The Ruin of a Rake (CBR12 #26)

The Ruin of a Rake (The Turner Series, #3)

I should have read this one much closer to the previous two in the series, The Soldier’s Scoundrel and The Lawrence Brown Affair because so many of our previous characters reappear here and are woven into the plot. As a reader you can tell that Sebastian was getting more comfortable in her writing, overall, this book is stronger than the previous two, even if Sebastian shortchanges the plot a smidge in the final third. I continue to really like how Cat Sebastian builds her stories: they are steamy, upbeat historical romances where the worlds of each character are brought to light and the characters help heal or fill in the weaknesses in their partners, or in this case how the world around them sees them.

Cat Sebastian’s Turner Series are queer historical romances – her books feature complex and exceedingly lovable gay, bisexual, nonbinary, and otherwise diverse characters. The Ruin of a Rake is the story of Julian Medlock and Lord Courtenay. Lord Courtenay is the titular rake and has never much cared. But after the publication of a salacious novel which looks to be based on his exploits, he finds himself unable to see his nephew, and is willing to do anything to improve his reputation. Enter Julian Medlock, possibly the most proper man in al of London who has spent years becoming the epitome of correct behavior. when Julian’s sister asks him to rehabilitate Courtenay’s image, Julian is forced to spend time with the man he loathes, and lusts after, most. With time spent in each other’s company their mutual interest grows and eventually Courtenay begins to yearn for a love he fears he doesn’t deserve; and Julian starts to understand how desire can drive a man to abandon all sense of propriety.

There are several back and forths between the pair and the associated characters in each of their backstories as the figure out what life could look like if they can sort out what kind of life it is that they want. I’ll leave you with an answer that Sebastian gave in an interview said about writing to reflect identity “History is filled with disabled and neurodivergent people and people of color. Historical fiction that doesn’t reflect that reality is a tool of oppression. I know that sounds dramatic, but when you repeatedly see a version of reality that’s overwhelmingly white, abled, rich, cis, and straight, you start to accept that as the default identity of human beings, even if logically you know better! When I’m writing outside my identity, I either hire a sensitivity reader or ask someone who shares the character’s identity to do a sensitivity read. Every time […], the reader has found things I never in a million years would have considered problematic.”

In Order to Live (CBR12 #23)

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom

First, I feel a little bad rating In Order to Live: a North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom three stars. Park’s life story to the point of her writing this book, just 21 years, is full of the sort of deprivations, suffering, drive to survive, and eventually hope that make you want to love the work. Yeonmi Park’s life deserves notice and her book deserves to be read. Unfortunately for me, it felt more like homework than a captivating read.

Second, there are some books we read to bear witness. This is one of those books. The human rights violations that exist in North Korea are so large as to be almost unbelievable but are all too true. The country is one of the most repressive places on earth, where all civil and political liberties are denied to citizens, including freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion. The government routinely tortures people in custody, and public executions are used to maintain fear and control over the population. forced, unpaid labor is extract from its citizens— including women, children, and prisoners. These and other things are chronicled in Park’s work, as she tells her story, but also the story of her family – many of whom are still in North Korea. But that is only one section of the book, China and human trafficking are also on full display as Park chooses to speak openly about what she and her mother experienced when they fled North Korea for China and how their suffering there in the year leading up to the Beijing Olympics pushed them to find a way out.

For me, I understand why Park wrote this book when she did, as a tidal wave of humanitarian work and speaking engagements crested in 2014. While she did have a coauthor, this book still sounds under formed, too light. Perhaps it is a reflex to keep the narrative moving across the atrocities and into the hope. For Park, it’s the hope that exists in freedom that pushed her to a place to write the book at all.

Ten Days a Madwoman (CBR12 #19)

Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original "Girl" Reporter, Nellie Bly

We’ve reached the first book of the year that I read expressly because it fit a Read Harder Challenge. Task number one is to read a YA non-fiction. I did not have any juvenile non-fiction on my 650 books deep to read list, so I had to go looking. Nellie Bly had recently come up at work and I realized I knew very little about the famous reporter beyond her time in Blackwell or her around the world trip so onto my library request list Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes went.

