Saturday, 9 December 2017

#CBR9 Book 111: "Why I Loathe Stirling Lane" by Ingrid Paulson

Page count: 287 pages
Rating: 4 stars

It's probably safe to say that Harper Campbell has a Type A personality. In fact, in order to cope after the death of her mother, Harper has developed exactly 537 rules that help keep her life orderly and predictable, both academically and socially (not that she has much of a social life to speak of). Her first rule is to always take care of her twin brother, Cole, who seems to have gotten himself into some fairly serious trouble recently. Harper is convinced that the reason Cole is in trouble involves his new roommate, Sterling Lane, who has become rather infamous over the years, being expelled from more expensive schools that one can count. While Cole warmly defends and praises his new roommate, and the school administration seem very convinced that Mr Lane has turned over a new leaf and is a reformed character, Harper sees him for the dangerous delinquent that he really is and is determined to expose his sins to the world.

To prove that Sterling is bad news, Harper keeps being forced to break one or several of her precious rules, only to find that Sterling is always two steps ahead of her, usually framing her for something much worse than she's trying to get him reported for. But while Harper is so very determined to bring Sterling Lane down, she forgets about her first and most important rule, and Cole's troubles keep getting worse. He may end up getting expelled and/or facing criminal charges. Harper has no choice but to swallow her animosity and actually work together with her nemesis to prove Cole's innocence. She may discover that she and Sterling Lane aren't so different after all, in fact, they seem to be two sides of a rather devious coin. And perhaps she doesn't entirely and completely loathe him either.

Over the years, it's become very clear to me that the "enemies to lovers" trope is a favourite of mine in romance, going all the way back to Pride and Prejudice. Protagonists who initially can't stand each other, and who often work so very hard to one up each other, only to discover that their intense dislike stems from mutual attraction - it needs to be a pretty badly written story for that not to work for me. Here we have the trope at a posh boarding school involving clever teenagers rather than adults, but it still worked for me. The entire book is told from Harper's point of view, so we are entirely left to her impressions over the course of the story. Each chapter is headed with one of the many reasons Harper has for loathing Sterling, who really does come across as rather unpleasant and infuriating during their first encounters. Not that Harper is a picture of cordiality and friendliness towards him either.

As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Harper is a bit of an unreliable narrator, because her first impression of Sterling is so bad, and even before meeting him, she's pre-judged him based on rumours of his past exploits. The reader pretty quickly figures out that Sterling goes out of his way to confirm all of Harper's worst expectations of him and has far too much fun matching wits with her and provoking her into more and more outrageous actions. It also becomes clear that while he's not exactly an angel, he's not necessarily the irredeemable "bad boy" he first appears and that there are reasons for many of his past actions that he doesn't feel comfortable sharing with most people.

While Sterling seems a bit douchy and devious at first, it's clear that Harper has a huge amount of growing up to do as well. With the exception of Cole, and a few of his friends who vaguely tolerate her, she barely has a social life to speak of, and is known as "Harper the Hag" by many of her peers. Living her life after her rigid rules and with an absolutely insanely detailed schedule for when to study each subject and how much, she's not exactly a barrel of laughs, and could absolutely stand to lighten up massively. With the arrival of Sterling and Cole's sudden foray into shady business, her life is thrown into chaos, at least compared to her normal, regimented schedule. When she also acquires an unexpected roommate, one of her former tormentors and popular girls at school, Kendall, she further has to soften up slightly. Kendall isn't your typical Mean Girl, she does in fact genuinely apologise for her earlier treatment of Harper, and while they clearly don't become BFFs right away, it's clear that Kendall comes to appreciate Harper's no-nonsense bluntness, while Harper is just so desperately in need of a friend who she's not related to, who can give her some much needed advice and tell her when she's getting too bitchy.

I've seen several people on Goodreads comparing the relationship dynamic in this book with 10 Things I Hate About You, which is still one of my all-time favourite teen movies and romantic comedies (RIP Heath Ledger, *sob*). I absolutely see the similarities, and like with Kat, who starts out as a somewhat abrasive, but awesome and confident female character and ends up not actually having changed all that much, but maybe learned to take herself a bit less seriously, she gets the guy without changing anything major about herself. At the end of this book, Harper is still very much an ambitious, intelligent goal-orientated young woman who is determined to keep her rules (although she has learned that it's not the end of the world if she breaks one or two occasionally). She's made a proper friend and found a romantic interest who loves her for who she inherently IS, not who she could change into. It's obvious that Sterling has no interest in some new, laid-back and different Harper, and that while they can bring out the worst in one another, when working together, they can be a brilliant team and encourage the best in each other too.

TL, DR - this is a really fast and fun read which can be recommended if you want a good YA romance.

Judging a book by its cover: This is a really generic YA cover, clearly thrown together by someone who hasn't read the book, because if they HAD read the book, they would have known that neither of the protagonists look anything like the sullen and bored-looking teens on this cover. It's even a bit of a plot point that Harper has a very short, severe haircut, and the guy who I guess is supposed to be Sterling? He doesn't even look like he's a teenager, more like some disaffected 20-something. Awful cover for what was a pretty excellent little YA book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 110: "Follow My Lead" by Kate Noble

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Jason Cummings, the Duke of Rayne, has worked diligently for years to be responsible and take care of both his sister and estates. Now, as he is nearing thirty, he feels that it is his duty to find a wife and father some heirs, and after experiencing just how ruthless some of the debutantes on the marriage mart can be, he asks his sister for assistance. Just as he seems to have found a promising lady of suitable temperament, his wooing is temporarily derailed because of bluestocking Miss Winnifred Crane, who wants to join the prestigious Historical Society (one of Jason's refuges) and is willing to do anything to prove her credentials.

Winnifred, or Winn, as she prefers to be known, is the daughter of one of Jason's old art historian professors from Oxford (not that he remembers her much) and claims to be the author of several very insightful and interesting historical essays. Now she wants to be admitted to the Historical Society (who don't even like the idea of a women visiting their hallowed halls, let alone becoming a member of their exclusive group). Unfortunately, her cousin (who also wants to marry her) tries to stop her by claiming HE wrote the texts, and therefore Winn enters into a wager with the head of the society, one of her father's old friends. If she can prove the origins of a famous painting hanging on his wall, she'll be considered for membership.

To win her wager and prove her credentials, Winn needs to go to Europe, Vienna to be exact. She's quite happy to go off alone, but her cousin/fiancee insists on accompanying her (so he can try to sabotage her mission - if she loses the bet, she has promised to give in and marry him). Lord Forrester, the head of the Historical Society and father of the young lady who has taken Jason's fancy, asks him to escort Winn and her little entourage to Calais, where other people will be on hand to see her to her destination. Little do they know that Winn has a plan to trick her cousin and travel on her own. Jason observes her sneaking off the ship to Calais and follows her onto a new one, headed for Hamburg. He is unwillingly trapped on the vessel with her, and once they reach Germany, his honour won't allow Winn to travel unaccompanied to her destination. What follows is a very eventful road trip? Will Miss Sarah Forrester seem like the perfect bride once Jason returns to London?

Jason Cummings was a grade A asshole in the previous book in the series, The Summer of You. He went off on his Grand Tour of Europe, leaving his sister alone to grieve with their elderly father shortly after their mother's death, and even upon returning to England refused to step up and take responsibility or help out, when it was clear that their father's health was deteriorating, and his sister Jane needed help. Getting drunk a lot and trying to flirt with an old flame (now happily married with children) seemed to be all he was good for. Happily, at least five years have passed since the events of that book, and Jason has inherited his father's title. There is some reference made to his irresponsible youth at the beginning of the book, but it's clear that this is an older, much changed man who takes his duties as both the Duke of Rayne and as a caring brother/brother-in-law/uncle seriously. Hence his wish to settle down and marry, as it is "what comes next".

Winnifred Crane is her scholarly father's only daughter and grew up to be both his assistant, clerk and as he aged, his carer. Her mother died when she was young, and for a long time, there was just the two of them. Her father was clearly proud of her intelligence and scholarly aptitude, but nevertheless made her publish her writings under a pseudonym. Now that he has died, Winn is feeling the pressure from her cousin George to agree to the very informal arrangement set up by their mothers when they were still children, and become his wife. Of course, George wants to claim the identity of C.W. Marks for himself and use Winn's brilliant mind to get himself a membership in the Historical Society and a lecture post at Oxford. It wouldn't do for Winn to be the acknowledged and lauded one. Winn doesn't particularly want to marry anyone, and at 30 years of age, considers herself to be firmly on the shelf. Nonetheless, she doesn't really want to hurt her cousin's feelings and therefore tries to soften her rejection by saying that if she can't win her wager, she'll settle down with him.

