Wednesday 27 January 2021

#CBR13 Book 3: "The Sisters of the Winter Wood" by Rena Rossner

Page count: 488 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 46 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

Official book description:
In a remote village surrounded by vast forests on the border of Moldova and Ukraine, sisters Liba and Laya have been raised on the honeyed scent of their Mami’s babka and the low rumble of their Tati’s prayers. But when a troupe of mysterious men arrives, Laya falls under their spell – despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And this is not the only danger lurking in the woods.

As dark forces close in on their village, Liba and Laya discover a family secret passed down through generations. Faced with a magical heritage they never knew existed, the sisters realize the old fairy tales are true…and could save them all.

While the main story of this young adult fantasy novel with heavy fairytale elements is fictional, it's based on true historical events and the towns and places referenced really did exist back in 1903. Rena Rossner's extended family all came from the area and villages in question, and in the afterword, she explains that the ones that didn't escape after the pogroms and persecutions started in 1903, the ones who were still there in 1942, didn't survive the Nazi Holocaust. She wanted to write a book honouring her family and heritage, and also really wanted to do a retelling of Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, because the story of the two sisters always appealed to her. As well as the influences from the Victorian poem about sisters tempted by seductive fruit sellers, Rossner also includes elements from Ukranian and Russian folklore with their bear-men and swan-maidens. 

When Liba and Laya are left alone in their little cabin in the woods outside the village of Dubossary (which is now near the borders of Moldova and Ukraine) after their father and mother are called away, hearing that their father's father, a legendary rabbi is on his death bed. While the young women are in their late teens, they have lived a sheltered life and are not used to independence. A Jewish couple from the village are supposed to be looking in on them occasionally, but they appear to have up and left town very suddenly, without leaving word. 

Laya, the youngest of the two sisters, especially chafes at all of their parents' restrictions, and is very easily tempted by the handsome fruitseller brothers, the Hovlins, who have just arrived in town. She seems like she cannot get enough of their luscious fruit or the company of one of the young men. She sneaks out every night to meet with him. Liba, on the other hand, feels herself getting the creeps every time she goes near the fruitsellers. Their obviously anti-Semitic views don't endear them to her either. She tries to warn her sister away, but her words have little sway with her besotted younger sister. 

Before their parents left them, they imparted long-held family secrets to the girls. Liba has the power to shift into a bear, like her father, and they come from a long line of Hasidic rabbis who gained the ability to shapeshift into bears in a time of great danger. Meanwhile, her mother, who converted into Judaism, is from an ancient family of swan-shifters. Her mother confesses that Laya has a different father from Liba, and that's why she's a swan-shifter. Apparently, at some point, their mother's swan clan may come looking for Laya, and her parents task her with keeping her sister safe. Liba, unfortunately, notices her body trying to transform into a bear at any time she gets upset, and also struggles with her growing feelings for the butcher's son, Dovid. While he is also Jewish, not an unbeliever like the wicked Hovlin boys, Liba isn't optimistic that their father will find him a suitable husband for her, especially once the secrets about the bear-shifting are revealed. Who would want a woman who turns into a giant bear?

While Jews and Christians have lived peacefully and harmoniously side by side in the village for decades, there are unhappy mutterings and whispers the longer the Hovlins stay in town and ply their wares. A young woman goes missing and is found in the orchard of a Jewish family, drained of blood. Later a young man is found, also drained of blood. There are rumours that they were killed by Jews and the blood used for sinister things in their religious ceremonies. Liba is appalled, and also more and more worried about her sister, who eats nothing but fruit and seems obsessed with her slightly sinister non-Jewish suitor. There are also stories about big bears in the woods (could they have killed the drained victims?).

Using shapeshifting as a metaphor for puberty isn't exactly anything new, I remember it being a very obvious comparison drawn by the horror movie Ginger Snaps. Feeling like you're not entirely in control of your body, having strange and uncontrollable urges, being worried that you're going to do something stupid - this is all part of being a teenager (I work surrounded by them all day and am so grateful I'm decades past my own teen years). Of course, Liba and Laya have different cravings and urges, yet seem to spend almost more time worrying about the other than they do themselves (although Liba naturally fears turning into a big bear and mauling everyone she holds dear). 

