Monday, 22 September 2014

#CBR6 Book 104: "The Witch with No Name" by Kim Harrison - DOUBLE CANNONBALL!

Page count: 512 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the thirteenth and final book in the Hollows series, and as such, a really very stupid place to start reading. Start at the beginning with Dead Witch WalkingI also shouldn't have to tell you that this book will most likely contain spoilers for previous books in the series. You have been warned. Proceed at your own risk.

Rachel Morgan's life hasn't exactly been peaceful since she decided to become an independent runner and start her own business with her vampire friend Ivy and the pixy Jenks. There's been a lot of water under the bridge, extensive property damage, loved ones lost, secrets uncovered, truths discovered, villains vanquished and new alliances made. Rachel is an entirely different person, much more skilled in her magical abilities. She's found happiness with the man she once considered her worst enemy and while she fears that happiness is temporary, even though he's pretty much sacrificed much of his wealth and reputation in order to be with her, she is willing to take what she can get for as long as she can get it.

Of course, she's not going to live much longer if she doesn't figure out a way to save the souls of the vampires in Cincinnati. Rynn Cormel, leader of the vampire faction, is sick of waiting for Rachel to find a magical solution and threatens not just her life, but that of her best friend, Ivy, if she doesn't come up with a fix. The demons who she could once have counted on helping her are shunning her, and Al, her former mentor has threatened to kill her because he feels she has betrayed him by choosing Trent. To make matters worse, Ellasbeth wants custody and is willing to ally with Landon, weaselliest of all the elves to achieve her goals. In order to gain control over the elven council and wrest power away from the vampires for good, Landon may do something drastic enough to destroy all magic. Sorting all of this out is all in a day's work for Rachel Morgan.

I've been reading this series since 2005. It's one of the first paranormal series I can remember really being hooked on. It was such a lovely surprise to discover that while book 12, The Undead Pool, was released on schedule in February, I didn't actually have to wait a whole year to read the conclusion of the series. Of course, I also dreaded the ending, because these characters have been part of my world for such a long time.

I love how far Rachel has come and how, through it all, she's stayed true to herself. One of the reasons I've liked her so much as a protagonist is that she isn't perfect. She's brave, and stubborn and loyal to a fault and will frequently throw herself into insanely dangerous situations if it means protecting one of the people close to her. She's had to learn that there is more between heaven and earth than used to exist in her philosophy and she's become a better person with it.

There are so many things Harrison needs to finish off in this final book, and I sort of wish she'd managed to do it with a plot that didn't feel so messy. There is a lot going on here, and I didn't actually care all that much about quite a lot of it. There were a lot of threats to characters that I cared about, but the resolution of some of the plots felt confusing and a bit haphazard. I'm not sure exactly what I was hoping for or expecting, but while the book was good, it sadly wasn't great. I'm not going to complain, too much though. It's not like Rachel ended up with Sam in the end, just because he's the only dude she hasn't hooked up with. Endings are always tricky. You need to tie up all the story lines and try to satisfy all the readers who have followed your books for years and years. I thank Kim Harrison for the years she's devoted to these characters and this fascinating urban fantasy world. It's going to be fun to re-read the whole series from the beginning.

And with that, I complete my double Cannonball.

#CBR6 Book 103: "The Winter Long" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 358 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is book eight in the October Daye series, and as such, NOT a great place to start reading the books. If you want to start at the beginning, Rosemary and Rue is the book you're looking for. It is also, by this point, completely impossible for me to review the book without some spoilers for earlier books in the series. You may therefore want to skip this review until you've caught up, if you're worried about that sort of thing.

You'd think things would finally be looking up for October "Toby" Daye, changeling knight, rescuer of lost children. There is finally a Queen of the Mists that actually likes her, she's discovered the true identity of her squire and her relationship is just getting stronger. Then the man she's feared and hated ever since he abducted her liege lord's wife and daughter and transformed her into a fish for over a decade, ruining the life she once had, turns up on her doorstep and claims he needs her help. She also discovers that Simon Torquill is a much more significant person in her life than she ever imagined, and that he believes he was saving her life by merely making her a carp in the Japanese Tea Gardens. His mysterious employer actually wanted him to kill Toby.

Toby wants nothing to do with Simon Torquill and is terrified that his return means that her liege, Sylvester, or his family are in danger. As it turns out, unless she manages to identify who Simon's sinister employer is, all those she loves might perish. Her enemy is someone from her past, but much more dangerous and ruthless than Toby ever imagined.

In the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book, Seanan McGuire confesses that this is the book the entire series has been building towards. This is the first book in the series she had fully plotted, and all that's gone before has been leading to this point. It therefore has much of the same feel as Changes by Jim Butcher or Magic Breaks by Ilona Andrews. So many characters and plot lines that I thought were finished long ago suddenly take on new significance. I actually managed to figure out who the villain was just a tiny while before it was revealed, but only because I racked my brain by going through all possible suspects.

I've always liked the covers for the October Daye books, and hadn't realised just how appropriate the cover for this book is until after I finished actually reading it. Fans of the series will know that Toby's clothes rarely survive for long without being soaked completely in her own or someone else's blood, and if you look closely, her t-shirt isn't actually naturally red. A gruesome and very accurate detail, in a genre where the covers are often cringe-worthy in their badness.

