Monday 13 November 2023

CBR15 Book 68: "Shucked" by Kate Canterbary

Page count: 462 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Sunny DuJardin is just about to open a vegan cafe in her hometown of Friendship, Rhode Island, but keeps butting heads with the man who tormented her in much of her adolescence and early teenage years. Beckett Loew has had to take a leave of absence from his high-powered business job in Singapore to return to Friendship to try to figure out the total mess his flakey parents have made with the family's oyster restaurant. His father and many of the senior management of the restaurant are in jail for fraud and money laundering, his mother is on the run somewhere in South America, his teenage brother needs a legal guardian, and his pro-baseball player brother isn't returning his calls. Because of his runaway mother, he has an FBI agent following him around constantly, and the discovery that his best friend's little sister Sunny is all grown up and extremely hot is a very unwelcome distraction. 

While Sunny wants to nurse her giant iceberg of animosity towards Beckett, her business partners, his employees, and most others in Friendship have no problems with Beckett. It doesn't hurt that every time something goes wrong, Beckett has bucketloads of money to throw at any problem, making it go away almost instantly. Because of his clueless and deeply irresponsible parents, Beckett has had to be the responsible one in the family since he was a teenager. He doesn't really function unless he is shouldering every burden and taking care of everyone around him. Once Beck and his brother grew up and got as far away from Friendship as they could, his younger brother still had to deal with their super ditzy parents, and he doesn't really appreciate Beckett coming back and suddenly wanting to take a parental role in his life.

Sunny, on the other hand, because of her severe epilepsy, has had to fight to prove to her family that she can manage fine on her own, and stand on her own two feet. She hates people being overprotective, and Beckett's refusal to acknowledge that she is now a responsible adult and small business owner who can take care of herself infuriates her. When they were teens, Beckett and Sunny's brother made her life a living hell, and now he's back in town and rich and successful and gorgeous and while she wants to hat him, she also wants to climb him like a tree and do very bad things with him. Except he's not going to get involved with his best friend's little sister. That way true madness lies.

This book is told in alternating chapters from Sunny and Beckett's POVs. The enemies-to-lovers aspect isn't quite as strong as in the excellent The Worst Guy, the first Canterbary novel I read. There's some great feuding early on, however, and so much great banter, not just between our two protagonists, but also from pretty much the entire supporting cast. While the main romance here is between a heteronormative straight couple, there's a very diverse cast of supporting characters. Beckett's little brother is bi, one of Sunny's business partners has two husbands, and another of her business partners keeps hooking up with one of Beckett's female employees, while Sunny's fourth business partner is asexual. 

This book is a lot of fun and the book is a good start to a new series. The only thing I thought was entirely unnecessary, was the subplot that ends up with Sunny in peril more than once. It felt tacked on, and I didn't think it added anything to the story. The epilogue also felt quite long but makes it clear that the next book is likely to be a second chance romance between the middle Loew brother and his estranged wife. For anyone who wants more sweetness between Sunny and Beckett, Canterbary has an extended epilogue on her website, where you can follow the couple through a whole year of festivals (the town of Friendship has a LOT of festivals). 

Judging a book by its cover: I like the red background, I like the playful positioning of what I'm assuming is supposed to be Sunny. I like that the little dude who's clearly supposed to be Beckett is shucking an oyster, but I refuse to believe he actually did that while wearing an expensive suit. Not a big fan of the faint oysters in the background, though. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 12 November 2023

CBR15 Book 67: "Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery" by BROM

Page count: 305 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Connecticut, 1666. An ancient spirit is awoken in the darkness of the wood, fed by blood and the prayers of the wild spirits name him Father and Slayer. They lure a clumsy farmer into a cave to feed him to the spirit, making young Abitha a widow. Abitha already doesn't fit into the Puritan community with her outspoken ways and questioning of the rules. Having grown up in London, Abitha was sold by her drunken father and married off to a stranger, who thankfully turns out to be a gentle and rather simple man. Unfortunately, his gentle ways also make him easy for his domineering older brother to manipulate, and Abitha's brother-in-law is furious when the community elders allows Abitha to stay on by herself on the farm after her husband's death. If Abitha is able to raise enough crops to pay off the farm's debts, it's her brother-in-law who will be in trouble with the magistrate. 

Abitha nearly kills herself working the fields on her own, until she befriends Father (who she names Samson, after the goat that the forest spirits first killed to raise their slayer) and he starts tapping into ancient memories of being one with the land. His magic allows Abitha to grow plenty of corn, but her brother-in-law breaks into the farm at night and burns most of her harvest. Desperate, and unwilling to let her odious brother-in-law win, Abitha makes another deal with Samson, who gets the bees to produce huge amounts of honey and honeycomb, allowing Abitha to pay off her debts. 

Abitha's mother, who died when she was still a teenager, was a wise woman, who helped people with simples and healing potions. Abitha has also been helping some of the women and young girls in the community with little blessings and managed to cure one of the preachers' daughters of measles. This obviously comes back to haunt her when her brother-in-law decides to accuse her of witchcraft. Ironically, he's not entirely wrong, she has been dabbling with magic to succeed, but his wild accusations of her fornicating with the devil are obviously untrue. Sadly, because the community gets carried away, no one is willing to listen to Reverend Carver (whose daughter Abitha healed), and his wife Sarah is accused of aiding a known witch and tortured nearly to death before she finally breaks down and denounces Abitha. The villagers have tortured and murdered Abitha's cat, humiliated and tortured a kind woman whom Abitha respected, and done their best to torture "the truth" out of Abitha as well. If they want a witch, Abitha is determined to give the community what they want and fear. She accepts Samson's bargain when he comes to save her (he's been off fighting his own battle for his identity) and together she and Samson enact vengeance on the community who spurned her.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the truest monsters in this book, set in Puritan America in the 1660s, are the humans who get caught up in religious hysteria. The forest spirits lure a goat and an impressionable man into a cave and get them killed to reawaken their forest god, and try to set him to kill all the colonists (this doesn't really work out as they planned), but Father/Samson feels deeply confused and conflicted and refuses to do their bidding. Some people die at his hand, but usually none who don't deserve it. There's some quite graphic violence in parts of this book, and I really wish that so much of Abitha's eventual vengeance didn't involve bugs (so many bugs *shudder*), but the most upsetting parts to read are the ones where Abitha and Sarah are tortured by the so-called righteous magistrate and his minions. 

This book was very well-liked by my book club and we had an interesting discussion about it during our meeting. It was agreed that one of the things that probably made it a bit different from another witch hunt during the Puritan era novel was the aspect of the forest god/Father/Samson, and the nature spirits and their attempts to eradicate the white colonists. Samson is a deeply conflicted character, and it's revealed over the course of the story that this is because he has been many things over the years, and the remaining forest spirits have only tried to revive one aspect of him, so he's separated from his true self. He doesn't really want to be a slayer and a vessel for vengeance, he delights in the simple worship that Abitha offers him and the nature magic he is able to perform with her. He needs to go on his own quest to discover who he once used to be, and when he returns, he discovers what the townsfolk have done to Abitha. 

The story isn't just anti-colonialist, the forest spirits clearly remember the natives coming to their land and seem to be against anyone encroaching on their territories. We discover in the latter half of the book why the forest spirits have become so vengeful, and it gives the book an interesting dimension that with the exception of a few men, usually motivated by greed, there are no really evil players here. Everyone has their reasons for doing what they do. It was also pleasantly surprising to me and gave the story more nuance that not the entire Puritan community was against Abitha from the start. Reverend Carter and his wife Sarah are portrayed as genuinely good people, which makes what happens to them in the latter half of the story even more tragic.

This has been one of my favourite book club reads so far this year. I haven't read anything else Brom has written, but based on this, I would absolutely be open to reading something else as well. 

