Sunday, 16 July 2017

#CBR9 Book 67: "Heartstone" by Elle Katharine White

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Ever wondered what a fantasy version of Pride and Prejudice would be like if the countryside was full of dangerous supernatural creatures like direwolves, gryphons, lamias and banshees? Where the most respected and revered members of society weren't just idle nobles, but devoted themselves from youth to training hard and hunting down these dangerous monsters?

Elle Katharine White clearly wondered the same thing, and before you think this is just another quick cash-grab like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where the original story has pretty much been kept word for word, with some zombies and sword fighting thrown in for good measure - it's not. Ms White has reimagined the story and made changes here and there, but to anyone who knows the source material, there isn't going to be any massive surprises. Part of the fun of reading this book was instead to see how she had changed, reimagined or tweaked the story.

The Bennet family are the Bentaines here. Their youngest daughter was tragically killed by gryphons, so they are very grateful when the local landowner has managed to collect enough money to hire a band of Riders to vanquish the local threat. One of the Riders is even a dragonrider, from the legendary Daired family. Second eldest Bentaine, Eliza, is surprised when the arrogant man offers to train her, she isn't interested in killing things, she wants to become a healer. Her older sister seems to really hit it off with one of the other Riders, though, and their mother is absolutely delighted at the prospect of a good match for one of her brood.

I very much liked some of the dragons who made up the supporting cast, and the intricate rules that apparently govern the proper customs between dragons and their riders. Most of the characters' general characteristics will be very familiar to anyone who's read the Austen novel (or seen any of the adaptations). I liked the changes made to Mr. Collins and Catherine de Bourgh, especially, though and not everything plays out the way you might expect.

I was always going to be predisposed to like a novel that's literally "Pride and Prejudice with dragons", but there was always a chance that the premise fell absolutely flat and was boring or bad. I'm happy to say that this isn't the case at all. This is Ms. White's debut novel, and I will be looking out for more of her books in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: Parts of this cover obviously appeal to me a LOT - come on, it's a great big dragon in flight, apparently coming in for a landing. Not sure why the tail is so long it has to be coiled twice (this does not really fit with the descriptions of dragons in the book) and I'm really not happy with the outfit of the woman in the lower foreground of the picture. It seems to me that she is wearing nothing but a corset and petticoats, while in the middle of a field, something no lady in this story would do.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 66: "Someone to Watch Over Me" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Spoiler warning! This review will contain minor spoilers for the plot of the book. They will be clearly marked, though, so the rest of the review should be ok.

Grant Morgan is one of the most famous and sought after of London's Bow Street Runners. He's made a substantial fortune solving crimes for the wealthy, but is starting to find his life a bit boring. When he's called to the banks of the Thames to identify what appears to be a strangled woman, he is first of all surprised to discover that she is still breathing, and secondly, by her identity. The half-dead woman is Vivien Duvall, London's most desirable courtesan.

Once she wakes up and is examined by a doctor, it becomes clear that she has entirely lost her memory. She doesn't know how notorious she is or who may have tried to kill her. Grant decides to keep her at his house, both to make sure she is adequately protected, but also because he is plotting revenge against Vivien. A few months back, he rejected her sexual advances in public and she proceeded to spread a number of rumours about Grant. Now that she is entirely dependent on him for protection, he sees an opportunity to possibly seduce her and get back at her.

As they investigate which of Vivian's many lovers might have had cause to murder her, he pretends that he was her most recent patron. However, Vivian seems to be absolutely appalled by all the things she discovers about her life and claims to have no wish to return to a life as a courtesan. For all that Grant was angry and resentful towards Vivian in the beginning, the more time he spends with the timid, soft-spoken woman in his care, the more he grows properly attached to her. He doesn't really want revenge anymore, he just wants to protect her.

This is one of Lisa Kleypas' relatively early works, and it does not compare that well to some of her real classics, written later. My main problem with the book is that Grant really isn't that great a guy. Initially, he has absolutely no problem with taking advantage of a woman left in his care, just because he feels slighted by some malicious gossip she spread about him. Vivian has no memory of her former life or her actions, yet he seems to think that because she made her living as a courtesan, one he very pointedly rejected not that long ago, it's now totally fine for him to seduce her, by making her think he's one of her clients and making her feel obligated to him.

From the very beginning of his investigation, it's quite clear to Grant that Vivian appears to more or less have had a personality transplant along with the amnesia following her near-strangulation, drowning and head injury. The Vivian Duvall known in Regency society is self-confident to a fault, effortlessly sexy, quite the exhibitionist and arrogant in the extreme. Her former lovers claim she hated quiet pursuits and reading and was willing to do absolutely anything in bed. The woman in his care is timid, shy, seemingly very innocent and absolutely adores reading. While she doesn't remember anything about her past, she has intimate knowledge about a number of Grant's favourite literary works. She's unfailingly polite to everyone and seems uncomfortable being waited on by servants.

SPOILERS AHEAD! It's almost as if she's a completely different person - and in case you hadn't seen the surprise twist coming - she is! It turns out Vivian has a twin sister from the countryside, who came to London to look for her, and was mistaken for her by the man sent to kill her. When is this mistaken identity discovered? When Grant is in the process of deflowering the inexperienced and sheltered virgin, taking absolutely no care because he believes the woman he's sharing a bed with to be a courtesan with many years of experience behind her. He does not, to my mind, apologise or grovel enough in the aftermath.

There's a fairly heavy undertone of slut shaming throughout this novel. Grant basically hates himself for feeling drawn to the woman he believes to be Vivian, because she's slept with so many men. As soon as he discovers the woman he's attracted to is in fact her virginal sister, who has lived a quiet life in the country, teaching children and taking care of her elderly father, it's perfectly ok, because she's pure and all that is good and she is clearly seen as much more worthy of love and a long-term relationship than a possibly repentant Vivian would be.

END SPOILERS. This is definitely one of the weaker Kleypas historicals I've read. Grant being fairly dislikable all the way through is one factor. I really didn't think he deserved any sort of happy ending, and any changes he went through seemed superficial at best. The heroine is also very passive and mainly defers entirely to the will of the men around her, she seems to have little to no agency of her own. That got boring pretty fast. It was also very obvious to me from about the second scene he appeared in who the attempted murderer was, and surprising to me that super-detective Grant didn't clue in on the fact earlier in the story. To be fair, he was too busy hate-lusting over the woman in his care. Unless you're a Kleypas completist, this one is skippable.

Judging a book by its cover: I am very fond of the colour teal, but there may be an overabundance of it on this cover. This book is set in Regency era England, and I'm pretty sure that whatever the cover model is wearing doesn't count as period appropriate night wear, especially considering what is described as part of the story. I also pity whatever servant is left to iron out the creases in the silk after the skirts have been crumpled so carelessly as we see here.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

#CBR9 Book 65: "From Duke till Dawn" by Eva Leigh

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Alexander Lewis, the Duke of Greyland has just been jilted by his intended. She eloped with a cavalry officer, but Alex is mainly annoyed that he's going to have to start looking for a new bride. His best friends, the Earl of Langdon and the wealthy Mr. Ellingsworth refuse to let him stay at home and brood and insist on taking him to a new and fashionable gambling club that is rumoured to only stay open for a month. They claim he'll find ample things to distract him there. He reluctantly comes along and to his surprise, sees the woman he's been trying to locate, and unsuccessfully forget, for the last two years. While recuperating in Cheltenham, he'd seen the lovely and impoverished widow at his hotel. After several weeks of acquaintance, the gentile Mrs Blair confessed her troubles to him and he gave her five hundred pounds. They spent one very memorable night together, and afterwards, the widow was gone without a trace.

Cassandra Blake is a con woman. She has successfully used her poor, down on her luck, but very proud widow scam on countless men, but only with Alex did she give into the mutual attraction and actually sleep with one of her victims. Having grown up on the streets after her father died in debtor's prison, Cassandra began by picking pockets until an older man found and mentored her into the beautiful swindler she has become. Now they are working together for one last big score, running a gambling den for one month, planning to make enough money to finally retire. Cassandra is sick of running cons, she wants out of the swindling business. When the Duke of Greyland unexpectedly shows up at the club, Cassandra is able to convince him that the widow Blair was forced to take the job as a hostess, as her money has run out.

When Cassandra suddenly finds herself on the receiving end of a swindle, after her mentor takes all the club's profits and absconds, she has no choice but to seek out Alex for help, even as she knows he'll despise her once he learns the truth about her. Discovering that the woman he had pretty much fallen in love with is nothing but a sham, Alex is heart-broken and furious, but he also understands that Cassandra's life might be in danger if she can't recover the money her partner stole. There were several rather shady investors in the scheme and they do not take kindly to their profits being nicked. Alex promises to help Cassandra, on the condition that she never leave his sight until their mission is done. Of course, spending time in close proximity means he finally gets to see and get to know the real Cassandra, and she is even more enticing than the widow Blair ever was.

