Thursday, 18 September 2014

#CBR6 Book 99: "For Darkness Shows the Stars" by Diana Peterfreund

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Laziness makes me resort to the Goodreads synopsis once again:

It's been several generations since a genetic experiment gone wrong caused the Reduction, decimating humanity and giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed most technology.

Elliot North has always known her place in the world. Four years ago Elliot refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, choosing duty to her family's estate over love. Since then the world has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists are jumpstarting the wheel of progress, and Elliot's estate is foundering, forcing her to rent land to the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of shipbuilders that include renowned explorer Captain Malakai Wenthforth - an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliot wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot exactly what she gave up when she let him go. 

But Elliot soon discovers her old friend carries a secret - one that could change their society...or bring it to its knees. And again, she's faced with a choice: cling to what she's been raised to believe, or cast her lot with the only boy she's ever loved, even if she's lost him forever.

Inspired by Jane Austen's Persuasion, For Darkness Shows the Stars is a breathtaking romance about opening your mind to the future and your heart to the one person you know can break it. 

I bought this book in an e-book sale a while back, based on the enthusiastic review on Forever Young Adult. Then, as so often is the case, I forgot all about it. This summer, my fellow Cannonballers scotsa1000 and bonnie both reviewed it excellently and reminded me that I owned it and should probably do myself the favour of reading it.

I suspect the book works well as a piece of dystopian young adult even for readers that have never read Persuasion. It may possibly also tempt younger readers to check out Jane Austen's classic novel. Ever since her mother passed, Elliot has been working herself nearly to death, trying to take care of the workers on her family's estate, while her father and sister ignore their increasingly dire financial situation and live a life of indolence and leisure. Elliot's father thinks nothing of exploiting his dependents or destroying a field of valuable crops to build himself a race track. When the famed admiral of the Cloud Fleet offers a substantial amount amount of money to rent her grandfather's home and ship yard, she has no choice but to agree.

She never expected to see the boy she loved all grown up into an imposing and famous man, now a lauded and wealthy explorer. Born on the same day, Kai and Elliot became friends as children, despite the difference in their stations and Elliot's father's objections. Kai initially only wanted to become the estate's mechanic, but developed more radical ideas as he grew older, finally running away in search of a better life when his life on the estates became too stifling. Not realising that Elliot rejected him not because she didn't love him, but because she knew the estate and all the people on it would be doomed if she left, the returned Malakai treats her coldly and tries to avoid her as much as possible.

My main complaint with this novel is probably how reticent and self-sacrificing Elliot stays throughout the story. She's clearly strong, responsible, loyal and brave, but I desperately wanted her to speak up and fight for herself and her happiness. Of course, Anne Elliot doesn't confront Wenthworth in Persuasion, but pines dolefully, so it's not surprising that Elliot never shouts angrily at Kai to make him realise why she couldn't go with him and why he's being so unreasonable towards her. Peterfreund never entirely convinced me as to why Kai was a worthy romantic hero. Kai acts cold and unpleasant for so much of the book, with less than entirely believable characterisation or exposition showing why Elliot loved him so much.

The world building of the book is excellent, though. A world where scientific experiments and genetic engineering has pretty much wiped out humanity is an interesting concept as was the social order established afterwards. It's quite clear that the pretty much feudal society here needs to evolve and change, though and Kai and his new Post-Reductionist friends show the fascinating possibilities the future might hold, if people are brave enough to try to change.

My next review will be of the companion novel to this book - based on another of my favourite classics - The Scarlet Pimpernel. I'm now also very interested in checking out other of Peterfreund's books.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

#CBR6 Book 98: "Isla and the Happily Ever After" by Stephanie Perkins

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Isla has been in love with Josh since their first year together at the American boarding school in Paris, but he's been unattainable for most of her time there. Instead she's been pining for him from a distance, hanging out with her platonic BFF Kurt (who has Aspergers' Syndrome). Now in their final year together, it looks as if all of Isla's dreams are coming true. Josh not only notices her, he wants to be her boyfriend! True love's path doesn't exactly run smoothly though, and when Josh gets expelled and sent back to New York, Isla and Josh discover that they're really going to have to fight for their Happily Ever After.

