Friday, 28 June 2013

#CBR5 Book 67. "Ella Enchanted" by Gail Carson Levine

Page count: 240 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Ella lives in a fairytale world, where there are ogres, giants, fairies and magic. When she is born, poor Ella is given the gift of obedience by a very misguided fairy, who refuses to take it back, even after the appalled pleading of Ella's mother and fairy godmother. Lucinda the Fairy is of the opinion that this is a wonderful gift to bestow on a child, and so Ella grows up having to obey any direct order given to her, and knowing that if someone were to ask her to chop off her own head, she'd have to obey. Luckily, the only ones who actually know the truth about Ella's "gift" are her mother, and the loyal cook. Ella also learns to be creative in the ways in which she obeys any orders. If asked to fetch something, she might throw it at the person, or when asked to hold something, she might march around with the object, forcing the other person to follow her around in order to get to it.

Then Ella's beloved mother gets sick, and dies. Her father, a merchant, is barely ever around. When he is home, he's worried that Ella's manners and accomplishments aren't necessarily all those a young lady should possess, and against Ella's wishes, he sends her off to finishing school, with the odious daughters of a friend. On the way there, Hattie, the eldest of the two girls, discovers that Ella, however reluctant, has to do exactly what she's told, and she exploits this as much as she can. Olive, the younger, and much stupider sister, is not let in on the "game". Because of her "gift", Ella actually becomes quite accomplished at "finishing". She has to obey orders, and most of the teachers there speak in nothing else. She also makes a good friend, and keeps in touch with Mandy (the cook and her fairy godmother) and others she cares about, including Prince Charmant, through the pages of a magical book.

Ella is desperate to have her birthday curse broken, and when she discovers that Lucinda loves weddings and christenings, she runs away from school to find the fairy at a giants' wedding across the kingdom. On the way, she has several adventures, including nearly being eaten by ogres. After the wedding, her father declares that he's completely broke, and either he or Ella will have to marry someone wealthy. As Ella is only fifteen, it ends up being her father, who marries Hattie and Olive's horrid mother. Once the bride discovers that Ella's father is a pauper, and Ella's father goes off to trade as far away from his new family as possible, she forces Ella to be a servant, and Hattie and Olive make sure that Ella get the most menial and horrible chores in the house. The only thing keeping Ella's spirits up, is her correspondence with Prince Char - but because of her terrible "gift", she could never marry a prince, she could put him and the kingdom in far too much danger. She becomes even more determined to get her curse broken.

I first heard about this book years ago, but never read it. I then saw the film, starring Anne Hathaway, never realising that there are only the tiniest of similarities between the story of the book, and the plot of the film. If you are one of the people not terribly impressed with the movie (which let's face it, is not exactly one of Hathaway's finest), and has discounted the book because of it, do yourself a favour and find a copy as soon as possible. It's a delightful book, and such a creative retelling of the Cinderella tale. There are no tiny animals helping with dress making, nor any birds pecking out the stepsister's eyes (seriously, Grimm's original fairy tales can scar a child for life!), but there are glass slippers, and a coach made from a pumpkin, and evil stepsisters, and a very charming prince, who likes Ella just the way she is, and doesn't at all want her all "finished" at school. Ella is spirited, and clever and brave, and a wonderful role model to young girls. Much better than any Disney princess I can think of.

#CBR5 Book 66. "Fly by Night" by Frances Hardinge

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Plot summary by Goodreads, because it's much more pithy than anything I myself could write:

After her father dies, Mosca Mye flees the hamlet where she grew up. With her goose companion and a smooth-tongued swindler, Eponymous Clent, she heads for the city of Mandelion - and a better life. There she finds herself living by her wits among highwaymen, spies and smugglers, insane rulers and floating coffeehouses. With peril at every turn, Mosca uncovers a dark plot to terrorize the people of Mandelion, and soon merry mayhem leads to murder...

Mosca is a clever child, living in a town where most people can't read, in a world where if something is found printed without the authorising seal of the Stationers' Guild, it's seen as illegal, and must be burned. The world she lives in resembles ours, in the 18th Century, to some extent. Various Guilds of Tradesmen vie for power in the various cities of the Realm, while Parliament debate who should inherit the throne. About ten years past, there was a terrible Civil War, when the religious radical group the Birdcatchers were all hunted down and destroyed. In Mandelion, the ruling Duke is clearly going slowly insane, his beautiful and enigmatic sister is trying to keep the Locksmith's Guild (who have the keys to any door and lock) from completely taking over, and there is someone with an illegal printing press, encouraging sedition and stirring up dangerous thoughts. Mosca is thrust straight into the middle of all of this, with her somewhat dubious companion, self-proclaimed wordsmith and con man, Eponymous Clent. Accompanied by a foul tempered gander and wanting desperately to better her situation in the world, Mosca agrees to help the alluring Lady Tamarind (the Duke's sister) try to figure out what is going on.

Mosca was taught to read by her father, who fled Mandelion years ago. She's fiercely intelligent, and hates her staid village life. In a town where no one else reads, she soaks up new words and learning like a sponge. She's so seduced by the silver-tongued Clent and "his way with words" that she rescues him from the stocks (and accidentally burns down her uncle's mill), and they go on the run together. She's learned early not to entirely trust anyone, which is a good quality to have in Mandelion, where the political situation is so fraught that the smallest spark could ignite another civil uprising.

