“…the carefree scoundrel and the sensitive spinster…” – The Lady Travelers Guide to Scoundrels and Other Gentlemen by Victoria Alexander

My not so bad habit of judging a book by it’s cover had me snatching this book up at the local drugstore where it has languished in my TBR pile for a few years. I was always going to get to it, but the library prevailed.

With no library access and after finishing the last three books that I had checked out, I finally cracked it open. Turns out, it was just the right amount of intrigue, witty banter and smoldering looks to keep me focused on reading while out of sorts and quarantine-antsy.

When independent and tightly wound India Prendergast (who is in no way as exotic as her name) stops receiving letters from her cousin Heloise who is travelling abroad, she sets out to find her. Blaming Heloise’s disappearance on the agency that supposedly arranged her travel, India is on a mission to expose the “The Lady Travellers Society” as a fraudulent enterprise that pilfers monies from unsuspecting ladies and leaves them to flounder in foreign climes.

Run by a handful of eccentric wealthy widows, The Lady Travellers Society has also recently become the pet project of founding member’s young nephew. Seeking to redeem his past scandalous behavior and prove to his Uncle that he can handle the responsibility of his inheritance, Derek Saunders sets out to Paris to retrieve Heloise, save the reputation of his aunt and solidify his newfound maturity. India, however, insists on joining him on his journey. I’m sure you can guess what happens next.

Victorian-era London and Paris backdrop the “will they, won’t they” here. Clueless guardians, flirty step brothers, missing luggage, questionable attire and heaps of misunderstanding keep the story afloat nicely. While it could be a wee bit shorter, I enjoyed the book. The ending did get a little more comedy of errors than was necessary, but it was a pretty solid historical romance with just the right amount of cheek. I like these kinds of books to be sassy and it delivered.

This is the first in a 4 book series, so there is something else to look forward to.

Check out Cannonball Read 12. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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“It is only unnatural in the sense that there are human beings who can do this sort of thing to other human beings.” – Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse

I am woefully behind in both reading and reviewing. It is taking me FOREVER to read these days and when it takes weeks to read something I have zero interest in reviewing it right away. So, here I am, ages after reading this book, trying to come up with 250 words to say about it. KimMiE posted a great review in February, and I strongly suggest skipping this and just reading hers. Seriously.

No stranger to Sherlock Holmes re-tellings, I have often mentioned in other reviews how much I enjoy them more than the source material. Doyle built a house with good bones but then filled most of the rooms with unnecessary furniture. Other authors have just written it better. Riffing off of Doyle’s hyper-intelligent, slightly off kilter detective with mad deduction skills has resulted in some very good books. The Lady Sherlock series by Sherry Thomas and Alexis Hall’s The Affair of the Mysterious Letter come to mind immediately.

Imagine my surprise when I kept reading about Kareem Abdul-Jabar’s foray into the wonderful world of Sherlockian storytelling. A man who I initially thought was one of the Harlem Globetrotters (because the entire scope of my basketball knowledge begins and ends with Scooby Doo episodes) co-wrote a novel centering on Sherlock’s brother Mycroft? I had to check it out. (Turns out he WASN’T a Globetrotter but he WAS in a Scooby Doo movie so there’s that.)

Sherlock is only briefly touched upon in this first book in the series. It’s Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft, who is using his super sleuthing skills here. Mycroft’s fiance, Georgiana, leaves London for her family’s plantation in Trinidad after several strange child murders occur on the island. Worried for her safety, Mycroft enlists his friend Cyrus Douglas, who was born in Trinidad, to help him find her. What follows is an engaging story full of seasickness, onboard thugs, secret Chinese societies, and lots of fisticuffs. Shenanigans aside, the plot circles around a very ugly business that gives Mycroft a long hard look at his societal peers and brings his own privilege into stark relief.

