Sunday, 31 January 2016

#CBR8 Book 6: "The Year We Fell Down" by Sarina Bowen

Page count: 270 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Corey Callahan was expecting to go to prestigious Harkness College as a varsity hockey player, but instead arrives there in a wheelchair, after ending up partly paralysed from the wait down after an accident on the ice. Her cheerful new roommate doesn't seem to mind that they have to stay in a handicap-accessible room away from all the other Harkness freshmen. If having to re-assess all her hopes and dreams about college wasn't difficult enough, Corey also falls head over heels for the extremely hot hockey player in the room across the hall, incapacitated by a leg broken in two places. The only problem? Adam Hartley already has a girlfriend.

Hartley's girlfriend is spending a semester abroad, however, and as they are both stuck in the "gimp ghetto" together, Hartley and Corey strike up a close friendship, taking lectures together, helping each other manoeuvre the dining hall and bonding over hockey played on a games console, since neither of them can skate on the ice at the moment. Corey grows more miserable as with time, she discovers that Hartley isn't just drop dead gorgeous, but smart, charming, friendly and funny. While all his friends and teammates seem to be encouraging him to forget his bitchy girlfriend, Hartley is determined to stay faithful to her. Will Corey ever have a chance with him? Will a vibrant and clearly active guy like Hartley ever see a broken girl like Corey as anything more than "one of the guys"?

Last year, a number of Cannonballers read and rated Sarina Bowen's The Ivy Years books, a series of New Adult novels set at the fictional Harkness College, mostly centred around hockey, very highly. Hence when the first book in the series was available for free on Amazon for a limited time, I jumped at the chance to get it. To complete the last few of my massive amount of reading challenges towards the end of 2015, I never got round to actually starting the series, but now, with a new reading year open to me and less demanding reading challenges on my plate, I figured I'd see what all the fuss was about. Like with Kristen Callihan's Game On books, featuring American football players, I know little to nothing about the sport that many of the characters care about and couldn't really care less about it either. Unlike with American football, however, I teach at a school where quite a lot of the
teenagers play hockey and I've actually seen the game being played.

Not that there's much hockey being actually played in this book, unless you count the computer game kind. Yet it plays an integral part in the lives of both protagonists. Corey's older brother is a former student at Harkness and used to play for the college hockey team. Hartley and his teammates all know him and are amused to discover that Corey is his little sister. Because she gets the game and all their references, it doesn't take long before they've all adopted her, while trying not to talk too much about the fact that Corey won't ever again be able to play the game they all love so much. While Corey has insecurities of her looks and especially the fact that she's stuck in a wheelchair, she's determined not to let her injury define her and there certainly isn't a "poor little me" attitude about her. She works hard to work up her strength so she can get around on crutches instead of solely in the wheelchair and she has an amazing gallows humour, often making jokes at her own expense before anyone else can. The fact that Hartley is stuck in the same boat as her, confined to crutches for a whole semester, makes it less lonely for her to be a "gimp".

Hartley is an all-round pretty great guy, but can't get over that he is illegitimate and comes from a poor background. While none of his friends can really stand his snooty, privileged and wealthy girlfriend, Stacia, Hartley is amazed that someone so popular and high class would even deign to look in his direction, and puts up with way more than is entirely reasonable just to be with her. While he and Corey start out as friends, it's obvious as time passes that there is more between them than just camaraderie, and once he becomes aware of the feelings Corey has for him, he should either have broken up with Stacia or stopped being quite so flirty with Corey, as leading her on was just needlessly cruel. I also didn't like the way he handled being stood up on his birthday, as he'd previously been so firm about being faithful and not fooling around. Once again, it was cruel towards Corey. Hartley spending way too long coming to his senses and refusing to dump Stacia, even when he knew full well that Corey was into him, is the reason I'm deducting half a star from the rating of the book.

As well as a great, gradually developing from friendship to love relationship between the protagonists, I really liked the presence of several of the supporting characters. The friendship between Corey and her roommate Dana is a great one and Hartley's teammates were also fun when they appeared. I liked the way the girls supported each other and how Dana forced Corey out of her comfort zone occasionally, preventing her from just holing up in their room all the time, away from the world. I can absolutely see why Sarina Bowen's books were popular among so many and am glad I finally got to jump on the band wagon too.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 5: "The Epic Adventures of Lydia Bennet" by Kate Rorick and Rachel Kiley

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lydia Bennet became somewhat of an internet celebrity when her older sister Lizzie's vlogs, made as part of her graduate project, went viral in a major way. Always happy to be the centre of attention, Lydia made her own videos and loved the attention she got on YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr and other social media sites. Unfortunately, when she fell in love with and trusted a man who took terrible advantage of her, she also had to face her private life being open for all to see, and her name became synonymous with "that girl whose boyfriend tried to sell their sex tape to make money". Then her sister Lizzie's powerful boyfriend paid to have the whole ugly situation go away, and Lydia was left traumatised, humiliated and heart-broken.

