Monday, 27 October 2014

#CBR6 Book 111: "Wicked as They Come" by Delilah S. Dawson

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Nurse Letitia "Tish" Everett has only really started recovering from her very controlling, emotionally and physically abusive fiancee Jeff, when she's drawn to a tarnished antique locket at an estate sale and actually ends up shocking herself by stealing it. After managing to force it open, she is splashed by luminous crimson liquid. Inside the locket, there is a portrait of a darkly handsome man she think of as a "naughty Mr. Darcy" and a foreign inscription of some kind. Falling asleep with the locket on, she wakes up, stark naked on what appears to be a stone altar in the the middle of the woods. The handsome man from the locket is there waiting for her, and though she insists she must be having a very lucid dream, he explains that she's in a different world now.

The stranger introduces himself as Criminy Stain, a Bludman from the world of Sang. The inhabitants of Sang are either Pinkies, or humans, like Tish, or Bludmen, like Criminy. The Bludmen drink blood, like the vampires of Tish's world, but aren't even vaguely hampered by sunlight, garlic, stakes, crucifixes or suchlike. As Tish listens to Criminy's explanations, she also discovers another important difference between her world and Sang. All the animals in the wild have sharp pointy teeth, all the better to devour you with. The bunnies may look fluffy, but they want to suck her blood and eat her flesh. Criminy claims to have magically obtained the locket, which he sent out into the world to find his one true love. As Tish, or Letitia as he insists on calling her, found it and opened it, she must be his intended. He wants her to stay in Sang with him, running his carnival of freaks and outcasts. Tish is less than impressed. Even if her strange experience turns out not to be a dream, she has an ailing grandmother to care for at home, as well as a number of patients who rely on her. She's not in the market for a boyfriend, even one as charming and handsome as the mysterious Mr. Stain.

Nonetheless, Criminy takes her back to his caravan, after she's narrowly escaped being bitten by several fierce Bludbunnies on the way. Once there, she's quite taken with the fancy corseted outfit she's given and they discover that she's a "glancer", someone who gets visions when she touches the bare flesh of another person. Because she saves the life of the costumer (who is also Criminy's accountant) with her vision, it's clear that her abilities are the real deal, and Criminy sets her up as the caravan's new fortune teller. Tish discovers that when she goes to sleep in Sang, wearing her locket she wakes back up in her own world. When she goes back to sleep in her own bed, having cared for her grandmother and other patients, she's back in Sang.

Then the locket gets stolen, and Tish is stuck in Sang. She's frantic with worry and since she suspects who stole it and what he wants to do with it, it's imperative that she and Criminy get it back. Criminy is determined that Tish decide to stay with him of her own free will, so they set off on a dangerous quest that will force them to tame Bludhorses, battle ghosts, steal a submarine and outsmart a power-hungry, Bludman-hating city official bent on world domination.

Wicked as They Come is the first book in Delilah S. Dawson's series of what she herself labels as whimsy dark Steampunk. It's the main pick for October 2014 in Vaginal Fantasy (a name I agree with my husband is awful) and Felicia Day described this month's theme as monster mash-up, with books that have a little bit of everything in them. This has a protagonist shifted from one world to another, magic, clockwork animals, Victoriana, vampires who aren't really vampires, a travelling caravan, a dashing hero who runs the caravan and even juggles. There are ghosts, mermaids, evil villains and racism. Being mostly terrified of the Bludmen, the Pinkies have forced them into servitude and isolated themselves into fortified cities. There are very few safe animals left, since the Bludanimals prey on them. It's like the author took a little bit of everything she liked and threw it together, the only thing missing is the kitchen sink.

Strangely, it works. I liked that Tish, while very attracted to Criminy, doesn't just fall into his arms. She's still recovering from some pretty serious abuse in her last relationship and unlike some stories I can think of, her emotional wounds aren't magically made better as soon as she meets a new hot guy. It's also not as if she's in Sang of her own free will, and she's certainly not falling for Criminy's "you're my fated mate because you found the locket" spiel. She likes the novelty of the experience and especially the chance to reinvent herself in fancy Victorian outfits, and she's not averse to flirting a bit with Criminy, but she wants to be wooed properly and is in no hurry to settle down. For one thing, she loves her grandmother and is not going to abandon her to go off to live in an alternate reality.

