Saturday 29 July 2023

CBR15 Book 34: "The Inheritance Games" by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Page count: 348 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Official book description:
Avery Grambs has a plan for a better future: survive high school, win a scholarship, and get out. But her fortunes change in an instant when billionaire Tobias Hawthorne dies and leaves Avery virtually his entire fortune. The catch? Avery has no idea why -- or even who Tobias Hawthorne is.

To receive her inheritance, Avery must move into sprawling, secret passage-filled Hawthorne House, where every room bears the old man's touch -- and his love of puzzles, riddles, and codes. Unfortunately for Avery, Hawthorne House is also occupied by the family that Tobias Hawthorne just dispossessed. This includes the four Hawthorne grandsons: dangerous, magnetic, brilliant boys who grew up with every expectation that one day, they would inherit billions. Heir apparent Grayson Hawthorne is convinced that Avery must be a con woman, and he's determined to take her down. His brother, Jameson, views her as their grandfather's last hurrah: a twisted riddle, a puzzle to be solved. Caught in a world of wealth and privilege, with danger around every turn, Avery will have to play the game herself just to survive.

I read this book while on a short break from school in the middle of May while visiting my father in Sweden. My Dad can be challenging to spend time with at the best of times, so having something fun and light-hearted to read is a bonus. There was a lot to like about this book, and I'm absolutely going to keep reading the series to find out what is going on, but there were also things that kind of annoyed me.

Things I wasn't wild about:
- Not ONE but two love triangles, one in the present involving our heroine and two Hawthorne brothers, but also one in the past, also involving two Hawthorne brothers
- While a lot of the puzzles and mysterious goings-on were entertaining, some also felt like they were included just to pad out the plot. 
- Two and a half months after reading the book, I can pretty much remember only one character trait for most of the characters, and I'm pretty sure that is because a lot of the people in this book aren't developed well enough to have more than that one trait.
- At least two of the Hawthorne brothers made me roll my eyes every time they appeared, which isn't great when one of them is one-third of the present-day love triangle. 

Things that worked for me:
- The book kept me reading, and a lot of the chapters end on a cliffhanger or make you curious to keep going.
- Avery is a very likable protagonist, and the mystery of exactly why she's suddenly inherited a truly incomprehensible amount of money, quite possibly at the strange whim of a cantankerous old man. 
- While it's hard to have too much sympathy with handsome young men who have grown up in extreme privilege, Tobias Hawthorne doesn't exactly sound like the most loving of grandfathers. It sounds exhausting constantly having to prove yourself, inventing things, constantly solving puzzles, never knowing how to prove yourself good enough - and setting all four brothers in competition with each other - not cool, Granddad. So I guess I do have some sympathy, after all. 
- I liked the relationship between Avery and her sister.

I really wish Jennifer Lynn Barnes hadn't introduced the dreaded YA love triangle, possibly one of my least favourite tropes. Especially since it also seems that the Hawthorne brother that Avery is the most attracted to is one of the most exasperating and annoying characters in the book. Nevertheless, I am intrigued enough that I'll be finishing the series.

Judging a book by its cover: Quite often, I prefer the UK covers of books over the American ones, but in this case, the UK covers are just incredibly boring, while the American ones are in gorgeous jewel tones, with an absolute wealth of details from the book hidden among the flowers, ribbons, and vines that seem to make up the background. I have made sure that my entire trilogy is with American covers for this very reason.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday 27 July 2023

CBR15 Book 33: "Hana Khan Carries On" by Uzma Jalaluddin

Page count: 358 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR15 Bingo: On the Air

Official book description:
Sales are slow at Three Sisters Biryani Poutine, the only halal restaurant in the close-knit Golden Crescent neighborhood. Hana waitresses there part time, but what she really wants is to tell stories on the radio. If she can just outshine her fellow intern at the city radio station, she may have a chance at landing a job. In the meantime, Hana pours her thoughts and dreams into a podcast, where she forms a lively relationship with one of her listeners. But soon she'll need all the support she can get: a new competing restaurant, a more upscale halal place, is about to open in the Golden Crescent, threatening Three Sisters.

When her mysterious aunt and her teenage cousin arrive from India for a surprise visit, they draw Hana into a long-buried family secret. A hate-motivated attack on their neighborhood complicates the situation further, as does Hana's growing attraction for Aydin, the young owner of the rival restaurant--who might not be a complete stranger after all.

As life on the Golden Crescent unravels, Hana must learn to use her voice, draw on the strength of her community and decide what her future should be.

Uzma Jalaluddin's first novel, Ayesha at Last, was a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, set in Canada with Muslim protagonists. This novel has strong elements of You've Got Mail, where the heroine and hero have built a friendship (and maybe more) via messages in response to Hana's podcast. The love interest just happens to be the handsome, rich guy who sweeps in with a rival operation, threatening to put our humble heroine's family business out of business for good. No bookshops here, but rather halal restaurants. Also, while Aydin's family is wealthy, he's nowhere near as rich and unscrupulous as Tom Hanks' character (seriously, I have never liked You've Got Mail since the first time I saw it, the older I get, and the more I subscribe to Kill the Rich, the more unattractive Tom Hanks' character gets). Yet this plot is so beloved and so frequently retold. 

