Saturday 27 January 2024

CBR16 Book 3: "Dance with the Devil" by Kit Rocha

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

After his father died, Rafael "Rafe" Morales basically sold himself to TechCorps and agreed to become a technologically enhanced supersoldier, so he could make enough money to keep his widowed mother and younger siblings safe. He didn't really know what signing away his life would entail, and given the choice again, he probably would have chosen differently. He hasn't been able to see them for years, certainly not since he and his team, the Silver Devils, had to fake their own deaths to get away from their cruel superiors.

Unlike Rafe, Danijela "Dani" Volkova didn't really have external pressures that made her sign up with TechCorps. She was just curious and driven, and once their scientists had experimented sufficiently on her, she became super fast, agile, and graceful and lost the ability to feel pain, at all. This made her the perfect elite bodyguard for the rich and powerful, until she just couldn't handle the cruelty and corruption she was witness to and broke away. She joined Nina and Maya to become one of the mercenary librarians of Atlanta. Dani feels like TechCorps turned her into a monster. She appreciates the love that her chosen sisters and the former supersoldiers who share their lives offer her, but deep down she knows she doesn't deserve it. 

Since their very first meeting, when Dani may have "accidentally" stabbed Rafe a little bit, the chemistry between them has been off the charts. But Rafael doesn't want a quick fling, Dani doesn't do long-term commitment, and neither is willing to risk screwing up their new big, unusual family unit with relationship drama. Keeping everything casual and platonic becomes a lot more difficult when the two have to go undercover among the rich and deplorable of Atlanta. After the death of Tobias Richter, the VP of Security for TechCorps, and the one who sat with most of the power, the organisation is desperately scrambling to maintain control, and our enhanced heroes and heroines have decided that it's time to start fighting back. 

Having come into unexpected wealth at the end of the previous book, Maya is using all of her considerable resources and brains, her wealth of sensitive information burned into her brain after growing up in the loving arms of TechCorps and learning a lot of its dirty secrets, as well as calling in all the favours from her vast network of informants and allies. It's one such ally, a head researcher at TechCorps, whom Rafe and Dani are trying to contact when they go undercover, as a married couple. Once on the mission, they not only discover that Rafe's little sister is in terrible danger, but it also becomes impossible for them to keep their hands off each other. 

This is the third and probably final (there is a suggestion at the end of the epilogue in this one that there may be new dangers facing our intrepid band of heroes, but it seems like the author duo has moved on to new projects now) novel in the Mercenary Librarians series. As such, it's not the best place to start. This might very well not be an almost five-star read to someone else but as the end chapter of all that has been established in the previous two books, with all the seeds sown and the principal cast, as well as the various supporting characters, joining together to launch a full-scale revolution, I loved this book. The romance between Dani and Rafe has been teased from the beginning and didn't disappoint. 

Both Dani and Rafe got turned into lethal weapons by TechCorps, but Rafael grew up in a loving family and always knew that the sacrifices he made were for them. Dani was rejected by her parents once they realised the choices she had made, and was honed into a ruthless killing machine by the scientists. She is fiercely loyal and has vast capacities for love and emotion, all of which she is worthy of, but takes her quite some time to come to terms with. 

I loved this book, and its action-packed and thrilling finale, where the downtrodden of Atlanta join with our protagonists to kick ass and take names, in order to secure a better future, free of the dominance of TechCorps and their controlling ways. 

Judging a book by its cover: The cover for this one at least has slightly more of a sci-fi feel than the last one, but it's still a pretty generic image and I certainly would never have picked up this book from the cover alone. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

CBR16 Books 2: "The Devil You Know" by Kit Rocha

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Maya used to be Marjorie Chevalier, but had to change her identity after she escaped the evil super scientists at TechCorps, where she was trained as a data courier (basically a human hard drive), with her senses specially enhanced to remember flawlessly everything she hears, reads, sees, hears and experiences. She used to work for one of the Vice Presidents of TechCorps who was secretly orchestrating a rebellion, However, her boss (also the only maternal figure Maya ever knew) was caught and executed, and Maya had to be smuggled to safety. 

