Monday, 26 March 2012

28. "The Blue Castle" by L.M. Montgomery

Page count: 224 pages
Date begun: March 16th, 2012
Date finished: March 17th, 2012

Valancy Stirling is twenty-nine, unmarried, and constantly reminded of said sad state by her overbearing and oppressive family, who belittle her, treat her like a child and unfavourably compare her to her younger, prettier cousin Olive. She's terrified of putting a foot wrong for fear of earning the disapproval of her judgemental mother or some other relative, and her only solace is her daydreams about her Blue Castle, where she's surrounded by beauty, treated like a princess and courted by handsome suitors.

Having snuck away to see a doctor (other than the regular one the Sterlings always see!) because of chest pains, Valancy receives a letter telling her that she has a serious heart complaint, and that she most likely has less than a year left to live. Any sudden shock or great exertion may worsen the condition and shorten her already brief life expectancy. Realising that she has never really lived, merely existed, and miserably at that, Valancy decides to live out the rest of her short life unconstrained by her family's judgement. She starts refusing to do chores that she hates, speaks her mind honestly at family functions and convinces the entire Stirling family that she has lost her mind.

Things go from bad to worse when she leaves her mother's house and takes up residence in the house of a drunken widower, to act as his housekeeper, and tend to his dying daughter, who was one of her childhood friends. Poor Cissy had a child out of wedlock (now dead) and was ostracised by all polite society in the little town where they live. Now her lungs are failing her, and Valancy does her best to cook and clean and take care of her, rekindling their friendship and blithely ignoring the censure of her relatives. While taking care of Cissy and Roaring Abel (Cissy's father), Valancy also makes the acquaintance of Barney Snaith, who most of the town (including the Stirling clan) is convinced is the father of Cissy's dead child, a bank robber, swindler, adulterer and/or even murderer. Valancy shocks them all by going on several dates with him.

When Cissy finally dies, the Stirling clan breathe a sigh of relief and are sure will stop her shocking behaviour and move back home to her mother. Instead, she confesses to Barney Snaith that she's in love with him, and asks him to marry her. She assures him that she doesn't expect him to return her feelings, and since she is terminally ill, he won't have to stay married to her for very long. Having told him about her miserable life before she became Cissy's housekeeper and nurse, Barney agrees that she deserves some happiness in her life, and agrees to the marriage. When he takes her home to the wooden island he owns, and Valancy sees the little cabin surrounded by trees and shadows evening mists, it's so like the Blue Castle of her imagination that she's convinced she's made the right choice and nothing but happiness will fill the rest of her days. But then she finds out that she was wrongly diagnosed, and her chest pains were not at all as serious as expected. She's no longer dying, how can she tell Barney the truth?

To say that I loved L.M Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books as a girl would be an enormous understatement. I've lost count of the number of times I've read the books (the latter ones where she and Gilbert have a whole host of kids not as many), and I also loved the TV adaptation, and the Road to Avonlea series starring Sarah Polley. So when my friend Lydia asked me whether I'd read The Blue Castle, one of the few adult works Montgomery wrote (and the only one not set on Prince Edward Island, according to Wikipedia), I was delighted with the prospect of a new discovery. Having tracked down an e-book copy, I read the book in every spare moment I had available, and it's a cleverly written, funny and touching little romance that I can see myself rereading again and again. Valancy is a wonderful character, and you wish her every happiness in the world. To see her escape the disapproval of her stifling family and find self realisation and romance is wonderful, and any fan of Montgomery should track down a copy of the book and indulge themselves with this delightful story.

27. "Origin in Death" by J.D. Robb

Page count: 352 pages
Date begun: March 12th, 2012
Date finished: March 15th, 2012

Book 21 in the In Death series. Works as a stand alone, but I suspect you'd get more enjoyment out of it if you started with one of the earlier ones.