This is a lovely and exciting book, wonderfully written - not surprising considering how much Mosca loves words so much. Frances Hardinge doesn't talk down to the middle grade/young adult audience she writes for, and I was amazed when I discovered that this was, in fact, her debut novel. I first read about this book on the The Book Smugglers' blog, where they're also highly enthusiastic about her other books. While this is my first Hardinge novel, it certainly won't be my last.


Thursday, 27 June 2013

#CBR5 Book 65. "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" by Neil Gaiman

Page count: 181 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Our unnamed narrator returns to the old farm near his childhood home after a funeral in Sussex. He remembers his childhood friend Lettie Hempstock, who lived in the old farmhouse, at the end of the lane near his house, and while looking out over the pond in the back (which Lettie claimed was an ocean), he slowly remembers the strange and horrifying events of his childhood, after one of his parents' lodgers stole their car and killed himself, not far from the house. There are dark and inexplicable consequences, and the three generations of Hempstock women help our narrator try to set things to rights.

This is Neil Gaiman's first book for adults since Anansi Boys in 2005. As that book is probably my least favourite of all his works, with the notable exception of Marvel 1602 and Eternals (which were so boring I don't even have the words), I was hoping that the excellent writing in his books for children and young adults would carry through to this story as well. I had very high expectations, because for all that I think his shorter fiction (comic book issues, short stories) is what he does best, it was just so unexpected and exciting to discover, early this year, that he had a new book out. Of course, this dark fable is a sliver of a book compared to, for instance American Gods. It's much more like Coraline, both in size and tone.

If you like Neil Gaiman, and you've read things by him before, you will recognise a lot of different things in this book. There's a child protagonist, there's really creeping and effective horror, there's a wealth of mythology and magical realism and the locations are so faithfully rendered that you feel as if you're in the story. I also think, as confirmed by the author himself, and his wife, Amanda Palmer, that it's his most personal book yet. It's thoughtful, and magical and creepy as hell, and I absolutely loved every last page of it, so much so that I also used one of my Audible credits to get the audio book as well. That way I was able to have Neil Gaiman read me parts of the story, with his wonderfully soothing voice, which came in very handy when I had to clean my office at work, and really only wanted to read. If you're not a fan of Gaiman, this book is likely to convert you. If you are a fan, you need to read this book. It's wonderful, in every sense of the word.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

#CBR5 Book 64. "True" by Erin McCarthy

Page count: 222 pages
Rating: 2.5 stars

Rory Macintosh is a shy med student, who shares a dorm room with two ditzy party girls. When they discover that Rory is still a virgin, they seem to think this is such a burden for her that they misguidedly go behind her back and pay someone to help her lose it. Said guy is Tyler Mann, a tattooed, struggling bad boy in the EMT program, who just wants to get a job as quickly as possible, so he can save his younger brothers from their drug addict mother. He's under no illusions that he's good enough for Rory, but he agrees to her roommates' dumb plan (never intending to take their money), so he can get closer to her, and get to know her better.

Rory is worried about spending time with Tyler at first, as her roommate Jessica used to hook up with him. When she overhears her roommates talking about their "brilliant scheme", she's upset, but also puzzled, as while she's been spending quite a bit of time with Tyler, he's not really been obviously trying to get her into bed. Tyler keeps warning her away from him, especially after she finds out about his super dysfunctional home life. Rory's dad is none too happy about her dating what he sees as a clear delinquent. Then Tyler's mother does something that can destroy all Tyler's chances of a decent future, and Rory has to decide what she really wants.

New adult is a newly emerging genre label, and from the books I've read classified thus so far, it means you write a contemporary romance where you take a college age good girl, and set her up with a wounded college age bad boy. Everything suggests that they shouldn't be together, but somehow they make it work anyway. Unlike in YA, there is usually a sex scene or two, but it's nothing particularly raunchy - this is NEW adult, after all, not actual adult. This is one of the duller examples of the genre, and if I hadn't been stuck in the woods with the kids I teach during a sleepover, needing something to read while I stayed awake at night, I'm not entirely sure I'd have bothered with it. The initial plot contrivance to get the characters together just seemed very forced, and the author so went out of her way to throw obstacles in the couple's path, that I'm honestly not sure they can have a realistic long term HEA. This is, however, the first book in a series, so I'm assuming Rory and Tyler will show up as secondary characters in later books, and the readers (if they can be bothered to continue with the series) will see if they actually make it in the end.

#CBR5 Book 63. "The Light Between Oceans" by M.L. Steadman

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Tom Sherbourne was a soldier in Europe during World War I. Deeply affected by his experiences, and the guilt he feels for the lives he took, he signs up for a job as a lighthouse keeper, taking postings at the most remote and lonely lighthouses around Australia. When a posting becomes available on Janus Rock, a place so remote and lonely, other lighthouse keepers have been driven mad, Tom agrees to go, first as a temporary replacement, and later as the official lighthouse keeper. The only human contact is the supply boat that comes every three months.

