Monday, 30 November 2015

#CBR7 Book 128: "Wicked Intentions" by Elizabeth Hoyt

Page count: 392 pages
Rating: 4 stars

St. Giles in the 1730s was one of the most impoverished areas of London. Widowed Mrs. Temperance Dews runs a children's home for orphaned and foundling children, with the help of her younger brother, Winter Makepeace, who also tutors the boys until they're old enough to apprentice out. Caring for nearly 30 children between infancy and nine is hard, thankless work and the siblings have trouble making ends meet. They're in arrears on their rent and facing eviction at any moment.

So when the mysterious Lazarus Huntingdon (this book certainly wins for most original protagonist names), Lord Caire, breaks into her tiny and shabby sitting room to propose a bargain, Temperance doesn't really have much choice but to accept. Lord Caire is looking for a murderer (although he doesn't tell her that right away) and no one knows the nook sand crannies of St. Giles like Mrs. Dews. He wants to pay her to be his guide and in return, he agrees to introduce her into high society, so she can find a rich patron for the children's home. He also promises to pay their expenses until she finds a patron.

Lord Caire's quest for his mistress' murderer (who was really gruesomely killed) proves to be a lot more dangerous than expected, and after several murder attempts and new murder victims turning up, he's reluctant to bring Temperance with him. At the same time, his searches through St. Giles give him an excuse to spend more time with her. A jaded, thoroughly debauched man, Lazarus hasn't really felt attracted to anyone before, but the saintly, near-puritanical widow draws him inexplicably and he wants to tempt her into giving up her carefully maintained control. Even more appealing to him is her reaction every time he tries to tempt her. Temperance Dews clearly has deep passion hidden inside and Lord Caire wants to be the one to draw it to the surface.

Wicked Intentions is the second part of last year's Cannonball gift exchange from Beth Ellen, who told me in the accompanying card that this was one of her favourite romances. I was a bit wary, as I have tried to read Elizabeth Hoyt in the past (she keeps being raved about on various romance sites) and her books have at best left me mildly entertained. I'd even read another book in the Maiden Lane series before, involving Temperance and Winter's younger sister, Silence and I just didn't care about the characters, their eventual HEA or the plot at all. I hadn't realised that the start of Silence's eventual romance with river pirate Mickey O'Connor is in this book. Sadly, the whole subplot concerning Silence, her stuffy idiot of a husband and ruiner of marriages and women's reputations, Mickey O'Connor, left me completely cold and deducts points from my total rating. Without that whole mess, which left a bad taste in my mouth (and I seem to recall, was one of the reasons I just couldn't believe their eventual romance), I pretty much would have loved everything about this book.

At four stars, this is still the most enjoyable Hoyt book I've read to date. Interestingly, a cold, calculating alpha hero who forces his initial attentions on the heroine and a dutiful, repressed heroine who believes that enjoying sex will lead straight to perdition usually wouldn't work for me. However, the reasons why Temperance believes her very passionate urges are so sinful aren't just due to the societal mores of the day or her clearly religious upbringing. Her selfless and long-suffering work at the children's home isn't from entirely altruistic reasons either. Temperance is by no means perfect, which just adds to her appeal. She knows her brother desperately needs her help at the home, but she dreams of something more. She's sometimes selfish ad careless and forgets the many worries of her little sister, for instance. I liked that she refused to be intimidated by Lord Caire, negotiating a very good bargain for herself and the home and how, while she initially resisted and tried to be virtuous, once she gave into her sexual attraction, she really gave in. While Lazarus is clearly the one who initiates their first kisses, he mostly tempts her with words and never forces her to do anything she's not ready for or comfortable with.

Lord Caire, so very striking with long hair gone prematurely silver because of something in his past, is a known libertine and pervert and claims never to have loved anyone, except perhaps his little sister, who died when they were children. He is estranged from his mother (who also has prematurely greying hair) and very few friends. Not unexpectedly, he barely saw his aristocratic parents as a child, raised by nannies, tutors and eventually sent away to school. More unusually, Lazarus isn't just extremely cold and closed off emotionally, being touched brings him physical and mental pain. When he initiates contact, it's fine, but anyone else causes him anguish. He wants to track down his mistress' killer, not because he loved the woman and wants to avenge her, but because it seems like the right thing to do. It's always enjoyable following a jaded hero go through an emotional awakening and Lazarus is no exception.

Early on in the book, there are mainly kisses, but Lazarus does his very best to tempt Temperance off the straight and narrow with a lot of dirty talk. Once they finally give into their passion, there is quite a lot of "insert funky bass line here", but I was bothered in all the love scenes by the early assertions from everyone around Lazarus admonishing him for his wicked ways and his prodigious experience with ladies of negotiable affections. Since he never seems to have been using any sort of protection (while not very effective, it existed, even back then) and he seems to me to have been a walking, talking incubator of venereal disease. A man so fond of sleeping with whores would most likely have both the pox and syphilis, and probably a whole slew of other things. This definitely left me worried in the smexy scenes, but not enough to seriously ruin my enjoyment of the book.

The next book in the series is about Lady Hero Batten, the daughter and sister of a duke, who seemed charming and fun in her brief appearances in this book (and very interesting in the teaser chapter at the back). I may actually give Ms. Hoyt another chance. Thank you again, Beth Ellen!

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 127: "A Room with a View" by E.M. Forster

Page count: 211 pages
Audio book length: 7 hrs 22 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

Sometime in the first decade of the 20th Century, young Miss Lucy Honeychurch is in Florence with her older, constantly worrying cousin Charlotte Bartlett as companion and chaperone. When they discover that the rooms they've been assigned have no nice view, Lucy is disappointed. An older gentleman, Mr. Emerson, offers to trade them, as the rooms he and his son were given have lovely views. "Ladies care about that sort of thing, men do not". Miss Bartlett is worried about the impropriety of the trade, that accepting the rooms may leave them in debt to these strangers, but is convinced by other guests, and Lucy gets her view.

During her stay in Italy, Lucy discovers art and architecture and when she manages to escape the overbearing presence of her cousin, she quite enjoys herself. Luckily, Charlotte makes friends with the vaguely ridiculous lady novelist, Eleanor Lavish, so seems a bit distracted much of the time. Lucy has several encounters with the Emersons, who seem to have fairly radical notions for the time, both of social and gender equality. George, the son, seems to be of a rather gloomy and melancholy disposition, but the father is always cheerful and friendly.

While on one of her rambles, Lucy witnesses a man being stabbed to death in square, swoons and wakes up in the arms of young George Emerson. Later, during an outing in the Florentine countryside, George kisses Lucy on a hillside covered in violets, but they are interrupted by a shocked Charlotte before anything else can happen. Miss Bartless whisks her charge off to Rome before anything else untoward can happen, and Lucy and George don't see each other again.