Doctor Wilfred Icove Sr. is murdered while sitting at the desk in his office. He's been stabbed through the heart with a scalpel, and the last woman to see him alive is seen on security tapes strolling calmly out of there, cool as a cucumber. Eve Dallas and her partner Delia Peabody were in the building investigating a different homicide, so are among the first on the scene. Everyone is shocked by the doctor's murder, and as Dallas investigates possible motives, she discovers that not only was Icove a pioneer in reconstructive surgery, a humanitarian and even a Nobel Prize winner, but everything about his entire life is so squeaky clean that Dallas has no doubt he must have been hiding something.

When his son and heir, Wilfred Icove Jr. is found dead in his home, again stabbed through the heart with a scalpel, it becomes obvious that Eve's suspicions about the Icoves aren't unfounded, unpopular as that may turn out with the general public. With the assistance of her multi-billionaire husband, her trusty partner Peabody and their usual support team, she delves deep into the history of Icove Sr. and his medical work, and discovers that in their quest for perfection, the Icoves were not averse to breaking several ethical and international laws, and that they may have had a hand in creating their own killer.

While a lot of the In Death books are fairly straight forward murder mysteries with a subplot or two to further develop the lives and characters of Eve, Roarke and the other supporting characters (in this book, Roarke's decision to invite a whole bunch of their friends and his recently discovered Irish relatives to New York for Thanksgiving), where despite mentions of some futuristic gadgets, it's quite easy to forget that they are also science fiction stories set in the future, Origin in Death explores a lot more of the futuristic aspects of the world these characters live in, and it's probably the most sci-fi novel in the series to date. There are serious ethical and moral ramifications to the discoveries that Eve and her team make during their investigation, and the details surrounding the murders and the denouement could only have played out in a story filled with science fiction technology. For once, a book that's less dark because of the discoveries either Eve and/or Roarke make about their pasts, and all because of the discoveries made in the murder case. If you're a fan, this is definitely a highlight in the series so far.

26. "Mockingjay" by Suzanne Collins

Page count: 448 pages
Date begun: March 10th, 2012
Date finished: March 11th, 2012

This book is the third in The Hunger Games trilogy and this review WILL contain spoilers for both The Hunger Games (Book 1) and Catching Fire (Book 2). So skip over this if you've managed to avoid the series so far. You really should read the books, though. : )

Katniss Everdeen has survived not one, but two Hunger Games, and is now a wanted criminal. Her home district in Panem has been completely destroyed, but luckily her best friend Gale and her family, as well as a few hundred survivors have been rescued and taken to the believed to be destroyed District 13. While Katniss is still alive, she's not allowed any respite. The survivors of District 13 have rebuilt their civilization underground, and manage to feed, clothe, train and educate everyone through rigid order. They are now in open rebellion against the Capitol and want Katniss to help them mobilize the rest of the country by operating as a figurehead and symbol, the Mockingjay.

"My name is Katniss Everdeen. I am seventeen years old. My home is District 12. I was in the Hunger Games. I escaped. The Capitol hates me. Peeta was taken prisoner. He is thought to be dead. Most likely he is dead. It is possibly best if he is dead..."

While Katniss was rescued from the 75th Hunger Games by District 13, Peeta was not, and it turns out that there are fates worse than death. Peeta appears to support the cause of the Capitol, and begs Katniss and the rebels to agree to a peace treaty. Katniss agrees to be the Mockingjay on the condition that Peeta (and some of the other surviving Hunger Games contestants unaccounted for) be rescued, and not executed as traitors. Until he is, it's quite obvious that President Snow is torturing him specifically to try to break Katniss' spirit, and through her the rebellion.

Is Katniss right to agree to be a figure head for a civil war she wants no part of? While she has survived the Hunger Game arena twice, it's quite clear that war, politics and propaganda are just as deadly a game to traverse, and she has to make sure her loved ones are safe. She lives with the knowledge that District 12 was destroyed in retaliation of her actions, that Peeta is being tortured because of her, and that if she steps a foot out of line as figurehead, she could endanger the lives of the loved ones she has left. Unable to truly trust anyone, she has to make the best of a dreadful situation, and hope that things turn out right in the end.

