Tuesday 26 September 2023

CRB15 Book 45-46: "Men at Arms" and "Feet of Clay" by Terry Pratchett

CBR15 Bingo: Nostalgia

Total page count: 733 pages
Rating both books: 4 stars

In Men at Arms, there's a series of mysterious deaths in Ankh-Morpork, and the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, strictly forbids Sam Vimes, the head of the City Watch to investigate, thus ensuring that he will do the exact opposite. Vimes, Carrot, Nobbs and Colon, who used to be the whole of the Watch have been joined by new recruits to diversify the Watch, Cuddy (a dwarf), Detritus (a troll) and Angua (a werewolf, although Carrot believes it to be because she's a woman). As the ragtag group of individuals learn to work together (trolls and dwarfs are sworn enemies), it turns out that the murder is part of a plot to replace Vetinari with a king, since the plotters have discovered who is the rightful heir. As well as 'disobeying' Vetinari and investigating the string of murders, Vimes is also super stressed about his upcoming wedding to Lady Sybil Vimes, the richest woman in Ankh-Morpork (who insists on being traditional and transferring all of her money and assets to Vimes upon their marriage). 

In Feet of Clay, Sir Samuel Vimes, Commander of the ever-growing City Watch (he was both promoted and knighted at the end of the previous book) and his various underlings have to figure out why a museum curator and a priest have been murdered, and why shortly after, a dozen golems, working at various factories around the city very dramatically and publically kill themselves. To add to the complications, someone is clearly trying to assassinate Lord Vetinary, and he keeps getting worse no matter what safety precautions an increasingly more frantic Vimes puts in place. 

Obviously, in each of the books, the rather complicated central mysteries are eventually sold, and at the end of each book, poor Samuel Vimes seems to end up promoted into an even higher social sphere as a reward for his loyal service. The Watch keeps expanding, in Feet of Clay, Cheery Littlebottom, a dwarf from Uberwald (think the location of every Hammer horror movie ever) joins the team as a forensic expert and comes to several conclusions about their identity over the course of the book.

A perusal of my blog shows that back in 2010 I read and reviewed quite a few Pratchett novels. I also reviewed my re-read of Soul Music in 2015 and my revisit of Guards Guards in 2021. The meticulous records of my reading history (a lined notebook where I've written down everything I've read since back in 2007 - it'll survive even if technology fails!) show that while Pratchett is an incredibly important writer to me and his books have brought me so much joy over the years, I haven't really re-read many of his books in the last 10-15 years. My husband and my BFF Lydia have both warned me not to read Raising Steam (his penultimate Discworld novel and the book where it's the most clear that Alzheimers had stolen away too much of his brain) and although we have a lovely hardback copy of it on our bookshelf, I still am not emotionally ready enough to read The Shepard's Crown - his very last novel before he died. Especially not now that I lost my mother this winter. If I read his final book, it becomes irrevocable that he's gone. 

Re-reading these books is absolutely nostalgic for me. I read a lot of them during my student years in St. Andrews in Scotland back in the late 1990s-early 2000s and because Pratchett has always been one of my husband's favourite authors, we had a lot of enjoyment reading the books together in the early years of our relationship. The great thing about Pratchett is how versatile he was as an author. He didn't just write police procedural novels with a fantastical twist like he does with the City Watch novels. Because his creativity and cleverness were so vast, he was able to write very funny, but also sharp, insightful, and frequently satirical books and make a lot of astute observations while doing so. Not to mention his mastery of language. There are so many puns - so many amazing turns of phrase. There really was no one entirely like him. 

Judging the books by their covers: My Pratchett novels are the original paperback editions with cover art by Josh Kirby. I know they've been redesigned several times since. While I don't always agree with the way the various characters get depicted on the covers, it's always fun to see plot elements hinted at on each of the covers. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday 18 September 2023

CBR15 Books 43-44: "A Psalm for the Wild-Built" and "A Prayer for the Crown-Shy" by Becky Chambers

Total page count: 320 pages
Rating, both stories: 4.5 stars

CBR15 Bingo: On the Road

On a moon (that seems quite like Earth in many respects) called Panga, people live peacefully together in harmonious small communities. There are remnants of a previous industrial age, and it's suggested that there was a near apocalypse way back when, but humanity improved and started thinking about what was better for their environment, possibly helped by the exodus of their robots. At some point, in the distant past, many generations ago, the robots that had been working in the factories and enabled humans to industrialise most everything, gained sentience and asked the humans for their freedom. This seems to have been managed without any major conflict - no Terminator-style rise of the machines on Panga. When offered an equal place in society as the humans themselves had, the robots instead chose to leave society entirely and go off into the untouched wilderness to observe it in all its glory.

