Friday 26 February 2021

#CBR13 Book 8: "Guards! Guards!" by Terry Pratchett

Page count: 412 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 8 mins
Rating: 5 stars

The Night Watch of the sprawling city of Ankh-Morpork consists of only three people (although people might question if Nobby Nobbs is entirely human) led by the depressed and shambolic Captain Samuel Vimes. No one is more surprised than he when he finds out that they have a new recruit from the mountains who actually volunteed for the Watch. No one ever does that. The fact that young Carrot Ironfunderson claims to be a dwarf, even though he's 6 foot 2 and seems to keep misunderstanding how the city is run is something Vimes really doesn't really have time to worry about. He's busy either getting drunk or recovering from a hangover. 

Then, a series of mysterious incidents around the city leave people entirely vaporised, with wall tiles melted from high heat. Now everyone knows there's no such thing as actual dragons, that they disappeared a very long time ago, but it sure looks like there may be a dragon terrorising innocent (and not so innocent city dwellers). The city's patrician is very clear that the Watch leave the situation alone, no need to investigate and cause critical questions to be asked. One of the reasons why Vimes is the drunken leader of a sad bad of unwanteds, however, is that he doesn't really like to conform to what people expect of him. He enlists the help of Lady Sybil Ramkin, who knows everything there is about the only dragons that SHOULD exists, tiny swamp dragons. 

Not that anyone, let alone Vimes, is very happy when it turns out that there is in fact a big, dangerous dragon threatening the citizens of Ankh-Morpork. Now normally, these sort of situations seem to require a hero to be revealed to slay the dragon, and win the hand of the daughter of the king, but the Patrician doesn't even have a daughter (only an elderly aunt, who doesn't seem to want to marry anyone) and the ransom offered really isn't very high, so none of the regular heroes feel motivated to show up for the job. It might be up to Vimes and his rag-tag squad to save the city, the unlikeliest heroes of all. 

Reviewing a book I really love is much harder than reviewing one I hated or even one that was just fine. Terry Pratchett's Discworld books have been such an important part of life for the last 25 years or so. Reading my first one was a wholly different experience to any other fantasy novel I'd read before, and after moving to the UK for university, and especially after meeting the man who is now my husband (21 years together this year, baby!), the books became even more special to me, as he grew up with the series and loved them all. 

I knew no one else who read them when I was a teen in Norway. In the UK, Pratchett was a best-selling author every time he released a new novel. He did frequent signing tours (which is why many of my books are signed by him - Pratchett used to say it was rarer to find an unsigned copy of his works since he toured so much. My husband even has Good Omens signed by both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, not as easy a feat, since Gaiman didn't use to tour places near us very often). 

This was the first time I re-read Guards! Guards! for probably 15 years or so. Of the 40+ Discworld novels (if you include the various YA books he also wrote in the world, which I do), this is book 8, and probably the one where the series goes from being an interesting experiment where Pratchett tries to satirise traditional classic adventure novels and fantasy to something truly genius. From this book onwards, the books pretty much all keep getting better and better and sharper and more observant of human nature, modern society, politics, and generally the world at large, all delivered in the guise of humorous fantasy. Only with the last few books, written after the Alzheimer's really started affecting him, is the quality noticeably lower than in the rest. 

There's a number of entry points into the Discworld books, depending on what takes your fancy the most. There are the Death books, the Witches books, the Rincewind (and later Wizards of the Unseen University) books, there are a number of excellent sort of standalone one, like Pyramids or Small Gods. Later in the series, there are the Moist von Lipwig books, and the wonderful YA Tiffany Aching books. Guards! Guards! is the first of the City Watch books. The fact that this, not even the best of the ones featuring those characters, is a five-star book for me should tell you how amazing some of the later ones are. If you're a Pratchett novice, there are a number of guides online for where you could start (I don't really recommend just reading the series in chronological order, as some of the first ones just aren't that good compared to what came later). If you can't be bothered to look up any guides, however, this is a very good place to start. 

Judging a book by its cover: This book was first published in 1989, so it's obviously had a ton of different covers, depending on what country it was published in or what audience the publishers were trying to attact. Most of my Discworld novels have the original cover designs by Josh Kirby, which I can see might appear a bit chaotic and messy to some, but holds a lot of sentimental value to me. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read


Tuesday 23 February 2021

#CBR13 Book 7: "Love at First" by Kate Clayborn

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Disclaimer! I got this book as an ARC from NetGalley. That has in no way influenced my review.

Sixteen years ago, Will Stirling first cast eyes on Nora Clarke and was instantly smitten. He was standing under a shaded tree, listening with a sinking heart to his mother pleading with the uncle he hadn't even realised existed, while she was up high on a balcony, throwing little tomatoes at thieving squirrels. 

