Sunday, 25 September 2016

#CBR8 Book 107: "Once Broken Faith" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 420 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is book ten in an ongoing series, and as such, REALLY not the place to start. While my review may not have too many spoilers about earlier books in the series, there is a whole lot of history in the books before that is required for this book to be fully satisfying to a reader. Start at the beginning with Rosemary and Rue

After changeling knight and sometime champion of the realm, October "Toby" Daye's adventures in the Kingdom of the Silences, there is now an actual functional cure for elf shot (poison arrows that make a pureblood fae sleep for a hundred years). Queen Arden Windermere pops up unexpectedly while Toby is hosting a slumber party for the various teens in her life. Arden wants Toby to be there while the elf shot cure is administered to the queen's seneschal, as well as her brother, both struck down by her enemies. It needs to be done before the High King can show up and forbid them to use the cure. As it happens, they manage to wake one of two, before High King Aethlin Sollys arrives and postpones any further awakenings until they've had a big conclave, discussing whether the cure should be allowed, or buried forever.

Toby is ordered to appear at the conclave and is none too pleased about it. With so many different faerie rulers and high powered dignitaries in one place, it is important that Tybalt assert himself fully as the independent and aloof King of the Court of Dreaming Cats. As the Court of Cats doesn't swear fealty to anyone, even the High King, Tybalt can't really associate publicly with Toby, a knight to with a very set allegiance to the Divided Courts. The enforced distance hurts and unnerves them both.

As well as more faerie royals in one place for over a generation, the conclave is attended by the oldest of the Firstborn, the Sea Witch herself (and Toby's aunt), the Luidaeg. She intends to bear witness to proceedings and brings along Karen, Toby's honorary niece, an oneiromancer (she can walk in and interpret the dreams of others). She's been tasked with speaking the opinions of Evening Winterrose, Toby's nemesis, and the original inventor of elf shot. While Evening herself is sleeping through a hundred years after being elf shot herself, she wants to make sure that her case is heard at the conclave and has no qualms about emotionally blackmailing a vulnerable teenage girl to enable it.

What initially seems to be likely to be a boring few days of pureblood faeries yelling at each other, turns a lot more sinister when one of the kings are murdered and the Duchess of Saltmist is unexpectedly elf shot in her quarters. As always, when Toby starts investigating, things get bloody and fraught with several near-death experiences, taking turns for the very bad before getting better again.

With Toby being almost invincible because of the gifts inherited from her mother, it seems as if Seanan McGuire needs to come up with new and horrific ways in which to injure our intrepid protagonist. While I'm not sure anything can top the book where she was disemboweled more than once (!), the pain and horror Toby has to suffer in this book is still pretty gruesome.

Being close to Toby is always dangerous and the people out to cause havoc will happily target those nearest and dearest to her if it means taking her out of the game, even temporarily. As I adore all of Toby's little found family and neither of them have the near-immortality that she does, I was absolutely terrified for a while when things were at their darkest in this. No matter how much I've enjoyed this series, and how much I look forward to each new instalment, there are some character deaths that will make me drop the series immediately, should they occur. Not only that, I will never read any of the other series she's written either. I can be deeply unforgiving if crossed.

Luckily, to my deep relief, I did not have to make this decision now, and hope I won't have to do so in future either. This is the tenth book in the series, and it seems from the preface that Ms McGuire has no intention of ending the series any time soon. As I love spending time with Toby, Tybalt, May, Quentin, Raj, Sylvester and the Luidaeg, I'm quite happy to follow wherever the story takes me next.

Judging a book by its cover: I don't know who the cover artist who makes these for Seanan McGuire is, but whoever it is, they are very good at their job. As always, Toby is featured front and centre, here in a clear defencive pose (which considering the events of the books is probably wise). There's nothing to get too excited about on this, but considering the awfulness of a lot of paranormal covers, this is still tons better than what I'm used to.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR8 Book 106: "Magic Binds" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book nine in the Kate Daniels series. The penultimate book in the series, in fact. I will not be able to review this book without there being spoilers for earlier books. Don't read this if you're not all the way caught up. Do pick up the series if you like good Urban/Paranormal fantasy, though, it's pretty much the best out there at the moment.

 Private detective and supernatural powerhouse Kate Daniels is finally getting married to Curran Lennart, former Beast Lord of Atlanta. They ask Ronan, Black Vohlv of the Death god Chernobog to perform the ceremony, and he is beyond delighted, even after (or possibly because) he realises that he'll also have to tak on the role of wedding planner (seriously, after this book, I'd love to get a look at Ronan's Pinterest boards). Kate doesn't really see why the wedding can't just amount to people they care about showing up at a set date, they have some cake and get the deed done? Who cares about invitations, a fancy dress, cake, flowers or the like? Even being told by a number of different people that no, the wedding night is for the bride and groom, the wedding itself is for everyone else. Everyone who is anyone in Atlanta is going to want an invitation to this event and Kate and Curran can't half-ass it.

