Friday, 11 August 2017

#CBR9 Book 73: "An Extraordinary Union" by Alyssa Cole

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From Goodreads:

Elle Burns is a former slave with a passion for justice and an eidetic memory. Trading in her life of freedom in Massachusetts, she returns to the indignity of slavery in the South - to spy for the Union Army. 

Malcolm McCall is a detective for Pinkerton's Secret Service. Subterfuge is his calling, but he's facing his deadliest mission yet - risking his life to infiltrate a Rebel enclave in Virginia.

Two undercover agents who share a common cause - and an undeniable attraction - Malcolm and Elle join forces when they discover a plot that could turn the tide of war in the Confederacy's favour. Caught in a tightening web of wartime intrigue, and fighting a fiery and forbidden love, Malcolm and Elle must make their boldest move to preserve the Union at any cost - even if it means losing each other...

Elle Burns is the daughter of slaves and can even remember the slavery of her childhood, before her parents' master's son freed them when he inherited. She may be young and female, but she has a gift that can provide invaluable help to the Union cause - her eidetic, or photographic memory. Able to recount with perfect recall anything she has read or overheard, she's the ideal spy. She is rather hot-tempered, though, which is why her current mission involves her posing in a newly elected Confederate senator's household as a mute slave. Her superiors hope that can keep her from exploding and risking the mission. Working undercover in Richmond, Virginia, she hopes to overhear plans that may help the Union cause and hopefully end the Civil War faster.

Malcolm McCall is the son of poor Scottish immigrants, and while he may be white, he remembers all too well the hardships his family suffered in their homeland before his family emigrated. His parents marriage suffered because of some of the horrors inflicted on his mother by British soldiers, his father could never entirely get over it and was pretty much driven mad. Determined to ensure that there is no such oppression and mistreatment of people in his new homeland, he is an avid supporter of the Abolitionist cause and proudly serves the Union and President Lincoln by working for the Pinkerton Secret Service. Posing as a decorated Confederate soldier, he charms his way as a favoured guest into Senator Caffrey's household and tries to learn as many secrets as possible to report back to his superiors.

He's somewhat taken aback to discover that the pretty slave he saw abused by the spoiled young Miss Caffrey earlier in the day is apparently his contact, and that she's not mute or in any way slow, rather the opposite. While Elle is naturally quite wary of the strange soldier she is asked to cooperate with, Malcolm seems pretty instantly infatuated with Elle, and his attraction only increases when he learns just how intelligent and talented she is. Even though they both work for the Union, the couple are both very aware that an inter-racial marriage would be impossible and forbidden, even if they survive their dangerous mission.

Elle is used to people around her being initially rather impressed with her memory, but usually they either seem jealous that such a gift is bestowed on a black woman, or they feel threatened and slightly put off by it. Daniel, her former best friend and erstwhile suitor, seemed intimidated by it and certainly didn't want her to use her abilities to spy for the Union. Now he's been taken prisoner by slavers, and one of Elle's hopes while working as a spy is to discover his whereabouts in the South to see if she can help get him freed. She's surprised when Malcolm is neither upset, threatened or intimidated by her recall, but seems even more attracted to her because of it. As they get to know each other better, he also comes to see what a burden it must be for Elle to perfectly remember absolutely everything she's ever read or heard - she can't really selectively overhear bad or horrible things.

This book was one of those releases that I've seen raved about practically everywhere that reviews romance on the internet. It may have raised my expectations too high, because while I liked the book, it certainly didn't exactly blow me away, and I thought the romance developed very fast and became intense extremely quickly, considering the brief timeline the novel takes place over. Especially considering the racial and political difficulties facing the couple, Elle's misgivings are brushed away in no time at all. Also, it's clear that Malcolm needs to be very open-minded, but he seemed almost anachronistically understanding and a bit too modern in his attitudes throughout the story.

I did like that over the course of the novel, it's clear that each of the protagonists have their strengths and while they are good apart, they're even better together. They also both get a chance to rescue the other out of some pretty dire straits. Thinking back, I think the ending may have been a bit sudden and certain bits were a little bit too convenient to be entirely realistic. I appreciate reading a romance from a different time period than I usually do, though, and it's quite clear that Ms. Cole has done her research well. This is the first book in a series, and I'm sure I'll be reading more of these.

Judging a book by its cover: I've seen this cover highlighted in a number of places as a very good one, and I agree that it's nice-looking, I have doubts that a house slave (like Elle is posing as) would be allowed such a nice dress. It really seems too delicate and pretty for that. I do really like the background details and the pose and posture of the woman on the cover. She looks competent, but wary and on guard, which seems very suitable for this book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

#CBR9 Book 72: "True North" by Liora Blake

Page count: 288 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Kate Mosely is a widow living alone and rather lonely in the little town of Crowell, Montana. She more or less runs the local newspaper she inherited from her father (with help from his old business partner), but her small claim to fame is writing a novel that's become a bestseller, much thanks to her persistent and aggressive literary agent, Stephen. Now, hoping to create more buzz for the book, as well as spurring Kate into writing a second novel, he's booked her on several TV appearances in LA.

Kate is to appear first on a prestigious late night talk show, with tons of viewers, and later fly back to go on one of those mid-morning shows aimed mainly at women, where Kate's tragic widow persona should go over especially well with the audience. Kate is rather uncomfortable about leaving her safe haven, but does what she's told and flies to Los Angeles. Before her first appearance, she makes a new friend in Kellan, the utterly flamboyant and supremely confident stylist that Stephen has hired to help her get the exact right image for late night TV. Kellan is absolutely delighted to take Kate under his wing, and dresses her expertly, so all her nervousness disappears.

In the talk show green room, she encounters some rock star she thinks looks very familiar, and is briefly propositioned by one of his band mates before said guy is told to lay off. She asks the producer who the star is before going on stage, and is told by the baffled individual that she just spent time with Trax, one of the most famous musicians in the US at the moment. He plays a mix of rap, rock and punk (I imagined some kind of mix between Eminem and Henry Rollins) and has a decidedly bad boy image, as a former poor kid become super successful. Once Kate is actually on the show, she promotes her book as well she can, but it's only when Trax is being interviewed that things get interesting. Sparks of palpable mutual attraction clearly fly between the small town novelist and the big shot rock star, and both the talk show host and the audience are loving it.

Kate thinks little of it, until Trax, or Trevor Jenkins as he's really called, phones her up the next day, having had his publicity people get her phone number from her agent. He was clearly rather smitten with Kate, and invites her for a date. After a panicked call to Kellan, and a few hours of primping, Kate feels ready to go out with an international rock star, and discovers that he's a very different (and much more dangerously attractive to her) person when he's not being Trax. Clearly quite used to and very tired of women (and men) wanting to spend time with him, date him and use him for his fame and connections, Trevor seems delighted by how completely indifferent Kate is to his celebrity status. They share some rather steamy kisses, but Trevor is a gentleman and doesn't push his luck on the first date. While they had fun, Kate doesn't really believe it's going to go much further.

But to her surprise, Trevor keeps leaves her a voice mail message when she gets home to Montana, checking if she got home ok. He sends her texts, and gets rather annoyed when she doesn't respond to them at first. Kate is still rather taken aback that such a famous, handsome, very charming man seems infatuated with boring old her, but they start up some pretty heavy duty flirting long distance, either over the phone and by text. Kate hasn't really felt attracted to someone since her husband died and she can't imagine that someone as famous as Trevor/Trax feels more than a passing attraction to her. Hence she is rather shocked when he's quite insulted when she returns to LA for her morning talk show appearance without telling him she was going to be in town. He makes it very clear that to him she is not just some diversion to momentarily entertain him, but if she doesn't feel the same way, maybe they won't have a future after all.

As things get more serious, and Kate meets Trevor's family, not to mention he comes to Crowell and meets what's left of hers, there are absolutely complications to their romance. Some early communications misunderstandings and Kate's sustained disbelief that Trevor is actually completely smitten with her are fairly easily worked through. It gets worse when the tabloids start noticing their relationship, and start digging into Kate's tragic back story, twisting it into something ugly that will sell well. Can Trevor persuade Kate that she's not going to ruin his life and career and that he's in fact never going to be happy without her?

As is so often the case, I got this book in an e-book sale several years ago (it came highly recommended on at least one romance review site I follow - and now I see why), and then promptly forgot about it. Only when it fit into one of my countless reading challenges, What's in a Name, where I have to read a book with a title featuring a compass direction, did this book reappear on my radar. I've read my fair share of rock star romances, and usually, they fail to be all that memorable. Most of them are very forgettable. This book, though, sucked me in wholly. I stayed up until way later at night than was entirely advisable and as soon as I had the chance the next day, I finished it happily. Yup, one of those gems that you read in less than 24 hours, from an author I'd never heard of before.

