I Hope You Get This Message (CBR12 #34)

I Hope You Get This Message

My Cannonball Bingo tradition is to sit down with the square descriptions and plan out options for what books to read for each category. I Hope You Get This Message by Farah Naz Rishi could qualify for several squares (this is her debut published October 2019, we read it for CBR The Future is Queer Book Club) but I’m using it for UnCannon. The ‘Canon’ is often made up of books written by old, white men and the goal of this square is to read as far from the stereotypical version as possible and this book does just that. Farah Naz Rishi is a Pakistani-American Muslim writer who is writing specifically for the YA audience – one that is often overlooked by the arbiters of taste. I Hope You Get This Message is also focused on queer relationships, mental health struggles, and income inequalities told from the all too real voices of its young cast, UnCannon indeed.

What is the book about? Oh, nothing too important, just what happens when you’re trying to survive your teenage years and the Earth might end in seven days. Earth has been contacted by a planet named Alma, the world is abuzz with rumors that the alien entity is giving mankind only few days to live before they hit the kill switch on civilization. For Jesse Hewitt nothing has ever felt permanent: not the guys he hooks up with, not the jobs his mom works so hard to hold down, so what does it matter if it all ends now? But what can he do if it doesn’t all end? Cate Collins is desperate to use this time to do one more thing for her schizophrenic mother, to find the father she’s never met. Adeem Khan has always found coding and computer programming easy, but not forgiveness. He can’t seem to forgive his sister for leaving, even though it’s his last chance, but he wants more than anything for her to forgive him for his silence when she dared to speak her truth. With only seven days to face their truths and right their wrongs, Jesse, Cate, and Adeem’s paths collide even as their worlds are pulled apart.

In all honesty the world of I Hope You Get This Message is not a very hopeful future, before Alma accidentally sends its death message, and in fact it is in most ways the future that we are living in now. The book however is about carving out a little piece of hope when everything feels hopeless. Rishi is playing around with survival and redemption, with love and feeling like you can accept it when you don’t feel like you deserve it.  As the POV shifts between the three leads: Jesse, Cate, and Adeem we are deeply entrench in the character-driven as opposed to the plot-driven (although it has some forward movement too), we are here for the interior journeys of these characters as they work towards their own goals in the lead up to the possible end of the world. And as the reader, we want them to discover more beyond their initial goals, because that’s what we want for ourselves.

Upright Women Wanted (CBR#33)

Upright Women Wanted

Upright Women Wanted was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2020. This is my first Sarah Gailey, I know them from Twitter and I’ve clocked reviews of their books. But the description of Upright Women Wanted caught my attention and plunked itself on my to read list. Alas, I wanted to love this book but instead I just really liked it. Its good, its comfortably three stars good but the idea and themes deserve four. Unfortunately the beginning confused me more than set the stage (although it does that too) and I spent most of my reading time playing catch-up.

Set in a near future American Southwest where extended wars have led to a general collapse in society and a return to a west familiar to Western movie enthusiasts (down to the vernacular), the book is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing. The book follows Esther who is a stowaway in the Librarians’ wagon. Esther is running from her father, an arranged marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend whom she was in love with, and that same friend’s execution for possession of resistance propaganda at the hands of her father.  

But the most important part of this book – the part that makes me wish I could comfortably rate it four stars – is the way in which Esther is coming to terms with her queerness, without even having the words to describe it. She has been taught her very being is wrong, damnable, and that she is alone. Through the course of the book she starts to come to understand that the world is populated with people of every stripe, and the Librarians that she has run away with are much less State approved than she initially thought. By the end, Esther has found a home, and a purpose, and I was glad to have read it.

The Disasters (CBR12 #30)

The Disasters by M.K. England

My reading intake has dropped off considerably since May, but book club kept me with my hand in the game so to speak, because I really enjoyed my first choice, The Disasters by M.K. England. This book ended up on our selection list because I saw an interesting write-up about it and thought hey, I want to read that book. Sometimes it pays to be the Book Club Maven. (I also read I Hope You Get This Message, I had previously read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet which I loved, and while I’m glad so many chose to read An Unkindness of Ghosts I actually put it on the list because I didn’t want to read it – not everyone likes what I like.)

