Sunday, December 29, 2019

PRINCESS CLAUS AND THE GREAT ESCAPE by J.L. Gillham



Rating: A snowglobe with a Christmas village inside of it

Highlight of note: Our lead is set to be the first female Santa!

Will you read more in this series? Hopefully. None have been published yet, but I am interested in what happens next.

Noelle, AKA Princess Claus, is the daughter of the current Santa. She lives at the North Pole with her family, lots of elves, some reindeer, and a pet polar bear. The tagline on the cover of the novel reads "Even Winter Wonderland can be a prison" but the story isn't nearly as dark as that makes it sound. Noelle does feel trapped. She's not allowed to leave the protective dome around her home because there's an evil elf out there who wants to kidnap her, and as she's a teenager this really chafes. But it's not like she's being tortured or anything.

Overall, the story is fun if not incredibly deep. I particularly liked seeing the growth in Noelle's relationship with her younger brother. They start off not liking each other at all, but find common ground and some degree of affection over the course of the novel.

My other favorite part was definitely the polar bear. He's timid and addicted to sugar. And he can fly when hooked up to Santa's sleigh. It almost goes without saying that I find the sleigh being pulled by polar bears to be a way cooler idea than having reindeer do it.

I never felt too invested in the romantic arc of the story. The love interest is likable, but he didn't seem very complicated and I was a bit put off by the fact that Noelle only appears to know two guys her age who aren't related to her and seems to feel they are the only romantic choices she has. The other guy we don't get to see until the end. There's some hint that the next book may have more of a love triangle conflict, but I think it's going to require this second fellow move to closer to Winter Wonderland.

I found it a bit hard to feel too sorry for Noelle, who clearly wanted me to feel sorry for her. Maybe I'm getting old, but I looked at her escape attempts and said stuff like, "You know you'll need money, right? Have you heard of ID?" and "You're just now asking where the nearest airport is? Seriously? Where did you think you were going running out into the countryside of Alaska?" Basically, I was hoping she'd fail to escape because I didn't want to watch her freeze to death or get eaten by a polar bear that hadn't been raised as a pet. And that was without taking the evil elf into consideration. All of this foolishness may be explained by her being young and very sheltered, but she felt more like a twelve-year-old than a seventeen-year-old to me.

As for the "I don't know that I want to be Santa" thing... I felt that was something that really should have been brought up in a conversation with her parents. She tries to talk to them exactly once. She says "Let's do this thing!" without explaining why she thinks it will help her, then storms out when they say "We can't do this thing!" without letting her parents fully explain their side. This is, I'll admit, somewhat accurate to how many teenagers behave. I would have liked to see more effort from her parents, though. They seem aware that something is up with her but never sit her down and try to talk to her about it, let alone force her to sit in a room until things have been discussed. Her mom says near the end that it might have been a mistake not to tell her certain things earlier and I was like, "No duh, Mom." Overall, I thought it would make a more interesting story if it was Noelle's brother who was supposed to be Santa and she was arguing that it should go to the firstborn child, not the firstborn son. (Also, if it's always been the firstborn child rather than son, how have we gone this long without a female inheriting? That seems statistically unlikely as the Santas appear to want to hand the job over by the time they're forty.)

I felt Noelle's parents were doing a bad job of passing on the Santa torch. Not only did they never actually talk to Noelle about why it was important she, and not her brother, be the new Santa, they never explained why she had to take on this mantle on her seventeenth birthday. Her father did plan on doing the Christmas Eve run with her the first few years rather than just tossing her into it like apparently happened to him despite his dad still being alive, but he never explains why it's happening now rather than after his daughter is grown. It's pretty obvious Noelle isn't mature enough to be more than an apprentice, if that, at the start of all of this, so I assume there's a reason for not saying, "You know what, we'll do the whole coronation thing when you're twenty one. Or maybe thirty," but the only clue we're given is that Dad seems tired.

As to Noelle' grandparents... Both sets live in Winter Wonderland, but we never see any of them. The closest we come is a cameo by her grandmother's dog. I'm not sure what was up with that. As indicated earlier, I don't quite get what triggers Santa handing the job down to his offspring and I never figured out what he does after he's stopped being Santa.

The villain was very shallow, although it looks like the next book in the series will flesh him out some. He doesn't have any motivation in this book other than the standard "ruin Christmas" desire villains in stories like this tend to get assigned. I'm hoping that when we see him again later we'll get more about why he's trying to take down Santa.

So, yeah, there were some problems with this book, but I did enjoy it and fully intend to read the next installment whenever it gets released. And actual teens may find it easier to relate to Noelle than I did. I recommend it as a playful Santa story for people who are looking for more fun than depth. Which, let's face is, is a lot of people in December as the holiday stress makes many of us desperate for escape.

Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.


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Notes

6% These elves seem more like dwarves, but okay.

8% Santa's sleigh being pulled by flying by polar bears would be way cooler than reindeer.

9% I have no idea what she thinks will happen when she runs away. Is she not aware that money is a thing she'll need? You know, in addition to there being someone who wants to kidnap her.

12% Cracked snow globe doesn't sound good

13% I'm not sure who the boy with her brother is or if his presence is related to the broken snow globe. I assumed she would have recognized Cole.

13% Yeah, so the snow globe represents the shield around their house. She should probably tell her parents it's broken.

14% I'm not sure how she managed to forget about finding a secret tunnel already. I would think finding a secret passage in your house would stand out in your memory.

16% Finn has drinkable eyes, huh?

17% A box of whale blubber? WTF? Also, how does Noelle recognize what it is? Does the Santa family routinely murder whales? If I saw some, I'd probably be like, "Something bloody and foul smelling" but wouldn't know exactly what it was.

17% So the town outside Santa's globe is in Alaska. Okay. I would have thought Greenland or Lapland, but fine. Maybe we're going with the idea that North Pole is so obvious because no one would suspect a real connection to Santa somewhere that garishly Christmas.

17% If Finn and Nicky are good friends, shouldn't Noelle have deduced he was the one following her brother in the workshop?

18% Anyone who needs warned that hot chocolate is hot has a problem that should probably be taken into consideration if you're wanting to form a romantic bond with them...

19% She's clearly going to be annoyed with Finn for sharing the secret she blabbed, but she didn't wait long enough to see what he was gossiping about. My money is on it having been the hot chocolate being yummy.

20% She doesn't even know where town is? It seems she really should have researched all this before she started making escape attempts.

30% So apparently the gossip was the she's a flirt? Weird...

43% And now she says she did hear him tell others about the actual secret. Although I don't think she actually told him not to tell people that, so being pisses a year later seems like a lot.

44% This dapper dude at the beach seems out of place. I'm betting he's the evil elf.

50% Animal stowaway, huh? So evil elf shape shifts or has a trained animal?

53% Someone rerouted her string and she isn't curious about this?

57% I'd be more curious about why the sim was cancelled. I'm assuming its safety features are turned off or something.

75% Finn says he didn't blad about the evil elf and is amused she thinks he did. I'm back to thinking he was telling the girls about the hot chocolate and the narration saying otherwise was unreliable.

76% Hmm... I don't know why the snow globe started healing. Is it because Noelle is close to fixing things with Finn? I've been thinking for a while that it will repair itself when she accepts being Santa.

78% Dapper Guy from the Beach was the evil elf! How... Not surprising. It might have been surprising if he was more stealthy, like if the hikers wound up being Evil Guy and His Evil Wife.

82% Evil Elf was pretty easy to defeat. Although I suppose not everyone would have a pet polar bear with a sweet tooth at the ready.

83% Yep, Finn was talking about the hot chocolate.

86% If it's always just the firstborn, it seems statistically unlikely there wouldn't have been another female...

91% I'm not sure I like her mom's reaction to being told she doesn't want to marry young. Makes me wonder if there's going to be a sequel along the line of the second Santa Clause, the one about the Mrs Clause.

93% Cole's into Noelle. We've hardly seen him so it's hard to care too much though.

98% Kissing Finn. He's not a bad love interest, but I kinda felt the only thing keeping them apart was the misunderstanding that I never fell for.