Jason and Winn find themselves travelling unchaperoned through most of Germany and Austria, and to make it slightly harder for George to hunt them down, end up posing as a newly married couple (don't ALL couples thrown together on a road trip do this sooner rather than later?). While Jason is both angry with and exasperated by Winn to begin with, he also cannot in good conscience let her travel through Europe alone (especially seeing how she's fleeced trying to hire transport by herself). Unfortunately, a pickpocket stole Jason's money before he ended up on the ship to Hamburg, and he doesn't even have a change of clothing with him, so they can't exactly travel in the style to which the Duke is accustomed. They strike some pretty interesting bargains with various locals over the course of their journey for food, lodgings and other services and get more comfortable in each other's company, as well as more informal as the journey progresses.

While I liked that their romance took a while to develop, the presence of Miss Sarah Forrester, Jason's more or less intended back in London, was an uncomfortable complication. While Jason has not formally proposed to her before he heads off on his impromptu road trip with Winn, I hate it when it feels like one of the parties is cheating on someone else. Interestingly, while Winn's relationship with her cousin George is almost more formalised, it never felt like she was betraying anyone (probably because her unwillingness to marry him at all was made so clear from the start). Even as they grow closer and stop trying to fight their attraction to one another, there seems to be this unspoken agreement between Jason and Winn that "what happens in Europe, stays in Europe" and that they can just go their separate ways and forget about each other once Winn's quest is complete.

Interestingly, what Sarah Forrester does once it's clear that Jason is in love with another, is the story in book 4 of this series, If I Fall, which was the first Kate Noble I ever read, and which didn't make much of an impression on me (mainly because Sarah seemed to be a spoiled beyotch in much of the book). Having re-read my review of the book, I'm not sure the book would improve all that much even knowing the backstory that led to Sarah's jilting. I am glad that these other Blue Raven books were a lot more fun, and that I finally got round to reading them.

Judging a book by its cover: Another Kate Noble Regency romance, another partially headless lady running through some foliage in a pretty dress. I'm going to just be grateful that the dress is period appropriate (although this outfit looks way more fashionable and expensive than anything Winn wears over the course of the book, in my recollection).

Crossposted by Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

#CBR9 Book 109: "The Summer of You" by Kate Noble

Page count: 354 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lady Jane Cummings has been mourning her mother's death for a long time when she's finally allowed back into society. Before she gets much of a chance to enjoy the balls and garden parties, however, her brother Jason returns from his Grand Tour on the Continent and insists that she take their ailing father, the Duke of Rayne north to their summer residence in Merrymere in the Lake District. He's terrified that someone in society will discover that the respected Duke is losing his wits and while Jason's plan involves Jane taking care of it (as she has done since before their mother died), she insists that he has to come with them.

Jane is not happy about having to give up the glamour of London for the backwaters of the Lake District, especially as everyone there has known her since she was little and delights in bringing up the time she was five and ran naked through the town square. She's still grieving her mother and getting increasingly more worried about her father's health, while her irresponsible brother seems mostly content to get drunk at local pubs and leave her to take care of everything. She is intrigued by stories of a reclusive and stand-offish new resident in the area, who may or may not be a highwayman as well. When she discovers that this man rescued her brother from a pub brawl, she goes to thank him, and discovers that she knows who he is. She met Byrne Worth, injured war hero, when he was helping his brother Marcus and Jane's former nemesis Phillipa Benning look for a French spy.

Now he seems content to brood and alienate the locals in a small cottage he inherited from a distant relative. Jane thinks the rumours of Worth being the local highwayman are preposterous, especially since she knows he was in London when some of the crimes were committed and sets out to prove that Mr. Worth is innocent. Soon she's not missing London society much at all, and instead looking forward to every new meeting she can steal with the cranky Mr. Worth.

While this is the second of The Blue Raven books, I actually read it first, hence I discovered a few things about the identity of the infamous Regency spy that made certain plot points in Revealed rather less of a surprise discovery. While the first book in the series has more suspense and is more of an adventure romp, this book was also entertaining, on a smaller scale. What is unusual with this book, compared to most other historical romances I've read, was the large array of points of view we got over the course of the book. In most romances, you tend to get switching POVs from the hero and heroine - here you also get POVs from Jane's brother Jason (who is an immature and selfish idiot), quite a few different villagers (including at a least one of a duo of adolescent scoundrels who run around wreaking havoc as young boys are wont to do). It was a bit strange, and I'm really not sure if it added to or distracted from the main story.

Jane Cummings was Phillipa Benning's main rival in Revealed, but over the course of the story, they found a way to become friends, and this book actually starts with Lady Phillipa's wedding to Marcus Worth. Mostly set in the countryside rather than bustling London, this book has a quieter feel, and while the main plot of Jane and Byrne becoming friends and trying to figure out who is trying to frame him as the local highwayman is fun enough, there is a dark undertone in the story because of the Duke of Rayne's developing dementia, and the heavy responsibilities Jane faces in caring for him and trying to keep the world at large from realising the extent to her father's illness, with little to no help from her oblivious and irresponsible brother, who clearly doesn't want to face up to reality.

Byrne got a gunshot-wound to the leg at the end of the Napoleonic war and tried to manage the pain by drinking copiously or using laudanum. Due to his addiction, he didn't really feel he could help his brother sufficiently and retired to the country to try to wean himself off his cravings and slowly get himself back into shape. On the advice of a local doctor, he's been swimming in the lake daily and while he's still struggling with pain, he's on the way to recovery. He's surprised that he finds such comfort in his conversations with Jane, who he initially believed to be just an air-headed society miss.

With Jane being the daughter of a Duke, while Byrne is a mere baron, their social standings are different enough that their happy ending seems difficult. After the dramatic events at the end of the novel, no one really has any objections to their union. There is also a rather sweet secondary romance in the story, involving one of the local magistrate's daughters, Victoria, who for much of the book harbours a very ill-advised and very much unrequited infatuation with the oafish Jason, not noticing just how perfect the younger of the two local doctors are for her until it's nearly too late.

Judging a book by its cover: It seems that Ms. Noble's publishers were very fond of the Regency lady running through random landscape theme, as all of the three first books of The Blue Raven seem to feature this. While it was quite appropriate with Revealed, there is a lot less running around done by Jane in this book. At least they gave the cover model red hair. That's something.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 108: "Revealed" by Kate Noble

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lady Phillipa Benning is a young, beautiful, fantastically wealthy widow and the undisputed queen (and Mean Girl) of London society. She has set her eyes on the Marquis of Broughton, who is equally eligible, wealthy and popular, but her arch rival from school, Lady Jane Cummings also seems to have him in her sights and the vexing man is not beyond playing the two ladies against each other. Things start getting complicated after Philippa, having arranged a tryst with Broughton in a library, ends up hidden in a sarcophagus overhearing what appears to be famed English spy The Blue Raven discussing an enemy plot with one of his superiors.

First of all, Philippa is shocked that unassuming and plain Marcus Worth (he doesn't even have a title!) could be the exciting and infamous Blue Raven who helped England defeat France. He's so tall and gawky and wears glasses and always seems too clumsy for his own good. He's nothing like what she would have expected a dashing spy to be (which when she thinks about it is probably why he was so good at it). Philippa's reputation in society is flawless and she gets invited everywhere. She makes a deal with Marcus that at the end of the season, she will be allowed to reveal the identity of the Blue Raven at her big ball in return for securing him entry to all the society events where he suspects the sinister French agent might strike.

Of course, as they continue working with each other, Philippa keeps getting distracted from her pursuit of Broughton (although she skilfully uses Marcus to try to make the other man jealous), finding herself fascinated by this quiet, intelligent and unassuming man and his dangerous mission. Marcus discovers that Philippa isn't just beautiful and cruel, but that she hides a lot from the wider world to maintain her position. She's fiercely intelligent and an excellent organiser and there is pain in her past that she's clearly not willing to talk about. Over the course of their quest to uncover the French spy, he also learns that she seems to have a near-photographic memory, which is very helpful when navigating large crowds.