Now Lydia is trying to rebuild her confidence and look to the future. Still living at home with her parents while her two older sisters have found love and moved to big cities, Lydia is completing summer courses at community college in preparation for transferring to San Francisco, where she'll study psychology and live with her taciturn Goth cousin Mary. Trying to re-build your life in a place where everyone is aware of who you are and what mistakes you've made isn't easy, though, and Lydia is so worried that everyone around her is just waiting for her to screw up again that she retreats back into the carefree party girl persona she used to be so comfortable with. All she needs to do to get accepted at the prestigious San Francisco university she wants to transfer into is write her application essay about a time when she experienced failure and what she learned from it. That shouldn't be too difficult, should it?

While Lydia's had to grow a lot since her first serious relationship crashed and burned extremely publicly, she's still has a lot of healing and maturing to do. Clearly feeling inadequate in comparison to both her sisters who are working in the fields they're most passionate about, Lydia is still not entirely sure what she wants to do with her life. While she likes the idea of studying psychology, she also has doubts and gets very insecure when she realises how many years the education is likely to take. She tries to cling to her old life while being impatient to move on to a new and better one, yet is uncertain and afraid of screwing up badly again. She's also struggling to rebuild the trust of one of her best friends, her cousin Mary, as well as her sisters and her parents.

The Epic Adventures of Lydia Bennet is a sequel to both the highly successful YouTube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which re-imagined Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice for the 21st Century (which if you haven't watched - what are you doing with your life?) AND the book The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, which gave us a lot of extra insight into protagonist Lizzie and further re-imagining of a lot of the scenes from the original novel that didn't appear in the series. In the Austen novel, Lydia is the obnoxious and oblivious flighty youngest sister who elopes with Mr Darcy's childhood friend and later nemesis, Mr. Wickham and seems quite happy to have ended up married to him.

In the modern re-imagining, Lydia may have started out similarly wild and irritating, but thanks in large part to the immense charm and skill with which actress Mary Kate Wiles portrayed her, Lydia grew to be a huge fan favourite and because the fate of Lydia Bennet of 200 years ago simply wouldn't work today, the show's writers took her story in a different direction. Running off with a man to whom you are not married wouldn't raise so much as an eyebrow in today's society, but being betrayed by your lover with the release of a sex tape would absolutely cause a stir similar to that of a Regency elopement. In both the book and the YouTube series, Mr. Darcy eventually comes through and sorts things out for the Bennet family in an attempt to make life easier for Lizzie, the woman he loves. In the YouTube series, however, Lizzie and Lydia tearfully begin to re-build their somewhat dysfunctional relationship in the aftermath of the tragedy and Lydia not trapped forever in a relationship with Wickham.

Kate Rorick and Rachel Kiley, two of the writers of the show, write in the acknowledgements that fans kept asking for Lydia's continued story and wanted to see that she had a chance at the same happy ending that her two sisters got. This book shows us what how Lydia's life progressed after the scandal that nearly ruined her life. There are appearances from Lizzie and Jane, but the most important supporting character is Mary, who in the YouTube re-imagining is the Bennet sisters' gloomy cousin, rather than their sister. Mary only appeared in a couple of episodes in the main YouTube series, but was quite prominent in Lydia's own videos (a spin-off of the main series). In this book she's working in a coffee shop off campus of the community college, waiting for Lydia to finish her courses so they can move to San Francisco together. She has a lovely sub-plot where she becomes the bassist of a local band, mainly through Lydia's machinations.

