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

Wednesday, 2 November 2022

CBR14 Book 35: "The Poet X" by Elizabeth Acevedo

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 5 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Verse (the whole book is written as poems)

Xiomara and her brother Xavier (who Xiomara mostly refers to as Twin) are miracle babies, born late in life to their parents, who never believed they would have children. Growing up in Harlem, New York, they're nevertheless part of the Dominican culture of their immigrant parents. Their mother is deeply religious and was possibly going to be a nun before she met their dad, whose wandering eye meant he got around plenty before marrying. While her mother goes to Mass every day, X doesn't even think she believes in God, but obviously can't say this to her mother. Her twin doesn't argue with their mother, he's the gentle one, which means X has been forced to become the fierce and protective one, making sure he isn't hurt. Since he's some kind of genius, they go to different schools now, though. 

Obviously, even thinking about boys is completely forbidden, and for the most part, X isn't interested anyway. Having matured early, she's had to fend off catcalls and felt embarrassed about her body since early puberty. But then there's her new lab partner. He's different. 

X lives for poetry, she writes it all down in a leather-bound journal given to her by her twin. She pours out all her dreams, fears, longing, and passion on the pages, making very sure to keep it hidden from her parents. Her new English teacher notices X's affinity for poetry and verse and invites her to join the slam poetry club. But poetry club is on the same night as X's confirmation classes, and there's no way X's mama is ever going to let her choose poetry over God. 

This book has been nominated for and has won so many various literary prizes that at least one of the covers I've seen is more or less covered in golden labels. I've heard of it a lot over the years since it came out in 2018, but somehow, I convinced myself that reading a novel created entirely in verse would be too difficult, or something. I don't really have a good excuse, except the fact that my digital library and my TBR lists are so long now that I get very easily distracted, and there's always something newer and shinier out there to distract me. 

This book made me smile, it made me want to hug both Xiomara and her brother, it made me want to yell at her mother and it actually had me gasping out loud, not to mention ugly crying in parts. I'm amazed at how much tension, plot development, character growth, and emotion this book managed, while all the chapters, each a poem of about a page or a page and a half, are short and easy to just speed through. No long descriptive passages and all the interior monologues of our protagonist come out in the pages of her poetry. 

The book made me feel all the feels, and I'm glad that thanks to my DuoLingo Spanish lessons I actually understood most of the Spanish that Xiomara intersperses her English with. I am sorry it took me so long to get around to reading the book, but the upside is that I now have two other Elizabeth Acevedo books to look forward to, as well. 

Judging a book by its cover: I think the cover is a little bit too generically YA, considering the amazing contents of the book. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's very similar to so many other YA books. This book is remarkable and deserves to stand out. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday, 1 November 2022

CBR14 Book 34: "Mooncakes" by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

Page count: 256 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Cozy (this is a super-sweet YA comic. While there are some dark themes, the main vibe here is absolutely cozy.) 

Nova Huang (she/her) is an orphaned young witch, although she sees the ghosts of her parents during each major holiday, and sometimes just when they feel she might need advice or a good talking to. She lives with her two grandmothers, who sell books of both the mundane and magical varieties. 

Tam (they/them)  on the other hand, seems to have been on their own for a long time. They had to run away from home once things got too bad there, and now they're back in the town they were happy as a child, but there is sinister magic threatening the place, and Tam knows they need to use their werewolf magic somehow in order to banish it. 

Nova's grandmothers are very powerful witches and used to dealing with supernatural threats, but even they find the demon presence in the woods impossible to vanquish. The best they can do is try to empower Nova and Tam to manage the task instead. 

This book has been on my shelf for far too long (at some point, it also appears to have sustained some pretty bad water damage to the latter half of the book. Neither my husband nor I can remember it happening, and it kind of sucks, because it meant the last few pages were stuck together and difficult to separate). It's a super sweet book aimed at young adults, which possibly hits every square on the diversity bingo card. Nova is a person of colour, cis-gendered, bisexual, and uses hearing aids in both of her ears to hear properly (her grandmothers have had to adapt her magic so that the technology and magic don't interfere with each other). Nova is raised by a lesbian couple, who seem perfectly accepted and loved in their little society. Tam is a non-binary lesbian werewolf. Both of the young protagonists have coming-of-age challenges to deal with on top of their growing feelings for one another. 

