The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy (CBR14 #78)

cover of The Undertaking of Heart and Mercy which features two skeletal hands making a heart shape with outlined male and female figures standing on either side of a headstone.

This was a warm blanket of a macabre fantasy Romance about life, death, and making yourself actually live your life that I devoured in a day and have spent nearly a week searching my mind for how to review. There are a couple things that have held up the writing, one that it’s a weird book that is both very straightforward in its description but the minute you scratch at its surface it gets quite difficult to nail down, and second that this is a Romance tied up with death, grief, and soul crushing loneliness but is also very funny.

The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is by all counts a Fantasy Romance and finds ways to blend both genres in ways that help strengthen the other. The quick description is that this is an enemies to lovers riff on the classic Shop Around the Corner/ You’ve Got Mail storyline – two people who do not like each other end up writing to one another, although they don’t know that, and discovering that what they had interpreted as hate was actually something much closer to love. Of course, one of them pieces it together before the other, and then must work out what to do.

The fantastical comes in on the world Megan Bannen’s characters inhabit and the method in which their letters find each other. We have Hart who is a marshal, tasked with patrolling the strange and magical wilds of Tanria and dealing with its undead problem, a common profession for demi-gods like him. It’s a dangerous job that Hart has been doing solo since his last partner became his boss which means he’s got plenty of time to contemplate his loneliness and isolation from the larger world around him. Mercy has been, through sheer force of will, single-handedly keeping her family’s funeral home business afloat. The world she lives in doesn’t have room for women undertakers even though its work and ritual that give her a deep sense of fulfillment, and with her younger brother finally admitting that he can’t and won’t take on the work she is left scrambling to find a way to keep her dream while everyone is telling her the other dreams she should have instead.

These two are thrown together by the mechanics of their world as the government has a policy that unidentified dead bodies be brought to certain undertakers, and Hart has plenty of those as he kills drudges (read: zombies) with his new apprentice/partner. He and Mercy have never gotten along, not from the first time they met, and after their latest exasperating run-in, Hart finds himself penning a letter addressed simply to “A Friend”. Much to his surprise, an anonymous letter comes back in return, and a tentative friendship is born as two people very much in need of a friend find one in the letters they send back and forth.

And then the plot really gets going. I loved the sections that were the letters between the unknowing Hart and Mercy, I really have grown to love epistolary novel mechanics. Once I got my feet under me – because Bannen just drops you in to her world and explains later as things become relevant – I loved the richly fleshed out world, with its placement seemingly out of time; gas lamps, hand crank transistor radios, romance novels, and bubble baths. It’s also a world of islands and much of the geography is aquatic, which surely threw me off for quite a while (in this book a dock means a dock, not the loading dock my terrestrial brain automatically filled in).

What really got me to round this book up was the way in which it became a treatise on loneliness and how we handle that loneliness in our lives. Hart is purposefully prickly, having chosen his isolation as a way to handle his grief and his fears. But it isn’t serving him, not anymore. Mercy is trapped in a place where no one in her life who loves her – she has a great family – really seems to fully know her desires or stop to listen to her. Partly because they have their own ideas, and partly because at some point she stopped fighting for her own voice. In their letters, and subsequent relationship, Hart and Mercy reckon with their own choices, and make small but decisive choices to let life back in. This book doubles down on the agonizing ordeal of being known as the engine for romance, because its only when they finally let the masks down in person as they had in their letters that they realize what the have been looking for might be right in front of them. But they do the work themselves. Mercy sorts out her family business issues and Hart deals with his own emotional labor. They inspire each other, they support each other, but they do their own work.

There’s so much more that this book interrogates and investigates as the problem of the ever-increasing drudges and the corporate funeral home chain that is trying to buy out Mercy’s business all come to a head. There’s a deep dive into the faith of this world, and how the characters in the ever-growing web of Hart and Mercy’s lives deal with the very real grief and fear in their lives. I haven’t even told you about the glorious side characters, from Hart’s apprentice Penrose Duckers to Mercy’s family, to the perfectly odd magical animals who are the mail service. There’s also just a baked in queerness to the world, which is always good in a book that features a non-queer relationship. I loved my time with this book, and I have a feeling I’ll be buying myself a copy of my own as I’ve had to return my library copy so that I can visit these characters whenever I like.

As a content warning, there is literal and metaphorical death throughout the story, from Hart’s job dealing with the drudges, Mercy’s as an undertaker, the religious traditions of the world Bannen created, and the mechanics of the plot. Before picking this up, make sure you are ready for it.  