Kate is a great heroine, and three years after her husband's death, she still does grieve deeply for him. To make matters worse, he died in a car accident in winter, while she was behind the wheel, so she tries very hard not to feel guilty, but it's very hard for her. Living in a small town where everyone knows everyone else, it's not exactly easy for her to meet anyone new, but she's still very surprised at the strength of the attraction she suddenly feels for Trevor/Trax when they meet on the talk show. She's also practical and pragmatic, not at all prone to flighty fantasies, and it takes her a long time to believe that his interest in her is genuine and that he wants something serious and long-term, even after such a short acquaintance. Her restraint and scepticism is one of the things that cause problems early on in their romance.

Trevor has clearly lived a hard life, and became famous while he was still fairly young. As young men are wont to do when they come into huge amounts of celebrity and money, he partied pretty seriously hard for a few years, and now has a reputation as one of the bad boys of the music scene. Both he and his family have known their fair share of difficulties and have had a lot of people try to use him or them, and exploit Trevor's fame. He asks Kate some fairly blunt questions on their first dates, and seems absolutely delighted when she can honestly answer all of them, and seems entirely indifferent to his fame. Frankly, the fact that he's so famous is what makes her doubt that he can really be attracted to a nobody like her, but having had easy access to everything he wanted for so long, has made him want things that are real instead. He no longer wants to live a crazy party lifestyle with casual hook-ups, groupies, drugs and alcohol. He wants to take care of his mother and sister, and his orphaned niece and while he doesn't intend to stop making music, he really doesn't want or need to live in the spotlight anymore.

It's always nice to read a romance where the hero is initially more smitten than the heroine, and almost has to persuade her to love him back. I think it makes for an interesting dynamic. The book was a very quick and entertaining read - it gets a bit frustrating in the second half, when Kate decides to go all self-sacrificing and martyr-like to give up her chance of happiness for the good of Trevor, but she eventually comes to her senses and gives pretty good grovel. There are two more books in the series, the next one featuring Trevor's sister and his bandmate Simon (the guy who cheerfully hit on Kate in the green room at the start of the book), who has clearly been head over heals for her for years. The final book is about Kate's sister, who's a pretty cool supporting character in this one, and now that I've discovered Liora Blake, I'm very interested in seeing if the rest of her books are as good as this one.

Judging a book by its cover: I think one of the reasons I was underestimating how enjoyable this book was going to be, was the cover. The headless bodies, with some shirtless dude making sure the man-titty is fully on display, while leaning on his guitar. The turned-away woman, with the baggy flannel shirt and cowboy boots, it all seemed a bit photo-shopped together and not very professional or inviting. As these books appear to be self-published, I maybe shouldn't have been so hard on the cover design.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

#CBR9 Book 71: "Greenglass House" by Kate Milford

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Milo Pine lives at the large and sprawling Greenglass House with his adopted parents, Nora and Ben. The house is an inn that tends to cater to smugglers and other people not always on the right side of the law, but during the Christmas season, it's normally empty and quiet and Milo is looking forward to a few weeks of relaxation and quiet with his family. His parents are extremely surprised and Milo rather annoyed when they seem to be absolutely inundated with guests only a few days before Christmas Eve. This is really going to put a damper on Milo's vacation.

Greenglass House has an illustrious history, and once belonged to legendary smuggler Doc Holystone. Somewhat of a local hero, he was eventually cornered by law enforcement and died on the property. As the days pass, it turns out that all the strange guests who have shown up have some sort of connection either to Doc Holystone, Greenglass House or the mystery surrounding him. While the group is snowed in by the inclement weather, it turns out that someone is stealing items from some of the guests. Milo and his new friend Meddy, the housekeeper/cook's youngest daughter decide to investigate and figure out what is going on, and try to locate not just the missing items, but who is responsible for stealing them.

Greenglass House is a middle grade mystery novel with a frame narrative. While there are several mysteries to be solved, the book is also very much about story telling of various kinds. The main story about Milo, his parents and the various strange guests is a frame narrative. There is also the book of local legends and stories that Milo is lent by Georgie, one of the guests, and the many stories that the various guests are persuaded into telling in the evenings, both to entertain and for the various individuals stuck at the house to get to know each other better. Some of the stories obviously turn out to have more of a significance to the plot than others, but even the more throw-away ones are a delight to read.

Milo starts the story as a rather shy and introverted boy, who is forced out of his comfort zone more than once because of the unusual pre-Christmas events he becomes part of. Meddy is a much more outgoing and impetuous individual and she persuades Milo to investigate, while also creating "roles" for them, using the rules of an old role-playing game of sorts. Meddy knows all of the rules and character traits for the various personas, and badgers Milo until together they've created Negret, who is in many ways the direct opposite of the youth. Meddy becomes Sirin, an incorporeal spirit, who will be invisible at all times, so she will be able to observe the various people as Milo has to do most of the active investigating and questioning. As the story proceeds, and Meddy encourages him, he becomes a lot more assertive and brave.

While it's not a major plot point in the story, the fact that Milo is adopted and doesn't look like his parents (he's of Chinese origin) does come up. While he's lived with Ben and Nora since he was a baby and loves them and never feels anything less than absolutely treasured, he does still occasionally wonder about his biological family and what they may be like. He's painfully aware that new guests who arrive at the inn will always instantly see that he's adopted and looks nothing like his parents. While role-playing Negret and solving mysteries with Meddy, he's able to work through some of his identity qualms in a pretty good way.

While this seems to be a contemporary story, there is a lack of much identifiable technology, and some of what is mentioned appears almost Steampunky. There is also a supernatural element, but I don't want to say too much about it, so as to not spoil anything for new readers. The plot with a number of colourful individuals stuck together by circumstance, while a mystery needs to be solved, is also reminiscent of a lot of cozy mysteries, like those by the excellent Agatha Christie. Here the detective is not an eccentric Belgian or a village spinster, but a clever young man instead, which made for a nice change. The book won an Edgar Award in 2015 and has been nominated for a number of other ones.

This is the first Kate Milford book I've read, after having heard so many good things about her. This book was a fascinating read, because of the multiple levels of story telling, the mystery and the wonderful interplay between the characters. I can highly recommend it to anyone looking for something quick and entertaining to pass the time.

Judging a book by its cover: This cover is absolutely lovely, giving the reader a very good idea of what the fanciful Greenglass House and its snow-clad surroundings look like. I like the various shades of green that are used, in the title font, the various trees in the woods and the colourful glass of the house. Such excellent cover design.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

#CBR9 Book 70: "The Ghost Bride" by Yangsze Choo

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 3 stars

The former Chinese colony of Malaya (current day Malaysia) is now under British rule, but the Chinese population there still try their best to stick to their ancient customs. Li Lan's family was once wealthy, but after her mother died from chickenpox, her father tried to cover his grief by taking opium and now they are nearly bankrupt, with very few promising marriage prospects for Li Lan. One day, however, her father claims that the wealthy and influential Lim family have offered her a ghost marriage. The son and heir of the family died last year, and they want Li Lan to marry him in a proxy ceremony. Her future would be secured, and she would always have a comfortable home - but Li Lan is appalled by the suggestion.

The Lim family want to persuade Li Lan and invite her to their opulent mansion. Here she meets the new heir, Tian Bai, cousin of her deceased intended bridegroom. They seem drawn to one another, and later Li Lan discovers from her father that before the son of the Lim family died, there was an arrangement where she was intended for Tian Bai. Now that he's the heir and her family are in debt and out of favour, the match seems impossible.

Li Lan comes to realise that the reason the Lim family are so eager for her to be a ghost bride is that her dead bridegroom is haunting the household, and is determined to win her, reluctant or not. He starts haunting her dreams, trying to curry her favour, and Li Lan becomes increasingly more desperate to get rid of him. Seeking the aid of an wizened old lady who claims to be a medium (against the dire warnings of her nurse), Li Lan is given drugs and incantations that are supposed to keep her ghostly suitor out. Unfortunately, she finds herself in a coma-like state, separated from her body. Li Lan finds that she has to visit the underworld to try to figure out why her suitor is so obsessed with her, so she can figure out a way to get rid of him once and for all. Being away from her body for too long holds its own dangers, though, there are vengeful, restless spirits that could take possession of it, and if her spirit is gone for too long, she'll waste away and die.

This was the Vaginal Fantasy book club pick for June (and yes, I'm only NOW getting around to writing about it - I'm well behind on my reviews), and since I'd bought it in an e-book sale ages ago, I figured it was as good a time as any to read the book. While all the VF ladies really liked the book, I must admit, I was rather more underwhelmed by the whole thing. Learning more about a part of the world I knew little to nothing about (colonial Malaya) and the customs and beliefs around death, funerals and the afterlife in this culture was fascinating. That part worked really well. The actual story of the book, though, never managed to really engage me.

First of all, Li Lan seemed rather useless and while she actually does go out and do quite a lot over the course of the book, she still managed to come across as rather passive and uninspiring. Brought up in a culture where upper class women were pretty much supposed to be mainly ornamental won't have helped with this, of course. Nevertheless, I had trouble warming to her as a protagonist. I wanted her to grow more of a backbone and show more spirit.