The Disasters is a road trip story – a favorite trope. Our narrator, hotshot pilot Nax Hall, has a history of making poor life choices and getting into trouble with authority figures so it is not exactly a surprise when he’s kicked out of Ellis Station Academy in less than twenty-four hours. He’s dejected that his life’s goal of getting out to the space colonies as a pilot is gone, but he’s not surprised per se. Nax’s one-way trip back to Earth (what happens to washouts) is cut short when a terrorist group attacks the Academy before Nax and three others leave. They manage to escape, but they are also the sole witnesses to the biggest crime in the history of space colonization. They are now on the run and framed for atrocities they didn’t commit, and Nax and his fellow failures execute a dangerous heist to spread the truth about what happened at the Academy – and stop an even larger disaster from happening. In order to do that they will spend four days traveling between worlds on the run and in hiding and picking up some help along the way.

We’re with Nax through the entirety of this quick 350 page work, and the story isn’t the same in the hands of another lead. England draws her characters so well that any of the others could have been their lead, but there’s something about Nax, how he implicitly exists as the cross-points of defining characteristics, that adds some needed depth to the themes England is poking at. Speculative fiction is built on tales of exploration, survival, ingenuity, exceptionality, and redemption, and this book is not without those things. The crew of The Kick are each exceptional in their own arena and ingenious to boot, they are out to redeem themselves from their failure at the Academy, but also to ensure the survival of many, many people. The world they live in is the product of continued exploration, and the exploration continues in the background of the book.

I also unabashedly love a found family story, and this book also explores that trope. It’s probably because I grew up in a loving, mostly stable home and my parents were and are the kind of people who accept all comers. If you needed some family in your life, they were going to see that you got it. That is in fact how in his early 20s my oldest brother ended up in my family in the first place, but that’s not my story to tell. But the story of a the family of friends created under stress and duress in The Disasters hit all those notes for me, and I’m hoping it speaks to the warmth of both kinds of family (since our narrator Nax’s birth family are pretty great too) that are in the author’s life.

As to the future setting, the universe of The Disasters is a realistic, but hopeful, place. Progress has been made in the 150+ years between now and then, but its uneven and not quite what we might hope. Its also a future with bureaucracy and corruption, but in most places the structures of the new colonies focus on the things that people love, not the things that drive us crazy. All in all, I’m glad to have read this one, and hope you were too if you read it.

#NotYourPrincess (CBR12 #25)

#Notyourprincess: Voices of Native American Women

I keep doing reading challenges for a couple reasons, but one of them is that it tends to point out areas that my reading habits need to expand. This year the Read Harder Challenge includes tasks for both YA Non-fiction read a book in any genre by a Native, First Nations, or Indigenous author. I’ve already read one YA Non-fiction this year, but while I was hunting up titles I came across #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale. It also didn’t hurt that the Reading Women Challenge has a task for reading an anthology by multiple authors.

And this is a really great choice for all those tasks. #NotYourPrincess is a feminist nonfiction collection of poetry, artwork, and personal essays, all revolving around the identity of Native American women aimed at young people. The book contains stories of abuse, humiliation, and stereotyping but it never felt oppressive – there was an underlying hope and pride and reclaiming their self-value, highlighting their struggles. Every single contributor is a woman, and they speak to their own experiences, which are as diverse as they are. The book is split up into four sections: The Ties That Bind Us, It Could Have Been Me, I am Not Your Princess and Pathfinders. While I appreciated the breaks between sections, and some of them held together very tightly, they didn’t all.

The part of the book I liked the most was how the artwork was linked to all the written components. But, the overall format of the book is the only downside. The book is just over 100 pages but it’s the size of what I typically makes me think of a picture book. But more than that, it’s a little tough to maneuver and to hold onto while reading. The physical reading experience wasn’t comfortable, but the art in the book is worth the size.

The Ultimate Pi Day Party (CBR12 #21)

The Ultimate Pi Day Party (Baldwin Village, #1)

Apparently incoming global pandemics make concentrating on reading tough for your friendly book club maven. Other than Station Eleven I didn’t finish another book for three weeks. But now that we’re in the “ordered to stay home by my governor” phase I’ve apparently settled in and am ready to return to a semi-normal schedule. So, as the anxiety fog begins to thin, I remembered that I had intended to read and review The Ultimate Pi Day Party by Jackie Lau for Pi Day on the 14th. I missed that goal, but its still March so I’m claiming the win.

This is my first full length Lau, having previously read her novella series Holidays with the Wongs. This one reminds me most of A Second Chance Road Trip for Christmas which while really good was my least favorite of the four novellas. Lau sets up her leads with emotional baggage that is relatable to the reader and also matched to each other.

