Saturday 30 July 2022

CBR14 Book 19: "Fangirl, the Manga, vol 2" by Sam Maggs, Rainbow Rowell and Gabi Nam

Page count: 224 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Bodies (Cath and Levi become a lot more aware of each other's bodies in this volume - not like THAT. Get your mind out of the gutter!)

Cath has started getting more comfortable at college and with her classes, but she still finds it difficult to reconcile the fact that her twin, Wren, is having such a great time without her. Wren is embracing the party lifestyle and seems to spend a lot of evenings out drinking with her roommate. Meanwhile, Levi keeps coming round to Cath and Reagan's room and hanging out, being incredibly friendly, helpful, and charming, making friends with Cath even when she tries to resist him. He's willing to drive her places late at night, he brings her free coffee and he even wants to hear about her Simon Snow fan fiction. 

In fact, Cath might be growing to like Levi a bit too much. He's Reagan's boyfriend, after all. Or is he? After a very confusing night, when Cath ends up reading the entirety of The Outsiders to Levi because the audiobook isn't available, he and Cath end up kissing before falling asleep and when a tearful Cath confesses this to her roommate, Reagan is unsurprised and admits that she and Levi are very good friends, but haven't been a couple since before they came to college. Could the reason Levi has been hanging around Cath and Reagan's room all this time be because he really likes Cath? 

Sam Maggs continues to adapt Fangirl the novel beautifully, aided by the lovely artwork by Gabi Nam. It seems suitable that Levi graces the cover of this volume since he's a very important character throughout. I can repeat my complaint from my review of the first volume that it takes a depressingly long time between these volumes, and there is absolutely no news as to when volume 3 will be available. Readers should be aware that this book ends on one heck of a cliffhanger - those who have read the novel probably know which scene I'm referring to. It'll be a long wait to continue the story. 

Judging a book by its cover: Volume 2 has Gabi Nam's version of the wonderful Levi, complete with sensible winter boots and cozy knitwear. Where the cover of volume 1 was a warm, autumnal yellow, this cover is a wintery blue, with each volume following a season of Cath's first year of college.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 18: "Slippery Creatures" by K.J. Charles

Page count: 264 pages
Rating: 4 stars
CBR14 Bingo: Snake (SPOILER: being a thoroughly disreputable sort, Kim also turns out to betray Will at least once during the story)

Will Darling has inherited his late uncle's bookshop and is grateful for the fact. After serving in World War I, most of his skills involve killing swiftly and efficiently, not really a commodity on the post-war job markets back in England. Now he just needs to get some idea of all the books actually in the shop and get on with being a bookseller. Then some very shifty people show up and demand that Will give them information, or very bad things might start happening. Will has no idea what information they want, and he certainly doesn't react well to threats.

The thuggish criminals are followed by officious men from the war office, claiming that Will is in possession of secret information and that he'd do well to pass it on to them. Even if he knew what they were talking about, Will isn't in the mood to just be ordered about - it's peacetime now, and he's done being the obedient soldier. He's puzzled by the threats and demands and sets about going through his uncle's very disordered correspondence to find some clues. He also befriends the charming and handsome Kim Secretan, who offers to help with the search for the mysterious and likely dangerous information. 

As Will and Kim grow closer, it becomes obvious that Kim is more than he seems at first, not to mention that there is a mutual attraction between them. Their search for answers uncovers secrets that could mean very real danger for tens of thousands of people, and Will is determined to keep it out of the hands of the criminals. Will's friendship with occasional benefits with Kim comes to a halt as he discovers that the attractive man has betrayed him. He wants nothing more to do with the man, but might not have a choice when he finds himself chloroformed and abducted to a remote house in the country. 

I've seen so many positive write-ups of K.J. Charles' Will Darling Adventures and this summer, I was determined to finally get through the series. Slippery Creatures is the first in a trilogy, with the working class Will Darling as one of our protagonists and the aristocratic Kim Secretan (what a great name for a man who's so full of secrets) as the second. There is a developing romance, secrets, organised crime, violent thugs, officious government agents, any number of dusty books that might hide vital information, kidnapping, loyal supporting characters and more. 

I really liked that Charles has set her books in the post World War I-era, not a time period where you find as many historical romances or mysteries. Will is rather adrift after serving on the battlefields in France for four years, and finding his feet in the new post-war world would be challenging for anyone, even if there weren't sinister thugs and government types badgering you for information you're not even sure exists, or if it does, where in the thousands of books in your store it may be hidden. It's no wonder he turns to the genial, charming, handsome and very helpful Kim, who of course has his own agenda.

I really like both Will and Kim as characters, for all that Kim is a bit of a snake. I love Maisie, Will's seamstress friend from Wales, and lady Phoebe, Kim's bubbly and incredibly friendly fiancee. This was a fast-paced and exciting book, with a very promising developing romance. There is no HEA or even really a HFN, but since this is the first of a trilogy, I wasn't really expecting it. I'm sure that all will be resolved by the end of book three.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm really sure if it's just me, but every time I look at this, even thought I know that Will is just sitting on a regular chair, my brain insists, just for a fraction of a second, as seeing it as a wheelchair. Which is a bit odd, no? I think it's because of the dagger, the metal of it makes me want to think it's a wheel. Apart from that, cracking cover design. 
Crossposted by Cannonball Read

Tuesday 5 July 2022

CBR14 Book 17: "I Kissed Shara Wheeler" by Casey McQuiston

Page count: 368 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 25 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

It's not exactly easy being Chloe Green, the bisexual girl with two mums when also trying to become valedictorian at Willowgrove Christian Academy in a small Alabama town. She keeps trying to protest against the school's puritanical rules with frequent dress code violations, but also has to make sure she doesn't actually end up expelled. Chloe has friends, having quickly befriended the other queer kids at Willowgrove, but she's mostly avoided interacting too much with the rest of the student body. 