Jalaluddin introduces a subplot in her story that has nothing to do with the movie she's taken inspiration from, however, it's one of the things that makes this book really interesting and gives the reader further insight into a culture that at least to me is quite unfamiliar. Hana's auntie is extremely glamourous and opinionated and has clearly lived a very different life than a Muslim woman from her generation may have been expected to live. She gives Hana several pieces of sage advice, and it turns out that she's harbouring secrets that may impact several characters in the story in unexpected ways. 

The novel doesn't shy away from the racism that causes problems for both Hana's mother's restaurant and the one Aydin is starting. Without it becoming too heavy a subplot, it's nevertheless refreshing that the author doesn't pretend that minority groups still don't face difficulties with acceptance in majority white communities, even in a progressive country like Canada. 

I've enjoyed both the novels I've read by Jalaluddin, and her third novel is apparently a modern take on Persuasion, so I'm already looking forward to seeing how she interprets that story through a new lens. 

Judging a book by its cover: While the cover image doesn't exactly look like the no-nonsense, very pragmatic heroine this book features (it's far too ethereal and impressionistic for that), I nonetheless like the colour choices and find the soft lines pleasing to the eye. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday 25 July 2023

CBR15 Book 32: "The Dragon and the Pearl" by Jeannie Lin

Page count: 366 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR15 Bingo: Asia/Oceania (set in 8th Century China)

15-word review: Chinese warlord and infamous courtesan to the former Emperor rusticate among the bamboo. Love blossoms. 

Ling Suyin used to be one of the now-deceased Emperor's favourite consorts. Known for her beauty, grace, and arts of seduction, she now lives far away from the court, quite happy with her retirement. As a former concubine to the Emperor, Ling Suyin is supposed to remain loyal to him to her dying day, something that makes her feel rather lonely. One day, Li Tao, one of the former emperor's most ruthless warlords shows up on her doorstep with a detachment of soldiers. He claims she's in danger, and he's taking her away for her own safety. He's not taking no for an answer, and soon Ling Suyin finds herself on his large estate, hidden far into the bamboo forest, his honoured "guest", whether she wants to be or not. 

Li Tao has heard rumours that someone may be on their way to assassinate Ling Suyin, yet being a wary and paranoid man, he's also not ruling out the possibility that this rumour has been started specifically to get him into contact with the beautiful woman, so she can influence him and manipulate him on behalf on some unknown patron. He tries to remain unaffected by her grace and beauty, but as he spends more time with her, he also sees how kind and down-to-earth she is. Both of them came from poor backgrounds and rose to unbelievable positions within the court of the emperor, and now they may have a common enemy.

This is the first Jeannie Lin book I have read, so I haven't yet read Butterfly Swords, the first novel in this series, where Li Tao seems to have been the antagonist. Apparently, fans responded very favourably to him and kept asking that he get his own book, and the author was fascinated enough by the character that she too wanted to continue his story. Now that I've finally read one of her books, I feel really bad that this book had been on my TBR list since 2013, and I'm absolutely going to be reading more of her stories.

I don't really know all that much about Chinese history, so this book was really interesting, not just for the romance aspect, that works really well and contains some surprising developments as Ling Suyin and Li Tao come to trust each other more. While my degree is in European medieval history, it doesn't mean that I don't also love to find out more about other cultures and their histories. Jeannie Lin is clearly one of the authors I should read more of to learn even more. 

Judging a book by its cover: I don't have a lot to say about this cover, except that I think it's really beautiful. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 31: "Emily Wilde's Encyclopedia of Faeries" by Heather Fawcett

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR15 Bingo: History (set in an alternate history, in the Victorian era)

15-word review: Introverted lady scholar goes to fictional Iceland to research faeries, followed by her handsome colleague.

Official book description (because I finished this at the start of May):
Cambridge professor Emily Wilde is good at many things: She is the foremost expert on the study of faeries. She is a genius scholar and a meticulous researcher who is writing the world's first encyclopaedia of faerie lore. But Emily Wilde is not good at people. She could never make small talk at a party--or even get invited to one. And she prefers the company of her books, her dog, Shadow, and the Fair Folk to other people.

So when she arrives in the hardscrabble village of Hrafnsvik, Emily has no intention of befriending the gruff townsfolk. Nor does she care to spend time with another new arrival: her dashing and insufferably handsome academic rival Wendell Bambleby, who manages to charm the townsfolk, get in the middle of Emily's research, and utterly confound and frustrate her.

But as Emily gets closer and closer to uncovering the secrets of the Hidden Ones--the most elusive of all faeries--lurking in the shadowy forest outside the town, she also finds herself on the trail of another mystery: Who is Wendell Bambleby, and what does he really want? To find the answer, she'll have to unlock the greatest mystery of all--her own heart.

Ok, first of all, anyone who picked this up because they thought it was going to be a romance was probably very disappointed. Yes, Bambleby is interested in Emily, but she's so busy trying to do her academic research and figure out what all the f*ckery that keeps happening to the local populace is caused by (well, obviously local faeries - but which ones, and why?) so she hardly notices him, except to be exasperated by his presence.

