the final Brown sisters novel comes out. 

Judging a book by its cover: There's certainly no doubt that this is a Christmas story, what with the tartan wrapping paper and the cheerful green background with snowflakes (I would totally wrap presents with either pattern, by the way). The body language of the two people also gives you an impression of the tension between Will and Abbie at the start of the story. 

Crossposted by Cannonball Read

#CBR12 Book 97: "Fangirl, the Manga: Vol 1" by Sam Maggs and Rainbow Rowell

Page count: 216 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Cath Avery thought she'd be sharing a room with her twin sister Wren when they went to college (isn't that the benefit of having a twin?), but her sister has cut her hair into a cute pixie cut and is looking forward to reinventing herself at college. She's already friends with her roommate and can't wait to move away from home and their anxious father.

Cath, on the other hand, is deeply outside of her comfort zone. Online, she's an undisputed queen, an incredibly prolific and popular fanfic writer. Her Simon Snow fanfics are read by thousands of people all over the world. Now she needs to get used to all sorts of new things, like how to talk to her intimidating, beautiful roommate or said roommate's charming and gregarious boyfriend. She's taking an advanced writer's class, even though she's just a freshman, and her professor is asking a lot of her. She needs to find the courage to actually go have a meal in the cafeteria. She should probably also find out why Wren is so determined to distance herself from her.

It can come as no secret to anyone who has read my reviews over the years that I'm an unashamed Rainbow Rowell fan. She's one of my favourite authors currently writing, and of all the books she's written, Fangirl is probably the one that speaks the most directly to me and mirrors much of my own early time at university. I have read the book four times and own it in audio, e-book and paperback. That book gave me Cath and Levi and Reagan, not to mention the first appearances of Simon and Baz (although I love Rowell's own versions, I'm not quite as fond of Gemma T. Leslie OR Cath's versions). 

So there really was no question that I needed to own and read the manga version, as well, cleverly adapted by Sam Maggs and illustrated throughout by the talented Gabi Nam. There was little doubt that I was going to like this a lot - unless massive amounts were altered, which of course is not the case. It's strange reading a story I know so well in a graphic format, but I think Nam has captured the characters really well. The similarities and huge differences between Cath and her twin Wren are especially well done. You can see that they are identical, yet they have such very individual looks. Reagan, Levi, and the various versions of Simon and Baz are also a lot of fun to see on the page.

My biggest gripe with this is that it was too short! The second part doesn't even have a release date yet and I'm not sure whether it's been confirmed how many volumes there will be (I suspect four because it's a pretty big book, but hoping for three - manga is expensive!). So now I'm going to have to be impatiently waiting for the next volumes of this, while I'm also pining away for the final Simon Snow book (out in July!)

Judging a book by its cover: I really love Gabi Nam's art throughout the manga, and this image of Cath just captures her so well. I also really like the warm, yellow colour of the background, not to mention the autumn leaves swirling around Cath. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR12 Book 96: "The Beast of Blackmore" by Milla Vane

Page count: 162 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Mala, sent on a quest by the goddess Vela, comes to Blackmoor to locate and tam the legendary Beast. She initially believes the beast to be a demonically possessed mammoth that plagues the area and is surprised when she instead discovers that it is the warrior Tavik, who she first met protecting a caravan of refugees from blood-thirsty revenants. 

Tavik is pretty much a broken man, who once foolishly defiled a temple of Vela and now believes that everything that happened since then is divine punishment. The goddess told him when the woman in red shows up, the end will be near. He has already had vivid dreams about Mala for several years and isn't entirely sure he isn't hallucinating when he first sees her. When he hears that Vela has ordered her to tame him, he is despondent, but he hadn't counted on what Mala considers taming to be. 

Maddek, the hero of A Heart of Blood and Wishes is cold, angry, and bull-headed, taking far too long to see what a precious gift he has in Yvenne. Tavik knows what a remarkable woman Mala is before they ever meet in person, as he's seen her in his dreams for years. He wanted to return to his home in Blackmoor with an army to kill the sorcerous warlord who ruled there and was instead captured, humiliated, and repeatedly raped and assaulted. When Mala approaches him after visiting the warlord, claiming she has been tasked with taming him, he cannot bear the thought. Instead, he discovers that Mala has no problem showing him both vulnerability and submission, in order to earn his trust. 

As a result, I liked this novella (which is technically a prequel to the whole series, first published in the Night Shift anthology and only published separately by Ms. Vane this summer) a lot more. In the first novel, I loved the world-building and pretty much everyone BUT Maddek (although even when I wanted him to snap out of it, I also understood the reasons for his rage and alpha idiocy). Here Mala and Tavik are equally compelling protagonists.

