Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure (CBR11 #33)

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Courtney Milan really is fantastic at writing novellas. Even the ones I don’t love are still fantastic reads. The Governess Affair is one of my favorite books, period, and A Kiss for Midwinter is one of the few books I’ve read more than once in the past several years. Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure ranks right up there with them.

While the book is part of the Worth Saga books, it absolutely stands alone, which I can attest to because the only other book in the series I’ve read is the novella Her Every Wish. You learn everything you need to enjoy the story on the page, and it’s a quick enjoyable romp through valuing oneself and ruining the lives of terrible men. The book tells the story of Mrs. Bertrice Martin, a wealthy widow, aged seventy-three, who crosses paths with proper, correct Miss Violetta Beauchamps, an energetic nine and sixty, who is after solidifying her retirement plans and Mrs. Martin’s Terrible Nephew is the reason she lost her pension. One small white lie and Violetta is convinced Mrs. Martin will send her on her way with funds to secure her dotage, what she wasn’t expecting was Mrs. Martin to insist on bringing her Terrible Nephew what he deserves.

The book features Mrs. Martin employing every nasty trick she can think of to bring her Terrible Nephew to heel (off-key choir serenading him first thing in the morning, for example), while also letting her heart open for the first time in the years since her closest friend and lover passed away. Meanwhile Violetta is struggling with the foundational untruth she told and how her burgeoning feelings for Bertrice have come too late. Each lady is working through their own struggles and comes to life when acting for the benefit of the other.

The novella also features a villain you love to root against. In her Author’s Note Milan nails exactly why: “Sometimes I write villains who are subtle and nuanced. This is not one of those times. The Terrible Nephew is terrible, and terrible things happen to him. Sometime villains really are bad and wrong, and sometimes, we want them to suffer a lot of consequences.”

Saga, Volume 9 (CBR11 #30)

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I’ve been putting off reading the latest volume of Saga since I had heard it was devastating and that there would be at least a year hiatus until Vaughan and Staples picked back up working on this. Why sit with whatever terrible, soul crushing experience was waiting for me for over a year when I could just live with not knowing for the same amount of time?

Well, I abandoned that perfectly solid plan and gave in to temptation. It was just sitting there in my living room waiting for me and I’m not entirely made of stone.  I read it, it broke my heart, but it also felt strangely thin to what I’ve come to expect from Saga. It also made me think deeply about how invested I am in characters that are de facto villains in this world (as their goals are directly in conflict with the goals of our heroes) and how that is going to play out moving forward. Vaughan and Staples are making us to consider all the variables, all the competing motives, all the possible endgames. We know some things for sure, but not how we get to them. The sense remains that each storyline is part of this grand whole that is only slowly being revealed to the reader, that we’ve still only barely scratched the surface.

I’m still in love with this series. It remains the rare book to have humor, sorrow, wit, action, adventure, and beautiful drawings married in one text. It is sophisticated and unafraid to be crass when the story calls for it. The larger themes of family, love, and violence begetting nothing but more violence are firmly settled. But, I find myself wishing that this volume was more while simultaneously less at the same time. There connective tissue didn’t hold up to the major events contained within.

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

Educated (CBR11 #23)

A couple of months ago I read American Like Me and focused my review on how the various contributors wrote and reflected on the way their lives hopped boundaries or existed on the edge of multiple cultures. In Educated Tara Westover is doing a deep dive of her own, very personal, journey of leaving one culture (that of her father) and exploring the cultures of more mainstream Mormonism and mainstream America. It is not a perfect book, and to my mind Westover chose an interesting time in her life to reckon with her lived experience to this degree and this publicly, our early thirties are an interesting time to take stock of life so far but Westover’s is far from typical. It was a beautifully crafted, captivating read that is having a very needed conversation about self-invention and the importance of actual truth and how we see it, even if the author sometimes backs away from her own arguments.

Westover’s experiences growing up were very tightly controlled, and it left her with enormous gaps and misunderstandings of how the rest of the world works which she explores in her memoir. Sometimes these differences in our lived experiences made it difficult for me to relate, but battling with guilt, expectation, and hope did ring very true to me. Her parents are strict survivalists in Idaho and Westover’s father believed (and likely continues to believe) that the coming of the end times was imminent which was very likely fed by an undiagnosed mental illness (I’m not a professional, I can’t weigh in definitively) as well as being  conspiracy theorist. These things directly impacted the kind of childhood Tara had: the children were kept out of school, members of the family rarely sought professional medical care, and virtually no measures were taken to protect anyone from the physical dangers surrounding the way they live their lives and earn their livings.