Early reviews I read for this suggested that it's set in a fictional historical Norway. While in this alternate history, the area that Emily visits may count as part of fictional Norway, it's clearly a fictional historical Iceland. Since the vast majority of readers who pick up this book probably have no idea what differentiates Norway and Iceland, or any of the Nordic countries really, it's a very silly thing to get annoyed by, but nevertheless, I want it clearly stated that the various character and place names described to us by Emily (the entire book is written as her journal, or letters to or from her) are Icelandic, because, to someone from my part of the world, it is very obvious.

With some books, I reduce my rating by the time I get around to reviewing them, but in this case, I've actually added half a star to my original rating, because this is one of those books I keep thinking about, even months after finishing it. Emily and Bambleby are both excellent characters and I loved reading about them, their banter, and their adventures in a strange culture from their own. Emily is a bit of a curmudgeon, prefers solitude and while it is never stated, is probably autistic (this is set in an alternate Victorian era so that diagnosis would not be known yet), she is a very devoted scholar and has been working on her encyclopedia for years. Bambleby is pretty much her exact opposite. He's outgoing, charming, gregarious, and makes friends easily (all of these qualities are among the things Emily seems to find extremely annoying about him. Of course, Bambleby is also Emily's only friend and just seems amused by her anti-social behaviour. 

As a consequence of being so different, the two scholars very much complement each other and make an excellent team, especially once Emily admits to herself that Bambleby's assistance may in fact be beneficial to her stay in Hrafnsvik. As I mentioned earlier, there are hints of romance here, so slow burn as to nearly be treacle in the cold, but I suspect the next book (which isn't out until January 24, boo!) will do more to develop the romantic relationship that is gently introduced in the last third or so of this book. As a huge fan of Bambleby and romance, I would have liked there to be quite a bit more of this subplot, but it would also not be in Emily's character to fall head over heels either. 

I found this whole book delightful and especially liked the various touches of folklore explored (I'm a sucker for folklore, be it actual or fictional). I can't wait to read the sequel and see where Emily and Bambleby's adventures take them next. 

Judging a book by its cover: With some books, the UK and US versions aren't too dissimilar and it's clear that the publishers have gone for a similar feel. With this book, they almost couldn't be more different. The UK cover is creamy off-white with delicate illustrations of flowers and mushrooms, looking very inviting. The US cover is black and full of spooky details like bones and creepy vines. Both strangely capture some of the vibes of the book, but I wonder at the publishers choosing such different approaches to represent the book. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 22 July 2023

CBR15 Book 30: "Happy Place" by Emily Henry

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR15 Bingo: Adulthood

15-word review: Harriet and Wyn broke up months ago, but can't tell their friends. Sexual tension follows.

Official book description:
Harriet and Wyn have been the perfect couple since they met in college—they go together like salt and pepper, honey and tea, lobster and rolls. Except, now—for reasons they’re still not discussing—they don’t.

They broke up five months ago. And still haven’t told their best friends.

Which is how they find themselves sharing a bedroom at the Maine cottage that has been their friend group’s yearly getaway for the last decade. Their annual respite from the world, where for one vibrant, blissful week they leave behind their daily lives; have copious amounts of cheese, wine, and seafood; and soak up the salty coastal air with the people who understand them most.

Only this year, Harriet and Wyn are lying through their teeth while trying not to notice how desperately they still want each other. Because the cottage is for sale and this is the last week they’ll all have together in this place. They can’t stand to break their friends’ hearts, and so they’ll play their parts. Harriet will be the driven surgical resident who never starts a fight, and Wyn will be the laid-back charmer who never lets the cracks show. It’s a flawless plan (if you look at it from a great distance and through a pair of sunscreen-smeared sunglasses). After years of being in love, how hard can it be to fake it for one week… in front of those who know you best?

I read this book at the start of May, so apologies if this review isn't as witty and informative as some of the others I occasionally write. Ms. Henry deserves a great review for her achievement, but I've just let my review backlog get bigger and bigger, so this is what she gets instead.

I picked this book for the "Adulthood" square of Cannonball Bingo because all of the characters in Happy Place, not just Harriet and Wyn, are struggling with both having to be adults and accept that sometimes things change irrevocably, and want to hold on to their happier youthful days. Their friends Sabrina, Cleo, Parth, and Kimmy are just as devastated that Sabrina's rich father is selling the cottage they've shared so many good times in, and as their last week progresses, it's becoming very clear that Harriet and Wyn aren't the only ones keeping big secrets. 

Harriet has always dreamed of becoming a surgeon, but her residency in multiple hospitals is wearing her down. Wyn was miserable living with her even before he moved away months ago to take care of his grieving mother after the death of his father. So now she lives alone and barely seems to function between her various hospital shifts. Not that she's going to say any of that to Sabrina and Cleo, her best friends since college, or Parth, Sabrina's boyfriend and Wyn's former roommate, nor Kimmy, Cleo's lovely partner. The cottage in Maine is the place Harriet pictures when she's close to having a panic attack or a depressive episode, she's not going to sully her last week ever there with depressing truths about real life and struggling.