The idea of the Bludmen was also a great one. A completely different species from humans, although also humanoid, the Bludmen (and animals) drink blood and eat flesh. They can be born or made, which is why animals for food have to be raised within city walls and carefully protected, so the Bludanimals don't get to them. There doesn't seem to be many cats or dogs, as the Bludrats or Bludbunnies have all gotten to them. When Tish is first bitten by a vicious little bunny, I kept thinking of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the "hideous creature with sharp. pointy. teeth!" In the part of Sang where Criminy lives, the Bludmen are considered lower than Pinkies and are usually forced to work in the factories and do menial labor, while the Pinkies are the more prosperous. It is indicated that in other parts of Sang (where most of the countries have names that seem very reminiscent of the European countries of our/Tish's world), this is not always the case.

I didn't exactly like the way Criminy went about getting himself a girlfriend, as Tish is in effect kidnapped from her own world and ends up completely dependent on him in Sang. He also seemed to take his love for her as a given, even after they just met, but gets points for not really forcing himself on Tish and waiting for her to return his feelings. Even when it would be in his best interest NOT to help her, after all, if Tish doesn't have her locket, she's stuck in Sang for good, he agrees to go with her to retrieve it. He has a lot of fairy standard paranormal romance hero traits (extremely attractive, a bit domineering, your typical alpha), which considering this was Ms. Dawson's debut novel, isn't all that surprising. She still managed to create something quite different from a lot of other paranormal/Steampunk offerings out there. I like her world building, her characters and her intentions that the books be whimisical rather than grim and gritty all the time. I suspect this will not be the last of her books that I check out.


Crossposted on Cannonbal Read.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

#CBR6 Book 110: "It Takes Two to Tangle" by Theresa Romain

Page count: 354 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Henry Middlebrook was a promising young artist before he went off to war. Now, after the Napoleonic wars, he's completely lost the use of his right arm. He can no longer paint, and feels cast adrift, without purpose. His sister-in-law is determined for him to make a promising match, hoping that the love of a good woman will help him become someone closer to the cheerful, carefree man he was before the war. She introduces him to Lady Caroline Stratton, possibly the most sought after women of the season. A wealthy, charming and beautiful widow, Lady Stratton has a wealth of suitors and her drawing room is filled to the brim with elaborate floral arrangements every afternoon. A clever strategist, Henry realises he's going to need an ally to win Lady Caroline over and convinces her companion, Mrs Frances Whittier to assist him. She's usually ignored by her cousin's suitors and enjoys the novelty of being asked to help.

When Henry receives a letter written on Lady Caroline's stationary, he immediately assumes that he's made a stronger impression on Lady Stratton than he first imagined. Of course, he's mistaken, and the letter is from Frances. She's too embarrassed to tell him, when he comes to her asking for help to continue the correspondence with Lady Caroline. She reluctantly agrees and he precedes to woo a woman who's not even vaguely intending to get remarried with the assistance of the woman who actually likes him. The longer they work together, the closer they grow, and it becomes harder and harder for Frances to tell Henry the truth without completely destroying their closeness.

Several of the reviewers on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books are big fans of Theresa Romain's novels, so when I saw this in an e-book sale I decided to buy it. As with so many books, it then languished on my shelf for months until one of the words for September's Monthly Keyword challenge made me remember it again. There was a lot of stuff I liked about it, such as the characters and the somewhat unusual situation for the hero to be in. You very rarely see genuinely physically damaged romance heroes, or if they have some sort of injury, they are magically healed by the love of a good woman and some unlikely medical breakthrough before the book ends. In this, Henry isn't any less crippled at the end of the book, but having finally opened up a bit about some of his experiences during the war, he's closer to emotional healing than he was at the beginning. Which is perfectly realistic and fine. He's also better at writing with his left hand, but only because he's practised diligently.

The book is well written, but I kept waiting for it to do more than mildly divert me. It was just a thoroughly ok book, nothing more, nothing less. I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it either. I liked the various relationships between the characters, like the affectionate way Henry's sister-in-law emotionally blackmails him or the way Caroline and Frances converse when no one else is around. I liked the way Henry and Frances helped each other get over their difficult pasts, but the convoluted letter plot just didn't do anything for me. Because I keep hearing such good things about her books, I will try other Romain romances, hoping that some of the others impress me more than this one.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 109: "Divergent" by Veronica Roth