Several months later, back in England, Lucy accepts the marriage proposal of Mr. Cecil Vyse, the third time he asks her for her hand (the first having been in Rome and the second in the Alps). Lucy's brother Freddy is none too happy about this turn of events, as he finds Cecil a stuffy and pretentious bore, but Mrs. Honeychurch is pleased for her daughter, as the Vyses are in a more rarefied social circle than the Honeychurches. Lucy's future looks set to be predictable, respectable and rather dull, with her thoughts, tastes and opinions carefully curated by her future husband. Then the Emersons unexpectedly let a house in the neighbourhood and Lucy is suddenly torn as to what she really wants.

I loved the 1985 Merchant Ivory film version of A Room with a View, with Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy, Julian Sands as George, Maggie Smith as Charlotte Bartlett and Daniel Day-Lewis at his most pompous as Cecil. At least I did when I saw it, many years ago. It's a visually stunning film and seemed ever so romantic, despite the slow pacing. I had never read the book, so when my Monthly Motif Challenge for November called for a book written before 2000, this seemed like a good opportunity. Sadly, while I'm sure it deserves its position as a literary classic and most likely brilliantly skewers the stuffy ideals of Edwardian society, I was hoping for more of a stirring romance and was quite disappointed, and bored by the book.

There are very few encounters between Lucy and George at all, and to make matters worse, later in the novel, when the kiss in Florence is discussed between Lucy and Charlotte, it seems to suggest that George only kissed Lucy on the cheek. I honestly don't see why this would cause such terrible consternation, with the event being brought up again and again over the course of the book. Charlotte just cannot leave the event well enough alone and even gossipped about it to Eleanor Lavish, who stole it and put it in her next lurid novel, also set in Italy. That a reading from said novel prompts George to kiss Lucy again, this time in a shrubbery, elicited a lot less excitement when there was the possibility that he may just have pecked her on the cheek again.

Of Lucy's suitors, Cecil is clearly the worst (in every sense of the word), although it is clear that that is exactly what Forster is going for. George isn't that much of an appealing catch either, mainly morosely slouching through beautiful Florence having to have his father plead his case for him with Lucy. He doesn't really put up that much of a spirited competition once he returns on the scene in England either, except the aforementioned shrubbery kiss and to exclaim in disgust that Lucy actually wants to marry pompous prig Cecil.

Not that Lucy is all that much to cheer for either. She's a bit wet, really. She does have the excuse of being a young woman in a time and society that didn't exactly value brains, independence or pluck in females. Her visit to Italy clearly starts her down the path of thinking for herself, until returning to England makes her believe she'd be better off just conforming. All the while, her most prominent character trait seems to be that she's a skilled pianist and her fondness for Beethoven seems to symbolise the hidden passions that might be unleashed, should only the right person come along. I only wish that Forster had shown me that George actually had anything worth stirring that passion in him.

I'm now actually afraid to go back and re-watch the film, in case I just imagined all the smouldering romance of it. I'm sure this is a very good book, but it is not at all what I was expecting, and hence I cannot rate it higher than I have. Your mileage may vary.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 126: "In the Woods" by Tana French

Page count: 592 pages
Audio book length: 20 hrs 23 mins
Rating: 4 stars

This book, which is quite long (longest audio book I've listened to to date) gives the readers two mysteries for the price of one. Back in 1984, three 12-year-olds went missing in the wood of a Dublin suburb. Search parties eventually found one of them, Adam Ryan, clutching a tree trunk in catatonic terror, several rips at the back of his t-shirt and his shoes filled with blood. His two friends, however, were gone without a trace. Adam didn't remember anything since entering the wood in the afternoon.

Twenty years later, Adam Ryan goes by his middle name, Robert, and is a murder detective on the Dublin Murder Squad. He keeps his past secret from his colleagues, with the exception of his partner and best friend, Cassie Maddox. He still doesn't remember anything from that fateful day, and prefers to keep it that way. Rob and Cassie find themselves as the primary investigators of the murder of a young girl, found beaten, strangled and left on a sacrificial altar at an archaeological site in Rob's old home town. The case, when they start investigating, bears a lot of parallels to the disappearance of Rob's two best friends, but despite this, Rob insists on keeping his connection to the earlier case secret from his colleagues and claims he's fine to continue investigating the murder.

The case turns out to be a tricky one. Katy, the young victim, was a talented ballet dancer, about to go off to the Ballet Academy on a full scholarship. Her abilities had garnered a lot of press attention - could she have been killed by a crazed fan or a paedophile? Katy's father had received threatening phone calls due to his involvement with the "Move the Motorway" campaign, trying to protect the archaeological remains from a scheduled motorway expansion. Ryan and Maddox also get seriously off vibes from Katy's family, with Katy's twin Jessica being nearly catatonic, the older sister Rosalind strangely anxious and overprotective, the mother being nearly indifferent and the father with clear anger issues.

As the investigation progresses, Ryan is forced to delve into his past, gradually uncovering snippets of memory as he walks the streets and countryside of his old home. Can Katy's murder shed a light on the unsolved mystery of his friends' disappearance? Will Ryan crack under the stress he's experiencing, before either case is solved?

I rarely read mystery novels anymore, but my book twin on the internet Narfna/Ashley loves Tana French's books so much and recommended the audios when I got concussed. While I don't think I loved the book quite as much, it was an entertaining read, and Steven Crossley, the narrator, does a really good job. The reason I can't unreservedly love the book is partly due to the length. This is a police procedural, which really does go into minute detail about all the aspects of a murder investigation. Sometimes I think maybe too much time was spent on investigating things that went nowhere.

My main gripe with the book is the protagonist, Rob himself. I was deeply uncomfortable with his decision not to tell his superiors about his connection to the old case. As the investigation went on and he started going more and more off the rails, I also felt he should have been astute enough to step back and stop seriously jeopardising the whole case. He started making some bad choices and kept going making worse and worse ones. I loved his friendship with Cassie and absolutely hated where his breakdown caused them to end up. Because I spent quite a lot of the book wanting to shout at or punch Rob in the face, it was difficult for me to entirely care if either of the cases actually got solved.