With every new book, Toby discovers more about herself and who she is. Her mother has never exactly been a steady presence in her life, but here Toby realises that there are more family secrets buried than she ever could have imagined. When members of her actual family can't be relied on, it's a great comfort to her to have her chosen family around her, in Quentin, May, Tybalt, Raj and the Luidaeg. It's obvious that while the series as a whole has been leading to this book, this is by no means the end, and it's going to be very interesting to see where Seanan McGuire takes her characters in the coming books.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

#CBR6 Book 102: "Hounded" by Kevin Hearne

Page count: 304 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 43 mins
Rating: 4 stars

I'm sorry, but if I'm ever going to reach my double Cannonball, I'm going to have to cut corners somewhere:

Atticus O'Sullivan, last of the Druids, lives peacefully in Arizona, running an occult bookshop and shape-shifting in his spare time to hunt with his Irish wolfhound. His neighbours and customers think that this handsome, tattooed Irish dude is about twenty-one years old, when in actuality, he's twenty-one centuries old. Not to mention: he draws his power from the earth, possesses a sharp wit, and wields an even sharper magical sword, known as Fragarach, the Answerer.

Unfortunately, a very angry Celtic god wants that sword, and he's hounded Atticus for centuries. Now the determined deity has tracked him down, and Atticus will need all his power - plus the help of a seductive goddess of death, his vampire and werewolf team of attorneys, a bartender possessed by a Hindu witch, and some good old-fashioned luck of the Irish - to kick some Celtic arse and deliver himself from evil. 

Having at long last caught up with the Dresden Files and with others of the current paranormal series that I've been following for years already finished (the Southern Vampire Mysteries/Sookie Stackhouse books although Lord knows it was hard going to hang on till the end) or about to finish (Kim Harrison's the Hollows series - review of final book to follow soon), I felt the need to try out some new paranormal/urban fantasy books, and this is one I've seen mentioned in positive terms by a lot of people on the internet that I trust. Since I also have more Audible credits than I know what do do with now that I'm no longer downloading a Jim Butcher book a month, I decided to get Hounded as an audio book, even though I was also given the paperback as a gift for my birthday last year. The good thing about that is that I get the correct pronunciation of all the Celtic/Gaelic names, which tend to be spelled one way and pronounced wildly differently. I liked Christopher Ragland's narration style, but he's not as excellent as James Marsters on the Dresden books.

But what did you actually think of the book, I hear my readers complain? As the first instalment of an urban/paranormal fantasy series, it really was a lot better than many others that come to mind. As fellow readers of this genre are probably aware, it can take anything from one to three (or in the case of the Dresden Files - four) books for the characters, world building and story to be fully established and the series to get really engrossing and entertaining. Unless the books are very frustrating indeed, I'm always willing to read at least two in a series to see if I'm going to stick with it. Kevin Hearne managed to get me, if not hooked, certainly interested enough to keep reading. It wasn't even Atticus as the main character, although he is a lot more likable than say Harry Dresden, Kate Daniels or Toby Daye in his first book. What really got me curious to try more books was the rich gallery of supporting characters, including Oberon the hilarious wolfhound, the Morrigan and the little old lady (who's name slips my mind) who Atticus helps do yard work.

As far as I can see, there are seven books so far in the series, all rated higher than 4.0 on Goodreads. While that doesn't always mean all that much (after all, Edenbrooke, the worst book I read in 2012, is rated 4.35 and This Heart of Mine, the worst book I've read this year, is rated 4.12), I choose to see it as a promising indicator of the quality of the series. I'll try to portion the books out slowly, so I don't catch up with the series too fast. I already spend way too much of my time waiting for new installments of my book series to come out.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 101: "The Silver Metal Lover" by Tanith Lee

Page count: 291 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Jane lives a pampered and privileged life, the only child of a wealthy and influential woman. She's lonely, insecure and immature. She has no real friends, just people who mainly seem to take pleasure in bullying her. One day, she encounters a robot minstrel, one in a new line of highly realistic, artificially intelligent androids and her life is never the same. Though she is initially frightened by the robot, she's also fascinated by him and can't put him out of her mind.

She runs away from home, giving up everything just to be with Silver, as she names her robot lover. She learns to fend for herself and makes a life on her own. She refuses any contact with her mother or former "friends" and begins to discover a wholly different, much happier existence. Yet the factory who first created Silver wants all the advanced robots destroyed and they are searching for Jane and Silver. How long until their happy romance comes to an end?

The Silver Metal Lover was written in 1981 and for as long as I've been reading young adult fiction with any sort of romantic element, this book has been on my radar. It appears on countless lists of romantic YA and has clearly meant a great deal to a lot of readers over the years. Yet the book never seemed to interest me all that much, probably because science fiction is not a genre I read all that much and robots are a lot less appealing to me than vampires, werewolves, faeries and witches. When this was the alt book in Vagina Fantasy book club in August, and the book also fit with my Monthly Key Word AND Monthly Motif reading challenges, I decided to check it out. I suspect that it would have made a much greater impact on me if I read it when I was actually a teen in the mid-90s than it did now.

First of all, Jane really is somewhat of an exhausting protagonist. She cries ALL the damn time. She cries so much she even points out that it's amazing she doesn't dehydrate herself from all of it. She's lived a sheltered and not very exciting life, so it's not actually surprising that she has the personality of a wet sponge, I just really didn't like her much at all. Even when she developed the backbone to run away to be with her robot lover, I didn't like her all that much. The best thing she had going for her was that every single character in the book, with the exception of Silver was so much worse than her.