Everything changes when her academic nemesis, the most popular girl in school, prom queen, not to mention the school principal's perfect daughter, Shara Wheeler, pulls Chloe into a maintenance elevator, kisses her with some serious intent, then slips away. Two nights later, just as she is about to be announced prom queen, Shara disappears without a trace. One month before graduation, Shara is nowhere to be found. Chloe is furious (and rather confused about the kiss). She refuses to win valedictorian by forfeit. That would be an empty victory. Oh no, Chloe needs to see Shara's face when she discovers that she's been beaten, which means finding her. 

Chloe breaks into Shara's bedroom to look for clues and is startled when Rory Heron, the bad boy from next door climbing in through the window. It turns out that Shara kissed him too, one night before Prom, and now he's wondering what happened to her. Chloe and Rory find a note on Shara's distinctive stationery addressed to Rory, but the note also mentions Chloe, as well as Smith, Shara's quarterback boyfriend. Rory isn't exactly wild about the idea of telling Smith Parker, Shara's longtime boyfriend, that both he and Chloe kissed Shara. Chloe, however, wants to get to the bottom of Shara's cryptic clues, so insists Smith needs to be told. Smith gets over the fact that his girlfriend cheated on him with two others remarkably quickly and is persuaded by Chloe to join in on the strange scavenger hunt Shara seems to have arranged. 

While Chloe has barely spoken to Smith, star quarterback and one of the most popular guys in school or Rory, well-known deadbeat and rock musician, she's now forced into an unlikely alliance with both of them in order to locate all of Shara's infuriating notes. She has to go to popular people parties, break into the principal's office, crawl through air ducts (like in an action movie) and before she knows it, she suddenly knows a lot more about both Smith and Rory. She also, unfortunately, has to keep lying to her mums, not to mention her loyal friends. 

Finding Shara becomes an obsession for Chloe (much more so than for Smith and Rory) and while searching for her nemesis, she discovers a lot of unexpected truths about Smith, Rory, Shara and herself. Will Chloe find Shara in time for final exams and graduation, so she can show Shara once and for all who is best? 

I'm not sure there are enough words for me to describe how much I love and cherish Red, White & Royal Blue, Casey McQuiston's debut novel. I adore every single character in it and would read any follow up McQuiston chose to write. Of course, they don't seem interested in writing any sequels and would rather move onto other things. Typical. One Last Stop, McQuiston's second novel was fine, but it never wowed me the way that I was hoping for. I've read lots of positive reviews for it and am glad that it worked for a lot of people, but I kept wanting to love it and only managed to kind of like it. 

This book, though, McQuiston's first YA novel, pretty much had me instantly hooked. I alternated between reading it in e-book and listening to it in audio, all to get through it faster. Natalie Naudus, the audio narrator is really good and managed to give distinct voices to a large cast of characters. 

Chloe is an interesting protagonist. She would probably get along well with Tracy Flick from Election, as well as Amy and Molly from Booksmart. Alternatively, she'd instantly decide to compete against them and crush them. While Amy and Molly really only have each other, Chloe has her little group of queer friends. It becomes obvious that she hasn't really gotten to know many others at Willowgrove because she has pre-judged them rather harshly without really knowing much about them at all. Her mental image of Shara Wheeler also doesn't correspond much with the truth, but over the course of the scavenger hunt, it becomes clear to her, Smith and Rory that no one really knew Shara and the image she projected to everyone, even her parents, was a very elaborate act. Neither Smith, her boyfriend of several years, nor Rory, the boy next door with a major crush on her, had any idea how much Shara was hiding. 

I really wish that Chloe wasn't the only POV character we got in the book (we get some insight into Shara's thoughts and wishes through her notes). Smith and Rory are awesome characters and I would have loved to read more about their inner lives. The same goes for Georgia, Chloe's mostly closeted lesbian friend and Benjy, her gay buddy. These two get more or less forgotten about by Chloe in her obsession to find Shara, and it would have been great to read more about how that made them feel. Other great supporting characters include Chloe's mums and at least one of the teachers at Willowgrove. I shouldn't really be surprised that the book is full of wonderful and engaging characters, both primary and supporting, writing interesting people seems to be one of the things McQuiston does best. 

There is a romance in this book, but anyone picking up the book hoping for the intense swoon of Red, White & Royal Blue will be disappointed. The main focus of the story is on friendships, new and old, and an exploration of being a queer teen in a small, very close-minded and judgemental community. For the first two thirds of the book, there is obviously also the mystery of where Shara Wheeler disappeared to, and why. If there had been a stronger romance, this would have easily been a five-star read for me. It's still a great book, though and when I re-read it, which I known I will, knowing what the book is rather than what I initially was wanting it to be I may yet upgrade it to a full five stars.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm guessing, from the description of her in the book, that the young woman on the cover is meant to be the titular Shara herself, although while her face is partially obscured, this does not look like the most stunningly beautiful high school senior you ever saw. I also find the big obvious lipstick kisses on the envelope annoying, as they are not on any of the envelopes in the book. My least favourite of all of McQuiston's covers.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 16: "Last Night at the Telegraph Club" by Malinda Lo

Page count: 415 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars
Official book description:
Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can't remember exactly when the question took root, but the answer was in full bloom the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club.