Hence no one has seen any robots for a very, very long time, until one of our protagonists, Sibling Dex (they/them), a restless monk, encounters the other of our protagonists, the robot Mosscap, during his possibly inadvisable trek through the wilderness. Sibling Dex, initially a monk working in a monastic society in the city started yearning for the sound of crickets, something they certainly would never experience living and working where they were. So they retrained and became a tea monk, an individual who travels around to all the far-flung human settlements in a little wagon supplied with teas and tisanes and on their stops along the way offer up tea and a little oasis of calm to anyone who feels like joining them. Sibling Dex works diligently to make their various blends and brews and after some false starts, becomes a sympathetic and caring listener to those who wish to unburden themselves while enjoying a cup of tea in their presence. 

After some time of travelling to the various small communities, Sibling Dex is forced to acknowledge that not even becoming a tea monk has managed to soothe the unease inside them, and they still haven't been able to find any crickets to listen to. So they somewhat rashly decide to leave settled human society and venture into the wilderness in search of a rumoured ruined monastery, where there may still be crickets. Sibling Dex is rather taken aback at encountering Mosscap (full name Splendid Speckled Mosscap - the robots take their name from the first thing they see when they first wake up). Mosscap, on the other hand, is delighted to meet Sibling Dex. Being wild-built, a robot created by some of the descendants of the first robots to achieve sentience, Mosscap has proposed to venture into the human world to find out how humanity is now doing and discover what they need. Sibling Dex tries to explain that this is a very large task, which might even be impossible, considering how many different humans there are and how many dreams and wishes exist among them. 

After some back and forth, Mosscap decides to accompany Sibling Dex through the wilderness in search of crickets, while Sibling Dex agrees to be the robot's guide to humanity. On their continuing journey, they have many lovely and meaningful conversations and begin to become unlikely friends.

In A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, Sibling Dex and Mosscap's friendship and mutual understanding deepen, as Sibling Dex takes Mosscap around to villages and cities on Panga, so Mosscap can try to answer their question of what humans want. Among the places they visit is Sibling Dex's own home, and large and boisterous family. 

These lovely novellas, which came to be during the deeply depressing years of the Covid pandemic are relatively short (I wish I'd gotten to spend more time with Sibling Dex and Mosscap) and very gentle, philosophical reads. They are apparently classified as solarpunk - an optimistic vision of a more sustainable future, where there are close connections between nature and community. This certainly seems to fit the bill here. Everything seems carefully crafted, sustainable, and solar-powered, and people live with an awareness of and respect for nature, making sure not to make too serious a footprint while building their settlements. Considering the world we currently live in, it's a wonderful fantasy.

Chambers is a talented writer, whose characterisation and world-building in the previous novels I've read, are all excellent. These novellas are no different and like the people who sit by Sibling Dex's tea wagon for a spell, unburdening themselves about various troubles and receiving kind-hearted advice in return, these books felt like a balm for my soul, containing a lot of philosophy and musings on what makes us happy, what makes for a satisfying life and so forth, but also just cozy, low-peril plots that nevertheless entertained. Chambers has been nominated for a lot of awards for these stories and won the Hugo Award for Best Novella 2022 for A Psalm for the Wild-Built and the Locus Award for Best Novella 2022 for A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. 

I don't know if there are more novellas planned about Sibling Dex and Mosscap, since these seem to have come out in 2021 and 2022, and there has been nothing since. Checking her blog, it seems as if she's on hiatus from writing for an undisclosed period of time because of bereavement, so it may be a while before we see anything at all from her, not just about Monk and Robot

Judging the books by their covers: I don't really have much to say, except that these covers are so very lovely and give tiny hints of what the books contain. I especially like the windy roads on the cover of A Psalm for the Wild-Built and the lovely combination of colours on A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. There's something about the images that just feels soothing. They make me feel calmer and happier just looking at them. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 10 September 2023

CBR15 Book 42: "It Happened One Summer" by Tessa Bailey

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR15 Bingo: Relation"ship" (A book about sisterly love, romantic love and featuring large fishing boats)

Apparently, our heroine, Piper Bellinger, is strongly inspired by Alexis Rose in Schitt's Creek, Tessa Bailey wanted her to have her own happy ending. First of all, I'm not really sure I think Alexis was too badly off at the end of the show, just because she wasn't shacked up with a man. Her ending seemed perfectly happy to me - not all HEAs need to involve a romantic partner. No matter what provided the initial inspiration, I'm glad Tessa Bailey wrote this book. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it's a really fun read. 

