Monday, 14 April 2014

#CBR6 Book 33: "Play" by Kylie Scott

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Anne Rollins is having a really bad time of it. Her roommate ran off, owing Anne more than two months' of back rent, taking quite a bit of the furniture with her. She needs money, and fast, or she won't be able to keep her little sister in college. She reluctantly accompanies her next door neighbour Lauren to a party at Lauren's best friend's, who just happens to be recently married to David Ferris, the guitarist in world famous rock band Stage Dive (see the previous book in the series, Lick).

Anne feels out of place at the party, surrounded mostly by strangers, and her teenage idols, so tries to find privacy on the balcony. There she has an argument with her boss/best friend about how she shouldn't have let herself have been taken advantage of. The conversation is overheard by the object of all her teenage fantasies, Malcolm Ericson himself, the drummer for Stage Dive. Mal claims Anne is a doormat and needs to learn to set boundaries for herself. As their conversation progresses, Anne shows that she can hold her own and catches the eye of most people at the party when she loudly tells Mal to mind his own business.

Still worried how she's going to pay her rent, not to mention her sister's next tuition fees, Anne is surprised to discover a new sofa in her living room when she returns from work the next day. Mal claims he's been kicked out of David's, and needs a place to stay. He also really needs an image change fast and a nice, sensible, steady girlfriend would do wonders to calm his bad boy, rock star playboy reputation. He's already paid Anne's rent and promises that they will keep things completely platonic in private, as long as she agrees to play his girlfriend in public. Not one to say no to the half-naked rock god she's idolised for much of her life, Anne agrees, even though she's not sure how she's going to be able to keep feelings out of the deal.

In Lick, the protagonists woke up surprisingly married after a drunken night in Vegas, and had to figure out if they actually had a future together. In Play, there is very little time for the couple to get to know each other before they're suddenly thrust into a relationship together. Always extremely impulsive, Mal doesn't really consider that Anne might find it strange that a man she just met at a party the night before wants to move into her tiny apartment. They talked, they danced, they had a good time. Mal knows he's irresistible to women and can tell that Anne likes him. He also sees that she's in need of help, and lets herself be taken advantage of far too easily. Because of Scott's skillful writing, there is nothing creepy or inappropriate about Mal's impulsiveness and enthusiasm. He doesn't come off as threatening or condescending, just energetic and a bit oblivious.

Anne really does need someone who takes care of her. Mal is right that she lets herself be taken advantage of too easily. She's also had to be the one who cares for other, after her father left the family when she was a young teenager, and her mother flaked out completely. Dropping out of high school to make sure her mother didn't commit suicide, Anne has pretty much had to raise her younger sister and works hard to give her sister the college education Anne herself could never have. She puts up with her boss/best friend Reece friend zoning her completely, only really having time for her when one of his many dates have fallen through. Reece, of course, suddenly discovers that Anne is quite the catch once she has a rock star suitor and tries, unsuccessfully, to put the moves on her. Luckily, there is no real love triangle here, as Anne really is incredibly sensible, and more or less instantly sees that any feelings she may have nurtured for Reece fade completely compared to what Mal makes her feel.

I was impressed at how convincing and enjoyable Kylie Scott made a romance between two people who got married after a drunken night together, and once again, even though it shouldn't really work, the growing romance between two people who agree to pretend to be in love is very well done. The preposterous nature of the situation is even commented on in the book, which is one of the reasons why you're willing to suspend your disbelief. Mal and Anne are great characters, and the book is very funny. Mal is pretty much a super bouncy dog trapped in the body of a smoking hot drummer. Anne needs someone to make her laugh and take life less seriously, as well as someone who puts her first. Mal needs someone who grounds him and makes him think things through before he acts. It's a quick and easy read, and I'm already looking forward to the third book in the series, featuring the lead singer of Stage Dive and his personal assistant (who's also introduced in this book). I suspect the fourth and final book may be the romance between the bass player and Anne's little sister, as there were definitely sparks every time they met in this book. Either way, I'm in for the duration now.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

#CBR6 Book 32: "Ghost Story" by Jim Butcher

Page count: 608 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book 13 in The Dresden Files, and as such, NOT the place to start reading the series. It's also completely impossible for me to review this book without some spoilers of the previous book and some of the things that happen in this one. If you haven't read the book yet, GO AWAY! Go read something else and come back when you've caught up. 