Judging a book by its cover: I'm not surprised that cover art is gorgeous, considering the author is also a professional artist. Nevertheless, the cover for this actually made a couple of the members of my book club gasp audibly when we were shown it at the meeting last month. It's so incredibly pretty.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 5 November 2023

CBR15 Book 66: "The Ex Hex" by Erin Stirling

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Heartbroken after discovering that the gorgeous young man she'd spent all summer with may in fact have a "betrothed" back in Wales, Vivienne "Vivi" Jones gets very drunk and weepy and she and her cousin light some candles and throw together a curse, to make Vivi feel better. They think nothing of it, until nine years later, when Rhys Penhallow, Vivi's ex, and descendant of Graves Glen's founding father returns to charge the ley lines. Suddenly there are murderous plastic toy skulls, a talking cat, and a very pissed-off ghost to deal with, and if Vivi and Rhys can't work together to break the curse before Halloween, not only they but the entire town of Graves Glen might be doomed.

This was a fun read, which I read in less than a day during this year's October Readathon. I really liked Vivi and her cousin Gwyn (as well as Gwyn's mother), I liked the premise of a little town where witchcraft and magic clearly exist, but most of the residents have no idea, and I liked Rhys and his absolute disdain for his pompous father and the whole Penhallow family legacy. Vivi might want to hate Rhys, but they still have sizzling chemistry and there is some very excellent banter between the two of them. Who doesn't love a talking cat (although he mostly demands "TREATS")? 

I liked this, but I'm not exactly desperate to read the sequel immediately As far as I can see, the next book in the series is about Gwyn and one of Rhys's brothers, so I'm guessing yet another Penhallow is going to relocate from Wales to small-town America. Several of my friends seem to like it, so I'm sure I'll get around to it at some point in the next year or two. 

Judging a book by its cover: While the cover is cute, and makes me think of Bewitched, there isn't actually any flying around on broomsticks in this book, solo or as a couple. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 65: "A Curse So Dark and Lonely" by Brigid Kemmerer

Page count: 504 pages
Rating: 4 stars

A very long time ago, Prince Rhen, the crown prince of Emberfall, made a very foolish mistake and slept with the wrong woman. He's been paying for said mistake for centuries. Forced to relive the autumn of his eighteenth year over and over, he has to get a woman to fall in love with him in a few months, or he turns into a murderous beast and slaughters anyone he can find. If the curse remains unbroken, the season resets and Rhen is back on the day of his eighteenth birthday, starting the "game" once more.

The only one who survives his beastly rampages is Grey, the captain of his royal guard, who has to go into the mortal world for an hour at the start of every season to find a new woman to bring back to Emberfall, in the hopes of breaking the curse. 

Harper's mother is dying of cancer, and her father gambled away most of their money and abandoned his family, so now Harper's brother has to work as an enforcer for the people their dad owed money to. She's acting as a lookout for him while he's reluctantly threatening someone on behalf of his "employers" when she sees what appears to be a guy trying to kidnap a woman in an alley. Acting before she can think clearly, Harper jumps the guy to stop him and ends up in a magical land, trapped with Rhen and Grey. Apart from the two taciturn young men, the castle is completely empty. There are musical instruments that magically play, any food that is eaten magically reappears the next morning. Parker does her best to try to escape and discovers that the people who are living in the rest of Emberfall are suffering, believing that the royal family has abandoned them and trying their best to survive in the face of foreign invaders or the constant threat of the monster hanging over them.

The wicked sorceress who cursed Rhen in the first place has decided that this is his final chance at breaking the curse. If he doesn't find true love by the end of the season, he will remain a vicious monster and she will take over what is left of Emberfall. From Harper's clear dislike of him, Rhen is pretty sure that he's doomed, and tells Harper the truth (up to a point, he can't really bring himself to confess to being the monster that murdered the entire royal family and most of the surrounding villagers), figuring they might as well be honest with one another in the few months he has left.

Harper is not going to let the people around the castle starve or go defenseless. She demands that Rhen and Grey help her distribute some of the frankly staggering amounts of food around the castle, that just keeps magically replenishing every morning. She also makes Rhen understand that while he's rightfully depressed about the whole curse thing, he can't let Emberfall be invaded by a foreign power either. While scheming to try to trick the neighbouring ruler from giving up their invasion attempts, Rhen and Harper spend a whole lot of time together, but will it make Harper fall in love with Rhen before he turns into a monster one final time and all is lost?

This is the first of a trilogy, and the story is pretty much Beauty and the Beast meets Groundhog Day, except instead of Bill Murray learning to play the piano or carve ice sculptures, our hero is a mass murderer who has to live with the knowledge that as a monster he murdered not just the king and queen and his sisters, but all the people in the palace and a terrifying number of people in the areas surrounding the castle. In the many years since the curse began, Rhen and Grey have come up with plans to get the monster away from populated areas until the season resets, but while the prince and his loyal guard wake up healed and physically not a day older than they were when the curse set in, no one else who died can be brought back. That's going to mess anyone up, really.

Harper has cerebral palsy, and has had to go through a number of painful operations to fix her legs. She still walks with a limp, but refuses to let her illness define her. When the sorceress offers to magically heal her leg, Harper angrily responds that she's not broken. She hates that she's unable to do more to help her brother and mother, and it's her courage and sense of justice that makes her attack Grey when she sees him trying to bring another woman back to Emberfall, resulting in herself ending up trapped there instead. She's clearly nothing like any of the other women who have been brought there before and makes several escape attempts before realising that she might be better off working with Grey and Rhen, rather than against them. Once she sees how much the vengeful sorceress keeps torturing the prince and Grey, she reluctantly decides to make the best of a bad situation.

This is a very violent fairy tale retelling and I liked that it didn't pull its punches. The people outside of the palace do not have the seasons resetting, and while Rhen and Grey seem to have lived for centuries, only about five years or so have passed outside of the castle grounds. The common people of Emberfall have pretty much lost all hope, believing the royal family has fled and left them to manage on their own, against the raging monster and now an invading force from another country. Rhen isn't really sure how in the world he's going to be able to help his subjects, considering the rest of the royal family didn't flee, they were brutally murdered by the monster, as were all the other inhabitants of the castle, including the royal guard. There isn't really anyone to fight the enemy soldiers, but thanks to a rather farfetched scheme concocted by Harper, Rhen, and Grey, they're going to try anyway.

I'll be very interested in seeing where this series goes, considering the end of this one. There are some interesting new challenges set up and even if I didn't already own the whole trilogy, I would probably keep reading, just because Kemmerer did something a bit different with her story. 

Judging a book by its cover: On my paperback edition of this book, the title is in a shimmery silver (as is the back cover of the book) and I like the dark and slightly spooky look of the thorns and the woods. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday 3 November 2023

CBR15 Book 64: "Gods of Jade and Shadows" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Caseopea Tun is basically treated as a servant by her grandfather, cousin, and extended family because her mother ran away and made an ill-advised marriage. Caseopea suffers the indignities mainly because her tyrannical grandfather has promised to leave her some money once he dies. However, during another turbulent row with her spoiled cousin Martín, he reveals that their grandfather has no intention of leaving anything to Caseopea. She feels furious and rebellious, which leads to her opening the forbidden chest at the bottom of her grandfather's bed, hoping to possibly find some treasures she can steal. 

Instead, Caseopea finds a lot of old bones and having pricked her finger on one of them, they reassemble into a man, the embodiment of the Mayan death god Hun-Kamé. Apparently, Caseopea's grandfather aided the god's brother, Vucub-Kamé in imprisoning him, and he now needs to go on a quest to reclaim certain stolen body parts to regain his full power and battle his brother for dominance of the Mayan underworld. Caseopea has no choice but to accompany him, as a tiny bone shard is lodged inside her and she and Hun-Kamé are linked, and the god is siphoning life force from her. If they don't succeed within a reasonable time frame, Hun-Kamé will become fully human, and Caseopea will die.

