Always, in December (CBR14 #6)

I don’t normally suggest reviewing a book while angry at it, but here we are. I should probably wait to further reflect on why I’m feeling this way. But. But I have already angrily thrown it into the return slot at the library and after four hours of being annoyed, and having it come right back to front of mind the moment I was done watching the finale of the Station Eleven adaptation I have decided to try to purge my anger into digital ink and just be done with it.

Because I am actively angry at Always, in December. Here’s why:

  • I was lied to by the publisher (or whoever else shelved this thing) – this book is not a Romance, and it is being advertised as such.
    • I will concede that there is a romance plot line, but it pretty much wraps up at the end of the first section and then the fallout of that arc propels the rest of the book.
    • If that first section had a different final ending than the book, it would be a great Romance novella.
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  • Simultaneously, the characters are hollow. Which is incredibly frustrating because Emily Stone appears to be a confident and competent writer but her female lead is so dragged down by grief and loss that she is emotionally quite empty, and her male lead is a cypher throughout. Even in his own section (of which he only gets one of the four major ones) the reader isn’t let in on the secret the book is trying to keep and therefore we are left without the ability to know the character.
    • This book also commits the grave sin of a problem that could be solved by an honest conversation. Sections 2-4 are a litany of missed opportunities for either character to speak emotional truth.
Writing Pet Peeves #1: Foreshadowing From Hell - sera ashling
  • The book is emotionally manipulative. I clocked what was happening at about the 2/3rds mark – that the book wasn’t going to deliver on the Romance tropes but instead head to a darker ending – at that point I flipped to the end to see just how bad this was going to be (VERY BAD) and then went back and finished and at every single point that Stone could use the plot to wring tears from her reader she did. But they weren’t earned in the characters, those moments instead banked on the readers own losses and hit emotional cues to bring them up.
    • This book attempts to do what Jojo Moyes did in Me Before You (your mileage may vary, that book worked for me) but it falls short in major ways. Moyes crafted two beautifully well-rounded protagonists who affect the courses of each other’s lives in big ways, and perhaps more importantly in small ways. Stone does not achieve that.
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  • There is an unrelenting undercurrent of fat phobia and disgust running through the book, but most noticeably in the later sections. I’m hard pressed to think of an example where any sort of roundness or softness was used as a positive descriptor in this work and by the midway point I was actively on the lookout.
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  • Most importantly it handles grief, illness, and death in ways that I don’t think are necessarily healthy while not providing a Content Warning.
    • The CW should include multiple deaths of loved ones; off page cheating; heart attack; cancer, sudden unexpected death

Completed Read Women Challenge 2021

Another reading challenge in under the wire. Reading Women is not continuing with their challenge in 2021 and I’ll miss it, if only for the various categories it made me think about, and awards it brought to my attention.

Read Women Challenge 2021

  1. A Book Longlisted for the JCB Prize
    • Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup
    • The JCB Prize for Literature is an award presented each year to a distinguished work of fiction by an Indian author.
  2. An Author from Eastern Europe
  3. A Book About Incarceration
  4. A Cookbook by a Woman of Color
  5. A Book with a Protagonist Older than 50
  6. A Book by a South American Author in Translation
    • Eva Luna by Isabel Allende, Margaret Sayers Peden (translator)
  7. Reread a Favorite Book
  8. A Memoir by an Indigenous, First Nations, Native, or Aboriginal Woman
  9. A Book by a Neurodivergent Author
  10. A Crime Novel or Thriller in Translation
    • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
    • As with all of our translation prompts, you can read in any language you like as long as the book has been translated from one language to another.
  11. A Book About the Natural World
  12. A Young Adult Novel by a Latinx Author
  13. A Poetry Collection by a Black Woman
  14. A Book with a Biracial Protagonist
  15. A Muslim Middle Grade Novel
  16. A Book Featuring a Queer Love Story
  17. About a Woman in Politics
  18. A Book with a Rural Setting
  19. A Book with a Cover Designed by a Woman
  20. A Book by an Arab Author in Translation
    • Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World edited by Zahra Hankir
      • 3 essays translated by Mariam Antar
    • The Arab World consists of twenty-two countries in the Middle East and North Africa: Algeria, Bahrain, the Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
  21. A Book by a Trans Author
  22. A Fantasy Novel by an Asian Author
  23. A Nonfiction Book Focused on Social Justice
  24. A Short Story Collection by a Caribbean Author
    • Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, Nicola Yoon (Jamaican)

Completed Read Harder 2021

After a few touch and go weeks where I wasn’t sure if I was going to complete this Challenge for the second year running, I managed to pull it out at the end. 2021 turned out to be a year I read more than I have in several, and as usual this challenge helped round it.