This is the first book in the series since book 4 that I actually read, and didn't listen to in audio book, because James Marsters doesn't narrate the audio. I love the audio books, but they take me a lot longer to get through. I read this book in about two days. It felt strange, but by now, I can sort of hear Marsters reading in my head, so all the characters sounded the right way.

Harry Dresden is dead, having been shot and fallen into the cold water of Lake Michigan at the end of the previous book. He ends up in some sort of strange afterlife, populated by a lot of old law enforcement types and is given the option to solve his own murder, or bad things will happen to one of the three people he holds dearest. Harry the ghost discovers that while he doesn't remember six months passing, that's how long he's been gone. The events in Mexico created a world wide power vacuum and a lot of very bad people have crawled out of the woodwork trying to establish themselves in the wake of Harry's demise. In Chicago, scary heavies called the Fomors are trying to get a foothold and it's affecting both the living and the dead inhabitants.

As Harry is a ghost, he seeks out Mortimer Lindquist, an ectomancer, who can both see and communicate with ghosts. Mortimer's house is under siege from aggressive spirits and only after Harry helps a former ancestor of Lindquist's to defend it, does Lindquist agree to aid him in contacting his friends. It turns out that Murphy, along with a number of Harry's old friends, such as the werewolves in Will Borden's pack and Waldo Butters, are now doing their best to keep all manner of supernatural nasties, who previously stayed away thanks to Harry's reputation, from invading the city. Only after Harry's old apprentice, Molly Carpenter, who now appears to be living on the streets as a mentally unstable magic vigilante, shows up and uses her wizard's sight to confirm Harry's identity, do the group begin to believe that he's actually there. Since Harry's body was never found, it's clear that both Molly and Murphy had hoped he wasn't really dead, and both women are visibly distressed by the ide of Harry as a ghost.

When Lindquist is abducted, Harry has to add rescuing the ectomancer to his current quest of solving his own murder. He's also very concerned about Molly, whose magical ability has increased spectacularly in the months since his death. It turns out that an old enemy of Harry's is behind Lindquist's kidnapping, and if Harry can't figure out a way to stop this individual, the consequences will be dire for all of Chicago.

It wasn't like this book was ever going to be able to compete with Changes in terms of action and plot development, but it's still pretty significant in terms of giving us a more comprehensive picture of Harry's inner life. Harry spends a LOT of this book thinking about his past, and especially about his actions in the last book. We find out more about his early years, training with Justin DeMorne and the events that led Harry to the point where he is now.

Unfortunately, I think the first third of the book was really rather dull, and dragged way too much. Harry faffing around in the "afterlife waiting room" and Lindquist's house got boring real fast, and it was only when we got to see what Murphy and the others had been up to that I started getting really interested in the story. I would also have been quite happy never seeing the villain of the piece again, I never really cared for the character and didn't think that part of the book was particularly interesting.

I loved seeing the development of the supporting cast of the books, though, even if Harry's death clearly hit all of them incredibly hard. They've clearly refused to be broken, however, and have organised a very impressive supernatural resistance force in his absence. Molly, especially, has come a long way and I'll be interested in seeing how she continues to develop in books to come. Harry does indeed solve his own murder in the end, and I found both the culprit and the motive very interesting. In the end, I don't think I'm spoiling all that much by saying that Harry will not be a ghost for the rest of the series. His new role and title is going to mean some massive adjustments to the wizard. I suspect "mystery of the week" story lines are a thing of the past.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 31: "Changes" by Jim Butcher

Page count: 546 pages
Audio book length: 15 hrs, 28 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book 12 in The Dresden Files and pretty much every single thing that happens in this book plays on stuff that's been introduced in earlier books. There is NO way for me to review this book without spoiling events from earlier books, and frankly, parts of this one. This book is full of surprises, so if you haven't read the book yet, please skip the review. I would also recommend that you avoid all other reviews, and even the blurb on the back of the book until after you've read it. 

