Monday 13 November 2023

CBR15 Book 68: "Shucked" by Kate Canterbary

Page count: 462 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Sunny DuJardin is just about to open a vegan cafe in her hometown of Friendship, Rhode Island, but keeps butting heads with the man who tormented her in much of her adolescence and early teenage years. Beckett Loew has had to take a leave of absence from his high-powered business job in Singapore to return to Friendship to try to figure out the total mess his flakey parents have made with the family's oyster restaurant. His father and many of the senior management of the restaurant are in jail for fraud and money laundering, his mother is on the run somewhere in South America, his teenage brother needs a legal guardian, and his pro-baseball player brother isn't returning his calls. Because of his runaway mother, he has an FBI agent following him around constantly, and the discovery that his best friend's little sister Sunny is all grown up and extremely hot is a very unwelcome distraction. 

While Sunny wants to nurse her giant iceberg of animosity towards Beckett, her business partners, his employees, and most others in Friendship have no problems with Beckett. It doesn't hurt that every time something goes wrong, Beckett has bucketloads of money to throw at any problem, making it go away almost instantly. Because of his clueless and deeply irresponsible parents, Beckett has had to be the responsible one in the family since he was a teenager. He doesn't really function unless he is shouldering every burden and taking care of everyone around him. Once Beck and his brother grew up and got as far away from Friendship as they could, his younger brother still had to deal with their super ditzy parents, and he doesn't really appreciate Beckett coming back and suddenly wanting to take a parental role in his life.

Sunny, on the other hand, because of her severe epilepsy, has had to fight to prove to her family that she can manage fine on her own, and stand on her own two feet. She hates people being overprotective, and Beckett's refusal to acknowledge that she is now a responsible adult and small business owner who can take care of herself infuriates her. When they were teens, Beckett and Sunny's brother made her life a living hell, and now he's back in town and rich and successful and gorgeous and while she wants to hat him, she also wants to climb him like a tree and do very bad things with him. Except he's not going to get involved with his best friend's little sister. That way true madness lies.

This book is told in alternating chapters from Sunny and Beckett's POVs. The enemies-to-lovers aspect isn't quite as strong as in the excellent The Worst Guy, the first Canterbary novel I read. There's some great feuding early on, however, and so much great banter, not just between our two protagonists, but also from pretty much the entire supporting cast. While the main romance here is between a heteronormative straight couple, there's a very diverse cast of supporting characters. Beckett's little brother is bi, one of Sunny's business partners has two husbands, and another of her business partners keeps hooking up with one of Beckett's female employees, while Sunny's fourth business partner is asexual. 

This book is a lot of fun and the book is a good start to a new series. The only thing I thought was entirely unnecessary, was the subplot that ends up with Sunny in peril more than once. It felt tacked on, and I didn't think it added anything to the story. The epilogue also felt quite long but makes it clear that the next book is likely to be a second chance romance between the middle Loew brother and his estranged wife. For anyone who wants more sweetness between Sunny and Beckett, Canterbary has an extended epilogue on her website, where you can follow the couple through a whole year of festivals (the town of Friendship has a LOT of festivals). 

Judging a book by its cover: I like the red background, I like the playful positioning of what I'm assuming is supposed to be Sunny. I like that the little dude who's clearly supposed to be Beckett is shucking an oyster, but I refuse to believe he actually did that while wearing an expensive suit. Not a big fan of the faint oysters in the background, though. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 12 November 2023

CBR15 Book 67: "Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery" by BROM

Page count: 305 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Connecticut, 1666. An ancient spirit is awoken in the darkness of the wood, fed by blood and the prayers of the wild spirits name him Father and Slayer. They lure a clumsy farmer into a cave to feed him to the spirit, making young Abitha a widow. Abitha already doesn't fit into the Puritan community with her outspoken ways and questioning of the rules. Having grown up in London, Abitha was sold by her drunken father and married off to a stranger, who thankfully turns out to be a gentle and rather simple man. Unfortunately, his gentle ways also make him easy for his domineering older brother to manipulate, and Abitha's brother-in-law is furious when the community elders allows Abitha to stay on by herself on the farm after her husband's death. If Abitha is able to raise enough crops to pay off the farm's debts, it's her brother-in-law who will be in trouble with the magistrate. 

