Book Review: Husband Material (London Calling, #2) by Alexis Hall

Title: Husband Material
Series: London Calling, #2
Author: Alexis Hall
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: August 2, 2022
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In BOYFRIEND MATERIAL, Luc and Oliver met, pretended to fall in love, fell in love for real, dealt with heartbreak and disappointment and family and friends…and somehow figured out a way to make it work. Now it seems like everyone around them is getting married, and Luc’s feeling the social pressure to propose. But it’ll take more than four weddings, a funeral, and a bowl full of special curry to get these two from I don’t know what I’m doing to I do.

Good thing Oliver is such perfect HUSBAND MATERIAL.

This Summer 2022, you’re invited to the event(s) of the season.

After giggling my way through Boyfriend Material earlier this year, I just knew I needed the sequel in my life. And for the most part, Husband Material does not disappoint… except for the ending. But more on that later.

Blatantly modeled on Four Weddings and A Funeral**, the plot of Husband Material follows Luc and Oliver, the extreme-opposites-extremely-attract couple from the first book as they navigate being in a healthy long-term relationship (a first for both of them) while seeing all of their friends embracing wedding planning and baby making.

Two years into their relationship, Luc and Oliver still have separate flats but are together constantly. They’ve each made progress with their own personal hang-ups and issues, love each other very much, and are still funny as hell. As they attend wedding after wedding, some of their differences seem more concerning — especially when it comes to gay identity vs mainstream norms, and whether finally being able to officially and legally go the traditional marriage route means that they should.

And that’s not even addressing the rainbow elephant in the room — Luc embraces the glitter and rainbows of his ideal of gay community, but Oliver finds it all too commercialized and judgmental. If he doesn’t want a rainbow balloon arch at his wedding, does that make him a bad gay? But if he denies Luc the balloon arch, is he forcing Luc to give up part of his own identity? (Seriously, they spend A LOT of time on the balloon arch debate…)

After an unplanned panic-driven proposal (from Luc, of course), the couple decide to get married, but their cute differences as a couple seem to morph into fundamental problems as they try to navigate actually planning a wedding.

I love Luc and Oliver as characters and was very happy to reconnect with them and see how their lives have progressed since the first book. Husband Material, as a second book, assumes that we know these people, so there’s less time spent on character development and much more on plot shenanigans, which is fine, but creates a shallower reading experience. We still get a taste for the two as individuals, but their escapades (and the ridiculous goings-on surrounding the various weddings) take center stage for perhaps too much of the book — so when we do get deeper character moments, the tonal shift can be a bit jarring..

As in Boyfriend Material, the writing is heavy on word-play and humor, and most of the time, that’s truly a reading treat — don’t we all need more silly and clever and laugh-out-loud funny moments in our serious lives?

A few little samples:

“As your token gay friend, it is my duty to say that you are a fierce, sickening, incredible woman and that when you find a man who deserves you, he’ll make you feel like a princess every day of your life in a way that somehow manages to avoid reinforcing problematic gender stereotypes.”

… I couldn’t tell if we’d had a fight of not, and if we had, whose fault it had been. I mean, I had kind of dropped him on extra-special date night. Like a dick. Except I’d only done that because I needed to take care of my friend. Like definitely not a dick. Fuck. I was in a grey dick area.

I was increasingly convinced that weddings were just an elaborate cycle of vengeance that had got really out of hand. Some pair of selfish bastards had forced their friends to come to a tedious party two thousand years ago and their selfish bastard friends had decided to pay them back by forcing them to come to a tedious party, and then some wholly independent group of selfish bastards had built an industry around it and here we were. An eye for an eye leaves the world overpaying for table settings.

I made the air-quotiest air quotes that ever air-quoted.

All fun aside for a moment, I will say that I did not care for the ending, not even a little bit. And without getting into spoiler territory, I suppose it was meant to show that Luc and Oliver works best when they forge their own path and do what’s really right for the two of them — but all I could think was that they could have avoided all the angst and mess if they’d only had a real conversation months earlier. So while I think the author meant for the ending to come across as nonconventially romantic, I was just unsatisfied and a little saddened by it all.

I had thought this was the final book of a two-book story, but it looks like more is on the way. According to Goodreads, there are two more related books yet to come, although I believe the focus will shift away from Luc and Oliver to others in their friend circle.

Despite my feelings about the ending of Husband Material, I enjoyed the writing and characters enough to want more, so I’m sure I’ll check out whatever comes next.

Spoiler ahead — look away now if you don’t want to know!

**Spoilery bit: I’d completely forgotten that the main couple in Four Weddings and a Funeral decide to have a life together without getting married at the end. I guess if I’d remembered that, then I wouldn’t have been so surprised / let down by the ending of Husband Material!

Book Review: Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb, #1) by Tamsyn Muir

Title: Gideon the Ninth
Series: The Locked Tomb, #1
Author: Tamsyn Muir
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: September 10, 2019
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Emperor needs necromancers.

The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.

Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.

Of course, some things are better left dead.