We get to see a different part of the large pre-historic world that Vane has created here. It's a harsh and brutal world, still reeling from the damages when the Big Bad, Anumith the Destroyer, swept the continent with his armies and left ruined cities and deeply scarred people in his wake. The warlord who rules in Blackmoor uses the same weapons as Anumith to subjugate the people he rules, and he clearly needs to be stopped. We also get a clearer impression of the goddess Vela and what might happen if those devoted to her quests fail to complete them (don't worry, all ends well, this is a romance, after all). 

I can see why the author chose a different pseudonym when writing these, they're very different from her previous novels as Meljean Brook, yet just as compelling. I'm excited to end the year reading the next full novel in the series. 

Judging a book by its cover: I genuinely don't know whether to roll my eyes or applaud these book covers. The barbarians are clearly dressed in random pieces of costuming in a modern photo studio. Still, they give the reader an idea of what the book is about, and isn't that the main purpose of a book cover?

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.
 

#CBR12 Book 95: "Just Listen" by Sarah Dessen

Page count: 396 pages
Audio book length: 11 hrs 46 mins
Rating: 4 stars

While Annabel Greene may star in the local department store's back to school commercial as "The girl who has everything", she returns to school utterly ostracised, after a summer spent alone, after a disastrous party late last term where everything changed for her.

When she runs into her former best friend Sophie, undisputed Queen Bee at their school, she is met with insults and sharp comments. When she thinks back to that one night when Sophie turned against her, she throws up. The only one she sees regularly now, not that they ever speak, is the mysterious Owen Armstrong, rumoured to have a serious temper, enough to have sent him on a stint to juvie.

Despite the fact that Annabel has gone from being one of the most popular girls in school to an utter outcast, she doesn't share any of this with her family. Nor does say anything to her mother about wanting to quit modelling, even though Annabel hasn't really enjoyed doing it for ages now. Annabel is the youngest of three, with both of her older sisters having very strong personalities. Annabel became the peacekeeper, the one who tells white lies and omits to share her own discomfort just so others won't ever feel hurt or uncomfortable. Her mother struggled with depression for a while, and Annabel is terrified that now that her sisters have both quit modelling, her mother will descend back into depression if Annabel too announces that she doesn't want to do it anymore. 

Annabel's eldest sister Kirsten is a waitress/hostess in New York and studies communication part-time. She briefly shared a flat with their middle sister, Whitney, who had a very successful run modelling in the Big Apple and developed an eating disorder that left her unconscious on the bathroom floor, her emaciated body having gone into shut down. Annabel was the one who found her. Now, months later, Whitney lives at home, carefully supervised by her parents and forced into a healthy eating regime and therapy she bristles against. Even if Annabel felt that she could talk about the things that have happened to her, she doesn't really have anyone to open up to.

Eventually, Owen and Annabell start chatting during their shared lunches, and Annabell is shocked to discover that Owen never lies and strives to be honest in all things. He's been through a lot of anger management and has learned to sift through the sort of polite deflections most people offer when they don't want to be put on the spot. Through her friendship with Owen, Annabel is forced to re-evaluate her own approach to life and especially truth-telling, and she keeps having her eyes opened to new experiences thanks to Owen's truly eclectic tastes in music. Being as open and honest as Owen is utterly terrifying, however, and Annabel is already shunned and reviled by pretty much everyone. How much worse would it be if people knew what actually happened at that party back in the spring?

Sarah Dessen was never part of my adolescent reading, mainly because she published her first novel in 1996, when I was in my first year of high school, but based on this book, and The Truth About Forever (both published after I had graduated with an M.A from the University of St. Andrews and was busy trying to support myself through call centre work upon my return to Norway), which I read back in 2018, I sort of wish they had been. It's clear why she is such a popular and well-loved writer, and her books feature interesting protagonists in serious and believable situations, who really need to work through issues, yet the books never feel patronising or sanctimonious, or the plots clich├ęd and predictable. Was it pretty obvious to the reader within a few chapters more or less what had happened at that party that drove a wedge between Annabel and Sophie? Yes, it was, but that's not what the story is really about, so it doesn't matter whether the reader is just waiting for much of the book to have it confirmed.

I suspect reading these books as a teenager is very different from reading them as a middle-aged teacher of secondary school kids. Yet I'm pretty sure that most discerning readers, no matter their age, will be aware that Sophie is an awful, toxic person and that while Annabel is miserable and very lonely at the start of the book, she is much better off without her former "friend".  As someone who has spent much of the last few years learning to be more open, honest, and assertive, I also had great sympathy for Annabel's conflict aversion and always trying to please people. It's still incredibly hard for me to ask for help or be honest about my feelings in situations where I'm uncomfortable, especially if I'm worried about hurting someone's feelings, or that they'll get angry and upset. Like Annabel, I tend to put everyone's needs before my own, and it takes time to reprogram that. 