I also thought the structure of the book left something to be desired. It's got a very slow start and as I have already mentioned, struggled to make me really interested in the story of Li Lan. She's facing a pretty creepy scenario, I wanted to feel for her, but I kept on with the book partially in the hopes that just around the corner, something was going to hook me in. The middle part of the book takes place in the afterlife, which was also potentially cool, but here the story got a bit confusing, and I never really understood the motivations behind Li Lan's vengeful dead suitor or the corrupt afterlife officials who seem to be exploiting him somehow. During the last third of the book, Li Lan has to fight to get her body back, after it's possessed. There is also a new and rather unexpected love interest introduced, a bit late in the story, in my opinion. I found it especially vexing because he was one of the most fascinating characters in the book, and we didn't get to spend enough time with him. I also would have liked for there to be more interaction between him and Li Lan, she seems to fall for him awfully and conveniently quickly.

 It's clear from the reactions of the four really rather different VF hosts and much of the VF Goodreads forum that most people liked this book a lot more than I did. It should absolutely be applauded for doing something different and teaching the reader about a different time and culture. I don't regret buying or reading the book, but I doubt I'll ever be re-reading it, and if it wasn't a digital copy, this would end up in my "give away to a charity shop" pile.

Judging a book by its cover: I think the cover for this is really beautiful, and if I recall correctly, that along with the description (as well as it being on sale) was what made me buy the book in the first place. The flowers in the foreground, the sparkles, the partially out of sight woman, the foreground of the picture being out of focus. I'm sorry I didn't like the book as much as I do the cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

#CBR9 Book 69: "An Ember in the Ashes" by Sabaa Tahir

Page coun: 464 pages
Audio book length:
Rating: 3.5 stars

Spoiler warning! Some spoilers for the early parts of the book in this review (although some of it is already spoiled in the book's blurb). 

We're back to me reviewing books I read a month ago, so Goodreads will have to help me out here:

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those that do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear. 

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire's impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They've seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia's brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire's greatest military academy.

There Laia meets Elias, the school's finest soldier - and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he's being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realise that their destinies are intertwined - and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself. 

I read a lot of YA fantasy (and the occasional sci-fi) and after a while, the tropes start to feel a bit repetitive and a lot of the stories feel rather samey. This book reminded me somewhat of Marie Rutkoski's The Winners trilogy, Pierce Brown's Red Rising trilogy, with some elements from Mary E. Pearson's The Remnant Chronicles (which reminds me, I have yet to track down and read the final book in that series). You've got the brutal empire, modelled on ancient Rome. You have some sort of oppressed underclass, possibly enslaved. You've got the various neighbouring peoples, who have different and seemingly barbarian customs. Not all the evil ruling class are necessarily evil (where would be the fun in that) and most of the oppressed underclasses are too afraid to mount any sort of rebellion, because they'd surely be defeated and soundly crushed. Yet of course there are rebels, because in such a situation, there will always be people who try to fight.

Laia is quite happy keeping her head down and not making a fuss, until soldiers come to their house one night, ready to arrest her brother for treason. They brutally cut down her grandparents and seize her brother, while Laia, terrified runs away. She's deeply ashamed of herself and rather than considering that she would most likely be dead too (probably after the various soldiers had their way with her), she is determined to redeem herself by getting her brother out of prison. Laia's parents were legendary rebels, who were betrayed by someone close to them and captured by the Empire, along with Laia's eldest sister. Her mother was especially ruthless in her fight against the oppressing Empire, known as the Lioness. Laia feels about as far from her mother as its possible to be.

She nonetheless manages to track down the rebels (partially through blind luck) and negotiates a deal with them. She will pose as a slave and work for the Commander of Blackcliff military academy, where they train the most elite soldiers of the Empire. As the Commander is known to be heartless, vicious and prone to maiming or disfiguring her slaves, if they survive for very long in her service at all, it's a very dangerous mission. Laia's terrified, but feels she must do anything and everything to ensure the rebels get her brother out of prison.

At Blackcliff, she discovers that all the rumours about the Commander are true, and that the cold and cruel woman doesn't seem to have affection for anyone, not even her own son, Elias Veturius. He is seemingly the most promising soldier of the current graduating class, but no one, not even his best friend, Helene Aquilla, knows that he's planning on running away after the graduation ceremony, determined to reject the Empire and all its teachings.. Running away would be considered treasonous, and if he's caught, he would be executed.

Before he gets a chance to escape, Elias is approached by one of the Augurs, ancient, immortal, pretty much omniscient beings that tell him that if he stays at Blackcliff and takes part in the upcoming trials, he will finally have a true chance at freedom and of changing the course of the Empire forever. Apparently the Augurs have seen that he is a key figure in the future, no matter what the outcome is, and if he runs away, he will ruin everything.

So Elias stays at Blackcliff after graduation, and is selected to take part in the trials to select the new Emperor - along with his best friend Helene, along with two of the more brutal aspirants of their year. Because he stays, he also meets and starts interacting with Laia, his mother's new slave. They have a strange connection, but she's a slave and he's part of the Empire that enslaved her, so what future could they possibly have?

This book has garnered a lot of praise, and been nominated for a ton of literary YA awards. I'd heard a lot about it, but must admit I wasn't really all that engrossed for the first half of the book or so. Laia is just so timid, naive and scared all the time. While that's perfectly natural, it isn't always that much fun to read about. Elias is full of self-loathing and resents being taken from the tribespeople he spent his early childhood with to be a favoured and wealthy son of the Empire and taken to Blackcliff to train. It does sound like the training of the elite soldiers is pretty awful, but he's still in a position of privilege and control and came across as rather spoiled and whiny.

As is so very common in YA nowadays, there are also romantic undertones, in the form of two love triangles. Yup, Laia is drawn to Elias, as well as one of the brave and plucky rebels. Elias finds himself attracted to both Laia and his best friend Helene, who is also one of his rivals in the trials for Emperor. There's a whole load of meaningful glances, but a whole load of near-misses, where nothing much of anything happens. While the characters think about kissing, or about attractive attributes of their love interest, there is very little actual action going on. That got frustrating after a while, too.

Another thing that got to me, that was just depressing, was the constant thread of misogyny and threat of rape towards any female character in the story. It's heavily implied that the reason the Commander hates Elias so much is because he is the product of rape (this is not confirmed, but I would not be surprised if it's revealed in a later book). For some reason, they allow one woman into Blackcliff every so often, and despite the fact that their Commander is a woman, and Helene seems to be one of the best soldiers in her graduating class, there is an absolutely horrible attitude towards women, and even Helene keeps being threatened with sexual assault. It's not just the slaves that are vulnerable.

By the last third of the book, Laia has grown more of a backbone and starts getting actually interesting to read about. Elias ends up in a rather precarious position, and I appreciated the timid and oppressed girl having to rescue the big bad soldier and ending up in a position of power over him. The change in the status quo and the set-up for the next book is interesting enough that I will probably keep reading, even though this took me a while to get into.

Judging a book by its cover: This is a pretty bleak and depressing cover, but then both Laia and Elias have pretty bleak lives. There's a very big concrete wall, with hints of buildings in the background. Since both protagonists live their lives in some form of captivity, it seems appropriate, but I still don't think it's a very appealing or inviting cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

#CBR9 Book 68: "Places No One Knows" by Brenna Yovanoff

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

To everyone who knows her, Waverly Camdenmar appears to be pretty much perfect. She is intelligent, successful, one of the most popular girls in school (thanks to her Machiavellian scheming on behalf of her best friend, whom she's pretty sure she doesn't even like anymore). Said best friend keeps referring to her as a robot or android, but thanks to her, Waverly fits in. No one knows that nearly every night, Waverly battles insomnia and runs until her feet bleed. She also fears she may be a sociopath.

Marshall Holt is one of the school's notorious stoners. His home life is pretty terrible, he knows that he is very likely to fail all his classes (not for lack of aptitude, he just doesn't particularly care) and he drinks himself into oblivion, gets stoned or does harder drugs, just to make the world recede for a while. He's had a crush on ice queen Waverly Camdenmar for more than a year, but is pretty sure she doesn't even know he exists. Then one night, he's pretty sure he sees her in his bedroom, but he writes that off as a hallucination. She also comes and holds his hand when he's tripping badly on acid under a patio table at one of his brother's parties. Is his intense lifestyle starting to take its toll, or is something strange happening?

One night, sick of insomnia, Waverly reads about a relaxation technique and tries it to fall asleep. She dreams herself into Marshall's bedroom, and the next night to his brother's party. She has no idea what is happening, but every time she tries the relaxation ritual, she ends up wherever Marshall currently is, and he seems to be the only one that can see her. While they barely acknowledge each other's existence in the daytime at school, at night, they start to have private, intimate and in-depth conversations. An actual relationship between them would be entirely impossible, or would it?

