Thursday, 16 April 2015

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

Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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

Page count: 162 pages
Rating: 3 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 6 April 2015

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

Page count: 249 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

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

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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

Page count: 417 pages
Rating: 4 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 32: "Soul Music" by Terry Pratchett

Page count: 378 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Susan Sto Helit goes to a boarding school, and for the lessons she's less interested in, she has a tendency to fade into the woodwork - literally. Susan has the ability to fade away, should she so wish it. Turns out, this is because her grandfather is none other than Death, and when he goes missing, Susan, as his closest relative, is required to take over his duties for a while. Being deeply pragmatic and rational, thanks to her first rate education, it takes Susan a while to be persuaded, even when a tiny rat skeleton with a cloak and a scythe and a talking raven, not to mention the big white horse, shows up on her doorstep.

While Susan gets reacquainted with the family history her parents tried to keep from her, something new is sweeping through Ankh Morpork - the Music with Rocks in it. The young bard Imp Y Celyn (who looks a bit Elvish) and his band mates, Cliff the troll and Glod the dwarf become unbelievably popular in record time, thanks to the guitar Imp discovered in a mysterious little music shop shortly after he arrived in the capital. The music is something new and different, it has a beat and you can dance to it, and it makes almost everyone who hears it, completely obsessed. This includes many of the esteemed wizards at the Unseen University. Ridcully, the Arch-Chancellor, is curious and unimpressed, and determined to get to the bottom of what is making his faculty and the majority of citizens in the city to behave so strangely.

Soul Music was the very first Discworld novel I ever read. I found it at my local library, which in the mid-90s didn't really have all that many English books and certainly not a great selection of fantasy. The unusual and colourful cover appealed to me and I suspect the blurb on the back made me curious. The book came out in 94, and since I read the trade paperback, I must have discovered Pratchett sometime after 1995, probably before I'd even started high school. It was a completely different reading experience for me. I remember that I kept reading until far later than was sensible on a school night, because the book didn't have chapters, and as such, it was difficult to force myself to put the book down and stop. Soul Music is not one of the truly great Discworld books, but it will always hold a special place in my heart, because it was my first introduction to the writing of Terry Pratchett.

I was still at work, getting everything ready for my lessons the next day, when my husband called to tell me that Terry Pratchett had died. I'm not ashamed to say, I burst into tears. Of course I knew that it would only be a matter of time, as he suffered from Alzheimer's and had always been very open about wanting to choose his own time to die, but it was still a shock. I cried for quite some time before I was able to return to my duties, and kept bursting into tears on and off for days afterwards, every time I read something online about him and the impact his writing made on so many people. It's the strongest I've been affected by the death of a celebrity, someone I never actually knew personally.

I feel lucky and privileged that I got to meet Pratchett at signings, more than once. My husband has a copy of Good Omens, which is signed by both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, which, considering Gaiman didn't do signings in the UK all that often, makes us cherish the book for more than just being probably the best book they both wrote. Before he got diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Pratchett would pretty much do a UK signing tour every year. He apparently joked once that it was more unusual to find an unsigned copy of his books than one with his signature in it, but I still think the times that I got to see him, and exchange a few words with him were very special. One of the dwarfs in The Truth is called Gunilla, which is my middle name. When I mentioned this to him at a signing, he smiled and said: "Then you probably know what gender that dwarf is."

Pratchett was a wonderful, important writer and in his Discworld books he managed to satirise so many important issues in our society. In some of his books, he is more angry than funny, but until the last few books of his career, when his brain had really started to go, he is a master of language, of plot construction and of wit. His books have made me howl with laughter, and cry buckets. A few of my favourite books of his, are non-Discworld. Good Omens, which I have already mentioned, was co-written with Neil Gaiman and is an amazing take on the apocalypse. Nation is a YA novel that looks at identity, belief, prejudice and cross-cultural understanding. While he may have been writing in the comedic fantasy genre, that doesn't mean that he didn't have very profound things to say. We are lucky that he was a very prolific writer, so there is a great literary legacy remaining now that he's gone. RIP Terry Pratchett.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

#CBR7 Book 31: "The Winner's Curse" by Marie Rutkoski

Page count: 369 pages
Rating: 4 stars

WARNING! There are some spoilers for the plot of this book in the review, so if you prefer to go into a book knowing nothing about it, you may want to skip this. 

Kestrel is the only daughter of Valorian general Trajan. They live in the province of Herran, formerly a bustling independent nation, invaded, conquered, enslaved and now occupied on orders from the Valorian emperor. The surviving Herrani are slaves, bought and sold at the mercy of the Valorians. As a Valorian woman, Kestrel has two choices in life, she can join the army (which her father very much wants her to do, not for her fighting skills, which are frankly unremarkable, but for her clever mind and affinity for strategy) or marriage. She is uncomfortable with the imperialistic nature of her people, but doesn't exactly do a lot to voice her discontent either. In fact, though uncomfortable with the enslavement of the Herrani, she ends up buying a Herrani slave at an auction for an enormous sum, and comes to regret it in more ways than one.

