Saturday, 21 April 2018

#CBR10 Book 35: "Half-Off Ragnarok" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is book 3 in a series. If you want to start at the beginning, check out Discount Armageddon.

From Goodreads: When Alex Price agreed to go to Ohio to oversee a basilisk breeding program and assist in the recovery of his psychic cousin, he didn't expect people to start dropping dead. But bodies are cropping up at the zoo where he works, and his girlfriend - Shelby Tanner, an Australian zoologist with a fondness for big cats - is starting to get suspicious. 

Worse yet, the bodies have all been turned partially to stone... The third book in the InCryptid series takes us to a new location and a new member of the family, as Alex tries to balance life, work, and the strong desire not to become a piece of garden statuary. Old friends and new are on the scene, and danger lurks around every corner. 

Of course, so do the talking mice.

While Verity and Dominic are off on a road trip, moving all of Verity's stuff (and her little colony of mice) from New York, the readers are introduced to her older brother, Alexander Price. While Verity wanted to become a ballroom dancer, Alex has always embraced the family legacy and currently works in the reptile house at a zoo in Ohio. His assistant is a gorgon who keeps the snakes on her head hidden under a beehive wig. Most days, they have to figure out how to sneak a young girl into the enclosure with the giant cobra without anyone noticing, as the girl and the cobra are both wadjets, and engaged to be married. They need time to get to know one another properly.

Alex is staying with his grandparents, trying to help them tend to his cousin Sarah, who's rather far from her old self after massively taxing her abilities helping Verity escape the Covenant in New York. With his various cryptozoological research and his duties to his unusual family, Alex keeps having to come up with excuses to his girlfriend, who keeps getting more and more irritated, and then the first body shows up. Shortly after, Shelby comes over to his grandparents' house for the evening, and after meeting Sarah, it's clear that she knows more about the supernatural than Alex ever suspected.

I really liked the first two books in the InCryptid series, but this one was a slow starter for me. I couldn't care less about Alex and his boring research into tiny feathered frogs or whatever they were. Only after it becomes obvious that Shelby may know a lot about cats, but she's not really shocked by Alex' other extracurricular activities either. It takes her a while to get used to the fact that both his grandmother and cousin are from a species of psychic, telepathic and normally very self-serving and sociopathic creatures, who not only aren't as evil as the rest of their species, but in fact deeply loved by the Prices. She has an easier time getting used to Alex' grandfather, who is a revenant.

Together they investigate the deaths (because the death toll keeps rising) and it becomes clear that whoever is responsible is also trying to kill Alex and possibly Shelby as well. I learned a lot about what various creatures could wholly or partially petrify a person, and how. While neither Alex or Shelby appealed to me as much as Verity and Dominic, it was cool to meet their grandparents and se how Sarah was doing, and once they are able to be honest with one another, it's clear that Alex and Shelby are pretty much perfect for one another.

The next book is also about Alex and Shelby - set in Australia! - but as I'm not as excited about that right now, I'm going to take a bit of a break from the series and read some other things before I continue with the series.

Judging a book by its cover: While there's nothing particularly bad about this cover, my mental images of Alex and Shelby look nothing like the people on this cover. It's otherwise a perfectly ok cover, which gives a better impression of what you might expect from the story than the one for Discount Armageddon. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 20 April 2018

#CBR10 Book 34: "The Heiress Effect" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 280 pages
Audio book length: 11 hrs 56 mins
Rating: 4 stars

This is my first re-read of this book (as it was my least favourite of The Brothers Sinister series). My original review can be found here.

When I first read this book, I had very high expectations, because I always do when reading a Courtney Milan novel. They are more often than not little masterpieces, that utterly transport me away and make me feel all the feels. Oliver Marshall is a good supporting character in The Duchess War, but disappointed me as a hero in his own story. He does eventually see the complete error of his ways, and how his life has crushed his confidence so much that he's willing to give up on true happiness and a truly spectacular and original woman, and he does grovel prettily when he gets to that point - but even after everything, I was still left with the feeling that Jane, our unusual heroine, could do better. You don't want to finish a romance wanting the heroine to end up with someone else.

