Friday, February 28, 2020

Weekend reads, or life in the sugar shack

I really hate February as a rule: it's so gray, and cold, and snowy, but not in a pretty way; there aren't enough warm days to make it feel springy, and the rain is still wintry cold and makes me feel achy.

Farm life has made February more bearable in the last few years: we get baby animals, including some hilarious kids most recently; and sugar season starts.

Our second home the last few weeks has been the sugar shack, where my wife and other staff boil the maple sap for 12 hours a day. The small wood shack gets steamy and smells of maple, and is warm and cozy with children and dogs.

My weekend read this weekend is the audiobook of The Deep by Rivers Solomon, read by Daveed Diggs. It's an incredible listen but I'm not surprised, given how amazing Solomon's previous novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, was.

What are you doing this weekend? Will you be reading anything?

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Woman in the Camphor Trunk by Jennifer Kincheloe

As a teen, Anna had indeed broken in to drink the communion wine, because she needed the extra holiness.

I've not been so madly in love with a heroine in a long time as I am with Anna Blanc. I gushed about her in my review of Kincheloe's first book, The Secret Life of Anna Blanc, and this second historical mystery featuring our plucky, daring, poised, naive, sweet, reckless girl was so satisfying and exciting.

The Woman in the Camphor Trunk by Jennifer Kincheloe
Seventh Street Books, 2017
Copy from my public library & audiobook review copy from the author
Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

I tend to drop serial historical mysteries because at a certain point it feels like the interpersonal stuff with the main characters gets frozen at a certain point to ensure that readers can drop into new releases without wondering what they missed. Possibly this could happen with Kincheloe's series if it goes on for ten more books but so far, I'm really impressed with how much had changed for Anna in this book.

The events of the first book are deeply reflected in Anna's life in this book, and I loved it. The book blurb gives a little away, so I won't recap, but I will say that Anna's decisions aren't waved off in favor of keeping her a socialite-with-a-secret. Her secret came out in a big way in the first book, and Anna is now disowned and struggling to make ends meet on her police matron's salary.

The historical detail in this book was as rich and detailed as The Secret Life of Anna Blanc; with Anna's sheltered life, there's much she doesn't know, and it allows the reader to learn with her. Kincheloe does it deftly, too, so it's not one painful info dump after another; it feels more organic and natural. The setting for this book is Chinatown, with the discovery of a dead woman stuffed in a trunk. It's a horrifying murder that threatens to unleash greater violence, from the criminal gangs that run opium and gambling dens to white mobs motivated by racist fears, and Anna and the police are frantic to quietly solve things without setting off any riots.

What was most interesting slash torturous for me in this read was Kincheloe's handling of Anna's romance with Detective Joe Singer. I don't think it gives anything away to say that Anna is firm -- as she was in the previous book -- that she doesn't want to be under the thumb of any man, even one she's wildly fond of; and as a result, she rebuffs Joe. While I hated this, I also admire it, because Anna is so consistent (even when she's not), and it made for an interesting secondary thread throughout the story. (I've been so deep in romance novels, it was painful for me when things didn't resolve with a neat HEA but when I took a breath, I appreciated that, too!)

I alternated between reading this book and listening to the audiobook. As with the first book, this one is read by Moira Quirk and it is marvelous. Quirk just is Anna but she also does the other characters -- including love interest Joe -- beautifully. Now that I'm listening to more audiobooks, I can appreciate what Quirk does well: her pacing is great (no need to speed up the book), her accents and male voices aren't cringe-y, and she's consistent in her characterizations. She just perfectly captures Anna's naivete and compassion.

I knew I was a fan after the first book; I'm now an Anna Blanc devotee after this one. (I've already finished the third book so now I am a slavish fangirl and can't wait for the fourth book to come out!)

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Book Review: Love Her or Lose Her by Tessa Bailey

Was this a sign that she was ready to shed him like a layer of old skin and move on?