I’ve been hearing about Gideon the Ninth since its release three years ago, and I’ve owned a copy for over two years now… and I can finally say that I’ve read it!.

I have to admit that I’d been feeling rather intimidated about starting Gideon. It’s a big chunky book, and the first few pages are devoted to a guide to characters, their houses, and roles. And when books start that way, I’m immediately wary. Why do I need all this information up front? Just how complicated is this book going to be anyway?

In the case of Gideon the Ninth, the answer is — very complicated. In fact, the word that kept coming to my mind while reading was “inpenetrable” (and that’s not a word I use often in my daily life). Gideon is dense, complicated, and somewhat opaque. I’ll explain, as best I can.

The world of Gideon the Ninth appears to be a dead world, resurrected by the Emperor (also referred to as a god) some ten thousand years ago, powered by necromancy and seemingly built upon the ashes and discards of an earlier civilization that had technology and scientific exploration — perhaps a world like our own? Gideon herself is a resident of the Ninth House (the Houses are all different planets with different powers, from what I understand), and the Ninth House is grim, dark and gloomy and peopled by ancient nuns and servants made of animated bones. The Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House is Harrowhark, a powerful necromancer who can perform amazing and dangerous feats with bones, and who seems to live to torment and dominate Gideon.

When a communication is received summoning the necromancer and cavalier of each house to the First House for a chance to become immortal, Harrow forces Gideon into the role of her cavalier, even though Gideon had been plotting to escape the Ninth House for good to become a soldier. But Gideon has no choice, and soon finds herself on another world, where they and other necromancer/cavalier combos must solve unspecified riddles in order to unlock the mystery of even greater powers.

Look, this book is a lot. I have to admire the author’s creativity and skill at inventing such a complicated, strange world — but at the same time, this book was difficult to get through, and I’m not convinced it was worth the effort. Keeping the many, many necromancers, cavaliers, their powers, and their houses straight was a huge chore, and at some point I just shrugged and stopped trying. The challenges and tests didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and I had (and have) so many questions about this world.

That said, I liked many of the characters (or at least found them interesting), and Gideon herself is profane and disrespectful enough to make her someone to root for, even when I had no clue what was actually going on.

I’m glad I finally read Gideon the Ninth, but at some point along the way I lacked the energy and commitment to really try to make sense of it all, so I’m sure there’s a bunch that just went right over my head. Some big, complicated books are worth the painstaking attention it takes to get through them. I’m not sure I’d put Gideon in that category.

Still, there are some great sequences mixed in amongst all the more puzzling scenarios, and the ending seems to set up a fascinating next step for the series. If I didn’t already own the next two books, I’m not sure that I’d rush to seek them out — but since I do, I expect that I will continue the series… eventually. I think I need a break at this point, but before too long, I’ll likely dive back in with Harrow the Ninth.

Book Review: The Unplanned Life of Josie Hale by Stephanie Eding

Title: The Unplanned Life of Josie Hale
Author: Stephanie Eding
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

If you’re looking for:
Found family who always look out for you

A second chance romance with your high school crush

All the fried food that’ll take your mind off your troubles

A chance to start over and do things your own way
Then The Unplanned Life of Josie Hale is exactly what you need!

When 30-year-old Josie discovers that she’s unexpectedly pregnant with her ex-husband’s baby (darn that last attempt to save their marriage), she seeks comfort in deep-fried food at the county fair. There she runs into her two old friends, Ben and Kevin. While sharing their own disappointments with adult life, they devise a plan to move in together and turn their lives around. Soon Ben and Kevin make it their mission to prepare for Josie’s baby, not least by making sure Josie always has the food she’s craving. Maybe all together they can discover the true meaning of family and second chances in life…

What a cute story… with so much junk food!

Josie moves back to her small suburban home town after discovering her husband is cheating. After spending the summer living with her parents (who inform her that they’re about to downsize and really won’t have room for her in their new condo) and working at a smoothie shop (having left her home, husband, and steady teaching job back in Chicago), she’s broke, without a place to live, and oh yeah, just took a home pregnancy test and found out that yes, she’s pregnant with her soon-to-be ex’s baby.

Craving fried food, she stops at the county fair, where she runs into her high school friends Ben and Kevin. Over corn dogs, they catch up and share everything that’s gone wrong in their lives — Kevin works at a job he hates, and Ben dropped out of college when his girlfriend got pregnant and now works a dead-end job and has a daughter who can’t stand him. As Josie breaks down in tears over her mess of a life, a plan is formed: Ben and Kevin are roommates, and there’s room for a third. Josie needs a place to live, they could use the help with the rent, and hey, maybe together they can all turn their lives around. And thus, the Corn Dog Pact is formed.

The Corn Dog Pact is actually Kevin’s idea — written down and tacked up on their refrigerator. They each commit to improving their finances, their work lives, and finding love by the time the last of their 31st birthdays roll around. With a signed pact to keep them on track, Josie moves in — noting that she may have just moved into a frat house. Living room furniture consists of beanbag chairs and a gaming console, and she’s hard-pressed to find even a mug in the empty kitchen.