This is the final book in the Anna and the French Kiss trilogy. All three books can easily be read without any prior knowledge of the other books, but this book may be more satisfying if you've read at the other two, as the main characters show up as supporting cast during parts of the story.

The son of a successful senator and an aspiring graphic novelist, Josh Wasserman isn't really happy at his posh boarding school in Paris (I really want to smack all these ingrate kids who don't realise how good they have it). As a result, he's been acting out a lot over the years, which comes to a head after he convinces Isla to break school rules and go to Barcelona with him for a few days. As she's got a fairly spotless record, she just gets a month's detention, but he is fetched home by his furious mother.

Isla is very smart, but clearly deeply insecure about her relationship to Josh. She's a very good friend to Kurt, but she can be quite self-centred at times, and while she's very close to her older sister, she clearly pretty much completely ignores and/or underestimates her younger sister for much of the book. While Josh has all sorts of hopes and dreams for the future, Isla keeps working for that perfect grade point average, but doesn't actually have any idea what she wants to do with her future. She is entirely directionless and it scares her. She's also completely convinced that she's not really worth loving and when things start getting tough between her and Josh, she seems to think that sabotaging the relationship before things get more difficult is the way to go. Silly girl.

Of all of Perkins' heroines, Isla is probably the one with the most character growth over the course of the story (and all three girls do a fair bit of growing up) and she discovers that in order to have a proper HEA, she doesn't just need to make things right with Josh, but make herself happy in other areas of her life. While Isla has a very close friendship with Kurt, she clearly underestimates his ability to socialise with others and has to face up to the harsh truth that she may be the reason they have very few friends at school, not Kurt and his Aspergers'. The reason her younger sister is such a brat may be because Isla never takes her even a little bit seriously.

Josh is sweet, but he can't compete with Cricket as my favourite of Perkins' heroes. I also found his way of dealing with his dissatisfaction with school annoying. His parents really don't seem like bad people and it seemed strange to me that he didn't try to communicate with them more, but then, he is a teenager, and they are not always rational or sensible.

What I do like about the book is that it really does show both sides of a relationship, not just the happy flush of first love and infatuation, but that some couples really have to work to find lasting happiness and long distance relationships are not just fun and games. I will keep an eye out for Perkins' next book and hope it's as good as her first three.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 97: "Lola and the Boy Next Door" by Stephanie Perkins

Page count: 338 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Synopsis from Goodreads because I read this way too long ago:

Budding designer Lola Nolan doesn't believe in fashion ... she believes in costume. The more expressive the outfit - more sparkly, more fun, more wild - the better. But even though Lola's style is outrageous, she's a devoted daughter and friend with some big plans for the future. And everything is pretty perfect (right down to her hot rocker boyfriend) until the dreaded Bell twins, Calliope and Cricket, return to the neighbourhood.

When Cricket - gifted inventor- steps out from his twin sister's shadow and back into Lola's life, she must finally reconcile a lifetime of feelings for the boy next door.

At the very start of the book, Lola shares her top three wishes with the reader - she wants to attend the winter formal at her school dressed as Marie Antoinette, in a magnificent and opulent dress of her own making, and combat boots. She wants her dads (a successful lawyer and a stay at home pie caterer) to approve of her boyfriend Max, who is 22 and therefore quite a bit older than Lola's 17. Finally, she never wants to see the Bell twins, who grew up next door, ever again. Calliope, the brilliant figure skater who may have a chance at winning gold in the upcoming Olympics, and Cricket, the brilliant inventor who she had a crush on her entire childhood.

Lola is adorable, but also quite clueless. I imagined her a bit like a teenage Lady Gaga, determined never to wear the same outfit twice, with costumes and wigs to suit her every mood. It quickly becomes obvious why her two (awesome) dads don't like Max. It's because Max is a selfish douche canoe. He's so obviously Lola's good-girl attempt at living dangerously, and the thing that annoyed me the most about her (it seems I always have to seriously want to shake Perkins' heroines for one reason or another) was her complete obliviousness with regards to how bad a boyfriend Max was, especially with Cricket being there (or at college, not that far away) all adorable and infatuated with her.