THE END
Overall, I'm kinda underwhelmed. Did search for the next one though in the hopes it will have more romantic tension than this one. It isn't out yet.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

HEARTS ALIGHT by Elliot Cooper


Rating: A giant pile of newly won Hanukkah gelt.

Highlight of note: It's a Hanukkah romance starring a golem. A golem!

Will you read more by this author? I plan to.

Other note: This is an adult romance but does NOT have explicit sex in it.

I mentioned earlier that it's really hard to find full-length Hanukkah romances. That's why I wound up reading this even though its short length would usually rule it out for me. Adding other subplots or switching between points-of-view to show both love interests' sides of the story could have easily grew this into a full novel, but it does work as a novella.

For the first while, I had doubts about enjoying this book. The main character, Dave, is very much against the consumerism he sees in American Hanukkah celebrations, and bemoans this to the point that he's actively annoying. If it hadn't been for the early introduction of his mom, who made my heart warm by very clearly not caring one wit about what gender of person her bisexual son dates but just wants him to find someone who makes him happy, I probably would have abandoned it. I might not have had I remembered the bit about the love interest being a golem, but long enough had passed between me downloading the book and starting it that I had forgotten. It's not actually spelled out in the book (as opposed to the cover text) until about a third of the way through things.

So, yeah... Dave can be annoying when you get him talking about commercialization of holidays. But he's a pretty adorable geek otherwise. He works in a paint-your-own-pottery place and plays online D&D several evenings a week. I did find his relationship with beer unconvincing. Supposedly he's into craft beer, but he more than once drinks a porter out of the bottle. Yuck! When bartender Amit gave him a bottled porter and he started swigging it, I went, "Dude! A worthy love interest, or a half-decent bartender, would have given you a glass!" But apparently Amit was experiencing really severe issues regarding the spell that keeps him alive at the time, so maybe he was just too distracted to protect his crush from making Very Bad Choices. (Note: this is not just me being a snob. What you drink a beer from strongly affects how it tastes and nothing dark is good when funneled through a narrow neck. The narrow neck removes subtleties and sinks the malt profile, drowning them under bitterness.)

Amit is really likable, aside from the whole didn't-give-his-customer-a-glass-for-his-beer thing. He's a golem, and worries about people who know that seeing him as a thing rather than a person, but he is very clearly a person. He was created by someone whose brother had just died as a sort of replacement, which is a bit messed up and I would have liked to get to know his creator more. The spell is starting to fade and part of the story is figuring out how to combat that. It actually gets solved pretty fast and it might would have been nice to spend more time working on the mystery of it. I think I would have liked to see what Amit is like when Dave isn't around. To me, the main advantage in writing in third person is that you can follow more than one character, so I sometimes get a little sad when writers fail to do that, particularly as exploring the way a golem sees the world would be really interesting to me.

It would also have been nice to get to know some of the supporting cast a little better. I already mentioned that I'd love to know more about Amit's creator/brother, but I was also rather interested in the other family members.

I did love this story. My only wish is that there had been more of it. There could have been more time spent developing the romantic tension, more time fleshing out characters, and more time working on the mystery of what was going wrong with Amit and how it could be fixed.


Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.


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Notes

5%. A Jewish bar named Gin Teal. I love it. Although our main character is coming across as rather lecture-y.

8% Dave is apparently bi. Cool.

10% Silent Amit, huh?

12% I like how Dave's mom honestly doesn't care what gender of person he dates, she just wants him to have someone who loves him. I also agree with her that romance novels shouldn't end in death.

23% Dave is drinking a porter out of a bottle. Yuck. If the bartender were a worthy love Interest, he would have provided a glass.

27% A flash of light on his temple scars? Weird.

37% Wait... Golem? I was not expecting that. I guess that explains both the light through the cracks and the name tattooed on his fingers.

45% Current hope: Amit's problem is that he can't serve his purpose, which has something to do with how much his brother needs and/or loves him. He can shift that purpose to being needed/loved by Dave and thus avoid the whole dying thing he's doing. (The early assertion that romance novels shouldn't end in death makes me hope this isn't a tradgedy.)

47% Or maybe he just needs new paint on the tattoo every now and then...

53% He had to touch someone who cares about him. Looks like I was close with my hope.

69% Amit's ranger sounds more like a rogue who's into archery than a ranger to me, but okay. If he's a one shot, it really doesn't matter. One imagines he isn't so his progression will be interesting.

73% Love the way Amit fits into the D&D group.

90% A metal D20 for Hanukkah. Yay! Of course, there are eight nights of Hanukkah. In theory, he could be given one of seven dice each night with a nice box for them on the eighth night... A full set of metal dice are pretty pricey though and we all know how Dave feels about expensive Hanukkah gifting.

91% I'm really enjoying the actual Hanukkah celebration. It's really nice that it's an entire week.

95% Dave's going to learn magic. Yay!

97% THE END
Sweet ending. I like that Dave assumes he'll spend other Hanukkahs with Amit. Although one really does have to hope they will stay together since Amit will apparantly die if Dave stops loving him...

ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS by Clare Lydon


Rating: A mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows on top and a shot of peppermint schnapps

Highlight of note: One of our lead's dates goes so badly she falls asleep in the loo...

Will you read more by this author? Probably. (Especially as I signed up for her mailing list and got a free novel!)

Other note: This is an adult romance and does have some explicit sex in it.

This sapphic romance is enjoyably cute with moments of hilarity. Tori decides in late November that she wants to have a girlfriend to spend Christmas with and figures that surely someone in London must be suitable. So she signs up on a dating app and launches into a series of comically bad dates. During the second disaster, right after she wakes up from a twenty minute nap in the bathroom during which her date bailed, she runs into a friend who has recently become engaged to a woman Tori hadn't met yet. Except when they meet, it turns out they did know each other. In fact, they were best friends in school, up until they shared a kiss and the other girl, Nicola, freaked so bad that not only did she stop talking to Tori altogether, she got pregnant! To say that this distracts Tori from her quest would be an understatement. Not only is her first love now openly interested in women and living in London, but she's a firefighter. Who wouldn't be distracted by that?

Tori's best friend and flatmate is named Holly due to being born on Christmas. (I really need to remember to thank my parents that I'm neither Holly nor Noelle.) I related a lot to Holly, being also tall and gorgeous. Wait. No. I'm short and, at best, cute. But when we find Holly sitting on the couch eating Picked Onion Monster Munch, watching soccer, and telling her friend she'd be happy to write a dating blurb for her but not until halftime, I went, "It's me! If I were younger, taller, and British!" Clearly, she was my favorite cast member.

Nicola was an interesting love interest, although clearly she has a lot of issues, not the least of which is that she's engaged to be married in a few weeks to someone who she's only known for a few months but is flirting and eventually making passes at "The Girl Who Got Away." Clearly, impulse control is something that Nicola struggles with.

And I'm not sure what to think of Tori's coworkers. Between her and her officemates, the same toaster sets of the fire alarm three times over the course of the month this book covers. Each time the buildinging is evacuated and the fire department shows up. If someone in my building did that and still hadn't replaced said toaster, I'm pretty sure I would gift them one for the holidays just so that I wouldn't keep getting forced out onto the sidewalk while I'm trying to work. Also, the fire department probably should have insisted on a new one by the time this had happened twice, shouldn't they?

At any rate... As I said before, parts of this book are riotously funny. And the romance is sweet with a resolution that made me smile. My only real complaint is that I felt like the book could have ended with the chapter that concluded at the 79% marker. The remaining twenty percent had some tie-up value, but nothing at all tense was left to resolve.

Overall, I really liked this book even if I thought it could have ended a smidge earlier. The author has a lot of other books out, including more in the "All I Want" series that covers what happens to Tori and her beloved later, and I will probably be checking those out.


Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.


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Notes


5% They both want a girlfriend by Christmas... Hollywood ending would dictate they end up together.



6% Holly has a history degree and is willing to help, but not until halftime. I relate to Holly.

10% An alcoholic Jesus freak lesbian. Oh, dear. Date One is not going well.

12% Holly is also addicted to Pickled Onion Monster Munch. She is exactly what I would be were I an English lesbian.

