Tuesday, 21 July 2015

#CBR7 Book 77: "Heart of Iron" by Bec McMaster

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book 2 in this series, and as such, this review will contain certain spoilers for the plot of book 1, Kiss of Steel. My review for this book also explains quite a lot about the setting and world-building for this series, so you may want to read/re-read that one first, to remind yourself of the world these books take place in . Or just, you know, read the first book. This review will still be here when you're done. 

William Carver is one of the few verwulfen left in Britain after most of his kind were wiped out in the massacre at Culloden a few centuries earlier. Turned by accident at the age of five, he was held captive by a travelling minstrel crew and tortured, taunted and displayed as "the Beast" for most of his childhood and adolescence. It was only when Blade, the Devil of Whitechapel, a rogue blue blood, demanded his release that he found safety and freedom and the closest thing he would have to a family. Verwulfen are considered outlaws by the ruling classes of the Echelon, however, free game to be hunted down like the beasts they are considered, and so Will has to live in the shadows, a loyal enforcer to his best friend, always fighting to control his rage and brute strength. Because his blood or semen can spread the loupe virus that turned him into the savage creature, he can never be with a woman, terrified that he will infect someone else with his curse.

Miss Helena "Lena" Todd makes it so very difficult for Will to control himself around her. While she was living with her sister and brother-in-law in Whitechapel, Will even moved out to make sure he didn't reveal how deeply he feels for her. Now he suspects that she is involved with dangerous forces plotting possible treason against the Echelon, and he needs to make sure that she stays safe, no matter what the cost. When he realises that one of the blue blood lordlings is also out to make Lena his plaything, he starts looking for an excuse to be near her, so he can protect her. Lucky for him, part of the ruling council need a verwulfen representative to help them negotiate a peace treaty with the ruling verwulfen of Scandinavia. Will will need to learn how to walk, talk, dress and behave, and who better to teach him than Lena?

Can Will successfully aid in the signing of a peace treaty with the foreign werewolves, ensuring freedom and a stop to persecution for all other verwulfen in Britain as a result? Will he figure out exactly what Lena is helping dangerous humanist revolutionaries plot before its too late? Will the dastardly Colchester get his hands on Lena before she or her burly protector tears his throat out?

I really don't understand who Bec McMaster presumably offended in the art department at Sourcebooks Casablanca, that she keeps getting these dreadful covers, that bear absolutely no resemblance to the characters or plot of her books. The leather-clad guy on this cover is dark-haired, while Will's hair is golden. Lena is a high society debutante, who would never wear the can can dancer-outfit the girl on the cover appears to be sporting. In the background, I think there's an exploding airship, which again is completely lacking in the plot of this book. But I think the crowing glory of dumb may be the parasol that "not-Lena" is holding daintily over her head while stuff explodes in the background. Sigh.

The book is fun, but I would strongly recommend that readers start with Honoria and Blade's book, which is the first in the series. By this book, the author sort of assumes that you know your way around the world she's created, and the book is a continuation of the series, with two of the more prominent supporting characters in the first book finding their HEA over the course of the story.

Always the somewhat overlooked younger sister, Lena felt like an outsider in her own family. Her older sister assisted their brilliant father in his experiments, Lena's tinkering with clockwork devices was dismissed as insignificant. On the brink of her debut in society when their father died, Lena lost everything she cared for. After the death of their father, both sisters had to work hard to support their ailing younger brother, and when Honoria fell in love and got married, Lena felt even more left out. The patronage of Leo Barrons, heir to the Duke of Caine, allowed her to step back into high society, but working for a living and seeing how the other side lived in the poorer area of the city, now has Lena sympathising with the humanists, who seek to escape the heavy yoke of the Echelon. No one suspects that she is spying for them while attending balls and flirting with blue bloods.

