Tuesday, 15 May 2018

#CBR10 Book 40: "Once Upon a Marquess" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 372 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is a re-read. My original review of the book can be found here.

This book was such a disappointment to me when it came out, and as I mention in my original review, it was not an easy book for Ms. Milan to write, and felt a bit cobbled together and nothing really worked all that well as a result.

With the next volume in the series just around the corner, I found myself barely remembering anything about this book and wanted to re-read it. I'm glad I did, because I had forgotten pretty much everything but the major plot-beats (and that I hated Theresa, the youngest Worth sister). One thing that changed between my first read and this re-read is that I read a short story (given away as a freebie to Courtney Milan newsletter subscribers) about Theresa, set some time after this book, and it gave me more insight into her character. With hindsight, knowing how much Ms Milan struggled to get this whole novel to work, I suspect Theresa and her neuro-atypical outlook at the world, let alone her completely different life goals from Judith got short shrift in the book and she came across as rather more insufferable than the author intended. And I had forgotten just how much I enjoyed her adventures in bread-baking in the latter part of the book.

Re-reading the book with lowered expectations absolutely helped, but I didn't find myself able to adjust the rating, as there are just too many story lines battling for space in the book and Christian and Judith's romance really gets lost. While I'm sure it was supposed to be cute and quirky, I also found myself rather annoyed by Judith's tendency to use water fowl terminology to swear. Can't really blame the woman for her love of bread and sandwiches though. The description of her gorging herself on freshly baked bread and butter when visiting Christian made me really hungry.

As part one of a long (and I suspect rather sprawling) series, I think this is probably a good book. It does a good job of introducing all the characters in the Worth family, even if Anthony and Camilla are mostly talked about, rather than appearing in person. It's just not a very satisfying romance, as too many other things and characters fight for the reader's attention throughout the book.

Judging a book by its cover: Another Courtney Milan, another photo-shopped wedding dress, this one with one of the seemingly endless skirts that can be found on so many romance covers. I'm not a big fan of the muted brown countryside in the background, although the sky is pleasant. Since Judith and her siblings live in the city, I would have much preferred an urban backdrop rather than pastoral fields.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 39: "Pestilence" by Laura Thalassa

Page count: 382 pages
Rating: 3 stars

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse came to Earth and in their wake, there was destruction. Engines stopped working, planes fell from the sky, technology sputtered and the internet failed. There was  chaos, and then people learned to adapt. Five years later, only one horseman is active - Pestilence the Conqueror, who rides the length and breadth of the American continent, with whole cities dying where he's appeared. In a small settlement in Canada, Sara Burns is a volunteer firefighter who literally drew the short straw when she and her remaining colleagues decided who was to sacrifice themselves to kill the horseman. While it goes against her every instinct to harm anyone, in order to save the rest of humanity, Sara is willing to do what she can to stop Pestilence. She lays an ambush and shoots the horseman off his horse, dousing him with petrol and setting him on fire for good measure. Unfortunately, the horseman cannot be killed and is rather furious at the treatment he received.

Once the horseman has regenerated, he takes Sara prisoner and is determined to make her suffer. Normally anyone who gets anywhere near Pestilence takes ill and dies within four days, but Sara stays untouched by the plague that normally affects people. She's tied up and forced to run behind the horseman's steed until she collapses with exhaustion. When she tries to escape, he shoots her multiple times with his arrows and then patches her back up again, refusing to let her die. For trying to murder him, and refusing to show mercy when he asked it of her, he will keep her alive, forcing her to see up close the ravages of the disease he spreads on the people they encounter on their journey. While Sara may not get sick, she still requires food and shelter and can get dangerously chilled if they don't stop to let her eat and rest. While many houses are abandoned (communities seem to send out evacuation notices when they know that Pestilence and his horse are near), they frequently find people in the houses they enter. These people are not spared from sickness and Sara has to live with the knowledge that her human needs are what brings Pestilence into their homes. She has to watch men, women and children sicken and die, usually cursing her as they suffer.

