Wednesday, 24 June 2015

#CBR7 Book 69: "Uprooted" by Naomi Novik

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! I got this as an ARC through NetGalley in return for a fair and unbiased review.The book is available now.

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its power at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman to be handed over to him every ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows - everyone knows - that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things that Agnieszka isn't, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

While this remarkable novel by Naomi Novik isn't actually a retelling of some traditional fairy tale, it feels like it should be. The book moves slowly, thoroughly establishing the sleepy little environment Agniezka and Kasia live in, with the terrors of the slowly encroaching Wood so close by. Once someone disappears in the Wood, they will hopefully stay lost. Should they return, they are like creatures possessed spreading its malevolent influence. It's because the dangers that threaten them constantly that the villagers accept having to sacrifice a young woman to the mysterious and reclusive wizard who lives in the tower nearby. He keeps them for ten years, when they return to their families briefly, apparently unharmed but inevitably changed. They never seem content to stay in their home villages, usually going to the capital, rarely to return.

The Dragon always chooses the most promising and accomplished of the women, and so everyone in the area are expecting Kasia to be the next young woman to be taken. It's a huge surprise to everyone, not least Agnieszka, when she is the one selected to go with the wizard. She barely gets time to say good bye to her loved ones before the Dragon sweeps her away. Now, terrified and confused, because while the women who return from the Dragon's service always appeared healthy and unmolested, there were always rumours. They lived alone with a man for a decade after all. The impatient and surly wizard seems completely uninterested in her physically though, and after finding a note from a previous occupant of her room, Agnieszka is relieved that she won't be molested in any way. She tries to follow the orders of her new master, but because the Dragon isn't exactly very clear in what he actually wants, it takes her quite a while to understand that he's trying to teach her magic, and his lessons are not going as expected. It's only when she finds the dusty spell book of a legendary witch that she seems to get the magic to work for her.

At first the Dragon doesn't believe that Agnieszka's brand of magic could have any effect. Only after several attempts does it become clear that his way of using magic is more intellectual and book based, while Agnieszka's is more emotional and intuition based. As the threats from the Wood become greater, it's clear that they need to find a way to work together. One terrible day, when the Dragon is called away to deal with a crisis, Agnieszka receives word that her village is being threatened as well. When she discovers that her dearest friend Kasia has been taken by the creatures of the Wood, she risks everything to rescue her. Now she needs to find a way to free her friend from the Wood's influence, even if such a task has always been believed to be impossible.

To begin with, Agnieszka seems like one of those women who only seem to exist in fiction, too clumsy for words and completely out of her element. We are told that while Kasia is all that is beautiful, talented, graceful and accomplished, Agnieszka can't go through a single day without getting her clothes torn or stained or in some way screwing things up. No one expects her to be the next woman to go with the Dragon. She is terrified and confused, unclear about her duties and feels absolutely horrible from the simple spells the Dragon makes her do. Because he's more than a century old, used to girls with more aptitude for magic (because that's what he does, he trains them in magic so they can help him keep the Wood from taking over more of the area), he's not used to having to explain his methods or motivation. He is also appalled when Agnieszka explains to him what everyone in the surrounding villages believes is his ulterior motive for selecting the girls.

Because Agnieszka has always been unfavourably compared to Kasia, and is so completely unable to grasp the tenets of the Dragon's magical spells, she, like everyone else underestimates herself greatly. It takes time for her to realise that she has value and gifts of her own and that she is has a gift for magic, just not one that has been seen in the country for a long time. She truly begins to find her strength and powers when her best friend is threatened. Doing the impossible, she rescues Kasia from the Wood and refuses to give up on her. In the process, she is also forced to examine her feelings of inadequacy and jealousy towards her dear friend, because even best friends aren't always charitable in the ways they think of one another, and there will always be times when we are jealous, insecure and petty. Moving through and past this, Kasia and Agnieszka's friendship is changed, but stronger as a result.

In the second act of the book, so to speak, Agnieszka has to leave the world she's always known, as well as the safety of the Dragon's tower and go to the capital, to deal with political intrigue, other wizards and discovers that the sinister forces that control the Wood are present even there and bent on causing destruction and havoc not only in her home country of Polnya, but also the neighbouring country. Because of Agnieszka's miraculous rescue of Kasia, the youngest prince of Polnya is determined to reclaim his mother, the missing queen, who allegedly ran away with her lover nearly twenty years ago. They both disappeared in the Wood. Is what they rescue from the forest, at terrible loss of life, truly the lost queen, or something much more sinister?

The last third of the book got a bit wearying, with what felt to me to be unnecessary and repetitive violence and finally a rather puzzling explanation of what the motivation behind the terrifying force of the Wood actually was. I can't stress enough how creepy and sinister I felt the Wood and its many "minions" was. It's such a great villain, for all that it's not one thing, but this seemingly unstoppable and relentless force, with feral wolves, giant preying mantises, evil trees and other monsters at its disposal. Still, I got a bit tired and confused towards the end, just wanting things to wrap up.

Overall, this is such a great read, with Agnieszka as a wonderful heroine at its centre. Her friendship with Kasia is heartwarming and her slowly developing powers and confidence feels empowering in all the right ways. The medieval style kingdoms felt extremely real and the whole story feels as if Naomi Novik found some treasure trove of old Eastern European fairy tales and just reinterpreted them. There is a romantic subplot in the book as well, and one of my other complaints, along with the dragging last third of the book, is that the romance isn't more fully developed. It has so much promise, damn it, and I felt cheated that there wasn't more of it. The only thing I'd read by Novik before this, was Temeraire (or His Majesty's Dragon, as it's also known). While that didn't appeal to me that much(even with dragons, there was too much military history, not my thing), this was great. For anyone with an interest in fairy tale narratives with strong, female friendship at its core and some real horrors to be overcome before there is a chance at a HEA, this is a book for you.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

#CBR7 Book 68: "Driven" by Eve Kenin

Page count: 321 pages
Rating: 3 stars

In a post-apocalyptic future, most people live in the icy wastes of what used to be Siberia. While on paper, trade should be regulated fairly, in reality there is a monopoly controlled by one ruthless man, Duncan Bane, and he wants Raina Bowen tortured and dead, eventually. Raina needs to deliver a shipment of grain to one of the major settlements, but needs forged documentation to drive on the ice road. Wizard, the man who was supposed to meet her with said documentation, instead gets her in trouble with Bane's hired goons. After his rig blows up, he insists on riding with Raina.

