Friday, 26 May 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

#CBR9 Book 51: "Charlie All Night" by Jennifer Crusie

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Alice "Allie" McGuffey is the best radio producer WBBB in Tuttle, Ohio has ever had and it's pretty much the unspoken truth that she's the reason the radio station runs as well as it does. She loves her job and thrives on it, so when the radio station's current Drivetime star, Mark King, who up until two months ago was her lover, tells her that she's been moved to a different time slot, and from now on, he'll be using Lisa, her former intern as his producer, Allie is not happy. It's not like Bill Bonner, the radio station's owner would be fool enough to fire her (the place would go under), but she's been relegated to the 10pm-2am slot, previously occupied by a conspiracy nut who ended his career at the station two weeks earlier by shooting up the console. Angry and hurt, she walks into the local bar, determined to pick up someone, anyone who can make her forget about Mark.

Allie is not going to be broken. She has a plan. First she's going to find someone to sleep with, who will make her forget about Mark King once and for all. Then she's going to make her new DJ so famous that the station owner will beg her forgiveness and give her any choice producing gig she wants. Of course, the man she sits down next to and propositions is none other than Charlie Tenniel, the station's new DJ. Except, unbeknownst to anyone but Bill Bonner and his wife, Charlie has no radio experience whatsoever. He's there as a favour to Mr. Bonner because Charlie's father and Bill are old friends, and there have been some threatening letters sent to WBBB. Charlie is just going to pose as a DJ (borrowing the reputation of Ten Tenniel, his drug-dealing DJ brother) while he investigates the threats. He's unlikely to stay in Tuttle for more than about six weeks, and therefore isn't exactly looking to make an impression.

Yet Allie is so charming and determined, and after being invited to dinner with her and her gay roommate Joe, Charlie goes against his better judgement and agrees to stay on their sofa. And when Allie later at night asks him to seduce her, he initially tries to refuse, but when she persists, he doesn't resist for long. She also tells him about her plan to make him a big name in Tuttle, something he adamantly refuses to agree to. Nevertheless, despite his continued attempts to make bad and boring radio broadcasts, he keeps getting more and more listeners, and despite promising himself he's not going to stay on the sofa and not keep ending up in Allie's bed every night, the two continue their trysts. That is, until they inadvertently reveal their fledgling relationship on air, and make a public bet to stay celibate, both determined to prove that their gender is better at going without sex. They will need to spend their days keeping their hands off each other and their nights sleeping apart.

Of course, getting to know one another better, without allowing sex into the equation builds up the tension between them to an unbearable degree and makes them aware of how compatible they are on all sorts of other levels too. But Charlie was never meant to stay in Tuttle for too long, what will Allie do when and if he actually leaves?

This is yet another romance I got in an e-book sale absolutely ages ago and never got round to reading. Jennifer Crusie tends to write really enjoyable and fast-paced contemporaries, and I have yet to come across one I didn't enjoy. For someone who's struggling with involuntary infertility, it's nice to read books where there is no pregnancy epilogues, and in several of her books, the heroines aren't interested in ever having children. Her heroine are always smart and capable, and frequently not in the first blush of youth. Allie is 36, and actually two years older than Charlie, the hero. She's extremely good at her job, but not to an unbelievable degree and it's clear that she's had to make sacrifices along the way and that her best friend and roommate, Joe, is actually worried about how much of her self-worth and identity is tied up in her job at the radio station. She's clearly never had a particularly satisfying romantic or sexual relationship, and seems more upset about losing her job as Mark King's producer than by the fact that he dumped her two months' earlier. A little bit too career driven, she needs some distractions.

We're never given a clear back story for Charlie, except that he's not really one for settling down and seems never to stay in one place for too long. I don't think he's actually a detective, even though he's sent to Tuttle to help investigate a suspected threat, and it seems as if his nomadic lifestyle is quite a frustration to his parents. Strangely, his brother seems to be much more of a black sheep, having been arrested for drug-dealing and quite possibly also left a pregnant wife behind when he fled to whereabouts unknown. Quick to adapt and very charming, Charlie becomes a popular and proficient DJ, even though he tries his very best to remain unnoticed. He feels very protective of Allie and keeps doing his best to make Mark jealous, since the guy never appreciated her when he had her.

As is also the case with a lot of Crusie novels, there is a dog as part of the plot, in this case a tiny runt of a puppy, near death, who has to be hand-reared back to health by various radio station employees. While Charlie initially believes the puppy, Samson, to be a goner, he sees how invested Allie is in making it eat and survive and through the determined efforts of most of the various night time DJs and hourly feedings over several weeks, the puppy pulls through and becomes something of a mascot for Charlie and the radio station.

Crusie says in her introduction of the book that she wanted to see what a relationship that started with a one night stand and later became less physical might look like and in this book she basically has lovers to friends to lovers once more and manages it excellently. This is a really quick read, with a great main couple and a lot of fun and quirky supporting characters. I'm so glad I finally read it and really should do my best to chase down the rest of the books I have left unread in Crusie's back catalogue.

Judging a book by its cover: This book has a pretty cute and fairly simple cover. Two sets of lower legs and feet, belonging to people who are clearly snuggling up together. I'm going to assume that they're on some sort of giant blanket on the floor, because no bed I've ever seen has that much room at the foot of the bed once two grown humans are lying down on it. I'd say that perhaps they were half sitting, but the angle of the legs is all wrong for that. Still, as romance covers go, not bad at all.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 50: "Then Came You" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This book has such a magnificently all over the place, crazy-sauce plot that it will be absolutely impossible for me to properly show my appreciation for the book without spoiling quite a lot of it. If you don't want to know details - keep an eye out further down.

Miss Wilhelmina "Lily" Lawson, also known in much of London as "Lawless Lily" is estranged from her family, but has been able to live independently due to a large inheritance from an eccentric aunt. When she's not shocking society with her wild antics, she's known to keep company with notorious gambling hell owner Derek Craven, and the most popular rumour is that she is his mistress. When Lily is visited by an old family friend, Zachary, Lord Stamford, she discovers that her gentle younger sister Penelope is engaged to marry the haughty Alex, Lord Wolverton, the Earl of Raiford. As Zachary is madly in love with Penelope, he begs Lily's help in stopping the marriage.

Lily tries to get an impression of what Raiford is like, and is first introduced to him during a hunt. What she doesn't realise is that Raiford's former fiancee, Caroline Whit-more, died two years ago in a riding accident, and Raiford therefore gets freaked out when women insist on participating in hunts. After Lily falls off her horse, she finds herself cradled in his arms and thoroughly scolded, and she pretty much concludes that he's a madman, who won't be marrying any sister of hers.

Lily shows up at Raiford House, where the wedding is being planned, ostensibly to grovel and be let back into her parents' good graces. She does whatever she can to sabotage the wedding plans. She pretends that Zachary is her suitor, in the hopes of making Penelope jealous and it seems to be working. While her parents appear taken in by her contrite and remorseful behaviour, Raiford isn't fooled for one second. It's not that he loves Penelope, in fact, after losing his beloved fiancee, he selected a kind and biddable young virgin specifically because she was the opposite of his headstrong former love, but he won't have his affairs meddled with, and certainly not by someone as scandalous as Lily Lawson.

As Lily's plans progress, Raiford becomes more and more frustrated, not least because he realises that the sister he truly wants certainly isn't Penelope. Once Lily ups the ante and starts to fight dirty, Raiford is forced to admit that his stellar reputation and pedigree isn't going to help him one bit. What's more, beating "Lawless Lily" at her own game might be one of the most fun things he's done in years.

I got this book years and years ago in an e-book sale and then promptly forgot about it. Since I've been trying to be better about reading things I actually OWN, my current comfort reading needs had me looking through my shelves for romance, and some previously untried Kleypas seemed to fit the bill. I had absolutely no idea what was waiting for me in this book. I had to resort to taking notes as I read, just to be able to remember everything afterwards. While there was some stuff that made me rather uncomfortable, most of it certainly kept me both entertained and surprised, and despite having finished the book nearly three weeks ago, I still keep thinking about it, so I can't possibly rate it lower than four stars. Before I basically reveal the whole plot further down, I can say that I highly recommend the book and Lily and Alex are now among my favourite Kleypas couples.



