Monday 29 March 2021

#CBR13 Book 11: "Full spredning: en legeroman" (Natural Causes) by Nina Lykke

Page count: 282 pages
Rating: 2 stars

Elin has worked as a GP in the centre of Oslo for more than two decades. She's married to Aksel, an orthopedist who seems obsessed with either cross country skiing in the winter and roller skis in the summer. They met during med school, and have lived in the same house long enough to see the little residential area that used to be full of idealistic and progressive residents become distinctly upper-middle class (as have they). They are now empty nesters after their two daughters (also medical students) moved away. 

However, at the moment, Elin is literally living in her office  She's sleeping in a chair or on her examination table, sneaking out in the mornings and evenings to wash in the employee bathroom. She's refusing to answer texts or calls from her irate husband, her concerned neighbour and sometime drinking buddy, or her lover, having moved out after her husband discovered that she's been having a year-long affair with Bjørn, her ex-boyfriend from before she met Aksel. Since Bjørn seemed rather freaked out about the revelations that their affair was out in the open, he seems to have decided to just stay with his wife, so Elin is feeling abandoned and even more disillusioned with life and people than she did before she stumbled into her affair. 

A bit over a year ago, Elin added Bjørn as a Facebook as a drunken impulse one evening. Back then, she would go through the motions with her patients in the office all day, then go buy a box of white wine on the way home, and spend her evenings and weekends drinking heavily and binge-watching television, while her husband focused on his skiing. Once she and Bjørn actually met up again, after decades apart, and she discovered just how much chemistry there still was between them, she replaced the heavy drinking with another obsession, her secret love affair with her ex. 

Literally translated, the title for this book means "Complete (or total) spread" and the subtitle is a "doctor novel". Traditionally, 'doctor novels' are a subsection of romance novels in Norway, starring handsome doctors and nurses who find love while saving the lives of their poor patients. 'Total spread' is also the term used to cancer patients when the disease has taken over and spread throughout the body, making the disease inevitably terminal. So the author uses a common term associated with a devastating cancer diagnosis, coupled with an ironic subtitle - this book is pretty much the opposite of brave, selfless, and altruistic doctors finding love while caring for the less fortunate. Instead, our protagonist is a fifty-something pessimist whose internal monologue (so much of this novel is told in internal monologue or flashbacks) constantly makes her indifference, if not her outright disdain for her patients and vocation very obvious. Going through a kind of midlife crisis, experiencing the consequences of being caught in an affair - the title very much gives a lie to the contents of the book.

Considering my rather impressive reading slump and how difficult it is for me to pick up a book and read it (even listening to an audiobook feels like far too much effort than I'm able to give, most of the time), the fact that I not only read the whole book, despite low-key resenting our protagonist throughout is certainly some testament to the author's ability to keep me curious. This novel has generally received rave reviews from not only Norwegian book reviewers, but the book has been translated into multiple languages and won both Norwegian and international book awards.

Pretty much every time I try to read an acclaimed literary novel, it just proves to me that I'm much happier reading speculative fiction, be it romance, fantasy, or science fiction. I'm sure this book was a satirical masterpiece, showing us the petty complaints of most patients nowadays, not to mention how incredibly first world the so-called problems of well-to-do doctors are. It was a well-written book, I suppose, but it was just so bitter and the tone throughout was generally nasty, I'd much rather read a romance (and will, as a palate changer). The fact that this book was due back at the library is one of the reasons I actually motivated me to read and finish the book, and it's certainly much easier reviewing something I didn't much like than something I love. 

I don't really feel that I can recommend this book, but if the sales numbers I found are correct, the author doesn't need my recommendation anyway. I'm sure she's laughing all the way to the bank, no matter what I thought of her book or not.

Judging a book by its cover: There isn't exactly a lot to make a reader interested or curious about the contents of this book. On the library copy I had, there were also various review quotes and a reminder that this won the Brage prize (the Norwegian book award) for 2019. I'm assuming the publishing company went with a "Less is more" approach and figured people might pick up the book based on word of mouth. Because there really is nothing here to make a reader interested.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

Friday 26 March 2021

#CBR13 Book 10: "Act Your Age, Eve Brown" by Talia Hibbert

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Eve is the youngest and seemingly flightiest of the three privileged Brown sisters. She's always felt like the odd duck in the family, neither as focused nor as intelligent as her two older sisters and completely unable to settle on anything for very long. When she abruptly closes down her wedding planning business after one single event (a generally very successful wedding, that nevertheless descended into some chaos after Eve took it upon herself to liberate all the doves that the bride had wanted, and was left with a large bill to reimburse the animal wranglers), her long-suffering parents have had enough. They demand that Eve get a job, any job, and hold it down for at least a year. They'll freeze her trust fund payments until she can prove herself thusly. Deeply frustrated with herself and the whole situation, Eve goes driving and ends up a bit lost.

