Thursday 29 December 2011

CBR3 Book 106: "Unraveled" by Courtney Milan

Publisher: CreateSpace
Page count: 274 pages
Rating: 5 stars
Date begun: December 19th, 2011
Date finished: December 20th, 2011

Unraveled is the third and final novel in Milan's trilogy, and can be read independently from the others, but to get full enjoyment out of it, as several minor unresolved story threads introduced in the previous two books, are resolved in this one, I would recommend reading books 1, Unveiled, and 2, Unclaimed, first.

The three Turner brothers had an awful childhood. They all have dreadful names, basically long verses of Scripture, because their mother was deeply religious, and their father was not around to stop her from naming them whatever the heck she wanted. Nor was he there to protect his children from the abuse they suffered from a woman who was clearly crazy. All three men have psychological and emotional scars, which affect them in different ways. Despite their awful past, two of the Turner brothers found love and happiness in the previous books in the series. In Unraveled, it`s the middle brother, Smite's turn.

Smite (trust me, the line of Scripture he's named for is too long to be quoted here) possibly had it worst of the three boys. His eldest brother, Ash, left to make money to support his family, and Smite protected his younger brother, Mark, from the worst of their mother's crazy excesses. Cursed with a photographic memory, he is unable to forget any of the things he endured, although as an adult he puts his perfect recollection to good use as a judge in Bristol. His accurate memory for all the laws and his strict, but coldly fair judgement have earned him the nickname "Lord Justice".

Because of his perfect recall, he recognizes Miss Miranda Darling the minute she sets foot in his courtroom, disguised as a farmer's daughter, bearing witness in a minor case. As she appeared with a different name and appearance nearly a year earlier, Smite knows she is risking perjury, and he follows her home after the session in court. He warns her never to bear false witness in his courtroom again, or he'll make sure she's thrown in jail. Miranda's worried, as the reason she is pretending to be other people and witnessing in minor felony cases, is that she's made a deal with the shadowy underworld figure known as the Patron, who tries to secure justice for the lower classes in Bristol (most of the judges are not as law-abiding and principled as Smite).

Miranda is struggling to make a living by making and selling wigs. She's also supporting Robbie, a young boy who was abandoned with the acting troupe of Miranda's parents. While Miranda's childhood was a happy one, her life changed when the acting troupe fell apart due to her father's crushing depression after her mother's death. Trying as best she can to keep Robbie out of trouble, and away from a life of petty crime, she has to take the occasional "acting job" on behalf of the Patron. Now that Smite has proven that he can recognize her no matter what she's wearing, wigs and all, she wants to change her arrangement with the Patron, but this proves more difficult than she thought.

Smite is seen as cold, odd and unfeeling by everyone around him, and seems to care only for his dog. Yet he feels drawn to Miranda, and as his life seems brighter and more bearable when she's around, he proposes an arrangement that can benefit both of them.

Of all of Milan's Turner brothers, damaged and vulnerable in different ways, Smite was absolutely my favourite. He's plagued by recurring nightmares, can't bear the sound of running water (his mother nearly drowned him once), he can't stand to have his face touched, and he allows himself a maximum of 30 minutes of sentimentality per day. No wonder the world sees him as a cold, unfeeling automaton, dedicated only to justice. Miranda refuses to be scared by Smite, and quickly realizes that there is a lot more to the man than his ceaseless pursuit of duty. She refuses to take him seriously, and teases and berates him in a way only his brother Mark has ever dared. Miranda may have been raised by actors, but she is still rather innocent. Intelligent, witty, resourceful and adventurous, she accepts Smite's offer to become his mistress, both because he offers her a sum that will secure her for life, but mostly because she's strongly attracted to him.

This is my absolute favourite of the trilogy, and once again, Milan impressed me by having the characters communicating openly and honestly with one another. There are no big misunderstandings, or lies to protect the feelings of someone else, or going behind someone's back. Miranda and Smite are a wonderful couple, and it was good to see a resolution to the whole story. Highly recommended - Milan is now on my pre-order list.

CBR3 Book 105: "The Scorpio Races" by Maggie Stiefvater

Publisher: Scholastic
Page count: 482 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars
Date begun: December 12th, 2011
Date finished: December 15th, 2011

On the small island of Thisby, off the coast of either Ireland or Scotland (it's never specified), men compete in the deadly Scorpio Races every November, riding the vicious and blood-thirsty capaill uisce, the water horses.

Sean Kendrick lost his father to the races, but has worked with horses since he was ten. No one has better control over horses, normal or from the sea, and he has won the races four years in a row, on Corr, his red water stallion. Sean doesn't require metal, charms or bells to control his horse, he loves the horse, but knows that if he's not careful, the call from the ocean could tempt the stallion to turn on him to return to the sea. Yet despite the close bond, Sean doesn't own Corr, he works for the largest horse breeder on the island, and saves up a little more money each year, hoping for independence. He makes a bargain, that if if wins the race this year, he'll finally get to buy his beloved horse.

Kate "Puck" Connelly is an orphan. She lives with her two brothers, trying to make ends meet in their tiny cottage after water horses killed their parents in a boat accident the year before. Puck loves to ride her sturdy little island pony, Dove, but fears the capaill uisce, knowing the devastation they can cause. When her eldest brother announces that he is leaving Thisby, because there's not enough for him left on the island, Puck announces that she will ride in this year's race, hoping that the prize money will pay off the debts they have on the cottage, and her brother will stay. But women have never competed in the Scorpio Races before, and every year, a large part of the contestants die.

The book has alternating points of view, from both Puck and Sean. Hence the reader gets to know both of them, their hopes and fears and what drives them. Both have to win the race at pretty much any cost, and both are fully aware of the dangers of racing. Puck's in additional danger because she's the first woman to compete, not news well received by the traditional men on the island. She also insists on riding her pony, when all the other riders will be on deadly water horses.Sean has a dangerous rival in his employer's bastard son, Mutt, who believes that his father cares more for Sean, and is jealous of his previous victories in the races. Mutt constantly tries to humiliate and endanger Sean, and this year he's determined to get control over Corr, possibly over Sean's dead body.