It doesn't take long in close quarters with Wizard for Raina to really feel the heat sizzling between them. But Wizard is an odd one, with lethal fighting skills, supernaturally fast reflexes, advanced healing ability and a strangely literal view of the world. He's nursing a lot of secrets, and clearly also has a past with Bane. Although Raina is sure it's a bad idea, she and Wizard race across the icy wastes, trying to outrun Bane's hired goons, ice pirates and eventually, Duncan Bane himself.

So let me be entirely honest, I doubt I would ever have heard of this book or read it, if not for it being the May pick for Vaginal Fantasy. I didn't end up reading it until after the hangout where the ladies spoke about it, figuring that it was worth a try (also I was able to get it as part of a sci-fi bundle for less than a dollar, so at least it didn't cost me too much). Ice trucker sci-fi romance is absolutely a new subset of the romance genre and not one I thought would appeal to me at all. While the book was a bit slow to start, and the writing was a bit repetitive, it helped that I was already prepared for this, having heard the book discussed.

I liked Raina's strength and independence (even though it was frequently repeated how strong she was), she is very capable, has had to manage on her own for a long time, and even when she finds other people she can lean on and trust, she prefers to handle things herself. I liked parts of the world-building (although personally I would hate to live in frozen wastes all year long), some of the inter-personal relationships when more characters are introduced were good, and the sex scenes wer perfectly decent. In the e-book copy I got, there is an additional sex scene at the end,which the author cut because it disrupted the flow of the story. Wise choice, because having one at the point where she clearly excised it from would have been really jarring.

What I didn't like so much were some of the flaws with the writing, I just could not get over that the hero is called Wizard. There's a good reason for it, but it never worked for me and took me out of several moments that were supposed to be sexy. Some of the story telling is a bit muddled, with flash backs that are not always entirely clear and a lot of convoluted explanations of how various characters came to be the way they were. Duncan Bane was totally uninteresting to me. He has one setting, and one only, complete sadistic phychopath and that gets boring really fast.

There is apparently a sequel to this book, involving one of Wizard's sisters, and that book, according to the internet is a lot better. I don't know yet if I'll check it out. While this wasn't a bad read, all in all, it also wasn't terrible memorable, apart from the fact that I can now say I've read dystopian ice trucker sci-romance. So there is that.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 22 June 2015

#CBR7 Book 67: "Suddenly One Summer" by Julie James

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Divorce lawyer Victoria Slade has a cynical view of romance and relationships. She's seen enough bitter divorces and custody battles to really believe in happily ever after. She's certainly not looking for anything permanent herself. Not that she'd mind something casual, she just needs to find the right guy. Who certainly isn't her new next-door neighbour, who while he seemed hot when their eyes met across a bar, appears to have a veritable cavalcade of women in and out of his apartment at all hours of the day and night. That's too casual even for Victoria.

Investigative journalist Ford Dixon has a soft spot for women. He loves his mother and younger sister dearly, and his best friend since childhood is a highly successful lawyer who likes to give him a hard time. He's happily single, for all that several of his friends have begun to settle down. However, his bitchy and judgemental new neighbour Victoria, for all that he likes the way she looks, is not the sort of woman he would go for. Yet when his younger sister enlists Victoria's help to locate the one night stand who is the father of her baby, Ford insists he be allowed to use his research skills and contacts to help. Soon he and Victoria are spending a lot of time together, and discovering that their first impressions of the other might have been rather wrong.The attraction they felt during their first encounter in the bar returns, stronger than ever, and soon they are questioning whether casual dating is enough.

Julie James is one of my "pre-order"-authors and I pretty much clear my schedule when one of her new books come out, so I can enjoy it properly. She writes witty and entertaining contemporary romances, featuring successful professionals who are really good at what they do. This book is a slight departure from her "Chicago FBI/District Attorney" books, but it has ties to former books in the series, with cameos from previous heroes and heroines.

After a home invasion, Victoria moves into a sub-let (the apartment next to Ford's) over the summer, while waiting for her new condo to be ready. She also starts suffering panic attacks, which for a woman who's used to having complete control, is unacceptable. The owner of her own profitable law firm, Victoria is deeply frustrated when she's told by her therapist that there isn't an easy fix for her new anxiety. In the process of attending her sessions, she also discovers that there may be more to her refusal for long term commitment than her job. There are clearly issues in her past that are influencing both her current panic attacks and her cynicism about romance. Being as successful as she is, she is able to take on Ford's sister's case pro bono, and working on locating her baby daddy is very different from what Victoria normally does. She likes the idea of reuniting a family rather than seeing it dissolve.

At the start of the book, Ford attends the funeral for his father, who while a very popular and well-liked man in the community, was also an alcoholic, with an erratic behaviour that influenced his children negatively. Because of his father's drinking problem, Ford stepped in to take care of his mother and sister more than a lot of young boys might, and he feels deeply responsible for their well-being. So when his sister confesses that her baby is the product of a one night stand, and her ex-boyfriend who left the state is not actually the one responsible for knocking her up, Ford feels helpless, furious and is determined to move heaven and earth to locate the man who slept with his sister. If that means working with the shrewish woman next door, he will do it.

As I said, Julie James is always a good bet for light, entertaining romance and I wasn't disappointed in this. Not one of her best books, it certainly wasn't one of her weaker ones either. I liked both Ford and Victoria as individuals, and there is great support in Ford's sister, Victoria's snarky personal assistant and infinitely patient therapist. The resolution of the book was perhaps a bit sudden, but I very much liked the epilogue. My biggest problem now is that I have to wait another year for the next book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 66: "Every Breath" by Ellie Marney

Page count: 335 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Rachel Watts lives two doors down from the brilliant, troubled and eccentric James Mycroft, the most intelligent boy in school. What he has in abundance in the IQ department, he lacks in social smarts, and as his closest friend, it seems to be Rachel's job to try to keep him out of scrapes with other students at school (who he will frequently inadvertently or purposefully insult) or from getting suspended for breaking school rules. She also tends to bring him food, as he has a tendency to forget to eat when left to his own devices. While he lives with his aunt Angela, they barely speak and seem to have a mostly antagonistic relationship.

Mycroft, who likes to compare himself to his fictional namesake, Sherlock Holmes' older and allegedly smarter brother, has a passion for forensic pathology and frequents message boards online and writes articles, even occasionally consulting on cases, under the name Diogenes. Watts helps him proof-read and edit the articles. When the teenagers find "Homeless Dave", a man they regularly visit and bring food near Melbourne zoo, murdered not far from his local sleeping spot, Mycroft uses everything he knows of forensic experience to document the scene before the police arrive. He later persuades Watts to be his side-kick in earnest, determined to investigate the death that the police undoubtedly won't care much about, as the victim was a homeless nobody.