The three friends are good for one another, and little by little, they do actually start making progress on their lives. The guys are supportive — Kevin is a goofball with a heart of gold and Ben, Josie’s secret crush in high school, is a sweetheart who yearns for a better relationship with his 11-year-old and who would seemingly do anything to help Josie.

As Josie’s pregnancy progresses, we see the trio’s homelife (so much pizza and nachos!!), Josie’s advancing pregnancy, and her quest for teaching work. We also see how the three encourage little steps for each other. With Josie present, Ben is able to start connecting better with his daughter, and seeing Ben with Izzy helps Josie find a way to allow her ex to plan to be in her baby’s life.

I really enjoyed the storylines overall, although I did get a little tired of the horrifying food the characters eat ALL THE TIME. When Josie brings home a salad one day, they’re all aghast! Healthy food? What?? (Still, it is rather cute that each chapter title has a food in it — the author really sticks to the theme!)

At times, the story feels a little laggy. There are perhaps too many scenes of shopping, home decorating, and other elements of domestic life. It’s nice to see the characters working on themselves and on creating a home, but it gets to be a bit much after a while.

I will say that some of the scenes related to the pregnancy, and particularly to Josie’s labor and delivery, were especially well done. Josie’s experiences during delivery felt very real to me, perhaps because I had a similar experience to the character myself. It’s not the comedic or over-the-top kind of scene you sometimes see in fiction (or especially on TV shows) — I could absolutely relate to what Josie goes through, and loved how Ben and Kevin are by her side.

Overall, this is a sweet, engaging story, not particularly deep, but with enough personal growth to make it satisfying. The characters are funny and likable, and you can’t help but cheer them along every step of the way. There’s a romantic subplot too, but it doesn’t dominate or define the book. Really and truly, this is a book about friendship and how loving friends can help each other turn their lives around.

Worth checking out!

Book Review: Such Sharp Teeth by Rachel Harrison

Title: Such Sharp Teeth
Author: Rachel Harrison
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: October 4, 2022
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Paranormal/contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A young woman in need of a transformation finds herself in touch with the animal inside in this gripping, incisive novel from the author of Cackle and The Return.

Rory Morris isn’t thrilled to be moving back to her hometown, even if it is temporary. There are bad memories there. But her twin sister, Scarlett, is pregnant, estranged from the baby’s father, and needs support, so Rory returns to the place she thought she’d put in her rearview. After a night out at a bar where she runs into an old almost-flame, she hits a large animal with her car. And when she gets out to investigate, she’s attacked.

Rory survives, miraculously, but life begins to look and feel different. She’s unnaturally strong, with an aversion to silver—and suddenly the moon has her in its thrall. She’s changing into someone else—something else, maybe even a monster. But does that mean she’s putting those close to her in danger? Or is embracing the wildness inside of her the key to acceptance?

This darkly comedic love story is a brilliantly layered portrait of trauma, rage, and vulnerability.

After really enjoying last year’s Cackle, I knew I needed to read more by Rachel Harrison. And maybe this would have been a more natural fit for a Halloween read, but no matter the timing, I had a blast reading Such Sharp Teeth.

In this fast, biting (yes, I said it!) tale, Rory moves back to her hometown after many years away to be with her twin sister Scarlett during her last months of pregnancy. Rory has had a seemingly great life in Manhattan — a successful corporate career, a partying, free-wheeling lifestyle, great clothes, uninhibited and uncommitted sex, and the best of New York’s dining and nightlife at her fingertips.

Back in their small town, Rory stumbles into an old flame from her high school days, someone she never hooked up with at the time, but always felt a spark with. But moments after meeting Ian again, Rory gets into a car accident and its attacked by something fierce and horrible in the woods. She distinctly remembers the horror and pain of the attack, yet by the next day her wounds have barely left a scar.

Over the next few weeks, Rory notices scary changes in her body, a non-stop craving for meat, enhanced senses, and other weirdness even more frightening (and disgusting). At the same time, she finally connects with Ian and enjoys their explosive chemistry together. As the next full moon looms closer and closer, Rory is more and more certain about what’s happened to her — but what does this loss of control really mean for her and for the people she cares about?

Honestly, I just loved this book. Rory is a fantastic character, full of bravado and guts and intelligence, a very caring and devoted sister, but also carrying the burden of an earlier trauma that affects her ability to trust and to forgive. This is a woman who has earned her rage, and her werewolf transformation finally gives full power to the anger and need for destruction that she’s been burdened with for so many years.

While the descriptions of Rory’s experiences are often pretty icky and/or violent, there’s also humor and sass in her conversations and outlook. I love her relationship with Scarlett, and this conversation (with a very pregnant Scarlett) captures so much:

“What’s it like?” she asks. “Being a werewolf?”

I swallow. “You really want to know?”

“Yeah.”

“The bite was excruciating. And after, it leaked this silvery goo. My new blood, I guess. It was weird and gross, but honestly, it was also kind of fascinating that my body was doing this weird, gross thing.”

“Relate,” she says.