I absolutely adore Lament, and am also very fond of Ballad, both by Stiefvater, yet this book didn't really engage me, despite the desperate situations of both Puck and Sean. The plot dragged a bit, and the book takes a good while to really get started, and while I see why so much of the descriptions of the life on the island and the slow buildup to the race was included, but I just didn't care all that much. The concept of the vicious, flesh-eating water horses was very cool, though.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

CBR3 Book 104: "Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles

Publisher: Sceptre
Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3 stars
Date begun: December 9th, 2011
Date finished: December 11th, 2011

In the book's prologue, the protagonist of the story, Katey, is in an art gallery with her husband in 1966. They're looking at photographs taken on the New York subway in 1937-38. In two of the photos, she recognises an old friend, Tinker Grey, in vastly different circumstances, despite the photos being taken less than a year apart. In the first, taken in 1937, he's clean-shaven, snappily dressed and obviously wealthy, whilst in the photo from late 1938, he's scruffy, wearing a threadbare coat and clearly much more down on his luck. Seeing the pictures, makes her think back to her youth, 25 years ago.

Katey Kontent (originally Katya - daughter of Russian immigrants) is young and optimistic as the year nears its end in 1937. She's an accomplished typist, commended by her superiors, and shares a flat with her best friend Eve, a beauty from the Midwest. In a jazz club on New Year's Eve, the two of them meet Tinker Grey - a young, handsome investment banker. Both girls are smitten with him, but before either of them get a proper chance with him, their lives change dramatically one evening early in 1938. They're in a car accident and Eve is seriously injured. Tinker insists that she recuperate and heal in his lavish flat on the Upper West Side. Katey and Eve grow ever more estranged, and Katey gives up Tinker as lost.

Over the course of the year, many things change for Katey. She starts moving up in society, making influential friends. She changes careers and learns a lot about reinvention, both of her own and others' identities. By the end of 1938, she's learned that one cannot trust outward appearances, both in positive and negative respects.

The book is wonderfully written, with beautiful observations on Jazz Era New York. I've read several reviews that compared it to The Great Gatsby, but unlike  that book (which bored me senseless), I actually enjoyed this one. The main reason for that is Katey, who's a wonderful heroine and I kept reading to see how her life developed. She's witty, clever, ambitious and observant, yet both she and the reader are forced to reevaluate their opinions on most of the events and characters in the story There are a number of twists, and just as you think you have a clear picture of what's going on, Towles turns the tables once more. This is his debut novel, and I will absolutely be looking for more of his books.

Saturday 17 December 2011

CBR3 Book 103: "Attachments" by Rainbow Rowell

Publisher: Dutton
Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 5 stars
Date begun: December 7th, 2011
Date begun: December 8th, 2011

Attachments is set around the turn of the 20th Century, when e-mail technology was still fairly new, and a lot of companies were worried about the effects of Y2K. Lincoln works nights for the newspaper The Courier, hired to monitor the employees' e-mail correspondence, where a filter flags e-mails containing inappropriate terms or topics. Lincoln is shy and quite nerdy, and doesn't really like his job much. He hates the feeling of spying on others, but the job pays well, so he sticks with it.

Beth, the Courier's film reviewer, and her best friend Jennifer, who works as a copy editor, spend a lot of their work days e-mailing each other, blithely ignoring the office rumours that their correspondence is being monitored. Jennifer's unsure whether she wants a baby, but her husband Mitch is extremely ready for one. Beth's younger sister is getting married, while Beth's been in a relationship with her rockstar boyfriend for years, patiently waiting for him to propose to her. The two women discuss all aspects of their lives with each other, and because Lincoln didn't send them a warning when their first e-mails got flagged, he really can't bring himself to do it once time passes, and he gets more and more caught up in their lives. While he's never met them, he starts thinking of them as friends, and even starts to develop feelings towards Beth.

Of course, Beth is in a relationship, and doesn't even know he exists, let alone that he's being paid to spy on her most private and personal conversations with her best friend. Even if she were to become available, and they were to meet, how do you tell someone that you fell in love with them through spying? Can you fall in love before first sight?

Attachments is part normal narrative, following Lincoln's life, and part the e-mail correspondence between Beth and Jennifer. This is yet another book that I discovered through Raych's excellent blog, and I'm so glad I found it. It's a delightful and very engrossing read, and the friendship between Beth and Jennifer is so touching, realistic and comforting. The whole book is like a great romantic comedy in book form, and while what Lincoln is doing should be creepy, you can't help but root for him, because you, the reader, get drawn into the women's lives and troubles and want to be their friends too. He's also a kind, caring, considerate and loving person, feeling constantly guilty for continuing to read their e-mails instead of just deleting them, but he just can't help himself. I read it in a day and a half, and if I hadn't had to work, I would probably have forgotten everything around myself and devoured it in one sitting. Hugely recommended, probably one of my absolute favourites this year.

CBR3 Book 102: "An Artificial Night" by Seanan McGuire

Publisher: Daw
Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: December 4th, 2011
Date finished: December 7th, 2011

In An Artificial Night, Toby Daye, half-human changeling and faery knight, has to face Blind Michael, the leader of the Wild Hunt, one of the oldest and most dangerous of faeries. Every hundred years, his riders go into the world and gather new recruits, stealing children from faeries, changelings and humans alike (the faeries to ride, the humans to be mounts). Toby's best friends call her in a panic when their two youngest kids go missing and their middle daughter won't wake up from a mysterious sleep. Tybalt, King of Cats, informs her that several of the cait sidhe children and changelings have gone missing too. He promises that her debt to him will be cleared if she finds his missing subjects.

Luna, Duchess of the Shadowed Hills, has a mysterious past Toby never even guessed at, as Toby discovers when she goes to tell her liege lord what has happened. She tries to warn Toby to let the issue go, as it's nearly impossible to get to Blind Michael's realm, and to enter it means either eternal enslavement or death. Toby is determined to save the children, though, and with the help of Luna, and the Luideag, the ancient and powerful sea witch who is Toby's friend and Blind Michael's sister, she is put on one of the three paths to his realm, with a magic candle and 24 hours to complete her mission.

If Toby seemed to blunder around and get herself into mortal danger a lot in the previous book, things escalate massively in this one. Even though the mission means near certain death, Toby is determined to complete it. She cannot allow the children to become the twisted members of Blind Michael's Wild Hunt, and she thinks nothing of risking her life to save them. Suffice to say, before the book is over, Toby will have been on all three of the roads to Blind Michael's realm, and I was actually amazed at how much she was able to endure in order to save not only the children of her friends, but as many other of Blind Michael's victims as she can.

