Wednesday, 22 September 2021

#CBR13 Book 35: "Any Way the Wind Blows" by Rainbow Rowell

Page count: 579 pages
Audio book length: 15 hrs 3 mins
Rating: 5 stars

CBR Bingo: People 

Spoiler warning! This is book 3 in a trilogy, which wraps up a number of very important threads left dangling after the previous book. So after the brief plot summary, there WILL be spoilers in the review. If you are new to the wonderful world of Simon Snow (and Baz, and Penny and Agatha), the place to start is Carry On

This book starts pretty much immediately after our fearsome foursome (and Shepard)'s return from America to England. Simon, still in emotional turmoil after losing his magic and feeling like a burden to his friends, is given unexpected and very surprising news by Agatha's father, Doctor Wellbelove. He decides he wants to have his big dragon wings and tail surgically removed, and move out of his and Penelope's shared flat. He's done with the world of magic, which sadly also means being done with the love of his life, Baz.

Penelope would be devastated that her best friend is moving out and demanding his own space, but she's also distracted by her promise to help their new friend, non-magical Shepard, break free of his curse. However, when she tries to ask her mother for help, Professor Bunce (now headmaster of Watford) is appalled that Penny not only would reveal magical secrets to a "normal", but that she's brought him home to her family. Professor Bunce tries to wipe Shepard's memory (something he's thankfully immune to) and Penny is forced to realise that for once, it's up to her alone to solve the challenge, without help from either Simon or Baz.

Baz has to bail his aunt Fiona out of prison for having broken in at Watford and returns to his family in Oxford to find that his stepmother has left and his father is at his wit's end. His aunt Fiona claims that Daphne (his stepmother) has started following one of the NEW Chosen Ones, which piques Baz' curiosity. Of course, he's sidetracked from investigating when he returns to London to discover a note from Simon saying "he's sorry". After everything Baz and Simon have survived together, a break-up is not something Baz is going to accept without a fight.

Agatha's parents are glad to have her back from America, but as she hasn't actually told them anything of what happened to her there, they don't allow her a lot of time to wallow, giving her a job in her father's doctor's office instead. Rather intimidated by her father's intern, Agatha can't really say no when the forceful young woman insists she come along to Watford to care for the goats, who are scattered all over since Ebb Petty's tragic death over a year ago. Agatha is surprised to learn that apparently, the goats are essential to Watford's magical survival and while she was terrified of going back to the school where she experienced so many unpleasant things, taking care of goats is something she's good at. 

From this point on, there be spoilers. You have been warned!

When first reading Wayward Son, I was surprised to discover that it was, in fact, a bridging book, the second book in a completely unexpected trilogy. Considering how much I loved Carry On, the prospect of a THIRD book about my beloved characters was a very pleasant surprise. Of course, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and a number of other factors, it took Ms. Rowell some time to finish this last installment, but thankfully, for me at least, it was more than worth the wait.

While a whole load of plot threads were left dangling after the second book, which was by far the most difficult read of the three, as it explores PTSD, depression, grief and allows Rowell to explore what in the world the chosen ones do after the great confrontation/battle/conclusion they were destined for is over, and they're still alive. How do you continue to live your life and get a job and just stay alive, not to mention manage a romantic relationship after you believed yourself most likely to be dead before graduation?

In this book, a lot of thinking, angsting and road trip adventures have led Baz, Simon, Penny and Agatha back to England, where their pasts still affect them, try as they might to move on. Having had Penny and Simon and then Baz and Simon together for most of the first book, while the three of them were nearly inseparable in the second, Rowell now chooses to explore what happens to the hero's best friend, the plucky sidekick, when she's not at the hero's side. Penelope is on her own for much of this book, discovering that she can't really rely on her parents' help and with Baz and Simon being far too busy figuring out their relationship drama. The good news is, Penny is more than capable to manage things on her own. Frightfully so. The revelation that possibly some of the scrapes that she and Simon ended up with during their years at Watford being just as likely to have been initiated by her and her intense need to take over and control any situation was a nice touch. Penelope Bunce is a fearsome witch and she proves it to both herself and those around her in spades in this book. It's no wonder Shepard is completely head over heels for her. Considering how many ill-advised deals he keeps making with supernatural creatures, he really needs someone like her in his corner. 

My greatest worry when going into this book was obviously what was going to happen with Baz and Simon, who have gone through so much and love each other so desperately, but are completely hopeless about dealing with their emotions due to all their previous trauma. It was very encouraging to see Baz finally stand up for himself and realise that much as he adores Simon, he's not going to allow himself to be taken for granted, ignored, or simply left behind. A proper relationship requires work, and the work needs to be done by both parties involved. 

Simon finally gets the chance to have some independence, and while he initially believes that what he wants is to sever all ties to the magical community, it quickly becomes obvious that while he may no longer have the ability to do magic, he's entirely hopeless on his own. He slowly accepts that he's worthy of being loved and that he wants to prove that to himself and Baz. Both Simon and Baz seem to think that the other one is much better off without the other, and it's only when Simon actually tries to break it off, that they figure out what a terrible idea that actually is. So much of Simon's life has been defined by him being different from everyone else, not really belonging properly anywhere or with anyone. By the end of this book, it's thankfully clear to him that he not only has a loving and loyal boyfriend, a fierce BFF, but an extended family who are overjoyed to finally get to know him. 

I know Agatha is a character that Rowell always found challenging to write, but her point of view is so important in these books. Agatha never wanted to be the girlfriend of the Chosen One. She certainly didn't want to get kidnapped or face near-death experiences on a regular basis, just because of her connection to Simon Snow. Having tried to completely sever her ties to magic in the previous book, she seems to be more grateful to have the option to use magic in self-defense, but she's still looking for her place in the world, and it's obviously not with Simon, Baz, and Penny. Her growing friendship with Niamh and newfound affinity with the magical goats of Watford wasn't at all where I was expecting her character arc to go, but it worked out beautifully, and Agatha finding her peace at the end of the book was one of the most satisfying things I got out of it, to my own surprise. 

I tried to temper my expectations for this book, but it was still one of my most anticipated releases of 2021 and I'm not going to lie about how much I wanted and needed it to have a satisfying ending for my beloved characters. Your mileage may vary, but I was very happy with this book, and by the time of writing this review, have already read it twice (first devouring the e-book in less than 24 hours, then a more leisurely re-read by listening to the audio book). I understand why Ms. Rowell may consider herself done with these characters and this universe now, but will always hope for more stories about them at some point in the future. 

Judging a book by its cover: I chose this book for the "people" category of Bingo since it features Baz and Simon in yet another exciting action pose. Simon still has his big dragon wings and tail and Baz, freed from having to wear school uniforms, still dresses sharply as ever. I love the cover art by Simon Wada so much that I had to buy a new paperback edition of Carry On so it matched the rest of my books. 
 
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

#CBR13 Book 34: "Jeg hater å trene (I hate to exercise)" by Brita Zackari

Page count: 160 pages
Rating: 4 stars

It's frankly embarrassing how out of shape I am. At the time back in 2017 when I managed to get pregnant (thanks, modern science, IVF, and years of costly hormone treatments), I was pretty much walking an hour a day, swimming regularly, and occasionally going to various dance-based exercise classes at my local gym. 

Once the embryo that eventually became my son decided to implant and stick around, I got easily tired and out of breath fairly quickly (according to a colleague, this is how she figured out she was expecting her second child - she was suddenly out of breath walking up a hill that normally gave her no difficulties) and by the middle of my second trimester, my over-eager pelvic region made it impossible for me to walk without the aid of crutches for much of the rest of my pregnancy, which ended in a c-section where they removed my by then nearly ten-pound baby (he was by FAR the biggest infant in the maternity ward for the full five days we stayed in hospital), and I lost about 3 litres of blood due to complications (you really don't want to lose that much - even with the extra amount your body's produced to support the pregnancy). 