Ok, if you're still here, there is nothing I can do. First of all, I want to address the things that really didn't work for me. First of all, Lily is apparently a very petite and delicate woman, but keeps being compared to a doll or a child. That is NOT ok when you're actually talking about a grown woman, the heroine in a romance novel, who in the latter part of the book especially, engages in quite a lot of steamy love scenes. Just a selection of phrases that really squicked me out. "You're so beautiful. Beautiful like a perfect little doll". "He lifted her like a toy" and "She fell asleep with the suddenness of a tired child". Oh, and just before her wedding, Lily looks in the mirror and thinks she looks like a 15-year-old. Urgh. These are just a few examples that I noted down AFTER I actually began taking notes because it was disturbing me so much. Grown women, no matter how petite, should not be infantilized, but Kleypas keeps doing it throughout.

Another scene that really did not work well for me, and that I suspect may not have appeared in a historical romance written now (this one originally came out in 1993) is the scene where after Lily has lured Alex to London, after pretty much abducting his younger brother and closest living relative, she knocks him out with a bottle and ties him to her bed. Once he is incapacitated and tied firmly to her bed, she proceeds to pretty much lie on top of him and make sexual advances at him, while he is helpless to resist. Just imagine if the roles were reversed in that scene. It would not be quirky or flirtatious, it would just be deeply inappropriate and borderline rapey.

Despite those things, this book is a lot of fun, and absolutely bonkers. There's our heroine, who seems to be accepted in much of polite society (possibly because all the men hope to make her their mistress). She has a (unbeknownst to petty much everyone) platonic friendship with a famous gambling house owner, one of the richest men in London. In the very first chapter, she throws her hat in the water during a boating party, and when none of the guys are willing to jump in the water to retrieve it, she does so herself.

She was jilted at the altar at twenty, and this clearly affected her deeply. She lived abroad for many years with an eccentric aunt, whose fortune she inherited. Her one sexual encounter with a creepy Italian nobleman put her off sex entirely and also led to her getting pregnant. Her tiny plot moppet, Nicole, has been kidnapped by the nefarious baby daddy, who is now blackmailing her, which is why she needs to gamble so much - her fortune is more or less gone. She's determined to break up her younger sister's betrothal to Raiford, so said sister can elope and marry Lord Stamford instead. In order to make this happen, Lily tempts Henry, Raiford's brother to come to London with her and deposits him at Craven's club. She then proceeds with the knocking unconscious and tying to a bed plot.

To get revenge, Alex shows up at Craven's and bets 15000 pounds for one night with her. She loses (of course she does) and our hero consequently wins the right to bed her in a card game. While Lily tries to get out of it, Craven insists that they "seal the deal", in his bedroom no less. It turns out that Lily doesn't hate sex, it was just that she had an abysmal first experience, and when she's in bed with an actually skilled and considerate lover, she enjoys it just fine. Not that she wants anything to do with Alex once their one night is over. He totally has other plans, however. During a masquerade at Craven's, where Lily is more or less half-naked, dressed as Eve, trying desperately to win enough money to pay off her blackmailer again, Alex shows up as Lucifer and ends up tossing Lily over his shoulder and carrying her off, causing a much bigger scandal than Lily ever managed on her own.

She believes he wants her as his mistress, he proposes marriage instead, and gives her the money she needs to pay off her blackmailer once more (he believes she's paying off a gambling debt). While Lily is off in the seedy part of London meeting with the creep who stole her virtue and her child, she also ends up buying a decrepit old bear to save it from a fighting pit. She's about to be attacked and sexually assaulted by some thugs, but her husband shows up and shows remarkable brawling skills for a nobleman.

Having kept her deep dark secret from everyone for two years, Lily finally tearfully confesses to her husband about her missing illegitimate daughter, but only after he's caught her IN the arms of her blackmailer at a society party. I want it noted that I kept wanting to shake her for most of the book for not coming clean sooner. Raiford, of course, has all sorts of useful connections, and within a few days of Lily telling her husband the truth, they have helped the authorities uncover a large child snatching ring in the the slums and reunited Lily with her child. All is bliss, and to top it all off, there is the near-obligatory pregnancy epilogue.

Seriously, the plot is all over the place, but I came to enjoy the central romance enough that I didn't even care about the constant reminders that Lily was delicate and slender and so dainty or that she pretty much commits sexual assault as well as kidnapping and the like. I could have done without the melodramatic plot moppet abduction, and Lily's TSTL attitude towards blackmail (of course he's not going to stop when you keep handing over thousands of pounds every so often in the desperate hopes that you may get your child back), but Lily and Alex's progression from antagonists to really very passionate lovers (the smexy times in this book are really quite something).

Kleypas gives us enough back story throughout the book to make us understand exactly how both Lily and Alex ended up becoming the people they are at the start of the book, and it's obvious that they are both so very good for one another. Alex needs to stop grieving for his lost fiancee and loosen up A LOT and Lily frustrates and challenges him in a way he really needs. Lily has had no one to rely on since her aunt died and her daughter was kidnapped years ago and is so very used to rescuing and taking care of others, without ever allowing anyone to see her weaknesses or letting herself be cared for.

The truly remarkable thing about Alex is that once he admits that he's absolutely crazy about Lily, he doesn't hide the fact. It's rare in romance for the hero to make his declaration of love first, and once Alex has embraced his feelings for Lily, he really does love her exactly the way she is. He doesn't really try to change or control her, he just wants to make sure that she doesn't rush headlong into danger, and he accepts the fact that she may never love him back. When he first proposes his absolutely outrageous bet at Craven's, he believes her to be Craven's mistress, yet wants her nonetheless. Once he discovers that she is in fact not only inexperienced, but had an awful first time, he does his best to be as considerate and caring a lover as any woman could hope for.

As I said, for all that there were bits of the book that rubbed me the wrong way, I also couldn't put the book down and my thoughts keep coming back to it and the lovely relationship that Alex and Lily build during the second half of the novel. Having also recently re-read the next book in the series, Dreaming of You, I ended up enjoying this book more overall and I was not expecting that.

Judging a book by its cover: Yet another romance cover with a not very period appropriate dress, with skirts that go on forever. Even with the yards and yards of skirt in the forefront of the cover, we still see most of the cover model's legs. That seems to require special effort. Since the lady on the cover is sitting down, it's difficult to ascertain if she's as petite as Lily is supposed to be (although maybe that's why her dress is too long, her modiste just forced her into a gown made for someone much bigger?) Yeah, let's go with that. At least her hair colour is correct, even though this lady appears to have her hair in an updo, and Lily's is cut fairly short.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

#CBR9 Book 49: "Burn for Me" by Ilona Andrews (re-read)

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

This book originally came out back in 2014, but was re-released earlier this year, after the two planned sequels took longer to produce than planned. The second book in the trilogy will now be out at the end of May, while the third and final book comes out in July. I'm giddy with anticipation and have already pre-ordered the sequels. My first review of the book can be found here.

Spoiler warning! This review will mainly deal with my thoughts of re-reading it, and where I hope the authors will take the series in upcoming books. So if you haven't read the book yet, get to your online book store of choice and get it NOW, as the book is currently on sale prior to the release of the sequel. My musings will absolutely feature some minor plot spoilers.

I really liked this book, but I know that for several other readers, Connor "Mad" Rogan and his domineering, alpha-hole behaviour in this book was a deal-breaker. My friend Erica was absolutely appalled by his complete disregard for Nevada's wishes in a scene about mid-way through where Rogan clearly pushes the boundaries of Nevada's consent and doesn't seem all that bothered by it, because she's clearly attracted to him, where's the harm? She found him dislikable enough that it just broke the book for her, and as far as I'm aware, it's one of her lowest-rated Andrews' books. She has no intention of reading the rest of the series, because she doesn't care to see Rogan redeemed as a hero.