Silver was pretty cool actually. I prefer my robots more of the Terminator variety, frankly, but as sentient robots go, he wasn't bad. I'm sure he could have done better than Jane though. Their romance didn't really work for me, as I found Jane dull as dish-water. The book had an interesting concept, but there are just so many better YA sci-fi romances out there now, and while it was a perfectly ok book, it didn't wow me in any way. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 100: "Across a Star-Swept Sea" by Diana Peterfreund

Page count: 464 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Set in a different part of the same post-apocalyptic world as For Darkness Shows the Stars, this book is more of a companion novel than a sequel. The two islands of New Pacifica are Albion (think a futuristic pacific islander England) and Galatea (sci-fi revolutionary France). In Albion they have democracy and happily genetically alter their bodies to be their very best selves. Princess Isla is the regent of Albion until her toddler brother comes of age, because while they are big on genetic engineering, they also seriously underestimate women and still believe in primogeniture. In Galatea, the general population rebelled against their tyrannical despot of a queen and are currently subduing all of their former nobility with drugs that pretty much chemically lobotomise them. Unfortunately, as Revolutions are wont to do, things are starting to go a bit pear-shaped, with those in power Reducing (giving the drugs to) anyone not entirely agreeing with their point of view. The leaders of the glorious revolution have become as bad as the leader they initially rebelled against.

The Wild Poppy is an Albian spy who through a series of rescue missions liberate Galatean citizens, taking them to safety in Albion. Because everyone is incredibly sexist and no one believes that women are any good at anything, it is assumed that the Wild Poppy is a man. This suits Lady Persis Blake perfectly, as no one would suspect that the vapid, teenage socialite and best friend to the Princess Regent of Albion is in fact the most talked about spy in New Pacifica. Along with some of her friends, she risks her life repeatedly to rescue Galateans from the Reign of Terror they are under. Making very sure that no one remembers that a few years ago, Persis Blake was one of the most brilliant and promising young minds in Albion, Persis instead acts like every single fashionista party girl you can imagine. She's princess Isla's BFF and fashion adviser, throws the best parties and knows all the good gossip. She's also brave, excellent at disguises, brilliant at deflecting unwanted attention and a loyal friend to the beleaguered young queen.

Justen Helo is a Galatean medic who is deeply disenchanted with the direction the revolution is taking. He wants to defect to Albion and help find a cure for the all the people who have been chemically Reduced. Princess Isla wants it publicly known that Helo has defected from Galatea and decides that he and Persis should pretend to be an item, something neither of the two are all that happy about. Yet the princess gets what she wants, and Persis and Justen have to pretend to be madly in love. He believes she's a narcissistic socialite with nothing more serious on her mind than what she's going to wear next, never realising that she's the genius hero behind all the daring rescues. He wants to find a cure for the chemical Reduction which his guardian, the head of the Galatean revolution is responsible for, as well as rescuing his sister who is still in Galatea. As they spend more time together, they banter and argue and obviously grow more attracted to one another. Persis knows that Justen despises her chosen persona, but can't risk showing him her true self.

There are so many excellent female characters in this book. Persis is an amazing heroine, all the more remarkable because she's just seventeen. Her friendships with princess Isla and Andrine, another of the members of the Wild Poppy league are realistic and nuanced and it's great to see these young women taking advantage of the prejudices of the society they live in, in order to make the world a better place and save lives, without ever asking for credit or glory. While I didn't like her much (she is one of the villains, after all) Vania Aldred, Justen's foster sister, is also an impressive and strong female character trying to prove herself in the Galatean army but constantly being underestimated and accused of only gaining her position thanks to nepotism. Justen's sister Remy, while young, clearly also wants to make a difference and make a name for herself, even if she has to risk her life to do so.

Peterfreund's world building is a thing of beauty and I am simply not doing the plot or the richness of the environment these books are set in justice in my review. I love The Scarlet Pimpernel and this was such a cool gender reversed science fiction re-imagining of it. Lady Persis Blake is in many ways even more of an impressive hero than Sir Percy Blakeney, because he was a very wealthy and fully grown man. Persis is rich, to be sure, but she's also just a teenage girl, running a spy ring consisting mainly of other teenagers. It makes her feats even more impressive. Of the two books, this was absolutely my favourite. I'm so glad I finally got round to reading these books.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

#CBR6 Book 99: "For Darkness Shows the Stars" by Diana Peterfreund

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Laziness makes me resort to the Goodreads synopsis once again:

It's been several generations since a genetic experiment gone wrong caused the Reduction, decimating humanity and giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed most technology.

Elliot North has always known her place in the world. Four years ago Elliot refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, choosing duty to her family's estate over love. Since then the world has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists are jumpstarting the wheel of progress, and Elliot's estate is foundering, forcing her to rent land to the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of shipbuilders that include renowned explorer Captain Malakai Wenthforth - an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliot wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot exactly what she gave up when she let him go. 

But Elliot soon discovers her old friend carries a secret - one that could change their society...or bring it to its knees. And again, she's faced with a choice: cling to what she's been raised to believe, or cast her lot with the only boy she's ever loved, even if she's lost him forever.

Inspired by Jane Austen's Persuasion, For Darkness Shows the Stars is a breathtaking romance about opening your mind to the future and your heart to the one person you know can break it. 

I bought this book in an e-book sale a while back, based on the enthusiastic review on Forever Young Adult. Then, as so often is the case, I forgot all about it. This summer, my fellow Cannonballers scotsa1000 and bonnie both reviewed it excellently and reminded me that I owned it and should probably do myself the favour of reading it.

I suspect the book works well as a piece of dystopian young adult even for readers that have never read Persuasion. It may possibly also tempt younger readers to check out Jane Austen's classic novel. Ever since her mother passed, Elliot has been working herself nearly to death, trying to take care of the workers on her family's estate, while her father and sister ignore their increasingly dire financial situation and live a life of indolence and leisure. Elliot's father thinks nothing of exploiting his dependents or destroying a field of valuable crops to build himself a race track. When the famed admiral of the Cloud Fleet offers a substantial amount amount of money to rent her grandfather's home and ship yard, she has no choice but to agree.