Rachel used to live with her parents and older brother Mike on a sheep farm in the country. Financial difficulties forced them to sell the farm and relocate to Melbourne, where Rachel's parents and brother work hard to make ends meet. Rachel wants to study agriculture and move back to the countryside, she feels uprooted and unsettled in her new urban surroundings. With her academic achievements, her family want her to go to college and get a proper degree, though. Previously home schooled and used to a solitary life, the bustling corridors of her new high school and the constant stress and noise of the city is making Rachel miserable. Having made good friends in Mycroft and the fierce Mai Ng, as well as Mai's boyfriend Gus, makes her existence more bearable, but she's still not happy in Melbourne.

James (who always goes by Mycroft) is English and lost both his parents in a horrific car crash that left him scarred both physically and emotionally. His aunt Angela is his legal guardian, but they may as well be strangers just living in the same house for all the time they spend together. Mycroft is constantly skirting the edge of having social services investigate his living situation, which while not idyllic, is at least better than a foster home. Mycroft loves mysteries and is a keen observer of everything around him. While fiercely intelligent, he's also low on social graces and frequently pisses off his class mates or gets into trouble with the school management. He's obsessed with finding out the cause of his parents' accident, and frequently emotionally unstable, with Rachel, sometimes aided by Mai and Gus, doing her best to keep him from getting beaten up or expelled.

Rightly surmising that the police are unlikely to expend too many resources on trying to solve the murder of a homeless man, especially one who appears to have been killed for sport, Mycroft insists that he and Watts need to do their best to figure out who's behind the murder. Rachel initially refuses, but is unable to resist the lure of the mystery or Mycroft's charismatic persuasion for long, and soon the two teens are using everything they know of forensic pathology to identify the killer of their homeless friend. Hunting killers is a dangerous hobby, though, and before long Mycroft and Watts are courting danger and find themselves in near-death situations of their own.

I'm sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that there is also a romantic sub-plot in the book, which is very well done, for all that I'm not sure Rachel should involve herself with someone who is clearly not the most emotionally or mentally stable person (I speak from experience here, Watts). Both Rachel and Mycroft are very engaging protagonists and there is a good supporting cast in the book - Rachel's parents and Mike, her brother, as well as Mai, their loyal friend who more than once uses the legal knowledge she's picked up in school, and Gus, her sweet and funny boyfriend.

I really liked this book, and am going to do my best to track down an e-book store which will legally sell me the sequels online, so I don't have to wait for the US release of the next two books before I can read them.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 65: "Whispers Under Ground" by Ben Aaronovitch

Page count: 418 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 17 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

An American art student is found murdered in Baker Street tube station, stabbed to death with a pottery shard. DC Peter Grant, apprentice wizard, senses magical vestigia on the shard, proving that there was something supernatural involved. None of the chief investigators on the case are happy to hear this. The exchange student's father turns out to be a US Senator, so the Americans send an FBI agent to assist in the case, complicating matters further, as it's unlikely that she'll take kindly to the explanation that the murder weapon appears magical in origin.

As his superior, Inspector Nightingale is busy trying to locate more of the "little crocodiles", apprentices and/or allies of "the Faceless Man", the rogue wizard that caused trouble for our heroes in the last book, Peter and Leslie May help investigate a case that makes it clear that there is more to the underground passages of London than anyone previously expected.

While I enjoyed the first two books in this series, this book didn't grab my attention as much, to the point where I actually had to go back and start the audio book over again, after over a month of not listening. I'd actually forgotten the beginning of the book. When I re-started my listening, I got through it faster and the resolution of the mystery was interesting, continuing to add to the world building of Aaronovich's series, but I didn't really think there was much development to any of the characters. Leslie is living in the Folly now, another apprentice to Nightingale, but still has to wear her mask everywhere, and is very uncomfortable taking it off in front of Peter.

It was a fun enough book, but having finished it about three weeks ago, I'm struggling to remember more than the rough outline of the plot. It wasn't by any means a bad book, but it's not exactly memorable or thrilling either. Kobna Holbrook-Smith continues to be a great narrator and I suspect I'll keep going with the series, if nothing else because I like his voice in my ear.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

#CBR7 Book 64: "Big Little Lies" by Liane Moriarty

Page count: 462 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

I can't believe it's been nearly a month since I read this book. Because of my massive backlog, I'm going to resort to my favourite short-cut, stealing the blurb from Goodreads:

A murder...a tragic accident...or just parents behaving badly? What's indisputable is that someone is dead. But who did what?

Big Little Lies follows three women, each at a crossroads: 

Madeline is a force to be reckoned with. She's funny and biting, passionate, she remembers everything and forgives no one. Her ex-husband and his new yogi wife have moved into her beloved beachside community, and their daughter is in the same kindergarden class as Madeline's youngest (how is this possible?). And to top it all off, Madeline's teenage daughter seems to be choosing Madeline's ex-husband over her. (How. Is. This. Possible?).

Celeste is the kind of beautiful woman who makes the world stop and stare. While she may seem a bit flustered at times, who wouldn't be, with those rambunctious twin boys? Now that the boys are starting school, Celeste and her husband look set to become the king and queen of the school parent body. But royalty often comes at a price, and Celeste is grappling with how much more she is willing to pay.

New to town, single mom Jane is so young that another mother mistakes her for the nanny. Jane is sad beyond her years and harbors secret doubts about her son. But why? While Madeline and Celeste soon take Jane under their wing, none of them realizes how the arrival of Jane and her inscrutable little boy will affect them all. 

Big Little Lies is a brilliant take on ex-husbands and second wives, mothers and daughters, schoolyard scandal, and the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves just to survive.

This is yet another book that it feels like I read after everyone and their mothers had discovered, read and raved about it, while I foolishly believed it was not for me. It's happened many times before, most notable with Jenny Lawson's amazing biography, the very funny Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, earlier this year with the lovely Station Eleven and now again with this. I had convinced me that this was just some sort of mommy version of Mean Girls with PTA moms gossipping and figuratively stabbing each other in the back. I was so very wrong, and I should have listened to all the eloquent and well-written reviews of my fellow Cannonballers. Sorry guys. It was only when my kindred spirit and book twin on the internet, Narfna, posted this review that I finally decided that OK, let's see what all the fuss is about.