Abitha nearly kills herself working the fields on her own, until she befriends Father (who she names Samson, after the goat that the forest spirits first killed to raise their slayer) and he starts tapping into ancient memories of being one with the land. His magic allows Abitha to grow plenty of corn, but her brother-in-law breaks into the farm at night and burns most of her harvest. Desperate, and unwilling to let her odious brother-in-law win, Abitha makes another deal with Samson, who gets the bees to produce huge amounts of honey and honeycomb, allowing Abitha to pay off her debts. 

Abitha's mother, who died when she was still a teenager, was a wise woman, who helped people with simples and healing potions. Abitha has also been helping some of the women and young girls in the community with little blessings and managed to cure one of the preachers' daughters of measles. This obviously comes back to haunt her when her brother-in-law decides to accuse her of witchcraft. Ironically, he's not entirely wrong, she has been dabbling with magic to succeed, but his wild accusations of her fornicating with the devil are obviously untrue. Sadly, because the community gets carried away, no one is willing to listen to Reverend Carver (whose daughter Abitha healed), and his wife Sarah is accused of aiding a known witch and tortured nearly to death before she finally breaks down and denounces Abitha. The villagers have tortured and murdered Abitha's cat, humiliated and tortured a kind woman whom Abitha respected, and done their best to torture "the truth" out of Abitha as well. If they want a witch, Abitha is determined to give the community what they want and fear. She accepts Samson's bargain when he comes to save her (he's been off fighting his own battle for his identity) and together she and Samson enact vengeance on the community who spurned her.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the truest monsters in this book, set in Puritan America in the 1660s, are the humans who get caught up in religious hysteria. The forest spirits lure a goat and an impressionable man into a cave and get them killed to reawaken their forest god, and try to set him to kill all the colonists (this doesn't really work out as they planned), but Father/Samson feels deeply confused and conflicted and refuses to do their bidding. Some people die at his hand, but usually none who don't deserve it. There's some quite graphic violence in parts of this book, and I really wish that so much of Abitha's eventual vengeance didn't involve bugs (so many bugs *shudder*), but the most upsetting parts to read are the ones where Abitha and Sarah are tortured by the so-called righteous magistrate and his minions. 

This book was very well-liked by my book club and we had an interesting discussion about it during our meeting. It was agreed that one of the things that probably made it a bit different from another witch hunt during the Puritan era novel was the aspect of the forest god/Father/Samson, and the nature spirits and their attempts to eradicate the white colonists. Samson is a deeply conflicted character, and it's revealed over the course of the story that this is because he has been many things over the years, and the remaining forest spirits have only tried to revive one aspect of him, so he's separated from his true self. He doesn't really want to be a slayer and a vessel for vengeance, he delights in the simple worship that Abitha offers him and the nature magic he is able to perform with her. He needs to go on his own quest to discover who he once used to be, and when he returns, he discovers what the townsfolk have done to Abitha. 

The story isn't just anti-colonialist, the forest spirits clearly remember the natives coming to their land and seem to be against anyone encroaching on their territories. We discover in the latter half of the book why the forest spirits have become so vengeful, and it gives the book an interesting dimension that with the exception of a few men, usually motivated by greed, there are no really evil players here. Everyone has their reasons for doing what they do. It was also pleasantly surprising to me and gave the story more nuance that not the entire Puritan community was against Abitha from the start. Reverend Carter and his wife Sarah are portrayed as genuinely good people, which makes what happens to them in the latter half of the story even more tragic.

This has been one of my favourite book club reads so far this year. I haven't read anything else Brom has written, but based on this, I would absolutely be open to reading something else as well. 

Judging a book by its cover: I'm not surprised that cover art is gorgeous, considering the author is also a professional artist. Nevertheless, the cover for this actually made a couple of the members of my book club gasp audibly when we were shown it at the meeting last month. It's so incredibly pretty.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 5 November 2023

CBR15 Book 66: "The Ex Hex" by Erin Stirling

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Heartbroken after discovering that the gorgeous young man she'd spent all summer with may in fact have a "betrothed" back in Wales, Vivienne "Vivi" Jones gets very drunk and weepy and she and her cousin light some candles and throw together a curse, to make Vivi feel better. They think nothing of it, until nine years later, when Rhys Penhallow, Vivi's ex, and descendant of Graves Glen's founding father returns to charge the ley lines. Suddenly there are murderous plastic toy skulls, a talking cat, and a very pissed-off ghost to deal with, and if Vivi and Rhys can't work together to break the curse before Halloween, not only they but the entire town of Graves Glen might be doomed.