Having listened to the audio book of Pride and Prejudice at the end of last year and then read Jo Baker's Longbourn, it's interesting to have three very different versions of Lydia Bennet and her story in my head. The modern version is the only one I'd really be interested in reading more about, though, and I'm really glad that Rorick and Kiley decided to pen the continuing story of the youngest Bennet sisters, to give fans of the show an idea of what the future brings for her. It was absolutely nice to catch up with the older sisters and seeing where their lives had taken them, but getting more Lydia and Mary was more fun than I was expecting. Like in the series, Lydia occasionally really annoyed me and I kept wanting to shake her for some of the choices she was making, but slowly but surely, she figures out what she wants and who she wants to be, and in many ways, that was even more satisfying than her sister's Lizzie's development. Lydia's views on Dracula were also hilarious. Absolutely a worth-while book to pick up if you liked The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 22 January 2016

#CBR8 Book 4: "Act Like It" by Lucy Parker

Page count: 199 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Rising star and current darling of London's West End, Elaine "Lainie" Graham has to pretend to be passionately in love with and kiss her ex-boyfriend Will Farmer every evening and sometimes for matinee performances. While none of her family really liked him, she was still shocked and upset when she discovered he was cheating on her - by seeing it splashed on the front page of the tabloid news media. Now she's pretty much sworn off men for a while and is none too amused when the theatre management want her to pretend to be an item with her other cast mate, Richard Troy, playboy billionaire method actor, who is in serious need of an image makeover. After a few too many negative stories, Richard's publicity team and the theatre's manager feel that the audiences and media might look more kindly upon him if they believed he was in love with Lainie. Lainie would benefit from the added publicity to aid her career, and they'd make a very generous donation to her favourite charity.

Lainie reluctantly agrees and has to start appearing in public with a man she finds arrogant, rude and insufferable. Their first kiss, staged for the cameras, is an absolute disaster. Richard is independently wealthy and became an actor mainly to piss off his father. There is no denying his great talent, but he's also condescending, elitist and quite a snob. He has a hell of a temper and while many of the stories in the press have been exaggerated, he's really not a very pleasant man, and it's quite clear that he's never really bothered to notice Lainie, despite the fact that they've been working together for some time. Lainie refuses to take him seriously. Although she respects and admires his undeniable skill as an actor, she goes through with the charade to make money for her cancer charity and isn't really expecting to enjoy herself or change her mind about Richard as a person.

Of course the modern take on the "marriage of convenience" turns into mutual attraction and romance, while very encouragingly not ending with Lainie's love for Richard turning him into a soft, fluffy bunny who never has an unkind word for anyone. I found Will, Lainie's ex a lot more insufferable than Richard and his continued attempts at trying to win Lainie back got really tiresome very quickly. I also really liked that while Richard had a pretty awful family background, this is not used to in any way excuse his personality or the way he behaves. It's just another aspect of his character. He's rude and condescending because he believes himself to be better than most people, not because his parents didn't love him enough.

Lainie is a delight and I loved her to pieces. She's not stick thin and refuses to give up eating just to fit into some sort of idealised media image of what women should look like. I liked her interactions with her family, especially her mum, and the explanation for why she's so passionate about charity work. I loved the scene at the talk show, where the host is trying to make something of the fact that Lainie may be serial dating her co-stars and is brutally cut down and called on her hypocritical line of questioning. I think it was one of the other Cannonballers who reviewed this book who said they pictured her as Christina Hendricks, which was pretty much the perfect mental image for me and how I too cast her in my head.

It was fun to see a romance set partly in the theatre, and I liked the behind the scenes look at the play they were in (a play I would probably have happily paid money to see performed, it sounded pretty cool). I liked that while the author is from New Zealand, the romance is set in London, with British terms and expressions. Almost all the contemporary romance I read is American, so I don't get the comfortable British slang I got used to when living in the UK for six years. Towards the end of the book, while I get why there had to be the big complication that drove Lainie and Richard apart for a while, I'm not sure I agree that the book needed the extra dramatic bit with the characters being put in mortal peril for them to realise their feelings for one another. It didn't detract too much from the delight of the general plot though. This book also features the heroine being sick at one point and the hero helping to nurse her back to health, a story beat I've discovered I am extremely partial to.

I can absolutely see why this book was so highly recommended over on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and has already had several very positive reviews over on the Cannonball Read. This is Lucy Parker's debut novel, so sadly I won't be able to track down other books she's written. I will be keeping an eye out for her name and buying anything else she releases, because this was a really fun read and a very pleasant start to my romance reading year.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

#CBR8 Book 3: "Radiance" by Grace Draven

Page count: 297 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Ildiko is a human woman, the less than favoured niece of the Gauri king. To cement an important political alliance she's been promised in marriage to Prince Brishen of Bast-Haradis, a Kai warrior and the younger son to the ruthless ruling couple. Humans and Kai, for all that they share similar anatomical traits are very different, both in looks and cultural values. The Kai have black, unreadable eyes, sharp features, grey skin, long claws and a mouth full of sharp fangs and are considered quite terrifying by the humans. Their eyes are very sensitive to light, so they are nocturnal. The Kai think the pale pink skin of humans reminiscent of the mollusks they use to make a distinctive dye and that their watery, ever-changing eyes are very unnerving, yet Brishen and Ildiko are perfectly prepared to do their duty and marry. They have a brief, but honest chat before the ceremony and decide that they at least like their future partner.