Because it's their last week there, and Sabrina and Parth have something big planned, neither Harriet nor Wyn is going to burst their bubble by revealing that they're no longer together. It would spoil the brief time they have left there. Of course, they're not the only ones lying through their teeth about how things really are, and refusing to tell their friends what their lives are really like at the moment. So many secrets bubbling under the surface, waiting to pop. 

Happy Place, like People We Meet on Vacation is told in dual timelines. The book switches between the present, at the cottage in Maine, where the friends are spending one last week enjoying their dream location, and the past, where we find out how Harriet, Sabrina, and Cleo met, how they got to know Parth and Wyn, and how Cleo later introduced the group to Kimmy. Slowly, ever so gradually, we finally see how Harriet and Wyn's relationship went from being each other's perfect partners, to people who struggle to even look at each other. At the same time, the sections in the present make it very obvious that while they broke up, Harriet and Wyn still love each other and that their attraction for one another still burns very strong. I liked this a lot more than People We Meet on Vacation (my least favourite book of all Ms. Henry has written - it's perfectly fine, it just didn't resonate with me the way her others do). Nevertheless, the jumping back and forth all the time occasionally got tiresome, which is why I'm deducting half a star from its near-perfect rating. 

Judging a book by its cover: The publishing industry wants you to believe that Emily Henry writes light-hearted rom-coms, despite the fact that all of her books tend to feature some pretty damaged people trying to find their own place in the world, as well as love. This bubblegum pink cover with people frolicking merrily in the water very much does not match the contents within in the slightest, with two deeply insecure individuals desperately trying to keep it together so as not to ruin their friends' happiness. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday 19 July 2023

CBR15 Book 29: "Both Feet in the Grave" by Jeaniene Frost

Page count: 348 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

15-word review: Bones tells his side of the story of how he reunited with his Red Reaper. 

Jeaniene Frost's retelling of her successful paranormal fantasy series from the point of view of Bones the vampire continues. This book is a take on the events of One Foot in the Grave. It's been four long years since Kat Crawfield left him to protect him, not really understanding that if he'd managed to stay alive for two hundred years before meeting her, some secret government paranormal division wasn't going to pose much of a threat to him either. Even with all of his resources and skills as a hunter, it's almost a lucky break that makes it possible for Bones to reunite with his half-vampire love - at the wedding of a human Bones befriended in a bar, in fact. Completely taken by surprise during the ceremony, Kat can't hide her overwhelmed reaction to seeing Bones again, and while she tries to cover it afterward, Bones can tell she still loves him.

Of course, in the years since they last saw each other, Kat has become even more of a bad-ass, and now leads a whole team of skilled vampire hunters. One of the vampires they've pissed off with their operation is Ian, Bones' sire, who is now very interested in adding the Red Reaper to his exclusive collection. He also has Kat's father, the vampire who got her mother pregnant, working for him, and plans to use him as a trap to lure Kat into his power. Bones has no intention of letting that happen, and will only let Kat keep working with her government spooks if he gets to work alongside her to make sure she is safe. Since he has some interesting blackmail material on Kat's boss, he doesn't really have that much trouble convincing them to let him join "the gang". 

Now Bones needs to call in all of his allies and use all his cunning to outsmart Ian, so the devious Master vampire doesn't gain control of Kat forever.

This was another fun book by Jeaniene Frost, but I suspect one of the reasons I liked it less than the previous one is because the source material she's retelling isn't as entertaining. The first book sets up the world and the dynamic between Kat and Bones, a lot of this book is bogged down in Bones trying to locate Kat, then convincing her that they are meant to be together and then all the power play stuff with Ian. I don't regret the time I spent reading the book, and I will probably keep getting them if Frost decides to keep doing them (I often find Bones a more engaging narrator than Kat). But I'm not going to add them to my pre-order list or anything.

Judging a book by its cover: Really not a huge fan of the cover art for these books. I think it's a different dude portraying Bones on this one, and he just looks wrong to me. Wasn't wild about the last guy either, but it's not like I'm buying these books for the covers. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday 18 July 2023

CBR15 Book 28: "The Kaiju Preservation Society" by John Scalzi

Page count: 264 pages
Audio book length: 8 hrs 2 mins
Rating: 4 stars

CBR15 Bingo: Strange Worlds

15-word-review: Delivering food during the pandemic leads Jamie Gray to a monstrously exciting new career opportunity.

Longer review: During the Covid-19 pandemic, Jamie Gray is working a dead-end job as a delivery driver for the very same company he got fired from. One day, when delivering food, Jamie runs into an old acquaintance, Tom,  who remembers that Jamie's thesis was on science-fiction and therefore thinks the job opportunity that KPS, the "animal rights organisation" that Tom works for might be a good fit for Jamie. Open to do anything rather than deliver fast food, Jamie agrees and is shocked to realise that the job is a bit more unusual than Tom let on.