Trying to escape is futile, yet as she spends more time with the unstoppable horseman and his horse, she finds out more about him and his feelings towards his gruesome task. Before taking her prisoner, it's quite clear Pestilence knew little of humans, and had a very pessimistic view of humanity as a whole. The longer they spend together, the more the lines blur in their relationship. Feelings begin to develop between them, unwilling as they both are to admit attraction to the other. How can Sara love a creature sent to bestow divine punishment on humanity? And can Pestilence be stopped from fulfilling his duty, allowing some of humankind to survive?

I'd not really heard of this book until it was selected as a monthly read in Vaginal Fantasy (which as of last month will sadly no longer have the monthly video hangouts with Felicia Day and her co-hosts, but just exist online on Goodreads and Discord) and after browsing some reviews, I was intrigued. It wasn't very expensive on Kindle and with the premise - literal immortal embodiment of Pestilence comes to Earth, takes lady prisoner - they fall in love - I wanted to see how that was going to work. The answer is, surprisingly well.

For much of the book, the book deals with two individuals who have a decidedly antagonistic relationship. They travel at punishing pace throughout fairly abandoned areas, only occasionally interacting with others (who all get sick and die, so that really brings out the cheer and pleasant conversation). Frankly, when Pestilence and Sara do approach cities or larger populated areas, that's when things get really dangerous, as Sara is clearly not the only one trying to kill the horseman. While he's immortal and will regenerate from pretty much nothing, Sara is very much a mortal. She's affected by the elements, she starves if she's not fed enough (and in the beginning, Pestilence has absolutely NO idea what is actually good or suitable to eat. He tries to feed her things like Worcester sauce and tinned sardines and he doesn't understand things like hypothermia (until Sara nearly dies from it).

Based on the description of the characters, my mental image of Pestilence was petty much Lee Pace as Thranduil from The Hobbit movies, while Sara was very much Wynnona from Wynnona Earp. She had the same kind of wise-cracking internal monologue and the tough kick-ass attitude. It is rather fascinating seeing the merciless and uncaring Pestilence slowly start learning what it's like to be a person as he spends time with Sara and sees that not all humans are hopeless and care for nothing. Because he's not human, he can be hurt, but regenerate from almost nothing, and he's not affected by things like hunger, thirst or the elements. Nevertheless, he eventually tries both food and alcohol at Sara's prompting and is rather baffled at his growing attraction to her.

The main problem with this book is that we're meant to root for a romance where one party is the literal embodiment of disease and plague. He kills literally millions over the course of the book, even after admitting that he hates the suffering his presence brings. While it's quite clear that he can control who gets ill or not (since he can keep Sara both from catching the plague, and her wounds from getting infected), it's difficult to really see him as a worthwhile hero - cause you know, genocide. He's not exactly kind and gentle with Sara throughout the first half of the book, either, but you know, she tried to kill him and burn his corpse - which wasn't exactly great either. Overall, the tone throughout the book is very grim, and Ms. Thalassa makes it even more difficult to get over Pestilence's actions in that she actually spends quite some time with some of the plague victims, making it all the more horrible when they die. I found the HEA or possibly, HFN, difficult to entirely believe in, considering the premise set up in the rest of the book.

I was, however, pretty engrossed as I was reading the book. I kept wanting to finish just one more chapter to see what was going to happen, and it's only thinking back on the book - the redemption of Pestilence doesn't work for me. It wasn't like the book was terribly expensive, though, and I am curious enough that I may well check out the next book in the series - introducing War.

Judging a book by its cover: Sara is a firefighter and doesn't really seem like the type to wear flowy balldresses (she certainly doesn't at any point in the story, as far as I can remember), but I guess it creates a more romantic visual than if she's in dusty, scruffed up clothes like jeans and a flannel shirt, or the hand-me-downs she seems to find along the way while taken from place to place with Pestilence. I actually really like the cover image, but it suggests a more historical romance than this book presents.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

#CBR10 Book 38: "Hurts to Love You" by Alisha Rai

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

This is the third book in a trilogy, and it's probably best to have read at least Hate to Want You first, to fully get the most out of the story. The central romance works on its own, but there are a lot of stuff in this book that works best if you've read at least the first book in the series.