This is set during the Jazz Age in Mexico, but apart from the occasional mentions of short skirts and flapper haircuts, it doesn't really come into the action all that much. Caseopea eventually gets a short haircut, but it's to clean up the remains of her hacked-off hair after Hun-Kamé required her hair to burn in a magic ritual to summon ghosts. Because of the historical setting, our protagonists travel by ship and train, rather than airplane, and obviously, this means they get to spend more time together in small quarters. 

Caseopea is an engaging heroine. She is clever and resourceful, and dreams of a life in the city away from her controlling relatives. Nonetheless, she's also pragmatic and while upset about the dangers her quest with Hun-Kamé exposes her to, possibly even ending in her own death, she accepts it as a consequence of her rather impulsive rebellion. Luxury and beautiful clothing are things that Caseopea has only been able to dream about. Hun-Kamé is a god and travels in style, and Caseopea, who has been a poor relation her whole life, enjoys the change in circumstances, knowing it might not last very long.

Hun-Kamé starts out as very imperious and distant, with little care for his companion, but as their quest progresses and he remains connected to Caseopea, he takes on more and more human aspects and even gains the ability to dream, something he claims no gods can do. His brother is convinced that this added humanity is the thing that will ensure his downfall, but in the end, he comes to love Caseopea and be loved in return, and that is one of the elements that eventually defeats Vucub-Kamé. 

The book has multiple POVs, and I understand why the author chose to tell the story like this, but also admit that I felt my interest waning every time the perspective changed to that of Martín, who is tasked by Vucub-Kamé to track down his cousin and try to persuade her to abandon Hun-Kamé, or the chapters where we follow Vucub-Kamé (although it gave some interesting insight into Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. 

This is the first novel I've read by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and while I didn't love it, I found it an entertaining read, where I learned more about mythology from another culture. I have many more of Moreno-Garcia's books on my TBR shelf and look forward to reading more of her stories in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: I think this is a lovely cover, and Ms. Moreno-Garcia always seems to luck out with her cover designers, because I'm hard-pressed to remember seeing a single bad cover for one of her books. This cover is absolutely one of the things that drew me to the book in the first place. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 28 October 2023

CBR15 Book 63: "We Should All Be Feminists" by Chimamande Ngozi Adichie

Page count: 65 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR15 Bingo: Africa

Not going to lie, I originally planned to read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, but as we were nearing the end of October and I had this last square to complete on my Cannonball Bingo card, I decided to be strategic and read something rather shorter instead.

Hence this essay, which I'm ashamed to say is the first thing I've actually read by Ms. Adichie. Do I own all three of her novels in e-book form? I do indeed. Should I read them to expand my horizons and learn more about the experiences of people very different from myself? Absolutely. This essay of hers about feminism started out as a Tedx-talk, and while I very much agree that we should all be feminists and that women and non-binary individuals need to achieve equal rights to men, I also live in Norway, which for all that there are still strides to be made for equal pay and the like, we are clearly a lot more progressive than many other places in the world, such as Nigeria, which Ms. Adichie speaks about from experience. 

Nevertheless, even in a socialist paradise like Norway, where everyone is entitled to parental leave, and most fathers actually spend several months taking care of their babies, women are still more likely to be in low-paying jobs or have unreliable short-term contracts, and risk being passed over for promotion or employment opportunities because they have kids (or might want kids in the future). Even in my own family, where my husband works from home and does most of the pick-ups and deliveries from kindergarten, and takes our son to the doctor and so forth, we keep having to remind our doctor's office and occasionally kindergarten staff to contact him first. The father is very rarely the stay-at-home parent, and for women to be the primary breadwinners is unusual. So the need for feminism and a continued fight for equality is necessary, not just in Africa or Asia, but also in more progressive countries in the Western world. 

Judging a book by its cover: It's not exactly eye-catching, but it has bright, clear colours and both the author's name and the title of the essay are very visible. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday 18 October 2023

CBR15 Book 62: "The Marquis Who Mustn't" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 328 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is an ARC I received from the author. My opinions are not influenced by my free copy. I have also already pre-ordered the book.

Official book description:
Miss Naomi Kwan has long wanted to take ambulance classes so that she can save lives. But when she tries to register, she’s told she needs permission from the man in charge of her. It would be incredibly wrong to claim that the tall, taciturn Chinese nobleman she just met is her fiancé, but Naomi is desperate, and desperate times call for fake engagements. To her unending surprise, Liu Ji Kai goes along with her ruse. 

It’s not that Kai is nice. He’s in Wedgeford to practice his family business, and there’s no room for “nice” when you’re out to steal a fortune. It’s not that the engagement is convenient; a fake fiancée winding herself into his life and his heart is suboptimal when he plans to commit fraud and flee the country. His reason is Kai and Naomi were betrothed as children. He may have disappeared for seventeen years, but their engagement isn’t actually fake. It’s the only truth he’s telling.

Naomi works hard to help her parents run the inn in Wedgeford and rarely says or does anything that could be perceived as making trouble. She feels plain and unappreciated and while she's received several offers of marriage, they're all from men who clearly just want someone to cook and clean for them. She fears becoming just like her mother, who seems to live an unexciting and quiet life, in a loveless union with Naomi's father. She's not entirely sure why the handsome man she ran into by accident in Dover has agreed to pose as her fiancée, but he seems to see things in her that no one else has.

Liu Ji Kai is the son of a disgraced con man who swindled most of the adults in Wedgeford and fled into the night, abandoning his six-year-old son to face the wrath of the villagers. Kai has worked since he was fourteen to distance himself from his odious father. He wants desperately to repay all of the inhabitants of Wedgeford who suffered for his father's actions, but the only way he can think of to do so is to commit one last audacious fraud, after which he will need to leave the country and disappear. 

While he was young, his father arranged a marriage between Kai and Naomi. So Naomi asking him to pretend to be her fiancée isn't really a lie. He also thinks that once Naomi's friends and family discover his return and that he's supposedly a serious suitor to Naomi, they're going to warn her away from him immediately. He is very clear to her that he's not to be trusted and that he is an excellent liar, but he also spends weeks restoring the abandoned cottage in which he once lived and starts doing pottery, all while refusing help from anyone in the village. He insists on paying for all his meals at the inn, and once he actually gets his kiln working, he keeps making beautiful pottery and keeps insisting the villagers take some for free, as it would only be going to waste otherwise.

Kai keeps being surprised that while a few of the villagers are understandably upset and distrustful of him, the majority seem to welcome him back and try to make him comfortable as part of the community. Kai is so deeply aware of the wrongs his father did, and while he has spent half his life living away from his father and trying to undo the man's mistakes, he still hears his father's cruel and unforgiving voice in his head. He desperately tries to keep himself apart from the townsfolk in general and Naomi in particular. Kai has lived his entire life holding himself separate from those around him, never allowing himself to create any bonds. Attachments just lead to complications. He knows he's going to leave Wedgeford after his audacious fraud is complete, he'll never actually be able to marry Naomi - so he has to keep from falling for her (good luck with that).

Naomi is fully aware that Kai has some sort of grand plan and that he's not telling the entire truth about his stay in Wedgeford. However, just like everyone else in the village, she sees how honest and hard-working he really is, and having accepted the fact that she might not ever find someone to love or marry, she is pragmatic about the fact that while Kai might not stay forever, he sees her and cares for her like no other when he's around. She feels a few months of being loved and happy is better than a lifetime of mundane chores and loneliness.

Naomi is forced to reevaluate a lot about herself and her family and the ideas she's had about her little world. While her self-esteem and self-image are rather warped at the beginning of the story, she trusts her own instincts and despite him constantly warning her away, Naomi trusts Kai and believes him to be a good and caring man. No matter what his words about being a liar and a fraud say, his actions prove time and time again that he is honest, hard-working, and stubborn to a fault. He never accepts any kind of kindness or gesture of help from anyone and spends so much time keeping himself apart from village life.