I was hooked before I'd even finished the first chapter, where it's made clear that something very bad has happened at the trivia night of Pirriwee Public School. Of course, with chapter two, the action jumps six months back in time, introducing the reader to the three protagonists, three wonderful, interesting, but also vulnerable and flawed women who feel beautifully realistic and who at least I grew to love very quickly, for all that I understood that like my own friends, they would occasionally exasperate and annoy me, all the while they were there for me and had my back. You know from the very first chapter that someone is going to die at the trivia night, but Moriarty keeps you on tenterhooks as to who said individual is going to be.

This book is so many things. Contemporary drama and mystery, it's very funny at times and heart-breakingly touching (at least to me) at others. It explores both the complicated friendships and rivalries between women, motherhood and the insecurities of getting older. The relationships between husbands and wives, both current and divorced, mothers and their children, teachers and parents. Sure, there are petty school intrigues and women gossipping about each other, but that's such a tiny part as to seem almost insignificant. There are a number of other issues explored in the book as well, that I don't want to reveal, because this book really is best read when you go into it more or less ignorant, able to face the surprises and plot twists as they are sprung on you. Suffice to say, it's about the importance of friendships, of not being too prejudiced and judging before you have the whole picture - and about the many secrets that we keep from our friends and loved ones because we fear to seem weak or less in control.

I wanted Madeline, Celeste and Jane to be my friends. I don't think there was a single chapter when I wasn't at least a little entertained. Every time I thought I knew where the story was going, there would be something new revealed that I hadn't counted on. There were absolutely some bits that didn't work as well for me, mainly Madeline's jealousy of Bonnie, her ex-husband's new wife and the rather wearying lengths her teenage daughter went to get attention, but those were such small things and this book made me laugh and cry, bite my nails and most importantly, turn the pages with bated breath with each chapter bringing me closer to the fateful trivia night and its aftermath. I cursed the work load that made it impossible for me to just devour the book. So, if you, like me, might think from the book description that this book isn't for you - give it a chance - it's such a good read.

I will absolutely be reading more Liane Moriarty. In the acknowledgements, I discovered that she's the sister of another Australian writer whose books I love, the YA author, Jaclyn Moriarty. It just seems unfair to me that two such talented writers are related, but perhaps great writing skill is genetic.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read, where you can also find MANY more reviews of this book.

#CBR7 Book 63: "The Duke and the Lady in Red" by Lorraine Heath

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Rosalind "Rose" Sharpe is a con woman, in London looking for her next victims. Posing as as the widow of a man killed in India, her story is that she's currently low on funds, as her legal counsel are trying to get her inheritance transferred - naturally a complicated and time-consuming process. When she meets the Duke of Avendale, she is immediately drawn to him, knowing that he is rich enough that if she plays her figurative cards correctly, she might never have to swindle another man again, but also wary, as he is much more powerful and ruthless than any of the men she's used her feminine wiles on before.

The Duke of Avendale, known for his wealth, scandalous behaviour and all-round rakishness, is bored, even more so after his former cronies are all settling down with matrimony and domestic bliss. When he sees the striking Mrs. Sharpe in a red dress at what used to be his favourite gaming hell (which is now opening its doors to women - what has the world come to?), he suspects he might have found just the thing to pull him out of the funk he's currently in. He's deeply attracted to her, even more so because she refuses to give into his immediate attempts at seduction. He orders his house cleared of gamblers, drinkers and floozies, intending to make it a place suitable to entertain the enigmatic widow. So when he discovers her about to leave town with quite a substantial sum of her money, and her servants in tow, he's furious, but also realises that he can have what he most desires.

Avendale and Rose make a deal. For a week in his company and his bed, she can keep all the money she was trying to steal, he will pay her current debt and he won't report her to the authorities. Rose will be at his disposal day and night, as long as she gets two hours every afternoon to go home, and Avendale can't ask any questions. Avendale thinks he has the upper hand, but quickly discovers that Rose has a lot of secrets and that the delectable lady in red is going to change his life irrevocably.

The Duke and the Lady in Red is the third book in the Scandalous Gentlemen of St. George series, which in itself is a sequel series of sorts to Heath's previous Scoundrels of St. James series. This series concerns the various offspring of the heroes and heroines of the first series. Can this book be read as a stand-alone? I would absolutely say so, as I haven't read the book concerning Avendale's mother and her husband, nor any of the previous books in the series. The incomparable Mrs. Julien has, however, and based on her reviews, I'd say I may check out the first one (based also on the cameo appearances of the couple in this book, they were cute) and give the second a miss. Ms. Heath's books are frequently romances I enjoy, but they don't really make any impact or stay with me for very long.

There are some exceptions, however, this being one of them. Avendale is the least interesting part of the story. He really is your stereotypical wealthy and dissolute rake. He's heavily into his drinking, gambling and promiscuous sex and naturally, because he is at an age when his former partners in debauchery are getting married, no longer interested in a life of constant hedonism, he's getting oh so bored. He barely speaks to his mother or younger siblings and is naturally quite lonely, although he would never admit this.

Rosalind is a great heroine, though, who more than makes up for the rather uninspired take on the Duke. She has been a successful con woman for years, not just for the thrill of it or to live a life of leisure, but because she's supporting a household of very unusual servants and her beloved brother, Harry, who for reason's I really don't want to spoil can't really be out and about in society. The relationship between Rosalind and her brother, or with her servants, who are really more like friends who work in her household because they have nowhere else to go, is lovely. It's quite clear that her dishonest means of earning money weighs on her, and that she'd much rather find a more honest way of supporting herself and her dependents. By neccesity, her chosen lifestyle also means that they can never settle very long in one place, always having to be on the run from creditors and angry victims.

While Rosalind may have conned a number of men and merchants out of a lot of things, she's successfully managed to avoid having to play the whore. She's both surprised and slightly scared by the intense attraction she feels for Avendale and it's one of the reasons she's not as careful as she might have been, conning him out of too much money too quickly, and as a result getting caught. His suggestion that she spend a week with him seems to come as somewhat of a relief, as she's been fighting her instinctive need to give into his attempts at seduction. The fact that she's been posing as an experienced widow causes some initial difficulties, but having sworn to uphold their arrangement, Rose isn't about to let Avendale suddenly develop a conscience because of her inexperience.

Rose's brother is a wonderful character, and as I said, I don't want to go into the details as to why Rose feels she needs to swindle and con to make enough money to support them. Suffice to say, there are good reasons for why he's living hidden away in her town house. While Avendale's reaction when he found out may have been plausible, my disbelief was strained to the breaking point by the way everyone else treated Harry, as I just don't think people in Victorian society were that accepting and open-minded, no matter how kind an individual was or how powerful a friend and patron he had.