Page count: 489 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Beatrice Prior is about to turn sixteen. This is the day when she has to choose which of the five factions in society she wants to belong to for the rest of her life. Beatrice and her brother have been raised in Abnegation, the self sacrificing and selfless people in society. The other four factions are Erudite (the intellectual, who all seem kind of snobby), Amity (the peaceful and apparently the ones who grow all the food), Candor (the honest, they cannot actually lie) and Dauntless (the brave - to the point of stupidity). After taking an aptitude test, each teenager will be told what faction they are best suited for. If they don't make it through the initiation of their chosen faction, they become part of the Factionless, who live on the streets and do the absolutely worst jobs in society to get food.  Beatrice's test results are inconclusive, and she displays strong traits of three different factions. This apparently makes her Divergent and she is told never to reveal her results to anyone. When she has to make her choice, Beatrice chooses Dauntless and is shocked to discover that her brother, who has always seemed like he embodies all the values of Abnegation, chooses Erudite.

The Dauntless all dress in black, tend to have piercings and tattoos and don't travel through the city (a post-apocalyptic version of Chicago) in any normal way. Nope, they jump onto and off moving trains. Three Dauntless initiates die before they even make it to the Dauntless compound. Beatrice decides to reinvent herself and calls herself Tris. On the plus side, Dauntless initiates are allowed to eat exciting food, use mirrors  and wear clothes that aren't just shapeless grey sacks. On the minus side, only a select few will make it through the initiation tests. The rest will either die or become Factionless. There's physical and mental ordeals, and the initiates have to learn how to use firearms, knives and to beat the crap out of each other. They get injected with a strange serum and have to face their fears in a trancelike state. Apparently, Tris' Divergent state makes her realise that she's hallucinating, and she beats the tests really quickly. This worries Four, her hunky, yet brooding trainer, and he is worried that someone is going to figure out that Tris isn't just any old recruit.

As Tris, despite being pretty small and timid to begin with, seems to do really well in the initiation tests, it becomes clear that civil unrest is starting to erupt outside the compound. The Erudite leaders are claiming that the Abnegation leaders are corrupt and hoarding resources, depriving the other factions. There's clearly bad things afoot, but Tris is more concerned with her growing attraction to Four.

Divergent is the debut novel of Veronica Roth, who was only 23 when it was published. It's yet another dystopian YA novel, set in a post-apocalyptic future and while the author may claim what she's done is wholly different from The Hunger Games, it really isn't and it suffers in comparison. I tried to suspend my disbelief and not be overly critical, but I just don't see how the society established in this book would work. A society where pretty much every sixteen-year-old only manifests one dominant character trait, to the point where those who don't are super rare and seen as something threatening and abhorrent seems very odd to me. I struggle to see how the Dauntless ever manage to recruit enough members, since pretty much everything they do seems to involve death-defying feats, that frequently lead to their members dying. Hamburgers and rad tattoos don't make up for the fact that you might die every time you tried to go into the city proper, because you have to hurl yourself onto and off a moving train.

Tris is more likable than Katniss, actually, but at least Katniss had some real personality. Tris is mainly worried all the time, not all that nice to her new friends, and obsessed with Four (whose identity is obvious to anyone who's been even vaguely paying attention). I know the book is aimed at teenagers and the thirteen-year-olds I currently teach seem to adore the series, but it makes me sad, because it's just not all that good. It went unexpectedly violent in the final act, guess I shouldn't be surprised, having read Mockingjay. Having heard mainly negative things about the second, and especially the third book in the series, I suspect I will resort to Wikipedia summaries to find out how the series end. I'm not going to read the books.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR6 Book 108: "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn

Page count: 466 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Nick Dunne's beautiful wife Amy disappears on the day of their fifth wedding anniversary. Through diary entries from Amy's diaries, the readers see how the couple met and fell in love, when they were both magazine writers in New York. Two layoffs and a move back to Nick's hometown in Missouri later, taking care of his ailing parents, and things are no longer so idyllic. The last two years of their marriage have clearly not been all that great and Nick quickly becomes the police's prime suspect. While the early years of their marriage were great, it's obvious that Nick hasn't exactly been the model husband, and the suspicious members of the local community, the police and the media are all too ready to believe he had something to do with Amy's disappearance. Maybe he even murdered her?

Her diaries show that she was growing fearful of him. Friends Nick didn't even realise she had claims that she was afraid of him. She tried to buy a gun without his knowledge. And now she is gone without a trace. What exactly did happen to Amy Dunne?