There was a lot to like about this book, but it was also a bit slow. For reasons that I'm sure were meant to show the differences between the sisters and their general states of mind and approaches to the world, Liba's chapters are written in prose, while Laya's chapters are all in a strange kind of verse. Sadly, it seems a bit as if Ms. Rossner occasionally just added line breaks every so often to make it seem more 'poetic', while the overall effect is more that the pages and pages of verse in her chapters quickly get difficult to read. 

The mix of fiction highlighting actual historical events, like the persecution and eradication of Jews in turn of the century Eastern Europe with fantastical fairy tale inspired characters and fates was an interesting one. So many books, even historical fantasy ones, are written from a Christianity-centric viewpoint. It was both interesting and unusual to read one so well researched and steeped in Jewish culture and traditions. This was the author's debut, and I see she has another fairy tale inspired book out later this year, so I suspect I will be giving her another chance. 

Judging a book by its cover: This cover is absolutely gorgeous and so very intricate and detailed. I absolutely love how it looks like an old woodcut that's been varnished or polished to highlight certain parts of the wood. Pretty much everything that turns out to be important in the story is hinted at in the cover illustration, so it's well worth giving some time. The author specifically thanked the cover artist in the acknowledgments and I can see why.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday 20 January 2021

#CBR13 Book 2: "Blood Heir" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 359 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Info to new readers - while this is the first book in a new series, and as such, should be perfectly accessible to readers completely unaware of Ilona Andrews' previous books, it references A LOT of stuff that happened in the ten-book Kate Daniels series, as well as in Iron and Magic, a spin-off book of that series. I would highly recommend that you start there. 

Aurelia Ryder arrives back in Atlanta after an eight-year absence, trying to keep her presence mostly under the radar. The last time she was in the city, her name was Julie Olsen Lennart, adopted daughter of magical powerhouse Kate Daniels and the former Beast Lord of the Atlanta pack, Curran Lennart. Now there's a sinister prophecy requiring her return, but she can't see her family or let them know she's there, or Kate is destined to die. Aurelia/Julie needs to look into the grisly death of a clergyman and stop a malevolent magical force from gaining a foothold in Atlanta. 

Of course, going back to her old home means stirring up a lot of old memories, and she runs into a lot of familiar faces along the way. Julie Olsen was known and loved by many, Aurelia Ryder is an unknown entity and there are a lot of people who are curious as to her origins and reasons for suddenly appearing in Atlanta, fighting monsters, and trying to right wrongs. Thankfully, after her eight years away, Julie doesn't just have a new name, she has a different face and is quite the magical force to be reckoned with herself. She doesn't intend any harm to come to her family, even if they can't know she's protecting them.

This novel started as free snippets posted on Ilona Andrews' website because a Covid nurse e-mailed them and asked for something to read to take her mind off her gruelling work schedule. A few years back, in 2018, having finished the Kate Daniels series, the husband and wife team who make up Ilona Andrews considered doing a spin-off about Julie, Kate's adopted daughter, but were a bit bored with the world and its characters and needed a break for a while. This nurse's request seems to have made them revisit their already established paranormal fantasy world, moving the action eight years after the end of their last book, and switching to a different protagonist. A lot of the characters Aurelia/Julie interacts with and encounters over the course of the book first appeared in the Kate Daniels books, and while there is a lot of information given about the world, the magic system, the complex politics that keep it running, I suspect a reader would be a lot more comfortable having read at least some of the previous series before starting this one.

After a few months of posting partial chapters every week, when it became clear that this could actually be fashioned into a whole book fit for publication, the authors removed the free snippets and retooled the stuff they'd already written into an exciting, action-packed novel. The work they started on the website needed some major rewrites to work properly as a full book and I, for one, am happy with the wait as it seems we may be getting a whole new series out of it.

I know a lot of people found Julie a bit annoying as a supporting character in the Kate books. I never had a major problem with her, and teenagers are always difficult characters to write at the best of times. The protagonist of this book, Aurelia/Julie is a battle-hardened young woman who's been trained in both the magical and martial arts by true experts, and her involuntary physical changes have come about after long periods of pain and self-sacrifice. She loves her family and won't let any harm come to them, even if it pains her not to see her parents after a long absence. 