Kate has more pressing matters than her impending wedding to worry about. Her best friend, Andrea, alpha of the Bouda clan, is extremely pregnant, restless and freaking out because the baby might go loup at birth. If that happens, someone's going to have to put the baby down, and no one wants that.
Roland, Kate's ancient demi-god father, keeps challenging Kate's authority over Atlanta in all sorts of little ways, all while building a giant fortress just outside the area she's claimed as her own. Despite the friction, they still somehow seem to end up in seafood restaurants, having family dinners.

Now Roland has abducted Saiman, Kate's former ally. This is an insult he knows she cannot overlook. Kate needs to make a decision and the future is not looking bright. The Witch Oracle informs her that a massive battle is imminent, where the city will burn and people will suffer. Kate will suffer a terrible loss, and in every possible future the witches have seen, someone she loves, is killed by Roland. If she marries Curran, he dies. If she doesn't, the battle won't happen immediately, but her son will die instead. Naturally, neither option is acceptable to Kate and she is the only one with even the faintest chance to change the future, by doing something wholly unexpected and drastic. She's running out of time, and doesn't feel she can confide in Curran, the man she loves above everything.

While she's struggling with the knowledge that loss, death and warfare are looming in her future, Kate is also having to come to terms with her own growing powers, ever more tempted by her own dark side. She's getting snappish and impatient with those close to her and sees clearly that with each badly handled decision, she's more likely to becoming like her father. Initially, she stops herself from tapping into her dark side because she knows Curran, Julie or Derek (her chosen family) would disapprove, but she knows that she cannot define her choices on what others would think. She needs to find her own limits and moral centre, and resist being what either of her fathers, Voron or Roland, wanted her to be.

The Kate of the first book was alone, bitter and had very little to actually live for. Now Kate has friends, allies and a family who will stand with her, even through the upcoming inevitable battle. Paradoxically, she needs to become more powerful to defeat Roland once and for all, but the power could so easily corrupt her in the process. She needs to gain control of her raising powers before it changes her into someone unacceptable.

There are a number of little "side quests" for Kate to go on, to gather the resources she needs to implement her highly dangerous and rather unhinged plan. Curran is remarkably trusting throughout, even though Kate refuses to actually tell him much of what is going on or what she's working to prevent. He agrees to take some Guild mercenaries to Roland's castle to get Saiman back, while Kate creates a diversion elsewhere, trying to think outside the box in terms of recruiting support against her megalomaniac dad.

As a result, Kate and Curran are working apart for much of the book, but a number of minor supporting characters from former books show up to lend her a hand. In between Kate's frantic attempts to alter the unacceptable future(s), there is Roman, being excellent comic relief, arranging the wedding invitations, ambushing Kate with wedding dress fittings and cake samplings, to her immense (and very amusing) frustration. Without this lightness occasionally, the book would be pretty grim, with Kate's identity crisis taking the story to some dark places.

Just as Kate refuses to be Roland's idea of a compliant child, Julie, Kate's adoptive daughter, keeps on making decisions that deeply concern her parents. Due to the spell linking them, Kate cannot outright forbid Julie from spending time with Roland, even though she's terrified that he is manipulating the girl and in the initial stages of turning the young woman into his next warlord. Julie's first mother was no fool, though and Julie's past experiences means she has excellent instincts. She knows Kate and Curran need intel on Roland and that he can help her hone her magic skills to unprecedented new levels. She intends to use all of this to help her adoptive parents prevail in the end.

A new Kate Daniels book is among the highlights of my year and I made sure to clear my schedule (even though I have so much to do at work now) so that I could read the whole book in a day. The structure of Kate going on a number of mini quests before facing off against the "big bad" at the end made the story feel a bit like a video game, and while I liked it a lot, it still doesn't live up to the breathtaking awesomeness of book 7, Magic Breaks. This is the penultimate book in the series, there is indeed a battle, but the final confrontation will be in the next book. As such, the ending felt a bit incomplete, but the epilogue more than made up for it.

So much of this series has been about Kate finding a support network and she now has a true family, both made and found. There were several moments throughout the book that made me tear up, because of the moving events that took place. I read the epilogue with both tears in my eyes and a big grin in place. While Curran's gotten the last line for the last few books, this time the honour goes to Kate. Her announcement is by no means unexpected, and promises big things to come in the final book.

Judging a book by its cover: There have been some truly awful covers in this series (and for Ilona Andrews' books in general). I think they're on their sixth cover model for Kate at this point. In the grand scheme of things, I think this might be my favourite of the bunch. I love that Ilona actually insisted on Kate having some sort of flower embroidery on Kate's peasant blouse to reflect the Slavic traditions being woven through Kate's wedding ceremony. The model portraying Kate looks suitably fierce and ready to fight. I think (based on descriptions in the book) that her hair is a tad too long, but if book 10 has a cover half this good, I'll be very happy.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read 

#CBR8 Book 105: "Dumplin'" by Julie Murphy

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 2 min
Rating: 3.5 stars

Willowdean "Will" Dickson is a teenager in a small town in Texas, with nothing much to recommend it, except being home of the oldest beauty pageant in the state (possibly the country, I don't remember). The Miss Teen Bluebonnet is a big deal and Will's mother's biggest claim to fame is that she won it when she was young, and still fits into the evening dress she wore. She now wears it every year, as she presents the pageant. Will is not skinny like her mother, she's fat and this is something she's not actually bothered about much of the time. Despite her mother's many attempts at putting her on diets, and fears for her health, Will is fairly confident in herself and doesn't care what others think of her.