Kai's life has been pretty awful since he was a young child. Abandoned in Wedgeford for months after his father ran off, having stolen the life savings of many of the townsfolk, he was entirely reliant on the charity of others to survive. His father eventually came to collect him, but kept uprooting him from new homes, because they kept having to flee and create new identities. Once Kai became somewhat older, his father demanded that he help out in the fraudulent schemes and punished him harshly every time he made a mistake. Even when he tries not to, Kai has internalised his father's lessons too well and refuses to believe that there is anything worthwhile about himself. He is so prepared for being shunned in Wedgeford because of the past, but entirely flummoxed when people start trusting him and wanting to include him in things. He is ruthless about himself and reacts way worse to kind treatment than abuse and harsh words.

Chloe and Jeremy, the protagonists of the first book in the series, The Duke Who Didn't, do eventually appear in the story, but not until about two-thirds of the way in. It was lovely to catch glimpses of their married life and the comfortable existence they've made for themselves in Wedgeford. While I really enjoyed this story, I didn't love it as much as I did Chloe and Jeremy's love story. There is quite a lot more angst in this story, and it takes Kai a long time to acknowledge that he deserves love and can make a happy ending with Naomi. If it didn't hit me quite as much in the swoony feels as the previous book, this is still a Courtney Milan novel. If you've liked any of her previous books, this is well worth your time.  The first book made me intensely hungry, this one taught me a lot of fascinating things about pottery.

Judging a book by its cover: I think this cover is lovely, even if the people on it look a bit stiff. The passionate embrace on The Duke Who Didn't felt more natural. Nevertheless, there are attractive Asian people embracing, and the woman doesn't appear to be wearing a photoshopped wedding dress. I will happily take it over many of the alternatives.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday 17 October 2023

CBR15 Book 61: "Class Act" by Jerry Craft

Page count: 249 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Drew Ellis goes to the prestigious Riverdale Academy Day School, but unlike a lot of his more privileged classmates, he feels like he has to work way harder and he still might not get the same opportunities that they do. While a lot of his fellow students live in enormous mansions, Drew lives alone with his grandmother (who has to work almost constantly to provide for him). He also knows that no matter how good his grades are or which school he attends, most people are only going to see the colour of his skin. Of course, his friends Jordan and Liam have their own problems to deal with.

This is a companion novel to New Kid, which I haven't read. The good news is that you don't need to have read that book to enjoy this one, but I suspect I would have gotten even more out of this if I'd also read the first book in the series.

For our Cannonball Book Club in October, we continued last year's success of banned books, this time focusing on graphic novels. I had already read the other two we selected, This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki and Gender Queer by Maia Kokabe, so this was the only one left for me to read. Thankfully the Oslo public library had a copy, so I was able to read it before our online discussion and Zoom meeting.

This is very highly rated on Goodreads, and I liked it a lot. I'm very much not the intended target audience, and had I been younger, I might have rated it even higher. As always when we read banned books, I am utterly baffled as to why anyone would think this was a bad thing for young people to read. This shows a very nuanced portrayal of several young individuals from very different family backgrounds and how they all, even when they might seem to have no worries, might not have perfect lives. What a terrible thing for tweens to read, apparently.

Judging a book by its cover: Craft is an excellent artist, and shows inside the comic that he's capable of drawing in a number of styles. I really like the playful cover, with some of the characters being juggled, along with the demands and responsibilities Drew faces daily. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday 16 October 2023

CBR15 Book 60: "Half a Soul" by Olivia Atwater

Page count: 260 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This book is marketed as Howl's Moving Castle meets Bridgerton. I suspect anything by a slightly less known author writing in the Regency era is now sold as X meets Bridgerton. Before the Netflix success of Julia Quinn's novels, I'm guessing it would be X meets Jane Austen. Obviously, just because it's set in the Regency era, it isn't necessarily anything at all like Bridgerton, and that's absolutely fine, and might, in fact, make more people interested in it. I do see the Howl's Moving Castle comparisons. This does have an absent-minded master wizard with poor social skills (because he really doesn't care what anyone thinks of him) and a pragmatic, young woman who seems entirely unfazed by his rudeness. Mostly, what this reminded me of was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell but with a central romance plot and a happy ending. But I guess not comparing a book to a thousand-page tome emulating hefty Victorian literature, complete with tons of footnotes to an audience who often wants light-hearted escapism might not be the best sales pitch. 

I have had this book on my TBR list for years but was to move it to the top of my reading list by my friend Desdemona, who can be very insistent when she decides to be. She also made me see that it fits into at least three of my current reading challenges and provided me with free therapy via Messenger conversation, so it felt like the least I could do was read this. For some reason, I'd convinced myself that this was a fairy tale retelling of some sort. It is not. The series name Regency Faerie Tales comes from the fact that these books are set in the Regency era, and feature faeries rather prominently. 

Miss Theodora "Dora" Ettings had half her soul stolen from her by a sinister faerie gentleman wearing an abundance of fancy coats when she was a child. She was saved from having her entire soul stolen because her cousin Vanessa stabs the faerie in his leg with sewing scissors. Hence the adult Dora keeps the scissors under her pillow at night and carries them around in a leather sheath during her waking hours. The loss of half her soul has made Dora rather distanced from strong emotion (she describes it as only having the feelings with the long tail), so she doesn't seem to feel fear, embarrassment, or anger, but neither passionate joy nor love. Vanessa is the person closest to her, and she describes the feeling of being near her as being warmed by a lantern. Because of Dora's peculiarities, and the fact that her parents are both dead, no one really expects Dora to make a good match, and she'll probably end up living with Vanessa as a spinster aunt to her children once Vanessa finds a husband.

Vanessa insists that the only way she will find a suitable husband is if they go to London, and her mother (Dora's aunt) reluctantly agrees, deeply disgruntled about the fact that they have to drag Dora along. Vanessa is determined to get herself and Dora to London to meet the famous court sourcerer, Lord Elias Wilder, popularly known as the Lord Sorcier. While he apparently has atrocious social skills and seems to disdain the entire ton, he was instrumental in helping the British fight the French and has been given his title by the Prince Regent himself. If Britain's foremost magician can't help Dora restore her missing half a soul, then surely no one can.

Left mostly to her own devices in London, while her cousin is swept away to dress fittings and the like, Dora runs into the magician and his best friend, Albert Lowe, in a bookstore, and said best friend just happens to be the son of an influential society matron, landing Dora and Vanessa personalised invites to the big ball she's hosting. Dora's aunt is forced to let Dora come along and at the ball, she has further interactions with the surly sorcerer, as well as his jovial nobleman bestie. When in the bookstore, Dora glanced into a mirror and saw herself with the Lord Sorcier at the ball, her dress stained horribly with red. After this scene comes to pass exactly so (the red turns out to be punch, not blood, thankfully), and Wilder finds Dora outside in the garden, trying to wash her dress in a fountain, he reluctantly agrees that Dora's case is rather a serious one. She is entirely heedless of the potential scandal of being found mostly naked in the garden during a society event and doesn't seem even vaguely embarrassed by the incident. He's also intrigued by how easy Dora can scry, and see both the past and future in mirrored surfaces. 

Vanessa's mother and her high society friends have decided that the ideal match for Vanessa would be Lady Carroway's eldest son, while Dora can probably be foisted off on Albert, Lord Wilder's best friend. They full-on lie about how helpful and charitable Dora is, forcing her to accompany him on his rounds to tend to the city's poor, which means she sees firsthand both the dreadful conditions that much of society lives in (letting her understand Elias' anger and disdain with the wealthy). She also becomes involved in investigating the strange plague that seems to be affecting some workhouse children, making them suddenly fall asleep and never wake again. Elias is wracking his brains trying to find the cause and save the children, so far to no success. 

I'm sure it will come as no surprise to anyone that the mystical sickness plaguing children and Dora's predicament with her missing soul end up being connected, and only by venturing into Faerie itself with our grouchy hero and Dora be able to save the day. 