While she may seem bullheaded and too foolhardy for her own good, An Artificial Night also shows all of Toby's very admirable qualities. She's brave to the point of idiocy, and determined to see her mission through, no matter what the personal cost to herself. It's easy to see why her diverse group of friends (Luna, Quentin, Duke Sylvester, Tybalt, the Luideag) are desperate to try to save her from Blind Michael, and herself. As in the last book, I thought parts of the story dragged, but the cast of characters is compelling enough that I will keep reading, if only to find out whether Quentin becomes Toby's squire, and therefore a more permanent sidekick, and also to see whether Tybalt is actually going to become a proper love interest, instead of just a frustratingly enigmatic charmer.

CBR3 Book 101: "A Local Habitation" by Seanan McGuire

Publisher: Daw
Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: December 1st, 2011
Date finished: December 3rd, 2011

A Local Habitation is the second book in the October Daye series, and while it will make sense on its own, I would recommend reading the books in order.

October "Toby" Daye is a changeling, half human and half faerie. Unlike many other changelings, her magical abilities are quite weak, and it takes most of her energy to just maintain the glamour to hide her faerie appearance. She does, however, possess the same blood magic as her mother, enabling her to read a faerie's whole life in a drop of their blood. This helps her when she's working as a private detective, specializing in helping changelings and faeries. She's the only changeling faerie knight, and always feels like an outsider, but swears fealty to the Duke of the Shadowed Hills. So when he calls her and asks her to go to  the little county of Tamed Lightning, to check up on his niece, she can't really refuse.

Along for the trip comes Quentin, a young faerie fostering with Duke Sylvester, who's in training to become a squire. Toby believes the visit will be a brief one, but once she arrives in the little faerie county, it quickly becomes obvious that something is badly wrong. In the interchangeable corridors of the strangest IT company you'll encounter, the employees, all faeries or changelings, have been dying. Most of the staff have left, afraid that they'll be next. Duke Sylvester's niece, January, has been trying to contact her uncle for weeks, but none of the calls get through. As people keep dying, Toby and Quentin have to try find the murderer before January and her core staff get killed too.

I enjoyed the book, but Toby really doesn't strike me as that good a detective. She mainly stumbles around, nearly getting herself killed a lot, and more or less found out the identity of the killer through a process of elimination. When there are barely any people left in the company, one of them is pretty obviously going to be the killer.

The relationship between Toby and Quentin is an interesting one, and I'm assuming that McGuire is establishing a friendship that will lead to him becoming her squire in some future book. He's very eager to learn from her, sheltered and innocent in many ways, being a full blooded faery, who's not experienced the human world as much. My favourite character, Tybalt, a cait sidhe (cat faery) also makes an appearance. Toby is confused by his enigmatic behaviour, as before the events of the last book, he used to be deeply antagonistic towards her, and now he's positively friendly, and even quite protective of her. Whether this is just because she owes him a debt, and he wants to keep her alive until it's repaid, is uncertain.

So far, the October Daye series doesn't grip me as much as several other paranormal fantasy series that I'm following, but McGuire has created a very interesting world. While the stories don't always compel me as much as those of Ilona Andrews, Patricia Briggs or Nalini Singh, the cast of characters and skillful world building is enough to keep me curious to see how things develop, and I will keep reading them for a while yet. Reviews of future books on the internet seem to imply that the series gets better as it progresses, and that bodes well.

Friday 16 December 2011

CBR3 Book 100: "Fate's Edge" by Ilona Andrews

Publisher: Ace
Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 5 stars
Date begun: November 29th, 2011
Date finished: November 30th, 2011

Fate's Edge is the third and penultimate book in the Edge series, and while the previous books could be read more or less independently of each other, this one is more of a straight sequel to book 2, Bayou Moon, and while it will make sense, won't be half as satisfying. As a consequence, this review will also contain minor spoilers for books 1 and 2, and if you haven't read the series, stop reading this and go read On the Edge instead.

Audrey Callahan comes from a family of con men and grifters, who have benefitted greatly from her magical ability to unlock anything, but sick of being used, Audrey cuts all ties with her family, and determines to stay on the straight and narrow. She wants to use whatever tricks she used pulling cons to aid her in her new, respectable career as a private investigator. When her father shows up on her doorstep, suggesting one last heist, so they can get her older brother into rehab (again), she reluctantly agrees, on the condition she never has to see or hear from either of them again.

Kaldar Mar is an all-round scoundrel, and uses his good looks, guile and intelligence as a spy, working to get revenge on the Hand, the ruthless organization that wiped out his former home and much of his family. He's tasked with tracking down the powerful object that Audrey helped steal, and believes he can easily charm Audrey into assisting him. Audrey may look gentle and innocent, but she calls Kaldar on his game immediately, and leaves him tasered and tied to a chair in her office within minutes of meeting him. She knows he's bad news for her, and her law-abiding and normal existance, and wants nothing to do with anything he's proposing.

The Hand are after the object her family stole, however, and their agents don't care who they have to torture and/or kill to get it back. Once Audrey realizes how many people her theft may have endangered, her conscience won't allow her to turn her back on Kaldar's mission, even though all her instincts tell her to stay far, far away from the dangerously charming man who not only can keep up with her and her schemes, but whose skills possibly even surpass her own. A charming ladies man like Kaldar would never be happy tied down to just one woman, so she'll need to keep her wits about her to avoid heartbreak and rejection once the mission is over.

Ilona and Gordon Andrews are husband and wife, and co-write all their books. As well as the Edge series, they also write the paranormal Kate Daniels books, which I also adore. With a few exceptions, all their books are brilliant, and they are now on my pre-order list, no matter what books they produce. The Edge series books are a bit more focused on romance than the Kate Daniels ones, with a central couple getting their HEA over the course of the story. In Bayou Moon, Kaldar's cousin Cerise finds her match in the werewolf William, and both characters appear over the course of this book as supporting cast. As do Jack and George, the younger brothers of the heroine in On the Edge. That's why it makes a lot of sense to have read both the previous books in the series before starting this one, quite a lot of essential back story is given there.

The main plot is not a romance, though, it's more a mix of a quest and a heist movie. If you like Ocean's Eleven with the clever protagonists and the witty banter, and characters constantly working to outsmart and one up each other, this should be right up your alley. Audrey and Kaldar are both very guarded and have dark pasts, and both are used to being the smartest person in the room. In some ways, they're almost too perfectly matched. The banter between them is a joy to read. The supporting cast, pretty much all comprising (as mentioned earlier) of characters introduced in the former two books, are all excellent too, and I laughed out loud several times over the course of the story.