Will's beloved aunt, Lucy, was very obese and died about a year ago from a heart attack. Will and Lucy shared a love for Dolly Parton, and it was because of this that Will met her best friend, Ellen. They both love Dolly immensely, and both miss Lucy a lot. Having shared everything growing up, however, the two girls are starting to grow apart. Ellen has been dating Tim for ages, and is ready to take things to the next level. Will is supportive, but inwardly panicking. If El has sex, while Will has yet to even kiss a boy, what will they really have to talk about any more?

There is a boy in question that Will wouldn't mind kissing at all. Bo, a handsome private school kid who works with her at the local fast food place surprisingly starts taking an interest in Will over the summer, and soon they seem to be making out in an abandoned parking lot after every shift. Yet excited as Will is about this, she doesn't tell El, and while normally completely comfortable in her own skin, she gets deeply self-conscious about her body every time Bo touches her. She's also worried about what other people will say if they see them together - because why would a gorgeous guy like Bo want to be with a girl like her?

As summer is coming to an end, Will discovers that Bo will be transferring to her high school, but didn't tell her. Nor does he seem to want to acknowledge her as anything but a colleague when they meet at the Mall when he's there with his family. Angry because her deepest fears have been confirmed (Bo is ashamed to be seen with her and wants to keep their relationship secret), Will breaks up with him. She still hasn't told El, who is nonetheless noticing her friend behaving strangely every time she sees the cute new guy.

Mitch, one of the school's star football players, asks Will out and seems to like him a lot. She's flattered by the attention and agrees, even though she's in no way over Bo, and doesn't feel anything but platonic affection for Mitch.

Needing a shake-up in her life, Wil enters the Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant and inadvertently becomes an inspiration for Millie, Amanda and Hannah, other outcast girls at the school. Sadly, fuelled by her jealousy at El having made friends with several of the "cool" girls in school over the summer, and her increasing insecurities, she has a massive argument with El (because she too joins the pageant) and has to navigate the next few months completely estranged from her BFF.

I'd heard a lot of good things about Dumplin' online, and was happy to pick it up in an 2 for 1 sale at Audible a while back. It's nice to have a teen heroine who describes herself as fat, and while I've seen criticism that the book isn't as body positive as purported because Will occasionally has misgivings about her own weight and makes mean digs at thinner girls more than once, I don't think that's fair. Willowdean is a teenager, and there is not a single teenager alive who isn't self-conscious on occasion, no matter what they look like or how much they weigh. Of course she feels jealousy and is bitchy when she feels insecure. That's not even exclusive to teenagers, but when constantly hormone-fuelled, it's difficult to be zen-like and forgiving all the time. Frankly, it makes Will a more complex and believable character that she's jealous, judgemental, petty and stupid on occasion.

I thought the main conflict of this book was going to be that Willowdean, a teenage girl who didn't exactly fit the beauty pageant contestant looks, joining the pageant her mother once won. Her entering the contest doesn't happen until almost halfway through the book, though, and most of the book is just about Will living her life and trying to come to terms with her aunt's death and her and her mother's different approaches to grieving. The structure of the story is one of the things I didn't really like so much, it's a bit all over the place, and the book could have benefited from more structure.

I didn't really understand what was so great about Bo, although I liked him better towards the end of the book when he seemed to have figured out that he'd been an ass earlier and realised he was going to have to shape up and really court Will properly. I thought Mitch was a total sweetie, and was not at all happy with the way Will treated him. She kept stringing him along because she liked the attention, but should have been honest with him after their first date was disappointing. She also treated El appallingly during the pageant sign-up and should have made more of an effort to try to see her friend's side of things. I was wholly and completely on El's side in that conflict, but teenagers are complete idiots most of the time, so I can also forgive Will (who grovels very satisfyingly later).

Besides, if Will had had El at her side the whole time, she wouldn't have made new friends in the oddballs who insist on joining the Miss Bluebonnet pageant as well. Millie, Amanda and Hannah are all even stranger and less popular than Will, and early in the book, she shows that she can be just as prejudiced in her opinions of them as the more popular kids. Spending more time with them and really getting to know them is very good for Will, though, and I would have liked the book more if there was less of a focus on the love triangle and more on the various female friendships.

I've read a lot of YA this summer and most of it, I enjoyed more than this one. It's well worth a look, though, if nothing else because of the different setting and the nice explorations of friendship.

Judging a book by its cover: The simple black cover with Willowdean portrayed in her red pageant evening gown, head back and arms outstretched, is a nice one. Nothing too elaborate and without revealing any facial features, so the reader can create their own mental image of the protagonist.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

#CBR8 Book 104: "Crimson Bound" by Rosamund Hodge - double Cannonball!