So this is the book where Jim Butcher clearly decides that Harry's life, despite the many dangerous situations he's experienced and the challenges he's faced, was far too harmonious and cushy and decides to turn everything not only upside down, but really shake things up entirely. By the end of the book, there are few things I can think of that haven't been drastically changed in some or several ways.

So it turns out Harry is a father. Susan Rodriguez, his half-vampire ex-girlfriend (who first appeared in book 2, Fool Moon) got pregnant after their last encounter (in book 5, Death Masks). She's kept the existence of their daughter's identity from him, and only contacts him when the girl has been abducted from her foster family by Red Court vampires. Susan and her sidekick Martin show up on his doorstep, and while Harry is deeply hurt and shocked by her news, he is eventually forced to admit that neither he nor Susan have lives where they can raise a little girl. Maggie (named for Harry's mother) has been taken by Duchess Arianna Ortega, who wants revenge on Harry for killing her husband. As Harry and Susan frantically search for their child, they discover that the Red Court vampires, who are allegedly proposing a peace treaty with the White Council of wizards, are in fact planning to use Maggie in a powerful ritual, which will kill anyone of Harry's bloodline.

Over the course of the book, Harry not only has to come to terms with the idea of fatherhood and the knowledge that he may not be able to rescue his little girl in time, but his office is blown up by Red Court vampires (turns out they owned the whole building and has been charging him unreasonably high monthly rent) and his apartment building burns down. Luckily, he'd stashed away most of his magical artifacts in the Nevernever before the FBI came to raid the apartment, but apart from that, he's left with only the leather duster on his back. He's left literally beaten and broken and is forced to reconsider everything he'd previously been willing to do, in order to get the chance to rescue his only child.

With Butcher literally tearing down Dresden's entire life around him, it's so satisfying to see that Harry has friends and family who are willing to risk everything along with him. This is a book that starts with a bang and just keeps on getting more and more extreme. Every time I thought things couldn't get darker, Butcher turned up the dial. This book goes all the way up to 11. I kept being surprised at the twists and turns it took, and the final act reminded me a lot of the final episode of Torchwood: Children of Earth in terms of emotional punch and the way it wrung me out. I must admit that I had, sadly, had the very end of the book spoiled for me  (don't actually read the back covers of future books in the series before you read them, they spoil a LOT), but after all the other stuff that happens in the book, I doubt I would have been surprised either way. In a book where so many other transformative events happen to Harry Dresden, the ending of the book was really rather inevitable. This book, more than any of the previous ones, made me realise why everyone raves so much about The Dresden Files. I suspect there is very little that can happen in future books that would keep me from following this series until the final book now. Brilliantly done, Mr. Butcher.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 30: "The Glass Casket" by McCormick Templeman

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Rowan Rose lives in the little village of Nag's End with her father. Like her father, an experienced scholar, Rowan enjoys assisting him with translations and is proud of her achievements. Five soldiers ride through the village on their way up the mountain, and some days later, are found horribly killed by the men of the village. In a journal left by one of the soldiers are the words: "It's starting.". The elders of Nag's End declare the deaths the result of an animal attack, but not everyone is convinced. Among them is Rowan's best friend, the innkeeper's son Tom. He's clearly affected by the dead men, and reluctant to tell her about what they found. He's also clearly smitten with the new girl in the village, the distractingly beautiful Fiona Eira, who Rowan's father has forbidden her to ever speak to. Rowan is sad to see her best friend drifting away from her, but also wants nothing more than for him to be happy.

Soon it's obvious that whatever killed the soldiers in the mountain was not a wild animal, and the death toll in the village keeps going up. Rowan keeps having vivid nightmares that seem connected with the lurking horror spreading in the village. Tom is acting more and more strangely and together with his brother Jude, Rowan tries to investigate the cause.

The Glass Casket contains influences from a number of fairy tales, and much of it feels like it could have been written by the Brothers Grimm. The atmosphere of the distant little village in the mountains of some central European Medieaval kingdom is superstitious and oppressive and it's clear that unorthodox thinking and progressive ideas are not particularly welcomed. Strangers are distrusted, as evidenced by the arrival of Fiona Eira and her step-parents. Decisions that go against the wishes of the elders are practically unheard of. A woman has little to no independence once she is married, she is her husband's helpmeet and aids him and his family. This is one of the reasons Rowan doesn't really want to get married, she loves her translation work and dreams of travelling to the capital, where her father once lived.