I really liked that the book wasn't mainly a who-dunnit, that so much of it was a psychological study. For anyone who wants clear-cut, set in stone answers, this book is probably going to be deeply frustrating. I can very much believe that there isn't always an easy answer in real life murder cases, though, so I didn't really mind that aspect. I loved Cassie, and really liked Sam O'Neill, the other detective who helps investigate the case. I was really intrigued by where the case ended up going, but Rob's poor lack of judgement kept me from more than just liking this book. The next book in the series is apparently all about Cassie, though, so I will be getting that one just to spend more time with her.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

#CBR7 Book 125: "Step Aside, Pops: A Hark! A Vagrant Collection" by Kate Beaton

Page count: 166 pages
Rating: 4 stars

When preparing to write this review, I got quite a surprise. I searched in the archives on my blog and on Goodreads to find my review of the first Hark! A Vagrant book and discovered that not only had I not reviewed it at any point, but I hadn't even entered it as read on Goodreads. I have absolutely no idea why, as I got the first book back in 2011 and was extremely happy that Kate Beaton was finally collecting some of her amazing comics in book form. As a bonus, the book included new strips, never before published on her website! The book was a clear five star read for me - I have no idea why I never got round to blogging about it. Back then I was more selective about what I reviewed for my Cannonball, but still - how could I not have spread the word about the genius that is Kate Beaton?

For those who don't know, Ms Beaton is a Canadian web comic creator with a background in history. She frequently takes history or literature as inspiration for her very funny comics, drawn in a simplistic style. One of her most popular creations, the little fat pony, is now the star of its own book and you can also get little plush versions of it (just in case anyone was wondering what I'd like for Christmas).

In her first book, highlights include Dude Watching with the Brontës:

Some lovely commentary on Jane Eyre:
 The always delightful 15th Century peasant comics:
And these great panels in a series about Bram Stoker's Dracula:

If you like any of these, you are likely to be a fan of Kate Beaton. The new book is much of the same, but some of the material didn't work as well for me. I still laughed a lot, but there were a few too many topics that didn't really feel as interesting to me. Which is still to say that it's a great collection of comics and I don't for a second regret getting the book in hardcover. I just wish there were more true classics, like this one: 

Check out her website, check out her books. She's clever and witty and deserves a large readership.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 124: "When the Duke was Wicked" by Lorraine Heath

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

This review was written with the help of Mrs. Julien's romance review template (tm).

When the Duke was Wicked is a romance of the "friends to lovers" variety. The hero and heroine have known each other since they were young, as their families are very close. The heroine and the hero's younger sisters are BFFs. The hero grieves for his dead wife and had determined that he will never love another. The heroine believes she can get the hero to re-join polite society by asking for his advice to avoid fortune hunters. Hijinks ensue. The couple move forward together, secure in their love and commitment.

A historical romance set in Victorian London, When the Duke was Wicked is the thirteenth book I've read by Lorraine Heath. I generally find Ms. Heath's work to be entertaining, if only occasionally really good, but this was not one of her more memorable books. It was, however, acquired in an e-book sale for not very much money and allowed me to see how Grace, the best friend of Miranda from Falling Into Bed with a Duke and Lovingdon, Miranda's half-brother actually got together. As they are frequently occurring supporting characters in that book, I wanted to see how they arrived at their HEA. I found When the Duke was Wicked rather uninspiring, but while it was a bit of a dud, I will no doubt continue reading Ms. Heath's books (especially if I find them on sale) because every so often she produces a real gem. I would not recommend you start with this particular effort, however.

As I said above, the plot is a variety of the friends to lovers trope. Henry Stanford, the Duke of Lovingdon was everything that was dutiful and respectable until his wife and young daughter died. Blaming himself for the illness they contracted, and for the lie he told his wife on his deathbed (that he would keep them safe), he became consumed with grief and threw himself into debauchery and becoming a rake of the first order in an attempt to forget his formerly happy family life. He is handsome (of course), stubborn and rather single-minded. I found Lovingdon the biggest detriment to my enjoyment of this book, as he frustrated me immensely with his continued wallowing and his vow never to love another. There are many ways to love, dude! You can love your relatives, friends and spouse in different ways. Also, she died years ago. Get over yourself!

Lady Grace Mabry is lucky enough to have a huge dowry, but is worried that only cads and fortune hunters will be interested in her. She is clever, rather sneaky and convinced she can save Lovingdon from himself. Not entirely sure what she sees in him. She gets points for showing up at Lovingdon's town house and not blinking an eye when he opens the door while in the nude. She forces him to review all her suitors to give her advice on who's trying to dupe her. To do this, he has to show up at a number of society functions. She tells herself she is completely over her childhood crush on him (she was heartbroken when he married, even though she was a teen and he was a fair few years older than her), which is clearly not true. He doesn't think any of the men vying for her hand are good enough (he's not wrong) and gets crazy jealous at the thought of any of them touching her. If only his heart wasn't dead and buried along with his poor wife. Le sigh.

MINOR SPOILER! Once Grace is kidnapped by one of her suitors, Lovingdon comes to his senses and realises his true feelings for her. Will he be able to tell her before it's too late?

I forget if there are any significant subplots in the book. Some time is spent with the character Drake Darling, Grace's foster brother, who runs a gambling club. He's the hero of Once More, My Darling Rogue, a book which I refuse to read because Victorian Overboard is not a thing I will put myself through. You can read Mrs. Julien's review here, though.

While this book should have had Grace ending up with someone more awesome, I don't regret buying it for the price I paid. Anyone looking for really good Heath novels can check out Lord of Wicked Intentions, The Duke and the Lady in Red or her most recent release, Falling Into Bed with a Duke.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read. 

Saturday, 28 November 2015

#CBR7 Book 123: "Scandal Takes the Stage" by Eva Leigh

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Margaret "Maggie" Delamere makes a comfortable living as the popular playwright of the most successful burlettas (because the theatre doesn't have an official licence, every line of all the plays has to be sung by the actors) at the Imperial theatre. In the past, she's never had any problems getting new ideas or getting her plays finished on time. Now, with the Imperial's board of directors and the audience clamouring for the sequel to her most popular play yet, Maggie is suffering from a terrible writer's block. The board can't wait too much longer for a new play, and unless Maggie can produce the sequel soon, they're threatening to replace her with another writer. Maggie wouldn't just lose her job, but have to leave the place she considers home and the people she considers her family.

Cameron Chalton, Viscount Marwood, is an unashamed libertine and rake, quite happy with the idea of his stuffy and proper younger brother's offspring eventually inheriting the title. Marwood certainly has no intention of growing respectable and tying the knot. Of course, now that his good friend and former carousing buddy, the Earl of Ashford, has settled down into matrimony, Cameron's father is more insistent than ever that Marwood also remember his duties. The constant partying isn't as much fun without Ashford either.

 Cameron's true passion isn't for wine or women, though, although it does involve song. Marwood loves theatre of all kinds, and he's absolutely mad for Mrs. Delamere's burlettas at the Imperial, spending part of nearly every evening in his private box watching the performances. When he discovers that Mrs. Delamere may be replaced by the board of directors, he vows to do anything he can to help her.