Read Harder Challenge 2021

  1. Read a book you’ve been intimidated to read
  2. Read a nonfiction book about anti-racism
  3. Read a non-European novel in translation
    • Eva Luna by Isabel Allende, Margaret Sayers Peden (translator)
  4. Read an LGBTQ+ history book
  5. Read a genre novel by an Indigenous, First Nations, or Native American author
  6. Read a fanfic
  7. Read a fat-positive romance
  8. Read a romance by a trans or nonbinary author
  9. Read a middle grade mystery
  10. Read an SFF anthology edited by a person of color
  11. Read a food memoir by an author of color
  12. Read a work of investigative nonfiction by an author of color
  13. Read a book with a cover you don’t like
  14. Read a realistic YA book not set in the U.S., UK, or Canada
  15. Read a memoir by a Latinx author
  16. Read an own voices book about disability
  17. Read an own voices YA book with a Black main character that isn’t about Black pain
    • Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, Nicola Yoon
  18. Read a book by/about a non-Western world leader
  19. Read a historical fiction with a POC or LGBTQ+ protagonist
  20. Read a book of nature poems 
  21. Read a children’s book that centers a disabled character but not their disability 
  22. Read a book set in the Midwest 
  23. Read a book that demystifies a common mental illness 
  24. Read a book featuring a beloved pet where the pet doesn’t die 

Happy 10th Anniversary

Ten years ago today I launched this blog and posted my intentions about what I wanted it to be, or hoped it would be, or dreamt it would be. It has rarely been those things, but in the end it has captured a decade of my interests and thoughts – and that is what I truly wanted, looking back.

I’ve posted over 650 times, the vast, vast majority being book reviews as my time with Cannonball Read has grown into one of the most important components of my life, both online and off. I’m proud to say we are now 501c3 pending, an accomplishment undertaken by people I am lucky enough to call friend who put their time and energy into creating a wonderful community that takes doing good as seriously as it values the written word and saying Fuck You to Cancer.

I did try NaNoWriMo. and I’m still in a writing group plugging away at my writing, but I’ve moved away from the idea that there is a novel lurking inside me (there might be, never say never) and instead moving towards short form which still boggles the brain a bit since I don’t often enjoy reading that length work, but I do enjoy writing it. Every so often I remember that this place is here to be able to vent my thoughts, my ideas, and I do that too.

It is hard to image now, 500 yards away from the desk that I was sitting at when I first wrote in this space, how much has changed in my life, and how much has stayed the same. These years have been some of the most fulfilling while also some of the most challenging. I’m still here in what is very likely the middle of my life discovering who I am, what descriptors fit, and what I want my life to be.

After all, we get to decide. Which is what I’ll keep doing, posting here as I go.

Modern Comfort Food: a Barefoot Contessa Cookbook (CBR13 #63)

Modern Comfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook

One of the things I think about when I’m rating and reviewing cookbooks is: are they a good read? I am of course going to worry about the quality of the recipes, but if the writing is not good there is really no reason to pick up the book – these days the internet will generally be able to provide you with a variety of options for whatever it is you’re on the hunt for, but a well written cookbook will help you understand the whys and hows, not just give you an ingredient list and a method.

On that measure, Ina Garten’s Modern Comfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook passes well. Garten is used to speaking to an audience, to introducing them to food, and making sure they are informed and entertained (I know not everyone will enjoy the namedropping, but I find it fun). This is also a well timed book, when better to write about comfort food than during a global pandemic? This is a Barefoot Contessa book… which means there are fancier ingredients than are perhaps readily available to you or within your budget, but that shouldn’t prevent you from trying the recipes and doing them with what you have to hand. There are also recipes that I can’t imagine using – I’m not going to Ina Garten for enchiladas, for example. But maybe someone will finally get over their prejudices against enchiladas because Ina gave them a recipe with goat cheese… but I am not that person. I also already make some things virtually the same way they are described in this cookbook (sausage and peppers) so I won’t be revisiting them here.

