Monday 27 December 2021

#CBR13 Book 56: "Fated Blades" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 222 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

This was an ARC from Netgalley. My views and opinions are my own. 

On the alien planet of Rada, most of the powerful families have genetic abilities in some way or another, but the ones born with lethal combat abilities are the fiercest of rivals, and none more so than the Adlers and the Baenas. They are constantly vying to be the most dominant, and now both families are close to discovering the secrets behind their genetic abilities. 

Matias Baena, head of his house, is surprised when he is told that Ramona Adler, head of hers, has come to see him unannounced. He's even more shocked when she has undeniable proof that her husband has been having an affair with his wife, and the couple is currently on the run with the business secrets of both the Baenas and the Adlers. Matias and Ramona have no choice but to join forces in tracking down their cheating spouses, to prevent possibly universe-altering technology being leaked and exploited. 

It quickly becomes apparent that there are some very deadly groups wanting the business secrets, and Matias and Ramona do not have a lot of time. They need to keep their personal alliance hidden from their families and business rivals, escape the lethal forces trying to kill them, and resist the rapidly growing attraction between them. Not only are they both still married (although that's not going to be lasting long), but their families have been bitter rivals for more generations than anyone alive can remember.

Previous to releasing this novella, author-pair Ilona Andrews hadn't written or published anything in their sci-fi series Kinsmen since 2011. So I think it's fair to say that this story took a lot of their fans by surprise. At the same time, die-hard Ilona Andrews fans, affectionately nicknamed the Book-Devouring Horde on their website(of which I am certainly a member), will buy and probably love anything they publish. The good news for those readers who haven't read any previous Kinsmen stories is that this stands entirely on its own and can act as a jumping-on point to the other stories in the series or just act as a very nice taste of what the authors have to offer.

There is interesting world-building, which even in a story this short, feels perfectly established. There are intricate power struggles. The protagonists are both extremely capable at what they do, top of their field and also start out as antagonists. The chemistry between the leads and the dialogue, both between primary and supporting characters, sparkles. In this story, there is a clear goal, some very impressive action sequences, some hot personal moments, and a wholly satisfying ending. Well, if I was going to quibble, the ending came a bit too soon for my taste and I would have loved to spend more time with Matias and Ramona than a longish novella. 

This story is available now and has been since late November. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to review it, but I am hoping to do better with my reviews in the coming year. 

Judging a book by its cover: After seeing this cover, and the one for Blood Heir, from the start of the year, I am of the opinion that Louisa Pressler should design and create all of Ilona Andrews' covers. Considering so many of their books are eye-sores, these recent self-published books are a welcome change. I love Pressler's art and even if Ilona Andrews were number one on my pre-order list, I would have bought the book based on this cover. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday 16 December 2021

#CBR13 Book 55: "Donut Fall in Love" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 366 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! This was an ARC from Netgalley. My views are my own, and I had already pre-ordered the book before getting the advanced reader copy.

Ryan Kwok is grateful for the opportunities he's been given. While his latest movie, a romantic comedy, isn't getting the ravest of reviews, he's fully aware that it's unusual enough for rom coms to star Asian actors and he's lucky to have gotten the chance as a romantic leading man. He'd also like to be famous for more than his abs (which someone's started a Twitter account on behalf of). He's hoping to take some much-needed time off in Toronto, though, supporting his sister who just had her first baby, coming to terms with the loss of his mother, and trying, somehow, to reconnect with his father, who never seems to want to talk or fully acknowledge his grieving children. 

Lindsay McLeod is working hard to figure out new flavours and keep customers coming to her donut bakery, while her best friend/business partner is away on honeymoon. Her mother insists on bringing her dates to the bakery, to the embarrassment of both Lindsay and said awkward suitor, not to mention Lindsay's brother, who still shares a home with their mother. Lindsay certainly does not need some clumsy oaf crashing into her and knocking over two dozen of her speciality matcha tiramisu donuts, completely ruining hours of hard work. She doesn't care how handsome his smile is or how apologetic he seems. 

Ryan's agent suggests that he do a celebrity episode of the popular show Baking Fail, and he agrees because it was one of the shows his mother really used to enjoy watching. He doesn't want to make a complete fool of himself on air, however, so he's clearly going to need someone to give him some baking lessons. Who better to ask than the very attractive, yet prickly bakery owner he'd love to have an opportunity to see again? If she's giving him baking lessons, Ryan will have a chance to see her regularly and get a chance to get to know her better.

I feel so very guilty about this review. I got the ARC months ago, and finished the book in October, just before its October 26th release date. Only now am I getting round to actually reviewing it, which isn't in any way ideal. The even worse part is that I really enjoyed the book. Jackie Lau is quickly becoming one of my favourite contemporary romance authors. She combines likeable leads with great chemistry and usually excellent banter, absolutely amazing descriptions of food and beverages, there's always a fun supporting cast and usually an undertone of something a bit more serious to keep the books from being too frothy and forgettable. 

In this book, the more serious subplot is the way both Ryan and Lindsay have to process grief from losing a parent. Ryan's loss is a lot more recent than Lindsay's, but since her mother is now dating regularly again, she's still forced to come to terms with the death of her father. Ryan is also struggling with how to forge a new relationship with his father, without his mother there to act as an emotional bridge. Add to that worrying about his sister, who really seems to be having a hard time as the mother of a new-born boy, Ryan has more than enough things on his plate without also having to worry about being mixed up with other Canadian Asian actors on social media, and concerns that his career isn't going as well as it might because audiences just won't accept an Asian leading man in anything but an action movie.

This is a lovely romance, and I very much enjoyed it. I'm sorry that work stress, depression, corona, and familial responsibilities have kept me from posting a review until now. My normal warning about reading Ms. Lau's books while hungry applies - you WILL want donuts or other sweet treats when reading this book. 

Judging a book by its cover: While Ms. Lau normally self-publishes her romances and tends to be pretty good about finding good stock photos to illustrate her covers, this book is traditionally published and therefore has the pretty common cartoony illustrated romance cover instead. While I'm sometimes not a huge fan of these, this one is very cute. I love the background colour, the positioning of the characters and the playful swirl of the no-doubt delectable scent of the donuts on Ryan's tray. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday 15 December 2021

#CBR13 Book 54: "Breaking Badger" by Shelly Laurenston

Page count: 378 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! This was an ARC from Netgalley. It has in no way influenced my review. 

This is the fourth book in an ongoing series. While this book works on its own, it will be much more enjoyable if you've read the first three books in the Honey Badger Chronicles, which start with Hot and Badgered. 

While the first three books in the Honey Badger Chronicles introduce us to the three MacKilligan sisters Charlie, Stevie, and Max who have different mothers but the same utterly irredeemable deadbeat dad. Not only do a lot of people hate and shun the women because of actions perpetrated by their father, or seek them out to hurt them in some misguided attempt to get revenge on him, but on more than one occasion, he tried to sell Stevie to drug cartels or Max into domestic slavery. No matter how bad the scrapes he gets himself into, their horrible dad seems to manage to survive against all odds to every so often pop up in the women's lives like a malevolent jack in the box to disrupt their peace. In the first three books, the sisters each find a romantic partner, and they also settle down in a New York suburb mostly populated by shapeshifters. Their closest neighbours are all various kinds of bears who are willing to put up with Max stealing honey from their hives because of the huge amount of baked goods provided when Charlie stress bakes (which she does a lot). 