I really liked Eva Leigh's first trilogy set in the Regency era, with unorthodox heroines that didn't exactly fit with society's views for what was right and proper for ladies. In her new trilogy, of which this is the first, Leigh has researched the seedier side of London, exploring the criminal underworld from various angles. There are the con artists and swindlers, to which Cassandra belongs, there's an underground sex club that I suspect will feature more prominently in a future book, as one of the Duke's two best friends is unhappily infatuated with the proprietress.

Alexander Lewis has always done what is right and was brought up to do his duty. His parents, as was common for the nobility, were not particularly affectionate, but he wants to do the right thing and find a young woman from a suitable family to bear his children. He doesn't expect any romantic attachment to his wife, especially as he has never been able to forget the enigmatic and beautiful Mrs. Blair. While they only spent one night together, he's spent a lot of time and resources trying to find her (which is of course impossible, since she wasn't an actual person).

He discovers Cassandra's deception when he returns to the club, ready to propose, having been convinced by one of his friends that a man of his standing will easily be able to whether the scandal of marrying a widow of uncertain origins. He overhears her talking to her business partner and realises she's a fraud. Heartbroken and disgusted, he's furious with her, but still can't make himself turn her away when she turns up, desperate and broke in his drawing room shortly after. Soon the proper and thoroughly honourable Duke finds himself visiting locations he barely knew existed, conversing (and beating up) all manner of questionable individuals.

Spending time in close proximity to Cassandra for several days and during many exciting adventures through the London underworld, Alex discovers how sheltered and privileged a life he has actually lived. While he's appalled at the way Cassandra and many others make their living, he begins to understand that a lot don't have a lot of other options. While searching London for her former mentor, Alex also discovers that Cassandra did not, in fact, prostitute herself for the money she conned out of her victims. She would normally hint and promise all manner of things, but run off as soon as she had the money. She made a very notable exception in Alex' case, and has both regretted and cherished the memory ever since.

Cassandra, meanwhile, was ready to give up her "wicked ways" even before she got a taste of her own medicine and discovered how awful it feels to be swindled and betrayed. She just needed enough money to retire quietly to the countryside in peace, and faces quite the crisis of conscience when she has to face Alex, a man she hasn't been able to forget for two years, and own up to all the bad things she's done in her life. She's unapologetic about some of the things she's had to do to survive, but she does regret hurting and lying to so many people. She's a resilient woman, convinced (quite rightly so, considering their huge difference in status) that Alex is miles out of her league. She knows she'll never see him again once she recovers all the stolen money, but decides to make the best of the time they have together.

While Alex keeps wanting to hate Cassandra, he sees almost instantly that no matter how angry he is, he's still incredibly attracted to her. The more he discovers about her past and the life she's been forced to live, the quicker his anger fades. The couple keep fighting their attraction, but this is a romance, of course it doesn't take too long before they give into their feelings.

I liked the unusual setting and the conflict keeping the protagonists apart. There is a fair bit of appropriate action and some very good banter, and I'm very much looking forward to what Ms. Leigh has in store for Alex' friends (who were pretty heavily set up as future heroes) in the next few books in the series.

Judging a book by its cover: Eva Leigh tends to have pretty decent covers, and the dresses the cover models wear always actually appear in the story at some point (I'm not entirely sure how the authors manage it, but I always like it when it happens). I do, however, have several gripes with this cover, the first being the oft mentioned - her gown is unlaced, where are her undergarments? Secondly, why is she sitting at such an uncomfortable angle, backwards on the sofa? Thirdly, how many yards of fabric were needed to make those never-ending skirts - the dress certainly isn't Regency appropriate. Sigh.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 64: "Walk on Earth a Stranger" by Rae Carson

Page count: 464 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Leah "Lee" Westfall lives on a small farm in Georgia, trying to make ends meet with her parents. The only reason they're really managing to survive at all, is Lee's unusual ability, she can sense gold. It calls to her and is the reason her father is known in town as "Lucky". No one but her parents know about her gift, or so Lee believed. Then she comes home from town one day to discover both of her parents shot (her mother is still just barely alive, and warns Leah to be careful with her last breaths) and the sack of gold dust they had hidden under the floor boards missing.

Her neighbour, sixteen-year-old, half Native Jefferson McCauley is planning on heading west to California, as the news that gold has been found there has just been announced. He wants Lee to come with him, but she's reluctant to leave her family's farm. Then her uncle Hiram shows up, now her legal guardian, and with her gold sense, Lee can tell he's been near a lot of gold dust lately. She's suddenly all too certain who's behind her parents' murder, and once her uncle starts dropping hints, she begins to fear that her father may have told him about Lee's abilities. She regrets not going away with Jefferson, but enlists the help of a friendly shopkeeper in town, cuts her hair, dresses in men's clothing and runs away while her uncle is distracted.

Lee needs to make her way west and try to find Jefferson again, all the while staying out of her uncle's clutches. She quickly discovers that life on the road is dangerous and meets several set-backs before she manages to get a place on a caravan going towards California. Can she keep her real identity hidden with so many people around? Will anyone discover her special gold sense? Will the caravan actually survive the hard and challenging journey across the country to the gold fields of California?

I don't know exactly what I was expecting from this book, but it certainly wasn't a gritty, depressing version of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books crossed with Oregon Trail. There are SO many horrible things that happen to these people, guys. If this hadn't been the start of a trilogy, I would have seriously suspected they would all just be killed in various gruesome ways over the course of the story. Rae Carson's first trilogy, Girl of Fire and Thorns, did NOT prepare me for the level of hardship throughout this book.

With the fairly shocking beginning for poor Leah and the continuing, probably impeccably researched story, full of all sorts of misery, I can't say the book was enjoyable and it made it very difficult for me to get attached to any of the characters, as I never knew who was going to kick the figurative bucket next. I suppose I should be happy that Ms Carson didn't simplify or sugar coat what was probably a very dangerous and arduous trek for a lot of people, so desperate to get to find gold that they would risk everything, including their own lives and those of their families in search of prosperity.

Set in the late 19th Century, there were obviously a lot of less than enlightened attitudes with regards to women, "confirmed bachelors", Native Americans and persons of colour in this story. Lee has to hide her identity for much of the story, and mainly seems to be able to do it quite well for a long time. This was clearly also a time when injuries and illness were a lot more dangerous, which is partly what makes the story so harrowing. While struggling to reach the west, the band of travellers keeps getting reduced, but the ones who make it are a very tightly knit group, and I'm an absolute sucker for found family stories.

One advantage to waiting so long to read this book, is that I won't have too long to wait until the third book in the trilogy is released later this year. I'm hoping that with the difficult journey completed, the next books may be more entertaining and uplifting.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm not entirely sure what I think about this cover. I think the giant gold letters proclaiming the title are unnecessarily large. I think the cover image should have been given more prominence, instead it almost becomes an afterthought. I'm also not entirely happy with the way Leah's "gold sense" has been visually portrayed, but I guess it's hard to get across what is basically just a mental thing.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

#CBR9 Book 63: "Dating You/Hating You" by Christina Lauren

Page count: 368 pages
Audio book length: 9hrs 39 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Carter Aaron and Evelyn "Evie" Abbey (nicknamed Evil by Carter shortly after their first meeting due to her nefarious and wicked laugh) meet at an early Halloween party. They seem to be the only single people in a sea of couples, and both drift towards a corner of the room away from the "marrieds", discovering that they coincidentally both came in Harry Potter costumes. Hitting it off instantly, their enthusiasm towards one another wanes a bit when they find out they are both celebrity agents, working for rival agencies in LA. Dating people within the business is never a good idea, so they agree to just be friends. The chemistry between them is undeniable, and their mutual friends certainly try to push them towards each other. Since neither can stop thinking of the other, they go on one very good date, which ends in a fairly steamy encounter in Evie's bedroom.

Before they can decide what to do next, the company Evie works for buys up Carter's in a takeover, and suddenly they are working on the same team. Not only that, Brad Kingman, the sexist dinosaur who runs the team thinks it would be an excellent idea to pit them against each other - making them compete for a permanent position on the team. The person who loses might get reassigned to the company's New York office, or lose their job altogether.

Evie has worked for the company for six years, with an almost perfect record. She has one major flop in her past, that Kingman still loves holding against her, but she is older, more experienced and deeply resents being forced to compete with Carter, a new hire with years less experience than her. Carter, meanwhile, moved from New York to LA specifically to be an agent and has uprooted his entire life for the job. He's determined to prove himself and get the position. Evie and Carter might find each other cute, funny and incredibly sexy, but nothing kills potential romance faster than that other person you like suddenly being the one who might steal your job away from you.

If Evie and Carter hadn't both been driven professionals who pretty much lives for their jobs, so similar in many regards, the conflict wouldn't really be an issue. If they didn't both want the permanent position so badly, even as they resent Kingman for forcing them to compete, one of them could have just quit and gone on to do something else, and then they could date in their spare time. That's not what happens here.

