City of Ghosts (CBR10 #61)

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I read a bit of YA, but middle grades is not something I usually think to pick up, or even necessarily think of as a distinct genre. But as is often the case in my reading diet of the past few years the Read Harder Challenge had a task that needed sorting. Enter Leedock and her review of City of Ghosts – the perfect book to fulfill the “read the first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series”.

Now is when I admit to having never read a Victoria (or V.E. as she is sometimes known) Schwab book before.  She’s relatively well-reviewed around Cannonball Read and now that I’ve been initiated I can see why. Her writing is inventive and immediately sets the reader into her world. In the case of City of Ghosts we’re joining Cass and her best friend Jacob (who is a ghost, by the by) as the easy summer vacation at the beach away from the tap tap tap of ghosts on the otherside of the Veil is replaced by a family trip to Edinburgh, Scotland so Cass’s parents (writers of a series of books about paranormal happenings and ghost myths) can host a new travel show about the most haunted places in the world (an easy series maker, that).

The only thing keeping this from having been a one sitting read is that I was falling asleep the first night I picked it up and no amount of page-turning writing was going to keep me awake. The next time I sat down with the book I was however sucked in, and since this is a book aimed at 8 to 12 year olds (although I think Schwab slightly missed the mark on this, it reads more 12 to 14 to me edging into the YA zone) I plowed through the adventures Cass and Jacob get into and the new friends they meet, and new dangers they find. The book was both a good story and a good book for building a reader’s skills – truly what I’m looking for in books aimed at this age range.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. You can join our bunch of ragtag readers and reviewers and help us raise money for the American Cancer Society. Every little bit helps, and goals of 13, 26, or 52 are available!

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The Escape (CBR10 #60)

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I have a library hold backlog gathering on my kitchen table, so I decided best plan was to knock out a few quick reads and hopefully catch up. Part of the backlog is a few of The Survivors’ Club books by Mary Balogh. I enjoyed The Proposal and The Arrangement earlier this year and had immediately put holds on the rest of the series. In typical me fashion I was nervous about the next book, The Escape, when I wrote my review for The Arrangement (as I was nervous about the focus of The Arrangement when I finished The Proposal) but I should learn to just stop being nervous – Balogh seems to have everything well in hand.

The Escape is the story of Benedict Harper (referred to as Ben throughout) and Samantha McKay. They each have their own share of suffering – he lost full use of his legs as well as many other injuries in battle and she has spent the past five years nursing her dying husband. After said husband’s death, Samantha is at the mercy of her oppressive in-laws with her sister in law Matilda running her life and enforcing the strictest type of mourning. Samantha wants to live, and the burgeoning friendship with Ben and his sister provides an outlet, until Matilda returns home to her parents and they demand Samantha remove to their home where they can enforce a “proper” mourning. Desperate, Samantha plots an escape to distant Wales to claim a house she has inherited. Ben insists that he escort her on the journey, both based on his gentlemanly responsibilities and the niggling flirtation he can’t quite leave be (equal parts glad to have a return of sexual desire after six celibate years but aware that it is entirely inappropriate to have said feelings for a widow a mere four months into mourning).

Over the next several weeks of travel and relocation to Wales, Ben admits to himself how much he wants Samantha, and she invites him to share a weeklong affair before they separate forever.  Romance novels being what they are, they continue to fall quietly and deeply in love. Mary Balogh’s common theme of broken people fitting their pieces together means that Ben and Samantha find much more in their relationship than they had ever expected, but that doesn’t mean that the timing is right or that it is going to work. Since Balogh characters are always sensible and wonderfully grown up Ben does leave at the end of the week, but a way back is set up.

I was surprised how much I felt for Ben and Samantha, for their pain and their struggles, their commitment to doing what was right, to being together, but making sure Samantha wouldn’t be stained by rumor. Ben and Samantha each had full character arcs separate from the romance storyline and I grew incredibly fond of both of them. Balogh lays in references to the previous two books, giving us a sense of time and pulling the various characters together to set us off on the back half of the series. I have the next two books here at the house; we’ll see when I get to them.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Career of Evil (CBR10 #59) (reread)

 

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Because my brain doesn’t seem to hold onto the details of mystery books the story is often new to me again. This time I didn’t have that experience though, I had already binged the BBC adaptation of the books, but I still thoroughly enjoyed my time with the characters. Once again Career of Evil is Rowling writing an intricate, but not unsolvable, mystery where the clues are right there in front of you, and even if you don’t catch the signs along the way, the resolution make sense after the big reveal.  This story dials down its setting and pace to the precision of a master craftsperson, making a long book covering several months move quickly and evenly to its eventual crescendo.