Maggie made the mistake of dallying with a nobleman once in her youth and it ended badly. She has no intention of falling for another peer of the realm, not even one as sinfully charming and handsome as Viscount Marwood. When he not only promises to fund the theatre to give her time to complete her new play, but offers the privacy of his country estate as a writing retreat, she'd be a fool to refuse. Maggie knows the rakish viscount will probably try to seduce her, but realises that she wouldn't mind all that much if he did. Cameron genuinely tries his best to give Maggie her space, but can't get her out of his mind. There are tenants to visit and a neglected estate to oversee. If that brings him into company with the most stimulating woman he's ever met, what's Marwood to do?

I was pleasantly surprised by Forever Your Earl, and found myself liking Scandal Takes the Stage even more. As in her previous novel, Eva Leigh acknowledges that a romantic liaison between a high-ranking peer and a woman of common birth most likely would be brief, and unlikely to end happily for the woman. Anything permanent would be viewed as shocking and inappropriate. As Marwood is quite happy to flout conventions and his responsibilities, with plans to let his brother's family take over the title, he's not going to let public opinion keep him from Maggie, once he decides that she's the woman he wants. Clearly more comfortable among artists, bohemians and those of looser morals, Cameron fits well with Maggie's "found family", her theatre friends.

Maggie has pain and heartache in her past, and was disowned by her family after being seduced by a careless nobleman. Left destitute, she has been taking care of herself for a long time, working hard to gain the relative respectability she now has. She doesn't want to throw that away for a brief affair, even with someone as tempting as Marwood.

After her's best friend became the Countess of Ashford, Maggie's come into contact with Marwood a few times. She is surprised when he genuinely seems interested in her work and soon discovers that he's more or less memorised all her plays. It is extremely difficult for her to approach him for help when her livelihood is at stake. She's quite prepared to offer herself up as "re-payment", but Cameron isn't interested in forcing women. He only wants her if she comes to him willingly, without obligation. That doesn't mean that he doesn't intend to tempt her, of course. Once Maggie arrives at his estate, she discovers that all her needs have been anticipated and prepared for. Being cared for and pampered after having to take care of herself since she was a fairly young girl may prove more seductive than Maggie could imagine.

This book has a slow build-up and tons of unresolved sexual tension. The relationship builds gradually and slowly, but I found it all the more satisfying because of it. For people who like that sort of thing, Ms. Leigh has revealed on her Facebook page that her inspirations for Cameron and Maggie were Aiden Turner and Kat Dennings. The next book in the series is going to feature Cameron's cousin, a village Vicar (he has a couple of scenes in this book), modelled on Tom Hiddleston. Let's just say that Eva Leigh is very close to becoming one of my auto-buy authors.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 27 November 2015

#CBR7 Book 122: "Falling Into Bed with a Duke" by Lorraine Heath

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the first in a new series by Lorraine Heath, featuring the Hellions of Havisham. The first of these Hellions is Nicholson Lambert, the Duke of Ashebury. He lost his parents in a gruesome train accident and was sent to the country to be raised by the Marquess of Marsden. Along with him were the Earl of Grayling and his twin brother, orphaned in the same accident. Their parents appointed the Marquess of Marsden their guardian, unaware that Marsden was driven pretty much out of his mind after the death of his wife, leaving him in no fit state to raise even his own son, let alone three other boys. As a result, Ashebury and his three friends, close as brothers, were allowed to run entirely wild and as grown men, they all have quite the reputations.

The Earl of Grayling is the only one happily married, none of the other Hellions are intending to settle down or looking for spouses. Having seen how loss and heartbreak drove Marsden insane, Ashebury has no plans to ever allow himself to fall for a woman. He prefers to travel the world, exploring and adventuring, taking beautiful and striking photographs to document his journeys. When he's in London, he indulges in tasteful nude photography for his private collection, hoping that images of physical perfection may eventually supplant the nightmare visions of hideous, mangled bodies that he's haunted by.

Miss Miranda Dodger is the daughter of one of the richest men in England. Her enormous dowry has made her a favourite target for greedy gold diggers, so much so that she even wrote a book on how to spot and avoid fortune hunters. At the age of 28, she has yet to find a man who she trust actually likes her for who she is rather than the ridiculous amounts of money she'll bring to a marriage. With her father's head for business and very firm opinions, that she refuses to keep to herself, she's acquired a reputation as a fierce blue-stocking. She's also convinced that she's very plain and that no man would find her beautiful if she didn't have money. She despairs at ever finding the great love her parents or her brother and best friend share. She wants to experience passion, lose her virginity and feel desired. So she gains access to the Nightingale Club, where society ladies don masks to protect their identities and seek out lovers for uncomplicated liaisons. Miranda figures that the mask will not only protect her from scandal, but ensure that the gentleman in question sees only her, not her money. It will also allow her to feel more confident, as her homely features will be hidden.

Miranda and Ashe meet at the club. Ashe wants to photograph Miranda's ankles. She thinks he's gorgeous and is more than happy for him to be the man to deflower her. Posing for a naughty photograph, however, makes her nervous. When Ashe discovers that the mysterious Lady V is actually a virgin, he sends her home, saying she should spend her first time with someone she at least cares for, not a complete stranger. They do share a scorching kiss before they part, though.

Ashe becomes determined to discover the true identity of his mystery woman with the perfect ankles and it doesn't take him long before he's almost confident that the unconventional Miss Dodger and Lady V are one and the same. With every encounter, he becomes more and more interested in Miranda, and as he needs a wife to continue his family line, he decides the only one who will do is her. Of course, with so many fortune hunters having come before him, Ashebury has his work cut out for him. Can he convince the woman who literally wrote the book on fortune hunters that he's a genuine suitor?

This book has cameo appearances by a lot of characters from Heath's previous series, most notably her most recent one, the Scandalous Gentlemen of St.James. Miranda also appeared in those books, but now she gets to be the heroine in her own story. As this book also introduces the four Hellions of Havisham, there is quite a bit of back story given and some attention given to Ashebury's fellow Hellions, only one of whom is married (I do hope he doesn't lose his wife in some tragic accident, so as to make him an even more tortured hero later - dead parents AND beloved wife). I'm assuming that at least Ashebury's unmarried foster brothers will be heroes in later books, there's certainly a lot of interesting trauma in their pasts to make them suitable tortured hero fodder.

