Monday, 13 March 2023

CBR15 Book 11: "Not My Valentine" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 136 pages
Rating: 3 stars

This was an ARC from the author. My views are my own. 

Helen Tsang has sworn off love as a lost cause after her boyfriend dumped her last Valentine's Day and someone filmed it, making her a very involuntary viral sensation. However, as Valentine's Day is approaching once more, she feels like she is getting excessive sympathy and pity from friends, family, and even the staff of her regular bubble tea shop. She doesn't really want to field any more questions and decides to ask her friend Taylor to act as her fake boyfriend. They can "break up" a while after Valentine's Day, very amicably, so no one needs to remember the viral video anymore or think about Helen's love life in the future.

Of course, as is always the case with fake dating stories, it doesn't take long before Helen starts seeing Taylor in a new light. They've been friends for years, and Taylor was extremely supportive when she was so very publically dumped last year. For some reason, a lot of the romantic gestures which Helen claims to hate are rather adorable when Taylor does them. He sends her flowers, and pictures of heart-shaped cakes to tease her and doesn't at all mind posing for cutesy couples pictures for her Instagram feed. Of course, as Valentine's Day approaches once more, Helen starts wondering if she wants her fake relationship with her friend to become a real one. 

The grumpy-sunshine pairing is a relatively common trope in romance, as is the fake dating scenario. Helen and Taylor are a cute couple, and as always, in a Jackie Lau romance, there's a lot of descriptions of food and baking. Nevertheless, while this novella was a perfectly fine read, it never became anything special, and now, about a month after finishing the story (I'm once more behind on my reviews), I'm having trouble remembering much of the specifics at all.

This was OK, but there are much better Jackie Lau romances out there - including several fake dating stories. This won't be a waste of your time, but it's also unlikely to stick in your memory. 

Judging a book by its cover: While this is an illustrated cover, I appreciate that there are no cartoony people anywhere on it. Just a bunch of brightly-coloured baking supplies and a little phone. It doesn't hurt that I'm very partial to teal, which is the dominant cover colour.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday, 10 March 2023

CBR15 Book 10: "The Golden Enclaves" by Naomi Novik

Page count: 416 pages
Audio book length: 14 hrs 49 mins
Rating: 5 stars

This is the concluding volume in a trilogy. It won't really work for you unless you've read the previous two books. Start with A Deadly Education. Also, this review will contain spoilers for the previous book in the series, so proceed at your own risk if you're not caught up. 

Galadriel "El" Higgins has done the impossible. She has not only made it out of the Scholomance with her entire graduating senior class, but with every other student in the school as well. Everyone is alive and safe, except for one important exception. Orion Lake, who El had only really allowed herself to accept that she loved towards the end of the school year, when it seemed like maybe their insanely ambitious plan might work after all, and who literally threw her out of the gates of the school to face an enormous mawmouth by himself. El tries to spend incredible amounts of mana to get back into the school, only to find herself cut off entirely and can't do anything but grieve.

Her mother, Gwen, is beyond happy to have her daughter back, but she's also terrified when El tells her about Orion and her improbable book of Golden Sutras. The price both Gwen and El paid for El to be able to bring the book with her out of the Scholomance has been staggering, and now they are both left to grieve their loved ones. Not that El gets a lot of time in the yurt in Wales to nurse her grief. The indomitable Liesl, the senior class valedictorian shows up and demands that El come help the London enclave fight and kill a mawmouth. El is the only one on record who has been able to ever kill one singlehandedly, and now the London enclave will be lost unless El comes and helps.

Once she's performed the disgusting and gruelling task, the London wizards are shocked to realise that not only does El not want to become a member of their enclave, she wants nothing in return for her actions than for the enclave grounds to be opened up to all the magically inclined in London, so not only the privileged enclavers get to see the glories of the grounds. Having killed the relatively small mawmouth in London and finally putting all the poor people it had consumed over the years to rest, El realises that she has to go back inside the Scholomance, to kill Patience, the gigantic mawmouth that will inevitably have consumed Orion because she can't bear the thought of him suffering inside it for all eternity. The only place she is likely to get enough mana to attempt such a feat is in Orion's home enclave, New York. Which will mean meeting and facing Orion's parents - something El's not sure she's ready for. 

Because I waited until the final book was published before reading book two, I thankfully didn't have to wait a whole year for the cliffhanger at the end of that one to be resolved. I also waited long enough to finish the series that I read multiple reviews from others that reassured me that this volume wasn't going to be a letdown. What Naomi Novik has achieved with these books is impressive. They are classed as Young Adult because the characters are still teenagers, but so many of the familiar tropes and expectations of the subgenre are cleverly subverted and some really serious themes and moral quandaries are explored over the course of the series.

As I mentioned in my review of The Last Graduate, part of what really works for me about these books is the cast of characters. I don't just like reading about El and Orion, but all of their friends and compatriots too. With each book, Novik reveals more of how her magical universe functions, and in this last book, we are finally given more insight into the enclaves and how they are formed, not to mention where the horrible (and very creatively imagined) monsters originate and why they're so drawn to wizard adolescents. 

Based on the previous two books, I wasn't really worried that Naomi Novik was going to mess up the ending of this trilogy. I'm nevertheless greatly relieved that I can now wholeheartedly recommend this whole completed series to anyone who likes clever and dark fantasy. 

Judging a book by its cover: The covers are really my least favourite part of the series, but it seems appropriate that this final volume has a pale golden colour, like the golden sutras that El treasures so much. I still wish there was a bit more to the covers than a uniform colour and some mystical symbols, though. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday, 16 February 2023

CBR15 Book 9: "Hell Bent" by Leigh Bardugo

Page count: 484 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the second book in the Alex Stern series. This review will contain some spoilers for the first book in the series, Ninth House because I'm not sure how to review it without referencing things that happened in the last book. So if you're new to this series, start there. 

