Friday 11 August 2023

CBR15 Book 40: "Arsenic and Adobo" by Mia P. Manansala

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 3 stars

CBR15 Bingo: Edibles (this book features both a lot of food and quite a few drugs)

Lila Macapagal used to live in Chicago and dreamed of opening her own restaurant, but both her business and relationship failed miserably. She's back in her hometown, helping to run her tita (aunt) Rosie run the family restaurant, where they serve Philipino food. Unfortunately, Lila's ex-boyfriend is a food critic and seems determined to come back, again and again, to sample the food and write scathing things about the food and service. Only this time, he collapses at the table and has to be rushed to hospital, where he dies sometime later. Shortly after, the police are at the restaurant and while searching the premises, they also find a bag in Lila's locker containing a large amount of drugs. Now she's not only the main suspect in the murder of her ex-boyfriend but the police think she's a drug kingpin. 

Lila is determined to clear her name and with the help of her barista BFF, said bestie's lawyer brother, and the big network of aunties who seem to know everything about everyone in town, she begins to investigate. Her tita's restaurant will stay closed until her name is cleared, not to mention that Lila risks a long time in prison if she can't find the actual murderer.

The topic for this June's Cannon Book Club was Fun in the Summertime. Three romances and one cozy mystery were selected. This was the cozy mystery. I got it in an e-book sale in July 2022, so it seemed like a good choice to read since I'd already read two of the romances suggested earlier this year. Once upon a time, I used to read a lot of mysteries, cozy and otherwise, but now it seems like I only have the patience for historical mysteries with romantic subplots, featuring Victorian ladies. Sadly, this book didn't really tempt me into continuing the series (book 4 is out in October), as I found the book rather underwhelming, and comments from other members of the book club (who have read some of the sequels) suggest that the writing doesn't really improve. So this is probably my one and only Manansala book.

One of the problems with the book is that Lila, the protagonist, is rather insufferable, and she certainly seems terrible at investigating. She keeps ignoring clues and connections she discovers while investigating, and seems to finally find the culprit more through luck than anything else (I had figured out the guilty party at least three hints earlier, not that Lila seemed to notice any of them). She's completely oblivious to the wants and wishes of her loyal best friend (who wants her to stay in town and open an establishment together), and she's judgmental about her hometown (despite the fact that she didn't really hack it in Chicago either). She seems to love her aunt and her large extended family of "aunties" and cousins and kind of resent them. It's completely baffling to me that she attracts the romantic interest of not one, but two handsome and talented professional men. It doesn't help that I'm instantly wary of love triangles in mysteries, having stuck longer than I should have with Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series (just become a thruple already, or better yet, have Joe and Ranger settle down together and dump Stephanie entirely). 

The book's redeeming feature is its focus on Philipino food and culture, which I really didn't know much about. There's a very helpful glossary (with a pronunciation guide) at the front of the book. The book certainly made me curious about Philipino food (there's a lot of cooking) and the author has helpfully included recipes at the back of the book (not sure I can get ube in Norway, though). 

Judging a book by its cover: While the book was rather underwhelming, the cover is very cute. I like the bright colours and the presence of the tiny sausage dog (not that anyone working in food service would let a dog into the kitchen). 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 39: "Magic Claims" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 240 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR15 Bingo: In the Wild (partly set in a big, spooky wood AND featuring shifters)

This short novel, which originally was planned as a novella (but the authors just couldn't fit all of the story into such a short format, for which their fans are grateful) is the second of the Wilmington Years stories, which could clearly also be called Kate and Curran spectacularly fail at a quiet and uneventful retirement.

In the previous story, Magic Tides, Kate has to rescue a bunch of people from a magical threat (so nothing new there), and despite her wish for anonymity becomes more noticeable in her newly adopted neighbourhood. 

