Friday, 28 May 2010

53: "Magic Bleeds" by Ilona Andrews

Publisher: Ace
Page count: 384 pages
Date begun: May 25th, 2010
Date finished: May 25th, 2010

WARNING! CONTAINS SPOILERS!

Kate Daniels is an ex-mercenary, living in an alternate version of Atlanta where many of the buildings are crumbling, and technology cannot always be relied on, as fairly frequently, waves of magic sweep in and take everything over. When magic is high, technology doesn't work, so things like firearms, cars, phones and other useful things are useless. You have to have weapons like swords and daggers, and ride a horse or walk. Kate deals with supernatural problems that tend to be to tricky for other people to handle, and generally tries to avoid emotional involvement or close ties to anyone or anything. This is necessitated by her upbringing, and the knowledge that once her father finds her, he will do everything in his power to kill her and anyone she ever cared about.

In the course of the last three books, her resolve to stay hard and unattached has been broken several times. She now works with her best friend, is considered a close friend to several members of the Pack (Atlanta's huge shape-shifting community - not just werewolves here, but pretty much any flavour of shape-shifter you can imagine), has an adopted niece, and in this book she even acquires a dog. There is also Curran, her sometime nemesis, who she has amazing romantic tension with. Curran is the Beast Lord of Atlanta, the leader of the Pack, and as such has heavy responsibilities and strong protective instincts, that clash rather a lot with Kate's independence.

In Magic Bleeds, Kate's relationship to Curran is rather frosty, due to a monumental misunderstanding on both sides. There is a powerful supernatural menace in the city, infecting powerful humans or supernaturals with infectious plagues and taking over their bodies which she has to stop. This turns out to be much more difficult than expected, partially because the being causing the havoc is related to her by blood. Having spent her entire life hiding her powers and abilities, she is now closer to bringing notice to herself than ever before.

As readers of my blog have no doubt noticed, I read a lot of paranormal fantasy. A whole lot of it. Almost all of it first-person narrated by women who to a larger or lesser extent are strong-willed, independent, smart, funny, and kick ass. Of all these heroines, Kate Daniels is my favourite. Hers is not the series I've been reading the longest (that honour is probably held by Sookie Stackhouse - heroine of Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire/True Blood novels). As a matter of fact, it's only a year and a bit since I first discovered Ilona Andrews (who are actually a husband and wife team writing under her name) and Magic Bites, the first Kate Daniels novel. I have been waiting with bated breath for the fourth novel in the series, however, since I finished reading book 3, Magic Strikes, in early April 2009.

A lot more about Kate's past and parentage is revealed in this book. Once again, there are mythological beings, not just taken from well-known Western mythology. More of both Kate and Curran's personalities are revealed, and the reason why they act the way they do. This is probably the funniest Kate Daniels novel so far, and I laughed out loud several times while reading it. While books 2 and 3 were quite dark and gritty, this one had moments of pure joy and playfulness, nicely balanced with impressive action scenes or emotional exposition.

So to say that my expectations for this novel were high is an understatement. Book 3 ended on a cliffhanger. As an avid follower of Ilona and Gordon Andrews' blog, I knew that quite a lot of important things were going to happen in this novel, and according to their website, Kate would be losing a lot and dealing with some difficult things. So I was naturally anxious, because my emotional investment in this series is bordering on the unhealthy. To my great relief, the book was just as satisfying as I'd hoped. I would also say that the website lied a bit, because I think Kate gained far more than she lost, and is in a much stronger and better position to deal with any future threats. Magic Bleeds gave me a comforting sense of closure, and means that I can patiently wait for the release of Bayou Moon, the second book in the On the Edge series, and Kate 5 sometime next year.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

CBR 52: "The Dying Days" by Lance Parkin

Publisher: London Bridge (Mm)
Page count: 256 pages
Date begun: May 21st, 2010
Date finished: May 21st, 2010

Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction show in the world. The British show ran for 26 seasons from 1963 until it got cancelled in 1989. The Doctor, a time travelling alien (a Time Lord) from the planet Gallifrey, travels though space and time, experiencing adventures and righting wrongs all over the Universe (but strangely seems to spend most of the time in his televised adventures on Earth). His time machine/space ship looks like a 1950s blue police box, and is quite a lot bigger on the inside than on the outside. He has had a variety of companions through the years, mostly humanoid, although the majority seem to be young women of varying degrees of hotness.