Tom falls in love with a young woman, Isabel, and despite his initial reservations, marries her and brings her to Janus Rock. To begin with, they are blissfully happy, alone with each other in a place nearly a day's journey from the coast. After several years, things are more strained. Isabel has miscarried twice, and two weeks after her third pregnancy ended in stillbirth, she first believes herself to be hallucinating, when she hears a baby's cries on the island. A small boat, with a dead man and a living baby, has washed up on shore. Tom, always meticulous in his record keeping, wants to report the  findings to the authorities right away. Isabel begs him to wait, just a day, so she can spend some time with the baby. Against all his better judgement, Tom agrees, and he's then persuaded by his desperate grieving wife that they should just bury the dead man, and claim the baby as their own, naming her Lucy. No one knows that Isabel miscarried, they can just pass off the foundling child as their own.

Being on lighthouse duty means the couple only get holiday on shore every three years. Little Lucy is already two years old by the time the Sherbournes return to the mainland, and discover the truth about where their baby really came from. There is a grieving young woman in town, wondering about the fate of her husband and nearly newborn child, lost at sea so long ago. Her wealthy father has promised a fortune in reward for anyone who can give information. Can the Sherbournes continue their deception in the face of someone else's obvious grief?

I am not the first person to read and love this book. I'm not even the first Cannonballer. It's currently got over ten thousand 5 star reviews on Goodreads and over fifteen thousand 4 star reviews. It also won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction last year. So it seemed like a pretty obvious choice to pick as my first "Read a book everyone else has read" for my Book Bingo card. The fact that I can also use it for my Monthly Keyword challenge, my A to Z challenge AND my historical fiction challenge, was just a bonus. Frankly, with the amount of reading challenges I'm doing at the moment, it's rare that the books don't at least qualify for at least three different ones.

Enough about my crazy need to make my reading more competitive - what was so awesome about this book? Was it the heart-breaking subject matter? Was it the lyrical writing that was so beautiful you just want to stop and read it out loud? Was it the interesting and slightly unusual setting and time period? Was it the skillful way the story was unfolded, making it nearly impossible to put the book down because you just had to read one more page, one more chapter? Was it the wonderfully rendered and extremely complex protagonists, who you just wanted to hug and comfort, at the same time as you often wanted to shake them until their teeth rattled? Was it the great cast of supporting characters, who again didn't feel like characters in a book, but real live people who you just had the fortune to be experiencing on the page? Unsurprisingly, it was all of these things. The fact that this is Stedman's first novel fills me with awe and admiration and bitter jealous rage all at once. I can't wait to see what she writes next. Do yourself a favour and read this book. You are unlikely to regret it.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

#CBR5 Book 62. "Gameboard of the Gods" by Richelle Mead

Page count: 464 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Book summary from Goodreads, cause I'm lazy, and because it covers all the pertinent points:

In a futuristic world nearly destroyed by religious extremists, Justin March lives in exile after failing in his job as an investigator of religious groups and supernatural claims. But Justin is given a second chance when Mae Koskinen comes to bring him back to the Republic of United North America (RUNA). Raised in an aristocratic caste, Mae is now a member of the military's most elite and terrifying tier, a soldier with enhanced reflexes and skills. 

When Justin and Mae are assigned to work together to solve a string of ritualistic murders, they soon realize that their discoveries have exposed them to terrible danger. As their investigation races forward, unknown enemies and powers greater than they can imagine are gathering in the shadows, ready to reclaim the world in which humans are merely game pieces on their board.

Gameboard of the Gods, the first instalment of Richelle Mead's Age of X series, will have all the elements that have made her YA Vampire Academy and Bloodlines such mega successes: sexy, irresistible characters; romantic and mythological intrigue; and relentless action and suspense.

I included the last "promo" bit as well, because this is the bit where I'm not entirely in agreement with whoever at Penguin writes the cover blurbs. In the last quarter of the book, there is absolutely quite a lot of action and suspense. To start with, however, the book is actually quite slow, as we are introduced to Justin, who is in exile in (decadent and clearly not as awesome as RUNA) Panama. Considering he comes from a society where organised religion and the supernatural is seen as something bad and dangerous, and he seems to keep the company of two wise cracking ravens (named Horatio and Magnus - or are they?) that only he can see, it's not surprising that his employers forced him into exile. Trying to ignore them, and the deal they're trying to make him seal, means Justin numbs his senses to an epic degree, with alcohol or drugs or casual hookups. Justin can't believe his luck, when after four years, he's promised his job back, a generous pay rise, and pretty much anything he asks for as long as he returns immediately. If he can't solve the ritualistic murders before the next full moon, though, his chances of staying in RUNA may be blown forever.

Mae Koskinen is a praetorian guard, the most elite of the soldiers swearing their allegiance to RUNA. With no organised religion, loyalty to the Republic is the closest most people come to beliefs. At the funeral of her ex-lover, Mae loses her temper, and gets into a vicious fight. As a reprimand, she's no longer allowed to wear the signature black uniform of the praetorians, and she's asked to assist in bringing Justin back to RUNA, then to act as his bodyguard while he investigates the murders. The job is complicated by the fact that Justin and Mae have a one night stand shortly after they first meet, when neither of them know who the other really is. Despite being irresistibly drawn towards Mae, Justin can't risk acting on his attraction a second time without binding himself into the service of the mysterious power who sent him the ravens (three guesses as to who this is - I called it on page 2 or 3, when the names of the ravens were revealed). Justin plays up his carousing and  womanizing ways to great effect, to keep Mae disgusted with him and at a safe distance.