13% Mum seems to think Holly is the Love Interest. This may be accurate. I may be biased as she is Young British Me, but Holly is awesome. And she does keep telling Tori things like "I get you," and "You'll always have me to come back to."

19% Ouch. Her first love, who insisted she wasn't into women when breaking off their friendship after Tori's first kiss, arrives engaged to another woman right after Tori falls asleep in a bathroom stall, this causing her date to flee.

22% "...and I pick up the pieces. It's always me." Yeah, I'm pretty sure Holly is in love with Tori. Has been since they were teenagers from the sound of this conversation.

25% First Love (Nicola) is a fire fighter. Wow. Also, they exchanged numbers. If she didn't have a FIANCEE I might start thinking Holly won't get the girl after all.

31% Yeah... Mid-sex thoughts about hurrying to be done before the Tube shuts down aren't good...

33% Oh, yeah, Holly is giving her shivers. :)

38% ROFL. Her date is trying to sell her insurance. That is hilarious.

41% I'm not sure why Nicola is bothering with a fancy wedding dress. She's getting married by the city then just having a reception...

43% Nicola is pretty messed up. Run, Tori! And also Melanie, honestly...

45% Of course it's always Holly you come home to. Come on, girl, figure this out!

56% The toaster set off the fire alarm again? These people need a new toaster. Mine has never once done that.

57% She's giving Holly's Dixie Chicks ticket to Nicola? I am I'm physical distress here!

58% Minced Pie liqueur? Now I feel sick for a different reason.

60% I'm not sure what the point of telling Holly about the Dixie Chicks thing was if she was planning to un-offer them to Nicola.

64% The toaster AGAIN? They really need a new one, STAT.

72% Yay for kissing Holly! Not so yay for her getting concussed, but at least it'll make for a good story to tell people when they're old and grey.

74% In my experience, the weirdest part of someone going from friend to love interest is how weird it DOESN'T feel. So I'd say this is spot on.

77% The last ten percent of the book was a sex scene. I skimmed it.

79% That kinda felt like the ending. Not sure what else there is to do here.

82% Looks like there could be more drama with Nicola even though Tori is certain she doesn't want to be with her now.

88% No drama at the Christmas party, just more assertions they belong together. And apparently another sex scene. I feel the story really did end at the 79% marker 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

BEN'S BAKERY AND THE HANUKKAH MIRACLE by Penelope Peters

Rating: An electric menorah.

Highlight of note: Hanukkah romances are still rare enough that just being one is noteworthy, especially as it's a full length novel rather than a novella.

Will you read more by this author? Maybe? Leaning toward unlikely.

Note: I am not Jewish. The author of the book is. Not sure if that's important to point out, but both things are true.

Also note: this is an adult romance, not the YA that I usually read. That means there are graphic sex scenes. I skipped over them because I'm not into sex scenes, though, so I can't tell you if there were "good" or not.

I really wanted to like this m/m Hanukkah romance, particularly as it involved a hockey team AND a bakery. At times I did. I liked it enough to finish it at any rate. My main issue was with one of the leads. While Ben is absolutely adorable and quite possibly the nicest man on Earth (to the point that you could probably call him a Mary Sue pretty easily), Adam kept rubbing me the wrong way. Every conflict between the pair came down to Adam questioning Ben's Jewishness. The first time he did it, I was willing to say it was a misstep and him not saying what he really meant to convey. The third time? I was wishing there was anyone else in Boston interested in an overly sweet gay Jewish baker.

The rest of this contains more spoilers than I usually use, so if you're going to rush out and read this book, you should stop here.


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Positives about the novel... As I mentioned already, Ben is really loveable and that makes him super easy to pull for. And I adored Adam's hockey team, a rambunctious pack of good hearted teen boys who have a tendency to curse in French due to being from Quebec. I also liked the supportive best friend characters each of the love interests had, especially Adam's female Muslim assistant coach and her constantly-slipping hijab. We never see Ben's parents, but Adam's dad, a retired rabbi who likes to say he's a walking joke because his closest friends are an Islamic Imam and a Catholic priest, is beyond awesome. (The rabbi, the Imam, and the priest like to play golf together with either a Buddhist monk or a protestant preacher because they are all happy running with this interfaith thing.)

There were a few issues though. The first is why didn't the author ever describe the men's "I'm Gay!" forehead tattoos? I assume they have them because random strangers peg both of them as into other dudes with less than a second of observation. This, of course, meant that there was zero tension from the guys playing the "Is he flirting or straight and oblivious to how I'm reading this?" game.

The lack of tension was my second problem. There was never anything other than them arguing to keep the lovers apart. That one lives in Montreal and the other in Boston would seem like a problem, except the guy from Montreal was offered a job in Boston before the book even starts. He's shy about taking it because he wants to be near his dad's nursing home, but it's quickly made clear that his dad can move to Boston too! Neither lead has had a boyfriend in a while, but they weren't left scarred and scared to care by their pasts or anything like that. There is never anything that makes you say, "Maybe it will be hard for this to work out!" except for the repeated fights.

When I say "fight" though, I'm overselling what happens. On multiple occasions, Adam says something horrible to Ben that Ben (and I) hear as, "You're not a proper Jew!" for things like using unusual fillings in his sufganiyot, being awkward with Hebrew grammar, and having parents who like secular Christmas trees. (Adam does this despite the awesome rabbi father who would go ballistic if he heard his son say this stuff.) They then both feel bad. Ben then apologizes profusely. Yes, BEN apologizes everytime he gets upset due to Adam acting like an ass. And although Adam typically responds along the lines of "Why are YOU apologizing?" I never get the impression Adam grows out of it, just that he's found a guy who'll let him get away with being crappy.

The author says in her afterward that she is a Jewish woman who grew up in a Jewish household that always put up a Christmas tree, so I suspect she had to deal with a lot of the same things that got thrown at Ben. And I suspect she reacted the same way he does, by being briefly angry but then shrugging it off. I'd say more about that, but it's not my place.

So... Yeah. It's good that people of Jewish persuasion are writing holiday romances around their holidays, but this one fell flat for me. I may give Peters another shot, because maybe my problem was simply that Adam grated on me too much. We'll see.



Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers. 

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Notes


1% I'm all for a female youth hockey coach, but why is she in the boys lockerroom? I hope they made sure everyone was dressed before she came in.

5% Yeah, Ben's a great guy, and I can certainly relate to the Christmas fatigue, but it's pretty clear why he's running out of money. I don't really want to see that change though. I WANT him to make choices with his heart rather than his accounting ledger.

6% Adam has a job opportunity in Boston. Isn't that convenient? :)

9% Ok, he really could charge for coffee without being a heartless money grubber.

10% There has been a lot of people assuming strangers are into same sex relationships in this book.

13% I love these kids.

22% Not sure where that accusation came from, Adam, but you certainly did fuck things up. I am actually kinda rooting for another option for Ben to show up now. The fact that he's going to talk to you again demonstrates that he really is the nicest man in the world.

26% Yeah, Ben's totally not the one who needed to apologize so profusely. Glad Adam realized that even if Ben didn't.

32% Sex scene. Sigh. Still haven't met one I wouldn't just as soon of skipped. At one point each if these guys had semen all over their hand without there being any mention of cleaning it off. No hand washing or rubbing it off somewhere, they just continued life with pools of goop held in their palms.  

34% Ok, the shower scene was actually kind of sweet. 

39% I wonder what else Adam does. Doesn't seem like coaching youth hockey is a full time job, so presumedly he has another job...

51% Ben's phobia of the ice is breaking my heart.

51% Skipped over the sex scene nicely. They enjoyed themselves and it was very tender. All I need to know really.

52% This book is kinda boring. There's nothing really keeping these guys apart at all... The closest is Adam not wanting to leave his dad, and I'm pretty sure his dad would insist Adam move if he knew about the job offer, let alone a job offer and possible eventual husband.

61% Do they really put plastic buckles on rental skates these days? I've always had actual laces...

65% Why can't we have ice cream at breakfast, Ben? Saying it's just for afternoon is silly.