What is possibly somewhat unusual in what on the surface seems like a funny, sexy friends to enemies, enemies to lovers work place comedy is the very strong feminist themes that run throughout the book. Evie and her female colleagues in the business face blatant sexism at every turn, and this is made very obvious throughout the book. Brad Kingman is a chauvinist pig and the women who work for him just have to learn to ignore his comments and treatment of them if they want to keep their jobs. The women have to work so much harder than their male counterparts, because they are scrutinised so much more. They have to be pleasant, outgoing, attractive (but not too obviously attracting male attention) and it's quite obvious that most of their male colleagues don't even notice what they're going through, because their realities are entirely different.

It takes Carter a while to realise just what a douchebag Kingman really is, and how much more difficult the whole competition aspect is for Evie. To his credit, while it takes him a while to clue in, once he does, he really does try to stand up for her and other women on their team.

This book really is very funny in places, especially when it comes to the practical jokes that Evie and Carter start playing on each other to get the upper hand during their competition. They never do anything too malicious to the other, so it's possible to enjoy their rivalry without it ever getting uncomfortable. Even when they are at their most competitive, they also very strongly have to fight their natural chemistry and mutual attraction. They never really hate or even dislike the other person, just the situation they are both in, so this isn't really a true "enemies to lovers" story.

When I first read about this book, it immediately brought to mind my favourite book of last year, The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. What I did not know is that Christina Lauren, the writing duo who wrote this one, are actually friends with Thorne (I love it when authors I like are friends in real life, it makes me so happy) and put off reading her book until they'd finished their own book, worried that their workplace romantic comedy would be influenced by hers. As they said, in the interview I read, they needn't have worried, the books are very different, but both very entertaining reads.

As well as admiring the authors for dealing with sexism in the workplace without it ever becoming an issue that takes away from the central romance or ruins the fun of the book, I really liked how fully fleshed out the protagonists were and how well we get to know them and their friends. Evie has several good female friends and Carter has a staunch supporter in his best friend since grade school, Michael Christopher, as well as his wife Steph, who used to work with Evie. It's at their Halloween party the couple have their first meeting and it's nice to see how they manage to support both sides of the couple, even when they are bitter rivals, without messing up their own relationship and secretly hoping that they'll get together in the end, so the couples can double date. Even Carter's spoiled and rather annoying little brother Jonah, a celebrity photographer who can do no wrong in the eyes of their parents was a nice touch, as it's not like everyone has wonderful and supportive family around them all the time.

If there's a villain in this story, it's Brad Kingman, who I sadly suspect isn't actually unrealistically sexist or horrible as bosses go. The final quarter of the book, when Evie and some of her friends discover a way to finally take him down and it all goes a bit action movie for a while, felt a bit out of place. I think Carter's dawning realisation and decisions to get himself out of the problems he was in was a better solution, but it was nothing that took away my enjoyment of the book too much.

A final note, I got the Audible version of this, narrated by Shana Thibodeaux and Deacon Lee. They both do a very good job and I can highly recommend the audio.

Judging a book by its cover: Christina Lauren don't really go in flashy or overdone covers, and this fits with their simple and clean aesthetic. While the background is a stark white and the people (probably meant to be Evie and Carter, although I pictured Evie as more petite and Carter with glasses) are in black and white, the colourful font in pink, yellow and orange still brighten the cover up nicely and make it rather inviting, in my opinion. So much better than a lot of the overdone romance covers nowadays.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 62: "Mr and Mr Smith" by HelenKay Dimon

Page count: 210 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

From Goodreads:
Fisher Braun knows how to keep a secret. As a covert paramilitary operative, his job - and his life - depends on it. He's at the top of his game, ready for action and always in control. No enemy has ever brought him to his knees, but one lover has: Zachary Allen, the man currently sharing his bed. The perfect package of brains and brawn, Zach is someone worth coming home to, and Fisher hates keeping him in the dark about what he does. But the lies keep Zach safe. Until the day Fisher loses everything...

Zachary Allen is no innocent civilian. Although he plays a tech geek, in reality he's deep undercover for the CIA. In a horrible twist of face, the criminal enterprise he's infiltrated has set its sights on the man whose touch drives him wild. Zach would do anything for Fisher - except blow his own cover. Now, in order to save him, Zach must betray him first. And he needs Fisher to trust him with all his heart if they want to make it out alive. 

This is the first book I've ever read by HelenKay Dimon, so I can't tell you if it's a typical book for her, or some new and exciting direction she's taking her fiction in. A quick glance at Goodreads shows me that she has written quite a lot of books that all seem to be romantic suspense, some with a m/f and others with m/m focus. In this series, Tough Love, we are introduced to a team of CIA agents, who have clearly worked together for many missions on various paramilitary missions all over the globe. They're a tight-knit and experienced unit, who clearly know each other very well, but Fisher has been hiding the fact that he's gay, and has had a boyfriend hidden away in an apartment for the las few months, from the rest of the group. He's been lying to his boyfriend, claiming to be an engineer, making up excuses every time he gets shipped off to do something insanely dangerous to keep the world safe.

Now his boyfriend appears to have been kidnapped, and Fisher is absolutely frantic. He believes his boyfriend Zach to be a nerdy computer technician and has always feared that his life of spying and covert ops will endanger Zach in some way. Finding him snatched from their home pretty much confirms this. Fisher's partner, Nathan, is rather amused at Fisher's admission that he's gay, as it seems to have been blatantly obvious to the entire team that Fisher had no interest in the ladies. He's more curious as to why Fisher's been lying both about where he's been living for the last three months, and whom he's been living with. He insists on coming with Fisher to confront the kidnappers, who turn out to be a pretty nasty bunch of individuals, and while captive with that organisation, they discover that Zach isn't so much a kidnapping victim as someone who's job it was to hit on Fisher and insinuate himself into his life so he could spy on him for the group.

Fisher is absolutely gutted, and it takes both Fisher and Nathan a long time to believe that Zach is telling the truth about being an undercover CIA agent tasked to infiltrate these high-level kidnappers. Even after Zach's identity has been verified both by the Fisher and Zach's respective supervisors, Fisher feels incredibly betrayed. He believed Zach to be an innocent civilian, and now can't trust anything they had together. Having already dealt with his fair share of betrayal and rejection when he came out to his family, Fisher has always kept himself slightly apart from others, not really daring to trust. Although he's not ready to admit it to himself, he's clearly fallen pretty hard for Zach (everyone else around him can see it) and now he doesn't know what to do with himself.

When helping Fisher and Nathan escape, Zach knows that he most likely broke his cover, but the ruthless organisation he's been infiltrating still needs to be stopped, and he has to return to them, even if it means risking his own life. While Fisher is furious with him, and claims he doesn't care what happens to Zach, he's clearly in denial and needs to be convinced that his superiors, and Zach, know what they're doing.

We are thrown straight into the action in this book, and it very rarely lets up at any point. I suppose in a book of just two hundred pages, you don't really have a lot of pages to spend on slowly building exposition, but it felt a bit jarring occasionally to have everything revealed in little flashbacks while the main story was going ahead at full tilt. I didn't really feel like I was able to get invested in Fisher and Zach's relationship before it was in danger of crumbling. Even with the tight plotting and low page count, Dimon manages to spend some time introducing sequel-bait, a German secret agent also working undercover with the kidnappers and the youngest, apparently less-criminally inclined than his siblings brother of the criminal enterprise. In many ways, their pairing seemed more interesting to me, so Ms. Dimon's tactics clearly worked, I'm very likely to track down the next book in the series as well.

All in all, I would have preferred a few more quiet scenes and a bit more exposition, where I felt like I really got to know Fisher and Zach and therefore could care more about their relationship. I also found at least one of the sex scenes in the book somewhat implausible, considering both the anger and trust issues on either side and the time constraints with regards to the guys' mission, but what do I know? It seemed like at least one of the scenes was in there so the readers got enough smexy times, without it really feeling organic to the plot.

This hasn't exactly been my favourite read of the season, but I am a fan of action movies, and they're not always very big on character development either. So since this is a big budget action movie in romance form, I guess I can't be too picky. Several of Fisher's team members provide excellent comic relief as supporting characters, and as I said, I am very intrigued by the pairing set up for the sequel, so this will clearly not be the last HelenKay Dimon book I read. If you like romantic suspense, and don't really want anything too time-consuming to read, I suspect this will do you nicely.

Judging a book by its cover: I really don't think much of this cover, where they've clearly just found some random male models and posed them casually. These men don't in any way look like convincing secret agents or former soldiers. They just look like they're fighting constipation or pondering how to turn left. While they're not both exactly doing Blue Steel, there are some heavy Zoolander vibes here.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 61: "The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Shortly after the death of her father, Miss Cecilia Harcourt gets a letter informing her that her brother, Thomas Harcourt has been injured during battle i the American colonies. Her odious cousin keeps coming around hinting strongly at how beneficial it would be for Cecilia to marry him, so instead she buries the family silver in the garden and sets off over the Atlantic to find her brother and nurse him back to health. Unfortunately, no one seems to be willing to speak to her and her brother appears to be missing. Instead she finds his best friend, Captain Edward Rokesby, who's unconscious in the hospital and clearly also needs her aid. In order to be allowed to tend to him, Cecilia lies and claims to be his wife. She knows the charade will be up as soon as Rokesby wakes up, but at least she can give him the tenderest of care until then.