I liked that while there were very good reasons for Calliope to act the way she did towards Lola, which were explained in time, there was no attempt for the two girls to suddenly put their differences aside and become BFFs. Calliope was wrong about a lot of things in her dealings with Lola, and their past cannot be completely forgotten, even as Lola and Cricket continue to grow closer. I loved pretty much everything about Cricket, except maybe that he nearly turned himself into a doormat for Lola. I loved Lola's friendship with Lindsey, and Lindsey's adorable attempts at junior sleuthing. Any girl who tries to emulate Veronica Mars is ok in my book. A couple of characters from Perkins' first book, Anna and the French Kiss also appear as supporting cast in the book and it was nice to see that they are doing well.

Stephanie Perkins' books keep earning rave reviews over on Forever Young Adult, and I can see why. They are delightful reads, even though each heroine has a particular trait that annoys the heck out of me.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 96: "Talk Sweetly to Me" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 109 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Young Rose Sweetly is a computer in Victorian England. This means she works for a male astronomer, doing amazing feats of arithmetic and calculation to help him in his work. She lives with her pregnant sister, taking care of her while waiting for her brother-in-law, a naval doctor, to return from abroad. Preferably before the baby is born. She's also very much in love with her neighbour, the infamous author and columnist Stephen Shaughnessey. Yet she heeds her sister's advice. He is a legendary scandal and rake, and she is an unmarried black woman. Nothing good can come of her crush on him.

Stephen Shaughnessey loves hearing his pretty, brilliant young neighbour explaining to him about maths and astronomy. He understands that she's a mathematical genius and would like nothing better than to court her, yet no matter what he tries, she resists him. So he needs to convince her that he's not just a callous flirt with his mind set on seduction. He enlists the help of her employers and is lucky that there is a once in a lifetime eclipse happening in London.

Talk Sweetly to Me is the coda to Courtney Milan's excellent Brothers Sinister series, which contains what is now probably my favourite romance of all time as well as several other excellent books. Stephen Shaughnessey, Irish Catholic, son of a stable master and a seamstress, worked for Free Marshall's newspaper, giving a "real man"'s opinion in a publication "by women, for women, about women". He was a delightful supporting character and he's an admirable hero. I just wish some of his actions didn't veer too closely into coercion and manipulation, which I think they almost do here. Still, he sees the brilliance in Rose Sweetly and for that I applaud him.

Milan writes amazing heroines, and in several of the Brothers Sinister books highlights the plight of overlooked and inspiring women of the Victorian Age, marginalised, ignored or completely forgotten because of their gender. I didn't really know there were computers, or that there were a lot more black Victorians than I previously suspected, and that's another great thing about Milan's stories. She educates you without ever patronising you, highlighting unusual topics not normally featured in historical romance. Of the novellas in the series, this is probably the least impressive, but anything written by Milan is still of the very highest quality and worth reading.

The entire series:
The Governess Affair - 4.5 stars
The Duchess War - 5 stars
A Kiss for Midwinter - 5 stars
The Heiress Effect - 3.5 stars
The Countess Conspiracy - 5 stars
The Suffragette Scandal - 6 stars (it broke the scale)

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 95: "A Breath of Snow and Ashes" by Diana Gabaldon

Page count: 1410 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is the sixth book in the Outlander series, and really not the place to start reading. You will have missed out on literally thousands of pages of plot developments, intrigue and characterisation. If you are interested in checking out the series (which thanks to the current TV show, I suspect more and more might be), start at the beginning with Outlander

Ok, where do I even begin to summarise the plot here. The mass market paperback is over 1400 pages long and the action spans at least three years of story. The book starts in 1772, with the beginning of the American Revolution right around the corner, and as such, there is rebellion afoot. Jamie Fraser knows what is coming thanks to his wife, daughter and son-in-law, all time travellers from the mid-20th Century. He needs to make sure he doesn't get arrested for treason against the British Crown (again), but doesn't exactly want to declare for King George either. At one point, Claire is kidnapped by bandits who want the location of the Fraser's still. That section, and the following rescue (I'm NOT going to spoiler tag a book that came out in 2006 - also, Claire is the protagonist of the whole series, big surprise she doesn't get killed by her abductors), makes for uncomfortable reading. Stephen Bonnet still pops up every so often like a malevolent mushroom to make life difficult for the assorted Frasers. Fergus and Marsali and their ever-increasing brood of children move away from Fraser's Ridge after it becomes obvious that Fergus really isn't cut out to be a farmer and needs a change in careers. Brianna and Roger work on having another child and Roger trains to become a minister. Towards the latter half of the book, there is a terrible betrayal of trust, when Jamie is suddenly accused of fathering a young woman's child. Shortly after, the pregnant woman winds up murdered in Claire's garden. Will Jamie and Claire be able to prove their innocence?