America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father--despite his hard-won citizenship--Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day.
This book turned out to be something very different from what I was expecting, and I'm still not sure if I would have rated it higher and it would have taken me less than almost a month to finish it if it came along at a different time. It certainly keeps appearing on all sorts of "Must Read" lists, and seems both critically acclaimed and highly rated by regular readers. The book description tells us that it's going to be the forbidden love story of two young women in 1950s San Francisco, but while the book also features a Chinese American woman gradually realising that she's falling for one of her classmates, and them sneaking out at night to visit a lesbian bar, it seems almost like a subplot. Lily's identity as a lesbian is a lot less focused on than her place as a Chinese American, bound between personal wishes and desires, and the duty to her family and community, growing up in a paranoid society where the government is in a panic, hunting Communists everywhere. 

Lily's father is a respected doctor, but he nevertheless has his papers taken away because he refuses to confirm or deny one way or another that one of his patients is a Communist. Lily's mother is a nurse, deeply concerned with propriety and making sure that their family's reputation is spotless. Lily's Chinese American friends all only seem interested in dresses, older boys, and dating, while she wants to study advanced math and science and dreams of becoming an engineer, and maybe even going to space one day. The only other girl in her advanced math class, Catholic Kath Miller wants to be a mechanic and a pilot, not exactly your traditional career path for a young woman in the 1950s either. Lily initially strikes up the friendship with Cath because they are the only two girls in their class, but it's revealed late in the book that Cath was aware of and taken with Lily long before they actually became friends, and later more.

This was the Cannonball Book Club book for May, when the theme was AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) writers. We had a vote to decide on the book, and this was my first choice, exactly because I had read and heard so much about it, and thanks yet again to e-book sales, I already had the book on my e-reader. As it turned out, the rather slow start and the somewhat tense subject matter (minority protagonist with a traditional family has homosexual stirrings) meant that when we had out Zoom book club meeting, every single reader had peaked ahead to the ending to see whether it ended in misery or not. If this was a YA romance, that would not be necessary, but the romantic subplot takes second place in Lily's coming of age narrative. Her discovering who she is, what she stands for and who she wants to be going forward is the centre plot of the book. 

In the post scripts at the end of the book, the author mentions that this was a very personal book to her, and it's obvious both from the postscripts and the story that she'd done a ton of research. So much of the research she's done is felt in the writing, to the point that if time travel is ever invented and I happen to end up in 1950s Chinatown in San Francisco, I'll be able to find my way around just fine entirely based on the descriptions in this book. Obviously, part of the joy of reading historical fiction is experiencing another time and place, but here, it did feel a bit as if the author also wanted to make sure that every single piece of historical trivia she'd discovered ended up on the page somehow, a bit to the detriment of the flow of the story. 

This may also be one of those YA books where reading it as an adult becomes a very different experience, because I personally, and pretty much all the others who were reading this for Cannonball book club agreed that the flashback chapters featuring the older characters, Lily's father, mother and aunt, were absolutely fascinating and we wanted more of their stories. So Malinda Lo could probably have a loyal following of fans buying her book about Chinese immigrants to America in the 1950s, as well. The chapters giving us insight into the older generations' lives and perhaps especially what their hopes and expectations had been in contrast to where they ended up were fascinating. 

This is my first book by Malinda Lo. I know she's written several fairy tale retellings with LGBTQ-themes, as well, so I'm sure it will not be the last of her books that I try.

Judging a book by its cover: The absolutely gorgeous cover of this book is one of the first things that drew me to it. It captures the scene and place of the story so perfectly and the contrast between the dark San Francisco streets and the bright neon signs, not to mention the one lamp post illuminating our two lovers is so pretty. I could easily have this cover as a poster for my wall. 
Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 15: "Book Lovers" by Emily Henry

Page count: 398 pages
Rating: 5 stars

You know in a lot of romantic comedies, the hero already has a girlfriend, but she's stern, and demanding and seems to have absolutely no feelings that don't revolve around her career and probably living in the big city? The woman who eventually gets left, so the hero can get with the charming, free-spirited, understanding and much more laid-back heroine of the rom-com?

Nora Stephens is that woman. She loves her life in New York City, she loves her Peloton bike, she loves her designer shoes and she really doesn't give a fig for the outdoors. However, the fourth (!) time one of her boyfriends goes out of town for a few weeks to small-town America, only to call her to let her know that they won't be back, because they've realised their careers in the big city are hollow and they need to do something completely different with their lives, she is understandably quite upset. That the break-up phone call happens right before she's about to have a very important business meeting, causing Nora to be late (she's never late) is possibly even worse. 

The meeting does not go well. Charlie Lastra, known in the publishing industry as the Storm Cloud, seems entirely uninterested in editing and publishing the book Nora is trying to pitch to him. Obviously, Nora feels rather triumphant two years later, when the book is a massive bestseller with a film adaptation in the works. However, she's also worried about her pregnant little sister, who seems utterly exhausted and has decided that she needs a break from her husband and two daughters, so she (Libby) and Nora will go away for a month to Sunshine Falls, North Carolina, which just so happens to be the setting of Nora's author's very successful novel. 