Will has also always been an outsider, the only verwulfen he knows of, hunted and reviled for the first part of his life, never quite comfortable in the little band of Blade's followers because he was always aware of his rage and animal strength. When Blade received a title and a pardon from the Echelon as thanks for his actions in the first book, Will is still an outlaw. He's never really believed he could ever be part of civilised society and is therefore so wary of the offer of a pardon he is given to aid in the signing of the peace treaty. He forces the Echelon to agree to give all verwulfen in Britain their freedom before he complies and then worries he may have ruined any chance of a treaty once Lena is in danger and he loses control when coming to her rescue.

I think I actually liked Will and Lena's story even better than Honoria and Blade's, because Lena is more fun than her prim and proper older sister. For the first half of the book, there is mostly a lot of unresolved sexual tension, but in the latter half of the book, when Lena has acknowledged her feelings for Will, she's not about to let his protectiveness and fear get in the way of their happiness.

The only downside to this book is the weaselly villain - Colchester, who really should have had a big moustache that he could twirl. He was tiresome and I rolled my eyes every time he appeared. Still, this was a fun, action-packed book, with a great main couple and a lot of interesting stuff being set up for later books. I especially liked the idea that in McMaster's Steampunk Victorian times, the Scandinavian countries are ruled by various werewolf clans, with the Norwegians being the most barbaric and old school. I suspect that I will be finishing this series before I return to work in August. It's great vacation reading.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

#CBR7 Book 76: "Catch a Falling Heiress" by Laura Lee Guhrke

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 2.5 stars

It may be wise to read the previous book in the series, How to Lose a Duke in Ten Days, before this one. 

Jack Featherstone's father and brother were shameless gamblers and fortune hunters, marrying rich and squandering their wives' money with no compunction. As the unappreciated second son, Jack swore he would never marry unless he could support his family in a proper way, and certainly never stoop to fortune hunting to secure himself a life of luxury. Never being able to rely on his male relatives meant he established closer bonds to his Eton chums instead. So when his best friend Stuart, the Duke of Margrave, gathers all his friends and asks them for assistance in a scheme that will directly lead to the ruination of a man, Jack doesn't hesitate, even if it means moving to America for a year, pretending to be close to a man he despises, in order to orchestrate Stuart's revenge.

As the plan is in its last stages, and Frederick Van Hausen, the man who did despicable things to Edie, now the Duchess of Margrave, is getting desperate, Jack is watching the man like a hawk, worried that he's going to find some way of escaping personal and financial ruin. When it looks like Van Hausen is preparing to elope with Miss Linnet Holland, who is both beautiful and comes with a staggering dowry, Jack has to think fast. Interrupting before Van Hausen can propose, and kissing the young lady in front of her own mother, accompanied by one of New England's chief gossips, is the first thing that pops into his head. Linnet, wary of fortune hunters and outraged by Jack's heavy-handed behaviour, refuses to even countenance having her reputation saved by marriage to someone so arrogant and presumptious. While she previously refused to consider marriage to a British peer, she is now determined to find one, who is willing to marry her, despite the tarnish to her reputation. Anyone, except Jack Featherstone, that is.

Linnet and her mother travel to England, where Linnet engages the services of London's premier matchmaker, the Marchioness of Trubridge. Jack follows, determined to do right by Linnet and persuade her to accept his hand in marriage. As the matchmaker was formerly married to his scapegrace of a brother and now to one of his closest friends, she's aware that he's not the unscrupulous cad his brother was, and hopes she'll at least consider him a worthwhile candidate for Linnet's hand in marriage. He has a week, at a houseparty with several other eligible and eager suitors, to convince the proud and distrustful Miss Holland that while their first meeting was less than ideal, he will make her the perfect husband.

While I understand Linnet's wish to marry for love, and escape the social ambitions of her mother and the financial ambitions of her father, she also has appalling judgement when it comes to men. I respect that she feels aggrieved and upset that Jack accosted her, but she also should have had some suspicion when Van Hausen, a man who wouldn't give her the time of day before she went to Europe for a year, suddenly declares passionate love for her and wants to propose marriage to her in a secluded location on the same night she's back in America. While she's fairly innocent, it's clear that she's quite savvy in rooting out fortune hunters, and some alarm bells should have been going off. She also develops a very knee-jerk hatred for Jack and stays obstinately unwilling to listen to him, even after he explains the motivations behind his rash act. I get that she's supposed to be feminist and independent, but a lot of the time she comes off as abrasive and shrewish.