When the Doctor dies, he regenerates into a new body. This means that when the first actor playing the Doctor needed to be replaced, they were able to keep the show going without any major changes. So far, eleven different actors have played the part of the Doctor, and while they are different ages, have different appearances and personalities, they are all aspects of the same character. This is probably one of the things that makes the show just so brilliant, and likely why it’s managed to stay on the air and quite so immensely popular for so long.

After its cancellation in 1989, it was off the air for a total of 17 years, with the exception of a pretty dreadful attempt of the BBC and Fox to re-launch the show with a TV movie in 1996, starring Paul McGann as the Eight Doctor. This attempt failed spectacularly. In 2005, BBC brought the show back again, starring Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor and Billie Piper as his companion, and this time it did not fail. It’s been one of the biggest television successes since the return, and over ten million watched the end of the hugely popular Tenth Doctor (the lovely David Tennant)’s era on New Year’s Day this year.

As well as the TV show, there have always been novels published about the Doctor’s adventures as well. While the show was on the air, these were usually novelizations of the television episodes, but once the show was off the air, the novels was the only way the fans could get new adventures. From 1991, a series of books was launched, the Virgin New Adventures, which served for a lot of fans as a continuation of the TV series, starring the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy). Only one novel featured the Eight Doctor, who on telly has otherwise only appeared in the aforementioned dreadful TV movie. He does, however, feature as the Doctor in several series of audio dramas and later got his own series of novels published by the BBC.

But The Dying Days by Lance Parkin is the one Virgin New Adventures novel the Eight Doctor got. The Doctor’s companion is Professor Bernice “Benny” Summerfield, an archaeologist from the 26th Century, who first appeared in the Virgin New Adventures, but later in a series of novels and audio adventures of her own.

The book is clearly set shortly after his regeneration from the Seventh Doctor (shown in the TV movie), as Benny is expecting to meet a short, older man, and is surprised when he turns out to be younger, quite a bit taller, a lot more handsome and dressed in a Victorian velvet frock coat. She doesn’t have long to come to terms with the change before she and the Doctor witness a helicopter crash close by, and have to run to see if they can be of assistance.

Soon Benny and the Doctor have to try to stop Ice Warriors from taking over Britain with the help of sinister government officials – and despite it being a very action-packed adventure with an enormous space ship hovering over London and a potential army of Ice Warriors – there are never more than two Ice Warriors “on screen” at the same time. This is a direct response from the author to TV movie producer Philip Segal, who claimed that the reason the TV movie didn’t feature any monsters was because the budget wouldn’t stretch to more than two monster costumes, and “you can’t show an invasion story with only two creatures on screen at the same time”. Lance Parkin proves him very wrong, and if my husband hadn’t pointed this plot point out to me, I doubt I would even have realized that there aren’t hordes of Ice Warriors present in some of the scenes.

Fairly early after starting the Cannonball Read in November, I promised my husband that one of the books I would read would be a Doctor Who novel. Since he is the biggest Doctor Who fan I know, he has watched nearly every existing episode of the show, listened to most of the audio dramas, and read many of the novels. He promised me he would find one that I would enjoy, and as he knows I’m quite a fan of the Eight Doctor from the audio stories I’ve heard with him, and was very disappointed with the TV movie – he figured this would serve as a much worthier introduction to the Eight Doctor than the failed TV pilot.

I’m not even vaguely as big a fan of the show as my husband is, but I have greatly enjoyed BBC’s relaunch since 2005, and also watched and liked a selection of stories with pretty much all of the former Doctors. I’ve also listened to quite a few of the audio stories, but I’d never read one of the book, figuring they were a bit too much like licensed fanfic. Having seen quite a bit of the classic series helped when I read the book, as it does refer to quite a few of the Doctor’s previous adventures and companions. I do not, however, think that someone who had only seen the new show, or who didn’t know a lot of the back-story of the Doctor, would have any trouble picking up this book and enjoying it. If you’ve never heard of the show, it may not be the best introduction, but as a casual fan of Doctor Who it was a fun read.