She found that safety with Nina, now one of the sisters she never had. Along with the lethal Dani, they have been working to help the residents of post-apocalyptic Atlanta by passing on free information (books, videos, music) and technical know-how. They also occasionally go off on adventures to recover more books and resources. After the events of the previous books, their little found family has expanded a lot, with the former supersoldiers from the Silver Devils squad having settled down in a warehouse next to the librarians' headquarters. The group is hired to retrieve what turns out to be a genetically modified child, and it turns out that Rainbow (which is the name the child chooses for herself) is not the only one. Since Maya doesn't have super speed or strength, she stays back home holding the fort, accompanied by Grey, the former sniper of the Silver Devils, who can't be trusted on a tense mission since his body might betray him.

All the Silver Devils have technical implants that have enhanced their senses. Supersoldiers like them don't normally have a very long lifespan, but in rare cases, their bodies might start rejecting the implant after decades of being used to them. This is what is happening to Grey now. He can suddenly be struck with seizures and an operation to replace the implant has a less than 5% chance of survival, even if they could find a surgeon skilled enough to perform the operation. So Grey is accepting that he doesn't have long to live. One of the things he wants to do with his final days is make sure Maya has the skills and confidence to defend herself and keep herself safe. She's always been told that she needs to be careful not to overload her brain, or she can pretty much short-circuit, but Grey suspects that she's limiting herself out of fears told to her to control her and keep her from reaching her full potential. He shows her that not only is she an absolute wizard with all things technical, but her perfect recall is a superpower in itself, if not as physically intimidating as those of her chosen sisters.

There is a very strong attraction between Maya and Grey, however, the only man Maya ever loved before was literally tortured to death in front of her in an attempt to get her to reveal the secrets buried in her brain after her boss was executed. She's also prone to sensory overload and doesn't really know how she'd react in a physically overwhelming situation, like having sex. Letting herself fall for a man who's dying is bound to lead to heartbreak, but not acting on the attraction before it's too late might be a bigger mistake than keeping her distance.

While Maya and the Silver Devils all had very skillful people hiding their tracks and faking their deaths (complete with falsified bodies with their DNA planted), Tobias Richter, the VP of Security at TechCorps is a ruthless and deeply driven man, convinced (rightly so) that he can find them if he searches hard enough. When a video from a farmer's market surfaces, proving to him that his quarries are still alive, Maya and Grey's days together might be numbered sooner than they think. 

I enjoyed Deal with the Devil, which introduced the world and all these characters to each other. Now the super soldiers and the high-tech murder ladies all live together as a big, ruthlessly efficient, and deadly family, doing their best to right wrongs and improve their local community. Maya has always felt like the weakest of the group, and the lies to her by her former boss to keep her from showing too much of her excellence to Tech Corps means she hasn't been able to reach her true potential until Grey comes along and makes her see how truly remarkable she is, even in a dangerous situation. She's not just brains and perfect recall. Their romance develops slowly since Grey is likely to die soon, and Maya has some understandable emotional scars from her first and only romantic relationship so far.

The villain in this book is a complete psycho, and once he discovers that Maya and the Silver Devils are alive, he lures them into a trap to get his clutches on Maya. Of course, Maya is no longer a delicate flower raised in a sheltered environment and beats Tobias Richter at his own game. Things look dicey for Grey for a while (who to be fair already thought he was dying, so wanted to save Maya with the grandest of gestures), but this is a romance, and our brave, self-sacrificing hero doesn't actually end the book dead. 

By the end of this book, our altruistic heroes and heroines have some difficult choices to make. Their attempts to stay hidden from TechCorps have clearly failed, and a confrontation is inevitable. Are they ready to go to war?