Rowan has known Tom all her life, and while she knows his mother would be delighted if they were to marry, she loves him only as a friend. His older brother Jude has always unnerved her. She is slow to accept his help, but once tragedy strikes in the village, Tom gets more and more distant. He seems to stay out in the woods all night and Rowan begins to fear that he is somehow connected with the tragic deaths that have struck the village. Her father has always kept himself and his daughter apart from a lot of the traditional beliefs of the other villagers, and as the increasingly more terrible events unfold, Rowan begins to discover that there are reasons for this.

This is not a perfect book, by any means, but it is a very creepy, at times surprisingly gory young adult book book. I thought the loyalty and affection between Tom and Rowan was great and I appreciated how Rowan wanted to break out of the more traditional feminine roles of her society, but not in a way that felt anachronistic or wrong for the time period the book is set in. There are so many different things that unnerved me about this book and I have to admit to staying up far too late into the night just to finish it. The various twists that are introduced towards the end of the book didn't all work that well, in my opinion, but on the whole this was a very satisfying and scary read that I suspect a lot of teen readers will adore.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

#CBR6 Book 29: "The Masque of the Black Tulip" by Lauren Willig

Page count: 464 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the second book in The Pink Carnation series, with events following on pretty much directly from the end of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. If you want to avoid spoilers for the first book, you should probably skip this review for now.

Eloise Kelly has discovered the secret identity of the elusive British spy known as the Pink Carnation, but wants to discover more about the gentleman spies of the Napoleonic era. She goes with Colin Selwick to his country house, to search through the library archives there, and discovers new information about the unmasking of the deadly and dangerous French spy, the Black Tulip.

Lady Henrietta Selwick has grown up knowing that her brother was the dashing Purple Gentian and has always wanted to get involved with the war effort against Napoleon, to the strident objections of her entire family. Now, keeping up a correspondence with the Pink Carnation in France, she sees her chance to help capture the Black Tulip, rumoured to be coming to London. Miles Dorrington, her brother's best friend, who she's known all her life, has also been tasked by the War Office to try to uncover the identity of the French agent. To track the suspected spy, he has to frequent the various ballrooms of London, which he finds rather tedious. He did, however, also promise his best friend that he'd watch out for Henrietta and scare unsuitable gentlemen away from her.

Miles and Henrietta decipher secret messages, follow suspicious suspects, attend balls and do their best to uncover the true identity of the French assassin, while fighting their feelings for the other. Neither is entirely sure how they ended up madly in love with a person they've known for most of their lives. Of course, neither realises that they're both in terrible danger, as they are on the list of people the Black Tulip has come to London to investigate, due to their closeness to the Purple Gentian.

While the framing device of Eloise, the American grad student researching all the various British spies for her doctoral thesis was enjoyable enough in the first book, it grated a bit more in this book, especially as Lauren Willig tends to switch back to the present day and Eloise's not really all that interesting life every time something really tense and exciting happens in the historical narrative. Eloise finds herself quite attracted to Colin, and after being dragged to a party at a clearly deeply jealous neighbour's, starts to wonder if he may be returning her feelings, at least to a certain extent. Her insecure internal narrative is so much less exciting than the friends developing into lovers and trying their best to keep up with the other spies in the series back in 1803. In future books, if the trend continues, I suspect I'll want to shake Eloise quite frequently, and be annoyed when I have to read about her rather than the Pink Carnation and the other 19th Century spies and their associates. Still, a fun and enjoyable story. I can see why the books have such a following.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 31 March 2014

#CBR6 Book 28: "Between the Devil and Ian Eversea" by Julie Anne Long

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Miss Titania "Tansy" Danforth is all alone in the world. Her beloved brother was a soldier who died in the war of 1812, and her parents died in a carriage accident. Now she's had to leave the home she knew in New York to travel back to England, where she hasn't lived since she was a little girl. Her father's will states that she'll not have her fortune released until she marries a man approved by her new guardian, her father's cousin, the fearsome Duke of Falconbridge. Preferably someone rich in his own right and suitably titled. Tansy knows she's very beautiful and wields her charm like a weapon. She's determined that every man in Sussex will fall at her feet, but the one man who truly takes her own breath away, seems to be completely unmoved by her.