Maggie Stiefvater, fellow YA author and one of Brenna Yovanoff's best friends, describes this book as "a dream wrapped in razor wire or razor wire wrapped in a dream". That's a very good description. This book is hard to read in parts, mainly because Waverly is such a difficult protagonist. She really does seem like she's covered in razor wire much of the time, and has such a hard time letting people close. It seems likely that she's very highly functioning on the autism spectrum and she may or may not in fact be a sociopath. She's always been very smart, but different from children and later teens her own age. She loves horror movies, and has little action figures of all the famous horror movie villains. She's a perfectionist and she pushes herself physically until she may have injured herself irreparably. She used to play chess when she was younger, but as someone observes later in this book, by the time she got to high school she has moved on to bigger, actual human pieces. She makes sure that Maribeth, her best friend (who is really a piece of work), is the undisputed queen bee of the school, but she doesn't really like her or any of the things they spend their days doing.

Marshall, our other protagonist is a total sweetheart, but he's pretty successfully running his life into the ground towards the start of the book. With a very turbulent home life and no real support from anyone, he knows he's unlikely to be able to go to college after high school and so he doesn't even try to pass his classes. Much of his days and nights are spent in a haze of intoxication and it's only when he realises that the night time visits from Waverly are somehow real and she starts to really question him and his motives, that he starts to consider changing the destructive path he's chosen to fling himself down.

While some people may say this is a fantasy novel, I don't really think it is. Yes, it has one very strange supernatural element (which we are never given any explanation for), but it's really just a macguffin to get Waverly and Marshall, so different on the surface, to spend more time together, so they can get to know the other's real self. The personas they inhabit in high school are very different from the people they can be when there's just the two of them, in Waverly's strange maybe-dreams. As they grow closer, though, and it becomes clear that they may become more than friends, that's when things get really complicated.

After all, Waverly has worked very hard to appear flawless and perfect and have impeccable social standing at school. She cannot openly associate herself with Marshall, who while he stops doing drugs and starts turning his life around, still has an undeniable loser reputation. While Waverly doesn't even like Maribeth anymore and has started to realise just how much she's being used, years of knowing she's different makes her fear being an outcast all the more. Getting to know the enigmatic and colourful Autumn helps her to see that her life could be different, but Waverly struggles for the longest time to break out of the patterns she's been used to.

I'm not sure this book is for everyone. Yovanoff does write in a slightly mannered way that I think could annoy some people. Waverly really is a spiky and very difficult to like heroine, but you get a very clear idea of how and why she's turned out the way she has. Marshall is an absolute darling and I wanted only good things for him. Autumn is also a delight, and Maribeth was a pretty good antagonist, if not quite up to the levels of Regina George or the Heathers. If you want a complex and interesting YA book, full of high school intrigue, with a slight supernatural element and some romance, on the other hand, this may be a good book for you. I know I'm going to be checking out more of Ms. Yovanoff's writing in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: I really don't like this cover much, it's so incredibly generic and has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the book. The pastel pink and peach colour scheme (seems to be labelling this a GIRL book, which it most certainly is not), the teens apparently falling. The nonsensical tagline "Follow me and disappear". I have no idea what the cover designer/publisher meant by that. I would never in a million years have picked this book up based on the cover, and I would have lost out on a really interesting reading experience. I hope for Ms. Yovanoff's sake that this book gets re-issued with a better, more appropriate cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

#CBR9 Book 67: "Heartstone" by Elle Katharine White

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Ever wondered what a fantasy version of Pride and Prejudice would be like if the countryside was full of dangerous supernatural creatures like direwolves, gryphons, lamias and banshees? Where the most respected and revered members of society weren't just idle nobles, but devoted themselves from youth to training hard and hunting down these dangerous monsters?

Elle Katharine White clearly wondered the same thing, and before you think this is just another quick cash-grab like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where the original story has pretty much been kept word for word, with some zombies and sword fighting thrown in for good measure - it's not. Ms White has reimagined the story and made changes here and there, but to anyone who knows the source material, there isn't going to be any massive surprises. Part of the fun of reading this book was instead to see how she had changed, reimagined or tweaked the story.

The Bennet family are the Bentaines here. Their youngest daughter was tragically killed by gryphons, so they are very grateful when the local landowner has managed to collect enough money to hire a band of Riders to vanquish the local threat. One of the Riders is even a dragonrider, from the legendary Daired family. Second eldest Bentaine, Eliza, is surprised when the arrogant man offers to train her, she isn't interested in killing things, she wants to become a healer. Her older sister seems to really hit it off with one of the other Riders, though, and their mother is absolutely delighted at the prospect of a good match for one of her brood.

I very much liked some of the dragons who made up the supporting cast, and the intricate rules that apparently govern the proper customs between dragons and their riders. Most of the characters' general characteristics will be very familiar to anyone who's read the Austen novel (or seen any of the adaptations). I liked the changes made to Mr. Collins and Catherine de Bourgh, especially, though and not everything plays out the way you might expect.

I was always going to be predisposed to like a novel that's literally "Pride and Prejudice with dragons", but there was always a chance that the premise fell absolutely flat and was boring or bad. I'm happy to say that this isn't the case at all. This is Ms. White's debut novel, and I will be looking out for more of her books in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: Parts of this cover obviously appeal to me a LOT - come on, it's a great big dragon in flight, apparently coming in for a landing. Not sure why the tail is so long it has to be coiled twice (this does not really fit with the descriptions of dragons in the book) and I'm really not happy with the outfit of the woman in the lower foreground of the picture. It seems to me that she is wearing nothing but a corset and petticoats, while in the middle of a field, something no lady in this story would do.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 66: "Someone to Watch Over Me" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Spoiler warning! This review will contain minor spoilers for the plot of the book. They will be clearly marked, though, so the rest of the review should be ok.

Grant Morgan is one of the most famous and sought after of London's Bow Street Runners. He's made a substantial fortune solving crimes for the wealthy, but is starting to find his life a bit boring. When he's called to the banks of the Thames to identify what appears to be a strangled woman, he is first of all surprised to discover that she is still breathing, and secondly, by her identity. The half-dead woman is Vivien Duvall, London's most desirable courtesan.

Once she wakes up and is examined by a doctor, it becomes clear that she has entirely lost her memory. She doesn't know how notorious she is or who may have tried to kill her. Grant decides to keep her at his house, both to make sure she is adequately protected, but also because he is plotting revenge against Vivien. A few months back, he rejected her sexual advances in public and she proceeded to spread a number of rumours about Grant. Now that she is entirely dependent on him for protection, he sees an opportunity to possibly seduce her and get back at her.

As they investigate which of Vivian's many lovers might have had cause to murder her, he pretends that he was her most recent patron. However, Vivian seems to be absolutely appalled by all the things she discovers about her life and claims to have no wish to return to a life as a courtesan. For all that Grant was angry and resentful towards Vivian in the beginning, the more time he spends with the timid, soft-spoken woman in his care, the more he grows properly attached to her. He doesn't really want revenge anymore, he just wants to protect her.

This is one of Lisa Kleypas' relatively early works, and it does not compare that well to some of her real classics, written later. My main problem with the book is that Grant really isn't that great a guy. Initially, he has absolutely no problem with taking advantage of a woman left in his care, just because he feels slighted by some malicious gossip she spread about him. Vivian has no memory of her former life or her actions, yet he seems to think that because she made her living as a courtesan, one he very pointedly rejected not that long ago, it's now totally fine for him to seduce her, by making her think he's one of her clients and making her feel obligated to him.

From the very beginning of his investigation, it's quite clear to Grant that Vivian appears to more or less have had a personality transplant along with the amnesia following her near-strangulation, drowning and head injury. The Vivian Duvall known in Regency society is self-confident to a fault, effortlessly sexy, quite the exhibitionist and arrogant in the extreme. Her former lovers claim she hated quiet pursuits and reading and was willing to do absolutely anything in bed. The woman in his care is timid, shy, seemingly very innocent and absolutely adores reading. While she doesn't remember anything about her past, she has intimate knowledge about a number of Grant's favourite literary works. She's unfailingly polite to everyone and seems uncomfortable being waited on by servants.

SPOILERS AHEAD! It's almost as if she's a completely different person - and in case you hadn't seen the surprise twist coming - she is! It turns out Vivian has a twin sister from the countryside, who came to London to look for her, and was mistaken for her by the man sent to kill her. When is this mistaken identity discovered? When Grant is in the process of deflowering the inexperienced and sheltered virgin, taking absolutely no care because he believes the woman he's sharing a bed with to be a courtesan with many years of experience behind her. He does not, to my mind, apologise or grovel enough in the aftermath.

There's a fairly heavy undertone of slut shaming throughout this novel. Grant basically hates himself for feeling drawn to the woman he believes to be Vivian, because she's slept with so many men. As soon as he discovers the woman he's attracted to is in fact her virginal sister, who has lived a quiet life in the country, teaching children and taking care of her elderly father, it's perfectly ok, because she's pure and all that is good and she is clearly seen as much more worthy of love and a long-term relationship than a possibly repentant Vivian would be.