There's a third POV in the book as well. Tessa is a sixteen-year-old Panamanian girl, and the daughter of the man who took Justin in when he was exiled. Justin promised to try to get their entire family entry into RUNA, but can only secure a student visa for Tessa. Through her chapters, the reader gets a lot of exposition and world building. RUNA is a much more technologically advanced and ideologically different from the "provinces" Tessa is from. She's constantly amazed at how prejudicial and narrow minded most people she meets are, despite them coming from an allegedly much more civilized nation. She's also sharp as a tack, and helps Justin and Mae with several aspects of their investigation.

While the blurb also promises "sexy, irresistible characters", one of the things I liked was that neither Justin nor Mae are all that likable at first. Justin is a born manipulator and extremely convinced of his own brilliance. Pretty much the first thing we encounter in the book is Mae beating a fellow soldier to a pulp. She's distant, somewhat elitist and clearly extremely dangerous. Yet as the book progresses, you get to know the characters better, and it's made perfectly clear that a book or two (hopefully, I hate when unresolved sexual tension is dragged out for too long) they will clearly become an item.

I don't know if it's me, or whether the references to various mythologies and gods was supposed to be quite as obvious as I found them. To be fair, I'm more than averagely interested in mythology, and I've also read a lot of urban fantasy, where quite a lot of various deities and belief systems feature. I liked that in a society where humans have tried to banish anything to do with religion, there's now such a power vacuum that the various gods are trying to gain supporters directly and seize as much control as possible. As I said, I can't think that the ravens weren't supposed to be a pretty huge clue as to who's trying to get Justin to become one of his acolytes, and I figured out the goddess who was trying to gain control of Mae with the second clue (to be fair, given the clue, it was bound to be that goddess - it always seems to end up being her).

While the book started slow, and I wasn't entirely sure what to make of it, by about a third of the way in, I was hooked, and now I have another Richelle Mead series to wait impatiently for new books in. I just hope that, unlike the Dark Swan series, this one doesn't end disappointingly.

Disclaimer - this book was an ARC granted to me from Penguin Group Dutton through NetGalley. I've not let that influence my review in any way, and have given my opinions as honestly and ramblingly as I always do, whether I've bought the book myself, or been gifted it.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

#CBR5 Book 61. "Fangirl" by Rainbow Rowell

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 5 stars
Expected publication date: September 10th, 2013

Cather and Wren are twins (their mother hadn't planned on twins but always wanted to name a girl Catherine - so just split the name). Their whole life has been spent together, sharing a room, sharing interests, especially their love of Simon Snow (think basically Harry Potter, if Draco was his room mate, and also a vampire). Cath and Wren write fan fic read by tens of thousands of fans, while everyone awaits the release of the eight and final Simon Snow book. Cath doesn't really think much will change when they go off to college, but then  Wren declares that she wants to live in a different dorm from Cath, and spends most of her time having the crazy party girl freshman experience, leaving Cath anxious and adrift in a new and confusing place.

Cath isn't even sure she wants to be at college. She's worried about their father, who manages fine most of the time, when his girls remind him to eat, and do the dishes, and the laundry. His mental health really isn't as stable as it ought to be, and Cath doesn't think he should be by himself. For the first couple of weeks, she barely even leaves her dorm room, just holes up and eats energy bars, goes to lectures and continues her fan fiction grand opus. The only people she sees are Reagan (who seems very popular, but kind of aggressive and angry all the time), and Reagan's boyfriend Levi, who works at Starbucks and studies farming and is happy and cheerful all the time, winning even the bitterest of souls over with his charming attitude. Reagan decides to "adopt" Cath, and forces her to come to meals (where they quietly mock and make up stories about everyone else there).

There are other reasons Cath has trouble adjusting to college: her writing professor, who Cath admires greatly, is completely dismissive of and refuses to support fan fiction. She won't let Cath hand in anything even vaguely inspired by Simon Snow, and keeps pushing Cath to write things well outside her comfort zone. Wren keeps pulling away from Cath, and seems to spend most of her time getting dangerously drunk with her roommate. She also wants to reconnect with the girls' mother, who abandoned them the week after 9/11 to "find herself". Still scarred by the betrayal and remembering how much it affected their father, Cath wants nothing to do with her, or even to hear her mentioned. Finally, there's her father's health. Cath is right to be worried about her dad, who while he tries to sound chipper, really doesn't deal as well without his daughters as he'd like to think.

It's no secret that I love Rainbow Rowell. Attachments was one of my top 3 books of 2011, and if I hadn't been made so intensely uncomfortable by Eleanor's home life in Eleanor and Park, I probably would have given that five stars too. I literally screamed with joy when I saw that I'd been granted an ARC by St. Martin's Press through NetGalley. To say that my expectations were high was not an understatement. After completing it, I can say that Attachments is probably still my favourite, but this is a worthy second place.