When you pick up a Regency romance with a fantasy twist, you're not really expecting to deal with rather scathing social commentary as a central part of the plot. While some of the story takes place in grand houses and impressive ballrooms, Atwater's novel also shows the reader the deplorable conditions of workhouses, the unfairness of the class divide and touches briefly on just how frightful the Napoleonic wars actually were and why the surviving soldiers might not be able to just forget about the horrors they had experienced. 

Dora is a wonderful heroine, and while they give it a magical explanation, her total lack of strong emotion and social graces reads as her being neuro-atypical. She discovers that even missing half her soul, she is perfectly capable of experiencing love and happiness, it just takes a bit more for her to recognise the emotions. Elias is a brilliant man, completely unimpressed by riches and society trappings, who feels deeply angry about all the unfairness he witnesses and how incapable he is of helping all the poor souls whom he wants to save. He's clearly barely tolerated in high society, with the exception of at Lord and Lady Carroway, since he saved their son's life in the war and even fashioned him a silver hand to replace the one he lost in battle. 

This was a fun read, and the author has written two more books in the series. I'm not sure I immediately want to pick those up, however, as this story doesn't feel like it needs sequels. All the major storylines are finished off neatly, and I'm not sure reading a story or two that feels only loosely connected to this is necessary. So the writer might have wanted to connect the stories a bit more

Judging a book by its cover: I like the simplicity of the cover, with the green and gold and the scissors that play such an important part of the story front and centre. 

CBR15 Book 59: "Daindreth's Assassin" by Elisabeth Wheatley

Page count: 283 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Amira was once a princess, but after her mother's clan of sorceresses were branded as traitors and banished, she was removed from the line of succession and now, thanks to a curse that forces her to obey her father's every command, she works for him as an assassin. Amira's sister is betrothed to the archduke, the next emperor, who is on his way to finalise the marriage agreement. Despite knowing that what she has to do amounts to high treason, Amira has no choice when her father sends her to kill the man. If she tries to fight the curse, she herself will die. Amira fails to kill Daindreth, the archduke, because he turns out to be possessed by a demon, which takes control and fights Amira. She only barely escapes, and has to admit her failure to her father.

Once Amira realises the archduke's dark secret, she is determined to stop her sister's wedding to the man, which turns out to be easier than she anticipated, as the archduke demands that Amira be the promised bride instead. For reasons unclear to both of them, it seems the demon inside Daindreth is pacified when she is near. He hopes this means she may help him fight and maybe break the demon curse somehow. In return, he promises to help her break her own curse - which conveniently transfers control over Amira to Daindreth the instant Amira's father signs her over to him as his bride. 

Due to her curse, Amira now can't disobey any direct command Daindreth gives her, and hence can't fight him or escape, despite knowing about the demon inside him. He seems very wary of abusing his control over her, however, and never orders her to do anything that takes away her agency. The more she spends time in his company, the more she discovers what a good man he actually is. He desperately wants to be rid of the demon inside, and it doesn't take long before Amira is willing to risk her own life to save the man she was once going to kill. 

About a month ago, I had never even heard of Elisabeth Wheatley. I was made aware of her existence because of a blog post by Ilona Andrews, highlighting some very funny Instagram videos she'd posted, and I immediately followed her for more amusing content. Ms. Wheatley does an excellent job promoting her books, and it took less than three weeks before I gave in and bought the first four books in the series, determined to find out more about this assassin sorceress and her softboi demon duke. The author herself promises that this is a book where the heroine doesn't need any rescuing, in fact she rescues both herself and her love interest, and that as opposed to the "Touch her and die!" trope that is so common in a lot of fantasy and romance novels, this is more of a "Touch HIM and die" story. 

Amira is determined and capable and does her best to fight the curse that forces her to kill people at her father's bidding. She certainly doesn't expect to fall for the heir to the imperial throne, a demon-possessed man she was once sent to murder. While their engagement might seem like one of pure political expediency, time spent with Daindreth makes Amira gradually hope that their relationship might become something more than a marriage of convenience. As long as they actually rid Daindreth of the demon, of course. He more or less refuses to touch her otherwise, since even when the demon seems quiet, it still watches everything the archduke does. 

It's not like Daindreth is completely useless, he just hasn't been trained in combat since he was very young. Being the heir to the throne, he's rarely ever alone. He does his best to be a good person, even though he's had to fight the demon inside him since he was eleven years old. Even though he's of age, his mother, the dowager empress, rules in the empire, as he is terrified of what will happen if the demon is given more power. Daindreth is pretty much always accompanied by Thadred, his cousin, who acts as the archduke's bodyguard, but also seems to see it as his sacred duty to sleep with as many ladies as possible. He finds Daindreth's decision to not only spare Amira's life, but to pick her as his fiancée, very confusing, but he and Amira learn to work together once he realises Amira also wants to protect the archduke. 

There are four books out in the series so far and the fifth and final novel, Daindreth's Empress, will be out in January. By then, I will probably have caught up and finished the four I already own. These are by no means the best fantasy out there that I've read, but they're inventive and entertaining, and the curses that both Daindreth and Amira struggle with are based on the author's own battles with PTSD and anxiety, so they feel very visceral and real. I don't regret supporting this author, and based on her writing and excellent social media videos, wish her a lot of success. 

Judging a book by its cover: I will freely admit that I don't think I would ever have picked up this book (or the sequels) based on the cover. This is a pretty generic fantasy cover, lady with a big sword and dark clothing. Still, it gives a certain impression of what the story is about. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday 11 October 2023

CBR15 Book 57: "Network Effect" by Martha Wells

Page count: 345 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR15 Bingo: Take the Skies 

Murderbot is away from Dr. Mensah, the person it likes the most (although it would never admit this to anyone, or itself), in order to guard a research party (which includes Mensah's daughter). The group is attacked and sucked through a wormhole, and Murderbot is really very annoyed about the sudden upheaval. When it turns out that the abduction may in fact have something to do with an old friend of Murderbot (not that it acknowledges friends, as such), things immediately get more complicated. If Murderbot could choose, it would spend all its time watching videos and not involving itself in anything complicated involving feelings, but when its humans, or the entity it cares the most for in the universe, are threatened, Murderbot will act, with immediate and drastic measures. 

It was a long hiatus, but as soon as I picked up this first full-length novel about our favourite misanthropic SecUnit, I wondered why it had taken me so long to return to the world of Murderbot. While this book was a bit slow to start, once the action starts, it pretty much doesn't let up until the end. Murderbot, who is learning to become an individual of its own, has to deal a lot with pesky feelings in this book. While there is a bit of a misunderstanding between Murderbot and Mensah's kid (I could look up the name, but I'm not going to), about how they feel towards one another, Murderbot is clearly very protective, and the teen at one point refers to Murderbot as "Third Mom" - which incidentally totally justifies the feeling I've always had that if Murderbot did have a gender, it would be female. It's in the text, people!

Being abducted by creepy-looking possible aliens and eventually being reunited with ART, and then deciding to assist in recovering ART's missing crew leads to all manner of complications. It feels strange to describe the relationship between a very powerful AI and an android, neither of whom should be able to feel any emotions at all, as romantic, but there were scenes in this that hit me straight in the feels. Murderbot's humans clearly recognise that there is something special between them, and the way both of them are ready to kill the heck out of anyone who threatens the safety of the other is rather swoon-worthy. 

I would not recommend anyone start with this novel without having read at least All Systems Red and Artificial Condition to get the necessary backstory (but the other two novellas are also great, so why would you skip them?). It takes a lot for me to like sci-fi, but I absolutely love these. The only reason I'm not rating this 5 stars is that having just read Lessons in Chemistry and Folk med Ångest, both books which made me feel even more, and this doesn't feel like it really reached the same level (I wanted more schmoopy emotions between Murderbot and ART). Upon a re-read, I will probably change the rating to a full 5. 