Ashebury was the eldest of the Hellions, I want to say he was about eight when his parents died. His last words to them was some variety of spoiled, angry shouting and naturally he feels terribly guilty that after he had a tantrum, they went and died gruesomely in a train accident. While he never saw their bodies, his imagination has more than amply provided nightmare fodder for him throughout his life. He tries to capture beautiful things in his photographs to try to drive the horror images out of his mind. It's also clear that all four boys experienced a lot of bad stuff due to Marsden's madness.

Miranda is a clever and engaging heroine, whose main flaw is that she's so convinced she's not pretty. I honestly don't remember if there is any real background to her conviction that she's so plain and unremarkable, or if it's just that Grace, her best friend is very pretty, and she feels homely in comparison. It's quite clear from the POV of everyone else that she's deluded on this point, and while she's not a diamond of the first water, she's certainly not some hideous troll either. Raised as the only girl in a household of brothers, Miranda is well-read and has a head for finances, happily advising her male friends and relatives on business ventures. Refusing to hide her brains and giggle demurely when she is out in public, she scares off a lot of men who want a nice biddable wife. Her massive dowry does more harm than good, as she's convinced (mostly from bitter experience) that it only attracts unscrupulous fortune hunters. I liked that she tried to take control of her own sexuality, but it also seemed realistic that she got cold feet when she was actually faced with jumping into bed with someone.

The main complication for the couple seemed a bit simplistic, and I'm surprised it took Ashebury quite as long as it did to figure out a solution. It seemed to me that what he came up with was the only sensible option and it would have saved a lot of time if he'd thought of it sooner.

Lorraine Heath's books can be a bit hit and miss. This one is definitely more of a hit. I liked both protagonists and am looking forward to seeing what is in store for the other Hellions in future.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday, 16 November 2015

#CBR7 Book 121: "Cold-Hearted Rake" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Devon Ravenel, along with his younger brother West, are the last of a long line of rakish Ravenels. When their cousin, who neither of the brothers could stand dies, Devon unexpectedly inherits an earldom and the accompanying town house, estate and lands. The brothers show up to survey the inheritance when they discover that their cousin had only been married for three days when he managed to get himself thrown off a high-spirited horse in a fit of the legendary Ravenel temper. He left behind a beautiful widow and three younger sisters, who due to Victorian mourning conventions have barely seen anyone but servants for years.

While the estate is quite rich in land, the former earls also left quite a chunk of debt and no modernisation has been done for decades. Devon wants to sell off as much as he can, but Kathleen, his cousin's temperamental widow, is appalled that he would abandon his duties and leave all the people depending on him to fend for themselves. She feels he should step up and take responsibility for his new title, estate and dependants and as he falls madly in lust with her the minute they first start arguing, Devon changes his mind and decides to try to save the lands instead. Anything to spend more time with Kathleen, helping her out of her mourning attire and into his bed.

He enlists the aid of his drunken younger brother, who conveniently turns out to have quite the knack for estate management. He convinces Kathleen to stay on as a companion and tutor of sorts to his young cousins, the serene and bookish Lady Helen and the rambunctious and imaginative twins Cassandra and Pandora. As previously mentioned, Devon wants to seduce Kathleen, but her Catholic scruples and her guilt at what she believes was her culpability in the death of her husband makes her remarkably resistant to his rakish charms.

Cold-Hearted Rake is Lisa Kleypas' first historical romance in five years. The book, which is clearly setting up for a new series, had a lot of people very excited and there were a lot of expectations that needed to be met. Unlike the esteemed Mrs. Julien, whose eloquence on the romance genre puts my humble reviewing efforts to shame, I haven't read the entirety of Ms. Kleypas' historical back catalogue, and I tend to rate quite a few other historical authors higher in my general estimation. Yet there is no denying that Ms. Kleypas is one of the greats and has written some wonderful classics. She's also very good at writing entertaining scoundrels.

Devon seems a pretty typical Kleypas hero. He is handsome and rakish, and initially quite selfish and careless, mainly concerned with his own interests and how he can ruthlessly further them. Of course, taking on his new responsibilities, trying to woo Kathleen and taking care of his female cousins brings about a change in him, making him a gentler, more caring man. He's sworn off marriage for life, but can't get Kathleen out of his mind. They spend a lot of time in spirited banter, both by written correspondence and in person.

Kathleen has, sadly, been brought up to believe that a woman shouldn't really feel any lustful feelings whatsoever. Her brief marriage was SPOILER! never consummated because her husband was a drunken oaf, and what did have time to happen have given her nightmares. There is so much Catholic guilt in her character, and I didn't like it.

One reason this book isn't as satisfying a romance as I think a lot of people were hoping for is that it's as concerned with setting up the whole new series as it is with Devon and Kathleen's romance. There is the beginning redemption of West, there is the beginning of the romance between Lady Helen and Devon's Welsh department store owner friend, Mr. Winterborne and there is getting to know the twins. I'm hoping that later books in the series will be more focused on just one couple at a time. Finally, a note on the cover. I'm assuming the lady on the cover is meant to be Kathleen. As the lady in question is in heavy mourning throughout the whole story, depicting her in a frothy pink dress is just all kinds of wrong.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 120: "Sorcerer to the Crown" by Zen Cho

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Bought and liberated as a child, and later adopted by the esteemed Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Whyte, Zacharias Whyt now has the honour of being the first dark-skinned Sorcerer Royal of England. In a time when English magic is waning due to some mysterious restrictions from the Faerie courts and the country is still facing threats from Napoleon on the Continent, Zacharias is also facing personal challenges, with a seeming majority of the members of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers (gentleman magicians) accusing him of having murdered and usurped Sir Stephen and having destroyed his faerie familiar. They are plotting to having Zacharias removed and replaced, in a process that won't really end well for the poor man.

In this stressful time, Zacharias is persuaded by a friend to go give a talk at a girls' school in the countryside, where he discovers that contrary to the popular belief among the Society, that women are only capable of minor hexes and cantrips to help them in the home, many of the young gentlewomen at the school are vastly skilled and are being taught modified curses to drain the magic out of themselves, because it's deemed unseemly for women to possess or use magic at all. He also meets the formidable Miss Prunella Gentleman, and orphan of uncertain parentage (but it's clear that her mother was of Indian persuasion), who appears to have more magic at her ready disposal and control than all of England's male magicians put together. She is also in possession of a magical treasure of untold value and Zacharias feels he has no other choice but to take her with him to London, to tutor her so she doesn't run around uncontrolled.