The villains of the story are really very brutal, and there are some scenes of quite graphic violence. So be warned of that if you have weak stomach. While they are seemingly ruthless, they also have a clearly stated purpose, and they don't perform their gruesome acts randomly and without reason. That possibly makes them even scarier.

Generally, while the central romance in this moves more slowly and is in some ways less compelling than in the previous Edge books, the action and adventure plot is excellent, and this may be my favourite of the series, and also, one of my favourite Ilona Andrews novels, so far. As far as I could gather, they are only planning one more book in this series, to center around Kaldar's brother Richard, but if they were planning a spin off set some time in the future, I would love a book focusing on Jack and George when they've had a chance to grow older and even more awesome than they are in this book.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

CBR3 Book 99: "The Windflower" by Sharon and Tom Curtis

Publisher: Fanfare
Page count: 502 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: November 25th, 2011
Date finished: November 29th, 2011

The Windflower keeps appearing on All About Romance's Top 100 Romances, and is raved about on so many different romance review sites on the internet that I decided enough was enough, and went on Amazon Marketplace to track down a copy (the book was published in 1984, the book I have is from 1994, and the book's been out of print for ages).

I now see why it's so popular. This book has pretty much everything you'd want from an old fashioned romance novel - the heroine grew up with a spinster aunt, lived a terribly sheltered life style, and has barely looked at a man before she's suddenly snogged by a dashing pirate when helping her brother try to identify British spies in some little shack not far from where she grew up.  Some months later, when her English spinster aunt is taking her back to England (although the heroine is American, and terribly patriotic at that), she is abducted by ruffians and ends up on the pirate ship belonging to the half-brother of said dashing pirate who snogged her all those months ago. He thinks she's the mistress of his worst enemy, she thinks he wants to hurt her brother, who is working for the American revolutionaries.

As well as forced abductions, there are surly teenage pirates who turn out to have hearts of gold, an extremely manipulative pirate captain who knows more than anyone else, and clearly uses his pirate ship as some sort of unorthodox finishing school for the odd nobleman's son here and there, a varied band of pirates who while totally apparentl ruthless, within about a week are all willing to die for the heroine's sake.

 Merry, the heroine, veers between being very believably freaked out with the whole kidnapped by pirates thing, especially since her inexperienced little self barely knows how to react to the seductive tendencies of Devin, the pirate captain's mysterious brother, and being borderline TSTL, especially in her attempts to escape. So much badness happening to one young chit, you'd think she'd learn after the second escape attempt, when she's nearly killed from malaria!

In a romance novel written today, the hero would be a lot less douchy to the heroine. He really is very mean to her for most of the book, and keeps threatening to do horrible things to Merry, and seems vaguely puzzled when she's then terrified of him and actually believes he'll carry out his threats. Of course, the main couple would also have been having sex all over the place, while here Devin just tries to unsuccessfully seduce a woman he's pretty sure is an experienced strumpet, yet he can't bring himself to rape her, and Merry really has WAY more will power and resistance than any modern heroine - they always seem to waver a suitable amount of time before being overwhelmed by their desires and falling into bed with the hero. Merry holds out until she's married, even though Devin's proposal rivals that of Mr Darcy (the first one, NOT the second one, which is lovely) and Mr Rochester for total sucky unromanticness (it's a word - I'm an English teacher, I've decided).

A bit slow to start, the book is incredibly entertaining, and worth reading not even mainly for the main couple, who as mentioned before are a sheltered virgin and an imperious douche, but for the supporting characters, who are complex and conflicted and oh so dashing. It doesn't seem as if Tom and Sharon Curtis have written any romances about Devin's pirate captain half brother, Rand Morgan, or about Cat or Raven, two of the angsty, yet amusing teenagers aboard the ship. I'd read those books in a heartbeat.
This is a great book, well worth tracking down, even though it's out of print.

CBR3 Book 98: "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger

Publisher: Vintage
Page count: 528 pages
Rating: 5 stars
Date begun: November 21st, 2011
Date finished: November 24th, 2011

Clare is 6 when she meets Henry for the first time, he is 36. Henry is 28 when he meets Clare for the first time, she is 20. Henry is a time traveller. Not in a cool Doctor Who sort of way, where he can travel where ever he wants in time and space. He keeps finding himself thrown either forward or backwards in his own lifetime, always ending up naked, and can stay in the other time for a few seconds, or several days, depending on circumstance.

Hence Clare is delighted when she finally runs into Henry at the library where he works. He's younger than she has ever seen him, she's known him and met with him countless times over the years, growing up. He gives her a list of all the dates when he will appear in the meadow behind her parents' house, so she can have clothes waiting for him in the woods. He helps her with her homework, listens to her troubles, even helps her get back at a douchy boy who hurt her, trying not to reveal to her too early (worried that he will warp her childhood irreparably) that in his present, she is his beloved wife.

The Time Traveler's Wife is obviously not a narrative with a linear plot, it jumps around a LOT. Sometimes there is more than one Henry in the story at the same time. Henry learns all the useful tricks and survival tactics he needs to get by from an older version of himself. I adore this book. I loved it the first time I read it, years and years ago, and decided to reread it to blog it for Cannonball Read. It's still great.

I don't care if the time travel plot device doesn't appeal to some readers, or that it may not consistently make sense within the narrative (a criticism I've read several places). I don't really care WHY or HOW Henry time travels, the important part is the beautiful portrayal of Henry and Clare and their heart breaking and wonderful love story. The first time I read the book, I cried buckets. This time, I managed to get by with just a sniffle, but the ending still gets me. Read the book, avoid the film adaptation like the plague. It sucks, and is just awful.

CBR3 Book 97: "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern

Publisher: Harvill Secker
Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars
Date begun: November 17th, 2011
Date finished: November 19th, 2011

The Night Circus arrives unannounced, and without warning, the black and white striped tents appearing as if by magic. It's only open at night, and closes at dawn. Within the monochrome circus are the most amazing wonders imaginable - acrobats, trained animals, contortionists, fortune tellers, fairground rides where the animals you ride on seem to move, illusionists and more. Le Cirque des RĂªves, once experienced is never forgotten.

Unbeknownst to most people, even the inhabitants of the circus, there is a magician's duel taking place behind the scenes. Celia and Marco, both trained from childhood, are magically bound to compete, with the circus and its members as their arena, until one of them emerges victorious. Neither of them chose this themselves, Celia's father and Marco's mentor have had magical battles through proxies multiple times before, but both are bound, long before they even know the rules, or where or how the battle is to take place. They finally meet, and fall in love, making their duel all the more difficult.