Revealed pretty much takes the fairly common story of the charming and experienced society rake who falls in love with the plain and intellectual nobody and gender-reverses it. Not that Philippa is really the female equivalent of a rake. While she was previously married, it was not of very long duration and she plays at being a lot more experienced and sophisticated than she is in reality. She's certainly an alpha female, however, and her views and opinions are closely followed by the majority of the ton. Marcus Worth is very much not an alpha male, and while he's initially ready to brush off Philippa as a malicious and self-centred manipulator, he's also very observant and keeps seeing the things she keeps hidden from others. He's fascinated by the woman she could be, if she wasn't so busy dazzling her surrounding and claiming to be indifferent to everything.

I read The Scarlet Pimpernel at an impressionable age, so Regency spies have always held a fascination for me. There is more to the character of the Blue Raven that Philippa first suspects and she comes to discover over the course of her work with Marcus that spying isn't actually very glamorous and adventurous, but involves very real danger to everyone involved. Philippa starts out as really rather horrible and I can see why her personality could put some people off to begin with. To go with the previously mentioned gender reversal, it's nice to see that the heroine can be complex and a bit of a dick, only to be gradually changed and redeemed by falling for someone unexpected. Marcus is tall, bookish, gangly, bespectacled and has unruly hair - that's pretty much my ideal man. He struggles to convince his superiors that there really is a plot to watch out for. They believe him to be overly paranoid and just bored with his post-War desk duty (hence him having to ally with Philippa). Together, they make a very effective team, and they obviously fall in love along the way.

I've only read a few other Kate Noble romances (including book 4 in The Blue Raven series). Neither of them very very memorable and I was glad to discover that this was so much more entertaining and fun.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover is fairly generic for a Regency novel, but I will give the cover designer kudos for using a period appropriate dress (which is sadly so often not the case). As there is quite a bit of running around in gardens, the lady running either from or towards something is a suitable image, I guess, and the dress is fashionable enough to be something Lady Phillipa would wear.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 1 December 2017

#CBR9 Book 107: "Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong and What You Really Need to Know" by Emily Oster

Page count: 310 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Since not all the readers of my blog are necessarily also readers over on the Cannonball group blog or my friends on Facebook, you may not know that I am currently in the process of growing a tiny human inside me. This comes after more than seven years of trying to get pregnant and nearly two emotionally taxing and occasionally very depressing years where every few months I went through time consuming, expensive and at times really rather painful IVF treatments. So I worked HARD for this tiny human, who will make his (yes, it's a boy) arrival in February, if the doctors are correct, or sometime in mid-January if my Mum's intuition is the one we're going by.

In the many years I've been trying to get pregnant, I probably read pretty much all there is on fertility tips and old wives' tales on what to do (or to avoid) to help increase fertility. So many years of watching my weight or trying to eat specific diets or exercising more, or possibly reducing exercise (as some experts claim that exercising too much can also be bad), reducing stress and the always helpful "just try not to think so much about it". There's a lot of opinions out there, and huge amounts of well-meaning advice, but what should one listen to and what is better to ignore? When one of my best friends, Ida, got pregnant with her first child a few years ago, she bought this book. She found it incredibly helpful and when it was confirmed that after four previous IVF attempts that only ended in heartbreak and failure, this fifth one had been successful, she lent it to me.

Emily Oster, the author, is an economist and uses her powers of research and knowledge of statistics to go through all manner of "it is known" pregnancy advice to check what actually makes sense to follow and what you may be better off just ignoring. Quite a lot of medical advice is based on very outdated ideas, and if you consider all the well-meaning opinions of friends, family or opinionated parts of the internet? Well, a lot of that is just plain scare-mongering. Through her research, Oster tries to find out exactly what lies behind all the various advice, usually presenting several sides to an issue, specifically so the reader can make up their own mind with regards to what they want to do in THEIR pregnancy.

It took me several months to read through the book, not because it's boring (because it really isn't - although if you're not expecting or planning for a baby, it's probably not your typical beach read), but because the book is divided into several useful sections, starting with planning and conception and moving through each of the three trimesters, before dealing with labour and questions around delivery. I wanted to read each one approximately around the time they actually matched up with my own pregnancy. By the time I reached the third trimester, it seemed ok to blaze through the birth parts too, as it's nice to finally finish a book as well.

Emily Oster is American, and some of the advice she gives doesn't entirely apply to women in Europe. Living in Norway, I am lucky enough that salmonella is so rare that raw eggs are never a danger, whether you are pregnant or not. Same applies for deli meats and smoked salmon, they are certainly perfectly safe to eat if you buy them vacuum packed from a trusted source, store them appropriately and eat them before too much time has passed. Sadly, cured meats like serrano ham are off limits no matter where you live and that may be my greatest craving.

There's a lot of really good and very well researched advice in this book. Having browsed some of the other reviews on Goodreads, I see that Oster was criticised when the book was published for suggesting that in the second and third trimester, one glass of alcohol occasionally may not be harmful to your child. Considering that in European countries like France, this is almost encouraged by doctors during parts of pregnancy, I don't see what the fuss is about. Oster is not saying you SHOULD drink alcohol, she's presenting you with the possible risk factors if you do. For some women, a glass of wine every so often could mean that they reduce stress, which could be much more harmful to the baby than low levels of alcohol. In my case, I was much more interested in what levels of caffeine I could get away with. I haven't drunk alcohol for nearly ten years, but I need my caffeine to survive.

Judging a book by its cover: It's not exactly an exiting cover, and with a title that long, that's really all that fits. I'm not sure if the purple shapes at the top of the cover is supposed to evoke the image of a pregnant woman (if I wore a purple top and looked down my chest and my bump right about now, that's approximately what it would look like) or if it's just random shapes. It's a non-fiction book. I doubt it needs to look all that snazzy.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

#CBR9 Book 106: "The Rebel Heir" by Elizabeth Michels

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 2 stars

Spoiler warning! This review will contain plot spoilers, because for me to be able to work through my various thoughts and feeling about the plot (which was quite dumb), I will need to spoil bits of it. You don't actually want to read this book anyway, I promise, so view the spoilers as more of a favour than a problem.

Ashley Claughbane is the fourth son in a noble family from the Isle of Man (or Wight - I don't entirely remember, and I can't be bothered to look it up - it's one of those wind-blown islands off the coast of Britain somewhere). He is in no way the heir to anything at all - so the book's title is wildly misleading. While some of his actions might be seen as rebellious, he appears to have two healthy brothers between himself and the eldest, who is in fact a duke. Ash (he hates being called Ashley) has sworn revenge on Lord Rightworth, the man who apparently ruined the family fortune a decade or so back. He promised his mother on her deathbed (or something to that effect) that he would not rest until he had made the man pay. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, he's been preparing for this revenge by travelling around much of Southern England, selling worthless potions and conning stupid nobles out of money. During one of these encounters, he met Evangeline Green, shared a kiss with her and then disappeared without a trace.

Now a year later, Evangeline recognises Ash at a ball, currently posing as Lord Crosby. He now has the backing of a group of gentleman known as "The Spare Heirs Club", although what exactly these dudes do is a mystery to me, even after finishing the book. He wants to con Lord Rightworth and a bunch of other people out of a large amount of money by having them invest in a "portable steam engine", but keeps being distracted by the lovely Evie. Who of course is Lord Rightworth's youngest daughter. There's a whole thing where Evie's mother has grand plans for her daughter's match (after becoming estranged with her eldest daughter after having tried to get Evie matched with the guy said daughter married - I'm hazy on the details) and spends much of her time torturing her daughter to make her be the perfect debutante. She coaches her in what to wear, how to walk, what to say and if she feels her daughter isn't slim enough, she keeps her from eating and forces the maids to tighten her corsets even more.

Anyways, Evie and Ash obviously fall for one another, and as they get to know each other better, Ash discovers that the Evie is in fact the reason that her father, Lord Rightworth claimed all his outstanding debts with Ash' father in one fell swoop, causing the Claughbane family to be temporarily ruined. That his brother is now a duke and has made a successful go of recovering the fortune their father squandered, and doesn't in any way wish for Ash to go through with his idiotic revenge scenario doesn't seem to matter. I never understood why, if Ash really wanted to strike a blow at Lord Rightworth, why eloping with his youngest daughter (whom Ash is in love with, and who seems to love him back even knowing 1) that he's a con man who's swindled people all over England and 2) wants some kind of revenge on her dad) wouldn't in fact be the perfect way to enact said vengeance? It would cause a scandal for the Rigthworths, Evie would be free of her horrible mother and Ash would have both his long-sought revenge and the woman he loved.