I don't want to say too much in my synopsis, because the whole point of this book is that it is so much better if you don't know exactly what is coming. Considering pretty much everyone in the known world had read it before me, and many of those have reviewed it either this year or last year for Cannonball Read, there are both spoilery and non-spoilery reviews out there if you want them. All I knew about the book was that it was best not to know too much about it, there was a twist in there, and that it was wildly hyped all over the place. Since David Fincher decided to adapt the novel, which was opening in cinemas at the start of October, I wanted to have read the book before the film came out. I figured it was going to be a lot harder to remain unspoiled afterwards (I was right).

I really wasn't thrilled with the book or the characters for the first third, but kept reading, convinced that so many people couldn't be raving about this book if it was just going to be about the musings of some schlubby Midwestern bar owner, interspersed with the diary entries of his highly strung, a bit snooty wife. I was right. Little over a third of the way in, the narrative suddenly changes and things suddenly get a whole lot more interesting. The reader sees Amy and Nick in a wholly different light and I went from forcing myself to keep reading to not wanting to put the book down. I read the last half of the book in pretty much one long sitting, neglecting my correction work and household chores, just to see where the book was going to go next. I'm not going to go so far as to say I liked any of the characters. I don't think that's what Gillian Flynn is aiming for. With the possible exception of the detective Boney, who is investigating Amy's disappearance and Nick's sister Margo, I think pretty much all the people in this book are deeply dislikable and are meant to be.

Having read the book, I also went and saw the movie adaptation. I think it's one of those rare cases where the film is actually even better than the book. I can't deny that having seen the trailer for the film before I read the book, my mental casting of Nick and Amy was pretty much Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. But that's because the film is impeccably cast. Fincher is a great director and the film was extremely entertaining. Flynn herself adapted the novel into a screenplay, and it allowed her to take some of the bits that dragged in the book and make them more streamlined for the film. I liked the book, I loved the film. So while I wouldn't normally say this - see the movie first. If you like it, you can always read the book afterwards to see which bits were different. 


Wednesday, 22 October 2014

#CBR6 Book 107: "Rock Courtship" by Nalini Singh

Page count: 166 pages
Rating: 4 stars

DISCLAIMER! I got this ARC from NetGalley in return for a fair and unbiased review.

David Rivera, known as the Gentleman of Rock for his nice manners and penchant for wearing bespoke suits, is the drummer in famous rock band Schoolboy Choir. He's in love with Thea Arsana, the band's publicist, and has told her about his feelings, but she has a firm policy not to mix business with pleasure. That's even before you factor in the fact that her last boyfriend was a complete bastard, who she walked in on, having sex with a younger woman, so she has natural trust issues with guys. So David pines in silence for Thea for months, until her younger sister, Molly, suggests that he send her a memo. Yup. Not an e-mail. Not a tweet. A memo. He takes her advice.

The memo arrives just as Thea is going off on vacation, and David's carefully worded arguments start to make Thea waver. She does some thinking, then refutes his every persuasive bullet point with one of her own. She's charmed, though, and they continue sending memos back and forth. David knows about Thea's relationship history, they were friends before he fell for her, but even then, he never liked her ex. He knows he needs to work hard to persuade Thea that he will never cheat on her and is willing to do anything to make her happy. They continue to communicate via memos, text messages and on the phone. Thea is worried that entering into a relationship with him will ruin their friendship, and if they were to end badly, it would affect her career and his band. With his patient courtship, David wins her over.

This romance is pretty much exactly the opposite of Rock Addiction, where the couple go from insta-lust to insta-love in less than a month. David and Thea have known each other for a long time. They were friends, and Thea is naturally wary about jeopardising what they do have by taking it to the next level. Their courtship is slow and gradual and David is very sweet and romantic. When they finally decide to start a romantic relationship, it feels earned.

As I said in my review for Rock Addiction, I really like the supporting characters in these books and while the last book didn't exactly thrill me, this novella has ensured that I'll continue checking out Nalini Singh's contemporary romances. I'm assuming the other members of the band have to find their own HEAs at some point.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR6 Book 106: "Rock Addiction" by Nalini Singh

Page count: 356 pages
Rating: 3 stars

DISCLAIMER! This ARC was given to me through NetGalley in return for a fair and unbiased review.

WARNING. This will be a fairly spoilery review, because I'm sick with a cold and can't be bothered to find a non-spoilery way of describing the plot. 

Molly Harper is a shy and timid librarian present at a glamorous celebrity party because her older half-sister is a hot shot publicist. Present at the party are the members of Schoolboy Choir, one of the hottest rock bands in the world right now. Zachary Fox, the lead singer, has apparently fallen madly for Molly, having seen her from across the room and when she leaves, he follows, propositioning her in the lift. Molly, despite having a number of psychological issues from her teenage years and who's still a virgin, decides to take Fox home for a steamy one night stand.