And with that, I finish my Cannonball Challenge for this year. I will try to keep blogging, and will absolutely be taking part in any further reading challenges that Pajiba issues.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

CBR 51: "The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever" by Julia Quinn

Publisher: Piatkus Books
Page count: 320 pages
Date begun: May 19th, 2010
Date finished: May 20th, 2010

WARNING! CONTAINS SPOILERS!

Miss Miranda Cheever, daughter of an absent-minded baronet, has loved her best friend's older brother since she was ten years old. Now she is nineteen, and he is recently widowed. As Miranda's father tends to forget that she even exists (she is not some dusty Greek tome he can translate), she has practically been raised alongside her best friend, Lady Olivia Bevelstoke (heroine of Julia Quinn's What Happens in London - a delightful book). That the Viscount Turner therefore sees her more as a sister than as a potential love interest seems nearly inevitable.

Nigel Bevelstoke, Viscount Turner, does not mourn his recently deceased wife. She died when riding to meet her lover, pregnant with another man's child. Turner married when he was young (20) and optimistic, and has had all his illusions about love shattered. He is angry and bitter and determined never to marry again, no matter how vexing his mother may find this idea. But when his sister decides that it would be a brilliant idea for Miranda to marry their brother, so she and Miranda can always be sisters, he finds himself very upset by the idea.

I really love most of Julia Quinn's books, and had actually avoided The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever for a long time, as I know a lot of her fans are not too fond of it. I have now discovered why. While many of Julia Quinn's books feature spirited and sensible heroines and really attractive and intelligent heroes, amazingly witty and sparkling dialogues and really satisfying romances - this book, while still quite sweet, had too many things that annoyed me.

First of all, I can accept that Turner had trouble with trusting women because his first wife was an unfaithful beeyatch, but suddenly kissing your sister's best friend just because you're drunk and upset, and she's there - not cool. He seems to get carried away and jumping her multiple times, and swears he will avoid her in future, just to end up seducing her at a house party, shortly after she has blurted out that she has loved him for a decade. They end up getting married, and while he soon discovers that he didn't really hate marriage - just marriage to his former shrew of a viscountess. This doesn't mean that he can actually tell his pretty awesome wife that he loves her. Not until she nearly dies at the end is he able to get over his broody hangups to realize that he doesn't want to lose her.

Miranda is a pretty likable heroine, but can be annoying too. I get that she loved Turner, but letting herself get seduced and knocked up was not what such a supposedly sensible and pragmatic heroine would do. Especially after she has commented negatively on the judgment of another acquaintance who had to get married after getting seduced. She then decides that since Turner clearly doesn't love her, she does not want to marry him, and conveniently miscarries the baby she's carrying. She seems completely unfazed by losing a baby, even though it is explained that her mother had a history of miscarrying and that's the reason Miranda is an only child. When she ends up marrying Turner after all, I do understand her frustration that he is completely unable to appreciate what he has, and the fact that he can't get over his first wife's faithlessness.

Turner's callousness was definitely the biggest problem for me. After he seduces Miranda, he goes away to visit a friend, and stays away for six weeks, without sending her so much as a note. Miranda has to deal with realizing she's pregnant and try to figure out how to avoid a scandal all on her own. I never really understood why in the world he was worthy of being loved by Miranda for so long, and though she could probably have done better married to the younger brother, who also seemed taken with her. Turner is clearly the worst hero Julia Quinn has created, and since I love so many of her other books, and they usually never fail to entertain me, the disappointment of this book, even having lowered my expectations due to the varying reviews, was all the greater. I'm hoping that Ten Things I Love About You, which is out in a few days' time is more up to her usual quality.

Friday, 14 May 2010

CBR 50: "The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker" by Leanna Renee Hieber

Publisher: Leisure Books
Page count: 324 pages
Date begun: May 13th, 2010
Date finished: May 14th, 2010

18-year-old Miss Percy (a nickname, her real name is a lot more feminine) Parker arrives at Athens Academy in London, having left the convent where she was left when her mother died in childbirth. She has nothing to remember her parents by, except a phoenix pendant she wears every day. Percy is an albino, with milky-white skin and hair, and pale, nearly luminescent eyes very sensitive to sunlight. All her life she has lived shrouded in veils and gloves, with tinted glasses to shade her eyes, and to keep people around her from being upset by her eerie appearance. She has a remarkable affinity for languages, being able to learn them almost as soon as she's heard them. She has been haunted by strange visions all her life, and can see, and speak to, the ghosts she so resembles.

