Saturday 31 December 2022

CBR14 Book 52: "The Sandman, Act III" by Neil Gaiman and Dirk Maggs

Page count: 444 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Act III of the full-cast audio adaptation of The Sandman was suddenly released with what felt like absolutely no fanfare or previous advertising. Suddenly, one day, it was just there on Audible. This installment covers the two collections Brief Lives and World's End, as well as some of the stories collected in the anthology volume Fables and Reflections (the very first volume I ever read). It means we finally get the full and tragic story of Dream's son Orpheus and his beloved Euridyce, whose love story is doomed on their wedding day and only gets worse from there. The Song of Orpheus is a much better introduction to Sandman and the Endless than Preludes and Nocturnes, in my opinion, but I may also be biased, as this is where my love affair with the graphic novel began. 

Regé-Jean Page really does an amazing job as Orpheus. His voice is incredibly pleasant, even when he's just talking. And when he sings, you really can believe he could persuade the king and queen of the Underworld to stretch their rules, just once. 

In Brief Lives, the youngest of the Endless, Delerium (who was once Delight) wants to go searching for the missing member of the family, Destruction. She tries to appeal to several of her siblings, but is rejected by both Desire and Despair. Dream, who has recently broken up with a mortal lover, is even broodier than normal, and agrees to come with her mainly to distract himself from his wounded feelings. The journey doesn't entirely go as they expected, and a lot of people end up dead in their wake. The price Dream has to pay to finally keep his promise to his youngest sister is a high one, indeed, and sets in motion events that will reverberate through the rest of the series. 

World's End is Gaiman's tribute to The Canterbury Tales, with a number of travelers from all over time and different worlds, stuck in a large inn at the end of the world. There is a mystical supernatural storm that has stranded them all there, and they spend their time telling stories. There are stories, within stories, within stories. Quite a few of them feature one or several of the Endless or other characters we've come across over the course of the story in some way, and all are imaginative and fantastical. Our POV character for this section is Brant Tucker, voiced really well by Wil Wheaton. 

I haven't checked, but I'm assuming that at some point, possibly completely unannounced, Audible will release Act IV, which I'm guessing will collect the longest of the Sandman stories, The Kindly Ones (possibly my favourite, even though it's deeply tragic) and The Wake. As I'm highly doubtful that Netflix will commit enough time and money for the TV adaptation to ever get that far, I'm going to be waiting with bated breath, to finally hear the entirety of one of my favourite graphic novels finally adapted. 

If you're not already a fan of Sandman and the audio drama adaptations, this is not the place to start. If you liked what you heard in Acts I and II, I don't think you'll be disappointed with this installment either. 

Judging a book by its cover: Not really my favourite of the images they've used, but I like that if you look closely at the figures swirling around the big head, you get some hints of the stories within. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 51: "Season of Love" by Helena Greer

Page count: 390 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Ten years ago, Miriam Blum cut all ties with her entire family, including her eccentric great-aunt. Now she turns antique junk into creative and incisive art and has a loyal following on Instagram. She has a beautiful and wealthy fiancée and while they're never going to share a passionate romance, they love each others as friends and support one another. Miriam is working towards finally opening her own art studio in Charleston when she is informed that her great-aunt Cass died (no one had even told Miriam that Cass was ill) and she drops everything to go to her aunt's large Christmas tree farm in upstate New York to sit shiva. She's terrified at the prospect that her father might be there, but also needs to see her remaining relatives.

Once she arrives at Carrigan's, her aunt's big farm, she discovers that Levi, her childhood friend not only dated her cousin and former best friend Hannah for years, then took off and broke her heart, but that Hannah has been pretty much running the farm with the assistance of the capable and rather hostile Noelle. Noelle found a warm welcome, a second (more supportive family) and a new home at Carrigan's and cannot understand how Miriam could have hurt everyone so much by just disappearing for a decade, cutting herself off from everyone. The fact that Miriam seems to be welcomed back by everyone with open arms, her long absence forgiven without any consequences, riles Noelle up even more. Luckily, Miriam won't be staying long - she'll go back to her art scene in Charleston and marry her perfect lawyer fiancée and Noelle won't have to deal with her or admit to her very inconvenient attraction to the woman.

Of course, Cassiopeia Carrigan loved to meddle and match-make, and once her will is read, it turns out she has left the Christmas tree farm in equal shares to Noelle, Hannah, Miriam, and Levi. Not only did she go back on her promise to leave it to only Noelle and Hannah, but she also hid the fact that the farm was financially struggling and that she wants all four of her heirs to work together to save the place (and in the case of Hannah and Noelle, their home). Miriam is flabbergasted, Noelle is furious, Levi is off somewhere in the world, unable to be reached - while Hannah is just exhausted. Miriam understands the shock of the other two women, but after some consideration, might just have an idea to save Carrigan's and make it a financial success, she just needs to get her cousin/former best friend and her cousin's new best friend (who seems decidedly anti-Miriam) to agree to let Miriam stay, at least until Thanksgiving. 

If this seems like an overly detailed plot summary, relax, all of this is revealed within the first 20% of the book. The story is told through both Noelle and Miram's points of view, starting with Miriam getting her upsetting news and moving on with the plot at rather breakneck speed. Despite pretty much every single character in this story having a trailers worth of emotional baggage, trauma to process, and due to Cass' recent death, recent grief to work through, this book feels like a warm hug, and even though there are absolutely sections where heartbreak, alcoholism and/or severe emotional abuse is covered, it never gets too heavy or angsty and I never once had to put the book down because it was overwhelming me with the sads.

Helena Greer is basically writing a pretty standard romantic comedy here, but the protagonists are both lesbians, and one of the protagonists, as well as much of her actual and found family is Jewish. Obviously, because Cass owned and ran a Christmas tree farm, there are a bunch of both Jewish and more traditionally Christian holiday traditions explored, in a really cozy way. I would happily have read an entire book about any of these characters and was delighted to discover that the next book will be about Hannah and her globe-trotting ex, Levi. I also hope that Miriam's amazing BFF Cole gets a book of his own because he was a scene-stealing marvel and I refuse to believe that he can be contained as only the supporting role in someone else's novel. I would also like Miriam's ex Tara to get her own book, as she was a pretty awesome lady, who just happened to have her 'marriage of convenience' partner go off and fall for someone else. 

As well as being a lovely, rather slow-burn romance, there is such wonderful friendships and although very few of the family connections are biological, it shows all the more how important it is to have people who love and support you. A lot of queer people have experienced rejection from their born families, and have had to find their new families elsewhere. This is absolutely the case for both Noelle and Miriam, who have a lot of things in common while they are also extremely different. 

The whole book is peppered with pop culture references that seem like they were tailored especially to me. I take this to mean that Helena Greer and I would get on like a house on fire, and not only would I be great friends with all the various characters in this book, but I would be a perfect best friend for Ms. Greer. So you know, if you're in the market for that, Ms. Greer, send me a message!

It's a shame I read this so late in the year, as it very likely could have ended up in my top three favourites of the year over on Cannonball Read otherwise. It will absolutely be in my top ten and I will be impatiently awaiting Hannah and Levi's book sometime in 2023. 

Judging a book by its cover: While I still think the trend for cutesy cartoon covers should be over soon, please, this one is really quite adorable. Both Noelle and Miriam look pretty much exactly as described, and Kringle the cat is also in the picture. The couple wrapped up in a garland of coloured lights with small signifiers of most of the characters' Jewish background seemingly floating in the air around them, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that this book is very Jewish and also very queer. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 50: "Sweep of the Heart" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 474 pages
Rating: 5 stars

This is not the place to start The Innkeeper Chronicles, as it's the sixth installment overall (four full books and a novella come before it). This story has a LOT of callbacks to previous stories, so just start with Clean Sweep if you haven't tried this yet. 