At this point, I think this is my seventh Tessa Bailey romance and I'm sad to say I really think I'm just not the right reader for her books. This book is the second in her newest series, Hot & Hammered, set in Port Jefferson, Long Island, centered around the Castle family and their home renovation business.

Love Her or Lose Her by Tessa Bailey
Avon, 2020
Copy from the public library

Dominic works on the construction crew and is married to his high school sweetheart. But after a decade together -- including the time he served in the Marines in Afghanistan -- things with his beloved Rosie are stilted and tense. They never talk, his wife's emotional life is a complete mystery to him, and he firmly believes that acts of care, done in secret, is the only way for a husband to behave. For Rosie, she feels like a shadow in her own life, her dream of own a restaurant drifting further and further from sight with each day. Despite the insane sexual chemistry between her and Dominic, they seem like strangers, and one day, Rosie demands they make a change: seeing a marriage counselor.

I was so intrigued by this premise and in many ways, Bailey delivered: she really nailed a marriage that wasn't working but in really tame, boring ways. There was no huge sin or betrayal that caused things to suddenly be cold between Rosie and Dominic; they just stopped being friends. (They were weekly fuck buddies which I guess is realistic but their sexual chemistry was so over-the-top it was almost gross. Like, no one who has sex weekly really needs to be getting panty-sopping horny from her husband's voice.) The things Rosie and Dominic had to do to repair their marriage was realistic and normal and quite touching.

But this was actually a small kernel of the story and the rest of it was just, I don't know... At this point, I think Bailey's narrative style just doesn't work for me. It just feels like she's so fond of her characters she's too precious with them, or too indulgent, and it feels like she assumes the reader is as in love with them as she is. And I'm not, so most of what they do just makes me roll my eyes rather than cheer.

And the "alpha" hero element ... UGH. To each their own but it's 2020 and I really don't think it is at all appropriate, cute, funny, sexy, or appealing for one romantic partner to chase down the other partner when they're having a night out with their friends. Rosie asks for a girls night and they all dress up and go to Manhattan and it's Wes -- the outsider and apparently romantic lead in the next book! -- who suggests all the guys chase down the women, which is pretty horrifying, but especially so since he isn't actually in a romantic relationship with any of these women; and in fact has only insulted the woman whose night he plans to ruin.

Our hero's endearment of 'honey girl' really just made me cringe. Bailey has her heroes use 'baby girl' a lot (which I loathe) and/but the use of 'honey' here felt a little like exoticising Rosie since she's biracial (Black and Latinx). Like, why not just keep using 'baby girl'?

Unlike Bailey's other series I've read, I do think reading Fix Her Up is needed before reading this one; there's actual character development from that book that happens here, and I think it would be meaningless without having read Fix Her Up; there's also a decent amount of groundwork being laid for the forthcoming novel featuring Bethany (like, it's a tertiary thread that has gotten multiple page treatment!).

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Audiobook Review: The Secret Life of Anna Blanc by Jennifer Kincheloe

Anna didn't like children. Her greatest fear was that her prayers would get crossed with some other Catholics. Anna would get pregnant without even asking and some other woman would get a motorcycle or permission to play flag football.

I've got a new heroine addiction in the form of one Anna Blanc -- socialite, heiress, adventurer, crime fighter.

Set in 1907 Los Angeles, our heroine Anna is the daughter of a French banker and is known for being a charming, beautiful socialite. But she wants more than all that. She wants to be a police detective. Her reputation is already borderline ruined from an impetuous decision she makes in the first chapter, but she manages to juggle a handsome, wealthy suitor and a position as a police matron -- the closest thing to being a police detective she can manage. But wrangling orphans into orphanages isn't the work she wants to do, and with guts, moxie, and obliviousness, she gets to work solving murders and other crimes.