Darlington is still missing, "in Spain" to those not in the know, and in Hell, possibly dead to those initiated in the secrets of Lethe House. Galaxy "Alex" Stern doesn't have a lot of friends, and she's not going to let anything or anyone stop her from finding a way to rescue Darlington. Thankfully, her fellow Lethe member, Pamela Dawes is firmly on board with the plan, even when the higher-ups in Lethe forbid them from trying. Of course, finding a portal into hell isn't going to be easy and they have no guarantee that they're going to succeed in bringing Darlington back. 

In addition, a blast from Alex' past is making things complicated for her. Her dead boyfriend's former drug dealer boss has figured out what Alex did before she ended up in hospital and later at Yale, and unless Alex agrees to do some work for him, he's going to kill her mother. There's also a series of mysterious murders on campus, which may or may not be magical in nature. Alex and Turner try to figure out the cause and the culprit, but begin to fear that the murders are connected to the dark presence at Black Elm, Darlington's family home, and the bigger challenge of retrieving him from Hell.

I re-read Ninth House in preparation for this and am very glad that I did. Otherwise,  I would never have remembered all the intricacies of the magical houses of Yale and all the bad stuff that Alex suffered before becoming a student there. After the dramatic finale of the previous book, Alex is aware that she can do much more than see ghosts. She can hear them, almost constantly, and she can pull them into herself to gain almost superhuman strength for a while. That makes her more confident, but she nevertheless faces some pretty steep challenges in this book, the least of which is passing her classes at Yale. 

Alex has clearly been a loner for much of her life, and the only true friend she's had so far died in horrific and tragic circumstances. So learning to depend on others and finding people she can trust is very unfamiliar to her, and it was great to see that over the course of this book, she finds some true friends and allies, and is much better prepared for whatever challenges the next book is going to throw at her. After all the danger in the previous book, Alex and Dawes are now firm friends and completely united in the rather mad and dangerous quest of rescuing Darlington from Hell. Once they discover that to open the portal to Hell that is hidden on the Yale campus, they need to recruit some extra help, and the cranky Turner and happy-go-lucky Tripp Helmuth also join their band of unlikely allies. The final member of their little band is Mercy, Alex' roommate, who in many ways seems a lot more suitable to be Virgil of Lethe than Alex ever was. She is fascinated and intrigued to discover that magic exists. 

This book doesn't just have a creepy cover, it has certain scenes that were almost too close for comfort for me. I really don't like horror, and certain sections of this book were uncomfortably over the edge in that genre. Still, I made it through and am glad I persevered, because this book was a thrill ride. The previous book took me longer to get into, and I wasn't really sure about Alex and Darlington as characters. With all the world-building setup and major characterisation sorted out in the first volume, this could just pick up and get right into the action. It was a much quicker read than Ninth House, but got so intense in places that I had to put it down and read some other stuff in between just to not be overwhelmed. 

As with the previous book, this one ends on a cliffhanger. I found the one at the end of this one slightly less frustrating, however, and will happily wait the extra year or so to find out how Alex' supernatural adventures continue. 

Judging a book by its cover: This is a book cover with a sinister aura. The poor bunny can't help being albino, but there's something about the big, seemingly naked ears, the red eyes, and the very pink paws that just screams creepy. Well done, publishers, I'm immediately on my guard. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday, 15 February 2023

CBR15 Book 8: "A Good Girl's Guide to Murder" by Holly Jackson

Page count: 433 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR15 Passport Challenge - New to me author

Five years ago, blonde and beautiful high school girl Andie Bell was murdered, although no one ever found her body, despite careful searching. However, Andie's boyfriend Sal Singh confessed in a text message to his dad and then committed suicide before he could be arrested by the police. So everyone knows that he did it, and the case is closed. 

Pippa Fitz-Amobi remembers Sal Singh as a kind and considerate young man, with a promising university career ahead of him. She doesn't really believe he killed Andie, and as her senior project in high school, she claims to be focusing on how media bias might have affected the reports of the murder case, but in reality, she plans to re-investigate the whole case and hopefully clear Sal's name. After interviewing Sal's younger brother Ravi about his recollections about the case, he figures out what she's doing and insists on being allowed to help in the investigation. Ravi unsuccessfully tried to clear his brother's name a few years ago but got nowhere, in part because the police refused to even speak to him.

Pippa knows the police isn't going to be forthcoming with information about a case they consider solved and closed, and she plans to use more unconventional ways to figure out what actually happened when Andie disappeared and was most likely murdered. As she keeps contacting Andie and Sal's family members, friends, and acquaintances, she starts to discover that Andie Bell certainly wasn't as innocent and angelic as the public image of her would have it in the press and case documents. 

If Pippa is correct, and Sal Singh didn't kill Angie, and may in fact have been the victim of a crime himself, then there is a murderer (or several) out there, unhappy about her trying to uncover secrets. Pippa starts getting anonymous threats, and when they only spur her to investigate more thoroughly, the threats start getting a lot more vicious. Will Pippa and Ravi be able to solve the five-year-old murder and clear Sal's name? Or is Pippa going to end up being the unknown killer's next victim?

I've been seeing Holly Jackson's books all over the place for the last few years, including in the first season of Heartstopper on Netflix (this is one of the many books Isaac reads). I could do an internet search to check, but I'm guessing that one of the reasons I'm seeing her books in all the bookstores is because of Tik Tok, as pretty much all the authors who seem to be enjoying impressive sales have had them boosted by Tik Tok attention. Either way, as this fit, not one, but two of the keywords in my Monthly Keyword challenge for January, as well as into a whole host of my other reading challenges (I'm really trying to be good about reading books I already own this year). 

This was a quick read, but also kind of reminded me why I don't read a lot of crime and suspense novels anymore. It may be aimed at young adults, but there was more than enough unpleasant tension in this book as the threats to Pippa come more frequently and become more serious. Just as I don't really like being scared and tend to avoid the horror genre because of it, I'm not super fond of being on edge because of threats and tension toward the characters I'm reading about. The characters in this are all really well drawn and Pippa and her family especially are very likable. I didn't want bad things to happen to any of them.