Innkeepers Dina DeMille and Sean Evans are still trying to recover from the last cosmic adventure that taxed them when they discover that Wilmos, the aging werewolf who's pretty much Sean's surrogate grandfather has been abducted. The traces of magic that they find in his abandoned shop suggests that the perpetrators are likely to be the magically corrupted beings who have tried to threaten Dina and the Gertrude Hunt inn in the past. After investigating, they discover that Wilmos is being held on an extremely dangerous and remote planet, and the only vague chance they have at gaining access to the only available portal to said planet means taking on a bigger challenge than most Innkeepers have ever had to face.

They basically have to host a massive inter-galactic dating competition to help find a spouse for a very powerful ruler (who happens to have ties to Dina's first guest, Lady Caldenia). Not only do they have to open the inn to twelve extremely different alien delegations (many of whom are sworn enemies or just incredibly dangerous) and intergalactic observers and cater to their comforts and whims, there's a rumour that one of the spouse candidates is in fact an assassin trying to kill the galactic overlord. And of course everything is going to be live-streamed directly, so the citizens in the area for space the overlord rules can vote for their favourites. Dina is told by the Innkeeper Assembly that if anyone dies during the competition, she could lose her Inn forever. It's an incredible logistical nightmare, and Dina and Sean have no choice if they want to rescue Wilmos.

As is always the case with the Innkeeper Chronicles, this started out as weekly installments to read for free on the authors' website. As the story progressed, they also offered readers the opportunity to vote on the candidate selections, and started posting really funny "previously on" updates every week. I was delighted to see that those little commentaries were included at the end of each new chapter. Even for fans who read this as it was posted, purchasing the book is worthwhile. There's a very important and rather long final section that was never made available for free - a longer finale to the spouse selection, as well as the dangerous and action-packed mission to find and rescue Wilmos.

I'm pretty sure the authors weren't expecting this to become one of the longest books they've ever published, but as a massive fan of anything and everything Ilona Andrews writes, I was super happy. They're clearly working towards the end of their story arcs, and bringing central characters who have been separated back towards each other again, so I guess I'll just have to wait impatiently to see where the story goes next (although apparently this Q and A reveals a lot of their future plans for the series)

Judging a book by its cover: I like the slightly sinister green background and the big planet looming in the background. Both Dina and Sean look ready for action and serious as a heart-attack, which fits well with the underlying quest of the story. Once again, the Innkeeper Chronicles prove to have the least objectionable of all of Andrews' covers. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 49: "Legends & Lattes" by Travis Baldree

Page count: 312 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Viv the orc barbarian has had enough of the adventuring life and leaves her band of fellow warriors after one last battle with a particularly challenging monster. Instead of fighting, she dreams of taking all her savings and putting them towards a business of her own. In the city of Thune, she plans to open a cozy little shop, selling something called coffee. Turning a worn-down livery stable into a pleasant café isn't exactly something Viv's warrior training prepared her for, but she manages to make some useful friends and allies early on and despite some colourful threats from the local enforcers, she slowly, but surely builds her new life. 

Obviously, making people excited about an unknown drink made from hot bean water isn't going to be easy, but Viv hires Tandri, an enigmatic succubus to help with serving, and the woman turns out to have a flair for marketing that can definitely aid in launching a tempting new business. After a long life of killing monsters and smashing goons, Viv has a lot of interesting friends but has also amassed some enemies. A person from her adventuring past is convinced she has something very valuable hidden in her shop and keeps slinking around to cause trouble.

This was the December pick in my fantasy/sci-fi book club and it's an excellent pick for the coldest and darkest time of the year. In between stressing about end-of-term grading, figuring out and purchasing Christmas presents, worrying about my Mum (we had to put her in a care home earlier this year, and she's growing more senile by the week), and other boring life things, this book offered me an escape and a cozy respite. The tagline proclaims that this is "High fantasy with low stakes" and that is thankfully not a lie. I think this book might be the opposite of grimdark and possibly something more fantasy authors should be doing nowadays. 

At a quick glance, I can see that at least seven of my fellow Cannonballers have already read and reviewed this book, and if they couldn't convince you to pick up this book, I'm unlikely to change your mind. My only (minor) complaint about this book was that there was a lot of focus on renovation and DIY, and I would have liked a bit more about Viv developing new friendships and relationships with the supporting characters. There was such a cool cast of secondary characters, I would have liked to see all of them fleshed out a bit more.

Judging a book by its cover: While I own the e-book of this, I ended up buying a physical copy, which features the UK cover. While I really like the portrait depictions of Viv and Tandri, this cover, which evokes the shop's blackboard and its delicious treats, and that lovely emotional association makes me very fond of it. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 48: "Greywaren" by Maggie Stiefvater

Page count: 335 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This book is the third and final in the Dreamer trilogy, which in itself is a follow-up to the four-book Raven Cycle. It very much doesn't stand on its own and won't really make sense unless you've read the previous books. The place to begin is Call Down the Hawk, or if you want to read all the books about Ronan, Adam, and their friends, The Raven Boys

I'm going to be honest, while I normally love Stiefvater's writing and willingly go along with pretty much anything she comes up with, for a lot of this book, I was worried I was going to have to rate it a mere 3 stars, maybe rounded up to 3.5 if I was being generous. There was a lot of stuff in this book that didn't entirely work for me, and bits that I felt dragged rather a lot. Sadly, it's pretty much impossible for me to write about these things without spoiling some major plot points, and I don't want to influence anyone else's reading of the story - it may work better for them.

Let's just say that I wasn't exactly happy with Ronan's role in things for a lot of the book. I was also actively disappointed by the reveal of the "big bad" and the way the other characters had to rally to defeat said individual. I'm not sure what I expected for the final book in this trilogy, but it certainly wasn't that. Considering that Stiefvater is so clear about how this trilogy is all about the Lynch brothers, it felt odd that all three felt strangely sidelined for much of the plot in this one. Although, my new beloved Declan got to be pretty awesome, which seems to be about time. With every new detail revealed about the terrible life of poor Declan Lynch has led so far and the sacrifices he's had to make to keep his unusual brothers safe, the more I'm amazed that he's able to keep it together as well as he has. He deserved to finally let loose a bit. 

While the whole nefarious villain storyline was one I could have done without, and Carmen still mostly bored me (but is a LOT more fun when being constantly exasperated by Hennessey, who could clearly irriate the halo off a saint), the deep dives into the beginnings of the Lynch family, beginning with Mór and Niall and giving the readers more insight into young Declan, Ronan and finally Matthew, were lovely. I don't like Mór even a little bit, but I don't think she's meant to be likable and wouldn't care one jot what anyone thinks of her, but it was nice to see a more relatable side of Niall and once again, Stiefvater clearly has a strange and wonderful imagination. 

Lastly, it may be sentimental of me, but the epilogue, set four years after the main story, which some might see as fan-servicy and possibly wrapping up everything a bit too neatly into a little bow, felt like everything I'd wanted and hoped for as an ending. 

So, to sum up - this third book had some stuff that I kind of loved, some stuff that pretty much bored me and made me want to skip sections, and an epilogue that made me blissfully happy. I can't wait to see what Stiefvater is going to do next. 

Judging a book by its cover: While the fierce beasts on this cover may look intimidating, they represent Ronan's love for his brothers and the lengths he's willing to go to protect them. I agree that his sun hounds are rather terrifying, but it's not like they'll harm anyone who isn't out to harm the Lynch brothers. I also saw someone comment that the cover design very subtly shows one bird on the first book, two people on the second, and here three hounds. That's a nice subtle touch. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday 30 December 2022

CBR14 Book 47: "Mister Impossible" by Maggie Stiefvater

Page count: 340 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is NOT the place to start if you're not caught up. Begin either with the start of this trilogy, Call Down the Hawk, or with the start of the previous series (in which Ronan is an essential character), The Raven Boys

This book kicks off a little while after the rather dramatic cliffhanger that the previous book left us with. Ronan and Hennessey are fugitives from the Moderators, learning new and helpful tricks to deal with their mysterious hunters from the enigmatic Bryde. According to him, something is blocking and diminishing the powers of the dreamers and it's up to Bryde, Ronan, and Hennessey to unblock things. They remain incommunicado with those who worry and care for them - Declan, Matthew, Adam, and Jordan are all left to figure out how to proceed, while their loved ones seem to be taking up eco-terrorism. 