She never expected to see the boy she loved all grown up into an imposing and famous man, now a lauded and wealthy explorer. Born on the same day, Kai and Elliot became friends as children, despite the difference in their stations and Elliot's father's objections. Kai initially only wanted to become the estate's mechanic, but developed more radical ideas as he grew older, finally running away in search of a better life when his life on the estates became too stifling. Not realising that Elliot rejected him not because she didn't love him, but because she knew the estate and all the people on it would be doomed if she left, the returned Malakai treats her coldly and tries to avoid her as much as possible.

My main complaint with this novel is probably how reticent and self-sacrificing Elliot stays throughout the story. She's clearly strong, responsible, loyal and brave, but I desperately wanted her to speak up and fight for herself and her happiness. Of course, Anne Elliot doesn't confront Wenthworth in Persuasion, but pines dolefully, so it's not surprising that Elliot never shouts angrily at Kai to make him realise why she couldn't go with him and why he's being so unreasonable towards her. Peterfreund never entirely convinced me as to why Kai was a worthy romantic hero. Kai acts cold and unpleasant for so much of the book, with less than entirely believable characterisation or exposition showing why Elliot loved him so much.

The world building of the book is excellent, though. A world where scientific experiments and genetic engineering has pretty much wiped out humanity is an interesting concept as was the social order established afterwards. It's quite clear that the pretty much feudal society here needs to evolve and change, though and Kai and his new Post-Reductionist friends show the fascinating possibilities the future might hold, if people are brave enough to try to change.

My next review will be of the companion novel to this book - based on another of my favourite classics - The Scarlet Pimpernel. I'm now also very interested in checking out other of Peterfreund's books.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

#CBR6 Book 98: "Isla and the Happily Ever After" by Stephanie Perkins

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Isla has been in love with Josh since their first year together at the American boarding school in Paris, but he's been unattainable for most of her time there. Instead she's been pining for him from a distance, hanging out with her platonic BFF Kurt (who has Aspergers' Syndrome). Now in their final year together, it looks as if all of Isla's dreams are coming true. Josh not only notices her, he wants to be her boyfriend! True love's path doesn't exactly run smoothly though, and when Josh gets expelled and sent back to New York, Isla and Josh discover that they're really going to have to fight for their Happily Ever After.

This is the final book in the Anna and the French Kiss trilogy. All three books can easily be read without any prior knowledge of the other books, but this book may be more satisfying if you've read at the other two, as the main characters show up as supporting cast during parts of the story.

The son of a successful senator and an aspiring graphic novelist, Josh Wasserman isn't really happy at his posh boarding school in Paris (I really want to smack all these ingrate kids who don't realise how good they have it). As a result, he's been acting out a lot over the years, which comes to a head after he convinces Isla to break school rules and go to Barcelona with him for a few days. As she's got a fairly spotless record, she just gets a month's detention, but he is fetched home by his furious mother.

Isla is very smart, but clearly deeply insecure about her relationship to Josh. She's a very good friend to Kurt, but she can be quite self-centred at times, and while she's very close to her older sister, she clearly pretty much completely ignores and/or underestimates her younger sister for much of the book. While Josh has all sorts of hopes and dreams for the future, Isla keeps working for that perfect grade point average, but doesn't actually have any idea what she wants to do with her future. She is entirely directionless and it scares her. She's also completely convinced that she's not really worth loving and when things start getting tough between her and Josh, she seems to think that sabotaging the relationship before things get more difficult is the way to go. Silly girl.

Of all of Perkins' heroines, Isla is probably the one with the most character growth over the course of the story (and all three girls do a fair bit of growing up) and she discovers that in order to have a proper HEA, she doesn't just need to make things right with Josh, but make herself happy in other areas of her life. While Isla has a very close friendship with Kurt, she clearly underestimates his ability to socialise with others and has to face up to the harsh truth that she may be the reason they have very few friends at school, not Kurt and his Aspergers'. The reason her younger sister is such a brat may be because Isla never takes her even a little bit seriously.

Josh is sweet, but he can't compete with Cricket as my favourite of Perkins' heroes. I also found his way of dealing with his dissatisfaction with school annoying. His parents really don't seem like bad people and it seemed strange to me that he didn't try to communicate with them more, but then, he is a teenager, and they are not always rational or sensible.

What I do like about the book is that it really does show both sides of a relationship, not just the happy flush of first love and infatuation, but that some couples really have to work to find lasting happiness and long distance relationships are not just fun and games. I will keep an eye out for Perkins' next book and hope it's as good as her first three.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 97: "Lola and the Boy Next Door" by Stephanie Perkins

Page count: 338 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Synopsis from Goodreads because I read this way too long ago:

Budding designer Lola Nolan doesn't believe in fashion ... she believes in costume. The more expressive the outfit - more sparkly, more fun, more wild - the better. But even though Lola's style is outrageous, she's a devoted daughter and friend with some big plans for the future. And everything is pretty perfect (right down to her hot rocker boyfriend) until the dreaded Bell twins, Calliope and Cricket, return to the neighbourhood.

When Cricket - gifted inventor- steps out from his twin sister's shadow and back into Lola's life, she must finally reconcile a lifetime of feelings for the boy next door.

At the very start of the book, Lola shares her top three wishes with the reader - she wants to attend the winter formal at her school dressed as Marie Antoinette, in a magnificent and opulent dress of her own making, and combat boots. She wants her dads (a successful lawyer and a stay at home pie caterer) to approve of her boyfriend Max, who is 22 and therefore quite a bit older than Lola's 17. Finally, she never wants to see the Bell twins, who grew up next door, ever again. Calliope, the brilliant figure skater who may have a chance at winning gold in the upcoming Olympics, and Cricket, the brilliant inventor who she had a crush on her entire childhood.