Of course that's not what happens. No, there's a whole big scene during Evie's engagement ball (to a nobleman of her mother's choosing) where a bunch of nobles from Bath and other Southern towns come to confront Ash, just as one of the Spare Heir guys produces his pet inventor, who has, based partially on the ideas laid forth by Ash earlier, miraculously managed to invent the very steam engine that Ash has been claiming they can invest in. He's not a fraud after all, but a successful entrepreneur who will be making tons of money. Yay? Also, Evie has (in ways that are never explained) managed to contact every single servant that her mother has fired over the years, and convinced them to show up at the ball carrying trays of daisies (because those are Evie's favourite flower) and after Evie causes a massive scene where she publicly explains to everyone how her mother has been treating her, she tears off her jewelry and throws it and a number of choice words at her mother, and proceeds to empty a whole vase of flowers over her mother's head. This deeply anachronistic display, that would be likely to get Evie committed to an asylum in the Regency era, is instead applauded by everyone there.

Evie's mother is packed off to the countryside, Lord Rigthworth had apparently never bothered to find out how his wife treated their daughters and Ash, who is now no longer a con man, but has the promise of a huge fortune and is, if you remember, the brother of a duke, can marry Evie to his heart's content.

Yeah, there was far too much in this book that didn't make sense to me, and that conclusion was a total mess. While Evie seemed sweet enough, the way her sister refused to have anything to do with her, even though it's clear the sister must have known their evil mother's machinations was the reason Evie had ever shown an interest in her suitor was sort of baffling. There was also a confusing subplot with twin sisters who were friends of Evie's, where one was in love with another of the spare heirs, but due to a confusing series of events involving a fire, the other twin was compromised by him and they were forced to get engaged. Evie spends a whole lot of the novel being either very upset with Ash, only to turn around and forgive him for everything - rinse, repeat.

This is one of those times when Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, whose reviews I can normally trust, especially if they're by Redheadedgirl, let me down. To be fair, I got this book for free at some point, but wouldn't actually have gotten it or read it if it hadn't been given a B rating on a site I trust. It has an average rating of 3.49 on Goodreads, which is frankly higher than it deserves.

This is the first novel by Elizabeth Michels I have read, and based on several of the anachronisms, the confused and rather silly plot, not to mention the fact that it took me about a week and a half to finish it (which should NOT be the case for a romance novel), I will be avoiding her output in the future. Even if the books are in fact being given away. 

Judging a book by its cover: Where do I even begin with this cover? The guy's hair looks like it belongs on a Lego figurine, that helmet-like solid mass that you can just snap into place. There's copious amounts of man-titty, which would totally make sense if you're just standing around in what looks to be an empty ballroom? Of course your shirt would be unbuttoned to the waist (yet still tucked into your oh-so-tight breeches). Then there's the fact that his chest and abs (very impressive-looking) appear to have been both waxed and oiled, not exactly historically correct either. The guy looks like a total sleaze-ball and while I wasn't overly enthused about the story, this cover may be my least favourite thing about the book. It's no White Hot (NOTHING is that bad), but it's not good either.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

#CBR9 Book 105: "Murder on the Orient Express" by Agatha Christie

Page count: 274 pages
Audio book length: 6 hrs 37 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Internationally famous private detective Hercule Poirot is on his way back to England after solving a mystery in Syria. He decides to take the Orient Express for part of his journey, only to discover that despite the train normally being quite empty during the winter season, it's so fully booked in first class that he has to stay the first night in a second class cabin. Poirot is approached by one of the passengers, a Mr. Edward Ratchett, who claims he has many enemies and that his life is in danger. He wants to hire Poirot to protect him. The little Belgian detective turns him down.

The second night on the train, when Poirot has been moved into a first class cabin, there are several strange occurrences, and in the morning, the passengers discover that not only has the train stopped entirely, due to large amounts of snow on the tracks, but Edward Ratchett has been murdered during the night. No one could have got onto or off the train, so one of the passengers is the likely culprit. Poirot is tasked with identifying the murderer before the train starts up again and the guilty party can escape.

Murder on the Orient Express is one of Agatha Christie's most famous crime novels. It's a wonderfully clever take on the "locked room" mystery and has been adapted into both film and TV more than once. I honestly can no longer remember if I read the book before watching the 1974 adaptation, starring Albert Finney along with a remarkably star-studded cast. I discovered Ms. Christie's mystery novels when I was around 11 or so, and proceeded to read my way through pretty much all the books I could get at my local library, first in Norwegian translation and later in the English originals. It turns out, by the way, that Agatha Christie's writing is not necessarily the easiest to get through when you're still learning English as a second language (it is, however, a great way to expand your growing vocabulary as long as you are diligent with a dictionary).

Fun fact - when asked to write an in-depth term paper on the topic of our choice in 9th grade (I will have been about 13), I ended up writing probably 40 pages on Agatha Christie - her life and literary career - and probably bored my fellow classmates, almost, but not as much, as the pretentious guy who chose Watergate as his subject. We also had to make a presentation on said term paper as well, and a nearly hour-long presentation about the intricacies of the Watergate scandal is not going to go down well with your average 13-year-old. Especially when most of the others wrote/talked about horses, their favourite sports, a pop group or similar. So while in my mind, they were much more interested in Agatha Christie than Nixon's corruption, hindsight forces me to admit that yeah, they were probably dead bored by my topic as well.

After giving you that charming insight into nerdy Malin's adolescence (I was just never going to fit in with the popular kids in school), back to the book review proper. I had considered re-reading this before the release of the new Kenneth Branagh adaptation currently in cinemas, and when a couple of my fellow Cannonballers revealed that the wonderful Dan Stevens narrated the book, I used one of my carefully hoarded Audible credits to get it right away. Not only do I find Dan Stevens extremely attractive (even when done up in CGI as the Beast), but he really does have a wonderful voice and I loved his narration of Frankenstein when I listened to that a few years ago. In this story, he has to voice a large number of characters of different ages and genders, and I generally think he did a very good job.

This is not a very long book, and if you have somehow been able to remain unspoiled for the solution to a mystery written in the mid-1930s, it's a really fun reveal once all the suspects have been carefully questioned and all the clues are examined. As the Branagh movie has gotten pretty middling reviews (I was somewhat sceptical after seeing Branagh's moustache in the promos), I doubt I'll actually spend my hard-earned pennies to see it in the cinema, but I'm glad I revisited the book.

Judging a book by its cover: I listened to this in audio book, so it's not like it strictly speaking has a cover, but the one that showed on the Audible website is this one, which seems to be one of the modern design covers for the book (at least it's not the movie tie-in version - shudder!) Is it strange that I think this could just as easily be a children's book cover? The train that magically made red balloons? It's more whimsical than suspenseful.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

#CBR9 Book 104: "The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, vol 1: Squirrel Power" by Ryan North and Erica Henderson - DOUBLE CANNONBALL

Page count: 128 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Meet Doreen Green, aka Squirrel Girl. She's been living in the attic of the Avengers headquarters, but now she's ready to go to move out and go to college. Accompanied by her trusty squirrel sidekick, Tippy-toe, aka Tippy, she's ready for the challenges of higher education and keeping her super-identity secret. Her new roommate Nancy Whitehead seems mostly interested in knitting and her kitten Mew. Even before she's had time to get properly settled, Doreen has to save the campus from Kraven the Hunter, and shortly after, she's alerted by her squirrel friends that Galactus is on his way towards Earth, and she has less than two hours to stop him. Luckily, by borrowing some Iron Man suit parts from her old pal Tony Stark (who doesn't seem all that happy about it) she manages to make herself a suit. Now she just needs to make Whiplash go away and persuade Galactus that he needs to take his business elsewhere. Doreen's biggest challenge at college so far, though? Talking to cute boys.