Beauty and the Alchemist (CBR14 #54)

Beauty and the Alchemist asks, what does it take to overcome a curse? Particularly if the world you live in is filled with magic. Throw in a bit of murder and you have quite the mystery on your hands.

Which is exactly what formerly traveling alchemist Red finds herself surrounded by. She’s been content to settle into life as a shopkeeper in rural Belville, expecting to focus on potions and finding her footing within the community. Red’s plans get changed when Belville’s lone police officer, Thorn, pulls Red into the hunt for a criminal who escaped from jail leaving a murder victim in his wake. From there the Red (and the reader) are treated to an abandoned castle, yet another murdered individual, a not-dead-yet ghost, a beautiful and ill-tempered suspect, and a horde of mysterious mist creatures that terrify the town. Oh, and then there’s the series of lost books that hold the key to the castle’s curse. Thorn immediately suspects Red’s friend Luca, a meek-mannered bookseller of the second murder. Red she rushes to prove Luca’s innocence, knowing there has to be more than meets the eye when it comes to the mysteries surrounding the castle.

What I enjoyed most about this book is the relationships that Elle Hartford creates. This book contains a large cast of characters and Hartford keeps the reader well-footed by making sure that Red’s interactions and observations are tailored to the relationship at hand. Red is different with William, her formerly a witch’s familiar talking dog best friend (a strong contender for my favorite character – he gives great exasperation) than she is with Thorn, or than she is with Luca (whom I also adore).  My only real complaint with this book is in its pacing, I would have loved for it to be a bit zippier, but I have no complaints at all about the well-developed characters and well-plotted mystery.

(As a note, I’m in a writing group with the author and as such was an early reader of portions of this work before its publication and was provided an ARC by the author. Neither has affected my review.)

One Last Stop (CBR13 #26 – Half Cannonball!)

One Last Stop

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Early last year I read and loved Casey McQuiston’s debut Red, White, & Royal Blue like many a Cannonballer before me. Upon its completion I knew McQuiston was an author to add to my must reads list – they were writing the kind of queer romance I was looking for in the world. Once announced I put One Last Stop on my to read list having faith in the author, if not exactly the premise.

One Last Stop is the story of August and Jane. August, a young recent NYC transplant with a complicated history, falls head over heels for a woman she keeps running into on the Q train, Jane. August’s subway crush becomes the best part of her day, but pretty soon, she discovers there’s one big problem: Jane doesn’t just look like an old school punk rocker. She’s literally displaced in time from the 1970s, and August is going to have to use everything she tried to leave in her own past to help her.

So much of the story is about the fear of letting someone love you, of being brave enough to think you won’t let them down. August and Jane spend time circling around the growing love between them, afraid of what it means. August uses her focus on solving the mystery of Jane to hide behind and it takes her entire found family unit to help build the confidence she needs to step out from behind that. But it happens multiple places along the narrative, Wes (honestly my favorite character by a long, long measure) is also running from how he feels about Isaiah and accepting the love being freely offered to him, exactly as and who he is.

Beyond the main romance plot focusing on Jane and August this book is about found family, and the way we create our identity by the community we make around ourselves, especially in our twenties (although I did it again in my thirties). The characters are infused with hope and joy, even when battling depression and anxiety, which I appreciate from deep within my soul. McQuiston writes like a motherfucker. Even when I was bored (which happened at about the one third mark) I was enthralled by the writing. McQuiston created a world that is fully fleshed out with a variety of people and is explicitly queer. MCQuiston did their research and it shows, both in Jane’s past and August’s present.

This book is a four-star read for me; at times it was three, and times it was four, but it never reached a point where I thought it was a five-star read. I struggled to get myself into the book and read an entire other book (the very good People We Meet on Vacation) before picking this one back up. The problem was relatively simple upon reflection – the pacing was uneven and at times the plot stalled. But once it got going again, I was in, but it still sometimes felt like work, and that makes me a little sad. McQuiston has said their next book is going to be a YA ensemble piece about coming out in the religious South and I am still on board for whatever book they want to write.

“… thinking of Wes and how determined he is not to let Isaiah hand him his heart, of Myla holding Niko’s hand while he talks to things she can’t see, of her mom and a whole life searching, of herself, of Jane, of hours on the train – all the things they put themselves through for love. Okay, I get it.”

Ghostly Echoes (CBR10 #24)

Image result for ghostly echoes

Back during CBR7 I picked up Jackaby by William Ritter because it featured a bit of a paranormal mystery with a sassy female protagonist who doesn’t have a romance with the male protagonist. While I love a Romance novel, I don’t need romance in all my stories. As it turns out Jackaby was a strong book and over the years I’ve kept up with the series in a (mostly) timely manner.