Fox pretty much immediately decides that Molly is the woman for him and he is ready to settle down now. As Molly has a number of trust issues and is worried about commitment, he decides not to tell her that it took him about 48 hours to decide she was his soul mate. It takes about two weeks of passionate smexy times before Molly realises that the rock god who has women throwing themselves at him all the time is the right guy for her. They move to LA together. They keep having awesome sex. Molly tells Fox about her creepy cheating scumbag of a dad and her alcoholic mother and he helps her deal with her trust issues. There's some complications involving the paparazzi and constantly being in the spotlight. They work past it.

There is no real conflict in this book. Seemingly mousy, but in reality really pretty, librarian meets rock frontman at a party and they more or less find insta-love. In less than a month of hooking up, they are living together. Molly moves from NEW ZEALAND to Los Angeles, quitting her job, abandoning all her friends, for this guy she's known for a few weeks. She's super wary of media attention because of a scandal caused by her father when she was fifteen, yet she happily moves in with a man who the tabloids constantly follow. They keep having great sex. All the minor obstacles thrown in the couple's way are dealt with easily, with no real ramifications.

It's not that Molly and Fox aren't a cute couple. I just wish there had been some buildup to their relationship. Since Molly's sister is Schoolboy Choir's publicist, there could have been some legitimate backstory, where they'd met a few times before - but no. They observe each other across the room at a crowded party, then go home together and that's pretty much it. Soul mates. I don't like it, and kept hoping that the book was going to go somewhere more interesting. But it didn't.

So why have you given it a full 3 stars if there was so much that annoyed you, Malin? Because the supporting cast of characters was great. I loved the female friendships in this book, between Molly and her sister and Molly and her best friend. They felt really believable. I'm also expecting that at some point Nalini Singh will release a book or a novella chronicling the probably extremely hot romance between Molly's BFF and her corporate boss, which is hinted at throughout the book. The friendships between the guys in the band is also really well done. It's not like I didn't like Fox and Molly as characters, I just wanted a plausible explanation for why they they became a couple that didn't amount to: they had great sex when he deflowered her and they keep having great sex. I like a good build up. This book had none.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

#CBR6 Book 105: "Etiquette & Espionage" by Gail Carriger

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Sophronia Temminnick is not all a proper young lady should be. She'd much rather be climbing trees, spying on conversations in the dumb-waiter and dismantle machinery than converse politely over tea. So her mother sends her off to boarding school, more specifically Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Sophronia makes new friends on her way there. Miss Dimity Plumleigh-Teignmott and her brother Pillover are both being sent away to school (Pillover is to go to a boy's academy, naturally) and discover that Sophronia has no idea what kind of school she's enrolling in.

The youngsters are attacked by sky pirates on their way to school and Sophronia's quick thinking to get them out of the dangerous situation makes her a possible new enemy. It turns out that the school is in fact a training academy in the covert arts and espionage and the young ladies must learn how to fight, sneak and even possibly assassinate, in addition to learning comportment and proper manners. Sophronia and her new friends (among them a Scottish noblewoman raised by werewolves and a cross-dressing urchin with a passion for inventions) do their best to foil Sophronia's nemesis, trying to recover a stolen prototype before it gets sold to enemies of the state.

I mostly very much enjoyed Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series and there is no denying that the woman has a very colourful and creative imagination. Her alternate Victorian England with vampires, werewolves, Steampunk and the like is a delight and while some of her quirks may get a bit exasperating, her books tend to be entertaining, if not always the heaviest in substance.

Etiquette & Espionage is the first book in her new series for Young Adult reader, and it's actually set quite some time before the Parasol Protectorate books. Readers of both series will be pleased to see younger versions of Lady Kingair and Genevieve Lefoux and I have no doubt that as the series continues, there will be more familiar faces.

Carriger is fond of a headstrong heroine (as well as truly outrageous names). I actually think Sophronia is a more likable heroine than Alexia (who could be a bit of a pill), but it's clear to see that Carriger's pattern of pragmatic and impetuous protagonist paired with a ditzy, somewhat silly best friend is re-used in this series. The third book in the Finishing School series is out at the beginning of November, and if I don't get round to catching up this year, I'm sure I will revisit Sophronia and her little friends sometime in the new year.



Crossposted on Cannonball Read.