Of course, once Prunella, used as she is to fixing, sorting and managing everything, discovers the extent to the troubles Zacharias is facing, she's determined to help him sort them out. The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers won't know what hit them.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the debut novel of Zen Cho, a Malaysian fantasy writer. It's the first in a planned trilogy, but never fear, it has a perfectly satisfactory ending, with no pesky cliffhangers to mar your enjoyment until the next book in the series comes out. Clearly inspired by the writing style of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, the language of the book is quite formal and the plot progression is slow. There is a romantic subplot that I found delightful, but there are no passionate declarations or steamy love scenes here, so look elsewhere if that's what you're after. There is the sly wit and humour of both the best of Austen and Heyer, while both being a lot more feminist and diverse than either of those great ladies' books.

In a book where the protagonists are a freed slave and an orphaned, mixed-race, probably illegitimate woman and the main plot involves just how badly the male magic users of England have underestimated the women, not only of their own country, but that of other nations, it makes for a delightful change from a lot of still very male-dominated fantasy. Zen Cho also manages to make her points without it feeling like she's beating you over the head with her "agenda", and while the plot was slow, I very much enjoyed reading the book.

Poor Zacharias clearly never wanted the responsibilities that have been thrust upon him, but grateful to his adoptive parents, he's going to carry out his duties, even knowing that many of his fellow wizards suspect him of murder and manipulation and are plotting to have him killed and replaced as Sorcerer Royal as a result. He would like nothing better than to retire to the countryside as a lowly scholar, but instead he has to negotiate with the Faerie court, try to fend off the demands of the English government who want magical aid in foreign conflicts and then has his entire world view turned upside down when it becomes clear that women can be just as capable of using magic as men, possibly even better at it.

Prunella Gentleman has never known her mother, but knows she was dark-skinned and therefore not exactly desirable in polite society. After her father killed himself, she was raised in the girls' school, on charity, but despite dreaming of balls and suitors and the other things her fellow gentlewomen dream of, it becomes very clear to her that she's seen more as a servant, despite all the help she's given the proprietress over the years. Not one to dwell on disappointment and betrayed feelings for long, pragmatic and ambitious Prunella takes her newly-discovered magical legacy and intends to follow Zacharias to London. Once she saves his life from a magical assassination attempt, he feels indebted to her, and offers her tutelage. She, in return, feels protective of him and determines to help him sort out his troubles, as he's clearly not capable of taking care of himself.

Not surprisingly, the upper classes of English gentlemen are completely unprepared for a female of uncertain origins in their midst, disproving once and for all that women shouldn't use magic. While the plot moves slowly, the final third gets quite action-packed, with Prunella discovering the individual behind the magical attacks against Zacharias and helping sort of the diplomatic tangle that England has got itself tied up in. While the book ends on a satisfying conclusion, there is more than enough hints as to what is to come in the series, and I for one, am very eager to see what Ms. Cho has planned for us next.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

#CBR7 Book 119: "Six Impossible Things" by Fiona Wood

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Dan Cereill (pronounced "surreal", NOT "cereal") is not having an easy time of it. He and his mother are left shocked, abandoned and nearly penniless after Dan's father simultaneously announces that his business has gone bankrupt and that he's gay. Dan's great-aunt Adelaide recently passed away, the terms of her will stating that Dan and his mother could live in her house (although the house and it's contents were left to the National Trust). The house is ancient, drafty, cold as hell and reeks overwhelmingly of urine, but Dan can cope because it's also next door to his dream girl, Estelle. By accident, he discovers that the two houses have connecting attics, and Estelle has made herself a sort of refuge up on her side. Lonely, miserable and conflicted, Dan can help himself from snooping through Estelle's private things, including her notebooks and diaries, seeing how much they have in common.

He makes a list of six impossible things he hopes to achieve, the most important of which is that he wants to kiss Estelle. Of course, he gets completely tongue-tied and awkward talking to ANY girl. Estelle is so far out of his league it's not even funny, and he's deeply ashamed about the fact that he snooped through her diary, betraying her trust before they'd even properly met. His parents' sudden financial difficulties means his mother is trying to make money by starting a wedding cake business. She doesn't really sell any wedding cakes, instead more often than not breaking the couples up after their consultations with her. Dan therefore needs to get a job, in an attempt to help out with bills.

He also has to leave his fancy prep school and get used to going to public school, where he manages to make himself a target for bullies on his very first day. He struggles to make friends, admiring Estelle and her friends from afar, cursing his bad luck and painful lack of cool or social skills.

While Dan reading Estelle's diaries early on is a very bad thing to do, he clearly feels extremely bad about it, and he's in a very bad place emotionally when he succumbs to the temptation. So while it can seem a bit stalkery and inappropriate, he is very sorry and tries not to do it again (too much). He's adorably clueless about girls, and extremely annoyed that his reputation as a prep school kid marks him out as some sort of sad nerd. When he befriends Lou, who seems to be the female flipside of his best friend Fred, it's clear that his penchant for saying exactly the wrong thing to Estelle has more to do with nerves and anxiety than anything else.

Dan feels very betrayed about his father's revelations and feels abandoned by him. He stubbornly refuses to speak to his dad at all, or open the birthday present his dad sends him. He tries as best he can to help his mother, who is very effective at breaking up affianced couples, but not really in securing a single client for her baking business. When she's not making brides reconsider marriage, she mainly mopes around, obsessing about Radiohead. Money is clearly very tight, which becomes more of a problem when Howard, the elderly dog Adelaide left them needs some serious vet's attention. Dan manages to get a part-time job, but discovers that a 15-year-old waiter doesn't exactly make a fortune.

Going for runs with Howard and lifting weights in his room, not to mention some advice from Oliver, the cool market analyst who lives in the mansion's carriage house, means Dan slowly builds both muscle and confidence and as the school year progresses, he starts fitting in better at school. The bullies mainly leave him alone, and as he works in the same café as Janie, Estelle's best friend, he is eventually roped in to help in a harebrained scheme to get Janie to Sydney without their parents discovering. While their parents discover their deception and Estelle and Janie end up grounded for ages, it means he's finally earned the trust of the girl he adores. She uses their shared access to sneak into Dan's house and they spend a lot more time together.

By the time the big dance comes around, Dan is going mad with jealousy because he knows Estelle is taking someone else. When he discovers she's going with a girl from a different school, he finally summons up the courage to show her how he really feels. His guilty conscience about killing her diaries is nearly killing him, though. Will he ruin all his chances with Estelle just as he's finally managed to get her to really see him as a romantic prospect?

Some aspects of this book reminded me of Rainbow Rowell's Attachments, mainly the fact that Dan gets to know Estelle and falls for her by reading something very private to her, the way Lincoln falls for Beth by reading her e-mail correspondence with her best friend. The way Dan works hard to make himself fit and healthy and tries to improve himself looks wise also reminded me of Lincoln. The similarities certainly don't make me like this book any less.

