Saturday, 31 December 2022

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

Page count: 444 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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

Page count: 390 pages
Rating: 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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

Page count: 474 pages
Rating: 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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

Page count: 312 pages
Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR14 Book 48: "Greywaren" by Maggie Stiefvater

Page count: 335 pages
Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday, 30 December 2022

CBR14 Book 47: "Mister Impossible" by Maggie Stiefvater

Page count: 340 pages
Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday, 11 December 2022

CBR14 Book 46: "Ship Wrecked" by Olivia Dade

Page count: 413 pages
Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read