Aurelia/Julie has to solve a series of gruesome supernatural murders and prevent the demonic avatar of an ancient god from taking over Atlanta and claiming her in the bargain. She works with the Knights of the Order of Merciful Aid, and also has run-ins with old acquaintances from the Atlanta Pack of shapeshifters. Very unexpectedly, Julie also finds herself face to face with her old crush, Derek Gaunt, now also massively changed and back in Atlanta after years away. Now an actual honest to goodness princess and warrior in her own right, Julie believed herself to be over Derek, but every encounter they have proves to her that he's still someone who can make her far too flustered. She's sure he has no idea who Aurelia Ryder really is, though, and since the most expedient way to solve the murders seems to be working with him, she keeps finding herself in close contact with the wolf shifter, bantering and fighting.

There's a lot of set-up in this book, and it ends on a cliff hanger, so I certainly hope the authors are intending to continue this series for at least another book or two. I would obviously have liked more romance between Julie and Derek, but considering the authors dragged out Kate and Curran's courtship over two-three books, I guess it was overly optimistic that everything was going to be wrapped up with a neat little bow after just one book. 

If you're a fan of Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels books, you are sure to enjoy this book too. It felt very comforting to be back in a world I already knew well, seeing it through the eyes of a different character. It was obviously also nice to see how life had changed for a lot of the old fan favourites from the earlier series. I pre-ordered this, and it seems to be selling well. Fingers crossed that it's the start of a series, not a rather tantalising one-off. 

Judging a book by its cover: I feel like the only time ever that Ilona Andrews gets nice cover art is when they commission it themselves. To be fair (as well as the other picture of Julie as a Princess of Shinar that the very talented Luisa Preissler drew and which is also included in the book) may be one of my favourite cover images of any paranormal fantasy book I own. Which is funny, because White Hot is probably the most eye-gougingly bad book cover of any I own. Not many authors have such a breadth of cover art. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

Tuesday 19 January 2021

Reading Challenges Announcement Post 2021

 I really was intending to cut back quite a bit on my reI'ading challenges this year, keeping up only the ones that helped me decide on books for the coming months and helped me push myself out of my comfort zone a bit. But when you start looking online, there are so many cool options and so many challenges I've enjoyed in the past. So the list for 2021 turns out to be just as long as the one for last year. 

I've set myself a few general reading goals, just to try to stop the doom scrolling and get myself motivated to do what I enjoy doing the most, reading and reviewing books. So I'm going to try to read and/or listen to books for at least 30 minutes a day. I'm going to try to read more diversely, BIPOC and LGBTQIA-authors and characters. I'm going to try to listen more to audiobooks, as it's a great way to get reading done, while I also do other things, like knitting, commute, do chores, go to the shops, and so forth. I'm also going to try never being more than five books behind on my review backlog, but I fear that by the end of January, I'm already back to my old bad habits again. Finally, I'm going to try to be better about taking notes while and/or after I finish a book, to help me remember my thoughts when I sit down to review.

My reading challenge list for 2021 - just as ridiculous as last year:

1. The Cannonball Read - read and review 52 books.

2. Double Cannonball - read and review another 52 books, bringing my total to 104. This year, I hopefully won't have to resort to doing short reviews of my DNFs of the year to find enough books. Also hoping I'll at least finish in the top ten. 

3. The Goodreads Reading Challenge - set to 100. They allow you to count re-reads now, but I've been burned in the past. 

4. The StoryGraph Reading Challenge - also set to 100. What, you don't log all the books you read on multiple sites?

5. Cannonball Book Bingo - you can bet I'm going to be aiming to fill another bingo card this year.

6. 52 Books in 52 Weeks - This challenge was relatively easy to complete last year. All books have to be more than 100 pages, and no children's books are allowed. 

7. Audiobook Challenge 2021 - I'm playing it safe and aiming for the same goal as last year. Socially awkward (don't talk to me) - how very fitting. 15-20 audiobooks, hopefully, I'll smash this goal. 

8. Beat the Backlist - Read as many books as possible from my reading lists published in 2020 or earlier. The books have to be started and finished in 2021. 