At Athens Academy, not all the faculty are what they appear. Miss Rebecca Thompson, the headmistress, and Professor Alexi Rychman, a brooding and mysterious scientist, are both part of a small group known as the Guard, whose task it is to protect London against supernatural threat and something known as the Darkness. All six of the Guard were called to duty when they were only teens, and for nearly 20 years they have waited for their prophesied seventh member, whose coming will increase their powers and abilities, but also set in motion a possible war against the Darkness.

When Miss Parker arrives at the school, and shortly after, the stunningly beautiful and mysterious Miss Lucille Linden approaches their group seeking refuge from her cruel master, it seems as if the Prophecy will be fulfilled at last. But which of the remarkable women is the true seventh member, and which is the evil minion sent to lure them into further danger? Professor Rychman clearly wishes it to be Miss Parker, as the two are inexorably drawn to each other, despite the impropriety of a teacher-pupil relationship. But could the long years of waiting have dulled his instincts?

The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker is the first part in a series, a fact I only discovered after I started reading it. I would classify it as a historical fantasy with romantic elements, but while some might disagree, I did not think that the couple getting together was the main narrative driving the plot - the finding of the prophesied seventh member to help the fight against evil was more important. I saw one review that mentioned steampunk, I don't know why, as as far as I could tell, there are no unusual technical innovations, the setting appeared to be Victorian London, albeit a London haunted by ghosts and the occasional hellhound.

The supernatural threat that the Guard are battling, does not seem to involve vampires and werewolves and other such paranormal fantasy fare. Simply ghosts and the occasional demonic possession. As the arrival of the seventh member grows near, a demonic multi-headed beast haunts the street of London and brutally murders prostitutes (yes, in this book, Jack the Ripper is a hellhound). All the members of the Guard can see ghosts, but only the timid Miss Parker appears to be able to talk to them.

Miss Percy Parker is an unusual heroine. Named after a goddess of Greek myth, she is used to people being frightened and unnerved by her otherworldly looks. She is very self-conscious of her ghostlike appearance, and having grown up in a convent, is afraid that if people find out about her abilities to communicate with ghosts, her visions and portentous dreams, they will think her insane and have her committed. She is rather shy, studious and timid, and makes her first true friend at the Academy. She also falls head over heels for the tall, dark and brooding Prof. Rychman, and despairs that mathematics, his chosen subject, is the one that appears a complete impossibility for her to learn.

Alexi Rychman is a classic Gothic, romantic hero. He is gloomy and tortured, and his friends constantly make Hamlet jokes around him. Having convinced himself that he is fated to love the seventh member of their group, he has held himself distant from anything even vaguely resembling a romantic relationship for years, and he takes his duties as the leader of the Guard very seriously - thus leading to much anguish when he becomes unsure whether his feelings for Percy are caused by too many years of loneliness, or if she is really the answer to the prophecy.

The story is filled with allusions to Greek myth, which I liked. The book has some flaws as well, though. It is revealed to the reader quite early on who the evil minion is, and instead of this causing added tension, it just makes the members of the Guard seem rather gullible and stupid, despite all of them having good educations and preparing for this event for decades. Speaking of the other members of the Guard, with the exception of Miss Thompson (who frankly isn't given that much of a fully-formed character), most of the members are poorly sketched out, and the reader is given very little insight into who they are and what drives them beyond some rough character traits. However, since this is the first book in what appears to be a series, I'm hoping they will be more developed as the series goes on.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

CBR 49: "Mansfield Park" by Jane Austen

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Page count: 480 pages
Date begun: April 26th, 2010
Date finished: May 11th, 2010

Fanny Price, the eldest of nine siblings, is rescued from a life of relative poverty and drudgery when she is taken in by her wealthy relatives, Sir and Lady Bertram. At first she is terrified in the huge house with her well-meaning, but rather selfish and careless cousins, but her cousin Edmund (the younger of the two Bertram brothers) takes pity on her and shows her kindness and friendship. Thus starts the love Fanny feels for Edmund throughout the book.