When Edward wakes up, he's surprised to find the woman he identifies as his best friend Thomas' sister Cecilia by his bedside. He's even more confused when she appears to be his wife, but the doctors confirm that the blow he took to the head when out on some very secretive mission appears to have caused him to forget the last six months of his memory. As Edward had frequently sent messages to Cecilia in Thomas' letters to her, and she had started sending little greetings for him, he's not entirely surprised that he's married to her, having already half fallen in love with her through he correspondence, he just can't remember when or how the marriage took place.

Cecilia feels dreadful about her lies, but discovers that the army officials are much more likely to assist her in her search for her brother if she is Captain Rokesby's wife, not just Miss Harcourt, sister of a missing officer. So even though it pains her to deceive a clearly very honest and upstanding gentleman, she keeps up the lie that she married Edward and promises herself that as soon as they locate Thomas, she will tell him the truth and set him free, even if he's unlikely to ever want to see her again afterwards.

This is the second "hero with amnesia" romance I've read in the last few months. I thought Meredith Duran's A Lady's Code of Misconduct worked a lot better, and both the protagonists of that book were more morally complex and interesting. Julia Quinn doesn't really write about bad people. All of her characters tend to be upstanding and thoroughly decent, and apart from the lie at the centre of their relationship, there really is NO conflict between Cecilia and Edward. They're pretty much already madly in love with each other from the letters they've been exchanging and while Cecilia keeps being terribly upset about her lies, and her belief that Edward is really in love with Billie Bridgerton, his neighbour back home (who married his brother in the previous book in the series), so she's stolen him from some other woman, it's quite clear from all of Edward's thoughts that whether he remembers marrying her or not, he's absolutely crazy about Cecilia.

As well as the relationship built on a lie plot, there is Cecilia's missing brother to locate, and Edward trying to remember exactly what happened in the six months he's now forgotten. None of this was terribly interesting to me. While the setting, of Revolutionary War America is more unusual in a historical romance, I didn't really feel as if Quinn really utilised it as much as she could have. It was nevertheless a nice change from the English countryside or London drawing rooms that most of these books are set in.

It's been a long time since Quinn really knocked my socks off with one of her romances. This is perfectly pleasant, but all in all, rather forgettable. I'll still keep getting her books on sale, but she's completely off my auto-buy list for the time being.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm really not an expert on late 18th Century women's fashion, but I'm pretty sure that this is not a period appropriate dress for the American War of Independence/Revolutionary War period. It looks more like a generic "historical" dress, with no clear time period in mind. Why there's an ocean and rolling cliffs in the background is also puzzling to me, as the whole book takes place in a British-occupied New York, there's no picturesque countryside in the book at all. They have at least found a cover model who's blond, like the heroine, and her putting her finger to her lips, indicating a secret is really rather cute.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 60: "Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies" by Hadley Freeman

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3 stars

It's been about a month since I finished this, and I've long since had to return my copy to the library, so Goodreads is going to have to help me here:

From Vogue contributor and Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, a personalized guide to eighties movies that describes why they changed movie-making forever - featuring exclusive interviews with the producers, directors, writers and stars of the best cult classics.

In Life Moves Pretty Fast, Hadley puts her obsessive movie geekery to good use, detailing the decade's key players, genres, and tropes. She looks back on a cinematic world in which bankers are invariably evil, where children are always wiser than adults, where science is embraced with an intense enthusiasm, and the future viewed with giddy excitement. And, she considers how the changes between movies then and movies today say so much about society's changing expectations of women, young people, and art - and explains why Pretty in Pink should be put on school syllabuses immediately.

From how John Hughes described Molly Ringwald, to how the friendship between Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi influenced the evolution of comedy, and how Eddie Murphy made America believe that race could be transcended, this is a "highly personal, witty love letter to eighties movies, but also an intellectually vigorous, well-researched take on the changing times of the film industry." (The Guardian)

This was the most recent book club entry in the Cannonball Book Club, where the theme was movie related non-fiction. It wasn't the book I voted for, but book clubs are all about expanding ones horizons and reading things you wouldn't necessarily pick yourself, so I downloaded it from the library and started reading. Sadly, on the day of the actual book club discussion, I was feeling unwell, and not really able to take part as much as I would have liked. Of course, now it's been over a month since I finished the book, and while I kept thinking I should take notes to remember my opinions, that didn't really happen. So this review is going to be rather rambling, as I try to articulate what I thought and felt while reading it.

The first essay, about Dirty Dancing and sexuality on film, especially that of women, was really fascinating to me. While I straight up disagree with Freeman on a lot of points she makes in the book, it was really interesting to read about this movie (a film I only saw when I was closer to twenty than in my teens, and therefore never really saw the swoon-worthiness of the film, unlike many of my contemporaries). Having read Freeman's essay, I'd like to rewatch the movie, looking at its portrayal of female agency and the like. Freeman makes several points in the book in various essays about how "women's movies" don't really get made anymore, and I sadly think she's right. Unless movies can appeal to a wide range of demographics, they are unlikely to be greenlit now.

Like Freeman, I grew up in the eighties and nineties, but I didn't consume movies the way she clearly did. While I love watching movies and agree with her on the greatness of so many films, I was almost first and foremost a reader, and would therefore rarely obsessively watch the same movies again and again. As I mentioned above, she makes a lot of good points, but I never really felt that "Lessons we learned from eighties movies" was really what this book was about. If the book had been called "one film geek's opinions on eighties movies", it would have been a much more accurate title, but I suspect she'd have had a harder time getting the book published.

Because I didn't take notes, I can't really remember which bits of the book annoyed me the most. This isn't the best of reviews, so many other, more eloquent Cannonballers have reviewed the book already over on the group blog. I'm not regretting that I read the book, and it made me very eager to go seek out some of the eighties classics I've never seen, but unlike some pop culture non-fiction I've read, I'm unlikely to ever revisit this one.

Judging a book by its cover: My main gripe with the cover is the subtitle: The lessons we learned from eighties movies, because I really don't think Freeman manages to fully commit to her "thesis statement" so to speak. In so many cases, she just talks, very subjectively, about what she thinks of these movies, without there being any obvious "lessons learned" at all. The cover design, evoking old VHS tapes and their many colourful covers is a nice touch, though. Having grown up in the 1980s, just like Freeman, the cover was a good little piece of nostalgia.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

#CBR9 Book 59: "The Pages of the Mind" by Jeffe Kennedy

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

From Goodreads: Magic has broken free all over the Twelve Kingdoms. The population is beset by shapeshifters and portents, landscapes that migrate, uncanny allies who are not quite human...and enemies eager to take advantage of the chaos. 

Dafne Maillouix is no adventurer - she's a librarian. But the High Queen trusts Dafne's ability with languages, her way of winnowing useful facts from a dusty scroll, and even more important, the subtlety and guile that three decades under the thumb of a tyrant taught her.

Dafne never thought to need those skills again. But she accepts her duty. Until her journey drops her into the arms of a barbarian king. He speaks no language that she knows but that of power, yet he recognizes his captive as a valuable pawn. Dafne must submit to a wedding of alliance, becoming a prisoner - a queen in a court she does not understand. If she is to save herself and her county, she will have to learn to read the heart of a wild stranger. And there are more secrets there than even Dafne could suspect...

This year, when selecting my choices to review for the RITA Reader Challenge, I made sure to choose books I actually own. I got this in one of many e-book sales, intrigued by the notion of a fantasy romance with a librarian heroine, not exactly something you see that often. It turns out that Dafne as well as being a devoted librarian and archivist is a scholar and a linguist, who delights in learning new languages. Her actual age is never mentioned, but it's clear that she's probably in her late thirties, possibly even early forties and has kept herself under the radar and voluntarily lived a sheltered life. She lost her entire family during the rule of the previous High King, a brutal and ruthless ruler, and feels the loss of siblings greatly. Now more or less acknowledged as an adopted sister to his daughter, the new High Queen (it's clear that she usurped her father in previous books), she is unaccustomed to with any kind of affection.

While this book is the first in a series called Uncharted Realms, it's part of a world already established by Jeffe Kennedy, referencing events and characters from The Twelve Kingdoms, so this book is both a stand-alone and part of a bigger whole. The beginning of the the book felt a bit like I was missing out on something and made me wish I'd read at least the book about High Queen Ursula of the now Thirteen Kingdoms, but once Dafne leaves the court and goes off on her journey, the book was a lot more engaging.

Again due to events that took place before this book started, the realm that these characters live in is now full of unexpected magic, which has affected not only the Thirteen Kingdoms ruled over by warrior Queen Ursula, but also the neighbouring Dasnaria, where her lover is from and a small island nation who are petitioning the crown for reparation from damages. Being the only one from her close circle that the High Queen can spare, she sends Dafne to be her ambassador. She's intelligent, speaks more languages than anyone in the palace and thanks to her extensive reading, knows a great deal about a lot of the strange things happening around the kingdoms. Ursula also sends one of her elite guards, a woman named Jepp, tasked with training Dafne in self defense and a shapeshifter from one of her sisters' courts who can be useful in information gathering. The three women, while very different, bond during their journey.

