Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book written for National Novel Writing Month
Legends & Lattes, by Travis Baldree
The tagline is "A novel of high fantasy and low stakes." Viv, an orc fighter, gives up adventuring to open a coffee shop in a city where no one has heard of coffee. The fate of the world is not at issue, and the problems Viv encounters are about setting up a business, bringing in customers, and finding her place in the community. Yet the story is engaging, and I was rooting for Viv, especially when her friendship with her barista Tandri gradually blossomed into love.
The author goes against expectations with the casting as well. Orcs and succubi are usually portrayed as evil in Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy stories; in this one, they're the heroines. The villain is an elf.
I'd advise against reading this book while hungry. Viv's baker, a ratkin (think Rodent of Unusual Size), creates pastries that are described in delectable detail. Entirely fitting for a sweet and wholesome book.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book about or set in Hollywood
Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood, by Maureen Ryan
Burn It Down shines a harsh light on how Hollywood gets a pass on all the normal rules for an acceptable workplace, and how little has changed despite decades of the same issues being raised.
Ryan pokes at some of the myths that Hollywood runs on, including the myth of “necessary monsters” and “toxic creativity.” Someone powerful and successful can get away with verbal abuse, harassment, screaming and throwing things, and demanding that underlings do anything from giving massages to picking up drugs for them. Some hide behind excuses about how this bullying is “part of their creative process.” There’s no way to guess how many people have been driven out of the industry because their own creative process requires being treated like a human being.
Aside from a few high-profile takedowns of the worst offenders, #MeToo hasn’t made nearly as much headway as one might think after seeing endless articles suggesting “Has #MeToo gone too far?” (Not coincidentally, many of the same media outlets running those articles had their own #MeToo scandals.) If a studio has any process to deal with harassment, it’s mostly focused on making the victim go away.
The problems are structural. When the gatekeepers are mostly white men, the stories they tell will mostly be about white men, and the aspiring writers/directors/etc with the connections to get hired will mostly be white men. Too often, “diversity and inclusion” has meant one woman and/or POC being the only one in the writers’ room or the cast, with that person not feeling safe (and often not being safe) speaking up about anything problematic.
In discussing solutions, Ryan references Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s book On Repentance and Repair, and the Al Capone Theory of Harassment, both of which I’ve written about before. In addition to Ruttenberg, Ryan spoke with a therapist who works with convicted sex offenders, and with a screenwriter who used restorative justice after her own experience with sexual assault. The solutions they discuss are unsurprising: meaningfully vet people hired into positions of power, quit making excuses for harassers, don’t retaliate against people who report problems, get unions involved when needed. The book was written before the recent writers’ & actors’ strikes, but it’s nice to see unions fighting for their people.
An occasional frustration with the book is that she was given a lot of information off the record, so she'll mention some unnamed person in the industry who would "say horrible things" or "act abusively," but it's unclear what they did or how bad it was.
One of the many anonymous stories Ryan quotes involved a director who had his budget padded in anticipation of payoffs to women he would harass. As Ryan notes, a well-run , respectful workplace is not only healthier for everyone — it’s also more cost-effective. Waiting to see if the studios ever figure that out.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book published in the second half of 2023
Skate the Seeker, by Jeff Ayers
This is the sequel to Skate the Thief (reviewed here for last year's challenge). It's a series that needs to be read in order. Skate leaves the familiar city on a desperate cross-country journey to rescue Skate's wizard mentor, Bellamy. She's accompanied by her friends Twitch (fellow underage thief), Petre (guy trapped in a glass globe) and Rattle (a sort of bat-spider creature created by magic, who does scouting with its giant eyeball and makes great pancakes).
They make friends and enemies along the way - and there are twists where a seeming enemy turns out to be a friend, and vice versa. (Curiously, this is the third book I've read recently with a good-hearted prince who doesn't really believe in monarchy.) This book has a darker feel than the first one, with some scary moments. Skate and friends battle on, with courage and persistence.