Jacob Wayne needs to hire a new chef for his B&B asap, after his previous one won the lottery and popped off to Scotland with her boyfriend. None of the candidates he's seen so far live up to his exacting perfectionist standards, and no matter what his best friend (the local pub owner) tries to do to persuade him of each candidate's virtues. Jacob knows he's not easy to work for or with (his autism makes it difficult for him to casually interact with people), but he's not willing to settle when it comes to the quality of his B&B's food. Eve comes barrelling in, soaked through because of a sudden rainstorm, with no apparent resume, and applies for the job. It takes him about two seconds to conclude that she's 1) wholly inappropriate for the job and 2) that he finds her inexplicably and incredibly attractive. After a series of unfortunate events lead to Eve backing into Jacob with her car and breaking his arm, she feels that she pretty much has to stay around to help him with the running of his B&B until he is better, even though she finds him insufferable and robotic and he finds her unreliable and chaotic.

This wouldn't be a very good romance if our protagonists didn't overcome their initial antipathy towards one another and found some common ground. Because of Eve's many different attempts at a career over the years, she turns out to actually be really good in the kitchen. While her charm and bubbly personality don't really do anything for Jacob, to begin with (she did land him in the hospital with a broken arm and a minor concussion, after all), she seems to be a big hit with the guests at the B&B and aptly handles not just the various breakfast orders, but baking for the afternoon teas. Jacob's not exactly thrilled to discover that she's living in his spare room, but despite his suspicions and misgivings, has to admit that Eve is a good cook and that she throws herself into helping with the housekeeping and other duties in the establishment while Jacob recovers. 

Having been presented with Jacob's big pile of handwritten employee handbooks (that he never really intended for anyone to read), Eve comes to understand how important order, a clear system and predictability is for Jacob. She has no problem with his neurodiversity, having grown up with sisters who are clearly both also on the spectrum. Over the course of the story, Eve comes to realise that her own struggles are also due to her being on the autism spectrum, without ever having been diagnosed as such in the past. She finds a connection and acceptance with Jacob that she's never felt in her own family, for all that her sisters love her deeply. 

Take a Hint, Dani Brown was one of my very favourite books last year, and I was very eagerly expecting this third book in the series, despite having found Eve a bit annoying as a supporting character in her sisters' books. I needn't have worried, however, because once I got to read about Eve as the star of her own book, I came to love her just as much, if not more than both of her unusual sisters, since Eve, despite having grown up in a wealthy and loving family, always felt like a failure and the black sheep. She needed my love more, if you will. 

As well as having a wonderful pair of protagonists, who start out as short-term enemies, this romance has a great cast of supporting characters, from Jacob's best friend and said friend's formidable twin sisters (all three characters will be the stars of Hibbert's next romantic trilogy, and I am super excited), to Jacob's aunt, who ended up raising him and his brother after his parents just really abandoned them on her doorstep. Eve's two sisters and their lovely boyfriends also make appearances, of course, as does her colourful grandmother and yoga teacher/wife. I feel like we didn't really get a sense of the Brown parents until this book, and while I understand their frustration with Eve, feel like they could maybe have made a bit more of an attempt to get to know their youngest in a more in-depth way rather than just wash their hands of her temporarily. 

Because 2021 seems determined to constantly challenge me, this is so far the ONLY book I have been able to finish, all month. I can already see myself revisiting it often. I am so happy I have discovered Talia Hibbert as an author, and hope that some of the earlier books of her career can help break me out of my extended reading slump. This was a great read, and I heartily recommend it to anyone wanting a good romance to take their minds off the seemingly never-ending pandemic.

Judging a book by its cover: I don't love this cover as much as I did the one for Take a Hint, Dani Brown, but the whole series has adorable covers, in very pleasing colours and has made me at least partially rethink my antipathy to the cartoon trend that is so popular now. For these books, the covers really fit. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

#CBR13 Book 9: "How to Catch a Queen" by Alyssa Cole

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 53 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

Official book description:
When Shanti Mohapi weds the king of Njaza, her dream of becoming a queen finally comes true. But it’s nothing like she imagined. Shanti and her husband may share an immediate and powerful attraction, but her subjects see her as an outsider, and everything she was taught about being the perfect wife goes disastrously wrong.

A king must rule with an iron fist, and newly crowned King Sanyu was born perfectly fitted for the gauntlet, even if he wishes he weren’t. He agrees to take a wife as is required of him, though he doesn’t expect to actually fall in love. Even more vexing? His beguiling new queen seems to have the answers to his country’s problems—except no one will listen to her.