Ian Eversea has never really been able to settle down after the war. He's plagued by nightmares and restlessness and hopes that maybe exploring the world will solve some of his worries. He has about a month left until he leaves for his great journey when Tansy Danforth arrives in Pennyroyal Green, as his brother-in-law, Falconbridge's ward. A woman Falconbridge sees fit to warn Ian to stay specifically away from, or there may be dire consequences. Well aware of his checkered past where Falconbridge is concerned (see What I Did for a Duke, number 15 in my top romances of all time), Ian promises to leave the girl alone. It's not like she needs any more male attention, with most of the single, and quite a few of the married, men of the region making complete fools of themselves for a flattering glance and a kind word from the girl. Is Ian the only one who notices how rehearsed and forced Tansy's charm and flattery is? What is the woman really up to?

Tansy is achingly lonely, and knows that her chief asset is her stunning looks. She's deeply vulnerable and insecure, and in making the men around her fawn over her charm and beauty, she at least gets to be the centre of attention at social gatherings. She's an orphan, not even allowed to choose her own husband, lest she risk losing her fortune if she picks the wrong man. Her childhood home in Sussex is for sale, she's had to leave the only home she knows in America. Her new guardian is terrifying and has a scary reputation, yet is clearly disgustingly happy with his own young wife. When the Everseas, who have so kindly taken her in, all clam up about the rascal brother Ian, she becomes desperately curious, and when they finally meet, he makes her go clumsy, tongue-tied and flustered, pretty much the way the majority of men act around her, in fact. As he displays so little interest in her, she's all the more determined to find a way to charm him.

Ian is a rogue and a ladies' man, quite happy to stay unattached. He never makes women promises or feels the need to secure their affection with gifts. The war scarred him, both physically and emotionally and he's just biding his time until he can set off on his round the world journey. Accidentally assigned the room next to Tansy's, he's able to observe her, without her seeing him, on her balcony at night, and he sees a very different woman from the one most of the world is witness to. He's quite happy to respect Falconbridge's wishes and stay away from the flirt, until her ruthless charm offencive threatens to hurt his beloved sister. He calls Tansy on her recklessness and her studied flirtations, only to discover that she sees right through his defencive behaviour too.

Julie Anne Long is quite happy to let the reader believe, as Ian and several others around him do, that Tansy is a vain and shallow flirt with nothing on her mind but turning men's heads. She only gradually reveals Tansy's loneliness, the suffering she's gone through, and her knowledge that her parents always preferred her brother to her. For more than half of the book, I really wasn't sure what I though of her, or if she had much of a personality at all. It seemed that Tansy's main character trait was that she was stunningly gorgeous, which in the grand scheme of things didn't seem all that impressive. Yet at the reader, along with Ian, gets to know Tansy, it's clear that she is, as I've mentioned, lonely, quite insecure, adrift in a new country and desperately looking for love, security and a home she can call her own.

Another thing I loved in this book was the return of the Duke of Falconbridge, and his young wife Genevieve, from What I Did for a Duke. Despite there being a nearly twenty year age difference between the two, they are among my favourite couples in romance, and seeing them again, some time after their HEA has been established was great fun. I loved that although happily married, the duke is still seen as stern, scary and generally, as Mrs. Julien put it, "magnificently disagreeable". Only after several nerve wracking interviews with him does Tansy discover that the man may in fact have a wicked sense of humour and that there are good reasons why he and her father were so close.

I don't really want to spoil anything regarding Ian's history with Falconbridge, and you certainly don't need to have read any of Long's earlier romances to enjoy this one. However, it is an absolutely amazing book, so you may want to consider reading it before picking up this one, just because it will give you a complete picture of the complicated family relationships here, and show just how far Ian has developed as a character over time.