Both of my Sarah Dessen books have been on my actual (digital) bookshelf since mid-2015, and on my TBR for much longer. I really need to explore more of her books now, but at least one benefit of discovering her this late is that there's a big back catalogue I can explore. 

Judging a book by its cover: Since this book was first published in 2006, this book has had a number of covers, some much more appealing than others. The cover my version has is clearly very geared towards teenage girls, with the pastel pink font with the author's name, as well as the sheet on the girl's bed. A girl intently listening to music is a very suitable choice of cover image, though, as Annabel really starts getting into music through her friendship with Owen. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read
 

#CBR12 Book 94: "A Dangerous Kind of Lady" by Mia Vincy

Page count: 362 pages
Audio book length: 11 hrs 41 mins
Rating: 4 stars

While this is the third novel Mia Vincy has published, and the second book chronologically in her Stanhope Abbey series, all the books work well on their own. She writes excellent historical romances, though, so you should check out all of them.

Arabella Larke has been promised to Guy Roth, the Marquess of Hardbury since they were both children. He's been off exploring the world for years and years, and Arabella has been able to put off any other offers of marriage because she claimed to be honouring this agreement. However, Hardbury has returned to England, and one of the first things he did was send a letter breaking the engagement. Arabella's father is sick of waiting for Arabella to find a husband and start producing heirs, so he promises to cast her off entirely if she doesn't accept the suit of Lord Sculthorpe, a wealthy baron, and lauded war hero. Since Sculthorpe's words and leers make Arabella's skin crawl, she is desperate to find a way to escape marriage to him.

At the Prince Regent's ball in his honour, Guy Roth finds himself reunited with his former betrothed after she schemes to get them literally tied together for a time. While they were growing up, Arabella was the only one who ever dared to properly challenge him and they had a very combative relationship. She always liked to brag about how she was going to be a Marchioness one day, and Guy isn't really surprised to discover that Arabella is now a haughty, proud, and very manipulative woman. She represents everything he fled England to escape, including his now-dead father's tyrannical control over Guy. He's convinced she's upset that she's lost her chance to become his wife, and refuses to listen to anything she suggests, even as he fights his attraction to her.

While Guy was away, defying his father's expectations, his sisters were put under the guardianship of one of his father's friends, Sir Walter Threadgold. Guy wants to find a nice, calm, charming wife, regain guardianship of his sisters and settle down into the family life he's always dreamed of. He just needs to prove that Sir Walter is mismanaging his sisters' money somehow, he just needs to find the proof.

Back before Guy left England, he fell in love with an unsuitable woman, who his father disapproved of. Arabella's current fiancee, Lord Sculthorpe, ended up seducing this woman, and when challenged to a fight by Guy left him beaten severely and humiliated. The lady in question ended up becoming one of London's most popular courtesans. Arabella, therefore, believed that Guy might want to aid her in getting revenge against Sculthorpe by pretending to still be engaged to Arabella (until she could sort out a more suitable husband for herself). To her dismay, he distances himself from schemes, manipulation, dishonesty, and skulduggery of any kind. Guy is all that is honourable and stalwart, which doesn't really help Arabella get out of the match with the creepy Lord Sculthorpe, who seems obsessed with her virginity and the fact that he will possess her once they're married.

While Guy may be honest, honourable, and not have a manipulative bone in his body, his life-long rivalry with Arabella means that he doesn't just toss her out when she shows up at his townhouse at midnight, demanding that he deflower her (she's determined to claim her virtue for herself, because she'll be damned if Sculthorpe gets it). He thinks it's yet another scheme to get him to marry her and wants to reject her, but instead, their strange battle of wills and wits ends up with Arabella having achieved her goal of getting deflowered, leaving Guy absolutely baffled when she then leaves and claims she's gotten all she needed from him.

As Guy still insists on believing the worst about her, and refusing to listen to a word she says about how his eldest sister Frederica is in trouble, Arabella takes matters into her own hands and makes sure her family invites the Threadgolds to their estate, so Guy's sisters are nearby and she can keep an eye on them. She's shocked to discover that her father has decided that rather than getting married in the spring, like she's first believed, he intends for her to marry Sculthorpe within the month. She has a lot less time to free herself than she believed but refuses to be told what to do by anyone. If only Guy would have agreed to the fake engagement plan, everything would be so much easier...