Before reading this, I vaguely knew that there was a superhero in the Marvel Universe by the name of Squirrel Girl. As mentioned in my review for Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, my husband is a much bigger classics comics fan than I am, be it Marvel or DC and he's a huge fan of the many creations of Steve Ditko. I think I'd seen pictures of the famous panel where Squirrel Girl defeats supervillain Doctor Doom by having him overrun with her squirrels, but until I read the bonus issue included at the end of this collection, I'd never really experienced the awesome confidence of this rather off-beat superheroine. The modern reinterpretations of Doreen and her squirrels is much more to my liking, but it was fun to see her "origin story", so to speak.

Seriously, this comic was utterly delightful from beginning to end. Doreen's theme-song (which heavily borrows from the Spider-Man theme), her secret powers, the running meta-commentary at the bottom of each page, the fact that Doreen's roommate loves cats and knitting (and has a gift for snark), the letters pages (which I normally like something that should just be skipped), the writing, the excellent art - I am completely won over and adore this comic. I think I love The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl more than Ms Marvel, and that's a pretty impressive feat after just one volume. My Christmas wish list this year will absolutely be featuring more of Doreen's books, because in this super bleak world we're currently in, I need all the colourful, funny and happy comics I can get. Highly recommended!

Oh yeah, I finally completed my double Cannonball! Honesty forces me to admit I finished this comic more than a month ago, I just seem to have lost the ability to make myself to do anything other than binge watch Parks and Recreation or constantly update my Twitter feed, it seems.

Judging a book by its cover: Erica Henderson's art is SO good throughout this comic, and the cover shows you a little tast of that. I adore that Doreen, aka Squirrel Girl isn't built like an emaciated supermodel, but looks like an actual person and is cutely quirky at that. Having Doreen and Tippy on the cover, with Doreen dreaming of all the adoration she'll recieve from her fellow superheroes seems extremely fitting, she's certainly extremely awesome and deserves wide-spread fame and praise.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 103: "Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, vol 1: BFF" by Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare and Natacha Busos

Page count: 160 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From the back blurb:

Lunella Lafayette is an Inhuman preteen genius who wants to change the world! That job would be a lot easier if she wasn't living in mortal fear of her latent inhuman gene. There's no telling what she'll turn into - but Luna's got a plan. All she needs is an Omni-Wave Projector. Easy, right?

That is, until a red-scaled beast is teleported from the prehistoric past to a far flung future we! Together they are the most Marvellous Team-Up of all - the Inhuman Moon Girl and time-tossed Devil Dinosaur! But will they be BFFs forever, or just until DDs dinner time?

And Lunella soon learns that there are other problems with having a titanic T. Rex as a pet in the modern-day Marvel universe. School, for one. Monster hunters are another - especially when they are the Totally Awesome Hulk! Then there's the fact that everyone's favourite dino didn't journey through time alone. Beware the prehistoric savages known as the Killer Folk - New York City's deadliest tourists! Can Lunella handle all this turmoil...and keep herself from transforming into an Inhuman monster?

To begin this review, I think it's helpful background to say that my husband is a HUGE fan of everything Jack Kirby. This is not all that unusual, Jack Kirby is an undisputed genius when it comes to comics creating, and while Stan Lee is still alive and gets to gurn his way through obligatory cameos in every single Marvel movie, Kirby's legacy isn't always addressed in the same way. Of all the Marvel movies put to screen so far, it's probably the Thor movies that have incorporated the most of the Kirby aesthetic, and brilliant New Zealand directer Taika Waititi has gone the furthest to fully embrace both the design and sometimes full on nutty plot shenanigans of Kirby on screen, with Thor: Ragnarok. My husband was beyond delighted, that's for sure.

Now, I don't really like Kirby's stuff as much as my husband, possibly because I'm really just not that big a fan of the grand Silver Age of comics (and all the DC stuff with the Fourth World just mainly bores me - although I acknowledge that DC's Darkseid is a much cooler villain than his obvious Marvel rip-off Thanos, and Big Barda kicks ass, no matter how boring her husband is). One comic of his that just delights me no end, however is the original Devil Dinosaur. The plot is so so, I am just completely taken with the big red dinosaur and his adventures with the clever Moon Boy. That I'm a fan of Devil Dinosaur should not be a surprise to anyone who has seen my avatar in a number of places - it's that fierce lizard stomping in a very memorable fashion.

So I was always going to want to read this re imagining of Devil Dinosaur, pairing him not with another male side-kick (because Moon Boy is most certainly the side-kick), but with a fiercely intelligent girl of colour. Marvel has been kicking ass all over the place in terms of representation for various minorities for years now (Miles Morales as Spider-Man, Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, Sam Wilson as the current Captain America, Black Panther, the newest Iron Man being Riri Williams, a teenage girl of colour, to name but a few). As Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur seems clearly geared towards a slightly younger audience than some of their other comics, making the heroine both a budding super scientist (with a secret lab deep under her school) and black is a big deal. For a lot of young women of colour, that sort of representation matters a lot (this reviewer says sagely from her extremely privileged middle aged white cis-gendered perspective).

For all that this is a comic possibly aimed at more middle grade readers, there was some surprising violence within the pages. Devil Dinosaur's original sidekick, ol' Moon Boy is disposed of in a rather gruesome fashion (RIP Moon Boy - long live Lunella, the Moon Girl), which seemed almost needlessly harsh to me. There's a lot of themes that should be recognisable to teens - overbearing and overprotective parents, teachers who just don't understand, classmates who are prone to bullying - Lunella has a lot to deal with, even before she gets a rampaging T. Rex to take care of.

Now, I really know little to nothing about Marvel's Inhumans (and the dire reviews of the current TV-series has not in any way made me tempted to use that as a way to find out more). I know that some of them have appeared briefly in the pages of Ms Marvel (who is also Inhuman, I think?), but I honestly am not sure why Lunella lives in such constant terror of having her latent gene activated. Some of them go bad or monstrous, I guess? If Kamala Khan is in fact one of the Inhumans, they seem pretty cool to me, but Lunella's driving force throughout this whole first collection of comics is to figure out a way to stop herself from becoming Inhuman, while also befriending the time displaced Devil Dinosaur, and eventually taking on the equally displaced prehistoric bullies The Killer Folk (who adapt from the Stone Age to modern day New York admirably quickly).

This was a fun comic, and I am absolutely going to want to read more, especially to get my fix of my favourite big red lizard. I love that guy.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover is fairly minimalistic, as comics covers go. Just super cute Lunella in her school gear, and Devil's giant head. Now, some might say that Lunella is bending forward to give Devil Dinosaur a kiss, but that seems very unlikely with our unsentimental scientist heroine. Most likely, she's just trying to observe something on his nose up close.
  Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Saturday, 18 November 2017

#CBR9 Book 102: "Giant Days, vol 1" by John Allison, Lissa Treiman and Whitney Cogar

Page count: 128 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From the back blurb:
Susan, Esther and Daisy started at university three weeks ago and became fast friends. Now, away from home for the first time, all three want to reinvent themselves. But in the face of hand-wringing boys, "personal experimentation", influenza, mystery-mold, nu-chauvinism, and the willful, unwanted intrusion of "academia", they may be lucky just to make it to spring alive. Going off to university is always a time of change and growth, but for Esther, Susan, and Daisy, things are about to get a little weird. 

I think this comic book came to my attention when my book twin on the internet, Narfna, started reading them and giving them very enthusiastic write-ups. During last summer's visit to New York, I picked up the first volume, fully intending to read it and then it got shelved and I sort of forgot about it (this happens FAR too frequently - once I own a book, the rush to read it fades quickly). I wasn't really sure what to expect, but the slightly off-beat adventures of these three young women at university was certainly entertaining.

My main gripe about this collection is that you only get four measly issues in one book. Comic book trade paperbacks are not cheap, and the least they could do is give you five or six stories, not a paltry four! This merely whetted my appetite. It sets up a lot of stuff, but gives absolutely no pay-off. It's like some sort of clever scam, make you hungry for more and then make you pay to get further satisfaction. *grumble*. Allison and Treiman's collaborative work is good enough that I will absolutely be reading more. I can always hope for more comic books for Christmas.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover is very simple as graphic novels go. I like the warm and very bright yellow, and Lissa Treiman's art and way of depicting the characters is awesome. Just Esther sitting on her duffel bag, looking at her phone. Nothing fancy, just giving you a little hint of the contents inside.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 101: "It Had to Be You" by Jill Shalvis

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Ali Winters discovers in short order that the lease to the house she was living in with her boyfriend has not been renewed, that her boyfriend has already moved out and doesn't seem to want her to continue being with him, in fact he has been cheating on her for some time. She's discovered in a state of partial undress by the actual owner of the house, while she's leaving a very strongly worded voice mail on her boyfriend's answerphone. When she's also accused of stealing a large amount of money from her boyfriend's office, her life really seems to be unravelling at the seams.