There is also a minor subplot involving Ian's sister, Olivia Eversea, which keeps running throughout Long's Pennyroyal Green books. One part in a star-crossed romance with Lyon Redmond (the other prominent family in the little village), the last few books seem to suggest that she may be moving on with her life. As Long herself has said that Olivia and Lyon's story will be the last one she tells, I'm going to be interested in seeing how far this develops before that book comes out.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 28 March 2014

#CBR6 Book 27: "The Secret History of the Pink Carnation" by Lauren Willig

Page count: 464 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Eloise Kelly is an American history student trying to find material for her dissertation in England. Enamoured with the dashing gentleman spies of the late 18th and early 19th Century, like the Scarlet Pimpernel and his successor the Purple Gentian, what Eloise really wants to do is unmask the identity of the most elusive spy of all, the Pink Carnation, who is rumoured to have stopped Napoleon's invasion of England in 1803.

When Eloise is allowed to browse through a cache of letters and diaries belonging to a descendant of the Purple Gentian himself, a Mrs. Selwick-Alderly, she's pretty sure she's hit the jackpot. The documents tell the story of Miss Amy Balcourt, half French and determined to join the league of the Purple Gentian. When her brother, a member of Napoleon's court, invites her back to Paris, Amy is sure that she will finally get her chance to be a spy and help the dashing Gentian foil Napoleon and restore the French monarchy. She travels to France with her brilliant cousin Jane and the formidable Miss Gwen, their chaperone.

On the boat to Calais, she meets Lord Richard Selwick, who the reader already knows is the Purple Gentian. Having grown up on a neighbouring estate to Sir Percy Blakeney, Selwick succeeded the Scarlet Pimpernel as England's most famous spy when Blakeney's true identity was revealed. His cover is that of an expert in antiquities, curating Egyptian treasures for Napoleon, usually boring anyone suspicious of his activities to tears with his dry and long winded lectures. Amy, very well versed in the classics and history herself, is fascinated with Selwick's stories at first, but becomes appalled when she realises he works for Napoleon. She considers him a traitor, and vows to avoid him as much as possible.

Of course, Selwick and Amy keep running into each other. Selwick is soon forced to admit that he's falling in love with Amy, who in turn is infatuated with the Purple Gentian. Selwick is his own rival. Meanwhile, because his feelings for Amy are making him careless, Delaroche, determined to unmask and arrest the Purple Gentian, is getting closer to achieving his goal.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is the first of what appears to be a fairly long series of books about flower-monikered spies trying to stop Napoleon in the early 19th Century. It's a mix between contemporary chick lit and historical adventure romance, and the combination works better than I thought it would. The framing device is Eloise's quest to find primary sources for her dissertation, but most of the book is the story of how the Lord Richard Selwick, the Purple Gentian, is unmasked because his love of Amy Balcourt, and how the Pink Carnation, a new spy on the scene, foils Napoleon's plot to invade England.

Willig herself admits to taking some pretty big liberties with the historical details in the afterword of her book, so if you're a stickler for accurate details, then you may want to avoid these books. If you, like me, adore books like The Scarlet Pimpernel and care more about being entertained by a good adventure story than whether certain historical details are a bit fudged, you should possibly check the book out. Especially if you think that The Scarlet Pimpernel would have been an even more awesome book if Marguerite actually had a more pro-active role and didn't just end up being girl hostage.

There are some great female characters in this book, not just Amy and her cousin Jane. Selwick's mother and sister are also hilarious. The men are not the only ones allowed to perform daring acts of espionage and adventure here. Level headed women are essential in saving the day. The framing device with Eloise was probably my least favourite part, with her butting heads with Colin Selwick, Mrs. Selwick-Alderly's nephew, a handsome but arrogant man determined to keep her from finding out his family's secrets. Of course he's gorgeous, and it's obvious to me that Eloise is going to fall for him in later books. Still, I'll happily read through a few chapters of the modern framing story if it gives me more adventures in 19th Century France. I'd seen the books mentioned on a number of romance review blogs like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and All About Romance in the past, but never really felt like trying them until now. I'm very glad I finally did. The next book appears to focus on Richard's younger sister Henrietta and one of his best friends, Miles. They had some pretty awesome banter going in the first book, and I can't wait to see how they go from friends to lovers.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.