When they get to the island kingdom of Nahanua, things get complicated, however. The barbarian king mentioned in the blurb (think Pacific Islander warrior, I pictured Jason Momoa in my head the whole time), King Nakoa KauPo seems very taken with her from the first, and straight after their arrival on the islands makes her take off her shoes and stockings to walk barefoot on the volcanic rock the ground seems mostly made up from, then when her feet get to sore to walk, carries her up to the mouth of an active volcano, where there is some sort of mysterious ritual that brings a dragon out of the mountain, culminating in the burly native kissing our inexperienced virgin heroine. She's previously admitted to her female companions that while she's been kissed before, she's never really felt anything out of the ordinary and she's never felt anything close to desire enough to want to have sex. The island king, on the other hand, clearly affects her very differently and it's clear that the two are linked in some way after the kiss by the volcano.

Her feet are badly wounded by walking on the volcanic rock and she's tended lovingly by the women of the court, her chief attendant clearly the King's own sister. As the Nahanuans speak a language completely unfamiliar to her, so communication is extremely difficult, Dafne begins to realise that the ritual (which she was not in any way given a choice to take part in) led to her at least being the King's fiancee, or possibly even his wife. While he sleeps elsewhere while she recovers, she's quite clearly in King Nakoa's private rooms, and he keeps showering her with kindness and affection. As the stop at the Nahanuan islands was only supposed to be a brief one to try to negotiate an understanding between the High Queen and the islanders, before Dafne continued her diplomatic journey to Dasnaria, her bodyguards try to extract her, but find that the King has no intention of letting her go.

To avoid outright conflict between her companions and the King's forces, Dafne is forced to stay behind, sending her friends back to notify the High Queen of the new developments. She discovers that she was indeed married to the King in that strange ceremony and once she learns more of the language, that he believes them to be fated mates, having felt a link to her throughout her life. It's also clear that while Dafne initially tries her very best to fight her attraction to the imposing, yet seemingly very kind man who married her against her will, dissenting forces on the islands will challenge Nakoa's claim to the throne if the marriage is not consummated and the link to the dragon (which it seems their relationship can strengthen) further improved.

If you overlook the part where he pretty much abducts her from her people and marries her without her consent, Nakoa seems to be a pretty great guy. He's clearly a mostly popular ruler, even though he has one rival determined to steal his throne. He's deeply possessive and spends a lot of time carrying Dafne around (since her feet take quite some time to heal), but is always gentle and affectionate towards her. He tries to seduce her, but every time she needs him to step back and take things more slowly, he respects her boundaries. It's also clear that the marriage ritual to link him and Dafne was necessary to free the ancient dragon from it's volcanic mountain and secure the future prosperity of his nation, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth. Dafne also seems to accept that she's been forced into a marriage a bit too easily, probably because despite being described as intelligent and capable in the first half of the book, she becomes almost addled with lust for her new husband, and once they finally consummate the marriage, she certainly makes up for lost time with all the love making they engage in.

Even if she's very much in lust with Nakoa, Dafne is very reluctant to be referred to as his queen, and she feels torn in her loyalties to her High Queen. Even though it's quite clear that they share some sort of mystical bond, not just to one another, but to the dragon as well, Dafne is sure she will have to leave and return to her old home eventually. She therefore hesitates to commit fully to the relationship and this causes further tensions.

I liked the world-building of the book and will probably go back and read about Ursula and her two sisters in the previous three books by Kennedy. The next book in the series is about Jepp and the leader of the Dasnarian warriors that take Dafne to the islands, and that also seems intriguing to me. I really wish the central romance wasn't based on a forced marriage - while Nakoa is always very respectful and doesn't force Dafne into anything she's not ready sexually, he didn't give any indication of his intentions before carrying her up to the volcano, and it's revealed that he clearly conspired with the Dasnarians to get her to the islands in the first place. We are never really given an entirely satisfactory reason why an orphaned librarian and a warrior island king from quite a distance away from one another would be fated mates, either, but then I find the trope of the fated mate incredibly exasperating.

I loved that Dafne was a middle-aged virgin, a librarian and a scholar and that she uses her skills throughout the book to try to understand her new position and then to try to solve the riddle of the dragon and its supposed treasure. I liked that the hero, for all his heavy-handed, withholding information ways, was from a culture clearly based on those of the Pacific islands. I think we could have found out more about him, there is a lot more character development given to Jepp and the exotic shapeshifter Zynda, both supporting characters in the book, than to Nakoa (he's big, strong, handsome, possessive, has a lot of tattoos and is extremely good in bed, despite being a virgin like Dafne - having saved himself for her).

I didn't like that Dafne seemed to lose all her critical faculties because she was so overcome with lust. I didn't think the subplot with the challenger to the throne was dealt with all that satisfactorily. I think a bit too much of the start of the book should have been easier to get into for someone who had not read the previous books by this author. I'm still going to check out more of her work, though, and hope there's less of the fated mate and forced marriage stuff.

Judging a book a book by its cover: Dafne is described as quite plain and nearing middle age, so I think the cover model is both prettier and younger than she's supposed to be, but perhaps this scholar beauty with her hair flowing about her head as if by magic, with her billowing gown and the pages of the tome she carries fluttering in the wind, is supposed to be King Nakoa's image of her? While it doesn't entirely fit with the contents of the story, it's a striking enough cover that it made me take a closer look at the description when the book was on sale, and I ended up buying it, so I suppose the marketing department did a good job.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 58: "White Hot" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 5 stars

This is book 2 in a trilogy and if you've not read Burn for Me yet, that's where you really should begin. While you could begin the story with this one, you'll get a better introduction to the story, characters and world-building if you start with book 1.

It's been a few months since the events of the first book, and Nevada has been practising her abilities, learning more about what she can do and how she can control them. She insists makes Augustine Montgomery agree to let her question a suspected serial killer of little girls, in order to verify the location of his latest victim, and he agrees, against his better judgement. In return, Nevada agrees to see a friend of his, Cornelius Harrison, whose wife was recently murdered under mysterious and clearly magical circumstances. She knows that she and her family may not have the power or resources to help Mr. Harrison, but his grief is so palpable and she feels enough for him and his daughter to agree to take the case anyway.

They have not been investigating long when they discover that Mrs. Harrison's death was part of a bigger conspiracy, possibly connected to the events Nevada were involved in a few months ago. While she's tried her best to put Connor "Mad" Rogan out of her mind (not helped by the constant teasing and hinting from her family), they are soon reunited, as Connor is also investigating the event, having lost several of his people in the same incident. He persuades Mr. Harrison that it would be in their best interests to work together, and Nevada doesn't really have a choice but to respect her client's wishes.

The chemistry between Nevada and Connor is as strong as ever, and while to Nevada, it may have seemed as if he completely forgot about her after she rejected his over the top suggestion that she come away with him at the end of the last book, he's clearly just been biding his time, doing whatever he can to keep her and her family safe from any and all threats they might be facing. It becomes clear very quickly that a group of very powerful people are working together to create chaos and possibly destroy Houston and Nevada and Connor have once again made themselves their biggest enemies. Will they survive long enough to actually have a proper conversation about their attraction and the possible future of their relationship?

In Burn for Me we were introduced to Nevada Baylor and Connor Rogan and the alternate reality where there are any number of magic users all over globe and the more powerful, the higher the political power the families hold. Connor "Mad" Rogan was a bit too much of a careless and ruthless alpha male, so incredibly powerful that he was used to take what he wanted and act without long-term consequences. He has a lot of potential as a hero, but was clearly far too emotionally closed off and unstable to be a proper partner to the awesome Nevada, whose powers were clearly only hinted at in the first book. Here we get a lot more back-story into what made him the man he is (it's not exactly pretty) and Nevada gets a greater understanding of what she's going to have to face, if she decides that he is the right man for her.

It was obvious that Connor realised very quickly that Nevada was a Prime, even though she herself was unaware of the scope and extent of her abilities. Now she has started learning to use and control them, but she doesn't seem to realise how just how dangerous exposing her abilities to the world might be, and what long-term consequences it can have for her family or her potential relationship with Connor.

In this book, more of Nevada's awesome family get their time to shine. Her cousins, the computer genius Bern and his brother Leon, still so frustrated that he doesn't seem to have any special abilities in a family with so many gifted people (it turns out he isn't as much of a dud as he thinks, I suspect this will be a plot point in the third book); her wonderful and strong grandmother and mother, who both work so hard to help protect the family; and her younger sisters, Arabella and Catalina, who can both be infuriating teenage brats, but who won't hesitate for a second to help the family and do their fair share of protective detail if it's required. It becomes clear over the course of the book that the Baylors are a very gifted family, with Catalina and Arabella having Prime-level powers of their own. We see some of what Catalina is capable of towards the end of the story, but Arabella's powers are still mostly a mystery, but all the hints we have been given suggest shape-shifting of some kind, possibly into something large and formidable.