Judging a book by its cover: This is about as generic as covers go. Nothing about this says post-apocalyptic action adventure with kick-ass murder ladies and supersoldier dudes. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 14 January 2024

CBR16 Book 1: "Before the Coffee Gets Cold" by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Page count: 224 pages
Rating: 1.5 stars 

Warning! This review will contain spoilers, because after my book club discussion yesterday, I'm actually quite cranky about this book, and it's impossible for me to rant properly if I can't spoil the heck out of these stories. Don't worry, you don't actually want to read this book anyway.

In a small, dark basement café in Japan, visitors can travel briefly back in time, if they observe a series of very careful rules.
  1. They can only go back to meet and interact with someone who has also been to the café. 
  2. Nothing that happens in the past will change the present. No matter what they go back to do or say, the present will remain unchanged
  3. They have to sit in one specific seat in the café. This seat is usually occupied by a silent lady reading a book. The lady is in fact a ghost, and if you try to forcefully move her, she will place a curse on you. She leaves her seat about once a day, to visit the toilet (and yes, you can keep giving her coffee to speed the process along), that's when a person has their chance.
  4. You cannot leave the seat when you are in the past, then you will immediately be returned to the present.
  5. You travel back to the past when you are poured a cup of a special coffee. You have only until the coffee gets cold before you have to return. You also have to drink the entire cup of coffee, or you become a ghost and replace the current ghost lady.
  6. You only get to do the time travel thing ONCE - no do-overs.
Suffice it to say, most people can't actually be bothered, considering all the rules and how short a time they get to visit a past moment in their lives. Nevertheless, this book is split into four stories, with four different people who choose to use the magical option. 

The first story is called The Lovers. At the start of it, a couple go to the café and the man dumps the woman. Quite a lot is made of how beautiful and accomplished the woman is (she could apparently be a model on the cover of magazines). Nevertheless, she is dumped by her programmer boyfriend who is going to America for a job. A week later, she's back at the café, desperate for a chance to go back in time, because she froze when confronted by the bad news, and she never got a chance to tell her man "Don't go!". You'd think a beautiful, successful woman (who it is described always has guys trying to get her attention) would look at what a big sea there was out there for her to explore, and how many figurative fish there were in said sea for her to potentially date. But no, even knowing that going back in time will NOT CHANGE the present, so her man will still be off in America pursuing his career rather than being with her, she chooses to go. 

By the end of her time travel meeting, he tells her to wait, and he'll be back in three years. The point of a lot of the first story is obviously info-dumping for the readers how the time travel thing actually works. We also get flashbacks to the couple's early days of their relationship. It seems it took something like ten coffee dates for the guy to even realise they were dating, so he wasn't the most perceptive of dudes. Our beautiful, kind, and successful career lady, who could clearly find a more deserving man at the drop of a hat is perfectly happy to be kept on the hook for THREE years, waiting for a guy who didn't have the guts to tell her he was going to America until the SAME DAY he was leaving. 

The second story is about a husband and wife, who have both appeared as supporting characters in the first story. The husband is a landscape gardener who suffers from Alzheimer's. He frequently spends his days in the café, reading gardening magazines and taking notes. His wife, a nurse, comes in to pick him up, but a lot of the time recently, he no longer remembers who she is. Someone overhears him saying he wants to use the time travel chair to give his wife a letter. So she decides to go back in time instead, and while you can't change anything about the present by visiting the past, you can apparently take back objects without any difficulties. She meets her husband of several years ago, and he gives her a letter. The letter is significant because, in their relationship, she was always the one who wrote long intricate letters. He is apparently barely literate and would normally respond to her with just a sentence or two. But now he's written her a letter, and it's all about how he knows that he's sick and his greatest fear is that she because she is a nurse, will stop being his wife once he stops remembering her, and just act in the role of his carer and nurse. He doesn't want that, and pretty much gives her his blessing to move on with her life, if need be. Wifey is very touched and insists that everyone go back to calling her by her married name. She proceeds to basically go on dates with her husband, whether he remembers her or not