Fleshing out Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft, who is often presented as a stuffy government bureaucrat as far as I can remember, was a new angle that I appreciated. Getting the tiniest glimpses of young Sherlock under Mycroft’s tutelage was interesting as well. Honestly, though, I found this novel’s “Watson”, Cyrus Douglas, to be more intriguing. Here, Douglas was not just used as a foil like so many “Watson’s” before him. His outspoken exasperation when Mycroft pontificates was a refreshing change from his predecessors. I didn’t have to eye roll on my own. Douglas was right there with me.

Check out Cannonball Read 12. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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“…friendship is hard to define.” – Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane

This was the March pick for my book club. We were set to meet as the stay at home orders started so we obviously didn’t get to discuss it. A member of the club pointed out the irony of having read a book about reconnecting and friendship just as we were holing up in our homes. Seems like a lifetime ago.

Kane’s novel is about the self imposed isolation of a middle aged woman who moved back home over a decade ago to help her father take care of her mother as she died. While May talks with co-workers, neighbors and the owner of a favorite local restaurant, she worries that she doesn’t fully engage. Haunted by her mother’s own withdrawal from life, she wonders if she is predestined to do the same.

After stumbling upon a stranger’s online obituary, May becomes fascinated by the deluge of comments about a woman that was universally beloved. Would anyone say anything that lovely about her? Does anyone even know her well enough to do so? Is it too late to prevent herself from following her mother’s path?

When she is given leave from work, May begins a journey to visit four women from her life; two friends from elementary and middle school, one from college and one from graduate school. She moves into guest rooms in Connecticut, Seattle, New York and London. Consulting her good manners book and striving to be a gracious guest, she also studies her hosts and their different ways of accommodating visitors into their lives. Without emails or text messages or Instagram to hide behind, they can’t curate a perfect life. Like an awkward middle school dance at first, guest and host eventually settle in. Tucking into wine after the kids are in bed, May and her friends revisit their childhoods and begin to know each other as grown adults.

This is a moody little book about changing course. There is no giant a-ha moment here. Kane doesn’t concoct an elaborate upending of May’s life or have her miraculously turn into someone she isn’t. It’s more about how curiosity and self reflection can shift us just enough to find a little happiness.

It’s hard not to take into account what is going on in the world right now and directly apply it to this novel. Social media can make us feel inadequate (learn a language! take online exercise classes! start a new hobby! dress up every day and put on full makeup! make a James Beard level dinner with what you have in your pantry!) while at the same time offering us some level of connection as physical contact is curtailed. Maybe our new normal can include a little more honesty and forgiveness? We would all be a little better off reaching out rather than lurking virtually.

Check out Cannonball Read 12. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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“What a lovely creature you are.” – The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

This is a hard book to review or it may be that this is a hard time for me to write a review. I thought that reading would be a refuge for me as we self isolate but concentrating enough to fall into a story hasn’t been easy for me. Oddly, I’m leaning more towards exercise, of all things, stress cleaning, playing Wordscapes and Scrabble on my phone and making meal plans based on the miscellaneous foodstuffs in my house. BUT…if there ever was a story to fall into, this one is it.

Set in the 1850’s, the story follows a sort of mercenary botanist, Merrick Tremayne, as he treks to Peru to steal cuttings of cinchona trees for the East India Trading Company. Cinchona bark is used in making quinine, the only treatment for malaria, and the government in Peru guards the remaining trees to protect their monopoly.

Travelling the same path as his grandfather and father before him, Tremayne finds himself in a hospital colony high up in the Andes mountains. Bedlam is a village full of bioluminescent pollen, rock beds strewn with obsidian, a mysterious disappearing priest and strange religious statues that seem to have a life of their own.

Pulley’s novel skirts several genres: mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction. Unless I am reading too much into it, it also harbors a love story or at the very least a fierce friendship that spans generations. It’s a slow read, but not because it’s boring. The best word to describe it would be languid. The characters are richly drawn and unique. I wouldn’t mind spending time with them again in another story.

There is also a not so subtle nod to the evils of colonization which yielded a particularly clever sentence that made me snort laugh with glee (something desperately needed these days):

” It’s a miracle, actually; sickly prematurely aging worryingly inbred horsey idiots have managed to convince everyone else their way is best by no other means than firmness of manner and the tactical distribution of flags.”