Yet The Night Circus is not really a romance. The main focus of the book is absolutely the circus itself, and the story of Marco and Celia's contest is only part of it. The circus becomes their magical playing field, where they strive to outdo, and later, to impress and express their feelings for each other. However, the book is about the people that founded the circus in the first place, about several of the people who are affected by it all over the world, about the extraordinary twins born within the circus on its opening day, and about one young American man who is particularly affected by it.

The Night Circus is a magical and lovely book which entertained me greatly, but I suspect it is not for everyone, and some people may find it overly twee and very annoying. It's set in Victorian times, but is obviously full of magic. The writing is almost lyrical at times, very poetic and descriptive, especially when it comes to describing the atmosphere of the circus itself. Don't read it if all you want is an epic romance, you will be disappointed. If you liked The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke, then you may also like this. If you hated them, or weren't able to finish them for one reason or another, I would read something else instead.

CBR3 Book 96: "Lioness Rampant" by Tamora Pierce

Publisher: Simon Pulse
Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: November 5th, 2011
Date finished: November 14th, 2011

This is the fourth and concluding book in the Song of the Lioness series, and it really doesn't make a lot of sense or have much emotional impact if you read it without having read the previous three books, so I would recommend against it.

Alanna of Trebond is a knight, and has defeated her worst enemy in single combat. She's still a bit worried about using her magic because of the way the battle went, and things are somewhat awkward between her and Prince Jonathan, so she sets off to become a knight errand and do good deeds for the good of the kingdom. Once on a quest for the Dominion Jewel, a magical gem that can give limitless power to its owner (being all noble and selfless, Alanna is obviously going to give it to Jonathan), she meets a number of new allies and friends, and proves her heroic worth by achiving near impossible things.

Back in Tortall, Alanna's brother has raised the dead in an experiment gone badly wrong, and Jonathan has to prove his claim to the throne. George's reign as King of the Rogues is threatened by a deadly usurper, an old enemy of Alanna's. Alanna is needed by both of them, and faces great loss and huge challenges upon her return from her quest.

Ok, trying to recap the story without spoiling anything makes the book seem more lame than it is. As the final chapter in Alanna's story, I actually really liked Lioness Rampant and as the series started with her childhood, this is the book where Alanna becomes an adult in every sense of the word. She proves herself, to both those around her, and more importantly, to herself. She gains a confidence she previously lacked, and a much clearer idea of what she wants from her life and her future. She decides who her heart belongs to, but isn't entirely sure that she ever wants to settle down in one place for very long.

The supporting cast are in no way ignored by Pierce, and there are new additions that Alanna meet along the way who help her grow as a knight and as a woman. All the various story lines from previous books are tied off in a very satisfactory way, although Tamora Pierce has written other series in the same universe. I will have to check them out at some point as well, for now, I think I've covered my young adult fix for a little while.

Monday 14 November 2011

CBR3 Book 95: "Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star" by Heather Lynn Rigaud

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 3 stars
Date begun: November 12th, 2011
Date finished: November 13th, 2011

In Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star, Jane Austen's most famous hero is not a repressed Regency gentleman, but the world famous guitarist and founder of rock band Slurry. He, his cousin Richard Fitzwilliam (on drums) and best friend Charles Bingley (lead singer and bass) are known for their wild partying, and seem unable to keep a support act for more than half a tour. They're about to embark on the biggest tour of their career, and need to find a new support act quickly. When they audition the girl band, Long Borne Suffering, featuring sisters Jane Bennett on vocals and bass, Lizzy Bennett on guitar and their best friend Charlotte Lucas on drums, they seem to have finally found what they're looking for.

Heather Lynn Rigaud takes the story of Pride and Prejudice and modernises it fairly successfully. Taking one of the most famous and beloved romantic classics and doing new things with it seems to be all the rage. This works better than some I've come across.  Mostly, I think the author took the characters of the original novel and gave them 21st Century personalities very successfully indeed. There's three separate couples who need to find their HEAs in this, and while I can totally see why a modernised version of the story needs to have sex in it, some of the sex scenes did seem a bit superflous, and got a bit repetitive after a while. A fun read, and a creative re-imagining of Austen's timeless classic, but again, I have to disagree with Publishers' Weekly that it was one of the best romances of the year. They clearly haven't read the same books I have this year.

CBR3 Book 94: "No Proper Lady" by Isabel Cooper

Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3 stars
Date begun: November 8th, 2011
Date finished: November 12th, 2011

I picked up this romance because it was voted one of the best of 2011 by Publishers' Weekly, and because claimed it was "Terminator meets My Fair Lady." It's a surprisingly fitting description.

Joan is sent back several hundred years into the past, in a last ditch effort by humanity to save the world from an apocalyptic reality where otherworldly demons are destroying them. She is a warrior, and has to find and kill the man who doomed the world, before he has the chance to open the portals that let the demons into our reality and lost control. Shortly after completing the magic ritual that sends her to 1888, she rescues nobleman Simon Grenville from two hellhounds, and thereby gains his trust. The hellhounds were sent by Alex Reynell, Simon's childhood friend, and just the man Joan has been sent to assassinate.

Simon cut all ties with his former friend once he discovered just how dark the magic Reynell was using was, and because he had Simon's sister Eleanor possessed by a demon. Simon has taken Eleanor to the country to recuperate, and to stem the tide of gossip. He's surprised to find a bleeding, leather-clad warrior woman in a stone circle, but has surprisingly little trouble believing her stories about a where humans are prey to demons and monstrous creatures. He agrees to help Joan stop his former friend, but in order to get her close to Reynell, they will need to turn her from a savage warrior woman with knives and guns and leather trousers to a genteel Victorian lady with a corset, long gowns and impeccable manners.

While there is absolutely a romantic aspect to the novel, I think the fantasy/sci-fi elements are stronger, and would absolutely classify this as fantasy/sci-fi first, romance second. The world building is very good indeed, both the descriptions of the horrific future that Joan comes from, and the Victorian world where some people dabble in actual magic. Reynell is a very convincing and creepy villain, unsuspected by most people, and you never doubt that Joan has good cause to want him dead.