Lola is adorable, but also quite clueless. I imagined her a bit like a teenage Lady Gaga, determined never to wear the same outfit twice, with costumes and wigs to suit her every mood. It quickly becomes obvious why her two (awesome) dads don't like Max. It's because Max is a selfish douche canoe. He's so obviously Lola's good-girl attempt at living dangerously, and the thing that annoyed me the most about her (it seems I always have to seriously want to shake Perkins' heroines for one reason or another) was her complete obliviousness with regards to how bad a boyfriend Max was, especially with Cricket being there (or at college, not that far away) all adorable and infatuated with her.

I liked that while there were very good reasons for Calliope to act the way she did towards Lola, which were explained in time, there was no attempt for the two girls to suddenly put their differences aside and become BFFs. Calliope was wrong about a lot of things in her dealings with Lola, and their past cannot be completely forgotten, even as Lola and Cricket continue to grow closer. I loved pretty much everything about Cricket, except maybe that he nearly turned himself into a doormat for Lola. I loved Lola's friendship with Lindsey, and Lindsey's adorable attempts at junior sleuthing. Any girl who tries to emulate Veronica Mars is ok in my book. A couple of characters from Perkins' first book, Anna and the French Kiss also appear as supporting cast in the book and it was nice to see that they are doing well.

Stephanie Perkins' books keep earning rave reviews over on Forever Young Adult, and I can see why. They are delightful reads, even though each heroine has a particular trait that annoys the heck out of me.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 96: "Talk Sweetly to Me" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 109 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Young Rose Sweetly is a computer in Victorian England. This means she works for a male astronomer, doing amazing feats of arithmetic and calculation to help him in his work. She lives with her pregnant sister, taking care of her while waiting for her brother-in-law, a naval doctor, to return from abroad. Preferably before the baby is born. She's also very much in love with her neighbour, the infamous author and columnist Stephen Shaughnessey. Yet she heeds her sister's advice. He is a legendary scandal and rake, and she is an unmarried black woman. Nothing good can come of her crush on him.

Stephen Shaughnessey loves hearing his pretty, brilliant young neighbour explaining to him about maths and astronomy. He understands that she's a mathematical genius and would like nothing better than to court her, yet no matter what he tries, she resists him. So he needs to convince her that he's not just a callous flirt with his mind set on seduction. He enlists the help of her employers and is lucky that there is a once in a lifetime eclipse happening in London.

Talk Sweetly to Me is the coda to Courtney Milan's excellent Brothers Sinister series, which contains what is now probably my favourite romance of all time as well as several other excellent books. Stephen Shaughnessey, Irish Catholic, son of a stable master and a seamstress, worked for Free Marshall's newspaper, giving a "real man"'s opinion in a publication "by women, for women, about women". He was a delightful supporting character and he's an admirable hero. I just wish some of his actions didn't veer too closely into coercion and manipulation, which I think they almost do here. Still, he sees the brilliance in Rose Sweetly and for that I applaud him.

Milan writes amazing heroines, and in several of the Brothers Sinister books highlights the plight of overlooked and inspiring women of the Victorian Age, marginalised, ignored or completely forgotten because of their gender. I didn't really know there were computers, or that there were a lot more black Victorians than I previously suspected, and that's another great thing about Milan's stories. She educates you without ever patronising you, highlighting unusual topics not normally featured in historical romance. Of the novellas in the series, this is probably the least impressive, but anything written by Milan is still of the very highest quality and worth reading.

The entire series:
The Governess Affair - 4.5 stars
The Duchess War - 5 stars
A Kiss for Midwinter - 5 stars
The Heiress Effect - 3.5 stars
The Countess Conspiracy - 5 stars
The Suffragette Scandal - 6 stars (it broke the scale)

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 95: "A Breath of Snow and Ashes" by Diana Gabaldon

Page count: 1410 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is the sixth book in the Outlander series, and really not the place to start reading. You will have missed out on literally thousands of pages of plot developments, intrigue and characterisation. If you are interested in checking out the series (which thanks to the current TV show, I suspect more and more might be), start at the beginning with Outlander

Ok, where do I even begin to summarise the plot here. The mass market paperback is over 1400 pages long and the action spans at least three years of story. The book starts in 1772, with the beginning of the American Revolution right around the corner, and as such, there is rebellion afoot. Jamie Fraser knows what is coming thanks to his wife, daughter and son-in-law, all time travellers from the mid-20th Century. He needs to make sure he doesn't get arrested for treason against the British Crown (again), but doesn't exactly want to declare for King George either. At one point, Claire is kidnapped by bandits who want the location of the Fraser's still. That section, and the following rescue (I'm NOT going to spoiler tag a book that came out in 2006 - also, Claire is the protagonist of the whole series, big surprise she doesn't get killed by her abductors), makes for uncomfortable reading. Stephen Bonnet still pops up every so often like a malevolent mushroom to make life difficult for the assorted Frasers. Fergus and Marsali and their ever-increasing brood of children move away from Fraser's Ridge after it becomes obvious that Fergus really isn't cut out to be a farmer and needs a change in careers. Brianna and Roger work on having another child and Roger trains to become a minister. Towards the latter half of the book, there is a terrible betrayal of trust, when Jamie is suddenly accused of fathering a young woman's child. Shortly after, the pregnant woman winds up murdered in Claire's garden. Will Jamie and Claire be able to prove their innocence?