By the time my son was a toddler and I had more time to myself to possibly think about getting into shape again, Covid-19 arrived in Europe and by mid-March 2020, Norway went into a lockdown unlike anything we'd seen in modern times, not even during the German occupation during World War II. Which led to far too much time spent indoors, learning to make sourdough (I find it's far too faffy for my liking) and baking a LOT. So much baking. That needed to be eaten. No going out at all, for weeks on end. No trips abroad. Just binge-watching, remote schooling, cooking, baking, and eating. By the time the Norwegian government announced that they were opening up society a bit more, and expected students and teachers to go back to school, I had my first real (and extremely unpleasant) panic attack, leading to me being off work part-time for the rest of the school year. The school year of 2020-2021, which was difficult for everyone due to continued Covid-19 measures, was extra challenging for me, as I had a second minor breakdown, and had to spend much of the school year on part-time sick leave while working on reclaiming my mental health.

I know a lot of people go on about how exercise gives you healthy endorphins and it's a great thing to do while battling depression. It's not something I have ever found able to prioritise. By spring of this year, I was however pretty sick of how out of shape and sluggish I had become and based on some positive reviews, I picked up this book from the library, hoping to inspire myself to do SOMETHING to start getting back into shape. 

Brita Zackari is a Swedish ex-model, TV presenter, and the writer of this book - about how she absolutely and utterly hates exercising, how she first started dieting before she was ten, and how diets are the absolute worst thing you can do to your body, but the patriarchy and modern society pretty much brainwash us into thinking we need to be thinner and fitter and that diets are a way to achieve that. As she says in the book, female bodies very rarely get to just exist, without any preconceptions or expectations. The only time she felt exempt from this in her adult life was when she herself was pregnant, and she found it incredibly liberating. Her book is all about learning to love the way you are, no matter what size or age, and to focus on growing strong because while fat-shaming is a terrible thing, women should still aim to be strong and fit in whatever shape they are.

She includes helpful pictures and diagrams of very simple exercises that you can do in your own home if you so choose, or at the gym if that takes your fancy. One of the exercises is literally 15 reps of lie down on your back on the floor. Get up again as fast as you can. She also includes a six-week fitness plan, where week one is literally pack a gym bag if you do have a gym membership and think seriously about going sometime the week after. Also, do one single burpee. That's it, for the whole week. Some of the exercises, she suggests doing with a box of wine, if you don't want to go out and purchase an expensive kettlebell. Which is simple enough that really anyone can do it, and you don't really get to say that she sets unattainable goals.

The whole book is informative, self-deprecating, and very funny. It motivated me to sign up with the student gym again, mainly to get access to a pool whenever I want it (turns out you can totally join as a non-student, you just pay a higher monthly fee - which isn't really that much of a problem once you're no longer an impoverished student, but an honest to goodness adult with a steady income). Since mid-June, I've been swimming twice a week, and I feel a lot better about it. I've also started building my strength a bit, which is very necessary, as my three-and-a-half-year-old is large, energetic, and likes being thrown into the air and carried a lot. 

Judging a book by its cover: The book is full of mostly black-and-white photos of the author herself illustrating the various exercises and moves. While she may be a media personality, she appears very down to earth and I like that she's not made up to the nines, wearing spaceage fabrics or what have you, but just looks tired and sweaty, wearing an old tank top and some shorts.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

#CBR13 Book 33: "One Last Stop" by Casey McQuiston

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR13 Bingo: they/he/she (the author is non-binary and bisexual (and uses any pronouns) and the book features pretty much all iterations of the queer spectrum, I'm not sure there is a straight character of any significance in the whole book)

Official book description:
Cynical twenty-three-year old August doesn’t believe in much. She doesn’t believe in psychics, or easily forged friendships, or finding the kind of love they make movies about. And she certainly doesn’t believe her ragtag band of new roommates, her night shifts at a 24-hour pancake diner, or her daily subway commute full of electrical outages are going to change that.

But then, there’s Jane. Beautiful, impossible Jane.

All hard edges with a soft smile and swoopy hair and saving August’s day when she needed it most. The person August looks forward to seeing on the train every day. The one who makes her forget about the cities she lived in that never seemed to fit, and her fear of what happens when she finally graduates, and even her cold-case obsessed mother who won’t quite let her go. And when August realizes her subway crush is impossible in more ways than one—namely, displaced in time from the 1970s—she thinks maybe it’s time to start believing.

Casey McQuiston's debut novel, Red, White & Royal Blue, was probably my absolute favourite novel of 2019. It's still a massive comfort read for me. So obviously McQuiston's follow-up was eagerly anticipated. Nevertheless, publishing a second novel can be a massive undertaking, especially when your debut became such a huge and popular bestseller. Personally, while I liked One Last Stop, it took me much longer to get into the story and I doubt I'll be revisiting it as often as I have her first novel. 

In some ways, this book is a contemporary romance, albeit with a cast of pretty exclusively queer characters (August's mother seems to be straight, but she's a tertiary character at best). And then you add in the strange time loop phenomenon, with Jane stuck on the self-same subway train that August takes to college and work every day since the 1970s, without ever aging or changing in any way. Does this make the story science fiction? Magical realism? Fantasy? I can't really say, because apart from the rather big issue of a queer woman from the 1970s stuck on the New York subway for about fifty years, this book is all about figuring out who you are, finding your people (found family is a HUGE sub-plot in the book), discovering what you want and how to get it. Yet it also gives McQuiston the chance to show off all the meticulous research she's done on New York City and the history of the LGBTQ+ issues facing a lot of the inhabitants historically. 

Just as with Red, White & Royal Blue, the book is filled with wonderful characters, many of whom I'd love to read full books about (not you, August's Mum, you're a bit too obsessive for my tastes). August isn't as instantly likable as Alex and Henry and possibly because she's a bit more prickly as a protagonist, I wasn't as rapidly pulled into the story this time around. Reading about New York, especially since the Pandemic has made it impossible for us to go visit again, is never not going to be bittersweet, though. Once it becomes clear to August and her flatmates/adopted family that Jane is, in fact, a woman who existed in the 1970s and is still mysteriously on their local subway train, I was pretty much along for the whole ride (see what I did there, that's a clever play on words, that is).

Yet again, I'm sorry that corona fatigue, depression, and being a rather overwhelmed mother have made it impossible for me to review this in a timely fashion. McQuiston and the book deserve better. TL, DR: not as amazingly charming and easily devoured as Red, White & Royal Blue, but still very much worth your time. 

Judging a book by its cover: I'm sadly not as knowledgable about the various queer flags available nowadays, but I suspect the shades of light pink, rose and purple are a nod to both the bisexual flag and the lesbian flag since August is bi and Jane is a lesbian. I also like that she's gone with mainly pink covers for both of her novels now, this is a really cute one, and I can't wait to have both paperbacks next to one another on my shelf eventually. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

Saturday, 4 September 2021

#CBR13 Book 32: "Meddling Kids" by Edgar Cantero

Page count: 442 pages
Audio book length: 12 hrs 54 mins
Rating: 4 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Book Club (the July selection of my fantasy/sci-fi book club here in Oslo. I read it in early June)

Official book description:
The surviving members of a forgotten teenage detective club (and their dog) must reunite as broken adults to finally solve the terrifying case that ruined them all and sent the wrong man to prison. Scooby Doo and the gang never had to do this!

1990. The teen detectives once known as the Blyton Summer Detective Club (of Blyton Hills, a small mining town in the Zoinx River Valley in Oregon) are all grown up and haven t seen each other since their fateful, final case in 1977. Andy, the tomboy, is twenty-five and on the run, wanted in at least two states. Keri, one-time kid genius and budding biologist, is bartending in New York, working on a serious drinking problem. At least she s got Sean, an excitable Weimeraner descended from the original canine member of the team. Nate, the horror nerd, has spent the last thirteen years in and out of mental health institutions, and currently resides in an asylum in Arhkam, Massachusetts. The only friend he still sees is Peter, the handsome jock turned movie star. The problem is, Peter s been dead for years.
The time has come to uncover the source of their nightmares and return to where it all began in 1977. This time, it better not be a man in a mask. The real monsters are waiting.

Long-time readers of my reviews know that I'm not a huge fan of the horror genre. Luckily, this book is more in the vein of Stranger Things or Cabin in the Woods, a mix of comedy and horror that makes it a lot more palatable for me, even as I cringe occasionally. It doesn't hurt that Cantero, originally a Spanish novelist, in his first English novel has a way with language that really appealed to the language nerd in me, even as he occasionally described eldritch horrors in a little bit too much detail. This is also a book full of pop culture references, and for someone who read and re-read all of Enid Blyton's Famous Five novels at an early age and then graduated to Nancy Drew, there are a lot of fun nods, not just the place where the children used to meet up being called Blyton Hills (the dog is even called Tim!) I never really watched a lot of Scooby Doo, but the nods to this are also obvious.