There are two more books in this series, where Pippa keeps getting entangled in murder investigations. I probably will get round to reading them at some point, this was a really well-written book. I just think I need to be in a different emotional space when I do. 

Judging a Book by its Cover: Both the US and UK editions of this book have the red "murder board" thread on the cover, but on the whole, I much prefer the cleaner, brighter mostly white cover of the UK edition that I have to the primarily grey cover of the US edition, with the title on little torn-up pieces of paper. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday, 13 February 2023

CBR15 Book 7: "The Last Graduate" by Naomi Novik

Page count: 388 pages
Audio book length: 13hrs 27 mins
Rating: 5 stars

CBR Passport Challenge: Books Recommended by Friends

This is the second book in a trilogy. It doesn't really make sense if you've not read the series from the beginning. So if you're not caught up, go read A Deadly Education. It's great, I'll wait.

El and Orion are now seniors in the Scholomance, and they have absolutely no way of knowing if their very dangerous mission just before graduation to fix the furnaces worked. Did they manage to clear the graduation hall of the majority of maleficaria ahead of the former senior class' exit, or did all the graduates get horribly eaten? Is the machinery going to fail before their own graduation in a year's time, or will this be a problem for one of the classes at some point in the future?

El, who has spent her entire life as a loner, is surprised to find that she has actual friends and allies in the school and that despite having criticised Orion for a year for risking his life to save others, she is now almost daily expending a ton of magic trying to keep the freshmen students she shares a classroom with from being killed by mals. Orion, on the other hand, is getting more and more frustrated. Despite trying to hunt down mals in his spare time, there don't appear to really be any, except for all the ones coming to try to kill El, and those directly around her. 

El spends the first six months of her senior year trying to pass her exams, keep Orion from getting killed because he keeps neglecting his own studies and fend off all the vicious threats that the school seems intent on sending her way. She also can't forget that while the cleaning furnaces hopefully killed off a lot of mals pre-graduation last year, there's still a whole year for the graduation hall to fill up again, and she and her fellow seniors need to train incessantly to make sure they're in good shape to fight the monsters and make it out alive. The graduating class is much bigger than it has ever been, thanks to Orion's tireless efforts for the past three years of killing mals and rescuing people. Normally, only about half of any given year's graduates get out. Will the added numbers of seniors mean more likely survivors or just an even higher death toll come graduation day since there is no way for everyone to make it to the doors unharmed? Or is there?

I am so very glad that I waited until this trilogy was completed to read The Last Graduate. If I had been forced to wait a whole year after finishing this book to find out what happened next, I would not have handled it well. A Deadly Education was really good. A wonderfully acerbic and hostile protagonist, a great cast of supporting characters, very creative world-building, and an interesting magic system. As dangerous supernatural boarding schools go, the Scholomance is about as fiendish as I can remember reading about, and El's journey from an angry and distrustful outcast to someone with a solid set of friends and a vague hope of a better future was a delight to read. Then came this and surpassed all of my expectations, leaving me emotionally wrung out once I finished the last page. The final act of book 1 was impressive, but the final act of book 2 was on a whole other level. 

This series would not be as enjoyable and addictive if El was the only one worth reading about. Thankfully, there are so many other characters to also obsess over. Orion, who sucks at social interactions and only wants to kill monsters (he has a serious Sam Winchester energy, which does not lessen as this book goes on - you have been warned). Aadhya and Liu, who by the end of this book are pretty much ride or die for our El, and rightly so. Even Chloe, who seemed rather clueless in the last book becomes a valuable friend to our group of misfits. In this book, we are also introduced to Liesl, the valedictorian, who isn't exactly likable, but funny and kind of awesome with her extreme efficiency and abilities to problem solve that none of our other band of doomed graduates can rival. I just wanted to hug them all and keep them safe from the horrors they kept having to face and worry about.

It's really hard to review this book and attempt to remain spoiler-free. There are so many awesome things I want to gush about, but I went into this book knowing pretty much nothing except that it ended on a very unsatisfying cliffhanger, and it was such a great ride. Even though I own the book in paperback, I ended up listening to most of the book in audio, as with A Deadly Education. Anisha Dadia does an excellent job of narrating, and making the various characters feel distinct and separate for me. This time, however, once I got about 80% in, I didn't have the patience to listen any longer (even listening at x1.5, I read way faster than the narrator) and I needed to get to the end fast. 

I'm so grateful to Naomi Novik for writing these books. I really liked Uprooted and Spinning Silver, but I adore the two Scholomance books. Now that the series is completed, I can wholeheartedly recommend the series to anyone who likes clever paranormal fantasy.

Judging a book by its cover: I like the simplicity of these covers, with a plain background and some mystical sigils and stuff in gold. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 6: "The Duke Undone" by Joanna Lowell

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Lucy Coover is on her way to her painting class at the Royal Academy one morning when she stumbles across a body in an alley. The man is completely naked, and she assumes he's been the victim of a crime. Then she realises he's breathing, so he seems to only be dead drunk. As a female art student, Lucy is fascinated by human anatomy but is also not allowed to ever attend life drawing classes at the Academy. She's late for class but also makes sure to get a good eyeful. This might be her only chance to ever study a naked man up close.

Several months later, Anthony Philby, the Duke of Weston is confronted in his office by a furious man pointing a gun at him. The man is convinced that the duke has had an affair with his wife, despite Anthony's vehement claims that he's never even heard of the woman. Because the angry man is a terrible shot, Anthony escapes with nothing but a nick on the arm, but shooting a duke is nevertheless a serious enough crime that he's able to pressure the man to show him his alleged proof, which certainly looks extremely damning. The mythological figure depicted in the painting, purchased by the man's wife, is clearly the duke of Weston's extremely naked form. Of course, Anthony has never posed nude for a painting and has no idea how this image could have been captured. The existence of the painting were it to come to light, would spell out inevitable scandal, something Anthony cannot afford.