Still, it's a minor niggle and I really did enjoy this book a lot, after a bit of a slow start. Any romance that actually makes me cry can't be rated lower than 4 stars. As I said, I suspect I will be checking out When the Duke Was Wicked, the first book in the series, and keep picking up new books by Heath when they are published. But she's still only in my "buy on sale, or borrow at the library" list rather than the coveted auto-buy or pre-order lists.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 62: "Into the Shadows" by Carolyn Crane

Page count: 310 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Thorne McKelvie has meticulously and ruthlessly worked his way up through the ranks of criminal organisation the Hangmen, a group that doesn't shy away from human trafficking in sweat shops, drug or arms smuggling. The leader of the Hangmen is suspicious of Thorne, however, and worried that he is gunning for his spot next, taking over the whole organisation. So after a series of unexpected attacks on the gang's and their allies' warehouses, he sees an opportunity to have Thorne framed and removed as a threat. Thorne needs to prove that he's not responsible for the raids, and to do so, he needs to search the mansion of his former employer, and face the only woman he ever had feelings for.

Nadia Volkov used to be known as "the Party Princess", obliviously spending her father's money and partying with his many henchmen and bodyguards, without really caring what her father actually did for a living or where the money fuelling her extravagant lifestyle came from. Two years ago, she had an affair with Thorne, her father's most dangerous henchman, which ended when he cruelly cast her aside. When Thorne unexpectedly turns up at the house where Nadia is living with her sister, one of her father's former bodyguards, and her young son, she's terrified that Thorne will discover he's a father and that their child will be in danger once his crew mates realise that there is a toddler that can be used as leverage against him. She also hopes Thorne doesn't discover that she, along with some hired goons, are responsible for the warehouse raids he's investigating. After her father's death, she was appalled when she discovered what he'd been responsible for. Having discovered that her mother is probably alive, in one of the sweatshops now run by the gangs who divided her father's assets after his death, she's systematically raiding each one, freeing the enslaved women in order to locate and liberate her mother.

Thorne believes that Nadia just used him for sex, having overheard and misunderstood a conversation where Nadia discussed him with her sister and offered to "share". Filled with self-loathing and with no illusions about his ruthlessness and inability to feel any sort of softer feelings since his sister was brutally killed when they were teenagers and swore revenge, Thorne and Nadia's former relationship was an extended role play on "the princess and the thug". Nadia actually had feelings for Thorne though, and was uncomfortable with the dirty names he wanted her to call him. She never had second thoughts about keeping his child when discovering she was pregnant. When they reunite, the sparks fly once more, but can they have any sort of future, with Nadia responsible for the crimes Thorne is being accused of? He needs to locate and present the individuals responsible to his boss, or be killed.

Nadia also doesn't realise that Thorne worked as a henchman for her father and moved on to the Hangmen as part of a complicated revenge plot. Having been left to die in the desert, surrounded by scorpions, after his sister was murdered, Thorne swore revenge and has been working methodically to wipe out all the men responsible for his sister's death. Working so deep cover for the covert Associates that only the leaders of these secret agents know he's not the hardened criminal he poses as, he only has one man left before his revenge is complete - Jerrod, the leader of the Hangmen.

Due to his past, Thorne is scarred, literally and figuratively. What happened to him and his sister was dreadful, and the flashbacks to his past made me deeply uncomfortable. To escape his chains in the desert, he needed to push himself to the edge of human endurance and he's spent his entire adult life systematically hunting down every man who was present when his sister was murdered, whether they actually took part in the killing or not. Thanks to Dax, the leader of the Associates, Thorne was able to position himself closer to several of the people responsible. Through their alliance, Dax gets access to invaluable intel about a number of criminal organisations, while Thorne was able to get close to the last man on his hit list.

In order to rise to the top of the Hangmen, Thorne has done any number of terrible things. He's a ruthless and hard man. Nonetheless, he's tired of his revenge quests and longs to be done. His feelings for Nadia are complicated. Just when he was ready to acknowledge to himself that he loved her, he overheard her conversation with her sister (which was not at all what it seemed), making him believe she felt nothing for him, means he now thinks of her with what he terms "love-hate". He dumped her before she could dump him, not realising that the evening he coldly rejected her, she was actually about to tell him about being pregnant. Even before the events that set him on his path to vengeance, Thorne never had a good family life and struggles with any human interactions that don't involve dominance and power play.

While Nadia used to find the role playing and abusive language quite exciting, now it makes her sad and uncomfortable, and when they are reunited,and she's unable to deny that her feelings for him are as strong as ever, she tries to express to Thorne that she only ever called him names because he seemed to get off on it. It doesn't take long before the two are growing close again, despite the dangers facing both of them. Jerrod wants Thorne gone, and when he discovers that Thorne and Nadia have a shared past, he has the weapon he needs to bring his second in command down.

As with Carolyn Crane's previous two books in the series, Into the Shadows is full of action, suspense, complicated and wounded people who need each other to try to make sense of the world. There is a emotionally struggling hero seeking revenge and justice, and a capable and determined heroine. The villain is once again truly despicable, making it abundantly clear that while Thorne isn't a boy scout by any stretch of the imagination, he's in the right in taking Jerrod down. I really liked most things about this book, however, I would have liked even more present interaction between Nadia and Thorne, rather than so many flashbacks. I also found some of the internal machinations of the Hangmen a bit tiresome. It was a fun, suspenseful, sexy read, though. While techincally book 3 in a series, each book can be read as a stand-alone, which is always nice. The book is nominated for a RITA in the Romantic Suspense Category, and it is a well deserved nomination. Ms. Crane also self-publishes her very entertaining Associates novels, so consider buying a copy so she can afford to keep writing.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

#CBR7 Book 61: "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" by John Boyne

Page count: 218 pages
Rating: 2 stars

Nine-year-old Bruno lives in a big house in Berlin and is not at all happy when the household is packed up and he, his mother, his older sister and the servants are forced to travel by train to a new house, far away in the desolate countryside. He misses the bustling city, the house with such a great banister for sliding down, his grandparents, his friends, even his school. At the new house, there is no one to play with, just a small garden and a tall fence in the distance, reaching as far as the eye can see. He tries to convince his parents that they need to move back, but is hopeful that his new exile will only last for maybe a month.