I read this book when it first came out, and it turns out, I barely remembered a single detail of plot, with the exception of Claire's abduction (although even that wasn't exactly clear in my mind) and the murder in the latter half of the book. Apart from that, I may as well have been reading the book for the first time. So much of the story came as a complete surprise to me, to the point where I was wondering if I'd made up the hazy details I could recall until I got to the relevant parts of the story. Parts of the book are extremely entertaining and well plotted, and I would rate them 4 stars or higher. But just as with The Fiery Cross, this book is just so big, and there is so MUCH happening and quite a lot of it is just not all that interesting and drags the rest of the reading experience down. I have yet to read the next two books in the Outlander series, specifically because when I last read this book, I was so bored by the end that I just couldn't bear the thought of reading any more Gabaldon. Luckily, I liked it a lot more re-reading and am now quite excited to catch up with books 7 and 8 in the coming months.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 8 September 2014

#CBR6 Books 93-94: "The Hidden Blade" and "My Beautiful Enemy" by Sherry Thomas

Total page count: 652 pages
Rating, both books: 4 stars

In Beijing in 1873, young Ying Ying discovers that her father is one of the white foreign devils, and while her mother is the pampered courtesan of an important court official, she'll be lucky to ever make a suitable match. Her Amah starts training her in secret martial arts, so she'll have a way to defend and support herself once she grows older.

Over in England, young Leighton Atwood discovers that his parents have secrets, that it wouldn't do for his sinister uncle Sir Curtis to unearth. His mother's monthly visits to a "sick relative" may hold the explanation as to why Leighton's younger brother Marland looks nothing like him, and his father seems a lot more affectionate towards his young photographer friend Herb Gordon than he does towards Leighton's mother. Leighton doesn't know that society disapproves of his father's relationship with his young friend. He listens eagerly as Herb tells of his travels and adventures, about Chinese myths and treasures.

When Sir Curtis comes for a surprise visit while Leighton's mother is away, Leighton's life takes a dramatic turn for the worse. Sir Curtis threatens to commit his younger brother to an asylum for his depravities, and because of this, Leighton's idyllic childhood is shattered with a single gunshot. Herb is forced to leave Starling Manor, and Leighton manipulates his mother and younger brother to flee the country to protect them from Sir Curtis' plots. He alone is left to suffer the intricate cruelty, dreaming of the distant lands Herb is visiting and the day when he too can escape.

Ying Ying and her Amah are taken into the household of her mother's protector, Da-Ren, when her mother dies. It is there that Ying Ying befriends another foreign devil, from faraway England, who works as a language tutor for Da-Ren's sons. She tells him about her suspected parentage, learns that her English adventurer father named her Catherine Blade, and begins to learn English.

In 1883, Leighton and Ying Ying finally meet, in Chinese-controlled Turkestan, never realising that Herb has played an important role in their lives. Leighton is working to gather intelligence for the British, Ying Ying is trying to work off a debt to her foster father, Da-Ren. Their romance is brief, intense and passionate, until they discover that they are enemies, and Ying Ying sends Leighton (whom she believes to be a Persian in the employ of the English) away, with a slow-acting poison she knows will kill him within a week.

So Ying Ying's surprise is great when she arrives in England in 1891, as Catherine Blade, and is introduced to Captain Leighton Atwood, the fiancee of her new acquaintance Mrs. Chase's daughter. Ying Ying is in England to locate two precious Jade tablets for her foster father and has already fought off one painful reminder of her past on the ship on her way to England. Meeting her first and only love alive and betrothed to another is a serious obstacle in her quest for the tablets.

Leighton is just as shocked to discover the mysterious, wild girl who he first met disguised as a Kazack warrior, who left him for dead in the Turkestani desert is in London, speaking near-perfect English and dressed as demurely as any debutante. She left him with physical as well as emotional scars, and Leighton knows full well that she is unlikely to be in England just to connect with her long-lost relatives. Yet he swears he will not get involved with whatever brought her to London, that part of his life is over now.

The Hidden Blade tells the story of Ying Ying/Catherine and Leighton from when they are children in China and England respectively, and unusually for Thomas, gives us their life stories entirely chronologically in more or less alternating chapters. Despite coming from vastly different cultures and parts of the world, their lives have strange parallels, and they are unaware that Herb Gordon is to play a vital part for both of them. Through him, they almost meet in Beijing, once Leighton has managed to escape the clutches of his evil uncle and travel to reunite with his old friend, but fate interferes and they just miss each other. It's a full-length prequel novel to My Beautiful Enemy, and as such not a romance in itself, as the main characters never actually meet.

My Beautiful Enemy is more like Thomas' previous novels, where the narration jumps back and forth between the present and the past. The past involves Ying Ying and Leighton's first meeting in 1883, where they fall in love despite not knowing each other's true identities. I frankly preferred the past portions, some of the 1891-sections got a bit too melodramatic, thanks to Ying Ying's dastardly supervillain nemesis and Leighton's bitchy fiancee. I'm sorry if it comes as a surprise to anyone at all, but Leighton's engagement isn't all that happy, thus facilitating his eventual happy ending with Ying Ying.

Sherry Thomas claims that these books are "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets Downton Abbey". Nit-picky that I am, I would like to point out that Downton Abbey starts in 1912, which isn't even vaguely Victorian. Combined, the two novels give a fascinating picture of Ch'ing China and Victorian England. I loved that Leighton, at least for a brief period, has a father in a loving homosexual relationship without this shocking him in any way. He's forced to grow up far too early and the treatment he receives from his uncle is truly awful (Thomas writes extremely creepy villains, see also His at Night). Both Ying Ying and Leighton are great characters, but their prequel stories and passionate first romance entertained me a lot more than the latter part of their romance, where they reunite. I would absolutely recommend reading the two books together. My Beautiful Enemy works on its own, but the story has much more resonance if you've read The Hidden Blade first.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

#CBR6 Book 92: "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" by Maria Semple

Page count: 306 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Because I read this book a month ago, and the plot is somewhat convoluted, I am resorting to the plot summary from Goodreads to help me explain what the book is about:

Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fiercely opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace, to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she's a best friend, and simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle - and people in general - has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence - creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.