In this follow-up (popularly known among fans as Magic Clams, because of frequent mis-typings of the title) Kate and Curran are approached by Edward Calloway, the great-uncle of one of the people Kate recently saved. He explains that much of their family still lives in the village of Penderton, which seems to have been more or less swallowed up by the surrounding forest. The residents there can no longer leave even if they want to, without risking death. Sinister magic users come once a year to demand a human sacrifice, and this year, they've decided to demand a rather large number of people to allow the rest of the residents to stay safe. The residents of Penderton desperately need help and are willing to pay a lot for assistance from stronger, more powerful forces than the evil in the woods (those forces being Kate and Curran). Remaining quiet and unobtrusive would mean sending a lot of people to their deaths. Our heroic couple doesn't need a lot more motivation than that. 

In addition to this new threat nearby, Kate is also faced with the arrival of two powerful individuals who used to follow Roland, her father. Now that he is locked away in a separate realm, the men want to swear fealty to Kate, his powerful daughter, and very reluctant heir. To aid them, Kate and Curran also have a group of local shapeshifters, and of course their were-lion son, Conlan. 

I never fail to be amazed at how well Ilona Andrews manages to balance action, fairly serious violence, super creepy magical threats, humour, and more quiet character moments so excellently. Having now been married for several years, it's nice to see some of Kate and Curran's domestic life and how completely comfortable they are with one another (and how proud and entirely non-threatened Curran is of his wife, an absolute powerhouse of magical talent). Kate and Curran have both been trying to do what they feel is the right thing, laying low, staying unobtrusive, and hiding their powers. When danger really threatens and they are the only ones who can help, it's quite clear that they thrive a lot more when they get to flex their unparalleled magic abilities or incredible shapeshifter fighting skills. 

Since finishing all their existing publishing contracts, the husband and wife team who make up Ilona Andrews are now free to write whatever they want and publish it at their own leisure. They don't announce what they have been working on until they're getting close to publication. It's quite clear that after some years away from the world of Kate Daniels, they now have new ideas and find it creatively interesting to play in this figurative sandbox again. In various promo interviews they did via YouTube, the couple have made it clear that for the foreseeable future, they will be working on sequels or spin-offs in the Kate Daniels universe. There's going to be at least one more story about Kate and Curran and their family in the Wilmington Years, there will finally be a new book about Hugh D'Ambray (the first book, Iron and Magic, came out in 2018) and they will be writing a follow-up to Blood Heir (or the continuing adventures of Julie and Derek, as I like to think of it). They've dropped some serious hints of what will be coming, and I am very excited to see what they come up with next. 

Judging a book by its cover: This cover is perfectly fine. Sassy-looking lady with a sword, a big ghostly lion in the background. Misty, spooky-looking woods. It fits with the themes of the previous books and is not a complete eye-sore. I'll take it. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday 9 August 2023

CBR15 Book 38: "Love, Theoretically" by Ali Hazelwood

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

CBR15 Bingo: Getaway (I don't see a good way to fill the South America square)

For this review, I resurrected Mrs. Julien's romance review template from way back in 2013. I've tweaked it, but the major framework is still there. 

Love, Theoretically is a romance of the enemies to lovers AND I’m scared and unworthy of love: Hero meets heroine. He is the disapproving older brother of the man who is paying her to be his fake girlfriend. He thinks she’s a librarian, and later, when she shows up at MIT for a job interview, he believes she’s been scamming his younger brother in some way. She hates him because as a teenager he wrote an article that not only discredited her mentor but made the branch of theoretical physics (which she works in) seem less viable than experimental physics (which he works in). He is one of the professors on the panel who decides who gets the job and tells her from the outset that she’s clearly not going to get the job, no matter what. That doesn't exactly endear him further to her. Despite having gone through most of her life trying to tailor herself to be the perfect person to whomever she interacts with, she’s incapable of being anything but her rather sarcastic self with him. Once he realises that she is, in fact, not his brother’s girlfriend or some sort of grifter, he is delighted with her true self and spends most of his time trying to make her realise that her actual self is worthy and deserving of love. Hero and heroine eventually move forward together secure in their love and commitment. 

A contemporary romance focused on scientists, in this case, physicists, and written by Ali Hazelwood, Love, Theoretically is my third book by this author. I’ve liked her previous books, although she does seem to have certain hangups, and her second novel wasn’t as different from her first as I and a lot of other readers would have liked. Hazelwood is, most famously, the author of The Love Hypothesis, which started out as Reylo fan fic and has for years been beloved by BookTokers. I found Love, Theoretically very enjoyable, laugh-out-loud funny, and probably my favourite one of her books so far. I very much recommend it, even if you might have found one (or both) of her previous novels a bit annoying. 