In book 3, Badger to the Bone, the MacKilligan sisters discover that they have another half-sister, a young deaf woman with a devious mind and truly exceptional computer skills. Her entire family is comprised of Siberian tiger shifters and she has her three eldest half-brothers, known in the shifter community as the Black Malones, wrapped entirely around her scheming little finger. Only her youngest half-brother, who is also constantly berated and underestimated by the older Malones, has any idea of his sister's true nature. In Breaking Badger, Laurenston, having already paired up her first three MacKilligan sisters, moves on to the members of Max' basketball team, all honey badgers (they are also Max' gun-toting backup crew who get her out of trouble)

Finn Malone and his two eldest brothers are determined to find out not only how their father was killed but are out to avenge his death.  In this book, Finn is thrown together with Mads Galendotter, one of Max' best friends. Because of her truly awful family, Mads has a number of trust issues and has trouble even trusting that her basketball crew (they are clearly all sisters from different misters) won't abandon and disappoint her. However, by now the truly bonkers adventures of the MacKilligan sisters and their various loved ones take up most of the plot. The romance between Finn and Mads is rather secondary, and I didn't even mind, because I just love spending time with these characters. Learning more about the various women in Max' basketball team was enlightening, and it's very obvious that Laurenston has plans for at least a few more of these dangerous ladies and the other two Black Malone brothers.

In April 2020, I read The Unleashing by Shelly Laurenston, the first in a series of books especially beloved by several of the reviewers on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. I had trouble getting into the story and didn't find the romance particularly convincing. I was therefore a bit reluctant to start the Honey Badger Chronicles, but I shouldn't have worried, they are incredibly entertaining, ridiculously violent and the plots are completely crazy. The bonds between the MacKilligan sisters and later the found family of Max' basketball team was a lovely touch, as are the various ways in which these women are all utterly kick-ass. You do not want to mess with honey badger shifters, but you especially don't want to get on Charlie MacKilligan's bad side. There's a scene in this book that had me literally gasping out loud at the audacity of Laurenston, and if I wasn't completely sold on the books by now, that scene probably ensured that I will be buying and reading these books in perpetuity.

This book came out in late August 2021. Thanks to circumstances really keeping me apathetic much of the time, I didn't find the time to finish reading the book until early October and I feel really bad that it's taken me so long to finish this review. If you're unsure of whether these books are for you - ask yourself this - do you like the Deadpool movies and James Gunn's The Suicide Squad? Then you'll love them. I firmly believe that Harley Quinn and Max MacKilligan would be BFFs. 

Judging a book by its cover: While the first three books in the series have dudes (who are clearly meant to be the various heroes of the books) prominently featured on the covers, I really like the cover redesign which just has a tiger and a stylised heart - so the reader can use their own imagination to picture the protagonists. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday 1 November 2021

#CBR13 Book 53: "Lumberjanes, vol 1: Beware the Kitten Holy" by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis

Page count: 128 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR13 Bingo: The Wilds

Official book description:
At Miss Qiunzilla Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s camp for hard-core lady-types, things are not what they seem. Three-eyed foxes. Secret caves. Anagrams. Luckily, Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley are five rad, butt-kicking best pals determined to have an awesome summer together… And they’re not gonna let a magical quest or an array of supernatural critters get in their way! The mystery keeps getting bigger, and it all begins here.

I’m not outdoorsy in the slightest. Like even a little bit. I pretty much resent having to go outside into the woods, which makes me a very atypical Norwegian. So I was never in any form of Scouts. I know my husband was in the Scouts growing up in the north of England and it sounds like there was a lot of hiking and sleeping outdoors in all sorts of horrible conditions, not to mention extremely ruthless games of Capture the Flag where people may or may not have gotten limbs broken. So I can’t really relate to the five hard-core young lady types that we meet in this book, because spending a summer at a camp in the woods sounds like some sort of special hell for me. 

Nevertheless, this book, which has been on my TBR list since at least 2016 and on my physical bookshelf since mid-2018 was a wonderful portrayal of why some types of outdoorsy adventuresome persuasion (as well as the Lumberjanes, there's a camp of suspiciously friendly guys who may or may not be possessed by something) might enjoy camp life. Each issue is introduced by an excerpt from the Lumberjanes Field Guide, explaining the skills that they are meant to achieve, all at least tangentially relevant to the adventure they go on in the issue.

I wish there were more than four issues collected in this first trade. Thankfully, I have the next two in my collection and can get more volumes at my local library. It's taken me a very long time to start this comic, but I'm looking forward to reading more and getting to know the five young protagonists better.

Judging a Book by its Cover: The cover image is done by Noelle Stevenson herself, and at the back of the trade, there are a number of variant covers that were also really interesting. I like Stevenson's art and the slightly off-beat looks of all the various Lumberjanes. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 31 October 2021

#CBR13 Book 52: "When Sorrows Come" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Flora (there are a number of trees in the background and Toby appears to be holding a rose in her left hand. She also has a belt of roses on her dress)

Spoiler warning! This is book 15 (!) in the ongoing October Daye series. So very much not the place to start. There will be spoilers for previous books in the series in this review, although I shall try to avoid any big ones for the contents of this current book. Rosemary and Rue is the place to begin. 

It is finally time. October "Toby" Daye is going to marry her long-time fiancee, Tybalt, King of Cats and because she specifically asked everyone involved not to bother her with any details about the wedding, except when and where to show up, she is rather taken aback when she's told that she and all her friends will be travelling to Toronto, to the seat of the High King in less than 24 hours, for her nuptials to take place at the end of seven days. She is also very surprised to discover that Quentin, her loyal squire and pretty much adopted son at this point, has gone and changed not just his face by magic, but his entire self and faerie species, to be able to stand by her side at her wedding, without anyone at his home realising who he really is. Quentin's deal with the Luideag can only be reversed after he sees her duly married to Tybalt. They both have to stay alive and the event has to take place before the magic can be undone. The Sea Witch isn't going to let Toby find any further excuses to get out of her own wedding.

Of course, this is a major event involving Sir Toby Daye, hero of several realms, now known as a king-breaker in more than one capacity. Of course, the seven days before the wedding aren't going to pass quietly with Toby just having to attend dress fittings or try to figure out the various details involving strange etiquette that the ceremony will contain. Oh no, when Toby shows up somewhere, there are suddenly surprise insurrection attempts, people having been replaced by deadly doppelgangers, assassination attempts and so many bodies starting to pile up. Toby is forced to try to figure out who is trying to murder High King Sollys, the father of her beloved squire, not to mention try to steal his throne and kingdom. She also needs to make sure no one realises that Oberon, the King of all Faerie is one of the guests at the wedding (the Luideag insisted on bringing him along in disguise) or that the Crown Prince currently looks like a stranger. 