I've been a fangirl of many things over the years, but I've never really understood the appeal of fan fiction, be it the reading or writing thereof. Obviously I'm aware that it exists, and that thousands of people around the world spend their time, like Cath in this book, on forums, and message boards and fan fiction sites. I'd rather just re-read the books I loved, or watch the TV shows, rather than reading someone else's interpretation of the characters and stories that I loved. Yet Rowell writes Cath so well, that while I was urging her to break out of her comfort zone and live and meet boys and use her considerable writing talent to create her own character and worlds, rather than stay safe in the world of the fantasy characters she loved, I could also understand why it was important and necessary for her.

I can also add the Simon Snow books to the list of fictional books that I desperately want to get my hands on. The first instance of being almost more caught up in the fiction within the fiction was probably when I read Misery by Stephen King as a teenager. I would have been completely hooked on those books. I was upset that they didn't exist. I love the fact that I can read Richard Castle's actual Nikki Heat books. The various excerpts from Simon Snow books in Fangirl (usually at the end of each chapter) made me desperate to read more. I suspect I would enjoy them more than certainly the later Harry Potter books.

This is becoming a really long review, and while I've written a bit about Cath, I've not really covered much about the other wonderful characters in this book. Wren, who so understandably wants to try to define herself away from her identical twin sister. Their father, with his manic ideas and so much affection for his daughters. Reagan, Cath's roommate, and of course, Levi, who I fell madly in love with, and have added to the list of my many fictional boyfriends and future husbands. If you've even vaguely enjoyed a Rainbow Rowell book in the past, do yourself a favour and read this one. If you haven't, this is a great book to start with, although I suspect you might need to have some affinity to fandom of some kind to really sympathise fully with Cath. While I was given this ARC, I will totally pay full price for the book when it's actually released in September, and begin my impatient wait for Rowell's next book.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

#CBR5 Book 60. "Dare You To" by Katie McGarry

Page count: 479 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Dare You To is the sequel to Pushing the Limits, which I reviewed last year, but works fine on its own, and may even be better if you don't have any preconceived impressions of Beth from that book.

To say that Elizabeth "Beth" Risk has a sucky home life, would be an understatement. Beth's mum is an alcoholic and recreational drug user, with an abusive boyfriend. Yet Beth feels responsible for her father leaving them, years ago, and is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her mother out of jail, even if it means taking a beating now and again. Thanks to the help of her two best friends, Noah and Isaiah, she manages to stay mostly safe. Neither of the two boys think she should be protecting her mother the way she does. When Beth's mum smashes up her boyfriend's car, and Beth takes the blame for it, getting arrested so her mother doesn't violate her parole, the two foster care boys are relieved when Beth's uncle, Scott, arrives to bail her out of jail, and demands that she stay with him until she turns eighteen, even if it means they won't get to see her much anymore.

Scott is her father's younger brother, who knows exactly what sort of a dead beat Beth's father was. He left to become a baseball pro while Beth was still a little girl, and has just moved back into town with his wife. Unless Beth agrees to stay with him until she turns eighteen, and follow his rules, he'll make sure the police know all about Beth's mother and the things he found in her flat when he came looking for Beth. Defeated, Beth agrees, even though Scott's new wife is less than thrilled to have what she considers a severely messed up juvenile delinquent staying under her roof.

Ryan Stone is the local golden boy, whose baseball skills are likely to get him a career in the big leagues. Of course, most of the town don't know about the tensions he's experiencing at home, with his father shunning his older brother after he came out as gay, or that baseball may not be the only thing Ryan wants to focus on. His English teacher is pushing him to pursue his writing, and has even entered him into a big contest, but his father wants nothing to distract him from baseball games and showing off for talent scouts. He keeps his adrenaline up with constant dares, the hardest one in a while getting the phone number of a stand offish skater girl at Taco Bell. Imagine Ryan's surprise when the skater girl turns out to be the new girl in his school, and the niece of one of his baseball idols, Scott Risk? Of course, Beth still won't give him the time of day, and his friends up the dare from getting her phone number to getting her to agree to a date - but Ryan isn't worried. He never plays to lose, and he certainly intends to win this challenge.

Anyone who has read Pushing the Limits could be forgiven for thinking that Beth and Isaiah were clearly meant to end up together. McGarry even admits that when she was writing the first book, she fully intended them to become a couple. But things change, and never having been entirely convinced by their chemistry when they were supporting characters in Noah's book, I'm glad that McGarry changed her mind and developed new love interests for Beth and Isaiah (there's a sneak preview of Isaiah's book Crash Into You at the end of the book). While Isaiah is sweet, he never challenges or questions Beth, and he would certainly never push her out of her comfort zone.

Ryan is great. He's clearly so much more than your standard high school jock from the moment we meet him. While on the surface he has everything - looks, athletic skills, popularity, money - it's very obvious that he's desperately lonely after his beloved older brother left. He's clearly not really shared the true extent to his tense and uncomfortable home life after his father's autocratic decision to shun his eldest son with his closest friends. As well as being a star baseball player, he's apparently a great writer. He's strangely drawn to Beth from the first time they meet, and he's certainly not used to being outright rejected. At first, getting close to Beth is all about winning the dare, but the more time he spends with her, the more he realises that she's not actually what his first impressions, and the rumours about her, suggest.