The story is relatively fast-paced and while there is danger lurking, it never feels too perilous. The art is gorgeous and the romance between the main characters is very sweet. Nova has a large, diverse and very supportive family (several members are of the supernatural persuasion). I loved that although her parents are dead, they are still an active part of her life as ghosts, she just doesn't see them all the time. 

My original intention was to use this for the "dough" square of the bingo card, because of the title. Sadly baking and baked goods play such a small part in the story that I decided it probably fit better for "cozy". I don't think I've ever spent as much time changing and rearranging my original plan for the book bingo as I have this year. It's a good thing I have such a big book collection, usually, there is more than one book that works for each of the squares.

Judging a book by its cover: Look at the cuteness of this cover! You can see why I thought baking was going to play a bigger part in the story. The cover gives you an idea of Wendy Xu's art style, which really enhanced the story for me. 
 
Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday, 31 October 2022

CBR14 Book 33: "Hot Rabbi" by Aviva Blakeman

Page count: 212 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Hot (hot features in the title, and a lot of the contents are also decidedly spicy)

Official book description: 
For fifteen years, Shoshana Goldman has avoided her childhood synagogue. Her successful custom-furniture store keeps her busy enough, and the synagogue brings bad memories not peace. It will take nothing short of a minor miracle to change her mind.

Intrigued by her friends’ convictions that the new “hot Rabbi” is that minor miracle, Shoshana agrees to attend a service. It’s only one service, right? But meeting the new Rabbi changes everything.

David Freedman is settling into his new town and his new job easily. As a single dad and a Rabbi, his priorities are his daughter and his congregation. He doesn’t have time for romance, especially with the sexy pink-haired Shoshana whose tendency to say whatever she’s thinking is a breath of fresh air.

But his attraction to Shoshana is a distraction he doesn’t want to give up. He knows a romance with a congregant is a bad idea. So it’s a very good thing Shoshana isn’t a member.

As David and Shoshana grow closer, Shoshana’s troubled past threatens to destroy their happiness. Will David be the miracle she needs to live fully in the present?

There don't seem to be a lot of romance novels, contemporary and certainly not historical, that feature Jewish protagonists. I certainly can't remember reading many of them. The Jewish faith is pretty much front and centre in this book, what with the hero being a rabbi and the heroine being raised in the faith (she considers herself an atheist). This means there were quite a few words and terms that I wasn't immediately familiar with. Did it in any way impact my enjoyment of the book? Not even a little bit. 

As well as being a really well-plotted and sexy book, I was surprised at how funny and emotional it is. Shoshana's dad reacted badly when her mother died, and as a result, Shoshana doesn't feel comfortable going to the local synagogue, even if it also means she's lost touch with a lot of people. She is convinced she manages fine on her own, running her family's custom-furniture business more or less single-handedly. Her entire social network consists of her two best friends and her loyal employee.

Her friends insist that she has to come and check out the new "hot rabbi" and Shoshana lets herself be persuaded. Shoshana and David, recently divorced and the primary caregiver of a little girl, form a pretty instant connection. David has been deftly avoiding all attempts to set him up, as he doesn't want to get romantically involved with anyone in his congregation. So the fact that Shoshana isn't part of said congregation anymore is perfect. They are both a bit flabbergasted at how quickly they seem to fall for one another but meeting this funny, intelligent, understanding and caring man brings up a whole host of insecurities in Shoshana, whose life is also further complicated when her loyal sidekick at work announces that he's quitting and Shoshana needs to learn to deal with the business side of her furniture shop in less than a month. 

Confession - I know the author of this book and consider her a friend. That has not influenced my review (rather made it more intimidating to write, frankly) and I am only sorry that it's taken me so long to actually read and review this book. My friend wrote this clever, funny, sexy, and emotional book and published it and sold it and I'm so very proud of her. If I have any criticism at all about this book it's that it's a bit short, and I wanted to spend more time with pretty much every single character in it. Now I can look forward to checking out the next book in this series (about a hot lumberjack, who I think was mentioned in passing at least once in this book) and hopefully keep being amazed by Aviva's writing skills. 