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

From Goodreads, because I'm lazy and it's mostly a pretty good summary (I will point out the ways in which is it not afterwards):

When Rachelle was fifteen, she was good - apprenticed to her aunt and in training to protect her village from dark magic. But she was also reckless - straying from the forest path in search of a way to free her world from the threat of eternal darkness. After an illicit meeting goes dreadfully wrong, Rachelle is forced to make a terrible choice that binds her to the very evil she had hoped to defeat.

Three years later, Rachelle has given her life to serving the realm, fighting deadly creatures in an effort to atone. When the king orders her to guard his son Armand - the man she hates most - Rachelle forces Armand to help her find the legendary sword that might save their world. As the two become unexpected allies, they uncover far-reaching conspiracies, hidden magic, and a love that may be their undoing. In a palace built on unbelievable wealth and dangerous secrets, can Rachelle discover the truth and stop the fall of endless night?

Inspired by the classic fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, Crimson Bound is an exhilarating tale of darkness, love and redemption.

Rachelle lives in a world where there are evil things lurking in the Forest and they believe that three thousand years ago, an evil entity known as the Devourer, god of the forestborn, swallowed the sun and the moon. A brave pair of siblings, known as Zisa and Tyr managed to recover the sun and the moon, and bind the Devourer in sleep for millennia. But soon, Rachelle's aunt, the village wood-wife (wise women trained to protect people against the evil of the forestborn) announces, the Devourer will awaken, to swallow the sun and moon once more.

With the foolish impulsiveness of youth, Rachelle decides to try to figure out a way to subdue the Devourer once more, should he really return. She starts walking in the woods, attracting one of the dangerous servants of the dark forces. She keeps courting danger, until one day, he persuades her to remove her protective charms, and (naturally) attacks her. Once marked by a forestborn, an individual has only two choices. Kill someone before three days are up, or die. Rachelle fights the compulsion, but ends up killing her aunt. She does discover, from the sinister and seductive forestborn who marked her, that the only way to defeat the Devourer, is with Zisa's legendary bone swords, believed lost forever.

Three years later, Rachelle is living in the capital, and is one of the king's order of penitent bloodbound. She was marked by the Forest and killed to stay alive, but has not fully submitted to the call of the Forest and become fully forestborn yet. Instead, she spends every waking hour hunting down the wicked creatures that threaten innocent civilians. She has a semi-flirtatious relationship with Eric D'Anjou, the Captain of the King's bloodbound, but refuses to give into his attempts at seduction, refusing to become another notch on his belt.

After foiling an assassination attempt at the King's bastard son, Armand, she is ordered to be his bodyguard. As Rachelle has only just gotten word from the shadowy forestborn who changed her that the Devourer will be rising as soon as the next Solstice, she has only a few weeks to try to locate Joyeuse, one of the bone-swords the legendary Zisa used to free the sun and the moon. Stories say it is hidden "below the moon, above the sun". She certainly does not have time to baby-sit one of the King's many illegitimate sons, especially one who has been proclaimed a saint by the populace after he was allegedly marked by a forestborn, refused to kill, but still survived after three days. He did lose both his hands, and now has silver ones he wears instead. The blurb claims he is the man she hates the most, this is wildly exaggerated. She despises him, believes he is a liar and a fraud - as there is just no proven instance of anyone surviving three days after encountering a forestborn, unless they kill someone, like she did.

As the assassination attempt on Armand that Rachelle foiled is not the first, she is told to accompany him to one of the King's sumptuous country estates. Rachelle is persuaded to bring her fully human friend Amelie, who wants to basically be Rachelle's stylist, now that she has to appear at court functions. Armand tells Rachelle a legend from his region of the country, that makes her believe that the sword she is looking for, may in fact be hidden somewhere in the palace they will be staying. As it is impossible for her to be on guard duty and keep on searching, she reluctantly enlists Armand's help. She is still convinced he is lying about how he lost his hands, but the more she observes him, the more unlikely it seems that he wants any kind of glory or fame, and he is clearly deeply uncomfortable being venerated by the general populace.

The return of the Devourer draws ever closer. Rachelle and Armand are running out of time and the closer to the solstice they get, the more the sinister Forest seems to be encroaching on the royal residence, even though protective spells are supposed to be all over the grounds. Will Rachelle find the legendary sword and stop the Devourer, before it's too late?