Jordan, especially, who has never lived alone in her life, needs to discover who she is away from Hennessey and her dead dreamt sisters. The mysterious women-run organisation known as Boudicca certainly seems interested in her art. Through them, Jordan discovers the existence of sweetmetals, strange objects that can keep a dreamed object (or person) awake even if their dreamer dies. And since Ronan and Hennessey certainly seem to be risking their lives doing whatever it is they're doing - both Jordan and Declan have a vested interest in trying to get their hands on some powerful sweetmetals as soon as possible, preferably without ending up in lifetime servitude to Boudicca. 

Meanwhile, Carmen Farooq-Lane is getting more and more convinced that while some dreamers may be dangerous and provide a threat to society, the vast majority are just harmless people trying to live their lives, and murdering them without compunction make the Moderators just as bad, if not worse, than most dreamers.

This is a bridging book of sorts, and I can tell you it very much didn't go where I was expecting it. A central concept in all of these books, starting with The Raven Cycle, is the importance of ley lines. I don't think either the characters or Ms. Stiefvater's readers were really prepared for how the ley lines were going to play into everything. I can say that anyone who was hoping that this trilogy would be the thrilling romantic continuation of Ronan Lynch and Adam Parrish are going to be very disappointed indeed. Of course, in place of the romance that I'm sure many wanted, we get the rather lovely romance of Declan Lynch (who I still can't believe I love and adore as much as I do) and Jordan, Hennessey's dreamed twin. 

There were certain things in the book that didn't really work so well for me. Bryde is far too mysterious and vague to really feel like a proper character. He keeps trying to force Ronan and Hennessey into learning to be better, more efficient dreamers with a lot of philosophical questions and platitudes, and I found him generally boring. I guess discovering where he came from was a bit interesting, but I'm still not entirely sure about the how and why of him. I was also generally not that interested in the ongoing moral qualms of Carmen and her visionary sidekick Liliana. Every time the plot focused too long on either Bryde or Carmen, I was tempted to skip ahead. 

Nevertheless, this was certainly an interesting ride, and I can't wait to see where Stiefvater is taking this next. She certainly excels at cliffhangers - and I'm so grateful that I waited until the trilogy was completed to catch up, so I don't have to wait an entire year to find out what happens to my fantastical babies next. 

Judging a book by its cover: It's obvious to anyone who has read the first book that the very cool individuals on the cover here are clearly Ronan and Hennessey. They have their dreamt swords and their careless attitudes and having now finished the book, I also know which car they're standing in front of. I still think the cover is a strange follow-up to the hawk on the cover of book 1, the image styles don't really go together. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 11 December 2022

CBR14 Book 46: "Ship Wrecked" by Olivia Dade

Page count: 413 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Maria and Peter share one unforgettable night of passion together, which leads to some awkwardness after Maria leaves without so much as a note the next morning. They then discover that they're about to become co-stars on the incredibly popular fantasy show Gods of the Gates. As their characters' storylines involved being ship-wrecked on a small island by themselves, Maria and Peter, along with a small film crew are basically supposed to stay on location for years, and after they work through the awkwardness of Maria leaving (Peter has baggage that made him react especially badly to being ghosted), they decide that while their chemistry is sizzling, it would be a terrible idea to act on their attraction while it might impact not just their own working environment, but that of their crew. So no further exploration of their pants feelings until they've finished their last scenes.

Of course, both Maria and Peter's characters end up being wildly popular, and while their friendship grows, so does their attraction. Meanwhile, their mutual pining and natural chemistry mean that fans of the show ship them just as much off-screen as on, and they get used to fending off questions about their relationship during their various press tours. Only when the show is in its final season, and their characters have finally filmed their end scenes, can Maria and Peter finally reunite as lovers. Of course, with their contracts ended, both Peter and Maria need to decide what their futures hold. 

Maria is incredibly close to her big, loving family and is seriously considering moving back to Sweden to not be so far away from them anymore. Peter, on the other hand, is pretty much totally estranged from his father but fears losing the financial and professional security the role on God of the Gates has afforded him. While they love each other, they have such wildly different priorities and wants for the future that their relationship may be doomed. 

This is the first time I've ever read a romance novel with a Swedish protagonist. Maria keeps peppering Swedish expressions throughout and using some pretty obscure idioms, and because Olivia Dade is married to a Swede, they mostly work. However, one of the things that kept taking me out of the book whenever it was used, was Maria's chosen term of endearment for Peter, sötnos. The term literally translates as "sweet nose" and I have never in my 43-year-old life heard anyone refer to their lover consistently as that. The book claims that it is used like "sweetheart", but it's more like "sweetie" or "cutie", and the only time I've heard the term used is with small children and maybe pets. See, if Dade had chosen älskling as Maria's endearment of choice, I wouldn't be getting persnickety. That pretty much means "love" or "beloved" and I can basically mentally search and replace all uses of sötnos for älskling and the book would be better for it. Obviously, this is not going to be a nitpick that a lot of readers of this romance object to. I otherwise pretty much loved and was greatly amused by all the other Swedish-isms, including Maria's good-natured roasting of Peter, and her near-supernatural ability to always have a jar of pickled herring around to threaten to beat him over the head with. However, this is a romance, and I would like the actual relationship bits to feel real to me.

This book, with the exception of the pretty scorching one-night-stand Maria and Peter share at the beginning, is very slow burn with a lot of pining for much of the story. Only in the final third or so do Maria and Peter finally act on their six years of pent-up attraction and lust. Then there's obviously the section where their differing priorities tear the apart for a while (I'm more and more coming around to romances without a big third-act separation) before they reunite to live happily ever after. 

Both protagonists happily describe themselves as fat, and there's a running subplot about how Maria's confidence and healthy body image makes her refuse the unreasonable demands of the show's producers to lose weight or in other ways conform to society's so-called beauty standards. Peter is unwilling to risk the wrath of the producers, he needs the part too much and keeps being amazed by Maria's claims that if the job becomes too demanding, she'll just quit and return to Sweden. She acts because she enjoys the job, not because she has to or feels like she has anything to prove to anyone. 

While this book does work as a standalone, it is the final book in Dade's Spoiler Alert series, and there are references to and cameos by the previous couples in the series, as well as the various actors who also star in Gods of the Gates with Peter and Maria. It's more fun to read the bits that involve the actors interacting if you have the established backstory from the previous books. 

Inappropriate lover nickname aside, I really enjoyed this book and thought it was a great ending to the series. It was very strange, but also rather fun, to have Maria's Swedish expressions sprinkled throughout the story. In her acknowledgments, Dade confesses to struggling to complete the novel. I'm glad she had enough time and support to finish it. 

Judging a book by its cover: I don't think I've seen a single Leni Kauffman cover that isn't amazing. She just manages to choose the perfect image to illustrate a book, every time. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday 14 November 2022

CBR14 Book 45: "The Stand-Up Groomsman" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Funky (Mel makes Vivian feel very funky, in the bad way, when criticising her career choices when they first meet. There is later a lot of *funky bass line* when they finally get together). 

This was an ARC given to me by the author. It has not affected the contents of my review. 

Vivian Liao used to be a huge fan of comedian Melvin "Mel" Lee, and one of her hobbies was making fan art about him. Then she actually had a chance to meet him one evening, since her roommate is dating his former castmate and friend. Unfortunately, they don't seem to get along at all, and Lee spends quite some time questioning Vivian's career choices and values, deeply upsetting her. About a year later, Vivian discovers that her roommate is marrying her movie star boyfriend, asking Vivian to be one of the bridesmaids. There's only one problem. Melvin Lee will be the best man, and he and Vivian will need to spend a lot of time together. Her roommate Lindsay (the heroine of last year's Donut Fall in Love) is worried that it'll be too uncomfortable for Vivian, but she assures her friend that she'll manage just fine. 