Judging a book by its cover: This book has more than one cover, but I prefer the one where you can see the protagonists more clearly (the other one has them in shadow, almost silhouetted against the cover). While I imagine Shoshana's hair as a bit curlier, and with several different shades of pink in her hair, I really like this cover. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 32: "Love Lettering" by Kate Clayborn

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Fonts (Meg's whole livelihood involves lettering, fonts, and calligraphy. Also, this was the first book on my TBR I could think of when I saw the bingo prompt.)

Meg Mackworth is known as "the Planner of Park Slope" and uses her hand lettering skills and creativity to design custom journals and planners for the rich and influential in New York City. Lately, she's really feeling the pressure of all the work and suffering from a creative block - not exactly a good thing when she's trying to complete the pitch of a lifetime. She's not sure why she keeps growing more and more estranged from her best friend and roommate. So when a former client shows up at the shop where she works and confronts her about the wedding program she designed for him and his fiancée, a beautifully decorated piece where she hid the word "mistake" from everyone, or so she believed. Reid Sutherland is a financial analyst who's excellent at spotting patterns, and he wants to know how Meg could be so sure that his relationship was doomed even before the wedding took place.

Meg obviously feels bad for Reid and admits that her action was rather unprofessional. She apologises and reckons that she's unlikely to ever see the handsome man again. She's surprised to hear that not only is he not married, but he's also shortly going to be leaving New York, claiming he never really liked it there. As Meg adores New York, she decides to apologise to Reid by trying to make him see the magic of the city, which she figures might help her find new inspiration for her work, as well. She plans a number of walking tours and invites Reid along. He not only agrees to come with her, but he also challenges her to little games and friendly competitions while they wander. The more time they spend with each other, the more their attraction grows. But is there any future for the two of them if Reid is going to be leaving the city soon? 

This is one of those romances that pretty much got rave reviews all over the place when it came out, and I didn't have the opportunity to read it back then but snapped it up in a sale, whereupon I of course promptly forgot about it, until the Bingo challenge came along and made me examine my digital library when planning my reading list. Having now finished it at last, I think it may be my favourite of Clayborn's books so far. 

I wouldn't describe the romance as angsty as such, but both Meg and Reid have some baggage to work through, and it turns out that the very private Reid has also been keeping some secrets from Meg that are revealed in the final act and complicate their relationship quite a bit. I'm not sure I was entirely happy with that whole plot strand, I thought it made things a bit too melodramatic. Apart from that, I liked the slow burn of Meg and Reid getting to know one another on their walks all over New York, and the little games they made up with letters and signs to pass the time. I also liked Meg's growing friendship with her movie star client (who I will insist in my head is Anne Hathaway, and you can't tell me any different) and the other found family friendships she had to support her. The most angsty aspect of this book was probably Meg's sort of relationship breakdown with her roommate, but I thought that was solved really well at the end of the book as well.

I'm glad I finally got round to reading this one. Clayborn is a good writer, and while she might not blow my socks off, I had a good time reading the book, and can recommend it for anyone wanting a cozy read. 

Judging a book by its cover: The cover is cute, but I think that a book that is so focused on writing and fonts could have a more exciting cover, featuring more interesting graphics. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday, 27 October 2022

CBR14 Book 31: "She Who Became the Sun" by Shelley Parker-Chan

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Star (Zhu might be described as something of a rising star within the Chinese power structure of the day, and also the sun is literally a star. I'm so very clever).

Back in the 14th Century, the Mongols had conquered and ruled Imperial China. In a small village, drought and famine have killed the majority of the population. A nameless girl (one of the few children left in the village) has managed to stay alive thanks to her ingenuity. When her older brother, who had been prophecied a glorious future and her father die, the girl is has the choice to accept death as well, or to fight fate itself by assuming her dead brother's identity and striving to achieve the greatness likely. Zhu Chongba walks to the nearest monastery and despite all of the monks' attempts to drive her away, waits patiently outside, taking no food nor water for three days and three nights, until the monks relent and take her in as a novice.