This was the July selection of my local fantasy/sci-fi book club and I ended up listening to the audio. Kyla Garcia does a good job with the narration, which isn't always easy as the POV switches between all of our protagonists, as well as some supporting characters. The plot is action-packed and suitably creepy, with your teenage detective gang turned twenty-somethings with clear trauma responses to some of the bad stuff they experienced as adolescents. While some of them are reluctant, they go back to the place of their many childhood adventures to revisit their last big case, which is still haunting all of them in various ways. The town is no longer as idyllic as it once was, and it becomes clear that something sinister is indeed still lurking in the wilderness.

Yet again, I'm reviewing this far too long after finishing it to remember a lot of specific details, but the book has a fun cast of characters, some exciting and interesting twists, decent queer representation, a few jump scares, an excellent dog companion, some Lovecraftian monsters and kept me entertained throughout. The other members of my book club who finished the book also enjoyed it, but we agreed that it wasn't necessarily the deepest or most nuanced work of fiction we'd ever read. It's a fun, pop-culture infused read, and I'll keep my eye out for more of Cantero's English-language work. 

Judging a book by its cover: Occasionally, you can judge a book a bit by the cover. There are most certainly tentacly horrors from the deep featured in this novel, as well as a group of plucky protagonists with a lot of issues to work through. The bright neon colours are fun, as are the contents of this book. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday, 30 August 2021

#CBR13 Book 31: "Shifters in the Night" by Molly Harper

Page count: 300 pages
Audio book length: 6 hrs 43 mins
Rating: 3 stars

I was happily surprised when logging into Audible to discover that there was a new Mystic Bayou book out. Ever since a video went viral of a shifter going raging in a parking lot, the world at large has become aware that supernatural creatures exist and live among them. The existence of Mystic Bayou, a little southern town where humans and supernatural beings co-exist happily has also become public, and it's bringing in a lot more visitors, both through tourism and people who want to settle down in the town. 

Lea Doe is very good at her job, which involves getting affordable housing built in various locations. As a deer shifter, she has the ability to read most people and creatures' emotions, something that is extremely convenient when negotiating and trying to liaise with the locals in the various places New Ground Construction work. While her boss normally lets her run the show and mainly stays behind the scenes, he seems to be acting much stranger than usual in Mystic Bayou, and she's not sure she's happy with his more active (and interfering role). Luckily, the town officials, led by mayor Zed seem very pleased to welcome her and negotiate what the housing development should look like. This is good because Lea is unusually preoccupied with the mysterious man she met in the woods when running in her hind form upon her arrival in the town.

Jon Carmody has lived as a recluse for a long time. He's a selkie and used to be the only available mechanic in town. In his youth, he had a close encounter with a kraken which left him pretty badly scarred and this is the reason he's mainly kept to himself and had all his groceries and other necessities delivered to his house on the outskirts of Mystic Bayou. After his brother Will returned to town to become its resident doctor and settled down with the formidable Sonia Fong from the League of Interspecies Cooperation, he's been feeling more lonely. His brother keeps challenging Jon to push himself out of his comfort zone, to start interacting more directly with people again. 

Jon is very surprised to find a beautiful naked woman swimming on his property one evening, and can't really seem to get her out of his mind. He discovers that the beautiful woman is Lea Doe and despite his shyness and misgivings about his scars, he desperately wants to get to know her better. Will, Sonia and their other friends do what they can to arrange get-togethers where the two can meet up and circumstances also seem to keep throwing Lea and Jon together. 

I'm going to be entirely honest, by now, the plots of these books (all of which I read over a fairly short space of time MANY months ago) are all blending together a bit, and as such, I can't really entirely remember what I liked and didn't about this one. The ever-increasing group of supporting characters who now feel like the cast of some quirky Southern-set paranormal sitcom are still a delight, the main romance in this was perfectly fine, but nothing that now sticks in my mind two and a half months later. If you liked the rest of the series, and have Audible Plus, so the book is free, it's a fine way to while away a few hours. 

Judging a book by its cover: Not a huge fan. I'm guessing the characters are soaking wet on the cover because Jon is a selkie? Who knows. I don't think anyone is picking these books up because of the cover art. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday, 15 August 2021

#CBR13 Book 30: "Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake" by Alexis Hall

Page count: 449 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Libations (the whole setting of the book is a televised baking show, so there are a lot of both sweet and savoury baked treats in the story and featured on the cover)

Official book description:
Following the recipe is the key to a successful bake. Rosaline Palmer has always lived by those rules—well, except for when she dropped out of college to raise her daughter, Amelie. Now, with a paycheck as useful as greaseproof paper and a house crumbling faster than biscuits in tea, she’s teetering on the edge of financial disaster. But where there’s a whisk there’s a way . . . and Rosaline has just landed a spot on the nation’s most beloved baking show.

Winning the prize money would give her daughter the life she deserves—and Rosaline is determined to stick to the instructions. However, more than collapsing trifles stand between Rosaline and sweet, sweet victory.  Suave, well-educated, and parent-approved Alain Pope knows all the right moves to sweep her off her feet, but it’s shy electrician Harry Dobson who makes Rosaline question her long-held beliefs—about herself, her family, and her desires.

Rosaline fears falling for Harry is a guaranteed recipe for disaster. Yet as the competition—and the ovens—heat up, Rosaline starts to realize the most delicious bakes come from the heart.

I'm not the first Cannonballer to review this title, and I doubt I will be the last. Last year, I read and absolutely adored Hall's Boyfriend Material. It got me out of a reading slump and I loved both the two protagonists and all of the supporting cast around them. My rather high expectations of this book were somewhat tempered when fellow romance reviewer, Emmalita, read an ARC of the book and admitted to not being able to finish the novel. Naturally, that made me a bit wary, but the reasons she gave for not being comfortable with the contents are not things that necessarily upset me. 

Nevertheless, I went into the book with lowered expectations, and that might have been good because Rosaline Palmer is a very different book from Boyfriend Material. The first one is a straight-up romantic comedy, complete with a lot of the tropes we expect from that genre. In this book, there is absolutely romance, but the heroine does spend basically the whole first half of the book with the wrong guy, so to speak and the primary plotline in the book is more about Rosaline's journey of self-discovery and self-determination than it is about her finding lasting romance.

As a huge fan of the Great British Bake Off (or Great British Baking Show, as it is known in the US), the fake baking reality show, complete with esteemed judges, snarky hosts, foul-mouthed and ill-tempered producers and all manner of baking shenanigans was absolutely an added bonus. The fact that Hall is apparently going to write more Bake Off-inspired romances delights me to no end.  

One of Hall's strengths, I find, is how well he writes not only his protagonists but makes all the supporting characters feel real and essential as well. Rosaline's daughter could well have been an annoying plot moppet in less skilled hands (seriously, so many writers just don't know how to include realistic children, and should just refrain from including them in their books). Lauren, Rosaline's ex and now best friend was also great (as were the appearances of Lauren's current girlfriend when she occasionally popped up). The various other baking show contestants felt very real, and even Rosaline's demanding and occasionally overbearing parents felt very realistic. 

If you don't find self-centred, narcissistic, and emotionally manipulative love interests an instant turn-off (be assured that he is not Rosaline's HEA, and she gets a lovely guy when she just wakes up and stops second-guessing herself), and are OK with this romance being a lot more slow-burn than Oliver and Luc's, this is a fun book, especially for those of us who want more GBBO. 

Judging a book by its cover: Possibly in keeping with the central story of this book being Rosaline finding herself and discovering what she wants to do with her future, rather than the romance, this cover doesn't feature any male love interest, only our heroine herself, with a number of delicious baked goods and baking utensils floating in the air around her. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 9 August 2021

#CBR13 Book 29: "Neon Gods" by Katee Robert

Page count: 391 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Mythic (while this is pretty much a straight-up contemporary romance/erotica, the mythological influences are very much there throughout the book)

This book was granted to me as an ARC through NetGalley in return for an honest review. It's available now.