If there wasn't already a very famous romance novel (possibly THE most famous) called Pride and Prejudice, that would be an excellent alternate title for this book. Arabella's twin brother Oliver died when they were children, and her entire life since then, Arabella has tried with everything she has to be a worthy heir to her father, while only meeting coldness and disappointment. To the world at large, she appears arrogant, haughty, and overly proud, so incredibly guarded that only a very few know her true self. She's ambitious, independent, and incredibly intelligent, constantly strategising and plotting, but mostly to take care of others and make sure that her friends and the people of the estate she is due to inherit one day are safe and well. She's been raised by her mother to be strong, forthright, and outspoken and refuses to suffer fools. Unfortunately, this has made her very unattractive on the marriage mart, and she's never had a chance to flirt or charm and because of her father's coldness has convinced herself that she is impossible for any man to actually love. She plans to wed the eldest son at the neighbouring estate, so they can live in an amicable and mutually beneficial, yet passionless marriage.

If Arabella is the proud one, Guy is very much the prejudicial one. Growing up, he only ever saw the fiercely ambitious and deeply competitive Arabella, the only one who never let him win or get away with anything, and never seemed to bother being nice to him, even though she seemed very pleased about her future as his marchioness. Controlled in every aspect of his life by his domineering father, Guy as a young man tried everything he could to rebel, ending up with his eventually leaving the country, cut off from any funds, and having to make his own way in the world. The years away built him into a strong and independent man, and now he's one of the highest peers in the realm and a deeply sought after match and business partner. Guy was disgusted by all the underhanded deals his father kept making, and because his father always intended him to marry Arabella, he's determined to choose a bride for himself, someone preferably the complete opposite of what she has grown up to become.

Yet every time he and Arabella meet, he can't deny his physical attraction to her, and he finds arguing with her exhilarating. Everyone, from Arabella to his sister Freddie assures him that he will be bored witless if he marries a sweet, quiet, biddable, and well-behaved young lady as his wife, but it takes him a long time to listen. It also takes him quite a long time to see the truth of Arabella's character, not exactly helped by her tendency to mask her true feelings behind hauteur and pride and getting super prickly every time she feels vulnerable. She would rather Guy despise her than see her as weak and needy, so it takes the two quite a long time to find their happy ending, even as they keep giving into their passions and falling into each other's arms along the way.

I thought Lord Sculthorpe was a villain who could have been dispensed with much earlier in the story than he was, and that's one of the reasons I don't rate this book higher. On the other hand, Arabella's mother turned out to be a wonderful surprise and I wish she'd been present for more of the story. 

After three novels from Mia Vincy, all excellent, she's now achieved auto-buy status from me. I suspect the next book in the series may be about Arabella'a artist friend Juno, and the duke that she claims to be platonic friends with and nothing more. I can't wait.

Judging a book by its cover: Mia Vincy's romances all have these wonderful dreamy covers, where the edges seem to have been softened, all dominated by one particular colour. Arabella's cover gets to be in tones of purple, indigo, and violet - which happens to be some of my favourites. At one point in the novel, Arabella is compared to an expansive starry sky (I know, it's very romantic), so it seems appropriate that this cover looks like she's surrounded by dark evening clouds. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR12 Book 93: "How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories" by Holly Black

Page count: 200 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! Don't read this book, or review unless you've finished the entire trilogy of The Folk of the Air. The Cruel Prince is the place to start. 

This companion book, which I suspect would clock in at novella-length if you removed all the beautiful full-colour illustrations throughout by Rovina Cai, works as part prequel and part sequel to The Folk of the Air trilogy, as well as an alternate POV to several of the series' events, especially in The Cruel Prince, where Prince Cardan is possibly at his most loathsome.

In this book, told from Cardan's point of view, we see him and Jude as High King and Queen of Elfhame, riding to the mortal world to deal with a supernatural threat, while Cardan thinks back to several of the events in his life that brought him to such an unlikely place. We see him first as a feral, unwanted child in the palace stables, left to fend for himself and scramble for scraps, encountering a troll woman named Aslog and hearing her tell a story of a stone-hearted boy. This is only the first meeting between Cardan and Aslog, and with each encounter, the story is told, but changes subtly and takes on new meaning and moral. 

We also get to see how Cardan is given a place to live by his elder brother Balekin, and molded in his image, but at a terrible price. We find out how he and Nicasia, Princess of the Undersea become friends, and how they eventually join forces with the sadistic Valerian and wicked Locke, and terrorise all around them and give in to their worst excesses. Quite a lot of Cardan's antipathy and mistreatment of Jude is given some background, to explain some of why Cardan kept lashing out at the woman he would eventually fall for and marry.