Toby herself is almost impossible to kill (she's not even sure she CAN die, at this point), but it would be nice to make it to her wedding day without anyone else in the wedding party being killed in the hunt for the traitors. It would also ruin the ceremony if the hosts, the High King and Queen (who also happen to be Quentin's parents) are dead and their rule usurped by some power-hungry rival. So Toby proceeds to do what she does best, investigate while trying to provoke as many people as possible, hoping to find the guilty parties before it's too late, and her own wedding is ruined. 

I'm not going to lie, the title of this book and the fact that McGuire has been finding reasons for this binding union between Toby and Tybalt to be postponed for so many books by now had me actually peeking at the last pages, just to make sure Tybalt actually survived long enough to make it to the altar. I was terrified that one of the "sorrows" of the title was going to be Toby becoming a widow before she was even a wife, and I was not ready to see Tybalt getting fridged. So SPOILER, I guess - Tybalt lives and he and Toby end this book as man and wife, which did not seem a given at the beginning of the story.

I also don't think Toby got disembowelled a single time in this book, which makes for a welcome change. She mostly manages to keep all of her blood inside her body. Aided by Tybalt, May, Raj, the disguised Quentin and a bunch of her other close friends and hangers-on, Toby is able to figure out who is replacing valued members of the High King's court with doppelgangers and trying to assassinate him before it's time for her to walk down the aisle (except faerie wedding ceremonies are a lot more complicated than the bride just walking down a straight stretch of ground). 

Because I had peeked at the ending, I was able to enjoy the book entirely, since I didn't need to worry that Tybalt, Raj or Quentin suddenly kick the bucket. There's a lot of different court officials for Toby to negotiate with to be allowed to do her job properly and my impression of the High Court of Toronto is that Quentin can't have had all that much fun growing up. There are some very touching scenes both between him and Toby and Tybalt and Toby in the book. Toby also has a very cathartic talk with her stepdad, Simon, now legally considered her father in all the ways that matter in faerie. 

There is also a novella at the end of the book, which really just acts as an extended epilogue, where we get to see what Toby and Tybalt's actual wedding feast is like. I'm guessing it was added as an optional extra to keep the page count of the novel within acceptable limits, but it's still a very fun read and it makes sense to just keep reading once you get to the end of the book proper. 

Since this is book 15, and storylines that were set up several books ago are finished off, this is not a book for beginners. If you're already a fan of the Toby Daye books, however, you should enjoy this installment as well. 

Judging a book by its cover: Upon first glance, I thought the cover was badly designed and inappropriate, for reasons I don't want to go into without spoiling some lovely details of the plot. Upon closer inspection, I can see that some of my objections are due to unfortunate colour choices when it comes to shading and the like for Toby's dress, and I may in fact have been completely wrong. It's a suitably dramatic cover, as always. I really like the cover art on these books. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 30 October 2021

#CBR13 Book 51: "Ubesvart anrop" (Unanswered call) by Nora Dåsnes

Page count: 283 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Official book description (translated by me):
Oslo, late summer 2011

Barely a month after the terror attacks on the 22nd of July, Rebekka and Fariba are starting high school. Rebekka doesn't know any of the people who died, and thinks she should be one of the ones who are ready to claim back their peace of mind. So when Fariba signs up for the Labour Party Youth Movement, Rebekka tries to get involved with drama club, with Daniel with the curly hair, with parties and school and friends. 

The only problem is that Rebekka thinks about it (the 22nd of July) all the time. 

Unanswered call is a graphic novel about being a teenager in the time after the 22nd of July. It's a story about looking for reason in the face of the unreasonable, about being an outsider, about grief and anxiety. About how hard it is to reach out to one another, and how important it is when we manage it. 

It's been ten years since one very determined and angry Norwegian man planted a car bomb in the very heart of the capital, right outside the building where the prime minister's office is located. At 3:25 pm on the 22nd of July 2011, the bomb went off and caused tremendous amounts of damages. The sound of the explosion and the shock wave resulting from it could be felt all over greater Oslo, and even in some neighbouring counties. A total of eight people are killed, nine people were critically injured and more than two hundred sustained physical injuries in some way. Pretty much every window in the buildings nearby is shattered. Police and emergency services work quickly to try to evacuate as much of the area as possible and the police start working on figuring out the culprit and motive for the attack.

As it turns out, the bomb was just a distraction, if a frightfully effective one, at that. The terrorist, 32- year-old Anders Behring Breivik (he has since changed his name) was already on his way out of Oslo when the bomb went off and by 5:20 pm, he had made his way to Utøya, a small island about an hour's drive from the capital, where the Labour Party Youth Movement held their annual summer camp. He was dressed as a police officer and told the driver of the boat that took people out to the island (it is still only accessible by boat) that he was there to help secure the island after the attack in the capital. He was finally arrested at 6:35 pm, having wandered the idyllic little island shooting, killing or injuring as many people as possible. After his rampage, 69 of the 564 people on the tiny island were dead. The youngest victim was only 14. 32 of the dead were under 18. As well as the people who died, about 32 people were critically injured and there are hundreds of people, direct victims or their loved ones, who even now live with the physical and psychological trauma that the event caused.

I was also 32 years old when it happened, and while I didn't know anyone directly involved in any of the attacks, it's one of those events that has left scars. I still get affected talking about it or reading about the event. In about a week's time, the 10th graders in my school are all going to visit Utøya, where there is now a visitor's centre, and we're in the process of teaching them more about the attacks and their aftermaths. The kids I teach were only 5 at the time it happened, so for most of them, it's not in any way as affecting or upsetting for them as it is for me and several of my colleagues. Let's just say I'm probably going ugly cry when we have to watch the Norwegian film version of what happened later this week, and I suspect I'm going to be very shaken by the visit to the island as well.

This graphic novel came out earlier this year, and the author/artist was herself about to start high school about a month after the attacks took place. The entire country was still reeling, and the feelings of collective grief and trauma were strong. The book features three different teenagers, and the ways in which they try to go about their lives, trying to process the shocking events and pretending to be unaffected, despite being everything but. Rebekka, our androgynous protagonist, suffers occasional panic attacks and spends a lot of time online doing research to try to figure out why one young man got angry enough to perpetrate something so horrific. Fariba, her best friend, gets involved with youth politics and joins the youth organisation that was so cruelly targeted on the island. She wants to ensure that the world is a better place going forward. Daniel, the slightly older student Rebekka meets as part of drama club is more of a supporting character, but he, like so many others, is having trouble just moving on. 

This proved to be an excellent book to introduce the students to, as the art is very clear and easy to follow and a lot of the story is told by wordless panels and the body language and facial expression of the characters. While most of the panels are done in a bluish grey and white, all the flashbacks that characters have to the 22nd of July, thinking about where they were during the attack, are in a vivid red and white. Even the students who really struggle with reading managed to read and comprehend the story perfectly well, and we had some really good discussions as a result. 

Myself, I read the whole book in less than an hour. I borrowed it at our school library, planning to check it out a week or two before we were going to talk about it in class, and after looking at a few pages, I was sucked in and read the whole thing in one sitting. I think my only complaint about the book is that the ending feels rushed, and a lot of the story threads wrap up a little bit too quickly and neatly for my taste. I wish the author would have added ten-twenty more pages to make the ending a bit less sudden, but otherwise, this was an excellent read and I may buy myself a copy once it's released in paperback. 