Persephone Dimitriou is a society darling, living in the lap of luxury in a stylish highrise in the city of Olympus. Her mother is Demeter, head of one of the thirteen ruling houses and while she seems to care for her four daughters, she clearly cares for ambition and power all the more. Persephone puts on a sunny and glamorous front and counts the days until she turns twenty-five when she will access her trust fund and bribe someone to get her out of Olympus forever. Imagine her shock when she is ambushed at a big society party with a public proposal from Zeus, heads of the thirteen houses himself (and a widower whose three previous wives all disappeared without a trace). Zeus makes Persephone's skin crawl and she leaves the party as soon as she's able, running away into the night to get away.

She finds herself chased by two of Zeus' henchmen towards the river Styx, the almost impossible to cross border between the glamourous upper city and the dark and neglected undercity. Utterly terrified, she forces herself to run across one of the few bridges, even as her feet are bleeding and her lungs are running out of air. A dark, mysterious stranger catches her and warns away her assailants, then bundles her up and literally carries her away to his home. The mystery man turns out to be none other than Hades, the believed to be dead scion of the thirteenth house. It's in the interest of the rulers of the other eleven houses (Hera doesn't rule her own house, that is the courtesy title that Zeus' wife holds) that Hades is kept as a shadowy sort of boogeyman, who only a few know of. He doesn't ever cross the river Styx to get to the upper city, they stay away from the lower city and his territory. 

Hades already hates Zeus with every fiber of his scarred being. The only survivor of a horrible fire that killed his parents when he was a child, Hades has been a ruler of his house since he was very young, and he's spent most of his time making sure that the inhabitants of the undercity are safe and protected, and that he has contingency plans for whatever the other members of the Thirteen might come up with to mess with his people. He never expected to bring pretty princess Persephone half frozen to death with bleeding feet into his kitchen, furious about being abducted one minute and proposing an alliance and a very tempting bargain the next morning. Persephone has figured out that Hades hates Zeus, and what better way to stay safe from him (and provoke him massively in the process) than by offering herself to Hades as his lover. If she makes sure she is publically associated with Hades for the last three months of winter until she turns twenty-five, she's pretty sure Zeus will consider her damaged goods and no longer wish to marry her. Hades gets a chance to thumb his nose at his greatest enemy by "stealing" that which Zeus considers his by right.

While Zeus always made Persephone feel deeply uncomfortable, Hades makes her feel safe and clearly means to protect her, even from her own worst impulses. He's not at all impressed with her refusal to rest and wait for her feet to heal or her tendency to go for days without proper meals when she's stressed or processing things. While Hades may have the public persona of some dark lord of the seedy underworld, he's clearly a deeply lonely, physically and emotionally scarred man who protects all those he feels responsible for be they the various inhabitants in lower Olympus, his loyal staff...or Persephone.

Having had to make sure to hide her observant nature and sharp intelligence behind a facade of a beautiful, vacuous socialite in the years since her mother ascended to the position of Demeter, Persephone is both surprised and delighted to be able to be herself around Hades, even when that means being intentionally provoking and baiting him. She was drawn to him from the moment she first fell into his arms and rather eager at the chance to share his passions, even the darker, more public expressions of his desires. She agrees to his dominance when they are in public, but finds herself treated fully as a valued equal when they are alone together. With each passing week, the time they have left together becomes shorter and both Persephone and Hades fall more and more hopelessly for one another. Persephone has risked everything, including possibly the safety of her three beloved sisters,  to find freedom away from Olympus - there is no future for her and Hades long term. Or is there?

I'd heard positive buzz about Neon Gods on various romance review sites, so jumped at the chance to get an ARC from Netgalley. As readers of my reviews know, while I probably still read more than most people I know (outside the Cannonballers, a huge amount of people who read WAY more than me), I am reading so much less than I have in previous years. I've already abandoned several reading challenges because I'm just never going to be able to keep up with them. I certainly wasn't expecting to pretty much devour this book in the space of fewer than 24 hours. The first few chapters are a bit slow and set up Persephone's desperate situation. Once she flees across the river Styx, however, I was utterly hooked and read far longer into the night than planned, and then ignored pretty much everything except seeing to the well-being of my child the following day. Luckily, at three and a half now, he is perfectly able to entertain himself for some amount of time, both inside and outside (I can read while he's building trains or digging in a sandbox) and since he doesn't usually get a lot of TV, an afternoon of Octonauts was a real treat for him. Sexy kissing book for Mummy, animated oceanography cartoon for him. Win-win. 

I know that Katee Robert has written a series of erotica featuring a whole bunch of Disney characters and their smexy interactions. I read the first one, featuring Jasmine and Jafar, last year, but never really cared all that much, even if the levels of steam were rather higher than I tend to find in my novels. This new series, called Dark Olympus is apparently set in another part of the same world. It's a contemporary romance, with a dark edge, and as someone who has always loved the Hades and Persephone myth, it was a lot of fun to see how Robert retold it. It doesn't hurt that I loved both Hades and Persephone, as individual characters and as a couple. They compliment each other beautifully and their chemistry is off the charts. 

The world-building that is established, with the glossy, celebrity-obsessed glitz of the upper Olympus, reminding me a bit of the description of the Capitol in The Hunger Games, without the televised fight to the death of a bunch of teenagers every year. There's still the ruthless, powerful rulers of the elite and a complete disconnect between the upper and lower city. In the lower city, Hades' domain, people seem to live much simpler, yet probably more rewarding lives, much of the old architecture is preserved and while the place is believed to be filled with thieves, bandits, and sexual perversion, it's mostly just full of folks minding their own business, all worshipping the ground Hades walks on since he's willing to do whatever it takes to keep them all safe. They all seem to welcome Persephone since it's obvious that she is great for Hades.

While all of Demeter's daughters have separate fathers, they are incredibly close and have each chosen their own way to survive in the spotlight of being a scion of a ruling house. Taking some liberties with the actual mythology, Robert has made Callisto, Psyche, Persephone, and Eurydice sisters in this world. The four women adore each other and feel very protective towards one another, so Persephone obviously has to keep her sisters updated about her whereabouts and the truth of her situation. I liked the close bonds between the women and will be interested to see where the series goes next (seems to be the story of Psyche and Eros, which has a lot of elements of one of my favourite fairy tales East of the Sun, West of the Moon, so I'm pretty much one-clicking as soon as the book becomes available for pre-order). 

This book has a compelling romance between a cheerful, sunshiny heroine who isn't always all that sunny and a seemingly very grumpy, but very caring and protective hero who both enjoy some kink as well as a lot of more regular smexy times. Both protagonists appear to be bi and think back to same-sex relationships they have had in the past. There are frolicking puppies and a secret greenhouse garden, a lot of banter, and a compelling story surrounding the main romance as well. 

If you like modern retellings in your romance, this is a really good one and worth checking out. 

Judging a book by its cover: Very fitting for a book about the king of the underworld, the cover is in dark blue and purple tones, with a throne-like leather armchair front and centre. Hades does in fact have a throne of sorts, and it sees some pretty steamy action over the course of the story. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

Sunday, 8 August 2021

#CBR13 Book 28: "The Professor Next Door" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 236 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Pandemic

This book was granted to me as an ARC from the author in return for an honest review. I had already pre-ordered the book, as Jackie Lau is now an auto-buy for me.

While this is technically the third entry in the Cider Bar Sisters series, each of the books in the series works perfectly well as a stand-alone. The first book in the series, Her Big City Neighbor is currently available free, however (as of me writing this), so if you're curious to try the series, that's probably the best place to start.

Nicole Louie-Edwards is very happy to be single and having casual sex with a number of eligible men. She has absolutely no wish to be saddled with a relationship and the one romantic relationship in her past (to a much older man) did not end well. She's getting a bit sick of her hook-ups letting her down gently once they've found someone they'd like to commit to, though, although she tells herself that's because it means she has to find a new bed partner. 

On her birthday, she gets trapped in the lift with her new neighbour, who she discovers is a geology professor. While the quiet, nerdy-looking man isn't Nicole's type at all, she's touched when he shows up on her doorstep with birthday cake, and they gradually develop a friendship while meeting up for weekly dinner, either at his or hers.