Arin is a former Herrani noble, sold into General Trajan's household as a blacksmith. He correctly senses that Kestrel can be manipulated and soon gains a lot of freedom to move around the estate, and occasionally even to visit the city centre. Arin's presence at the auction wasn't a coincidence, and he is working in secret with many other Herrani to overthrow their Valorian oppressors. He never expected to grow so close to a Valorian, but the more time he spends in Kestrel's presence, the more their attraction grows. What is going to happen when his fight for freedom upsets her entire world?

"The Winner's Curse" of the title of this book refers to the fact that the winner of an auction having in many ways lost, because whoever places the winning bid, has paid more than what all the other bidders have decided the item is worth. In the case of Kestrel in this book, the bidding escalates incredibly quickly, and she ends up paying a scandalous amount for Arin. That she later comes to regret her purchase in all sorts of other ways, is also part of her curse.

This was a book that I heard about fairly early in 2014, but pretty much discounted because of the silly cover. As the year progressed, the book got very favourable reviews on a number of sites I follow, and it also appeared on several Best of 2014 lists. So when I found it on sale at the end of the year, I bought it, and as I've been granted an ARC of the second book in the series, I figured it was time to finally see what all the fuss was about.

On Goodreads, I've seen several reviews very unhappy with the way the issue of slavery was dealt with in this book. The Valorians are basically the Romans here, greedily expanding their empire, not really because they are threatened by their surrounding countries, but because of greed and a wish to subjugate all those they consider weaker and thus inferior to them. A strategic, military nation, they basically invaded the peninsula of Herran through trickery and considered the Herrani weak because they surrendered quickly, letting themselves be enslaved, rather than trying to fight back. Now Valorians occupy the area, living in Herrani mansions, buying and selling the Herrani as slaves. No one seems to question the rightness of this, not even Kestrel, who is seen as controversial in society because she used a favour from her father on her sixteenth birthday to free the Herrani woman who acted as her nurse.

I can see why some people are uncomfortable, but I also severely doubt that the majority of Romans, Greeks, 17th and 18th Century Americans or Europeans for that matter, who all enslaved and traded in other humans actually considered the atrocity of what they were doing. So it's unfair to expect a protagonist written into such a society to be super progressive and against the very fabric of the society she's a product of. Kestrel has been raised believing that the Valorians are superior. She's always been surrounded by slaves. Only when she actually comes into contact with and spends time with Arin, who gives her some perspective on what it's like to be on the other side of such a transaction, does she start to gradually change her views.

I really liked the book, for all that some of the serious issues are dealt with in a very YA way. There is not a lot of time spent giving back story to the Valorian invasion or exactly what atrocities were perpetrated. While it's clear that Arin has experienced some very horrible things in his past, that's not really explored either. It is very understandable that the Valorian occupation has led the formerly very peaceful Herrani towards revolt and while Kestrel is quite appalled at some of the actions of the rebels, it was hard to fault them for wanting to take their country and freedom back.

Kestrel is an engaging heroine, portrayed somewhat out of touch with the rest of her peers. She loves and respects her father, but is deeply reluctant to choose either of the options available to her as a Valorian woman. Only seventeen, she has long realised that she's not a fighter, and as she disapproves of the Valorian tendency to invade and conquer their surrounding lands, the idea of becoming a strategician and officer isn't appealing to her either. Nor is she particularly taken with the idea of marrying, even though her best friend Tess would be all too happy to see her form an alliance with her brother Ronan. What Kestrel really longs to do, is devote herself to music, a past time seen as frivolous and strange to the other Valorians. Music, literature and art are apparently things that the Herrani excelled at, now they have to perform for their new masters. One of the things that initially gets her involved in the bidding war for Arin, is that the auctioneer claims that he's an accomplished singer. Because of the high importance placed on personal honour in ancient Roman (and therefore here in Valorian society), obeying one's parents and always saving face is imperative. Hence, while Kestrel may in her heart of hearts be uncomfortable with much of the way her society is run, she's one young woman, and protesting and causing scenes would likely just result in her being married off to some older man who was expected to control her.

While there are scenes from Arin's point of view, so much more time is spent with Kestrel, and he remains a bit of a mystery. He is clearly an important figure in the Herrani rebellion, and it is made clear over the course of the novel that he came from a high ranking family, and lost his family when the Valorians invaded. While he wants to hate Kestrel among with the other Valorians, there is an undeniable attraction from the start, and it grows the more time they spend together. He plays on her guilt and discomfort to get free passage on the estate, and is frequently the slave that accompanies her to her society events, able to observe, spy, plot and strategise. Like Kestrel, Arin is very intelligent and they both thrive on strategy games. While Kestrel's wits are usually used in gambling for coins in entertaining party games, the stakes for Arin and his accomplices are so much higher.

While the book was slow to build, I very much enjoyed the more action packed and dramatic second half. There is a delicious melodrama and star-crossed lovers aspect to Kestrel and Arin's romance, with their happily ever after seeming pretty impossible. Even more so with the developments in the last quarter of the book, which left me impatiently waiting for the second book in the series, which I luckily have available to me. I hope that the second book doesn't end on as much as a cliff-hanger, as the third book isn't out until 2016.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.