Thursday, 30 April 2015

#CBR7 Book 50: "Flirting with Disaster" by Ruthie Knox

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Katie Clark went with her boyfriend when he wanted to move to Alaska and worked to save up for her own college education while putting him through college. Knowing that her family weren't huge fans, she didn't tell them that she actually got married while they were there. By the time it was Katie's turn to go to college, it was too late. Her husband had emptied their joint savings account, leaving her a note saying he was off to find himself, hiking in Nepal. Katie slunk back home to Camelot, refusing to tell anyone in her family what really happened. Her brother Caleb let her move in with him and gave her a job as office manager in his new security firm, hoping to help her back on her feet.

Now newly divorced, Katie has finally come clean to her family and is determined to put her painful past behind her. She wants to reinvent herself as a confident, sophisticated woman and a full agent in her brother's security firm. She's convinced him to give her a chance to prove herself, trying to figure out who is stalking and threatening a famous singer-songwriter. As there was plenty of sparks the first time Katie met their new client, she's hoping that maybe she can blow off some steam while forgetting her weasel of an ex-husband once and for all. As long as her partner on the assignment, the silent, brooding and constantly disapproving Sean Owens, doesn't sabotage everything for her.

Sean Owens isn't entirely sure that Katie even remembers him from high school, when he was the geeky kid sitting behind her in math class, while she was off with the cool kids. Suffering from a crippling stuttering problem, Sean has mostly managed to control it, except for when he's in the presence of or thinking of Katie. Then he stutters so badly he can't even pronounce her name. Actually the part-owner of a successful internet security company in California, Sean only returned to Camelot to bury his mother and pack up her house and put it on the market, but when he met Caleb Clark in a bar and was offered a job in his security firm, he found that he liked the idea of a new challenge. He hadn't envisioned having to work so close to Katie every day, and when he's sent off on an assignment with her, it's clear he won't be able to give her the silent treatment for much longer. One thing is clear, he's not about to stand around and watch the woman he's had a crush on for over a decade, throw herself at the rock star they're hired to protect.

Unlike with the previous stories in this series, Flirting with Disaster has a mystery subplot, as Sean and Katie try to figure out who has been sending threatening messages to Judah Pratt, the aging music star they're sent to help. Their job is made more difficult by the fact that Judah is clearly hiding a whole host of secrets and seems very reluctant to be entirely forthcoming, even though his life might be in real danger. To readers who may be worried about a love triangle - he doesn't really present much of a threat to Sean, more of a motivating factor for the man to finally reveal his true feelings for Katie.

While the other Clark siblings, Amber and Caleb, seem to have fallen very quickly for their partners (although we only really see the beginnings of Amber's relationship), Katie and Sean have actually known each other since high school, although they've spent most of their lives since then apart. By the time this book starts, Sean has been back in Camelot for a few months already, though, working with Caleb and trying his damndest to never have to engage Katie in direct conversation - to the point where Katie is convinced he pretty much hates her. Instead, the opposite is true. Having had a crush on her in high school, Sean was not exactly thrilled to discover that his feelings returned with a vengeance upon his return to Camelot.

As soon as Sean and Katie are actually forced to spend time together for more than brief moments, Katie realises that she's seriously misjudged her new working partner. This is nice, as it avoids a load of complications and unnecessary drama. The possible complicating factor of Judah is also very quickly dealt with - he's not a rival of any sort to Sean and in fact becomes an important friend and support for Katie.

Having made a number of poor decisions in her personal life, allowing herself to be used by her ex-husband until she was left stranded in Alaska without barely a penny to her name, despite the years she put in supporting him. She's always given everything of herself to help others, but is coming to realise that a person can be too giving and helpful and that it shouldn't come at the expense at your own health and happiness. She's so eager to reinvent herself and prove her worth to her brother and family. As the story progresses, she comes to accept that a lot of the qualities she thought were pure weaknesses and that she needed to change, can in fact be assets and that the image she had of what she needed to become might not be what will actually bring her happiness. She may not have what it takes to be a good security agent, but she has excellent interpersonal skills and a real gift for getting people to open up to her.

Sean is a really great hero. Self-conscious and awkward around Katie because of his stutter, he is also a very successful businessman who along with his best friend turned their teenage hacking hobby into a lucrative internet security business. Unfortunately, coinciding with his mother's death, the company is facing challenges and he's feeling the pressure to come up with something new and innovative to put his company back in the forefront, ahead of their competitors. He's worked hard to overcome his confidence problems and speech impediment. When he finally cracks and has no choice but to talk to Katie, he's surprised to discover that she seems completely unfazed by his stutter and once he starts relaxing around her, his stutter becomes much less of a problem, as well.

Once again, this book felt realistic and the characters were nice people to hang out with on the page. While it turns out Sean is really wealthy, this wasn't a "billionare and the secretary" type of story. Both Katie and Sean have a number of personal challenges that they need to work through in order to get their relationship to function properly, no matter how scorching their chemistry is when they finally let go and jump each other. The slow build of their relationship, coupled with the satisfying solution to the mystery of who is stalking and threatening Judah made this another fun and quick read. Based on the books I've now read by her, Knox is about one book away from becoming an auto-buy author for me.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

#CBR7 Book 49: "How to Misbehave" by Ruthie Knox

Page count: 96 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Having really enjoyed Along Came Trouble, I wanted to check out more of Ruthie Knox' Camelot series, and as they are extremely reasonably priced, I went out and bought the entire thing. This novella is a sort of prequel, showing how Amber, Caleb (the hero in Along Came Trouble)'s older sister met her husband Tony.

Amber Clark is your quintessential good girl, working as a program director at the Camelot Community Centre, spending quiet nights in the apartment in the complex her parents' manage. She never steps a foot out of line, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have fantasies. Quite a few of them involve the handsome building foreman who's been doing work around the Community Centre. When there's a tornado warning, Amber is forced to take shelter down in the basement with the hunky contractor, discovering that his name is Tony Mazzara, who's absolutely noticed Amber noticing him, so to speak.

Stuck in the dark basement with him for hours, Amber discover that Tony is terrified of the dark and they talk about everything under the sun to distract him from his panic. The unusual situation in the dark allows Amber to let go of some of her inhibitions and she's able to tease and flirt with Tony in a different way than she's managed with guys in the past. By the time the literal hurricane is over, the tension between Amber and Tony has reached quite a stormy pitch of its own. Is Amber as ready to flirt with Tony back in the light of day?

This constitutes a teeny tiny spoiler for Along Came Trouble, where Amber and Tony have three kids and a puppy, and have been married for the best end of a decade. So it wasn't exactly a surprise (like it ever is in a romance) that they find a way to relate to each other even when they're out of the storm shelter basement.

Even though this is a fairly short novella, Amber and Tony are nicely developed as characters, not just cardboard cutouts who meet and decide to have sex. They both have baggage in their back story which could create problems in a relationship, but because they're forced to spend hours talking on their first "date" together, they're able to get past a lot of awkwardness and move towards a more open and honest relationship later in the story. This was a nice little addition, showing me more of the Clark family dynamics and I be moving on to little sister Katie's story next.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 48: "Along Came Trouble" by Ruthie Knox

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! I was given a free copy of this through NetGalley in return for a fair and honest review.

Single mother and entertainment lawyer Ellen Callahan just wants to live a quiet life, which is not as easy after her twin brother, an international pop superstar, fell in love with and was photographed spending time with her pregnant next-door neighbour. Now she keeps having to throw paparazzi off her lawn, which is vexing, to be sure, but it's not like she needs a bodyguard.

Her brother disagrees, and Ellen finds security expert Caleb Clark on her doorstep, determined to do his job, whether Ellen likes it or not. The locks on her doors are flimsy, she hasn't got adequate lighting on her porch, her yard is completely open for anyone to wander in - it's a nightmare from a private security point of view. Ellen grew up in her famous' twin's shadow, always pushed to the side by their ambitious and fame-hungry mother. She then went on to nearly abnegate herself completely during her marriage to a narcissistic, cheating alcoholic, but finally had enough when she discovered she was pregnant and demanded a divorce. Having spent the last few years, raising her boy alone, learning to be self-sufficient and independent, she is not about to have anyone tell her how to run her life or fence her yard, not even someone as handsome and charming as Caleb.