There’s so much subtext here about women and pain, women and bodily autonomy, women and rage. The author doesn’t hit us over the head with a hammer — instead, all of this informs Rory’s experiences as she emerges from the attack’s aftermath into a new version of herself.

When you’re sad, you cry. When you’re happy, you smile, you laugh. But what do you do when you’re angry? Not just mad, but filled with this ugly, consuming rage?

And the thing is, women aren’t allowed to be angry. Nobody likes a mad woman. They’re crazy, irrational, obnoxious, shrill.

In Such Sharp Teeth, a young woman who was instructed to ignore or control her anger gets actual claws and fangs as an adult, and finally is literally forced into giving vent to all the pent-up rage and frustration and power she’s hidden away and or shunted into self-destructive behaviors.

There are things beyond our control. My body. My body is beyond my control. This is the truth. The truth of me. What if I can’t control myself in this form because this is what I really am? What if this is what I really want?

Gotta say, I pretty much straight-up loved Rory, and I had such fun reading this book. Yes, it’s a werewolf book, but it’s also a sharp, spiky take on women’s lives, and I just couldn’t put it down. There are some scenes of violence and ickiness that make me want to offer a caution for the squeamish — it’s not gory on every page, but it’s enough that I wouldn’t recommend it if you can’t stomach some blood, guts, and body parts.

But if gore doesn’t bother you in your reading, then absolutely check out Such Sharp Teeth! Rachel Harrison is a terrific writer, and I can’t wait to read the other book of hers in my Kindle library, The Return.

Book Review: He Gets That From Me by Jacqueline Friedland

Title: He Gets That From Me
Author: Jacqueline Friedland
Publisher: SparkPress
Publication date: September 7, 2021
Length: 295 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

As a young mother with a toddler and a live-in boyfriend, Maggie Fisher’s job at a checkout counter in downtown Phoenix doesn’t afford her much financial flexibility. She dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher, options she squandered when she fled her family home as a teenager. When Maggie stumbles onto an ad offering thousands of dollars to women who are willing to gestate other people’s babies, she at first finds the concept laughable. Before long, however, she’s been seduced by all the ways the extra money could improve her life. Once she decides to go for it, it’s only a matter of months before she’s chosen as a gestational carrier by Chip and Donovan Rigsdale, a married couple from New York.

After delivering twin babies and proudly handing them off to the Rigsdales, Maggie finally gets her life on a positive trajectory: she earns her degree, lands a great job, and builds a family of her own. She can’t fathom why, ten years after the fact, the fertility clinic is calling to ask for a follow-up DNA test.

I bought this e-book on a whim (it was 99 cents!), interested to see where the story would go. And while it definitely held my attention, I would describe He Gets That From Me as only partially successful.

As the story opens, we meet Maggie, who loves her baby Wyatt and her boyfriend Nick, but struggles to make ends meet. She regrets walking away from the college education her well-off parents were providing, a decision made after a teen-age trauma that made her flee parental control and judgment. When she sees an ad for gestational carriers, i.e., women to act as surrogates for those who cannot have children on their own, she doesn’t take it particularly seriously… but she can’t stop thinking about it, especially how the money could get her life back on track and allow her to finally pursue the education she gave up on.

We also meet Donovan, a New York real estate broker in a happy marriage with his husband Chip. They’re well-off and well-established, but desperately want a family together. As they enter the surrogacy process, they’re oh-so-careful at every step, making sure they’ll be legally protected and being very cautious in choosing their potential gestational carriers.

In the early chapters of the book, we jump backward and forward in time, and so we learn that Donovan has had himself, Chip, and their twin 10-year-old boys tested through an at-home DNA testing kit to help the boys with a class genealogy project. Donovan and Chip each provided sperm to use with their egg donor’s eggs, and based on the boys’ physical traits, they’ve long assume that Teddy is biologically Chip’s and Kai is biologically Donovan’s. Until the test results come back — and show that Kai isn’t biologically related to either of his dads.

As Donovan essentially freaks out and looks for answers, the couple assume a screw-up at the fertility lab. Perhaps their embryos were switched with someone else’s? Donovan even investigates whether babies could have been switched at birth. But no — all options are a dead-end until Maggie’s DNA testing confirms the obvious answer. Kai is biologically her son. How is this even possible?

Superfetation. Per healthline.com, “Superfetation is when a second, new pregnancy occurs during an initial pregnancy. Another ovum (egg) is fertilized by sperm and implanted in the womb days or weeks later than the first one. ” Oh, dear. So while two embryos from the donor eggs and Chip and Donovan’s sperm were transferred to Maggie, only one took… and then she and Nick conceived another fetus naturally, ending up pregnant with two unrelated fetuses.

Maggie, of course, is horrified. She and Nick tried for years to have more children, but whether from carrying twins or from a subsequent car accident, she ended up with uterine scarring that affected her fertility. She’s wracked by guilt: She agreed to carry someone else’s children, not to give away her own child.

An inevitable showdown between the two families quickly comes into play. After meeting Kai briefly, Maggie is convinced that he belongs with his biological family, and she and Nick sue for custody. Meanwhile, Chip and Donovan are desperate to keep their family intact and to protect Kai from being uprooted from the only life he’s ever know.