The Piper we meet at the start of the book really hasn't ever had to face any kind of financial hardship, but she also doesn't really have anyone she's close to, except her sister Hannah. The men she dates see her as a vacuous bimbo and she's never really had a romantic relationship last very long. Apart from her sister, she doesn't really have anyone to talk to or confide in, and she seems to move from party to party, with her rich stepfather's money bailing her out of any problem she might encounter. She documents her rather empty life on social media, being very conscious of her public image, and when her latest boyfriend dumps her, she wants to feel relevant, breaks into a hotel's rooftop pool (where she is joined by hundreds of people) and causes a scandal big enough that her stepfather might actually end up losing backers on his current project. He decides that enough is enough, she needs to learn how to live in the real world.

Piper's real dad was a fisherman from the Pacific Northwest, who drowned in a storm when she was only a toddler and her sister was a baby. Their mother has never really told them much about that time, as the memories are very painful to her. It turns out that their dad, as well as being a fisherman, owned a bar in his hometown, and Piper's stepdad is sending her there for three months to see if she can survive in the real world, with a limited budget, having to do her own cooking, cleaning and chores. Hannah, who actually has a job and mostly stays out of the limelight, refuses to let her sister be sent into exile by herself, and insists on coming with her.

The two women are woefully unprepared for what they find in the small town of Westport, Washington. Their father's bar turns out to be more of a shack, where the locals hang out and get drunk between fishing trips. The tiny apartment at the top where they're supposed to live is utterly filthy, full of dust, dirt, and vermin and there isn't even a separate bedroom, just a bunk bed in a corner of the main space. 

Brendan Taggert is a successful crab fisherman in Westport. His wife died seven years ago, but he still wears his wedding ring, as he feels her memory deserves it. Like the other locals, he's absolutely baffled when he sees the Bellinger sisters arrive, especially Piper, in her couture outfits, looking as out of place as a peacock would in a muddy field. Initially, Brendan underestimates Piper and her sister, not believing for a second that they'll be able to survive in the rough quarters available to them, and an incident where Piper causes a fire on one of her first nights, trying to cook for Hannah, seems to prove him right. 

Piper and Hannah are determined to prove their stepfather wrong, however, and since they're stuck in Westport, they do their best to make their run-down apartment cozy and livable. They also emerge on a project to turn the run-down shack into an actual bar, in part to prove to their stepdad that they can achieve something concrete, but later as a way to make a proper memorial for their dad. In Westport, they meet their grandmother for the first time, and their openness and kindness make them a lot of unlikely friends. Before he knows it, Brendan is completely smitten with Piper, who clearly returns his attraction. However, Piper isn't really intending to stay in Westport any longer than the three months her stepdad has demanded and is also very aware of her mother's warnings about falling for fishermen. Their mother never got over the heartbreak of losing their father and admonished her daughters before they left that fishermen are frequently very handsome and charismatic, but live very dangerous lives and might have much shorter life expectancies than other men. 

It won't surprise anyone that obviously Piper and Brendan find a way to make their relationship work, but the road there is paved with storms, misunderstandings, ultimatums, and some pretty spectacular "take me back" groveling. It also has a section that brought to mind one of my favourite articles from the much-missed The Toast ever: Things I've Learned About Heterosexual Female Desire from Decades of Reading. Brendan isn't stupid, and he doesn't quite build Piper a bed of oak and devotion, but he certainly takes on a major construction project for her, showing off his impressive muscles while building. 

There's clearly a follow-up romance teased between Hannah, Piper's music-loving sister, and Fox, Brendan's first mate, who clearly sleeps around a lot but I have no doubt will become staunchly monogamous if Hannah just gets over her very unrequited crush on the film director she works for (who is deeply unworthy of her, obviously). Based on this book, I'm already looking forward to the sequel. 