KPS is the Kaiju Preservation Society, and the animal rights they try to protect are those of gigantic, prehistoric monster-like creatures on an alternate Earth. The KPS crews (who all work on six-month rotations on the alternate Earth base) are the only humans there. They do their best both to preserve the kaiju, research their biology and make sure they continue to thrive (which is harder than you might think, some of them are like pandas the size of actual multi-story buildings). Of course, any organisation like this is dependent on funding both from governments and the private sector and not everyone who visits the alternate Earth to ensure their investments are paying off is as altruistic as the scientists of KPS. Soon, Jamie, with the help of several other new KPS recruits is having to risk life and limb to make sure someone doesn't cause a multi-dimensional disaster.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton, and because of this, in my head, Jamie Grey is a man. However, in the book's promo material and nowhere in the actual novel is Jamie's gender ever clearly stated. Because the book is narrated in first person, the main pronouns used by our narrator are obviously I/me, and as one of the trans members of my fantasy/sci-fi book club (this was our book pick for April) pointed out during the discussion, Scalzi has actually been very careful to make sure any reader could put themselves into Jamie's position, no matter what gender they identify with. There is another prominent supporting non-binary character with they/them pronouns, and even though I'm pretty sure that one of the other new recruits Jamie befriends is male and the other is female, I could very well be wrong about that too. It's been far too long since I actually read the book for me to remember. Either way, each of the characters we follow, primarily Jamie, and also the three friends Jamie makes, are rather non-descript and really mostly a blank slate for the reader to project their own expectations and impressions onto.

This is not a book written for the intricate characterisation of the cast, it's an adventure romp in the same vein as B-movies featuring kaiju like Godzilla, King Gidorah, Mothra and Rodan. Pacific Rim is referenced, which only seems fair. In the author's note at the end of the book, John Scalzi explains that during the pandemic, he was originally scheduled to write a big, serious epic novel and he kept trying until he eventually just had to give up. Shortly after, he apparently had the idea for this book fully formed in his head and wrote it very quickly. He describes it as a pop song. It's light, breezy, it's a popcorn flick full of big monsters and unlikely adventure and it was what his brain needed during and after the covid-19 crisis. It's a quick read, the audio book is only 8 hours. The whole book is very cinematic in its presentation. To me, that's fine - some of the members of my book club thought it was  bit too inconsequential and fluffy to really make an impact. 

Judging a book by its cover: I much prefer the UK cover of the novel with an actual kaiju in profile on the cover to the company ID-badge mock-up of the US cover. I like the electric blue and the black and the kaiju looks very happy. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday 12 July 2023

CBR15 Post 27: "De kaller meg ulven" (They Call Me the Wolf) by Zeshan Shakar

Page count: 240 pages
Rating: 2 stars

#CBR15 Passport Challenge: Books from different countries (Norway)
CBR15 Bingo: You are Here (It's set in Norway, where I am)

15-word-review: A son constantly yearning for more social mobility tries to understand his elderly father, unsuccessfully.

Official book description (translated from Norwegian by me):
"Why didn't they have more? I remember thinking after my grandmother died. They were from here, Norwegian, shouldn't they have had more things? Those things other Norwegian parents and grandparents have, at least a simple cabin, the kind without power or water, somewhere no one else wanted a cabin, in the middle of the woods? But no, nothing. I asked my mother once why it was like that. - It was just the way things turned out, she replied."

They Call Me the Wolf is a story about growing up with the knowledge that not everyone is dealt as fair a hand as others. The parents of the protagonists have worked their entire lives, so hard that their health has suffered. Nevertheless, they don't have a lot to show for it. There is nothing to inherit except memories and some family stories, from his father's early life in Pakistan, his mother's life in Finnmark in the north of Norway, and from their life together in Oslo.

Now that home has been dissolved, the father wants to leave Norway to grow old in Pakistan, leaving behind the protagonist, with his unquenchable hunger to own and acquire that which everyone else has more of. 

Back in 2017, Zeshan Shakar became a publishing phenomenon in Norway with his debut novel, Tante Ulrikkes vei. It has gone on to sell over a million copies, which is impressive when you consider that Norway only has a population of about 5.7 million people. This is Shakar's third novel and I think that each new book he writes is less interesting than the last. His previous novel, Gul bok (yellow book) was underwhelming and I didn't really think there was any real character development or progression in it. This book basically just has a protagonist who is always dissatisfied with his life, constantly wishing for a bigger and better house, all the while bemoaning any real closeness to either of his parents, despite the fact that they have had no meaningful contact since the protagonist grew up and left the home he seems mostly ashamed of.

While our protagonist clearly has a big house, a successful job, and a picture-perfect family, he keeps striving for more. He's also unhappy about the fact that his father, elderly and rather alone, having been evicted from his council estate flat because the city council is planning to upgrade his building, would rather move back home to Pakistan than let his son buy him somewhere to live in Norway. The son is frustrated because his father doesn't really seem interested in packing his remaining belongings to have them shipped to Pakistan, and keeps reminiscing about events in his childhood and adolescence that shows his disconnect both with his two very different parents, and his sense of alienation with the people he grew up with. 

As seems to be the case with me a bit too often when I read contemporary Norwegian literature, I kept reading in the hopes of finding out what the book reviewers had found so impressive, because like Shakar's other novels, this book was fairly universally well-reviewed. I suspect this may be because there are so few authors with a multicultural and immigrant background writing in our country today, so anything written about the multicultural experience must therefore be encouraged and lauded, so it doesn't become obvious just how narrow-minded and secretly prejudiced a lot of middle-class Norwegians really are. I really don't this that if this book was about a white, middle-class Norwegian dude with divorced parents who just couldn't seem to talk properly to his dad, written by a white, middle-class Norwegian dude - so many people would be raving about it. Then again, maybe it's just me who's a bit racist? I'm willing to live with that if it allows me to say that this book felt like a waste of my time. 

