16
Jan
20

All hail Karen, queen of the mic drop book ending. CBR12 Review 3.

downloadDisclaimer: Karen McManus and I went to college together. I am very good friends with her old roommate. Karen has been a huge supporter of the Cannonball Read in the past. I would never review one of her books if I wasn’t going to give it a big thumbs up.

And so, with that out of the way, I’m happy to report that One of Us is Next, the sequel to her fun and amazingly popular debut, One of Us is Lying, is just as filled with twists, turns, and insane social media shenanigans as its predecessor, and just as much of a good time.**

The story brings the reader back to Bayview, approximately 18 months after the events of OOUIL. We get brief updates on the original “Bayview Four” — Bronwyn, Nate, Cooper, and Addy — but this book is more about the next generation of kids at Bayview High, including Bronwyn’s little sister, Maeve, her best friend (and ex), Knox, and Addy’s neighbor, Phoebe.

Someone in Bayview has stepped into the late Simon’s shoes and is threatening the entire school population with a massive game of Truth or Dare — take the Dare or have a horrible secret exposed to EVERYONE. Of course, every single kid in the school should have reported this game to the authorities the second they saw the text alert on their phones…and yet, nobody does. They all sort of want to see what will happen, who will be chosen, and what secrets will come out.

But that all changes when people start to die.

Dude, this is a Karen McManus book. Of course someone is going to die. The book starts out telling us that someone is dead, and we spend the rest of the story trying to figure out WHO and WHY and HOW.

I’ll admit, this time I figured out who was behind the mysterious game a little bit sooner than last time. BUT. I was once again not prepared for the ending, because nothing ever goes exactly the way you think in one of these books.

We think we know how things will wrap up, and then BOOM, something comes out of left field that changes everything…and usually on the very last page, leaving me to say WHAT?!?!?!?, but not in a bad way.

(At this point, I know I should be ready for these endings. But the twists really do surprise me! I wonder if she comes up with the ending before she comes up with the rest of the story? I’ll have to ask at our next reunion!)

This was a fun and quick (only because it was hard to put down) read, and I look forward to more from Karen McManus for many years to come. I couldn’t be happier for her and the success of these books.

**My only gripe? I’m not quite sure I buy into the Luis/Maeve relationship…do college age boys (really, men) go out with high school girls and nobody cares? Including parents? I get that these two were friends first, and maybe they are really close in age, but I got a little squicky over that.

09
Jan
20

Time to break up with Sarah Dessen. Or at least see other people. CBR12 Review 2.

downloadFor a long while, I was happily riding along on the Sarah Dessen bandwagon, waving my flag and cheering her on. I recommended her books to my daughter and her friends, and enjoyed reading them myself. And now, I think I’m ready to get off the bandwagon. I’m going to ask the driver to pull over.

I’m confused about why our relationship has cooled.

Maybe its that I’ve just gotten older and can’t relate to her characters anymore.
Maybe I’m annoyed with her about the twitter scandal she was in last year, where she publicly called out someone for criticizing her books and called their words “mean and cruel.”
Or maybe I’m just tired of the formula? Girl lives in North Carolina, near the water. Girl has dysfunctional family, probably only one parent. Girl needs direction. Girl meets perfectly imperfect boy with all the answers and they fall in love, yay.

This book is no different. Emma Saylor (both are her first name) lives with her dad, who has just gotten married. Her mom died a few years back, overdosing after a life-long battle with addiction. Emma (as her dad calls her) hasn’t spent much time with her mom’s side of the family, as her dad prefers to keep those upsetting details away from her.

Until!

Her dad goes on his honeymoon and Emma needs somewhere to stay. She ends up going to her maternal grandmother’s house — to see relatives she hasn’t seen since she was four. (?!?!?!). Her grandmother — Mimi — owns a motel at a lake, and her house is filled with noisy cousins and friends. So much different than the quiet and orderly life Emma is used to. Everyone there knows Emma as Saylor, because that’s what her mom always called her.

And so, Emma Saylor tries to figure out how to bring the two pieces of her life — the Emma part and the Saylor part — together. Meanwhile, there’s also a bit of a subplot about class — the side of the lake where Mimi lives and works is decidedly blue collar, but the other side has a yacht club and a 5 star resort. Which side does Emma Saylor truly belong on?