Dan's by no means a perfect guy, and in many ways a very typical teenager. He goes far too long before talking to and forgiving his father and gives his mother a hard time occasionally, feeling very sorry for himself (not entirely without reason). The sixth goal on his list of impossible things is to be good, however, and most of the time, while he doesn't think so himself, he manages very well.

I first heard of this book years ago (not entirely sure where), but it wasn't available in print or e-book outside Australia. Recently, it was released in both print and e-book in the US, though and I finally got my hands on it. I'm glad to see it was worth the wait.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 118: "The Liar" by Nora Roberts

Page count: 512 pages
Audio book length: 16 hrs 37 mins
Rating: 4 stars (3.5 for the book, 0.5 for the narration)

Shelby Foxworth is only 24 when her husband dies in a boating accident, leaving her a widow with a three-year-old daughter. Shortly after her husband's death, she discovers that the man who swept her off her feet and who she believed was rich and successful, was in fact a swindler and a con man, leaving her with mountains of debt. Going through his papers, she finds evidence not only that he cheated on her, but that he had ID for multiple identities. In a safe deposit box, she finds 250 000 dollars in cash, a gun and proof that the man she knew as Richard Foxworth was someone completely fictional.

Forcing herself to stay strong, she sells off all of her late husband's clothes, shoes, watches and jewelry, as well as all the fancy clothes he wanted her to wear. She discovers that most of the jewelry she'd been given consisted of fakes, but once she gets organised enough to put their massive house on the market, selling all the furniture, wine, art and collectibles that Richard filled the house with, the debt goes from crippling to merely formidable. Before she returns home to her family, she is approached by a private investigator who claims that her husband took part in a robbery of jewels and stamps valued at nearly 30 million dollars. The PI refuses to believe that Shelby could have been married to a man for nearly five years and naively never clued into his true nature. Shelby assures him that she knows nothing about her husband's shady dealings and asks to be left alone.

She goes home to Rendezvous Ridge, Tennessee, where her family embraces her with open arms. While she was married to Richard, he rarely let her return for more than a few days at a time, and they've missed both her and Callie, her little girl. Initially, Shelby is reluctant to tell her extensive family the full truth about how naive she was and how badly Richard treated her, but being back in the safe haven of her home town, she can't go long without coming clean. She refuses to let her parents or grandparents help pay off the remaining debt, instead knuckling down to find a job and making a new life for herself and her daughter. She meets carpenter and contractor Griffin Lott, pretty much the polar opposite of the flashy, manipulative bastard she was married to, and he makes both her and Callie feel like a million bucks. But there are still shadows from her old life ready to come back to haunt her.

What I liked:
- January LaVoy's narration is amazing. There are so many different characters and accents in this book, and she managed to differentiate them all brilliantly. With the exception of Griff's partner Matt, who sounds more like he's a teenage boy than a grown man, she made the listening experience so good. The only reason I'm rating the book 4 stars is because of her voice talents.
- Shelby's pluck and determination. Rather than let herself be broken by all the new and horrible discoveries she makes about Richard, Shelby soldiers on and extremely bravely takes on huge challenges. She holds her head high and is determined to dig herself out of the mess she landed in.
- Shelby's family - In Tennessee, Shelby has parents, grandparents, brothers, a sister-in-law and nephews and they're all pretty great. Determined not to let Shelby beat herself up too much about the mistake she made in trusting and falling for Richard, they're more than willing to take care of her until she's back on her feet.
- Showing that abuse doesn't have to be physical - Richard was a skilled manipulator, who saw a perfect cover for his shady cons in Shelby and dazzled her with charm, wealth and exotic travels until she was so spellbound that she would do anything he asked. Then he skillfully started eating away her confidence, making her seem ignorant, stupid, unattractive and helpless. Isolating her from friends and family, making sure that she could only shop with credit cards, so he could keep track of all her expenses, making it much harder for her to actually leave him, if she could summon up the courage to do so. Shelby keeps saying that he never hit her, but takes a long time to come to terms with the fact that she suffered abuse, nonetheless.
- Griffin, who might actually be almost too perfect. Laid-back, extremely skilled at his job, easy-going, well-liked by absolutely everyone in town. Good-looking, charming, patient, great with kids. Of course he's bought Shelby's dream house on the edge of town and is slowly and lovingly restoring it with his magical handyman skills. Sensible, very good deductive abilities (Shelby's brother, the deputy sheriff, keeps deputising him to help with police work). I'm not sure Griff had a single flaw.
- The ending. While pretty much anyone who's ever read a single suspense narrative isn't going to be overly surprised at the developments towards the end of the book, or the identity of the person who's been running around killing Richard's former associates, who all show up in Rendezvous Ridge at some point to try to question Shelby about the whereabouts of the heist loot, I thought it was dealt with really well. Throughout the book, Shelby was pretty much the opposite of a damsel in distress, and even when in mortal danger, she didn't wait around for any of the many strong menfolk in her life to come and rescue her, she handled the situation admirably herself. Seriously, I had such low expectations to the ending that the way it was dealt with made me raise my rating for the book from 3 to 3.5.

What didn't work so well for me:
- If someone's husband runs up a huge amount of debt and then dies, is the wife really responsible for all of it? I've seen several reviews of the book comment on this and I also think it seems very far-fetched. Especially after Shelby discovers that Richard Foxworth wasn't even her husband's real name or identity and that he had a history as a thief and a con man. Surely she could contact the authorities and get the debt forgiven somehow?
- The length of the book. The book goes into minute detail about every single thing Shelby does after discovering that Richard is a lying cheat. Every thing she sells, the complicated process of putting her house on the market, her fears and worries, her road trip back home. Pretty much every errand she runs, every conversation she has, every person she talks to when trying to get a job - it's related far too closely. While Ms. Roberts does a great job of establishing the feel of the small town Shelby is from and making you care for the characters, a lot of the plot drowns in trivialities.
- The subplot with Melody, Shelby's enemy from high school. Melody was an unrealistically histrionic character and I didn't think a singly scene with her added significantly to the plot or the development of the other characters in any way.
- The lack of suspense - for a book that is supposed to be romantic suspense, this book is more like decorating porn than a tense and action-packed read. There is a huge amount of page space dedicated to house remodels, bathroom refurbishments, paint colours, tiles, decorating and home improvement in general. Every so often, someone on the trail of Richard, either one of his nefarious old associates or someone from the law turns up, each new encounter revealing even more of what a rotten piece of work he was, but even with a couple of dead bodies turning up, there isn't all that much that is suspenseful until the end of the book.