The third story is about two sisters. Another of the recurring characters in the stories is a woman who frequently sits at the counter with her hair in curlers. She runs a hostess bar nearby and is clearly an exuberant person. It's mentioned that she makes people feel comfortable and welcome, and that's one of the reasons the little hostess bar she runs is so successful. Hostess lady has a younger sister, who comes around every few months, trying to see her older sister. During her most recent visit, Hostess lady hid behind the counter for several hours, just to avoid seeing her. This is because Hostess lady is convinced her younger sister must hate her. Their parents owned a successful inn somewhere in the countryside and always expected older sister to take over and run it one day. But she wanted no such thing and left the family about a decade ago, so now her parents have pretty much disowned her, and it became the younger sister's duty to run the inn. Hostess lady is convinced her younger sister hates her because she is stuck fulfilling the wishes of their parents, while Hostess lady is off in the big city, enjoying a life of independence. 

The reason Hostess lady suddenly wants to travel back in time is that younger sister dies. She's killed in a car accident on her way back from the city, and now Hostess lady's parents hate her even more, because they blame her for their youngest daughter's death. Hostess lady feels bad that she kept trying to avoid awkward conversations, so she wants to go back to her sister's last meeting and tell her she loves her. This time, when the sister arrives, Hostess lady is sitting in the magic time travel chair and they have a heartfelt conversation. Turns out little sister doesn't hate Hostess lady, she just misses her and had always dreamed of the two of them running the inn together. Which is sweet, I guess. Now comes the bit that's less sweet. After returning to the present, Hostess lady (who has spent the last decade or so happily living an independent life in the city, desperately avoiding having to run an inn in the countryside just to please her parents) decides that she must return and beg her parents' forgiveness and take over running the inn in the countryside, because it was her sister's dying wish. Which it wasn't even! Her sister (now dead) dreamed of them running the inn TOGETHER. Little sister is dead, it's sad and tragic and a horrible waste. Hostess lady pretty much ran away from home so she wouldn't have to ever succeed her parents and become an inn manager. They already hate her - so what if they hate her a bit more and blame her wrongfully for her sister's death? Instead of staying in the city, enjoying her single lifestyle, and doing her dream job, she goes back home and becomes an inn manager. But it's ok, she sends the people at the café a picture where she looks happy - so everything ended up OK in the end? Really... that's the moral here?

The fourth story is about the wife of the café owner, who is portrayed as this friendly, cheerful woman, who has always been sickly and in and out of hospital because of a weak heart. Now she's pregnant, but it's obvious that the pregnancy is taking a massive toll on her. Her husband doesn't want to make a choice between his wife or the baby (i.e. tell her to get an abortion), and the wife wants this baby, even if she is most likely going to die giving birth to it. Wifey wants to use the very unusual option of going FORWARD in time, a much more tricky situation, as when you go back in time, you can think about a specific event, where you know the person you want to meet will be there. Going forward in time - who knows what will happen? 

The waitress who works at the café, and who is always the one to pour the special coffee for the time travelers, promises Wifey that she will make sure her daughter is in the café at the agreed-upon time and place in the future. Even so, there is a mix-up, with the date and time, and neither the waitress nor Wifey's husband is present when she pops into the future. The café even seems to be run by someone else. However, in a stroke of luck for Wifey (it's her only chance to travel in time, remember?), her daughter appears to be working in the café part-time and enters with enough time for her mother to see her and talk to her. Instead of jumping forward to when her daughter would be about ten, Wifey has jumped to when her daughter is a teenager. A teenager who has actually appeared in the café as a time traveler to the past, showing up to take a selfie with herself and Wifey (no one understood the significance at the time). Wifey is reassured that her daughter is doing well and that neither she nor her father seems to resent Wifey for the choice of having a baby, and then leaving her husband as a widower and single father, and her daughter mother-less. In fact, it seems like the woman from story nr one, The Lovers, now works in the café and has been something of a foster mother for the daughter. So maybe she doesn't get back with her dead-beat boyfriend? Who knows? 