For anyone who possibly gave up on the series after the first book, Prince Cardan of Elfhame might seem utterly irredeemable. He certainly did a lot of very dark, cruel, and f**ked up things and treated Jude, her twin sister and others absolutely appallingly. Even before this story, which attempts to show some of Cardan's side of things, it became obvious over the course of the series that Cardan was very much a victim of his upbringing and circumstances, and while a prince, really had possibly even less control of his life and destiny than Jude did. It's also important to remember that none of the faeries in Holly Black's fantasy world are kind and nice and cannot be held to human morality standards. They are all wicked, manipulative and untrustworthy and most consider humans utterly beneath them. Ensorcelling humans and forcing them into months or even years of slavelike servitude is entirely common-place, and trickery and deceit are in their nature. It's not surprising that Cardan saw the human girls being raised to believe themselves equal in rank and stature to true-born faeries as an affront and an insult, especially as they seemed to have a proud father and a loving home, something Cardan himself had never known.

Considering Cardan's upbringing, it's rather remarkable that he is able to change as much as he does over the course of the trilogy. It's also important to remember that his nemesis, the woman he eventually falls for and marries, is Jude Duarte, a fierce, bitter and combative girl whose upbringing was at the hands of one of Elfhame's most ruthless generals. Her most abiding childhood memory is of her foster father slaying her actual parents and taking her sisters and her away from the only home they'd ever known. While Jude is raised in a loving home of sorts, she is always very aware of how different she and her twin Taryn are from the fae, and while Taryn does her best to conform and fit in, Jude, always aware of her vulnerability and how helpless she is compared to the faeries, works to make herself stronger, cleverer and utterly defiant of all of them. Cardan's cruelty only makes her more determined to become unbeatable. At one point in this book, Cardan thinks "Jude wouldn’t have made a mistake like this, he is dead certain. She would have been on guard from the moment she entered the woods. No, that isn’t right. Jude is on guard every hour of every day of her life." That sums her up rather nicely.

I really like a good fairy tale, and the way the story of the stone-hearted boy changes with each retelling here was very well-done. For all that they both start out as rather horrible, neither Jude nor Cardan are ever boring characters and it was nice to spend some more time with them. Cardan and Jude's love story over the course of the series is a true enemies to lovers story that few storytellers actually ever manage to pull off, and this book just made it all the more clear why I should re-read the whole trilogy soon, seeing how the relationship develops now that I know where they end up. 

Judging a book by its cover: The cover, like the inside illustrations, is by Rovina Cai, who captures Cardan, Jude, and the other faery creatures wonderfully. I really like how this cover compliments the other three covers in the series, while also being different, because of the art style. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR12 Book 92: "Haunted Heroine" by Sarah Kuhn

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This is the fourth novel in the series Heroine Complex and this review may contain spoilers for earlier books in the series. I suspect it will also be a lot more satisfying for someone who's read the preceding three books. Begin with Heroine Complex

Official book description:
Everything in Evie Tanaka's life is finally perfect. As a badass superheroine, she defends San Francisco from demon invasion on the regular. Her relationships with superhero partner Aveda Jupiter, little sister Bea, and hot, half-demon husband Nate have never been stronger. Maybe it's possible for a grad school dropout turned put-upon personal assistant turned superhero to have it all?

As if things can't get any better, Evie learns she's pregnant. She's overjoyed, but also worried about whether she's cut out for motherhood. Before she can dwell on her dilemma too much, a women's college reports a string of mysterious "hauntings," and Evie and Aveda are called in to investigate. When the hauntings turn deadly, they decide to move into the dorms full-time, going undercover as grad students.

As she lives out a bizarre version of her grad school life, Evie can't help but wonder about the road not taken: what would her life be like if she'd stayed here instead of pursuing superheroing with Aveda?

Poor Evie is not having a fun time of it in this book. While she's excited about her pregnancy, she's also terrified. She was given strange superpowers through demonic energy and her husband is half-demon. Said husband is also completely on edge about Evie and super protective of her. He pretty much wants her wrapped in cotton wool until the baby is born, and to Evie's frustration, absolutely refuses to engage in anything resembling physical affection (so as not to elevate her blood pressure). Neither Evie nor Nate exactly had good parenting role models, and while Evie and her younger sister Bea now have a close and mutually supportive relationship, Evie is still feeling guilt and inadequacy in how she handled a lot of her responsibilities when she pretty much had to raise her teenage sister on her own. 