Judging a book by its cover: The cover shows the book's protagonist, Rebekka, as well as her best friend Fariba and Daniel, the boy that Rebekka fancies. The cover gives a good impression of the art style the author uses throughout the book. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR13 Books 48-50: "The Queen's Thief series books 4-6" by Megan Whalen Turner

CBR13 Bingo: Old Series (the first book in the series came out in 1996. The first book in this review came out in 2010 - it's taken a long time for Whalen Turner to complete it)

A Conspiracy of Kings
Page count: 362 pages
Audio book length: 8hrs 26mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

Sophos, the heir to Sounis, is rusticating with his mother and sisters, having been sent away from his uncle's court for generally being considered a disappointment. He keeps ignoring his tutors and weapons training, which turns out to be a problem when mercenary soldiers come to the estate with nefarious plans. Sophos is abducted and disguised as a runaway slave and discovers later that his mother and sisters were taken hostage and are hidden away by one of his uncle's rebel barons. There's a planned coup afoot, where the rebel barons want to kill Sophos' uncle and install him as their puppet king. Sophos ruins their plans by managing to escape, but as he has been very successfully disguised as a slave, he is recaptured by actual slavers and ends up working the fields at the estate of the very baron who seems to be leading the plot against the crown.

Meanwhile, Sophos' royal friends, like Eugenides, the King of Attolia, and Helen, the Queen of Eddis, believe Sophos to have been killed in the attack on his estate. They are therefore extremely relieved when he shows up unexpectedly in Attolia along with the Mage of Sounis, his former tutor. By this point, Sophos discovers that his uncle has fallen, and now he, Sophos, is King of Sounis. He needs to recount his tale of captivity and escape, before he begs aid from Eddis and Attolia to muster enough troops to actually secure his throne. 

Sophos shows up as a supporting character in The Thief and is later mentioned in The Queen of Attolia. I never thought much about him, and remember trying to start A Conspiracy of Kings once before, many years ago. I never really got very far because the story of Sophos just didn't interest me all that much, but this time, I was firstly determined to finish the entire series, and secondly, listening to the books in audio, with Steve West narrating, so I pressed on. I'm glad I did. While the book is in no way my favourite of the series, it Whalen Turner is a talented writer, and seeing Sophos come into his own was a much more interesting story than I had first expected. His understated romance with Helen, Queen of Eddis is also very sweet. 

Thick as Thieves
Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 8hrs 47mins
Rating: 3 stars

Official book description: 
Deep within the palace of the Mede emperor, in an alcove off the main room of his master’s apartments,. Kamet minds his master’s business and his own. Carefully keeping the accounts, and his own counsel, Kamet has accumulated a few possessions, a little money stored in the household’s cashbox, and a significant amount of personal power. As a slave, his fate is tied to his master’s. If Nahuseresh’s fortunes improve, so will Kamet’s, and Nahuseresh has been working diligently to promote his fortunes since the debacle in Attolia.

A soldier in the shadows offers escape, but Kamet won’t sacrifice his ambition for a meager and unreliable freedom; not until a whispered warning of poison and murder destroys all of his carefully laid plans. When Kamet flees for his life, he leaves behind everything—his past, his identity, his meticulously crafted defenses—and finds himself woefully unprepared for the journey that lies ahead.

Pursued across rivers, wastelands, salt plains, snowcapped mountains, and storm-tossed seas, Kamet is dead set on regaining control of his future and protecting himself at any cost. Friendships—new and long-forgotten—beckon, lethal enemies circle, secrets accumulate, and the fragile hopes of the little kingdoms of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis hang in the balance.

Kamet is a very minor, barely mentioned character who appears in The Queen of Attolia, as the personal secretary of Nahuseresh, the Mede ambassador to Attolia. Due to Eudenides' schemes, Nahuseresh has to flee Attolia in disgrace, and hatred between the former ambassador and the former Queen's thief is strong. In this book, Kamet finds himself cast adrift, fleeing for his life accompanied only by an Attolian stranger, who claims he can help Kamet - but who can help a slave whose master has been murdered? The fate of all slaves in the Mede empire is to die with their master, as a runaway, Kamet is risking terrible torture and certain death if he's caught. 

Kamet's near-constant companion in this long journey from Mede to Attolia is Costis, once a guard in the Attolian royal guard, now sent on this special mission by his king. While Kamet remembers his time in the Attolian court as mostly a chore and has the impression of the Attolians as backward, primitive people, his time in and out of dangerous situations with Costis slowly begins to change his mind.

Very much a bridging book, spending time with two minor characters of the series, this book nevertheless shows the readers further aspects of Whalen Turner's excellent world-building and characterisation. Her books feature so many different cultures, traditions, attitudes, and religious beliefs and this "road trip" narrative (except the two protagonists are mostly on foot) is an interesting way to show more of the fictional universe of these characters. 

Return of the Thief
Page count: 480 pages
Audio book length: 11hrs 22mins
Rating: 4 stars

After the marriage of Sophos, King of Sounis and Helen, Queen of Eddis - who have both sworn allegiance and fealty to Eugenides, King of Attolia, the one-handed former thief of Eddis now finds himself High King of all three nations. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in all three countries who are unhappy about this and Eugenides and Irene of Attolia need to make sure there aren't civil uprisings within their own lands, as the powerful Mede empire prepares to wage war on the little peninsula, perfectly happy to annex all three countries.

In a story told mostly through the eyes of Pheris, a young physically disabled man who has been sent to the Attolian court by his ruthless grandfather, Baron Erondites. The king has ordered that Erondites' heir be raised at court, and in an attempt to spite the crown, Erondites sends his previously hidden away eldest grandson, who everyone believes to be a speechless idiot. However, Pheris, while unable to speak and frequently suffering terrible pains because of his disabilities, is very intelligent and has been taught to communicate through sign language by his nurse. He has learned that it's best to appear as insignificant and invisible as possible, but it doesn't take long before the Attolian king understands that his newest attendant is more of an asset than he appears, or Erondites ever suspected. 

After more than 20 years, this final volume in the Queen's Thief series came out in late 2020. That, and the "Old series" square on this year's Cannonball Bingo card, provided the impetus I needed to finish the series myself. It was really nice to revisit the first three books and remind myself of the early books, and the Audible audiobooks narrated by Steve West were all really well done. I appreciate the various ways in which Whalen Turner changes up narrators and explores unexpected parts of her fictional universe, to give the reader a bigger picture of everything going on. The characters are complex, multi-faceted and flawed in interesting ways. Being the final book in the series, Return of the Thief really won't have the proper impact if you read it without having read the previous five. Technically, you can probably skip Thick as Thieves, but all the books are very entertaining, so why deprive yourself of a few hours of good writing?