Several years later, when novice Zhu Chongba has just been anointed as a monk, the Mongol's infamous eunuch general comes to the monastery and demands enough tribute in support of the ongoing war that the abbot there flatly refuses, and as a result the general orders the whole place burned to the ground. Zhu survives and has to seek out the Red Turban rebels, the Chinese warriors who oppose the Mongols. Small and ridiculed, Zhu ends up in the army vanguard as they are off to fight the Mongols, and through a combination of cleverness and pure luck (or is it the fates looking out for her), Zhu sets in motion a series of events that lead to a very unlikely victory for the Red Turbans. Zhu Chongba's rise toward success continues.

Zhu may be smaller than most warriors (and obviously hiding a big secret), but she is very intelligent and uses her smarts to maneuver the intricate politics of the Red Turbans, steadily rising in the ranks, until she is leading a large part of their army herself. Again and again, her path seems to cross with that of Ouyang, the eunuch general, and with each encounter, Zhu relentlessly finesses herself closer to her ultimate goal, the greatness her young, long-dead brother was promised. 

This is Shelley Parker-chan's debut novel, which she herself described as" a queer reimagining of the rise to power of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty. It’s also a fun story about gender". So She Who Became the Sun is a fantasy retelling of actual historical events. Some of the people in my book club thought the book was almost more of a straight historical fiction with some fantastical elements (there are ghosts and a smattering of magic) rather than a straight fantasy. Even if the book title hadn't given a pretty strong hint as to how our protagonist is going to fare (it's not called The little peasant girl who died nameless and forgotten), history itself may provide some spoilers. The novel has been nominated for a number of big literary awards, like the Locus, Aurealis and Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction. Parker-Chan is the first Australian author to be nominated for a Hugo award for Best Novel, and while the book didn't win that award, it won both Best Newcomer and Best Fantasy Novel at the 2022 British Fantasy awards. 

The book was the September book in my local fantasy and sci-fi book club, and we had a record number of attendees for the actual meeting, with the majority of participants having really liked the novel. The discussion continued way longer than the normal hour we usually spend because so many people had interesting things to say about it. Some of the readers thought that a lot of the Chinese terms and descriptions of the culture were a bit complicated, and could have been explained better. It was pointed out that similar things happen in more Euro-centric fantasies all along, with no one batting an eyelid, and the fact that the author just assumes that the readers will figure out what terms like "the Mandate of Heaven" entails, and how Mongol and Chinese cultural norms and values are similar or different from context clues was one of the book's strengths. 

It was very interesting to read an unashamedly queer novel where two of the central characters, our protagonist Zhu Chongba and her antagonist General Ouyang are both fascinating, complex, ambitious, and driven. Both are rather amoral and at times very unsympathetic, willing to sacrifice pretty much everything to achieve their goals. In Zhu's case, this is to achieve the greatness that was promised to her dead brother, to be able to fool heaven itself into letting her assume his identity. In the case of the general, an ethnically Chinese man who was enslaved by the Mongols, and castrated rather than murdered along with the rest of his family for perceived treason, is seemingly loyal to the Mongols but has secretly been plotting to avenge his kin by overthrowing his Yuan masters. 

Very few people realise that Zhu is a woman assuming the identity of a man, and she doesn't really embody any of the virtues and qualities her society ascribes to women. She's also described from the start as small and ugly (frequently like a cricket) Meanwhile, General Ouyang is described as uncommonly beautiful and despite his gift for strategy and his military successes is reviled and mocked by the majority of the Yuan elite. He fights his attraction to his best friend (unfortunately also the son and heir of the man who killed his family and enslaved him) and strives to be the epitome of masculinity. Another interesting contrast to Zhu Chongba is Ma Yingzi, the woman Zhu ends up marrying. Also very intelligent and observant, and sadly ignored and overlooked by most people in her life, Ma fulfills the more traditional feminine ideal in society. 

There are a lot of interesting explorations of identity and gender in the book, which is also a relatively fast-paced and action-packed novel that explores a period of history in a part of the world most Western readers certainly rarely know a lot about. In my book club, several people commented that they were surprised at how short the section where Zhu is in the monastery ends up being, while the plot moves our protagonist into the company of the Red Turban rebels and starts charting Zhu's uncommonly rapid progression through the military ranks until she is a Commander. 