While I thought that Catching Fire became a bit of a rehash of the first book in the series, Collins takes the book and her heroine in a different direction in Mockingjay. The districts of Panem are now in open rebellion, and while the first books had fights to the death as televised entertainment and a way to keep the population cowed and contolled, this book depicts full on civil war. Katniss is still so young, but forced to make nearly impossible decisions, to keep herself and her loved ones safe. She's racked with guilt about Peeta, who's being tortured and brainwashed by the Capitol and President Snow. She feels conflicted towards Gale, who seems to excel  and thrive at guerilla warfare and advanced weapons development. She knows that District 13 and its President need her to act as figurehead, but that also that because of her popularity, she may not live long once the war is over, no matter what side emerges victorious.

I didn't have books like this when I was a teenager, that's for sure. I kept putting off reading Mockingjay because the previous two books were so dark, and I had heard this one was especially bleak. However, The Hunger Games trilogy are now the publishing phenomena of the season, with a very good film adaptation in the cinemas, and teenagers everywhere devouring the books. Three of the teenage girls I teach claimed that they couldn't do their homework properly (which among other things, involves writing a reading log), because they were worried they were going to spoil the book for me. Obviously, I can't give my pupils excuses to skip their homework, so I devoured the book in the course of a weekend, and can now with authority join in the discussion of whether Team Peeta or Team Gale should win. I certainly think teenage girls (and boys) have much better role models in these books than they get in the Twilight books. Collins certainly can't be accused of underestimating the intelligence or maturity levels of teens, and teens today could do much worse than reading and discussing these books. A very good (if bleak) ending to an engrossing series.

25. "Fair Game" by Patricia Briggs

Page count: 352 pages
Date begun: March 7th, 2012
Date finished: March 9th, 2012

This is the third book the Alpha and Omega series, and while it can be read without previous knowledge of the series or characters, it's a lot better if you've read the previous two. So avoid this review if you want to avoid spoilers, and if you're interested in starting from the beginning, check out Cry Wolf.

Anna Latham is a werewolf and an Omega wolf, a wolf that has the ability to stand outside normal pack structure and calm other wolves, especially Alphas. They are deeply treasured in any wolf pack because of their ability both to stand up to the Alphas and keep them sensible, and for their abilites to soothe the often volatile tempers of other werewolves. Anna is married to Charles Cornick, who's not just an Alpha wolf, but the son of the Marrok, the leader of all the American werewolves. Charles is also the enforcer who has to clean up when werewolves break the very strong edicts placed upon them. Since the werewolves are openly "out" in society, they also have to make sure they survive in the public scrutiny. Since the existence of werewolves was revealed, Charles has had a lot more executions to carry out, and it's taking its toll on him.

Anna is very worried about her husband, and manages to convince his father that unless Charles gets some different responsibilites for a while, he's going to snap, and lose control completely. The Marrok sends Anna and Charles to Boston, to assist the FBI in a serial killer case. It turns out that the killer's last three victims were werewolves, and once Anna and Charles investigate further, most of the killer's victims seem to be supernatural in some way, either werewolf or fey, although none of the victims were openly acknowleged as such. The killer clearly has knowledge not available to the general public, and the task of finding him turns is not made easier when Charles and Anna's lines of communication are threatened by the ghosts haunting Charles.

A couple of years have passed since the previous book in the Alpha and Omega series, and the characters have grown and developed in the interim. Anna, who came from a background of abuse and mistreatment has grown strong and confident, and her love and loyalty to Charles makes her unafraid to take on her ancient and extremely powerful father-in-law, even when she knows he won't like the truths she has to tell him. She is deeply hurt by the distance that is developing between Charles and herself, and determined to do anything to help him, whether he wants it or not.