While the set-up is really engaging, I had some issues with the execution. For starters, I don’t truly believe that Maggie could think for one moment that removing Kai from his home would be in his best interest. They got from zero to one hundred in the blink of an eye. What about visiting and getting to know one another? What about simply spending some time together, finding a way to be in each others’ lives? Nope, it’s full custody as the first and only option.

Some ugliness comes into play that seems out of character for Maggie. While Nick expressed some hesitation about becoming a surrogate for a gay couple when the option first was under discussion, Maggie was adamantly opposed to Nick’s homophobia and in fact broke up with him for a while over it. She cared deeply for Chip and Donovan and was committed to helping them create their family. Yet in the court filings, one of the arguments for claiming custody of Kai was that it would be in his best interest to be raised by a “traditional” family. Where did this come from? That was never Maggie’s belief.

I was left very unsatisfied by the end of the book. Certain twists are revealed in the epilogue that I found hard to believe, and the outcome of the custody case (trying to avoid spoilers here) was again a very black and white, all or nothing situation. I couldn’t help feeling that in real life, good lawyers and therapists would have encourage compromise and exploration of the true best interests of the child, rather than moving forward with a winner-takes-all lawsuit as the only possible answer.

At under 300 pages, He Gets That From Me is a quick read. While the premise is certainly interesting, I was too often frustrated by inconsistent or illogical actions and decisions to give this more than a 3-star rating. I could see this book generating good book club arguments for sure!

Book Review: Ship Wrecked (Spoiler Alert, #3) by Olivia Dade

Title: Ship Wrecked
Series: Spoiler Alert, #3
Author: Olivia Dade
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: November 15, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

After All the Feels and Spoiler Alert, Olivia Dade once again delivers a warm and wonderful romantic comedy about two co-stars who once had an incredible one-night stand—and after years of filming on the same remote island, are finally ready to yield to temptation again…

Maria’s one-night-stand—the thick-thighed, sexy Viking of a man she left without a word or a note—just reappeared. Apparently, Peter’s her surly Gods of the Gates co-star, and they’re about to spend the next six years filming on a desolate Irish island together. She still wants him…but he now wants nothing to do with her.

Peter knows this role could finally transform him from a forgettable character actor into a leading man. He also knows a failed relationship with Maria could poison the set, and he won’t sabotage his career for a woman who’s already walked away from him once. Given time, maybe they can be cooperative colleagues or friends—possibly even best friends—but not lovers again. No matter how much he aches for her.

For years, they don’t touch off-camera. But on their last night of filming, their mutual restraint finally shatters, and all their pent-up desire explodes into renewed passion. Too bad they still don’t have a future together, since Peter’s going back to Hollywood, while Maria’s returning to her native Sweden. She thinks she needs more than he can give her, but he’s determined to change her mind, and he’s spent the last six years waiting. Watching. Wanting.

His shipwrecked Swede doesn’t stand a chance.

Ship Wrecked is the 3rd book in Olivia Dade’s romance series centered around the fictional TV series Gods of the Gates, a not-at-all-veiled reference to Game of Thrones. Gods of the Gates is one of the biggest television phenomena ever, but once the show moves past its book source material, the showrunners manage to complete derail the storylines and character arcs.

Ship Wrecked‘s story overlaps time-wise with the first two books in the series. Here, we meet new characters who join the show for its second season — Cyprian and Cassia, shipwrecked enemies who spend years learning to work together in order to survive on a deserted, treacherous island, and who naturally fall madly in love.

Peter Reedton, a character actor with a respected but not-flashy career up to this point, knows that his shot at Cyprian could finally show that he has what it takes to be a lead actor. But when he auditions against an unknown, inexperienced Swedish actress, he worries that she may drag him down and ruin his chances.

But that’s not really why he’s upset… The night before the audition, Peter has an amazing one-night stand with an incredible woman named Maria, who then disappears in the morning without leaving a note, contact information, or even her full name. And of course, the Swedish actress he meets the next day turns out to be Maria, and Peter’s anger is really all about his feelings of abandonment.

Still, the two have amazing chemistry on camera, and before they know it, they’re off to a remote Irish island to start what will be years of filming together. They soon discover that they like each other and work well together, but Peter is determined that, for the sake of the production, they should not get romantically involved.

Ship Wrecked continues the entertaining behind-the-scenes look at a huge TV production introduced in the first two books, and introduces two compelling new characters, Peter and Maria, who are easy to love and to root for. Their personality and culture clashes are funny, and I really liked their dynamic together.

The overall plot is perhaps a bit less engaging than the other books, as we see less of the rest of the cast — but when we do get snippets of the cast text threads or quick appearances, they’re always good for a laugh.

Maria and Peter’s relationship, when they finally get there, is steamy as well as rooted in true caring and affection. I didn’t quite buy the tropey breakup required in all romances before the big reunion and romantic finish — their relationship troubles didn’t seem as dire as they presented them to be, and reasonable adults should have been able to work through their issues without torpedoing the relationship.