Check out Cannonball Read 12. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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“Her chatty and nervous daughter, and the quiet, thoughtful person she paid to love her.” – Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Reid’s debut novel definitely got a lot of advance press. Everyone was buzzing about it. For the most part, everything that I read highlighted the same plot point: The young black babysitter of a white little girl is detained and interrogated in a grocery store by a security guard because what-on-earth-would-a-little-white-girl-be-doing-under-the-care-of-a-black-woman-dressed-in-night club-attire-at-that-hour. Is the book about this incident? Yes, in part, but it is just an unfortunately recognizable incident that becomes a gateway to so much more.

Emira is a bit adrift after graduating from college. Her friends have already started advancing in their careers while she is working two part time jobs and living month to month. As her 25th birthday approaches along with the looming loss of her parents’ medical insurance coverage, she begins to worry a little about her future. From a family of people who all found a certain and perfect “calling,” Emira wonders if she will ever find hers.

One of Emira’s employers, the Chamberlain family, have hired her to watch their older daughter, three year-old Briar, several days a week. Briar’s father, Peter, is a television news anchor and her mother, Alix, has created her own successful motivational “brand” promoting female empowerment. Alix dotes on her infant daughter but Briar, however, is an enigma to her. Smart, articulate and curious, Briar looks at the world a little differently than her mother would like. Her inquisitiveness is mistaken for awkwardness; her curiosity for rudeness.

There is and will be a lot of warranted discussion about how Reid masterfully sends up white privilege and liberal guilt in this novel. I don’t need to add my voice to that discussion. For me, the beating heart of this book is what happens between Emira and Briar. Their relationship is exquisite. As both of them struggle with the expectations of others, they find a comfortable place of acceptance with each other. Emira takes Briar as she is; ever patient with her constant stream of questions. While Emira’s friends, family and boyfriend all push her to find a career path, Briar demands nothing more from her the attention and recognition that she doesn’t receive from her own mother.

Honestly, a lot of this novel is about identity. How we define ourselves and how others try to define us. How some people choose to craft their own narrative whether or not it is a truthful one. How, sometimes, we meet someone who can see us as we are when we need them to.

Check out Cannonball Read 12. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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“A theater for my unquiet mind.” – The Woman In The Window by A.J. Finn

My mother is a reader but unfortunately it is rare for us to share a book that we both enjoy. Occasionally though, we hit upon one that pleases us both. She tends to think that the books that I read are “weird” so she didn’t hesitate to recommend this one to me. After reading loads of similar sounding books and suffering from Gone Girl burnout, I was wary.

I have a love/hate thing with books that I KNOW have some kind of twist and/or unreliable narrators that are trying solve some kind of mystery. The thrill of reading between the lines to get at the REAL story or figure out the culprit is exciting but sometimes overshadows just experiencing the book. I bring it on myself, to be sure, but waving the cobwebs of deceit out of the way and eye-rolling the obvious because it is, well, obvious, is too enticing sometimes. It can also get a little exhausting.

Loads of Cannonballers have already reviewed this book. I’m not going to spoil the plot by spilling the beans here, but suffice it to say that some of the shenanigans in this book were surprising to me in a non-anger inducing way. I loved that about it.

In a very Rear Window situation, a former child psychiatrist, Anna Fox, has been traumatized both physically and mentally by some sort of unnamed occurrence and is now tethered to her Harlem brownstone. Crippled with agoraphobia, she self medicates, plays online chess, assists other agoraphobics in online chat rooms, and watches endless old movies. With all of this activity, she still finds time to spy on her neighbors through her windows via a camera lens. Of course, she sees something terrible that she is unable to stop. She is also unable to get anyone to believe that it happened. In a foggy haze of Merlot, pills, she said and they said, the story winds and unwinds around Dr. Fox, her neighbors, and the local police.