68% Adam is only 27. How is his dad so old? Must have been a late in life baby. Or Dad is really not aging well 

70% "I hear they play hockey in Boston too." Dad hasn't even gotten to there being multiple jobs offers in the States and he's already suggesting Adam move! :)

73% I'm pretty tired of Adam being the Asshole Jewish Police. And his dad would be pissed at him. I'm back to wanting Ben to find someone else, because he doesn't need this bullshit.

Also, Christmas trees AREN'T a Christian symbol. They're a pagan one. So get your bigotry right.

93% Adam acts like he's over questioning Ben's Jewish status, but this is the third time he's apologized for the same thing. It makes it difficult to feel really happy about this happy ending.

THE END
Epilogue is mostly just a very long sex scene that I skipped most of. I'm still not sure how I feel about Adam always getting forgiven for repeatedly being a jerk, but I think I'm annoyed about it. I don't feel he really learned much or is better now, he just has a boyfriend who lets him get away with being an ass.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

MY NEW CRUSH GAVE TO ME by Shani Petroff

Rating: A cozy sweater with a picture of Santa on it

Highlight of note: Honestly? I liked the book, but can't think of one. Is being exactly what one would expect a highlight?

Will you read more by this author? Probably. I think she's a good choice for someone wanting a comfort read, which I frequently do.

This was a fluffy and fun sort of romance novel with a strong Christmas element. I enjoyed it, but will probably have forgotten most of the plot by next Christmas if I weren't writing it down as it's pretty much a standard holiday romance. There's a big party being held the day after Christmas with a couples theme, and Charlie's date bailed on her at Thanksgiving. Super-planner Charlie clearly needs a plan to get a date ASAP!

When she bumps into a guy named Teo in the hallway, she decides he's the one. She sets up a Secret Santa at the school paper she's the chief editor of and arranges to draw his name with the goal of so wowing him with her gifts that he is eager to date her. Problem is, she hardly knows the guy. So she enlists his cousin JD, who she has a long history of clashing with, to help her get it right. The results are, naturally, at time comedic and frequently made me smile.

Charlie is an over-the-top Type A personality who keeps a schedule synced between all of her devices but also printed out on paper every morning. She gave her best friend coupons for her birthday that grant forgiveness for being late. It's not enough for Charlie to be in control of the moment, she needs to also feel in control of the foreseeable future, to the point of alienating most of the people around her and being genuinely difficult to deal with. I hoped she'd grow out of this as she spends more time with the perpetually late JD, but she doesn't really. The closest she comes is accepting that it's alright to schedule time to relax and ultimately forgiving him for being late to something because he was talking to his senile grandfather. But I guess that's a start and the book does only cover a month of her life.

The best friend character and her long-term boyfriend were excellent. They played the roles of Token Jewish People very well in addition to expertly demonstrating the concept of Established Relationship the Main Character Wishes to Emulate. They took all of Charlie's peculiarities in stride and with good humor. I could wish they'd done more to help her chill the heck out, but at least they didn't let themselves get all uptight worrying about Charlie's self-induced stresses.

The December 26th party bugged me, though. The premise is that Noelle's birthday is on Christmas, so she has a huge party the next day. Problem is, December 26th is MY birthday, so I know full well that over half the people she invited to this party would, in reality, inform her that they'll be out of town. Also, poor Noelle. It's crappy enough being born on Christmas (I frequently say it's the one birthday that's worse than mine) but her parents named her Noelle. Once again, I am left grateful to my parents for not pulling something like that on me. My parents really are awesome in the whole not-inflicting-unwarranted-pain-on-their-offspring department.

The ending wasn't unexpected and felt a little abrupt, but it was happy and heartwarming, so I'm not really complaining much. There is a deleted scene included in the ebook that I would have argued should have been left it. It's an epilogue showing Charlie celebrating her birthday on New Year's that was sweet and served more to ease us out of the book. I'm fairly confident there was a lot of wavering, or possibly arguing, on the part of the author and the editor as to whether to keep it or not with the compromise being to let us see it but not make it official.

So.. Yeah. I don't believe it's possible to have the whole junior class show up at a party on December 26th and found everything else in the book to be incredibly predictable. However, I did enjoy the read and recommend it for anyone wanting a book that will make them feel like they're being cuddled by the Christmas season.


Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers. 

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Notes


1% Poor Noelle. December 25th is the one day of the year that is worse for a birthday than my birthday. Having a party on the 26th (my birthday) wouldn't work though. No one is in town.

2% I'm betting Jason has interesting reason for being late so often. The other guys I can't blame our MC for not being into. A high school junior who didn't know Canada was party of North America? (And who lives in New England, so should know how to drive there...) Yeah, no one should want to date that guy.

3% Yeah, okay, that could be a meet cute with Teo. But I suspect he's not the true love interest. Also, wouldn't be shocked if he was gay.

3% JD drives her crazy trying to be artistic with his photos for the paper. He has a hard time with deadlines. And he's Teo the Decoy Love Interest's cousin. Sounds like the Love Interest to me.

5% Ok, now that we've met JD, I'll double down that he's the Love Interest. Probably going to be Charlie's Secret Santa too, although she'll try to convince herself it's Teo. (Or maybe it will be Teo, but the gifts will all suck. Or they'll be good but only because JD is behind them.)

9% I suspect Teo is only a candy-striper because he thinks it will look good to college. Same reason he wrote four articles, and only four articles, for the paper last year.

20% Damn, Charlie needs to learn to be less of a control freak.

24% "I remember," he muttered.  Yeah, he likes her. I have no idea why, but he does.

33% How big is this high school stadium that she can't see the numbers from her seat??? Does she need glasses? (And if it's big enough that's reasonable, how the heck does the entire junior class fit in one event hall? Maybe most of them really don't go to poor Noelle's party.)

40% Nice flower. Either JD stepped in to help his cousin give Charlie gifts or he traded with the person who drew her. (Presumably the gossip columnist who hates her.)

49% Nothing like gushing to the guy who picked out the perfect gift for you about how awesome some other guy is for giving it to you.

54% Not sure what JD was thinking tricking Charlie into fancy dress. Was it an act of sabotage or is he trying to make her see he's more fun than his cousin or did he think Teo would take pity on her and be more attentive? Smart money is on sabotage, but it seems like he's risky a lot pissing her off about it.

56% JD really was right when he said he helps make Charlie better. Which is, of course, the role of the Worthy Love Interest.

62% Revealed as Teo's Secret Santa already! Oops!

70% So Drunk Charlie has the sense to be into JD. How much longer until Sober Charlie catches on?

 75% Okay, so Teo is Charlie's Santa. He did the candy cane. JD picked out everything else. Certain of it now.

80% Yep, even a random retired baseball player can see JD is the actual Love Interest.

81% How can she look at that photospread and still convince herself JD isn't into her?

81% Gee, can't imagine why JD would be late for watching the girl he's into throw herself at his cousin... How can that not be something he's excited about doing?

82% Sigh. She doesn't remember telling Teo when her birthday is because she didn't. JD obviously made the book. Teo even said if was made for her, not that he made it.

87% No, Morgan doesn't believe Teo is the one Charlie wants. No one does. Except maybe poor JD.

90% So Teo knew JD was into Charlie and was still willing to let her think he made the planner? That was kinda crap of him.

91% THE END
OK... I guess there's a lot of teasers after the story.
I liked the end. It was swoony. I think I would have liked a scene from later, like them going to the party or hanging out on Charlie's birthday, but I can see why here seemed like a good place to stop.

92% Oh. The one Xtra stuff is deleted scene from Charlie's birthday.

THE END, FOR REAL
I really liked the deleted scene. I would have liked to see it retained as it would have made the ending much less abrupt.

Monday, December 16, 2019

THE AFTERLIFE OF HOLLY CHASE by Cynthia Hand


Rating: A fluffy hand muff suitable to go caroling with

Highlight of note: The tale is told by the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Will you read more by this author? Probably.

Charles Dickens is dead. But his image for Christmas transformations lives on with Project Scrooge, a paranormal organization that picks a Scrooge every year and sends a series of spirits to reform this person on Christmas Eve before they can die alone and unmourned.