Cornelius Harrison, an animal mage, who made a minor appearance in the first book also becomes important here. Ilona Andrews excel at characterisation, even when it comes to teenage and child characters, and Harrison's four-year-old Mathilda is never just a plot moppet, although she is used very well to bring out the unexpectedly softer side to several other characters over the course of the story. Harrison's ability to control animals is used excellently several times, including one of my absolute favourite scene, involving cat-burgling ferrets wearing infra-red cameras and little harnesses full of useful tools.

Impatient readers also have to wait quite a long time before the central couple finally have a chance to consummate their relationship. There are a number of fairly scorching scenes in the build-up, but they always get interrupted by something inconvenient, like prying family members or near-death experiences.

While the stakes sometimes seem higher in this book than in the last, the resolution to their big problem seemed to almost go too smoothly. Having read the book twice over the course of a week, I find that even the somewhat weaker ending didn't ruin my enjoyment of the book overall, and at the moment, it's one of my very favourites of the many great paranormal fantasy books the Andrews have written so far. There seem to be two main threats facing the Baylors and Rogan in the next book, and I'm so intensely glad that I won't have to wait more than about a month to get my greedy hands on it.

Judging a book by its cover: I seriously don't even know where to begin with this cover. The really sad and awful truth is that THIS is what it looks like AFTER the marketing department actually edited it, managing to against all odds, make it worse than it was before. The original cover still had the implausibly muscular male model (who I'm going to assume is supposed to be Connor - note that it's a different dude from the cover of Burn for Me) and the Shakira-lookalike who I can only guess is supposed to be Nevada (again, completely different model than they used on the previous cover) in a very cheesy embrace, but there were not exaggerated and cartoonish-looking icicles all over the title font, nor was there the pastel nightmare that I think is supposed to show the ice cave our protagonists are trapped in at one point. The original cover was bad, this is so much worse.

To be fair, the actual scene in the ice cave would require a cover that is decidedly NSFW, hence both participant wearing at least some clothes here. It's still, without a doubt, the most eye-gougingly awful cover I think I've ever had the misfortune to see on a paranormal fantasy cover, and makes me very happy that I own the book in e-format, so I don't need to wrap my book in a bag when reading it on public transport.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 57: "A Monster Calls" by Patrick Ness

Page count: 215 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Pretty much every night, Conor wakes up screaming from the same nightmare. So when the monster shows up in his garden, just after midnight, he's not as scared as you may have thought that he'd be. After all, he deals with some pretty unpleasant things on a daily basis. The bullies who pick on him in school. The fact that he seems to be falling out with his only friend. The teachers either ignoring him or being overly understanding and solicitous. His father, who seems to have forgotten about him and his mother after he moved to America and got a new family. His strict and demanding grandmother. The worry about his mother's deteriorating health and the worry about why the treatments are taking so long to work this time. It's going to take more than some monster to scare Conor.

The monster, which seems to be a walking version of the yew tree over by the church yard, that Conor can see from his window, and which his mother always comments on when gazing at the view. The monster claims it will tell him three stories, and once it's done, it wants something Conor is not ready or willing to give. It wants the truth.

Siobhan Dowd, who came up with the initial idea for this book, died from cancer before she had a chance to tell the story she wanted. Patrick Ness took her initial idea and developed it and turned it into something new, while still honouring Ms. Dowd's memory. This is a dark book, full of sadness, rage and grief. I don't think I'm really spoiling anything for anyone when I say that you probably shouldn't expect a happy ending to this tale, where a woman is slowly wasting away despite countless medical treatments, and her only son is desperately trying to deal with it the best way he knows how.

The stories that the big tree monster tells are allegories, possibly meant to help Conor deal with his anger and grief in some way. The monster claims to have lived a long life, helping many people when they needed it the most. None of its stories turn out entirely the way Conor expects, making him more angry and frustrated, because he wants predictability and solace from his stories, not difficult life lessons.

So many others have already confessed to crying when reading this book, and I was no different. Was it a good idea to read the final quarter of this book in a coffee shop, in full view of a lot of people? Possibly not. Did I do it anyway, and ugly-cry, to the likely embarrassment of many around me? You bet I did. I've heard very many good things about the recent movie adaptation, but I suspect I'm going to wait to see it until I'm in a more stable place emotionally, or it's likely to completely destroy me all over again.

Judging a book by its cover: My edition of this book is an illustrated paperback I was given for Christmas by my husband. The cover, and all the inside illustrations are done by Jim Kay in black and white and are wonderfully atmospheric and adds a lot to the tone and feel of the book. I really like the cover and the other illustrations and don't think the book would work as well without them.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 56: "A Court of Wings and Ruin" by Sarah J. Maas

Page count: 720 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This review is going to contain spoilers for earlier books in the series, and possibly some mild ones for the content of this book too. If you're not caught up, you probably want to skip this review for now. Come back when you've read the books, they're worth your time if you like action-packed fantasy.

The beginning of this book finds Fayre back at the Spring court, after Tamlin made a bargain with the the High King and had her bond with Rhysand broken. What only a select few know, is that Fayre is now High Lady of the Night Court and only pretending to have been spell-bound and traumatised for all her months away. She's back with Tamlin to gather as much information as possible about his alliance with the High King and the future invasion of Prythian and the human realm. Using all the cunning and guile she possesses, she slowly manages to undermine Tamlin's standing with his own men, in order to destabilise the forces of the Spring Court. She also ends up neutralising some rather unpleasant emissaries of the High King, before returning to her home at the Night Court to further plan for war.

Unless Fayre and Rhysand can rally more of the various Faerie courts to their side, they are badly outnumbered and in no position to save Prythian and the humans who are all facing destruction. The ruthless, uncaring and cruel facade that Rhysand has presented to the world for most of his adult life isn't exactly helpful in trying to curry favours and win allies. Even if the many different minor courts lay aside their differences and unite against the High King, they may be outclassed. To gain stronger supernatural allies, Fayre may need to risk her very sanity.

Fayre grows and changes so much over the course of these three books. She was always brave and tenacious, willing to risk herself for those she loves. In the first book, she learned that maybe not all fae are vicious, cruel and untrustworthy, she fell in love and had to go through hell, even sacrificing her own life to save the man she loved. In the second book, she learned that sometimes your first love doesn't last forever, and trauma and hardship can kill a relationship that isn't strong enough. She discovered supportive friendships and rebuilt herself into a stronger, more resilient person, learning to use her new and unexpected powers and growing comfortable with who she had become. She found a new, stronger love and a collection of people who were just as close to her as her human family had once been. In this third book, it's nice to see that no matter how far she's come, Fayre isn't always infallible and she makes a couple of judgement calls early on that come back to have serious repercussions later in the story. She's forced to admit that she was wrong and readjust her views accordingly.

In the second book, it is obvious that war is coming, but in this book, it's mostly all about how to fight it. As well as trying to help Rhysand and his inner circle gather allies, Fayre needs to tend to her sisters, who are deeply changed and traumatised by what happened to them at the end of the previous book.

After so much build-up, it felt a little bit convenient when the final battle was pretty much solved by a deus ex machina, with very little emotional or personal cost to anyone. While it wasn't that I desperately wanted anyone to die, it felt a little bit too convenient the way everything wrapped up. Apparently, while the main storyline of these three books is finished off in this book, there will be other books to follow, and since I'm very interested in seeing a lot of the supporting characters find their own HEAs, I suspect I will be reading them as well. As I mentioned in my last review, I'm enjoying these books so much more than the Throne of Glass books, and will happily revisit Prythian in future instalments.

Judging a book by its cover: I really like the shade of green they've chosen for the background of this book, but otherwise they've stuck to the central theme of having Fayre front and centre. Eagle-eyed readers may notice that her tattoo is on the other hand - which to those in the know is significant. Even wearing a fancy dress, this Fayre is not going to go about unarmed, hence the wicked-looking dagger.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 55: "A Court of Mist and Fury" by Sarah J. Maas

Page count: 626 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book 2 in a series, and it's impossible for me to review this book without giving some spoilers for the book that came before. If you haven't read the first book, A Court of Thorns and Roses, you should maybe give this review a miss until you're caught up. There will also be some spoilers for this book, because it's impossible to talk about what happens in it without them.

Feyre is back at the Spring Court a vastly changed woman, after her trials at Amarantha's court Under the Mountain. While Tamlin and his court try to shield and shelter her from everything unpleasant, she's still plagued with horrible nightmares reminding her of what she had to do to survive, and getting used to her new fae body, with its added speed and strength is also difficult for her. It's very obvious that Tamlin and the others just want to forget what happened, and absolutely no one wants to talk about the horrors they experienced. Tamlin just ignores Fayre's obvious distress, hoping it will go away eventually. He wants her to think of pleasant things, like planning their wedding. He also wants to keep her safely locked away in his house, making sure nothing will ever hurt her again, even though just the thought of enclosed spaces makes Fayre frantic.