Joan is a good heroine, and while a tough warrior chick, very vulnerable in her new environment, where she quickly realizes that what little research she and her allies were able to do, is pretty much useless, and she is like a fish out of water in many ways. Simon, while he's also the hero of the piece, feels more like a supporting character for a lot of the book. He's very nice, but is never really given the depth that Joan is, and as a result, their romance becomes a less interesting aspect of the book. While I enjoyed it, and the Terminator meets My Fair Lady thing is a spot-on description, I have to disagree with Publishers' Weekly about it being one of the best romances (or fantasy/sci-fi novels) of the year. I would rank several others I've read this year, including Heart of Steel and The Black Hawk, which I read in the last few weeks, as much better.

CBR3 Book 93: "The Black Hawk" by Joanna Bourne

Publisher: Berkley
Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 5 stars
Date begun: November 6th, 2011
Date finished: November 7th, 2011

This book can be read as a stand-alone, but will read much better if you've read some of Joanna Bourne's previous novels in the Spymaster series, especially last year's The Forbidden Rose, where several of the novel's characters are introduced, and you get valuable backstory about this novel's main characters.

Sir Adrian Hawkhurst, head of the British Intelligence Service, opens the door his headquarters to find Justine DeCabrillac, former French spy, (who happens to be one of his childhood friends, his former lover and one of his fiercest enemies all wrapped up in one), bleeding to death on his doorstep. The dagger that stabbed her is one of his, and to make matters worse, she has been poisoned. Adrian is not about to let the woman he has loved for most of his life die, and as well as keeping her alive, he needs to find out who tried to kill her, why she ended up on his doorstep, and who is trying to frame him for her murder.

Much of the book is told in flashback, going back to the final days of the French Revolution, when Justine and Adrian, then a former London street rat known as Hawker, were children. They met when they were 13, Justine an agent for the French Secret Police, Hawker a fledgling spy for British Intelligence. While their friendship blossoms, they both know they are on opposite sides of a war, and can never truly become close. Justine gives her little sister to Doyle, Hawker's mentor, to raise, as she is eager that the girl escape the harsh and unforgiving life she herself has been forced into. Because of this, she runs into Hawker from time to time, when visiting her sister in secret, or on missions for France. The two become lovers, trusting each other despite their opposing loyalties.

The framework story takes place in 1818, after Napoleon is defeated, and imprisoned. France and England are no longer at war, and Justine has retired from her life of international intrigue. She's opened a shop in London, and for three years, Adrian has known where she is, but they have never approached each other. Now, finally seeing a chance to win her, once and for all, he needs to figure out why someone is intent on destroying them both, and convince Justine to stay with him for the rest of their lives.

I've read all of the books Joanna Bourne has in print, and this, her fourth in the Spymaster series, is by far my favourite. It helps that Adrian, as a supporting character in the other books, has more or less stolen every scene he is in. Yet with such high expectations, there was every chance that this book would turn out to be a huge disappointment. I'm so glad it actually surpassed my expectations. Justine and Hawker's romance is epic and all the more satisfying because they are separated for so long, and have to work so hard to reconcile their differences and find their happy ending.

Sunday 13 November 2011

CBR3 Book 92: "The Woman Who Rides Like a Man" by Tamora Pierce

Publisher: Simon Pulse
Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: November 4th, 2011
Date finished: November 4th, 2011

Alanna of Trebond has defeated her enemy, the sorcerer Duke Roger, and also attained her life's goal. She is now a female knight, but a lot of the court were not pleased that she had masqueraded as a boy for the past eight years, and she feels that it may be best if she gets away from court for a while. She takes Coram, her faithful man-at-arms with her, and rides south, where she is soon adopted into a tribe of Bazhir tribesmen. After a series of complications, she also becomes the tribe's shaman, and cannot leave on further adventures until she has trained at least one replacement for the tribe. She sets out to train three youngsters with magical abilities, one hot-headed boy and in break with tradition, two girls.

Having finally achieved what she has worked for her entire life, becoming a knight, Alanna is very taken aback when Prince Jonathan comes to see her and proposes marriage. Can she give up her dreams of fighting, glory and knighthood to settle down and be a princess, providing heirs to the kingdom? There are also her feelings for George, King of the Rogues, to consider. Is he more to her than just a friend?

The Woman Who Rides Like a Man covers a shorter span of time than the previous two books in the Song of the Lioness series, but Alanna still has a lot of growing up to do. She's always been a bit afraid of her magical abilities, but when she becomes the shaman of the Bazhir tribe, she is forced to not only learn to control her own powers, but to teach others to use theirs, for the protection of the whole tribe. She has to determine what she wants for her life and future, and decide whether her love for Jonathan is strong enough that she can give up everything she ever dreamed of to become his wife. While I liked it, I think I preferred the previous two, but can see why this is an important installment in the series.

CBR3 Book 91: "In the Hand of the Goddess" by Tamora Pierce

Publisher: Simon Pulse
Page count: 288 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: October 31st, 2011
Date finished: November 3rd, 2011

Alanna of Trebond is still disguised as a boy, and has become the squire of her best friend, Prince Jonathan, who is one of the few that have discovered her true identity. At the beginning of the book, Alanna, receives a magical charm from the Mother goddess herself, and is told that she will need to learn to face her fears. Alanna fears three things - the Ordeal of Knighthood; Jonathan's uncle, the sorcerer Duke Roger, and love. She also acquires Faithful, a tiny black cat who seems to be able to communicate her directly.

The book follows Alanna from she's fifteen to eighteen, in the years before she (SPOILER) attains her knighthood.  The kingdom goes to war, and as Jonathan's squire, Alanna fights at his side. She is abducted during the fighting, but uses her quick wits to escape, and manages to help solve the conflict once and for all. Yet even after the war, she remains restless. While she can't prove anything, she's convinced that Duke Roger is up to something, and that he means not only Prince Jonathan, but the King and Queen, harm. Yet she seems to be the only one who mistrusts him, and she has absolutely no proof of his treacherous nature.

As well as trying to protect Jonathan from real and perceived threats, Alanna trains towards her own knighthood. She still has to keep her identity a secret, but a few people close to her discover that she's a girl, and love starts becoming more of a distraction for her. As well as becoming a fighter, she starts wanting to explore a feminine side a bit more, and with the help of her friend George's mother, she learns to dress like a young woman, do her hair and learns the courtly manners of a Lady, not just a knight. The book is just as exciting as the first, and Alanna's development into adulthood, her battle to prove Duke Roger's evil, and her first love, are all things that keep the reader interested.