This being a romance novel, Vivian manages more than just fine. After meeting Mel again after one of his comedy shows, and having a much nicer conversation with him, the two strike up a long-running messaging thread, and by the time the bachelor and bachelorette parties are being held in New York, they are in fact quite good friends, Mel's unfortunate social gaffe during their first meeting a non-topic between them. It turns out that they have a lot in common, like being bisexual Asians with difficult family backgrounds, and they frequently suffer from insomnia. Quite a few of their text changes take place in the early hours of the morning when they are both unable to sleep. 

As their friendship grows, so does their mutual attraction. By the time of the wedding, it's quite clear that Vivian and Mel want to jump each other's bones, and they just need to get through the ceremony and wedding feast before they can do the deed. Initially, Vivian is determined it will just be a one-night stand, but Mel convinces her that they should try giving a proper relationship a try. Since Vivian lives in Canada and Mel in the USA, it'll have to be a long-term thing, but they're both hung up on each other enough to give it a go. Unfortunately, Mel has never successfully managed to stay in a relationship long-term, and Vivian only has one previous serious relationship behind her, which ended terribly. Is it likely that they can ever have a happy ending?

A lot of Jackie Lau's romances are self-published, but this is her second one being released through a traditional publisher. Thankfully, I don't think there are really any major differences except the money backing the books. There's the really comforting portrayal of supportive friendships, both male and female. While that's not always the case, in this book, both characters are openly queer, and mostly accepted by their families anyway. There are meddling match-making relatives, at least on Melvin's side. There's excellent banter and a lot of descriptions of delicious food. Vivian is very open about not wanting children, and her previous relationship dissolved partially because she felt she pretty much needed to mother her boyfriend. Both protagonists have some serious baggage they have to work through before they can settle down together. 

Vivian comes across as cold and reserved to people who don't know her well, and because her parents expected her, as the eldest child, to step in and help take care of her younger siblings from a relatively young age, she didn't really get to enjoy a proper childhood and after her unsuccessful previous relationship, she's convinced that the only way she can be of value to anyone is for all the things she can provide for them. No one has ever really taken care of Vivian before, and she finds it incredibly difficult to believe herself worthy of such care and affection, afraid that it could never last.

Mel suffers from depression, and as a comedian, feels like everyone always expects him to be funny. His grandmother is determined to find him a partner, not really caring whether they're male or female, and keeps surprising him with crazy matchmaking schemes. Having never had a relationship last more than six months, he's also a bit wary, but he really thinks things could be different with Vivian.

Basically, if you've enjoyed Lau's romances in the past, there really is no reason why you won't like this one either. If this is your first thing you hear of her, this is an excellent place to start. While it's a follow-up to Donut Fall in Love, it works perfectly well on its own. 

Judging a book by its cover: I really like the yellow and pink colour scheme, even if it's yet another cartoon cover. It's also nice to see a hero who isn't tall, dark and chiseled. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 13 November 2022

CBR14 Book 44: "Madam, Will You Talk?" by Mary Stewart

Page count: 264 pages
Rating: 3 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Question (the book's title is a question and there is a central murder mystery where the identity of the murderer is in question)

Young widow Charity Selborne is on holiday in the south of France with her friend Louise and they really have little planned except to enjoy the good food, nice drinks, beautiful scenery, and long drives. In Avignon, Charity befriends a young English boy who is also staying at the hotel, offering to take him with her on tours of the local tourist spots, as his stepmother doesn't seem inclined to do so. She certainly wouldn't have expected this act of friendship would get her embroiled in the final act of a complicated criminal conspiracy, involving attempted murder, actual murder, kidnapping, and more. 

Once Charity meets the boy's imperious and brooding father, who may very well be a psychotic murderer, she finds herself fleeing through multiple French towns to get away from the man, who is determinedly seeking the whereabouts of his son. Charity is worried for the safety of the boy and keeps trying to get away from the possible madman, who seems relentless in his pursuit of her. Once Charity gets sick of running and furiously confronts her pursuer instead, they actually sit down and talk and she realises just how much danger the boy and his arrogant father are in. Charity and the framed man begin to work together to find out exactly what the vast plot consists of, why someone tried to frame Richard Byron (the suspected murderer) for a crime he didn't commit and then when he was acquitted, murder him instead. Why are the conspirators now using Byron's son as bait to get him to come to France? Is Charity going to be their next victim, now that she's involuntarily gotten involved?

A while back, there were a ton of Mary Stewart's mystery novels on sale online. As any e-book under $2.99 that I haven't actively heard bad things about is more or less a must-buy for me, I now have a fairly large selection of her books. When I needed a book that fits into the Question square of this year's Bingo, it seemed like a good candidate. I hadn't realised that this was in fact Mary Stewart's debut novel, which has become somewhat of a classic and laid the groundwork for her long career as a mystery writer in the second half of the 20th Century.

For fear of spoiling a nearly 70-year-old book, the romance subplot in this book is absolutely bonkers. When Richard Byron first meets Charity Selborne and realises that she knows where his son is, he believes her to be part of the criminal conspiracy that has been plaguing him for ages. He manhandles her, threatens her, calls her a b*tch (so charming), and is in general very unpleasant. She outsmarts him, but their paths keep crossing until he literally chases her through the south of France for several days like some sort of post-World War Terminator. Charity, believing the rumours she's heard that Byron is most likely a psychotic murderer who got acquitted on a technicality, in France to possibly do his own son harm, has no intention of revealing his son's whereabouts to the lunatic. 

Charity is clever and plucky and drives like a fiend, so she escapes him several times until she gets fed up, stops being afraid, and gets angry instead. She yells at him for several minutes, then almost collapses with exhaustion, whereupon he apparently realises 1) that he's been an utter beast for chasing this woman for days and making her very afraid for her own safety and 2) that he totally and completely loves her. Remember, this is after three days of believing her to be part of a criminal plot against him and party in keeping his only child from him. How does her heroine react to his declarations of love? Does she slap him and tell him to get as far away from her as possible? Of course not, silly, she swoons in his arms and apparently returns the affections of a man she believed was an unhinged murderer until earlier the same day. So romantic. The 1950s, people, it was a different time. 

Another way in which it is clear that we have come a long way is how much the characters smoke. They pretty much chain-smoke their way through this story. I'm surprised the kid, David doesn't light up a cigarette when he's off gambolling with his dog. Seriously, when Byron first encounters Charity, and she's a bit out of sorts because of the hot afternoon and thinking about her dead husband (he was shot down during the War), he insists that she have a cigarette to feel better. Because obviously nicotine and tobacco are so healthful. There's mention of smoking with breakfast. At one point, there's a mention of an ashtray on the nightstand of a hotel bed. So glad this is not the norm anymore.

While the romance is preposterously insta-love (SPOILER! They get married less than two weeks after first meeting one another), the actual criminal conspiracy plot is pretty clever. I also really liked Stewart's writing style. David and his loyal pooch did smack quite a bit of plot moppetude, but the descriptions of the various Roman ruins and other interesting sites that Charity visits and the mention of the food were all great. My favourite thing about the novel was probably our heroine herself. Charity is an intelligent and capable woman. She mourns her husband, but not to an excessive degree. She's brave, clever, kind, and drives like an utter fiend. 

I also really liked her friendship with Louise, who accompanies her to France. The friendship between the two women reminded me a lot of myself and my BFF Lydia. Louise is described as plump and friendly, and while Charity is off in the sweltering heat of the French afternoons to explore Roman ruins and archeological sites, Louise prefers to stay back at the hotel, reading in the shade or relaxing by a river, painting. These are vacation goals I can get behind (although I wouldn't even bother with the painting. I would just laze about in a shady back garden, drinking iced grape juice and reading my books. Possibly while snacking on some sort of delicious French pastry). It's also highly likely that Lydia would drag me along with her when going off to visit ruins and other sites of note, exclaiming all the while about how much I'm enjoying myself (whether I am or not). 

I guess starting with the earliest of Mary Stewart's books is a good idea, I've been assured that a lot of her writing is very good, and with some reservations, I also enjoyed this one. So if her writing gets more polished and sophisticated as her career progresses, I suspect I will also enjoy the others of hers I now have waiting for me in my digital library. 