Ghostly Echoes is the third full novel in the series (there’s one short story as well, The Map) and the character who is the driver of the story is the ghostly owner of 926 Augur Lane, the headquarters of Jackaby’s detective agency. There’s corruption and murder afoot in New Fiddleham and it all links back to how Jenny Cavanaugh was murdered a decade ago and the disappearance of her finance the night she died. As Abigail races to unravel the mystery of how and why people keep turning up missing or dead flinging herself more deeply into her friends’ grim histories, Jackaby leads a cast of familiar characters across the cobblestones of nineteenth-century New England and down to the mythical underworld  and back again, solving the case at hand and setting up the endgame in the next book.

The Jackaby series blends a bit of fantasy and folklore with a touch of mad science and its author, William Ritter, isn’t afraid to throw a touch of social commentary into his YA. This time we get a transgender character whom Jackaby speaks to and interacts with using all the care, class, and affirmation that one could hope for.

These books are fun, clever, and quick-witted and I remain enthusiastic for what I’m assuming is the closing chapter in the next book, The Dire King.

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.

Beastly Bones (CBR8 #22)

I hate to say it, but William Ritter seems to have hit a sophomore slump with 2015’s Beastly Bones. I loved my experience reading Jackaby last year: it had so much of all the things that I love about books of the type. Much of that remains in book two, Abigail is still independent and self-assured, Jackaby is still his off-kilter self without being off-putting, we still have a live in ghost, and a shape shifter, and a relatively tightly paced mystery.

But… book two commits a sin that book one managed to avoid. Its main purpose seems to be setting up a larger story to be told in the next book (which is to be released later this year). Beastly Bones has a plot all its own – Abigail and Jackaby have been brought in to nearby Gad’s Valley, now home to the exiled New Fiddleham police detective Charlie Cane, dinosaur bones from a recent dig mysteriously go missing, and an unidentifiable beast starts attacking animals and people, leaving their mangled bodies behind. There is also the problem of bodies turning up with weird puncture wounds on their necks, and shapeshifting creatures on the loose.

All of that is resolved (mostly), some new characters get introduced, and things proceed as one would expect for a book aimed at a YA audience. But… I have this nagging dissatisfaction. Was Abigail still awesome? Yes. Was she given great feminist advice which she then turned to her own way of doing things re: her love life and career? Yep. Was there a plausible end to the mystery? You bet. Were characters given enough time on page? Mostly. Jackaby’s landlady ghost, Jenny Cavanaugh, is necessarily out of sorts in order to set up the third book which will focus on her (as book one focused on the titular Jackaby and book two focused heavily on Abigail’s interests and history), and off page because Jackaby and Abigail are away from New Fiddleham. However Jackaby quite literally does an infodump at the end of the book to explain how we’re getting from the events of this book to the ones upcoming. We didn’t need it. The YA readers didn’t need it. And after a bumpy start of the book it made me round this down to 3 stars. It simply wasn’t as strong as some of the other 4 star books I’ve read this year.

Do I still suggest this series to you? Absolutely. They are fun, clever, and quick-witted and I remain enthusiastic for book three, Ghostly Echoes.

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

The Map (CBR8 #9)

Last year I was delighted with Jackaby by William Ritter. It had just the right mix of historical fiction, fantasy, and whodunit to be right up my alley. It’s got a bit of Sherlock mixed with a little Doctor Eleven for a male protagonist and a female protagonist who is smart, wily, and sarcastic in equal measure – and a great example of female agency in print. I immediately added the second book, Beastly Bones, on my to read list for 2016 as well as this fun little novella The Map.

The action of The Map is centered on one day – Abigail Rook’s birthday. She dares to hope that her employer Jackaby, detective of the supernatural, won’t make a fuss. She is let down. The pair are off for parts unknown using magical party crackers to teleport in time and space (I told you, a smidge timey wimey) using a cryptic map that may lead to a forgotten treasure.  Jackaby is going to give Abigail the present of adventure, just as soon as she comes around to it.

In some ways this short story felt much more akin to a television script than it did a novella, and that isn’t really a detraction. You probably need to have read the first book in order to appreciate this one, for while certain characters don’t appear on page, they are referenced. The same goes for some of the action. This one also doesn’t give us any new character development, and may not be the best place to meet these characters as this is VERY plot driven, but if you are already into the world of Jackaby it is currently FREE on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble for download.