I know I'm ridiculously late to the party when it comes to this book. So far this year, it's already been reviewed by Badkittyuno and MelBivDevoe, and last year, for Cannonball V, it was reviewed by a staggering 15 people (search the archives to find the reviews). So a lot of my fellow Cannonballers already know how great this book is. I'm not even going to pretend that I've read all your reviews, sorry guys, but way to go for discovering this book before me.

Maria Semple was one of the staff writers on Arrested Development, so it should be no surprise that she can do funny, satirical and absurd. Even having noticed that a lot of people out there were excited about this book, I really had no idea what to expect. The book was quite different from what I thought going in. Comprised of e-mail correspondence, journal entries, letters, in-voices, receipts, reports, articles and other written forms of documentation, the book tells the story of Bernadette Fox, who won a MacArthur grant for her revolutionary architectural design and ended up becoming an agoraphobic recluse in Seattle. Her husband, Elgin Branch, is a lauded genius over at Microsoft, but is so busy with his own career that he hasn't really noticed just how off the rails his wife has gone. Bernadette hates the expectation and opinions of all the other mothers at the private school Bee attends, and refers to them dismissively as gnats. Through a series of escalating events, she ends up in a full-blown feud with one of them, her next door neighbour, Audrey, resulting in a devastating mudslide and total chaos at a recruitment drive for Bee's school.

Having agreed to take her beloved Bee to Antarctica, Bernadette is reluctant to renege on her promise, even though the trip clearly terrifies the heck out of her. And as the family are about to depart on their trip, Bernadette disappears, without a trace. It's Bee's attempts to trace her, as well as discover more about who her mother really is and used to be, that makes up the majority of the book.

This is such a funny book, and an amazingly quick and engrossing read. I read it all in one day, amazed at the twists and turns the story took. No matter what you think you've figured out, Semple manages to keep you surprised. While a very clever and entertaining satire, the book deals deftly with serious issues like mental illness, daring to be different and defying the expectations of society. I may have been late to join in with the praises sung for this book, but am glad I finally caught up.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 91: "You Had Me At Hello" by Mhairi McFarlane

Page count: 465 pages
Rating: 3 stars

SPOILER WARNING! There are plot spoilers in this review, as I found it impossible to express my feelings without going into specific plot details.

Rachel has just broken up with Rhys, her boyfriend of fourteen years, who she'd been dating since University. Once they got into an argument about what band to have at their wedding, it became obvious to her that they really didn't have a future together, and she's been staying with him more out of habit than anything else. Now they have to divide the furniture, she has to get a new place and live on her own for the first time as an adult. Her friends are supportive, but also rather concerned about her.

She runs into Ben, her best friend from University, shortly after moving out of her and Rhys' shared house. Due to a series of complications, mainly that Rachel was dating Rhys for most of her time at Uni, Ben and Rachel only ever shared one night together, but Rachel has never really been able to forget Ben, and what might have been. Now Ben is a lawyer and married to a pretty lady, newly moved to Manchester and eager to make new friends. He's very happy to see Rachel again, but clearly in no way romantically interested in her.

I got this book on the recommendation of my friend Elizabeth, who loves it and has apparently re-read it a number of times. Unfortunately, I cannot share in this love. All I can muster is a tepid like, mainly because I liked the flashbacks to Ben and Rachel's time together at Uni and I enjoyed Rachel's interaction with her group of friends. I mainly found present day Rachel incredibly frustrating, however, and while I absolutely applaud her ending a dead end relationship before she ended up married to the man who was all wrong for her, desperately stalking her old school friend who she never gave the time of day until the very end of their time together at University because she was too oblivious to notice him, and then apparently pining for him for the next ten years (despite being in a relationship to another man) and sort of hoping that he will be miserable with his wife, is no way to endear yourself to me.

A romance where one of the parties is currently in a committed relationship is always frustrating to me, because for the romance to work out, said party clearly has to break up their current relationship to find happiness with the non-committed party, or even worse, cheat on their current partner. That sort of thing makes me uncomfortable. I liked Ben. I can see why Rachel fancied him. What I cannot understand is why it took her four years of Uni in an unsatisfying relationship to Rhys to notice that Ben was great, spend one night with him when she broke up with Rhys briefly because he was being an inconsiderate idiot, just to run straight back into his dead-beat arms when he decided to make a half-hearted gesture at her graduation ball. You don't get to mourn for the one who got away when you're pretty much the person who forced him to get over you by picking another, Rachel!

While breaking up with Rhys before they end up married and miserable, some of the choices Rachel makes in her professional life are less than stellar as well. She keeps trusting the wrong people and making dubious decisions. I tried so hard to like her, and see why my friend loved this book so much, and it just did not work for me. Ben was sweet, the flashbacks were fun, and the supporting cast were enough that I can give it a thin 3 stars. It also allowed me to complete another book in my Alphabet soup challenge, but I'm certainly not going to be re-reading this. If I owned it in physical book form, it would be donated to a charity shop. Sorry, Elizabeth.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 90: "Tell Me Lies" by Jennifer Crusie

Page count: 464 pages
Rating: 4 stars


Maddie Faraday is cleaning out her husband's car and discovers a pair of women's underpants under the seat that certainly aren't hers. This isn't the first time he's cheated on her, and she decides that enough is enough. Even though she knows her mother and much of their little town will be utterly scandalised if she files for divorce, she just cannot take it any more. That C.L, the cute guy she lost her virginity in high school has just appeared in town again, looking gorgeous and available just makes her wonder further about the wrong choices she feels she's taken in life.