I saw one of the reviewers on Goodreads saying it was bittersweet to reach the end, but I really liked seeing where the characters all ended up, and appreciated the completion of the metaphorically and sometimes literally long journeys they have been on to where they finished their stories. I note that Whalen Turner has left the door open to return to her fictional world with a potential Queen's Thief - the next generation. Only time will tell if she does. 

Judging the books by their covers: As I said in my review of The King of Attolia, I really like these new elegant covers for the books, looking like little historical dioramas. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 27 October 2021

#CBR13 Book 47: "Bombshell" by Sarah Maclean

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

CBR13 Bingo: New series

Official book description: 
After years of living as London’s brightest scandal, Lady Sesily Talbot has embraced the reputation and the freedom that comes with the title. No one looks twice when she lures a gentleman into the dark gardens beyond a Mayfair ballroom…and no one realizes those trysts are not what they seem.

No one, that is, but Caleb Calhoun, who has spent years trying not to notice his best friend’s beautiful, brash, brilliant sister. If you ask him, he’s been a saint about it, considering the way she looks at him…and the way she talks to him…and the way she’d felt in his arms during their one ill-advised kiss.

Except someone has to keep Sesily from tumbling into trouble during her dangerous late-night escapades, and maybe close proximity is exactly what Caleb needs to get this infuriating, outrageous woman out of his system. But now Caleb is the one in trouble because he’s fast realizing that Sesily isn’t for forgetting…she’s forever. And forever isn’t something he can risk.

This is another review that will suffer from the fact that I finished the book at the end of August and haven't had the time and/or brain space to write about it until now. I've adjusted down my original rating half a star because it feels like a book as action-packed as this one, I should remember slightly more details about the general plot two months later than I now find myself doing for it to deserve a full four stars.

So what do I remember? Lady Sesily Talbot, who apparently some sections of society anachronistically choose to call Sexily behind her back (I do really like Maclean, at least until a while after I read her books and all my critical faculties kick in again and I start nitpicking - but she's not exactly the most historically accurate in all aspects writer out there) is the last of the scandalous Talbot sisters to remain unmarried. She has a very strong sense of fair play and justice and has allied herself with a group of other ladies to help women in need, from all stratas of society. Sesily herself is able to use society's impression of her as a flirt and as a scandal to cause distractions. Her main allies are the rich noblewoman who can use her wealth to fund the group's endeavours; the "hopeless" spinster wallflower everyone underestimates and the eccentric who cooks up explosives and other useful chemical concoctions to aid the group.

Caleb Calhoun, the charming American who co-owns a pub with Sesily's older sister Sera has been staying away from England for the past two years. He knows that his attraction to Sesily can go nowhere, but thinks about her all the time. Now he's back, and while he wants to keep his distance, the frustrating woman keeps ending up in dangerous situations with no care for her own safety. While he wants to stay out of her business, her (seemingly) impulsive and dangerous actions make it impossible for him to keep away, even at the risk of his own secrets coming to light.

Caleb has some dark secrets that mean that he always feels like he has to be very careful when he leaves the United States and his business there. His attraction to Sesily is not the only tie he has to England, but he's worried that the truth will come out and ruin not just his life, but those of all those near to him. He knows that if he spends too much time with Sesily, his already pretty strong feelings will become irrevocable and he will fall head over heels for her, whether he wants to or not. He's never going to be able to be a worthy match for her, so he has to stay away from her (isn't that always the case with these overly protective heroes). 

Sesily is nowhere near as outrageous or scandalous as she portrays herself to be, and she needs to toe the line with her rescue operations so her family members don't become too worried about her. She loves spending time with her sisters and their increasing brood of children, but being the exciting and fun aunt has also confirmed for her that she never wants children of her own. What man could really want to spend their life without having children? She's quite happy being a spinster forever, but every time she clashes with Caleb, she starts questioning whether they might have a future together. 

If you asked me what the details of the plot were, barring Sesily and the ladies trying to bring some unscrupulous and probably murderous nobleman to justice, and him having something to do with Caleb's past, I will have to disappoint you. All the finer details of the book have completely slipped my mind. 

Sesily's three co-conspirators are clearly going to have books of their own, and there is some pretty obvious sequel bait set up over the course of the story. As always, I had fun while reading this, but the substance of the book has failed to stay with me. Maclean remains on my "buy while on sale" list. 

Judging a book by its cover: While I love the bold red colour of the dress, yet again this is a historical romance cover with a wildly anachronistic costume choice for the cover model. Then again, Sesily is frequently described as flouting all polite conventions of society, so possibly she'd have her dressmakers make something completely unique for her to wear. I do like the pose and the facial expression on the woman, she certainly looks determined and confident.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read


#CBR13 Book 46: "Bidding for the Bachelor" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 188 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Disclaimer! I got an ARC of this from the author. That has in no way influenced my review.

Cedric Fong is pressured by his family to take part in a bachelor auction to benefit the Fong family's charity work. He's not at all interested in dating, he just needs to find himself a new place to live and actually manage to start writing his second novel, but once his grandmother promises to make him two hundred of her special dumplings, Cedric can no longer refuse. 

At the auction, Cedric is surprised when Brian Poon, his brother's former best friend, ends up paying a ridiculous amount of money and wins the bid. He doesn't seem interested in anything but some good company for a Valentine's date, and Cedric and Brian have a good time when out together. Once Brian finds out that Cedric is looking for a place to live, he offers him his spare bedroom, thinking some company might be nice. Besides, while Brian Poon used to have a huge trust fund to draw from, his father got sick of his playboy ways, and cut him off. He's not exactly poor, but some extra income would come in handy. 

Once Cedric moves into Brian's spare bedroom, he starts forcing himself to think about his follow-up novel. His first book was a moderate success, but writing another one is proving much harder than Cedric was expecting. Brian seems surprisingly domestic, baking muffins, cookies, and other treats and pretty much making sure Cedric eats a tasty and healthy breakfast every day. It seems rather innocent at first, but as the two men keep living together and learning more about one another, they undeniably grow closer. One complicating factor is that Cedric is very aware that the reason his brother and Brian are no longer friends is that Brian confessed to being in love with him (the brother, now married with a child - not Cedric). Could his changing feelings for Cedric be some sort of rebound thing? Is the former playboy ready for something different, and likely to want to settle down in a committed relationship?

As far as I'm aware, this is Jackie Lau's first m/m romance, while she frequently has bisexual characters in her other stories, all the primary romantic relationships she's written have been heteronormative. This is a cozy romance, without any major drama. Brian takes a while to realise that he's bored of his former party boy playing the field lifestyle and really wants to settle down with someone. Cedric needs reassurance that he's not some sort of replacement for his older brother in Brian's affections. The question of how Cedric is going to get over his writer's block and what exactly he should write his next novel about seems to take up more page time than the actual romantic drama.

Once again, we have a grandmother with a forceful personality stealing every scene she's in. Cedric's grandmother initially distrusts Brian and believes he may have offered Cedric his spare room mainly so he can steal her legendary dumplings. She also keeps pitching far-fetched ideas for Cedric's next book, primarily involving feisty elderly ladies, and possible drug dealing shenanigans. 