Having spent years on deployment in Iraq, Caleb feels a heavy responsibility to take care of his family after such a long time away. His mother is over-protective and still clearly convinced he'll up and leave them at any second. His father, always vibrant and physical in the past, is recovering from a stroke and can no longer take as active a role in managing the apartment complex he owns. Caleb's younger sister Katie shares a house with him, having returned after nearly a decade in Alaska without her boyfriend and no apparent wish to talk about the subject. The security business he started on his return to Camelot is still in the early stages of development and a high profile client like Jamie Callahan is Caleb's chance to really make it a success. So he really needs to convince both Ellen and her neighbour, Carly, neither of whom seem interested in listening to him at all, that they need to adapt to change their behaviour and shield themselves from the sudden press attention, or he's going to be replaced real fast. The raging attraction he feels towards his client's sister is a complication he wasn't expecting at all, and it's causing quite a lot of complications when he really needs to keep his focus crystal clear.

I'm making a concerted effort to read a whole bunch of the books I've been granted through NetGalley in the past year or so, and it seems that every time I go digging and pick up one of the books, I am so very pleasantly surprised and regret not reading the book ages ago. This book is no exception - it's just such a delightful contemporary romance, between two head-strong individuals who nonetheless seem very realistic. Even though Caleb is determined to keep their relationship purely professional, as he's working for Ellen's brother, his resolve lasts for less than forty-eight hours after actually meeting Ellen, helped along by both his old friend Carly and his sister Katie. Ellen doesn't exactly have a lot of casual experience with men. but decides she wants a no strings attached fling with Caleb, the first guy she's really been interested in since her marriage ended. Caleb, who as well as being very attracted to Ellen, starts bonding with her little boy Henry the minute they meet, rather quickly realises that he wants something a lot more permanent with the stubborn and opinionated lawyer.

In addition to the main romance between Ellen and Caleb, there's the secondary plot involving her brother Jamie and Carly, who are already in the complication part of their romance when the book kicks off. Really interestingly, it seems Knox initially set out to write about a Justin Timberlake-alike pop star falling in love, but the secondary characters kept stealing the scenes, so she retooled the book to be about them instead. When the book starts, Jamie is off in LA, having fled Camelot after he and Carly was caught on camera by a paparazzi after a somewhat careless post made by Carly on her blog. A big argument later, and the two are separated. Carly has spent years trying to get pregnant, only to find that by the time she achieved her goal, her husband no longer really wanted her or the baby. Then, already pregnant and determined to be a single mum (inspired in part by Ellen next door), she met Jamie and they fell in love. It's clear that Jamie, while a nice guy, has never really met many challenges, having been spoiled and pampered by his fame-hungry mother, then living the life of a celebrity. He's never had to fight for anything at all in his life, and having to really work to win Carly back, is oh so good for him.

Both Ellen and Caleb are professionals who are very good at their jobs. They start out with very different expectations for their relationship. Ellen needs it to be very casual, because having been submissive to people for so much of her life, only to finally establish herself as a competent, independent and self-sufficient woman and mother after her divorce, she's afraid to rely on anyone else ever again, believing it will lead to her becoming subjugated and weak again. Caleb, having spent so long as a soldier in dangerous areas of the world, has none of Ellen's confidence issues. Returning to his home town and seeing how much his family members need his help now, he's got no problem with the idea of settling down himself, and getting a ready-made family in Ellen and Henry (who he insists calling Hank every chance he gets, because he loves how it annoys Ellen) would just be a bonus.

One of the things I really liked about the book is that both the primary and secondary heroine are single mothers, one who's already proven that she can manage to raise her child more or less on her own, with her friend determined to do the same, while both the heroes, Caleb and Jamie, seem to have absolutely no problems stepping into a fatherhood role for kids who are not their own biological offspring, without this in any way diminishing their masculinity in any way. Frankly, I found both of  them more attractive exactly because they were so willing to step up and take an active paternal role to children not originally their own.

This is only the second ever Ruthie Knox book I've ever read, but based on the way she writes really relatable and believable protagonists, as well as a fully formed cast of really nice supporting characters, I really should make it a priority to check out more of her books as soon as possible. I plan to glom my way through the entire Camelot series on my way to finishing my Cannonball.

Crossposted on my Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 47: "Against the Dark" by Carolyn Crane

Page count: 203 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Five years ago, Angel Ramirez gave up safe-cracking and stealing and swore to mend her ways, sick of hurting and using people. She's been working hard to stay on the straight and narrow, making a living as an interior decorator, trying to earn the forgiveness of her disappointed family members. When the woman Angel considers as close as a real aunt is kidnapped, and the ransom demanded is the hoard of diamonds belonging to notorious gangster Walter Borgola, Angel has no choice but to reunite with her girl gang for one last heist. With the amount of planning and research Angel and her friends put in, it should have been a quick and easy job, if it hadn't been for the presence of Cole Hawkins.

A highly trained operative in a secret intelligence organisation, having established himself over the course of months deep undercover in Borgola's crew, Cole Hawkins knows he is running out of time. He needs to figure out the location of Borgola's private safe and get his hands on some encrypted shipping documents, in order to save a boatload of teenagers on their way to sexual slavery and most likely grisly death in Borgola's torture porn and snuff films. Having slowly worked himself up in the ranks, he only has a matter of days left before the ship docks. When Borgola's diamonds are stolen from his bedroom safe, believed to be nearly impossible to crack, Cole sees an opportunity to finally reach his goal. He blackmails Angel. In return for her posing as his lover at Borgola's compound, aiding him in tracking down and breaking into the private safe, he won't turn her and her partners in to the authorities and in addition he'll make sure that Angel's aunt is rescued from her kidnappers.

Drawn to Cole, despite her disgust that he is blackmailing her (he can't tell her why he needs to break into Borgola's private safe, as that information is classified), Angel soon discovers that pretending to be his girlfriend won't require much faking, as the chemistry between them is sizzling. Of course, whether they have a future together as a real couple very much depends on whether they survive breaking into a ruthless sociopath's high security vaults and getting away without him catching them...

In November last year, I fairly quickly devoured Carolyn Crane's Disillusionists trilogy, after the first book was the monthly pick in Felicia Day's Vaginal Fantasy book club. So when I discovered the first three books in her new romantic suspense series, the Associates, in an e-book sale earlier this year, I figured they were worth checking out, and then, as far too often happens, I forgot all about them for a while. Then I read a blog discussion about this book over on All About Romance, where all three participants were highly complimentary, which spurred me to pick it up.

It's not a very long book, and the action takes place over a very short space of time. I tend to find insta-love stories a bit annoying, but in Cole and Angel's case it's more a case of insta-lust and as their personal chemistry is off the charts and they're thrown together under very tense and extraordinary circumstances, I can see why their feelings develop very quickly. I really liked both protagonists a lot, as well as the friends they had supporting them on either side. I'm assuming that some of the Associates mentioned are going to show up in future books, but I would also be happy to see Angel's friends show up as well. Her gang was pretty cool, although the nickname "White Jenny" for one of women got on my nerves.

Borgola is a truly skeevy and reprehensible villain and you understand why Cole is willing to risk his own safety and use every underhanded trick in the book to rescue the teenagers on their way to be exploited, abused and eventually probably murdered. Not really a brawny action type, more a highly trained nerd with an obsession for logistics, Cole was an intriguing action hero. I always find intelligence much more attractive than just muscles. If that intelligence is combined with deadly skill, so much the better.

Angel is a great heroine, honourable and loyal to a fault. Having come to regret her previous life of crime, she works so hard to prove she's reformed to her disapproving parents. While she clearly has a genuine gift for helping others design and decorate their dream homes, she doesn't really take any pleasure from her new life, clearly missing the adrenaline rush provided from her former safe-cracking escapades. Cole and his Associates may provide a way for her to combine her two different skill sets and open up for a more satisfying and challenging future for her.