Cut to the present day, when Will is an overworked doctor and has inherited his uncle's apartment. With the exception of seeing his intriguing mystery girl in the garden, he has nothing but bad memories associated with the place and he doesn't like the run-down building or location. The terms of his late uncle's will states that he can't sell the place for the first year, but he's planning on having it modernised and put up for short-term rentals, so he can go on with his life.

Nora Clarke and the other residents of the building where Will has inherited are appalled when they realise that Will wants nothing to do with the place, and is going to use his unit as a rental. Nora is still grieving for her grandmother, whose apartment she inherited and now lives in, having barely changed a thing since her dear Nonna was alive. Having always had a safe haven in the building, and feeling a strong sense of kinship with the other long-time residents, Nora can't understand why Will wouldn't want to be enveloped by their quirky community. She and the other owners decide to try to sabotage Will's efforts as much as they can.

As it turns out, of course, Nora and Will have a lot in common. Both grew up with distant and preoccupied parents, the difference was that Nora had a loving grandmother and the other residents in her Chicago apartment building. Will had no one else and was completely orphaned in his late teens. He's used to having to fend for himself, putting himself through college and medical school through hard work and dedication. He's never had any long-term relationships and seems frankly baffled by the many slightly off-beat traditions that the residents of his uncle's apartment building seem attached to. He's very attracted to Nora, though, even more so after he discovers that she is, in fact, the same person he saw on that balcony all those years ago.

The blurb for this romance describes it as a second chance story, but it's not like Nora and Will have this complicated past and just need to find back to one another. Their past encounter consists of one single encounter, where they didn't even speak or even see each other - Will is the only one who is aware of it having taken place. So it's more of a love at first sight story, as having seen the vivacious teenage Nora all those years ago seems to have made Will uninterested in all other women. 

I liked a lot of things about this book, but unfortunately, the actual romance between Will and Nora is probably third or fourth down on that list. Will and Nora on their own are both interesting and complex characters, both with a lot of emotional baggage they need to work through before being able to commit to a romantic relationship and finding a happy ending. The various supporting characters in the book are all awesome and made the book really come alive. They include Nora's best friend and colleague Deepa (who I will happily read a book about) and Will's starchy superior who's trying to reconnect with his ex-wife. There are the various individuals who live in the apartment building, all of whom are great and act as Nora's extended family and support network. I loved reading about all of them - I didn't really feel swept away by the actual central romance.

Kate Clayborn is a good writer and seems very skilled at writing memorable characters. I still clearly remember and think about several of the protagonists in her Chance of a Lifetime trilogy. There was a lot to like about this story as well, but the romance that should have been front and centre kind of came second to the found family narrative that I found most compelling. It was still a lovely read, and I'll keep my eyes open in case Clayborn decides she wants to give Deepa a book next. 

Judging a book by its cover: It's become quite clear that cute, animated covers for romance novels are the popular thing right now, and this is a really nice example. I may be biased because purple is my favourite colour and just look at that rich plummy colour, lightening towards the bottom. Gorgeous. It may be that I also prefer the covers not to have actual little cartoon people on them. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

#CBR13 Book 6: "Dancing at Midnight" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 2 stars

Lady Arabella Blydon is staying with her newly married cousin in the country when she runs into the brooding and mysterious Lord John Blackwood, a former war hero who turns out to be friends with her cousin's husband. She quickly ascertains that he is just as attracted to her as she is to him, and cannot understand why he refuses to give in and admit his feelings. Frustrated that he seems utterly besotted by her one second and determined to stay away from her the next, she devises a plan to make him declare his intentions once and for all.

John Blackwood is tormented by the events of his past and has nightmares about some of the dreadful situations he was helpless to prevent as a soldier. As a younger son, he's not entirely sure he feels like he deserves the title and estate he's been granted by the crown as thanks for his service. When he meets Lady Arabella, he is instantly smitten, both by her beauty and her intelligence, but he knows he could never be deserving of her and does his best to try to convince her of this fact. When he hears that she has returned to London and likely close to a betrothal with another man, he doesn't waste much time in getting to the capital to win his lady.

Since Netflix adapted Julia Quinn's The Duke and I into the first season of the very popular Bridgerton, she's been mentioned in a lot of articles recently. She's been writing Regency romances since 1995, publishing more than 30 different stories (if you count books and novellas), yet this novel is only her second one ever. While I have greatly enjoyed a lot of Quinn's novels since I rediscovered my love of romance novels in 2007-2008, it really shows that this is an early effort of hers, and neither the plotting, characterisation, or wit from many of her later novels is really present here. 