CBR3 Book 90: "Heart of Steel" by Meljean Brook

Publisher: Berkley Trade
Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 5 stars
Date begun: November 1st, 2011
Date finished:  November 2nd, 2011

This is the second book in Meljean Brook's Iron Seas series, and while it can be read as a stand alone, a lot of the world building is established in the first book, The Iron Duke, as well as the first encounter of the protagonists of this book, so it's definitely better if you read that one first. Also, while the covers for these books are beyond awful, I promise that they are actually REALLY REALLY good. It's why I buy them as e-books, so I can avoid embarrassment on public transport.

Yasmeen is the legendary mercenary captain of the airship Lady Corsair, and refuses to cede authority to any man. When adventurer and explorer Archimedes Fox tried to threaten her and take control of his airship, she threw him over the side, into waters teeming with zombies. Now she has to tell his sister, the woman who's made him famous writing about his adventures, that Fox is most likely dead. As Yasmeen also killed the woman's father, she is not really looking forward to the encounter.

I'm spoiling very little by revealing that of course Fox is only mostly dead. He survived the horde of zombies, and now needs to get the very valuable da Vinci sketch he left on the Lady Corsair from Yasmeen, so he can pay off an old acquaintance and hopefully no longer be trailed around the world by assassins. He doesn't mind at all that Yasmeen killed his father in the past, he's grateful, frankly, and now feels that she would be the perfect woman for him to fall in love with. Having had his emotions smothered and blunted under Horde control, he's now determined to live life to the fullest and feel every emotion at its strongest, and he believes loving Yasmeen and probably having his heart broken by her would be a glorious adventure. As they need to travel through Europe together, avenging the deaths of her airship crew and trying to reclaim his stolen sketch, while looking for treasures and running from zombies, falling in love with the temperamental mercenary shouldn't prove too difficult.

The Iron Duke first established the world of Brook's Iron Seas - a Victorian era where the Mongol hordes took over huge amounts the world with their advanced technology, enslaving people with the use of nanobots in their blood stream. The oceans are filled with giant armor plated megalodons and krakens,  much of Europe and parts of Africa are teeming with mindless zombies. Having been trained as a warrior, Yasmeen learned the hard way that most men could not be trusted, and felt threatened by her independence, self-sufficiency and strength. While her former lovers would desire her, they could not accept that she held the highest authority on board her own ship, and frequently tried to dominate her in front of her crew. Archimedes Fox is not such a man. He's attracted to Yasmeen because she is strong and capable and could quite possibly kill him if he so much as looked at her the wrong way. He's a thrill seeker and adventurer, and getting the dangerous and deadly Captain Corsair into bed would be his greatest achievement. He has no wish to outrank her on a ship, he just wants to be with her.

A lot less angsty and grim than the previous Iron Seas novel, Heart of Steel is an adventure romp. There are kidnappings, sneaky attempts at poisoning, witty banter, double crossings, explosions, bar fights, revenge quests, adventure, zombie attacks, huge amounts of sexual tension (the couple don't do anything but throw amazing quips at each other until the latter half of the book, they don't even kiss until the last quarter or so). I think I actually even preferred it to the Iron Duke, and can't wait until the next one comes out.

CBR3 Book 89: "Alanna: The First Adventure" by Tamora Pierce

Publisher: Simon Pulse
Page count: 240 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: October 31st, 2011
Date finished: October 31st, 2011

Alanna of Trebond doesn't want to go to a convent and learn magic, as per her father's wishes, she wants to become a female knight. Her brother Thom has no aptitude for fighting, and is better at magic than her, so when she proposes that she disguise herself as a boy, and they swap places, he has no complaints. Alanna convinces their man-at-arms to go along with the plan, and arrives in the capital as Alan of Trebond. She begins training as a page at the royal court, and makes both friends and enemies within her first few weeks there.

Among her friends, Alanna can count George, King of the Thieves, and Jonathan, the heir to the throne. None of them know her secret, but are impressed with how hard young Alan trains at fighting and scholarship. She gets through several years without anyone discovering her true identity, but when Jonathan becomes gravely ill, she may have to risk everyone finding out in order to heal him.

It's a great book, with a strong, determined and loyal protagonist, who risks her reputation to achieve her dreams of becoming a female knight. She's smaller and weaker than her fellow pages, and therefore has to work twice as hard to prove herself worthy. She's bullied by older, stronger boys, but refuses to let her friends fight for her, and figures out a solution on her own. When she breaks her right arm, she teaches herself to fight almost as well with her left. She constantly has to worry about others discovering her secret.

As far as I can tell on the internet, Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness books were a beloved fantasy series that shaped the adolescent years of many a young reader of both sexes. I never read them as a teenager, but can absolutely see why they are so adored. Alanna: The First Adventure has 524 five star reviews on Amazon, many from readers who discovered the books at a young age, and barely a negative review to be found. I wish I'd read the book when I was younger, but am very glad to have discovered the series now.

CBR3 Book 88: "Everything I Know about Love I Learned from Romance Novels" by Sarah Wendell

Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Page count: 240 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: October 27th, 2011
Date finished: October 30th, 2011

Sarah Wendell, also popularly known on the internet as Smart Bitch Sarah, is the co-founder of the romance blogsite Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which is one of several websites I discovered a few years ago, which helped me rediscover my love of romance as a genre. Readers of my book blog will know that I read a LOT of it, and Sarah Wendell, in this book, as well as in her previous novel, Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels, explains why it's such a hugely popular genre with women (and men) around the world.

Through interviews with a number of romance novelists, as well as countless readers, in the US and elsewhere, Wendell looks at why romance is such a widely selling genre, and why readers keep coming back to romance, even when it's one of the most maligned genres out there. She points out that most of the readers are not frustrated housewives or single, crazy cat-ladies, and that romance novels, rather than giving you a skewered view of real life romance and relationships, might actually better prepare you better for marriage and partnership than one might think. Women who read romance don't want to be abducted by a kilt-wearing Duke with a mullet, glistening chest and a kilt, but they enjoy reading about him, and when reading romance novels, they get an idea of what works for them in relationships, and what absolutely doesn't. Seeing the heroine keep making stupid relationship mistakes and wanting to reach into the book to slap her, might make one less inclined to make the same mistake.

EIKAL is a very well researched and wittily written book which should be read by anyone who enjoys the romance genre, and even more importantly, by those who are dismissive of it, and its readers, so they can discover that romance is not any trashier than most fantasy, sci-fi, suspense or crime novels out there.