Project Scrooge has several offices around the world, each serving a different location. Holly Chase is chosen by the New York branch once year, but the stubborn teeanger has seen too many movies with excellent special effects to take any of what happens to her seriously and fails to find redemption. She dies in a freak accident days later, at which point she finds herself being given a job posting as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Fast forward five years. The now seasoned Christmas spirit is an established part of Project Scrooge and knows her job. But when this year's Scrooge winds up being an attractive boy her age, she has trouble remaining objective. She quickly finds herself breaking the rules in order to actually meet, and even date, the Scrooge.

As expected, Holly starts out as a complete brat. There was a reason she was selected as a Scrooge, after all and we get to witness the horrors of her living life. But as she tells us about who she used to be, she fully owns up to being terrible and it's easy to see that while she still hasn't completely transformed, she's well on her way. She's at least gone from being worthy of portraying Scrooge to being no more self-centered than the average teen.

The love interest is interesting. That he was selected as the current Scrooge indicates that he is far from perfect. For most of the book, we see him through the eyes of someone crushing on him, though, so he doesn't really seem terrible enough to be a Scrooge. This changed during his Christmas Eve experience, which made me go, "Ah. Okay. I see it now." Part of that comes from now seeing him through the lense of the Ghost of Christmas Present rather than watching scenes from his childhood and then seeing how he treats someone he's dating. Sure, he's nice to someone who he thinks is wealthy enough that her dad is a member of his private club, but suddenly we get to see how he reacts to homeless people.

I don't want to spoil the ending, but I will say that I really liked it. Holly really grows a lot over the course of the novel, and it's nice to see where she winds up in the end. It wasn't a Happily Ever After, but it did end with optimism and potential for happiness.

Both Holly and her love interest are suitably portrayed, although not terribly complex people. Her coworkers are interesting and I kind of want to know more about some of them. Her intern is very well developed and some of the tech guys seemed real. I was left wanting to know more about the Ghost of Christmas Future, but I guess that being mysterious goes with that job. The Ghost of Christmas Present was someone I spent most of the book wanting to hug because he seems like a complete teddy bear, but there were a decent amount of hints to indicate that he had a whole life going on. And the branch manger is a fantastic almost paternal figure and I kind of want to write a novel about how he goes from being middle aged and obsessed with his job and Victorian literature to finding true love with... I don't know... The Chief of Operations of the Hanukkah Miracle Network? That could be fun.

Overall, I liked this book. I did feel that the author undersold the inherent angst of sharing my birthday (December 26th) and the way that those of us born near Christmas tend to feel about the holiday. She hinted that some of Holly's initial anti-Christmas stance came from that, but she didn't really seem to fully understand the complexity of it. But I was left feeling grateful that at least my parents didn't name me Holly. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

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Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers. 

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Notes

6% I have no idea what any of these designer brands are. Are they even real?

7% Yeah, Holly is a complete bitch. A good casting for Scrooge. I thought she was one of the ghosts, but maybe I misunderstood.

10% So the whole spirits treatment didn't work for Holly. I guess that's why get afterlife will tie her into this gig. I've always wondered what would have happened if Scrooge didn't get scared by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. He ALMOST didn't in Scrooged, but it was clear that it was the terror of him that made Cross really care about the rest of it.

10% Of all the characters she could have been named for, she got Havisham. ::shudder::

11% I wonder what happened to the old Ghost of Christmas Past...

12% I like the way this is an ongoing operation with long-term employees. I wonder if the ghosts who come to announce the three spirits are really the people they're supposed to be or actors.

14% Hmmm... And old watch that runs three hours behind. Time travel device? Will Holly end up back at the morning she failed to reformed? Or will she only be able to go back three hours from the present, just long enough to save her love interest? 
(Note after finishing: the watch never went anywhere. It was just a watch.)

16% Something weird is up with this assistant. Is she part of a project to help Holly's rehabilitation? Could she be from management or something?

17% I wonder if Holly was chosen because she'd fail to reform and could thus be compelled to take the Ghost of Christmas Past job.

20% I like that there are Scrooge Projects all over the world.

20% Oh... Stephanie could be Evaluation. She's acting like she doesn't know any of this, but I'm stuck on there not being assistants before and on her having higher clearance than Holly. Also, she always makes it back from errands sooner than she should, like maybe there's something supernatural going on.

22% You know, it's nice that they don't put cameras in bathrooms or locker rooms, but most people do things in their bedrooms they wouldn't want watched too...

31% Yeah, Steph is totally not a regular intern.

39% Hmm... What is everyone else party to? Is this a setup to have love redeem both Holly and Ethan? That would explain why Ethan doesn't actually seem horrible. Or maybe this is all still about Holly? If she gets to redo her choice not to reform, will that be a happy ending? It will leave her five years older than Ethan... But maybe they don't have to be together?

42% A file on Havisham talking about her flaws. Yeah, she's totally still a target of this Project.

46% Holly has my birthday! Of course she hates stupid attention-grabbing Christmas. Her dad didn't say anything about traveling with him for her birthday, it was all Christmas and New Year's bullshit. (I feel this detail was added without the author understanding its importance.)

64% Yeah, I'm increasingly convinced this year's project is about Holly. And Steph is running it.

67% Pretty sure Ethan knows the she's lying about running for student body president. Nobody does that halfway through the year, especially their senior year. (Except in that one satrocial Netflix show...)

75% "December 26th. Which is the worst possible day to have a birthday." YES! Actually, second worst. Christmas itself is worse. But, yeah, even if people remember it, none of your friends are ever around for it and everyone is all excited about something that means more to them and it just sucks. I don't care so much at 43, but as a kid? It was a killer annual reminder of my complete irrelevance.

78% My current theory on Steph and Dave is that she's his daughter. And possibly the new Ghost of Christmas Present.

80% Yeah, the fact that everyone knows The Christmas Carol is a major problem with selling this. I think the crew should either address the issue directly or come up with a way to already the Scrooge's memory so that he doesn't remember the story 

85% Hmm. Ethan is definitely seeming more like a jerk during this Christmas Eve stuff than he did in his normal life.

89% Yep, Steph is Dave's daughter! And Steph has pointed out that if Ethan fails, he'll be the new Ghost. Which I think is a test for Holly. Will she let him for so they can be together or sacrifice having a boyfriend so that he can live? (Which Tues in nicely to her Dad's movie.) My current guess: she gets him to reform but he dies anyway.

90% Ah. So that's what happened to the old Ghost of Christmas Past.

92% So Boz didn't know what was going on? I kind figured he was pretending not to. But maybe he's still pretending. Dave almost had to have known since he can read minds. And the guy who sees the future probably knew too...

93% So she got hit by another car and now it's six years ago. I did wonder how time travel would affect this story. This also means it's the year Ethan's dad dies, right? She can't date Ethan, but can she somehow become a mentor? Or make it to NYC and save his father... Her dad did want her to go there.

96% Yep, it was all a setup. "We never give up on a Scrooge."

98% Yep, saved Ethan's daddy. Yay!

98% THE END

She's right. I want to be upset that the romantic arc didn't end with them being together. But I'm not. It was a good ending.

Monday, November 25, 2019

WAYWARD SON by Rainbow Rowell



Rating: A classic muscle car on a dark deserted highway with a radio playing a commercial-free rock station.

Highlight of note:
Magic-wielding Brits on a roadtrip across the US.

Will you read more in this series? YES! As soon as more is published.


Several years ago, I was at a party in Pennsylvania where an enthusiastic Englishman told all assembled of his plan to drive to California via the Grand Canyon then back via Mount Rushmore in time to spend a day or two in New York City before flying home. "Sounds great!" we said. "So how long are you here for total? A month?" The man blinked and told us he was planning to do all of this before the next weekend. He clearly had absolutely no idea how far from each other any of these places are. I thought of him during this book when our heroes suddenly realize that driving from Chicago to LA is going to take them more than a few hours. "How was I supposed to know all those little states are the size of France?" the mastermind of the plan exclaimed. "I've never even heard of Nebraska!"

This book takes off after the conclusion of Carry On, which you may remember I enjoyed. Simon Snow has defeated the big bad guy and saved the world! (Or the wizarding world anyway.) He hooked up with the vampiric wizard he's been denying being in love with years. And he grew a set of nifty wings. But he also lost his ability to use magic and any sense of purpose he possessed, leaving him a depressed couch potato who has stopped bothering with his classes at uni and lounges about drinking cider all day while he waits for his boyfriend, Baz, to have enough of this and break up with him.