As well as some truly nail-bitingly tense bits, there are also some very steamy sex scenes in this book, one memorable one which is just Cole suggesting to Amber what took place on their first date, when they're trying to rehearse their cover story about being lovers before going to dinner at Borgola's. Let's just say he paints quite the graphic word picture. My figurative stays most certainly needed loosening. Online reviews suggest that the sequels to this are even more enjoyable, so I'm looking forward to reading them in the coming months.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

#CBR7 Book 46: "Heaven's Queen" by Rachel Bach

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the third and final book in the Paradox series. It really won't make a whole lot of sense or be particularly satisfying if you haven't read the first two books in the trilogy. Start at the beginning with Fortune's Pawn. It's a really fun, action-packed series with great world building., so if you like space adventure, you are unlikely to regret it. It also goes without saying that there may be spoilers for the previous books in the series in this review. Proceed at your own risk if you're not caught up.

All Deviana "Devi" Morris wanted was to be a Devestator, one of the elite guards of the Paradoxian God King who she reveres and worships. Since signing on with Captain Caldwell on Fortune's Fool, she's nearly died countless times, she's had her memory wiped and restored, she's fallen in love and fought the man she fell for nearly to the death to retain her freedom and independence. She's infected with a mysterious and highly dangerous virus, hunted down by two powerful alien species. Several human organisations want to capture her, take her into custody and basically weaponize her. In addition, after a slightly botched jump out of hyperspace, Devi and her companion has been missing for eight months and most of the people close to her thought she died.

The possible future of the human race is hanging in the balance, and Devi needs to figure out a solution to eliminate the phantoms, free Maat and the daughters, preferably without being killed herself in the process. Yet Devi's never been afraid to go out fighting and if she has to die, which it's looking more and more likely she might, she's going to make sure it has a lasting impact.

While Honour's Knight was so action-packed it nearly exhausted me while reading it, Heaven's Queen has a slower opening third, with Devi and Rupert on the run, trying to keep Devi safe from all the various factions who want to get their hands on her. While there is some nice further character development in this section, it did nonetheless drag a bit, and because Bach has done such a great job fleshing out and establishing the supporting cast of the Paradox series, spending time with only Devi and Rupert got a bit boring after a while.

I needn't have worried, however, because the last two thirds of book pick up nicely again, while the story hurtles towards its action-packed and inevitable conclusion. We get more quality time with the crew on the Fortune's Fool, meet a few new characters and re-visit some previously established individuals. Some are interested in aiding Devi, others would rather just capture her and use her to further their own ends.

Over the course of the trilogy, Devi has gone from a fairly self-centred and purely career-oriented warrior, only concerned with advancement as fast possible. Through the dangers and adventures she's survived, she's had her horizons comprehensively widened, forced to re-evaluate her opinions and pre-conceptions time and time again. Some of the characteristics that could make her rather exasperating in the first book, have been polished and refined through her hardships and challenges  and now help her in choosing her final course of action, crazy and reckless as it may seem to others. Devi has so much agency in this book, and I cheered her along every step of the way, even as I worried what was going to happen to her in the end.

I really liked that for all that Rupert is a nearly indestructible fighter himself, he's realised that what Devi needs from him is just for him to watch her back, not to control or restrict her actions. I saw some complaints on Goodreads that he's been reduced to a boring wimp meekly trailing in Devi's wake in this book, I strongly disagree. Devi has proven time and time again that she's more than capable of taking care of herself, even though she may seem dangerously impulsive on occasion. Her risks pay off and it's one of the reasons she's become such a skilled warrior. The last thing she needs is a man who tries to make her decisions for her. While he's clearly not always very happy about the choices she makes, Rupert has learned the hard way that Devi needs to choose her own path, and if he wants to be with her, he needs to respect her choices - which he does.

Having discovered that Rachel Bach is actually a pseudonym for Rachel Aaron, who also writes historical fantasy novels, I can't wait to check out more of her writing. If her fantasy is half as fun as her science fiction adventures, I will be very happy indeed.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

#Readathon Spring 2015: End of event

Another year is over, and while I totally cracked and had to sleep for mearly seven hours there in the middle and my book total and page total is lower than it has been...possibly ever, I did at least get to spend a lot of the last 24 hours luxuriating in books, which is never a bad thing.

Here, as is traditional, is the end of event meme:
1) Which hour was the most daunting for you?
Hour thirteen, between 2 and 3 am, when I was fighting my tiredness and decided I had to go to bed.

2) Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year?
I can recommend pretty much any contemporary romance by Laura Florand, and I suspect the graphic novels I had lined up would have been good too. I've heard so many good things about them - Captain Marvel: Higher, Further, Faster, Ms. Marvel: No Normal and Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery.

I never have any suggestions for how this thing can be improved, so I'll skip that question.

4) What do you think worked really well in this year's Read-a-thon?
My cheerleaders, who tweeted me, were very nice and supportive. I liked beeing cheered on Twitter.

5) How many books did you read?
I ended up with a grand total of 2.

6) What were the names of the books you read?
All for You by Laura Florand
The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

7) Which book did you enjoy most?
All for You

8) Which book did you enjoy least?
I only read the two, and I wouldn't say I didn't enjoy both a whole lot. But The Royal We was longer and dragged a bit in the middle, for the mopey broken-up bits, so if someone forced me to choose between two very good books, I'd have to pick The Royal We as the one I enjoyed a bit less.

9) As always, my only advice for the cheerleaders is to keep up the good work

10) I will absolutely be Read-a-thoning again in October, and hope I'm more rested and able to go the distance as a Reader then.

Approximate minutes spent reading: 705
Total pages read: 744

#Readathon Spring 2015: I'm back (Hour 22)

Had a nice long sleep and woke up to keep reading. Have fed my cat (he's extremely unimpressed with the lack of attention I've been lavishing on him, eaten a bit and apart from that just read, read, read. At this rate, I'll be stuck with this book until the bitter end. I am liking it, but the middle bit absolutely sags a bit more than the start.

Currently reading: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
Pages read since last update: 50
Pages read in total: 5270
Books completed: About a book and two thirds
Snacks consumed: Cinnamon bun
Mini-challenges: None

#Readathon Spring 2015: Going to bed for a while

It shames me to admit that not only am I reading slower than I have in the past, I am also getting tired way sooner than expected. I am going to have to go to bed for a bit (it IS currently past 3 am here) and get up in the morning to do more reading for the last few hours of the Read-a-thon.

Currently reading: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan (It's a loong book, people)
Pages read since last update: 77
Pages read in total: 520
Books completed: About a book and a half
Snacks consumed: Coke Zero, but I'm still falling asleep. Water
Mini-challenges: In a hundred years

#Readathon Spring 2015: Mid-Event Survey

1) What are you reading right now?

I'm about 35% through The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

2) How many books have you read so far?

I've completed one.

3) What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon?
I'm looking forward to reading Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel, and hopefully I'll have time for Rat Queens, vol 1

4) Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those?

I had to go and sort out dinner, but was actually able to read for quite a lot of the time I was gone. I didn't read much during the hour when I had my dinner, either.

5) What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon so far?

I appear to be reading more slowly than in previous years. I used to be able to do about 80 pages an hour, now I'm done to about one page a minute. Maybe it's because I'm getting older?

Total pages read so far: 443

Saturday, 25 April 2015

#Readathon Spring 2015: Hour ten

Didn't get too much reading done in the last hour, as I had dinner with the husband instead and we watched a Simpsons episode. But I did get some done, and I'm really enjoying this book. I normally become obsessed with books within books, usually ending up wanting to read them more than the actual book I'm reading. Well, in this book, I'm now obsessed with the fictional paranormal soap opera Devour, which the heroine Bex bonds with the crown prince of England bond over. It sounds absolutely amazing, like The Vampire Diaries, crossed with True Blood with a healthy dose of Passions and I want it to be a real thing in the WORST way.

Currently reading: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
Pages read since last update: 43
Pages read in total: 352
Books completed: 1
Snacks consumed: Delicious quiche with caramelized onions, sweet potato mash. A fair amount of Coke Zero
Mini-challenges: Treasure Hunt

#Readathon Spring 2015: Treasure Hunt Mini Challenge

So, I figured I should actually do some of the mini-challenges, and the Treasure Hunt seemed like a fun one.