Judging a book by its cover: Another animated cover, but at least the little drawn people look mostly like the characters they're supposed to be. Romantic heroes with beards exist in romance, but seem to be few and far between, and you certainly don't see their beards frequently on the covers. So kudos for that, I guess. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday 2 September 2023

CBR15 Book 41: "Never Been Kissed" by Timothy Janovsky

Page count: 334 pages
Rating: 3 stars

CBR15 Bingo: Hold Steady (Wren is in quite a rut at the start of the book)

Official book description:
Wren Roland has never been kissed, but he wants that movie-perfect ending more than anything. Feeling nostalgic on the eve of his birthday, he sends emails to all the boys he (ahem) loved before he came out. Morning brings the inevitable Oh God What Did I Do?, but he brushes that panic aside. Why stress about it? None of his could-have-beens are actually going to read the emails, much less respond. Right?

Enter Derick Haverford, Wren's #1 pre-coming-out-crush and his drive-in theater's new social media intern. Everyone claims he's coasting on cinematic good looks and his father's connections, but Wren has always known there's much more to Derick than meets the eye. Too bad he doesn't feel the same way about the infamous almost-kiss that once rocked Wren's world.

Whatever. Wren's no longer a closeted teenager; he can survive this. But as their hazy summer becomes consumed with a special project that may just save the struggling drive-in for good, Wren and Derick are drawn ever closer...and maybe, finally, Wren's dream of a perfect-kiss-before-the-credits is within reach.

A feel-good summer LGBTQIA+ New Adult RomCom, perfect for fans of Red White & Royal Blue, Boyfriend Material, and What If It's Us.

I feel quite bad for authors whose publishers keep trying to sell their books based on what's been popular and sold lots already. Now, I haven't read What If It's Us yet, so I can't speak for this one, but pretty much the ONLY similarity between this book and Red, White & Royal Blue or Boyfriend Material is that it features a romance between two men. I adore the aforementioned books, they are both five-star comfort re-reads for me. I'm sorry to say that this book is nowhere near as witty, heart-warming, or entertaining as those books. Had I read the wildly misleading publisher boast before I picked up this book? No, because I tend to ignore stuff like that (cause it's ALWAYS lies) - but if I had, I would have been even more disappointed. 

I'm making it sound like this book was awful, it was not. The fourth of our  Hot Fun in the Summertime Book Club selection for June, I finished this a few hours before the Zoom chat was about to start. I had never heard of the author or title before I picked up the book, but one of my favourite things about book clubs, both the Cannonball one, and my RL fantasy/sci-fi/speculative fiction book club is that I am challenged to read books I wouldn't necessarily choose myself, and I have frequently found myself really enjoying books I would otherwise probably never have picked up, and discovering new authors. For the Cannon Book Club in June, I really liked two of the books (the ones I read way before the selection was even made, Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute and Georgie, All Along). This, and our cozy mystery, Arsenic and Adobo, were both fine, but I'm not exactly feeling motivated to run out and seek out more books by the authors. 

Our protagonist, Wren, is a bit of a sadsack at the start of the book, honestly. He seems insecure and aimless, the only thing he cares about is the drive-in where he works during the summer.  He's been promoted to assistant manager but keeps letting his personal life distract him from his duties, and letting both his crush on Derick and his friendship with his room-mate cause problems for him, and his boss. Wren doesn't seem to know what he wants to do with his life, and until he gets very drunk one evening, he has never had the courage to confess his feelings for any of his crushes. Then he impulsively sends out the e-mails he once wrote to each of the people he fancied (so far, so very To All the Boys I've Loved Before, except Derrick Haverford sure ain't no Peter Kavinsky). Because it wouldn't be much of a book if it ended there, of course, the universe conspires to have Derrick working at the drive-in with Wren all summer.

I didn't really engage with either Wren or Derrick or care much about their romance. My favourite character was the cranky old lady whose cult movie Wren was obsessed with. Do I remember her name? Nope. Can I be bothered to look it up? Also nope. 

This book was fine, but in no way knocked my socks off, and now, months later, I remember very little of it. I don't rule out other Timothy Janovsky books in the future, though.

Judging a book by its cover: A lot of the cartoony covers are getting rather generic, and I think this one is especially non-descript. The cars make sense since the plot is centred around a drive-in. I just don't think I'd ever have picked this book up if it hadn't been selected for book club. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read