This book is a slow-burn romance and features some of the same tropes as Hazelwood’s previous two novels, but the complications keeping the couple apart are resolved much earlier in the plot, which the story benefits greatly from. Once our couple actually does the deed, so to speak, the sex scenes are very steamy and a lot less cringe-worthy than in many other romances. I only have Hazelwood's STEMinist novellas still on my TBR List and look forward to reading them while waiting for Hazelwood’s next foray into romance.  

The main plot of Love, Theoretically focuses on the mistaken assumptions of both our hero and heroine and then the journey of acceptance that the heroine needs to go through to accept that her pathological people-pleasing to the point where she doesn’t really know who she really is or think what she actually wants is unnecessary. Jonathan “Jack” Smith-Turner is a respected (if not always well-liked) physics professor. Having discovered in his early adolescence that his stepmother is not, in fact, his real mother and that his real mother died when he was just a young child, he hates untruths and dissembling. At seventeen, he wrote an article aimed to uncover the lax editorial practices of a renowned science publication, which caused a significant stir in the physics community, and no one has allowed him to forget about it since. He pretty much only cares for his younger brother and his acerbic grandmother. Until he meets Elsie Hannaway. Jack is a protector, and once the truth comes out about his younger brother’s true relationship with her, Jack wants nothing more than to take care of Elsie, in every conceivable way. 

Elsie is an adjunct professor working three different teaching jobs to make ends meet and is desperately hoping for a tenure-track position. As an additional source of income, Elsie works for Faux, a company that allows people to hire fake dates/partners. Elsie uses her powers of observation and strong social antennae to read anyone she meets and does her best to turn her into the ideal persona for that person for as long as they interact. She’s not even entirely truthful to her best friend and roommate of seven years.  Her ability to be a social chameleon is why she’s so good at being a fake girlfriend. The employees of Faux aren’t really supposed to go on multiple dates, but Greg Smith is just so helpless and non-threatening that she keeps helping him, meaning she’s now been to several big family events with him and keeps running into his older brother Jack, who she is convinced hates her. Jack and Elsie start out as antagonists, at least in Elsie’s eyes, yet as is always the case in Hazelwood’s novels, the hero doesn’t hate the heroine at all – rather the opposite. Thankfully, once they traverse the challenges they face, they make an excellent team.

While Hazelwood seems to have a thing for large, brooding men who are nevertheless secretly tender and protective, paired with much smaller women, who probably have some sort of health issue (Elsie has type I diabetes, which makes her nearly faint in Jack’s presence more than once, Bee in Love on the Brain had that fainting thing). If she wants to explore a bold new direction in her next book, perhaps make the hero short and a bit timid? Maybe make the heroine taller than him? Just throwing it out there, Ms. Hazelwood.

Both Elsie and Jack have some wonderful and supportive friends, and Jack’s elderly and frightfully wealthy grandmother (who threatens to disown her offspring or grandchildren whenever the mood strikes her) is delightful and steals every scene she’s in. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I reveal that Elsie’s aging mentor is not as good for her career as she thinks he is, and Jack maybe wasn’t the cold-hearted villain he first appears for trying to discredit the man. This is one of my favourite contemporary romances so far this year, well worth your time. 

Judging a book by its cover: Just as I'm pretty sure this is my favourite Hazelwood so far, this is absolutely the cover I like the best. Hazelwood's cover artist, @lilithsaur (on Twitter and Instagram) just seems to capture the essence of her books so well. I've loved this cover since I first saw it, and my heart leapt with joy when I saw it for real in the bookstore.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 37: "The Heart Principle" by Helen Hoang

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description:
When violinist Anna Sun accidentally achieves career success with a viral YouTube video, she finds herself incapacitated and burned out from her attempts to replicate that moment. And when her longtime boyfriend announces he wants an open relationship before making a final commitment, a hurt and angry Anna decides that if he wants an open relationship, then she does, too. Translation: She’s going to embark on a string of one-night stands. The more unacceptable the men, the better.