Judging a book by its cover: This very minimalist cover, where you barely even see the heroine (suitably seen behind the wheel of a car) appeals to me. The blue skies give a feeling of summer and I could do with some of that as each day gets progressively darker here up north. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 43: "Make It Sweet" by Kristen Callihan

Page count: 369 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Dough (the hero is a retired hockey player who bakes and cooks the most amazing food - there is some serious food porn in this book).

Lucian "Luc" Osmond was a star hockey player with brilliant career prospects, tons of friends and teammates, not to mention a beautiful fiancee. Then one especially hard tackle has the doctors proclaim that if he continues to play, he's likely to end up brain damaged or dead. So he has to give up the sport that has dominated his life since he was a teenager, the only thing he really considers himself any good at, and has withdrawn to stay on his grandmother's big California estate, Rosemont. Here he isolates himself completely from his past life, interacting only with his grandmother or her self-appointed stylist (a flamboyant young man who's basically like a brother to Luc). 

Emma Maron was really enjoying her career, starring as a powerful warrior, sorceress, and princess on wildly popular fantasy show Dark Castle (think Game of Thrones). She considered many of the cast and crew her friends, and loved the opportunities the show gave her. Then, during the read-through of the show's fourth season finale, Emma (and the rest of the cast and crew) discover that Princess Anya will be killed off, beheaded by her enemies. Suddenly without a job, and completely unable to tell anyone in the industry until after the episode has aired, Emma is bereft. Not helping matters is going home to find her football player boyfriend boinking a waitress in their living room. Jobless and suddenly single, Emma desperately needs an escape and some rest and relaxation. Her grandmother's best friend just so happens to have a big, almost-empty estate in California which she enthusiastically invites Emma to come to visit, for as long as she wants. You see where this is going. 

When Lucian goes to pick Emma up at the airport, she initially mistakes him for a fan asking for an autograph. So their first meeting is off to a brilliant start. Nevertheless, Emma can't get over how handsome her appointed driver is, and Lucian, like millions of fans worldwide, has fancied Emma's onscreen persona for years. While their first meeting is a bit awkward, he realises very quickly that she's a very kind, considerate, and down-to-earth woman, with no annoying diva tendencies. The role she played might have been appealing, but the real woman is far more attractive because she's real. 

While Lucien still played hockey, he used to like cooking and baking as an occasional hobby to blow off steam and relax. Now that he's been holed up on his grandmother's estate for months, he's taken his culinary skills to another level and pours all of himself into cooking pretty much all the meals for everyone staying there. He starts putting special care into everything he makes for Emma, wanting to impress her with his cakes and pastries without her ever knowing that it's him, the man she considers the rather surly handyman onsite, who is also the estate's very talented chef. Due to another early misunderstanding, Emma thinks it's his grandmother who cooks, and she's amused enough to let her guest believe the lie.

Lucien's grandmother is a very kind and generous woman, but she clearly has ulterior motives for inviting the famous actress to convalesce in one of her guest houses. Along with her trusty assistant/stylist, she does whatever she can to throw Lucian and Emma together, matchmaking as best she can. However, while there is a lot of chemistry and attraction between Luc and Emma, they take ages to actually act on it, and even when they do, Lucian is very caught up in his self-pity, self-loathing, and belief that because he can no longer play hockey, and he is somehow less of a man, and certainly not someone anyone would ever want to be with long-term. Emma too is in a difficult place, having been cheated on and not knowing where her career is going to go now. Pretty much every time they make any progress in the relationship, they shortly after have to take two steps back because of something Luc does or feels about how hockey is the only thing he's ever been good at and his life might as well end now because he might die if he goes back on the ice.

The bit that really hammers home that Luc is a bit too caught up in his own drama and unwilling to ever consider any other alternative life path is when he and Emma go to a wedding, for one of her cast mates on Dark Castle. There's some sort of disaster involving the wedding cake, so Luc steps in and bakes a ton of delectable treats with very little preparation. The bride, a chef who is looking for a pastry chef straight up offers him a job working for her and he still refuses to even consider it. I guess it's a good thing for Emma's sake that he's really hot and the smexy times are great. 

It's a romance, so we all know they're going to get to their HEA eventually. Thankfully, Emma eventually has enough of Luc's 'woe is me, I am hockey, without hockey, I am nothing' schtick and leaves him to come to his senses, but it takes him far too long to realise what a good thing he now has and what his life could be without risking his brain and/or life on the regular. Can you tell I really don't care about sports one jot? Give me a man who can cook and bake over an athlete any day.

Not even slightly one of Callihan's best romances, although it does have a lot of fun supporting characters and a lot of good banter. It was also a quick read and allowed me to cross yet another book off my ever-growing TBR list. 

Judging a book by its cover: While I'm not a super fan of the cover, it's refreshing to see a romance published in the last few years that doesn't have the ever-present cartoony cover illustration. I actually really like just seeing glimpses of the characters in the letters of the title. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 12 November 2022

CBR14 Book 41 and 42: "Lore Olympus, vol 2 and 3" by Rachel Smythe

Page count: 752 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Adaptation (Rachel Smythe's modern take on the Greek myths - and obviously especially Hades and Persephone is so cleverly done)

So, searching my blog and Goodreads to see what I wrote about Lore Olympus, my current web-comic obsession, I discovered that after finishing volume one in November last year, all I did was leave a two-sentence comment on Goodreads. If I recall correctly, I was pretty solidly burned out last winter, so I'm amazed I posted any reviews in the final months of the year. 

So what's Lore Olympus about, and why did I seek out the webcomic and read an additional hundred and twenty issues after finishing volume 3? Rachel Smythe has taken the entire pantheon of the Greek gods and reimagined them brilliantly. The story begins when Kore, the young goddess of spring, who has been kept extremely sheltered in the mortal world for her entire short life so far, comes to Olympus to study. Her mother, Demeter, has reluctantly agreed to let her go, on the condition that she stays with Artemis, who is known for her chastity and because Kore, or Persephone as she is sometimes known, has received a scholarship via TGOEM, The Goddesses of Eternal Maidenhood (currently consisting of Artemis, Hestia and Athena, but always thrilled to get another member). The innocent Kore ends up at a party at Zeus and Hera's mansion, where Hades is overheard by Aphrodite as describing the young goddess of spring as even more beautiful than the goddess of love, and obviously, Aphrodite takes offense. She orders her son, Eros, to get Kore very drunk and plant her in Hades' car, hoping that this will cause both the maiden and the very serious god of the Underworld some difficulties. Instead, Hades takes our drunken heroine home to sleep it off (he lives alone in a very large, empty house with many dogs he's adopted). There's clearly a mutual attraction between them, but Kore is far too drunk for anything to happen. Hades does gift her a beautiful fur coat that Hera once rejected as a gift.

Hades is appalled when he is told by Hera that Kore/Persephone is only nineteen years old (while the gods don't really age after a certain point, she is actually just out of adolescence and raised almost exclusively in the company of women). As Hades is literally millennia old, he's not exactly going to make a move on a veritable child. Kore is mortified that she got drunk and had to have help from Hades, and when she discovers that he has a girlfriend (his assistant, the very bitchy nymph Minthe). And there's that whole pesky maidenhood promise she made in return for her scholarship. They both squash any pants feelings far down, but develop a flirty friendship.

Artemis tries not to be too overprotective of her new roommate, but unfortunately, her distraction and Kore's innocence and inexperience lead to her being taken advantage of by one of the more unscrupulous and selfish gods early on. Led to believe that she's overreacting when she gets upset, she instead blames herself for the assault and refuses to tell anyone about it (Smythe is very good about trigger warnings throughout the comic, but doesn't shy away from a lot of heavy and important themes). It makes her skittish and uncomfortable around most of the male gods, yet she always feels safe around Hades.