Educated is Westover’s account of how she went from growing up in that environment with little education and none of it formal, to being a PhD student at Cambridge and how it all comes together to form her life as it is now. But it is also more than a travelogue of joining academia – if it had stayed on that level I probably would only be rating it 3 or 4 stars because it wouldn’t be uncovering universal insights. Instead, Westover weaves her various narratives together to tell the larger story of how she discovered herself and began to trust her own interior voice. At the heart of her story is just what we mean when we say “an education”.

As she moved ever more away from her life in Idaho and her family’s compound on Buck’s Peak and into the world of mainstream Mormonism and the larger American mainstream Westover accumulates several “educations”, that of traditional schooling but also the informal educations we pick up along the way that helps us see ourselves and others. That is what her educations got Westover –  the ability to see her own life through new eyes and the will to change it in ways that honor her newly trusted inner-voice.

Normal People (CBR11 #20)

It has been a long time since I absolutely demolished a novel in less than 24 hours. I had waited months for my turn to come up on the library hold list for Normal People so a soon as I officially finished Good Omens I ignored the other books sitting on my kitchen table and settled in to see what jeverett15 and dAvid experienced that led them both to rating it so highly. I very quickly understood and am myself rating it five stars, rounding up.

This book has a seemingly simple premise: rich disaffected girl and popular working-class boy date, break up, and orbit each other through their college years. It sounds simplistic broken down to that level, because if it only existed on that level it would be a very simple novel that I would have maybe read but likely would have walked away from. Rooney instead imbues real, honest, and accurate depth into her characters and uses their on again, off again relationship to poke at larger truths.

Normal People looks at the ways we hurt ourselves and other people, and both at the same time. The plot often hinges on miscommunications and misunderstandings, but Rooney stays away from my least favorite trope – she has her characters talk to each other, and want to communicate, and often try and fail. We experience with the characters the gulf between what is meant and what is understood and how that small difference can color years of our lives. There is betrayal, love, and how sometimes love isn’t enough to overcome our hurts and the walls we build between ourselves and the world around us, and even around the person we love most in the world.

When Marianne and Connell are close, they’re seemingly entirely in sync, but when things go wrong and they go their separate ways they are often destroying parts of themselves and their lives, and they seem incapable of seeing it. They can’t seem to stay away from each other either, needing some relationship with the other to serve as a touchstone to who they each are at the core of their beings, only feeling truly themselves when in relation to the other.

Rooney zeroes in on outwardly insignificant moments that are truly some of the most significant times in our lives and examines them, both from an incredibly close angle but also from a sometimes sterile distance. Mechanically she is choosing her phrasing, her language, her pacing, and her settings to do the heavy lifting but also leaves room for her narrative to breath, for the reader to bring themselves to the novel. As jeverett15 said in their review, she can break your heart in record time, and she does it with crisp, sparse language and emotional honesty. She writes with such precision and clarity that the shared territory becomes what matters and you are able to extrapolate the rest and find the empathy within for characters you don’t always think of in a very positive light.

The novel leaves the reader with a vague sense of what happens next, or what could happen next and I can see in that detail and so many other ones where dAvid felt that this is a harsher, more adult version of Eleanor & Park. Both books explore abuse, complex familial dynamics, fear of success, of feeling othered and both Rowell and Rooney write dynamic characters with finesse. It’s a very different feeling book to me, much more sorrowful and darker, but Normal People does feel like the continuation of a conversation Eleanor & Park was having with its audience.

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.

The Kiss Quotient (CBR 11 #14)

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The Kiss Quotient has been hanging out in my TBR since Malin’s review last June and I was excited to read it this year fulfilling tasks for both Read Harder Challenge and the Reading Women Challenge. I’m glad I read it in the early part of the year and didn’t put it off any longer, it was a quick fun read and while it wasn’t perfectly executed it was certainly better than average and quite good indeed for a debut.

I have a soft spot for books where the author has workshopped them and thanks their writers group in the acknowledgements. I also have a soft spot for a work where the author has an idea – in this case a gender swapped Pretty Woman – and just needs a spark of inspiration to make it work. For Hoang, it was a bit of self-discovery (a later in life Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis) that unlocks for her the way in which her female protagonist can reasonably hire an escort. Stella would like to be in a relationship but her personal rhythms have not allowed her to have a successful sexual interaction with a man, and she decides a professional will be able to teach her what she needs to know, down to writing her own checklists as lesson plans.