Having never really felt all that welcome with at the Gauri court, Ildiko wants to leave and live with her new husband immediately. While neither of them are considered significant politically, they are just pawns in an alliance, enemies of Bast-Haradis want the treaty with Gauri broken, and try to kill Ildiko and Brishen on their way back to his homeland. At the royal court of Bast-Haradis, Ildiko has to survive the whimsical cruelty of her new mother in law, but all the while, the growing friendship with her new husband helps her adjust to her new life. While they are from very different cultures, Ildiko and Brishen like and respect each other from the very first, and slowly those feelings transform into love and attraction. All they want is to live in peace in Brishen's fortress at the border of Bast-Haradis, but there are forces that want war and there is danger in their future.

Back in October 2012, Grace Draven's Master of Crows was a monthly pick for the Vaginal Fantasy Book Club. I read it and liked it, and when Radiance came out last year and started getting rave reviews and later showed up on a lot of Best of 2015 lists, I was intrigued. I bought the book and then forgot about it, until it was picked as the January pick in Vaginal Fantasy this year. Remembering that my friend Erica had also really liked it and written enthusiastically about it, I was excited to finally pick it up. Despite a very demanding work load for my first week back to school in January, I read this book in every spare moment I could. I liked that despite that while they found each other's appearance pretty abhorrent, Ildiko and Brishen didn't for a moment hesitate to do their duty. They weren't expecting to marry for love and are pleasantly surprised that they like each other and can joke about stuff together. They are rational, sensible adults who have never exactly been favoured by their families and therefore are ready to make a new family of their own.

Immediately after finishing the book, I rated it five stars, because on an emotional level, it absolutely worked for me on every level. I loved both Ildiko and Brishen and their slowly developing romance was such a fun thing to read. However, with a couple of weeks having passed since I read the book, more and more niggles have crept in. For all that I really liked the world building, there are a lot of inconsistencies when it comes to how the two cultures are described and the degree to which the Kai in Brishen's party are disgusted and horrified by humans, when it's later established that they have human neighbours and allies that they've traded with for years. Never a huge fan of the humble potato, I found it really funny that the Kai apparently hated it so vehemently, but if they've been invited to dinners with their human neighbours a bunch of times before, the Gauri wedding feast should not have been the ordeal it was portrayed as.

New Cannonballer Melanir outlined a number of complaints in her Cannonball review earlier this month, and while I agree with pretty much all of them, they didn't in any significant way spoil from my enjoyment of the book (be warned, her review is way more spoilery than mine, don't read it if you haven't actually read the book). The complaints are enough to knock the book down from the coveted 5 star spot though, but not by all that much. I'm not sure I'm thrilled in the direction the series seems to be going, but have hopes that Draven will do something interesting with the sequel and that maybe Brishen's cousin and the human lord next door can get a romance of their own. I'm really glad I started the year with this one, it's certainly one of the better Vaginal Fantasy selections in recent memory.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

#CBR8 Book 2: "Geek Girl" by Holly Smale

Page count: 385 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Harriet Manners is a geek. If she wasn't already painfully aware of the fact, and her less than stellar social status among her fellow teens, someone helpfully wrote the word in big red letters on her satchel. She does have a very good friend, and the ardent admiration of Toby, the only kid in school geekier and more socially inept than she is. When Harriet is spotted by a modelling agency, she is confused and conflicted. Becoming a model has been the dream of her best friend Nat for practically forever, so it feels wrong for Harriet to suddenly steal said dream. On the other hand, becoming a fashion model might give her a chance to reinvent herself and show to the kids in school that she's more than some unpopular dork.

Of course, being a supermodel isn't all that easy, especially not for someone completely unfamiliar with make-up or walking in heels. It quickly turns out that fashion models are even more vicious and back-stabbing than the teenagers in school (quelle surprise!) and virtual nobody Harriet coming in to become the face of one of the most coveted modelling jobs in the world isn't going to make her more popular among the competitive women. She also keeps running into Nick, the most beautiful boy she's ever seen, and already an established model. Considering he's the male face of the same campaign she's been hired on, it's rather awkward when she can barely speak in full sentences around him.