Obviously, when I started this re-read, my expectations were no longer so high, and I just remembered this as the weakest of the books in the series. It's why I've never re-read this one, which is certainly not the case with all the other books, all of which I love. This is still the weakest book of the lot, but as always, when ranking several things, something needs to come last, and this is not a bad book, it just ended up being something very different from what I was expecting the first time around and that made me cranky when rating and reviewing it, I think.

All the things I mentioned as good things still stand. All the various female relationships in the book are great. The subplot with Free and Oliver's elderly, reclusive aunt affected me so much more this time around. I genuinely cried at her fate, and got so emotional, imagining the very lonely life she must have had and how little her family really knew about her and understood her. I still love the secondary romance, with Jane's sister Emily, and Anjan. I especially liked how he got the prejudiced uncle won over and permission to marry Emily.

I'm very glad I listened to this again and gave it a new chance. I've upgraded my rating from 3.5 stars to a full 4, and will try to judge Oliver less harshly in future.

Judging a book by its cover: I don't think any cover could really do justice to any of Jane's truly eye-gouging dresses, and the frock worn by the lady on this cover seems far too elegant and not ostentatious enough for anything in Jane's wardrobe. The green dress she wears in one memorable sequence is described as rather a lot more vivid as well, I pictured the shade almost iridescent, like the green of an insect's wing.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 33: "The Duchess War" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 270 pages
Audio book length: 11 hrs 3 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Wilhelmina Pursling has a deep dark secret, and a scandal in her past. Her real name is Minerva Lane, and the reason she's assumed a new name, and tries to stay as quiet, unassuming and unnoticed as possible, is because it would be disastrous if the truth came out.

Robert Blaisdell, the Duke of Clairmont, not only notices Minnie, he's fascinated by her. The son of the rather dastardly duke in The Governess Affair, Robert hates being compared to his father in any way (not easy when the physical resemblance is very strong) and has devoted his life to righting the wrongs of the former duke. He hates his elevated position of privilege, and would like nothing more than to abolish the peerage entirely.

When Minnie is accused of writing handbills that incite workers towards riots and strikes, she realizes that her carefully constructed existence is being threatened. She needs to prove that Robert is the true author, while he's determined to charm her into silence, and possibly a dalliance while he's in town. The more time he spends in her company, however, the more smitten he is with her.

Milan's heroes are always Protectors. Strong and powerful men who are determined to take care of and protect those around them, but Milan's heroes always have wretched pasts as well. Robert is no exception. He's rich, handsome and powerful and spent a dreadful childhood feeling rejected by both his parents. His father was a tyrant, who exploited people for monetary gain or his own pleasure. Robert is determined to be his exact opposite, if he can. He's sensitive, clever and deeply lonely, and the scene where he tells Minnie about a "funny childhood memory" is absolutely heartbreaking.

Milan's heroines tend to be strong, independent and very smart. Minnie is probably the cleverest one yet. She's fully aware that most people will underestimate her, and uses it to her advantage. One of the few niggles I have about the story is the fact that in the beginning of the novel, Robert is so impressed and aware of Minnie's brains, but when it comes to sorting things out towards the end of the book, he seems to completely forget that she's clearly more brilliant than him and goes behind her back instead of of including her in the planning.

However, even with this minor annoyance, I would still rate this as one of Milan's best books, and it's not for nothing that she's my favourite historical romance author writing today (her contemporaries aren't bad either).

Judging a book by its cover: One of the many photo-shopped "lady in a wedding dress" covers that Ms Milan tends to use for her self-published romances, I nonetheless really love the deep red cover of the dress on this one. I don't really think the title of the book is very appropriate. Minnie and the dowager duchess (Robert's mother) are never at war, and none of the two duchesses ever wage war on anyone else either.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

#CBR10 Book 32: "Opal" by Maggie Stiefvater

Page count: 38 pages
Rating: 3 stars

This is a short story set after the events of The Raven King, the fourth and final novel in The Raven Cycle.There will be spoilers for some of the plot in those books, so if you want to remain entirely unspoiled and haven't yet read these excellent books, come back after you've caught up.