Anthony's life has been plagued by controversy and scandal. He was originally the second son, and never meant to inherit the title.  However, after Anthony's brother died while sinking a stolen barge, accompanied by a young sex worker, after a very public drunken escapade, his father had no choice but to accept him as the new heir. Anthony's brother was known for his utterly unhinged and scandalous behaviour, he rebelled against all of their father's constraints and delighted in causing outrageous scenes and bringing negative attention to the family.  The children's mother was from Greece, extremely beautiful and extroverted, and exuberant. While Anthony was still a teenager, his father claimed their mother had grown promiscuous and hysterical and had her committed to an insane asylum, where she fell into a depression and committed suicide. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Anthony ended up in fistfights defending his mother's honour. Additionally, while Anthony was stationed in India as a soldier, his younger sister Effie ran away with a circus performer and was promptly disowned by their father as a result. Now no one has heard from her in years.

All of these things mean that when the former duke died, he made sure to write several very unusual provisions into his will. While Anthony inherited the dukedom of Weston immediately after his father's death, all of the money and property associated with the title were tied up in a complicated trust, meant to control and curtail Anthony's behaviour. Unless Anthony lives a life of sobriety and moderation, avoiding even the merest hint of a scandal until his thirtieth birthday, he will not gain control of his money and estates and remain under the thumb of his father's friend and advisor, Mr Yardley, who seems more than happy to continue his guardianship. The nude painting and accusations of adultery would certainly count as scandalous and ruin any chances Anthony has of escaping his tyrannical father's control from beyond the grave. 

Anthony goes to the Royal Academy to track down the mysterious L. Coover and is surprised to find that the painter is a young lady. He's not sure how she could possibly have seen him naked, and therefore mistakenly thinks she moonlights as a prostitute when not taking painting classes. Lucy instead reveals that she found him dead drunk in an alley and promises that the painting he saw was the only one she ever made of him. Anthony demands that she give him all her notes and sketches, or he'll get her thrown out of the Academy. It seems as if the two might never have to meet again after that, only Lucy discovers that the area of Shoreditch where she and her seamstress aunt live is scheduled to be demolished shortly, and the only powerful man she knows is Anthony. She shows up at his London townhouse and demands that he use whatever influence he has to try to persuade the city officials in charge of the decision to change their minds. In return, Anthony asks her to search for his missing sister, Effie, who he's very worried about.

Of course, now that they're seeing each other regularly, there's bound to be an attraction between them. However, Lucy discovers that to rebel against his father's strict rules, Anthony takes every chance he gets to get drunk in secret, hiding it from his servants and Yardley. Lucy's father was an alcoholic and she remembers all too well how devastating his drunkenness was for her and her mother. She's never going to let herself fall for an alcoholic. There's also the fact that she's an orphan from Shoreditch, while he's the duke of Weston. A happy ending for them isn't exactly in the cards.

There is a lot to like about this book, but also quite a few things that took me out of the story. As I've seen pointed out in a lot of reviews, the provisions left in Anthony's father's will, where he wouldn't be able to touch any of the money from his inheritance or estates until he turned thirty, or even beyond if he was involved in any scandals, just isn't something that could ever have happened and the complications around this plot strand just keep getting more and more ridiculous as the story progresses. Obviously, ridiculous will demands are frequently a trope in historical romance, but this one takes things a bit too far. 

As the daughter of an alcoholic myself (my father stopped drinking when I was nine, and hasn't drunk a drop since, so it could have been a lot worse for me growing up) I have a really hard time sympathising with characters with severe substance abuse problems that they refuse to deal with. I found the A Star is Born remake with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper almost insufferable to watch because I could not for a second emphasise with Cooper's character, and Lady Gaga's character should have gotten far far away from him as soon as she could. Similarly here, I found Anthony's habitual drinking, seemingly a direct result of him trying to spite his already dead father, rather immature and not at all an attractive character trait in what was supposed to be a romance hero. I'm sure it was meant to make him more tragic, but this misfired for me.

The novel also takes a turn for the rather melodramatic in the final third or so of the novel. Lucy does in fact manage to track down Effie, Anthony's missing sister, eventually but the details of her whereabouts for the past several years and who put her there and why, as well as the motivations of the villain of the piece just made me roll my eyes. 

Lowell has a really good turn of phrase, and I liked her more unusual choice of heroine (and several of Lucy's friends at the Academy), but I doubt I will be re-visiting this book in the future, and I feel no particular need to read the next book in the series. 

Judging a book by its cover: The delicate flowers on the cover and the whimsical silhouettes, make this look like a much more frothy and light-hearted novel than it actually is. There's a lot of dark subject matter being discussed in this novel, and this cover might mislead a reader into thinking they're going to get an undemanding romp, rather than a hero with PTSD, substance abuse problems, and a truly sordid family history. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday, 23 January 2023

CBR15 Book 5: "The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy" by Megan Bannen

Page count: 453 pages
Rating: 5 stars

CBR Passport Challenge: New to Me author

In a world very unlike our own, most people live on islands and when people die, they are not buried in coffins, but rather placed in boats and sent out to sea (like when we bury someone in the ground) or the boats are cremated. So undertakers don't just need to know the rituals of cleaning and treating a body, there are rituals to follow and sacred words to be spoken - but they need to be able to work wood and construct a variety of different boats for the deceased. Additionally, most people have a key around their necks from birth until death, and once they die - the keys of their departed loved ones are placed on a family altar and revered or at least kept safe in the keeping of their families. 

There is also an enclosed wilderness called Tanria, where once the Old Gods were imprisoned and now contain enough precious resources that people still risk their lives to go there. Marshalls have to patrol the area because drudges, zombie-like creatures inhabited by the souls of those who have previously died in Tanria attack new people when the corpse-shell they're inhabiting is too rotted to be of use are a danger to anyone foolish enough to venture into the area. Being a Marshall is a demanding and dangerous job, but Hart Ralston has been doing it alone for a long time and fools himself that he's happy in his solitude. He's very annoyed when his supervisor forces him to take on an apprentice, but the enthusiastic young man soon grows on him, despite Hart's attempts to stay impersonal and distant.