Then there's keeping track of the lying. Harriet's step-mother, high-powered attorney Annabel, doesn't want her to become a model. Nat has always wanted to become a model, how will she feel if Harriet steals that dream away from her? Harriet's father decides that it may be best to lie to them until Harriet is back from her first modelling gig (in Moscow!), but of course it's difficult to cover up something that is written about in all the newspapers. They come home to discover that Annabel has packed her things and left them, and Nat no longer wants to speak to Harriet. Left only with the advice of her loyal stalker, Harriet and her dad attempts to get their lives back on track.

I saw this book highly recommended over on Forever Young Adult, and when it became available in an e-book sale AND fit into my Monthly Key Word Challenge for January, it seemed like fate. Going back to work after being off sick either partially or completely for most of October and November was HARD, you guys. I had so much to catch up on, and to make matters worse, the deadline to log all the end of term grades was set a week earlier than I was expecting. That meant that I needed light and undemanding entertainment for the few moments when I wasn't working on last minute assessment or grading, and this book fit the bill admirably.

It's absolutely a young adult book, and probably meant for younger teens rather than older, more sophisticated readers. I liked that the author is British, and hence there were a lot of British English terms I don't normally come across in my reading of YA, which tends to be American in origin. Harriet is a nice girl, and I totally related to her social ineptitude, while I was never quite as much of a pariah as her in secondary or high school. I had my own little crow of nerds to hang out with. I do know that going along to look at all things fashionable when you just want to stay home and read would be pretty nightmarish, as would the life of high fashion.

Apparently, Holly Smale herself was discovered by a modelling agency at the age of fifteen, so while things may be exaggerated for comic effect, I have no doubt that some of the things in the book are true to life. My only experience with fashion is the coverage of fashion shows on Go Fug Yourself, or the episodes I watched every now and then of America's/Sweden's/Norway's Next Top Model. It wouldn't surprise me at all that a teenage girl could go from unknown one day to the face of one of the biggest fashion campaigns in the world over the course of about a week.

My biggest niggle with this book was the way in which Toby, Harriet's self-proclaimed stalker, is handled. He's not just some random school friend who admires her from afar and is excited if they happen to share classes or end up on the same school bus together. Nope, there is a Toby-shaped hole worn in the hedge outside Harriet's house and he knows pretty much every aspect of her life and daily routine to a point where it made me very uncomfortable, even though he's clearly portrayed as someone completely harmless and only occasionally annoying. That Harriet's friends, teachers and parents appear aware of his obsession but have done nothing about it, baffled me.

There's a whole series of these books, with the continuing adventures of Harriet in the fashion world. I really liked her friendship with Nat and the portrayal of the parents, not to mention Wilbur, the over the top modelling agent who discovers her. I will therefore probably check out more books in the series, to see how things progress. Forever Young Adult were right to recommend the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 1: "Dukes Prefer Blondes" by Loretta Chase

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lady Clara Fairfax, eldest daughter of the Marquess of Warford and sister to the Earl of Longmore, was raised to marry a duke. The Duke of Clevedon, to be precise, but he ended up falling in love with a dressmaker instead. Not that Clara is lacking in high-born suitors. Twice a week they show up in her mother's drawing room to ask for her hand in marriage and Clara, well bred lady that she is, politely refuses them. Clara wants to make a difference. She wants to make her mark in the world. However, no matter how wealthy and powerful her father and brother are, how rich and privileged she is, the fact remains that on her own, as an unmarried lady, there is very little she can do. She bestows as much patronage as she can on the girls apprenticed with the Milliners' Society, but when a girl comes to her, confessing that her brother's been taken in by a gang of street thieves, she is determined to get the boy back, no matter how difficult or dangerous it proves.

She seeks out Oliver "Raven" Radford, a barrister famous for championing the cause of the poor. Radford was a schoolfriend of her brother's, but she hasn't seen him since she was a girl, trying to pummel his unfortunate cousin Bernard for teasing him. Now the odious cousin Bernard is a duke, and through a strange set of events, Raven is second in line to inherit. He has no wish to do so, and does his very best to get his cousin's financial affairs, not to mention health in order, so the man can go on to re-marry, sire heirs and live a long life, not bothering Raven or his ailing father, who just want to practise law in peace.