Told in a somewhat disjointed and sometimes confusing way by Opal, the little dream creature created by Ronan, the readers get to see some of what is happening in the lives of Ronan and Adam after the events of The Raven King. As Opal is not really from our world, her perspective on things is not exactly that of a human. Yet readers will get some idea of how Ronan and Adam are doing and how their lives are proceeding. There are cameos and/or mentions of other familiar characters, as well as possible hints of what is to come (Stiefvater has confirmed that she's writing a new trilogy about Ronan).

Now I don't want to complain about bonus content from an author, but I absolutely adore Ronan and Adam, and while it was lovely to "see" them again, I would probably have liked this a lot more if it was told through the POV of a human narrator, rather than a rather flighty dream creature. It wasn't exactly what I was expecting - so others might like it a lot more than me.

Judging a book by its cover: A pretty simple cover, in shades of blue, with a feather and the layline symbol found in the other Raven Cycle covers. Nothing remarkable, but then this is a small bonus story, not a full novel.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 31: "The Governess Affair" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 152 pages
Audio book length: 3 hrs 50 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Serena Barton was a governess until she was fired without references. She wants the duke who is responsible to fork out suitable compensation and intends to sit on a park bench immediately outside his house until she is given her due. If that takes days or even weeks, she's nevertheless determined to persevere.

The duke of Clermont doesn't want to deal with Ms Barton, as he is currently trying to figure out a way to get his duchess back. Without his wealthy wife happy, the irresponsible duke has no income and she's really not going to be happy if she finds a scorned woman sitting outside their town house. So the duke sends his right hand man, former boxer Hugo Marshall, known in society as the Wolf of Clermont, to deal with the vexing female on his doorstep. She needs to be got rid of, and quickly at that.

Hugo Marshall is the son of a coal miner and intends to become very rich. Working for the duke is only a step on the way, but he does need to make sure the dissolute nobleman stays solvent, as if the duke doesn't have money, Hugo won't get any either. He therefore needs to deal with the "employment dispute" that Clermont has dropped in his lap - but quickly comes to find that Ms. Barton isn't easily intimidated. Come rain or shine, she shows up on her bench and while she initially refuses to tell Mr Marshall anything about why she wants compensation from the duke, as the days pass, he comes to understand more and more, and it becomes increasingly more difficult for him to stay loyal to his employer.

The Governess Affair is pretty much a perfect little novella that sets up Courtney Milan's series The Brothers Sinister. Serena and Hugo appear briefly in some of the later books, but only as supporting characters. This is the story of how they meet and fall in love, over a short enough period of time that in the hands of someone less skilled, it could be implausible. Yet, Ms Milan, ever a master of her genre makes it work, possibly because Serena and Hugo are both so desperately in need of someone to love, for someone who can take care of them and be taken care of in return.

For all that Serena has suffered a horrible indignity, she refuses to be crushed and beaten down by it. Her older sister Frederica has a pessimistic outlook, not only on Serena's situation and unlikely chance of a happy, satisfying future, but on everything, really. Frederica suffers from anxiety and gets worked up even at the thought of having to leave her comfortable rooms. Taking on the patriarchy in the way Serena does it, in her own quiet way, is entirely beyond her. Serena doesn't want great wealth, she just wants enough to buy herself a tiny farm, where she can grow lavender and other flowers that she can scent soaps with. Having lost her position as a governess, as well as her reputation, that dream is lost to her if she cannot get compensation from the Duke of Clermont.

Hugo Marshall ran away from home as a teenager, having decided after three days in a mine that he was having none of that. Having boxed as a prizefighter for a while, he eventually became Clermont's man of business, working very hard to turn the man's fortunes around, for a slight share in the profits. A wife and children don't fit anywhere into his plans for wealth and success, but once he meets Serena, who despite her petite size is so composed and formidable, he soon begins to question all his former plans.

This is a lovely, very romantic story - which in it's final section introduces three of the heroes for the novels to come, while they were still youths at Eton. As an added bonus, the novella is often offered for free at various e-book retailers, so if it's not available free of charge now, keep your eyes open - it probably will be again soon.