I loved Stella, I loved how clearly Hoang writes her voice and how easily she inserts the reader into her mind’s eye. The novel hands back point of view between Stella and Michael, and while I felt Hoang does a good job of making them distinct, and making Michael both a very typical male lead in a romance (tall, television star handsome, martial arts practitioner, a freaking 8 pack) and decidedly not typical (the aforementioned sex worker side job, a traditionally “feminine” field of work, half-Vietnamese). But the strengths are really in delivering a neurodiverse experience understandable to those not on the spectrum.

The plot turns on the successful sexual relationship of Stella and Michael, so there’s quite a bit in there, but it is also a story working through power dynamics, self-worth, and responsibility. There were some things that drove me a bit batty, and they were focused around my least favorite trope of all time, a central conflict that can be resolved with an honest conversation. But, Michael’s mother and grandmother make up for most of the nonsense his character inflicts on Stella and the reader.

Hoang’s next book also features a neurodiverse character, Michael’s cousin. I’m very interested in seeing how that one reads later this year.

Read Harder Task 13: a book by or about a person who identifies as neurodiverse (both)

Read Women Task 18: a romance

The Proposal (CBR11 #11)

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Almost exactly a year ago I read Jasmine Guillory’s debut The Wedding Date. It was charming, had great characters, a plot with meat on its bones, and sexy bassline. In my review of that book I wished for a follow up with supporting character Carlos, and Guillory must have had as much fun writing him as I did reading him because her second book is focused on Carlos.

The Proposal* picks up six months after the end of The Wedding Date. We immediately meet the novel’s other main character, Nik, as she is experiencing a truly horrifying moment. Her casual boyfriend of 5 months has just proposed to her via Jumbotron at an L.A. Dodgers game. She refuses, terrible boyfriend storms off, and before a camera crew can get to her Carlos and his sister swoop in and rescue Nik with the “hey I haven’t seen you in so long” trick that women use to help other women in distress.

For a book that starts this way it could easily have been a much more somber affair. Guillory includes the tough stuff – what happens when a break-up goes badly and you are afraid, what happens when a previous relationship has hurt you in emotional ways that you haven’t quite dealt with yet – but lets them inform her love story, not overtake it. Guillory seems intent on talking about real issues in her books and heading down the same feminist path of the truly great romance writers working now. This book is even more diverse in its characters, which is such a pleasure to read.

While this one could be accused of committing the crime of instalove (I don’t actually think so even though the timeline is rather short, I believe wholeheartedly in two people in their thirties accidentally falling head over heels in love with each other in two months) it handles its other trope, friends to lovers, so well that it erases any concerns you may have. It does have a small handful of faults, but this story of two people learning if they can love, and let themselves be loved, when they have both decided they won’t love is pretty great.

*I really hope Guillory keeps naming her books after romantic comedy movies. I think its great.

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.

The Nature of the Beast (CBR11 #9)

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This is my first Inspector Gamache book without narrator Ralph Cosham. It took me a bit to get used to hearing Gamache’s voice in my head without the aid of Cosham, but after ten books Cosham is Gamache’s voice for me and once I got started it all worked itself out.

The tenth book, The Long Way Home, was a departure for both Penny and her characters and in some important ways this book is a return to form. We have at the core of this book a mystery set within the greater environs of Three Pines which opens even further the backstories of our favorite residents. But this is also a book that accepts the new status quo of the lives of Gamache, Beauvoir, and Clara.

I don’t fully know that I knew what to expect in this one, but I know that I wasn’t expecting Penny to dive into some truly horrendous baddies. There’s a serial killer haunting the periphery of the story and while other authors would use that to pile up the bodies Penny instead uses it to dig ever further into the whys of human nature. Why are we fascinated with what the serial killer did before the events of the novel, why would he kill so many, why is he resurfacing now, why is he still a threat from the SHU, and why is Gamache so afraid?

The serial killer isn’t even the main thrust of the mystery. Gamache is intent on enjoying his retirement with Reine-Marie in Three Pines, but that idyll is broken when the body of a young boy from town is discovered on the side of the road. An initial small, local search discovers things aren’t quite what they seem and something large and scary is found in the woods which brings in Chief Inspector Lacoste as well as the larger Canadian intelligence community. Three Pines is far from done uncovering her secrets.

I read an interview with Penny, and she nails what I love about these books. “[They] aren’t about murder; they’re about life and the choices that we make, and what happens to good people when such a harrowing event comes into their lives. It’s an exploration of human nature, I hope.” This book does that in spades, and while this book had to be returned over the Christmas holiday and I read it neatly in two halves I’m looking forward to book twelve, A Great Reckoning, and getting to read it all in one go.

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.