I liked this, but compared to Lau's recent Cider Bar Sisters books, this didn't connect with me on as many levels. The standard warning about not reading when hungry applies here, as always. Seriously, that woman makes me drool with her descriptions of food. 

Judging a book by its cover: Based on the way he looks, and the descriptions of Brian in the book, I'm guessing this slightly pouty male model is supposed to be Brian. He certainly looks nothing like how Cedric is described. Not one of my favourite Lau covers, but I suppose it's not that easy to find stock images of handsome Asian dudes all the time. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read


Monday 25 October 2021

#CBR13 Book 45: "Battle Royal" by Lucy Parker

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 11hrs 10 mins
Rating: 5 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Self Care

Sylvie Fairchild rose to moderate fame four years ago as a popular contestant on the hit baking show, Operation Cake. The moment she both ended her time on the show and immortalised herself on the internet forever was when her sparkly unicorn cake went horribly wrong and hit icy and arrogant baking judge Dominic De Vere got a sparkly hoof straight in the forehead. 

Now Sylvie has fulfilled her dream of running a bakery, Sugar Fair, in one of the hottest locations in Notting Hill, right across from De Vere's revered establishment and while they are about as different as two people can be in terms of baking choices, flavours, decorations or style, they are both determined to compete to be the bakery that gets to bake the wedding cake for the upcoming royal wedding of the king's granddaughter. They are also both judges on the most recent season of Operation Cake. 

Dominic might find Sylvie's constant bubbliness and whimsy exasperating, and while she makes taste and decoration choices he finds preposterous, he can't deny her skill as a baker, pastry chef, and businesswoman. Sylvie has never denied finding Dominic good-looking, even when he was the judge on Operation Bake who was the most annoyed by her fantastical and glitter-covered creations. Now, spending more time with him, both on set at Operation Bake, not to mention constantly running into him as they both do research for their potential wedding cakes, she discovers that he certainly doesn't seem to be as unfeeling and cold as she believed and that they may have more in common than she first thought. 

I am a huge fan of Parker's previous romances, most of the books in her London Celebrities are excellent. In this book, she's set her books in a slightly alternate present, with a completely different royal family, hence a king on the throne and his gothy granddaughter soon to be married. This romance also has protagonists that both struggle with processing grief in different ways, and Dominic in particular struggles with the aftermath of emotional abuse of his childhood, which is still impacting his relationship with his perky younger sister. 

Dominic's sister Petunia "Pet" De Vere is one of the wonderful supporting characters here, and is set up to be the heroine of the next Palace Insiders novel. I would not be surprised if Sylvie's friend and business partner becomes the hero of a future novel, as well. 

It feels like I read a lot of romances nowadays where food is rather central. This is another one where I kept craving both the delectable bakes and chocolates and if I drank alcohol, I would have really wanted some of Sylvie's magical witches' brew cocktails. This is the second GBBO-inspired romance I've read this year. Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake focused on the contestant-side of the show, while this one gives us more of a behind-the-scenes look. 

It's difficult to do justice to a book I loved as much as this one. When the book came out, I read the whole thing in one day, in every break I could find until I was done. I loved it enough that I also got it as an audiobook just so I could comfort listen to it while doing other things, hence my choice to use this book for the "Self Care" square of bingo. I can absolutely see myself revisiting this often in the coming years and am very happy that Parker is starting a new series, with hopefully many baking/royalty-themed romances to come. 

Judging a book by its cover: I can't hate anything to do with Lucy Parker, and while I might have found this cartoony cover a bit too twee on a different novel by a different author, this works perfectly for me. While the cover images of Sylvie and Dominic aren't exactly how I imagined in my head (Dom has darker hair with more silver in it), I like the juxtaposition of all things pink, purple, fantastical, and frothy on the left side, representing Sylvie, while there are clear, clean lines and no fripperies on the right side that represents Dominic. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 24 October 2021

#CBR13 Book 44 : "Björnstad (Beartown)" by Fredrik Backman

Page count: 470 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Sports Ball (could easily also be used as Rec'd, since a lot of Cannonballers have read and reviewed it favourably)

Official book description:
People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.

See, if even if the actual blurb hadn't mentioned a violent act against a young girl (I'm sure you can all imagine what kind of an act this is, taking place at a party full of drunken teenage athletes and the girls that admire them), this book, when not making it super clear just how essential ice hockey as a sport and especially the junior team full of promising seventeen-year-olds are to the survival of the rather remote Björnstad (literally translated as Beartown), is foreshadowing something terrible happening from very early on. 

The book is slow to start, and at first I really wasn't sure why I needed to "get to know" quite so many different characters, as the point of view in this book changes constantly between both major and more minor characters. We see the world through the eyes of several of the hot shot hockey players, through the eyes of the ex-pro hockey coach who doesn't want to fire his aging mentor despite the wishes of the team sponsors; his successful lawyer wife, who as a working mother with her own thriving career really doesn't fit well with the other wives and mothers of the town; their cheerful musician daughter; her loyal best friend (with a troubled home life); the junior coach who's looking at a pretty guaranteed promotion once the junior team most likely wins the championship, but also through the eyes of one of the former youth athletes, now a washed-up alcoholic; the agoraphobic owner of the local sports pub and others. 

Nevertheless, I kept reading, and Backman certainly made me aware of all aspects of the little community and the hopes that all of these disparate people had pinned to a few sports games. Two things are made clear very early - if the junior hockey team doesn't win the championship, any chance at revitilising the town's failing economy is completely gone, and something very bad is going to happen to the head coach's daughter at some point. As we get closer to the victory party where the terrible deed is going to take place, I was grimly determined to keep reading until I got past the bad part, just so I could get it out of the way. Imagine my surprise when I looked up, noticed that more than three hours had passed and I suddenly had only about a third of the book left. That's the advantage of the rapidly changing points of view, you keep seeing events from more than one angle and after having "inhabited" all of these different people for the first third you really feel involved in all of their hopes and dreams and their humanity and you suspect you know exactly how bad the fallout's going to be.

In reviews, I've frequently seen Backman referred to as a funny writer. This book is a pretty solid slice of social realism, but I can see why he's such a popular author, with so many fans worldwide. I don't really care about sports at all, certainly not ice hockey. I only vaguely knew the rules before reading this book, yet understood the plays described perfectly.  I personally also suck at all kinds of physical exercise - I will never reach the level of skill these young athletes, even the reserve players, yet I understood their ambition and drive. The three very different coaches, the weary school teacher, the pub owner - they felt like people I might meet walking down the street. 

Backman writes about doing a lot of research and talking to a lot of sexual assault survivors, and I think he writes about the unforgivable acts at the party and its terrible aftermath very sensitively and well. While you might imagine this book being very "male-centric", the women of Backman's book are also all distinctive and never feel like tired stereotypes. One of the hockey players lost his father at a young age, and has as a result been raised by his widowed mum and three older sisters, all very formidable. There is the coach's wife, his daughter, her best friend, not to mention several other women, both likable and rather pitiful in these pages, and again, they all felt like Backman was writing about people who actually exist.