The Secret Life of Anna Blanc by Jennifer Kincheloe; audiobook narrated by Moira Quirk
Jennifer Kincheloe, 2016
Review copy for blog tour
Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

With an intriguing mix of naivete and grit, Kincheloe presents a young woman who will do anything to achieve her goal; but things aren't easy as there are lumps and bumps along the way. Somehow both slightly fantastical and incredibly realistic, I hung on every word of this story because I was/am infatuated with Anna and would follow her to the ends of the earth. (Imagine a less sexually experienced Tahani from The Good Place, all good intentions, societal connections, and lack of real world skills. See? Impossible to resist.) She's a genuinely imperfect woman both swimming in privilege and bound by society and station, and Kincheloe articulates both worlds vividly and sympathetically.

Kincheloe also does a brilliant job of evoking 1907 Los Angeles and the small tidbits of life at the time (vibrators as treatments for hysteria, for example); the era and setting were as real as Anna. The mysteries were interesting, the side characters compelling, and the will-they-won't-they romance heart flutter-y. (I'm actually wolfing down the rest of the books in the series mostly for Anna and her romantic life; love that she's professionally satisfied but I am enamored of her beau!)

I don't know how I missed this debut back in 2016 but I am soooo glad I was able to join the blog tour for the audiobook as the narrator, Moira Quirk, is smashing.  I'm a total fangirl now and will be searching for other books she reads although I am a little nervous she will forever be Anna Blanc for me. Quirk manages accents and different voices beautifully. Her men sound different from women without any awkward throat straining that makes you want to cough in sympathy; she manages to be Anna in all her ridiculous, competent glory. Having finished this listen, I already "miss" both Anna and Quirk's rendering of her, and I can't wait to listen to the other audiobooks.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Audiobook Review: Pemberley: Mr. Darcy's Dragon by Maria Grace

Elizabeth's stomach churned. To be so ambushed, first thing in the day.

Austen's classic novel of manners, marriage, obligation, misunderstandings, poor judgments and well-founded ones is well-served by Maria Grace's imaginings of how society would respond to a world with dragons. It is not merely a retelling with lizards thrown in but a story with new threads of tension and complications that make Lizzie and Darcy's dislike of each other novel and real -- and something that must be urgently overcome.

Pemberley: Mr. Darcy's Dragon: A Pride and Prejudice Variation (Jane Austen's Dragons, Book 1) by Maria Grace; Narrated by Benjamin Fife
Self-published, 2019
Review copy for Audiobookworm Promotions
Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Pride and Prejudice isn't my favorite Austen novel which means I seriously love P&P re-tellings and variations.  (Ayesha at Last is one of the best bestest, btw, so if you haven't read it, read it now!) I found myself instantly smitten with this version, which I thought captured that unspoken pressure

In this Britain, dragons were discovered in the time of King Arthur: massive ones associated with estates, smaller ones that roam like wildlife, and tiny ones that seem like hummingbirds. Some humans can hear dragons and others can't, so a delicate accord was struck that allowed humans and dragons to live in harmony. But centuries of rules, rituals, that's-just-how-it's-dones means that Lizzie Bennett -- the eldest dragon keeper in her family -- is expected to remain with Longbourn, the estate's cranky dragon, and wed Mr. Collins, the heir.

With that stress weighing on her, as well as her mother's ongoing machinations to marry Jane off to the handsome and sweet Mr Bingley, Lizzie is swept into a dangerous search for a dragon's egg that was stolen from the Pemberley estate. That requires her to work with the rude and standoffish Mr Darcy, and readers who love P&P can imagine what happens next.

Only things don't unfold so predictably, and this is where I think Grace handles the beloved story and new elements so well. The emotional notes of P&P that are so beloved are there, but reached in slightly different ways, and they buoy the new elements introduced by this dragon-centered society.

Audiobook narrator Benjamin Fife does a wonderful job with the story; he manages the various voices well, including numerous female characters, without sounding cartoony or winded. Between his read and Grace's writing, I couldn't stop listening to this read and I will warn readers it ends right in the middle of the action -- this is a trilogy that encompasses the arc of P&P -- so be prepared to eagerly pick up the rest of the series (as I have).