This could easily be just another in a long string of unreliable, traumatized and often inebriated female protagonists, but somehow it’s not. Finn’s Anna Fox is whip smart and appears wise beyond her 30-something years. She is very articulate about, and often painfully self aware of, her downward spiral. Instead of relying fully on deceit here, Finn has created a flawed but genuine person going through something unspeakable.

Even though I did spend a lot of time trying to super sleuth the shenanigans in the book, most of it was spent joyously deep diving into the story. It’s a page turner!

Check out Cannonball Read 12. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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“…another man and what he wanted from me was the last thing I needed .” – Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

This was a popular CBR11 book and I mostly agree with everyone’s previous reviews. It is a truthful, funny, and often cringe-inducing look at a young woman in crisis.

Queenie is 25 years old, uninspired by her job, and going through what she thinks is a temporary rough patch in her relationship with her live-in boyfriend, Tom. As Queenie gradually becomes aware that Tom is pulling further away from her, she begins seeking solace and affirmation in all of the wrong places. The lingering instability of a childhood laced with abandonment and violence makes her easily persuaded by men to be what they want her to be rather than who she is.

The story is related almost entirely by Queenie who is often self-unaware and wildly incapable of reading other people’s motivations. While the intentions of the men around her are made very clear through their actions and dialogue, there are several wonderfully drawn female characters who have her back. It is through those women that you really get a sense of who Queenie is outside of her own head.

A lot has been said about the graphic sex and sexual violence in this book. I found it necessary to the plot and not at all gratuitous. What was more jarring to me was the tone of the book. Queenie’s humorous and conversational voice is emotionally disconnected, making for uneasy read. It’s uncomfortable watching someone make the same terrible decisions again and again. Which, in the end, was exactly the point.

Check out Cannonball Read 12. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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“Ye’ll maybe find a use for yourself.” – Seven Stones to Stand or Fall by Diana Gabaldon

Many of the book series that I enjoy have novellas or short stories available electronically. I’m not a Kindle person so I generally end up missing out on these smaller literary nuggets that explore secondary characters or flesh out backstories.

I bought this when it was published over two years ago, but allowed it to languish on my TBR pile until now. Outlander books take preparation. They are heavy tomes and I need to be ready to brew a cup of tea and snuggle up for a while. The dive into Jamie and Claire’s universe is a deep one.

By now, most everyone has heard about Diana Gabaldon’s sexy time-traveling historical fiction series. I began reading them in the late 1990’s at the advice of a friend and have not looked back. While waiting for the new season of the Starz series to start next month, now was as good a time as any to finally crack it open.

The stories take place before, during, and after the events in the Outlander novels. All of them are tied to the Outlander-verse and carry with them the overarching theme of purpose. Some characters are attempting to heed a spiritual or mystical calling while others struggle to redefine themselves after devastating loss. This loose theme tied the stories together for me in a way that has me thinking about the novels a little differently.

In the end, I re-visited some characters that I adore. Meeting Jamie and Ian as young men was a treat. I learned to actually appreciate Lord John’s brother Hal via his atrocious first wife and FANTASTIC second wife. While I have yet to be able to get into any of the Lord John books, his bit here was wonderfully off the beaten path (zombies!). The origin story of “wee” Roger and the loss of his parents was heartbreaking and sadly perfect. Once again, I marveled at the fact that Laoghaire actually gave birth to daughters who became such amazing people. Jamie’s influence, right?

I MISSED these books. The eighth book in the series, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, was published over five years ago. (Too long, Diana. TOO LONG.) I enjoy the show, but it will never be as engrossing as its source material.

If you haven’t already read these but have read the novels, what are you waiting for? The stories are not listed in chronological order, but there is a preface that lists them alongside the novels in the order that they take place. I highly recommend that you read them in that order rather than the order they are presented in the book.

If you have yet to crack open an Outlander book and time-travel, fantasy, romance or historical fiction appeal to you, get on it! Just buy this book as well and read the novellas in chronological order with the books. I envy you first-timers!