As with the first book, this one wraps up its main plot in a satisfying way, and opens a door in the final chapter to set up the next book. The hints are there throughout the book, but only come clear at the end.
#Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book by a first-time author
The Captain and the King, by Jack Champlin
This novel had its genesis in a true story: the strange odyssey of the statue of Hawaii's King Kamehaha. The statue was created in Germany, then transported by ship in 1880, only to have the ship catch fire and sink near the Falkland Islands. A second statue was commissioned, and is now prominently displayed in Honolulu. Meanwhile, the original statue was salvaged and brought to Hawaii, where it was restored and given a place of honor near Kamehameha's birthplace on the Big Island.
From these threads, the author weaves a tale imagining the life of the ship's captain, Gerhard Schrock. The narrative follows him through hazards on the sea, the ship's final sinking, and a tribunal in the Falklands to determine if he was at fault. In the final section, Schrock is building a new life for himself in Hawaii and falling in love. He finds himself in the middle of a supernatural struggle between two kahunas, one with an ancient grudge against Kamehameha's family, the other trying to restore the statue with Kamehameha's mana (spirit) to its rightful place. Both claim to have been present in spirit at the sinking of the ship, and Schrock, who was raised to pride himself on being rational, keeps encountering the inexplicable.
Having seen the statue in person, it really does have the kind of presence that can inspire a story of mystery and adventure.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book with the main character's name in the title
Armadale, by Wilkie Collins
This book has five, count 'em, five characters named Allan Armadale.
It's not as confusing as it sounds. The original Allan Armadale is already dead at the start of the story, and his son and godson both die early in the book, after a murderous feud over the woman they both wanted. The story is about the third generation of Allan Armadales, one of whom ran away from an abusive stepfather and changed his name to Ozias Midwinter.
The one who still goes by Allan is a good-natured and a slightly dim gentleman, mostly interested in sailing. He's very protective of his gloomy new friend Midwinter, despite the latter being tight-lipped about his own background. Midwinter is curious about their shared name, but doesn't tell Allan about it. At age 21, he receives a letter written on his father's deathbed years earlier, describing the family's deadly history and warning him to stay away from his namesake.
The other major player in this drama is Lydia Gwilt, who was a child when she helped Allan's mother elope wit the "wrong" Armadale. Years later, she first tries to blackmail Allan's mother, then comes up with a Hitchcock-worthy scheme to marry one Allan Armadale and murder the other. Only....could she be falling in love?
As with many Collins books, this one gives us several points of view, including letters between the characters, and a highly incriminating diary kept by Lydia. We see her doubts, talking herself into and out of the murder plot. Collins has a knack for making his characters believable even in wildly melodramatic situations, including a uniquely innovative murder weapon. And the ride-or-die friendship between Allan and Midwinter makes both characters a pleasure to read - even while Allan remains oblivious to how literal that "ride or die" issue is.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book about a forbidden love
The Stealth Lovers, by Cait Gordon
This book is the prequel to Cait Gordon's hilarious space opera, Life in the 'Cosm. In the latter book, Viv and Xax are side characters, gay reptilian hairdressers who informally adopt Virj, and who turn out to be badass warriors when danger threatens.
The Stealth Lovers is Xax and Viv's story, starting from their time as young army recruits. Viv is a closet case from an aristocratic family; Xax is flamboyantly gay, and king of the witty wisecrack. Together they become an unstoppable fighting team known as "The Stealth," with an equally unstoppable love for each other. The dialogue is very funny and witty, and the love story has real warmth.
Although their world is quite alien, their army sounds a lot like ours: officially tolerant of LGBT members, but subjecting them to hostility and hidden indignities. Denied the chance to legally marry or have children, it becomes clear why it's so important to them to be father figures for Virj (who appears only in the epilogue).
The books can be read in either order - they're hilarious as stand-alones or together.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book you wish you could read again for the first time
Red, White, & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston
I don't have a lot to add to last year's review of this book. I enjoyed it so much that it was an easy pick for the reread category this year. On a second read, I decided the point of Alex drinking so much was that he was using it avoid facing the depth of his feelings for Henry. Still could have used less of it.