Beth is fiercely loyal, even when that loyalty is undeserved and wholly misplaced. Her mother is an alcoholic and an addict, and Beth is the one who tries to make sure the bills are paid and they actually have food in the house. She feels that she cannot abandon her mother, as it's her fault that her father left them, even though he was a dead beat drug dealer, who would should clearly never have been allowed near women or kids. It's clear that Beth has taken beatings from her mother's abusive boyfriend more than once, just to deflect attention away from her mother. Noah and Isaiah try to keep her away from her home as much as possible, but they're foster kids, and don't exactly have the best resources. When her uncle Scott shows up, ready to swoop to the rescue after nearly a decade away, Beth just feels betrayed and she certainly doesn't want to give up her clothes and her friends and become someone she's not just because Scott has finally decided he can take care of her again.

Like in McGarry's last book, the chapters alternate between the protagonists' point of view, so you get to know both characters and their thoughts and emotions really well. It's a great way of making the reader sympathetic to the characters, and allows her to explore a situation from several angles. While I really liked McGarry's first book in the series, I enjoyed this one even more, possibly because while both Ryan and Beth's home lives were unpleasant and unenviable, they weren't as messed up as Echo's buried secrets. I'm very much looking forward to Isaiah's book, out in November, and will happily pay for it if I'm not lucky enough to get a NetGalley ARC the third time around.

This book was an ARC from Harlequin Australia, given to me through NetGalley. The book is on sale in hardcover and e-book, worldwide, now.

Monday, 17 June 2013

#CBR5 Book 59. "Once Upon A Tower" by Eloisa James

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Gowan is 22-year-old Duke of Kinross, who works desperately to set aright the chaos left on his estate by his drunken mother (who abandoned the family and left him to care for an illegitimate half-sister) and his debauched and irresponsible father. Every waking moment of his day is rigorously scheduled, so that he can give the proper attention to castle, his finances and his estates. He wants a dependable and hard-working wife, and while he generally believes English ladies to be soft, spoiled and frivolous, he can't afford to limit himself if he wants to find a good lady to be his duchess.

When he meets the young Lady Edith during her debut ball, he's instantly smitten. Angelic and serene, she barely speaks during the dances they share, and Gowan decides to propose marriage to her before someone else can sweep his dream woman off her feet. Of course, Edie was so feverish during her social debut that she was barely able to stand up, let alone remember who she danced with and what impression she may have made. Hence, she finds herself betrothed to a man she's not even sure she would recognize in a crowd. Still, after some correspondence, and time spent together when neither is feverish, the two hit it off, and the marriage date is actually brought forward.

When I finished this book, I originally rated it 3 stars. I read the whole thing while travelling back from a wedding in England, so it's not like it took me a long time to get through. I found the drama between Gowan and Edie could have been so easily resolved. One of the benefits of being so far behind with my reviewing, however, is that the books stay in the back of my mind and the more I've thought about what I at first thought was a fairy throw-away plot, the better I've actually come to like the book.

Gowan is such a thing as a virgin romance hero (the only other virgin Duke I've ever come across in my many years of romance reading is in Courtney Milan's The Duchess War). He very much wants to be a considerate and attentive lover for his young wife, but let's just say he's ridiculously well endowed, and not as great with the foreplay as he could be. Hence intercourse turns out to be an excruciating experience for Edie, and she fakes orgasm (on the rather misguided advice of her stepmother) to make him finish faster. As the weeks go by, Edie becomes less and less interested in having sex with her husband, who feels more and more rejected, and this is the major dramatic complication that the two have to resolve in order to find their HEA.

While romances are becoming slightly more varied and realistic in the bedroom department (i.e. not always a heroine who never feels pain during the deflowering, and usually has an Earth shattering orgasm to boot), it's rare that you find a book where the sexual relations between the couple is quite as disastrous as it is in this book. It's only natural that two very inexperienced and nervous young people start out having bad sex - I'm pretty sure that it happens all the time. It's just not something that you tend to come across in romance novels.

I also liked that while for a lot of the book, I kept just wanting to shake both Gowan and Edie, and shout at them to just talk to each other, it's also very understandable that they don't. Gowan's parents were dreadful, and had an awful marriage. Edie's father loved her mother very much, but then remarried a much younger woman (she's more like an older, rather foolish sister to Edie than a mother figure) and now her father is insecure and doubts her fidelity, and Edie just desperately tries  to avoid confrontation at all costs. Even though she frequently knows that her stepmother's advice is not the greatest, she has no one else to turn to. The book also manages a very clever retelling of Rapunzel, complete with tower and everything. Because I've had time to time to mull the book over in my mind, I've changed my mind, and decided to give it four stars.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

#CBR5 Book 58. "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy

Page count: 838 pages
Rating: 2 stars

Is there anyone who doesn't know the basic story of Anna Karenina? Beautiful and beloved society lady, married to older statesman, starts a scandalous affair with a young, handsome and wealthy cavalryman. It really doesn't end well. The book is over 800 pages long. Quite a lot of it doesn't even feature Anna, or her husband Karenin, or her lover Vronsky. If the book was truthfully named, it should probably be called Konstantin Levin tries to revolutionise Russian farming, but Tolstoy (or his publishers) were wise enough not to name the book that.