Check out Cannonball Read 12. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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“Have you lost your mind? Experienced religion? Or any other dreadful thing?” – Louisa May Alcott’s Christmas Treasury by Louisa May Alcott

I love Christmas. As my kid says, there are more holiday songs on my “Holly Jolly” play list than there are days in the year. I bake an insane number of cookies and start watching Christmas movies in November. Yep, I am one of those people and I’m not sorry about it.

When I was around 9, I got a paperback anthology of Christmas stories. To keep myself occupied until everyone else woke up on Christmas morning (I was the only kid in the house at the time), I would read this little book cover to cover. Sadly, my copy of that book is long gone. I only remember a handful of the stories inside it but not the title of the collection so tracking it down online has proven fruitless. Maybe I’ll find it someday.

In the meantime, I did a little search of Christmas classics and found this book to tide me over. With the new Amazon Prime and Greta Gerwig Little Women adaptations floating around, Ms. Alcott has been on my mind so I took a chance on her Christmas stories being just the ticket for this time of year. I was looking for a comfy couch, cup of Earl Grey, seasonal twinkle lights turned on kind of book to round out the season. For the most part, this little book delivered.

Like all the good holiday classics, the twenty stories here tend to lean heavily on the joy of giving rather than receiving. While the majority deal with the “haves” lending a hand to the ill and impoverished “have nots”, some are better at breaking away from the emblematic “person with surfeit of food, clothing, toys and holiday decorations gives to the needy.” A very moving story set in a Civil War hospital as well as a tender tale about the unspoken longtime love between a landlady and her bachelor tenant round out the more conventional narratives.

This is considered a book for children and so is a bit more tempered than, say, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. However, Alcott is most definitely making a social justice point or two albeit in a 19th century mostly about white folks kind of way. I sometimes have a little trouble swallowing the “self sacrifice” of the wealthy giving to the poor in these kinds of traditional holiday stories. The clueless rosy cheeked well fed kid lounging by a cozy fire is not exactly a candidate for sainthood for giving the freezing kid on the front stoop a pair of used mittens and some Christmas pudding. But, I digress. What I did appreciate was the fact that Alcott poked a little fun at the cluelessness of the wealthier characters in a way that was super cheeky. It was those little moments sprinkled here and there between the very earnest Christmas messages that really spoke to me. Alcott, it turns out, is pretty damn funny.

All in all a great way to end the year and CBR11. Have a great holiday however and wherever you celebrate, crazy Cannonballers! See you next year.

Check out Cannonball Read 11. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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“It’s why you jump in the first place..” – The Upside of Falling Down by Rebekah Crane

The plot of Crane’s young adult novel sounded intriguing when my book club picked it for our last book of the year. Young woman is the lone survivor of a plane crash in Ireland. Suffering from amnesia, she finds herself struggling to recall anything about who she is. Enter handsome, slightly ruffled blue-eyed Irish-accented stranger. I know, I know. In my defense, I was hopeful that the whole true identity situation would bear some satisfying fruit from the plot tree. Sadly, it did not.

I’m not a reader who is generally hung up on genre. I dabble in YA, romance, fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction with equal affection. A well-written book is a well-written book. While I can sometimes get so involved in a story line that I forgive some pretty mediocre writing (looking at you Twilight series), a novel needs to at least have a riveting plot. Give me a situation that I want to follow and I’m invested. I’ll just breeze by the repetitive use of words like “preternatural” to get to the good parts.

This particular book didn’t hook me enough to overlook its flaws. While not completely predictable, I did find myself unraveling bits of the “twist” fairly early on. Certain elements of the story were wearily repetitive and honestly, a smidge insulting to the reader. The over simplification in some YA really rubs me the wrong way so that may be just my own sore spot getting poked. However, in the end, it was the naval gazing of the main character that did me in. She was insufferable.

I get that the book is YA, but so much really, really good YA is out there ripe for the picking. After Rainbow Rowell, in particular, the bar is set very high. In the end, this story was something that I would have much preferred to watch than read. Put this on Netflix and I’m grabbing the popcorn.

Check out Cannonball Read 11. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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