While I absolutely see her point and agree that Rogan in this book is no where near the hero he needs to be, I've also probably read too many romances with alpha-hole heroes and frankly, when Ilona Andrews writes them, I find even the evil guys attractive. I'm giddy as a school girl about the fact that they're writing a book about Hugh de Ambray, the absolute psychopath who tried to kill Curran and steal Kate away from him in the Kate Daniels series. If they're writing a romantic trilogy with Rogan as the hero, I also have complete faith that while he starts out somewhat problematic, there will be a redemptive arc, and he will prove himself worthy of Nevada, who is already a wonderful and extremely likable heroine from the beginning. She spends most of this book fighting her attraction to Rogan because she knows it would be a terrible idea on so many levels to get involved with him, and she's right. The man he is in this book is absolutely not the right one for her.

The kindly authors recently posted two scenes from the book from Rogan's POV (almost the entire book is seen through Nevada's eyes) and it confirmed my initial theory that Rogan really isn't as bad as he wants the world to believe him to be. The first scene (when Rogan abducts Nevada from the park) can be found here, and the second (when he questions her at his house with magic) is here. No one with an internal monologue like that is a complete psychopath.

But the man I suspect the extremely talented Andrews couple will mould him into - now that's a different story. Just as it is really quite obvious that Nevada is a Prime in whatever strange and rare truth-telling magic she possesses (Rogan hints at having figured it out when Nevada rants about the arrogance of Primes in this book), so at least magically, she's perfectly suited to being a mate for someone as powerful and influential as him, it's also natural that Rogan has a lot of changing and evolving to do. From this book, it's obvious that the magically powerful families breed extremely selectively and care more for power and influence than about inter-personal relationships. So it's no surprise that Rogan has never really cared for anyone and since all his magical powers seem destructive on a terrifying scale, that's going to warp him a bit.

Since he's decided he wants Nevada, and she's strong and determined enough not to give into him, he will have to change to become worthy of her. I have absolutely no doubts that he will become a better person, although I suppose it's unlikely to think that he will beg forgiveness for the rather callous way he treated Nevada for much of this book. A girl can hope, though.

As soon as I finished re-reading the book, I read what little is available in previews for the sequel, White Hot, out on the 30th of May. I'm not saying I'm going to count the days, but the book has been pre-ordered for months, and I don't care how much work I may have left to do, I am completely clearing my schedule to make sure I can focus only on the book when it comes out. The only good thing with having to wait so long for the sequels is that now I get two new Ilona Andrews books before the summer is over, rather than just the one.

Judging a book by its cover: I hadn't started commenting on book covers when I first read this book, but oh man, is there a lot to take apart here. Ilona Andrews, amazing and talented fantasy writers whose work I adore and will buy and try to foist on anyone I meet who shows the slightest bit of interest, really have not been blessed by the cover design gods. With the exception of their self-published Innkeeper Chronicles books, where they get to commission their own artwork, all their books have varying degrees of bad covers. But none are as bad as the ones the Avon publicity team have managed to scrounge up for the Hidden Legacy trilogy. All three covers, in all their lurid glory, can be found on the authors' website. Three different female models, with varying degrees of blonde hair. Two different male models. Sooo much tackiness.

Seriously, there is so much wrong with the cover for Burn for Me. The way the blond lady, who's probably supposed to be Nevada is wearing what appears to be a shoulderless, sparkly evening gown. The way she is clinging like a limpet to the man she spends most of the book trying to keep away from her. The pouting pretty-boy model doing his best "Blue Steel" they've got to portray Rogan. You can tell that he's ex-military because of the dog tags. And while Adam Pierce, the man they are chasing for much of the book seems to have some sort of allergy to shirts, Rogan seems to spend most of the book clothed. The rubble and buildings coming apart in the background have plot relevance, I'll give them that. Also, while this is a bad cover, the one for the sequel is SO much worse. I'm going to have to save up all month to do it justice.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 48: "A Lady's Code of Misconduct" by Meredith Duran

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Jane Mason is an heiress, but her money is being slowly embezzled by her unscrupulous relatives to further her uncle's unscrupulous political career and she's being kept far away in the country, to make sure she can't meet anyone who might marry her. Her aunt and uncle plan to marry her off to her cousin, and eventually, Jane reluctantly agrees on the condition that she get a season in London first. She hopes to meet another suitable man she can convince to elope with her, offering him a share of her father's vast fortune as long as she is free of her relatives.

The only man not closely related to she's had much contact with during her near captivity in the country is Crispin Burke, another ruthless and self-serving politician, who nonetheless seems to be the only one to recognise that Jane isn't the meek and biddable young maiden she has pretended to be for years. He suggests that he may be able to help her procure a special licence, where she'd only have to enter the name of the groom to get herself a legally binding marriage certificate, but first he wants her to spy on her uncle for him.

When Jane discovers that her relatives want to move up her marriage to her spineless and cruel cousin, time is running out for her. She also overhears the news that Crispin Burke has been attacked and is unlikely to survive the week. He will therefore never be able to contradict her when she runs to his family and pretends to be his wife. Only, through some medical miracle (and to further the plot), Crispin survives and wakes from his coma, with amnesia. He doesn't remember the last five years, and when he is told by his family that Jane is his wife, he obviously believes them. Jane needs to stay "married" to him until her father's solicitors release her inheritance into her control, but lives in terror that Crispin regain his memory and discover the truth.

The weeks pass, however, and Crispin is still weak and disorientated because of his head injuries. He discovers that his "wife" is intelligent and well-informed on the issues he's been working on in parliament, and comes to rely on her completely to help him navigate both his private and professional life. Jane discovers that the post-injury Crispin is a very different from the cold, calculating man he was before, and can finally be herself, needed, valued and praised for her abilities, rather than having to swallow her pride and anger to avoid the abuse of her relatives. She knows that she is living a lie and that she will need to leave Crispin before he discovers the truth, but can't bring herself to leave or help herself from falling for her "husband".

With the notable exception of one book, I tend to really enjoy Meredith Duran's books. Her protagonists always tend to be rather flawed, and frequently often more morally complex than the characters you meet in other romances. There is usually a fair amount of angst involved before the couple gets their happy ending, but it feels all the more satisfying when you get to the end of the story.

Jane's father was involved in politics, but also made his fortune through excellent business sense and by taking good care of his workers and constituents. His brother, Jane's uncle, stepped into his political seat when he got ill and continued to hold it after Jane's father's death. Incensed that he didn't inherit much after his brother, thinking himself entitled to more after he gave his brother part of the initial investment he turned into his substantial fortune, he decides to get control of the fortune by keeping Jane away from society until she gives in and marries his son. Jane's parents were both progressive and believed in education for women. When she was sent to live with her aunt and uncle, Jane quickly learned not to speak her mind, or she would be badly beaten. She instead spends the next few years perfecting the persona of someone meek, bland and rather stupid, only concerned with her embroidery, while she plots for her escape.

Isolated on her uncle's estate in the country, the only unmarried man except her cousin that Jane ever meets is Crispin Burke, a young, handsome, but utterly ruthless politician, who will stop at nothing to to achieve his goal of becoming prime minister of Britain. When Crispin discovers Jane at an inn in the nearest village, where she was planning to meet an elderly groom she'd bribed to elope with her, he more or less blackmails her to spy for him, in return for him taking her back to her uncle's before anyone discovers she is missing. Realising that her life will be even worse if her uncle ever discovers the truth, Jane has no choice to agree, but once she's in London, she turns the tables on Burke and blackmails him right back, to get the special license she needs.

As she discovers once they are "married", Burke wasn't always a black-hearted villain and his family are appalled by his actions over the last few years. As he's trying to piece together his life over the years he's forgotten, he really doesn't like the person he's become, and he relies on Jane to help him undo some of the cruel and unscrupulous things he's been working on, beginning to work against his own proposed bill in parliament. Jane doesn't feel that she can lie about their feelings for one another, and claims their marriage took place shortly before his injury, and that it was one of convenience. She claims her fortune could help him further his career, a claim that is backed up by the many smug congratulations he receives from his former cronies, not to mention the enraged reaction of his former partner in crime, Jane's uncle.