Seriously though, so much of this book is about farming. I get that Levin is the true hero. He's kind, and virtuous and treats his dependents well. The objection of his affection rejects him in favour of the flashy Vronsky, who in turn rejects her when he becomes determined to seduce and win Anna Karenina. Much of the rest of the book is about political machinations. I studied literature at university, I get that the winters in the 19th Century were long and cold and books were the chief source of entertainment, but dear God, the book is a slog to get through. While I can see that it's well written and gives an impressive insight into pre-Revolutionary Russia, the main reason I actually persisted and actually finished the book this time (I've previously started and abandoned it three times since I was about 15), was partly, BECAUSE I've been planning to read this damn book since I was in my early teens, and also because it qualified in no less than FIVE of my various reading challenges. Now I've read it, and I never have to do it again.

I have friends who adore this book. While I was struggling to get through it (making myself read at least a hundred pages a day), I also watched the most recent movie adaptation. When you focus on the main story of the Karenins, and the Levins and the Sherbatskys, I can see why it's a gripping story. It really is a truly tragic love story, and while I initially detested Vronsky, I came to pity both him and Karenin. I just don't have the patience for all the other guff, with the farming and the politics. Those bits were frequently skim-read, and bored me to tears. I also feel compelled to point out that, in the past, I suspect it was the fact that my mother's copy of this book is quite an old translation. This fairly recent English translation was beautifully done, and the language was in no way heavy or difficult to get through. Feel free to comment and explain why I've completely misunderstood the greatness of this book - I'll be happy to hear your thoughts. I'm just glad I finally got the book ticked off my TBR list for good.

#CBR5 Book 57. "Any Duchess Will Do" by Tessa Dare

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Mrs. Julien has already reviewed this book, and excellently as well, but that's what I get for letting myself get so far behind on my reviewing.

Griffin York, the Duke of Halford, used to be a rake, drunkard, libertine and scoundrel of the highest order. He has no intention of ever getting married, and furthering the family line, but his mother, the Dowager Duchess, has other plans. Desperate for grandchildren and stability for her beloved son, she drugs Griff, and forces him to Spindle Cove, the idyllic seaside village where all manner of well-born spinsters reside. She wants him to pick any one of them, and she will make the girl duchess-worthy material.

Griff agrees that if she can turn any woman in the village into a suitable duchess candidate in a week, he will marry her. Then, to thwart his mother's plans, he picks Pauline Simms, a barmaid who appears clumsy, coarse and wholly unsuitable. Pauline, whose father is a drunken oaf and sister clearly had Down's syndrome, refuses to leave with their Graces. Only when Griff promises her a thousand pounds to come to London for a week, submit to his mother's training, and deliberately fail, does she agree, as the money will allow her to finally escape her tyrannical father and open a lending library in the village.

If you are surprised that things don't entirely go according to Griff's plans, then you've clearly never read a romance novel in your life. If you haven't, this is a great place to start. Tessa Dare writes extremely fluffy and enjoyable stories, and even with the huge amount of disbelief you have to suspend to go along with the notion of a powerful Dowager Duchess training a rural barmaid to be her son's bride, this book is a gem. Pauline may be a farmer's daughter, but she's not stupid, and when a wickedly attractive man offers her a fortune beyond her wildest dreams, she can't afford to turn him down.

Dare is great at dialogue, and the banter in this book is particularly good. The supporting cast, especially the Dowager Duchess herself, are wonderful, and I almost screamed with laughter at the bit with the dreadful knitting projects. Griff is a wonderful hero, but he's not without the occasional slip into complete clod-head. However, as Mrs. J already pointed out, he has one of the most impressive redemption from rakishness stories you're ever likely to come across. If redeemed rakes really do make the best husbands, the Duke of Halford is likely to become one of the best husbands ever.

#CBR5 Book 56. "Quicksilver" by R.J. Anderson

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Quicksilver is the sequel to Ultraviolet, and while you might be able to read it as a stand-alone, I wouldn't recommend it, as I doubt it would be as satisfying a read.

Tori Beaugrand had everything a teenage girl could want. Beauty, popularity, money. Then she disappeared, without a trace, for several months, only to be returned, bruised and with a broken nose, with no apparent memory of where she'd been or who'd taken her there. With her is Alison, the girl who was suspected of murdering her, and who spent much of the time of Tori's disappearance in a mental institution. During the investigation of her disappearance, certain strange medical results turned up as a result of DNA testing. Tori and her parents are getting calls from a genetics lab, and one police investigator in particular, refuses to believe that Tori has no recollection of what happened to her.

Tori and her parents relocate, and change their names, all to protect her secret. Being the centre of attention is no longer an option. She needs to stay as anonymous as possible, which seems to be going well, until Sebastian Faraday, a man she thought she'd never see again, suddenly appears in her bedroom, warning her of danger to come. Her new friend Milo, who already suspects that everything is not entirely is what it seems with Nikki (which is what Tori calls herself in her new life) and is dragged along on an adventure beyond his wildest dreams.