There are very few people of note in Hart's life. He's a demi-god, his father was one of the many New Gods who once roamed the world, although Hart has never discovered exactly what god fathered him (his Mum claimed he was called Jeff). One of the gifts he was granted is the ability to actually see the souls of the departed. Very useful when killing drudges, as he can ensure the soul has definitely left the body. Now, with both his mother and his de-facto father figure, the Marshall who trained Hart from he was sixteen, dead, Hart pretty much only has his former partner, now his supervisor and her wife as friends and due to a heated disagreement some years before, he doesn't really feel like he can rely on his supervisor either. 

Hart also has a nemesis, a person who riles him up like no other. Mercy Birdsall, the woman who seems to be single-handedly running the struggling undertaking business of "Birdsall and Sons" after her father had a heart attack the year before (the son in question seems a lot more interested in cooking and baking than taking care of dead bodies) for some reason brings out the worst in him, every time. Every time Hart has to deliver a body to her business (an occurrence happening a lot more often since the drudge problem in Tanria seems to be worsening), they snipe at each other and trade vicious insults. 

One evening, after a particularly bad argument with Mercy, Hart starts writing a letter, pouring out some of his sadness and loneliness to an anonymous "friend". He feels better after confessing some of his emotions and posts the letter, but never expects a reply, as it's not actually addressed to anyone in particular. So imagine his surprise when about a week later, he receives a reply from "a friend", who also seems to be lonely and all too happy to share their similar feelings of loneliness. Now it doesn't take a genius to realise who the mystery correspondent is, but it takes months of exchanging letters and becoming closer and fond of one another before Hart discovers that his anonymous pen pal is none other than Mercy Birdsall, and of course, he's been in love with her for years already (his partner finds the whole situation both hilarious and tragic). Of course, Hart refuses to tell Mercy that he is her "friend" in return, which only gets more complicated once they leave their animosity behind and start falling for each other for real.

This was such a strange book. The world-building is very unusual, the characters are all rich and interesting, even fairly minor supporting ones who you don't really need to suspect have complex inner lives. In parts, it's sweet and romantic, in other parts it's gory and rather terrifying. Anyone who feels squeamish about corpses should probably give this book a miss. It has the You've Got Mail thing of two feuding enemies falling for one another over time in anonymous correspondence, and unfortunately that section of the plot where one of them has discovered the identity of the other, but for REASONS can't bring themselves to confess the truth, and the tension just keeps building and you know the reveal is going to be awful and your beloved characters are going to suffer (interestingly, in the movie You've Got Mail, I don't care one jot if the protagonists suffer because I'm so disgusted with them both committing emotional adultery towards their current partners). 

This book also doesn't underestimate the intelligence of its readers. You are not given a heavy info dump in the early chapters, giving you all the facts you need to understand how the world works, how the religion factors in, why people act the way they do and so forth. The relevant information is revealed when the reader needs it and they have to piece together the little snippets of knowledge to make up a bigger whole as the story progresses. As I've tried to explain in the plot summary, without spoiling too much, the world building and overall plot of the book is rather complex. There's a lot more to the story than two enemies finding each other through anonymous letters. What exactly is Tanria? Why are people so keen to keep going there, even though they might very likely be killed by drudges? How are the drudges possessed by the souls of the dead, and why are there suddenly so many more drudges appearing? Where are all these extra corpses in Tanria coming from? What's the story of the Old and the New Gods? How come some people are demi-gods and how are they different from the rest of the population? Why do Hart and Mercy hate each other so much? Why was Hart's unaddressed letter sent to Mercy in the first place?

The characters of the story, are as I mentioned, all interesting and fully fleshed out, even when they only appear in a few scenes. Mercy's family members are chaotic and lovely, and it's not cruelty or neglect that make them oblivious to her struggles at keeping the undertaking business from going under. Hart starts the book as an ornery and rather selfish person, but let's just say his heart grows a bunch of sizes after he is forced to first take on a bubbly apprentice and grows very fond of him, and then has to come to terms with his feelings for Mercy and their troubled past together. He also has to do a lot of reflecting on his relationship both with his dead partner who trained him and acted as the only father he ever knew, and the now strained relationship with his ex-partner and see if fences can be mended, despite the harsh words that were exchanged years ago. Then there's the whole issue of his real father. Does being a demigod mean that Hart is immortal (a lot of demi-gods aren't)? He certainly seems to heal very quickly from even really serious injuries. 

This book may not be for everyone, but for me, it was pretty much perfection. It offered up something different from your general paranormal fantasy (this one doesn't really fit into 'urban' fantasy, as any of the settlements in this world are rather small and separate from the others), it had a fun premise, great characters, it made me laugh, cringe and towards the end, almost ugly-cry. Books that make me feel that many things deserve five stars. As far as I can tell, this is the first non-YA novel that Megan Bannen has written. I'm going to have to seek out her two YA books now, to see if they're as creative and well-written as this one. I also hope that there may be more books coming about Hart and Mercy, since Goodreads lists this as the first in a series. I would love to read more from this world and about these lovely people. 

Judging a book by its cover: I'm not sure why the cover design and colour choices made me think this was a YA novel, but it really did. I love teal, so any book in that colour is likely to catch my eye, and the bright pink (which also seems to be on the spine) brings a bright splash to the centre of the cover. I love the contrast between the golden lines and flowers, and the naked, skeletal bones. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday, 22 January 2023

CBR15 Book 4: "Magic Tides" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 163 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

While this book is the start of a new chapter in the lives of Kate Daniels and her family, I suspect this book will work a lot better if you've read at least some of the previous thirteen books and various novellas. As always, I would recommend strongly skipping the first book (as do the authors themselves). Start with book 2, Magic Burns

Set seven years after Magic Triumphs (and about two years before the events of Blood Heir), Kate, her former Beast-Lord husband, and their extremely powerful shapeshifter son have moved to Wilmington to start a new life, determined to keep a low profile. This doesn't exactly last very long. When it turns out the nephew of their contractor has been abducted by human traffickers, Kate straps on her sword and goes to kick some ass. The boy's father accompanies her, very doubtful about this woman's promises, but after Kate beats several goons unconscious, beheads the gang leader, rescues a handful of children, and torches the compound to the ground, he's shell-shocked but a lot more optimistic.