Charles is deeply loyal to his father, and carries out the duties imposed upon him, even as it's slowly driving him crazy. His Native American heritage means that he sees the spirits of all the wolves he's had to execute for rule breaking, and they refuse to give him peace, taunting him and threatening his bond with Anna. He tries to protect her by cutting himself off from their mate bond, but ends up endangering her further with his distance. Even though I thought Charles was quite dumb throughout much of this book, and I suspect many of his issues would have been solved if he just spoke to his father and his wife honestly, I can also understand his need to shelter and protect Anna. Several centuries older than his wife, he's been used to relying only on himself, and because Briggs writes her characters so well, I'm sure I'll feel less like slapping some sense into him in the next book.

Fair Game updates us on several already familiar characters in Briggs' universe (she also writes the Mercy Thompson books - highly recommended), as well as introduces us to some intriguing new ones, including a human FBI agent who's not the least intimitated or scared by the existence of werewolves and fey, as long as they stay on the right side of the law. I hope we see more of her, and of Isaac, the Alpha of the Boston werewolf pack. Never afraid to take risks, Briggs makes sure the ending of this book opens up exciting and interesting possibilites for both the series she's writing. While I was a bit underwhelmed by her last Mercy Thompson book, the ending of Fair Game now has me hoping she will write a lot more, and fast, so I can find out what happens next.

Monday, 12 March 2012

24. "She Tempts the Duke" by Lorraine Heath

Page count: 384 pages
Date begun: March 5th, 2012
Date finished: March 6th, 2012

When Sebastian Easton was fourteen, he, his twin and their younger brother were locked in a tower by their evil uncle shortly after their father, the Duke of Keswick's, funeral. They're planning their escape when rescued by Lady Mary Wynne-Jones, Sebastian's best friend and daughter of the neighbouring Earl. She overheard their uncle ordering them killed, and knocks out a guard to unlock the tower. The boys thank her, and promise to return in ten years to reclaim their heritage.

It takes twelve years, and they've been missing so long that their uncle is petitioning Parliament to have them declared dead, so he can claim the ducal title, when the three brothers make quite a dramatic entrance during one of their uncle's balls. Sebastian's been a soldier, and has horrible facial scars (and an eye patch!) after the Crimean war. His twin, Tristan, is now a successful captain, and their younger brother Rafe owns a gambling establishment in London. Their return naturally causes quite a stir, but no one is happier to see them than Lady Mary, who was sent to a convent after their disappearance (because her father wanted her out of trouble). She's determined to do whatever she can to help them back into society, heedless of the dangers to her reputation and what it may do to her engagement.

It's obvious that Mary loves Sebastian and has never forgotten him. He, of course, is scarred both physically and emotionally, and refuses to acknowledge that he may love her too, and keeps trying to push her away, even as she defies popular convention to assist him. Can the lost Lords of Pembrook prove their uncle tried to steal their inheritance, and get their revenge? Can Mary make Sebastian love her, and accept that she doesn't find him repulsive despite his scars?

While I really did like Mary, and especially the depiction of her relationship with her cousin and aunt (who is awesome and clearly wants Mary happy no matter what scandals it may lead to), and I liked Sebastian's relationship with his brothers a lot, the main romance in this book left a lot to be desired. Sebastian is just too caught up in his broodiness and conviction that his facial scarring makes him repulsive to everyone else. He keeps comparing himself to Tristan, who's obviously still very handsome, and it gets old really fast. While it's obvious that Mary's first fiancee is wrong for her, I'm not sure she was better off with "oh woe is me" Sebastian either. He does of course change his mind in the end, but still seems like a bit of a gloomy stick in the mud. I'm much more looking forward to Tristan and Rafe's romances, they both seem more promising.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

23. "A Rogue by Any Other Name" by Sarah Maclean

Page count: 400 pages
Date begun: March 2nd, 2012
Date finished: March 2nd, 2012

When he was only just 21, Michael Lawler, the Marquess of Bourne lost his entire fortune, except the family estate entailed to him, in a card game to his former guardian, Viscount Langford. He's cast out without a penny, and devotes the next decade to getting revenge. During that decade, he became part owner in a notorious gambling club, and managed to replace his fortune and then some, but he still wants the lands around his family home returned, and he burns to get back at Langford.