Enter Simon's best friend, Penny. She decides the best way to cure Simon's funk is a change of scenery. She's a bit worried about their friend Agatha, who is attending school in California. So what could be better than whisking Simon (and his hot vampire boyfriend) to the States? They'd land in Chicago, pick up her boyfriend even though he'd told her not to come visit, and take a roadtrip to the West Coast.

As you may be expecting, things don't go smoothly. Not only is the US much larger than the kids realized, but our loveable wizards are hopelessly lost. Physically, culturally, and even, at times magically. You see, the spells in this universe are powered by local non-magical usage. The spells are all common phrases with results that make sense based on meaning. So "Come out, come out, wherever you are!" would help you find your lost keys whereas "Spotless!" will clean its target. The kids know this, so would expect their spells not to work in China, but Americans speak English, right? So why isn't "Sod off!" doing anything to repel those attacking vampires? And even worse than the words of spells sometimes needing to change, there are sections of the country were magic doesn't work at all because there aren't enough human beings saying anything in the region. Oh, and Penny was right to be worried about Agatha. She needs rescuing ASAP.

It's the humor of the book that really made me happy with it, but it came with a good deal of cutting pain as well. Simon and Baz are deeply in love, but not happy. Each of them are convinced they're on the verge of both causing and receiving heartbreak, certain their beloved is about to leave them, and confident that they are going to be destroyed by either this relationship or its ending. In fact, in the opening chapter, Simon comes within half a sentence of dumping Baz to save Baz the trouble of dumping him, completely unaware of how scared Baz is of losing him. They probably just need a really long and deep talk, but they're both too terrified to start one. While the situation could easily have felt melodramatic and manufactured, it actually read as organic and honest.

And on the subject of pain... As someone who breaks out in painful rashes when exposed to sunlight, may I just say that I really felt for the poor vampire forced to drive through the heartlands in an open convertible? It really was a thoughtlessly cruel choice of vehicle, although in Penny's defense, she apparently thought the trip was going to be about three hours long and probably didn't understand how sunny it gets in America.

I remembered loving the first book, but when I reread my review of it, I'd ranked it merely as "like" instead. This one is a solid "love" though. I think the difference may be that I've already been introduced to this universe and am already invested in Baz and Simon's relationship. Also, Baz has narration from the beginning this time, and as he remains my favorite character this may have been a factor. I also think that the new bad guys may have helped because while I wasn't too surprised by them and they were fairly shallow, they were less like Voldemort ripoffs than the opposition in Book One.

There will be at least one more book in this series, which is evident from the ending. While all the main plotlines from this episode get tied up, new things are introduced in the closing chapter that point toward the start of the third installment. I'm really looking forward to it.


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Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers. 

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Notes


1% Simon Snow saved the world. And is now seriously depressed. But somehow I feel worse for Baz.



5% I got a really bad feeling about this Josh guy. If nothing else, why is he dating a socially awkward teenager? Sure, she's college aged, but...

11% 'everyone in America seems to drive a military transport' Snort! Indeed.

16% Brits never do understand the size of this country.

17% Yeah, making a vampire drive across the US is ridiculously cruel.

39% OMG. A wereskunk!

45% I like Shepard. I wonder how he'll make it back into the narrative. Since he got his own POV chapter, I assume he will.

48% So, I'm guessing Braden knows Agatha is a magic user and is trying to figure out how to modify genes so that anyone can do it. Or trying to steal her abilities or magic. Or something like that.

53% Yay Shepard! Although I'm really questioning his name. It's too on the nose...

54% I can totally buy that some mountains are sleeping dragons.

81% Lamb's the King of Los Vegas. Nice. I figured he was someone impressive.

85% You know, now that we've established vampires don't usually kill their prey (at least in the US) the slaughter of several of them at the Renn Faire seems pretty awful.

86% Yes, Penny. You should totally have called your mum. You were supposed to be smart.

88% Yeah, I guess it was silly to believe Lamb didn't want to know how to cast magic. He obviously has series beef with mages. Why help rescue one?

88% Of course there are guns. It's the US. Duh.

97% They're taking Shepard home to try to cute his curse. I really hope there's going to be a Book 3 about this.

98% Cliffhanger ending. So, yeah, there will be a Book 3. Yay!

Monday, October 7, 2019

PRETTY IN PUNXSUTAWNEY by Laurie Boyle Crompton

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Rating: A big tub of perfectly buttered popcorn delivered to you at the end of an elaborate dance number starring your entire school during which you managed to get all of your steps right.

Highlight of note: It's Groundhog Day meets Pretty in Pink.

Will you read more by this author? Oh, yes!

If you loved Groundhog Day half as much as I did, you're probably on board already. You might be looking askance at the Pretty in Pink part though... I'll admit that Pretty in Pink is my least favorite John Hughes movie, even though I will admit it has aged better than Sixteen Candles. But I loved this book, so don't let that hold you back.

You don't really need to know either movie to enjoy this book. The basic concept is that Andie (it pains me to spell the name that way, but that's how she does it) has a crush on a guy who works in a movie theater. (Where he works is important because Andie is obsessed with films.) She's determined to hook up with this guy and when he offers to play her tour guide on the first day of school, it seems like the perfect chance to finally get his interest! But everything goes wrong, from the moment he picks her up in the morning until when she collapses in exhausted tears that night.

When Andie wakes up the next morning not in her bed in the pajamas she put on after her horrible no good day but on the couch where she woke up on the first day of school wearing what she was wearing then, she's more than a little confused. It soon becomes obvious that she's repeating the day.

Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, she winds up repeating a lot. Near the end, she guesses she's been reliving the same day for what would have been the entire first semester of school. Also like Bill Murray's weatherman character, she gets to know absolutely everything about her peers and her goal by the end of the ordeal is considerably different from her goal at the start.

The one unbelievable thing I found in the book was the part of the backstory that said Andie had never seen Pretty in Pink until the day before her loop starts despite the fact that she knows she was named after the main character. It's explained by her mother keeping "special" DVDs in a locked cabinet and only breaking them out when she deems it the right time. For Pretty in Pink, that day was the night before the first day of Andie's senior year of high school. But... Well, there are a lot of places to see a movie without your mom. My sister was named for the lead in a smutty romance that she was absolutely not allowed to read in middle school, but totally did. Once the parent has made the mistake of telling the offspring where their name came from, said offspring is going to find the source material. Especially if they're a film buff named for someone in a famous movie by a director whose other works she's liked. Yeah. The fact Andie hadn't seen that movie before was WAY more strain on the story's credibility than her getting caught in a time loop. The author could only have sold me on that by making the only Hughes movie Andie had seen Sixteen Candles and letting her be turned off by the racism and rapeyness in it. But she had seen his entire catalog minus the film she was named for.

Otherwise, I found little to complain about. Andie is a smart girl with a good sense of humor. She has questionable taste at times, but she learns a lot during her looping and ends in a really good place. And the love interest was pretty fantastic and easy to pull for. I didn't swoon over the guy, but that's probably because of how much he reminded me of my son. (It takes Andie too long to realize he is the love interest, though it was obvious to me from the first time I saw him. That sort of thing is common enough in romance that it didn't bug me as how one gets to the conclusion is still fun even when you know where things are going.)

The secondary characters are a little shallow, but it feels deliberate. Andie's school is overrun by cliques and many of her fellow students feel like stereotypes when introduced. We learn things about them, but it's not a long book, so we don't get too many details about anyone and I still ended up labeling them in my head as things like "cheerleader" and "goth dude" and such. Andie gets to know them, presumably more than is on paper, and starts doing things like match-making between sets as she finds herself on a crusade to make the whole school get along. So, basically, everyone around her is walking around in a John Hughes movie, but I'm okay with that because it's what makes the theme of not judging people by their aesthetics and friends groups possible.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to fans of the source materials and people who like cute teenage romances.

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Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.