Of course, Bruno is wrong, and he is forced to settle into his new home. His busy father has uniformed soldiers coming in and out of his office all the time, and doesn't really have time for his wife or children any more. Going off on his own to explore the countryside, Bruno walks along the tall barbed wire fence and one day meets a skinny boy, dressed in what appears to be striped pyjamas. The boy's name is Shmuel and Bruno discovers that he too is nine years old. Not only that, they share the same birthday. Bruno doesn't tell his family about his new friend and keeps sneaking back to the fence to talk to his new friend, who seems strangely reluctant to tell Bruno too much of the details of his life. As the boys' friendship develops, Bruno becomes more and more curious about Shmuel's life behind the fence. When he decides to crawl under a loose section of the fence, it has unexpected consequences.

I'm unsure of who the intended target audience for the book is. Because it's written from the POV of a naive and sheltered child, it may seem like a children's book. But because of the subtle ways in which the story is told, you need knowledge of World War II and the Holocaust to really understand what is going on. A child wouldn't understand that "The Fury" is Hitler and "Out With is in fact, Auschwitz-Birkenau, probably the most infamous and well-known of all of the Nazi's death camps. Apparently, the author wrote the first draft of the book in about two and a half days, and intends it as a "fable" about the war. Which may describe why the story seems a bit too simplistic.

I was also expecting that a book at least tangentially about the Holocaust would affect me more emotionally, but this book really didn't make me feel much of anything, except perhaps bafflement that at nine, Bruno can be so sheltered and naive, and unwilling to question his surroundings. In one review I saw of the book, the reviewer suggested that a lot of Bruno's character traits would be more believable in a younger boy, perhaps around 6. That a nine-year-old whose father is a Commandant in the Nazi army is unable to pronounce "Der F├╝hrer" correctly, seems unlikely. Since the family aren't moved to Poland until 1943, I find it very doubtful that Bruno, in his school in Berlin, hasn't been taught about the superiority of the Aryan race and the inferiority of the Jewish race. That he doesn't know about death camps is fair, but I find it hard to believe that he wouldn't know anything about the Jews as a people and a deeply hated race.

It's not a very long book, but neither Bruno (despite the fact that we see the story through his eyes) nor any of the other characters are particularly well defined. Bruno seems rather spoiled and very oblivious. His sister is only 12, but spends much of her time attempting to flirt with some of the officers working for her father. This made me deeply uncomfortable. Bruno's parents are pretty much non-entities, although it's suggested that Bruno's mother has a drinking problem and possibly has an affair with one of the same young officers that her pre-teen daughter is trying to flirt with. Shmuel is the person who interacts the most with Bruno, but he doesn't make much of an impression either. I also question how he's able to sneak away from his work duties all the time to sit by a fence (which should surely be much more heavily guarded than it is in this book) to chat with Bruno.

The ending seems inevitable from fairly early on, and was probably supposed to affect me. I would feel like a bad person for not being moved, but the characters were too simply drawn and the whole scenario just seemed implausible to me. I know the book was made into a film in 2008, and from the plot summary, it seems that the plot has possibly been made more complex and plausible - Bruno certainly doesn't seem completely unaware of what a Jew is. Based on the book, I doubt I'd be all that interested in seeing the film either, though.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

#CBR7 Book 60: "Off the Edge" by Carolyn Crane

Page count: 383 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Laney Lancaster has been on the run from her monstrous ex-husband for the past two years. While he's in jail (because of Laney), she knows that there is no way he'd let his many efficient and ruthless henchmen stop looking for her. Hiding as a lounge singer in a hotel in Bangkok, Laney is aware that the brothers of her friend Rajini may be involved with organised crime, but they have also been keeping her safe, with a job and a place to stay. She would love to have other options, but her husbands criminal contact network runs far and wide, and she's terrified of falling back into his clutches. She's deeply cautious and barely ever even leaves the hotel grounds, but makes an exception to celebrate her birthday.

Peter Macmillan is an Associate, one of many undercover operatives working where other law enforcement agencies can't always operate. He used to be a linguistics professor at the top of his field, until he lost all he held dear in a tragic accident and became obsessed with revenge. Using his unique skills of determining minute dialect and speech markers to track those responsible for the accident, he nearly got himself killed, but also caught the attention of the leaders of the Associates and offered a new chance to make a difference. Now he tracks down criminals, terrorists and arms dealers, able to track and identify them from the way they speak and their vocabulary choices. There's going to be an auction for a devastating new weapon in Bangkok, and Peter needs to track down the arms dealer, based only on the vocabulary quirks caught in the encrypted messages announcing the auction. When he realises that Laney sings in the hotel every night and records herself and everyone surrounding the stage, he realises that this is his best chance to identify the arms dealer. He just needs to get close enough to copy her recordings.

Because it's her birthday, Laney lets herself be charmed by the beautiful stranger who seems to have such insight into her song lyrics. After a very steamy encounter, she leaves him alone in her room for a few minutes, and returns to discover him searching her computer. She's convinced he must be working for her ex-husband, and within minutes, Rajini's brothers and their thugs have Peter hauled away, promising to get to find out why he was snooping in her private files. The day after, talking to some of the hotel staff, she realises that the stories she's been told by Rajini and her brothers don't entirely add up, and start investigating the fate of her lover herself. When she discovers that he's chained in the basement of the hotel, having been badly beaten, she questions him about his connection to her ex and discovers that he knows nothing of the man. She frees him, and hopes he can forgive her for landing him in trouble.

Peter, however, has discovered that the Shinsurin brothers record most of the prominent guests in the hotel, probably for possible blackmail purposes, and eyes a golden chance to get the voice recordings he needs to identify their terrorist arms dealer. Of course, in order to get access to the footage, he needs to make the Shinsurins believe he is still their helpless prisoner. After arranging with his fellow Associates in Bangkok to get the guards sedated at a set time, he locks himself back up in the cell, so they don't suspect him of being more than an overly curious admirer, waiting for his chance to use the hotel monitoring equipment to catch his mark.

While Laney may seem unbearably naive, hiding in plain sight as a nightclub singer in a Bangkok hotel, taking the shelter offered by Thai criminals without questioning their actions too much, she clearly did not have a lot of options to get away from her sociopathic and brutal ex-husband. That she should probably question the fact that they keep finding excuses for getting her a new fake passport and finding compelling reasons for why she must never leave the hotel seems obvious to me, but then I've really never been in a domestic abuse scenario of the level that Laney is running from.