The task was to find books with three different items on them. Having a large book collection, I was determined to find the covers among my own collection. As all three are e-book, I wasn't able to take actual photographs, but they are all books I paid money to own.

Item 1: A tree

Item 2: Snow

Item 3: A weapon

#Readathon Spring 2015: Hour eight - time flies

Seven hours, during which my trusty spreadsheet tells me that I've been reading for about four and a half. Not bad going. I've started my second book, which already has me chuckling frequently. Oh, Fug Girls, while my inner republican can't really stand royalty, having gone to St. Andrews while Kate and Will was there, and seeing the news coverage of their romance, makes this book extra amusing to me.

I think it's getting to be about time for dinner. Good thing I have pie waiting for me.

Currently reading: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
Pages read in the last hour: 55
Pages read in total: 309
Books completed: 1
Snacks consumed: Nothing in the last hour or so, have been too busy reading
Mini-challenges: Still none. I should probably do some while having my dinner.

#Readathon Spring 2015: Hour five

I'm back! And because no one talks to me on public transport, I quite possibly got more reading done in the last two hours than I would have done at home, with the husband constantly shouting through from the bedroom, reading me something he's found on the internet. It's quite distracting, is all I'm saying.

Pies collected. Also got myself some amazing macarons, and a tiny dark chocolate ganache because this book makes bad things happen to my will power. Generally, the food hall is such a dangerous place to go when you're hungry. I also had a steamed bun with slow roasted pork and hoisin, garnished with pickled onions and coriander. So tasty!

Currently reading: Still on All for You by Laura Florand
Pages read since last update: 74
Pages read in total: 156
Books completed: A bit more than half a one
Snacks consumed: Aforementioned chocolate ganache, some free cheese samples, nummy pork bun, some Coke
Mini-challenges: None, I've been out and about fetching pies

#Readathon Spring 2015: Hour three

Annoyingly, the husband is way too ill for me to send him off to the pie shop to get dinner. So I'm going to have to go instead. Just look at that lemon merengue pie. I need one (also, the Groupon we have runs out in less than a week, really do need to use it). Luckily, I have an e-reader, so will be able to read a lot along the way.

It will also give me a chance to buy proper French maracons, or some form of delectable fancy chocolate. This Laura Florand book has me craving gourmet chocolate in the worst way. It's also absolutely delightful, and I'm enjoying it so much.

Currently reading: All for You by Laura Florand
Pages read in the last hour: 48
Pages read in total: 34
Books completed: About a quarter of one.
Snacks consumed: Scrambled eggs with salsa, glass bottle of full fat Coke
Mini-challenges: Opening meme.

#Readathon Spring 2015: Hour the first

It's already ten minutes into the first hour and I haven't read a page. Because I was busy making myself scrambled eggs with spring onions and salsa. Can't do all that reading on an empty stomach.

Here, as always, is the opening meme:
1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?

Oslo, Norway. The weather is grey, bitter and quite foul, so it feels extra rewarding to spend much of the day inside, reading.

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?
That's actually going to be hard to choose from. I have the new Laura Florand to begin with, All for You. I'm also planning on reading The Royal We by Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks, better known as the Fug Girls. I think it may be time to finally read The Martian, by Andy Weir, but I'm terrified that I'll be the first person I know, in real life or on the internet, who doesn't love it. I also have a big pile of comic books lined up that I've been saving. I'm looking forward to ALL of my reading, basically.

3) What snack are you most looking forward to?
Probably dinner, which we're having from an awesome local pie place called Hello Good Pie. They make absolutely amazing dinner and dessert pies.

4) Tell us a little bit about yourself!

I'm a 35 year old secondary school teacher. I adore reading. I'm currently putting off the correcting and grading of about a 120 student essays, just so I can read for much of 24 hours. It feels great.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what's one thing you'll do different today?

It feels like for the last few read-a-thons, I've always managed to get myself saddled on babysitting duties for my nephews, which has heavily cut into my reading time. This year, I have no other responsibilites, except taking care of my husband, who's bedridden with a bad cold.

I'm also going to cheer on online friends who are also participating. 

Sunday, 19 April 2015

#CBR7 Book 45: "Hold Me Closer: the Tiny Cooper story" by David Levithan

Page count: 208 pages
Rating: 4 stars

About a month ago, I read the excellent Will Grayson, Will Grayson and through its pages got to know not only the two Wills, but the incomparable Tiny Cooper, who (if I made such a list, and I may have to now) would end up high on my top 10 greatest characters finds of the year. Tiny Cooper, best friend extraordinaire to one of the Will Graysons, and briefly boyfriend to the other, is an absolute delight, and his attempts to write, direct, choreograph and star in the musical based on his own life, was probably my absolute favourite thing of a book I loved.

So when I discovered that there would be a companion novel, featuring the entire script to Tiny's musical, I was very excited. Suffice to say, I blazed through the book in hardly no time at all, because this really is a very quick, but also very entertaining read. It contains the script, complete with lyrics to all the songs, with comprehensive stage directions and suggestions from Tiny on how characters should be dressed, and what the mood of a scene is intended as. While Tiny was a scene-stealing supporting character in Will Grayson, Will Grayson, here he is naturally front and centre.

Tiny Cooper is just so unapologetically comfortable in his own skin, to the point where he wanted to make a musical version of his own life and present it to the world. Having lived a deeply privileged life in a part of the world where none of my gay friends have ever had any problems with feeling forced to stay closeted, bullying or discrimination, I don't even want to pretend that I understand what being a gay teenager is like. I am, and always have been, as straight as they come. But I am pretty sure that Tiny Cooper must be a great role model for any teen, gay or straight and this book is a great example of being confident and proud of who you are, and focuses on how important it is to be loved and accepted by your friends and family no matter what age you are or where you come from. I'm glad I got to experience Tiny's musical in full, not just in the snippets we were given in the original book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 44: "Four Nights with the Duke" by Eloisa James

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Emilia "Mia" Carrington's father created a scandal by openly romancing the Duchess of Pindar, while her husband was locked up in an insane asylum. Her father's affair brought Mia frequently into the company of the Duchess' son, Evander Septimus Brody, who young Mia developed a crush on. One fateful afternoon, having overheard Evander and some of his school friends ridiculing a foolish love poem Mia had written, she furiously declared that she would rather marry any man in the world before she chose him - words that would come back to haunt her.

Thirteen years later, Mia desperately needs a husband, because while she is unwed, she can never be granted guardianship of her young nephew, whose maternal uncle she deeply distrusts. Jilted by her fiancee at the altar, she only has a few weeks left to find someone, and resorts to blackmail to achieve her goal. While she may have sworn to marry anyone in the world rather than Evander Brody, now the Duke of Pindar, she has in her possession documents that accuse his late father of treason, which could lead to him being stripped of his title and most of his lands. She fully intends for their marriage to be in name only, all the needs is a powerful man to act as her husband until her nephew is safe, then she intends to take him far away, to the Continent, where they can live off the money she earns as a successful romance novelist.

Evander always hated his mother's affair with Lord Carrington, and Miss Mia Carrington is an unwelcome reminder of their shared past. From the prim, unfashionable way she dresses, he assumes she's become a missionary and seeks him out to collect donations of some variety. He's flabbergasted when he finds himself blackmailed, but doesn't really see a way out of his predicament, except by agreeing to her terms. Because Mia doesn't tell him the real reason she needs a husband, Evander thinks she's just become some crazy stalker, nursing her infatuation for him since she was a girl. He reluctantly agrees to marry her, but claims he will only sleep with her four nights every year.

When the couple actually find themselves married, Mia is shocked to discover Evander, though reluctant to go through with it in the first place, has no intention of seeking an annulment - he considers the union to be for life. Once he meets Mia's crippled nephew, the two get on like a house on fire, and he starts to realise that he may have misjudged his new bride and her intentions somewhat. He's vastly amused at her attempts to persuade him about their unsuitability and soon becomes determined to win her heart, for real this time.