This was a fun read, which I read in less than a day during this year's October Readathon. I really liked Vivi and her cousin Gwyn (as well as Gwyn's mother), I liked the premise of a little town where witchcraft and magic clearly exist, but most of the residents have no idea, and I liked Rhys and his absolute disdain for his pompous father and the whole Penhallow family legacy. Vivi might want to hate Rhys, but they still have sizzling chemistry and there is some very excellent banter between the two of them. Who doesn't love a talking cat (although he mostly demands "TREATS")? 

I liked this, but I'm not exactly desperate to read the sequel immediately As far as I can see, the next book in the series is about Gwyn and one of Rhys's brothers, so I'm guessing yet another Penhallow is going to relocate from Wales to small-town America. Several of my friends seem to like it, so I'm sure I'll get around to it at some point in the next year or two. 

Judging a book by its cover: While the cover is cute, and makes me think of Bewitched, there isn't actually any flying around on broomsticks in this book, solo or as a couple. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR15 Book 65: "A Curse So Dark and Lonely" by Brigid Kemmerer

Page count: 504 pages
Rating: 4 stars

A very long time ago, Prince Rhen, the crown prince of Emberfall, made a very foolish mistake and slept with the wrong woman. He's been paying for said mistake for centuries. Forced to relive the autumn of his eighteenth year over and over, he has to get a woman to fall in love with him in a few months, or he turns into a murderous beast and slaughters anyone he can find. If the curse remains unbroken, the season resets and Rhen is back on the day of his eighteenth birthday, starting the "game" once more.

The only one who survives his beastly rampages is Grey, the captain of his royal guard, who has to go into the mortal world for an hour at the start of every season to find a new woman to bring back to Emberfall, in the hopes of breaking the curse. 

Harper's mother is dying of cancer, and her father gambled away most of their money and abandoned his family, so now Harper's brother has to work as an enforcer for the people their dad owed money to. She's acting as a lookout for him while he's reluctantly threatening someone on behalf of his "employers" when she sees what appears to be a guy trying to kidnap a woman in an alley. Acting before she can think clearly, Harper jumps the guy to stop him and ends up in a magical land, trapped with Rhen and Grey. Apart from the two taciturn young men, the castle is completely empty. There are musical instruments that magically play, any food that is eaten magically reappears the next morning. Parker does her best to try to escape and discovers that the people who are living in the rest of Emberfall are suffering, believing that the royal family has abandoned them and trying their best to survive in the face of foreign invaders or the constant threat of the monster hanging over them.

The wicked sorceress who cursed Rhen in the first place has decided that this is his final chance at breaking the curse. If he doesn't find true love by the end of the season, he will remain a vicious monster and she will take over what is left of Emberfall. From Harper's clear dislike of him, Rhen is pretty sure that he's doomed, and tells Harper the truth (up to a point, he can't really bring himself to confess to being the monster that murdered the entire royal family and most of the surrounding villagers), figuring they might as well be honest with one another in the few months he has left.

Harper is not going to let the people around the castle starve or go defenseless. She demands that Rhen and Grey help her distribute some of the frankly staggering amounts of food around the castle, that just keeps magically replenishing every morning. She also makes Rhen understand that while he's rightfully depressed about the whole curse thing, he can't let Emberfall be invaded by a foreign power either. While scheming to try to trick the neighbouring ruler from giving up their invasion attempts, Rhen and Harper spend a whole lot of time together, but will it make Harper fall in love with Rhen before he turns into a monster one final time and all is lost?

This is the first of a trilogy, and the story is pretty much Beauty and the Beast meets Groundhog Day, except instead of Bill Murray learning to play the piano or carve ice sculptures, our hero is a mass murderer who has to live with the knowledge that as a monster he murdered not just the king and queen and his sisters, but all the people in the palace and a terrifying number of people in the areas surrounding the castle. In the many years since the curse began, Rhen and Grey have come up with plans to get the monster away from populated areas until the season resets, but while the prince and his loyal guard wake up healed and physically not a day older than they were when the curse set in, no one else who died can be brought back. That's going to mess anyone up, really.

Harper has cerebral palsy, and has had to go through a number of painful operations to fix her legs. She still walks with a limp, but refuses to let her illness define her. When the sorceress offers to magically heal her leg, Harper angrily responds that she's not broken. She hates that she's unable to do more to help her brother and mother, and it's her courage and sense of justice that makes her attack Grey when she sees him trying to bring another woman back to Emberfall, resulting in herself ending up trapped there instead. She's clearly nothing like any of the other women who have been brought there before and makes several escape attempts before realising that she might be better off working with Grey and Rhen, rather than against them. Once she sees how much the vengeful sorceress keeps torturing the prince and Grey, she reluctantly decides to make the best of a bad situation.