The benefit of having waited as long as I have is that there's only about a month to wait for the release of the next novel, and while I wait, I have another novella (sadly set earlier than this, because I REALLY want to see where this goes next) to comfort myself with. 

Judging a book by its cover: The cover is nicely atmospheric, with Murderbot out on either a space station or a spaceship, with another one hovering above it. All the Murderbot stories have excellent covers, this is no exception. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 58: "Folk med ångest" (Anxious People) by Fredrik Backman

Page count: 350 pages
Rating: 5 stars

#CBR15 Passport Challenge: Books from different countries (set in and written by a Swedish author, read in Swedish)
CBR15 Bingo: Europe (see description for Passport Challenge)

Official book description (translated by me):
Folk med ångest (literally translated as People with anxiety, official English title Anxious People) is an unusually messy comedy about a hostage drama during an apartment showing, where a failed bank robber locks themselves in with an overly enthusiastic realtor, two bitter IKEA-addicts, a mean multimillionaire, a sad lady, a very pregnant woman, an infuriating git, and a rabbit's head. Eventually, the robber gives up and releases all the hostages, but when the police storm the apartment it is...empty. In a series of dysfunctional witness statements afterwards we get to hear everyone's versions of what happened, whereupon a classic puzzle mystery unfolds around the questions: How did the robber escape? Why is everyone so angry? And what is really WRONG with people nowadays?

This book is incredibly funny, whimsical, and uplifting. It also made me genuinely cry more than once because it's also about depression and desperation and sometimes feeling so bad and/or helpless that you just want to jump off a bridge. It's about loss, grief and loneliness. It's a work of fiction about made-up people, but based on the acknowledgments at the back of the book, it's absolutely grounded in personal experience, so the various characters feel real, with flaws and foibles. The book is about the importance of having someone in your life, be it friends, family members, or a good neighbour. 

The official book description doesn't give too much away, except for the rather unusual premise. Like others who have already reviewed this book, I really don't want to go into too much detail about the plot, because some of the joy of reading this book is discovering its twists and turns and having the story unfold before your eyes. The plot is non-linear, with seemingly unrelated little vignettes interspersed with police interrogations, the occasional flashback, and the omniscient author giving us necessary background information about the characters when it becomes pertinent to the reader. There is a mystery element to the book, but anyone expecting a mystery novel is probably going to be disappointed. 

The only other book of Backman's I've read so far is Björnstad, which is quite different from this in length, story, and impact. Yet both books show Backman's mastery of language and his skill at creating incredibly interesting characters, even some who are really rather despicable - they nevertheless feel complex and alive. While I was reading this book, several of my colleagues commented that the Netflix adaptation is very entertaining, although neither of them had actually read the book, so couldn't speak for how faithful the show actually is. I've purposefully chosen to read the book first, but now that I've finished it, I may spend the next week binging the show as well, because it would be fun to see how this twisty story got translated to the screen. 

This is only my second Backman novel, but based on the first two, I will be slowly consuming his other books, depending on which I can get from the library first. Might have to look up some sort of list to make sure the next one doesn't make me literally ugly-cry in parts, though.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover looks somewhat surreal, and has a number of absurd components, all of which actually play a part in the story. There is indeed a man with a giant bunny head on the toilet, there are citrus fruits in decorative bowls, there's a desperate robber with a gun. When I first saw it, it also made me incredibly curious to read the book. In comparison, the English cover is rather boring, with two people standing with their backs to the reader. This cover represents the farcical elements of the story in a much better way.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday 10 October 2023

CBR15 Book 56: "Hook, Line and Sinker" by Tessa Bailey

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Seven months ago, Hannah Bellinger left the little fishing town of Westport, Washington to go back to her life in Los Angeles. Her former socialite sister, Piper, stayed behind, happily engaged to a gruff crab fishing captain. While her sister at first mainly argued with and then fell like a ton of bricks for the gruff captain, Hannah spent quite a lot of time with his second in command, the very handsome Fox Thornton. Because of his womanizing ways, Hannah very quickly decided that no matter how good-looking and charming the man was, she was not going to become another conquest for him, but nevertheless enjoyed his company a lot. As a farewell present when she was about to return to LA, Fox left her a coveted Fleetwood Mac album that she had seen at a record expo but decided against buying for herself. Since music is as important to Hannah as breathing, the present was obviously very meaningful. She and Fox keep communicating via text messages, which both try to pretend mean less than they do, despite the fact that after a while, they communicate more with each other than anyone else in their lives. 

When in LA, Hannah works as a production assistant to an artsy film director, whom she's had a crush on for years. Since her stepfather is a very influential movie producer, she could probably have gotten a much swankier job, but Hannah wanted to work her way up the ranks honestly. Two years later, just fetching coffee and doing grunt work is getting a bit stale, though. Hannah dreams of working on movie soundtracks, but also struggles to make anyone actually notice her. She thinks of herself as a supporting character in the lives of others. Nevertheless, because she misses Westport, her sister (and if she allowed herself to admit it, Fox), she summons up the courage to pitch the fishing town as an alternate location to the film her movie director boss is currently making, since LA clearly isn't creating the correct vibe. Her absolutely lyrical descriptions of the town sell the temperamental director on the idea, and soon Hannah will be back near her sister and the man she keeps thinking about (as a friend) for an extended period.

Because this is a romance, and circumstances need to conspire to throw our potential lovers closer together, of course, Piper and Brendan, her handsome captain, can't let Hannah stay at theirs for the duration of the film shoot. No, she'll have to stay with Fox, in his spare room. But this is totally OK because they're just platonic friends, Fox won't even be there half the time because he'll be off on fishing trips, and Hannah still nurses that crush on her director, right?

Of course, once Hannah actually spends some time with Fox, she discovers not only that he actually has terrible self-esteem issues, literally seeing himself as nothing but a walking one-night stand, but that the attraction she feels towards him, and that he clearly returns is far from platonic. Fox witnessed his dad's womanising from an early age until it broke his parents up, and everyone around him, including his own parents, teachers, and others in the community seemed to believe that because he looked a lot like his dad, he was going to turn out exactly like him. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy - Fox started dating early and subscribed to the 'leave them before they leave you' attitude, never believing himself worthy of anything else or capable of change. He thinks Brendan is crazy for suggesting he take over as captain on Della Ray once Brendan's new, bigger fishing boat is completed. He makes self-deprecating jokes at his own expense and laughs at all the jokes about what an unreliable manwhore he is. 

Everyone warns him away from Hannah because she's the sister of his best friend's fiancée and someone who is clearly looking for a long-term relationship, not some brief and empty hook-up. Since Fox never really brought his female conquests to Westport, no one has really noticed that in the seven months since Hannah left, he hasn't been hooking up with anyone, being quite content with celibacy (because he's head over heels for Hannah). She, on the other hand, very quickly realises that her feelings for Sergei, her director boss, must have faded at some point. The only one whose attention she wants is Fox.

Fox's terrible self-image and how he's never even tried to break free of his man slut reputation (with one notable exception, which ended terribly and just further confirmed to him that his only worth is to give short-term sexual gratification to random ladies) is the biggest obstacle Hannah and Fox have to work through. There's also the fact that Hannah's home and work are in LA, and her stay in Westport isn't going to last longer than the film takes to complete. Fox doesn't believe himself capable of a long-term relationship, nor that he is in any way good enough for Hannah. Neither of them thinks a long-distance thing is going to work, but it might be career suicide for Hannah to move to the Pacific Northwest just as she's actually starting to make her boss notice her and consider her for a promotion. 

It Happened One Summer was cute and a very quick read. In that, Piper had the self-esteem issues and had to figure out who she really was, because no one had ever expected anything of her or believed her capable of anything except being a walking fashion plate. In this book, the esteem issues go even deeper and there is definitely more angst. Frankly, it's clear that most people have been hella judgmental and shitty to Fox, and he's let them and laughed along with it because he never thought to argue with their opinions. Because Hannah wants to show him that he has more to offer than just sex, she refuses to sleep with him for most of the book, wanting him to see that she likes him and his company, not just his looks and his body. 