In my first reading of Career of Evil, I pulled apart the ways that sexism and misogyny were being examined and in this reading I saw more details Rowling was using in setting up those subtexts. This book remains explicitly and implicitly about misogyny. Rowling uses the sexism of daily life and the many incidental ways woman are made to suffer and are put at risk by the world we live in to create a looming sense of dread throughout the novel. It is also a discussion of prejudicial treatment of women both casual and pervasive. Rowling places us into the minds of the men who are in the wrong, from the story’s main antagonists (including a serial killer who objectifies women); to Strike himself, a man who tries to be good and still ends up short sometimes; and Matthew’s very real internalization of white male privilege and co-dependence we take a tour of what must be endured and hopefully conquered by women every day. All of this is before we even dig into the mystery at hand or how it relates to Cormoran’s military past.

As I discussed in my The Silkworm reread review, I had previously missed that Rowling had taken what I assumed to be a non-critical character in Charlotte and instead used her as a foil for a larger conversation. Instead of merely painting a picture of Cormoran’s past (as I thought she was there to do) she was really a comparison point to Matthew. In The Silkworm Rowling as Galbraith was gently showing how unhealthy, codependent relationships are incredibly subtle, persistent, and destructive. Even though Charlotte does not appear in this book (except in a memory of Robin’s) her relationship with Cormoran is echoed in Matthew’s relationship with Robin. As I knew what to be looking for this time through I was more and more unsettled by how toxic, but entirely typical, Robin and Matthew’s relationship is (I also know that I am bringing some very personal baggage to the table here, but I don’t think it’s inappropriate).  We are supposed to see familiar behaviors and themes and gradually understand them to be the destructive forces they are. It works brilliantly layered in against the more obvious violence and abusive behaviors of other romantic partners in the book.

The other thing I didn’t talk about in my original review of Career of Evil that I’d like to this go round is Shanker. All of the character history I had assumed would only come from Charlotte is eclipsed by the revelations surrounding the character of Shanker. There’s something about the personal moral compass of Shanker (and his insistence that everyone pays for his services, regardless of history, loyalty, or friendship) that speaks to me. He lives his life on the wrong side of what most people would consider correct, but he is steadfastly about something, and often that something is something commendable, if gotten to in less than legal ways. Some of my favorite parts of the book include Shanker and I simply found him to be delightful.

I don’t know how the smile Robin gives the battered Strike while saying ‘I do’ to the ever-more-hated Matthew is going to play out, and now that the fourth book is finally out my waiting on the cliffhanger is almost over. I am however glad that I decided to read these books again before digging into Lethal White, if only to make sure then many moving parts are clear in my mind’s eye.

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This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Station Eleven (CBR10 #58)

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I apologize now, this review will not really be a review. It is more a love letter to the community at Cannonball Read.

Of the ten books we had to choose from for the So Popular bingo square, I had read most, but not all. The ones I haven’t read I don’t care to (looking at you, Divergent) so I was thinking about re-reading Eleanor & Park to go with last year’s re-read of Attachments or maybe The Martian to see if I still had a book crush on Mark Watney. I wrote up my #cbr10bingo list with a couple options and went about scheduling the books that were already on my to read list for the year.

But then I realized that what I really wanted to do was revisit the book that led to our having Cannon Book Club in the first place. MsWas had floated the idea at the end of 2014 about possibly having a book club. When I read Station Eleven the first time I knew that this was a book that needed a book club experience, and I loved it enough to step a little bit further out of my comfort zone (I had just organized my first book exchange for the site, even though we’d had one the previous year) and volunteer to do it. This book grew me as a person in ways I would never have expected when I picked it up at the end of January 2015.

The stories in Station Eleven ask you to think big thoughts: what can you do? What do you do if you know you have a matter of hours left to live? How do you survive? What mark can you leave behind? Do you even get to choose? What are the benefits of remembering? Of forgetting? While I was reading this time I knew what was coming, so I wasn’t as caught out by Mandel’s ability to distract me and send the reader flying in different directions or timelines than anticipated, but her style and mechanics still held together a finely drawn world which is eerie, unsettling, and full of tension waiting to be released. There were moments so exquisitely written, nuance settled deeply into the pages, that it in some ways felt like coming home.

I still love this book, and I love the togetherness it helped inspire. I look forward wholeheartedly to our FIFTH year of book club next year where we’re planning to tackle Good Omens and who knows what else. My most heartfelt thanks to all the people who make Book Club and Cannonball Read possible, I am so very lucky to have all of you in my life.

 

 

All Systems Red (CBR10 #57)

Bless Cannonball Read, praise be for friends who you know share a similar taste in books, and let the world rejoice for Murderbot. I’ll be using a slightly modified plot summary from Goodreads because, well, I’m really tired.:

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are (required to be) accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety. But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder (you’re shocked, I know), safety isn’t a primary concern. On a distant (uninhabited) planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is (and go back to watching the serials on the feeds). But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.”

I have a very hit and miss relationship with novellas, but Martha Wells seems to have nailed just the right amount of characterization and world building and forward momentum of the plot without the equation going out of balance. I identified with Murderbot from very early on – Wells has written an android that has depression and social anxiety, and is generally apathetic about the whole “life” thing.