END SPOILERS. This is definitely one of the weaker Kleypas historicals I've read. Grant being fairly dislikable all the way through is one factor. I really didn't think he deserved any sort of happy ending, and any changes he went through seemed superficial at best. The heroine is also very passive and mainly defers entirely to the will of the men around her, she seems to have little to no agency of her own. That got boring pretty fast. It was also very obvious to me from about the second scene he appeared in who the attempted murderer was, and surprising to me that super-detective Grant didn't clue in on the fact earlier in the story. To be fair, he was too busy hate-lusting over the woman in his care. Unless you're a Kleypas completist, this one is skippable.

Judging a book by its cover: I am very fond of the colour teal, but there may be an overabundance of it on this cover. This book is set in Regency era England, and I'm pretty sure that whatever the cover model is wearing doesn't count as period appropriate night wear, especially considering what is described as part of the story. I also pity whatever servant is left to iron out the creases in the silk after the skirts have been crumpled so carelessly as we see here.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

#CBR9 Book 65: "From Duke till Dawn" by Eva Leigh

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Alexander Lewis, the Duke of Greyland has just been jilted by his intended. She eloped with a cavalry officer, but Alex is mainly annoyed that he's going to have to start looking for a new bride. His best friends, the Earl of Langdon and the wealthy Mr. Ellingsworth refuse to let him stay at home and brood and insist on taking him to a new and fashionable gambling club that is rumoured to only stay open for a month. They claim he'll find ample things to distract him there. He reluctantly comes along and to his surprise, sees the woman he's been trying to locate, and unsuccessfully forget, for the last two years. While recuperating in Cheltenham, he'd seen the lovely and impoverished widow at his hotel. After several weeks of acquaintance, the gentile Mrs Blair confessed her troubles to him and he gave her five hundred pounds. They spent one very memorable night together, and afterwards, the widow was gone without a trace.

Cassandra Blake is a con woman. She has successfully used her poor, down on her luck, but very proud widow scam on countless men, but only with Alex did she give into the mutual attraction and actually sleep with one of her victims. Having grown up on the streets after her father died in debtor's prison, Cassandra began by picking pockets until an older man found and mentored her into the beautiful swindler she has become. Now they are working together for one last big score, running a gambling den for one month, planning to make enough money to finally retire. Cassandra is sick of running cons, she wants out of the swindling business. When the Duke of Greyland unexpectedly shows up at the club, Cassandra is able to convince him that the widow Blair was forced to take the job as a hostess, as her money has run out.

When Cassandra suddenly finds herself on the receiving end of a swindle, after her mentor takes all the club's profits and absconds, she has no choice but to seek out Alex for help, even as she knows he'll despise her once he learns the truth about her. Discovering that the woman he had pretty much fallen in love with is nothing but a sham, Alex is heart-broken and furious, but he also understands that Cassandra's life might be in danger if she can't recover the money her partner stole. There were several rather shady investors in the scheme and they do not take kindly to their profits being nicked. Alex promises to help Cassandra, on the condition that she never leave his sight until their mission is done. Of course, spending time in close proximity means he finally gets to see and get to know the real Cassandra, and she is even more enticing than the widow Blair ever was.

I really liked Eva Leigh's first trilogy set in the Regency era, with unorthodox heroines that didn't exactly fit with society's views for what was right and proper for ladies. In her new trilogy, of which this is the first, Leigh has researched the seedier side of London, exploring the criminal underworld from various angles. There are the con artists and swindlers, to which Cassandra belongs, there's an underground sex club that I suspect will feature more prominently in a future book, as one of the Duke's two best friends is unhappily infatuated with the proprietress.

Alexander Lewis has always done what is right and was brought up to do his duty. His parents, as was common for the nobility, were not particularly affectionate, but he wants to do the right thing and find a young woman from a suitable family to bear his children. He doesn't expect any romantic attachment to his wife, especially as he has never been able to forget the enigmatic and beautiful Mrs. Blair. While they only spent one night together, he's spent a lot of time and resources trying to find her (which is of course impossible, since she wasn't an actual person).

He discovers Cassandra's deception when he returns to the club, ready to propose, having been convinced by one of his friends that a man of his standing will easily be able to whether the scandal of marrying a widow of uncertain origins. He overhears her talking to her business partner and realises she's a fraud. Heartbroken and disgusted, he's furious with her, but still can't make himself turn her away when she turns up, desperate and broke in his drawing room shortly after. Soon the proper and thoroughly honourable Duke finds himself visiting locations he barely knew existed, conversing (and beating up) all manner of questionable individuals.

Spending time in close proximity to Cassandra for several days and during many exciting adventures through the London underworld, Alex discovers how sheltered and privileged a life he has actually lived. While he's appalled at the way Cassandra and many others make their living, he begins to understand that a lot don't have a lot of other options. While searching London for her former mentor, Alex also discovers that Cassandra did not, in fact, prostitute herself for the money she conned out of her victims. She would normally hint and promise all manner of things, but run off as soon as she had the money. She made a very notable exception in Alex' case, and has both regretted and cherished the memory ever since.

Cassandra, meanwhile, was ready to give up her "wicked ways" even before she got a taste of her own medicine and discovered how awful it feels to be swindled and betrayed. She just needed enough money to retire quietly to the countryside in peace, and faces quite the crisis of conscience when she has to face Alex, a man she hasn't been able to forget for two years, and own up to all the bad things she's done in her life. She's unapologetic about some of the things she's had to do to survive, but she does regret hurting and lying to so many people. She's a resilient woman, convinced (quite rightly so, considering their huge difference in status) that Alex is miles out of her league. She knows she'll never see him again once she recovers all the stolen money, but decides to make the best of the time they have together.

While Alex keeps wanting to hate Cassandra, he sees almost instantly that no matter how angry he is, he's still incredibly attracted to her. The more he discovers about her past and the life she's been forced to live, the quicker his anger fades. The couple keep fighting their attraction, but this is a romance, of course it doesn't take too long before they give into their feelings.

I liked the unusual setting and the conflict keeping the protagonists apart. There is a fair bit of appropriate action and some very good banter, and I'm very much looking forward to what Ms. Leigh has in store for Alex' friends (who were pretty heavily set up as future heroes) in the next few books in the series.

Judging a book by its cover: Eva Leigh tends to have pretty decent covers, and the dresses the cover models wear always actually appear in the story at some point (I'm not entirely sure how the authors manage it, but I always like it when it happens). I do, however, have several gripes with this cover, the first being the oft mentioned - her gown is unlaced, where are her undergarments? Secondly, why is she sitting at such an uncomfortable angle, backwards on the sofa? Thirdly, how many yards of fabric were needed to make those never-ending skirts - the dress certainly isn't Regency appropriate. Sigh.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 64: "Walk on Earth a Stranger" by Rae Carson

Page count: 464 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Leah "Lee" Westfall lives on a small farm in Georgia, trying to make ends meet with her parents. The only reason they're really managing to survive at all, is Lee's unusual ability, she can sense gold. It calls to her and is the reason her father is known in town as "Lucky". No one but her parents know about her gift, or so Lee believed. Then she comes home from town one day to discover both of her parents shot (her mother is still just barely alive, and warns Leah to be careful with her last breaths) and the sack of gold dust they had hidden under the floor boards missing.

Her neighbour, sixteen-year-old, half Native Jefferson McCauley is planning on heading west to California, as the news that gold has been found there has just been announced. He wants Lee to come with him, but she's reluctant to leave her family's farm. Then her uncle Hiram shows up, now her legal guardian, and with her gold sense, Lee can tell he's been near a lot of gold dust lately. She's suddenly all too certain who's behind her parents' murder, and once her uncle starts dropping hints, she begins to fear that her father may have told him about Lee's abilities. She regrets not going away with Jefferson, but enlists the help of a friendly shopkeeper in town, cuts her hair, dresses in men's clothing and runs away while her uncle is distracted.

Lee needs to make her way west and try to find Jefferson again, all the while staying out of her uncle's clutches. She quickly discovers that life on the road is dangerous and meets several set-backs before she manages to get a place on a caravan going towards California. Can she keep her real identity hidden with so many people around? Will anyone discover her special gold sense? Will the caravan actually survive the hard and challenging journey across the country to the gold fields of California?

I don't know exactly what I was expecting from this book, but it certainly wasn't a gritty, depressing version of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books crossed with Oregon Trail. There are SO many horrible things that happen to these people, guys. If this hadn't been the start of a trilogy, I would have seriously suspected they would all just be killed in various gruesome ways over the course of the story. Rae Carson's first trilogy, Girl of Fire and Thorns, did NOT prepare me for the level of hardship throughout this book.

With the fairly shocking beginning for poor Leah and the continuing, probably impeccably researched story, full of all sorts of misery, I can't say the book was enjoyable and it made it very difficult for me to get attached to any of the characters, as I never knew who was going to kick the figurative bucket next. I suppose I should be happy that Ms Carson didn't simplify or sugar coat what was probably a very dangerous and arduous trek for a lot of people, so desperate to get to find gold that they would risk everything, including their own lives and those of their families in search of prosperity.