That’s where tattooed, motorcycle-riding Quan Diep comes in. Their first attempt at a one-night stand fails, as does their second, and their third, because being with Quan is more than sex—he accepts Anna on an unconditional level that she herself has just started to understand. However, when tragedy strikes Anna’s family she takes on a role that she is ill-suited for, until the burden of expectations threatens to destroy her. Anna and Quan have to fight for their chance at love, but to do that, they also have to fight for themselves.

OK, so anyone looking for a light-hearted, fluffy romance read should very much look elsewhere for their fix. Ms. Hoang took more than three years to finish this novel because she was going through a lot of the same things as her protagonist Anna in her actual life. In her afterword, Hoang writes that this book is half memoir and the hardest thing she's ever written. She was going through severe writer's block and autistic burnout because her mother got severely ill and required a lot of intensive care from her family. In the novel, it's Anna's father who gets very sick and is taken home by his family to be nursed by his close family members. This happens when Anna is already struggling with anxiety, depression, and undiagnosed autism. 

The early parts of the book, when Anna and Quan first meet and get to know each other are the easiest to read, even with Anna's perfectionist struggles to master her music. However, as the challenges keep building for the couple, the book also gets a lot heavier in its subject matter, and it actually took me a full 18 days to finish this book, despite its relatively low page count, because I kept having to put it down and didn't really want to come back to it too often, since the struggles Anna has in her personal life, and the difficulties she and Quan have to make their relationship work were really kind of bumming me out.

Nevertheless, Hoang is a good writer, and the heavy topics in the book feel all the more real since they're based in part on the author's own experiences. I don't regret reading the book and finishing the series, and I deeply sympathise with Ms. Hoang for having to go through such a hard time - but she probably got a better and more heartfelt book out of it in the end. 

Judging a book by its cover: As animated romance covers go, you could do a lot worse. I love the bright red background and the subtle heart behind the elegant woman, seemingly traced by a rider on a motorcycle is a nice touch. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 6 August 2023

CBR15 Book 36: "What Moves the Dead" by T. Kingfisher

Page count: 160 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR15 Bingo: Dwelling (the "haunted" house is pretty central to the story).

This was my fantasy/sci-fi book club's selection for May, and while I normally don't like horror books, I read this mainly because I was so impressed with T. Kingfisher's Nettle & Bone, and also because it really was very short. It's a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, which I have never read, and because I'm not a huge fan of Poe, I didn't bother reading it before reading this, either. I just read the Wikipedia summary, figuring that would be more than enough. 

Our non-binary protagonist, Alex Easton (uses they/them pronouns) is a retired soldier who receives a letter from an old friend, Madeline Usher. Alex was in the army with Madeline's brother Roderick and is shocked when they arrive at the absolute wreck of a house the siblings live in, and see the physical state that their old friends are in. Both siblings are emaciated and deeply pale, and have thin, white flyaway hair, both on their heads and bodies. According to an American doctor who is also there, Madeline is seriously ailing, and struck with frequent fits of catalepsy, moving around the house with rigid limbs, speaking in a distracted, eerie voice. She rarely remembers what happened during these fits when she is more lucid. Her brother Roderick is pretty much a nervous wreck. Easton wonders why the siblings haven't just moved, but both seem determined that they must stay in their old, dilapidated family home, even when something there might be killing them.

Easton is deeply worried about their friends and with the aid of the American doctor and Miss Potter, a British botanist who is travelling in the area (she's revealed to be Beatrix Potter's aunt - probably fictional), tries to figure out what is causing their strange behaviour. Next to the house is a creepy, murky lake, which has strange lights within that glow at night. There are also a host of strangely behaving wildlife, including hares that move about with jerky, unnerving movement, and that don't seem to stop moving, even when dead. 

What Moves the Dead has a lot of Gothic elements and the creeping sense of unease just grows as the story progresses. It's a very well-written story, and several of the members of my book club wished that it was longer and that we got more out of the story. For all that it's a novella, Kingfisher includes some interesting worldbuilding. Easton is from a fictional European country, where they have a lot more pronouns than many languages. There are, for instance, specific pronouns used only for children, and some that are used only for God. In this country, members of the army are also given a unique pronoun, which means that no matter what gender the soldier is originally, once they become a sworn soldier, they are referred to with ka/kan pronouns. The explorations of the fictional European country and its language give added depth to what is really just a very quick read.