As Maddie contacts a lawyer (in the town over, so it'll take longer for her snoopy mother to discover what she's done) and starts trying to gather proof of her husband's financial assets, she finds that not only was her husband cheating on her, he seems to have been cheating his clients and has huge amounts of cash in a safe deposit box in the bank, as well as passports for himself and their daughter, along with plane tickets to Brazil. Then her husband turns up dead, and Maddie is suddenly the main suspect in a murder case.

When Jennifer Crusie is good, she's very good indeed. I adore Welcome to Temptation and am very fond of Bet MeFaking It and Agnes and the Hitman. Crusie more often than not writes after a certain formula. There will be a smart-mouthed heroine, a love of food, often overbearing or controlling mothers, an adorable plot moppet and a cute, unconventional-looking dog involved in the story. The other books of hers that I've read don't tend to feature married heroines, but rather single women who find their happily ever after over the course of the book, after much hijinks has ensued.

Here, Maddie is married, but not happily so. This brings me to one of the things I wasn't all that happy with about the book. The adultery aspect. She's upset because she's caught her husband cheating, and not for the first time. Having always been the good girl, the one who does the right thing, Maddie has never done anything entirely for herself since the time she seduced C.L in high school, and then promptly broke his heart by ignoring him for the rest of their time in school. He's never been able to forget her, and is more than happy to step in and comfort Maddie when she's seething about her husband. Since Crusie suddenly decides to make this more than a farcical romp by introducing a murder in the middle of the plot, I would have been SO much happier if SPOILER! Maddie had waited until after her cheating, wife-beating piece of shit husband was dead before she decided to sleep with C.L as revenge. Two wrongs do not make a right. Cheating on your cheating spouse just makes you as bad as they are.

As well as some questionable judgement in the revenge department, Maddie exhibits some TSTL moments after her husband has been murdered, and it's clear that someone is trying to frame her for his death. Despite these plot niggles, after a somewhat slow start, where I was undecided, the book grabbed hold of me and I was pretty much unable to put it down until I got to the end. I read it the weekend I went to a friend's wedding, and actually wished I could have snuck the book with me to read during slower parts of the reception. Because of this, the book gets a full four stars. My enjoyment of the good parts were a lot greater than my annoyance at the less than great parts.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 89: "Lead" by Kylie Scott

Page count: 288 pages
Rating: 3 stars

This is the third book in the Stage Dive series, and while the books can be read as stand-alones and independently of each other, the series is best read in order. Start with Lick and if you like it, move on to Play. If you don't like the first two, then book three is probably not going to be your thing either.

James "Jimmy" Ferris is the lead singer of the hugely popular, world famous rock band Stage Dive and he's had a rough few months. Having hit rock bottom after years of drinking, doing drugs and generally enjoying being a bit of a d*ck, he's gone through rehab and is now trying to clean up his act. His band mates hire Lena Morrissey to be his personal assistant, and well, babysitter. She lives with him, makes sure he stays sober and generally tries to keep him from acting like an out of control asshole. She has a long history of falling for the wrong guy, most recently, her boyfriend dumped her for her own sister, and she now has to decide whether she's going to cause her family a huge amount of upset by refusing to show up at their wedding.

Preparing for the funeral of the Ferris brothers' surrogate mother of sorts, Jimmy is sorely tempted to give in and drink. The Ferris brothers' own mother is a horrible woman, who is still drunk, constantly trying to cash in on the fame of her two sons (David is the songwriter and guitarist in the band). Lena manages to stop him, but has trouble staying impersonal and detached after Jimmy basically breaks down and cries all over her. Despite their sizzling chemistry, Lena knows that it would be a monumentally bad idea to fall for her damaged and messed up boss, and tries to stay professional at all times. She even agrees to go out on a number of dates arranged for her by Jimmy and the other members of the band, when all she really wants is to jump Jimmy.

In the previous two Stage Dive books, Jimmy hasn't been the villain, exactly, but he sure hasn't been very likable. A drunken, loutish douchebag, who made an unwelcome pass on his new sister-in-law and generally made life difficult for his brother and band mates. I was interested in seeing how Scott was going to redeem him in this book, and am sorry to say that I don't think she really did. It's clear that there are reasons for Jimmy's uncontrollable behaviour, his partying, the drink and the drugs, not helped by his shitty upbringing and his awful excuse for a mother. He's managed to shelter his younger brother from realising just how toxic their mother was, but for all that there are good reasons for his life being messed up, I didn't think he needed to act the way he did. He's frequently quite rude and unpleasant to those around him, not least Lena, who he tries to force into quitting by being as disagreeable as possible.

I've said before, romances where you think the heroine should end up with someone else, are just not all that effective. Lena is amazing. She's tough, snarky and I would love for her to be my friend. She doesn't suffer fools gladly, and is hired to be Jimmy's live in assistant and sobriety companion after the band's manager fires her for sarcastically talking back at him. She's actively trying to avoid her family, as having to deal with your ex marrying your younger sister is trying at the best of times. So falling in love with her extremely sexy, but clearly damaged employer is not going to make her life easier. Lena and the rest of the band with their assorted spouses and friends is what made this book worth it for me. If I had my way, Lena would have found someone truly worthy of her, and Jimmy would emerge a better person after years of therapy, but even then, would be unlikely to be good enough for Lena. Absolutely the weakest of the series so far.

This doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to Deep, the concluding volume of the series, when drummer Mal and his girlfriend are going to get married in Vegas, and the bassist of Stage Dive finally succumbs to his own happily ever after. Most of this series has been a lot of fun, and the reviews Lead has on Goodreads suggests that a lot of people disagree with me about Jimmy's effectiveness as a hero.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.