Fanny is small and sickly, and even as she grows older, seems to tire and wear out faster than her livelier cousins. While she has the benefits of a good home and an education, she is always a bit outside the Bertram family, and her other aunt, Mrs Norris, never stops making her aware that she is lucky to be there on their sufferance. She becomes the helper and companion of the air-headed Lady Bertram, and puts up with a lot of fairly ill treatment with grace and forbearance.

While Sir Thomas Bertram and his eldest son are away in the West Indies, the young and handsome Crawford siblings arrive in the area, and shake things up considerably. The siblings are orphaned, good-looking and wealthy, and Henry Crawford, while a gentleman, is clearly a bit of a rake. Mary Crawford, his charming sister, has a fortune of nearly 20, 000 pounds and feels drawn to Edmund, even though he is the younger son, and planning to become a clergyman. She makes an effort to befriend Fanny, and seems amused by her brother's flirtation with both the Bertram sisters, even though Maria Bertram, the older, is engaged to another man.

Once Maria Bertram marries her rich, but ridiculous and silly suitor, and her younger sister Julia is hurt by Henry Crawford's attentions to her sister, he sets out to make Fanny Price fall in love with him instead. This backfires, and he falls in love with her instead, finally offering for her. Fanny is appalled, having quietly watched as he toyed with her cousins, and as she's in love with Edmund, refuses him, multiple times. Edmund, however, only has eyes for the lively Miss Crawford.

Mansfield Park is probably the least popular of Jane Austen's novels, and it is the only one I had never read before. I can see why it is known as "the dull one" and why many readers would have been a bit disappointed when this came out the year after Pride and Prejudice, as the novels really are extremely different. Pride and Prejudice was of course written many years before it was published, in a time when Austen was younger and more optimistic. But compared with the wit and sparkle and strong emotions of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park fails to satisfy. Fanny Price is kind, and self-sacrificing and a genuinely good person, but she's also a bit of a drip. She seems to burst in to tears at the drop of a hat, and she would never dream of doing the wrong thing or saying something mean, even though her relatives, especially Mrs. Morris, often treat her badly. She just suffers on and loves Edmund from a distance.

Edmund Bertram is again a very good person, but not exactly a Mr. Darcy calibre hero. He spends most of the book in love with someone else, only to realize towards the end that she does not hold the high moral character he looks for in a wife, and noticing his saintly and ever-present cousin in a different light for the first time.

Mary and Henry Crawford may not be upstanding moral characters, but they were generally a lot more fun than Fanny and Edmund. In some ways, I ended the book thinking that they'd both made lucky escapes, free to marry other people (although Austen in her last chapter makes it clear that they don't). Henry Crawford may have caused a scandal, but in a more modern romance, he would totally be the hero, the rake that gets reformed, and I would probably be cheering him on.

So now I've finally read all of Jane Austen's novels. I must admit, I can't see myself rereading Mansfield Park, like I do the others. I didn't have to actually put it down because it bored me to tears, but I did read two other books in between finishing it, and it does not amuse and entertain at all as much as her other novels, for all that it's a good work full of sharp observations and pithy commentary on Regency society and the social differences of the time.

Friday, 7 May 2010

CBR 48: "Dead in the Family" by Charlaine Harris

Publisher: Ace Hardcover
Page count: 320 pages
Date begun: May 6th, 2010
Date finished: May 7th, 2010

WARNING! CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE PREVIOUS SOOKIE STACKHOUSE NOVELS, ESPECIALLY DEAD AND GONE

Sookie Stackhouse is slowly recovering from her near-death experience in the previous book. She realizes that she has a lot of pent up anger, and she has certainly changed from the innocent, rather lonely young woman of the first books. Now she's in a relationship with a very powerful vampire, but she also worries that their connection could be weakening his resolve in the continuing power struggle with the vampires. She is also still not entirely safe, some may try to threaten or kill her to get to him.