9. The Backlist Reader Challenge 2021 - I love me some challenges with an overlap. Pretty much exactly as the challenge listed above, only here the books have to be published before 2019 and earlier. 

10. Books and Tea Challenge 2021 - This is a new to me challenge with 12 prompts that looked interesting and not too fiendishly difficult to complete. So onto the list, it goes. 

11. Chunkster Challenge - this little challenge amused me, as the only goal seems to be that the books have to be 450 pages or above to be counted. As I read quite a few chunky books, it seemed like a fun one to add to my list. It'll also motivate me to not just read short books all year. 

12. Colour Coded Challenge - since it became acceptable to read both books with a cover primarily featuring the colours in question, not just books with the colour in the title, this has become one of my must complete challeges every year. It's another one that allows me to chip off my TBR list gradually.

13. Diversity Reading Challenge 2021 - this year, as with previous years, I'm setting my goal to 40 books. 

14. Fantasy Reading Challenge 2021 - This challenge gives 12 prompts (and helpful suggestions), one for each month, and will help me get more books of my ever-growing TBR list. Pretty sure the only prompt that will give me any difficulties is the "read a fantasy book from 50 years ago".

15. Finishing the Series 2021 - Once again, I'm going to have to go for the highest difficulty level, A-list finisher, 9+ series finished. 

16. Historical Fiction Reading Challenge - This is another every year challenge for me, and I'm choosing to go for "Ancient History" - 25-50 books once more. 

17. Historical Romance Book Bingo - This is another new challenge, with a high probability that I won't manage to finish it over the course of the year, I certainly don't foresee myself completing the entire bingo card, which comes to 30 different books. I haven't read that much historical romance in years, but it could be fun to try to motivate myself to read more of it. 

18. Monthly Keyword Challenge - six keywords per month, with flexible interpretations for those who need it. Probably the best way for me to keep myself motivated for reading, as it helps me find books to read every month. 

19. Monthly Motif Challenge - one motif or overarching theme per month. Also a lot of fun. 

20. Mount TBR Challenge - As always, I'm picking challenge level Mount Vancouver - 37-48 books. 

21. New Releases Challenge - Read books released in 2021. Like last year, I'm choosing level "New Releases Pro" - 31-60 books. 

22. Tackle My TBR - this is pretty much exactly the same challenge as nr 20. Two challenges with one amount of reading. Win. This one has monthly challenges as well, will try to be better about completing those this year. My goal - Field Goal - 37-48 books. 

23. What an Animal Challenge 2021 - This is a challenge I used to do all the time, as it only really required there to be an animal mentioned in the title or featured on the cover. Now, the animal has to feature prominently in the story. Luckily, it allows for all manner of supernatural beasties and shapeshifters, so I'm probably going to be just fine. I've signed up for level 2 - 7-12 books. 

24. What's in a Name 2021 - 6 different book prompts, which looked fun again this year. So I'm back for another year. I've already completed my first book for this one!

25. R.I.P. 16 Reading Challenge - won't start until September, but I'll read some spooky books that qualify. 

26. Reading Challenge Addict - Out of This World - 16+ Challenges entered and completed. I think we can all agree that I have a bit of a reading challenge problem, right?

Monday 18 January 2021

Reading Challenge Wrap-Up post 2020

 New year, new challenges. I've had a lot of work already this year, which is why I'm already terribly behind on my reviews, and on writing this post, announcing my sign-up for the many challenges which will help me plan my reading lists over the course of 2020. By now, I've been doing so many varied challenges for so long that I'm not entirely sure how I'd plan my reading without various prompts. Just pick up any old book I fancy - that's just madness.

Challenges 1 and 2: The Cannonball Read. This is the primary reading challenge I take part in every year, to be the first to read and review 52 books. As I'm writing this, Vel Veeter, the winner of the last, I want to say three, years has already reviewed 24 books, so being number one isn't really going to happen. Still, it's challenging enough reading and reviewing 104 books by the end of the year, in 2020, I managed with an hour to spare. I finished in 8th place, which is all I can hope for these days. Hence I count this as two challenges, entered and completed. 