David Cho used to be married but divorced his wife once it became clear she was never going to take his side against her racist family. He didn't realise how thin some of the walls in the apartment building he recently moved into were until he started hearing his neighbour have sex through them, something she seems to do frequently, and with enthusiasm. While it embarrasses him, David can't deny getting turned on by the sounds and he starts fantasizing about his neighbour and what he'd do if he got to be the one to produce her passionate responses. When they get trapped in the elevator together and later develop a friendship he does his very best to hide this dirty secret, but eventually he feels he has to tell the truth. Rather than be shocked or put off, Nicole seems amused by the revelation. She correctly surmises that David would actually like to listen in while she has sex, and gives him explicit permission not just to do so, but to take matters into his own hands while doing so, so to speak.

It doesn't take long before Nicole's curiosity makes her invite David into her bedroom and is delighted to discover that while he's rather shy, respectful, and nerdy during their friendly dinners together, he's quite dominant and very creative in the bedroom. The sex is much hotter than anything either of them has had for ages, and their one-time hook-up soon becomes a regular thing. 

As most of Nicole's friends seem to be finding someone to settle down with, she becomes more restless about her own single status. She can't imagine that David would ever want an actual relationship with someone like her (despite all evidence to the contrary, with him plying her with amazing take-out and dessert every chance he gets and putting up with her meddling family without complaint). He even takes part in Tik-Tok videos with her eccentric grandmother. It's not until she cooks him home-cooked food when he's ill that she begins to wonder if her pants feelings for him have turned into something more all-encompassing.

A common denominator in Jackie Lau's romances tends to be strong friendships and familial ties, even if some of those families are more of the found than the biological variety. There will be amazing descriptions of all manner of delicious food (thanks to her books, I now really want to go to Toronto and just EAT. ALL. THE. THINGS!) and desserts. Her books are very sex-positive, and in this book, there are quite a lot more of the smexy times than in some of her others. There is, refreshingly, absolutely no slut-shaming of Nicole, from any of her partners, friends, or family members, although her family seems to be very eager for her to get a steady boyfriend. 

I'm really enjoying the continued exploration of the friend group who meets up at the Cider Bar and share their lives with one another. There is clearly something being set up with Nicole's friend Sierra and her super-rich boyfriend, but I assume that is set up for a future book. This is another book that managed to hold my attention and get me out of my ongoing reading slump for a little while. I finished it in less than 24 hours, a rarity for me these days. I highly recommend it. 

Judging a book by its cover: I'm always fond of a nerdy romance hero, especially one who proves to be a force to be reckoned with in the bedroom. Who doesn't love a bespectacled man reading a book? It's not exactly something you see too often on a romance novel, however, so well done, Jackie Lau.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR13 Book 27: "Ghost Squad" by Claribel A. Ortega

Page count: 288 pages
Audio book length: 5 hrs 31 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Lucely (pronounced Lu-sell-i, at least by the audio book narrator) Luna may be living alone with her father (her mother left them when Lucely was little) but due to an unusual family legacy, she's able to see the presence of all the family's departed members. Her father, who once had the gift, can only see them as fireflies but accepts that they're there and cooks massive meals to provide for all the extended members who keep Lucely company. The family spirits are all tied to the large tree in the family's backyard, so when a member of the bank comes and announces that if Lucely's dad can't cover his mortgage payments any longer, the family will be evicted, it doesn't just mean potential homelessness for Luna and her dad, but they'll be separated from the family spirits forever. 

Lucely really needs to figure out a way for her father's failing ghost tour business to get more customers and she and her best friend Syd are trying to wrack their brains. Halloween is coming up, and something sinister is brewing in the little town of St. Augustine, where they live. Lucely's grandmother delivers a very ominous warning to her granddaughter and then seems to fade away, her firefly lazy and lethargic. Lucely and Syd rummage through the secret collection of Syd's very alive and formidable grandmother, Babette (rumoured to be an actual witch). They find a spell that they hope will make Lucely's grandmother come back, but it turns out to be something a lot more sinister, and soon the girls are forced to come clean to Babette and enlist her help, and that of her cat Chunk, to reverse the spell and send the malevolent ghosts back where they came from - otherwise the town will be overrun on Halloween.

One of my goals for my seven-week-long summer vacation was that I was going to get on top of my massive review backlog. Now, here we are, with me starting work again tomorrow morning, reviewing books I read in the middle of May. I'm generally trying really hard to focus on the many things my husband and I have achieved during the holiday, while also both struggling with depression, corona-induced cabin fever, and the challenge of constantly entertaining and responsibly raising a boisterous three-year-old. So, not couning this one, there are still fifteen reviews left for me to do before I catch up. My memory of the finer plot points of this middle grade adventure novel, which I read as part of the CBR Book Club this spring, Young at Heart

I'm obviously not the main target audience for this book, but every time I read children's or middle grade books, I am struck by how much more diverse and imaginative they are than most of the ones I remember from my own adolescence. The official book description for this book tries to sell it as a sort of mix of Coco meets Ghostbusters, which as is often the case with these quick pitches is at least halfway misleading. There are a lot of Latinx family vibes in the story, absolutely, and there is absolutely a supernatural element, but the Ghostbusters side of the pitch is more accurate, if those busting the ghosts are two determined girls, an over-weight cat and a grandmother with a lot of arcane knowledge.

Family is a huge focus in the story. The Lunas may only have two living members, but the various ghost relatives who show up to support Lucely in different ways (even willing to risk their afterlife to fight bad ghosts with her) are great. We don't see much of her overworked father, but he clearly cares a lot about her. There's also the family you choose, Lucely's best friend Syd, and Babette, who not only has a house full of cats (all named for characters from The Goonies), but also may or may not be an actual dyed in the wool witch.

This book was fast-paced, adventurous and suitably creepy, I'm sure I would absolutely have adored it if I read it in my tweens. Almarie Guerra does a very good job with the narration, and I shall keep a look-out for her on future audio books.

Judging a book by its cover: I don't have a lot to say about this, except I love the art style and the depiction of the girls, not to mention Chunk, in all their (don't remember what gender the cat is) overweight glory. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday, 30 July 2021

#CBR13 Book 26: "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams

Page count: 208 pages
Audio book length: 5 hrs 51 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Machinery (space ships, the guide, Marvin - a lot of examples)

Arthur Dent wakes up one morning to discover his house is about to be bulldozed. He's very upset about it and goes to lie down in front of one of the bulldozers, so it can't knock down his house, but is interrupted by his friend Ford Prefect, who has some very important things to tell him, and very little time left to do so.

It turns out Ford Prefect is an alien who's been stuck on Earth for much longer than planned, but he's just gotten news that a large fleet of spaceships are coming to destroy the planet, and he plans to hitch a ride with one of the ships. Would Arthur like to come along? If he stays, certain death is guaranteed. Soon, a very befuddled Arthur is on board a Vogon ship, learning about aliens, Babelfish, why you should always travel with a towel, as well as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a small electronic record of everything cool and important there is to know about the universe.

Through a very strange coincidence, Ford and Arthur later find themselves onboard the most expensive ship in the galaxy, stolen by the charming, ne'er-do-well and current president of the galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox, accompanied by the lovely Trillian (born Tricia McMillan and someone Arthur once tried to pick up at a party). The ship is run by a probability engine and onboard is also Marvin, a paranoid and very depressed (and depressing) android. How did all these people come to be aboard the same ship, and why did Zaphod steal it in the first place?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was published in 1979 and is therefore only a few months younger than I am. It coincidentally means it (and I, who will probably have to do some sort of book-themed birthday party) turns 42 this year, which is pretty significant to anyone who has read the book. Frankly, because of the internet, I suspect a lot of people who have never encountered any version of this story (there's been an radio comedy, this novel, a BBC TV series, a stage show, a comic book, a computer game and the incredibly disappointing movie adaptation starring Martin Freeman, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel and Yasiin Bey) know that 42 is the answer to "life, the Universe and everything", without really knowing why exactly that is. 