Luke Hanover is a San Francisco police detective and has returned to his hometown of Lucky Harbor for a much needed vacation. After an extremely high profile murder case went horribly wrong, the detectives involved in the case are under a lot of media attention and Luke just needed to get away from it all. He returns to the house he inherited from his grandmother and finds a half-naked woman in it, yelling at someone on the phone. After hearing Ali's story, he takes pity on her and agrees to let her stay for a day or two, until she can find somewhere new to rent. That she seems very adept at scaring away the reporters who keep calling is a handy bonus. Then Ali is accused of stealing a large amount of money, from an office she had access to and a man she had a very real and understandable grudge against. The evidence against her is not looking good, but Luke is pretty convinced she's innocent. Of course, he's on vacation and has no intention of getting involved in any sort of new investigation, even to help someone as cute as his new temporary roommate.

While I've read a few Jill Shalvis books before, this is the first one I've read set in Lucky Harbor. I read it during October's 24-hour Readathon and it was a fairly quick, entertaining and easy read - but honesty also forces me to admit that about a month later, I can barely remember any significant details about it, be it about the plot or the finer sides of character development. Ali and Luke go from strangers to friends to lovers really rather quickly, which is never one of my favourite story lines, but at least they are thrown together and get to know one another while involved in some pretty dramatic stuff, which romance would have me believe frequently heightens and increases passionate emotions.

This is book 7 in an ongoing series, but there seems to be little continuity from book to book and the town is clearly a very picturesque and quaint setting for a romance series. There's a number of colourful locals to fill out the supporting parts and I'm sure several of the people mentioned were quite probably featured in earlier books. There's also quite obviously sequels being set up, with one of Ali's best friends (who runs the local bakery) and a firefighter (who is one of Luke's childhood buddies). It would not surprise me that one of the women who it turns out Ali's douchy ex had been sleeping with, but who over the course of the book becomes a tentative friend to her will also have her own book later.

While I am fuzzy on specific details, I can tell you that this is not a bad way to spend a few hours. The setting is nice, the protagonists have good chemistry and some good banter (although I seem to recall Luke taking far too long to come to his senses about Ali and his feelings for her). Both protagonists are good at their jobs, the hero is protective, but not an alpha douche. There's a fun cast of supporting characters, and reading this book made me interested in checking out further Lucky Harbor books, which has to be a good thing, right?

Judging a book by its cover: The cover seems pretty much like a generic contemporary romance cover to me (and I can't remember the physical descriptions of either of the protagonists, so I can't tell you if they look like the cover models - although I think Ali was supposed to be rather petite?) Although the cover designer has put what looks like the shopfront of a flower shop in the background, which is appropriate, as Ali works in a flower shop when she's not teaching ceramics at the community rec centre.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 17 November 2017

#CBR9 Books 99-100: "Fortune Favors the Wicked" and "Passion Favors the Bold" by Theresa Romain

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Benedict Frost is a celebrated lieutenant in the Royal Navy, but is forced to leave his naval career after an illness leaves him incapable of serving on a ship. He's hoping to supplement his not very generous pension by having a book of his memoirs published, but that proves more difficult that he initially thought. He wants the money to provide a dowry for his younger sister, so when he hears that a large shipment of gold from the Royal Mint has gone missing, and there is a sizable reward offered, he decides to use the skills at his disposal to try to locate the missing treasure.

His hunt leads him to Derbyshire, where a high born friend has given him a letter of introduction to stay with the local vicar. He meets the mysterious and charming Charlotte Perry, who turns out to be rather more than the proper and demure vicar's daughter she presents herself as in the village. Charlotte is also looking for the missing gold, intending to use the gold to secure a respectable future for herself and her niece. While she and Benedict begin as rivals, they quickly figure out that it will be much easier if they work together, using Charlotte's local knowledge and Benedict's experience from his travels to locate the treasure.

I have read a number of novels by Theresa Romain, and while they've all been perfectly ok, none of them have really stuck in my memory for very long. I'm happy to say that this is the first book of hers that I was really impressed by and I was thoroughly entertained throughout. While the treasure hunt is the device that brings them together, the romance between Charlotte and Benedict is clearly the most important plot element here and they're such an interesting couple. Benedict was forced to leave the navy after he was struck blind after an illness. He's only been blind for about four years, and has clearly worked very hard to compensate for his lack of sight since he was forced to retire. Due to his changed circumstances, he gets a fairly small pension and lives in tiny quarters as a Naval Knight in Windsor Castle. He's done independent travel since he was blinded, and hoped to publish his memoirs, but is told by the publisher that unless he publishes his book as a work of fiction, it's not going to sell. No one would believe a blind man went on the adventures he's been on. He needs money to provide for his younger sister, who is about to turn twenty-one and is currently living on the charity of relatives in the living quarters of the book shop their parents owned before they died.

Benedict first runs into Charlotte in the local pub in the village where she grew up. She's heavily veiled in a corner, and he is intrigued by her presence and the clearly assumed name she gives him. They are both there to listen to the ever more dramatic tales of a young barmaid who was given one of the missing gold sovereigns as a tip. When Benedict comes to stay with the local vicar, he's surprised to discover that Charlotte is in fact their spinster daughter, who has been away for much of the last ten years "doing virtuous works". The truth is that after Charlotte fell in love and was ruined by a young man, she went to London and made a very lucrative career as a sought-after courtesan, La Perle. Rather disillusioned with this life, she needs the money to retire somewhere comfortable and take care of her orphaned niece, currently being raised by Charlotte's parents. Charlotte is obviously trying very hard to not have the respectable vicar's daughter connected to the infamous courtesan, a task made more difficult because of an arrogant noble patron determined to track her down.

While neither Charlotte nor Benedict are much into their thirties, it was still nice to read about characters who had some actual worldly experience and who felt a lot more mature than a lot of the normal protagonists you find in romance. They communicate very well together from the start, and there was surprisingly little drama between them, even as they are struggling to figure out a way to reconcile their wishes for the future. The book also briefly introduces both of the protagonists of the companion novel - Benedict's good friend, Lord Hugo Starling (who writes him the letter of introduction to Reverend Perry, with whom he's been corresponding for years) and younger sister, Georgette, who is a bit sick of feeling like a financial burden to all her relatives and is more than ready to go off to make her own way in the world.

Judging a book by its cover: I think this cover is pretty great, actually. The cover model is clearly not in the first blush of youth, which would have been very inappropriate anyway. The dress she's wearing is gorgeous, just look at that embroidery! The rural landscape she's standing in also feels very on point - and there are no partially undone laces, or skirts that go on for days or any of the rubbish that you so often see on historical romances. Just a pretty lady in a pretty (and period appropriate dress).

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Georgette Frost's parents are dead, and though the bookshop they ran when they were alive was sold to some cousins, it was stipulated in their will that Georgette be allowed to live there until she turned 21, an event that is only a few weeks away. Helping out in the bookstore and trying her best to help raise all of her cousin's many children isn't exactly anyone's dream, and when Georgette gets a letter from Derbyshire from her brother, and figures out that he is off hunting for the missing gold and the Royal Reward, she decides that living on the charity of relatives is all well and good, but making your own way in the world is better.

She disguises herself as a boy and intends to go find her brother, but is quickly found and intercepted by Lord Hugo Starling, her brother's best friend. Lord Hugo is the younger son of the Duke of Willingham and met Benedict Frost when they studied medicine together in Edinburgh. While a duke's son being a doctor is unusual, Hugo rejected family and society expectations to become one after his twin brother died tragically several years ago. Hugo is convinced his brother could have survived if he had a properly trained doctor, not just the most prestigious and recommended by other nobles. He is more or less estranged from his family, and struggling to find funding for a new and innovative London hospital. Hugo wants to leave Georgette with his mother, but she promises she'll just run away again. She also persuades him that if he's involved in finding the missing gold sovereigns, the publicity he'll get will no doubt help him secure the funding for his hospital.