Tessa Bailey seems to be a bit up and down quality-wise, with some of her books getting a lot of praise, while others seem borderline unreadable. I picked up these books because a very persuasive bookseller promised me I'd like them based on other romance titles I mentioned. I'm glad she was right, but I'm not sure I'm going to run out and get a bunch more of Bailey's books just because these two worked for me. 

Judging a book by its cover: I like how the cover artist manages to give Fox really awkward body language, while Hannah, who initially is very timid and reluctant to speak up, looks happy and confident. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 55: "Lessons in Chemistry" by Bonnie Garmus

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 5 stars

#CBR15 Passport Challenge: Books recommended by friends

Elizabeth Zott is a chemist struggling to be taken seriously by her male colleagues at a lab in the 1960s. She never completed her degree because her academic advisor raped her, but her lack of degree in no way means she's not intelligent. Despite her brilliant mind, her male co-workers either treat her as nothing more than a lab assistant or steal her research and present it as their own. The one exception to this is Calvin Evans, another brilliant mind, although even more anti-social than Elizabeth. After a couple of rather unfortunate first run-ins, the couple actually begin to talk to each other and their natural chemistry proves very combustive.

However, life doesn't always play fair, and Elizabeth, who never wanted to settle down with any man and certainly never wanted children, finds herself a single mother trying to make a living from the private lab she built in her home. She's doing her best to encourage her precocious daughter, aided only by her faithful dog, Sixthirty, and eventually, a lonely housewife from across the street. Through a series of unlikely events, she becomes a television star, presenting the afternoon cooking show Supper at Six. Elizabeth refuses to talk down to her audience and uses scientific chemistry terms when explaining her recipes (“combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride”), and her unlikely approach seems to spell television success. While her producer is both baffled at her technique and terrified of her blunt honesty, yet staunchly supportive nonetheless, the station manager is not as happy with Elizabeth's unconventional presenting style or lack of respect for men in general.

Having read several very glowing reviews of this, I decided to put it on my wishlist for last year's Cannonball Book Exchange. Imagine my surprise when I got a lovely hardback edition (it was even signed) from the lovely Witcherwill/Mythili. I do hope she enjoyed the Pratchett books I sent her. As is so often the case, however, even if I own a book, I don't immediately start reading it. I had every plan of getting to it this year and therefore added it to my Cannonball Passport Challenge. Anyone who has followed my blog for some time knows I cannot resist a reading challenge, and will do almost everything in my power to complete as many as possible over the course of a year. It still took me until September to finally read the book, and once I started it, it was one of those books where I pretty much resented everything that took my attention away from it. I loved it so very much, and it's always much harder to write good and articulate reviews of books that I adore. I will happily savage a book I disliked, but with books like this, I just want to flail and scream at everyone I meet to read it (I have in fact insisted that two friends and four colleagues do just that).

I wanted to finish the book before the Apple TV+ adaptation aired, and as always with adaptations, I'm wary. I think Brie Larson will do an excellent job as Elizabeth, because she's a very good actress, but I'm not sure I trust them to fully capture just how good this book is. The trailer makes it look as if they've made quite a few changes, but I will try to keep an open mind. Should it be absolutely panned, I just won't watch it and pretend it never existed in the first place.

This is most likely going to be in my top 3 books of the year. It's an international bestseller and this is well deserved. It's funny and sad and infuriating and moving and I almost wish I hadn't already read it, so I could go back and read it again for the first time. Thank you so much, Mythili, for the gift of this book. 

Judging a book by its cover: I think both covers for this book are somewhat misleading as to the sort of story you're actually getting. The American cover has a peach-coloured cover with just the hints of a woman's face, with cat's eye glasses and bright red lips. It makes the book look light-hearted and frivolous. The primary colours that make up the cover for the UK edition also seem to indicate a much more playful story, especially when you have the lady in the cheerful dress holding a television at the top. I'd heard good things about this book but was surprised at the actual contents after seeing the two covers. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday 9 October 2023

CBR15 Book 54: "Four Weddings to Fall in Love" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 235 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Max Mok meets Kim Sun at a wedding and is smitten with her from the first. She clearly likes him enough to invite him to her hotel room after the reception, but Max isn't really used to one-night-stands and the encounter doesn't really go very well. Kim is left unsatisfied and Max is mortified. At least they're unlikely to ever have to meet again, to relive the awkwardness.

Except it turns out that Kim and her family are close friends with Max' cousins, three of whom are getting married later in the summer, and Max and Kim will keep being thrown together, by fate and meddling family members. Can Max persuade Kim that he deserves another chance, both in the bedroom and possibly as a longer-term partner?

It's quite refreshing to have a hero who's not super confident and a smooth and charming ladies man who always delivers in the bedroom. I suspect more people have slightly underwhelming first encounters, especially if, like in Max and Kim's situation, they had vastly different expectations to how the night was going to go and neither felt comfortable enough with the other to actually talk about what they wanted and needed. A lot of the things Kim really wants from a lover were things that Max' previous girlfriend didn't like, and Kim didn't actually speak up about the fact that Max left her unsatisfied, but rather rolled over and pretended to be asleep.

Rather than being oblivious, Max is very willing to admit his mistakes and absolutely wants to prove himself to Kim and learn what she wants and needs. Once again, a vulnerable and dedicated hero is refreshing, and the reader really roots for Max to get Kim to forgive him.

Kim wants to settle for one-night stands and casual sex because she was badly burned by previous relationships. Her previous boyfriend had a very nosy, overbearing, and critical mother, and never defended Kim in disagreements. It left Kim feeling abandoned and unappreciated, and since she seems to always end up with men who choose their family over her, she's pretty much decided to stay unattached from now on. She likes Max, but the fact that he has a large family and seems close to his parents makes her worried she's just going to end up repeating her destructive pattern.

Max, on the other hand, broke up with his last girlfriend once he realised that she didn't really love or desire him, he was just a convenient partner she could settle down with. He comes to understand Kim's misgivings, but doesn't really initially have the confidence to believe someone as great as her would ever even consider him as a long-term partner.

Jackie Lau doesn't really do insta-love romances. Her characters have flaws and insecurities and usually have to work with their love interest to find out how their happy ever after is going to look. Even when they don't knock my socks off, they are always good reads. In this one, there is clearly some setup for future novels, but Max' family are fun supporting characters and I am looking forward to seeing which other weddings the Moks will be involved in.

This was an ARC that I received from the author. It has not affected my opinions or swayed me in any way, although I will say that I also pre-ordered the book and paid for a copy with my own money, because Jackie Lau is a worthy auto-buy contender. 

Judging a book by its cover: I'm a member of a Facebook group in which Ms. Lau is also a member. There was a preview of completely different cover art for this book (I think it may have been AI generated). I don't entirely remember what it looked like, but this cover is so much better, and really simple, yet fun. I love the sparkly shoe and the discarded tie. The image is playful. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 8 October 2023

CBR15 Book 53: "The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels" by India Holton

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description, because I finished this book two months ago, and the plot is rather convoluted:
Cecilia Bassingwaite is the ideal Victorian lady. She's also a thief. Like the other members of the Wisteria Society crime sorority, she flies around England drinking tea, blackmailing friends, and acquiring treasure by interesting means. Sure, she has a dark and traumatic past and an overbearing aunt, but all things considered, it's a pleasant existence. Until the men show up.

Ned Lightbourne is a sometimes assassin who is smitten with Cecilia from the moment they meet. Unfortunately, that happens to be while he's under direct orders to kill her. His employer, Captain Morvath, who possesses a gothic abbey bristling with cannons and an unbridled hate for the world, intends to rid England of all its presumptuous women, starting with the Wisteria Society. Ned has plans of his own. But both men have made one grave mistake. Never underestimate a woman.