Judging a book by its cover: With this cover, the publisher has moved away from the design choices of the past two books, where they had a single-coloured background with some simple line drawings, choosing instead to just use the same ugly living-room decor from the early 80s twice on the cover instead. Not a fan. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 8 July 2023

CBR15 Book 26: "Nettle & Bone" by T. Kingfisher

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

#CBR15 Passport Challenge: Books I already own
CBR15 Bingo: Violence

15-word-review: Princess Marra has to complete three impossible tasks to kill her brother-in-law. A quest follows.

Longer review: Marra, the youngest princess in a small, rather insignificant kingdom, who has spent half of her life in a convent and so is almost, but very significantly not, a nun, has been set three impossible tasks by a dust-wife (a magic-wielding woman who can communicate with the dead). She must spin thread out of nettles and fashion a cloak in less than a night and a day, and she must make a dog out of cursed bones and wire. Her final task is to capture the moon in a jar. All of these tasks are to find a way to kill her brother-in-law, the prince of a neighbouring kingdom. The prince married her eldest sister, who died after less than a year. Then the second eldest princess was married off to him, and although inexperienced and naive after a very sheltered upbringing first in a palace and then in a convent, Marra discovers that her sister has been abused and tortured, and keeps trying to stay pregnant so her husband doesn't hurt her as much. Marra wants to avenge her oldest sister and save her remaining living one, but is rather powerless on her own.

In fairy tales, the impossible frequently becomes possible, and Marra succeeds in her impossible tasks against all odds and is granted the aid of the very powerful dust-wife who set her the tasks. Along with the dust-wife and her demon chicken, accompanied by her bone dog, and eventually also an exiled (if very gentle) killer and a wicked godmother, Marra slowly travels to her brother-in-law's kingdom to try to stop him from ever hurting her family ever again. 

When my husband asked what I was reading and I told him the title of the book, he wilfully decided to misunderstand and kept asking why I would read a book about soup. There is no soup of any kind in this novel, the nettles and bones are parts of the impossible tasks that Marra nearly ruins her hands and body to accomplish, all to find a way to save her remaining sister (who she thinks has always hated her and probably still does). The wicked prince has killed his first wife and will probably murder his second one if she finally succeeds in bearing him an heir (fair warning to those who might find it distressing, the abused queen has a lot of miscarriages - no graphic details are included, but this book might not be for everyone). 

This book was a fast and engrossing read for me. It's my first novel by Kingfisher, and I was a bit worried, as I've heard some of the books she's written are mostly in the horror genre. There are absolutely horrible elements to this story, but they are all very believable, human-inflicted acts. Despite the abuse and violence committed by Marra's brother-in-law (and sadly ignored by her mother, the Queen, and spymaster of their little kingdom), quite a lot of this book is cozy and focuses on friendship, loyalty, and togetherness. It's about not underestimating those who might seem humble and weak, or too old. It's about second chances and embracing opportunities. There's a romantic subplot, but it's very gentle and almost entirely off-page.

I loved this book so much that I bought it in paperback as well, so I can have it displayed on my bookshelf. I've already recommended it to several of my friends. Anyone who likes a dark fairytale-inspired fantasy should check this out. 

Judging a book by its cover: I really like the e-book cover of the book, with the cover model wearing a dress that looks like it's made of vines and thorns, but also the UK paperback edition that I got that is in dark colours with a number of the elements from the story on the cover. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday 7 July 2023

CBR15 Book 25: "Funny You Should Ask" by Elissa Sussman

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3 stars

#CBR15 Passport Challenge: Books I Already Own

15-word review: Chani reunites with actor Gabe, the man she wrote about ten years ago. Sparks fly.

Official book summary:
Then. Twentysomething writer Chani Horowitz is stuck. While her former MFA classmates are nabbing book deals, she's in the trenches writing puff pieces. Then she's hired to write a profile of movie star Gabe Parker. The Gabe Parker--her forever celebrity crush, the object of her fantasies, the background photo on her phone--who's also just been cast as the new James Bond. It's terrifying and thrilling all at once... yet if she can keep her cool and nail the piece, it could be a huge win. Gabe will get good press, and her career will skyrocket. But what comes next proves to be life-changing in ways Chani never saw coming, as the interview turns into a whirlwind weekend that has the tabloids buzzing.

Now. Ten years later, after a brutal divorce and a heavy dose of therapy, Chani is back in Los Angeles, laser-focused on one thing: her work. But she's still spent the better part of the last decade getting asked about her deeply personal Gabe Parker profile at every turn. No matter what new essay collection or viral editorial she's promoting, it always comes back to Gabe. So when his PR team requests that they reunite for a second interview, she wants to say no. She wants to pretend that she's forgotten about the time they spent together, years ago. But the truth is that those seventy-two hours are still crystal clear, etched in her memory. And so... he says yes.

Chani knows that facing Gabe again also means facing feelings she's tried so hard to push away. Alternating between their first meeting and their reunion a decade later, this deliciously irresistible novel will have you hanging on until the last word.