Evangeline "Eve" Chandler has quietly suffered her father's verbal abuse for much of her life, and only recently started standing up for herself and choosing to do her own thing. She's quit her job working for the family's charitable foundation and has been secretly working as a driver for a ride share company, while doing research and planning to possibly start her own business. Struggling massively with self esteem issues, she's nervous about telling her beloved older brother about the idea, as he'd prefer it if she start working in the family company with him. Another secret she's been keeping, for much longer, is her years-long crush on Gabe Hunter, the tattoo artist who's her brother's best friend. She knows Gabe still sees her as a kid, but hopes that her brother's wedding may be a chance for her to show him that she's all grown up.

Gabriel "Gabe" Hunter grew up with the Kane family's children, since his adopted mother was their housekeeper. Then the Kanes and the Chandlers had a massive falling out (see my review of book one) and as Gabe was friends with Paul Kane, he didn't really feel he could have anything to do with the Chandlers anymore. Now Livvie Kane and Nick Chandler have buried the hatchet and are getting married. Both Gabe and Eve are in the wedding party, and end up spending quite a bit of time alone together in the week leading up to the ceremony. While Gabe has been trying not to notice, it's obvious to him that little Eve is a full-grown woman now, and she's not afraid to show her interest in him. It's not just the age difference between them or that she's a rich heiress and he's the housekeeper's son that could be problematic for a possible relationship. Gabe has secrets he's been keeping for most of his life, secrets that could impact both the Kane and the Chandler family and this wedding is certainly not the time he'd want those to come out.

OK, so first of all, it was super weird to be reading a romance with a hero called Gabriel when I now have an almost three month old baby with that same name. Thankfully, no one ever calls the hero anything but "Gabe", a nickname I will personally cut anyone who tries to attach to my child, so it could have been weirder. Secondly, while I really liked the first two books in this series (I know they didn't necessarily work for others amongst the CBR romance readers), this book failed to entirely work for me. I wasn't really convinced by the central romance, and towards the end, the big melodramatic family secrets that have been lurking in the background throughout the series were all revealed and overshadowed Eve and Gabe's story even further.

Nick and Eve's dad is quite clearly a class-A d*ck and I didn't care the slightest for the motivations behind his actions - there is no excuse for how he treated his children or Mrs Kane after the death of her husband and the way he kept the family feud going. He keeps trying to control his children, to the point where he comes to the rehearsal dinner and tries to get his son to break up with his fiancee - not cool.

This whole series has been a little bit too soap opera-y to my tastes, but it did put Alisha Rai on my radar, and since I'm not exactly great about reading diversely, that's not a bad thing. I will absolutely be looking into both her back catalogue, and for any new releases she has coming in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: Whomever is responsible for the cover art for this series has seriously been knocking it out of the park. On all three books, they've managed to find cover models who actually not only look more or less like the people described in the book, but they've dressed them in outfits that said people are likely to wear (or even described as wearing). While I didn't picture Eve's dress exactly like this, it's still a heck of a cover. Too bad about the man bun - can't stand those.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 37: "The Suffragette Scandal" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 260 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 54 mins
Rating: 5 stars, because that's the highest I can rate.

This is a re-read. My original review can be found here.

If you do read my original write-up of this book, you will see just how full of superlatives I was for this book. It is very rare that I just can't concentrate on other books before I've read a book at least twice, just to get it out of my system a little bit. This is one of the few books I can remember that happening with. There are very few books out there that are just perfection to me - I can usually think of at least one or two things that could have been improved or that annoyed me in some way. Not so with The Suffragette Scandal. It delighted me from the first page until the last. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me sigh with satisfaction. Some people might think it could have done with more *insert funky bass line here*. Like many of Milan's romances, it's lighter on the smexy times than a lot of historical romances. I don't think the story suffers for it.