What I liked:
- I absolutely adored the dark fairy tale told at the beginning of many of the chapters, relating the story of Zisa and Tyr. There were clearly elements of Hansel and Gretel, but with much darker undertones throughout, and there are clearly other folkloric tales mixed in there too. The horror that the siblings go through and what Zisa is willing to sacrifice to rescue her brother is lovely. Creepy and fantastic as all the best fairy tales are.
- The various folklore elements woven throughout the story. 
- The sinister creeping dread of the Forest, and the almost vampire-like forestborn. The bargain the marked have to make to continue living and the ever-present threat that they submit fully to the call of the Forest, and become fully inhumane.
- I liked Rachelle's complexity, even though I didn't always like her. She made an incredibly stupid mistake in her youth (some TSTL behaviour right there), but strove so hard to atone for it. Working to fight the threats from the Forest and saving innocents, even as she believed herself wholly damned.
- The sweet and genuine friendship between Rachelle and Amelie.
- I liked Armand as a character. His cut-off hands and his silver replacements (that burn him when the metal gets too hot) was suitably gruesome. I was also impressed when it was finally revealed what actually happened to him - the full extent was both cool and horrible.
- The concept of the wood-wives, local wise-women who could weave various charms to protect the populace against the creeping evil of the Forest. Zisa was apparently the first of the wood-wives and they pass down the knowledge through the generations.
- I mostly liked the decadent Renaissance French court setting.
- I liked the monsters Rachelle had to defeat, both in her everyday fight against the encroaching Forest and when looking for Joyeuse. 
- The plot wasn't entirely predictable (for all that some things were pretty obvious to me from early on). There were a lot of cool reveals along the way.

Did not like:
- Erec D'Anjou. He gave me the creeps from the moment he showed up. He was an arrogant creep and the way he treated Rachelle was condescending and appalling. The fact that he was presented as charming, handsome and a supposed third in the love triangle of the story was baffling to me. He was pond scum.
- Rachelle's initial aversion to Armand really did seem very extreme and was really never well explained.
- Nor was her sudden change of heart, where she pretty much out of the blue loves him. Not at all sure at what point her feelings changed from distrust, disdain and slight loathing to true love.
- Absolutely and utterly hated the whole love triangle.
- The structure of the story was a bit messy and the book could have been tighter plotted. The ending seemed a bit confused and rushed.
- The Little Red Riding Hood inspiration was tenuous, at best. 

This is Rosamund Hodge's second book, and from what I can see from various reviews, a lot of people don't think it's as good as her first book, Cruel Beauty. As there was a lot that I really liked about this book, I'm now even more excited that I have the supposedly better book still to read. As some reviews also say that the plots are a bit reminiscent of each other, I think I'm going to wait a bit, so the books don't suffer too much in comparison.

Judging a book by its cover: I've seen some people complaining that the cover of this book is too close to Rosamund Hodge's debut novel, Cruel Beauty, but I honestly don't see why this is problematic. The books are published by the same company, they probably wanted to make it more obvious the books were by the same author. The spiralling stair motif is a cool one (even though it has very little to do with anything in the actual book), whilst the black and white, with the bright green of the trees and the splash of red of Rachelle's cloak are lovely contrasts. The way the trees seem to be moving ever closer to the stairs is a nice call-back to the encroaching Forest in the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday, 18 September 2016

#CBR8 Book 103: "As You Wish: Inconcievable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride" by Cary Elwes and Joe Layden

Page count: 259 pages
Audio book length: 7hrs 1 min
Rating: 4 stars

The Princess Bride is my favourite film. Probably of all time. Ask me to name my favourite book, and I really wouldn't be able to choose, as that would very much depend on genre, my mood, the weather, what I'd eaten recently and I would frankly have trouble even narrowing down a top 10. But my favourite film is The Princess Bride. I have loved it since I first discovered it back in the late 80s (or possibly very early 90s, I can't say exactly), when we had a number of movie channels on cable and I first saw the film. Because it was one of those channels that would repeat the movies a few times over the course of a month, I made sure to record it on vhs, so I could watch it whenever I wanted. I was the only one of my friends who had seen this film. I had no one to share my adoration with.

When I went to the US, on a language exchange trip before I was about to start high school, in 1995, I discovered that not only did most American teenagers my age know about the film, they loved it and could quote it pretty much verbatim (as evidenced when we watched the movie in our dorm during my stay there) It was an eye-opening and absolutely wonderful experience and I was also told about the book it was based on, and bought my first paperback copy (I now have the book in both paperback and hardback, as well as the 25th Anniversary edition, which includes the first chapter of the unlikely to ever be finished sequel, Buttercup's Baby). I have owned the film on VHS, multiple versions of DVD (because of new extras), and while I have yet to get round to buying it on Blu-Ray, it's only a matter of time. While initially, none of my Norwegian friends had seen it, I made it my life's mission to show it to as many as possible, and I still cannot wholly trust a person who doesn't see what a magical film it is. I don't require them to love it as much as I do (cause that's not likely to happen), but they need to at least like it. This was an important test early in my relationship with my now husband, just as we would have had serious difficulties if I hadn't really liked Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

All of this is to explain why once Cary Elwes' book came out, it was a very natural present for my husband to buy me. Now, because I have literally hundreds of actual physical books (even after my big and very necessary purge when moving house a year ago, I think I have more than 700) and closer to twice as many if you count all my e-books, I gratefully accepted my pretty hardback copy, flicked through it and looked at some of the pictures included, put it on a bookshelf and sadly forgot about it. Then in August, this was an Audible Daily Deal and I picked up the audio book (because having the book read to me by Cary Elwes seemed a pretty good thing) but it wasn't until fellow Cannonballer Beth Ellen actually reviewed the audio version that I decided that enough was enough.