While most men are struck dumb by Clara's staggering beauty (and/or the overwhelming outfits she wears), Raven is merely very curious as to why she has sought him out. Highly intelligent and ambitious, he's used to being the smartest person in the room at any given time, and doesn't bother to hide his disdain for the stupidity of others. He wants to become a judge and perhaps even rise to Lord Chancellor one day, and helping Lady Clara Fairfax search the slums of London for a kidnapped street urchin is not the way to go about such things. Yet he cannot forget the little girl who jumped on his cousin's back and chipped a tooth biting him, and when Clara actually loses her carefully maintained composure and actually yells at him, confessing what a gilded cage she is stuck in, frustrated by all the unfairness in the world and unable to do a thing about it, Raven promises to help, even though he knows it's a bloody stupid idea. As they work together, Raven is surprised to discover that while she may be angelically beautiful, Lady Clara also has one of the sharpest minds he's ever encountered, often able to keep up even with him. He begins to understand how stifled she feels by society's rules for women and keeps going against his better judgement to allow her to participate in the search for the orphan boy.

The urchin in question is eventually rescued, but Clara pays a high price for her impulsiveness while on the rescue mission. Struck down with typhoid fever, she is close to death, and Raven, having been alerted by Clara's irate maid, takes it upon himself to nurse her back to health, as he already survived it. The high society doctors refuse to even believe a marquess' daughter could have contracted such a disease and their suggested treatments would kill her for sure. Clara's dowager aunt has no choice but to accept the obnoxious barrister's help if she wants her niece to have any chance of survival. During her long recovery, Raven and Clara's maid work in shifts to monitor and care for her. Nearly a month later, Clara is well again, and the unflappable and arrogant Raven Radford, barrister extraordinaire, has been added to the list of men who want Clara as his wife. Once Clara provokes him enough to confess his true feelings, they just needs to convince her parents that he will be a suitable match for her.

Lady Clara has been a supporting character in the previous Dressmaker books, but as I was extremely underwhelmed by the first two in the series, I can't be bothered to go back and re-read to see exactly how she appeared in those books. Suffice to say, you can easily read this book without any previous knowledge of the series, as it stands fine on its own. Chase has taken two characters that could be absolutely unbearable and made them not only a suitable match for each other, but very entertaining to read about. Lady Clara has been raised in the lap of luxury, always knowing that her ambitious mama wanted her to be a duchess one day. Suitors without titles or with very low ones need not apply for her hand in marriage. She has a dresses that cost enough to feed a family for a year and the freedom to move about London as she chooses. She is stunningly beautiful. Yet she's discouraged from reading and improving her mind or wanting to spend too much time bestowing charity on the poor seamstresses of the Milliner's Society. Until she gets married, she is under the control of her father and brother and once she does get married, her husband will have total power over her and the frighteningly large dowry she'll bring to the marriage. Most men see only her face and figure and completely disregard her formidable brain.

Clara has had many suitors and while she has been very sheltered, she knows what attraction feels like. While Raven Radford may be the most infuriating man she's ever met, he also makes her heart beat faster and after their first encounters, he actually seems to listen to her and see not just her polished looks, but Clara as a whole person. After he drops everything at his cousin's estate and rushes back to London to nurse her back to health, she has all the proof she needs that this man would make her the perfect husband. She just needs to provoke him into proposing and hope he is clever enough to win over her parents.

Raven Radford was clearly an obnoxious little oaf even as a child. While he may have been the grandson of a duke, his father became a barrister and married a divorced woman, causing quite the scandal. His many rich cousins tried to make his life hell in school, without much success. Always aware that he's most likely smarter than those around him, Raven grew up to be just as arrogant and frustratingly rude as he was as a child. He doesn't suffer fools and has made many enemies as a result. He assumes Clara is a pretty, yet frivolous lady, bored with her lot in life and seeking some adventure. He keeps being proven wrong, and while he has managed to keep his baser instincts firmly buried to get ahead in life, being as frustrated by lady Clara as she is by him makes it impossible for him to retain a professional distance. Raven, rudely blunt and annoyed at the stupidity of everyone around him, reminded me a lot of Doctor Jonas Grantham, one of my favourite romance heroes. It would also not at all surprise me if Chase has modelled him on Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes - there were similarities there in both looks and demeanour. Neither of these things made him any less attractive to me.

