Tuesday 28 September 2021

#CBR13 Book 36: "Teach Me" by Olivia Dade

Page count: 276 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Rec'd (by Emmalita, Narfna and FaintingViolet)

Official book description:

Their lesson plans didn't include love. But that's about to change...

When Martin Krause arrives at Rose Owens's high school, she's determined to remain chilly with her new colleague. Unfriendly? Maybe. Understandable? Yes, since a loathsome administrator gave Rose's beloved world history classes to Martin, knowing it would hurt her.

But keeping her distance from a man as warm and kind as Martin will prove challenging, even for a stubborn, guarded ice queen. Especially when she begins to see him for what he truly is: a man who's never been taught his own value. Martin could use a good teacher--and luckily, Rose is the best.

Rose has her own lessons--about trust, about vulnerability, about her past--to learn. And over the course of a single school year, the two of them will find out just how hot it can get when an ice queen melts. 

Olivia Dade has been on my TBR list for literally years and I even got an ARC of this book back in 2019, before it was first published. The original cover for the book was not the appealing and beautiful one it has now. Hence I forgot about it and my Netgalley completion stats got that little bit worse. Since then, I've seen Dade's books raved about on a number of romance review sites, as well as on our own Cannonball Read. I kept promising myself that I would pick up one of her books, any day now. The lovely MsWas even gifted me Spoiler Alert. So when I was going to choose a book for the "Rec'd" category on this year's CBR Bingo, I was pretty sure it had to be one of Olivia Dade's, and my guilty conscience about never having reviewed my NetGalley ARC reared its head - so Teach Me became the obvious choice. That it's a book about teachers certainly didn't hurt either.

It will come as no surprise to any of the many who have read Dade's books that of course, I loved this. It feels like so much of this year has been one long reading slump, with the occasional exception that lights up my life and where I finish the book in 24-48 hours. Teach Me was absolutely one of those books. I loved both Rose and Martin and while the American school system is rather different from ours (in Norwegian schools, you have exactly the same classes in secondary school no matter what your thoughts on higher education, while you apply for high schools based on your general interest and future plans - either vocational or prep for higher education). School management here prefer one teacher to follow their classes for the three years they go to secondary school, if at all possible (which is why I currently have only classes in tenth grade, all kids I've taught for three years and know really well). So what happens to Rose would be very unlikely to happen to me. 

Nor would I have to spend lots of my money on extra classroom resources for the pupils (one more hooray for socialism, making sure the schools provide pretty much everything the teachers and kids need during the school year - sometimes our text books are a bit outdated, but I've never had to buy my own school supplies). Nevertheless, teachers who really care about their students and want what is best for them are the same sort of people no matter where in the world you go, and Rose and Martin are obviously dedicated and hard-working teachers, who just need to work through the awkwardness of the unpleasant school administrator who decided to try to sabotage Rose, so they can fully appreciate their mutual attraction and move towards their HEA.

I love that Rose's ex-parents-in-law basically refused to cut ties with her after her divorce, and were fully aware both why the marriage didn't work out and the flaws of their own son. Rose is clearly a treasure, her ex was clearly a losing proposition, and I'm glad she didn't have to lose her lovely and supportive in-laws in the divorce. Martin's daughter was also a lovely supporting character, as were several of the other staff at school. 

Now that I've finally taken the plunge, so to speak, and let myself really experience Ms. Dade's writing, I'm obviously going to seek out everything else she's written. Thankfully I have amassed quite a lot of her books in various e-book sales, so I should be able to catch up with the rest of the Marysburg stories and then the Spoiler Alert books (since the new one is out in October) before the end of the year. 

Judging a book by its cover: When I got the ARC from Netgalley, the cover art for Teach Me was very much not the sophisticated and lovely cover created by Leni Kauffman (who it seems does ALL of Dade's cover art now - excellent decision). There's been a lot of debate about the current trend of cartoony covers for both romance and chick-lit recently, but I think we can all agree that based on the rather "I mocked this up on photo-shop in about an hour" cover of the ARC I got, it's not that surprising that I never got round to reading the book. I know now that I shouldn't have judged the book, but I did, and I'm very happy that Olivia Dade now has gorgeous and inviting book covers that hopefully make her sell tons more books. She deserves it. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday 22 September 2021

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

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

CBR Bingo: People 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 8 September 2021

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

Page count: 160 pages
Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday 7 September 2021

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

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

Saturday 4 September 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read