Cary Elwes was a young and relatively unknown actor when he was cast in The Princess Bride. Because his American step-father worked in publishing, he had read and loved the book and couldn't believe his luck when he was cast as Westley. He talks about the casting process, the months of intense fencing training he and Mandy Patinkin had to go through to manage the stunning fencing scenes. He recalls the camaraderie among the cast, how much fun everyone had making the film, everyone's absolute love for the project and their disappointment at how badly marketed the film was upon its initial release, causing it to bomb at the box office. He also talks about how despite his long and varied career, and that of many of his cast members, most will always be remembered for their part in the movie, because it is now such a well-known and deeply loved phenomenon. As well as Elwes' own recollections, there are stories from most of the other cast members, as well as input from Rob Reiner, the director and William Goldman, the author and script writer.

If you're looking for juicy celebrity gossip, this is not the book to go for. Elwes is glowing in his praise of the whole experience, and it seems that not a single person involved with the filming had anything negative to say either (if anyone did, they certainly haven't been included in the book). I loved hearing about the kindness of Andre the Giant, how Elwes broke his toe while in the middle of shooting, or was literally knocked out during filming (both incidents you can see in the film if you look closely). How Billy Crystal came up with the mannerisms and look of Miracle Max. How after months of gruelling training, Elwes and Patinkin were so skilled at fencing that the originally planned fencing scene was over far too quickly and they had to go back and rehearse an extended, much more impressive fight. I don't want to reveal too much, but if you like the movie and/or novel, this is absolutely a behind the scenes book that's worth checking out.

Judging a book by its cover: It's Cary Elwes at his hottest, dressed as the Dread Pirate Roberts, holding a sword. What more do you want from a cover? 'Nuff said.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read. 

#CBR8 Book 102: "The Dark Days Club" by Alison Goodman

Page count: 496 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Lady Helen Wrexhall is 18 and nervous about her imminent presentation to the Queen. As her parents died when Helen was young, and there is scandal attached to her mother (she is believed to have been a traitor), Helen and her brother have been raised by their aunt and uncle. She desperately hopes that no one is going to mention the scandal connected to her mother, but can't resist the urge to take her mother's miniature with her to the presentation either, wanting something to remind her of her parents on her big day. Before she has a chance to see the Queen, the infamous Earl of Carlston (rumoured to have murdered his wife), a distant relative of her family, deftly steals the miniature from her, but promises to return it the next day. Helen is also shocked when the Queen not only mentions her mother, but seems to imply that the rumours about her may not all have been true.

When Lord Carlston comes to call the next day, accompanied by Beau Brummel (making Helen's aunt slightly less mortified by the whole thing), he actually flings her mother's miniature at her when no one is watching. Reacting with lighting reflexes she didn't suspect she had, Helen snatches it out of the air before it hits her face and is deeply puzzled by the whole encounter. In the last year, she's noticed herself going through changes. Her hearing is more acute, her eyesight is sharper. Lord Carlston clearly knows something about her mother, and suspects things about Helen too, since he is willing to test her in such odd ways. What connection does a man with such a black reputation have with the deceased Lady Catherine, and what could he possibly want from Helen?

Helen's aunt and uncle wants her to have nothing to do with Lord Carlston, and her uncle would prefer it if she denounce her mother entirely and claim publically that Helen is glad that she died when she did. Both of them want Helen to behave demurely and make a good match. That her brother's best friend, the Duke of Selburn, seems taken with her is certainly a good sign. Yet Lord Carlston reveals to Helen that she has rare and unusual gifts, and that she needs to be trained in the use of her powers to help save the country from horrible soul-sucking beings. He shows her a side of London that she never suspected existed and clearly has support in the highest places. Helen begins to sneak out to be trained by the scandalous earl, but just as she is beginning to trust him, a letter from her dead mother is delivered into her hands, making her unsure of whom to trust. Her mother offers her a choice from beyond the grave, Helen could give up her dangerous monster-hunting destiny, but the cost could be higher than she's willing to pay.

In an unusual twist on a chosen one story, Helen discovers that she is what is known as a Reclaimer, only one of eight in all of Britain, and the only woman of the bunch. Because her mother was also one, she is a direct descendant, something very unusual, and there are those that believe her existence is a portent for darker things to come. The Reclaimers fight the Deceivers, horrible soul-sucking monsters, that can move from host to host, and look just like ordinary humans when they're not sucking the life force out of their unsuspecting victims. The Reclaimers can see them using special lenses, and Helen is able to see them when holding her mother's miniature portrait against her bare skin.