Jack, on the other hand, we are told is a much better man than his father or brother was, but he also surprises and kisses a very unwilling woman, then seems to be surprised when she doesn't want to immediately become his wife. See, despite Jack's rakish ways and long life in Paris consorting with all sorts of women, just kissing the unprepared Linnet just the one time is enough to convince him that she is the woman he must spend the rest of his life with. One of the popular tropes of romance is the "magical hoo hah", which means that after sleeping with the usually virginal and inexperienced heroine once, the sexually experienced and previously happily promiscuous man is ready for monogamy. Linnet clearly has magic lips, because she unwittingly accomplishes this with one single liplock. Jack keeps losing his temper and either orders Linnet around, or physically overpowers her (he actually carries her off at one point), which is naturally not the best way to woo an already skittish and suspicious-minded woman. He's a lot more likable when he calmly uses his words and affectionate nature to woo her.

This was an ok book, but nothing more. I didn't particularly like Linnet or Jack and didn't actually care all that much whether they got together or went their separate ways. Laura Lee Guhrke is an author whose books I often enjoy, but she's pretty much on my "borrow from the library" list, not even qualifying for "buy when on sale" status. This book passed the time, but I doubt I'll remember it clearly come next month, let alone ever want to re-read or own it.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 75: "Looking for Alaska" by John Green

Page count:  263 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Miles Halter doesn't really have any friends in his Florida high school and persuades his parents to send him to the same boarding school in Alabama that his father once attended. When he gets there, he is quickly included in the already established circle of friends including his roommate Chip, usually referred to as the Colonel; the intense and unpredictable Alaska, whom Miles falls in love with pretty much at first sight; and Takumi, who seems like the most sane of the group. After a rather terrifying hazing ritual, the studious Miles (nicknamed Pudge by Alaska) settles in nicely at Culver Creek, barely missing his parents at all.

Miles' hobby is basically memorising famous people's last words and as the Colonel likes memorising pretty much anything from his trusty almanac (countries, capitals, population sizes and so on), they seem to get along fine. In between the regular school days, there are minor adventures, often involving intricate pranks, school intrigue, social engagements, but mainly just the teens hanging out, getting to know one another better or trying to sneak away to get drunk or smoke. From the very beginning, the book is counting down to something, until about two thirds of the way through, we get to "the last day". What happens during this fateful night, irrevocably changes the lives of Miles and his friends, and the rest of Miles' school year involves trying to get some clear answers to what actually happened. What led to the tragic events of that night? Could Miles, Takumi or the Colonel have done something, anything at all, to stop it?

I started reading John Green's novels with his most recent publication, The Fault in Our Stars. With this, his debut novel, I have now finished all his books. It's not difficult to see why he's so popular with YA readers, in my experience, especially teenage girls. In the coming school year, I will try to talk to the librarian at our school to see what we can do to get his books out to the boys, because with the exception of Hazel Grace, all of Green's protagonists are boys, and I think a lot of the boys at my school might like the books if they gave them a chance.

I mentioned in my review for Paper Towns that Green writes wonderful teenage friendships, and this book is no exception. I liked hanging out with Miles and his friends, even though I thought Miles, like Quentin in Paper Towns, got a bit too obsessed with the object of his infatuation, a troubled girl who really had very little real interest in him. I liked the parts of the book counting down better than the last third, that dealt with the aftermath of the "event". Nonetheless, I can see why dealing with the subject matter is important in a YA book and coming to terms with grief, uncertainty and loss is never an easy topic.