3. Goodreads 2020 Reading Challenge: I signed up to read 100 books and managed to complete that goal. 

4. 52 Books in 52 Weeks: Exactly what it sounds like. Read 52 books over the course of the year.  Books counted need to be at least a hundred pages long. I finished this one by mid-July.

5. Alphabet Challenge: Read one book starting with each letter of the alphabet. For Q, X and Z, the word that starts with the letter can be anywhere in the title. This challenge proved tricky enough to complete (last book finished just before Christmas) that I won't be continuing it again this year - I need a year or two to "collect" suitable books. 

6. 2020 Audiobook Challenge: I signed up for Level 4, Socially Awkward. 15-20 books. I ended up having read 31 at the end of the year, so I'm proud of that. 

7. Beat the Backlist: Read as many books from your backlist/TBR as possible. As long as the books were published in 2019 or earlier, they are fair game. My final tally was 54 books. 

8. The Backlist Reader Challenge 2020: For this one, you also read books from your TBR, but here the book has to be published in 2018 or before, and has to have been on your TBR list from before you actually read it. Here the final tally was 34

9. Colour Coded Reading Challenge 2020: This is a challenge I've been doing for years, and I really like it. Read at least nine books, one for each category with blue, red, yellow, green, brown, black, white, any other colour or which implies colour in the title or on the cover. Before the rules changed so the primary colour of the cover could count to fill the category, it was a much more difficult challenge to complete. This year, since the Cannonball Read Bingo Card also had squares that involved colour, I had additional motivation to complete this challenge. I only needed to read 9, I ended up reading 27 books. 

10. Contemporary Romance Challenge: Here I signed up for 3rd base, 11-15 books, and since contemporary romance turned out to be the genre I read more than anything else last year, it wasn't very difficult to complete, even though no paranormal, historical, time travel, fantasy, sci-fi or mystery/suspense/thriller were allowed. I ended up hitting my goal in February, and read 31 books over the course of the year.

11. Diversity Reading Challenge: I strive to challenge myself and read more diversely, so challenges like these are good to make sure I hit my goals. For this challenge, the author and/or one of the main characters (preferably a POV character) has to belong to a diverse group, including, but not limited to LGBTQIA, native, people of colour, gender diversity, people with disabilities, ethnic, cultural or religious minorities. I challenged myself to read at least 40 by the end of the year, and managed by the end of October. In the end, I read 51 books that qualify for this list.

12. For the Love of E-books Challenge: I set myself the most difficult challenge level here, Legend Status, with 60 or more books, because I wanted to make sure I read more than in previous years. Since I listened to more audio books this year, it took longer to complete this challenge than I was expecting. I didn't actually finish it until Christmas Eve, and by New Year's Eve, I'd only read 62 e-books this year.

13. Finishing the Series: I read far too many multi-book series, and frequently get bored and/or distracted halfway through. To encourage me to actually complete some of the many series I read, I signed up for this challenge again, I've set myself a harder goal, going for A-list, to finish 9 or more ongoing series over the course of the year. Obviously, it doesn't count if you also START the series during the year (if it did, my total would be way higher). I ended up finishing 13 series, some are still ongoing. 

14. Historical Fiction Reading Challenge: Once upon a time, I could easily finish the most difficult level of this (50+ books), but nowadays, I just don't read as many historical novels as I used to. Hence, my goal for this one was a more achievable 25-50 books (the Ancient History level). As it was, I only reached my goal in mid-December and only read 28 books that would qualify as historical fiction all year.

15. Literary Pickers Challenge: Making my romance reading that little bit more fun, this challenge is like a book scavenger hunt, where you are supposed to tick off a list of items in romances, or books with a strong romantic element. I signed up for level 2 - Garage Sale Guru, where I had to tick off 25 of the 100 items on the list. Some of the categories were absolutely more difficult this year, but I still managed to find 25 items by mid-April, and by the end of the years, I'd ticked 44 different items off the list.

16. Monthly Keyword Challenge: This is one of the challenges that really helps me get through a lot of the older books on my TBR and especially encourages me to read books I actually own, not just get them from other sources. It also allows me to start each month by making a long, comprehensive list, which I absolutely love doing. There are six keywords for each month, and you can be pretty creative in interpreting the words as well, so my selection of books is rarely limited. Obviously, the minimum amount of books to complete in a year is 12, I ended up reading 28.