Peter hides a wealth of deep pain and is trying desperately not to face the memories of his lost loved ones. For years, his missions for the Associates have been everything he needs, but he's clearly ready for something more, and when he makes an unexpected connection with Laney, he's scared. Not proud of the many dark things he's done while working undercover, he tries to drive her away by being brutally honest with her, but Laney's been around dangerous men before, and while Peter may have killed, he's a man with ethics and a moral code. The two join forces to track down the terrorist arms dealer that Peter needs to stop. With Laney suddenly insisting on leaving the safety of the hotel where she's been hiding, she'll become a lot more visible. Can they complete the mission before Laney's creepy ex catches up with her again?

I liked Against the Dark, but it was little more than a long novella, having the characters meet and fall for each other very quickly, without too much backstory being developed for either of them. In this, Carolyn Crane has time to establish each of the characters more, and spends more time developing the plot. I'm a sucker for an intelligent hero, and Peter's linguistic abilities were fascinating to me. It wouldn't surprise me if there were people out there in real life with precise enough skills to unfailingly identify where a person was from the way Peter can do, but if there isn't, she created a believable enough skill set for him. This is another action-packed and suspenseful read, with a compelling central couple, and interesting supporting characters, several of whom I'm sure I'll meet in later books in the series.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

#CBR7 Book 59: "The River of No Return" by Bee Ridgway

Page count: 464 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

When Lord Nicholas Falcott, the Marquess of Something-or-other (I finished this book more than a month ago and can't be bothered to go looking up piddling details like that) is about to be killed on the battlefield in Spain in 1812, he suddenly finds himself transported forward in time about 200 years. After being nearly run over by a car, he wakes up in a modern hospital, in the company of a stranger who tells him that jumping through time is less unusual than one might think. There is a secret organisation called the Guild, with very strict rules, the two most important being "There is no return", either in time or place. Once time travellers are trained for a year by the Guild, to get used to their new century and life, they will be relocated to a country other than their homeland, and they may never return. To aid them in their new lives in a strange and wonderful future, keeping the secrets of the past, the Guild pays their members a staggering amount of money each year, allowing them to live in all the luxury they could want. Nicholas is told that as he is believed to have died on the battlefield in Spain, his title died with him. He must now get used to a new name and identity - Nick Davenant.

Some of the time travellers in the Guild training facility are a bit more reluctant to swallow all the corporate cool-aid they are served, and start asking questions. Soon they have gone missing, and Nick is unsure if they left of their own free will, to search out truths elsewhere or whether the Guild had them assassinated. He decides to play it safe, and settles in to a life of comfortable indolence in New York and Vermont. After about ten years as Nick Davenant, he receives a summons from the Guild Alderwoman (head honcho) to meet her in London. So the rules of the Guild are clearly more like guidelines, if the right people want them to be. He discovers that quite a few of the Guild members can travel backwards and forwards in time, and that their rival organisation, the Ofan, can do the same. They just don't want the untrained to try it willy-nilly. Now they need Nick to become Lord Nicholas again, and go back to 1815, resuming his old life as the Marquess, because something is seriously messing up the fabric of time, and the people responsible for it, are possibly connected to the social circles that Nick used to frequent.

By going back to Regency England, Nick has to try to re-learn his role as a nobleman, seemingly unaware of the huge social and political changes taking place in the two centuries since he was born. The Industrial Revolution, the Labour Movement, Women's Suffrage, all of it must be unknown to Lord Nicholas Falcott. He also has to convince his grieving family where he's been for the past three years, since his supposed death in Spain. And in 1815, Nick may finally reunite with the beguiling Miss Julia Percy, whose lovely eyes have haunted and comforted Nick in the decade since he jumped forward in time. What Nick (and his companions) don't know is that Julia is much more closely connected to the mystery they are going back in time to solve, and that she has abilities neither the Guild nor the Ofan have ever experienced before.

I am not of the opinion that just because there is time travel in a story, it's automatically science fiction. There is no time machine anywhere in this novel. This is more of a paranormal fantasy, with a number of individuals with unusual powers, able to travel backwards and forwards in time (or manipulate time in other ways) because of inborn abilities. They're not transporting themselves through time with the aid of technology, which I feel is the requirement for it to be sci-fi (which means that yes, I disagree that Outlander be classified the same way). If forced to classify this book in only one strict genre, I would say that it's a historical romance, Regency, to be specific. The majority of the plot takes place in 1815, with a chunk of the introduction being in our present time. Taking a 19th Century Marquess out of his own, extremely privileged time and plonking him into the 21st Century means he has to go through quite a lot of attitude adjustments. Nick Davenant is an enlightened guy who certainly likes the more sexually liberated women of the future.

When back in Regency England, he has to remember that being alone with an unmarried woman is deeply scandalous. While he is initially quite happy with the progressive ideas his spinster sister had for the distribution of his family lands (believing her brother several years dead), but then is forced to reconsider his reactions, as Lord Nicholas knows nothing of socialism, workers' collectives or women's liberation. Naturally, the quest to find the magical MacGuffin that can save all of time and space is a lot more complicated and time consuming than Nick and his cohorts expected, fraught with unexpected challenges and dangers.

I knew very little about this book when I picked it up, and assumed it was a completely stand-alone story. Had I known what I know now, that the book ends in an extremely open-ended way, with most of the important story threads dangling in the air, and the potential sequel for the book to be released at a currently unknown point in the future, I know that I would have approached it differently, and probably not been as disappointed with the last third of the book. I therefore warn you, dear reader - this is NOT a complete story. There is a prequel (which I haven't read), but as of this moment in time, no sequel, because the author is still working on it. Because I thought it was a self-contained story, I was most upset when the plot was hurtling towards its end, with no clear indication of anything at all being resolved.

As well as the complex time travel rules, with two opposite and rival organisations wanting to control who and how people travel through time, there are all manner of soap-operaesque plot twists. There's romance, evil relatives, grieving parents, an age-old feud spanning through time. It's a very entertaining book, as long as you're fully aware that you're not going to get much of anything resolved, and what is sorted by the end of the book mainly opens up new questions that will presumably be answered in the at some point to be published sequel. I really liked Julia as a character, and Nick grew on me, even though I still think he has a lot of potential for improvement in the sequel. If I'd known this was part one of a story, I suspect I would have rated it higher. I also wouldn't have read it until the sequel (or sequels) were out, if I could help it. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 8 June 2015

#CBR7 Book 58:"The Friend Zone" by Kristen Callihan

Page count: 309 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Gray Grayson does not have female friends, he has former and future conquests. The closest thing he has to a female friend is his best friend Drew's new girlfriend. That's it. So no one is more surprised than he, when he seems to be developing a close relationship with a woman he's never even met, via text message of all things. When Gray has to lend his own car to Drew for a while, he's left with no other options than to borrow the bubblegum-pink car belonging to Ivy Mackenzie, the daughter of his sports agent, whose studying overseas. She's none too happy that some jock is in control of her car, and sends him all manner of ominous texts about what she'll do to him if he damages the car in any way. Soon they are texting each other at all hours of the day, about much more than the car.