In terms of steam factor, this book definitely falls on the graphic end of the scale. Sex scenes are explicit, no filmy curtains or fade to black. In fact, the very first paragraph of the very first chapter should give you a good idea about the content of the rest of the book:

When Maria’s hazy brown eyes blinked back open after her orgasm, Peter held her gaze for another dozen thrusts. Then, braced on his forearms, fingers tangled in her hair, he pushed deep one last time and groaned into her mouth.

If you find that completely off-putting, then this may not be a great reading choice for you. I don’t usually go for graphic in my romance reading, but these books are just so much fun that I didn’t mind the occasional cringing brought on by the more detailed scenes.

Ship Wrecked has great characters, plenty of laughs, and is decidedly fat-positive and body-positive, which is refreshing and (sadly) still not all that common. Peter and Maria are both great characters, and I love how the author depicts them as both fat and sexy.

I’ve seen other readers refer to Ship Wrecked as the final book in the series, and I don’t actually know if that’s correct or not. The world of Gods of the Gates is just so much fun — I’d gladly read more about these and other characters.

If you’re interested in Ship Wrecked, I’d really recommend starting from the beginning and reading Spoiler Alert and All the Feels first. Ship Wrecked could work on its own, I suppose, but then you’d miss out on the deliciously ridiculous bigger picture of Gods of the Gates, and really, that would be a shame.

Book Review: Even Though I Knew the End by C. L. Polk

Title: Even Though I Knew the End
Author: C. L. Polk
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: November 8, 2022
Length: 136 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A magical detective dives into the affairs of Chicago’s divine monsters to secure a future with the love of her life. This sapphic period piece will dazzle anyone looking for mystery, intrigue, romance, magic, or all of the above.

An exiled augur who sold her soul to save her brother’s life is offered one last job before serving an eternity in hell. When she turns it down, her client sweetens the pot by offering up the one payment she can’t resist―the chance to have a future where she grows old with the woman she loves.

To succeed, she is given three days to track down the White City Vampire, Chicago’s most notorious serial killer. If she fails, only hell and heartbreak await.

In this noir-ish novella, Helen Brandt is a private investigator who specializes in occult-related crime scenes. She’s also a woman who, years earlier, sold her soul in exchange for her mortally-wounded brother’s life.

With only days left before her bargain comes due, all Helen wants is private time with the woman she loves. But when a particularly gruesome murder takes place, she’s pulled into a battle between demonic forces, powerful magicians, and fallen angels.

As a novella, the action by necessity is fast-paced, and the storytelling moves quickly from one set-piece to another. I’m not that big a fan of stories about bargains with the devil or battles between angels and demons, but what really sucked me in was the love story and the desperate need for just a bit more time.

The title comes from Helen’s thoughts about The Great Gatsby, and the essence of love and hope:

Jay Gatsby knew a lot about hope. Hope felt a little painful, on account of it not being a sure thing. In fact, there was almost no hope for him, which made that tiny flashing light all the more precious. I’d read this book a dozen times, two dozen. I always held my breath, waiting for Daisy to come to him. Jay hoped every single time, and I hoped right along with him, even though I knew the end.

A week after finishing this short but powerful story, I couldn’t tell you the specifics about the outcome of the murder plot… but I absolutely remember how Helen and Edith’s love story made me feel. Even when the end is inevitable, even when a deal with the devil is coming due, Helen will savor every moment, because every moment with the woman she loves is worth much more than the pain of thinking about losing it.

They love, even though they know the end.

Book Review: Ocean’s Echo by Everina Maxwell

Title: Ocean’s Echo
Author: Everina Maxwell
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: November 1, 2022
Length: 484 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Ocean’s Echo is a stand-alone space adventure about a bond that will change the fate of worlds, set in the same universe as Everina Maxwell’s hit debut, Winter’s Orbit.

Rich socialite, inveterate flirt, and walking disaster Tennalhin Halkana can read minds. Tennal, like all neuromodified “readers,” is a security threat on his own. But when controlled, readers are a rare asset. Not only can they read minds, but they can navigate chaotic space, the maelstroms surrounding the gateway to the wider universe.

Conscripted into the military under dubious circumstances, Tennal is placed into the care of Lieutenant Surit Yeni, a duty-bound soldier, principled leader, and the son of a notorious traitor general. Whereas Tennal can read minds, Surit can influence them. Like all other neuromodified “architects,” he can impose his will onto others, and he’s under orders to control Tennal by merging their minds.

Surit accepted a suspicious promotion-track request out of desperation, but he refuses to go through with his illegal orders to sync and control an unconsenting Tennal. So they lie: They fake a sync bond and plan Tennal’s escape.

Their best chance arrives with a salvage-retrieval mission into chaotic space—to the very neuromodiifcation lab that Surit’s traitor mother destroyed twenty years ago. And among the rubble is a treasure both terrible and unimaginably powerful, one that upends a decades-old power struggle, and begins a war.