Judging a book by its cover: While Serena does wear a yellow dress for her wedding, I think the one pictured on this cover is rather more extravagant that anything she would be able to afford. I like that the cover model has her hair streaming down her shoulders, though, as there is a lovely scene involving the removal of hairpins in the story.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 30: "Midnight Blue-Light Special" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the second book in the series. There may be some mild spoilers for the first book, Discount Armageddon, in this review.

Set a few months after the events in the previous book, Verity Price is still trying to make it as a ballroom dancer, while also trying to study all manner of supernatural beings, all while keeping humanity in general from finding out about them. After her former boss' niece took over the club where she worked as a waitress, turning it into more of a burlesque than a strip club, Verity also gets to dance more. Then Dominic de Luca, her sort-of boyfriend shows up and pretty much asks her to pack up and leave town as soon as possible. The Covenant of St. George are sending three representatives to the city to ascertain whether they should start a purge, and they will realise that Dominic has been lying to them. If they discover that his previously rigid views on cryptids has been swayed by a member of the renegade Price family (who they would hunt down and eradicate if they knew any were still alive), they will be ruthless.

Despite Dominic's dire warnings, Verity isn't about to jump ship and leave all the various cryptids she knows in the lurch. Instead she does what she can to warn all of them to lay low, and sets up a sort of safe house for several of the ones who can't easily pass for human. She's worried about Dominic and about where his true loyalties lie. Can he - will he - give up on a lifetime of training and the people who raised him to help her? All of this becomes secondary when an agent of the Covenant manages to capture Verity - now the issue becomes whether her years of training is good enough to withstand the torture and questioning from the Covenant and whether she can escape before they break her and make her reveal the truth about her family and her cryptid friends.

The tone of this book is quite a lot darker than in Discount Armageddon, which despite the somewhat tense final act was more of an adventure romp. Verity gives some background on the Covenant of St. George in the first book, as well as info on her family's history with the group. However, as the only member we meet is Dominic, who is relatively quickly swayed by Verity's arguments about cryptids not all being monsters, we don't really get the full picture of what the organisation's members are like and how single minded they can be.

As it turns out, one of the Covenant agents sent to New York is from the branch of the family that defected a few generations ago, and she is out for vengeance for the loss of status her family suffered since then. When she gets her hands on Verity, she's not exactly gentle. Verity, in turn, has her physical and mental strength tested to its fullest, trying to outsmart the Covenant and escape before they can torture her into revealing everything she knows.

While Verity is captured, some of the chapters are narrated by Verity's cousin by adoption, Sarah, who's not human, but a cryptid known colloquially as a cuckoo. They are telepathic, extremely intelligent and usually completely sociopathic. Sarah is only different because she was raised to have a conscience. Normally studying higher mathematics in New York, she is determined to help out when Verity is captured, no matter how scared she is, although her task is made more difficult since she can't telepathically reach Verity. Getting further insight into Sarah was good, and I also liked the added presence of some of Verity's co-workers/allies, especially Istas the waheela (an Inuit shapeshifter who really likes to rend and tear things).

The next two books in the series are about Verity's older brother, Alex. While sometimes a series can work with different narrators (Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld springs to mind), I'm slightly torn about this too, as I wanted more about Verity and Dominic before giving up on them.

Judging a book by its cover: This cover isn't exactly exciting, but it's not as actively off-putting as the one for book 1 either. It's nice to see both Verity and Sarah on the cover, as Sarah plays a really important part in the second half of the book. And at least both of them are dressed normally, instead of showing ridiculous amounts of skin.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

#CBR10 Book 29: "Discount Armageddon" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From Goodreads, because I'm really far behind on my reviews, and it's a good summary of the book:

Ghoulies. Ghosties. Long-legged beasties. Things that go bump in the night...the Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity - and humanity from them. Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she'd rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and is spending a year in Manhattan while she pursues her career in professional ballroom dance. Sounds pretty simple, right?