This is a very violent fairy tale retelling and I liked that it didn't pull its punches. The people outside of the palace do not have the seasons resetting, and while Rhen and Grey seem to have lived for centuries, only about five years or so have passed outside of the castle grounds. The common people of Emberfall have pretty much lost all hope, believing the royal family has fled and left them to manage on their own, against the raging monster and now an invading force from another country. Rhen isn't really sure how in the world he's going to be able to help his subjects, considering the rest of the royal family didn't flee, they were brutally murdered by the monster, as were all the other inhabitants of the castle, including the royal guard. There isn't really anyone to fight the enemy soldiers, but thanks to a rather farfetched scheme concocted by Harper, Rhen, and Grey, they're going to try anyway.

I'll be very interested in seeing where this series goes, considering the end of this one. There are some interesting new challenges set up and even if I didn't already own the whole trilogy, I would probably keep reading, just because Kemmerer did something a bit different with her story. 

Judging a book by its cover: On my paperback edition of this book, the title is in a shimmery silver (as is the back cover of the book) and I like the dark and slightly spooky look of the thorns and the woods. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday 3 November 2023

CBR15 Book 64: "Gods of Jade and Shadows" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Caseopea Tun is basically treated as a servant by her grandfather, cousin, and extended family because her mother ran away and made an ill-advised marriage. Caseopea suffers the indignities mainly because her tyrannical grandfather has promised to leave her some money once he dies. However, during another turbulent row with her spoiled cousin Martín, he reveals that their grandfather has no intention of leaving anything to Caseopea. She feels furious and rebellious, which leads to her opening the forbidden chest at the bottom of her grandfather's bed, hoping to possibly find some treasures she can steal. 

Instead, Caseopea finds a lot of old bones and having pricked her finger on one of them, they reassemble into a man, the embodiment of the Mayan death god Hun-Kamé. Apparently, Caseopea's grandfather aided the god's brother, Vucub-Kamé in imprisoning him, and he now needs to go on a quest to reclaim certain stolen body parts to regain his full power and battle his brother for dominance of the Mayan underworld. Caseopea has no choice but to accompany him, as a tiny bone shard is lodged inside her and she and Hun-Kamé are linked, and the god is siphoning life force from her. If they don't succeed within a reasonable time frame, Hun-Kamé will become fully human, and Caseopea will die.

This is set during the Jazz Age in Mexico, but apart from the occasional mentions of short skirts and flapper haircuts, it doesn't really come into the action all that much. Caseopea eventually gets a short haircut, but it's to clean up the remains of her hacked-off hair after Hun-Kamé required her hair to burn in a magic ritual to summon ghosts. Because of the historical setting, our protagonists travel by ship and train, rather than airplane, and obviously, this means they get to spend more time together in small quarters. 

Caseopea is an engaging heroine. She is clever and resourceful, and dreams of a life in the city away from her controlling relatives. Nonetheless, she's also pragmatic and while upset about the dangers her quest with Hun-Kamé exposes her to, possibly even ending in her own death, she accepts it as a consequence of her rather impulsive rebellion. Luxury and beautiful clothing are things that Caseopea has only been able to dream about. Hun-Kamé is a god and travels in style, and Caseopea, who has been a poor relation her whole life, enjoys the change in circumstances, knowing it might not last very long.

Hun-Kamé starts out as very imperious and distant, with little care for his companion, but as their quest progresses and he remains connected to Caseopea, he takes on more and more human aspects and even gains the ability to dream, something he claims no gods can do. His brother is convinced that this added humanity is the thing that will ensure his downfall, but in the end, he comes to love Caseopea and be loved in return, and that is one of the elements that eventually defeats Vucub-Kamé. 

The book has multiple POVs, and I understand why the author chose to tell the story like this, but also admit that I felt my interest waning every time the perspective changed to that of Martín, who is tasked by Vucub-Kamé to track down his cousin and try to persuade her to abandon Hun-Kamé, or the chapters where we follow Vucub-Kamé (although it gave some interesting insight into Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. 

This is the first novel I've read by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and while I didn't love it, I found it an entertaining read, where I learned more about mythology from another culture. I have many more of Moreno-Garcia's books on my TBR shelf and look forward to reading more of her stories in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: I think this is a lovely cover, and Ms. Moreno-Garcia always seems to luck out with her cover designers, because I'm hard-pressed to remember seeing a single bad cover for one of her books. This cover is absolutely one of the things that drew me to the book in the first place. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read