Set in the late 19th Century, there were obviously a lot of less than enlightened attitudes with regards to women, "confirmed bachelors", Native Americans and persons of colour in this story. Lee has to hide her identity for much of the story, and mainly seems to be able to do it quite well for a long time. This was clearly also a time when injuries and illness were a lot more dangerous, which is partly what makes the story so harrowing. While struggling to reach the west, the band of travellers keeps getting reduced, but the ones who make it are a very tightly knit group, and I'm an absolute sucker for found family stories.

One advantage to waiting so long to read this book, is that I won't have too long to wait until the third book in the trilogy is released later this year. I'm hoping that with the difficult journey completed, the next books may be more entertaining and uplifting.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm not entirely sure what I think about this cover. I think the giant gold letters proclaiming the title are unnecessarily large. I think the cover image should have been given more prominence, instead it almost becomes an afterthought. I'm also not entirely happy with the way Leah's "gold sense" has been visually portrayed, but I guess it's hard to get across what is basically just a mental thing.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

#CBR9 Book 63: "Dating You/Hating You" by Christina Lauren

Page count: 368 pages
Audio book length: 9hrs 39 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Carter Aaron and Evelyn "Evie" Abbey (nicknamed Evil by Carter shortly after their first meeting due to her nefarious and wicked laugh) meet at an early Halloween party. They seem to be the only single people in a sea of couples, and both drift towards a corner of the room away from the "marrieds", discovering that they coincidentally both came in Harry Potter costumes. Hitting it off instantly, their enthusiasm towards one another wanes a bit when they find out they are both celebrity agents, working for rival agencies in LA. Dating people within the business is never a good idea, so they agree to just be friends. The chemistry between them is undeniable, and their mutual friends certainly try to push them towards each other. Since neither can stop thinking of the other, they go on one very good date, which ends in a fairly steamy encounter in Evie's bedroom.

Before they can decide what to do next, the company Evie works for buys up Carter's in a takeover, and suddenly they are working on the same team. Not only that, Brad Kingman, the sexist dinosaur who runs the team thinks it would be an excellent idea to pit them against each other - making them compete for a permanent position on the team. The person who loses might get reassigned to the company's New York office, or lose their job altogether.

Evie has worked for the company for six years, with an almost perfect record. She has one major flop in her past, that Kingman still loves holding against her, but she is older, more experienced and deeply resents being forced to compete with Carter, a new hire with years less experience than her. Carter, meanwhile, moved from New York to LA specifically to be an agent and has uprooted his entire life for the job. He's determined to prove himself and get the position. Evie and Carter might find each other cute, funny and incredibly sexy, but nothing kills potential romance faster than that other person you like suddenly being the one who might steal your job away from you.

If Evie and Carter hadn't both been driven professionals who pretty much lives for their jobs, so similar in many regards, the conflict wouldn't really be an issue. If they didn't both want the permanent position so badly, even as they resent Kingman for forcing them to compete, one of them could have just quit and gone on to do something else, and then they could date in their spare time. That's not what happens here.

What is possibly somewhat unusual in what on the surface seems like a funny, sexy friends to enemies, enemies to lovers work place comedy is the very strong feminist themes that run throughout the book. Evie and her female colleagues in the business face blatant sexism at every turn, and this is made very obvious throughout the book. Brad Kingman is a chauvinist pig and the women who work for him just have to learn to ignore his comments and treatment of them if they want to keep their jobs. The women have to work so much harder than their male counterparts, because they are scrutinised so much more. They have to be pleasant, outgoing, attractive (but not too obviously attracting male attention) and it's quite obvious that most of their male colleagues don't even notice what they're going through, because their realities are entirely different.

It takes Carter a while to realise just what a douchebag Kingman really is, and how much more difficult the whole competition aspect is for Evie. To his credit, while it takes him a while to clue in, once he does, he really does try to stand up for her and other women on their team.

This book really is very funny in places, especially when it comes to the practical jokes that Evie and Carter start playing on each other to get the upper hand during their competition. They never do anything too malicious to the other, so it's possible to enjoy their rivalry without it ever getting uncomfortable. Even when they are at their most competitive, they also very strongly have to fight their natural chemistry and mutual attraction. They never really hate or even dislike the other person, just the situation they are both in, so this isn't really a true "enemies to lovers" story.

When I first read about this book, it immediately brought to mind my favourite book of last year, The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. What I did not know is that Christina Lauren, the writing duo who wrote this one, are actually friends with Thorne (I love it when authors I like are friends in real life, it makes me so happy) and put off reading her book until they'd finished their own book, worried that their workplace romantic comedy would be influenced by hers. As they said, in the interview I read, they needn't have worried, the books are very different, but both very entertaining reads.

As well as admiring the authors for dealing with sexism in the workplace without it ever becoming an issue that takes away from the central romance or ruins the fun of the book, I really liked how fully fleshed out the protagonists were and how well we get to know them and their friends. Evie has several good female friends and Carter has a staunch supporter in his best friend since grade school, Michael Christopher, as well as his wife Steph, who used to work with Evie. It's at their Halloween party the couple have their first meeting and it's nice to see how they manage to support both sides of the couple, even when they are bitter rivals, without messing up their own relationship and secretly hoping that they'll get together in the end, so the couples can double date. Even Carter's spoiled and rather annoying little brother Jonah, a celebrity photographer who can do no wrong in the eyes of their parents was a nice touch, as it's not like everyone has wonderful and supportive family around them all the time.

If there's a villain in this story, it's Brad Kingman, who I sadly suspect isn't actually unrealistically sexist or horrible as bosses go. The final quarter of the book, when Evie and some of her friends discover a way to finally take him down and it all goes a bit action movie for a while, felt a bit out of place. I think Carter's dawning realisation and decisions to get himself out of the problems he was in was a better solution, but it was nothing that took away my enjoyment of the book too much.

A final note, I got the Audible version of this, narrated by Shana Thibodeaux and Deacon Lee. They both do a very good job and I can highly recommend the audio.

Judging a book by its cover: Christina Lauren don't really go in flashy or overdone covers, and this fits with their simple and clean aesthetic. While the background is a stark white and the people (probably meant to be Evie and Carter, although I pictured Evie as more petite and Carter with glasses) are in black and white, the colourful font in pink, yellow and orange still brighten the cover up nicely and make it rather inviting, in my opinion. So much better than a lot of the overdone romance covers nowadays.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 62: "Mr and Mr Smith" by HelenKay Dimon

Page count: 210 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

From Goodreads:
Fisher Braun knows how to keep a secret. As a covert paramilitary operative, his job - and his life - depends on it. He's at the top of his game, ready for action and always in control. No enemy has ever brought him to his knees, but one lover has: Zachary Allen, the man currently sharing his bed. The perfect package of brains and brawn, Zach is someone worth coming home to, and Fisher hates keeping him in the dark about what he does. But the lies keep Zach safe. Until the day Fisher loses everything...

Zachary Allen is no innocent civilian. Although he plays a tech geek, in reality he's deep undercover for the CIA. In a horrible twist of face, the criminal enterprise he's infiltrated has set its sights on the man whose touch drives him wild. Zach would do anything for Fisher - except blow his own cover. Now, in order to save him, Zach must betray him first. And he needs Fisher to trust him with all his heart if they want to make it out alive. 

This is the first book I've ever read by HelenKay Dimon, so I can't tell you if it's a typical book for her, or some new and exciting direction she's taking her fiction in. A quick glance at Goodreads shows me that she has written quite a lot of books that all seem to be romantic suspense, some with a m/f and others with m/m focus. In this series, Tough Love, we are introduced to a team of CIA agents, who have clearly worked together for many missions on various paramilitary missions all over the globe. They're a tight-knit and experienced unit, who clearly know each other very well, but Fisher has been hiding the fact that he's gay, and has had a boyfriend hidden away in an apartment for the las few months, from the rest of the group. He's been lying to his boyfriend, claiming to be an engineer, making up excuses every time he gets shipped off to do something insanely dangerous to keep the world safe.

Now his boyfriend appears to have been kidnapped, and Fisher is absolutely frantic. He believes his boyfriend Zach to be a nerdy computer technician and has always feared that his life of spying and covert ops will endanger Zach in some way. Finding him snatched from their home pretty much confirms this. Fisher's partner, Nathan, is rather amused at Fisher's admission that he's gay, as it seems to have been blatantly obvious to the entire team that Fisher had no interest in the ladies. He's more curious as to why Fisher's been lying both about where he's been living for the last three months, and whom he's been living with. He insists on coming with Fisher to confront the kidnappers, who turn out to be a pretty nasty bunch of individuals, and while captive with that organisation, they discover that Zach isn't so much a kidnapping victim as someone who's job it was to hit on Fisher and insinuate himself into his life so he could spy on him for the group.