I read this book when it first came out, and it turns out, I barely remembered a single detail of plot, with the exception of Claire's abduction (although even that wasn't exactly clear in my mind) and the murder in the latter half of the book. Apart from that, I may as well have been reading the book for the first time. So much of the story came as a complete surprise to me, to the point where I was wondering if I'd made up the hazy details I could recall until I got to the relevant parts of the story. Parts of the book are extremely entertaining and well plotted, and I would rate them 4 stars or higher. But just as with The Fiery Cross, this book is just so big, and there is so MUCH happening and quite a lot of it is just not all that interesting and drags the rest of the reading experience down. I have yet to read the next two books in the Outlander series, specifically because when I last read this book, I was so bored by the end that I just couldn't bear the thought of reading any more Gabaldon. Luckily, I liked it a lot more re-reading and am now quite excited to catch up with books 7 and 8 in the coming months.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 8 September 2014

#CBR6 Books 93-94: "The Hidden Blade" and "My Beautiful Enemy" by Sherry Thomas

Total page count: 652 pages
Rating, both books: 4 stars

In Beijing in 1873, young Ying Ying discovers that her father is one of the white foreign devils, and while her mother is the pampered courtesan of an important court official, she'll be lucky to ever make a suitable match. Her Amah starts training her in secret martial arts, so she'll have a way to defend and support herself once she grows older.

Over in England, young Leighton Atwood discovers that his parents have secrets, that it wouldn't do for his sinister uncle Sir Curtis to unearth. His mother's monthly visits to a "sick relative" may hold the explanation as to why Leighton's younger brother Marland looks nothing like him, and his father seems a lot more affectionate towards his young photographer friend Herb Gordon than he does towards Leighton's mother. Leighton doesn't know that society disapproves of his father's relationship with his young friend. He listens eagerly as Herb tells of his travels and adventures, about Chinese myths and treasures.

When Sir Curtis comes for a surprise visit while Leighton's mother is away, Leighton's life takes a dramatic turn for the worse. Sir Curtis threatens to commit his younger brother to an asylum for his depravities, and because of this, Leighton's idyllic childhood is shattered with a single gunshot. Herb is forced to leave Starling Manor, and Leighton manipulates his mother and younger brother to flee the country to protect them from Sir Curtis' plots. He alone is left to suffer the intricate cruelty, dreaming of the distant lands Herb is visiting and the day when he too can escape.

Ying Ying and her Amah are taken into the household of her mother's protector, Da-Ren, when her mother dies. It is there that Ying Ying befriends another foreign devil, from faraway England, who works as a language tutor for Da-Ren's sons. She tells him about her suspected parentage, learns that her English adventurer father named her Catherine Blade, and begins to learn English.

In 1883, Leighton and Ying Ying finally meet, in Chinese-controlled Turkestan, never realising that Herb has played an important role in their lives. Leighton is working to gather intelligence for the British, Ying Ying is trying to work off a debt to her foster father, Da-Ren. Their romance is brief, intense and passionate, until they discover that they are enemies, and Ying Ying sends Leighton (whom she believes to be a Persian in the employ of the English) away, with a slow-acting poison she knows will kill him within a week.

So Ying Ying's surprise is great when she arrives in England in 1891, as Catherine Blade, and is introduced to Captain Leighton Atwood, the fiancee of her new acquaintance Mrs. Chase's daughter. Ying Ying is in England to locate two precious Jade tablets for her foster father and has already fought off one painful reminder of her past on the ship on her way to England. Meeting her first and only love alive and betrothed to another is a serious obstacle in her quest for the tablets.

Leighton is just as shocked to discover the mysterious, wild girl who he first met disguised as a Kazack warrior, who left him for dead in the Turkestani desert is in London, speaking near-perfect English and dressed as demurely as any debutante. She left him with physical as well as emotional scars, and Leighton knows full well that she is unlikely to be in England just to connect with her long-lost relatives. Yet he swears he will not get involved with whatever brought her to London, that part of his life is over now.