Arabella is just a little bit too perfect, she's well-read, opinionated, charming, beautiful, has had scores of suitors and quite a few proposals, yet just hasn't found that one right guy yet. She appears to have no flaws and as such, she's not all that interesting. Blackwood, on the other hand, is a complete mess and while I get that war is hell and all that, his constant shifts from basically seeming madly in love with Arabella to pushing her away the very next second got pretty exhausting. While she wasn't all that interesting to read about, I genuinely don't see why she would ever fall for a broody curmudgeon like Blackwood, and that's coming from someone who normally tends to like broody, tormented heroes.

There's also a subplot where someone from Blackwood's past has been sending him threatening notes and is out for revenge. This felt wholly unnecessary and the villain might as well have been a mustache-twirling caricature. It made an already rather lack-lustre plot even more preposterous and I did not care for it.

Since this is a book I've owned since 2016 and it fits into more than one of my many reading challenges this year, I made myself finish the book, even as I was rolling my eyes a lot. It is not a book that anyone save rabid Julia Quinn-completists need to read. The fact that it took me 12 days to finish should speak for itself. I have in the past read more than one Quinn novel a day - this was a slog. 

Judging a book by its cover: Julia Quinn's UK publishers have used these adorable cartoony covers long before this became the trend in pretty much all things romance. I like the indigo background colour and the pattern on the lady's dress is rather lovely. In fact, I think I like the cover of the book a lot more than its general contents. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR13 Book 5: "Lore" by Alexandra Bracken

Page count: 532 pages
Audio book length: 15 hrs 47 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
Every seven years, the Agon begins. As punishment for a past rebellion, nine Greek gods are forced to walk the earth as mortals, hunted by the descendants of ancient bloodlines, all eager to kill a god and seize their divine power and immortality.

Long ago, Lore Perseous fled that brutal world in the wake of her family's sadistic murder by a rival line, turning her back on the hunt's promises of eternal glory. For years she's pushed away any thought of revenge against the man--now a god--responsible for their deaths.

Yet as the next hunt dawns over New York City, two participants seek out her help: Castor, a childhood friend of Lore believed long dead, and a gravely wounded Athena, among the last of the original gods.

The goddess offers an alliance against their mutual enemy and, at last, a way for Lore to leave the Agon behind forever. But Lore's decision to bind her fate to Athena's and rejoin the hunt will come at a deadly cost--and still may not be enough to stop the rise of a new god with the power to bring humanity to its knees. 

Melora "Lore" Perseus has been trying to stay away from the brutal world she was raised in after her entire family was ruthlessly slaughtered seven years ago just as the previous Agon was about to end. She's living in a Brooklyn brownstone left to her by the kindly old man she worked as a caretaker for, who passed away about six months ago. Her only friend is Miles, a young man completely unaware of her dangerous background. Now it seems, her past is determined to catch up with her. She discovers that her old friend Castor didn't die of leukemia after all, but is in fact not only strong and healthy but has taken on the mantle of Apollo after the last Agon. She also finds the goddess Athena brutally stabbed on her literal doorstep and when the goddess offers her a bargain that will allow her revenge on the man who is responsible, Lore is reluctant at first but realises that she can't really refuse. She agrees to bind her fate to that of Athena, so giving her extra strength and resources. However, if either of the two dies, the other one will too.

Over the course of the next week, Lore and Athena work together to try to track down the man who has taken on the power of Ares and is systematically trying to wipe out all other gods (or those who have their power now) in the Agon. They are aided by Castor, his friend Evander and Miles, who insists on helping, even though he's the only mortal not trained from childhood in this strange deadly tournament. As they work on achieving their goal, Lore comes to discover that her childhood goal of becoming a legend may be achievable after all, but it will only come after even greater cost than she has already paid.

I don't know if this book is being marketed with 'Percy Jackson meets the Hunger Games', but it probably should be. The concept of the story, the Agon, is explained at the beginning of the book. I don't entirely remember why the descendants of all the great heroes have to keep hunting down the occasionally fully mortal Greek gods in order to earn power and glory, but that's the world we find ourselves in here. A world that sadly still considers only male fighters truly worthy, and which won't allow any women to be the head of a house and very few as acceptable as Hunters. Until her family was killed at the end of the last Agon, Lore was determined to prove everyone wrong and become legendary. After she found her father, mother, and two younger sisters brutally slaughtered in their small New York apartment, however, she determined to have nothing more to do with the Agon or the rivaling families vying for power. 

While Lore has spent most of the last seven years estranged from the world she once knew and is quite lonely, she has a very solid friendship with Miles, and it's good to see her reconnecting with Castor, Van (Evander) and later her old friend Iro as well. These teenagers have all been raised with some truly warped values and this last round of the Agon seems to be making all of them, not just Lore, realise that the old traditions cannot continue. Changes need to be made.

