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