17. Monthly Motif Challenge: Another list that helps me work through my ever-expanding TBR list. With each month given its own motif or theme, it gives the reader a pretty wide scope to choose from. I needed to read 12 books, I completed 29.

18. New Releases Challenge: This challenge was all about reading books released in 2020, and there are enough new and exciting books coming out any given that I was pretty certain I was going to manage level 2 - New Release Pro - 31-60 books. I finished my 31st book about a third of the way through December, and ended on 37 new releases at the end of the year.

19. Retellings Challenge: I exceeded my expectations for this challenge in 201, and so decided to do it again in 2020. I signed up for the level Warrior Princess - 6-10 retellings. Sadly, this is the only one of my many challenges that I completely failed at this year - I managed only three retellings over the course of the year, despite having so many worthy candidates that would have fit the bill on my TBR list. Guess my heart just wasn't in it. 

20. Tackle my TBR list: For this challenge, I set myself the goal of 37-48 books (Field Goal). Until about halfway through the year, I also did pretty well on the various monthly challenges, but that fizzled out as the year progressed and my work became more demanding. I completed 37 books by the end of July and managed to cull 54 books from my TBR in total (I bet I added more than that to the list again - sigh)

21. Mount TBR Challenge: For this challenge, the various levels are named after various peaks and mountains. Matching my other TBR challenge, I chose 37-48 books, Mount Vancouver. I like when I can complete two challenges at once, with the same amount of effort. 

22. What's in a Name 2020: This was a challenge that I took a break from for a few years because I didn't like the categories offered. In 2020, the list seemed achievable, and I'd finished it by the end of November. 

23. The RIP 15 Challenge: This challenge, now hosted on Twitter,  is one that I take part in every September to October because I like the genres it suggests you read, and it's another easy one to complete. I frequently do seven books for this one, but only did the minimum required of 4 this year.

24. The Cannonball Bingo: For the past two years, the Cannonball Read has arranged a Bingo in the latter half of the year to keep the readers interested and motivated and the reviews on the site from dwindling. I've managed to complete the full card each time and obviously set myself that same goal in 2020. I had filled my card with about three weeks to spare, so this one felt good. 

25. Reading Challenge Addict: As with pretty much every year since I started doing reading challenges, I have chosen "Out of this world" - 16 challenges or more entered and completed. Since I entered 25 challenges and completed 24, this challenge is well and truly met.

That concludes my reading challenge round-up of 2020. Stay tuned for my announcement post for 2021!

2020: My year in review

It's not exactly a good sign for my coming year that my year in review is posted more than halfway through January, because I've either been too buried in work to figure out what my best of 2020 looked like, or too tired from the many nearly sleepless nights required to get the end of semester grades in once I went back to work. Better late than never and all that.

I think we can all agree that 2020 sucked more than anyone ever suspected it would. Because of the world-spanning Covid-19 epidemic, much of this year was spent trying to socially distance from people and staying far away from anyone not in your immediate family. Now, for some people, that might have meant more time and energy to read, for me, sadly it mainly translated into my already worsening depression and anxiety culminating in a severe panic attack, which left me unable to return to work for three weeks (this was just as schools were gradually opening back up here). There's been far too much doom scrolling and not enough reading.

Still, there were good things about 2020, as well. I started therapy and had to admit to myself that the expectations I had of myself were massively unrealistic, so I've had to step back and take some time to get better. I've discovered that I have a generous, kind, sympathetic, and supportive network around myself, which includes my co-workers, husband, family members, and friends both near and far (most of whom I've had to connect with via the internet since March). As well as the Cannonball Read community, I've made some nice acquaintances in my local fantasy/sci-fi book club and for some of the year, we were able to meet up in person to discuss books, which was lovely. My son is nearly three years old, and a constant delight, even as he sometimes drives me up the wall. He's getting better at entertaining himself while playing and makes up little stories of his own. He likes being read to and reading "self", which naturally warms my heart.