Aveda, on the other hand, is in full cheerleader mode and does whatever she can to support and encourage Evie. She's also the one who insists that she and Evie go back to Morgan College for a reunion. Evie doesn't feel like she belongs at a reunion, after all, she didn't graduate, but quit her degree, exhausted from juggling her studies and taking care of her sister. It's also the place where her powers first properly manifested, when she burned down the campus library in a rage, after finding her college professor boyfriend Richard cheating on her. No matter, Aveda won't take no for an answer, and once they're on campus, they discover that there may be some kind of malevolent supernatural activity there, actually harming the students. Morgan College has always had a reputation for ghosts, but only in brief and occasional appearances. Lately, there have been several harmful and dangerous encounters, and Aveda and Evie are asked to investigate.

Since Evie isn't all too happy with her husband, she agrees to go undercover with Aveda as grad students, which involves not only having to interact with her weaselly ex-boyfriend, Richard but to try out a very different student experience than she was ever able to first time around. 

While it's eventually sort of explained, Nate, Evie's one true love, really is a big dumb stupid for a lot of this book. He kind of makes up for it towards the end of the book, but it takes far too long, in my opinion. So anyone looking for a lot of romance is going to be disappointed, there's mostly angst and pregnancy worries here instead. 

There is, however, the new and much-improved friendship between Aveda Jupiter and Evie Tanaka. They have come a very long way from Evie being Aveda/Annie's long-suffering and put-upon assistant in book 1. With Bea away researching paranormal activities and only able to communicate with her sister long-distance, Aveda is Evie's staunchest supporter, and when Evie finally breaks down and confesses her worries and fears, does her best to put her mind at ease. She's also determined that Evie get to experience all the various college things she never got to do the first time around (except get blinding drunk, no alcohol while she's gestating). 

The two women also befriend several young women who are connected to the case of the malevolent hauntings, and older, stronger, and much more confident Evie gets a chance to finally confront her ex and tell him just how badly he treated her and how f**ked up the power dynamic of their relationship was. By the end of the book, Evie has exorcised a lot of personal demons and is in a much better place.

This book is the start of a new trilogy about the Jupiter/Tanaka superheroines, and it was a lot of fun revisiting this fantasy world again. I reiterate what I said at the beginning of this review, though, I would recommend not starting with this book, there is so much important back story about the various characters and their interpersonal relationships to learn about before reading this one. 

Judging a book by its cover: These books really have absolutely amazing cover art. All kudos to Jason Chan, the artist, for time after time knocking it out of the park with fun, creative, and very accurate ways in giving the reader a glimpse into what the book will feature. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

#CBR12 Book 91: "A Beastly Kind of Earl" by Mia Vincy

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 11 hrs 53 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Some years ago (I want to say three?), two noblemen lied at a ball and claimed to have slept with Miss Thea Knight. She was humiliated and scandalised and both family and high society rejected her. She's been living lonely in the country under an assumed name as a ladies' companion. Now she's pretending to be her younger sister at a house party, so said sister can run away to Gretna Green and marry her true love. She also plans to publish a pamphlet with the true story behind her supposed ruin, and hopefully restore her reputation. She just needs to figure out how to get enough money to pay for the pamphlet's publication.

Rafe Landcross, the reclusive Earl of Luxborough, is believed to have murdered his first wife. He also has unsightly facial scars after having been attacked by a jungle cat during an expedition in the Americas. Due to a provision in his mother's will, he needs to get married to claim a large sum of money, but he also doesn't actually want another wife. He learns about Thea Knight and her sister's deception and figures that marrying Thea, who is using a false name, is the perfect plan. If he pretends to believe that she is, in fact, her sister and they get married, he can later have the marriage annulled once he has the inheritance in hand. Thea, on her part, intends to spend as much of her new husband's money to buy items she can easily resell, and then leave him. 

So Thea (under her false name) marries Rafe, and goes with him to his big and somewhat spooky estate. Gruff and introverted Rafe tries not to be charmed by Thea's optimistic nature and natural charm, while she refuses to be scared off by his terrifying appearance or dark reputation. Of course they start falling for one another and both of their schemes are complicated. They come to realise that they share a common foe, however, and might do well to unite to defeat him. 

Thea and Rafe are a delightful couple, who both have sad experiences in their past (Rafe very much more so than Thea). He's also never allowed to relax and forget about his failures, thanks to his powerful father-in-law, who keeps paying actors all over the country to publicly accuse Rafe of witchcraft, dark arts and murder. Rafe bears the various actors no ill will, knowing that they're only trying to make money. He's even mostly learned to ignore them. Nevertheless, his first marriage was a tragic one and now he's convinced that he never deserves happiness again (yes, that old chestnut). He also can't imagine that anyone as lively and vibrant as Thea won't waste away and hate living secluded in the countryside with a grumpy man obsessed with botany. 