One of the members of my book club ended up listening to the entire series of these books (there are four translated into English so far) and while he agreed that on the surface, some of these stories might seem quite nice, the core values expressed by the author throughout the stories are deeply conservative and pretty much all amount to women conforming to the traditional values of good wives and daughters. If a sacrifice has to be made, it's always the woman who makes it. I didn't think too hard about the various stories as I read the book (during the two days before our book club meeting), but during our one-hour discussion, we discussed each of the stories in more depth and agreed that most of them ended up being quite unsettling. This was supposed to be a nice, cozy winter read, and instead turned out to be a rallying call for the patriarchy, apparently. So I'm not going to apologise for spoiling all the stories. I don't plan to read any more from the author, and I don't think anyone else should either. 

Judging a book by its cover: The cover image doesn't capture the fact that on the hardback copies at least, the teal green is all shimmery, and the wallpaper looks like actual brocade. This is still a cozy cover, but the hardback book is so pretty. The cat on the cover is a total lie, however. There is no cat at any point in any of the stories. They'd probably be better if there had been. Most books are better with cats.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday 1 January 2024

My year in review: 2023

Happy New Year! It's unlikely that 2024 will be any better than the horror shows of the previous few, but we can always hope. I've been told I need to be less pessimistic, so let's start the new year with some optimism. May 2024 be better than the year that preceded it. 

In terms of reading, this has been a much better year for me than 2022 (when I was also too generally exhausted to even do a round-up of my reading), so I'm tentatively hoping to read at least as much and to manage my standard 52 reviews, but possibly as many as 104. It took a lot of dedicated review writing in the latter half of December to make my double Cannonball happen. As always, I usually had a fairly sizeable review backlog hanging over me for much of the year, I'm going to try to be better about reviewing as I go along (as I have said every year since the beginning of time, it feels).

I am also going to try to curb my Reading Challenge obsession this year. The occasional challenge to help me make reading lists and make sure I actually go through my ever-expanding TBR will probably be useful, but I'm not going to officially sign up for any, just do the Cannonball-related ones. In 2023, I signed up for and completed 21 different challenges - too many rules to abide by at any given time.

Reading challenges I completed:

  1. Single Cannonball - 52 reviews
  2. Double Cannonball - an additional 52 reviews, totaling 104
  3. Goodreads Reading Challenge
  4. The Story Graph Reading Challenge
  5. Cannonball Passport Challenge
  6. Cannonball Bingo
  7. Audiobook Challenge
  8. Backlist Reader
  9. Book Bingo on My Reader's Journey
  10. Colour Coded Challenge
  11. Diversity Challenge
  12. Finishing the Series
  13. Forever Young Adult Reading Challenge
  14. Monthly Keyword Challenge
  15. Monthly Motif Challenge
  16. Mount TBR Reading Challenge
  17. Read It Again, Sam
  18. Read My Bookshelf
  19. Tackle My TBR
  20. What's in a Name?
  21. Reading Challenge Addict

Thanks to my nifty spreadsheet, which I acquired over on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, it's been a lot easier to track my reading over the past year. I had quite a few DNFs, which I've decided not to count. My total ended up being 122 books, and my lovely spreadsheet also claims I read 42624 pages, which isn't too shabby. It's certainly a lot more than I managed in 2022.

New books read: 97                Re-reads: 25 (includes a lot of books adapted by Graphic Audio)

E-books: 72 (59%)                     Hardback/paperback: 34 (27.8%)                 Audio: 16  (13.1%)

I obviously also acquired a whole lot of books in 2023. 411 in total. 71.5% were e-books, 22.6% were dead tree ones (includes paperbacks, hardbacks, comic books, and manga), and 6.8% were audiobooks. Of the 411, ten were free (I'm very fond of a 3 for 2 offer on books) and five were gifts.

My favourite reads of 2023 (listed in alphabetical order by author, because I don't want the headache of ranking them):

Other notable mentions:
After some consideration, I have decided not to list my worst reads of the year, I don't really want to name and shame anyone. Besides, none of the books I read in 2023 were so egregiously bad that I really wanted to write a scathing hate review, some were just a bit underwhelming.