The Reclaimers are part of what is known as The Dark Days Club, a secret branch of the Home Office, and the reason Helen's mother was considered a traitor is because she wanted to stop her work with them and leave the country. Lord Carlston, who was still young when Lady Catherine and her husband, the Earl of Hayden, died, wants to mentor Lady Helen and teach her how to use her special gifts. When Helen discovers from her mother's letter that the Reclaimers get slowly more and more corrupted by the evil they fight and that they frequently succumb to madness and lose any ability for love or affection, she worries about her future and considers using her mother's amulet to remove her powers once and for all. She is torn between her wish for a normal Regency life, with balls, dress fittings, flirting and a possible future with the Duke of Selburn and a life fighting dark forces, saving lives, making a real difference and spending more time with the enigmatic Earl of Carlston (who she doesn't believe actually murdered his wife, although he's not telling what really happened).

There is a lot of things I liked about this book, but it is longer and the story is WAY slower than it needs to be. It is both a positive and a negative that Alison Goodman is clearly a huge Regency nerd and has done meticulous detail into all aspects of the society. Sadly, in what I like to call Diana Gabaldon syndrome, she cannot help but reveal all of said research in often painful and tedious detail. I really did like that there is a lot more attention to the time period than is common, and certainly a lot more than I was expecting from a young adult novel. Yet when it bogs down the plot because I keep having to read about all the mundanities of Helen's existence, I get frustrated. The pacing of the story is especially slow in the first half of the book, and if Narfna hadn't so highly recommended the book, I might have considered giving up on it.

Goodman does a good job with Helen as our heroine, she's intelligent and strong-willed, and despite her uncle's disapproval, opposes him in quiet and small ways. Despite being the daughter, and sister, of an earl, Helen treats her personal maid Darby with kindness and Darby, in return, is fiercely loyal and protective of her mistress. One of the subplots of the book involve the two of them investigating the disappearance of one of the maids of the household. While Helen's uncle is pretty much completely horrible (someone in a review I saw, probably on Goodreads, compared him to Uncle Vernon in Harry Potter, and that's pretty much spot on as descriptions go), her aunt is kind and well-meaning, if worried about public opinion and the family's reputation. Helen's brother Andrew, the current Earl of Hayden is really quite dull and also very worried about Helen and the family's reputation. He cannot understand why she keeps behaving in such a hoydenish fashion and why she seems to end up in Lord Carlston's company, especially when his BFF, the Duke of Selburn seems interested in making her his wife.

I find the main conflict in this book intriguing, and wish that it had gotten to the action-packed and supernatural evil fighting parts sooner. I really do appreciate the attention to historical detail, but not when it makes the book at least a third longer than it needs to be. I hope to God that Goodman doesn't continue with the vague love triangle that she has introduced in this book (because I find them tedious in the extreme) and look forward to reading about the continuing adventures of Lady Helen, Darby and the hopefully unfairly maligned Lord Carlston (I refuse to believe that there isn't a good explanation for his wife's disappearance) in future books, in which Lady Helen herself hopefully fights more evil instead of just learning about it.

To anyone interested in the trope of young noblewoman in Regency England fighting evil monsters and trying to juggle suitors, balls and dress fittings, I also highly recommend Colleen Gleason's five books about Victoria Gardella, in the Gardella Vampire Hunters series. I read them all back in 2008-2009 and they are now all available in e-book format.

Judging a book by its cover: I like the understated elegance of this cover. The squiggly font implies history and possibly adventure, and the dark colours add to the atmosphere. The girl in the distance, beautifully attired with her lace parasol, the light through the trees, the lace edging suggesting you are viewing the scene from behind a curtain, it all works for me. The other cover for this book (I think it's the UK edition) is a lot more garish and I really don't like the cover model they have portraying either of the main characters of the book. I much prefer this one.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR8 Book 101: "A Scot in the Dark" by Sarah Maclean

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Miss Lillian "Lily" Hargrove, is the orphaned daughter of a land steward and unwilling ward to the Duke of Warnick. Due to an odd and unbelievable series of events, her guardian, and then the next seventeen heirs to the title die in the course of about a fortnight, leaving a very distant claimant to the title, Alec Stuart, a belligerent Scotsman as the new Duke. He doesn't like England, and stays in Scotland for the next five years, not even aware that Lillian exists.

As such, Lily lives a comfortable, if extremely isolated and lonely life in one of the ducal residences in London. She's not of the aristocracy, nor is she a servant. She has no friends or family to support her, and so, when unscrupulous actor and artist Derek Hawkins encounters her walking in the park, woos her and flatters her and makes her feel special, it doesn't take all that much persuasion for him to get her to pose for a nude portrait. Of course, Lily believed no one would see the portrait but them. She also foolishly believed Hawkins would propose marriage to her. Instead, he announces at the opening of the Royal Exhibition that his masterpiece will be displayed to the public on the closing day of the exhibition. Lily, distraught and shocked, makes a very public scene, and what little respectable reputation she may have had, is ruined.