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

Outlander (CBR8 #2)

It’s hard to exist in a reader world and not be at least obliquely aware of Outlander, Diana Gabaldon’s epic series – currently 8 books and counting not including the companion novels and novellas. Best I can recollect, I gave serious consideration to embarking on this series around the time of fellow Cannonballers embarking on rereads in preparation for the publication of book 8, and the release of the show based on the books on Starz last spring. I made the decision once I asked for the first book in the series as part of the Cannonball Book Exchange in December of 2014. Thanks to our Junior Cannonballers Bunnybean and Joemyjoe I received Outlander and then promptly forgot to read it (along with Daughter of Smoke and Bone I promise it’s on the to read list for this year!). When I went about setting up the Book Exchange for 2015 I realized that I had the book was still waiting for me, and I packed it with me for my Christmas travels.

The basic plot of Outlander is actually quite difficult to wrap one’s head around. It should be simple: Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is just back from the Second World War and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon. She is pulled through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. When she comes to she has travelled back over 200 years, to 1743. Discovered amongst a skirmish between redcoat soldiers and highlanders, Claire is pulled into the intrigues of lairds and spies.

But perhaps unbelievably that is not where the story ends. Because that recap is only the first fifth of the book, over the course of the next 600 pages Claire will be held captive, arrested, attacked at the hands of the ancestor of her husband, must choose a marriage for her safety,  is accused of witchcraft, and chooses to live a life on the run with her new husband. All of this while grappling with the choice between trying to get back to her previous life and husband or embracing her current life and marriage.

Gabaldon doesn’t write like your average author. Her books meander through several genres, and her characters don’t behave in predictable ways based on tropes. I had the benefit of having watched the full season of the television series adaptation, so while reading the book I knew what was coming, but during the show I was often surprised by the nooks and crannies of the story as Gabaldon (and the show producers and writers who stayed very loyal to the book) unfolded it.

But that doesn’t mean the story is without flaws. Perhaps they were more apparent to me because I had seen the show first, but there are many asides which help develop the world of Outlander which does nothing to forward the plot. I also have concerns about the only gay characters in the book being the villains, or guilty of villainy. I’m concerned about this typecasting in Gabaldon’s world, and interested to see if she introduces a character who is both gay and good. In the culture of a very Catholic 1743 Scotland the idea that the general populace would assume wickedness of someone who is gay reads, but Gabaldon does nothing to balance out that worldview. It was disappointing, and I remain hopeful based on what I’ve heard of the Lord John Grey books that she does in fact introduce the character that I’m looking for.

My other petty concern is perhaps a bit nitpicky, but here we are. We as the reader are seeing the world through Claire’s eyes, which makes sense in the idea that she is the outsider, the Sassenach, and the eyes most like our own upon encountering 1743. But when I was explaining the series to my friend Ale, I found myself saying that we are following Jamie’s story and the story of Scotland in the years of rebellion. To a lesser degree the story is about Claire’s battle with what time travelling means and making sense of her life once we get past a certain point in the narrative. Gabaldon does cover this ground, but I feel the show is able to handle it more deftly by giving us visual flashbacks to her husband Frank instead of Claire reciting her mental gymnastics on the subject. This in some ways makes the television show a better vessel for the story, in addition to the (hated by some) voiceovers changing to Jamie for the second half of the season. The book doesn’t do that, but once the characters are married Claire’s life is now bound forever to Jamie’s past and future, as is the story. While the book and show share a level of graphicness, and the large quantity of sex, there still felt to be something missing.

What I feel we must discuss is the character of James Fraser. This might be Gabaldon’s biggest achievement in writing – a universally loved male lead who shouldn’t necessarily make us all swoon (but we do, because of the depth of his love and devotion to Claire and the suffering he has endured in his short life). Gabaldon nails his characterization from the moment go. There is no other character in the book like Jamie, and while he may not always behave the way we might want a more modern lead to behave, the fact that Claire falls so irrevocably in love with him is a natural progression of the story, and we the reader do the same.

Ok, now that I’m done rambling, (and I know I’m rambling) I can heartily suggest this book and series to you and I’m SUPER excited that between Christmas gifts and my mom, I already own the series through book five. Prepare yourselves for more Outlander this year.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read and the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains (CBR7 #92)

Confession time: I listened to this book solely because I decided that I would not be finishing The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood for the Go Fug Yourself book club over on Goodreads. I spent two weeks actively avoiding listening to it on my commute to work, and on a three hour road trip to Philadelphia where I didn’t have a radio in the loaner car from work. I needed a palate cleanser, and I needed a moody atmospheric listen to go along with Halloween. Neil Gaiman sounded like a perfect idea.