Tennal and Surit can no longer abandon their unit or their world. The only way to avoid life under full military control is to complete the very sync they’ve been faking.

Can two unwilling weapons of war bring about peace?

Once I started reading Winter’s Orbit last year, I basically couldn’t put it down — so I was very excited to get my hands on a copy of Everina Maxwell’s follow-up novel, Ocean’s Echo. Ocean’s Echo is a stand-alone, but it is set in the same universe as Winter’s Orbit. There are no cross-over characters, but the basics of the galactic system and some key political and scientific aspects connect the two books.

In Ocean’s Echo, Tennal is about age 20, from a powerful family (his aunt is the head of government of the Orshan planets), and is incapable of (and has no interest in) staying out of trouble. After one scandal too many, his aunt orders his conscription into the army. As if that’s not bad enough, she’s also ordered him to be synced. Tennal is a talented reader — he can read other people’s thoughts — but readers are both rare and considered very dangerous if left uncontrolled. Control is exactly what his aunt wants, and so Tennal will be forced into a sync, where an architect — someone who can telepathically influence others’ minds — will force a sort of mind-meld with Tennal. From that point on, the architect will be able to control Tennal’s actions. Worst of all, the sync is permanent — a broken sync results in death for both reader and architect.

Needless to say, Tennal is not at all happy about his fate, but he truly has no choice. He’s surprised, therefore, when he meets Surit, a young lieutenant with strong architect abilities and an even stronger moral compass. Despite orders, he knows deep down that a forced sync is wrong, and he suggests that he and Tennal fake it. They’re successful in their deception at first, until they are pulled further and further into an impending civil war where their own survival and the fate of their world is at stake.

Tennal and Surit are both terrific characters, with very distinct characters and personality traits. While the chapters alternate between their perspectives, there’s never any confusion about whose point of view we’re getting. They are definitely a case of opposites attracting, and while the intricacies of the reader-architect dynamic are the main focus, there’s a romantic chemistry as well that keeps bubbling to the surface.

The world-building is very detailed, but occasionally confusing. While Ocean’s Echo is a stand-alone, I think it would be somewhat baffling for a reader who hasn’t first read Winter’s Orbit. Without a basic understanding of the books’ universe, I’m not sure that talk of the Resolution, the Link, and remnants, among other concepts, would make a whole lot of sense. As is, even having read the first book, some of the high-concept military and scientific scenarios went over my head. That’s okay, though — I didn’t have to fully grasp every single detail in order to appreciate the characters, their connection, and the big picture stakes of the storyline.

Overall, I really enjoyed Ocean’s Echo. The writing pulled me in, and even when concepts such as chaotic space started boggling my mind, some nifty turns of phrase would get me back on track and impress me with the author’s creativity and descriptive skill.

Since the moment they’d synced, the sea had come in roaring, a glorious, terrible torrent. Where there had been ordinary rooms and cabinets and stairs in Surit’s neat mental house, there was now a tumult of swirling water, deep-sea caverns instead of foundations, whirlpools instead of floors.

You need to have an appreciation for space battles and sci-fi drama and high stakes military adventures to truly love this book, I think… but if you do, then don’t miss out on this book (and check out Winter’s Orbit too!).

Book Review: When Franny Stands Up by Eden Robins

Title: When Franny Stands Up
Author: Eden Robins
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: November 1, 2022
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Historical/speculative fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Nothing is more dangerous than a woman with a showstopping joke.

Franny Steinberg knows there’s powerful magic in laughter. She’s witnessed it. With the men of Chicago off fighting WWII on distant shores, Franny has watched the women of the city taking charge of the war effort. But amidst the war bond sales and factory shifts, something surprising has emerged, something Franny could never have expected. A new marvel that has women flocking to comedy clubs across the nation: the Showstopper.

When Franny steps into Chicago’s Blue Moon comedy club, she realizes the power of a Showstopper—that specific magic sparked when an audience laughs so hard, they are momentarily transformed. And while each comedian’s Showstopper is different, they all have one thing in common: they only work on women.

After a traumatic flashback propels her onstage in a torn bridesmaid dress, Franny discovers her own Showstopper is something new. And suddenly she has the power to change everything…for herself, for her audience, and for the people who may need it most.

I first became aware of When Franny Stands Up when an author I love recommended it. I’ve since read a couple of stellar reviews. And all this leaves me wondering — what did I miss?

In When Franny Stands Up, women’s comedy clubs are struggling to survive in the 1950s, after male comedians become popular on TV and grab all the attention. But women know a secret: in the live stand-up shows for women only, certain talented comedians have Showstoppers — moments of magic where the performer induces certain special effects on the women in the audience as they laugh.

For Franny, she first encounters a Showstopper years earlier, sneaking away from her protective parents’ home in a Chicago suburb to see the famous Boopsie Baxter perform. But Franny is not at all prepared for her powerful reaction to Boopsie’s Showstopper, and runs back home in shame and fear, only to discover that her soldier brother has gone missing in action in Europe. For Franny, these two events become very much linked, and she determines to be good and give up her interest in comedy forever.