Kate's rescue mission takes her first to the Order of Merciful Aid, and then she has to pay a visit to the vampire training ground of the People (her megalomanic magical overlord father's former minions), praying that no one there recognises her for who she really is (their now deposed and exiled god-king's even more powerful daughter) and either challenges her or decides to swear their undying allegiance to her. While Kate is off on her rescue mission, Curran and Conlan are left making sure their contractor's whole family is safe behind the walls of their fortified estate, waiting for the rest of the enraged human traffickers to show up and demand payment in blood. 

This was a very unexpected surprise from my favourite author team, announced in mid-December, only a few weeks before the actual release date. After a five-year break from the main Kate Daniels series and about two years since the first book in the sequel series about Julie, Kate's adopted daughter (all grown up and a magical powerhouse of her own), it was a delightful treat to discover that there would be a series of novellas about Kate and her family in their new home. I have said before, and will no doubt say it again, I will pre-order and probably buy in multiple formats anything that Ilona Andrews publishes. In my eyes, they can do no wrong.

As with all their books, this has an excellent mix of quips, action, strange mythological enemies, and a great family dynamic and it was just so nice to revisit already familiar characters. My reason for withholding half a star is just that I'm petty, and I wanted more than a 163-page novella. Like the rest of the Book-Devouring Horde, I'm insatiable. 

Judging a book by its cover: This fits into the other books about Kate in that it features a skinny, dark-haired chick with a sword and there's a ghostly lion on the cover as well. I did like the treasure chest of gold in the lower right corner, but generally, this slots into the many many bad covers these authors have had over the years. I get that it's even harder to get good covers when you self-publish, but this seems pretty generic. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

CBR15 Book 3: "Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute" by Talia Hibbert

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR15 Passport Challenge: Books from different countries (the UK)

Celine Bangura and Bradley "Brad" Graeme used to be best friends until Brad callously decided to ditch Celine and get with the popular crowd (this is Celine's interpretation of past events, anyway). Now, every time they are near each other, they trade insults or compete academically. Their mothers are still best friends, though, which means they keep hearing glowing accounts of any accomplishment the other has achieved. 

One of Celine's dreams is to become a lawyer, like her role model Katherine Breakspeare. She wants to become powerful and successful, so she can pay back her mother for the decades of hard work of raising two daughters after Celine's dad left (to start a new family with his mistress). Rubbing her success in her dad's face wouldn't exactly be a downside either. Brad's parents think he wants to be a lawyer, but secretly he wants to become a science fiction writer. When it turns out that the Breakspeare Enrichment Program, a demanding survival course involving several hikes in the woods and a strong focus on cooperation, is opened up to high schoolers, Celine becomes determined to nab a spot. The top three graduates of the BEP are given full scholarships at the university of their choice, while other graduates are almost always guaranteed internships at a number of fancy businesses. Imagine Celine's surprise when Brad turns out to go for the same program. 

To Celine, a scholarship would ensure her place at a top university; to Brad, it would allow him to afford a flat by himself (Brad struggles with anxiety and germophobia, so the idea of sharing a living space with someone who doesn't understand him is a nightmare to him). Multiple-day hikes in the woods will of course present their own challenges to both teenagers, but they are both stubborn and very determined to succeed. As they are forced to spend a lot more time together, they start to rediscover what once made them such good friends, and as is so often the case with enemies, the jump to love isn't that far. However, Celine is plagued with emotional baggage and insecurities from when her father left and while deep down, she's head over heels for Brad - she insists on them playing it casual. Can Brad convince her that he would never leave her, like her rat of a dad? And can Brad and Celine survive all the challenges of the BEP to win the exclusive scholarships?

I haven't read all that many Talia Hibbert books, but all the ones I've read are great, and Take a Hint, Dani Brown was one of my top three books of 2020, while the follow-up, Act Your Age, Eve Brown, was in my top ten of 2021. So she hasn't just achieved auto-buy status with me, she's now one of the few authors from whom I will make sure to pre-order her next release. Naturally, I was excited when I heard she was writing YA book, and the title and the cute cover did nothing to dispel my excitement.

Was the book perfect? Not really. Was it sweet and enjoyable and dealt with Brad's anxiety and mental health issues in a good way. Yup. One of my main complaints is that due to Celine's obsessive need to rub her potential success in her absentee father's face (despite being told by multiple people that this will in no way bring her joy or satisfaction) and her many issues about having been abandoned by a parent, the actual romantic relationship between Brad and Celine is side-lined for much of the book and poor Brad deserved better. Also, it meant that I got a lot less smooching (this being YA, I'm not expecting anything spicier) than I wanted. 

I suspect fans of Talia Hibbert will enjoy this, although if you have an antipathy towards YA, it may be better to stick to her contemporary romances for adults. The steaminess level of this book is certainly very mild compared to her Brown Sisters novels. I'm just happy Ms. Hibbert is in a mental health space to write and publish novels again, it's been a long wait since Eve Brown to the release of this one. 

Judging a book by its cover: Multiple shades of pink on the cover give you some idea of how sweet the contents of the book are. As cartoon covers go, I don't hate this one. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday, 9 January 2023

CBR15 Book 2: "The Stolen Heir" by Holly Black

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Wren thought she was a normal human girl until the night when scary monsters out of a nightmare came and claimed she was in fact their daughter and had to come back to Faerie with them. Lord Jarel and Lady Nore of the Court of Teeth rip away her human glamour and make sure that Wren sees her human parents reject her faerie self (bluish skin, blue hair, mouth full of razor-sharp teeth) with horror and disgust. The cruel faeries, accompanied by the fearsome Stormhag threaten the lives of Wren's human family, and though only nine years old, Wren is forced to go with them to keep her loved ones safe. 