The only thing that surprised me about this book was the ending. (Spoilers?). A huge hurricane hits the lake, while Emma is staying with her dad’s family on the fancy side of the lake. She has been forbidden to visit the other side where her new friends and family live, after breaking curfew, getting drunk, and lying to her dad. The fancy resort totally misjudges the storm, and is more or less destroyed. But Mimi’s family is ready for the storm and everyone works together to make sure everyone is safe and sound. Emma’s dad breaks character (because honestly, he was kind of awful) and drives through the worst of the storm to help some of the new-found cousins who are alone and scared, and is actually sort of heroic about the whole thing.

This wasn’t a bad book, and I enjoyed it more than the last one (because I really, really didn’t like that one), but I don’t think I will be adding these to my must-read list anymore. Sorry, Sarah. It was fun while it lasted, but I think its time for us to go our separate ways.

02
Jan
20

Next time, I’ll just read The Stand again. CBR12 Review 1.

downloadThis book had everything going for it, including multiple comparisons to The Stand, and a massive recommendation from the mothership. I started it back in August, thinking I could whip through it for the Pajiba Says bingo square, and well, I just finished it yesterday. I was…not a fan. I didn’t hate it, but I was incredibly let down by it.

The story starts out strong: across the world, sleepwalkers start marching toward an unknown destination. Their numbers start off small, and as the group (and the “shepherds” who are traveling with them) starts to grow, the world starts to ask questions: Where are they going? What’s wrong with them? How do they know what they’re doing? Why do they EXPLODE when you try to stop them? Meanwhile, a virus slowly makes its way into the population, and seems to be undeniably lethal and unstoppable. The CDC sends their best (and former best) scientists to the scene to try and figure out what’s happening with the walkers and if they have anything to do with the virus — now called White Mask — before its too late.

Here’s what I liked:

I’m down for any book that attempts to emulate The Stand. I’m always curious to see how another author interprets the potential apocalypse and the breakdown of society. I liked the idea of a specific destination (in Colorado, no less! With a special cameo by Las Vegas as the home for the worst of us at the end of days) for society to be rebuilt after the world that we know has come to an end. And I liked that the bulk of the story took place on the road — as the group of walkers and shepherds grew, we met more and more characters. I loved how they became a tight-knit community of RVs and trucks, following their loved ones into the unknown. I really liked Marcy, the ex-cop with a special connection to the walkers; Landry, who started out as a minor love interest but over time became quite a hero; and Dove, the mayor of Ouray, Colorado. I could have spent many more pages with them.

Here’s what I didn’t like:

Pretty much all of the main characters. ESPECIALLY Pete the rock star. UGH.

The quickly wrapped up ending where we find out how the virus really started and how many actually survived.

All of the action that took place within the computer program.

And most of all, I hated everything that was about Christianity and MAGA-veiled white supremacy. Basically, the author chose to make all of the villians members of a militia group that used the reach of the church to poison the minds of as much of society as it could get its hands on. I understood where it was coming from, as clearly the end of the world has to have some anarchy, and that the story needed clear-cut good guys and bad guys, but it was painted with such broad, stereotypical strokes that it was pretty insulting to the reader. And I’m confident saying that as neither a Christian nor a MAGA supporter in any way, whatsoever. If I wanted to be lectured about politics and the state of the world, I would have asked for it. I did not need to have Wendig’s opinions (which really were not opinions, as he is pretty sure he is right about everything) shoved down my throat, page after tedious page.

Did I mention that this book was long? Like 800 pages. It could have used a 300 page trim and wouldn’t have suffered for it. This was my first Chuck Wendig, and I can’t imagine I’ll be reading a second.

22
Dec
19

“He was only twelve, and understood that his experience of the world was limited, but one thing he was quite sure of: when someone said trust me, they were usually lying through their teeth.” CBR11 Review 52.

downloadWelcome to The Institute, my favorite book of 2019.

Was it the best book of 2019? Probably not. But I can’t think of a reading experience that I enjoyed more than this. This book brought me back to the feelings I had when I first discovered Stephen King, back in Junior High, staying up late at night, scared to death about what might happen to my favorite characters. Its been MANY years since those first late-night readings of The Shining and Thinner (not his greatest work, but no book EVER has made more of a lasting impression on me than Thinner. I can remember staying up all night long to read it, and how the ending GUTTED me), mostly worrying about the kids in the story, and if they would survive whatever hell had come down upon them. This story brought me back to being a kid again. Thanks, Uncle Stevie.