Hera, being the goddess of hearth and home, and blesser of human marriages doesn't entirely agree with her old friend Demeter's way of sheltering Kore/Persephone. She is fully aware how promiscuous most of the male and many of the female gods are (she is after all married to the biggest adulterer in the pantheon), so she decides to test Hades' feelings by orchestrating an internship for Kore in the Underworld. She knows her old friend has been lonely for eons and really doesn't approve of the stormy and often emotionally abusive relationship he has with Minthe. So she makes sure he'll see much more of the goddess of spring than he was planning on. 

So that's basically the setup. Kore comes to Olympus and is overwhelmed. She and Hades form an almost instantaneous connection. In Smythe's story, there is no familial relationship between them at all. Demeter created her daughter herself, without any input from any god, so unlike in actual Greek mythology, Zeus is not her father and Hades is not her uncle. Because I think we can all agree that makes everything a lot ickier. With the exception of Hermes, the messenger of the gods, Koré has barely seen men while growing up and getting used to her powers. The realm of the gods is depicted as basically a modern world with computers, cell phones, cars, television, tabloids, and technology. The human world, where our heroine was raised, however, is portrayed as historical Greece, where the humans are still wearing smocks and togas and work primarily as farmers. So to come to Olympus at the age of nineteen, it's almost as if Kore has time-traveled. She's never had a phone before. She needs to be shown how to use a computer and social media and doesn't know that it's extremely bad to let a guy take compromising photos of you. 

As well as building the very very slow-burn romance between Persephone and Hades, the comic also deals with the rest of the very chaotic Greek gods. Both Zeus and Hades are businessmen, but Hades seems to take his work a lot more seriously. Zeus seems fond of his wife Hera but has mistresses both in Olympus and the human realm. One of the reasons Demeter has kept her daughter so sheltered is that she's used to Zeus dumping whichever nymph he's recently had a tryst with in the human realm with her so that Hera can't find and exact vengeance on said nymphs. She doesn't want her daughter to end up with some serial adulterer. Sadly, her strict ways also leaves her daughter vulnerable to predators.

As well as the current ongoing lives of the gods, we get glimpses into their histories and how they came to power. Smythe's take on the mythology gives the goddesses, nymphs, and other women of the story way more agency than they tend to have in mythology. Hera is a complete badass, Hecate is Hades' formidable right-hand woman and Artemis is a loyal and protective friend to Kore/Persephone. While a lot of the nymphs, like Minthe and Thetis (Zeus' personal assistant and mistress) are presented as rather opportunistic, scheming, and generally rather morally flexible, there is no denying that they are resourceful women who tend to control their own narratives in a very decisive way. 

While some of the gods are rather deplorable (Zeus, Ares, Apollo and Thanatos spring to mind), there are also some who are lovely and do their best to take care of Kore/Persephone and the other goddesses in their lives (Eros and Hermes especially). Hades is obviously everyone's tragic and lonely hero, faithful to his temperamental and rather shrewish nymph girlfriend until her rage and jealousy make it impossible for him to stay with her. He is always respectful of the women around him and tries to fight his attraction for Kore for as long as he can. She is always the one taking the lead when they are together. 

The first volume is mainly set up and introduces the reader to the major players and the world they inhabit. In volumes two and three, the story develops and one of the ongoing mysteries is how young, innocent Kore, goddess of spring, whose name means "Maiden", has come to Olympus also known as Persephone, "Bringer of Death". Thetis, Minthe and Thanatos, who are all upset by the nepotism and special favours they feel Kore has received since her arrival in Olympus, spend a lot of time investigating exactly this. When the truth was revealed at the end of volume three, there was no way I was going to sit around waiting until May 2023 to get more of the story, when so much more was readily available to me online. Now I'm only vexed that there is nowhere for me to log the many issues I've devoured in a very short space of time, which I worked out will probably take me to the end of volume eight once the books are out. And also, now I'm going to have to wait impatiently for new weekly installments, like other long-time fans of the comic.

This review is already very long, and I haven't even raved enthusiastically about Smythe's art style and the very cool way she portrays the various characters. Kore/Persephone is a young, curvy woman with a short pixy cut, completely pink. Her hair has a life of its own and seems to grow every time she feels strong emotion, so she frequently has it trailing all the way to her feet or longer. When she gets angry, her eyes turn completely red. Hades is all blue and in Olympus, he tends to wear sharp suits and has his white hair cut short. In more private moments, he wears hoodies and sweats and he loves swimming. As previously mentioned, he has many dogs, Cerberus obviously being the most well-known. Zeus has long hair and is all purple. Poseidon, the middle brother, is all green and seems to be portrayed as a happy-go-lucky surfer dude who eats a lot. He tries to keep the peace between his two brothers, which isn't always easy. Hera is all yellow, Aphrodite is an almost lavender colour. Eros is a soft pink. Hermes is red, with a shock of wild hair. Apollo and Artemis are also purple, but different shades from Zeus and Aphrodite. Minthe is dark red, while Hecate is a somewhat darker blue than Hades with black hair in a stylish bob. The colours make it much easier to keep track of the constantly changing cast of characters, too, which never hurts.

I absolutely love these comics, and the only reason I haven't rated these volumes five stars is that I know an even more exciting plot is coming down the line. So I'm saving the last half a star for that. I wholeheartedly recommend these to anyone. The relationship between Hades and Persephone is all that is swoony and romantic. There is no abduction or trickery or forced eating of pomegranates here. Just mutual respect and support, as well as a lot of pining, so the first time they actually kiss, I may have cheered out loud. I'm going to continue buying the books (which collect about 25 issues each), but for anyone short of cash, the first 217 issues are available on Webtoon. 

Judging a book by its cover: The covers give you some idea of Rachel Smythe's art style and how she portrays Hades and Persephone. I love these covers, just like I love art style, her skill at storytelling and just everything about this story. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday 10 November 2022

CBR14 Book 40: "Monstress, vol 1: Awakening" by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Page count: 202 pages
Rating: 2 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Monster (there are several monsters in this story, both humanoid and not)

Official book description:
Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900's Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steampunk, MONSTRESS tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war, and who shares a mysterious psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, a connection that will transform them both and make them the target of both human and otherworldly powers.

So total honesty here. This was my local fantasy/sci-fi book club pick for March. Yup, nearly eight months ago. I read the first three issues, then got incredibly distracted by something or other, I don't even remember what anymore, and just left the trade paperback lying unattended until I finally got round to finishing the book in the middle of October, because it seemed like the easiest way to complete the "Monster" bingo square. Also, I was annoyed at myself for not finishing what is basically six issues of a comic book, something I can normally get through in about an hour. 

Splitting my reading of the story this way means that I barely have any memory of what happened in the earliest issues, and my comprehension of the later issues was somewhat hampered by me just spending some time re-reading. As the blurb says, the story is set in an alternate history, in turn of the 20th Century Asia, where instead of the majority of society being ruled and controlled by men, women are in power. So far, so cool. There's clearly been some sort of horrific war, and there are humans and talking cats and strange animal/people hybrids. There seems to be an organisation of powerful women who take the shall-we-say non-standard people captive and perform horrific experiments on them. Our heroine is a young woman called Maika Halfwolf, who is now an orphan and has suffered a bunch of trauma due to the wars. She only has one arm and is the Monstress of the title because some sort of scary life-sucking monster has taken up residence inside her, and they are now battling for control. 

For those with a weak constitution or sensitivity issues, there are probably a whole host of trigger warnings in this story. I recall there being horrific violence all over the place and generally a lot of unpleasantness, which is why I put the comic down in the first place. At the same time, this series has a lot of critical acclaim and has won a bunch of very prestigious awards over the years, so I should probably go back and give the book a new chance at a later date when I'm in a better headspace. The art by Sana Takeda is next-level and so beautiful that some of the unpleasantness just gets even more visceral. However, at this juncture, the book gets only 2 stars from me, because I pretty much finished the first volume out of stubbornness and remember very few details about the story at all. 