There are a lot of books published every year, and as someone who reads so much romance, there was always the chance that someone had written and published something that surpassed this in the four years since I first read it. Having just re-read it, I can't think of any book that just worked for me on so many levels. I was both surprised and pleased to discover that this book completely and utterly held up to the pedestal I'd put it on in my memory. It doesn't just have two very satisfying slow-burn romances, it has a wonderful heroine, who even in the face of absolutely impossible and staggering odds refuses to be stopped or discouraged. Edward starts out cynical and disillusioned, but finds new purpose in his life because of the dogged optimism and determination of Free.

Most of the things I can say about this book are already in my original review. Even four years later, it absolutely holds up. I adore this book and think it's the best thing Courtney Milan has ever written.

Judging a book by its cover: I really like the deep blue of the dress, and I think it's one of the better results of the photo-shopped and edited wedding dresses.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 36: "The Countess Conspiracy" by Courtney Milan

Page count:
Audio book length: 10 hrs 49 mins
Rating: 5 stars

This is a re-read, my original review of this book can be found here. The book can be read on its own, but works better if you've read at least The Heiress Effect

The final book in a trilogy is always supposed to be about the most complicated of the characters, right? As it turns out, this wasn't actually the final book in the series, as the novella Ms Milan intended for Free Marshall turned into a fourth novel, but this is nevertheless the book and the characters she planned the whole series around. She always intended to write about the brilliant lady scientist, having her male best friend pass her work off as his, because it was inappropriate and unacceptable for her to present it herself (and she was unlikely to get it published in the first place). Still, when it was revealed at the end of The Heiress Effect that Violet was in fact the scandalous scientist, and that Sebastian was becoming more and more depressed having to present her research, it was a jaw-dropping revelation (I didn't really know about all the lady scientists over the years this literally happened to).

I always have to brace myself to re-read this book, because Violet breaks my heart like none other. Due to the way she's been brought up, she's so very closed off from the people around her and while she's absolutely brilliant, a genius in her field, she's so absolutely clueless about friendship and emotions and can't recognise friendship and affection when it's very much being offered up to her. Her marriage, which may have started out ok, did not end well and her husband's growing resentment and eventual callous disregard certainly didn't help with her self esteem issues. Violet loves her sister, but their relationship is also a tricky one - with Violet having to face her sister's ridiculous fecundity, while Violet herself is a childless widow, who never managed to produce the heir her husband so desperately wanted, making her a failure as both a wife and a Victorian woman.

In addition, the scientific achievements that Violet has worked on for years, her real "babies" so to speak, are seen as so inappropriate and scandalous. When she tried to have her first paper published under her own name, no one would even read it, and only once Sebastian signed his name to it did anyone deem to take notice. When he presents her findings in lectures, the crowd is half made up of interested fellow scientists, but just as much outraged citizens who are appalled and disgusted and want to protest Sebastian's audacity.

Over the course of the book, Sebastian and Violet discover that they are not the only ones who have taken to deception and chosen to present a woman's work as that of a man. Ms Milan very specifically addresses the issue in her afterword - history is full of women who have been overlooked and forgotten, because it wasn't appropriate for them to speak their minds. So many scientific discoveries are credited to men, when women were the minds behind them.

Where a lot of authors are quite happy just to write a satisfying historical romance, Ms Milan wants her books to be about more than just the HEA. What is so impressive is that she manages to cover serious issues without ever seeming heavy-handed and preachy. The Countess Conspiracy is a lovely romance - Violet and Sebastian have known each other since they were children, and Sebastian has loved her for more than half his life. He's just waiting for Violet to realise she's worth loving. And even when Violet can't believe herself worthy of love or affection, she is Sebastian's staunchest defender and champion. Their relationship is deeply satisfying, and you learn things along the way as well.

Judging a book by its cover: Another edited wedding dress, this one in purple. Violet is described as wearing a lot of purple, and on re-reading this time, I wondered if it's actually a way to signalise her mourning for all the pregnancies that never went anywhere. Purple was after all a colour of half-mourning in Victorian times.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

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

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

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

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

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

Of course, so do the talking mice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 20 April 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.