As her wedding day approaches, Fayre is filled with doubts about whether this is at all a good idea. How can someone as horrible and broken and tainted as her marry Tamlin and rule with him in the Spring Court? Her left hand and arm are still inked with the tattoo reminding her of her bargain with Rhysand, High Lord of the Night Court, but he's not come to collect on the promise that Fayre spend a week a month in his court. Until her wedding day, that is. Tamlin is furious, and Fayre isn't even ready to admit to herself even how relieved she is when Rhysand shows up to spirit her away.

Having seen his behaviour Under the Mountain, Fayre is not sure what to expect from Rhysand or his demands on her time. He doesn't seem to want anything but her company, and sometimes, not even that, leaving her alone for long stretches at at time when she visits. He insists that she rest and eat to build her strength up, seemingly worried about how thin she's grown and how exhausted she always seems. He understands about her nightmares, because he has them too, and has felt her distress through the bond they share due to their agreement. Every time she returns to the Spring Court, Tamlin carefully questions her to find out the secrets of the Night Court, and initially Fayre is quite happy to spy. As the months pass, and it becomes more and more obvious how differently the two men are treating her, Fayre begins to change her mind. When she went through the trials Under the Mountain to free Tamlin, she believed he was her true love. Could she have been wrong?

I really wasn't entirely sure what to expect from A Court of Mist and Fury, but I had heard some things that made me unhappy, especially because of all the hardship and pain Fayre went through in A Court of Thorns and Roses to both prove her love for and eventually rescue not only Tamlin, but all the faeries trapped by Amarantha's vicious rule Under the Mountain. That he now turn out to be an overly controlling jerk who completely disregarded Fayre's severe PTSD was not a direction I was happy for the author to take things.

What I had not expected was how much of the bigger picture Fayre was unaware of when going through her harrowing tests for the psycho faerie queen. It quickly becomes clear in this book that the way Fayre (and therefore the reader) saw Rhysand was a very carefully constructed mask, and that his true self had to be buried deep, so the evil queen who made him her lover didn't suspect that he was in fact helping Fayre all he could. He continues to help her in this book, understanding only too well the trauma she's gone through as he suffered similar things for fifty years, while Tamlin was only Under the Mountain for a few months. While Tamlin believes Fayre to be a fragile creature who should be honoured, protected and sheltered from all that is harsh and unpleasant in this world, keeping her locked away in his mansion so nothing will ever be able to hurt her, Rhysand believes she needs to train to feel strong and confident in herself and gradually face her fears so she can become sure enough of herself to beat her trauma.

I would not have expected the book to take the turn that it did, but found that I didn't actually mind it too much when it happened, as the first third, where the reader becomes all to familiar with Fayre's PTSD and anxiety is very hard to get through. Fayre keeps silently shouting for help, to proud to actually admit to Tamlin or anyone else at the Spring court that she's slowly falling apart. They all seem content to just ignore anything unpleasant, hoping it will go away by itself given enough time. So when Rhysand finally comes to spirit her away, after Fayre's been screaming in her mind for anyone to help her, it feels like such a relief. He clearly has no nefarious designs on her, just wants what's best for her.

While the first book introduced us to the Spring Court and the horrors of Under the Mountain, this book also shows us the Night Court, in all its fascinating variety, and later the Summer Court. Fayre realises that there is so much she didn't know about, living with Tamlin at the Spring Court. As well as conquering her fears and moving past her trauma, she needs to come to grips with the huge changes her body has gone through. Her body isn't just faster and stronger than it was when she was human, she appears to have strange gifts that no other faerie has, clearly a side effect of the ceremony that brought her back from death's door. Now she needs to learn to harness and control these powers, in order to help the fae and humans battle their next big foe, the Fae King himself. Amarantha was just one of his generals, her deviousness and evil is nothing compared to the King's.

I liked A Court of Thorns and Roses well enough, and found it an intriguing retelling of several fairy tales. I had very few expectations going into this book, and certainly didn't expect to love it as much as I did. This was such a page-turner and I was completely engrossed in the story from very early on. The characters, the world-building, the emerging romance, it all works for me. I debated whether giving it five stars was the right thing to do, but even weeks after finishing it, I'm thinking about it and I don't regret my choice. I only wish Sarah J. Maas' Throne of Glass books could be as well-written and engaging.

Judging a book by its cover: I actually really like the stylised drawings on these covers, with Fayre in a prominent position, her outfit giving some hints as to the contents of the story. Her left hand, covered in the intricate tattoo showing her debt to Rhysand, the hints of a city in the background and Feyre herself in a dress looking more like chainmail than anything else. Our protagonist is changing, and growing stronger.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

#CBR9 Book 54: "Everything Everything" by Nicola Yoon

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Madeleine has never left her house or been outside. She's got a rare auto-immune disorder and lives in a house hermetically sealed, with special filters making sure nothing gets in that could hurt her. The only people she sees regularly are her mother, whose a doctor, and her nurse, Carla. On very special occasions, when he's been decontaminated thoroughly, she's allowed to meet one of her favourite tutors, but Madeline's life is lived mostly vicariously through books and the internet, dreaming of the outside world.

Everything changes when Oliver, or "Olly" and his family move in next door. Olly is tall and handsome and wears all black. He and his younger sister try to give Madeline and her mother a bundt cake as a welcoming gift, but aren't allowed inside. Olly's inventive and does his best to get Madeline's attention. Soon they are exchanging messages, and he takes to calling her Maddy, because everyone should have a nickname.

The teens communicate through their windows and on messages, frequently late at night, as Maddy is pretty sure her mother isn't going to be enthusiastic about her new friendship. She confides in Carla, however, and eventually, the nurse agrees to let Olly in to visit.

Maddy has lived seventeen years in isolation. She knows that leaving the house could be disastrous, but she also wants to feel like she has actually lived. She concocts a wild plan and persuades Olly to go along with it, telling him she's been taking a new kind of drug that will protect her from all her allergies of the outside world. So Maddy and Olly go off together to Hawaii, where Maddy will walk on a beach, bathe in the ocean and really experience life. She's willing to risk her life to really live, if only for a few days.

The movie adaptation for this is in cinemas now, and I haven't made up my mind about going to see it or not. As a YA romance, I thought it was pretty sweet. Yes, Olly is probably the ideal first boyfriend and a bit too good to be true. He has some family troubles that give him just the right level of angsty and he's sweet, sensitive, funny and incredibly understanding. Any girl would fall for him, not just Maddy, who's lived an extremely sheltered life, reading books and dreaming of what other teenagers have.

A lot of romance is all about wish-fulfilment and I don't see why teenage girls shouldn't get some of that too. Yes, a lot of teenage boys are dumb, self-centred, immature and rude, but there are exceptions and it doesn't hurt to have books that tell young women what they should be aiming for in their first loves. Do I think Maddy and Olly will get married and live happily ever after? Probably not, they are just seventeen - but Olly certainly wouldn't be the sort of boyfriend you look back on with regret.

Maddy is a sweetheart. She refuses to let her illness or forced isolation get her down. She does her best with the hand life has dealt her, and only really starts to chafe when Olly and his family move in next door and she gets an idea of all the things she's really missing. While her actions are rash and incautious, I can't blame her for wanting to run away and have an adventure, even knowing it might have serious consequences for her health. As it turns out, it does, but not exactly in the ways you may have first suspected.

I probably should have foreseen the surprise twist during the last third of the book, but I actually didn't. I suspect a lot of other readers will see it coming, though, especially now that there are movie reviews out that may spoil things as well. I do wish this development had been dealt with in a better way, and it didn't really have a proper resolution. The love story between Maddy and Olly took centre stage and the final act reveal sort of got a bit lost in getting the separated lovers back together again.

By all accounts, the movie adaptation is supposed to be pretty good. I think I'd rather go see Wonder Woman again, but suspect that many of the young women I taught for the last three years (and possibly some of the boys) would enjoy it a lot.

Judging a book by its cover: While I thought the cover was a bit generic YA at first, I liked it better when I saw it had a connection to illustrations inside the book, all done by Nicola Yoon's husband, apparently. It's still not the most exciting of covers, but since it's part of a bigger whole, I'll allow it.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 53: "A Darker Shade of Magic" by V.E. Schwab

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

In the world of V.E. Schwab's Shades of Magic trilogy, in which this is the first book, there are parallel worlds. There used to be gateways between them, but now only the magical Antari (identified by having one normal and one fully black eyeball) are able to travel through to the various worlds, using their blood and magical ability. Young Kell, fostered with the royal family in Red London is one of these Antari. In each of the four worlds, there is a London, the geographical location of which overlaps. There is Grey London, which is the England of George III, where pretty much all the magic is completely gone and people live more mundane lives. There is Red London, where Kell is from, where magic flows freely. There is white London, where magic is greedily sought after or controlled with an iron hand by whomever currently rules there. And there used to be Black London, but something went badly wrong there, and it's now been completely sealed off to protect the other three worlds.

Kell travels back and forth between worlds as an ambassador. He also likes smuggling small items from one world to the other, selling them to those interested, not so much because he needs the money, but because he loves the thrill. This hobby of his eventually gets him into a lot of trouble, when someone asks him to take an item from White London to Red London, and it turns out he's being set up and suddenly rather a lot of people want to kill him. He flees to Grey London in the hopes of escaping his pursuers. This is where he meets Lila.