Alec Stuart, reluctant twenty-first Duke of Warnick, known in the gossip pages as "the diluted duke" arrives in London two weeks after his solicitor informs him that 1) he has a young lady as a ward and 2) said lady is the object of a huge scandal. Alec has a number of reasons for disliking England and the English and he also has a massive distrust for all beautiful women. Lily announces that the painting will be unveiled to all the world in ten days' time. She wants the money promised to her by her initial guardian, so she can go far away and reinvent herself, somewhere no one knows who Lillian Hargrove is.

Alec refuses to let her run and hide, and believes the solution is to get her married off to someone respectable, as soon as humanly possible. He bestows a massive dowry on her, and sets about trying to match her up with a suitable gentleman. Of course, he is fiercely jealous of any other man so much as looking in Lillian's general direction. Yet when everyone around him, Lily included, suggests that he may be the best candidate for the job, all his fears and insecurities rise to the surface. Lily may have given herself to an unscrupulous artist and is about to have her naked body displayed for all of London to see, but Alec still believes that he is unworthy of her hand and needs to find her someone better.

In her newest series, Scandal and Scoundrel, Sarah Maclean basically takes contemporary celebrity gossip scandals and interprets them through a historical lens. The first book in the series, The Rogue Not Taken, was seemingly her take on a Kardashian-like family of sisters hugely popular in the scandal press, whilst this book is her response to various leaked nude photos in recent years. Sadly, this isn't as interesting as Ms Maclean seems to think it is. I liked the previous book a lot more than a lot of my romance reading friends on the internet, even though the hero was a complete tool for most of the book. Alec Stuart, the Scotsman hero of this one, appeared briefly towards the end of said book, and both Sophie and her new husband, the Marquess of Eversley, appear in this book, along with Sophie's many Scandalous Talbot-sisters. There are also appearances by Duncan West from Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover, as well as his wife, who becomes one of Lily's new friends. I found most of the Talbot sisters annoying in the first book and didn't really like them all that much here (nor can I tell them apart), although it is nice that Lily finally makes some friends and gets to go out in society.

While the previous book in the series had some issues, this is even more of a hot mess. There are absolutely things I liked, Maclean excels at writing witty banter and the book made me laugh more than once. I genuinely like the title, which is certainly not always the case with Maclean's books. It discusses important feminist themes such as the nature of consent, victim blaming, slut shaming and how men in society are judged by a completely different standard to women. The eventual reveal of why Alec is so damned convinced that he's an uncivilised and uncouth brute, his dislike of the English, his distrust of beautiful women and his sense of unworthiness was an interesting twist on a common trope.

It still didn't make up for the fact that it got boring really quickly that Alec was bullheadedly determined to get Lily married off, yet insanely jealous of any other man so much as breathing in her vicinity. Starting with his mother, he's been told by women his entire life that he is too large, coarse, brutish and uncivilised. His mother eventually ran away from Scotland, and it seems more than one woman has treated Alec mostly like a glorified sex toy, good for nothing but a quick affair, but never anything more lasting. His internal monologue about how precious and exquisite she was, while he was brutish and unworthy still got on my nerves. I'm not really surprised that society at large sees him as a brute, when he literally tears doors of hinges and rampages around like a jealous madman for much of the book.

Lily keeps being described as devastatingly beautiful, but it has clearly not brought her any happiness and living holed up, isolated from polite society, without any chance to experience the world or make friends makes her a far too easy victim for Derek Hawkins. While waiting for the Diluted Duke to acknowledge her existence, she has dreamed of a season, of balls, dancing, marriage and children, and she has no wish to be forced into marriage in less than two weeks just to quell the gossip. Some of the behaviour she exhibits to drive suitors off is just bizarre, though, and the various madcap schemes that she and/or Alec devise to try to stop the painting from being displayed seem strange and out of place.

There is also an aspect of insta-love here, a trope I'm less than fond of. From figuratively hissing and spitting at each other during their first encounter, fewer than ten days pass before Lily and Alec are madly besotted with one another, ready to elope for Scotland to spend the rest of their days together. Would it really have hurt to have the story take place over a slightly longer span of time, say a month? It would have made the romance more believable, certainly.

I think there is only one more book left in this series, which seems to be going for celebrity divorce proceedings, with the eldest Talbot-sister, Seraphina, petitioning the House of Lords for divorce from her husband, the Duke of Haven (I severely doubt they'll end the book divorced). I desperately hope that it is better than the first two in the series, which keep going down in my estimation the more I think about them. Sarah Maclean has been removed from my auto-buy list and is quickly moving into the "only on sale" category, which is a shame, because I really love some of her earlier books.

Judging a book by its cover: Here we have another example of that baffling new romance cover trend, with the dresses with fabric that go on for miles and mile, but still inexplicably show most of the heroine's naked legs. Just in case you didn't figure out from the title of the book that it's about a Scotsman, the cover designer has helpfully added some tartan to the floor. I like the colour of the dress, it's pretty, but it is otherwise in no way period appropriate (for any period, really, this is made up historical clothing). I highly recommend you go to Goodreads to see the splashback cover though, where this exact romance cover is shown (presumably) as the scandalous painting (Worst. Nude. Portrait. Ever) in question, while the hero and heroine sort of smooch. It's hilarious.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read