So when Ivy comes back home to the States, and Gray and Ivy finally meet, neither are wanting to risk their close friendship, even though they both find the other smoking hot. To add to the tension, Gray is one of Ivy's father's top clients, and Ivy isn't any more interested in getting involved with one of them than Gray is interested in ruining his chances with a future career. So it's best if they just stay friends...right?

Gray is the tight end (and yes, there are lots of jokes to that effect) on the same college team that Drew from The Hook Up is the quarterback of. They are best friends, and really more like brothers, considering Drew is orphaned and Gray's father and brothers were less than supportive to him growing up. Gray was a nice supporting character and he's a good protagonist as well. Not ashamed of his past sexual exploits, Gray is nonetheless aware that what he shares with Ivy is something special and shouldn't be taken lightly. Ivy, in contrast, hasn't really dated a lot, and has trust and commitment issues due to her sports agent father's lack of presence in the lives of her and her younger sister, as well as fidelity to their mother.

The friends to lovers story is a common trope in romance, but for it to work, the friendship needs to feel real and established. If this part is hurried, the romance doesn't feel as earned, in my opinion. Here, while Gray and several of his friends are surprised, he really does make a genuine connection with Ivy. This is possibly because the only visual reference he has of her is a photo of her as a young teenager displayed in her father's office, while they get to know each other though their in-depth text conversations. By the time they actually meet, and realise that the person they've been texting with is someone they find very physically attractive, they are both very invested in making their platonic relationship work.

Of course, the more time they spend together, the more staying platonic proves to be a challenge. Unlike in The Hook Up, where Drew and Anna start having sex quite early on, and Anna at least doesn't even want to like Drew, so they build the rest of their relationship slowly from there, the unresolved sexual tension between Gray and Ivy continues for a fair bit of the book, and when it's finally broken, it's quite explosive. Once they do give into their feelings for one another, the issue of their future becomes a serious question, as Ivy has been studying and working in London with the intention that she will take over one of her mother's successful bakeries, while Gray is obviously on his way to a hopefully successful sports career.

I really liked this book, and based on these two books, I really do need to check out more of Kristen Callihan's Steampunk paranormals, of which I've only read one so far. I wasn't blown away by the first one, but I've enjoyed her New Adult books so much that I'm going to give her paranormal historicals another chance.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 57: "The Hook Up" by Kristen Callihan

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Anna was either bullied or completely ignored in high school. With the exception of a few loyal friends, she was pretty much a social outcast. She has worked hard to become comfortable with herself and her body image. So when her college's star quarterback addresses her as "Big Red" in one of their shared classes, he instantly earns her animosity. Drew Baylor is tall, gorgeous, extremely athletic and popular in all areas of college life. As Anna just wants to keep her head down and finish college without attracting undue attention, he's pretty much her polar opposite. She's unsure why he even spoke to her, but they are from different worlds and she sees no reason why she needs to fawn over Drew, like everyone else.

Drew knows how lucky and privileged he is. He's a star on the football field, but works equally hard to excel in his other academic subjects, knowing that the chances of injury for a professional football player are high. Having lost his parents in a car accident, his team mates are pretty much his family. As the star quarterback, he has women constantly approaching him, but the only one he's interested in is the imperious and stubborn Anna, who won't give him the time of day. He watches her in class, wondering how to get a second chance to impress her, as it's quite clear she's completely unfazed by his prowess on the football field.

When Anna's room mate drags her to a frat party, Anna and Drew meet in a new arena. Sparks fly, turning absolutely scorching. In the coming days, they keep finding excuses to hook up. Anna is very clear that she doesn't want it to become official, and would prefer them to keep it only about the physical. Drew quickly determines that Anna is the only one he wants, he just needs to work diligently to win her over.

A lot of the New Adult books out there seem to be about a studious, often shy and sexually inexperienced young woman falling for some sort of emotionally scarred bad boy. The only previous book in the sub-genre I've genuinely loved is Trade Me by Courtney Milan. In that as in this, both protagonists have emotional baggage, and neither is exactly virginal. As in Milan's first foray into the sub-genre, the guy is the one who's the most emotionally committed, with the girl being reluctant to commit long term. With the exceptions of his team mates and coaches, Drew has no one and is ready to make a deeper connection with someone. Unlike several of his fellow football players, he's not really interested in the casual hook-ups with the many beautiful, but frequently fame-hungry women throwing themselves at him.

In addition to a whole host of confidence issues because of being bullied when she was younger, Anna also has severe trust issues. Her father abandoned her and her mother when she was little, and her mother seems to be a magnet for douchy guys who take advantage of her and frequently make Anna feel uncomfortable. Most of them end up cheating eventually. Anna's room mate is dating the captain of the lacrosse team, who pretty much treats her like dirt. So Anna's view of men in general is not great, and her trust issues are understandable. Drew is the most popular guy at their college, and she's aware of how much attention he gets at all time. She doesn't believe that there is anything about her that could hold his interest for very long. Of course, her resolve to keep everything in their relationship about the purely physical starts to erode the more time they spend together.

The book alternates between Anna and Drew's points of view, frequently letting the reader see the scenes through both protagonists' eyes and because Callihan lets us inside both parties of the romance, it's really clear how they feel about each other at all times. Drew is instantly smitten with Anna, and curses himself for making such a bad first impression on her. Anna is wholly uninterested in sports, and having been a social outcast in the past, disbelieving that any guy as gorgeous and popular as Drew could actually have any real and lasting interest in her. Of course, as it turns out, it's her being so reluctant to really commit that ends up really endangering their future relationship.

Once both parties acknowledge that they're crazy about each other and Anna works through her trust issues, an additional complication is thrown in their way. Suddenly Drew's insecurities come into play, and Anna needs to prove her commitment to him, in order for the couple to find their ultimate HEA. For those of a pearl-clutching disposition, be aware that there are a lot of steamy sex scenes in this book. More so than I am used to in contemporary romance. I didn't really feel that it got in the way of the characters' emotional journey, but if you like your romances lighter on the graphic sex (who are you and why are you reading my blog?), then you may want to give this one a miss.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.