Another of the pleasures of rereading: I could see how carefully the dominoes of the plot were lined up. A twist in the election subplot led to an unplanned meeting between Henry & Alex under risky circumstances. Which led to complications, and the risk of getting exposed. Their attempts to cover it up led to more complications, which led to....a satisfying ending that grew believably out of the characters' actions.
The Amazon Prime movie version was pretty good, though it had to simplify a lot. As the director noted, it was a 12-hour audiobook, which somehow had to fit into a 2-hour movie. Some of my favorite characters got cut altogether (including Alex's sister June), and others got reduced roles. But the core of the story - the love story between Alex & Henry - was captured beautifully, from the wedding-cake disaster all the way to happily ever after.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book with a color in the title
Red Darkling, by L. A. Guettler
Red Darkling is a rollicking space opera adventure with a colorful, sometimes dark sense of humor. Red (short for Mildred, of all things) is a smuggler, petty thief and general delinquent with a banged-up spaceship. She battles giant bugs, human-eating monsters, and sinister gangsters.
Other characters include Chuck, a bartender who exists in multiple bars simultaneously; Bonk, a glitchy robo-cat; and Woodman, a narcissistic but very hot colleague, with whom Red has an on-and-off relationship.
There's one especially dark point where Red's juvenile-delinquent shenanigans lead to a deadly tragedy - which Red takes surprisingly well.
Red's down-on-her-luck life takes a strange twist years later, when a mysterious benefactor keeps rescuing her - and claims all he wants is her friendship. Who is he really, and what's he after? Red's determined to find out - but first, she needs another drink.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book with a pet character
Plum Spooky, by Janet Evanovich
This long-running comedy/mystery series chronicles the adventures of Stephanie Plum, a bounty hunter who always seems to be attempting an arrest under ridiculous circumstances, like the middle of a food fight. My favorite part of the series is the love triangle between Stephanie, bad-boy cop Joe Morelli, and even-badder-boy bounty hunter Ranger. In the "between the numbers" books, including this one, Morelli and Joe take a back seat to the mysterious Diesel, who may or may not have supernatural powers.
Stephanie is looking for an escaped felon who's a tech genius. Diesel is looking for the felon's partner, an alleged vampire named Wulf who is also Diesel's cousin. The search takes them into the Pine Barrens, a creepy forested area that's a change of pace from the usual Trenton setting. There's at least one destroyed car (I have no idea how Stephanie still has insurance), a ridiculous personal problem for Stephanie's partner Lula (she appears to be allergic to her boyfriend), and considerably more gross-out humor than usual for this series.
All Stephanie Plum books include Stephanie's long-lived pet hamster Rex, and Morelli's omnivorous dog Bob, though they usually don't do much. This book also has Stephanie finding a monkey on her doorstep, with a note from a former arrestee asking her to babysit. Carl turns out to be a very smart monkey, able to play video games, flip people off when appropriate, and do at least one timely rescue. And, after the aforementioned destroyed car, Stephanie has to call Ranger and explain that she's locked out of the new car he loaned her - because it's full of monkeys and they won't let her in.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book that started as fan fiction
Accusing Mr. Darcy, by Kelly Miller
Pride and Prejudice as a mystery/thriller? It's a curious combination.
Kelly Miller has written several variations on Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth Bennet and FitzWilliam Darcy meet under different circumstances. This one has an almost entirely different cast of characters, as Elizabeth's mother died young in the version, and her only family consists of her father and sister Jane, who are mostly offstage. Elizabeth and Darcy are spending a month at a "house party" thrown by mutual friends - but a killer is stalking women in the area, and he's zeroed in on Elizabeth.
The mystery plot wasn't bad, but there were a couple of places where I couldn't suspend disbelief. For instance, when the detectives identify a suspect, he's ordered confined to his room - in the same house where Elizabeth is still staying!
The author did capture the personalities of Elizabeth and Darcy well, and the journey from their initial dislike to true love. And the way Darcy screwed up the first proposal was very Austen.