Nora's life is pretty much her work, where she is the most cutthroat literary agent in Manhattan, who will do anything for her authors, especially make sure they get excellent publishing deals, and Libby, the reason she works so hard in the first place. Raised by a single mother who came to New York to chase her dreams and frequently kept having them crushed while trying to make ends meet to support her girls, Nora and Libby were both devastated when she died. For a long time, they've only had each other, and Nora has worked hard her entire adult life to make sure neither Libby nor she ever faced the sort of difficult financial burdens their mother did. She can't really say no to Libby, even though she's unsure about a whole month away from NYC and the very long checklist of items her sister seems to want them to get through during that month (one of which includes saving a failing business). 

Nora is worried Libby is going to be disappointed with Sunshine Falls, which is a lot more run-down and deserted than the best-selling novel made it seem. Libby, however, seems perfectly happy to be there, it's Nora who's feeling like a fish out of water. Imagine her surprise when on one of her very first days in Sunshine Falls, she runs (literally) into Charlie Lastra, her grumpy publishing nemesis, and very quickly, they not only seem to have struck up a friendship but are pretty much constantly flirting via e-mail or text. Turns out one of the reasons Charlie passed on the novel is that he's from Sunshine Falls, and didn't really like the way his childhood home was romanticised in the pages of the book. Now he's back home, helping his parents (his father had a stroke and needs a lot of physical rehabilitation), running the family bookstore while his dad recovers, and working long-distance as an editor. 

While Nora and Charlie's first meeting may not have been the best, it's very quickly clear that they are two peas in a pod, and care deeply about most of the same things. They also have absolutely sizzling chemistry, but as they end up working together to edit the new manuscript for Nora's top author, they are both determined to keep everything professional. Not that Charlie seems all too pleased about Libby's plan that Nora just needs to become the heroine of her own small-town romance, and to do so, Libby wants her to go on dates with at least two of the locals. Of course, the first one seems deeply intimidated by how tall Nora is and how big her shoes are, while the other one turns out to be Charlie's cousin, and while he's got the good looks, charm, intelligence, and humour of a perfect small town leading man - Nora just keeps thinking about Charlie's scowl and prominent eyebrows. 

Nora can't stand not being in control of every situation and being in North Carolina has put her very much out of her comfort zone. She can't sleep well with all the silence of the countryside. To add to her worries, Libby is clearly hiding things from her, when in the past, the sisters have always confided in one another. Charlie Lastra is nothing like the men she's dated in the past, where she could keep her head cool when things inevitably imploded. She realises far too quickly that she's falling hard for him, and he keeps insisting that their flirtation, much as he clearly returns her feelings, is not leading to a HEA. 

While I in no way disliked People We Meet on Vacation, Emily Henry's last release, it felt rather disappointing to me compared to her first romance novel aimed at adults, Beach Read, which was one of those books I had trouble putting down and kept wanting to read more of, because I loved spending time with the protagonists so much. Well, I'm happy to say that I think Book Lovers is her finest romance yet, and it completely transported me. It's incredibly obvious from the very first chapter that Henry knows every romance trope there is, and she carefully sets out to deconstruct a lot of them over the course of this book. Making her heroine the supposed ice queen, the driven, career-obsessed and unashamedly ruthless (on behalf of her clients and/or her sister) woman is a beautiful touch. Having her dumped a whole FOUR times by selfish jerks who decide to follow their dreams with carefree waifs in small towns seems rather cruel, but it's only to highlight how absolutely perfect Charlie is for her instead. Her equal in exacting professionalism, another terror of the NYC publishing world, not only is he in no way threatened by Nora and her drive to succeed and her workaholic tendencies, he applauds them and makes her realise that they may not, in fact, be flaws. 

Charlie Lastra, raised in the beautiful North Carolina countryside, who always felt uncomfortable and out of place until he moved to the city, understands why stunning sunsets, hiking, and camping under the stars are not what Nora wants or needs. She wants to take care of her sister and if completing the rather ridiculous checklist is what Libby wants, then Nora will camp, bake and try to put away her phone at 5pm each afternoon to be "present" for her sister. Yet the only time she really feels comfortable is when she's trading notes with Charlie on the manuscript they're co-editing, or even better, fighting their growing attraction and stealing kisses where no one can see them. 

Like in Beach Read, grief and the processing thereof, play a major part in this story. While their childhood was far from ideal, Nora especially adored her mother and has internalised her mother's love of New York. Losing her while she was still barely a teenager and having to act as a guardian for her younger sister, while they were both processing their loss and emotions is one of the reasons Nora has become so emotionally closed off. Having to act as a parent for her sister made her think that she could never be the vulnerable one, and that starts taking its toll the longer she spends in Sunshine Falls. 

This book does a very good job of showing that people can want vastly different things, and neither of the options are bad ones. Wanting to live in a New York loft and have a career and never raise children of your own does not make you a soulless monster, nor does wanting to have multiple children and live in a big house in the countryside make you more worthy of love and happy endings. 

This book made me very happy and I heartily recommend it to anyone looking for a comforting spring read. The beautiful thing with romances is that even when it seems like the protagonists are never going to be able to find a way to make their relationship work (and things look pretty bad here for a while), there WILL be a satisfying happy ending eventually, in this case, one that made me grin like a loon.