Lady Penelope Marbury was engaged to a duke, but her father ended the engagement when it turned out the Duke's younger sister had got pregnant out of wedlock. The duke married another woman within a week of the dissolution of their engagement, and Penelope is still whispered about in polite society, years later. In order to get her married off, her father increases her dowry , with the land that borders his estate (and just so happens to be the property surrounding Bourne's family home, which he won from Langford in another card game). Penelope and Michael were childhood friends, along with Langford's son Thomas. Penelope hasn't heard from Michael since he lost his fortune, and feels rather conflicted about land that's rightfully his going towards getting her a husband. As one of five girls, she understands that her father wants her settled, and she feels it's her fault (and the scandal after her broken engagement) that two of her sisters settled for less than exciting husbands. She wants better for her husbands.

So when Michael shows up at his old estate, and kidnaps Penelope as she's out walking in the woods, determined to compromise her so they have to marry, and he can get the land in her dowry - she forces him to agree to pretend theirs is a love match (so there won't be another scandal), and that he will help her sisters find good husbands that they love. Once Penelope discovers that Thomas, who is still her good friend, will also be hurt and possibly ruined by Michael's desire for revenge, she sets out to change her husband's mind.

Having read Maclean's Love by Numbers trilogy last year, it was nice to see what happened to poor Penelope Marbury (the Duke she was engaged to is the hero of the third book in the trilogy). Penelope is a great character, and what makes this book really work. Michael is angsty and conflicted and frankly quite douchy towards his awesome wife throughout much of the book, but unlike several other reviewers out there on the internets, I didn't think he crossed the line into too unforgivably unlikable. Because Maclean shows us both sides of the relationship, we do see Michael's conflicted feelings about using Penelope, and treating her callously, and it's clear that some of the conflicts in their relationship could (like in most romances) have been solved if he just explained himself better to her. And he does step up nicely towards the end, and Penelope ends up being the one who saves him in more ways than one. The very end of the book also teases a very interesting relationship between Bourne's reclusive book keeper business partner, and Penelope's bluestocking younger sister - so I can't wait for the next book in the series.

22. "I Only Have Eyes for You" by Bella Andre

Page count: Don't know, it was an e-book
Date begun: March 1st, 2012
Date finished: March 2nd, 2012

This is apparently the fourth book in the series, but I haven't read any of the others, and I suspect it works fine on its own.

Sophie Sullivan's been in love with her brother's best friend since she was five years old. She's a twin, and her sister's always been nicknamed "Naughty", while Sophie is "Nice". She's known to be sensible, level-headed and works as a librarian. Her brother's best friend is Jake McCann, a successful business man who runs a chain of Irish pubs. Jake had a sucky childhood, with a mother who abandoned him, a drunken dad, and what is quite clearly dyslexia (although he was never diagnosed with it). Jake's been a bit of a playboy, but has also fancied Sophie for a long time. He just never really thought he was good enough for her.

During her brother's wedding, where Sophie is one of the bridesmaids, she decides to show Jake once and for all that she's not just the sweet and innocent little girl he thinks of her as. She has the stylist make her up all bombshell, and after the wedding is over, shows up on his doorstep and proceeds to take all her clothes off in front of him. Jake can't really resist, they spend the night together, but then he panics, decides that Sophie's clearly made a huge mistake and leaves without saying anything to her. He doesn't contact her for two months and then Sophie discovers that she's pregnant. Can they get over their differences and make the relationship work, or will Sophie end up a single mum?