If I'm not mistaken, this is the first in a duology (although I won't exactly be surprised if it ends up being a trilogy - it wouldn't be the first time), and based on this, I'm very much looking forward to seeing where the story goes next. 

Judging a book by its cover: There are two main covers for this book, both in shades of yellow and orange. I much prefer this one, with its big windy Chinese dragon, to the other one, where you see the silhouettes of a bunch of horse-mounted warriors, led by a shadowy figure. There's a big orange sun in the sky and some dark banners floating in front of it. I much prefer the dragon cover. I'm not super happy about the "tag line", as I'm really not sure the third part - hero, is applicable to anyone in this story, certainly not Zhu.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday, 26 October 2022

CBR14 Book 30: "Be the Serpent" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Series (this is book 17 in an ongoing series, do NOT start here). 

Spoiler warning! This is book 17 in the series. It's impossible to review the book without referring to events in earlier books, so if you want to remain completely unspoiled, skip this one. I'll try to avoid any big spoilers for this book.

October "Toby" Daye not only survived her wedding, but so did her husband, Tybalt, King of Cats, and all her friends and found family as well. She and Tybalt get to enjoy a brief period of wedded bliss before trouble comes calling once more. Rayselline Torquill is about to be woken from her elf-shot-induced sleep, and there are a lot of faeries who have a score to settle with the unstable young elf woman, including Toby, whose boyfriend died because of Raysel's actions. However, time (and a new husband) heals a lot of wounds, and Toby wants to make peace and for Rayselline to have somewhere safe to recover, so she shows up and demands service for a year and a day from the newly awakened woman (so that Rayselline can seek refuge in Toby's house rather than return to  old home and her parents' expectations and worries). 

While at court, it becomes very obvious that something very bad is happening or soon to happen to one of Toby's best friend's family. Stacy Brown is one of the changelings that Toby grew up with and part of her large and self-created family. For reasons no one entirely understands, Stacy and her husband Mitch (also a changeling) have several children who seem to be clairvoyant in some way. Two of them are at court with Toby, and both have horrifying visions at the same time. Something is threatening Toby's friend, and it turns out to involve very old and unpredictable magic. The honeymoon is most certainly over, and while Toby is brave and heroic and has faced a lot of dangers in the past, it seems unlikely that she'll get through this adventure without suffering some truly staggering losses.

In a long-running series like this (how is this already book 17? How long have I actually been reading these books?), there are some books that are more "adventure of the week" and some that focus on major events that shake up the whole series. From her author's notes, it's clear that McGuire has had a lot of things for this series planned from the very beginning, and keeps portioning out these huge plot changers with care. Now, after a few books where we've been building up towards Toby's wedding, McGuire now unveils another of her really big continuity events, and this one brings with it some pretty staggering losses for our heroine and her friends. So while there was a happy ending to the last book, be prepared for the fact that some bad sh*t goes down in this one and the ending especially is quite the mind f*ck. 

During the last few books, some of the big bads making existence difficult for Toby and her crew have either been neutralised or have made peace with her, so it makes sense from a storytelling perspective that some new (or possibly very old) enemies were introduced instead. The revelations in this book certainly open up for taking the series in some intriguing directions. These books still remain a high point of my reading calendar each year, and I'm always looking forward to a new installment. It helps that McGuire releases a new one every September. In contrast, after book 16 and 17 of Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files (which the readers had to wait more than six years for) I find that I'm rather bored of that world, and unsure of whether I'm actually going to continue when the next book eventually comes out. 

I can absolutely understand that a new reader could be a bit intimidated by the many books in the series and the fact that McGuire seems to have quite a few books left before she's done telling her story. With my current mental headspace, I don't think I'd embark on a similarly long series now. However, I've been a fan of these for books for over a decade and each new book feels like reuniting with old friends. I'd keep reading even if this book hadn't ended on a fairly big cliff hanger (which it does). Outside of the books of Ilona Andrews, these are my favourites. 

Judging a book by its cover: Whoever is responsible for the covers for the last few October Daye books is doing excellent work. As paranormal fantasy covers go, these are among the best out there. I really like seeing Toby in full defender mode. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read