Despite the craziness and tons of depressing news throughout the year, being unable to see family (thankfully my husband's parents came and visited us in February, the same weekend the very first Covid patients were confirmed in Norway - if the trip had been scheduled a few weeks later, it's unlikely they'd have been able to come here) and travel anywhere at all, and still finding it hard both to motivate myself to read and review, I managed to complete my goal of a double Cannonball (in the nick of time on New Year's Eve) and my reading total was slightly higher than in 2019.

I got 333 new books in 2020. 301 were e-books, 19 were audio books, 13 were dead tree. 16 were gifts and 31 others were free.

I took part in 25 reading challenges over the course of the year, and completed 24 of them. So not bad going there. 

Total pages read in 2020: 37 328
Total books started: 111
New books read: 95
Audio books: 31
Comic books/graphic novels: 5
Novellas: 14
Re-reads: 12
DNFs: 4

Of the books I read in the last year, 83% were written by women, 13% were written by men, while 4% were by a husband and wife writing team. 25% of the books were by authors who could be described as BIPOC (black, indigenous or people of colour ) which is higher than last year, but still lower than I would have liked. I don't know enough about which of the many authors I read qualify as queer, otherwise I would probably have done a count of how many LGBTQIA-authors I've read. I shall try to figure that out for next year. 

Genre breakdown for 2020:
Contemporary romance: 32%
Paranormal/urban fantasy: 20%
Historical romance: 14%
Young adult: 9%
Sci-fi: 8%
Fantasy: 7%
Contemporary fiction: 4%
Non-fiction: 2%
Mystery: 2%
Children's: 2%

My best of 2020 - not rating them because it's too hard

Excellent world building, amazing supporting cast, charismatic and very compatible romantic leads and an over-arching mystery that I hope gets a satisfying ending in the next book in the series

A short, beautifully illustrated companion novel to the Folk of the Air series, which gives Cardan the narrative voice for a change, and made me want to revisit the whole trilogy once more.

This was funny, sad, heart-warming and deeply romantic and made me laugh way more than I was expecting. I hope Netflix options it as a romantic comedy.

Probably my absolute favourite book of the year, if I had to pick just one. Poor Dani is so sure she's unlovable and Saf is just the ultimate cinnamon roll hero - who reads romance!

Such a wonderful book with a truly eclectic cast of characters focus on belonging and family, with a couple of sweet queer romances thrown in as a bonus.
Courtney Milan surprised everyone with this unexpected release, featuring a half-Chinese Duke and the woman he's loved for years. Now he wants to propose to her, but he's afraid to tell her who he really is. This book is almost annoyingly angst-free and has one of the best twists on the "just one bed" I've ever read.

A very different kind of magical boarding school, where there are no teachers or actual staff, but pretty much everything else in the school tries to kill the students. Alliances have to be made to make it out alive at graduation, and El, prophecied to become an evil sorceress, is having trouble making friends.

Nick and Charlie and all their friends go on a school trip to Paris. More people couple up, adorably.

I reviewed an ARC of this back in 2019 and revisited it in audio this year. I like that Parker writes romances between actual adults, this time former TV anchor rivals turned reluctant co-workers.

Arabella Larke might be a heroine that takes a while to warm up to, but she's "difficult" for a number of reasons, and when her viscount finally gets over himself and his prejudices and takes the time to actually see her, the romance is all the more glorious for it.

Best of before 2020 (some of the books were re-reads, and hence didn't get included again)
Very much did NOT expect a book about a zombie apocalypse to be on my best of the year list. The full-cast audio was excellent.

This was a really difficult book to listen to because Queenie is a very damaged young woman and she puts herself through a lot of bad stuff before she starts healing. The book has stayed with me throughout the year, though, so deserves a spot on this list.

Heists and deception and double-crossings galore. Excellent historical romance

One of my favourite historical romances of all time, now in audiobook. I loved it when it came out, it's still flawless

A gorgeous illustrated children's book telling the semi-autobiographical story of a little girl growing up and wanting to lighten her skin. She learns that she's beautiful just the way she is.

Nick and Charlie meet, become friends, fall in love, and have to navigate how to openly become a couple. Absolutely adorable.

Short and steamy novella which really gave me cravings for Indian food.

The first Mia Vincy I read, early in the year, such an unusual historical romance

A lovely fairy tale-like story about friendship, love, chasing your dreams, and being accepted for who you really are.