In Ultraviolet, told from Alison's perspective, Tori seems like your typical popular, rich Mean Girl, and it's only towards the end of the book that Alison discovers why Tori why so hostile towards her, and never seemed to like her. The two form a genuine friendship in the dramatic last third of that book, but in order to protect her new friend, as well as the truth of her identity, Tori has to move away from the little town that's always been her home. No longer the Queen Bee in school, she becomes as anonymous as possible, with a new hairstyle, contact lenses, a very non-glamorous part time job and home schooling. Reinventing herself isn't just a curse for Tori, though. Becoming Nikola (after Nikola Tesla - yay!) opens up opportunities she's never had before. Always striving to hide her secret, and please her parents, Tori/Nikki has never really had a chance to explore who she really is and wants to become.

While I came to really like Alison, I pretty much loved Tori/Nikki from the start. She's an amazing young adult heroine - smart, strong, capable, caring. She's also openly asexual, something you don't normally see in novels, and the strong friendship between her and Milo (who is the best sidekick/supporter anyone could wish for), rather than yet another star-crossed romance, is all the more refreshing.

This book is tense, and action packed, and funny and I loved the characters. The danger to Tori/Nikki is genuine, and she has to use all of her considerable genius to try to find a solution, which she does, without needing anyone else to save her. She does have to realise that occasionally requiring help from friends, doesn't make her any weaker. If the last third of the previous book was unexpected and tense, this one was pretty much insane. I think I audibly gasped at one point, because even though it was clear what had to happen, I still didn't think the author would go there. The only reason that I'm deducting half a star from my rating of the book, is that I don't like the way Anderson leaves one of the supporting characters at the end of this book. If that is the resolution to the danger to Alison and Tori, then I'm not sure I'm happy. With everything that's been established over the course of the two books, it's not a good situation for this character to be in, and I wish the story could have been resolved some other way. It's a minor niggle, though, this book is great. Go - read both of them!

#CBR5 Book 55. "Ultraviolet" by R.J. Anderson

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Alison is sixteen, and currently residing in a mental institution. Ever since she was little, she's know she's not quite like everyone else. To her, words have distinct tastes and colours. Certain sounds can make her see things. She feels physically sick if she herself tries to lie, and can taste it in the back of her mouth if people are lying or not. Loud noises give her fits. She's suspected of the murder of the most popular and perfect girl in her school, Tori Beaugrand, and only Alison knows why the authorities haven't been able to find a body. Tori Beaugrand disintegrated in front of Alison's eyes, after they had a terrible fight. How insane is that?

Alison doesn't want to stay sectioned, and tries to appeal to be released. Yet her mother is afraid to keep her at home with her younger brother, and the doctors at the institution want her to take her anti-psychotic drugs so she can get better. The police want to know where Tori Beaugrand is, and why Alison came home, distraught, with bloody hands. As the weeks pass, Alison no longer knows what the truth is. Only the enigmatic young scientist Sebastian Faraday seems to believe that Alison is innocent. He performs a number of cognitive tests on her, and explains that what she and her mother always believed was madness, and have kept hidden from everyone, is actually just synesthesia, and that she has a particularly complex form of it. His further testing seems to suggest that she also has the ability to see lights on the ultraviolet spectrum. With each new meeting, Sebastian puts Alison's mind more at ease, and when she confesses what happened to Tori, he actually seems to believe her.

Then the doctors reveal to Alison that Sebastian is not who he claims to be. He's not a grad student, but a journalist, and his motives for coming to see Alison in the hospital were unlikely to be charitable. Yet Alison discovers that the reason he lied to her is stranger than she could have imagined, and the reason he believes in her innocence, is because he knows what actually happened to Tori.

I found Ultraviolet through a very glowing review on The Book Smugglers, and put it on my TBR list, and then promptly forgot about it, because I discover intriguing sounding books all the time. Besides, the cover looked so very generic, and there were so many other shiny things to distract me. I decided to give this a try, because the sequel (where Tori Beaugrand is the even more awesome than Alison protagonist) starts with a Q, and that's not the easiest thing to find for my A to Z challenge. I was pretty instantly engrossed, and because I'd consciously tried not to find out too much about the book, I was very surprised by the twists and turns it took.

While I grew fond of Alison over the course of the book, she's prickly and sullen and not the easiest of characters to like at first. It's pretty obvious early on (if you've ever heard of or read about synesthesia) that what she considers part of her insanity is something that could have been diagnosed if her mother had been less rigid and paranoid about doctors (it is revealed over the course of the book where that fear comes from, though). The fact that she believes she saw a person dissolve into thin air in front of her eyes, that's more of a mystery. While she may not be insane, you start to realise, as the book progresses, why she's never exactly been a popular kid in school, and while it's obvious that she's not insane or a murderer, she could probably be a bit more gracious about accepting help from people. Luckily, while she's slow to adapt, she does change, and becomes a lot more easy to root for by the end of the book.

I really liked the world building in this book, and that something that I thought was just another YA novel with mystery elements turned out to be something completely different. The supporting characters are incredibly well developed, and none of them seem to be your stock "troubled teen asylum inmate" tropes that a lesser writer might have resorted to. There is a tiny romantic subplot with the always mysterious (but so much more strange than I first expected) Sebastian, and the last third of the book especially, was surprising and very well done. I'm trying as hard as I can not to give anything away, because these books are better if you don't know too much going in. Give this book a try, it's miles above a lot of YA fare out there.