This was one of the selections for the most recent CBR Book Clubs, Young at Heart. I can't actually remember how old I was when I first discovered Hitchhiker's, but I am pretty sure it was some time in secondary school, most likely 9th grade - so I was probably about 14, but may have been as young as 13. I don't really think I was all that proficient in reading in English before that (I was one of these strange children who never had to be told by a teacher or otherwise knowledgable grown-up that it's good to read in a foreign language when you're trying to improve your skills and vocabulary, I just nerdily figured it out for myself). Off I went to our local library and to begin with, I read children's books I'd already read in Norwegian (like Roald Dahl and the like), before graduating to more advanced book. FYI, Agatha Christie, whose books I devoured as a tween and teen, are terrible "learner's books" in English. She did not simplify her language one jot. 

I think it was one of the boys in my class who saw that I read a lot of fantasy who asked if I'd ever read Douglas Adams. I had not, but sought out the books (the first Norwegian translation of the book is AWFUL, I believe there is a much better one now that captures the wit and cleverness of the original) and was quickly won over. While thinking back to my early reading, in Norwegian and Swedish, and later English, I can think of so many different books and series that can be classified as fantasy, but I really think Douglas Adams' strange, creative, and very funny series (which sadly diminishes in quality sharply after book 3) was among the first sci-fi books I read. 

Having read the books, I later also watched the TV series and listened to the radio show. My husband still maintains that the audio show is the best, I can't remember enough details to confirm or deny. Nevertheless, when I first read these books, I loved them, and they were unlike anything I'd ever read before. Now, revisiting the first book at least 25 years later, it doesn't really impress me as much. Although the audio version I listened to was excellently narrated by Stephen Fry, I kept getting distracted by how often Adams uses adjectives like 'mind-boggling' and while the book will have been very revolutionary in 1979, we now basically all carry devices way more powerful and useful than The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in our pockets (as far as I could tell from the novel, the guide can't be used as a camera, music player, GPS or all-round entertainment device). Although, true story, for at least some of my early Nokia phones, when they had start-up screen messages, mine said "Don't Panic". So Adams' influence is strong. 

I'm glad I discovered and read the book in the early 1990s. I'm not sure it would impress a teenager reading it for the first time today as much. 

Judging a book by its cover: Obviously, a book that's been out for over forty years has had a large variety of covers. The one that accompanied my audio version was very similar to the one I have on my own bookshelf, which is in an omnibus edition collecting all five Douglas novels (I know there was a sixth novel post-humously completed by Eion Colfer, I choose to ignore that). I like the bubble letters and the grinning green alien. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

#CBR13 Book 25: "Hør Her'a!" (Listen here) by Gulraiz Sharif

Page count: 178 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Free (borrowed at the library)

Official book description:
It is summer vacation and fifteen-year-old Mahmoud is imagining long days on the bench outside his building with his friend, one-eyed Arif. This summer will be different, however, because the family is getting a visit from Uncle-ji from Pakistan and Mahmoud's job will be to show his uncle around. Uncle-ji is very surprised at what he sees in Norway, and what is going on with Ali, Mahmoud's little brother, who is not behaving the way boys should? Over the course of the summer vacation, Mahmoud will be tested both as a brother and son in a Pakistani family. 

Mahmoud lives in a large high rise in the east of Oslo (from his descriptions, I'm going to guess it's very near where I myself live), where the majority of the population are first, second and third-generation immigrants. He describes the strict, overworked fathers, the worried, loudly gossiping mothers, and his wishes to just take it easy over the summer until school starts again. No such luck. His father's elder brother is coming to visit them from Pakistan, leading his mother into a cleaning, cooking, and baking frenzy to prove that she is a worthy wife (something her in-laws don't seem to believe). Mahmoud's father is a taxi driver and since he doesn't have the time to show his brother the sights of Norway's capital, Mahmoud is given the job, very much against his wishes.

Mahmoud's uncle clearly comes from a very traditional Pakistani background, and initially seems very taken aback by the liberal views and attitudes of Norwegians, even those of foreign descent. As the weeks pass, he seems rather seduced by the country, though, and keeps asking Mahmoud what it would take for him to be able to move there (as Mahmoud says, with the current rather strict immigration policies towards brown people, it's not likely to happen). While Mahmoud resents his given task, to begin with, he comes to enjoy the various outings he can drag his uncle along to. He also discovers that Uncle-ji may not be as strict and conservative as he appeared at first.

Which is a good thing, because it's becoming more and more clear that Mahmoud's little brother Ali isn't like all of the other boys his age. He mostly wants to play dress-up with his mother's clothes and experiment with make-up, and could there be a different reason he loves his Disney Princess dolls than the fact that he sort of fancies the way they look? Mahmoud's father will not tolerate anything but traditional masculine behaviours from his two sons, so a worried Mahmoud, aided by his mother, tries to cover up Ali's actions as much as possible. But it's proving to be more challenging than Mahmoud was prepared for and his little brother is clearly miserable. What's a guy to do?

I really don't read a lot of Norwegian (which is absurd, as I teach it every year), and when I do, it's usually a book that is relevant to my teaching in some way. This book, which has become a bestselling publishing sensation had me laughing out loud so hard I nearly fell off the sofa within its first few pages, because Mahmoud, our narrator is a very funny guy and has a very honest view of what he feels about Norwegian society, the way he is treated as compared to those born in Norway with white skin and a Scandinavian-sounding name. He also keeps speaking directly to conservative politicians like our current prime minister, Erna Solberg, to offer his opinions about her politics (he's not a huge fan). 

I didn't actually know all that much about the novel before picking it up at the library. I thought it was just going to be a rather humorous tale about a minority background youth growing up in the east of Oslo, and by all means, it is that. I was not prepared for the fairy serious LGBTQIA-heavy subplot that emerges and is dealt with in such a sensitive and insightful (as it appears to me, certainly) way. There is a high chance that we will be using this book as part of our curriculum in 10th grade next year, and if so, I'm really looking forward to teaching it. 

Judging a book by its cover: Considering that this is a YA novel written by a minority background Norwegian immigrant, which seems to be targeting teenage boys as part of its core audience, I'm surprised at how unassuming and neutral the book cover they've chosen for this is. I suspect the rather plain mono-coloured background with a picture of a high rise is in part inspired by the most successful "immigrant narrative" in Norway in the last decade, Tante Ulrikkes vei. There are a lot of similarities, but as someone who teaches teenagers, the majority of whom happen to be of the boy variety at the moment, I'm pretty sure none of them would voluntarily pick this book up because of the cover. This seems like a missed opportunity by the publishers, really. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read 

#CBR13 Book 24: "Broken (in the best possible way)" by Jenny Lawson

Page count: 288 pages
Audio book length: 8 hrs 18 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Rep (features honest and sometimes graphic descriptions of life with a variety of mental and chronic illnesses)
 
It's no secret that Jenny Lawson, known online and to her followers as The Bloggess, suffers from a large number of ailments, both physical and mental. She has dealt with various kinds of chronic illness throughout her life and manages to be mostly very light-hearted and humourous about it. 

I chose to get this book in audio, because Jenny Lawson narrates her own books, and hearing her voice talk about all these frequently absurd, yet also occasionally absolutely heart-breaking things makes me feel closer to her. Due to the pandemic, this book was recorded in a closet in her house that she turned into a recording booth, which led to its own challenges, mainly that her cats didn't necessarily want to give her privacy while recording. At least a few places, the mews have been left in the finished book.

In contrast to her previous two books, I found this one a bit slow to get into. She also covers some really rather serious topics, and lets her readers in on some of the 'secrets' of a long-lasting and successful marriage, when one of the partners has as many health considerations as Ms. Lawson does. She is very honest about the tolls her depression takes on herself and those close to her, and one of the most affecting parts of the book is her open letter to her insurance company, literally begging them to fund essential life-improving treatments for her. As Ms. Lawson points out, in many cases, she's privileged enough to be able to afford some of them, but the vast majority of Americans cannot, and in a lot of cases, this can literally lead to deaths. 

As I'm currently struggling with anxiety and depression as well, reading about Ms. Lawson's stuggles certainly puts things into perspective. My depression is (hopefully) a passing thing, which will get better with medication and therapy. I'm never going to have to resort to ketamine injections or transcranial magnetic stimulation to live a halfway normal life. Jenny Lawson has shared a lot of her life with readers already, not only on her blog, but in two previous memoirs, Let's Pretend This Never Happened and Furiously HappyBoth are highly recommended. However, if you read either or both of these before, and they didn't appeal to you, this book won't either. 