While Three Weeks with Lady X was one of my favourite romances last year, this book just didn't entirely win me over. There was a lot to like about it, like the heroine being a successful romance novelist who has actually made a decent living from her writing. I also liked that each chapter started with notes or drafts from the novel that Mia is working on, a truly melodramatic tale of woe and dastardliness, or correspondence between her and her publisher. I especially liked the names of some of the other romance authors, clearly Ms. James' homage to her colleagues and friends, Julia Quinn and Lisa Kleypas. I loved Evander's interactions with Charles Wallace, Mia's nephew, (who despite James' efforts to the contrary remains a bit of a plot moppet) in particular the mocking nicknames he makes up to ensure that the boy will be prepared for the cruelty of his future school mates. I liked that Evander seemed to be a fairly decent and responsible aristocrat, trying to maintain his fortunes by horse breeding. He doesn't want to lose the title because he takes his position seriously.There was a lot that I liked about Mia and Evander, but also quite a lot that annoyed me about this book.

Mia's completely baffling body image issues really got on my nerves. I like that Eloisa James tries to make sure her heroines aren't just the same cookie cutter template, but she could have given Mia a bit more confidence. Just because one mean boy once called her chubby when she was a teenager, does not explain why thirteen years later she still disbelieves everyone's assurances that she's not hideous, even though she's shorter than the beauty ideal at the time. Though she's described by several others as a pocket Venus, she insists on thinking she's some sort of dumpy hag and dresses appallingly.

The frequent call-backs to the one scene where Mia's poem is read and ridiculed by Thorn, Evander and some mouth-breathing bully Evander went to Eton with got repetitive too. Clearly that poem was burned into the memory of everyone involved, because it keeps being brought up and discussed at length during pretty much every confrontation Mia and Evander have and I just got so sick of the whole thing.

The villain of this book turned out to be a bit too melodramatically dastardly. I found the sudden reappearance of Mia's fiancee (having escaped false imprisonment in a high security prison in Scotland in order to get back to Mia) interesting, though, and am looking forward to seeing him as the hero of the next James book. This was not one of her best efforts, but I'm hoping a hero with a prison break past will make the next book more entertaining.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 43: "It Started with a Scandal" by Julie Anne Long

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Miss Elise Fountain used to be a teacher at the school for wayward girls in Pennyroyal Green, but was fired after she spoke inappropriately to one of the patrons. Now she's managed to get a recommendation from the powerful Redmond family and is desperate to secure a position as housekeeper to the formidable Lord Philippe Lavay, an exiled Bourbon prince recovering from a near-fatal robbery in the village. He gives her a two week trial, expecting she will be gone before one has passed.

Elise, who was estranged from her parents when she foolishly got pregnant, hides her six year old son in the attic and sets out to get the prince's household in order. The remaining servants seem to range from the lazy to the downright sinister, but a combination of threats and flattery, Elise soon have most of them doing exactly what she wants them to. Soon the house is actually habitable and comfortable again, and she sets out to discover why Lord Lavay is acting more like a lion with a thorn in his paw than an honourable gentleman. Discovering the extent to his injuries, she's compelled to help him heal and with every passing day, the housekeeper and the nobleman grow closer and closer.

Janine, one of the reviewers for Dear Author, had this marked down as a DNF (Did Not Finish). She had a long list of reasons why she just couldn't enjoy the book, and I can see her point, even though I did enjoy this quite a bit. So many of the Pennyroyal Green books require a huge amount of suspension of disbelief, and there is absolutely all sorts of anachronisms in them. There are many questions about the plot that should bother me - how did Elise, with a child out of wedlock, get a teaching position at a school for wayward girls? How did she secure a recommendation from a family she's never worked for? How is she, the daughter of a gentleman, who has previously only worked as a teacher, quite such a naturally gifted housekeeper? Why do none of the servants, who all start out wanting Elise removed from her position, tell their employer that Elise has a bastard child? How is it that Lord Lavay, an exiled French aristocrat, has no misgivings about Elise's character, even after he discovers that Elise's illegitimate son is living under his roof?

And you know what - I'm not all that bothered. Julie Anne Long writes wonderful smoulder and always has great interactions between her romantic protagonists. Is it in any way plausible that an exiled French prince trying to recapture his fortunes gives up all his dreams for the future because of his infatuation with a disgraced single mother? Probably not. But I don't really read romance for the realism, but for the entertainment and escapism it offers me. So if the things I've mentioned will bother you, you'd be better off skipping this one. If you just want a diverting read that takes your mind off other things for a few hours, you could do worse. Of course, you could read one of Long's really great novels instead, like What I Did for a Duke. I won't judge.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 42: "Honor's Knight" by Rachel Bach

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is the second book in the Paradox series, which begins with Fortune's Pawn. While I'm sure you could start with this one, there is really rather a lot of set-up and introduction of characters in the first one that makes this one easier to enjoy, so you really should start at the beginning. It's also impossible for me to review this book without spoiling some of the stuff from the first book, so go away until you're caught up.

Deviana Morris is deeply confused. She knows there was a battle onboard Fortune's Fool, the ship she works on, as she can see the signs of damage all around her. Her fellow security guard, Cotter, died in the attack where something caused Devi to lose her a whole load of her memories. She can find no record of the attack in any of the security recordings on board or in the feed or backup feed from her power armour. Now the sole security onboard, she's determined to do her job to the best of her abilities, but strange things keep happening that distract her. When she gets angry, she sees black smudges on her hands. She can't seem to remember the name of the ship's cook, and every time she looks directly at him, she's hit with revulsion so strong she nearly throws up. She has a very strange dream where Ren, Captain Caldswell's creepy and mysterious little girl takes her to a warehouse where she sees herself, pleading with the cook, declaring her love, only to be shot in the head. She sees strange glowing bugs that no one else appears able to see.

As the danger keeps mounting, Devi's memory are returned to her, and with them, the staggering betrayal that led to them being wiped. When she finally remembers Rupert again, she also remember that he invaded her mind and took her memories, without even asking her, and that's not something that's easy, if at all possible, for a girl to forgive. She discovers more about the Eyes and who Ren actually is. The truth about the lengths the Eyes will go to to defeat the phantoms is terrifying and Devi is not at all sure she wants to help them, no matter how important their quest to save the universe is. She discovers what the black stuff infecting her is and needs to ascertain exactly who she can trust and whether she's ready to sacrifice herself and everything she's ever dreamed of to help save the universe.

Fortune's Pawn was the Vaginal Fantasy book club pick for March, and since I'd already read that, I decided to read the sequel instead. The first book really does all the heavy lifting with regards to world-building and introducing you to the characters, establishing relationships and getting you interested. By the end of the book, if you're anything like me, you think Devi is great and while you're devastated that a lot of her memories are being taken from her, to save her life, you are also convinced she'll restore them and go on kicking the asses of all the people who did her wrong. Of course she does, but it does take a while. Because it had been nearly a year since I read the first book, I shared Devi's confusion of what had happened towards the climax of the first book (I was on vacation, and did not have the first book available on my Reader to allow myself to quickly refresh my memory, either). In some ways, I think that added to my enjoyment.

From pretty much the time when Devi's memories (and then some) are restored to her, the book doesn't slow down. Because most of what you need to enjoy this world has been set up in the first book, Bach can pretty much amp up the action massively and keeps throwing Devi into increasingly more dangerous and action-packed situations. The black stuff on Devi's hands is a virus, which is deadly to the phantoms, but quite likely also to Devi herself. Both the Eyes and those have gone rogue from the Eyes want to use Devi as a weapon, and she's not intending to be used. She's none too happy about Caldwell trying to have her killed and her former feelings of love towards Rupert are now naturally tainted with betrayal, distrust and anger, while she's still fighting her attraction to him. Not that it stops her from fighting him like a demon when he's tasked with trying to capture her.

Devi's such a wonderful heroine, who is forced to constantly reevaluate everything she thought she knew over the course of this book. The action pretty much took my breath away several times. Over the course of the story, it becomes clear just how much is at stake and what sort of threats the universe is facing. There are no good solutions and while the Eyes are clearly willing to kill, manipulate and exploit to reach their ends, it's difficult not to sympathise, considering what they are trying to stop. Devi, being stubbornly independent and refusing to go down without a fight, keeps trying to find a better way through things, though, and it's going to be very interesting indeed to see how she's going to manage to save the universe (because I have no doubt she will) without compromising her moral principles.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 41: "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A simple, effective way to banish clutter forever" by Marie Kondô

Page count: 256 pages
Rating: 4 stars

A while back, I read a fascinating interview, where Jamie Lee Curtis interviewed fellow actress Sigourney Weaver. In between all the other very interesting things they talk about, they mention this book. I was curious, looked it up on Amazon, and because being tidy is not something I think I've ever managed to be in my entire life, the description and purpose of the book appealed to me.