If asked to rate John Green's books so far, in order from my least favourite to my favourite, the order would probably go:
5. An Abundance of Katherines (I didn't like the maths all that much, and Colin was a whiner)
4. Looking for Alaska (I just didn't buy Miles and Alaska's nearly star-crossed romance)
3. Paper Towns (Quentin should have been a bit less self-centred and Margo-obsessed)
2. The Fault in Our Stars (Made me feel all the feels, but mostly in a sad way)
1. Will Grayson, Will Grayson (Made me feel all the feels, but mostly in a happy way)

If asked to rate the various cast of characters, I would probably end up rating the books the same way. Now that I've read all of his books, I suppose I shall just have to wait impatiently for John Green to publish something new.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 17 July 2015

#CBR7 Book 74: "Nowhere But Here" by Katie McGarry

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

I got this review copy from NetGalley in return for a fair and unbiased review. The book is available now. 

Emily lives a nice, safe, uneventful life with her mother and adopted father Once a year she meets up with her biological dad for an awkward day, usually spent shopping, but she tries not to think too much about him or his side of the family. After all, he willingly signed away his parental rights and wanted nothing to do with her as a baby, right? However, when her mother receives word that Eli (her bio dad)'s mother has died, she insists they have to return to Kentucky for the funeral. What they discover there turns Emily's life on its head and challenges everything she ever believed about herself, her mother, Eli and his family.

Oz has wanted to be a member of the Reign of Terror, motorcycle club that Eli is a leading member of, for as long as he can remember. He's finally turned 18 and is eligible as a prospect for the club, when Emily bursts into his life and complicates it massively. For reasons no one wants to explain, a rival MC gang are trying to get to Eli through Emily, and Oz is tasked with keeping her safe. While he finds her easy on the eyes, she's also a total pain in his butt, and no matter how pretty she is, hooking up with the boss' daughter is a terrible idea. Emily also turns her nose up at everything Oz loves and admires, so just as he's determined to prove his worth to Eli and the other heads of the Reign of Terror by making sure not a hair is harmed on her head, Oz is determined to prove to her that she is wrong about the bikers and their community.

I really like the YA books I've read in Katie McGarry's Pushing the Limits series, so when I heard that she had a new series out, and was able to request the book on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance. As with her other books, the chapters alternate between the heroine and hero, who usually start out from very different places, and gradually gain knowledge and understanding of the other. The setup for the book takes place over more or less twenty-four dramatic hours, when Emily and her parents go back to her mother's hometown in Kentucky to attend a funeral. Emily is persuaded to stay on with Eli and get to know more of his family, both biological and chosen. Due to her mother's stories about her time there, Emily is anxious and reluctant to stay, but also curious about Eli. When her beloved adopted father assures her that he doesn't feel threatened by her curiosity about her biological father's extended family, she's reluctantly convinced that staying in Kentucky is ok.

Oz lives and breathes for the biker club all the men of his acquaintance are a member of. Despite his parents' wishes that he go to college and use his brains to get a good degree, all he wants is to become a full member of the club, working for the security firm they own. He likes coaching little league teams and working with kids, but it's the club that is his only focus. He's asked to help guard Emily during her first twenty-four hours, and when he briefly nods off on duty, she and her parents are nearly attacked by their rivals, and Oz' chance at making prospect suddenly look very weak. So when Emily is persuaded to stay, and Eli gives Oz a second chance to prove his worth, Oz swears he'll never leave her side.

There are clearly secrets about Eli and Emily's mother's shared past that neither Oz and Emily know enough about, but members of Eli's family really want Emily to dig into her roots. While their relationship begins as deeply  antagonistic, the more time they spend together, the closer they grow. In the series description for Thunder Road, of which this book is the first, it claims it was pitched as West Side Story meets Sons of Anarchy, which seems pretty apt. Emily and Oz come from different worlds, but the more time Emily spends in Kentucky, the more she discovers that their heritage is very much the same, she's just been denied hers.

I liked the book, but it didn't captivate me like the best of McGarry's earlier books. I will be looking out for the next book in the series, and there are a number of troubled teens introduced over the course of the story that the reader will no doubt see find their own happy endings in future books.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

#CBR7 Book 73: "Paper Towns" by John Green

Page count: 305 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Quentin "Q" Jacobsen is a fairly average, if overly anxious teenager. He has lived next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman for most of his life, and been in love with her for as long as he can remember. Margo is one of the most popular girls in school, has a nearly legendary reputation. Of course, she also barely seems to know that Quentin or his friends Ben and Radar exist, but that doesn't stop Quentin from dreaming of her from afar. So when Margo climbs in his bedroom window one evening, less than a month from their high school graduation, saying she needs his help to enact an elaborate revenge plan, he feels compelled to assist her.