It would be, if it weren't for the talking mice, the telepathic mathematicians, the asbestos supermodels, and the trained monster-hunter sent by the Price family's old enemies, the Covenant of St. George. When a Price girl meets a Covenant boy, high stakes, high heels, and a lot of collateral damage are almost guaranteed. To complicate matters further, local cryptids are disappearing, strange lizard-men are appearing in the sewers, and someone's spreading rumours about a dragon sleeping underneath the city...

After it took me a few books to really get into it, I have been a huge fan of Seanan McGuire's October Daye series for many years. I was aware that she had written other paranormal fantasy books as well, but somehow never really felt the need to check them out (partially because of the dreadful outfit that the woman on the cover - who I now know is supposed to be Verity - is wearing). Also, I think I skimmed a blurb for this years ago and must have noticed the ballroom dancing more than the monster hunting. I was missing out. Only after my former Cannonball rival, now good online friend Jen K mentioned having blazed through the first three books in this series in about two days and really enjoying them (she's now read the entire series to date) was my interest peaked enough and checking my LibraryThing, I had in fact bought the first book on sale a while back (this is frequently the case - since I started reading and buying e-books, I own way more books than I can easily keep track of, hence the need for a digital archive). Since I have a baby, I can't really read three books in two days, but I did finish this one in about 24 hours.

I suspect fans of Supernatural would love these books. The first book is absolutely more light-hearted than the October Daye books, and Verity is a slightly more cheerful heroine. While ending up in danger, she's also not quite as near-death-prone as dear Toby. Verity is subletting an apartment from a Sasquatch and working part-time as a waitress in a strip joint run by a bogeyman. When not waitressing or trying to make it professionally as a ballroom dancer, she free runs across the rooftops of New York and tries to keep the cryptid (a nicer term than monster) population safe from humans and vice versa. Three generations ago, her family left the secret organisation known as the Covenant of St. George, a bunch of indiscriminate monster hunters (their motto seems to be: if it isn't human, it should probably be eradicated) because of a difference in ideology. Now they are on the Covenant's most wanted list, so Verity needs to keep her real identity secret. Her family believe that as long as cryptids are not a danger to their local eco system, they should be allowed to live and let live. This doesn't mean that Verity isn't trained in a range of combat styles and can use bladed weapons and firearms extremely well to protect herself and to take out cryptid threats.

While out on patrol one evening, she ends up in in a snare, discovering that the Covenant of St. George has sent a representative, Dominic de Luca, to the city to check whether the city needs a purge or not. The Covenant is bad news for cryptids and for members of the Price family, but after some negotiation, Verity and Dominic agree on an uneasy truce. Single, female cryptids keep disappearing, however, and initially, Verity suspects the Covenant agent of killing them, while Dominic thinks Verity has been warning them, so they've fled town. Once they realise that neither is to blame, but some kind of third party, they agree to work together to find out who's actually to blame.

It's obvious to anyone who's ever read a single romantic narrative that Verity and Dominic, especially because they start out as bitter enemies, at least on paper, are probably going to end up falling for one another. Dominic is initially rather stuffy and has pretty much been raised by a cult whose told him that anything not human is evil, so it takes him a little while to loosen up, but the longer he and Verity work together, the more he comes around to her way of thinking (there is also historical precedent for that - one of Verity's ancestors also ended up with the Covenant agent sent to bring her down).

Now that I've finally started these books, I'm both sad that it took me so long, and glad, because now there are seven books in the series so far (as well as a lot of novellas and short stories, McGuire is always big on fleshing out her world-building with bonus short fiction) and lots for me to read before I have to wait for new releases. It's always fun to find a new paranormal/urban fantasy series to binge-read and these are going to keep me busy for a while to come.

Judging a book by its cover: Oh, this cover. An athletic blonde in a minuscule parody of a schoolgirl's outfit. In pink. Now that I've read the book, I know that it's a very appropriate cover, and portrays Verity pretty perfectly. The awful outfit is what she's forced to wear while waitressing at the strip club and having her sit on a rooftop with a gun, a sword strapped to her back, is also perfectly within the realms of what she does in her spare time. But I am not going to lie, as I mentioned in the review above, I totally judged this book and avoided it for years, despite really liking the October Daye series, simply because I thought the cover was so awful.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.