Marie Kondô has clearly turned the art of discarding all your pointless possessions and finding the right place for your remaining ones her life's purpose. She teaches people about her KonMari method in seminars, and writes very compellingly about it in this book. In order for people to be tidy, they need to reduce the amount of stuff they have. People who are untidy and whose lives are full of clutter, have far too much stuff and need to discard most of it, in order to be tidy. Ms Kondô writes about what order you should start sorting through your possessions, and the only criterion she gives for you to keep something is "Does it spark joy?" You have to gather all your items of the same kind (clothes, books, dvds etc) in one place and touch each and every one. If the item sparks joy, that is what you keep. Everything else goes, with very few exceptions.

She claims that once you have managed to discard all of your unnecessary possessions and let go of the ones that don't actually make you happy, it will fall pretty naturally where you want to keep the remaining items that you have. She advises that you keep all the same type of items in one place, and says that this helps you get a good idea of what you have at all times, to avoid new clutter building up. She promises that if you actually follow her method for discarding and tidying, you will never back-slide into becoming an untidy person.

I'm not going to go so far as to say that I'm a hoarder, because having seen cases of ACTUAL hoarding, I'm nowhere near that stage. But I do find a tremendous comfort in owning things. Books, films, handbags, kitchen equipment, beautiful notebooks that I hardly ever write anything in, pens - these are items I probably have way too many of. Especially considering I literally can't remember the last time I actually watched most of my dvds. There are more than a hundred books on my shelves that I haven't read (and that's not even counting all the e-books - they don't cause clutter, as they are stored on my hard drive). There is not a surface in our flat that isn't full of stuff. Our tiny Oslo flat is terribly cluttered, something my father never fails to give me grief about, even when we actually do tidy as best we can every time he's due to come over. We simply have far too many things to keep the place properly tidy.

The husband and I are in the process of looking for a new place to live, and before we do, I have every intention of following Ms. Kondô's advice for de-cluttering our lives. We need to do a major sort-through of our possessions, and we need to do it before we actually move anywhere, because I suspect by that point, we'll be too stressed to go through our stuff without being too stressed and emotional. If this method actually works, I intend to write an extremely glowing review and post it on Amazon - because it will mean this book has succeeded where everything else has failed. I'm already mentally preparing myself for the discard phase, getting myself used to the idea that I don't need to surround myself with physical objects I never use to be happy. The book was a fascinating read, I just hope I can follow the advice given and finally become a tidier person.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

#CBR7 Books 39-40: "Whisper of Jasmine" and "City of Jasmine" by Deanna Raybourn

Total page count: 421 pages
Rating: 4 stars

In the novella Whisper of Jasmine, dashing explorer and archaeologist Gabriel Starke meets quiet dreamer Evangeline Merriweather at a New Year's party thrown by their socialite friend Delilah Drummond. While Delilah most certainly intended to matchmake at the party, she had picked out completely different partners for both of them. Instead, Gabriel and Evie are instantly smitten with each other, and over the course of an evening, fall hard enough for each other that they decide to elope to Scotland. There are quite a few things that Gabriel isn't at liberty to tell Evie, however.

Five years later, after the first World War has ended, Evie is a celebrated aviatrix, flying across the seven seas of antiquity with her elderly aunt as a companion. Her marriage to Gabriel only lasted a few months, most of them turbulent and fraught. Evie had just declared that she wanted a divorce when Gabriel was lost, believed drowned when the ocean liner Lusitania went down.Then Evie receives an anonymous letter, featuring a clearly current photograph of Gabriel, at an archaeological dig in the desert outside Damascus. She won't find peace until she discovers what happened to her husband and why he faked his death.

Gabriel had very good reasons to drive his wife away and fake his death. He also has good reasons to attend an archaeological dig in disguise, and sent Evie the photograph well aware that she wouldn't be able to stay away. He needs her help to get a priceless relic out of the country. He also hopes that he may be able to set the record straight about their relationship, but barely dares to hope he'll have a chance to earn Evie's forgiveness or a second chance at happiness with her.

City of Jasmine and its prequel novella were written before Night of a Thousand Stars, which I read first, but the books are absolutely connected. For new readers, I would recommend reading this one first, as there are some spoilers for this book in Night of a Thousand Stars when Gabriel appears in a cameo. He and Sebastian were part of the same shadowy government organisation during the war and his secret government responsibilities were the reason Gabriel shouldn't have married Evie in the first place and had to try his best to drive her away by acting like a complete bastard, before faking his own death. Five years later, his loyalty to merry old England and the Vespiary has pretty much evaporated. He wants to reconcile with his wife and tell her the truth (although of course he doesn't actually do that - that would have been far too sensible and made this a very different book).

Like the other 1920s set Raybourn book, this novel also features adventures in the desert, ancient archaeological treasure hunts, dastardly villains, brave Bedouin warriors, a taciturn and manly hero, a brave and unconventional heroine. There are great supporting characters, like Evie's eccentric aunt Dove and her mechanic, Wally, who also happens to be the heir to the Viscount Walters, hiding his homosexuality by flirting with Evie every chance he gets. This book also goes on my growing list of romances where the heroine has shot the hero at some point over the course of the story (I've come to find that it's a great story trope, as all the books on the list are books I'm very fond of). I still liked Poppy and Sebastian's book more, probably because they are falling in love for the first time, while Gabriel and Evie have a history, and there is so much pain, hurt, deception and miscommunication here before they can actually be honest with one another and face the future together. These books are so much fun, though, and I'm determined to also read the last of Raybourn's 1920s set novels, as well as very much looking forward to her new book, once again featuring a Victorian heroine, coming out in September.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 38: "Night of a Thousand Stars" by Deanna Raybourn

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Penelope "Poppy" Hammond flees her high society wedding with the aid of a charming curate calling himself Sebastian Cantrip and persuades him to drive her to the little village in Devon where her estranged father lives. Poppy's mother, wealthy American stepfather and a large amount of the wedding guests, including Poppy's jilted fiancee follow, up in arms about the scandal she's caused. Poppy's mind is not to be changed, however, she knows she and Gerald are a poor match and that life as a future Viscountess is going to bore her socks off.

Poppy's father, the eccentric painter Plum March, allows her to stay with him in his cottage until she makes up her mind about what she wants for her future. After about a month of cooling her heels and pondering her future, Poppy ventures back into London to thank the kind Mr. Cantrip, and discovers that he has disappeared without a trace. She's worried he is in danger, and determines to find him and aid him. Accompanied by her formidable ladies' maid, Masterman, Poppy is able to secure a position as secretary to an old colonel travelling to Damascus, where she's pretty sure Sebastian has gone. Once they get there, it is clear that Sebastian (whose name isn't Cantrip at all) is absolutely involved in some dangerous activities, and before Poppy knows it, she's fleeing ruthless, hunting an ancient treasure in the desert and feeling more alive than she ever dreamed.

Night of a Thousand Stars is set in the 1920s and is very loosely connected to Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia Grey books. Poppy is the daughter of Eglamour "Plum" March, one of Julia's brothers (who appears as a supporting character in at least one of her novels. As a long time reader of those books, I found it a very amusing conceit that the Victorian mysteries actually appear here as Lady Julia's journals, which Poppy read over the course of the novel. It was fun to discover a little bit about what happens to Julia and Brisbane after the end of their own series, and delightful to see what the new generations of Marches are getting up to.