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NOTES
0% I'm not a big fan of Pretty in Pink despite sharing a name with the main character. It's probably my least favorite Hughes movie, although it may have aged better than Sixteen Candles. But I worship Groundhog Day. Maybe if the chick in Pretty in Pink got to replay the movie over and over she'd wind up with Ducky instead of Bland Popular Boy and I'd like the movie more. (Note: originally Ducky did get the girl. But test audiences where dimwitted and don't know what love looks like, she they redid it to end her with boring shallow guy.)

10% Tom saying to give Duckie his best made me laugh as he's got a strong Duckie vibe going. It does not seem to have occurred to Andie (that spelling is like nails on a chalkboard) that her meetcute with Colton was also a meetcute with Tom...

11% Wait. It's the first day of her senior year of high school and she's never seen the movie she's name for before? That's really weird.

16% Waking up in the dress seems like a good reset point.

17% Yes! Andie has the same opinion about the ending of Pretty in Pink as I do! Good girl.

21% Yep, Tom is totally Ducky. I adore him. I hope the author agrees with me and misspelled Andie about who should get the girl in the end.

21% Tom is wearing "what must be his lunchtime fedora." ROFL. Yeah, this guy is awesome.

26% I want pancakes. :(

26% The idea that Punxsutawney Phil is some kind of god is pleasing to me.

35% Interesting Andie assumes the DVD is part of what's going on while I figured it was the couch. A couch that just arrived from a thrift store seems more like an enchanted object to me than a disc that's probably been viewed by the mom before even if Andie had somehow never seen it.

36% Oh, yeah, the wish... Maybe it's a wishing couch! 

38% I'm worried about Andie's dad... He seems a little more depressed each redo.

39% I hope one of the first things Andie comes to learn is that Colton is in no way worth repeated mild food poisoning.

49% Huzzah for figuring out she's not meant to be with Colton!

65% Tom just verbed Breakfast Club in the exact same way Andie has done. Why hasn't she figured out he's the love interest???

68% Why is this band in possession of a bass when no one in the band plays bass?

80% I hereby formally request that my retirement home contain an arcade and a theater room.

81% She has now learned that Ducky was supposed to get the girl. Will this help her realize she needs to hook up with Tom?

99% Absolutely adorable ending.


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The CARAVAL Trilogy by Stephanie Garber


Rating: A jewel encrusted mask straight from Venice

Highlight of note: It is actually really hard to tell what is real and what is pretend in some parts. It's very well done.

Will you read more by this author? Absolutely.

In part because I have such a large backlog of reviews, I'm going to cheat a little and give you a review of this entire series all at once. The books don't really stand alone very well, although the first one almost does. This does affect what star rating I would give if I were doing that though as I felt the first book was completely in the 5 of 5 camp but the third was more like a 4. It was a decent ending for the series and tied everything up nicely, but the first two books had me breathlessly reading every time I could grab a second and the third was easy to consign to designated reading periods. So, basically, I loved the first two and merely liked the third, which felt like a disappointment since the first two were so engaging. Overall, I do recommend the series though.

The books all revolve around a pair of sisters. Though told in third person, the first book exclusively follows the elder sister while the second one focuses entirely on the second. The third book switches between the two.

In their fantasy world, there is something called Caraval. It is run by a mysterious magical-type fellow named Legend who no one outside of Caraval employees knows what looks like, and the whole thing is fundamentally a live action role play game in an enchanted themepark. Players and observers enter a magical city filled with actors where they are given clues to try to solve a mystery before any of the other players. When you meet someone at Caraval, you don't know for certain if they are a fellow player, an observer, or an employee. Sure, they might say they're one of those things, but they may well be lying! I won't lie; I want to go to Caraval.

The winner of the game receives a prize: a wish. In book one, our lead, Scarlett, doesn't care about the wish. She cares about the fact that her sister has been kidnapped and finding her before she is executed is the object of the game. Because it's so hard to tell what's real in Caraval, Scarlett doesn't know for certain if her sister is truly in danger or not, but it seems safest to act as though she is. As a reader, I went back on forth on the issue myself, which was very exciting.

In book two, younger sister Tella takes center stage. She does care about the wish. A fortune telling deck that always speaks true has told her that her long-lost mother is in a magical prison and is going to die. So Tella goes into the topsy-turvy world of Caraval, intent on winning the wish and freeing her.

Book three ties up all the loose ends from the previous entries. It has its own plot, but I fear telling you much about it would spoil the earlier works. But know that while it was less overwhelmingly amazing than books one and two, it does end the series on a solid and satisfying note.

I found both Scarlett and Tella to be highly likable and enjoyed their love interests. The girls are presented with a series of puzzles and problems, to which they respond with intelligence and plausible emotion. The only exception I found was with a character in the first book who I was supposed to take as absolutely heinous and deplorable but found not really all that bad for the world he lived in. Was he misogynistic and entitled? Sure. But he was a noble in a patriarchy, so I felt he needed to be a little worse for me to really hate him.

This series is about discovering what is true in a world where truth can be very hard to determine. Some people are who they purport to be while others aren't, and the girls must learn to tell the difference. It's about figuring out who people really are, and also who you really are.

It's easy for me to see why this series was popular. I hope that Ms Garber follows it up with something equally entertaining.


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Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.

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Notes

CARAVAL
6% I have no idea what the Count's letter says as the bookmaker has chosen to present it in such a way that it is illegible on a Kindle. ... Nevermind. I figured out how to enlarge it. It was still very difficult to make out though. And disappointing in its lack of content considering the trouble I went to deciphering it.

7% The confession ritual, sins written on paper that the priests burn, is really neat.

8% I wonder if the mother really abandoned them or if their father murdered her. It seems plausible he's abusive out of a desire to keep the girls close, but it also seems plausible that he also beat his wife and one day went too far.

9% Claiming to be kidnapped might make the sisters safe from their father's wrath, but I'm guessing he executed whomever he blames for letting it happen. But the sister who doesn't know how easily he kills people as retribution wasn't the one to decide to do that, so I guess that's alright.

10% Julian called Scarlett "Crimson" and stated that it's the same difference when corrected. Does that mean he's the love interest?

10% Julian knows about the letters to Legend and speaks Legend's name derisively. Could he be Legend? The story said he becomes the roles he plays completely, so that means if he plays young people he'd stay young, yes? Even if he's not Legend, I'm guessing he's involved due to knowing where the mysterious island is.

11% Julian says Legend never ages. I'm really thinking it's him. The only thing that makes me hesitate is how obvious it seems.

11% Julian is WAY too interested in convincing Scarlett to go to Caraval for him not to be involved.

11% Apparently Scarlet doesn't think her dad killed her mom because he went crazy looking for her when she vanished and because he was never violent toward the girls before their mom went away. I'm not terribly sold on this though.

14% These closed hatbox-shaped shops are reminding me of Wonderland. The "Come Back Yesterday" sign and shop that advertises it will fix your daymares most of all.

19% Julian's leaning-in behavior certainly indicates love interest. He says he's played the game before but hasn't said who he really is even though he already admitted they wouldn't have invited a common sailor. He's made no attempt at explaining how he knew Scarlett would have an extra blank invitation.

27% So I'm guessing Tells wasn't really behind that door and this sort of thing is what the clock guy does with the voices he borrows.

31% I absolutely despise the cutesy decision to present the information of the card on a graphic. IT IS HARD TO READ.

34% Time passes more swiftly at Caraval because Caraval's magic is fueled by time. That is a fascinating idea!

37% The man she will marry is not what she'd call good and his fate is still being debated... This is not necessarily the count.

41% How did Julian get into the hotel in the middle of the day when it locks at dawn? Also, why is he covered in blood? But mostly the first question. Were his injuries sustained in the hotel?

49% When giving up time, always ask WHEN it will be extracted.

51% Interesting... Julian is really upset about Scarlett losing two days and is giving her a day if his life. He is really invested in her winning this thing.

53% And a vision reveals Legend's face. And... It's Julian's!

54% And now I'm questioning Julian being Legend simply because Scarlett is so convinced he is. Perhaps he's Legend's son or brother or some such. (Having a crazy ass father would be something to have in common with Scarlett.) Or the spell that changed him split him in two so the part of him that can feel emotion is Julian while the other half directs Caraval? Or maybe the vision was false?