Thea has never gotten over the fact that the only people who believed her and stood by her when the scandal broke was her sister and her best friend, Arabella Larke (who will help her publish the pamphlet). Thea's status-obsessed parents washed their hands of her and have refused any contact with her, so as not to harm the marriage chances of their younger daughter. Throughout the book, it's obvious that Thea so desperately wants to get back into her parents' good graces, even though they were willing to turn their backs on her in her time of need. Happily, she realises that there are other ways of building a family throughout the book.

Part of the conflict in the story obviously comes from the fact that Thea and Rafe start their relationship on a lie. Thea believes she is fooling Rafe with her false identity, he's using her to get his inheritance. As they get closer, both suffer from not being able to tell each other the full truth. It also takes Rafe quite a while to work through all his angst and misplaced guilt, but when he does, he comes through beautifully. 

I don't want to spoil anything, but this is a romance, and there IS a happy ending. The way the various threads in the novels come together into the finale is beautiful, and I'm so glad that I discovered Mia Vincy's books this year. She's quickly moving into pre-order category for me. 

Judging a book by its cover: I wasn't a huge fan of the overwhelmingly pink cover on A Wicked Kind of Husband (which is chronologically set AFTER both this and A Dangerous Kind of Lady (not sure why that is). This, however, in a beautiful sunny, cheerful yellow seems to fit perfectly with Thea's general temper and personality. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

#CBR12 Book 90: "Sulwe" by Lupita Nyong'o and Vashti Harrison

Page count: 48 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Sulwe is the colour of midnight. Her mama is the colour of dawn, her father the colour of dusk and her little sister is the colour of high noon. Sulwe has darker skin than anyone in her family and pretty much everyone at school. While her little sister is given positive nicknames like 'ray' and 'sunshine', Sulwe is called 'darkie' and 'night'. This is obviously deeply hurtful to the little girl, who remains withdrawn and friendless. 

Sulwe tries a number of things to lighten her skin - she rubs herself with an eraser until her skin hurts, she steals her mother's makeup, she eats only light, pale-coloured foods (hoping to change herself from the inside out) and she prays earnestly to God to perform a miracle and lighten her skin so she'll look more like her sister. Sadly, the next day, Sulwe's skin is still as dark as before.

Sulwe's mother sees her daughter's sadness and reminds her that her name means 'star' and says: "Real beauty comes from your mind and heart, begin with how you see yourself, not how others see you." That night, as Sulwe is trying to sleep, a shooting star comes to her window and takes her on a magical journey. 

Sulwe learns the ancient story of sisters Day and Night, who lived together at the beginning of time. Night became sick of the people calling her unkind names and clearly preferring her sister Day to her, so she left and went away. After an extended period of only daylight, people came to understand just how much they had lost. Day searches for her sister and manages to persuade her to come back. The People rejoice because they now understand how much they need and cherish Night. "Some light can only be seen in the dark."

Sulwe wakes the next morning, happy and confident. She can always remember the lesson she learned from the fable by looking up at the starlit sky.

Lupita Nyong'o wrote this book, which is semi-autobiographical, to show young children that everyone is beautiful, just the way they are. In interviews, she's confessed that she too was called a number of unkind names and made to feel less pretty and beautiful than her lighter-skinned younger sister. Even more appallingly, it wasn't just children that made her feel ugly. At one point, a teacher asked her how she was ever going to find a husband, since the husband's skin is supposed to be darker than his wife, and Lupita's skin was already so very dark. The story of praying to God to have her skin lightened is based directly on her own childhood experiences.

Nyong'o wanted to shed a light on colorism, "the daughter of racism", as she refers to it. Now not only an award-winning actress, as well as a director and producer, but she can also add author to her accomplishments. She's also considered one of the most beautiful women in the world (rightly so), but it took her a long time to feel comfortable in her own skin. She wrote this book so young children can realise their own worth and beauty sooner. She's also mentioned that all the books and stories she read as a child featured light-skinned heroes and heroines with blond hair and blue eyes. "Being able to see yourself reflected in imaginative and aspirational material is so important because, I think as human beings, we see ourselves when we see ourselves in others." In Sulwe, little dark-skinned children can see themselves and hopefully realise they're not worth less because of the colour of their skin than anyone lighter-hued.

The entire book, which is short, moving, and very beautiful, is made even more breath-taking because of the illustrations throughout by Vashti Harrison. Especially the pages where Sulwe sees the story of Day and Night are gorgeous. 