Poppy, who fairly early on in the novel, starts using her father's name again, never really fit into the mould her proper and ambitious mother wanted to shape her into. While she's fond of her American stepfather and her half-siblings, she's always felt like the odd one out and once she reunites with her father, he doesn't seem the slightest bit surprised, as the Marches never do what society expects them to. He encourages rather than tries to dampen her eccentricities and fully supports her need to find adventure. When she discovers that the dashing Sebastian has disappeared on an unspecified journey to the Holy Land in a hurry, she is convinced he must be in trouble. She gains passage on a ship, accompanying the charming old Colonel Archainbaud as his secretary, fending off the advances of his handsome valet, Hugh Talbot, during the journey. In Damascus, she also attracts the attention of a French comte, without being very impressed with either man.

It's not surprising that several men in the story find Poppy so attractive, although it also becomes clear that some of them are trying to charm her due to more nefarious reasons. She's brave, resourceful, rather stubborn at times and very loyal to her friends. While she only met Sebastian briefly, he did help her out of a very awkward situation and even allowed himself to be punched by her fiancee. She's convinced he is in danger, and wants to help him, even though it's unclear exactly what, except perhaps her wits, she would use in such a rescue operation. Despite several warnings in Damascus that she may be in danger, she doggedly refuses to leave, and when she's finally united with Sebastian again, he is almost unrecognisable as the quiet English curate, disguised as a native Bedouin warrior. She discovers that Sebastian was involved in espionage during the war, spent some time in a Turkish prison and certainly didn't need an impulsive young society woman to rescue him from anything.

The two of them flee murder charges, trying to locate a treasure hoard in the desert before the murderous villains who framed them find it. Disguised as Sebastian's wife, Poppy is intrigued by how different he is from the man she'd first imagined. Even though all evidence points to the contrary, Poppy keeps underestimating Sebastian, thinking he's just as in over his head as she is. It isn't until the very end of their eventful desert adventure that she discovers just how wrong she's been, and discovers the truth not just about him, but about how she came to be on the journey in the first place.

This book was an utter delight to read, and in many ways reminded me of some of my favourite Agatha Christie novels, where there is always a romantic subplot as well as the murder mystery. Books like The Man in the Brown Suit, Why Didn't They Ask Evans? and They Came to Baghdad. Also the early Amelia Peabody mysteries by Elizabeth Peters, like Crocodile on the Sandbank. While the romance is slow burning, I'm not spoiling anything when I reveal that Poppy and Sebastian are clearly made for each other. They have tremendous banter all the way through the book and there is a very good reason why Sebastian refuses to act on his attraction to Poppy. The romance has a very satisfying ending eventually, but I am deducting half a star, as I would have loved some more action between Poppy and Sebastian over the course of the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

#CBR7 Book 37: "Twelfth Night" by Deanna Raybourn

Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! I was granted a copy of this through NetGalley in return for a fair and honest review. 

This is one of the novellas Deanna Raybourn wrote about her intrepid heroine Lady Julia Grey, who the reader can follow in five very enjoyable Victorian set mysteries, where she solves murders along with her delightful husband Nicholas Brisbane. While this novella can absolutely be read on its own, you shouldn't deny yourself the pleasure of starting at the beginning, with Silent in the Grave.

The large and very eccentric March family are all gathered at the family estate, Bellmont Abbey to perform the Twelfth Night revels. This is something they do every ten years and Lady Julia's father is directing the rehearsals like a general in the field. Lady Julia and Brisbane are somewhat distracted by the mystery of who abandoned a newborn infant in the helmet they were intending for St. George. Julia's father, the earl, asks them to locate the child's mother (although they mustn't miss rehearsals while they investigate).

As the younger generation of Marches present seem just as peculiar and unusual as Lady Julia and many of her siblings, Julia and Brisbane are aided by their some of their nieces and nephews. The clues seem to suggest the baby may have originated in an abandoned and rumoured to be haunted cottage at the edge of the village. The couple are surprised when they discover who is seeking refuge inside.

It's been several years since I read The Dark Enquiry, the fifth and final full novel about Lady Julia and Brisbane. I had actually forgotten about Ms. Raybourn's books for a while, and was delighted to discover that not only had she published four e-novellas continuing the story about one of my favourite Victorian sleuthing couples, but some of her more recent novels are at least loosely connected to the Lady Julia mysteries, with one of them being about one of her nieces. This is a fairly short novella, but it reminded me how funny these books can be and what an amazing supporting cast the many colourful March siblings make up. I am absolutely going to be reading the remaining three novellas as well, the final of which I suspect sets up the ground work for the more recent books, set in the early 20th Century.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 36: "Tarnished Knight" by Bec McMaster

Page count: 162 pages
Rating: 3 stars

This novella is part of Bec McMaster's London Steampunk series. Some of the back story and world building for the story can be found in my review for Kiss of Steel, the first book in the series.

When former factory worker turned East End enforcer John "Rip" Doolan was nearly killed by a vampire attack, the only way to save his life was for his employer Blade to infect him with the craving virus (a sort of vampire light option). After six months, he is still struggling to control his blood lust. The last thing he wants to do is endanger his Esme, Blade's housekeeper, who previous to the vicious attack was his dearest friend.

Esme's heart nearly broke when John was almost killed, and she'd love for nothing more than to be his thrall, i.e his real live blood donor. While those infected with the craving virus can drink bottled blood or chilled blood from storage, they obviously prefer it straight from the vein, and the thralls get a near sexual thrill from the exchange. Esme, a widow who had become very close to John (she's the only person not to call him Rip) before his near-fatal attack, was hoping for a future with him and doesn't see why him suddenly having the craving virus should stop that.

John, of course, is pigheadedly protective and determined to keep his distance and the two keep having tense and unproductive encounters in between mostly avoiding one another until their employer, Blade, steps in and provides some Yuletide manipulation for the good of all.

There is also an action subplot involving a criminal gang called the Slashers, who kidnap women and children and drain them of blood, selling it to the Echelon, the vampiric nobility. As one of Blade's chief lieutenants, John is trying to track the Slashers down and Esme, of course, gets kidnapped as retaliation. Can John save his beloved before it's too late?

Reading this novella reminded me just how much fun the world Bec McMaster has created is. Both Esme and John were supporting characters in Kiss of Steel. You don't need to have read the first book in the series to understand the plot, but you'll have a greater understanding of the intricate world-building. It's a nice little romance, where the annoying misunderstandings of John avoiding Esme to protect her and both of them constantly saying the wrong thing or misinterpreting the words of the other may go on for a bit longer than I would have liked (I tend to find any romance where the problems could be solved just by the characters daring to speak honestly to each other), it's not a big flaw. Having now revisited McMaster's alternative Steampunk London, I will most assuredly return there later this reading year.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 6 April 2015

#CBR7 Book 35: "Daddy Long-Legs" by Jean Webster

Page count: 249 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Jerusha "Judy" Abbott is a Canadian orphan, who at 17 is still living in the orphanage, mainly because they are using her as free help. She is frequently told that she needs to keep her strong opinions and overactive imagination to herself, or nothing will come of her. She dreams of becoming a famous author and when a wealthy benefactor of the orphanage offers to send her to college on a scholarship, she is closer to achieving said dream. She doesn't know who he is, having only seen his shadow as he left the matron's office, but she knows that he is tall, and his shadow resembled a daddy long-legs. Hence, when she is told that she needs to write letters to her benefactor detailing her progress, she addresses each one to "Dear Daddy Long-Legs".

Having never had a family of her own, Judy (as she reinvents herself at college. Who can blame her for wanting to be rid of the name Jerusha?) starts imagining that Daddy Long-Legs all the relatives she's been missing. Going to college and receiving an education, Judy thrives. She loves learning, she loves improving her writing and making new friends. She never gets any replies to her letters, but the occasional gift (sometimes quite extravagant) proves that her anonymous rich benefactor reads her missives and doesn't want her to feel left out among the other girls at the college. Very occasionally, Judy will get written instructions through her benefactor's secretary, who among other things, helps find her places to spend her summers, while the other girls go home to their families.

As she grows older and her education is coming to an end, Judy becomes more and more curious about the identity of "Daddy Long-Legs" and tries to use her prodigious imagination to figure out who he might be.