The romance is a slow-burning one and Jane is more anguished by her actions the longer she stays in her sham marriages. Initially she fears what Crispin will do when he remembers because she fears he will report her to the authorities or force her back to her relatives, and as she begins to fall for him, she hates lying to him and fears that the truth will pain him.

Amnesia storylines, as everyone knows, are really rather silly, but there are so many ridiculous plot twists to make romances work that I didn't really care. Duran actually does spend quite a bit of time giving the reader enough back story into Crispin's past and family situation to see how he gradually became the really rather horrible individual we meet at the start of the book, so it's not as incredibly implausible that he's a completely different man afterwards.

Towards the last third of the book, I suspect Duran is trying to set up the plot of a book to come, when the story suddenly isn't so much about Jane and Crispin, or them trying to work together to undo some of the worst excesses of Burke's ruthlessness pre-injury, but starts being about a dark conspiracy, abducted noblemen and an implausibly evil villain who's behind all of it. She introduces the name of another man who I can only imagine will be the tortured and long-suffering hero of an upcoming book, but the whole thing felt a bit tacked onto the main story of this book. I did like what Crispin reveals to Jane once he finally admits he's had his memory back for some time, and confesses his love for her and they have the chance to have a proper future together, with all their dark secrets out in the open.

Check out my blog or Goodreads to find my reviews of Meredith Duran's previous novels. The only one I would strongly advise readers to stay entirely away from is At Your Pleasure, which is one of my least favourite romances of all time.

Judging a book by its cover: The designers of historical romance covers very rarely bother to check what era the book is set in, they just want a lady in a dress. This is really about as generic as romance covers get. In this case, a book set firmly in the Victorian era features a dress clearly from the Regency, which has one of those never-ending skirts that only romance heroines on covers wear. All I can say is, at least the back of her dress isn't half unlaced, displaying a sad lack of undergarments, which seemed to be so popular a while back.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 47: "White Witch, Black Curse" by Kim Harrison

Page count: 558 pages
Audio book length: 18hrs 31mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is book seven in an ongoing series. Not the place to start. The review will also contain spoilers for earlier books in the series. Begin with Dead Witch Walking, if you're interested.

For someone who was really rather sceptical to anything but earth magic, considering even layline magic a bit suspect at the beginning of this series, independent runner (think supernatural private detective/bounty hunter) Rachel Morgan has sure come a long way. Now she's not only a fairly adept layline witch, but her blood (thanks to a rare genetic abnormality) can kindle demon magic and because of this, she's got a standing appointment every Saturday as an apprentice to an actual demon. Having once shuddered at the mere thought of demon magic, she's now willing to use all manner of spells, so long as no one gets hurt in the process.

In this book, Rachel and her roommate Ivy finally have some new leads on the individual who killed Kisten Phelps, Rachel's ex-boyfriend and Ivy's best friend (excepting Rachel). They are determined to track down the guilty party and get their revenge. In addition, thanks to the FIB psychologist, who can sense emotions, the residents of the little church discover that they have a ghost, and Rachel figures out who's been haunting them for more than a year. Not Kisten, but Gordian Pierce, a witch who Rachel temporarily summoned when she was 18, and helped get revenge on a child predator vampire. He was buried in their backyard, and has been stuck in the church since he was dislodged from his resting place after an altercation Rachel had with Al the demon. Rachel discovers she can see Pierce when they're both in the layline in her backyard, but Al comes and snatches the disembodied ghost with him to the Ever After, to use as his familiar. Rachel is livid, and decides that she's going to try to recreate the spell from when she was 18, to summon Pierce back and show Al once and for all that she is not to be messed with.

The ladies (and their pixie associate Jenks) have other serious business matters to attend to as well, after discovering that their friend, FIB Detective Glenn, the son of FIB Captain Edden, has been hospitalised after a brutal attack. Further investigation into the case reveals that the guilty party is a banshee and her husband. Banshees are pretty much the most dangerous supernatural Inderlander, because they syphon off people's life force to stay alive. Mia, the banshee in question, has a baby that she is willing to go to any lengths to protect, ad the supernatural branch of law enforcement, the IS, will do nothing to stop her. To complicate matters further, Ivy has a former connection to the lethal creature, and suspects that one of her actions is what enabled Mia to marry and have a child in the first place. Both Rachel and Ivy are determined to bring the deadly couple down, but Rachel quickly discovers that a toddler banshee is even more dangerous than an adult one.

Trying to avenge her ex-boyfriend's murder, capture a banshee and her serial killer husband, plus summon a ghost to prove to her demon teacher that she can't be pushed around is made even more complicated for a weakened Rachel by the fact that she's been shunned, because the Witch's Council for Moral and Ethical Standards believes she deals in black magic and is a demon practitioner. This means she can't buy supplies anywhere but the black market and anyone connected with her could get shunned as well. Her brother is appalled, her mother is sympathetic and understanding, but nevertheless decides to move across country to live closer to Rachel's brother. Marshall, the handsome witch she's been going on a number of platonic dates with for a few months can't handle the pressure. There is so much to deal with for Rachel in this book, possibly too much. With so may different story lines to deal with, it becomes difficult to know entirely what to care about.

I still enjoy the characters a lot, and Rachel has come such a long way. It's good that she finally gets closure on Kisten, and while Marshall turns out not to be strong enough to handle the chaos that is Rachel's life, a new potential love interest is introduced - or has Rachel finally learned from the mistakes of her past and learned to stay away from dangerous, morally ambiguous guys? There is very little Trent in this book, but quite a bit of Al.

This book is one of the bridging ones between the first half of the series, where all the characters are introduced and the second, where Harrison begins to reveal her end game. It ties up more of the plot strands left hanging from the last few books, and hints at interesting things to come. It's not one of my favourites, but it's still a fun read.

Judging a book by its cover: I really don't see why they keep giving the cover model portraying Rachel a gun, she's a witch and the only weapon she ever uses except her magic is a splat gun. In this, at least she isn't dressed all in leather in this cover. Not sure why there are cutouts on her elbows, that seems like a particularly bad fashion choice, even for Rachel. The gloomy green lighting and the creepy fountain seem appropriate, though.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

#CBR9 Book 46: "Alex, Approximately" by Jenn Bennett

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Bailey "Mink" Rydell and "Alex" have been chatting on a movie message board for months and both absolutely love classic movies. They have hit it off to the point where "Alex" invites "Mink" to his hometown to come see North by Northwest at an outdoor screening on the beach at the annual film festival being arranged in Coronado Cove.

Bailey's parents got divorced a few years back, and now that Bailey's mother seems to be divorcing her new husband as well, Bailey has chosen to go stay with her father, who coincidentally lives in the same little surfer town in California as her online friend, "Alex". While she really wants to meet up with the guy she's pretty much developed a crush on, Bailey isn't stupid, and knows that people you meet online may not always be who they appear to be. So she doesn't want to let him know she's in Coronado Cove and she intends to track "Alex" down in the months before the film festival, to make sure he's actually a good guy.

While still keeping up her online conversations with "Alex", never letting him know that she's moved from New Jersey to California, Bailey also gets a summer job at the local museum, a huge mansion devoted to Golden Age Hollywood memorabilia, where she makes a friend in Grace and an enemy in Porter Roth, the sarcastic security guard who seems to delight in making her life a living hell. While she wants to hate Porter, Bailey can't deny he's pretty hot, and as the weeks pass, their enmity seems to be turning into something else. In her free time, she's still trying to track down "Alex" based on clues she's gleaned from their online conversation, but as the summer progresses, her quest gets side-tracked as her relationship with Porter keeps changing into something a lot more interesting. What Bailey doesn't know, of course, is that her erstwhile tormentor and enemy turned enigmatic love interest and her online movie buddy are one and the same. What will she do when she discovers that Alex and Porter are in fact the same person?

This book takes inspiration from The Shop Around the Corner and You've Got Mail, with two people who are more or less falling in love online meeting in real life without knowing each other's true identities and initially absolutely hating each other. As the relationship progresses, they more or less feel like they're cheating on their online crush because of their real life romance, while in fact, it's the same person.