I bought I Only Have Eyes for You because it was the book club pick for Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and several of their earlier selections have been awesome. This, unfortunately, was not. The premise was not necessarily bad - innocent librarian and business man playboy (who hates to read, but can't tell anyone for fear of showing weakness!). However, the author gives us very little chance to get to know either of the characters that much, and most of their romance seems to be focused on having a lot of great sex. As soon as Jake finds out that Sophie is pregnant, he is determined that she will marry him and that they will clearly spend the rest of their lives together without difficulties, despite the fact that after hooking up with her, he left her without a word and avoids and doesn't speak to her AT ALL for the next ten weeks. He seems to think that one week of spending time together will change her mind (and to be fair, it does), but it seems forced, and implausible. Of course, because we find out so little about the main characters, except that they're both sexy and clearly very compatible in the bedroom department, we're supposed to just take the author's word for it.

Romance readers get criticised a lot, and accused of reading romance because they're frustrated and repressed, and it's a more acceptable reading choice than outright porn. This isn't true. Romance readers enjoy good stories and being entertained, and the best romances are so popular not because they feature hot sex scenes (which many of them don't), but because the readers like the characters and care about their issues, and want to see them overcome obstacles and learn to communicate to find their happy endings. I have strong doubts that Sophie and Jake in this book will have a healthy relationship, but most importantly, I don't CARE, because their so-called romance bored me. Frequently, when I start a series, I want to track down the other books and find out what happened before and after. In this case, not so much. I will not be reading any more Bella Andre books.

21. "Deathless" by Catherynne M. Valente

Page count: 352 pages
Date begun: February 24th, 2012
Date finished: February 26th, 2012

Marya Morevna is the fourth youngest and fourth prettiest daughter, and spends her childhood in Revolutionary Russia. In turn she sees three different birds turn into men and take her sisters away as wives. She expects the same for herself, but when her husband finally does show up, he is Koschei the Deathless. He takes her away in a car that turns into a horse at night, and feeds her and clothes her and nurses her when she gets ill, to his castle in Buyan. Yet Marya Morevna discovers that despite what he's told her, she is not Koschei's first mortal bride, and there are challenges for a mortal girl wanting to marry the Tsar of Life. Koschei's sister, Baba Yaga, sets her three tasks that she must complete, or become soup for the old witch's stock pot. And if she does succeed in the tasks, how is she to hold Koschei's interest and to convince him that she won't be faithless to him like the endless Elenas and Vasilisas that came before her, now stuck in a factory, never aging, making yarn soldiers for his endless war with his brother, the Tsar of Death?

Deathless is one of the strangest books I think I've ever read. It takes a number of themes, characters and creatures from Russian fairy tales and weaves them into a strange mix of romantic fairy tale re-imagining, feminist treatise and history lesson. Marya Morevna's relationship with Koschei is both a romance and a power struggle, set against the backdrop of Russia and later the Soviet Union in the first half of the 20th Century. I loved the fairy tale aspects of it, although readers must be warned that this is NOT a young adult book, unlike so many of the other fairy tale retellings I've come across. This book is definitely meant for grown ups (and most teenagers would probably find it rather confusing and boring).

Valente has a marvellous grasp of language, and frequently describes things poetically, without the book becoming twee and saccharine (it's often very dark and bloody things that are lyrically depicted). The first part of the book is magical and strange, probably helped by the fact that I'm not really very familiar with Russian folklore, so every new aspect that was revealed was fascinating to me. The last third of the book, where it seems to me that Valente is using Marya Morevna to make some sort of feminist statement, didn't really work as well for me, mainly because most of the characters stared acting in a way that seemed to go against the way that they'd first been established, and the whole story seemed to turn on its head, and not in a good way. The ending is very ambiguous, and I can see how some people might find it a bit off-putting. But the book is well worth reading, because the first two thirds are so excellent, and the book presents something so different from what you normally find in fantasy.