Its probably been over twenty years since I have read any YA non-fiction, but as soon as I opened the book sense memories of Reading and History classes in my middle school years came flooding back. Its somehow nice to know that the form and structure I had experienced as a youth still existed in a book published within the past four years. Noyes does as promised and tracks Nellie Bly’s life and times, using the standard interstitial asides to build out the larger world surrounding Bly at the turn of the last century. The book is also littered with primary source images and quotes, rooting the reader in the narrative.

I learned things as well, I hadn’t known that Bly spent World War I as a war reporter in Europe or that she had married a millionaire forty years her senior and took over his business after his death, or that she had done an in depth interview with Susan B. Anthony. Bly’s early life was also a mystery to me, but now I know, and knowing is a nice feeling, which is probably why I choose to do history as my profession. This one is a good one for the young readers in your life with questions about any number of things, including journalism and women’s rights.

Hearts on Hold (CBR12 #18)

Hearts on Hold: A Librarian Romance

In my many years of reading and reviewing I have paid little to no attention to Publishers. I pre-ordered Charish Reid’s newest book Hearts on Hold based on emmalita’s review of the ARC. I knew nothing else about the book, its author, or the publishing house. When I opened my nook and found that this was a Carina Press book, home of Cannonball favorite Lucy Parker, I was downright delighted.

Hearts on Hold is the story of Dr. Victoria Reese, English professor at Pembroke University and John Donovan, Children’s Librarian of the town ibrary. Their meet cute is John attending a meeting set up by his boss with Dr. Reese in order to work out an internship program for her University. There are sparks, and when Victoria starts shadowing John at the Library in order to get a handle on what would be entailed in the internship program they also decide to have themselves a sordid affair, except that they each have different definitions and expectations of that phrase.

Victoria and John are great characters existing in an interesting world. Victoria is one of a handful of black professors at her University and is constantly fighting with her Department Head for respect for herself, her female coworkers, and their courses which are not the stodgy courses preferred by the Department Head. She is also wound tighter than a top and in constant battle with her mother’s expectations and interferences in her life and dealing with hinted at but not named Anxiety. John is the sexy, long-haired, tattooed Children’s Librarian who is used to a certain amount of lowered expectations but knows the importance of his work and how to cope with his ADD. He is temporarily in custody of his niece while his sister travels to Sweden for work for two months and is having to adjust from being the fun uncle to the guardian. They each have their own network of friends and family who know them well and engage in the kinds and types of conversations that feel real, and often made me laugh along. I seriously loved John’s Moms (biological and step), their friendship, and their co-parenting of the very much adult John. They handled his broken heart the way that any adult in their late thirties would hope to be treated.  

The ways in which each carry their baggage into their burgeoning relationship shows Reid’s writing strengths. Victoria is using strict rules, schedules, and tamping down her emotions to get through the difficulties in life and as she and John become closer she is slowly letting the masks fall – partly because he recognizes that they are in fact just that. John struggles with feelings of inadequacy as he must work twice as hard often to accomplish basic, expected tasks due to his mental wiring. He is also naturally open and warm, quick with honest terms of endearment and finds himself wanting Victoria to meet him halfway, to be the mask-less version he sees when they are alone and simply be with him, no planned affair. Victoria has things she hasn’t dealt with yet and ends up hurting him, but as this is a Romance, we know that they’ll piece it back together.

Reid deftly handles this complicated web of emotions, at no point does any of the action feel ill-timed or misplaced. Character motivations are crystal clear. With any new to me romance author I had to get used to how Reid writes her sexy scenes, certain vocabulary caught me off-guard and pulled me out, but that’s just because I don’t use that terminology, but I quickly caught on to Reid’s style and enjoyed it greatly.  I hope very much that she has books planned for the side characters whose potential relationships are hinted at (Chris and Jessi especially) but whatever she writes next I’m in, and planning on going back and reading her first novel The Write Escape.