But I’ve had this book out as long as the library will allow me. Honestly the fact that each recipe comes with a photograph is reason enough to keep it hanging around the kitchen. In the time that I’ve had it I’ve tried a variety of recipes. The Cheddar and Chutney Grilled Cheese sandwiches were very, very good and a handy quick change to really enhance a sandwich. I also had my first success with choux, because even though she doesn’t call it as such, that’s exactly what they Cacio e Pepe Cheese Puffs are and the friends I made them for thought they were delicious (and it’s a recipe that worked for lactose intolerant friends and vegetarian friends). I also treated myself to a Pomegranate Gimlet and it was delicious. The only one I’ve tried that I likely won’t revisit is the Giant Crinkled Chocolate Chip cookies, they just didn’t live up to the work that went into them. I’ve got plans to work through her version of Crispy Chicken and Lemon Orzo as well as making the Arrabbiata sauce. I also chuckled to myself when I came across it – but I am going to try her ice cream sandwich “recipe” of buying crisp chocolate chip cookies (Tates is suggested), coffee ice cream (she says Hagen Das, I say use whatever you have), and toffee bits because it speaks my language, flavor-wise.

The Bear and the Nightingale (CBR13 #42)

The Bear and the Nightingale (The Winternight Trilogy, #1)

One of Cannonball Read’s #CannonBookClub prompts asked if there’s any special power in taking a known story and envisioning it in a new way, and for me the answer is a resounding yes. Whether its something along the lines of Longbourn where characters who are merely set dressing in the original tale are given the limelight or something like The Bear and the Nightingale where history and folktales are put into a blender, metaphorically, and something new arrives there is more often than not an engaging experience waiting.

The Bear and The Nightingale is, at its heart, the story of Vasya. She is the youngest daughter of lord of a remote village. Before dying, Vasya’s mother tells her father that just like her grandmother before her, Vasya will be special. The villagers have always left offerings for the various forest and household spirits but Vasya is actually able to see and speak with them. The trouble begins when Vasya’s father returns from Moscow with his second wife, a stepmother for Vasya, daughter of the prince and also able to see spirits – but she interprets them as demons.  Political machinations in Moscow lead to a new priest being sent to their village and Father Konstantin frightens the villagers into abandoning the old spirits. Crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest come nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasya’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent. Vasya does her best to stay true to herself and cause as little trouble as possible, often by absenting herself. As danger closes in though, Vasya must choose to act for what she knows is right, even if it means defying her loved ones, so the people she loves can be protected from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

The story in The Bear and the Nightingale is my favorite kind of low fantasy: fantastical elements rooted in historical fact. Arden writes well, you’re not lost in or distracted by the details- they just fill in the background, much like the forest just outside the village. Arden builds her story universe in a way that keeps it grounded, with a realistic feel. In our book club Zoom I mentioned that this book starts about six times, and it does in a way, but each of those layers is important in giving that realistic feeling.

The story is very character driven, with a strong emphasis on familial love and duty. Vasya becomes the center of the storm, where various other character’s expectations and needs collide. If her characterization wasn’t so well done, the story would be much less successful. There are weak points – plot threads that remained unresolved, an imbalance in the pacing of the story, but nothing that prevents this from being a good, enjoyable read. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in a trilogy, and while I am interested to see where things pick back up with Morozco and Vasya now that the seeming “big bad” is dealt with, and what the cost of that victory is, I’m in no rush. Which is why I’m choosing to keep this at 3 stars.

Personal gripe – while there are both a bear and a nightingale in the story, I’m not sure they deserve top billing.

Second First Impressions (CBR13 #27)

Second First Impressions

I can see how Second First Impressions, Sally Thorne’s third book, isn’t going to be a five-star book for many readers – heck it wasn’t for me until quite near the end. But this book hit me in the feelings and had just the right kind of relatively low stakes, emotions are the plot set up for me. I was delighted; I understand if you were not.