She is no longer so alone, though, and realizes, partially through examining the losses of all those who have died around her, that she has many close ties, to both the human and supernatural community. Her recently widowed brother seems to have found happiness again, and has become a lot less self-centred as a result of his losses. Two of her friends are pregnant, and while not everyone is delighted at the recent coming-out of the werewolves and other two-natured creatures, Sookie is loyal and fiercely defends her boss and other friends.

Her previous roommate moves out and goes back to New Orleans, but she acquires another, in the form of her super hot strip club owning faerie cousin, who claims he feels lonely after the death of his sisters. Claude is not the only faerie left around after the recent war, and Sookie is worried when she is told there are clear signs of unknown faeries in the forest around her house. Then a fresh body is discovered, and someone has clearly buried it there to get her in trouble.

Added to all this, her boyfriend's maker and his new protegee shows up in town and creates all manner of trouble, both for Sookie and her undead lover. Her boyfriend's "brother" was turned when he was 13, and has a very troubled past - which seems to have turned him insane.

I preferred this book to Dead and Gone, possibly because I like my Sookie Stackhouse books to be a lighthearted entertainment, and the main character of a book being kidnapped, tortured and nearly killed does not spell out lighthearted to me. In this one, Sookie has both physical and mental scars, but has emerged safe and strong, if a lot less innocent and kindhearted. Dead in the Family was one of the better of the ten books, but Charlaine Harris does seem to like end her books very abruptly. I almost wondered if there was a page or two missing when I got to the end, before I remembered that she often ends her books that way.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

CBR 47: "Wicked Becomes You" by Meredith Duran

Publisher: Pocket
Page count: 402 pages
Date begun: May 5th, 2010
Date finished: May 6th, 2010

Gwen Maudsley is known as the nicest girl in London. She will knit for orphans until her wrists ache, charm condescending old dowagers and never say an unkind word to anyone. Once she is jilted by her second fiancee, this time at the altar, she decides that maybe marrying into nobility and being pleasant to everyone may not be the way to go. If three million pounds and a pleasing manner isn't enough to secure her a husband, what is it actually going to take? To make matters worse, her weaselly fiancee has fled to Paris, and taken the ring of her beloved dead brother with him. She is determined to go to Paris to retrieve the ring. It's time for Gwen to stop being nice, and try being wicked.

Alex Ramsey may just be the man to help her on her road to adventure. He was her brother Richard's best friend and business partner, and promised Richard on his deathbed that he would take care of Gwen. He has always tried to honour the promise from a safe distance, as he always found her a little bit too fascinating up close. While in Paris trying to track down the man who bought some of the family property in order to buy it back, he is alerted to Gwen's undesirable presence by his twin sisters. It quickly becomes clear that Gwen is not interested in going back to London to try for yet another engagement, and that she doesn't just want to track down the cowardly Viscount who has her brother's ring. She wants to experience the more unusual haunts of Paris, and if Alex won't help her, she will find someone else who will.

Meredith Duran has only written four romance novels so far, but each one is better than the next, and Wicked Becomes You may be my favourite one yet. Gwen's transformation from the society darling who lives to please everyone, but who has also worked so terribly hard never to really get properly attached to anyone after her brother's death, to an outspoken, self-assured woman is wonderfully done. She also, very gratifyingly, does not go from innocent society miss to liberated adventuress overnight, there are definitely moments where she is shocked and a bit scared by the new situations she finds herself in.

Alex is also a great character, who suffered from crippling asthma as a child, has spent most of his life escaping the expectations of his family and their continuing fears for his health. He blames himself for Richard's death, and has continued to run the successful business they founded, despite his family's disapproval (although they benefit greatly from the money he makes). He has been fighting his attraction to Gwen for years, but this becomes a lot more difficult for him when they have to travel to the south of France to pursue the man he believes defrauded his brother out of some of the family land. He has always known she has been repressing her true self to fit into polite society, and the person she emerges to become even more fascinating than the girl she was.

The romance obviously does not run entirely smoothly, but all the obstacles thrown into the couple's path seem believable, and the way their relationship develops throughout the book is heart-warming and occasionally took my breath away. The book has all the things I look for in a good romance, and I'm so glad it lived up to my already quite high expectations. Meredith Duran is now on my Must Buy list, and I will be pre-ordering her books from now on.