In the Court of Teeth, she is Queen Suren, but queen in name only. She is kept captive and tortured both physically and emotionally until she's barely a shell of her former self and an angry, vicious feral child. Her faery parents keep her literally chained and controlled with a magic bridle and their plan is to marry Suren to Prince Oak, heir to the Greenbriar Throne, and then have him (and probably Wren/Suren) murdered, so they can be High King and Queen. Their plan fails spectacularly, High Queen Jude publicly chops off the head of the giant serpent that used to be her husband and saves not only High King Cardan but increases his power and their joint hold on Elfhame. During the brief time of negotiations and attempted betrayals, Wren/Suren gets to know Prince Oak a bit better. He doesn't seem scared of her and treats her with kindness, but after the Battle of the Serpent, as it comes to be known, Suren is still forced back to the now disbanded Court of Teeth, with Jude having ordered that henceforth Lady Nore and Lord Jarel need to obey all of Suren's commands. Terrified and despondent that she couldn't find safety in the High Court, Wren basically nopes out and runs away to the human world, living homeless in the woods and trying to engage with Faerie as little as possible.

At nineteen, Wren survives by foraging for food in the woods, eating leftovers she finds in rubbish bins, or stealing food from the house of her un-family (what she has learned to call her human family), who she's unable to let go of. She can never forget the horrified reaction of her parents (even though she now knows they were spelled to react so badly) and she fears that they or her former sister would react just as badly if they saw her again. Nevertheless, she keeps creeping around their house, breaking in when they're asleep. Wren has discovered she has the power to dissolve spells and curses if she works hard enough, so she tends to try to save foolish humans from faerie curses when she's able.

Then one night, the Stormhag is coming for her, and to her surprise, the one who rescues her is none other than Prince Oak, all grown up and very formidable. He claims to need her help, as Lady Nore has reclaimed power in the North, now using dark magic to animate hideous creations from sticks, snow, and the body parts of the dead. She's clearly building an army and will be looking to Elfhame for revenge and conquest. As the deeply reluctant heir to the throne, Oak has spent his adolescence making himself into the perfect target for all the assassins coming for the royal family. He's taken it upon himself to stop Lady Nore and rescue his captured father, former Grand General Madoc. He needs Wren, as she is the only one with the power to control her mother. 

While the thought of going back to the Court of Teeth and seeing Lady Nore again fills Wren with dread, she also can't allow the psychotic creature who claims to be her mother to succeed in her sinister, necromantic plans. Nor can she forget that she and Oak seemed to be friends for a very short while as children and that he's now grown into a very handsome, charming, and manipulative young man, who's clearly not going to hesitate to get her to agree, one way or the other. Bogdana, the Storm hag, catches up with them before they've gotten very far on their quest, and shocks Wren/Suren with the truth of her "birth". Faeries can't lie, and Wren, who's never exactly been happy in her own skin, comes to doubt herself further. 

She reluctantly accompanies Oak and his two companions. Tiernan is Oak's bodyguard (not that he gets to do much guarding, the way Oak throws himself headfirst into danger) and Hyacinthe, their prisoner, is a former soldier of Madoc's, now under a curse and able to give them information about the Ice Needle Citadel, as he served Lady Nore there for many years. Tiernan clearly doesn't trust Wren one bit, and Wren is only too aware that Oak has several hidden agendas and if his pleasant looks and manners are a deception, she could end up a captive in the Court of Teeth once more. Faeries can't directly lie, but as a result, they become very skilled at twisting the truth, and Oak, for all that he is only seventeen, has clearly been hardened by years of near-successful assassination attempts and interacting with two-faced courtiers. Desperate for love and belonging, Wren is all too aware that if she's not careful, she'll lose her heart to his honey-tongued words, and considering all the pain and loss she has suffered so far in her short life, she doesn't think she'll survive the pain of having her heart broken by the prince.

I've been eagerly anticipating the release of this book for months and months, since it first came to my attention that Holly Black was writing more from her dark and twisted Elfhame universe. Toxic and damaged as they are, Jude and Cardan shouldn't work as a couple, yet ended up doing after all and after such a feat, Black (whose writing I was already pretty enamored with) owns my eternal loyalty. Turns out, that shocking and brutal as the opening to The Cruel Prince is for Jude and her sisters, Wren/Suren has it SO much worse. Seriously, Jude and Cardan played mind games and tried to kill one another before they kind of reluctantly fell madly in love with each other, and both got some serious baggage growing up in Faerie. Neither of them had to face a fraction of the f*cked up sh*t Suren has to go through before she's even 12 and when you add to her torment some of the stuff she eventually suffers in this book - let's just say the girl has my metaphorical sword and I wan to eviscerate anyone who harms a blue hair on her head henceforth. 

In interviews, Black has said that this is the first part of a duology, and while Wren/Suren is our point of view character in this book, the next book is Oak's, and we're going to see a lot of the same events that we see in this one through his eyes instead. While all of the books in the Folk of the Air trilogy were sort of exhausting because Jude and Cardan are really extreme personalities and not necessarily pleasant people to spend time with, in this I loved Wren from the start, but was also very aware that there were clearly a whole lot of things under the surface, and people waiting to double-cross or manipulate and all sorts of twists and turns, and even when a lot of things became clear, it's obvious that there is so much more going on that we won't know about until the second book. Based on how this book ends, I cannot imagine that Oak's book won't also continue the story, because if Wren and Oak's relationship ends where this book left it, I may have to burn some things down. 

As of now, I've rated this book four stars, but which rating it's ultimately going to end up with very much depends on whether Black can deliver with the second part of the story (which based on her previous novels, I'm pretty sure she can). There is no release date for Oak's book on Holly Black's website and I don't even know if she's started writing it yet. So I guess I'll just have to pine listlessly until the next book comes out, hopefully early next year. 