In this outing Thorne is playing with opposites, both in her protagonists and in the thematic work she keeps coming back to. Our leads are Ruthie and Teddy. Ruthie works at a retirement village and at 25 has cocooned herself there for the past six years, eschewing the outside world to a large degree. Her boss takes off for an extended cruise leaving Ruthie in charge with a temp, the wonderful Melanie who Ruthie isn’t sure she’s going to manage to work with. As Ruthie is getting her feet under her in this new scenario the new owner of the retirement village descends with possibly the last person she wants to see, the person she embarrassed herself in front of on her last trip off-site. Teddy is in need of a job and a place to stay so he can save money to buy into his share of a tattoo parlor and his father is planning to dump him on Ruthie. But Ruthie thinks quickly and remembers that two of her most eccentric residents, the Parlonis, are in need of a new assistant to torture and Ruthie thinks Teddy is perfect for the job and as no “new boy” hired by the Parlonis lasts she’ll be rid of Teddy before long.

Of course, it doesn’t go that way at all.

Second First Impressions is in many ways a story about what can find its way into our lives if only we wait to pass judgement. Melanie the temp worms her way into Ruthie’s life as a friend she is very much in need of and elects herself Ruthie’s dating guru to get her back out into the world. Teddy’s exterior (tattoos everywhere) and family (wealthy, powerful) offer one version of who he is, but Ruthie slowly uncovers the real Teddy over the course of a few weeks as they live and work side by side. Ruthie lets the pair in slowly, revealing her own history – and beginning to reckon with it – and how she’s been bearing the consequences of choices made by others.

Throughout Thorne is playing opposing actions, focusing on adorers and adorees (Melanie’s terms) and the GIVE and TAKE tattoos on Teddy’s hands, reflecting on how it captures the interactions any relationship is built on. There’s also a certain sweetness that runs through this book, even though the characters are dealing with heavy personal histories. The characters all genuinely like each other and treat each other with such empathy. Teddy’s employers, the Parlonis, and the other residents are just such characters in the best possible way and the fun that Thorne had in writing them is evident on the page. I felt for Ruthie and Teddy and swooned at them as they swooned for each other. My favorite people in my life make me feel settled and calm, and Ruthie and Teddy provide that for each other, and it really sells these two supposed opposites falling for each other so thoroughly.

Read Women 2020

Another book challenge, another victim of 2020. Like the other challenge I attempt each year, Read Harder, I did as well as I could and any books I read moving forward that complete a task will be added as the point at the end of the day is to read diversely and grow our habits and there’s no better way then to just keep trying.

All books read for this challenge must be by or about women.

  1. A Book by an Author from the Caribbean or India
  2. A Book Translated from an Asian Language
    • 3 essays translated by Mariam Antar (Bonus if the translator is a woman!)
  3. A Book about the Environment
  4. A Picture Book Written/Illustrated by a BIPOC Author
    • The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad (TBR)
    • BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. For more information on the acronym, visit thebipocproject.org.
  5. A Winner of the Stella Prize or the Women’s Prize for Fiction
  6. A Nonfiction Title by a Woman Historian
  7. A Book Featuring Afrofuturism or Africanfuturism
  8. An Anthology by Multiple Authors
  9. A Book Inspired by Folklore
  10. A Book about a Woman Artist
  11. Read and Watch a Book-to-Movie Adaptation
  12. A Book about a Woman Who Inspires You
  13. A Book by an Arab Woman
  14. A Book Set in Japan or by a Japanese Author
    • Somewhere Among by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu (TBR)
    • The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw (TBR)
  15. A Biography
  16. A Book Featuring a Woman with a Disability
  17. A Book Over 500 Pages
  18. A Book Under 100 Pages
  19. A Book That’s Frequently Recommended to You
  20. A Feel-Good or Happy Book
  21. A Book about Food
    • The Irish Pub Cookbook by Margaret M. Johnson, photographs by Leigh Beisch (2021)
    • Both cookbooks and food writing work for this challenge.
  22. A Book by Either a Favorite or a New-to-You Publisher
  23. A Book by an LGBTQ+ Author
  24. A Book from the 2019 Reading Women Award Shortlists or Honorable Mentions

BONUS

  • A Book by Isabel Allende – Eva Luna (2021)

Read Harder 2020

I like a reading challenge, and even in our first pandemic year I kept going the best I could. I did not complete either Read Harder or the Reading Women challenges (although I did manage my Cannonball goal) but I’m going to keep going, and any books I read later which qualify I’ll add.