And thanks to the fantastic review of Cannonball’s own Renton last year I had this on my to read list, and had downloaded it from Audible a few months ago when I saw it  Gaiman is in usual form here – he is playing with words, slowly releasing meaning in gradual layers. What I hadn’t remembered from Renton’s review was that part of it charm was in the artwork. To quote him “The most effective sections of the book have the text bleed into the artwork, as the story passes from paragraph to comic strip to full-page painting in one fluid movement.” Now, in listening to the Gaiman narrate the work I didn’t feel like I as missing it because as was also done in M is for Magic, the stories are interwoven with music to help create tension. That may have been what kept my rating down to a three and not up to a four like Renton’s.

So what was this novella all about anyway? Gaiman is at work with myths and lore again. We follow the tale of two men on a quest to the titular cave for gold, but it’s also rumination on what we do for love and greed. And also what we’re willing to sacrifice. A good read for anytime of the year, but definitely one suited to the fall and the shortening days.

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

The Elephant Vanishes (CBR7 #84)

I’m at a loss for how to review this book. Earlier today on Facebook I quipped that some reviews just boil down to read it if you want, here’s a plot description. This might be one of those reviews. I had received suggestions to read Murakami based on other authors I liked and a sense of getting out of my own rut. Great! The suggestions were warranted. I did enjoy Murakami’s style, I just didn’t necessarily enjoy the fact that it was encapsulated in short story format.

I have struggled with short story collections in the past, and this year I gave it an honest try to attempt a variety and see if I couldn’t find something that worked. While I wouldn’t rate any of the ones I’ve tried this year below a three (Get in Trouble  and M is for Magic each have some great moments) I don’t love the style or methods that are often applied.  My roommate Ale suggests that people are either short story or novel writers, I also think we’re either short story or novel readers. I am a novel reader.

But, with my personal issues taken out of the equation I think this book is very likely worth your time and a good place to start. It does show its age in some of the technology referenced, but if you want to get an idea of Murakami’s style before diving into one of his novels, this would be a good way to do just that.

Okay, I think I’m done with this review, here’s your synopsis from Goodreads, and happy reading!

With the same deadpan mania and genius for dislocation that he brought to his internationally acclaimed novels A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami makes this collection of stories a determined assault on the normal. A man sees his favorite elephant vanish into thin air; a newlywed couple suffers attacks of hunger that drive them to hold up a McDonald’s in the middle of the night; and a young woman discovers that she has become irresistible to a little green monster who burrows up through her backyard.

By turns haunting and hilarious, The Elephant Vanishes is further proof of Murakami’s ability to cross the border between separate realities — and to come back bearing treasure.

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

M is for Magic (CBR7 #53)

My adventures in short story reading continue, and I’ve reached the point where I’m convinced they aren’t for me. Not even the glorious, melodious Neil Gaiman reading his own collection, M is for Magic, to me could do the trick. I appear to be broken in some way.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good stories in this collection. There are several that are quite good, just not good enough to round the collections overall rating up from a 3 star. The stories in this collection rely heavily on source material and don’t often grow beyond them. Sometimes a great idea doesn’t need to, the riff is enough. But sometimes the reader is left wanting. There are eleven stories contained in M is for Magic (all previously published elsewhere) and they span Gaiman’s career from the 1980s to the 2000s. Let’s discuss:

“The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds” – is a strong start to the series, a hardboiled whodunit featuring storybook characters. The best kind of riff.

“Troll Bridge” – tale of growing up and making choices, some of which lead to the troll bridge. I enjoyed the beginning of this one, but the end petered out for me.

“Don’t Ask Jack” – a story with no point. Moody and atmospheric, but leading nowhere.

“How to Sell the Ponti Bridge” – is a story of a con-man telling other con-men his greatest caper. It is one of Gaiman’s earliest works, and it age shows. There are lots of meandering bits which took away from the overall effect.

“October in the Chair”- an interesting idea, but with a slightly lackluster payoff. What if the months of the year were people who gathered around a fire to tell tales of their experiences? Gaiman excels at building out the personalities of each month, and the story October shares has its moments, but it just didn’t hold my attention.

“Chivalry” – this one was just a kooky bit of fun. A widowed woman finds the Holy Grail at a shop and brings it home. But, Galahad needs to retrieve the Grail and attempts to offer her all sorts of things in exchange. Probably my favorite of the collection.

“The Price” – another very good story. The pacing of this one is perhaps its greatest strength. A cat protects a family – so simple yet expertly executed.

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties”  This one was so strange. Girls are aliens, literally.

“Sunbird” I was not as impressed with this one since I put the pieces together very quickly and just waited for the end to arrive. Your mileage may vary.

“The Witch’s Headstone” was too long. TOO LONG. I mean sure, it was very entertaining. But did I mention that it was too long?

“Instructions” was short and sweet.

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