Quentin ends the evening exhausted, but exhilarated, convinced that when he arrives at school the next day, everything will be different and for his last month in school, Margo's actually going to be part of his circle of friends. But Margo never does return to school and initially appears to have disappeared without a trace. Her parents are at their wits' end and pretty much threaten to disown her. Quentin becomes obsessed with the idea that she's left clues before she disappeared, and that she wants someone to find her. As Quentin continues to search for Margo, enlisting the aid of his and her friends, they discover that Margo was a lot more secretive and mysterious than any of them expected. As they proceed on their quest for the lost girl, while adjusting to the end of high school and anticipating the future, there are arguments and adventure, revelations and an epic road trip.

When I realised that the film adaptation of Paper Towns was going to be in cinemas here soon, I decided that I'd best get round to reading the book that had been on my shelf for over a year. For a very long time, I was pretty sure that this was merely an ok book, until the last third or so, when Quentin and three others race across the country on an epic road trip to possibly find Margo before she disappears forever. The book is divided into three parts. There's the introduction, where Quentin explains about his friends and his life-long crush on Margo Roth Spiegelman. This part culminates in the audacious revenge plot Margo has designed to get back at those who betrayed and wronged her. It's quite clearly the greatest night of Q's life so far.

Then there is the extremely long middle bit, where Q becomes obsessed with Margo's disappearance and becomes convinced that she left HIM a whole load of clues, wanting him to find her. While he comes to realise fairly quickly that the Margo of his imagination is an idealised Manic Pixie Dream Girl, he entirely give up on the dream that everything will work itself out if and when he just finds her again. If he succeeds in completing his quest, like the knight in shining armour he seems to imagine himself as, he will be rewarded with the hand of the fair princess. I found Quentin really rather tedious in this part, and if it hadn't been for the fact that his friends, and even Margo's friend Lacey, repeatedly call him on his unhealthy fixation and continue to be delightful and entertaining, I possibly stopped reading. I love the way John Green writes teenage friendship, but Quentin really annoyed me.

As I already mentioned, the final third where they have to travel in a minivan for nearly twenty-four hours, with barely any stops, was absolutely my favourite part. While Quentin's last month of high school is pretty much consumed with his need to locate Margo, his two best friends Radar and Ben are having a rather different experience, discovering that interacting with and actually talking to girls instead of just dreaming about them can be a successful strategy if you want a girlfriend. Like me, they get pretty fed up with Q's behaviour, but unlike me, they've been friends with him for years, and as they're good guys, they forgive him his selfishness and even help him. As they look for, and go on a cross-country drive to locate Margo, the reader also discovers the many different ways in which Margo appeared to the people in her life, with Green cleverly deconstructing the afore-mentioned MPDG idea. Tomorrow, I have a chance to see the film version of the book in a preview screening (the trailer looks promising) and if they've adapted the book well (and hopefully shortened the middle bit a LOT), the film may actually turn out more entertaining than the book. The final third of the book, and Q's friends were fun enough that I will give the book 4 stars, but that fourth star is dangerously tenuous.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 13 July 2015

#CBR7 Book 72: "Populærmusikk fra Vittula"(Popular Music from Vittula) by Mikael Niemi

Page count: 224 pages
Rating: 2 stars

Matti grows up in a tiny town in the remote north of Sweden in the 1960s and 70s. The chapters in this book are more like little short stories about different aspects of his childhood and adolescence, chronicled with humour and the occasional forays into strange, magical realism-inspired fantasy sequences. The inhabitants of his town and the surrounding areas seem to be either deeply puritanically religious or Communists, not caring for the trappings of religion at all. The gruff and peculiar inhabitants are set in their ways and far too prone to alcoholism.