This book seems to be entirely stand-alone, which is unsual in and of itself nowadays. I enjoyed it and found the mix of Greek mythology, action adventure and death race interesting and enjoyable. The audio book is narrated by Fryda Wolff, who does a good job with the sprawling cast of characters. 

While I think this book absolutely fits into the YA genre with many of its character archetypes and plot beats, it should probably be recommended for older readers, as there are some really very violent scenes throughout. I remember being surprised that Pierce Brown's Red Rising series was being marketed as YA, and this is a bit in the same vein. Lore, Castor, Evander and Miles have neither of them turned twenty yet, but a lot of the themes and action set pieces are distinctly gory. So be aware of that.

Judging a book by its cover: I have always found Medusa a very fascinating character, and this cover, where a statue appears to be coming to life and staring straight at the reader was one of the things that first struck me when I decided to check out the book. Any cover image arresting enough to make me interested in picking up and reading the book has done its job well. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday 2 February 2021

#CBR13 Book 4: "Big Bad Wolf" by Suleikha Snyder

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! I got an ARC from NetGalley. That has in no way influenced my review.

In a dystopian alternate reality, where the 2016 election led to the USA becoming a tightly regulated surveillance state, pretty much at the same time as the existence of a number of supernatural beings were revealed, several big cities, including New York, are now a Sanctuary City for supernaturals. 

Joe Peluso, an ex-soldier turned werewolf through military experimentation, is in prison for murdering six bear shifters with ties to the Russian mafia. His legal team is determined to give him a proper defense, but Joe believes himself beyond redemption. He has no regrets about the murders that landed him in prison, which were in retaliation for the death of his foster brother. However, he is haunted by his years as a soldier and all the lives he ended during his long military career. He has no intention of sharing any information or revealing anything to his lawyers that might help him get a lighter sentence and fully expects to be killed in prison by Russian mobsters soon enough.

Neha Ahluwalia, one of the lawyers on his team, as well as a trained psychologist, believes that everyone deserves a chance. She can't really explain her near-instant attraction to Peluso, which just seems to grow with each of their meetings. Falling for one of their clients, let alone a werewolf with a long history of violence is utter madness, but Neha can't stay away. On the day of Joe's trial, she agrees to a brief meeting alone with him, and they end up going on the run together after the Russian mob attempts to kill Joe and creates chaos at the courthouse. While he might not see himself as worthy of love or affection, Neha has caught glimpses of the wounded and vulnerable man behind the gruff facade, and she's determined to fight for their happy ending. 

I had hoped to have this review finished by the book's release date last week, but my depression had other ideas, and quite a lot of the things I wanted to achieve have had to be postponed. My friend and fellow Cannonball reviewer Emmalita reviewed this back in December (and has already used one of my favourite lines from the book as her review title and made me very excited to get to this. I've only ever read Ms. Snyder's contemporary romance novella Tikka Chance on Me, so seeing her take on urban fantasy/paranormal romance was interesting and quite different. 

There's a lot to like in this book, including the two main characters. I adored pretty much everything about Neha, including how completely unapologetic she was about was about embracing her desires once she admitted to herself that she fancied the pants off Joe. I could have done with a lot less self pitying, recriminations and angst from Joe (I have never had much patience with the oh woe is me, I'm so dark and unlovable because of my past dudes), but I guess feeling constantly guilty and not worthy of a wonderful lady like Neha is better than being an unapologetic sociopath who's full of himself. 

It's quite clear that as well as the central romance between Neha and Joe, this book is setting up the wider world in which the Third Watch, the secret agency staffed by both humans and paranormals who end up helping our protagonsists on the run. There's a whole host of supporting characters, including an incredibly charming and very scene-stealing vampire, as well as a no nonsense surgeon, both of whom I hope feature in future books. There's a really nice focus on friendship and community thoughout the book and while I have a few niggles about the book as a romance (everything happens VERY fast between Neha and Joe - I would have liked a bit more time for them to get to know each other before declaring eternal love), I loved this as the start of a new paranormal fantasy series full of competence porn, great world building and interesting characters.

As far as I can tell from Ms. Snyder's Twitter, this series will be at least a trilogy. I can't wait to get my hands on more. 

Judging a book by its cover: I absolutely see what the cover designer was trying to do here, but I'm not sure it entirely works.While I totally get that showing that just underneath the surface of our hero lurks a big, dangerous wolf, the actual effect of having two big yellow wolf eyes basically looking out at you from the torso of the muscular and very fit cover model is more distracting than enticing. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read