Judging a book by its cover: Is it a cage? Is it Wren's hidden willow den in the woods? I love that the cover image easily evokes both images. I'm also guessing that since this cover is mostly white (some of the limited special editions are all black), Oak's book is going to be mostly black. Although based on the way he's described in this book, maybe the theme will be heavy on the gold instead. It'll be interesting to see in a year if my prediction holds true.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday, 8 January 2023

CBR15 Book 1: "After Dark with the Duke" by Julie Anne Long

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Mariana Wylde arrives at the Grand Palace at the Thames only seconds after curfew, dripping wet and terrified, since she escaped her own lodgings because a literal angry mob blocked her residence. The talented opera singer, dubbed "the Harlot of Haywood Street" by the press after two rich, young noblemen fought a duel for her favour (something she very much didn't want them to) and one of them nearly died. Her reputation is in tatters and she's almost broke but begs the proprietresses of the boarding house to let her stay, at least for a night. Delilah (first introduced in Lady Derring Takes a Lover) and Angelique (who found her HEA in Angel in a Devil's Arms), the women who own and run the house, are intrigued by her presence. Since they recently built a ballroom with a stage in their annex and would love to bring some publicity to their boarding house, they agree to let Mariana stay for a month, room and board included, as long as she performs in a musical evening they will all share the profits for. The ladies hope that by that time, the press and outraged rabble will have found a new target to persecute.

The other notable guest staying at the Palace is General James Blackmore, made Duke of Valkirk after his successes on the battlefield in France. Known far and wide for his strategic brilliance, his impeccable manners, and valorous conduct (he even wrote a book entitled Valour), the former general has snuck away to the boarding house to have peace and quiet to write his memoirs. He makes some rather ungenerous assumptions about Mariana's character early on and is forced to apologise not only to her, but to the proprietresses and the other long-term guests at the inn. As the duke used Mariana's inability to understand Italian to humiliate her in the drawing room one evening, Delilah and Angelique believe it would be fitting for the duke to offer her free lessons in Italian during her stay. Being the daughter of a cobbler, Mariana has not had access to a classical and rounded education and has so far in her career learned all the operas she sings by sound. While she wants to tell the arrogant duke to go to the devil, she can't reject the chance to learn to understand and better interpret the words she sings (if she's ever forgiven for her role in the current scandal and actually hired anywhere ever again). 

It's not exactly surprising that the daily lessons in the duke's chambers lead to a better understanding of each other's true natures while exploring the mysteries of Italian, and from going to deep antipathy for one another, Mariana and Valkirk are soon unable to deny the sizzling chemistry and growing attraction between them. Valkirk is widowed, with a recently-married son only a few years younger than Mariana. While he also came from humble circumstances, he has worked hard and relentlessly and is now one of the most powerful and respected men in the country. Of course, absolutely no one knows who he really is, they only see the stern and professional mask he presents. Mariana can't set foot outside the door of the boarding house for fear of the public finding her and subjecting her to society's harsh judgment. While she too has worked hard to get where she is, being an opera singer is a lot less respectable than being a lauded general and she makes no attempts to hide that while she in no way wanted or encouraged the behaviour of the two men dueling over her, one of them was her former lover, and she doesn't regret no longer being a virgin. 

As the month progresses, it seems as if very few people will actually be coming to the planned musical evening because the parents of the noblemen involved in the duel have demanded she be shunned. Delilah and Angelique try not to fret. Neither Valkirk nor Mariana have the time to worry, however, as they embark on a passionate love affair, meeting in secret every night, knowing all too well that their time together is unlikely to lead to a life-long future together. Mariana is offered a part in an opera in Paris (either playing a mermaid or a singing lobster, no matter which, she's determined to give it her all) and will have to leave the boarding house pretty much the day after the planned concert. Neither expects to ever see the other again after this date - it's not like a celebrated duke can marry a tarnished opera diva. 

While this book will never hold the exalted status in my heart as my beloved What I Did for a Duke, Ms. Long once again proves herself adept at writing a couple with a significant age difference without it becoming creepy or inappropriate. It also doesn't seem strange that Valkirk and Mariana are drawn to one another once you realise that they are both from humble backgrounds and have had to be very driven to succeed in their chosen careers. While Valkirk was married and has a son, he and his wife were from different social classes, and it's clear that it was a marriage of convenience and he doesn't really mourn his departed wife much. He seems sad that he doesn't have a closer relationship with his son, but takes steps to improve that connection over the course of this book. Valkirk has been alone for a long time, not letting anyone see the real him. For reasons he can't really explain, he wants to show his vulnerable side to Mariana. 

Refreshingly, for all that Mariana is currently in rather dire straits because of the scandal surrounding the duel, and it becomes clear from the Italian lessons that she is frequently the object of unpleasant comments and handsy men around the theatre, she seems to have had a good childhood and a loving relationship with her parents, until the tragic loss of her father when she was 14. For much of the book, she's composing hypothetical letters to her mother in her head. Her mother has been forced to go live with relatives in Scotland, and Mariana sends her as much money as she can. Normally she's a regular correspondent with her mother, but after the scandal and her new lodgings at the Palace, she can't seem to sit down and commit words to fool scrap. 

While she very occasionally writes an absolute classic, mainly I rely on Julie Anne Long to write witty, uncomplicated and interesting romances that never veer into the too angsty or shocking and which allow me to relax and enjoy myself for the hours I'm reading. Her Pennyroyal Green books had some recurring characters, in the Palace of Rogues series, there's a whole cast of recurring characters, like Delilah and Angelique, their husbands, servants like the maid Dot and the cook Helga, and long-time lodgers like the comical Mr. Delacorte. There are small storylines running throughout the series for the enjoyment of the regular readers (the hunt for a competent and non-lecherous footman progresses), but there is nothing that demands that you have read earlier books to get a fun read. I'm now only one book behind in the series, with a new book coming in June. I look forward to it.

Judging a book by its cover: For some reason, this cover, with the red flower on the mantelpiece, the roaring fire, and Mariana's luxurious-looking furlined pelisse made me think this was set during the holidays. It is not. So I hadn't needed to save it for a December read. Ha!

Crossposted on Cannonball Read