I've never seen The Shop Around the Corner. Unlike Bailey/Mink and Porter/Alex, I really am not usually a big fan of classic Hollywood movies. There are obviously exceptions, but I frequently find them frustrating and many of them have not aged well. I have watched You've Got Mail more than once, but am not a big fan, because while Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks may be worried about how they're sorta-kinda cheating on the person they're e-mailing with, they seem entirely unconcerned about the fact that they ARE cheating on their significant others. Both are in a relationship as the movie starts, and while they've never met the person they're so frequently corresponding with online, there is, to me, absolutely an element of emotional infidelity going on there. Then they meet in real life and start arguing, only to get more and more attracted to one another, just sort of ignoring their current partners. Plus there's the whole Tom Hanks is trying to run Meg Ryan out of business - it's not a great romantic comedy, guys. It's just not. While You Were Sleeping is tons better.

In this book, on the other hand, neither Bailey nor Porter are in a relationship, and Mink and Alex, while they've clearly flirted a bit while sharing their passion for classic movies have never made any declarations or promises to one another. Alex' invitation to Mink to come watch North by Northwest with him on a beech is clearly worded in such a way that Bailey/Mink knows it's intended as a date, all the romantic possibilities are sub-textual.

When they meet in real life, their initial animosity comes a lot from a series of misunderstandings and misconceptions about each other the first few times they meet. He believes her to be a privileged rich girl pretty much slumming it with her job at the museum, she thinks he's a bully and a thug, with some deeply unsavoury friends. Of course, her new friend Grace, who's known Porter for a long time, can tell that they're both off to a bad start and does her best to help clear up some of the skewed first impressions. Both realise that they may have been a bit harsh at first, and their relationship turns more friendly, and then begins to evolve into mutual attraction.

I read this book during the Spring Readathon, and it was a wonderful choice, as it was a fun and light-hearted read that kept me turning pages and kept me going late into the night. Each chapter starts with a quote from a film, and while I may not have the same movie tastes as Bailey and Porter, I very much approve of all the movies Ms. Bennett chose to include as chapter openers. So many of my favourites. Bailey and Porter are both good protagonists and seemed like pretty realistic teenagers to me. Both have some fairly traumatic events in their past, and one of the things Bailey, who calls herself the "Artful Dodger", needs to learn to deal with over the summer is how to actually communicate clearly. She has a tendency to just deflect when she's uncomfortable (which is also why she chose to move to her Dad's when her mother's new marriage was getting rocky). In the long run, that is clearly not a good coping strategy.

As well as giving the reader a very satisfying enemies to lovers scenario for YA readers, this book also has a good cast of supporting characters. Having moved several times since her parents' divorce, combined with the "Artful Dodger" thing that Bailey developed after the harrowing event in her past, means that she didn't leave behind any friends and hasn't really been close to anyone for a while, so getting to know Grace and Porter requires work and effort on her part, which again, seems very healthy for her. I really liked Grace, as well as the various parental figures (with the notable exception of Bailey's mum, who seems to completely forget about her daughter after she moves to California).

This book made me happy, but also a bit sad that they don't really make good romantic comedies anymore. As I said, I liked it a lot more than You've Got Mail, but if you are a fan of that film, you're sure to like this clever YA re-imagining. If you don't, well, this is way better, so you're likely to like this anyway.

Judging a book by its cover: Love the book, deeply dislike the cover, which just seems to portray a very impractical and slightly inconvenient way in which to view movies. Also, all those lights would make it impossible to see anything. I know this book is set in California, but at no point do people float around in a pool and try to share popcorn. Bailey and "Alex" have talked about meeting up for a film festival, where one of their favourite films is screened on a beach - that is NOT the same as this. I would hope both the film buffs in this book would reject the so-called movie watching experience on this cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

#CBR9 Book 45: "Saga, vol 7" by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Page count: 152 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is volume 7 of an ongoing series. It's not the place to start. There is no question that any person of good taste should be reading Saga, but you should start at the beginning with volume 1.

I suppose that because the last volume made me very happy, this one was going to make me sad. Damn you, Vaughn and Staples and the emotional roller coaster you send me on. Temporarily stranded on Phang, a tiny comet that Wreath and Landfall have been battling it out over (like they battle for everything else), Elena, Marko and their little family are trying to find enough fuel to get away from their pursuers, they just need to to find some fuel.

Their brief stay extends to more than six months, and Hazel and her parents and their strange extended family make new friends and form new bonds. We meet The Will, Gwendolyn and Sophie again, and I'm happy to report that Lying Cat has a much more prominent presence in this volume than in the last. Gwendolyn is getting more actively involved in politics, and Sophie is faced with a difficult choice. As the tension on Phang escalates, our little band of refugees have to fight for their existence once more, and sadly, their interlude on Phang does not come without casualties.

I'm always excited when there's a new volume of Saga, the wait in between is always so very long. Due to a massive work load, I didn't actually get the chance to read this immediately after its release, having it lying on a shelf taunting me for a few weeks. Had I known about some of the developments, I may not have read it during my most recent Readathon, as it was really quite an emotional read, which I've already mentioned affected me. Still, it's not the first time this comic has made me cry, and I'm sure it won't be the last. I just hope the next volume is a little bit more upbeat again.

Judging a book by its cover: Fiona Staples' art is so good, you guys. I don't really have a lot more to say about the cover than that. I absolutely love the way she depicts the characters and this cover shows our beloved protagonists in the middle of a tense action sequence, defending their family.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

#CBR9 Book 44: "The Upside of Unrequited" by Becky Albertalli

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Sixteen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso has had a crush on twenty-six different guys (number twenty-six is Lin-Manuel Miranda, and I share your infatuation, girl!), but these crushes have never really developed into anything and she's never kissed anyone. Molly's twin sister Cassie is very encouraging and tries to get her to just "go for it", but Cassie has had flings with a number of girls, and is a lot more outgoing and confident than Molly. While they are twins, the sisters have vastly different body types. Cassie is tall and svelte and graceful, Molly is introverted, quiet and what their tactless grandmother refers to as "zaftig". Being awkward, constantly infatuated and terminally unkissed was bad enough before, now Cassie has her first proper girlfriend, whom she is absolutely gaga about, and Molly feels more alone than ever.

When gay marriage is made legal, Cassie and Molly's mothers resolve to finally get married. Molly throws herself into the wedding planning with gusto, but it doesn't exactly make her want someone of her own to love. Mina, Cassie's new girlfriend, is nothing if not supportive of Cassie's plans to get Molly a boyfriend. Mina's cute hipster friend Will seems like a very likely prospect, especially because then Molly and Cassie could double date with Mina and her bestie. Molly may have a different candidate for crush number twenty-seven. however. Reid, her lanky, fantasy-loving co-worker, makes Molly feel tongue-tied like no other. Two cute boys - will one of them finally be the one to give Molly her first kiss?

Last summer, I read Becky Albertalli's debut novel, Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. There were so many things to like about it, but I was uncomfortable about the aspect where (SPOILER) the protagonist, Simon, is outed on social media by a classmate, and it ruined some of my happy when reading it. In this book, there wasn't anything of the sort and the teens in this book (Molly and Cassie are cousin's with Abby, one of Simon's best friends - there are tiny cameos from the first book in the latter half of this one) are just as delightful to read about as the ones in Albertalli's first book.

Lack of diversity is still a huge problem in fiction, yet a book like this should be held up as a glowing example of how easily diversity can be done, because it shouldn't have be some sort of "issue", for a huge amount of people, this is just their life and it's important that they can find this reflected in the fiction available to them. Cassie and Molly are twins born by one mother. They have a younger brother, born by their other mother (who is African American), but all share the same donor father. They are all Jewish, as is Reid, Molly's co-worker. Mina, Cassie's girlfriend, is Asian. Molly is straight, Cassie is gay. One of their mothers is bisexual. None of this massively impacts on their characters or who they are.

Molly is a hugely likable protagonist and one of my favourite things about this book is that while there are two boys as potential boyfriends for her, there is no sign of a love triangle. There are no scenes where these two boys fight for her attention. The one vague hint of one actually involves some adorable cluelessness on Molly's part, one of her newly single female friends and one of the boys (who is clearly only speaking to her friend to find out more about her, it's painfully obvious to everyone but Molly).