I don't like a lot of horror, and I find fungus generally very creepy. So there were a lot of elements that really worked to make this a rather uncomfortable read. Nevertheless, I also really liked the story and especially Alex Easton, our protagonist. It seems that this novella is the first in a series featuring Easton, with the next one out in early 2024. In a lot of cases, I don't want to keep reading the series of our book club selections, but in this case, even if Kingfisher stays with the horror genre, I will keep going, because I was so entertained. 

Judging a book by its cover: The really very unnerving image on the book gives you a fair idea of what the book features. The hare is absolutely riddled with fungus and little pink mushrooms, including some piercing it. The UK cover features a raised hand covered in mushrooms, which seems tame in comparison to this. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 5 August 2023

CBR15 Book 35: "Gender Queer" by Maia Kokabe

Page count: 240 pages
Rating: 5 stars

CBR15 Bingo: Picture This (can also be used for Queer Lives)

Official book description:
In 2014, Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, thought that a comic of reading statistics would be the last autobiographical comic e would ever write. At the time, it was the only thing e felt comfortable with strangers knowing about em. Now, Gender Queer is here. Maia's intensely cathartic autobiography charts eir journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, and facing the trauma of pap smears. Started as a way to explain to eir family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, Gender Queer is more than a personal story: it is a useful and touching guide on gender identity—what it means and how to think about it—for advocates, friends, and humans everywhere.

Despite this being a pretty obvious pick to read during Pride month, I actually finished Gender Queer in May. I got it from the library and was going to save it for June. I was just curious and started reading a few pages. After about four pages, I didn't put the book down until I was finished. I am cis-gendered and straight, so for me, a lot of this was just learning to understand about someone else's experiences. I'm also asexual, though, and know how long it took me to discover that this was an actual thing and not just that I was some sort of aberration, so I can understand both why this was a difficult book for Kokabe to write and illustrate, but also why it felt important for em to share eir experiences, so that others in eir situation (or similar ones) could see that they are not alone out there. 

The internet tells me that in 2023, this book has been banned from shelves in more American states than any other book, because of its subject matter, and illustrations. The book deals with Kokabe's journey exploring eir gender and sexuality, and because the memoir is graphic, there are also pictures. I didn't think anything was particularly graphic or shocking, and some of the topics explored, like body dysphoria and discomfort with periods or gynecological exams, I suspect would be just as applicable to a lot of cis-gendered people as trans-gendered or non-binary individuals. 

The deeply puritanical and backward thinking of people who ban or challenge books never fails to surprise and depress me. I'm assuming that the justification for wanting this removed from shelves is that it might turn kids gay, or non-binary or something? I'm in my early forties and it wasn't until my mid-thirties that I even knew that asexuality was something that existed. I know how uncomfortable I felt until I realised that this was an actual orientation, and not just me being weird. Questioning one's gender identity and not feeling comfortable in one's body must be a million times worse. Books like this, which can show teens and adults that there are others out there that feel the same are hugely important and can change and even save lives. So this book should not be banned. It should probably be taught in schools, at least for older teens and college students. Only a day or two after finishing the library copy I had borrowed, I went out and bought a copy for myself, so I can lend it to friends. That's how important I think this book is. 

I applaud Kokabe's bravery, and reading about eir intense discomfort of being referred to as a 'young lady' or having people use the wrong pronouns has made me try to be better about using more neutral pronouns with the students I teach because you never know which of them might not be comfortable being lumped in with other cis-gendered, binary classmates. I am sorry to say that I still need to work on remembering not to misgender my non-binary and/or trans-gendered friends on occasion, but I am trying to be more sensitive to these issues. 

Judging a book by its cover: I really like both covers of this book, the one on the original edition and the one on the hardback special edition. Both covers feature two versions of Kokabe, one a more youthful and innocent depiction, the other an older, more reflective one. E is a very good artist, and subsequently, the cover illustrations are evocative and tell a story in their own right. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read