Judging a book by its cover: Still not a fan of the cartoon covers (surely this trend must end sometime soon), but at least this is quite a cute one. The man and woman look exactly like Charlie and Nora are described and I love how absorbed they are in a book each, while also reaching out and sharing books between them. Any romance based around the love of books is probably going to work for me. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

CBR14 Book 14: "The Other Side of the Grave" by Jeaniene Frost

Page count: 424 pages
Audio book length: 13 hrs 13 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Back in 2007, Jeaniene Frost published the first volume in her paranormal fantasy series Night Huntress, Halfway to the Graveabout half-vampire Catherine "Cat" Crawfield (the unlikely offspring of a vampire and a human), who hunts vampires because her mother has raised her to hate them, and since Cat has never really felt loved or accepted by her mother or grandparents, hopes that her crusade to end as many undead as possible will earn her family's affection. Cat runs into English master vampire Crispin "Bones" Russell one day, and once he discovers her unique nature, not to mention starts falling head over heels for the hot-headed young vampire slayer, decides to train her to become much better at her chosen extra-curricular activity, mainly so she doesn't get herself killed the next time she runs into a really strong vampire. That the training forces her to spend lots and lots of time with him, well, that's also a bonus.

The series, where Cat and Bones inevitably fall in passionate love with one another, ended up being seven books long, not to mention there being a bunch of novellas, not to mention spin-off books where Bones' vampire friends found HEAs of their own eventually. Now Frost (whose books I think I initially picked up because she's BFF with Ilona Andrews) has decided to pull an E.L. James, or Stephenie Meyer, or what will you, and rewrite her first book in the series from Bones' POV. Selfish cash-grab? Maybe, but I found myself really enjoying the book, and wanting to revisit the series once more (I read the first books in the series back in 2009). Since I own at least the first few of the books in paperback, I found myself curious and compared a lot of the scenes. Frost writes that it's obvious that people remember things in different ways, so some scenes are pretty much word-for-word recreations, while a lot of the book covers all the stuff Bones did when Cat wasn't around. 

As I said, I found myself amused by the book. Frost has updated a lot of the technology and references in the book to make it seem like it was set now (apparently Bones had a beeper in the first book, that's just objectively hilarious). After reading about a third, I got the audiobook version because I wanted to be able to listen to it when I was taking walks, and doing chores, and the narrator is mostly very good. I very much disagree with his accent and intonation for Bones (he sounds too thuggish), but all in all, it was a really fun listen, and at a time when I can barely find entertainment that holds my attention, the fact that I wanted to keep listening was absolutely a plus. Not sure Frost needs to write the rest of the series from Bones' POV though.

Judging a book by its cover: While this book has a pretty bad cover (that is just NOT how Bones looks in my mind's eye), it's a million times better than the eyesores that were the early covers of the Night Huntress series. Seriously, paranormal fantasy covers back in the day were SO ugly, you guys. Like so very very bad. The fact that the cover model portraying Cat on the first book looked to be in her mid-thirties (Cat is 22) didn't help. So I guess I shouldn't complain too much about this cover. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 13: "The Beast and the Bethany" by Jack Meggitt-Phillips

Page count: 256 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Ebenezer Tweezer is 511 years old, but you'd never know it to look at him. He lives in a great big house, surrounded by exciting treasures and artifacts and all of this is possible because of the hideous beast he keep in his attic. In return for Ebenezer feading it interesting things, the Beast gives him potions once a year that keep Ebenezer young and beautiful. It's also given him all the special things in his house. However, the Beast is greedy and grows more demanding with each passing year. It only wants to eat things it's never tried before, which in 511 years you can imagine isn't that long a list. The Beast has decided that it wants to eat a nice, juicy child, which may be a line not even Ebenezer will cross.
Of course, if the Beast withholds Ebenezer's potions, he'll start aging at a rapid pace, and after a day or two of feeling the effects of age creeping up on him, Ebenezer starts pondering solutions. If he were to feed a really bad child to the Beast, would that really be such a terrible thing? At first, Ebenezer tries to steal a child from the zoo, but all the children there seem terribly well protected by parents. Then he's told about the local orphanage and goes there to find a child that will do instead. However, Ebenezer isn't expecting to get so charmed by so many of the children. Then he encounters Bethany, a very surly and unpleasant little girl, and she seems to be the solution to all of his problems. Then, when Bethany actually meets the Beast, she insults it so gravely it almost refuses to even consider eating her, which would very much be counter to Ebenezer's plans.
He decides to take Bethany away and try to fatten her up a bit (she's terribly skinny), while also trying to persuade the Beast that Bethany is in fact exactly the sort of plump and succulent child it has demanded. Completely contrary to Ebenezer's plans, however, is how he starts to warm to her and see actual improvement in her behaviour after a few days together. The longer the two spend together, the more like friends they become, and soon, Ebenezer can no longer live with the idea of feeding Bethany to the Beast. He is aging rather rapidly, though, and the Beast really doesn't like to be told it can't have what it wants. It's up to Bethina to come up with a solution that gets rid of the Beast once and for all, so she and Ebenezer can live happily ever after.

This is delightful middle grade book which I very much look forward to my own son reading at some point in the future. I suspect readers of Roald Dahl, A Series of Unfortunate Events or fans of Despicable Me would find it very entertaining. The book is illustrated throughout with beautiful and very funny pictures by Isabelle Folath, and it was a very quick read in a month when I otherwise managed to complete very few books. I know that there is now a sequel, so I suppose I should see if my local library has a copy. I wouldn't mind spending some more time with Bethany and Ebenezer. 

Judging a book by its cover: I pretty much adore this cover. The almost neon green to draw your eye in (on my copy, the endpapers are sprayed the same lurid colour!), the fang-tastic maw and the no-nonsense little girl in the middle. I wanted to read this the first time I saw it on a library shelf.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.  