I haven't actually read a whole lot of the books Nora Roberts has written under her own name (I'm somewhere in the 20s when it comes to her J.D. Robb books). With the exception of her Bride quartet (about four friends who run a wedding planning business), this is my first experience with the books of La Nora. The book came highly recommended on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and the audio was praised on All About Romance, so when the book was on sale at Audible while I was concussed and in search of a new book to entertain me, it seemed like the perfect coincidence. While I wish Ms. Roberts had trimmed out a lot of the small town ambiance scenes that didn't move the plot or character developments forward in any way, I don't mind the hours I spent listening to the book. It should probably not be the first romantic suspense by Ms. Roberts you pick up, though, as there is a lot more just idyllic Southern small town everyday life here than actual suspense.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Books 116-117: "Rat Queens, vol 1 and 2" by Kurtis J. Weibe and Roc Upchurch

Total page count: 256 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Rat Queens, volume 1: Sass and Sorcery
Rat Queens, volume 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'rygoth

Meet the fierce and fearsome ladies of the Rat Queens, although calling them ladies is probably to exaggerate. There's Hannah the Elven Mage, whose parents are both necromancers; Violet the Hipster Dwarven Fighter, who shaved her beard off and left her family because she wanted to brawl; Dee the Atheist Human Cleric, whose family are Cultists of the giant Squid God of N'Rygoth and last, and while least in size, by no means any less formidable, Betty the Smidgen Thief, frequently drugged to her eye balls on sugar or hallucinogens. What's a Smidgen, you ask? As far as I can tell, some sort of fantasy mix of a midget and a hobbit.

The four members of the Rat Queens are only one of the bands of adventurers/mercenaries (the others include the very Gothy Obsidian Darkness, another band of lady-dominated fighters, the Peaches, and the Four Daves (my favourite group name!)) in the town of Palisade. At the start of Sass and Sorcery, they are in the town jail, after yet another destructive bar brawl, and Sawyer, the captain of the City Watch (and occasional fuck buddy of Hannah) has an ultimatum from the Mayor for all of them. The various bands can go off and perform the quests assigned, or be banished from the town forever. The Rat Queens are told to rid a nearby cave of goblins and reluctantly agree. Turns out, the missions are traps, with each of the groups ambushed and attacked by one of the dark, ninja-like warriors from the Black Khali. Few of bands make it back intact, but the Rat Queens will not be stopped, by goblins or legendary fighters.

They try to investigate who might be behind the assassinations, but have to join forces with the other surviving adventurers to defend Palisade from a horde of vengeful goblins. Once the battle and subsequent victory celebrations are over, Dee discovers that ninja assassins may be the least of their problems, however.

In The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'Rygoth the readers are given more back story into each of the Rat Queens, and they face a much bigger threat than a horde of goblins or some Black Khali assassins. Someone has a serious grudge against Sawyer, the captain of the City Watch, and is not afraid to summon some truly dark powers to get even. Dee is visited by an individual from her past, come to tell her that the ceremonial Death Mask of the High Priest of N'Rygoth has been stolen. In the wrong hands, it can unleash murder, madness, chaos and horrible tentacled monsters in the skies. The Rat Queens and the other warriors in Palisade have to band together to fight against unspeakable horrors, before their town is completely destroyed.

Rat Queens is a great comic, full of violence, adventure, sex, humour and swearing. The protagonists are fast-talking, foul-mouthed, hard-hitting and great friends. Not only is this comic very diverse, I would be surprised if it didn't pass the Bechdel test in every issue. I was given the first volume as a Christmas present by my husband, but didn't get round to reading it until a while after volume 2 came out. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes fantasy, role-playing games, adventure or just good comics.

 Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 115: "4:50 from Paddington" by Agatha Christie

Page count: 351 pages
Audio book length: 7 hrs 8 mins
Rating: 2 stars

On her way by train to visit her old friend Jane Marple for Christmas, Mrs Elspeth McGillicuddy is shocked to realise that she's witnessing a murder in the train running parallel. A tall, dark man in a dark coat is strangling a blond woman in a fur coat and there is nothing Mrs McGillicuddy can do. As soon as the train stops, she notifies the ticket inspector and the station master of what she saw, and when she arrives at Miss Marple's, the two talk to the police and report the crime.

No one else appears to have witnessed anything amiss, however. No dead bodies have been found on the train, and no women have been reported missing. There are suggestions that perhaps Mrs. McGillicuddy imagined what she saw, but she is adamant she witnessed a crime, and her friend Miss Marple, far too experienced with the dark deeds that people commit, believes her. Once her friend leaves to visit her children after Christmas, Miss Marple starts her own investigation. She discovers that the train the murderer would have been on comes to a sharp turn shortly before it enters the station in the town of Brackhampton. There is a sloping hill where a body could easily have been dumped.

As Miss Marple is old and incapable of going around to snoop for a dead body herself, she engages the assistance of a young friend, Miss Lucy Eyelesbarrow, a highly intelligent and competent woman whose made a name for herself as the perfect domestic servant. She can perform the duties of housekeeper, cook, nursemaid or nanny for the people she works for, always leaving the household much better off than it was when she left. Because of her dedication and skill, she's in high demand, but has some free time because of the holidays and Miss Marple's problem intrigues her. She manages to secure a post with the Brackenthorpe family, who live in the manor where Miss Marple suspects the body has been hidden. When Lucy finds the dead woman in an antique sarcophagus in one of the manor's outbuilding, there are several mysteries that need to be unravelled. Who is the dead woman, who none in the Brackenthorpe family claim to recognise? How did she end up hidden in their barn? And last, but not least, who murdered the young woman?

Lucy Eyelesbarrow acts as Miss Marple's eyes, ears and legs in the case, while the godson of Miss Marple's good friend, Inspector Craddock, is in charge of the investigation on behalf of the Scotland Yard. As in most good Agatha Christie mysteries, there's a fairly large cast of characters who could all be guilty of the murder, and the blond woman on the train is not the only one who ends up dead.

This audiobook was bundled with The Man in the Brown Suit, a kind gift from my BFF Lydia. As a young teenager, I voraciously devoured all the Agatha Christie novels in Norwegian translation in my local library, and I was pretty sure I'd read most of the books in her bibliography. I know I much preferred the stand-alones and the Poirot books to those with Miss Marple, and at no point when listening to this book, did I remember anything that made it likely I'd read it before. They do all blend together a bit, but I really think this was the first time I came across this particular story. While Agatha Christie didn't really write any bad books, this one very much suffered from being listened to right after one of my all-time favourites. While Lucy was an engaging enough character and Miss Marple obviously is a very clever old lady, a sedate manor mystery set in the English countryside set shortly after Christmas just cannot compete with Anne Beddingfeld's adventures in South Africa with diamond theft, cruise ships, civil unrest in South African and dashing young men in brown suits.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.