I had not imagined a book about sexual assault and small town hockey would engross me this much. Sadly, I had to return the second book to the library before I had a chance to read it, and am still waiting for a new chance to pick it up. I know Backman has confirmed that there will be a third book to finish the series, so now I may wait until that's out and binge the final two parts in one go. 

Judging a book by its cover: I've seen a number of different covers for this book, but this is the one that was on the library copy I had. The two scenes shown on the cover might not look very exciting, but they're both taken directly from the novel and while I wasn't too impressed with it at first, I now really like the cover design. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday 22 October 2021

#CBR13 Book 43: "The King of Attolia" by Megan Whalen Turner

Page count: 432 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 23 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Landscape

Costis is one of the Attolian guards, fiercely loyal to his beloved (if fearsome) queen and skeptical and disdainful of his so-called king, the former Thief of Eddis, who through trickery and guile ended up married to their queen. Nevertheless, when he foolishly loses his temper and ends up striking the king in the face, he's mortified and expects to be sent home in disgrace if he's lucky, executed if he
's unlucky. Yet the strange, new young king surprises everyone, by demanding that Costis become one of his retainers, somehow the most humiliating fate of all to the soldier. 

No longer a soldier, clearly the odd one out among the king's other noble retainers, Costis is miserable. Many of his duties just involve tagging along after the king, practicing incredibly basic weapons drills with him and generally just wondering how his life took such an unfortunate turn. It's obvious to everyone with eyes in their head that the king's retainers despise him just as much as the soldiers and while they perform their duties, they keep showing their disrespect by bringing him inappropriate outfits, bringing him food that he's unable to eat unaided and generally making snide remarks to the king's face, and outright semi-treasonous remarks when they think no one is listening. 

Yet the queen doesn't seem like she's suffering some politically advantageous marriage of convenience, and the Eddisian ambassador talks to and about the king not as if he's the petulant, lazy, and vain young man he seems to be. Costis has begun to understand that not everything is as it appears with the former Eddisian king of Attolia and that his strange behaviour is calculated to a degree. He doesn't realise just how much until there is an assassination attempt on the one-handed king, who despite showing only rudimentary weapons skills in the public practice sessions, takes out three assassins unassisted while left alone in the palace gardens. In the second half of the book, Costis (and most other people who had been seriously underestimating the king) comes to discover just what a clever and patient strategist Eugenides actually is. 

I read the first three books in what is now known as The Queen's Thief series back in 2012. My reviews for The Thief and The Queen of Attolia are from back then. So while this is the second time I read The King of Attolia, I don't seem to have reviewed it the last time around. I was unable to find out who narrated the audios I listened to back in 2012, but I can say that I much preferred Steve West's narration. 

While there are a lot of very simplistic and rather shallow examples of YA fantasy out there, there are also some really great books that in no way underestimate the intelligence and cleverness of their readers. These books keep subverting the readers' expectations and there are twists and turns and all manner of political machinations. While the pacing can seem slow in places, especially in the first half of this book, where Costis is still angry and confused (and the readers see everything from his POV), Whalen Turner always rewards the readers' patience and all the subtle groundwork being laid in the first half of the books tend to pay off spectacularly in terms of third and fourth act revelations. By this third book in the series, the author has also established an increasing recurring cast in the books - including Eugenides, Helen, Irene and several others who I enjoy "spending time" with. I'm really looking forward to either my nephews or my son being old enough to enjoy these books, so I can relive them through someone else's eyes. 

Judging a book by its cover: While the new covers for the series don't match the early books I own (isn't that always the case with series that take ages to be completed?), I am really very fond of these simple, yet elegant covers, almost like dioramas of some kind. All the audiobooks I now own have these covers, so that will have to comfort me since my paperbacks are never going to match up now unless I get rid of the first four books and replace them all with the new covers. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday 21 October 2021

#CBR13 Book 42: "Through the Woods" by Emily Carroll

Page count: 208 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Shelfie

In five creepy stories ranging from the historical to more recent times, writer and artist Emily Carroll gives us her take on proper spine-tingling fairy tales. Accompanied by her absolutely beautiful art, the tales are all the more chilling because of the illustrations. This absolutely qualifies as a graphic novel, or probably more accurately a graphic short story (or fairy tale) anthology. Some of the stories are short, some are longer, all managed to truly unnerve me, while also entertaining me greatly. 

In Our Neighbour's Place (this one is probably my favourite), three sisters of varying ages are left alone at home in their cabin in the woods while their father goes hunting. His final instructions are to take refuge in the neighbour's house if he is gone for more than three days and nights, which he is. As the food and water supplies dwindle, both the elder and younger sister disappear from the house, after talking dreamily about a man outside in a wide-brimmed hat. In the end, the middle sister, the tale's narrator, has no choice but to follow her sisters out into an unknown fate.

A Lady's Hands are Cold sees a young woman married off to a rich man and goes to live in his big house, where she wanders the beautiful rooms and the manicured grounds and every night hears a sad, plaintive and unnerving song. None of the staff seem to understand what she is asking about, although all are clearly upset by her questions. When her husband leaves for a hunt, the lady decides to go looking for the source of the mysterious singing. She quickly realises she should possibly have left matters as they were.

His Face All Red is a tale of brotherly jealousy and a hunting accident gone terribly wrong (the hunt seems to be a common motif in these stories). One brother is haunted by his actions, and try as he might, he cannot undo what he has wrought.

In My Friend Janna a young woman recounts the tale of her best friend from childhood, a woman she was so close to they might have been sisters. Janna worked as a spiritual medium and our narrator was the hidden figure in the walls that assisted her in making the crowd believe in the supernatural. One day, the young women find a dead hare at the side of the road. Janna touches it, her friend doesn't, and after that, Janna is never quite the same. She appears genuinely haunted, but there's no such things as ghosts and supernatural spirits, are there?

While all the previous stories have a much older historical setting, the final tale, The Nesting Place, appears to be set in the early 20th Century, where Bell, a teenage girl goes to stay with her adult brother and his new fiancee Rebecca while on holiday from boarding school. Rebecca is beautiful and gracious, but there seems to be something slightly odd about her. The elderly housekeeper tells Bell that when Rebecca was a girl, she disappeared in the woods and was missing for three days. She warns Bell to be careful when wandering alone in the forest. Since everyone tells her that Rebecca never goes into the woods anymore, Bell is surprised to see her soon-to-be sister-in-law wandering there one day. She follows, and discovers exactly why her brother's intended doesn't seem entirely like everyone else.

I was given this beautiful hardback as a Christmas present by my husband back in 2014, and it has graced my bookshelves entirely ignored and overlooked since. It's been packed up and moved from one flat to another, all without me giving it a chance because I wasn't sure I was up for a horror collection. Nevertheless, when this year's bingo came around, and there was a square for a shelfie, I figured this gorgeous hardback would finally have its day. More like a few hours (I could have finished it quicker, but I needed a break between each story to process the words and the art and savour the pleasant unease each story evoked in me).

Ms. Carroll's art style, especially some of the ways in which she depicted people as similar to that of Kate Beaton, although while Ms. Beaton does most of her work entirely in black and white, Ms. Carroll uses colours, if mostly a mix of muted browns and dramatic black, white and red. 