Judging a book by its cover: With her third book, Jenny Lawson wanted to do something different with the cover, and the very talented Omar Rayyan turned a photo where she's holding one of her many cats into this brilliant depiction of her and the monster that I think is supposed to symbolise her depression and/or chronic illness. Or possibly just the weirdness that is her life. Either way, I love it. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday, 26 July 2021

#CBR13 Books 22-23: "Eg snakkar om det heile tida" by Camara Lundestad Joof and "Ikkje ver redd sånne som meg" by Sumaya Jirde Ali

Eg snakkar om det heile tida (I talk about it all the time)
Page count: 94 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Official book description:
I call a friend. 
Did the man in the bar call me a black b*tch when I didn't want to give him my number? That time we had arranged to drink beer, but we drank tequila instead?
She goes quiet.
No. He called you the n-word.
Thank you, I say. Thank you for remembering.

I talk about it all the time is a witness statement, an appeal and a personal examination. Camara Lundestad Joof is born in Norway, with a Norwegian mother and Gambian father. This book describes how the racism she constantly experiences infects her everyday life and controls her thoughts. She searches her memories. What if she remembers something incorrectly, how will anyone believe her? How many details do you have to remember to seem credible? Does she believe in herself? And can she ever be free of the question of skin colour?

Ms. Joof is a stage performer and dramatist who works with documentary stage shows and deals with intersectionality, de-colonialism, and the criticism of common societal norms. While she is born and raised in Norway, and her mother is Norwegian, she has faced absolutely staggering acts of racism for much of her life. This short work of non-fiction is a series of short vignettes, some only a paragraph or two long, some covering a few pages, where she gives the reader insight into only a selection of all the 
insults, slurs, prejudice and micro-aggressions she faces on a daily basis.

I read this essay collection as part of my job, as we Norwegian teachers were looking for short and engaging texts in "nynorsk", a written variant of Norwegian that secondary and high school kids here are required to learn. For those students who don't live in one of the geographical areas where the language variant is the majority written language, there tends to be a lot of complaints and grumbling, and getting the pupils motivated to learn and write gets harder with each passing year, as English becomes more and more dominant in society. Nevertheless, the excerpts we used from this collection certainly sparked a lot of discussions, and also gave a lot of our minority background kids a chance to talk about difficult and unpleasant experiences they, friends or family members have faced over the course of their young lives. 

While I was able to borrow this book for free through the school, I bought my own copy, as I was deeply affected by Ms. Joof's words and her understandable anger, sense of despair and just disappointment that despite not ever wanting to, she keeps having to "talk about" new racist and prejudical experiences all the time. While Norway is a wonderful place to live in many ways, we have a long way to go when it comes to dealing with racism.

Ikkje ver redd sånne som meg
 (Don't be afraid of people like me)
Page count: 92 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Official book description: 
"It's only now, as a twenty-year-old, that I understand how crushing the 22nd of July was to me. To my identity. I was thirteen years old, and I did not escape the political. I carried it with my entire being"

Sumaya Jirde Ali came to Bodø (in the North of Norway) as a child and was treated like everyone else, she felt that she belonged. In this book she recounts the carefree days of her childhood. She tells about the schock when she heard about the terrorist attack in Oslo on the 22nd of July 2011 and what it did to change her self image and beliefs about belonging. She describes the feelings of shame and self contempt, of becoming dehumanised, and the need to belong. We also get insights into what she does to counteract hate, keep her spirits up and stand up for what she believes. 

I read this back in April (yup, that's how far behind I am on my reviews right now) and it feels very strange to review only a few days after the tenth anniversary of the terrible tragedy that features so prominently in this little book. As a teenager, Ms. Ali, whether she wanted to or not, was forced to face up to the knowledge that Anders Bering Breivik, the white supremacist who ended up killing a total of 77 (8 with a bomb in the centre of the Oslo government district, 69 at Utøya, a small island where the Labour Party Youth Association were having their annual summer camp) did it because he believed it was wrong for Norway to accept immigrants like her and others like her. While this horrific terrorist attack was so shocking and devastating to the Norwegian public, this book highlights how much worse it must have been for people with an immigrant background. Ms. Ali came to Norway as a young child, her family were refugees, she didn't ask to move here. However, after the events in July 2011, despite a relatively idyllic childhood in the North of Norway, she very much did not want to stay here. She had terrible guilt, just because of her immigrant status and the colour of her skin. 
 
As someone not directly affected by the terrorist attack, it's staggering to me how many people had their lives irrevocably changed by it, and still deal with the aftermath. Ms. Ali eventually accepted that her family were not going to listen to her pleas about moving back to Somalia, and got involved in public debates and tried to make a difference with her life - which sadly has led to her facing a lot of harassment in public and online. Like Ms. Joof, she's had to have police protection on occasion, and she admits to now having several mental health issues, anxiety among them, because of all the verbal persecution she has faced. 

Both of these books are short essay collections as part of a series called Norsk Røyndom, which translates as Norwegian secrets. The series asked a number of prominent members of society from a number of minority and discriminated groups to write and tell their stories. As well as these books about racism and racial harassment, there are books covering disability, LGBT+ issues, religion in modern society and other kinds of otherness in Norway today. It's a very informative and interesting project and I suspect I will seek out more after seeing the high quality of these two books. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday, 23 July 2021

#CBR13 Books 16-21: "Mystic Bayou series" by Molly Harper

CBR13 Bingo: Home (so many of the various characters come from very unstable family backgrounds and are only too happy to settle in Mystic Bayou, having finally find somewhere they can properly call home)

This is going to be a bulk review for the first six stories (four novels, two novellas) in the Mystic Bayou paranormal romance series by Molly Harper. I listened to all the books in audio, as they are available as part of the Audible Plus catalogue. Considering that I already pay quite a lot for that one credit a month, you'd best believe I jumped at the chance of getting all these extra audiobooks as a bonus. I also just discovered that there is a new book in the series, that was released earlier this week, so I know what one of my next listens is going to be.

I'll write a short plot summary of each of the stories, then do a sort of joint review of the series as a whole. 

Every story in the series is narrated by the same people, Jonathan Davis and Amanda Ronconi. This is a series of interconnected stories, all set in the same town, but starring different couples in each new installment. While at first, I thought it might be strange, the narrators mostly manage the various roles really well, different accents and personalities of the various characters included. It also means that the continuity throughout the series, where the protagonists from earlier books pretty much make up the core supporting cast. I was especially fond of the portrayal of the town's large and burly bear shifter mayor, and glad his accent and voice remained consistent throughout.

How to Date Your Dragon
Page count: 248 pages
Audio book length: 6 hrs 24 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Doctor Jillian Ramsey is preparing for her first field assignment in South America for the League of Interspecies Cooperation (a secret government body making sure that the existence of any and all supernatural creatures stays hidden from humanity in general) when she is suddenly told she's being sent to a small town in Louisiana instead. Mystic Bayou is a small town where the residents mostly keep to themselves, but it's very unusual in that supernatural creatures and humans live openly side by side without any major conflicts and even frequently inter-marry. The League knows full well that the truth about the supernatural will come out eventually, and want Jillian to write a research report on what exactly works and how the locals interact with one another, to use as a guide when some supernatural finally get themselves caught on camera in such a way that the wider world figures out that all the things that go bump in the night also live among them. 

Having prepared to only study one tribe of South American supernaturals, Jillian feels a bit unprepared to meet a small town full of all kinds of beings, but since she thrives on research and loves observing new places and meeting new people. She's rather overwhelmed by the hearty welcome she gets from the outgoing and very loud mayor, Zed Barron, a bear shifter, but rather more intrigued by his best friend, the more guarded and almost hostile sheriff, Bael Boone. She also can't figure out what kind of supernatural being Bael is (it's terribly rude to ask a supernatural about this), to the amusement of Zed and many other of the townsfolk (no points for guessing what he actually is, considering the title of the book).