Being artistic as well as a talented cook/baker, Molly had so many skills that I envied her. I also wish the book had included a recipe for Molly's egg-less cookie dough, because I'm pretty sure I want to make it and eat until I'm sick. That Reid is a young man who clearly appreciates the culinary arts, as well as all things epic fantasy, endeared him greatly to me.

If you liked Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, you are sure to like this one a lot too. I read it during a few happy hours during this Spring's 24-hour Readathon and the reason it doesn't get a full five stars is that I wanted there to be more of Molly in an actual relationship, not just building up to it. This book stands perfectly well on its own two feet, despite the connection to Albertalli's last book, but I absolutely encourage you to read both if you haven't.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm not entirely sure what I think of the cover. I like the bold colours, the bright blue, the stark black and white. I like the emoji and that they've kept the same font style as on Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Since the books are loosely interconnected, it's a nice touch.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 43: "Weird Girl and What's His Name" by Meagan Brothers

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lula and Rory are basically the "Weird Girl and What's His Name" of the title. Odd-ball teenagers in the little town of Hawthorne, North Carolina. They are best friends, sharing an interest for fantasy and sci-f, but their deepest and most abiding love is for the TV show The X-Files, being active in the online fan community and writing a joint blog where they analyse and comment on the episodes. Both have been abandoned by parents. Rory lives alone with his alcoholic mother, while Lula is obsessed with her missing mother, who at least left her to be raised by her supportive grandparents. That Lula's grandfather refuses to ever speak of his absent daughter or even allow her name to be spoken in the house doesn't dampen Lula's desire to find out more about her missing parent.

They share everything with each other, or so Lula believes. When she discovers that Rory tried out for the high school football team without telling her, not to mention the much bigger secret that he's been having an affair with his much older, divorced employer, she starts to question not only their friendship, but her own judgement and identity. Lula suddenly disappears, without a trace, leaving Rory to fend for himself - desperately wondering where his friend has gone, or whether she's even still alive? When Lula eventually returns, everything is different. Her grandparents no longer trust her and Rory won't even acknowledge her existence. Can they ever repair their friendship?

It's never easy being a teenager, what with all the hormones raging and the changes you have to go through. Working with teens, I thank my lucky stars regularly that I never have to go through adolescence again. For kids like Rory and Lula, who have a number of additional challenges on top of just being teens, it's extra difficult. Rory is gay in a small Southern town and it's not like there are a lot of guys lining up for him to date. Hence his boyfriend, who he genuinely seems to believe he has a future with, being his middle aged, recently divorced. They meet in secret, what with the statutory rape aspect involved and it's clear that deep down, Rory isn't as secure in the long-term viability of his relationship, or I think he would have confided in Lula. He clearly feels guilty about keeping secrets from her.

For all of Rory's difficulties, at least he's relatively secure in his own identity and sexuality. Lula is a lot more adrift, nursing more than one unhappy infatuation and questioning whether she's straight, bi or queer in some other way. The same night she discovers that Rory was keeping secrets, she has a series of unfortunate episodes that culminate with her disappearing from Hawthorne, without anyone who cares about her knowing where she's gone or why. As we find out in the second half of the book (the first is told from Rory's POV), it's not calculated callousness that causes Lula to leave town without leaving any hints of where she went - it's more the thoughtlessness and obliviousness of youth. She is in turmoil, desperately needs a change and goes about making that change for herself, without considering the long term consequences or those she leaves behind.

The second half of the book, from Lula's POV, alternates between her time away and her new life back home in Hawthorne. Upon her return, she obviously has a lot of trust to rebuild with her grandparents and she's literally friendless for a while, as Rory has been forced to adapt to a life without her and is not interested in letting bygones be bygones. Lula hurt him deeply by running away and it's understandable that they can't just pick up where they left off. Because she missed a great deal of school, Lula opts to take her GED rather than having to retake a whole year of high school. She makes a connection with a girl in one of her classes at community college, but it's nothing like the friendship she had with Rory.

This has been reviewed by several Cannonballers, including Narfna and Baxlala, both of whom tend to share my taste in books. I must admit that I did not have the same X-Files obsession as these two ladies, but I was a pretty fantatical follower of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (true story, I just this weekend unpacked the last few boxes after our move more than a year and a half ago, and in one of them, I found a large file folder full of printed copies of episode scripts for seasons three and four. I suspect I will have printed those out while at University and have moved at least five times since then (including to a different country) and yet I still had them after all this time) and while the exact details of the fandom may differ, I suspect the general idea is the same. I absolutely remember the intense devotion, almost counting the hours between episodes, the plot speculation, the anticipation, the shipping.

Reading about these LGBTQ teens, I once more feel my extreme privilege of growing up cis-gendered and straight. Being an awkward, socially inept teenager whose interests mark you as an outcast is bad enough. I was really never a "popular" girl, but I was lucky enough never to be that much of a target for bullies either. Nor was I ever alone in my weirdness, I always had a little group of oddballs to be unpopular with. We didn't care that we weren't invited to parties or whether boys liked us, we wanted to stay at home and read our massive fantasy tomes and discuss our TV shows instead. As long as you're not entirely alone, being seen as weird and being largely ignored by the crowds can be quite nice. But Lula and Rory really only have one another and when that friendship fractures, they are both helpless and adrift. It was all rather heart-breaking to read about.

As with the best YA fiction, the characters in this book all felt like they could be real people. There are no Mary Sues here, both Lula and Rory and the people around them are actual characters with a number of flaws. There were times when I wanted to shake either or both of them (especially Lula, that running away stunt was NOT well thought out), but mostly I wanted to hug them and I am glad that both of them, while they don't exactly start out with the best of support networks around them, end up in a better place than they began.

I apologise for the rambling nature of this review. I liked the book, and really think more people should take notice of it, especially anyone who's been part of any kind of fandom or felt like an outcast for one reason or another while growing up. I'm glad I took the time to read it.

Judging a book by its cover: I must admit that if I saw this in a bookshop or on a library shelf (do the young 'uns use libraries any more? I hope so), I'm not entirely sure I would pick it up. The silhouette of a girl's face with what appears to be smoke inside it isn't exactly all that inviting - there is very little to draw the eye here. That seems like a poor choice on the publisher's side.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

#CBR Book 42: "The Hot Shot" by Kristen Callihan

Page count: 337 pages
Rating: 4 stars

First of all, I want to warn my fellow romance readers that there are a LOT of distracting typos in this book. Normally, while I'm a complete grammar nazi in my daily life(comes with being a language teacher, I suspect), I am nonetheless usually able to ignore the occasional typo in my romances, mainly because I don't tend to read them all THAT closely. But in this book, there were enough that it bothered even me and took me out of the story on occasion. I know stuff like that can be a deal-breaker for some, hence the friendly warning.

Chester "Chess" Cooper (her parents thought they were getting a boy, and met at a screening of The Goonies, so stuck with the name they'd decided on, even when they got a girl) is a high profile fashion photographer who feels like she's pretty much just going through the motions. She's bored, she hasn't met a guy she liked in ages and has never really found a guy she clicked with. She's photographed a ton of handsome naked men for a variety of charity calendars, without ever being affected, so she's certainly not expecting anything to be different when she's due to shoot the local football team. That she gets all hot and bothered by the pretty boy quarterback Finn Mannus is certainly a surprise.

Finn Mannus is instantly taken with Chess, but since she makes it clear she's looking for something permanent and he's more of a one night stand kind of guy, he suggests that they just be friends, even when it's clear to everyone around them that their chemistry is off the charts. When Chess' apartment/studio burns down and she is left homeless, without even a working laptop, Finn insists that Chess move in with him at least until she gets her insurance money, and hitting on his room mate would just be rude, right? Both of them undeniably like living together, but despite their obvious attraction to each other, neither of them makes a move to change things, until Finn's going home for the holidays.

He invites Chess to come with him, and persuades her to pose as his girlfriend, as his mother seems to be nagging him to settle down. While Chess is initially reluctant, she eventually agrees. It doesn't take long before their relationship is no longer just pretend. Both Chess and Finn have issues in their past, though, and scorching personal chemistry and mutual attraction won't be enough if they're going to have a chance at a long-term future together.