CBR14 Book 12: "An Impossible Impostor" by Deanna Raybourn

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars
First of all, this is book 7 in an ongoing series. I would not recommend that a new reader start here. The first book in the series is A Curious Beginning

Now for the official book description, because my memory is like a sieve:
London, 1889. Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian beau Stoker are summoned by Sir Hugo Montgomerie, head of Special Branch. He has a personal request on behalf of his goddaughter, Euphemia Hathaway. After years of traveling the world, her eldest brother, Jonathan, heir to Hathaway Hall, was believed to have been killed in the catastrophic eruption of Krakatoa a few years before.

But now a man matching Jonathan's description and carrying his possessions has arrived at Hathaway Hall with no memory of his identity or where he has been. Could this man truly be Jonathan, back from the dead? Or is he a devious impostor, determined to gain ownership over the family's most valuable possessions--a legendary parure of priceless Rajasthani jewels? It's a delicate situation, and Veronica is Sir Hugo's only hope.

Veronica and Stoker agree to go to Hathaway Hall to covertly investigate the mysterious amnesiac. Veronica is soon shocked to find herself face-to-face with a ghost from her past. To help Sir Hugo discover the truth, she must open doors to her own history that she long believed to be shut for good.

While a new Veronica Speedwell novel is frequently an instant must-read for me, it took me several months after this book's release to get round to it. I genuinely don't know if it's me, or the book, or a combination of the two, but this installment of Veronica and Stoker's adventures just didn't particularly work for me. 

The main reason for this is the central storyline of 'mysterious, possibly amnesiac nobleman from Veronica's past', the whole situation felt wrong to me. The reveal of the man's true identity and how he connected with Veronica felt melodramatic and a bit forced. Some of the things that came to light just went against what we've learned about Veronica as a character and I certainly cannot believe that this rather unimpressive individual made her act as she apparently did in connection with him. Hence the whole situation and the subsequent complications that arose felt wrong to me and took me out of the story to some extent. 

Additionally, there is the fact that the whole situation made Stoker sad. I adore the big, broody lug and more than once have felt as if Veronica is an idiot for not realising what a catch she has in him. She keeps being aloof and commitment-phobic, when she should clearly be putting a ring on it. So any story complication that upsets Stoker is going to sit badly with me. 

None of the additional family drama in the remote house interested me much either. I think that the only part of the novel I really enjoyed were the bits with the Maharani and her relatives. 

I'm hoping for an improvement in the next installment. I generally really enjoy Raybourn's books and it's not exactly like this book didn't pass the time well enough. It just didn't wow me, and one slightly less enjoyable volume is going to put me off the whole series. It would be good if Veronica realised that she's ready to commit properly to Stoker, though. 

Judging a book by its cover: I'm not sure I like the fuschia/purple colour they've chosen for the cover this time. I'm also not entirely sure who the silhouette with the butterfly net is supposed to be, it looks nothing like how Veronica is described. It looks like they took an outline of the fairy godmother from Cinderella and just stuck a butterfly net onto the magic wand. In other words, I've seen better.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 3 July 2022

CBR14 Book 11: "Her Favourite Rebound" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 242 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This was an ARC given to me by the author. My views are my own. 

Sierra Wu shares the name of a popular fictional monster slayer (think Buffy Summers), but she's not exactly slaying in her personal life. A complete disappointment to her family since she decided that engineering just wasn't for her, she now runs a moderately successful greeting card store in Toronto. She's also divorced.

However, now she finally has something that her mother finds impressive, a billionaire boyfriend. She's dating the Colton Sanders and if her mother had her way, she would be halfway down the isle already. Sierra doesn't really tell her family until they've been dating for nearly a year, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. She can't shake the feeling that something is missing in her relationship, even before she's surprised on a date by one of Sanders' former business partners, who approaches her and claims she should break up with Sanders, as he isn't who he seems and absolutely doesn't deserve a stunning woman like Sierra.

Jake Tong didn't really believe in love at first sight until he first lays eyes on Sierra Wu, sitting alone at a table in a restaurant. That she turns out to be the girlfriend of Jake's asshole former boss was certainly not what Jake expected, and he does what he can to warn her that her rich boyfriend is a bad guy and she should dump him. 

Sierra, naturally, does not dump Colton, but she starts to question what he does in the time they don't spend together a lot more. She starts to research online and it isn't too difficult to find a number of stories that suggest Colton hasn't exactly gained his tremendous wealth through altruism and charitable works. There's a number of articles about his explotation of his workers and other shady business practices. She also seems to keep running into Jake, although the man swears he's not stalking her. She likes Jake, possibly more than a woman in a relationship should, but still refuses to listen to his suggestions that she kick Colton to the curb. That is, until Sierra goes to see Colton unnanounced, and finds him cheating on her with not one, but two women at the same time. She dumps him then and there and runs straight to Jake, who can't believe his luck.