The plot of the book, it must be said, is a bit all over the place. It starts out with Clara's mission to rescue the street urchin from the band of thieves, intertwined with Raven's difficulties in getting his cousin to take his role as Duke seriously. Then there's Clara's illness, followed by Raven having to win her parents over. They get married and have to negotiate married life together, all the while nefarious individuals from the criminal underworld are determined to have their revenge on Raven, and possibly his new wife. Raven's father is old and ailing, his cousin Bernard the duke is oafish and reckless. It's mentioned enough times that Raven is second in line for a dukedom that it'll come to no surprise to anyone at all, when the Radfords suddenly have a change of status. Here, at least, Clara comes into her own, having been trained from girlhood to manage large households.

I can see why Chase might have thought that just having Raven and Clara meet and try to negotiate their relationship might have been a bit dull, so she had to throw in criminal court cases and police raids and vengeful crime bosses with colourful side kicks to spice things up a bit. I don't think it was necessary at all, but it didn't detract or derail the story enough that I was annoyed either. While I found it extremely unlikely that the French seamstresses of slightly dubious descent all ended up married to a duke, an earl and a marquess, it doesn't actually seem that inappropriate for the daughter of a marquess to marry a man second in line to a dukedom. While Raven doesn't hold a noble title at the point in which he proposes to Clara, he's clearly of good family and with his ambitions, would have risen to a position of prominence in society, even if he weren't likely to inherit a dukedom.

If you've liked Chase's books in the past, but were scared away because of the first two books in the Dressmaker series, I have good news for you. This book is, while not Chase at her best, a very enjoyable read, especially if you don't mind obnoxiously rude men being brought low by love. It celebrates intelligence in both its protagonists and continues to give insight into the truly ridiculous fashions of the late Georgian, early Victorian era. The scene where Raven falls asleep on his wedding night waiting for hours for Clara to have her gown properly removed made me laugh. Look elsewhere for your bodice ripping.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Reading Challenges for 2016

So in my end of year review, I said I would be doing fewer reading challenges this year. That is still true, but it turns out, that when you get hooked on reading challenges, it's very hard to cut down as new and exciting ones are announced. I will not be doing the insane amount I did last year, because frankly, it was exhausting and while I like to make lists, I don't exactly want to feel like everything I read has to be able to tick off some box or other.

I do a lot of reading, because it's how I relax and I plan to complete at least a double Cannonball by the end of the year - helping to fund cancer research through my blogging seems even more important now with the horrible start to 2016, with cancer killing great men like Lemmy, David Bowie and Alan Rickman. My godfather is currently also fighting the disease, and sadly it doesn't look good. So I will read, and I will blog and try to promote the Cannonball Read website so we get a lot of hits. A lot of the challenges I will be doing, will just be getting credit for reading books I was already going to read. My current TBR on Goodreads is getting ridiculous and even having gotten rid of over 200 books last year, I have years worth of books to read, either in paper or e-book form. Of course, there is just no conceivable way that I will stop buying books or hoping I'll get them as presents. So the list will keep growing. To that end, I've promised myself that I have to read more books I actually own personally, not just books I've added to the TBR and am planning to borrow.

Last year, I made separate sign-up posts for every challenge. That took forever. It's going to take long enough to link all the different ones in this post, but that's the way I'm doing it. Hope I don't offend any of the hosts of the various challenges by doing it this way.

1. Obviously the Cannonball Read. I managed a triple Cannonball, 156 books read and reviewed in 2015, but that was partially because I broke my arm badly and was off work for about six weeks at the end of the year. I doubt I will have the time or energy for that many, but hope to complete a double, 104, at least. 

2. You Read How Many Books? hosted by the Crafty Engineer. The minimum level is a 100, and since I read way more than that last year, I'm trying for level 2, 150 books.

3. Alphabet Soup 2016, hosted by Dollycas. This is my third year doing this challenge, which basically means I have to read 26 books, each starting with one letter of the alphabet (A, and and the can be removed). Only Q, X and Z are slightly different. They can be anywhere in the title.

4. Colour Coded Reading Challenge 2016, hosted by My Reader's Block. Since this challenge opened to let you read books where the colour in question was the dominant colour on the cover, not just had to be featured in some way in the name of the book, this has become one of my favourite challenges. I just had to repeat it. The colours in question are black, white, red, blue, yellow, green and brown. There are also categories for any other colour and "suggests colour".

5. The 2016 TBR Pile Reading Challenge, hosted by Bookish Lifestyle helped motivate me to read a staggering 90 books on my TBR list last year, so I need to sign up for it again. Their highest level is Married with Children, at 50+ books, so that's the one I'm doing again this year.