I’ll leave you with Reid discussing her own writing, “I think I said something self-deprecating about finding joy in writing stuff that wasn’t considered “high-brow.” Looking back on it, I regret being so sheepish and insecure. Love stories, if told right, can be magical and transcendent. There’s nothing “low-brow” about falling in love.”

Glass Houses (CBR12 #17)

Glass Houses (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #13)

There is, at least for me, somewhat of a struggle on deciding how to review a book deep into a series. Glass Houses is Louise Penny’s thirteenth Inspector Gamache book, and as she publishes a new one each year the sixteenth in the series will publish in September. There is so much backstory that feeds each new novel that I can’t rightly tell you to read this one if you haven’t read its predecessors, but I can emphatically tell you that if you like murder mysteries (and sometimes other kinds of mysteries) that ruminate on the human spirit than these books are for you and go pick up Still Life at your earliest convenience.

As for Glass Houses, Penny picks up a few months after the events of A Great Reckoning with Gamache now Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Quebec. The book flips back and forward in time between events in November in Three Pines and a murder trial in July. Penny continues on of my favorite components of her writing – we are treated to a glimpse into some perhaps little-known history (this time the cobrador del frac), but this time she embellishes it and creates a fictional backstory. When a cobrador comes to Three Pines it unsettles the small community and eventually a body is found. The finding itself, the location, the who, and the how, all lead Isabelle Lacoste and her team to dig a little deeper into a murder in Chief Superintendent Gamache’s town.

Penny tries on new structural elements in her writing with each book, and this time the jumping back and forth between fixed points in the timeline in order to create suspense left me feeling flat. We don’t know who died for nearly a third of the book, and we don’t know who is on trial until nearly the end. We also don’t know until the very final chapters who the larger big bad is, lurking in the background. Because, this book is also about uncovering and taking down the largest drug trafficker in Quebec who happens to be using Three Pines as one of his depots. Gamache and his Superintendents (including Beauvoir as his second in command) are playing an all out war – they have burned their ships and have one chance to succeed, but it may very well cost them their jobs, and possibly their lives.

Even though the mechanical components of the work didn’t suit me, and kept the pacing uneven I still enjoyed this book and was pulled into the story. I care very much about the inhabitants of Three Pines and the members of the Sûreté and Penny delivers on that front. I’m rounding this 3.5 book up to 4 stars.

Headliners (CBR12 #12)

Headliners (London Celebrities, #5)

I love Lucy Parker, its really as simple as that. I love the kind of book she writes, I love the world she has built in this series and the characters she chooses to populate it with. I’m rating this one five stars, as I did with its immediate predecessor The Austen Playbook mostly because of how it made me feel while I was reading it. That isn’t to say that Parker isn’t using her craft well – she absolutely is – but that craft sunk deep inside me and made me feel this story and recognize these characters, all while giving that little bit of wish fulfillment that romance novels give us and never once does Parker look down on her audience or write down to them. She is writing up.

Parker’s authorial voice is open and friendly, my fondness for the way she builds her world is grounded in its crispness. The plot and setting are laid out in the quick, quiet, strokes of a deft hand. Her word choice and well-chosen details build out the world and its people so that you know what you are reading and where they are, without being bogged down. Which is all for the best in Headliners because Parker set herself an enormous hill to climb for this books pairing of Sabrina Carlton and Nick Davenport at the end of The Austen Playbook.

For years, Sabrina and Nick have been rival TV presenters trading barbs on their respective shows. Things escalate however after Nick airs Sabrina’s family scandals to all of Britain. With both their reputations on the rocks (hers for the fallout of her father’s dishonesty and grandmother’s artistic theft, his for how h broke the story and getting caught on tape railing against his studio head) Sabrina and Nick have one chance to save their careers – resurrect the network’s morning show. But with ratings at an all-time low and a Christmas Eve deadline just weeks away to increase viewership, the clock is ticking—and someone on their staff doesn’t want them to succeed. As small mishaps on set start adding up, Sabrina and Nick work together to hunt down the saboteur. All the while their antagonistic relationship starts to change and when a fiery encounter is caught on camera, the public is convinced that the reluctant cohosts are secretly lusting after one another. The public might not be wrong.