Fisher is absolutely gutted, and it takes both Fisher and Nathan a long time to believe that Zach is telling the truth about being an undercover CIA agent tasked to infiltrate these high-level kidnappers. Even after Zach's identity has been verified both by the Fisher and Zach's respective supervisors, Fisher feels incredibly betrayed. He believed Zach to be an innocent civilian, and now can't trust anything they had together. Having already dealt with his fair share of betrayal and rejection when he came out to his family, Fisher has always kept himself slightly apart from others, not really daring to trust. Although he's not ready to admit it to himself, he's clearly fallen pretty hard for Zach (everyone else around him can see it) and now he doesn't know what to do with himself.

When helping Fisher and Nathan escape, Zach knows that he most likely broke his cover, but the ruthless organisation he's been infiltrating still needs to be stopped, and he has to return to them, even if it means risking his own life. While Fisher is furious with him, and claims he doesn't care what happens to Zach, he's clearly in denial and needs to be convinced that his superiors, and Zach, know what they're doing.

We are thrown straight into the action in this book, and it very rarely lets up at any point. I suppose in a book of just two hundred pages, you don't really have a lot of pages to spend on slowly building exposition, but it felt a bit jarring occasionally to have everything revealed in little flashbacks while the main story was going ahead at full tilt. I didn't really feel like I was able to get invested in Fisher and Zach's relationship before it was in danger of crumbling. Even with the tight plotting and low page count, Dimon manages to spend some time introducing sequel-bait, a German secret agent also working undercover with the kidnappers and the youngest, apparently less-criminally inclined than his siblings brother of the criminal enterprise. In many ways, their pairing seemed more interesting to me, so Ms. Dimon's tactics clearly worked, I'm very likely to track down the next book in the series as well.

All in all, I would have preferred a few more quiet scenes and a bit more exposition, where I felt like I really got to know Fisher and Zach and therefore could care more about their relationship. I also found at least one of the sex scenes in the book somewhat implausible, considering both the anger and trust issues on either side and the time constraints with regards to the guys' mission, but what do I know? It seemed like at least one of the scenes was in there so the readers got enough smexy times, without it really feeling organic to the plot.

This hasn't exactly been my favourite read of the season, but I am a fan of action movies, and they're not always very big on character development either. So since this is a big budget action movie in romance form, I guess I can't be too picky. Several of Fisher's team members provide excellent comic relief as supporting characters, and as I said, I am very intrigued by the pairing set up for the sequel, so this will clearly not be the last HelenKay Dimon book I read. If you like romantic suspense, and don't really want anything too time-consuming to read, I suspect this will do you nicely.

Judging a book by its cover: I really don't think much of this cover, where they've clearly just found some random male models and posed them casually. These men don't in any way look like convincing secret agents or former soldiers. They just look like they're fighting constipation or pondering how to turn left. While they're not both exactly doing Blue Steel, there are some heavy Zoolander vibes here.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 61: "The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Shortly after the death of her father, Miss Cecilia Harcourt gets a letter informing her that her brother, Thomas Harcourt has been injured during battle i the American colonies. Her odious cousin keeps coming around hinting strongly at how beneficial it would be for Cecilia to marry him, so instead she buries the family silver in the garden and sets off over the Atlantic to find her brother and nurse him back to health. Unfortunately, no one seems to be willing to speak to her and her brother appears to be missing. Instead she finds his best friend, Captain Edward Rokesby, who's unconscious in the hospital and clearly also needs her aid. In order to be allowed to tend to him, Cecilia lies and claims to be his wife. She knows the charade will be up as soon as Rokesby wakes up, but at least she can give him the tenderest of care until then.

When Edward wakes up, he's surprised to find the woman he identifies as his best friend Thomas' sister Cecilia by his bedside. He's even more confused when she appears to be his wife, but the doctors confirm that the blow he took to the head when out on some very secretive mission appears to have caused him to forget the last six months of his memory. As Edward had frequently sent messages to Cecilia in Thomas' letters to her, and she had started sending little greetings for him, he's not entirely surprised that he's married to her, having already half fallen in love with her through he correspondence, he just can't remember when or how the marriage took place.

Cecilia feels dreadful about her lies, but discovers that the army officials are much more likely to assist her in her search for her brother if she is Captain Rokesby's wife, not just Miss Harcourt, sister of a missing officer. So even though it pains her to deceive a clearly very honest and upstanding gentleman, she keeps up the lie that she married Edward and promises herself that as soon as they locate Thomas, she will tell him the truth and set him free, even if he's unlikely to ever want to see her again afterwards.

This is the second "hero with amnesia" romance I've read in the last few months. I thought Meredith Duran's A Lady's Code of Misconduct worked a lot better, and both the protagonists of that book were more morally complex and interesting. Julia Quinn doesn't really write about bad people. All of her characters tend to be upstanding and thoroughly decent, and apart from the lie at the centre of their relationship, there really is NO conflict between Cecilia and Edward. They're pretty much already madly in love with each other from the letters they've been exchanging and while Cecilia keeps being terribly upset about her lies, and her belief that Edward is really in love with Billie Bridgerton, his neighbour back home (who married his brother in the previous book in the series), so she's stolen him from some other woman, it's quite clear from all of Edward's thoughts that whether he remembers marrying her or not, he's absolutely crazy about Cecilia.

As well as the relationship built on a lie plot, there is Cecilia's missing brother to locate, and Edward trying to remember exactly what happened in the six months he's now forgotten. None of this was terribly interesting to me. While the setting, of Revolutionary War America is more unusual in a historical romance, I didn't really feel as if Quinn really utilised it as much as she could have. It was nevertheless a nice change from the English countryside or London drawing rooms that most of these books are set in.

It's been a long time since Quinn really knocked my socks off with one of her romances. This is perfectly pleasant, but all in all, rather forgettable. I'll still keep getting her books on sale, but she's completely off my auto-buy list for the time being.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm really not an expert on late 18th Century women's fashion, but I'm pretty sure that this is not a period appropriate dress for the American War of Independence/Revolutionary War period. It looks more like a generic "historical" dress, with no clear time period in mind. Why there's an ocean and rolling cliffs in the background is also puzzling to me, as the whole book takes place in a British-occupied New York, there's no picturesque countryside in the book at all. They have at least found a cover model who's blond, like the heroine, and her putting her finger to her lips, indicating a secret is really rather cute.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 60: "Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies" by Hadley Freeman

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3 stars

It's been about a month since I finished this, and I've long since had to return my copy to the library, so Goodreads is going to have to help me here:

From Vogue contributor and Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, a personalized guide to eighties movies that describes why they changed movie-making forever - featuring exclusive interviews with the producers, directors, writers and stars of the best cult classics.

In Life Moves Pretty Fast, Hadley puts her obsessive movie geekery to good use, detailing the decade's key players, genres, and tropes. She looks back on a cinematic world in which bankers are invariably evil, where children are always wiser than adults, where science is embraced with an intense enthusiasm, and the future viewed with giddy excitement. And, she considers how the changes between movies then and movies today say so much about society's changing expectations of women, young people, and art - and explains why Pretty in Pink should be put on school syllabuses immediately.

From how John Hughes described Molly Ringwald, to how the friendship between Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi influenced the evolution of comedy, and how Eddie Murphy made America believe that race could be transcended, this is a "highly personal, witty love letter to eighties movies, but also an intellectually vigorous, well-researched take on the changing times of the film industry." (The Guardian)

This was the most recent book club entry in the Cannonball Book Club, where the theme was movie related non-fiction. It wasn't the book I voted for, but book clubs are all about expanding ones horizons and reading things you wouldn't necessarily pick yourself, so I downloaded it from the library and started reading. Sadly, on the day of the actual book club discussion, I was feeling unwell, and not really able to take part as much as I would have liked. Of course, now it's been over a month since I finished the book, and while I kept thinking I should take notes to remember my opinions, that didn't really happen. So this review is going to be rather rambling, as I try to articulate what I thought and felt while reading it.

The first essay, about Dirty Dancing and sexuality on film, especially that of women, was really fascinating to me. While I straight up disagree with Freeman on a lot of points she makes in the book, it was really interesting to read about this movie (a film I only saw when I was closer to twenty than in my teens, and therefore never really saw the swoon-worthiness of the film, unlike many of my contemporaries). Having read Freeman's essay, I'd like to rewatch the movie, looking at its portrayal of female agency and the like. Freeman makes several points in the book in various essays about how "women's movies" don't really get made anymore, and I sadly think she's right. Unless movies can appeal to a wide range of demographics, they are unlikely to be greenlit now.

Like Freeman, I grew up in the eighties and nineties, but I didn't consume movies the way she clearly did. While I love watching movies and agree with her on the greatness of so many films, I was almost first and foremost a reader, and would therefore rarely obsessively watch the same movies again and again. As I mentioned above, she makes a lot of good points, but I never really felt that "Lessons we learned from eighties movies" was really what this book was about. If the book had been called "one film geek's opinions on eighties movies", it would have been a much more accurate title, but I suspect she'd have had a harder time getting the book published.