Ok, so first of all, this is not a "deliciously irresistible novel", it's a fairly forgettable run-of-the-mill contemporary romance. The only thing that makes it in any way different from a lot of books, is the dual timelines, where the past sections of the story are told in flashbacks, and even that isn't exactly unusual in the genre. Emily Henry has used it in two of her contemporary romances, for instance. This book is fine. Nothing is offensively bad, it's competently enough written, but it certainly didn't deserve to be on multiple 'Best of 2022' lists. That certainly gave me expectations for something more special than what I got.

Chani is not a particularly engaging heroine. She's insecure, and constantly questions her success as a writer. Based on the writing samples from her famous feature article and her blog (which are included in between the various chapters), I will admit that it seems unlikely that this woman got three different essay collections in the space of ten years. I also question whatever editor gave her the writing job that made her famous in the first place - why would you send a writer who hadn't ever seen a Bond movie to write about the new up-and-coming star who will be the next Bond? 

There's also the issue here that the romance is not very convincing to me. Chani spends three days with Gabe ten years ago, meets him a few times in the intervening years when her marriage is in trouble, before she's asked to write a follow-up article about him, and reluctantly agrees. She spends another three days with him or so, and then is apparently convinced that he is her one true love. I could maybe have believed how quickly Gabe persuades her that they are meant to be, if the two of them had had any kind of communication in the interim. If the interludes between chapters hadn't just been article and essay samples of Chani's work, but some letters, e-mails, or text messages exchanged between the two to show that they were actually getting to know one another better. 

I love a romance based on correspondence, there is something incredibly romantic to me about a person falling in love with someone else based on their letters - possibly because some of the most meaningful friendships in my life were strengthened by years of correspondence (yes, I'm old, I grew up in the years before mobile phones and the internet. We wrote actual multi-page letters to one another instead). But no, we are just told that Chani and Gabe have been thinking and pining about the other for the whole decade, making no attempt to contact the other. 

The book was a fairly fast and easy read, and the dual timelines made it a bit of a mystery what happened in the past that potentially caused a rift between them. Neither Gabe nor Chani were especially memorable characters. Now, three months after reading the book (yes, I'm super behind on my reviews), the character I remember best is Oliver Mathias, Gabe's best friend. He was charming and interesting and I would frankly have preferred to read a novel where he was the hero and eventually found his happily ever after.

I've heard that Elissa Sussman's follow-up to this is a bit of a disappointment to fans. Considering this didn't do much to stick in my mind, I doubt I'll be reading it. The book did make me want to watch The Philadelphia Story, though. So I guess there's that. 

Judging a Book by Its Cover: Not really fond of the combination of pepto-bismol pink and bright red on the cover, and the cartoony style of the cover art is less appealing to me than many contemporary romances. I guess it stands out on a shelf or on a bookstore display table, but in this case, the book actually could get judged by its cover. Bit disappointing all around. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday 4 July 2023

CBR15 Book 24: "A Sinister Revenge" by Deanna Raybourn

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 3 stars

This is book 8 in the Veronica Speedwell series. It's not a good place to start. You want the first book, A Curious Beginning.

15-word review: Veronica tries to discover who wants to murder Stoker’s brother. Stoker is sadly mostly absent.

Official book summary:
Veronica's natural-historian beau, Stoker, has been away in Bavaria for months and their relationship is at an impasse. But when Veronica shows up before him with his brother, Tiberius, Lord Templeton-Vane, he is lured back home by an intriguing job offer: preparing an iguanodon for a very special dinner party.

Tiberius has received a cryptic message - along with the obituaries of two recently deceased members of his old group of friends, the Seven Sinners-that he too should get his affairs in order. Realizing he is in grave danger but not knowing why, he plans a reunion party for the remaining Sinners at his family estate to lure the killer out while Veronica and Stoker investigate.

As the guests arrive and settle in, the evening's events turn deadly. More clues come to light, leading Veronica, Stoker, and Tiberius to uncover a shared past among the Sinners that has led to the fatal present. But the truth might be far more sinister than what they were prepared for.

Good things: 
- We get an exciting new location, the Templeton-Vane's family estate.
- Stoker's brothers are always entertaining - we get both Tiberius and Merryweather in this one.
- Who doesn't love a dinosaur fossil?

Bad things:
- Stoker is mostly absent for the majority of the book. He's off restoring the model of the iguanodon and avoiding Veronica.
- The mystery of this one ended up being a bit preposterous.
- I found Veronica pretty insufferable in this one. 

While I have enjoyed a lot of the previous Veronica Speedwell mysteries in the past, this one felt underwhelming and it took me longer than usual to get through it. Veronica is a character who is frequently portrayed as somewhat self-centred and oblivious to those around her, and while I fully respect Ms. Raybourn's choice to let her heroine be flawed and dislikable, I'm not sure I want to keep reading the series unless Veronica, our main protagonist, goes through some changes. Stoker is by far my favourite character in these books and the choice to have him off-page for much of the mystery certainly didn't help things. 

I'm choosing to hope that this was just a weaker entry in the series, and will give the author at least one more chance, based on the many novels of hers I've enjoyed in the past. 