Sarah has defied her mother’s hopes and moved to the big city of Toronto (it was strange to read another book namedropping the same streets as Station Eleven so soon) and opened her own pie shop, Happy as Pie, in the Baldwin Street neighborhood. The store is doing well, and she’s hoping to expand into catering and possibly a second location down the line. Into her store walks Josh, CEO of a tech company his father sees no value in and number 19 on a list of Toronto’s 35 most eligible bachelors under 35. There are sparks which must be navigated with the fact that Josh has hired Sarah to cater a party at his house. Lau handles this all so well, Sarah and Josh each have a history of not dating, each has professional goals and focuses, each has a parent they are struggling with. The parts of Pi Day that worked best for me were the parts where Sarah and Josh were being dumb about their feelings, figuring out how to maneuver wanting to be in a relationship with no practical skills other than kindness.

As I’ve mentioned before I am often dumb about my emotions, so those plots and characterizations almost always ring true for me. I enjoyed reading along as two people were dumb about their feelings, got less dumb about those feelings but at different rates, and then finally stopped being completely dumb about their feelings for each other.But that isn’t all that’s happening in this book as Lau unpacks some bigger emotional problems. In Pi Day its parental issues, specifically parents who have either intentionally or unintentionally withheld approval to their kids. Josh’s dad is the one intentionally withholding from his son following a mistake in his teenage years and its damaged him emotionally in ways he is only just beginning to reckon with. Josh’s personal history opens the book up to important conversations about consent, safe sex, and abortion. Unfortunately, I had trouble with Lau’s pacing around Josh’s backstory – I wish she had given herself some additional real estate in the time immediately before and after the titular Pi Party. Or that literally anyone had mentioned Josh’s mom to him as a counterpoint to his father. But this is still a good book, and you should be reading Lau.

Teach Me (CBR12 #16)

Teach Me (There's Something About Marysburg, #1)

In the gift that keeps on giving, my moving romance authors who were vocal during the RWA’s (continuing) implosion to the top of my TBR has led to some solidly stellar reading. Its always nice to remember that smart, bitchy ladies who get mouthy at oppression and racism just write better books. Olivia Dade has been coming after the gatekeepers vocally since at least early 2019 (probably longer, but I’ve only been following her on Twitter about that long) and is just seriously funny. I was sold on her as an author before ever picking up one of her books.

Teach Me seemed the perfect book to dive in with. It’s a romance about two high school history teachers in their 40s who are each carrying some deep emotional scars and are also falling for each other against at least one of their better judgement (they trade off who is thinking it is or isn’t a good idea). This book gave me the warm feeling inside of seeing yourself (or a close enough version of yourself) on page. Representation of all kinds matters and seeing a positive representation of an overweight heroine appreciated for her curves, fashion sense, and strength lit up several happy receptors in my brain.

The book sets up many places for conflict between the characters, but it also focuses heavily on the kindness each of our incredibly competent leads brings. Rose is not nice to Martin, and she isn’t expected to be. She is however considerate and kind, and he is in return. They fall for each other based on their professional abilities and the depths of their care for their students, and the fact that they find each other irresistibly attractive. This book could play Rose’s closed off way of dealing with the world for laughs, or done it with Martin’s being devalued by those who should have loved him in the past, instead it infuses those areas with a sense of honesty that makes the characters ring true. Dade instead brings the funny in other areas, in other ways, and it is all wonderfully executed. I was so very glad to have read this book when I was done.

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.

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics (CBR12 #9)

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics (Feminine Pursuits, #1)

Olivia Waite is an author I’ve been following on Twitter for a little while – she’s just the right kind of outspoken feminist romance author that I like to follow (they are a fun crowd, seriously, get into Romance Twitter it’s a good place to be even when things aren’t burning down). Her vocal and staunch support of #IStandWithCourtney and the ensuing fallout with the RWA meant that I bumped her novel that much further up my to read list because I will support the author’s doing good in the world in the small ways I can, and in this case it meant Library requests and Cannonball reviews.

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics (a title shared with the book within the book) is a f/f Regency historical telling the story of Lucy Muchelney and Catherine St. Day, Countess of Moth. The book begins as Lucy watches her ex-lover’s sham of a wedding and fears that her brother is going to sell her telescope now that their father is dead – removing her primary tool in her occupation as an astronomer. She finds a letter from the Countess of Moth, looking for someone to translate a groundbreaking French astronomy text and decides her best option is to travel to London and present herself as the best option for translator based on her previous work with her father. Catherine St Day expected to hand off the translation and wash her hands of the project—instead, she is pissed off at the way Lucy is dismissed out of hand by the Society and withdraws her funding and promises to support Lucy in her endeavor to translate the work. Along the way the pair fall for each other.