There's the story of Matti's near-mute best friend Niila, whose father, a lapsed preacher, is so domineering and abusive that neither of the many children of the family speak much, and Niila first learns to speak in Esperanto, through lessons he overhears on the radio in Matti's house. We hear about Matti and Niila's childhood discoveries of rock music, with the hits of Elvis Presley and the Beatles making a huge impact on their lives, inspiring them to form a band. There's the friendly rivalry of adolescent boys, and the organised warfare with airguns that the teens orchestrate in the neighbourhood. There's the summer when Matti is trying to make enough money for a guitar of his own, and engages in devious and gory rat extermination to keep the cabin of a visiting German author vermin free.

Because the book is occasionally a straight-forward coming of age narrative about boys in a rural area in the 60s and 70s, but then all of a sudden veers into some dreamlike sequence where a boy gets trapped in a furnace for a winter and starts growing roots, or there is a cross-dressing witch in the woods who can exorcise ghosts, it's hard to pinpoint what the book is actually trying to be. As such, I found the book more frustrating than satisfying. The jumps in narrative, where the story will in one chapter talk about Matti's childhood, then his teens, then back again to earlier in his life, in very strange, seemingly unconnected episodes (all with the common denomination that they're set in Vittula, where he comes from) made the book confusing and while I appreciate the writer's skill, this book just didn't really work for me.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

#CBR7 Book 71: "The Martian" by Andy Weir

Page count: 369 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Six days into the first manned mission on Mars, there is a huge dust storm, forcing most of the crew to evacuate, earlier than anticipated. Mark Watney, the crew's botanist and mechanical engineer is impaled on an antenna and believed to have died. He wakes up alone, stranded on Mars with no way of signalling Earth that he is still alive. The next manned mission to Mars is scheduled in four years' time, and even if he were able to send a signal to announce his miraculous survival, he doesn't have enough supplies to last him long enough for a rescue mission to reach him. Even if he could use his botany skills to grow food enough to last him, none of the equipment he has with him is designed to last for years in the unforgiving environment of the red planet. Mark Watney, one of the first men to ever walk on Mars, is very likely to be the first man ever to die there too. He's not going down without a fight, though? With his boundless optimism, his education and his creativity, he's determined to survive until the next crew of space explorers arrive, when he will hopefully be able to go home at last.

I was given this book as a Cannonball gift exchange present from the lovely Beth Ellen, but first heard about it in August last year, when my friend Erica, who usually can't stand science fiction books, read it in less than 48 hours and then rated it five stars. Since then, so many people all over the interwebs have read and reviewed it and absolutely loved it, to the point where I started getting scared of reading it at all, convinced I was going to be the first person I knew, in real life or online, who was going to think the book was just ok. So I kept putting it off, and finding excuses for why I couldn't read it yet, until the trailers for the upcoming film starring Matt Damon started being released, and I realised that unless I wanted to get spoiled, I was going to have to just read the book already.

I discovered very quickly that I wasn't going to hate the book, and as I tore through the pages (annoyed that I actually had to do work, even with the summer holidays quickly approaching), it was really obvious why so many different people in my friend sphere had rated the book so very highly. I've seen it described as Robinson Crusoe meets MacGyver several times, and as a super-brief summary, that makes a lot of sense. Mark Watney is a great protagonist. He's funny, charming, self-deprecating, resourceful and smart. He keeps his head cool in a crisis (and being stranded on Mars is a hell of one) and his education, training and background make it believable that he'd be able to actually do the things he ends up doing to survive. I will admit I skimmed quite a few of the explanations of the mechanics and physics of what he did, because science is so far from what I cared about, but it all seemed realistic.

The chapters are short, the tension is high and Mark is a character you really root for. You want him to make it, you are invested in his survival and while I assumed he was going to be ok in the end, this was not a guarantee and actually told my husband (who, is coincidentally also called Mark) off for asking me questions while I was reading the final parts of the book. I needed for it to be only me and the book. So yes, you can add me to the long list of people who loved this book and have added Mark Watney to my list of favourite fictional characters. Now I'm one of the many who hope Ridley Scott doesn't screw up the film.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.