  1. Read a YA nonfiction book
  2. Read a retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, or myth by an author of color
    • Ghost Squad by Claribel Ortega (Dominican Republic: El Cuco/ Nimitas) (2021)
  3. Read a mystery where the victim(s) is not a woman
  4. Read a graphic memoir
  5. Read a book about a natural disaster
    • Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, Nicola Yoon (2021)
  6. Read a play by an author of color and/or queer author
    • The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis (TBR)
  7. Read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII
  8. Read an audiobook of poetry
    • Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn (TBR)
  9. Read the LAST book in a series
  10. Read a book that takes place in a rural setting
  11. Read a debut novel by a queer author
  12. Read a memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack of religious tradition) that is not your own
  13. Read a food book about a cuisine you’ve never tried before
  14. Read a romance starring a single parent
  15. Read a book about climate change
    • The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us and What We Can Do about Them by Lucy Jones (TBR)
  16. Read a doorstopper (over 500 pages) published after 1950, written by a woman
  17. Read a sci-fi/fantasy novella (under 120 pages)
  18. Read a picture book with a human main character from a marginalized community
    • The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad (TBR)
  19. Read a book by or about a refugee
  20. Read a middle grade book that doesn’t take place in the U.S. or the UK
  21. Read a book with a main character or protagonist with a disability (fiction or non)
  22. Read a horror book published by an indie press
  23. Read an edition of a literary magazine (digital or physical)
    • The Literary Review (no review)
  24. Read a book in any genre by a Native, First Nations, or Indigenous author

The Distance Between Us (CBR12 #54

Welcome to my first ever review of fanfiction, are we ready? We’ll try to be, certainly.

I read a lot of short form works this year (my AO3 history tells me somewhere in the neighborhood of 600, certainly not all of it good) and I don’t really think I’ll be reviewing any of those, but I am going to review a novel length work that I’ve been following along with since March.

I had mentioned in my review of Spoiler Alert, a book where fanfiction plays a major role in the plot, that my hobby of writing short form fiction has expanded this Adjective Year of 2020 to include reading and starting to write fanfic. Going into lockdown in the spring it became clear relatively quickly that my brain was reacting to living in a pandemic by shortening my ability to focus. So fic became a place to find the right length work (some days I could handle 2,500 words, others maybe 10,000) and tropes, fluff/angst levels. I could, and one should when it comes to fic, tailor my reading consumption to my needs quickly and efficiently. Moreover, that is before we get into the comfort of the shorthand that comes from watching writers play around with established characters and spaces.

So what did I read? A Poldark modern AU. It’s good. I’d comfortably rate it four stars.

I was curious about how someone would handle writing a pandemic fic, and while I was looking at the Poldark tag The Distance Between Us stood out to me. In some ways like reading Station Eleven it’s been oddly comforting to be able to see our current experience through another lens. Another component that I wasn’t expecting is the experience of reading as its being released (a risk certainly in fic where many works are abandoned before completion because writing is difficult) is that I’ve also gotten a taste of reading serialized fiction.

The Distance Between Us sets up a universe where Ross Poldark and Demelza Carne are strangers forced to quarantine together. She is filling in for his usual cleaner (her job while she goes to school to be a teacher) and he’s just returned from business travel. He needs to do a 14-day lockdown; she is trapped when public transport halts. They agree to share the apartment, each to their own ends, until a solution can be discovered. This is a romance; the solution becomes the slow relationship that builds between them during this forced proximity. It’s a slow burn set over 4 months and it’s very satisfying. These are characters that are given the time and space to get to know each other, and fall gently.

My favorite part is that the author works in dialogue form both the books and the television show. It works so well. There is a joke running around that the pandemic has turned us all into Jane Austen characters. It could also have turned us into residents of Cornwall in the late 1790s. There’s something about the pace of the story (which is pulled apart and rebuilt for the Modern AU) that works incredibly well on the backdrop of pandemic response.

It’s been a fun ride.

(Reviewer note: as of January 8, 2021 this work is complete! 132,061 words across 42 chapters.)

Warnings: The Distance Between Us does deal with a COVID-like pandemic (it’s not named) set in a time that looks a lot like now where one character does get sick and gets better, but they also deal with anxiety as well.