It’s subtle in the best possible meaning of the word. The story is told from Murderbot’s perspective and we are thrown into a world where we are at the whims of said apathetic android to piece the world together.  As Murderbot becomes more invested (particularly in keeping tits entertainment feed and keeping its rating from going any lower), we learn more about why the humans are where they are and why.

Murderbot’s deadpan delivery and dark humor underline how it views itself. While self-aware and in control, Murderbot still prefers to be thought of as just another piece of equipment. Due to that, it struggles to finds ways to keep itself separate from the humans while still performing its job of keeping the humans alive. I was pulled in by the sheer uncomfortableness Murderbot feels – it gets injured early in the book and I frankly aghast at its failing human parts and fluids and just wants to be left in peace to regenerate. Murderbot is still working out this whole “person” thing and humans looking at it and seeing the details of  said personhood and not just the shell of a SecUnit it becomes deeply uncomfortable, awkward, and anxious. This is definitely a different way into unpacking a story about relationships and our humanity.

It’s wrong to think of a construct as half bot, half human. It makes it sound like the halves are discrete, like the bot half should want to obey orders and do its job and the human half should want to protect itself and get the hell out of here. As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do. What I should do. What I needed to do.”

I’ll be picking up the next three in the series for my holiday travel reading.

Last Rituals (CBR10 #56)

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Last Rituals is the first in series focusing on Thóra Guðmundsdóttir, Icelandic lawyer and divorced mother of two. We are introduced to Thóra following the discovery of the body of a young German student Harald Guntlieb at a university in Reykjavík, his eyes cut out and strange symbols carved into his chest. Police wasted no time in making an arrest, but the victim’s family isn’t convinced that they have the right person. They ask Thóra to investigate on the recommendation of her old professor and it isn’t long before the deceased’s obsession with Iceland’s grisly history of torture, execution, and witch hunts becomes entwined in Thóra and her partner’s research.

Beginning with a promising premise the book began to lag rather quickly. The plot in and of itself is interesting, but the narrative is structured in a way where there is virtually no suspense to keep the reader interested. The story also suffers from a lack of emotional intensity, there’s no sense of danger or excitement, with unnecessary attempts at trying to focus on the home life and opinions of Thóra aren’t successfully woven into the structure of the investigation.

For me, it was a fairly stilted and detail heavy novel. Based on the nature of the inquiry Thóra and Matthew are conducting the amount of detail thrown at the reader could have benefitted from some paring back, in many cases it just feels like an information dump. Last Rituals is essentially a straightforward recounting of the investigation of a macabre murder, but it is bogged down by wading through the intricacies of Harald’s research. As Thóra ploughs on through a wealth of documentation she uncovers more questions than answers. Which leads to one of my least favorite tropes – the slow and incomplete disclosure of information from Harald’s family particularly the significant revelations which are withheld and belatedly disclosed – it feels like a ruse to cloud the readers thinking and perhaps add a little excitement, which it doesn’t really accomplish if that was the goal.

This clearly well researched novel is unfortunately the antithesis of a page-turner, and for that reason this review probably reads harsher than my three star rating would indicate. I’m left with the feeling that Last Rituals requires a lot of effort from its readers for a fairly limited return. I am however hopeful that Thóra’s next job will involve topics with more general interest and less academic research (which in all honesty I was expecting to enjoy more – I find witchcraft quite interesting) and that Sigurdardottir leans more heavily into Thóra’s dry sense of humor.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.

The Dire King (CBR10 #55)

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While I have a couple of series underway, there was only one where the final book was the only one I had left to read, so the This Is The End square was a simple choice. The Jackaby series is comprised of four books, Jackaby, The Beastly Bones, Ghostly Echoes, and The Dire King. I have absolutely enjoyed my time with the series over the past few years, but the fourth book was unfortunately the weakest.

The Dire King continues the story of the Seelie and Unseelie War that is enveloping New Fiddleham. Abagail,  an independent, self-assured, feminist, and delightfully sarcastic lead character and assistant to Jackaby, the Seer, who is just kooky enough to be interesting without being off-putting are gathering the forces of good to battle the forces of evil as led by the Dire King we met in Ghostly Echoes. As is often the case in series closers The Dire King takes the status quo and turns it on its head. While there were some tropes that I was happy to see, there were several others that left me wishing that William Ritter had chosen something else. A hero’s journey is expected, but the end game of that journey doesn’t have to look so similar to other journeys out there in the world of YA. But, just as I was feeling the need to roll my eyes Ritter breaks out a few tricks he had hinted at along the way and I was won over again.

My only major complaint (which honestly didn’t keep me from reading the book in two nights) was that this book is very clearly part two of Ghostly Echoes. One of the things I loved about Jackaby was that while it left the door open for more stories in the world, that it was self-contained and complete. The three other books in the series are much more tightly linked and while it didn’t bother me in Ghostly Echoes, it absolutely did in The Beastly Bones and this one.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.