But as the main part of the story opens, 23-year-old Franny is burdened by her daily life, her worries over her brother, now home but suffering from PTSD, and her alienation from her former best friend, who’s about to get married, and whose family is responsible for one of Franny’s worst memories. When events at the wedding go badly, Franny runs off yet again, and finds herself at the Blue Moon club, where a whole new world awaits.

Sadly, so much of this story simply didn’t make sense to me. Franny’s interest in comedy, especially in becoming a stand-up comedian, seems to come out of nowhere, and isn’t well explained. And why the club owner and other performers take an interest in Franny or immediately sense her potential talent — well, I have no idea.

There are many interesting concepts scattered throughout the story, but whether it’s the writing itself or the approach to the plot, it never particularly gelled for me. I found the writing style choppy, with descriptions and plot actions not quite making sense to me. As new occurrences and situations popped up, I often felt like I must have accidentally skipped some pages — just how did we get from point A to point B? Some characters as well just never made sense — I can think of one in particular who, by the end of the story, I still didn’t know if she was supposed to be sympathetic or an antagonist, and that definitely did not seem like an intentional construction of a morally gray characters. Instead, it was just another example of a writing approach that didn’t work for me.

The idea of the Showstopper concept is pretty cool, absolutely — but the plot, inconsistent character depictions, dropped or under-developed storylines, and unclear character motivation all got in the way of my enjoyment of When Franny Stands Up. There are some interesting ideas here, but sadly, the book as a whole just didn’t work for me.

Book sampling: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Title: The Sentence
Author: Louise Erdrich
Publisher: Harper
Publication date: November 9, 2021
Length: 387 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Sentence asks what we owe to the living, the dead, to the reader and to the book.

A small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store’s most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls’ Day, but she simply won’t leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading with murderous attention, must solve the mystery of this haunting while at the same time trying to understand all that occurs in Minneapolis during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation, and furious reckoning.

The Sentence begins on All Souls’ Day 2019 and ends on All Souls’ Day 2020. Its mystery and proliferating ghost stories during this one year propel a narrative as rich, emotional, and profound as anything Louise Erdrich has written.

The main character of The Sentence is Tookie, a Native American woman who is sentenced to sixty years in prison after a misadventure involving a corpse — a crime that we hear about in the opening chapter, presented in a practically comic manner. Her sentence is eventually commuted, but only after she serves many years. Prison changes Tookie, but one of the most lasting effects is that she becomes a voracious reader during that time. It’s only natural that she ends up working in a bookstore — Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, owned by a novelist named Louise. (And yes, Louise Erdrich does actually own Birchbark Books in Minneapolis in real life).

The book follows Tookie’s life as a bookseller, as a woman married to her longtime love Pollux, and as a survivor and a witness. She’s also a woman who’s haunted, literally — an annoying bookstore customer named Flora continues to visit the store even after her death, and Tookie becomes consumed by a need to understand the ghost’s motivations and how to be rid of her.

The Sentence was my book group’s pick for October, and reactions were decidedly mixed. While many appreciated the author’s magnificent way with words, the general sentiment was that the story itself was overly complicated and uneven in tone. Midway through, we’re in 2020, and the narrative becomes heavily focused on both COVID and the impact of George Floyd’s murder, so much so that it often feels more like narrative non-fiction.

I was very absorbed while reading the book, but in the end, I didn’t quite know what to make of it all. The story veers in all sorts of directions, and I’m not sure that the overall themes and messages hit home.

That said, the writing is amazing, so rather than attempting to write a thorough review, I thought I’d just share some favorite lines and passages:

I’m still not strictly rational. How could I be? I sell books.

Delight seems insubstantial; happiness feels more grounded; ecstasy is what I shoot for; satisfaction is hardest to attain.

Pen had started working here because she developed obsessions with female authors, alive and dead, and was having a May-December romance with Isak Dinesen’s stories.

When I creep into our bed, there is the joy and relief of a person entering a secret dimension. Here, I shall be useless. The world can go on without me. Here I shall be held by love.

Sometimes Jackie resented a perfectly good book because it ‘forced’ her to stay up all night.

I put my hand on my chest and closed my eyes. I have a dinosaur heart, cold, massive, indestructible, a thick meaty red. And I have a glass heart, tiny and pink, that can be shattered.

As it turned out, books were important, like food, fuel, heat, garbage collection, snow shoveling, and booze.

I stare at my husband’s face, the new cheekbones of a skinny man, his surprising beauty, and I decided to live for love again and take the change of another lifetime.

Beyond the terrific writing, I loved all the references to favorite books, so I was absolutely delighted to see that the book includes a section called Totally Biased List of Tookie’s Favorite Books at the end, with sections called things like “Ghost-Managing Book List”, “Short Perfect Novels”, “Sublime Books”, and more. I will definitely be returning to these reading lists for future inspiration!

Wrapping it all up — there were elements of The Sentence that I loved, and I’m happy to have read it, but I’m still not quite sure that it worked for me completely. I’m really curious to hear how others felt about this book. Have you read The Sentence? If so, please share your reaction!