Much of the book is spent as Catherine shows Lucy the type of support and care she desperately desires while Lucy helps Catherine discover what a happy and fulfilling romantic and sexual life can be. They overcome their fears and face the misogyny of early 1800s England together. That’s probably my favorite part of Waite’s work – she populates the book with a variety of characters who are being limited by and fighting against the power being wielded by cis white hetero men. The big bad of the book is motivated by paternalism, that’s all, but its aftereffects are devastating to generations of people whom he thinks he is protecting.

The book isn’t perfect, there’s about 40 pages of durm und strang that just makes no sense placed where it is in the narrative – the characters have grown past it and it feels out of place both in the timeline and in the book at all. But Waite is an accomplished writer and I’ve already put her next book in this series The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows on my to read list (its due to be published July 2020).

A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year (CBR12 #5)

A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year (Holidays with the Wongs, #3)

I continue to love the conceit of these novellas; there are four Wong children, all unattached, and their parents and grandparents hatch a plan to set them up with potential partners at Canadian Thanksgiving based on the tropes in the romance novels that their mother and grandmother read. The initial matches go terribly, but as the holidays progress each Wong sibling finds love in different romantic tropey ways. For A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year Lau combined the friends to lovers and fake relationship tropes for the third Wong sibling Zach’s book.

In A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year Zach is afraid of a repeat performance from Thanksgiving and now that his two brothers are in relationships he knows he is the likely target for a second try at blind date setups (I appreciate how Lau makes this his fear, not the plans his mom and grandmother have). To keep that from happening he approaches his friend Jo with a favor – would she be willing to pretend to be his girlfriend for a few weeks to keep the pressure off from his family. The both live in Mosquito Bay and have a friendship built on broken engagements and hobbies, so Zach thinks this is safe for both of them. What he doesn’t know if that Jo has secretly been falling for him for the past two years of their four-year friendship and that he has some feelings for her that he is being dumb about.

As emmalita said in her review of the ARC people “will be dumb about their feelings” and as someone who is often dumb about her feelings I enjoyed reading along as two people were dumb about their feelings, got less dumb about those feelings but at different rates, and then finally stopped being completely dumb about their feelings for each other. Like in Second Chance the obstacle is resolved much closer to the ending, which makes sense for a novella clocking it at 90 pages, but still left me a smidge unsatisfied so I’m rating this one 3.5. That said, this still had what I’m looking for in a romance at the end of the day – to care about the characters and enjoy spending time with them which I’m continuing to discover is Lau’s gift.

Red, White, & Royal Blue (CBR12 #4)

Red, White & Royal Blue

Next up on my Diverse Romance reads is Red, White, & Royal Blue. McQuiston wrote Red, White, & Royal Blue with the intention of making it queer, and making it queer in the way she wished she had read for herself as she was finding her own identity. Her care shows in every step of the novel and its going to be tough for another book to be better than this one this year.

Red, White, & Royal Blue has a great premise – what if the son of the first female president of the United States fell in love with the grandson of the sitting Queen of England? Better yet, what if they go from enemies to friends to lovers. What’s more is that we have one coming to the realization that he is bisexual and the other living deeply in the closet.

“Straight people, he thinks, probably don’t spend this much time convincing themselves they’re straight.”

This book leans into being a political, queer, new adult romantic comedy. McQuiston finds room in her story for all of it, the realities of the American political system aren’t obliterated by her changed 2016 election, a wide variety of queer characters exist in the depths of this story because while its very specifically the story of Alex and Henry, their world is fully fleshed out with a variety of people, and is just downright funny. Basically any scene with Alex’s mom elicited a laugh from me – she’s absolutely brutal in her brand of mom humor and this book contains the single greatest use of PowerPoint ever.

The characters are infused with hope and joy, even when battling depression and addiction. We get to watch as McQuiston unpacks what they see in each other and why would this person love that one through their emails and texts, spending large portions of the back half of the book creating a modern epistolary novel. I loved watching them fall in love and deal with the weight of what their choice to choose love meant to their realities. I’m not doing a great job reviewing it, but this is really a great book.

“The phrase “see attached bibliography” is the single sexiest thing you have ever written to me.”