When Morvath imperils the Wisteria Society, Cecilia is forced to team up with her handsome would-be assassin to save the women who raised her--hopefully proving, once and for all, that she's as much of a scoundrel as the rest of them.

This book will certainly not be for everyone. I can see how some people might find it too annoying, quirky, or simply rather uninteresting because they're not looking for something quite this whimsical. Do you like Gail Carriger? Then you might also like this. It's set in an alternate history, where magic exists. It's mainly used to make houses fly, and the secret spell that allows one to pilot the houses is mostly in the hands of women. Thievery and piracy also seem to be perfectly above board, as long as certain rules are followed. Our heroine, Cecilia Bassingtwaite, is a junior member of the female crime organisation, the Wisteria Society, and despairs that the older members refuse to see her as a worthy of promotion to the big table, a full member at last. So when she opens the door to find a rather flustered assassin on her doorstep, this is very promising, because ladies whom someone wants to murder are obviously more scoundrelous, and therefore more worthy of promotion. 

Of course, our hero, Ned Lightbourne, who goes by MANY different names and identities over the course of the story, has no intention of actually murdering Miss Bassingtwaite. He's not really an assassin at all. Nor is he a loyal henchman to her insane father, who has tasked Ned to abduct Cecilia from her aunt's house. Ned wants to do no such thing. Cecilia finds him both intriguing and exasperating, he finds her delightful and is instantly smitten. They keep meeting and bantering, usually while also fighting each other with sharp weapons, and obviously fall in love in the process. 

To begin with, I was honestly not entirely sure what was going on with the plot, or the rather flowery language, but it was amusing me and I just let the story sort of flow over me. The many references to the Brontës, and especially the utterly useless Bramwell, were fun. I'm not entirely sure how this society actually works, but piracy and thievery seem to be the done thing in the upper classes. It also seems to be a very matriarchal society, where the husbands are left to take care of the household, although they're clearly also allowed to run around wielding swords and firearms occasionally, as Ned is doing. Possibly they only need to become homebodies after they marry?

I'm probably overthinking it. This was fun, it made me laugh, and since I've waited several years, the entire trilogy set in this strange alternate Victorian world is already completed. The next one involves witches (and a male pirate), so it also promises to be entertaining.

Judging a book by its cover: This is really cute. I love the flowing vines of wisteria flowers, complete with other elements from the story twisted in. The teacup, the flying house, the sword and pistol, and obviously our adventurous little couple at the bottom, each sporting their own gun. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 52: "Kushiel's Dart" by Jacqueline Carey

Page count: 1040 pages
Rating: 5 stars

CBR15 Bingo: Sex (the protagonist is a god-touched masochist courtesan spy)

Kushiel's Dart is the first novel in the Kushiel's Legacy series, which came to number six books in total. Jacqueline Carey also wrote an additional trilogy in her Terre D'Ange universe, and over the course of all of her books, pretty much explored every continent in her alternate-history fantasy world. This first book is set in an alternate historical version of Europe, set at about Renaissance times, or somewhat earlier, although the descriptions of the Skaldi society (Vikings) and the Albans (the Celts and Picts) clearly being from more medieval times. 

Our protagonists come from Terre D'Ange, which is located where our France would be. In this Universe, Jesus died on the cross and his blood, mingled with the tears of Mary Magdalene, fell to Earth, who gave birth to a new deity, Elua. Not acknowledged by the Yeshuite god, Elua went wandering the world in company with a number of angels who felt compelled to go with him. Eventually, Elua and his angelic companions came to the land that would become Terre D'Ange and settled there. Elua's main decree to all of his followers was "Love as thou wilt", and because of this, any sexual act is seen as holy by the D'Angelines. It also means that non-consensual sex of any kind is not only a crime, it's literal heresy. 

Phédre, our unlikely heroine, is the orphaned daughter of a courtesan, who is taken into the household of a mysterious nobleman. She is trained not only in the sexual arts, as a courtesan herself, but taught to watch, listen, observe, and reflect, and her patron, Anafiel Delauney, wants her and his other protegée, Alcuin, to spy for him and ferret out secrets among the nobility who have assignations with them, for reasons he refuses to reveal to them. Phédre has not only sworn herself to the service of Namaah, the goddess of pleasure but is utterly unique in her generation as someone marked by the stern god of punishment, Kushiel. She experiences sexual pleasure through pain, often the more extreme the better, and that makes her a valuable tool for Delauney to ferret out secrets. Both Phédre and Alcuin feel a strong debt of gratitude towards Delauney and therefore serve him with absolute loyalty, but as Phédre gets older, she can't help but wonder what conspiracy her patron is actually trying to uncover. Unfortunately, by the time she figures out the entire truth, she's also unearthed a conspiracy against the Crown itself and needs to be removed.

Since this book is more than twenty years old (originally published in 2001), anyone who wants to can find detailed plot summaries online. I don't really want to reveal too much of the plot, because part of the joys of this book is discovering it all for yourself. In a recent interview, the author herself described the book as "Kinky, but feminist! Epic fantasy, but alternate history! Tattoos! Slow-burn romance! Cool fight choreography! Subversive theology! Big battle scenes! Lyrical prose for readers who love words like ‘ormulu’ and ‘incarnadine!’" So if you think that might be something for you, you should absolutely consider giving it a chance. I hadn't read the book for more than a decade (probably closer to fifteen years by now) and was very happy to discover that it still absolutely holds up as well as it did in my memory, and still very much deserves its place as one of my favourite fantasy novels. I had forgotten just how slow it is to get started, but on the other hand, when the action finally kicks off at about the 40% mark, it doesn't slow down until the very last chapters and some of the action leaves you absolutely breathless. 

I first discovered this book back in 2004. I bought my mass-market paperback copy in Barnes and Noble on Union Square in New York while visiting my BFF Lydia. So it felt extra special to be re-reading it while I was visiting her and her husband now in their house in Vermont. The reason I remember so very clearly when and where I was when I first got this book is not only because it was unlike any fantasy I had read up until that point, pretty much, and it completely engrossed me, but also because the copy of the book that I bought had a misprint, where about halfway through, in possibly the most tense and dramatic section of the whole book (and that's saying something), about 70 pages of the book were missing. There was just a repeat of the previous 70 pages instead. I can promise you that it was a terrible place to suddenly be ripped out of the story, and I had to rush back to the bookstore the next day and secure myself another copy (which thankfully did not have the misprint), so I could see if my beloved protagonists survived their desperate trek through the icy northern wastes (if you've read the book, you know which bit I'm referring to). 

I decided to re-read this now because Jacqueline Carey published her companion novel Cassiel's Servant at the start of August, where we get to know Phédre's unfailingly loyal (if initially deeply disapproving) companion Jocelin Verruil a lot better. Not only do we get to see the events of Kushiel's Dart from his POV, but we also find out about his life before he gave his vow to protect and serve Phédre, no matter what. Unlike E.L. James and Stephanie Meyer, who also wrote POV novels from "the other side", this doesn't feel like a cynical cash grab to me. For one thing, Carey waited more than 20 years after publishing her original novel to do this, and Joscelin's book comes out 12 years after the last book Carey published in her Terre D'Ange universe. She's written a lot of other things in the interim, and I don't think she'd write and publish this companion novel if she didn't feel like it could shed new light on her already cult classic novel. 

It also pleases me that this book happened to become my 52nd review of the year. It feels good to Cannonball on a really excellent novel. 

Judging a book by its cover: In the decades since the novel first came out, it's had many different covers, but this is pretty much the original one. It was recently re-published with some gorgeous UK covers, that I'm going to have to resist buying (I already have the entire original trilogy, I don't need new copies). I know it's probably irrational, but I hate that the illustrated Phédre has bangs - why did anyone think that was a good idea? Phédre is supposed to be absolutely gorgeous (apparently nearly all D'Angelines are near-perfect specimens), and based on the historical setting this is supposed to take place in, that hairstyle feels very out of place.  

Crossposted on Cannonball Read