Judging a book by its cover: Sana Takeda's art really is breathtaking. While I probably should have given this book more dedicated attention, there is no denying that the art is amazing, and this cover image is very eye-catching. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 39: "An Enchantment of Ravens" by Margaret Rogerson

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Bird (bird in the title, bird on the cover, love interest turns into a bird, there are so many birds in this story)

Isobel lives in a little town where it's always summer. This is because her town is just on the border of the Faerie lands, and most of the people who live there are valued by the Fair folk because of their Craft (anything that basically involves creating something, be it building, sewing, baking, cooking, or painting), acts that the Fey are unable to perform themselves. Isobel is a very skilled portrait painter and knows just how dangerous and tricky it can be to deal with the Fey. She's rather flummoxed when one of her patrons confides that he has recommended her services to the Autumn Prince, which would certainly increase her status massively.

Rook, the Autumn prince, has been away for a long time and in many ways behaves more politely towards the humans than a lot of the Fey. There's absolutely an attraction between them, and Isobel wonders why Rook seems different than all the other faeries she's ever encountered before. She figures it out shortly before she completes his portrait, and includes the human sorrow she sees in his eyes in the painting. This proves to be a dangerous mistake. Rook returns a few weeks after collecting the artwork and demands that Isobel come with him to the Autumn court to stand trial for her crime - exposing a potential weakness of his for the faerie world to see. Isobel doesn't have much choice but to go with him, unwilling and unable to say farewell to her family. 

As Isobel and Rook travel towards his court, passing through the courts of the other seasons on the way, it becomes very obvious that something is wrong and some sort of curse is on the land. They keep being hunted by malevolent faerie creatures and have to alternate between running and hiding. During their journey, Rook comes to understand that Isobel didn't mean any harm with her painting, and he may have overreacted when abducting her. However, with the various creatures hunting them, he may not be able to return her to her home safely. The two end up at the Spring court, where it turns out its prince is someone that Isobel already knows. By this point, it's become clear that Isobel and Rook are falling for one another - but a mortal and a faerie falling in love means certain death for both of them thanks to the ruthless laws of the Alder King (the ruler of all Faerie). Isobel needs to use her unique skills to fight the king, to save herself and her beloved. 

I love that Margaret Rogerson writes stand-alone young adult fantasy. That in and of itself is rare in this day and age. I also liked the contrast between faerie magic and their usually rather unpredictable blessings with the skill and craft of the humans. The humans are fascinated by the Fae, and the fair folk are entranced with the Craft of skilled humans, as while they are able to conjure and shapeshift, their magic is fleeting. Humans are able to take raw materials and craft them into something solid and durable, and for this, the Fae keep coming back to make deals with them. 

Unfortunately, when it came to characterisation, this book felt very young adult. Isobel (we never actually learn her "true" name, which she must never reveal to anyone or risk being enchanted) is a clever and resourceful young woman, except when she suddenly isn't because the plot requires her to be confused and helpless. Rook is handsome and brooding and can turn into a bird (pretty cool), but I'm not entirely sure exactly what basis their forbidden love springs from. Apart from a few weeks at the beginning, while Isobel is painting Rook's portrait and they chat and flirt with one another, pretty much their entire time together is while they're in danger. Whether this gives them a good impression of the other's true self, which will lead to a lasting foundation for a relationship seems unlikely to me. 

I love me some books with faeries in them, the wickeder the better. It's why all of Holly Black's various faerie books, taken to their pinnacle with The Folk of the Air trilogy, where some of the Fey are truly monstrous. These faeries were fine, I guess. I liked that there was a well deep in the woods where humans with exceptional Craft skills could be rewarded by drinking, so they basically got turned into faeries themselves, and the exploration as to whether this was really a reward or a curse. One thing that kept taking me out of the narrative was the fact that in this book, thanking the faeries was no big deal. In almost all the various stories I can think of, you must never directly thank a faerie because it puts you in their debt, which is always a dangerous position to be in. In this book, however, there didn't seem to be any such taboos, but I may just have been indoctrinated by all the other fictional faerie fantasies, and it seemed really odd to me. 

I wish the romance between the couple had been better developed, but overall, this was a really entertaining read with some creative twists to previous faerie stories. I will absolutely be checking out more of Margaret Rogerson's books. 

Judging a book by its cover: I really like the gorgeous embroidery on the sleeves of the dress the blonde on the cover is wearing. Interestingly, I'm not sure she's ever described as wearing black at any point in the story. Also, you know, big bird. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday 9 November 2022

CBR14 Book 38: "Just One Damned Thing After Another" by Jodi Taylor

Page count: 332 pages
Rating: 3 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Time (the whole book is about time travel to different points in Earth's history)

Dr. Madeleine "Max" Maxwell is recruited by the seemingly rather mundane St. Mary's Institute of History, only to discover that they are actually a secret organisation that time travels to various points in history, for research purposes. Obviously, you can't just throw anyone into a time machine and have at it, so there's a lot of training. Then there's the fact that time travel is rather dangerous, and she starts to see why there aren't all that many historians actually working long-term for St. Mary's. Most don't have what it takes, and either quit or get killed in action. 

Nevertheless, Max manages not only to pass training but after a series of misadventures, to be one of the few historians left on active duty. After some missions back in time where something always seems to go mysteriously wrong, Max is let in on a secret. St. Mary's is not the only group of time travelers out there, and their rival group is not just interested in observing and documenting different parts of history. Some of the higher-ups in St. Mary's are in fact from the future and have come back in time specifically to found the organisation, to fight the rogue time travelers who want to exploit history for profit and who have no qualms about killing any member of St. Mary's they come across. 

Max's adventures take her to 11th Century England, World War I France, and even all the way back to the Cretaceous Period to observe and document dinosaurs (!), but there may be traitors among the crew at St. Mary's and coming back from her missions alive and unharmed is not guaranteed. She learns almost too late that some that she had considered friends are far from it, and if she's not clever and resourceful, she may end up as dinosaur snack food.

This is the first in a long series of books and novellas, collectively known as The Chronicles of St. Mary's. Jodi Tayor started these books back in 2013, and book 13 was published earlier this year. There are also more novellas than I bothered counting on Goodreads. My friend Ida really likes them and has read the whole series, if I'm not mistaken. Based on the first book, I'm not entirely sure if I can be bothered continuing with the series. The book starts slowly and there is a lot of exposition. I get that the author felt the need to explain the hows and whys of St. Mary's and the time travel, but it got a bit dull. The first third or so of the book felt like rather a slog, then the plot got a lot more interesting, only to get a bit long-winded and meandering towards the end of the story again.

Part of the challenge here is that we keep being introduced to a fairly large gallery of characters, only for some of them to get killed off or disappear early in the story. Some characters are referred to with more than one name, making it a bit confusing who's actually in any given scene. Max is not always an easy character to root for, something I wouldn't necessarily have minded if the plot was holding my attention. There's a romance subplot that could absolutely have been better developed, and just felt a bit tacked on, with no good build-up for how or why these characters liked each other or were attracted to one another, not to mention some rather erratic behaviour from both characters that didn't exactly fill me with confidence for their continued happiness in future books. 

A quick glance through my digital book collection shows me that I own the second book in audio and the fourth book as an e-book, both acquired in sales, so I may give the series another chance at a future point in time. After all, I'm now a huge fan of several series that took two or three books to really catch my interest. 

Judging a book by its cover: It seems as if this book has had a variety of covers, some of them rather odd. One of the covers seems to be a muddle of pastel clouds, a teacup, and some generically "Britain" images in the background. Then there's one with a big swirly clock face on the bottom half, while there's a scene from some classical time period, with a topless dude wearing half a toga running past some temple-like buildings. I much prefer the edition I have, with sections in shades of red and black and dinosaur silhouettes. Dinosaurs rule. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday 8 November 2022

CBR14 Book 37: "Duke, Actually" by Jenny Holiday

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Holiday (a Christmas romance written by an author called Holiday - boom!)