Writing a romance where one of the protagonists is in a relationship with someone else at the start of the novel is never an easy thing to pull off, but Jackie Lau was very clear even in her promotional material of this book that Colton Sanders, billionaire, certainly wasn't anyone's HEA, and despite her attraction to Jake, Sierra is never unfaithful, something that cannot be said for her ultra wealthy boyfriend. Sierra discovers that Colton usually slept with other women on every trip away from her during their entire relationship, so she's not exactly too heartbroken after their split, or even vaguely tempted to take him back, no matter what sort of insane grand gestures Sanders tries to pull. 
It also helps that while Jake is smitten with Sierra, he never crosses the line into creepy or inappropriate, and while he does come to see Sierra at her shop a couple of times (she makes him spend a ridiculous amount of money on one visit), he also stays away from her once she asks for distance. Once Sierra discovers that Colton is, in fact, scum, Jake is very happy to comfort Sierra in any way she requires, and has no intention of becoming her rebound guy, no matter what Sierra might initially think. 
Sierra has a lot of emotional baggage to work through before she can get to her happy ending with Jake. She also has to figure out how to deal with the weight of her family's expectations, something Jake also struggles with. Jake has a lot of guilt for the stuff he did while working for Sanders, not to mention the things he enabled Sanders to keep doing. Jake now works to try to make amends for these things, and to prove to his family that he really has changed. 
I know from following her on Facebook that Ms. Lau struggled a bit more than usual to finish this book, and it's absolutely a more thorny and messy subject than she normally has in her frequently rather fluffy romances. I think she managed the emotional complexities really well, though, and while Sierra very much ends up being emotionally unfaithful to Colton, it's quite clear that he more than emotionally cheated on her, throughout their relationship. Making Sanders such an out and out bad guy possibly simplifies the emotional fallout for Sierra and Jake, but I didn't have a problem with it.

I think the final Cider Bar Sisters novel will be out next year some time. Ms. Lau has another couple of romances coming out later this year though, which I'm very much looking forward to reading.

Judging a book by its cover: I know that Jackie Lau uses stock photos to make her covers when she self-publishes, and while a lot of them turn out really well, I think this one is one of her lesser efforts. But hey, they can't all be winners.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday 1 July 2022

CBR14 Book 10: "Beyond the Hallowed Sky" by Ken MacLeod

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 2 stars

Official book description:
When a brilliant scientist gets a letter from herself about faster-than-light travel, she doesn't know what to believe. The equations work, but her paper is discredited - and soon the criticism is more than scientific. Exiled by the establishment, she gets an offer to build her starship from an unlikely source. But in the heights of Venus and on a planet of another star, a secret is already being uncovered that will shake humanity to its foundations.
This book was the March selection in my fantasy/sci-fi bookclub, and the book description makes it sound like time travel is a MUCH bigger part of the plot than it really is. In fact, it's only really mentioned in the prologue and then never again. I'm sure it's going to be expanded upon in future volumes of this series, but since this is the first and only book so far, and no sequels have yet to be given release dates, it's a bit difficult not to feel a bit cheated. 
There were a whole load of interesting concepts visited in this book, but none of them really came together properly, and the whole novel ended up feeling like the setup for the next story, which doesn't exist yet. Set in the near-future, when the borders of the world have changed somewhat, one of our story's plotlines is set in Scotland, where a ship's engineer sees something that shouldn't really exist and starts to ponder space travel because of it. The second of the storylines is set on a space station orbiting Venus, where an andoid reporter is investigating and possibly spying. The third of the storylines is set far away on an alien colony, where there is mysterious happenings afoot and possibly hostile alien lifeforms in sentient rock threatening the Earth colonists. It's only in the very end of the book all these storylines meet up, and by that point, I wasn't really sure I'm too bothered about reading what comes next.
This seemed to be the general consensus of the member in my book club too. A lot of people were disappointed that the book seemed to promise time travel, then there was only a brief mention of it. Some thought that the storyline with the Scottish engineers dragged too much (me included) although there is some interesting stuff about artificial intelligence that pretty much anticipates your needs. By the time you've remembered that you should buy your wife a present, your social media AI has already placed and paid for an order of the thing your wife would most like. Pretty neat, but again not really explored in enough detail.
The clearly modelled on James Bond journalist/spy andoid on the space station had a lot of promise too, but I didn't like where his arc ended up. The storyline that possibly dragged the most for me was the one on the alien colony. We never really find out which faction of humanity has discovered faster than light travel and managed to send people to the far reaches of space, they're too busy trying to figure out why possibly ancient aliens residing in the rocks are trying to attack them. By the end of the story, it seems as if more of humanity is being sent to the alien planet to colonise, including the son of the Scottish engineers we've also read about, so I'm guessing the next book will explore life in space a lot more. Whether I will be picking up book two if it ever gets written, is another story.

Giving this book two stars might seem harsh, but I really did only find it OK. I kept putting it down and forcing myself to pick it back up, and I don't see myself ever wanting to reread it, or keep on reading the series. It seems like Ken MacLeod has written a bunch a books, but based on this novel, he's not an author I'll be reading anything more from anytime soon.

Judging a book by its cover: Fairly generic sci-fi cover, really. A wormhole or black hole or some sort of space portal. A teeny tiny little space craft. The hint of what is probably an alien planet. Nothing too exciting, nothing too objectionable.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 9: "Dear Martin" by Nic Stone

Page count: 226 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Justyce McAllister is a seventeen-year-old with a bright future, thanks to his grades and being lucky enough to have a mother who has worked herself to the bone to send him to the prestigious prep school in Atlanta. Then one evening, when trying to help his extremely drunken ex-girlfriend get home safely (she's half-black, but looks more like her Norwegian mother than her black dad), he's detained by a very aggressive cop who's convinced he was trying to carjack and abduct the girl. Even after the girl's actual parents show up at the scene to protest, the cop is reluctant to let Justyce go and the scars the episode give him aren't limited to the bruising on his wrists that take weeks to heal. 