Judging a book by its cover: Seriously, look at that stunning cover! Don't you just want to pick that little girl up and cuddle her and give her anything she wants in the entire world? Her luminous face, big eyes, and the way she's reaching up towards the reader. That the whole story is about how this gorgeous child feels ugly and worthless is heart-breaking. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 28 December 2020

#CBR12 Book 89: "Her Pretend Christmas Date" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 104 pages
Rating: 4 stars

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

Julie Tam's sister Charlotte is an engineer and has an outgoing and charming boyfriend, the guy who lived next door when they were young. She is everything their parents could want. Meanwhile, Julie works as a waitress in a Cider Bar and designs her own jewelry. She goes on a blind date with Tom Yeung, which starts out badly and ends even worse. Tom is a pharmacist, wears a tie on a first date, doesn't like eating tacos (because they're messy) and is way too strait-laced and uptight for Julie. Nevertheless, the next time she talks to her mother on the phone, she tells a little white lie, which keeps getting bigger. Now her parents want her to invite her boyfriend Tom to come home with her at Christmas. 

Tom is rather surprised when Julie contacts him again after their rather disastrous only date, and rather amused when she explains her dilemma. To her surprise, he accepts her proposal that he pose as her fake boyfriend over the holidays. Tom really likes Christmas and his parents are away, so he'd be spending it alone. Both of them are rather surprised when Julie's parents announce that they can share a room (where there is not only the one bed but it's a narrow twin at that). 

While Tom and Julie didn't exactly hit it off the first time they went out, they manage to pull off the fake dating charade rather well, making Julie's parents very happy indeed. The couple even manages to combine Tom's planning skills and precision and Julie's artistic flair into sculpting an excellent gingerbread house, winning one of Julie's parents' strange Christmas competitions, fuelling the rivalry between Charlotte and Julie. After a few days in close confines, Julie no longer thinks Tom is all that annoying and is trying her very best to tease him until he loses his closely-held control. The results are rather spectacular, and soon Julie wishes that her fake arrangement was reality.

This novella works fine as a standalone, but is also the third part in Jackie Lau's ongoing Cider Bar Sisters series. Charlotte's book (where she reunites with her childhood bestie Mike) is the second book and came out about a month and a half ago. So if you were to start with this story and get curious about how Charlotte and Mike became a couple, that's the place to look. This isn't the first time Ms. Lau has written a holiday novella involving fake dating either. The third story in her Holidays with the Wong series had the hero bringing home a fake girlfriend for Chinese New Years to avoid his parents' failed attempts at matchmaking. As these are romances, I'm sure it comes as no surprise at all both the novellas end with the fake relationship becoming something real. 

Writing a romance that takes place over a short space of time is always tricky, and I am not a fan of insta-love, but since Julie and Tom first meet quite a while before they actually spend Christmas together (on a blind date set up by Julie's best friend, who claims Julie and Tom are perfect for one another) and Julie spends a lot of time thinking of Tom (even if she makes up a heavily fictionalised version of him over the phone to her parents), it didn't feel that strange that their feelings developed quickly - especially if you think how intense family holidays can be. 

I really liked Julie as a supporting character in Charlotte's book and was so happy when I discovered she was getting a story of her own. She's very different from her sister and really suffers because she feels she can never live up to her parents' unrealistic expectations. During their first date, Julie's very strong reaction against Tom is in part specifically because he's so very much the sort of man her parents would want her to end up with, and she rebels against that and keeps reacting to thinks she assumes he thinks about her, rather than to things as they actually are. When she has more time with Tom, she sees that she was rather quick to draw conclusions and he's not at all the stuffy killjoy she initially imagined.

Tom is one of those deliciously buttoned up and proper heroes who become all the more fun once they let loose a little and allow themselves to give in to passion. While this is just a novella, there are still some really steamy scenes once Tom and Julie see past each other's differences and give into the attraction between them.

Pretty much my only complaint with this novella is that I wish it had been a bit longer. I enjoyed reading about Julie and Tom together and would have liked more time with them on the page. I suppose I shall just have to wait impatiently for the next full book in the series instead. Her Pretend Christmas Date is on sale now, and a quick and satisfying holiday read. 

Judging a book by its cover: This may be my favourite Jackie Lau cover so far. In fact, if I were to do some sort of rating involving the covers of the books I read this year, this could very well take top spot. I just love the cover model's incredibly grouchy facial expression, and the way he's glowering out at the reader, seeming very resentful about having to even exist. The best part is that Tom, the novella's hero really isn't very grumpy and grouchy at all, just a bit slow to loosen up and very fond of having things tidy and predictable. So it's not really even representative of the contents of the story, but I still love it.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read