Now that I finally read the book, I tried to find out what else Ms. Carroll has published. She doesn't seem terribly prolific, although there is a horror comic from 2019 that I may have to try to track down. Through the Woods is well worth checking out, both for the scary stories and the wonderful art. 

Judging a book by its cover: A simple, yet effective image in stark black, white and red, with the moon front and centre makes the cover of the book very striking. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR13 Book 41: "People We Meet on Vacation" by Emily Henry

Page count: 382 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Travel

Official book description:
Two best friends. Ten summer trips. One last chance to fall in love.

Poppy and Alex. Alex and Poppy. They have nothing in common. She’s a wild child; he wears khakis. She has insatiable wanderlust; he prefers to stay home with a book. And somehow, ever since a fateful car share home from college many years ago, they are the very best of friends. For most of the year they live far apart—she’s in New York City, and he’s in their small hometown—but every summer, for a decade, they have taken one glorious week of vacation together.

Until two years ago, when they ruined everything. They haven’t spoken since.

Poppy has everything she should want, but she’s stuck in a rut. When someone asks when she was last truly happy, she knows, without a doubt, it was on that ill-fated, final trip with Alex. And so, she decides to convince her best friend to take one more vacation together—lay everything on the table, make it all right. Miraculously, he agrees.

Now she has a week to fix everything. If only she can get around the one big truth that has always stood quietly in the middle of their seemingly perfect relationship. What could possibly go wrong?

In this contemporary romance, we meet Poppy and Alex, who despite their different interests and priorities in life ended up best friends after a bit of a false start in college. No matter what they do for the rest of their year, they meet up every summer for one week of vacation together. However, two years ago, something happened, and they have neither seen each other, nor spoken since. 

Poppy is a valued travel writer for a prestigious publication but feels restless and unhappy and she's pretty sure the last time she can remember being truly happy was on that last trip with Alex. She sends him a text message, not really expecting a reply, but is surprised and happy that he's willing to exchange some pleasantries. Alex' younger brother is getting married, and the occasion offers Poppy the opportunity to invite Alex on one last trip when she's determined that she's not only going to mend their friendship but hopefully convince him to take their relationship to the next level. 

Alex is a high school teacher back in their hometown who, due to the early death of his mother, helps his father take care of his younger brother. Over the years of his and Poppy's friendship, both Alex and Poppy have had romantic partners, Alex has mainly been in an on-and-off-again relationship with a co-worker. For the last few years, however, he's been single. 

I'm not going to lie, this review will not be as good as it should be, as I finished this book back at the end of July, and we're now in the middle of October. I had relatively high expectations for this book, considering how affected I was by her first novel for adults, Beach Read. While I read a lot of positive write-ups of this book, the fact that I now barely remember many details at all about the book (while there are still scenes from Beach Read I can recall exactly) means that I've downgraded the rating of the book with half a star and will have to try to dig up my memories of what worked (and didn't) for me.

As with Henry's first novel, this story suffers somewhat from only showing Poppy's point of view throughout. We only know explicitly what Alex feels when he comes out and explains it, which for the longest time he doesn't. Since a lot of the conflict and complications in this novel come from a lack of clear communication between and a number of silly misunderstandings relating to what one or the other believes the other one is looking for as a long-term life goal, it ends up being frustrating to only get Poppy's side of things.

I seem to recall liking the various supporting players, including several of Alex and Poppy's exes, their family members, and even Poppy's demanding boss. There is no villain keeping the lovers apart here, just their own lack of clear communication. While this one didn't stay with me in the same way as Beach Read did, I will absolutely give Henry's next romance a chance when that comes out. 

Judging a book by its cover: Another bright and animated cover, this nevertheless doesn't really seem to capture the sort of journeys that Poppy and Alex like to go on. As with Ms. Henry's previous novel, the cover does not do the contents of her book justice. This suggests a different kind of book than what you're actually getting. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read


Wednesday 6 October 2021

#CBR13 Book 40: "Rule of Wolves" by Leigh Bardugo

Page count: 598 pages
Audio book length: 17 hrs 44 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Fauna (dragon, wolf, falcon and fox on the cover)

In this second part of the King of Scars duology, the stakes are ridiculously high, pretty much as soon as we start off. The book starts pretty much immediately after the end of King of Scars, and if you're not caught up with all the books in the Grishaverse so far, this review will probably spoil things for you. Continue at your own risk.

Nikolai Lantsov has made some peace with the monster inside him, but one of his worst enemies just came back from the dead, the Shu empress wants him dead and is willing to sacrifice her own sister to ensure this goal, the Fjerdans are ready to declare war on him, and the woman he loves seems more out of reach than ever.

Zoya is mightily sick of war, and casualties, and losing loved ones to pointless conflicts. She will nevertheless fight until her last dying breath to defend Ravka, the Grisha, and her king. A king who will have to make a successful and strategic marriage alliance to help strengthen Ravka in the conflicts they are facing, both internal and external. She's also tormented by the return of someone she believed was dead and gone, and it's not helping her keep calm and rational, as appropriate for a general facing war on multiple fronts.

Nina is still wearing another woman's face and working with the daughter of her enemy to spy on the Fjerdans. She's trying to persuade the Fjerdan people that the Grisha are not the dangerous threats that the Witch-hunters paint them to be, and find out as many state secrets as possible to aid her king and general in the rapidly-approaching war. She's not at all happy when it seems like the best way to discover more of Fjerda's invasion plans involves her loyal friend Hanne Brum's prolonged flirtation with and possible betrothal to the spoiled and unstable Fjerdan crown prince. 

I'm trying not to reveal too much of the plot here, and these books really have a lot going on. I love Nikolai, Zoya, Nina, and the rest of the numerous cast of these books so much and should probably go back and give the Shadow and Bone trilogy another chance. Now that I know where the story ends up going, I may have more patience for the setup and Bardugo learning her writing craft, which she is now excellent at. There is so much happening in this duology, and if it ever makes it to the screen (who knows how much money Netflix is willing to fork out for YA fantasy?) it's going to make for spectacular entertainment. 

This book had me in parts laughing, crying, biting my nails (both figuratively and literally), and quietly sighing with relief. There are cameos from several of the gang from the Six of Crows duology, as well as more time spent with series favourites from Ravka. I've always been incredibly impressed with Bardugo's world-building, and now that the focus isn't on Alina and Mal (I just could not with those two drips) I pretty much adore everyone I'm reading about, while thoroughly loathing the villains.

Lauren Fortgang, who seems to be Bardugo's audiobook narrator of choice, continues to do an excellent job here, and while the audiobook is long, I kept finding new excuses to listen, even when I was at home. I don't know whether Bardugo has plans to continue writing in her wonderful Grishaverse, the ending of this book could suggest that, maybe, if we're lucky, there are more adventures to come at some point in the future. 

Judging a book by its cover: While the cover for King of Scars was all golden, this one is all silver. The beautiful woodcut effect is continued here, with the big tree in the centre of the cover probably being one of the trees holy to the Fjerdans (the metaphorical wolves of the title). There's also a number of carved animals, all representing various characters or nations in the story, very cleverly done. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read