Justyce suddenly finds himself becoming a lot more aware of race relations and especially the micro-aggressions that he and his fellow black students at the school (there aren't many) suffer, as well as how cases of police violence against black youths are being presented in the media, not to mention tried in the courts. His best friend Manny has a rich CEO father and lives a life of privilege very different from what Justyce has experienced growing up. Manny has a bunch of white friends and doesn't seem to understand exactly why Justyce suddenly seems to see racism everywhere. The fact that Manny's frequently insensitive friends can hold him up as a black success story to prove that, sure, there's equality now, doesn't exactly help matters. Justyce begins to spend more time with his debate partner, valedictorian S-J (Sarah Jane). She's Jewish, so a lot more used to having to fend off insensitive comments and micro-aggressions than Manny.

Justyce starts a journal, where he tries to model his life more on the teachings on Martin Luther King Jr, by writing letters to the dead preacher. This seems to work for a while, but all thoughts of journalling are gone from Justyce's mind after he and Manny go driving one evening, blasting their music loudly on the speakers, and a deeply unfortunate encounter with an angry off-duty cop ends with Manny dead at the wheel. Even more traumatic than being wrongfully arrested, Justice now needs to process surviving where his best friend didn't. He's gone from reading the headlines to becoming one himself, and the event leaves him shaken and deeply conflicted. 

My fellow English teachers and I taught this book in school along with The Hate U Give, and the two novels feature a lot of the same themes. Novels written by young black women, dealing with gun violence, racism and police brutality, with protagonists who are more or less the token black teens at their schools, with all the challenges that brings. Our tenth-graders could choose if they wanted to read this book, The Hate U Give or both (none of them chose both, unsurprisingly). One of my colleagues prefers this book to Angie Thomas', as she feels that the longer novel deals with too many themes that distract from the central message. As someone who really loved how Thomas wrote about Starr and her family, as well as the journey of personal development Starr had to go through after her friend Khalil is murdered by a cop, I think that novel still has the edge for me. This book is shorter, and doesn't spend as much time on the community and people around Justyce. Both books are excellent, and very important novels for readers interested in the #blacklivesmatter cause and the challenges sadly faced by a lot of young African Americans today.

One benefit for us teachers when using this as part of the curriculum, this novel doesn't have a movie adaptation that the kids can watch and then claim that they've read the book. In the subsequent group talks we had on the topic, it was very clear who had actually read and finished their assigned novels when we spoke about Dear Martin, the ones who hadn't just taken the easy way out and watched the film. Also published in 2017, I don't think Stone's novel has gotten the praise and attention that The Hate U Give did, which is a shame, because both novels are great and this book deserves just as big a readership as Thomas'.

Judging a book by its cover: A relatively simple cover, with a mostly white background and a young, black man in silhouette. I like how you see red lights like police sirens shining through the body of the young man, hinting at the contents of the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 8: "Project Hail Mary" by Andy Weir

Page count: 482 pages
Audio book length: 16 hrs 10 mins
Rating: 4 stars
Official book description:
Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission - and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn't know that. He can't even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

All he knows is that he's been asleep for a very, very long time. And he's just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crew-mates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that's been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it's up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.

And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance. 
First of all, I want to apologise to any and all Cannonball reviewers if I'm in any way repeating things they have already said in their own reviews. I have very deliberately avoided reading them, so my review wouldn't be influenced by them. I would also like to apologise to all of my readers, because I probably don't remember all that much about this book, having finished it in February (a month after it was a book club selection for my fantasy/sci-fi book club - I even skipped the meeting so as not to get spoiled for the ending). 

It's been way too long for me (seven years, in fact) to be able to make accurate comparisons between this book and Andy Weir's first runaway success, The Martian. I would not be surprised to discover that the adaptation rights for this book were sold before the book was even published, as it's also about a wise-cracking astronaut stuck in space, so Ryland Grace and Mark Wattney probably share a lot of similar traits. The situations the two are in are generally pretty different, though, although so as not to spoil too much of the plot of the novel - why is Grace the sole survivor in a small spacecraft? Why is his mission so crucial for the survival of Earth and humanity? Why does he seem to suffer from complete amnesia when he wakes up? All of these questions are a lot more interesting if you discover them as you read.

I listened to the book in audio, and Ray Porter was a really engaging and well-balanced narrator. While Grace is stuck alone on the spaceship, there are a LOT of flashback sequences to before he ended up in space, and in these we encounter a lot of characters of both genders with a number of different accents. I think Porter managed to differentiate between them in a really good way. Later in the book, Porter is also given some rather interesting narration challenges, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book throughout, probably more so than if I'd read it on paper.

My main gripe, which I'm sure others have also mentioned by now, is that the major threat to Earth and humanity requires teamwork on an international and global scale, which sadly the pandemic of recent years has shown is entirely and utterly unrealistic. Were humanity ever faced with the sort of challenges they meet in this book, we would all be doomed, there would be no global coming together to solve a problem. Possibly the rest of the world with the USA opting out, but absolutely nothing like we see in this book. Now, this is a work of fiction, and I can see why Weir didn't want his version of humanity to suck as much as it turns out our real one actually does. But it was sadly rather grating.

Judging a book by its cover: While I'm not sure this cover really conveys most of the feel of this book, it does give the impression that it's a pretty action-packed sci-fi story, which is really all you need. The dramatic image of an astronaut seemingly plummeting through space in free-fall is certainly eye-catching, if possibly a bit misleading.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.