6. The Bring Your Own Books Challenge, or B.Y.O.B, is hosted by Literary Distractions. It's a new one for me this year, but ties into the reading what I own goal. Having checked my To Read shelf in LibraryThing, it seems I have at least (because I sometimes forget to tag books correctly) 368 books on my shelves, either real dead tree books or e-books, that I haven't read. I should do something about that. There aren't any levels for this one, but I've set myself the personal goal that I have to read at least 3-4 books a month that I owned before the start of 2016.

7. The 2016 Monthly Key Word Challenge, hosted by My Soul Called Life, is fairly simple. There is a list of key words posted for every month of the year. The goal is to read at least one book every month that fits with one of the key words. Creativity in interpreting the key words is encouraged.

8. What an Animal IX Challenge, hosted by Socrates' Book Reviews is also one I've enjoyed for several years and which doesn't really require me to change my reading habits, just keep track of what I already read. Any book with an animal in the title, on the cover, featuring an animal in a prominent role or with a character who is or turns into an animal (vampires and other supernatural creatures also count) is eligible and that means I can easily complete level 4 - 21 or more books.

9. Finishing the Series 2016 is now hosted by Bea's Book Nook and is another one of those challenges where I basically get credit for doing what I should be doing anyway. I start a lot of series, and then forget about them. This challenge tries to encourage you to pick them back up, reading as many books as required until you get to the last book currently published in the series. Having completed 23 last year, I'm signing up for level 4 - 7 or more series.

10. I suspect the 2016 Women Challenge, hosted by Peek a Book is actually aimed at someone who doesn't primarily read books by female authors. This is another challenge I'm going back to, because it doesn't actually require any effort on my part, and sometimes it's nice to just take the easy credit. I've signed up for the highest possible level - Wonder Woman - to read 20+ books by female authors. To give myself at least a teeny tiny bit of a challenge, I won't allow myself to count any author more than once, even if I read multiple books by them.

11. The 2016 New Author Challenge, hosted by Literary Escapism, is now in its eight year, and encourages readers to discover new authors, either debut ones, or established writers you just haven't tried anything by before. I doubt I'll be able to reach the highest level of 50, so I'm signing up to read stuff by at least 25 new authors in 2016.

12. The 2016 New to You Challenge, hosted by The Herd Presents, allows for some crossover with the previous challenge mentioned, as anything new to me - be it an author, a series, a genre all count. I'm signing up for level 4 "Going for a Swim" with this one, at least 50 new things over the course of the year.

13. The 2016 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, once again hosted by Passages to the Past, is one of the ones I seem to be able to complete without actually challenging myself much, because I read a whole lot of historical novels. Last year, it took me most of the year to finish the highest level, "Prehistoric", with 50+ books, but that doesn't mean that I should aim for lower this year. I like historical novels of all kinds, I will aim high once more.

14. The Pick Your Genre Challenge, also hosted by The Herd Presents, allows the reader to pretty much design their own reading challenge. As I'm not really doing a romance specific challenge this year, I've decided that my genre of choice will be just that - romance.

15. The 2016 Diverse Reads Challenge, hosted by Chasing Faerietales, doesn't have any set reading levels. They just want you to read diverse books, with main characters including but not limited to LGBTQIA, persons of colour, gender diversity, people with disability (including physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual or developmental; chronic conditions, mental illnesses and addiction) and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities. This is something I need to be better at, so I'm going to try to read at least 30 books that fit these criteria in 2016.

16. What's in a Name 2016, hosted by The Worm Hole is a fairly small one, requiring only that I read six books. It was a fun one last year, and I decided to repeat it after seeing the categories. I need to read a book featuring: the name of a country, an item of clothing, an item of furniture, a profession, a month of the year and the word "tree" in the title.

17. The 2016 Literary Pickers Challenge, hosted by Delighted Reader is a new one for me this year, a literary scavenger hunt. There's a list of 100 different items to be found in romances (or books with a strong romance element) and I thought it looked like fun. I'm signing up for level 2, "Garage Sale Guru" and will be looking carefully in each of the romantic books I read this year to see what I can cross off the list.

18. I think I qualify as a Reading Challenge Addict and am signing up for "Out of this World", 16+ Reading Challenges entered (and hopefully completed).

I will also try to do the April and October Dewey Read-a-thons and sign up for this year's R.I.P read in September and October, because I love those. It turns out I'm really bad at limiting myself, and that if I don't have a dozen or so challenges to compete in, I'm at a loss as to what I should read next.