Parker plays with the tropes here, but not as aggressively as in other works. She’s tweaking the hate to love trope to suit a relatable and believable history – two people pitted against each other are going to have a naturally cantankerous relationship and Nick did break the trust of many, many people. But, Parker as her characters name all the issues, and then face them. It isn’t easy, it isn’t quick, and it isn’t universal, but healing and the resolution of issues is part and parcel of the love story.

What I’ve noticed along the way is that Parker picks deliberately at different cultural commentary arenas with her books. Perhaps the clearest example is in Making Up where so much of the story focused on the arena of abusive relationshipsand the slow and sometimes incomplete nature of healing. This one doesn’t hold back either, in this case Parker is unpacking distant fathers. I feel like a lot of the media I’m consuming lately outside of books is rife with bad male authority figures (Star Wars, a Lost rewatch…) but the way Parker framed Sabrina and Nick’s relationships with their respective fathers stood out to me and hopefully stood out to other readers who might need the nudge to know that just because its your parent doesn’t make them universally and unreservedly right – particularly if they don’t put in the work to know you.

Parker is also taking on the “no holds barred” professional mindset that sees people trample one another on the way to the top. The series big bad (if it has one) is taken down in epic fashion as her own hubris finally gets the best of her. It, and checking in with characters from Act Like It and Pretty Face were the icing on this already delightful cake. I’m already missing these characters and I finished the book an hour ago. If you’ve made it this far in my review and aren’t reading these books – do it. They are worthy contemporary romances for anyone’s reading diet.

A Big Surprise for Valentine’s Day (CBR12 #11)

A Big Surprise for Valentine's Day (Holidays with the Wongs, #4)

In recent months Jackie Lau has jumped to the “read right away” position as her novellas in the Holidays with the Wongs series has been released. While I didn’t get an ARC this time, I have signed up to be considered in future. A Big Surprise for Valentine’s Day makes me feel that was a very good choice.

Picking up after the events of A Match Made for Thanksgiving and A Second Chance Road Trip for Christmas and running concurrently with A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year this one focuses on our fourth and final Wong sibling, sister Amber. She is the youngest of the four and after a rough few years getting herself settled into her career (her dream job at the Stratford Festival sounds pretty great to me too) and dating only terrible men she gives herself a moratorium – no dating for now. But she’s missing the physical connection if not the emotional one and a run-in with Sebastian Lam in the grocery store family planning aisle finds them both with a partner for some no strings attached sex. Sebastian is newly back in the area after moving home following medical school, is a childhood friend of Zach, and has a reputation for being the “good son” to Amber’s “wild child”.

I was rooting for this pair from their meet cute buying condoms. Lau is playing with some opposites attract, although we discover that they aren’t all that opposite, in addition to her other tropes of the aforementioned Older Brother’s Friend and Friends with Benefits. Amber is taking steps to correct missteps in her past, Sebastian is letting himself discover what he wants his life to be, and they are each working on healthy boundaries with their families while staying connected (something that can be difficult even under the best of circumstances). They are also hot for each other, and kind. These novellas have never wanted on the Steamy front, but Lau puts the peddle down on this one and keeps going for its crisp hundred pages.

My only niggling complaint and it isn’t even that really, is that I think I would have liked to see Lau combine this one with A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year and write one novel length work instead of two novellas… which is probably a good sign since I’m planning to read The Ultimate Pi Day Party next month. In the meantime, this one published on February 4th, and you should definitely treat yourself to it.

Like Water for Chocolate (#65)

Like Water for Chocolate

I’ve missed the cutoff for CBR11, but I did read one more book which fulfills task 7: read an #ownvoices book for Mexico or Central America for Read Harder 2019. I revisited Like Water for Chocolate and while it is both better than I remembered, it is also less satisfying.