I was very happy to discover that Kristen Callihan had written another Game On book, because while I really like her three contemporary New Adult books in this series, especially The Game Plan, where the action actually runs concurrently to the plot of this book, I have not really been all that impressed with her other contemporary romance series, VIP, or her paranormal historical romances. While this book is probably the weakest of all the four books in this series so far, it's still much more what I was hoping for and expecting based on the first three books, and it was an entertaining read (if you ignore all the aforementioned typos).

Both Chess and Finn are likable characters and it's fun to see them trying to initiate a platonic friendship because they have different expectations from dating and don't want to mess things up. That it takes them so long to realise that they are absolutely besotted with each other is part of the charm of the book. Their various friends certainly find it amusing. Finn's support network is obviously his teammates, while Chess' best friend is her bisexual assistant, James (who has a pretty adorable crush on Finn, yet is SO excited at the prospect of Chess actually dating him).

While most of Finn's dating history has been extremely casual, with no significant relationships, he did have a hook-up a while back that had unexpected consequences and both he and the woman in question, a beautiful Scandinavian supermodel, still seem to be working through the after effects definitely present some hurdles in the initial stages of Chess' and Finn's romance, not least because Chess cannot help but to compare herself unfavourably against Finn's gorgeous ex. Generally, Chess' low self-esteem causes rather a lot of conflict before the couple sort things out and have a chance at their HEA.

I don't know if Callihan is planning more contemporary romances about other football players on Finn and Dex' team, but as these books are so much better than her rather underwhelming rock band related ones, and there seem to be a number of hunky players to chose from as future heroes, I certainly hope this is where she focuses her attentions in the future. She would do well to invest in some decent proof-reading before publishing them, though.

Judging a book by its cover: Ms. Callihan self-publishes these, and as romance covers go, I'm sure it's perfectly fine. I'm assuming the cover model is supposed to be Finn, our athletic hero, and I suppose he bears a passing resemblance with the muscles and the tattoo and the pose the photo is taken in, but this guy doesn't fit my mental picture at all. Still, it's not offensively bad or anything.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 41: "Crown of Midnight" by Sarah J. Maas

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

I put off reading this for the longest time, mainly because I figured I'd have to go back and read the first one, Throne of Glass, again to remember what happened, what with having read that way back in early 2013. But then the lovely Narfna tipped me off about this website, which allowed me to quickly recap all the stuff I only vaguely remembered, and I no longer had an excuse not to read it and it fit into my Monthly Keyword Challenge for April.

Oh yeah, this is book 2 in a series. It doesn't really work unless you've started at the beginning. There may also be vague plot spoilers in this review, so maybe skip it if you like going into books entirely cold.

Legendary teenage assassin Celaena Sardothien won the evil king's contest and has become King's Champion. It pretty much means she's supposed to kill whomever he points her towards, and now she shows up in the throne room throwing down severed, partially decomposed heads and severed body parts every so often as proof of her due diligence. Both of her love interests are worried and perturbed both by her seeming ruthlessness and efficiency. Yes, there are two love interests, although the love triangle isn't all that intense, as Prince Dorian, son and heir of evil king (I could look up his name, but I really can't be bothered) has pretty much decided that it's obvious his best friend, the stalwart and honourable Captain of the Guard, Chaol Westfall (while listening to parts of this in audio, I discovered is name is pronounced more like Cowl - which is not how I was mentally pronouncing it all through the first book, seriously, books like these should have a phonetic guide to all the different names) loves her more, but is unlikely to act on his feelings, because you know, it could get in the way of his duty. Yawn! And Celaena can't act on her obvious feelings for Chaol because the king is already threatening to kill him if she steps out of line, she doesn't want to give him more leverage against her.

 Except - SPOILER! Celaena hasn't been killing anyone at all, but making all of the people she was sent to kill fake their own deaths and flee far far away, leaving her with significant pieces of identifying jewelry she can put on on severed limbs she takes from random corpses and shows off as trophies for the king. Seriously, for a famed assassin, she spends a lot of time NOT killing people, at least for the first half of the book.

The king now wants her to murder a famous male courtesan, claiming that he's part of a conspiracy against the throne. Because Archer whatshisname is a former friend of Celaena's, she negotiates so she has a month before she needs to present proof of his death, and she goes about trying to find out both what she can about the possible conspiracy (an enemy of the king is a possible friend of hers) and so she can warn Archer to get out of dodge. About a third of the way through the book, she confesses the truth to her friend, Princess Nehemia, because she can't keep up the pretence of being a cold-hearted b*tch to everyone. Nehemia offers to help tutor her in the ancient language of Wyrd magic (because the ghost of an ancient queen occasionally appears to Celaeana and tries to emotionally blackmail her into doing dangerous things to figure out the evil king's ultimate end game, and since he came to power ten years ago, all use of magic has been forbidden - she needs the Wyrd magic to investigate in secret).

Chaol keeps fighting his attraction to Calaena and tries to stay loyal to the evil king, even though it's obvious that evil king is super horrible and really doesn't deserve any kind of loyalty. His pining for the King's Champion makes things tense in his friendship with Dorian, because the prince doesn't really tell his friend that he's realised that Celeana doesn't like him like THAT, because she only has sad emo eyes for Chaol. Dorian is making troubling discoveries about strange new abilities he appears to be developing and tries to enlist Nehemia to help him.

The first half of the book really is rather slow and I was having trouble caring much about any of it, and then things suddenly took a TURN and I became a lot more interested. For one thing, Celeana went all vengeful and super bad-ass assassin, going on a rampage of vengeance. After some probably understandable (she IS still just a teenager) moping and self recrimination, she becomes a hell of a lot more proactive and fun to read about. That her relationship with both Chaol and Dorian becomes more interesting and complex, with a lot more nuance than "I like you, do you like me - oh, it's impossible for us to be together!" was an additional bonus.

I keep seeing very enthusiastic reviews for these books, and I really want to like them. The first book was merely ok, and while the first part of this book was rather slow and had far too much YA melodrama and not enough cool action, the second part was really a very different book entirely, and I applaud Sarah J. Maas for surprising me with the aforementioned TURN in the plot. Some of the revelations about our intrepid teenage assassin later in the book were really not very unexpected, however, as there have been plenty of anvillicious hints in both of the books about the lovely Celaena's background and true identity. Frankly, I would have though Chaol would have put the pieces together sooner, but he has the misfortune of being part of the plot, not reading it from the outside. Also, as I often need to ask myself when reading these at the age of 37 - would I have figured all of these things out when I was the target audience for these books, or is it my many years of added reading experience that makes most of the plot twists so obvious?

Having been a bit lukewarm about this series after reading the first one, I am now rather excited to see where the series goes from here. I still think Maas' other fantasy series is better, based on the first book, A Court of Thorns and Roses (I will be reading the next books in that series later this month), but I can now see why a lot of internet peeps whose reviews I follow like these books so much.

Judging a book by its cover: Not only do they have what I'm assuming is supposed to be Celaena as some sort of albino-looking wraith girl on the cover (it looks like the drawing of her is mostly in black and white, with a splash of colour added for the cloak), but her hair is flowing freely, as if wind-blown (interestingly, her cloak is swirling the OTHER way - there are very strange wind currents at play here), when it's specifically mentioned in one scene in the book that Celeana always keeps her hair tightly braided when she's fighting (because she's a trained assassin, natch, but also because she's not an IDIOT). I kind of like the background in orange with red swirls. The alternate cover for this is just a stark white, with the sword wielding lady surrounded by swirls of red smoke. While the super pale, white-haired girl is still an odd choice by the cover designers to portray the protagonist, this cover at least has SOME colour.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

#CBR9 Book 40: "Dukes Prefer Blondes" by Loretta Chase (now in audio)

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 12hrs 11 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

My first review of this book can be found here. It was the very first book I read in 2016 and having revisited it, I have decided that I may in fact have overly strict with my rating of it. Since I already recounted the plot and gave a thorough analysis for my feelings about the book there, that's the place to go if you're curious about what the book is about. This review will be more about my re-read and the audio book experience.