56% I can't imagine why Legend wouldn't know Julian no matter what Julian's story is. He's admitted being involved in Caraval before. I suppose he could be hidden by magic, but it seems more likely he's lying.

56% Julian could be Rosa's brother and that would explain why he was at her funeral. Trying to keep it together could look lacking in feeling. But why wouldn't Legend recognize him?

59% oh. That was actually a really good explanation as to why Julian knew she'd have tickets. Also, I'm starting to wonder if he's the Count, but that seems like it would end too happily. And I can't think of why he bothered pretending to be a sailor if so.

6w% Her father is here? Did Legend tip him off to cause drama?

65% Her father seemed afraid as she ran away... How dangerous is this count guy? Is he going to hurt her father or does her father just think he'd protect her from Legend? Or maybe he needs money?

66% That was a truly lovely first kiss.

68% Actually, the count seems overly entitled but not all that bad. At least he's not alrights with Scarlett's dad's violence. Although he's not doing much to stop it.

70% Whelp, I'm pretty sure the count will be an ass going forward now that Scarlett's knocked him out and tied him up. He sort of reminds me of Paris from Romeo and Juliet though. Paris really wasn't a bad guy for all that Juliet didn't love him. If she'd never met Romeo, she would have probably been quite happy with him.

73% Hmm... I am really curious as to why Julian didn't jump with Scarlett.

75% Ok, so Julian is working with Legend and the whole sister thing was made up? But is he betraying Legend? Because I believe that the pocket watch really does have something helpful in it. He stole it for a reason, but I don't know what it does... It may actually have the information he said it did.

75% Ah. A spell kept Julian from telling the truth. And now he's been stabbed in the chest. That doesn't sound good for his health. Will her wish be used to revive him? (Assuming she actually gets one and that wasn't a lie...)

84% Well, shit. Tells just fell to her death? Is this book dark enough for deaths to remain real or is there some hope not all of this is real?

84% Wait... Time twisting watch? So this can be undone...

85% Loving the standing up to her bully father scene. It occurs to me that maybe Legend is actually trying to help her and all the stuff about wanting revenge was a charade to lead to this empowerment.

87% The Legend we've seen is just someone playing Legend. Very interesting.

89% Tella isn't dead. And no one used a wish for it.

89% Or apparently Scarlett did wish for it but the effect wasn't immediate?

89% Tella gave her father tickets! And killed herself trusting her sister to revive her so that he'd never try to hunt her down. Daaaaaamn.

90% Julian's not really dead! But there's something in the story that's hard to tell...

91% I actually rather like that Scarlett made the final choice about her count thinking Julian wasn't an option, but, yeah, making her watch him die was harsh.

91% I mean, I assume Scarlett will be at the next game since this is the opening of a series.

93% Julian has Legend's last name. Could he be him after all?

93% He's not. So why the same name? Brother? Or  son?

94% Brother. But under a spell not to tell.

95% OMG. That makeup kiss was amazing.

96% And we end with a promise of finding out what happened to the girls' mother.

THE END
That was awesome.


LEGENDARY
5% It should be fun trying to figure out who this mysterious friend is. And the oracle card is really interesting.

7% The Fates were banished right around when Caraval started? Is there a correlation?

8% Oh. The Count from the last book was really an actor. But there actually IS a fiance count out there somewhere... The magic card implies he's a bad person. I can't help but think keeping this secret is going to bight Julian in the ass though.

11% So did Tella see wings on Dante because she's delirious or because he's been hiding wings? Oh, wait, they're tattoos... I've been watching too much Lucifer.

13% Wait. It's been centuries since the Fates vanished? I thought they were banished much more recently.

16% I'm very curious how everyone got so far ahead of Tella. I'm wondering if she took the wrong gondola and when the noble told her she needs to take a different one he was being truthful rather than snobbish.

18% So mysterious heir... Could be the guy from the gondola. Could be Scarlett's Count. Could be Dante. Could be part of the game since we already know it starts earlier than it claims to and between being alseep and having half the cast on the other boat, Tella doesn't know most of the actors. There's a decent chance the gossiping servants are all thespians... Moy interesante!

21% So Dante isn't the heir. He's at least pretending to be sorry he made up the story that Tella is the heir's fiance. I'm also not sure if he's supposed to be courting her or simply likes her.

24% The heir is the guy from the gondola. His name is Jacks. No idea yet if he's real or an actor.

25% The heir is also the mysterious friend! That's fantastic!

28% Jacks is one of the Fates. Unless he's an actor. But this Caraval is supposedly real, whatever that means... This is intense! Tella is either his true love or is now doomed by his kiss.

35% I liked Dante in the last book, but I'm really loving him now. We are doing a "are they acting?" romance two books in a row, but the girl knows it the whole time this go around so I guess that makes it different.

47% My interpretation of what Nigel said is simply that the first person she sees if she wins will be Legend, not that this will necessarily be their first meeting like she is assuming nor that he'll say he's Legend.

52% Isn't Tella's last memory of her mother seeing her imprisoned on the card?

5?% How did Dante know where to find Tella? Or that she was in danger?

59% Dante just called Julian brother. Julian is Legend's brother. So either there's three of them or one of the love interests is Legend. My money's on Dante. I was thinking this earlier, but don't remember why.

74% If Dante really joined Caraval before it was truly Caraval, that does imply he's either Legend or as old as Legend... I'm really starting to think he may be Legend. Although I suppose it's possible he's just playing him.

77% What is Scarlett up to???

78% Jacks's heart is beating. That's interesting.

80% Crazy theory: Paradise offered her 2nd born child to the temple because she didn't actually give birth to one of her daughters. That daughter is Elantine's missing child.

84% Dante is Legend. Possibly/probably for real even.

88% The Empress's missing child has returned. And is a he. I wonder if we know him... Although I agree with Tella that it sounds hinky.

91% The Empress has died. We're about to see who the new heir is... Is it too insane to wonder if it's Legend?

92% Yep, Legend is the new Emperor!

92% THE END
Nice note. I wonder what prize Tella will demand. I wonder what will happen when her mother wakes up. I wonder if Scarlett's Count is really evil or dull, because I agree with Tella that he's probably one of the two based on his overly polite letters.


FINALE
3% Hmm... I wonder what the prize is that Legend wants Tella to claim it so badly. Or does he just want to see her? I remain convinced he actually is in love with her, so that could be the driving factor. Perhaps I'm a silly romantic thoigh and there's something more decios to it 

10% I can't tell if Julian's timing is very good or very bad. I don't think I believe he didn't know she was to meet Nicholas today. I think he was trying to wait until she had to pop up again but freaked out at the last minute.

13% This game for her hand in marriage is uncharacteristically silly. She loves Julian and he's said all the right things. And she never asked him why he was gone for so long.

15% Threatening that family's life was shitty, but Poison did Scarlett and Julian a favor making them be honest to each other. And in interested in this crystal key. I wonder what it's for.

19% Well, I guess that's one Fate down, although he'll only stay that way if that dagger is enchanted. The mother was interesting though. Wish she'd lived longer. Maybe she won't stay dead either.

35% I appreciate that the letters are presented as text rather than graphics in this book.

38% Kidnapped by people working for her father is bad... I hope Scarlet can find a keyhole soon.

40% I'm still not entirely sold that the whole immortals can't love thing is entirely accurate.

42% Scarlet has woken up somewhere that doesn't look like her dad's style. New theory: she's the child of Mom's boyfriend, the Fallen Star.

43% I was right.

45% So would PATERNAL love work to make this guy mortal enough to kill?

56% Not a very shocking secret. I'd figured it out a while ago.

70% Yeah, I did wonder what she was saying. Marriage vows. Should have figured.

74% What is it with people clearly loving Donatella and insisting they're incapable of love? Both Jacks and Legend are making hide sacrifices for her while swearing what they feel isn't really love.

86% Wait.  If a Fate tries to kill the Fallen Star they'll die? Isn't the main reason half of these people are helping so that they have the option of dying?

THE END
And apparently I didn't take any notes on the ending... I'm not sure what to make of that. I finished this long enough ago that I no longer remember my initial impression. I do remember I stayed up late, so I guess I was too tired to say anything?