Delilah "Lila" Bard is a pickpocket who's been dressing up as a man and made quite a name for herself as a masked thief. She dreams of becoming the captain of her own pirate vessel and escaping her dreary life in London, when a mysterious stranger falls into her path, clearly near death. She steals from him, only to discover to her shock that he is able to materialise in her rooms, having used magic to track her. She ends up saving his life, but demands that he take her along to Red London so she can experience a proper adventure (also, she's pretty sure he's not going to survive his mission without her).

Although it should be impossible for anyone apart from the Antari to cross between worlds, the magical artifact Kell has found himself in possession of seems to help, and soon Kell and Lila are plotting to outsmart their pursuers, fighting to stay alive and racing against time to save all three worlds from magical destruction.

While this book is a bit slow in the beginning, I'd read enough positive reviews from people I trust to stick with it, and once the initial premise of the various Londons and the magical abilities of Kell and his fellow Antari were established, and things really started happening, I was pretty much hooked. It doesn't hurt that the chapters are short, so you keep being tempted to just read that little bit more.

Kell was a pretty cool character, and I would absolutely murder to have his magical coat, but Lila is the one who stole my heart from her very first appearance. She's just so ambitious and brave and morally ambiguous and adventurous. While she's a thief, she's unable to run away, leaving Kell to be killed. She knows that she may be attracting more danger by saving him, but feels she cannot walk away. Once she realises how serious a predicament he (and by association, she) has landed in, she forces him to take her along, fully realising that there's no way he'll manage to solve things on his own.

I found the glimpses of the various Londons rather fascinating, even if I wasn't overly fond of any of the villains. I wish that Rye's character had gotten a bit more page time, as even when he was in danger, it was difficult to care much, as the reader had not got a change to really relate to him. We were told that Kell cared for him, but this should have been shown.

This is a good start to a trilogy, and I'm certainly interested in reading more. I have my suspicions about Lila, there is clearly a lot more to her than initially meets the eye. I liked the hints of romance between her and Kell, but will be just as happy if they just stay friends in the books to come.

Judging a book by its cover: Black, white and red are always eye-catching colours to choose for a cover and I like the hints of Kell's magical multi-sided coat. The overlapping circles of various colours suggesting the various Londons and worlds that Kell can cross to - also a nice touch. It's a good fantasy cover, it makes you interested without being too much.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 26 May 2017

#CBR9 Book 52: "Dreaming of You" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 11hrs 34mins
Rating: 4 stars

Sara Fielding and Derek Craven have a hell of a "meet-cute". While researching her future novel in one of the seedier corners of the East End, Sara comes across Craven being held down and attacked by two thugs. They've slashed his face open, and she intends only to fire a warning shot from her pistol (which sh obviously keeps in her reticule for defencive purposes), when she instead ends up killing one of the assailants. She discovers that the man whose life she saved is the legendary gambling club owner Derek Craven, and takes him back to his club to be patched up by his staff and a doctor. While Craven thinks Sara is a great fool to risk her life wandering about the East End unaccompanied, his staff are deeply grateful to her for saving their boss, and Worthy, Craven's factotum invites Sara to return whenever she pleases to visit the club for her research.

While Craven isn't happy about it, Worthy and the rest of the staff at Craven's worship Sara and let her roam wherever she pleases to do her research and even set aside space for her to work on her novel in the club. Derek wants nothing to do with the infuriating female, but can't stop watching her either. Sara, on the other hand, doesn't lie to herself and admits that she's attracted to the bitter (and now literally scarred) man. She tries to get him to kiss her (her overly proper suitor back home doesn't think such things are appropriate outside of marriage) and when he refuses, she conspires with Worthy and Derek's friend, the Countess of Raiford, to get dressed up as a proper temptress and attends one of Craven's one night wearing a mask. She manages to thoroughly enchant Craven then, and gets kisses and then some, but he is angry with her when he discovers her deception and forbids her to return to the club. Sara goes back home to Greenwood Corners and pretty much delivers an ultimatum to her suitor of four (!) long chaste years, Mr. Kingswood. If he doesn't propose very soon, their courtship is over.

Lily Raiford can tell that her old friend is falling for Ms. Fielding and fighting it all the while. She invites both of them to a house party at her husband's country estate in the hopes of furthering their romance. She had not counted on the nefarious spite of Joyce, Lady Ashby, Derek's former lover who is still furious that he broke things off with her (she's the one who ordered Derek attacked and mutilated in an alley). Joyce is determined that if she can't have Craven, no one else will either, and she's going to destroy anyone and anything he holds dear. Ironically, her evil plot is what actually compromises Sara to the point that Craven feels he has to marry her and Sara finally gets her man.

Craven's not one for romantic sentiments and declarations, though. While Sara has admitted to herself that she loves him, and it's clear to everyone around him that Derek is completely smitten with his new wife, he's led a hard life lacking in warmer sentiments and still holds himself back in the relationship. That is until Joyce Ashby strikes again, determined to get her revenge once and for all.

This is one of those romances that keeps popping up on "Best of" lists, even now, more than 20 years after it was written. I own the book in paperback and know that I read it back in 2008, also known as the year I rediscovered romance (and I haven't looked back since). Unlike those other books that I read back then, several of Julia Quinn's Bridgerton books, Loretta Chase's Carsington and Scoundrels books, as well as others, I seriously did not remember a single detail of this plot. Beyond remembering that I read it back then, this book felt like I was reading it for the very first time. I know this is a fan favourite of Kleypas', but the fact that I'd so utterly forgotten everything about it doesn't count in its favour to me.

I was also surprised to realise that of the two books in The Gamblers of Craven's series, I really preferred Then Came You, which while it had a completely bonkers plot, also had a couple whose romance affected me more. As a bonus, both Alex and Lily play quite prominent supporting roles in this book, so that was fun.

I can't really even put my finger on what it is that didn't really work for me and why I seem to have entirely excised it from my memory from the first time I read it. Sara and Derek are both memorable and interesting characters.

Sara has written two acclaimed novels, the second, Mathilda, being especially well-known. It's a recurring theme in the book that the people Sara meets believes that the prostitute she wrote about was in fact real, and many claim to know people who have met her, despite Sara's attempts to explain what a fictional character is. Sara was the late in life only child of a couple from the rural village of Greenwood Corners, where Sara's lived a fairly sheltered life until she started writing and travelled to London to interview street urchins, prostitutes and gamblers as research for her novels. As she explains to Craven as he is being patched up by the doctor, she has been courted by a young man, Mr. Perry Kingswood, for four years, and is pretty sure that his mother will relent and let him propose to her soon.

Derek Craven is a legend, not just in London, but in all of England. The son of a prostitute, he doesn't know his exact birth date or exactly how old he was. Abandoned in the gutter by his mother, he was raised by other prostitutes and made his way up through the London underworld with ambitions. Becoming the lover of wealthy noblewomen, he eventually acquired enough "patronage" that he got enough money to open his spectacular gambling club, where he has made enough money to rival the richest and most powerful men in England. He has more money than he knows what to do with, but doesn't let himself get overly attached to anyone. He had to become hard and ruthless to survive to adulthood and he certainly can't allow himself to fall for a mousy almost-spinster from the country.

While they are an interesting couple, Derek's complete reluctance to admit his affection for Sara grated on me. The biggest problem I had with this book, however, was the antagonist, Lady Ashby. While women can absolutely be as villainous as men and Kleypas could just as easily have cast Sara's village suitor, Perry Kingswood as some sort of obstacle to the couple. Instead she has this dangerously unstable noblewoman, who everyone apparently knows is completely ruthless (they certainly talk about her that way when she's mentioned) and who it's implied has done some pretty awful things in the past, but she's protected by her title and the wealth of her husband. She got more histrionic with each appearance, until her final act just went into implausibly mad. I get that it might have been necessary for Kleypas to separate Sara and Derek for a while, so Derek would finally admit his love for his wife, but it all became a bit much for me. Also, when SPOILER the heroine has to be rescued just seconds away from rape, it doesn't exactly set the most romantic mood.

I listened to this in audiobook, narrated by Rosalyn Landor (she does all of Kleypas' classic audios, as far as I can tell), who is very good. I'm still slightly puzzled as to how I could completely forget having read this back in 2008, but my meticulous reading records claim that I did. I can also see why it's become somewhat of a popular classic and especially why Derek Craven is a beloved romance hero, but I really felt a bit let down, probably because my expectations were so high in the first place.

Judging a book by its cover: My paperback copy of this has the classic Kleypas covers, where most of the book is in one colour, usually a delicate pastel (this book is in a creamy yellow). A band across the middle of the book shows some pastoral image, in this case some fancy country house, with a horse and carriage pulling away from it. I really don't think that's very representative of a book set mainly in London, in a gambling club. So the re-issues have this cover, with a lady in a fancy gown, skirts once again long enough to go on to eternity. I forget if Sara wears a red gown at any point in this, I know she wears a blue velvet one in a very memorable scene, but I can only assume the cover model is meant to be her. They should have given the model glasses.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.