Because I didn't take notes, I can't really remember which bits of the book annoyed me the most. This isn't the best of reviews, so many other, more eloquent Cannonballers have reviewed the book already over on the group blog. I'm not regretting that I read the book, and it made me very eager to go seek out some of the eighties classics I've never seen, but unlike some pop culture non-fiction I've read, I'm unlikely to ever revisit this one.

Judging a book by its cover: My main gripe with the cover is the subtitle: The lessons we learned from eighties movies, because I really don't think Freeman manages to fully commit to her "thesis statement" so to speak. In so many cases, she just talks, very subjectively, about what she thinks of these movies, without there being any obvious "lessons learned" at all. The cover design, evoking old VHS tapes and their many colourful covers is a nice touch, though. Having grown up in the 1980s, just like Freeman, the cover was a good little piece of nostalgia.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

#CBR9 Book 59: "The Pages of the Mind" by Jeffe Kennedy

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

From Goodreads: Magic has broken free all over the Twelve Kingdoms. The population is beset by shapeshifters and portents, landscapes that migrate, uncanny allies who are not quite human...and enemies eager to take advantage of the chaos. 

Dafne Maillouix is no adventurer - she's a librarian. But the High Queen trusts Dafne's ability with languages, her way of winnowing useful facts from a dusty scroll, and even more important, the subtlety and guile that three decades under the thumb of a tyrant taught her.

Dafne never thought to need those skills again. But she accepts her duty. Until her journey drops her into the arms of a barbarian king. He speaks no language that she knows but that of power, yet he recognizes his captive as a valuable pawn. Dafne must submit to a wedding of alliance, becoming a prisoner - a queen in a court she does not understand. If she is to save herself and her county, she will have to learn to read the heart of a wild stranger. And there are more secrets there than even Dafne could suspect...

This year, when selecting my choices to review for the RITA Reader Challenge, I made sure to choose books I actually own. I got this in one of many e-book sales, intrigued by the notion of a fantasy romance with a librarian heroine, not exactly something you see that often. It turns out that Dafne as well as being a devoted librarian and archivist is a scholar and a linguist, who delights in learning new languages. Her actual age is never mentioned, but it's clear that she's probably in her late thirties, possibly even early forties and has kept herself under the radar and voluntarily lived a sheltered life. She lost her entire family during the rule of the previous High King, a brutal and ruthless ruler, and feels the loss of siblings greatly. Now more or less acknowledged as an adopted sister to his daughter, the new High Queen (it's clear that she usurped her father in previous books), she is unaccustomed to with any kind of affection.

While this book is the first in a series called Uncharted Realms, it's part of a world already established by Jeffe Kennedy, referencing events and characters from The Twelve Kingdoms, so this book is both a stand-alone and part of a bigger whole. The beginning of the the book felt a bit like I was missing out on something and made me wish I'd read at least the book about High Queen Ursula of the now Thirteen Kingdoms, but once Dafne leaves the court and goes off on her journey, the book was a lot more engaging.

Again due to events that took place before this book started, the realm that these characters live in is now full of unexpected magic, which has affected not only the Thirteen Kingdoms ruled over by warrior Queen Ursula, but also the neighbouring Dasnaria, where her lover is from and a small island nation who are petitioning the crown for reparation from damages. Being the only one from her close circle that the High Queen can spare, she sends Dafne to be her ambassador. She's intelligent, speaks more languages than anyone in the palace and thanks to her extensive reading, knows a great deal about a lot of the strange things happening around the kingdoms. Ursula also sends one of her elite guards, a woman named Jepp, tasked with training Dafne in self defense and a shapeshifter from one of her sisters' courts who can be useful in information gathering. The three women, while very different, bond during their journey.

When they get to the island kingdom of Nahanua, things get complicated, however. The barbarian king mentioned in the blurb (think Pacific Islander warrior, I pictured Jason Momoa in my head the whole time), King Nakoa KauPo seems very taken with her from the first, and straight after their arrival on the islands makes her take off her shoes and stockings to walk barefoot on the volcanic rock the ground seems mostly made up from, then when her feet get to sore to walk, carries her up to the mouth of an active volcano, where there is some sort of mysterious ritual that brings a dragon out of the mountain, culminating in the burly native kissing our inexperienced virgin heroine. She's previously admitted to her female companions that while she's been kissed before, she's never really felt anything out of the ordinary and she's never felt anything close to desire enough to want to have sex. The island king, on the other hand, clearly affects her very differently and it's clear that the two are linked in some way after the kiss by the volcano.

Her feet are badly wounded by walking on the volcanic rock and she's tended lovingly by the women of the court, her chief attendant clearly the King's own sister. As the Nahanuans speak a language completely unfamiliar to her, so communication is extremely difficult, Dafne begins to realise that the ritual (which she was not in any way given a choice to take part in) led to her at least being the King's fiancee, or possibly even his wife. While he sleeps elsewhere while she recovers, she's quite clearly in King Nakoa's private rooms, and he keeps showering her with kindness and affection. As the stop at the Nahanuan islands was only supposed to be a brief one to try to negotiate an understanding between the High Queen and the islanders, before Dafne continued her diplomatic journey to Dasnaria, her bodyguards try to extract her, but find that the King has no intention of letting her go.

To avoid outright conflict between her companions and the King's forces, Dafne is forced to stay behind, sending her friends back to notify the High Queen of the new developments. She discovers that she was indeed married to the King in that strange ceremony and once she learns more of the language, that he believes them to be fated mates, having felt a link to her throughout her life. It's also clear that while Dafne initially tries her very best to fight her attraction to the imposing, yet seemingly very kind man who married her against her will, dissenting forces on the islands will challenge Nakoa's claim to the throne if the marriage is not consummated and the link to the dragon (which it seems their relationship can strengthen) further improved.

If you overlook the part where he pretty much abducts her from her people and marries her without her consent, Nakoa seems to be a pretty great guy. He's clearly a mostly popular ruler, even though he has one rival determined to steal his throne. He's deeply possessive and spends a lot of time carrying Dafne around (since her feet take quite some time to heal), but is always gentle and affectionate towards her. He tries to seduce her, but every time she needs him to step back and take things more slowly, he respects her boundaries. It's also clear that the marriage ritual to link him and Dafne was necessary to free the ancient dragon from it's volcanic mountain and secure the future prosperity of his nation, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth. Dafne also seems to accept that she's been forced into a marriage a bit too easily, probably because despite being described as intelligent and capable in the first half of the book, she becomes almost addled with lust for her new husband, and once they finally consummate the marriage, she certainly makes up for lost time with all the love making they engage in.

Even if she's very much in lust with Nakoa, Dafne is very reluctant to be referred to as his queen, and she feels torn in her loyalties to her High Queen. Even though it's quite clear that they share some sort of mystical bond, not just to one another, but to the dragon as well, Dafne is sure she will have to leave and return to her old home eventually. She therefore hesitates to commit fully to the relationship and this causes further tensions.

I liked the world-building of the book and will probably go back and read about Ursula and her two sisters in the previous three books by Kennedy. The next book in the series is about Jepp and the leader of the Dasnarian warriors that take Dafne to the islands, and that also seems intriguing to me. I really wish the central romance wasn't based on a forced marriage - while Nakoa is always very respectful and doesn't force Dafne into anything she's not ready sexually, he didn't give any indication of his intentions before carrying her up to the volcano, and it's revealed that he clearly conspired with the Dasnarians to get her to the islands in the first place. We are never really given an entirely satisfactory reason why an orphaned librarian and a warrior island king from quite a distance away from one another would be fated mates, either, but then I find the trope of the fated mate incredibly exasperating.

I loved that Dafne was a middle-aged virgin, a librarian and a scholar and that she uses her skills throughout the book to try to understand her new position and then to try to solve the riddle of the dragon and its supposed treasure. I liked that the hero, for all his heavy-handed, withholding information ways, was from a culture clearly based on those of the Pacific islands. I think we could have found out more about him, there is a lot more character development given to Jepp and the exotic shapeshifter Zynda, both supporting characters in the book, than to Nakoa (he's big, strong, handsome, possessive, has a lot of tattoos and is extremely good in bed, despite being a virgin like Dafne - having saved himself for her).

I didn't like that Dafne seemed to lose all her critical faculties because she was so overcome with lust. I didn't think the subplot with the challenger to the throne was dealt with all that satisfactorily. I think a bit too much of the start of the book should have been easier to get into for someone who had not read the previous books by this author. I'm still going to check out more of her work, though, and hope there's less of the fated mate and forced marriage stuff.

Judging a book a book by its cover: Dafne is described as quite plain and nearing middle age, so I think the cover model is both prettier and younger than she's supposed to be, but perhaps this scholar beauty with her hair flowing about her head as if by magic, with her billowing gown and the pages of the tome she carries fluttering in the wind, is supposed to be King Nakoa's image of her? While it doesn't entirely fit with the contents of the story, it's a striking enough cover that it made me take a closer look at the description when the book was on sale, and I ended up buying it, so I suppose the marketing department did a good job.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.