In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”

In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help. But no one has ever escaped from the Institute.

As psychically terrifying as Firestarter, and with the spectacular kid power of ItThe Institute is Stephen King’s gut-wrenchingly dramatic story of good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t always win.

The Institute starts off slowly…King introduces Tim Jamieson, a former Florida cop looking to start a new life in a small South Carolina town. King seems in no rush to get the plot moving, instead doing what he does best — bringing a small town and its residents to life. Tim gets a job at the Sheriff’s department as a Night Knocker, patrolling the town all night long, making sure the community is safe. Tim starts to settle in to his new life, when suddenly…

We aren’t talking about Tim anymore. And don’t think about him for hundreds of pages.

Now King shifts the focus to child prodigy (and sometimes mild telekinetic) Luke Ellis, a 12 year old from Minneapolis who is about to start college at Harvard. One night, a black SUV pulls up in front of Luke’s house, the people in the car break in, murder Luke’s parents, and kidnap a drugged Luke.

When he wakes up, he is in his bedroom, but it isn’t really his bedroom. There aren’t any windows, and some of his trophies are missing. A startled and confused Luke makes his way outside, where he discovers that he is now at The Institute, somewhere in the deep woods of Maine. A place for kids who have either telekinesis (TK) or telepathy (TP), where they are supposedly trained as secret agents of the government, but in reality, are tortured (and sometimes even killed) in order to test the limits of their powers.

The Institute is run by Mrs. Sigsby, one of the worst King villians in a long time. Her prim pantsuits and calm demeanor can’t hide the fact that she is a monster who enjoys her work and the power she has over the children under her purview. Luke and his new friends (Nicky, Kalisha, George, Helen, Iris, and especially Avery), are subjected to horrible tests and unspeakable acts of torture, as the doctors at The Institute attempt to increase/improve/evolve the potential powers of the children there.

Luke is different than the other kids, though. He is literally a genius, and he has had enough. After he witnesses the death of one of the kids living with him, he decides to plan his escape, and to take down The Institute — and Mrs. Sigsby.

There is a ton of action, some great relationships, and some fun characters here. While I love when King takes his time to describe things, I also love when he ratchets up the tension and has short, one paragraph-long chapters that let you know THE SHIT IS ABOUT TO GO DOWN.

I listened to the audiobook of this, and was constantly trying to find excuses to get in the car and listen, or go for a walk and listen. Turning it off was painful. I needed to know what was going to happen next. I needed to know which kids would make it out alive (because, I knew most of them wouldn’t, and its never a good idea to get attached to anyone in a King story). I needed to know what was going to happen to Luke and Tim and Mrs. Sigsby. And once again (for the fourth time this year), kudos to Santino Fontana for narrating the crap out of this book. He did a great job creating different voices for each character and keeping me invested and on the edge of my seat.

The ending wasn’t perfect, but so much better than some of King’s famous mis-steps, that I didn’t care. I enjoyed every second of this book. Even when it made me cry. Glad to have read this as my cannonball book this year!

22
Dec
19

“But the only way never to do the wrong thing is never to do anything.” CBR11 Reviews 50 & 51.

downloadTrying so hard to finish up my Cannonball this year, so I’m hitting up my backlog of unreviewed books for the year. I read some (actually, SO MANY) great books that I just never got around to reviewing, and while perusing the list, I figured you can never go wrong with a little Harry Dresden/James Marsters action. What follows is not really a review…its seems to be more like my random thoughts about these two books, as it has been a while since I listened and my brain has trouble telling these books apart.

First up: Proven Guilty.

From Amazon:

There’s no love lost between Harry Dresden, the only wizard in the Chicago phone book, and the White Council of Wizards, who find him brash and undisciplined. But war with the vampires has thinned their ranks, so the Council has drafted Harry as a Warden and assigned him to look into rumors of black magic in the Windy City.

As Harry adjusts to his new role, another problem arrives in the form of the tattooed and pierced daughter of an old friend—all grown up and already in trouble. Her boyfriend is the only suspect in what looks like a supernatural assault straight out of a horror film. Malevolent entities that feed on fear are loose in Chicago, but it’s all in a day’s work for a wizard, his faithful dog, and a talking skull named Bob…

Wow, that quote isn’t really helping me to remember much, other than that this is the book that brings young Molly Carpenter into the fold as a major character.