Part of the reason there are so many supernaturals in Mystic Bayou and the surrounding area is a mysterious rift in the swamp, which seems to call to them and draw them towards the area. Recently, however, the rift seems to be changing, growing bigger and more overpowering. It also seems to not only cause supernatural babies to be born in fully human families, but also change the DNA of humans in the area, so they suddenly become supernatural creatures. As well as writing her report, Jillian tries to figure out what in the world could be causing this, by interviewing as many of the affected individuals as possible. 

While Jillian is pretty much adopted by Zed and his formidable Mama, it's Bael she keeps feeling drawn towards. While he keeps her at a distance initially, it's clear that the attraction is mutual, and once dead bodies start appearing among several of the people Jillian has been interviewing, Bael gets mighty protective, while also trying to figure out what links the serial killings to the anthropologist. 


Love and Other Wild Things 
Page count: 300 pages
Audio book length: 6 hrs 41 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Energy witch Danica "Dani" Teal is sent by the League to investigate the strange energy rift in Mystic Bayou that seems to keep expanding and is causing more supernatural babies to be born to regular humans, not to mention humans transforming into various shifters unexpectedly. She can see and manipulate energy and needs the commission she'll earn on the job to help pay off the debts on her grandparents' farm. Dani's irresponsible and shiftless father tricked her vulnerable grandmother into taking up loans at multiple banks, before running off somewhere, possibly India. Dani's grandfather, cousin, and herself didn't discover the truth until after her grandmother's death.

Dani easily strikes up a friendship with Jillian and has instant chemistry with the Mystic Bayou mayor, the large and enthusiastic bear-shifter Zed. Because of Dani's complicated past and family history, she really isn't looking for anything permanent, she just wants to do her job for the League and move on. Yet when she starts properly examining the energy flowing from the rift, she discovers that someone or something seems to be manipulating the strange portal, trying to open it wider and undoing all the work Dani puts in. This individual seems to also want to get Dani out of the way. Luckily, Zed isn't about to let anything harm the woman he's fallen for.  

Even Tree Nymphs Get the Blues
Page count: 106 pages
Audio book length: 3 hrs 3 mins
Rating: 3 stars

Ingrid Asher is a solitary Norwegian tree nymph intent on setting up her own dairy and ice cream production in the little town of Mystic Bayou. Having a very negative romantic encounter in her past, which she and her tree barely survived, she certainly isn't looking for romance. 

Rob Aspern, head of the League of Interspecies Cooperation's data science department is pretty literally stunned when he first encounters the beautiful Ingrid (she can control the trees in her vicinity and uses them well when it comes to defending her territory). He absolutely respects her need for privacy and independence, but they keep running into one another and their chemistry is undeniable. Encouraged by the enthusiastic female members of the League who have decided to take Ingrid under their wing, he tries to figure out why she's quite so reserved and uses his considerable intelligence to lay a plan to woo her.

Selkies are a Girl's Best Friend
Page count: 218 pages
Audio book length: 6 hrs 33 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Sonja Fong is human, but there are many in the League of Interspecies Cooperation who nevertheless feel that her abilities to plan, organise and procure unusual items is nothing less than uncanny, possibly supernatural. As the League's operations in Mystic Bayou are expanding, Sonja accepts a job as director of the League's research center, in part so she can be closer to her BFF, Dr. Jillian Ramsay. 

Sonja's love interest is the long-sought-after town doctor, who while new in the job, is actually a previous resident of Mystic Bayou. Will Carmody, a selkie or seal shifter, grew up in town and was very close with both Mayor Zed and Sheriff Bael, but left town several decades ago (shifters live a loong time and don't noticeably age much once they reach adulthood) and has worked in big cities like Seattle. He's sick of hiding his supernatural side and is happy to accept the job as the much-needed town doctor. 

While Sonja and Will flirt and their romance develops, the big energy rift that has been causing trouble in the Bayou is also becoming more dangerous. The rift appears to be unraveling, and Sonja, Will, and their friends and family have to work to try to save the town.

Always Be My Banshee
Page count: 226 pages
Audio book length: 7 hrs 11 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

Cordelia Canton doesn't really do field assignments for the League of Interspecies Cooperation, she's much more used to working in the archives and keeping out of sight. She's a touch-know psychic and her abilities are sorely needed in Mystic Bayou to figure out the origins of and use for a mysterious artifact that has been pulled out of the strange and chaotic energy rift there. As merely being in the presence of the artifact has led other supernatural beings to end up in the hospital, Cordelia needs to be careful as she examines and tries to solve the mystery of the artifact.

Working with her is Brendan O'Connor, a male banshee, who is there to make sure the artifact doesn't harm Cordelia or anyone else. They discover that the artifact is, in fact, sentient and has an agenda of its own, but trying to communicate with it is difficult, and it soon becomes clear that someone is intent on stealing the box and won't let a psychic or a banshee stand in the way of their success. 

One Fine Fae
Audio book length: 3 hrs 10 mins
Rating: 3 stars

Another novella-length story, this book is as of yet only available in audio format, but like the rest of the series can be accessed for free if you have an Audible Plus subscription (which I do). 

Charlotte McBee is a fairy and a supernatural midwife and has come to Mystic Bayou because it is nearly time for Dr Jillian Ramsay, wife of sheriff Bael Boone to give birth, and as far as records show, there has never been a phoenix/dragon baby before now. Hence the pregnancy and impending birth can definitely be classified as unusual and challenging, but Charlotte isn't particularly worried. She's sure she can get the mother through the ordeal, she just has to hope the dragon shifter father doesn't get so stressed he eats her before the baby is safely delivered.

Charlotte is quickly smitten by Leonard, Sonja Fong's incredibly clumsy executive assistant. Charlotte, being used to bestowing benevolent fairy gifts on the babies she delivers, can recognise the victim of a fairy curse when she sees one, and becomes determined to help Leonard break his, even if he chooses that he doesn't want to be in a relationship with her (due to his family being cursed for generations, he's naturally rather wary of fairies).

What I thought of the series:
Considering the difficulties I've had finding time and motivation to read this past year, finding a fun and light-hearted audiobook series I could pretty much glom was a true blessing. These books are pretty much pure fluff and the relatively short length of each book (even shorter for the novellas) didn't make any of the listens a major commitment. The fact that I always listen at x1.5 speed helps with that. 

I think the early books in the series were stronger and more enjoyable than the later ones, possibly because there was more establishing world-building. By Always Be My Banshee, some of the obligatory peril that the characters had to experience as part of finding their HEA seemed a little bit forced. 

As I mentioned in my introduction, the series has the same narrators for each book, but they do an excellent job at embodying the various characters and ensure that previously established characters in the series also feel and sound the same. With each new story, the cast of returning supporting characters gets bigger, with the heroines from the first books, Jillian and Dani, making a concerted effort to adopt each new lonely soul in the Bayou into their circle of friends. The focus on friendship and found family is absolutely one of the things that won me over with this series. 

I get the impression that the fictional version of the Southern states of the USA is about as accurate as that portrayed in the Sookie Stackhouse books (i.e. a lot of liberties taken). With the exception of the occasional thrown-in Scandinavian word (all of them pronounced atrociously), I can't really speak much for the various accents or dialects used. Zed felt like he was possibly a little bit too much of a parody Cajun, but he's also one of my favourite supporting characters and a real darling, so I'm not going to complain too much. 

As we know, just as any body can be a beach body as long as it appears on a beach, any book you choose to read on a beach can be a beach read. Likewise, if you choose to read a book in the summer, it becomes a summer read, no matter what marketing tells you. However, these books really are excellent brain breaks and very frothy, entertaining, and none too serious reads, excellent for any time you need some lighter fare to get you through life. If you're looking for some fun paranormals and have access to Audible Plus, you could do a lot worse. 

Judging the books by their covers: Considering the first book was published in 2018 and the last novella I've reviewed here came out in late 2020, there's been quite a change in cover design over the course of the series. My least favourite of the lot is probably Love and Other Wild Things, where the male model looks like he's trying to attack someone, and the female model (neither of which look anything like how the characters in the book are described) looks constipated or gassy. Always Be My Banshee is also pretty bad, with a dude badly photo-shopped in front of some trees. If I have to choose a favourite (not wild on any of them, to be honest), it would be Selkies are a Girl's Best Friend, where the cover model at least looks to be of Asian descent and there isn't an awkward clinch or bad photo-shopping involved. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read