Oh, Murderbot, I finally caught up with all of your shorter adventures and now need to read your novel-length story as well. 

Sunday 10 January 2021

#CBR13 Book 1: "The Princess Diarist" by Carrie Fisher

Page count: 267 pages
Audio book length: 5 hrs 10 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

On the 27th of December 2016, Carrie Frances Fisher, probably best known worldwide as the actress who portrayed Princess Leia Organa in six Star Wars movies died of heart failure. I bought this audiobook on the same day in honour of her memory, but haven't really felt up to listening to it before now. 

Carrie Fisher is probably the celebrity whose death has hit me the hardest. Heath Ledger, Alan Rickman and David Bowie all upset me, but with Carrie Fisher, I felt genuine and long-lasting grief and watching her last actual performance in The Last Jedi and posthumous appearance in The Rise of Skywalker had me crying buckets. She was a tremendously important part of my childhood and adolescence, long before I entirely understood how important a character Princess Leia was to me. 

I was born in Sweden and grew up next door to a boy who was about three years older than me. Because of him, I watched the original Star Wars trilogy before I was really aware of what the story was about and I played with his action figures (obviously, as the girl, I got to be Leia in all her various costume options). I imprinted on this strong and heroic woman, really the only female of note in the original three movies. 

As I grew up, I came across Carrie Fisher in other films and learned more about her personal life. Her no-nonsense feminism and openness about her mental health issues and other aspects of her life didn't in any way diminish my admiration for her. She really was a hero for me, and listening to this book, and now, reviewing it, I'm once again so sorry we lost her when we did - at 60, she had so much living left to do. 

I suppose I should say something about what this book is actually about, shouldn't I? Published in November 2016, it would end up being the last book our revered Space Mom ever released. In it, she reveals that having re-discovered journals she wrote while filming the first Star Wars movie, she thought back to that part of her life and the events that transpired. She shares stories about how she was cast in what she thought would be a fun, low-budget space adventure movie, with absolutely no idea that it was going to change the face of cinema forever. Instead of Princess Leia being a part she played once back in the late 1970s before she was even sure she really wanted to become an actress, it became a role she would repeat five more times, not to mention be irrevocably identified with for the rest of her life, not just by sci-fi fans at conventions, but pretty much everywhere.

In the book, she also reveals the until the book's release closely kept secret that she had an affair with the then-married Harrison Ford while they were shooting the film. Despite being the daughter of a famous actress, having dropped out of high school to live a life as a backing singer and actress, Fisher was really rather naive and inexperienced when she arrived on the set of Star Wars, determined to broaden her sexual horizons with someone, but never imagining that it could be Harrison Ford, her charismatic love interest, who she seemed to be utterly in awe of both back in the 70s and later. While she does reveal some of the story of their relationship, there are no particularly salacious details here and anyone looking for juicy gossip is going to be disappointed.

Ms. Fisher also shares her thoughts on the later years of her life, constantly associated with Princess Leia, how she initially never wanted to be caught dead at a fan convention but ended up doing a lot of them. She recounts a bunch of fan encounters, never too maliciously, but with a sharp wit that shows she was very aware of how much of a commodity her fame became, and how the Princess Leia persona sometimes eclipsed Carrie Fisher herself. 

I think my favourite part of the book was the actual excerpts from Carrie Fisher's notebook journals at the time, read by her daughter Billie Lourd. They come across almost like little poems and show all the passion during the relationship, she also felt uncomfortable, with a guilty conscience, during the time she and Ford were together. She described the relationship as "one long one-night stand". 

I clearly need to get more of Carrie Fisher's books, as she's a witty and self-deprecating writer. It's sadly not like we're going to get more movies or TV-show performances from her.

Judging a book by its cover: One of the things Ms. Fisher shares in this book is how long it took to decide on her hair for Star Wars and how many different hairstyles were tried and rejected before the iconic "cinnamon bun ear muffs" that Leia sports for much of the movie were decided upon. I like the choice to make the cover something that could clearly be a promotional image of Fisher in her youth, as Leia, without showing us all of her iconic face. The author's name is her scrawled autograph, which she signed so many times (referring to it in the book as a "celebrity lapdance"). 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.