The Hidden Blade tells the story of Ying Ying/Catherine and Leighton from when they are children in China and England respectively, and unusually for Thomas, gives us their life stories entirely chronologically in more or less alternating chapters. Despite coming from vastly different cultures and parts of the world, their lives have strange parallels, and they are unaware that Herb Gordon is to play a vital part for both of them. Through him, they almost meet in Beijing, once Leighton has managed to escape the clutches of his evil uncle and travel to reunite with his old friend, but fate interferes and they just miss each other. It's a full-length prequel novel to My Beautiful Enemy, and as such not a romance in itself, as the main characters never actually meet.

My Beautiful Enemy is more like Thomas' previous novels, where the narration jumps back and forth between the present and the past. The past involves Ying Ying and Leighton's first meeting in 1883, where they fall in love despite not knowing each other's true identities. I frankly preferred the past portions, some of the 1891-sections got a bit too melodramatic, thanks to Ying Ying's dastardly supervillain nemesis and Leighton's bitchy fiancee. I'm sorry if it comes as a surprise to anyone at all, but Leighton's engagement isn't all that happy, thus facilitating his eventual happy ending with Ying Ying.

Sherry Thomas claims that these books are "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets Downton Abbey". Nit-picky that I am, I would like to point out that Downton Abbey starts in 1912, which isn't even vaguely Victorian. Combined, the two novels give a fascinating picture of Ch'ing China and Victorian England. I loved that Leighton, at least for a brief period, has a father in a loving homosexual relationship without this shocking him in any way. He's forced to grow up far too early and the treatment he receives from his uncle is truly awful (Thomas writes extremely creepy villains, see also His at Night). Both Ying Ying and Leighton are great characters, but their prequel stories and passionate first romance entertained me a lot more than the latter part of their romance, where they reunite. I would absolutely recommend reading the two books together. My Beautiful Enemy works on its own, but the story has much more resonance if you've read The Hidden Blade first.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

#CBR6 Book 92: "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" by Maria Semple

Page count: 306 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Because I read this book a month ago, and the plot is somewhat convoluted, I am resorting to the plot summary from Goodreads to help me explain what the book is about:

Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fiercely opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace, to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she's a best friend, and simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle - and people in general - has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence - creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.

I know I'm ridiculously late to the party when it comes to this book. So far this year, it's already been reviewed by Badkittyuno and MelBivDevoe, and last year, for Cannonball V, it was reviewed by a staggering 15 people (search the archives to find the reviews). So a lot of my fellow Cannonballers already know how great this book is. I'm not even going to pretend that I've read all your reviews, sorry guys, but way to go for discovering this book before me.

Maria Semple was one of the staff writers on Arrested Development, so it should be no surprise that she can do funny, satirical and absurd. Even having noticed that a lot of people out there were excited about this book, I really had no idea what to expect. The book was quite different from what I thought going in. Comprised of e-mail correspondence, journal entries, letters, in-voices, receipts, reports, articles and other written forms of documentation, the book tells the story of Bernadette Fox, who won a MacArthur grant for her revolutionary architectural design and ended up becoming an agoraphobic recluse in Seattle. Her husband, Elgin Branch, is a lauded genius over at Microsoft, but is so busy with his own career that he hasn't really noticed just how off the rails his wife has gone. Bernadette hates the expectation and opinions of all the other mothers at the private school Bee attends, and refers to them dismissively as gnats. Through a series of escalating events, she ends up in a full-blown feud with one of them, her next door neighbour, Audrey, resulting in a devastating mudslide and total chaos at a recruitment drive for Bee's school.

Having agreed to take her beloved Bee to Antarctica, Bernadette is reluctant to renege on her promise, even though the trip clearly terrifies the heck out of her. And as the family are about to depart on their trip, Bernadette disappears, without a trace. It's Bee's attempts to trace her, as well as discover more about who her mother really is and used to be, that makes up the majority of the book.

This is such a funny book, and an amazingly quick and engrossing read. I read it all in one day, amazed at the twists and turns the story took. No matter what you think you've figured out, Semple manages to keep you surprised. While a very clever and entertaining satire, the book deals deftly with serious issues like mental illness, daring to be different and defying the expectations of society. I may have been late to join in with the praises sung for this book, but am glad I finally caught up.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.