A series of creepy murders — based upon scenes from horror movies — take place at a horror movie convention, SPLATTERCON!!!. Michael and Charity’s oldest daughter Molly — no longer a cute little girl, but now a pierced and tattooed teen with crazy hair — brings the case to Harry, because she and her boyfriend and other friends have been working at the convention and are scared.

Molly is kidnapped by the creatures causing the mayhem, and brought to the Never Never, where she is rescued by Murphy, Harry, and Charity.

Of course, there’s more to the story than that. Molly has been learning to use magic, hoping to be able to save her boyfriend and best friend from their vices. Turns out that in the magic world, this is a big no-no, and is punishable by death. As a warden of the council, Harry stands by her at trial and it is decided that he will be her sponsor and help her to learn magic responsibly.

Meanwhile, of course there’s some nonsense with vampires, Harry’s relationship with Karin Murphy, his brother Thomas, and Bob. Can’t get enough of Bob.

Proven Guilty flows right into White Night.

Meet Harry Dresden, Chicago’s first (and only) Wizard P.I. Turns out the ‘everyday’ world is full of strange and magical things – and most of them don’t play well with humans. That’s where Harry comes in. A series of apparent suicides rings alarm bells with the police, and Harry is hired. At the first crime scene he hits pay dirt, discovering an unmistakable magical taint. There’s also a message especially for him, and it ain’t pretty. The ‘killings’ will continue if Harry can’t halt his tormentor, but the evidence implicates his half-brother, which just doesn’t add up. Unfortunately Harry’s digging around attracts some powerful vampires with a stake in the result. Soon, whichever way he turns, Harry will find himself outnumbered, outclassed and dangerously susceptible to temptation. And if he screws up, his friends will die. Magic – it can get a guy killed.

Another crappy blurb. Not helping me remember much at all!

What I do remember is that this one has Elaine, Gentleman John Marcone, a group of women dying under mysterious circumstances, and a HUGE vampire battle underneath Thomas’ family estate, and flashbacks to a horrible warden incident in the desert.

I’m always wary of the stories that include Elaine. I know that these are all fictional characters, BUT I DON’T TRUST HER. #TEAMMURPHY

The battle scene was long but pretty exciting. Of course Murphy kicked ass, and it was interesting to see how Marcone joined the fight in exchange for power in the Never Never (I think?). I mostly worried about Ramirez, who I loved as a foil to Harry, and Mouse, because he’s a good boy.

As always, James Marsters did an excellent job narrating these stories. I don’t know if I would ever have read these books without him, to be honest. He truly brings Harry to life. He makes me laugh, and he even made me cry in White Night, telling the story of Helen Beckkitt’s daughter.

I’ve already started listening to Small Favor. These audiobooks are like comfort food for my ears. Thank you to all of the Cannonballers before me who made sure to mention these books over and over — I never would have known about them otherwise.

16
Dec
19

The situation gets rough then I start to panic. CBR11 Review 49.

downloadMary H.K. Choi’s Emergency Contact is going on my list of favorite books of 2019, so there was no doubt I was going to read Permanent Record as soon as I could get my hands on it.

Pablo Neruda Rind, the half Korean and half Pakistani son of a pair of poetry lovers, is in a rut. Since he dropped out of NYU after (during? unclear.) his freshman year, he works the nightshift in a fancy Brooklyn bodega and hangs out with his roommates. He struggles with money, always wondering how he will be able to pay his share of the rent, and hiding all of his bills and letters from collection agencies into his sock drawer. He is frozen by his general anxiety about his stalled life, and can’t seem to do anything about it.

One night, superstar Leanna Smart comes into the bodega looking for snacks. It takes Pablo a minute to figure out who she is (QUESTION: is it ever explained how he knew who she was because of the name on her credit card? Her other (real?) name is mentioned and then never brought up again. Wasn’t sure if I missed something), and by the time he realizes he should be star struck, they’ve already been chatting and flirting for a while.

After a tiny bit of instagram flirting via hashtag (#spelunk), she shows up again, and the two of them end up on a private jet to LA for a few days to get to know each other better. He drops everything, and doesn’t tell anyone where’s he’s going, simply to spend some more time with the two versions of Leanna — the public star that everyone in the world sees, and the private girl that only a few people have the chance to get to know.