Hugo therefore reluctantly agrees to escort Georgette to Derbyshire, as he can't let her travel alone. They haven't been long underway when they discover that the gold has clearly been divided up, as there are rumours of unusual gold transactions as far north as Northumberland. Posing as husband and wife, Hugo and Georgette, pursued by a dogged Bow Street Runner named Jenks end up on the estate of a rather befuddled baronet, who Georgette has claimed is her uncle. Sir Frederic Chapple doesn't really like the nosy Jenks, and is rather bored, so happily plays along when Georgette implores him not to give up their true identities. While staying on his lands and trying to figure out where the gold is hidden, Hugo offers up his medical knowledge to the local tenants, and Georgette acts as his nurse and assistant.

As with every single story involving a couple pretending to be married, Georgette and Hugo obviously fall madly in love with one another. Georgette has always desperately wanted somewhere to truly belong, even when her parents were alive, her scholarly parents were so engrossed in each other and the books they sold, that they barely noticed her. Her older brother was always away at sea, and after he was blinded, he mostly stayed away. She wants to be part of a proper family unit and seen and appreciated, even loved for herself. Having grown up in a book shop, she's intelligent and opinionated and even against his better judgement, Hugo is always persuaded by her in the end.

Hugo lost his beloved twin brother and feels both guilt and anger because of it. He's a living reminder to his parents (and himself, every time he looks in a mirror) of what was lost, and he cannot forgive his father for not listening when Hugo insisted the doctors were less than useless, and possibly even hurried along his brother's death with their antiquated methods. He refused to join the clergy, as expected of him, and trained himself to be a modern and progressive doctor. Hugo wants to build the hospital in London to care for patients of all classes, not just the wealthy (which is why he's finding it so hard to find funding). Tending to the various patients in Northumberland, he also comes to discover how nice it is to help people at a local level, and begins to doubt whether his hospital is the best way to move forward.

Once again, this was a Theresa Romain book that I genuinely enjoyed, and the treasure hunting plot is really just the maguffin that throws the couple together. Part road trip, part detective story, the main focus is again the couple spending lots of time together and as a result, falling for each other. As in the companion book, set at roughly the same time, the protagonists are both really nice people who suit each other well. While there are external complications and even some danger, there is very little drama between the two of them, and it feels very satisfying when they realise their feelings for the other.

I now feel somewhat bad that these two books have languished on my TBR shelf for so long. I'm very glad I finally read them, and will no doubt revisit both in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: Once again, a fairly simple cover. Pretty cover model in a rural landscape. I really like the outfit, which fits the description of one Georgette wears over the course of the story, having tied a yellow shawl around her dress to make it more colourful and vibrant. The publishers have once again found a model that at least vaguely looks like the character inside, and there isn't a lot of fuss and muss, just an elegant Regency lady and some lovely nature. I wish more romance covers took this approach.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday, 16 November 2017

#CBR9 Book 98: "A Curious Beginning" by Deanna Raybourn

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Orphaned Veronica Speedwell has just buried the last of the two spinster aunts who raised her. She is looking forward to making her own way in the world now, exploring the world while catching butterflies, and possibly allowing herself a dalliance or two with a dashing foreign gentleman. She is shocked to discover an intruder in her home and is shortly thereafter approached by a distraught German baron who insists he has information about her past, and the she is in terrible danger. While Veronica is pretty sure the man is exaggerating his claims, she happily accepts his offer of escorting her to London.

When the baron and Veronica arrive in London, she is promptly deposited in the rather ramshackle warehouse where an associate of the baron's, known only as Stoker, performs his own scientific endeavours, he's a taxidermist. Stoker appears to owe the baron a debt of honour and while he's not happy about it, has to promise to keep Veronica safe. Before she finds out any more clues about her parentage or really has a chance to get settled with her rather taciturn and eccentric new host, they discover that the baron has been murdered.

Stoker believes Veronica is the reason the baron was killed, and therefore refuses to let her out of his sight while they go on the run (Stoker is a prime suspect in the murder) and try to figure out exactly why the baron was killed and by whom, so that Stoker can clear his name and Veronica can (hopefully) discover more about her mysterious past (and why someone might kill to ensure it stays hidden).

While the last few books in the Lady Julia Grey mysteries get a bit less exciting, the three first in that series are still very enjoyable and a fun read. I am also very fond of Ms. Raybourn's three loosely inter-connected romantic adventure/mysteries set in the 1920s, with determined young heroines and the men who fall for them. It's impossible not to draw comparisons between the Lady Julia books and this new series, about Veronica Speedwell, as both are mysteries set in the late Victorian era, with female protagonists (and a dark and broody love interest).

While Lady Julia is the daughter of an Earl and was raised to privilege, Veronica Speedwell is an orphan of unknown parentage, who has always assumed she was illegitimate. She was raised by two rather strict ladies, and they never stayed too long in one place. Veronica is a natural scientist and passionate lepidopterist. Even though it distressed her aunts, she has been on several expeditions around the world and while she refuses to indulge in romantic affairs while within the borders of Britain, she's clearly almost anachronistically open in her attitudes to sex and has had several lovers while abroad on her expeditions. In contrast, Stoker, who we discover is of noble birth, but disgraced because of all manner of dark things in his past (many of which will likely be revealed in later books, as we are clearly just scratching the surface of all his angst in this book) is rather proper, much more traditionally Victorian and rather shocked by Veronica's brazen attitude.

Parts of the book is a road trip of sorts, while they are forced to go on the run together and end up with a travelling circus, posing as newlyweds. The Lady Julia books had a very slow build-up of the romantic relationship between the two main characters, not really giving the readers what they truly wanted until towards the end of the third book of the series and she's clearly going to do something similar here. While I'm all for a long, slow burn if it's done well, it frustrated me that while there is clearly all manner of unresolved attraction between Veronica and Stoker, they don't even kiss over the course of the story. A slow burn is all well and good, but it's nice to have something to whet the appetite, so to speak.

I don't entirely know if I think Veronica is a bit too forward, opinionated and open-minded for a Victorian heroine. I liked Stoker and his moodiness, and him being a natural historian and taxidermist is pretty cool. It's hinted that he has rather the melodramatic past, and I just hope that nothing too silly is revealed in the books to come. There is also the fact that the murder mystery after a while most certainly takes second place to the search for Veronica's background, and I'm really not all that enthused about the truths that were revealed. Not sure how much of a part it's going to play in future books, I'm hoping it doesn't become a major thing.

A promising start to a new series. I like Raybourn's writing and will happily support her as long as she entertains me.

Judging a book by its cover: I like the beautiful outfit that the cover model is wearing, the red is certainly very eye-catching and seems extremely like something our heroine would actually wear. I'm not entirely sure what I think of the rest of the background, with the strange lighting making the houses appear odd colours and all the smoke in the background (although that at least may have some basis in the plot). Still, the red-clad figure in the foreground catches the eye, and that probably helps bring in readers.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 27 October 2017

#CBR9 Books 93-97: "Black Magic Sanction", "Pale Demon", "Ever After", "The Undead Pool" and "The Witch with No Name" by Kim Harrison re-read

So I've been doing a re-read of all of Kim Harrison's The Hollows books in audio since March this year. This is my review for the latter part of the series (with the exception of book 10, A Perfect Blood, which seems impossible to get in audio book format, either on Audible or in any library I've got access to. So with that one, I skim-read the relevant Rachel and Trent parts and moved quickly on to the next in the series. I have reviewed all of these books before, so if you want plot summaries, you can find my original reviews by searching my blog or Goodreads. These will be my observations from my revisiting of the books. Also, there will be spoilers!

Black Magic Sanction
Page count: 546 pages
Audio book length: 19 hrs 6 mins
Rating: 3 stars

This book is pretty much the definition of bridging or filler book. I started listening to the audio book in May and finished it in September. The plot just isn't all that engaging or exciting, hence my decision, upon which I clearly got distracted by other things and just forgot about it for a few months. Even when I picked it back up and managed to finish it, I was surprised at just how inconsequential the story was. Yes, we're introduced to the Coven of Ethical and Moral Standards, who seem hell bent on locking Rachel up and lobotomising her, so she can't do magic anymore. Nick shows up and is untrustworthy and becomes even more weaselly with each new appearance. Trent acts like he knows better than anyone else. Al wants Rachel to come live with him and the demons in the Ever After, since the humans don't appreciate her.