After finishing Where Dreams Begin, where (SPOILER) the heroine is struck down with typhoid fever for no particularly good reason (seriously, the couple are already married and don't need any sort of complications in the way to their HEA), I remembered how much better I thought that storyline was done in this book. I have recently realised that a trope I will almost always adore is one of the parties nursing the other one back to health. If it's the hero doing the nursing, so much the better. See also, The Hating Game, my very favouritest romance of last year. Since this book has Raven patiently and stubbornly nursing Clara through weeks of horrible illness, as well as a lot of wonderful banter from two very intelligent protagonists, it really should have rated higher for me.

What with the world going to hell around us (I'm so very lucky that I live in Norway, where things are much better than most places right now, but I still can't entirely ignore the news of the world around me) and me being in a rather emotionally fraught place at the moment, I've also been in a bit of a reading slump this year. I have an absolutely monstrous work load, which doesn't give me as much time as I'd like to read and relax. Additionally, there are a lot of things to stress me out not just on a global scale, but closer to home, that's causing me to be in a rather fraught place emotionally at present. Hence the revisiting old favourites in audio book form. While this is Ms. Chase's most recent novel (and sadly, there are no signs of her having another one out soon), I remembered it as one of her best in years, and I was glad to discover that I was not wrong, and that I might in fact like it even more upon my re-read.

As with all the other Loretta Chase audio books, this one is narrated by Kate Reading, who pretty much always does an excellent job and whose arch British accent seems very appropriate to these period romances. She's great at various accents, too, though, be they working class or foreigners and even with a variety of female and male characters, she always manages to give each person a distinct and identifiable voice. I'm always amazed at the skill of professional narrators, and can see why Kate Reading is so very popular.

Having never re-reviewed a book, so to speak, this was a new and interesting experience for me. Most of the things that I found problematic when I first read this book were now much lesser annoyances (possibly because I was prepared for them) and the things I remembered liking were even better on a revisit. I'm glad I gave this book a new chance and it's risen in my estimation.

Judging a book by its cover: As I hadn't started this "feature" on my blog the last time I reviewed the book, I now get to critique the cover! Yay for re-reads. This is one of the many romance covers where a lady (I'm assuming it's supposed to be Lady Clara) is facing away from the cover, while wearing a fancy gown that's coming undone in the back. Underneath, she wears absolutely nothing at all, which seems especially inappropriate with regards to this book, which has been tacked onto The Dressmakers books, and in which Loretta Chase goes to some lengths to explain exactly how intricate the clothing of the time was. There is absolutely no way any lady of the time would wear a dress without layers of undergarments underneath, but the wide expanse of naked back seems extra insulting here. Lovely green colours, however, both in the dress and the brocade backdrop.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 39: "Where Dreams Begin" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 373 pages
Audio book length: 12hrs 28 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Lady Holland "Holly" Taylor is at her first social engagement in three years, following prolonged mourning for her beloved husband. While waiting for her carriage to take her home, she is pulled into the arms of a stranger (who initially believes her to be someone else, naturally) and kissed passionately. Interestingly, reclusive widow that she is, Holly doesn't recoil and descend into hysterics or outrage, instead she allows herself to be swept away by the unexpected embrace and kisses the stranger back, not once, but twice. Only when he offers to seduce her does she leave, promising herself to never think of it again.

If only it were that easy. Her mystery man is Zachary Bronson, a former prize-fighter made financial magnate. Now one of the richest men in London (and probably England, isn't that always the case?), Bronson is nonetheless not properly accepted in polite society and certainly doesn't have the respect of the upper classes. He is seen as a vulgar upstart, for all that most are desperate to join in with his businesses, as everything he involves himself with seems to turn to profit. Bronson isn't all that bothered about being accepted in society for himself, but he wants an advantageous match for his sister (who is illegitimate) and he has a clever plan to get to spend a lot more time with the lovely Lady Holly.

Inviting her to his gaudy and opulent London home for tea, he makes her an offer so generous, she cannot in good conscience refuse, even though her reputation may be tarnished forever. As a widow with a young daughter, Holly doesn't have a lot to live on, and is currently staying with her husband' family, who claim they are more than happy to take care of her for the rest of her days. She has absolutely no intention to ever remarry, but is starting to feel a bit constricted after three years of isolation. So when Bronson, who wisely doesn't acknowledge their previous meeting (Holly seems so happy that he doesn't seem to "recognise" her), offers to pay her a small fortune in trust for her daughter, with an extra outrageous as salary for Holly herself, if she take her child and move in with the Bronsons for a year, to tutor them all in the necessary social graces, she'd be a fool not to accept.

The Taylors are appalled at Holly's decision, and claims that Bronson has unsavoury designs on her virtue, but Holly will not have her mind changed. And while Bronson initially may have had plans to seduce Holly, he quickly comes to see that their social standings are much too far apart and that she was never meant for someone as coarse and common as he. He knows that while he could seduce her, she would never consent to becoming his mistress, and he would lose her forever.

The main conflict in this book is the very realistic hurdle of a massive gap in social standing between the heroine and hero. While Zachary is filthy rich and very powerful, he is living in a time when making your money "in trade" was still seen as less worthy than being born into an aristocratic family. Even impoverished noblemen with thousands of pounds in debt would be more accepted in "polite" society than some upstart commoner who made a fortune through cleverness and hard work. That so many nobles would need his help to secure their own dwindling fortunes would only rankle more.

Lady Holly is the daughter of an earl who married a gentleman. While her husband wasn't titled, custom dictated that she take her ladyship title with her into the marriage. Holly married for love, and her husband was clearly a good man who treated her well. Yet it's also clear that she has never really experienced passion or overpowering sexual desire before she met Zachary. In this way, while Lady Holly is not a virgin, she is still very innocent and inexperienced and has all sorts of things to still discover about herself and her desires over the course of her relationship with Bronson.

Holly is definitely not one of those slightly anachronistic heroines who tomboyishly climbed trees and read the wrong kind of books and always wanted to break out of the confines of her station. No, she was clearly raised exactly as most noble young ladies were and married young, quite happy to be guided by the wishes and advice of her husband. Loving her husband deeply, she intends to mourn him for the rest of her life and never remarry. Yet after three years, she's also clearly looking for some new challenges and therefore she accepts Zachary's job offer. She constantly wonders whether her dear departed husband would approve, but as time passes, she learns to make decisions for herself and finds that she really enjoys being in control of her own destiny.

This book was originally published in 2000, when I think it was probably perfectly ok to have a romance hero who spends the first half of the novel going to brothels to carouse, just so he can try to put the heroine out of his thoughts. To me, this was absolutely one of the less appealing aspects of the story and I'm glad that even the most experienced of rakes in more current historical romances seem to forget all about their former promiscuity as soon as they meet that special someone who will ensure they stay monogamous forever more. While the scenario here is probably a lot more historically accurate, no one actually reads Regency romances for the gritty realism.

While I liked that there isn't some moustache-twirling villain keeping the lovers apart, both parties' insistence that they are completely wrong for one another and the time it takes for them to finally act on their attraction towards each other (after that first, very promising kiss at the beginning) got a bit frustrating for me. I also think that the final act complication, once the lovers have finally admitted their feelings for one another and are well on their way to HEA was an unnecessary addition (although it did make me want to re-read Dukes Prefer Blondes, so it's not all bad) that dragged the story out needlessly. It also added a frankly ridiculous supernatural element.

I see why my esteemed colleague in romance reviewing, Mrs. Julien, likes this book a lot. I don't exactly think it's a classic that I will revisit time and time again, but I'm glad I finally read it.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover I found for this is for the new edition of this book (the older one being something with a lot of pastel, if I'm not mistaken). I'm going to assume the cover model is meant to be Lady Holly, in her so very eye-catching red dress which makes Zachary completely speechless. While the dress the cover model is wearing is pretty, it looks more like a contemporary wedding dress that someone dyed crimson rather than a period appropriate  Regency gown. Very nice brocade upholstered furniture in the background there, though.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.