Judging a book by its cover: I'm really not sure why the little silhouette that's supposed to be Veronica is holding a butterfly net, as her main pastime of lepidoptery seems to have been entirely forgotten by now. I do, however, really like the various dinosaur bones and other fossils decorating the cover on this one. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 23: "Three Little Words" by Jenny Holiday

Page count: 369 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

CBR15 Bingo: Bodies Bodies (self-esteem issues, eating disorder)

15-word review: International supermodel Gia has an eating disorder, but eats when restaurant owner Bennet feeds her. 

Longer review: Gia Gallo is used to travelling in her job as a globe-trotting fashion model. Recently, she struggles with the fact that she doesn't fit into the teeny tiny sizes of the clothes she's supposed to model, and she's not really sure if she's not outgrown the whole industry, both in body size and motivation-wise. Having never been in anything outside of the fashion world, however, she doesn't really feel like she would be qualified for anything else if she were to retire. The pressures of her job are causing her to have massively disordered eating. Deep down she knows it's a problem, but she doesn't really want to own up to it, and she's certainly not ready for anyone else to find out, especially not her best friends.

One of those best friends, Wendy, is getting married in Florida in six days. Gia has Wendy's late mother's wedding dress and needs to get to Florida in time to have the dress altered before the ceremony. Unfortunately, she's stuck in New York in a snowstorm, and no matter how much she threatens or pleads with airline staff, is she getting out of there by air. It just so happens that the best man for the wedding, restaurant owner and chef Bennett Buchanan is also stuck in the city, with the wedding rings, and he gets the last rental car but offers to let her come along for the road trip if she dials down her fashion diva behaviour. 

Because the weather is decidedly not on their side, Bennett and Gia decide to drive all the way to Florida. They fight their obvious attraction for one another, because Gia is only interested in a short-term fling, while Bennett only doesn't do casual hook-ups. Their differing outlook on relationships doesn't keep them from jumping one another for too long, though. As their road trip progresses and they get to know each other better, it also becomes very obvious to Bennet that Gia has an eating disorder, but she never seems to refuse food as long as he's the one cooking it for her. He tries to encourage her to open up to her friends about her troubles, while she helps him get more comfortable with his past and his relationship with his family. 

This is the third and final of the Bridesmaids Behaving Badly series, and by the end of it, all three friends introduced over the course of the series end up married. I enjoy Holiday's books, although none of them have impressed me enough to rate five stars yet. She's not on the 'buy at full price', and certainly not on the extremely rare 'buy in pre-order as soon as it becomes available' list, but I will keep picking up her book on sale.

Judging a book by its cover: This cover is perfectly fine, but since Gia has her hair dyed for the majority of the book, I really think the cover model's hair should have reflected that. I'm sure it's possible to do that sort of thing in editing after the photo is taken, so the model wouldn't even have had to dye her hair for real. 

Monday 3 July 2023

CBR15 Book 22: "It Takes Two" by Jenny Holiday

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

15-word review: Bridesmaid Wendy keeps hooking up with former crush Noah, who’s the brother of the bride.

Wendy's best friend Jane (from One and Only) is getting married, and she's delighted to be asked to be the maid of honour. Unfortunately, the best man is the bride's older brother, Noah, who Wendy nursed a crush on for pretty much her entire adolescence until he broke her heart by standing her up at the prom. She has spent most of her adult life going on strategic trips to avoid spending time with Jane when she knew Noah was around, but now she's going to have to spend quite a lot of time in his company and it has her on edge. Determined to not show him how much he still affects her, Wendy challenges him to a "friendly" competition, about making the most memorable bachelor or bachelorette party. 

Since Wendy spent almost all of her time at their house growing up, Noah is very comfortable in her presence. His sister's friend is all grown up now, however, and initially, he feels almost guilty at how much she's now affecting him. She also seems to go out of her way to either avoid him entirely or snarkily disagree with him. As they are both trained lawyers, they can certainly both dish it out verbally, but the closer his sister's wedding they get, the more he seems to forget that Wendy was his sister's childhood companion because he can't stop thinking about how much he wants to kiss her. 

The major obstacles in the path of Wendy and Noah's HEA are Wendy's reluctance to ever let herself be vulnerable around him again and both of them having to get over their past relationship, where Wendy spent so much time with Jane that Noah came to see them both as little sisters. While Wendy nursed her crush for years, Noah was so busy working part-time jobs to help support his family after his father's untimely death and to cover for his grieving mother's depression that he didn't really have time to think about romance. A few years older than Wendy and Jane, as an older teen that age difference was great enough that he never really considered Wendy as a potential love interest. Now that they're both adults, however, the age difference is negligible, and really spending time with her makes him see her in an entirely new (and much more desirable) light.

I liked this one better than Jane's book, where I felt that the ending got a bit silly and the obstacles put in the way of the couple's HEA were a bit forced. Jane and Cameron make for fun supporting characters in this one, though, and it was nice to see them in a different light than in their own book. 

Judging a book by its cover: While the current trend of cartoony romance covers can be exasperating and make the books seem overly cutesy, I'm not sure I miss having photos of actual people on the covers either, as they so rarely match the images I have in my head. Neither of these cover models look anything like I pictured Wendy and Noah. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read