Maximillian "Max" von Hansburg, popularly known in the tabloids worldwide as "the Depraved Duke", is in fact, merely a baron. He is the eldest son and heir to the Duke of Aquilla, however, and he doesn't really mind his playboy reputation very much. While in New York to fulfill family obligations and meet a prospective bride that his parents might approve of, he decides to have some fun instead and contacts Dani Martinez. Dani's best friend Leo now lives in Eldovia (the fictional European country that Max hails from) and is due to marry its crown princess Marie. Before meeting Leo, Marie was going to marry Max and they had a whole plan for a marriage of convenience. So it's not like Max is pining for his lost love. While he knows Dani finds him a bit insufferable, Max really enjoyed spending time with her before (in a past story that I assume all happened in A Princess for Christmas, Holiday's previous romance involving the fictional Eldovia) and would like to see her again. 

Dani, a New York English professor, is in the middle of going through a thorny divorce (her fellow English lecturer spouse ran off to Spain with one of his students) and isn't exactly looking forward to the faculty Christmas party where her cheating spouse and his potential childbride are also going to be. However, Dani needs to impress the heads of faculty if she ever wants to get tenure, so she has to appear. When Max texts her out of the blue, she initially tells him to sod off, but when he offers to accompany her to her dreaded faculty do, the thought of showing up to the Christmas party with one of the most famously handsome men on the planet (Dani likens him to the handsome Swedish vampire on True Blood, and Alexander Skarsgård is certainly a snack) makes her change her mind, despite being firmly post-men, post-romance now.

Dani finds herself having a surprising amount of fun with Max, who is self-deprecating, charming, and very attentive to her and when Max leaves to go back to Eldovia, the two keep texting and exchanging messages, building a real friendship. Max is supportive of her when she decides to try her hand at dating again, giving her advice and funny anecdotes about his own love life. Dani is supportive of Max's challenges with his family and finding a meaningful pastime besides being an international playboy and minor European aristocrat. As the royal wedding gets closer, Max invites Dani to come for an extended stay on his family estate, so she can find peace and quiet to work. By this point, Dani's been on a bunch of failed dates with over a dozen men, while Max has found himself strangely celibate for a very long time. Could it be that neither is really interested in anyone but the other? 

So, while this romance novel both starts and ends at Christmas, it's not really a holiday romance, as such. Nevertheless, Christmas, with its many different traditions in many cultures, not to mention the existence of Love, Actually (a movie Max has never seen until Dani introduces him to it) plays an important part in the story. It was really refreshing to have a book where the couple doesn't fall into insta-love or insta-lust even (although there is a clear acknowledgment of the other's attractiveness from the start), and instead, they grow a solid and mutual friendship before they ever get to the kissing and smexy times. 

I'm always fascinated with the fictional European countries that North American authors tend to invent for their romances. I guess it works better than having fictionalised versions of actual European countries, especially if you can't seem to do your research well enough (A Duke by Default, I'm totally talking about you). Based on the descriptions given in the book, Eldovia must be in the southern parts of Europe, it's described as having a lot of mountains (so probably near the Alps) and its main exports appear to be luxury watches and some minerals only found in the country's many mines. Max's family is very involved in the mining industry, and after rebuilding his relationship with his younger brother, Max also begins to take a more active part in the family business. 

While a lot of the book is focused on Max and Dani, there are also some nice supporting characters, and an adorable dog, amusingly also named Max. While I loved the slow burn and developing friendship before having the protagonist start bonking, the ending seemed rather rushed, and I'm not super enthused about the rather melodramatic way that Max is prevented from going to New York to pursue Dani. I'm pretty sure that that whole plot strand could have been resolved in a slightly different way, especially since Max's brother might find himself rather emotionally scarred and swamped with guilt in the aftermath. 

Nevertheless, this was a very cozy book and I'm glad I chose it for my Holiday bingo square. So far, I've very much enjoyed Ms. Holiday's romances, although I find myself more intrigued by the sequel to this rather than the earlier story where Leo and Marie meet and become a couple. The various clever references to books and films throughout (there's a whole extended subplot with Max and Dani trying to do the lift from Dirty Dancing, as well as the Love, Actually call-backs) were also fun. 

Judging a book by its cover: See, this is a cartoony cover where I don't think either of the protagonists is given enough justice. Neither Max nor Dani look as attractive as described. I do like the inclusion of dog Max, however, and the big sign with the title is a nice nod to the movie from which the book cheekily takes its name. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 36: "Subtle Blood" by K.J. Charles

Page count: 290 pages
Rating: 5 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Scandal (the book features corruption, blackmail, kidnapping, and murder - not to mention gay people in the 1920s. Gasp!)

Spoiler warning! This is the third book in a trilogy. While you can absolutely read this book without the others, you will not get all the beautiful payoff from various earlier storylines that way. Also, this review will contain mild spoilers for earlier in the series. Start with Slippery Creatures

For the last few months, Lord Arthur "Kim" Secretan and Will Darling have actually been a couple, and nothing bad or dangerous has threatened them in any way. Kim has been helping Will get his bookshop in order, and seems to enjoy finding book treasures at estate sales, but it's clear that a part of him misses his cloak-and-dagger duties for the special service, and he still feels very guilty about how his engagement to Lady Phoebe dissolved. Obviously not because of anything romantic, but because revealing her father's crimes to the world and his subsequent death threw Phoebe's life into chaos. Off in Paris, launching Will's best friend Maisie's fashion line seems to be keeping her both happy and busy, though.

The peace was unlikely to last long, and when there's a brutal murder at Kim's former gentleman's club and it seems like Kim's older brother is the murderer, Kim feels obligated to try to clear his name. Kim would happily see his odious brute of an older brother hang, but if he dies, Kim would become his father's heir, and that's a fate so loathsome that he'd rather try to investigate and hopefully get his brother exonerated, even if it means having to spend time with his estranged brother and father. Obviously, the more time they spend among Kim's upper-class peers, the more out of place Will feels. Already insecure about their class differences, the murder investigation and its potential outcomes place a lot of strain on Kim and Will's relationship. Can they actually have a future together, when they come from such different worlds?

Obviously, in romances, there's supposed to be a HEA (happily ever after), yet because this is a trilogy, the previous two books in the series were more of a HFN (happy for now) conclusion. In this book, however, despite their increasingly challenging odds, Kim and Will actually get their happy ending. There's a lot of drama, intrigue, danger and near-death experiences before they get there though. 

Having now read the entire trilogy, I can fully admire how K.J. Charles has structured the story. In this final volume, so many of the plot strands left dangling are nicely tied off, and pretty much everything gets a satisfying conclusion eventually. Will obviously has no family left, his "family" such as it is consists of Kim and Maisie. Maisie is off in Paris becoming a famous fashion designer (but you can bet she and Lady Phoebe turn up when she hears of the difficulties Will and Kim are caught up in), but there have been ample hints about Kim's remaining family throughout the series. His younger brother obviously died on the battlefield during World War I, but his older brother Chingford is still very much alive and entirely oblivious to his privilege. In fact, he seems infuriated that anyone has dared accused him of a crime and has no intention of explaining himself or telling the truth about his connection to the dead man, making it seem even more likely that he's guilty. Kim's father is also an upper-class monster, although a smidge more sympathetic than his son and heir. It's very obvious why Kim has done his best to distance himself from them entirely. 

While there are a lot of uncertainties, at least on Will's side, about the future of their relationship, this book is also by far the most romantic of the trilogy. Will may be a bit intimidated by his feelings toward Kim, but the reverse is not the case. Kim loves Will and wants them to build a future together, which is why he needs to make sure he will never end up taking over his father's title and position. He may have been on the shifty and unreliable side earlier in the series, but in this story, he knows what he wants and he's not going to consider a life without Will. I was also very happy that while Maisie and Phoebe were off in France at the start of the book, they return and play a central part in the plot as well, as I love those ladies. If Charles wants to write a book about their future adventures, launching Maisie's career in Paris, I will happily buy and read the book.

I suspect, based on how much I loved this book, that I will enjoy the earlier book in the trilogy more as well. I've clearly been sleeping on Charles' authorship, despite having bought a bunch of them over the years. At least this means I can read more whenever I find the time. 

Judging a book by its cover: I keep getting distracted by the sideburns on the left-hand character, whom I assume is supposed to be Kim. Nice to see that the right-hand character, presumably Will, still has his trusty knife. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read