The only major thing that happens is the death of an important supporting character, which has an impact on several of the main cast and was still very sad to read about. But on the whole, there was nothing very memorable about this book (I'd forgotten most of the plot and was surprised when it ended without anything major really happening over the course of the book. Having now re-read the whole series, this is by far the weakest book.

Judging a book by its cover: Well, there's no doubt that this is an urban/paranormal fantasy book, is there? Full moon, gargoyle, lady who's likely wearing leather and holding a dagger. There is ominous mist obscuring the face of the cover model, probably so readers won't have to have their mental image of Rachel disturbed. The book isn't all that exciting, neither is the cover.

Pale Demon
Page count: 496 pages
Audio book length: 17 hrs 54 mins
Rating: 5 stars

What a delightful change this book is from the last one. Probably helped massively that some of the things that play out in this book were set up in the previous, not very exciting one (one book is all set up, this is pretty much all satisfying pay-off). Rachel has to get to the West Coast for her brother's wedding and Coven trial. Trent has to get to the West Coast for...reasons. Reasons he won't tell anyone the details of. Except Quen can't come with him, and wants Rachel to be his security. Rachel isn't allowed to fly, so they have to go on a road trip. They have three days to cross the country. Ivy and Jenks are along for the ride (because what would be the fun if the whole gang wasn't there? Partway through their journey, they are joined by Vivian, one of the Coven witches, and Pierce, sent by the demons to babysit Rachel and keep her safe. Let's just say, the car gets pretty crowded.

I don't know what it is about road trip stories, but they always tend to work out well and be very entertaining. It's probably putting people in close quarters in what is generally a rather tiresome and rather stressful way to travel, forcing them to spend time together and bond, sometimes against their will. This is the book where Harrison is clearly starting to map out her end game with regards to Rachel's happy ending. Only a few books earlier, she loathed Trent and wanted him locked up forever. Being forced to drive cross country with him, chased by elven assassins, hunted by a crazy demon and generally facing a number of challenges together, makes her see him in a new light and starts to trust him for the first time.

This book introduces Ku'Sox, the completely unhinged super-demon, who can walk in the sun and generally be controlled by no one, and while I don't like him much (he's just too over the top crazy), he makes for a good antagonist for a book or two. I love the reason for Trent's quest, I love that he and Jenks decide to work together and do it well. I like Rachel and Trent's changing perception of one another. It was especially fun re-reading this book, knowing where they would eventually end up. While Rachel's mum isn't in the book much, she's always a delight, as well.

Judging a book by its cover: The white leather dress the cover model is wearing is actually a match to one that Rachel wears in the book, while fighting a demon, so kudos to the cover designers for going with something less generic and more specific for this book. I'm not a huge fan of any of the covers in this series, they get a bit too "genre typical" for me, but in the grand scheme of things, this is probably one of the best.

Ever After
Page count: 516 pages
Audio book length: 18 hrs 36 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Two excellent books in a row, so while I might not like Ku'Sox as a character much, he certainly brings out the best in my other favourites, when they have to work together to deal with him. The Ever After is shrinking and all the lay lines have been corrupted somehow. Rachel is being blamed for it and Ku'Sox is trying to convince the other demons that the only way to fix their own lay lines and stop the shrinking is by killing Rachel. There is also someone kidnapping babies with the Rosewood syndrome, and it's highly likely that the cases are connected. When Rachel's friend and goddaughter are kidnapped to emotionally blackmail Rachel into giving herself up, things take a turn from very bad to pretty much disastrous. While she normally has many people to turn to for help, in this book, she's more or less on her own, with the few demons on her side being either incapable or unwilling to help her, Trent neutralised because his daughter is in danger and there being very few other magic users powerful enough to assist her, as she fights for her own life and to rescue innocent babies, on top of everything.

There is so much going on in this book, and pretty much all of it is gold. After their road trip, and the conclusion of the last novel, Trent and Rachel are now in a place where they trust one another and that builds in this story, as Trent's daughter is kidnapped and he has to rely on Rachel to make sure he gets her back safe. Since Rachel has to spend quite a bit of time in the Ever After, and do lay line magic, Jenks and Ivy are not the best people to help her, and subsequently take a bit more of a back seat. Not that they both don't get a few memorable scenes. We find out more about gargoyles, and after barely being present in the last book, Al returns with a vengeance when someone is framing his itchy witch. Not that he, or even Newt, are able to do all that much to help Rachel, it seems. She's short on time, and allies, but has come such a long way from the slightly klutzy, fly by the seat of her pants ex-runner she was in the beginning of the series. This Rachel is a force to be reckoned with, but she doesn't triumph without some casualties along the way. There is more than one death in this book and things get pretty dark and desperate for our heroine before they start getting better.

Judging a book by its cover: In all the early books in the series, the cover model's face was obscured, letting the reader make up their own mind about what Rachel looked like. Here we see her facing forward, and I'm not sure I'm a big fan. While the colour scheme of the cover is nice, the main image is rather generic and a book as action packed and exciting as this deserves a better cover design.

The Undead Pool
Page count: 528 pages
Audio book length: 16 hrs 13 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Magic is behaving unpredictably and even causing dangerous accidents all over Cincinnati. The undead vampire masters are all falling asleep, and leaving their living vampire charges unattended and unchecked. Things are getting chaotic pretty fast. Rachel has been acting as Trent's main security, and spending a lot of time with him. She's not looking forward to Ellasbeth, his soon to be fiancee, returning from the West Coast. Neither the elves nor demons want Rachel and Trent together and it would be both politically and financially damaging for Trent to reject the alliance with the West Coast elves that marrying Ellasbeth would provide. When Rachel unwillingly becomes a focus for a lot of the uncontrolled elven magic that is causing all the chaos in the city, and as a result becomes a desirable target for those plotting to kill all the master vampires and create a war with the elves, Trent needs to really take a long, hard look at his priorities and plans for the future.

Harrison's world building, creating an alternate US timeline in a world where supernatural creatures exist, and eventually learn to live more or less peacefully side by side with humanity, has always fascinated me. In earlier books in the series, we've seen more of the internal power structures of the werewolves and vampires, we've seen how pixy families can grow and thrive and how demon society is structured. In this penultimate book, we get a closer look at the elven power hierarchies, and while Trent is well on his way to becoming a decent person (with a lot of help from his friends), a lot of the other elves don't seem all that sympathetic.

Judging a book by its cover: On this book, we not only see a female model portraying Rachel, but a male one portraying Trent. Firstly, I really hate the outfit given to Rachel, which in no way reflects on anything she wears over the course of the story. Secondly, see my complaint above about seeing the characters' faces. I like being able to make up my own mind. That is not at all what Trent and Rachel look like to me.

The Witch with No Name
Page count: 510 pages
Audio book length: 17 hrs 28 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Considering this is the final book in the series, I really wish Ms. Harrison had written a more engaging, and less messy plot. Much of the main story is head vampire of Cincinnati, Rynn Cormel, threatening Ivy's life because he wants Rachel to figure out a way to save the vampires' souls when they die. Working with Trent and with some help from the demons, Rachel finds out where vampire souls go when they die, and there's a whole load of magical complications where undead vampires are reunited with their souls, but kind of go crazy with the guilt of all the bad stuff they did as soulless bloodsucking creatures.

Landon the weaselly elf priest makes his return and is no less unpleasant in this book. Ellasbeth is trying to ruin Trent financially and destroying his remaining political power, so she can get sole custody of the little girls and Rachel spends much of the book being convinced that Trent's going to dump her at any and go off and make some sort of marriage of convenience. This keeps on at tedious length, despite him clearly having already risked his name, fortune and reputation to be with her, and it's obvious to anyone that he's so much happier not being under public scrutiny with some sort of grand elven crown prince legacy.

The epilogue of the book, set about twenty-something years later is very sweet and closes off the series in a lovely way. I still wish less of the actual book had been about boring vampire stuff.

Judging a book by its cover: The white, gold, black and red colour scheme is pretty good. The cover designers still insist on dressing Rachel in corsets and mini skirts, despite the fact that she barely ever wears such things over the course of the series. Leather pants or jacket, yes. Thigh-high mini skirts and bustiers - no. At least she's facing away on this cover, no full frontal view (possibly because they got a different female model again).

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.