After Pablo signs a 100 page NDA, promising not to mention the nature of his relationship with Lee to anyone, ever, for the rest of time, they spend a fun night at the hotel, and then a nice day with her grandmother.

And then this is where the book loses me.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW

Pablo can’t get back to New York due to a blizzard. He has to miss work and the college interview that his mother made him promise to go to. He deals with it by ignoring it, which, I GET. But it does not make Pablo a particularly endearing character.

And it make’s Lee an even less endearing character, as she simply doesn’t seem to care that his life has been disrupted because she wanted to hang out with him. For the rest of the book, her needs and wants constantly trump Pablo’s, because she is more important, and he just needs to understand that.

At one point, she convinces him to fly to Seoul with her, and then she more or less ditches him there for a whole day, without any money, no way to contact her, and no way to get back into the hotel room if he decides to leave. And she pretty much wants him to feel badly for her, not the other way around. This was the moment I decided that I hated her.

Listen. I get that our the cost of our higher education is crazy, and that student loans are terrible. I understand that anxiety and depression cause people to act in ways that they know don’t make sense.

But Pablo. Come on. Move back in with your mother. Take the bills out of your sock drawer. Stop blaming other people for becoming successful because you think it should have been you.

MORE SPOILERS

I was beyond relieved when Pablo seemed to get his life in order and started his job as a waiter going to school part time. HOWEVER, I was annoyed that he was planning a career as a youtube food influencer. I was also glad that he turned down Lee’s offer to go on tour with her, as she clearly hadn’t grown at all as a person in the time they had been apart. (I actually had to read ahead after the Korea part of the story, because if they had ended up together, I wouldn’t have finished the book).

I don’t really know how I felt about this book. I didn’t like the characters. I didn’t like or understand their arcs. However, like in Emergency Contact, I thought her approach to talking about money and wealth was the most interesting part of the story.

I still love Choi’s writing, and will keep looking for new stuff from her, but this wasn’t my favorite.

12
Dec
19

Settle in for a cozy read with a Tim Horton’s coffee and a cruller. CBR11 Review 48.

downloadYes, this was yet another Jane Austen retelling. I was all about those this year. Supposedly, it was based on Pride & Prejudice…and I guess I see that, but it wasn’t a strict retelling. It was more of an homage.

From Amazon:

AYESHA SHAMSI has a lot going on.  Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn’t want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century.

When a surprise engagement between Khalid and Hafsa is announced, Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and his family; and the truth she realizes about herself. But Khalid is also wrestling with what he believes and what he wants. And he just can’t get this beautiful, outspoken woman out of his mind.

Ayesha lives with her widowed mother and younger brother in her grandparents Toronto townhouse. After her father died under mysterious circumstances , she and her family fled from India, to the open arms of her wealthy uncle, who had emigrated with his wife and children years before. Ayesha is especially close with her beautiful —but flighty — cousin Hafsa.

Ayesha is training to be a teacher, but in her heart she is a poet. Her grandfather taught her to love language, and always quotes Shakespeare to her. She performs at open mic night at her local “lounge”, mostly poems about what is expected of her as a young, single Muslim woman, and what people see when they look at her.

Khalid lives across the street with his mother, and he thinks Ayesha is beautiful. Khalid is a devout Muslim — he wears long white robes every day, and wears a long beard and a skullcap. Some people at his office find his appearance a bit extreme, but he feels that it is important to let people know what kind of person he is and what sort of beliefs he has just by looking at him.

They meet under circumstances of mistaken identity, and things don’t go well. He sees a woman who doesn’t take her Muslim background seriously, and she sees a man who takes his all too seriously.

Throw in a bigoted boss, some enthusiastic lingerie designers, a self-help wrestling guru, a clueless frat-type “bro”, and various other friends and family, and lots of misunderstandings and miscommunications, and there’s your story.

As a standalone story, I enjoyed it. I always appreciate reading about different cultures and traditions. Ayesha and her family were likable and fun to read about. And I was rooting for Ayesha and Khalid to sort out their stupid nonsense and get together in the end.

But where this book didn’t work for me was in its need to check off all of the Pride & Prejudice plot boxes, even if they didn’t quite fit into the story. Out of nowhere, Khalid’s mother became the evil Lady Catherine stand in character, and I think the story suffered for that.




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