By day, they lead separate lives. By night, she wears the crown, and he bows to her demands in matters of politics and passion. When turmoil erupts in their kingdom and their marriage, Shanti goes on the run, and Sanyu must learn whether he has what it takes both to lead his people and to catch his queen.

The engagement/marriage of convenience is quite a common trope in historical romance, it's harder to pull off in contemporary ones (although, by all means, it happens all the time, even though the author tends to have to get a bit more creative). Shanti has wanted to become a queen since she was a little girl, and has worked very hard to become a beautiful, poised, fit, and well-educated woman who would be the prize of any ruler. She doesn't want to become queen for the prestige, wealth, or title, but because she genuinely wants to take part in the day-to-day ruling of a kingdom, and trying to make the world a better place for as many as possible. When her profile is picked on and she is married off to Prince Sanyu of Njaza literally on his father's deathbed, she has already done thorough research into the country's resources, infrastructure, social conditions, and what challenges the country, still trying to recover from centuries of colonisation, are facing. Sadly for her, however, the tradition in Njaza is for women to be seen and not heard and this applies at all levels of society.

Sanyu's role models for marriage were his now-dead father, who kept replacing his queen every four months or his father's closest advisor (now Sanyu's), who never married. Sanyu's mother disappeared after she bore him, seemingly quite happy to be free of the kingdom, and the two ex-revolutionaries raised Sanyu to believe that any expression of softer emotion or personal need is unforgivable softness. Having fought a civil war to liberate Njaza from colonial rule, the two elder men were big on spreading propaganda about how strong, glorious, and unbeatable the nation was, and Sanyu's father ruled with an iron fist. Sanyu, who suffers from occasional crippling anxiety, doesn't even want the throne but has no choice but to step up upon his father's death. While he finds Shanti very attractive the first time he sees her, before the wedding, he then barely gives her a thought for several months after the coronation, grieving his father and trying to get some sort of idea of what the job of the king actually entails. Not that his royal council or advisors seem to want him to think too hard for himself, they seem to have very firm ideas of how the country should be ruled (no changes whatsoever from his father's rule). Meanwhile, the country's finances are suffering, a lot of the populace are starting to be unhappy with the lack of progress and innovation, while the royal council's isolationist views are keeping Njaza from making lucrative international deals that would benefit them both diplomatically and economically. 

Resigned to the fact that she'll be sent packing after her four month marriage trial is over (after about three months she's barely seen her husband), Shanti is nevertheless doing what she can to make a difference in the country. She's been sneaking out of the palace in disguise at night, trying to help out a group of women organising protests and trying to affect change from a local bookstore. She is rather surprised when Sanyu shows up at her private rooms one evening, asking to hear her suggestions and plans, and suddenly wanting to act on the clear attraction that's been there between them since their first meeting. However, he keeps their growing closeness a secret and only shows up at her quarters at night. Is he ever going to work through his anxiety and stand up to his advisors, becoming the husband that Shanti wishes for and the progressive king that Njaza needs?

It seems to me that a common theme in all of Alyssa Cole's contemporary romances featuring fictional royals and the people they fall in love with, is that the heroes rarely, if ever, prove themselves worthy of the awesome heroines. Despite almost throwing my e-reader across the room because of my frustration with A Duke by Default, I ended up reading all of the main novels in Cole's previous series, Reluctant Royals, and I found things to like in each book. Having once again heard many great things about this new book, I gave it a try, and mostly liked it, even though the "runaway royals" of the series title is a stretch in this book. While Shanti eventually gets sick of Sanyu's inability to confront his sort-of-uncle/head adviser and leaves the palace for a little while, she doesn't exactly go very far, and I would say calling her actions running away is exaggerating wildly. 

While there are a lot of dumb men in this book, Sanyu's close friend and one of the junior members of his council is very cool. I also liked the Njazan tradition of triad marriages, which I would happily have seen explored in more detail. There are sort of cameo appearances from quite a few of the protagonists in the previous series via a group chat Shanti is accepted into, and it was nice to "hear from" some of the other women that I'd come to quite like. 

While I found this to be a perfectly OK novel, I'm not sure I'll be re-reading it any time soon. One of the two heroines for the next books shows up in a very memorable scene, though, and I hope that her book, having a lesbian couple at the centre may escape the unworthy partner trope, since both protagonists are women. We shall see. I'm not willing to give up on Ms. Cole yet, but she's now on "get books from the library until they are on sale for less than 3 bucks" list.

Judging a book by its cover: The frocks on Alyssa Cole's contemporary novels are always amazing. The female cover model they've used to portray Shanti seems pretty spot on, in looks and general bearing. The dude who I'm supposing is meant to be Sanyu doesn't look anything like what our hero is described as (my mental image was Winston Duke as M'Baku). He's far too skinny looking and only has designer stubble, no actual beard. Do better, cover designers!

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.