I read this in high school, closer to its publication 25 years ago. It was my first foray into magical realism and I didn’t quite know what to make of it at the time. In the intervening two decades I’ve expanded my reading (looking at you, Allende) and now my brain knows how to process the story more easily.

I don’t know how I feel about the resolution here. I never felt any connection to Pedro and Tita as a couple, or really to Pedro at all. So as much as I was invested in Tita, I never really sunk into the entirety of Esquivel’s narrative, even though it is so much more than just these two. The descriptions of life, and food, and home in this book are worth the reading – as are the recipes spread across the chapters which are broken up to match the months of the year.

That Inevitable Victorian Thing (CBR11 #64)

That Inevitable Victorian Thing

I don’t read all that much alternative history, so it took a bit of digging through my to read list in order to find something to read for Read Harder’s Task 2. But, sure enough I had one and while I let it sit to very late (although not the latest on my to read list for this year’s challenges) it was an enjoyable, if slightly unexpected, read.

For plot summary purposes I’m going to borrow from Goodreads, since I’m not sure I could do it more succinctly:

“Set in a near-future world where the British Empire was preserved, not by the cost of blood and theft but by effort of repatriation and promises kept, That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a novel of love, duty, and the small moments that can change people and the world. Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the empire, a direct descendant of Victoria I, the queen who changed the course of history two centuries earlier. The imperial practice of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage like her mother before her, but before she does her duty, she’ll have one summer incognito in a far corner of empire. In Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir apparent to a powerful shipping firm currently besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and romantic country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an unusual bond and maybe a one in a million chance to have what they want and to change the world in the process —just like the first Queen Victoria.”

For the first 65 pages of this one confused as to some of the mechanics of Johnston’s story. The chapters are broken up with interstitial tidbits that after that mark do a great job expanding the universe of the story and layering in details that help build the narrative but up to that point are hinting at a hidden plot point but instead confuses matters. Once Johnston gets out of her own way there (really, if she had saved the text message chats for slightly later or broken them up with the more world building stuff it would have been better) things progress well. The next 200 pages go great, characters are well developed, the world continues to solidify, and Johnston very deliberately plots out an incredibly diverse and inclusive world. And then… the final 60 or so pages wrap up too quickly. It’s a bit of a spoiler to discuss what about the ending didn’t work for me so if you keep reading it’s on you…

…. seriously…

… I am on board with the polyamorous relationship as the solution to these characters wants and responsibilities. What I wanted to hit my head against the table about was the combined choice of not laying in more track for August’s attraction to Margaret or giving August more hesitation about the proposal being made to him by Helena and Margaret. We see on page why this marriage and court position work for the women, and why they would concoct it, but we aren’t given enough of August’s inner choice about becoming the prince consort.

With all that I’m still rounding this up to four stars, because what Johnston gets right, she gets very right. I would love more books in this universe, and I’m even more interested in her other works than I was before.

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (CBR11 #60)

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

I definitely only picked this up because I was a recommended selection for Read Women challenge task 4 – read a book about or set in Appalachia. I was hoping to find something fictional, but here we are. Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is written as a rebuttal to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a book I have not read and have no intention of reading. Watching from the cheap seats I’ve seen Elegy get pulled apart as Vance’s inconsistencies and frankly racist sources get exposed. While it is certainly a memoir, it isn’t a reliable history.

Which brings me to my only major detraction when it comes to What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, Catte wrote this riled up in the immediate aftermath of her home territory getting labelled “Trump Country”. Catte refutes Vance and his warped picture of Appalachia (which it should be noted is not a new warped view, it’s the same old same old that was used to get affluent whites to care about poverty in the 1930s and later and edges into eugenics) by bringing in a more well rounded account of modern Appalachia. But that doesn’t prevent her from running over to polemic instead of social history on occasion. Catte doesn’t pretend that the negative parts of Appalachia don’t exist, she instead unpacks all the ways that those negative aspects have been oversold and used to erase the other more multicultural and middle-class stories that exist.

This is a good, dense, read and the bibliography alone is worth a look. The U.S. is a big, complex place and the overarching narratives of our regions need to be unpacked and this book certainly does that.