I picked up this book both because Dear Mr. Knightley, which I really liked, was inspired by it (which meant that I wasn't really surprised by any of the major story beats, as they are pretty much the same) and because Forever YoungAdult and the Book Smugglers, both review sites I trust and often agree with, rated it 5 stars and called it a must-read classic. Written in 1912, I'm sure this is a beloved book to many, but whether it's because I'd just read modern book with a very similar plot, or whether I just found some aspects of the book a bit disturbing, it just didn't entirely work for me.

While Judy is rather delightful, smart, opinionated and a bit too prone to speaking (or writing) her mind before she thinks about what she's actually saying, there was something very off-putting to me about her addressing most of her letters to "Dear Daddy". Especially as based on the reviews I'd seen, I knew that there was a romantic subplot, and it was clear that she was actually going to fall in love with her benefactor, without knowing who he really was. When "Daddy" starts dictating where she spend her free time, obviously to prevent her from spending more time with her college friend's brother, it left a bad taste in my mouth. The reviewer on Forever YoungAdult points out that Judy frequently disregards the attempts at manipulations from her benefactor, and once she wins a scholarship due to her writing skill, she insists on being allowed to start paying back the money she's been given so far, not wanting to be in debt for any longer than necessary.

I don't think it was just because of just having read Dear Mr. Knightley that I figured out quickly who "Daddy Long-Legs" was. While the character seems perfectly pleasant, and has very socialist leanings for a rich person of the time, I just couldn't get over the inappropriate way he keeps trying to direct Judy's life. Judy herself, as I have already mentioned, is great. She, like the precocious orphan girl ever, Ms Anne Shirley is the reason I liked the book as much as I did. It's really not going to be a book I revisit though, and the hero, if he can be called that, did little but skeeve me out.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

#CBR7 Book 34: "Dear Mr. Knightley" by Katherine Reay

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! I got this from NetGalley in return for a fair and honest review. 

Samantha Moore has spent most of her life in foster care. Having tried to hold down a job on her own, she reluctantly accepts a scholarship offered by an anonymous benefactor, to Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The scholarship will only be available as long as she completes her degree, and writes about her progress to the foundation, care of the CEO, who hides behind the name Mr. Knightley. Samantha has always had trouble relating to people in the real world, hiding away in classical literature, where she finds solace. She has trouble making connections with others, since she speaks more in literary quotations than actual words, afraid to really be herself or let anyone close to the real her.

Because George Knightley is such an admired hero of Sam's, she accepts the stipulation, and begins to write regularly. Mr. Knightley never responds, but Sam knows her missives are beign read, as very occasionally, she receives a note from the CEO's assistant, responding if it is required. To begin with, Sam finds journalism extremely difficult, wanting instead to focus on a career in creative writing. Because of her difficulties in opening up and properly communicating with other people, her journalistic work is stilted and impersonal. As well as in her many books, Sam finds escape through running. On the running track, she slowly starts bonding with Kyle, one of the other foster kids, but as they are both wounded and slow to trust others, their friendship is difficult to really build.

As she struggles to discover who she really is and overcome her academic challenges, Sam gradually manages to emerge from behind her affected literary personas and make genuine connections. She makes a couple of female friends at college and through a series of coincidences befriends her favourite author, the crime writer Alex Powell. She gets a boyfriend for the first time, and her letters to Mr. Knightley become more like a personal journal than reports on her academic progress. Will she ever find out the real identity of her mysterious benefactor, and how will she react when she does?

I get a fair amount of books through NetGalley, mainly because I can't stop myself from requesting everything that looks even vaguely interesting to me. Sadly, I am really not as good about reviewing the books I am granted ARCs or review copies of, frequently forgetting about them unless they're by an author I especially love (and even then there are so many other shiny books out there to distract me). This is one of those books I forgot about completely and only remembered again when I was looking for epistolary novels for my Eclectic Reader challenge. The fact that it also fit into my key word challenge for March was just a bonus.

While I can see on Goodreads that quite a lot of people (at least of the reviews I browsed) found this book disappointing, and a pale copy of the children's book that it's inspired by, Daddy Long-Legs, I found it very sweet and it reminded me a lot of another book I really like, The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. It also features a heroine with a long history in the foster care system, who is wounded and needs to learn to find her place in the world. I can absolutely understand why readers may find Sam annoying. I'm fairly sure she's supposed to be. The entire premise of this book is that she is so guarded and distrustful that she's unable to make any real connections, seeking refuge in books and hiding all her true feelings and ineptly channelling fictional characters when forced to talk to others. She's a complete train wreck, but there are good reasons for that. While the book starts when she is 23, this book is clearly a coming of age narrative, and Sam needs to grow up and learn to face reality, both the painful and the joyful parts.

As far as I can tell, the epistolary aspect of the book, where she has to write letters to the mysterious Mr. Knightley is to make it as close to the premise of Daddy Long-Legs as possible. I'm sure I'm not the only reader of the book who started suspecting the true identity of her benefactor fairly early on, because really, I'm not even sure if it's supposed to come as a surprise to anyone who's read more than a couple of books in their life. There are only so many people it could be. It didn't take away from my enjoyment of the book, although I think said person could have come clean sooner instead of continuing to deceive Sam. It still didn't ruin my suspension of disbelief.

Reading and enjoying this book has also made me decide to check out the book that it's based on, and that so many Goodreaders are enthusing about. I'm very glad I re-discovered this book in my NetGalley pile, and will happily seek out other books by this author in future.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 33: "The Winner's Crime" by Marie Rutkoski

Page count: 417 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! I was granted an ARC of this book through NetGalley in return for a fair and objective review. The book is available now. 

This review will contain some spoilers for The Winner's Curse. I will try to be vague, but it's pretty much impossible to review this without mentioning some of the important stuff that happened in the second half of the first book. You have been warned. 

You still here? On your own head be it. Kestrel is now firmly settled in the capital, trying to put off her wedding to the crown prince of Valoria, without making it too obvious to the emperor that that is what she's doing. She desperately wants to see Arin, now the governor of the newly liberated Herran territory, but she's also not sure she can trust him and whatever happens, she needs the emperor to think her completely indifferent to her erstwhile captor. So when he arrives in the capital for her engagement celebration, she skilfully lies to him, again and again, all the while risking her own life to help the Herrani spymaster gather information against Valoria.

Every time Arin thinks he's been able to figure out Kestrel's words and actions, something happens to convince him otherwise. After he is nearly assassinated in the capital, he travels to the furthest reaches of the Valorian empire in search of allies for Herran. He endures all manner of dangers to keep his country safe, not realising that Kestrel is risking her life for the very same things, playing a very dangerous game of strategy against the emperor himself.

Anyone who was complaining about Kestrel's lack of awareness and empathy for the slaves of the Valorian empire, should be happy that in this book she is trying her very best to atone for all the unfairness she and her countrymen have inflicted on the territories they occupy. She knows she is surrounded by spies and informants and that the emperor is watching her every move, scrutinising her every statement in order to catch her in a lie or action sympathetic to the Herrani rebels. She needs to appear overjoyed at her betrothal to the crown prince, Verex, who himself is none to pleased with their coming alliance. The emperor clearly deems his son weak and disappointing and sees the marriage between his favourite general's daughter and his son as a great way to win the affections of his armies, while grooming Kestrel into a more satisfactory heir.

The romance between Arin and Kestrel is more in the background as the intrigues and intricacies of court life come to the forefront. If they could just talk openly with one another about their fears and feelings, so many misunderstandings and complications would be dispersed with, but of course, Kestrel can't be honest with Arin. She doesn't know if she can trust him, and she needs to drive him far away from her to keep him from being used as a weapon against her. For much of the book, she successfully pulls the wool over Arin's eyes. When he has figured out the truth, and confronts her with it, he chooses the worst possible moment. She has to lash out to protect herself, and manages to drive him away once more. He doesn't realise that his actions have doomed her completely.

The book ends on a very exciting cliff hanger, leaving Kestrel in very real peril and Arin apparently determined to forget about her forever. I will be very disappointed if they are not reunited in the third book, although I hope Kestrel manages to rescue herself, having shown such (sometimes foolish) bravery and ingenuity in these previous two books. Sadly, The Winner's Kiss (a promising title that seems to suggest a satisfying ending to their star-crossed romance) isn't out until March 2016, so I have a bit of a wait ahead.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.