CBR3 Book 87: "Girl of Fire and Thorns" by Rae Carson

Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: October 24th, 2011
Date finished: October 26th, 2011

Princess Elisa is married off to the king of a neighbouring country on her sixteenth birthday, in part to strengthen a military alliance. She's overweight and insecure and constantly feels inferior to her older, clever sister, and figures that the only reason she's the one marrying the king is because because she is this generation's "Chosen One". Elisa has a gemstone in her navel, a God-stone, that marks the bearer as having a great or significant task in their future. Elisa's lived a sheltered life, is nervous about being married off to a handsome man, and sent to his kingdom, far away from home. Her only comforts are food and books.

When Elisa arrives at her new home, she realizes that not only does her husband have a mistress, he's kept his new marriage and his alliance with Elisa's father a secret, even to his closest advisors. She soon discovers that, though her husband may be handsome, he's not necessarily a brave or decisive man. He neglects his son, and clearly tries to avoid confrontations, as much as possible. Elisa also discovers that nearly everyone in her new homeland knows much more about the God-stone than she, and that her sister and father, and pretty much all the people she's ever counted on and trusted, knew about the many prophecies regarding the Chosen One. Suffice to say, this doesn't make her feel any better about herself, or her murky future task.

Elisa's life changes dramatically when she is kidnapped by a small band of resistance fighters. She is taken on a long trek across the desert and held in a tiny border village, where the people are constantly ravaged by the ongoing war, without any help being sent from the king in the capital. The resistance group knows that Elisa has the God-stone, and hopes that she will be able to save them from certain death. How can Elisa, with her insecurity, book learning and inexperience, rise to the occasion and fulfill her destiny?

Girl of Fire and Thorns is the first book in what I'm assuming will be a trilogy (aren't they all these days, or longer?), but works perfectly well on its own, with a self-contained story. It's a great young adult book, as it provides a great role model for young women in Princess Elisa. While she starts out as obese and insecure, it's clear to the reader that she's a good and loyal person, and while she's hard on herself, she never wallows in self-pity for long, and she tries to make the best of the situations she finds herself in. She finds herself in a variety of dangerous situations over the course of the book, and never discovers hidden super powers, but shows incredible, realistic bravery in that she faces her challenges square on, refusing to run away or sacrifice others to save herself. Elisa is by no means perfect, but she's been raised to serve her people, and she knows that many of the bearers of the God-stone died either before or while they fulfilled their destiny, and she's determined to do her duty, even if it scares the heck out of her and may mean her death.

There's a supporting cast of great characters, too, who help fill out the story. Elisa's nurse, Ximena, is especially good. The plot has some surprising twists, and takes the "Chosen One" trope from classic fantasy in interesting directions. I will be looking forward to the sequels of this one.

CBR3 Book 86: "Daugther of Smoke and Bone" by Laini Taylor (Read-a-thon 2011)

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Page count: 422 pages
Rating: 5 stars
Date begun: October 23rd, 2011
Date finished: October 23rd, 2011

"Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well."

These are the opening words of A Daughter of Smoke and Bone and from the various rave reviews I'd read from the book, I thought I had some idea what to expect from the book. I didn't. Yes, this book is paranormal fantasy, and it's certainly partly geared towards a young adult audience, but it absolutely isn't Twilight or The Vampire Diaries or Vampire Academy or Wicked Lovely or any number of other successful romantic fantasy novels for teens. It's so much more, and I'm not even sure I can do it justice in a review - but I'll try.

17-year-old Karou is an orphan, living in Prague and attending an art college. Her friends know that she's secretive, and exotic, with her bright blue hair and tattoos, and they enjoy the wonderful creatures she draws on her ever-present sketchpad and the fanciful stories she tells about the places she supposedly visits in her spare time. They don't know that all her stories are true. When not being an art student, Karou runs errands for Brimstone, the seemingly monstrous creature who raised her, together with a host of other chimaera, half humanoid, half beast beings who have always been there for her, but refuse to tell her where she's actually from. Brimstone trades teeth from humans and every sort of animal known to man for wishes that can grant pretty much anything if they're big enough, and Karou has been all over the globe (the magic door in Brimstone's shop can take her anywhere) fetching everything from elephant tusks to snake fangs for him.

Lately, when she's off on her errands, she's noticed burned handprints over the doorways she uses to get back to Brimstone. She also has an encounter with a beautiful, but terrible angel, who tries to kill her when he realizes that she works for Brimstone. Desperate to figure out what is going on, Karou tries to spy on Brimstone when he walks through another door in his chambers, and she discovers a whole other world, but before she really gets a chance to explore, Brimstone catches her and throws her out. Before she has time to go back and beg his forgiveness, one of the tiny creatures who works for him, ends up at her window, dying of burns. The doorway to Brimstone's is on fire, and Karou is cut off from the only family she has ever known. When she encounters Akiva, the vengeful angel again, she no longer knows what to think, but it seems he might hold the answers to who she really is, and what has happened to her loved ones.

There is a love story in A Daughter of Smoke and Bone, where mortal enemies are inexplicably drawn to one another, and the romance was enough to take my breath away. There is also masterful storytelling and Laini Taylor does an amazing job with the world building. It helps that Prague, the initial location for the book, is a magical place even before you introduce paranormal elements. This was the last book I read during my Read-a-thon, and you'd think I'd be tired after reading for most of a weekend, but I couldn't put the book down.

Karou is a wonderful protagonist, mysterious, independent, inquisitive, strong and brave, yet also clearly a 17-year-old, who's not always nice, but can use the small wishes she gets in Brimstone's shop for petty things, like giving a girl she's jealous of a constant mono-brow, or giving her ex-boyfriend an itch in a really inconvenient place while he's nude modelling. She also uses her wishes for silly, frivolous things like turning her hair permanently blue, or removing tattoos she got on impulse. She's searching for the truth about her origins, not really happy when Brimstone and his associates keep them from her. However, when she finally does discover the truth about who she is, and where she came from, she understands why they kept the truth from her.

I don't want to say much more about the plot, because there are several twists and turns that should be not be spoiled. Readers should be aware that the story is by no means complete, and it ends on a big and emotionally gutting cliff hanger, which when I first put the book down made me like parts of it less. However, nearly a month after finishing the book, I'm still thinking about it all the time, and wanting desperately to find out what happens next. So I'm just going to recommend the book to as many people as I know, making sure they also read the book, and can share the painful wait for the next installment with me.

Sunday 6 November 2011

CBR3 Book 85: "Unclaimed" by Courtney Milan (Read-a-thon 2011)

Publisher: HQN Books
Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: October 22nd, 2011
Date finished: October 22nd, 2011

Unclaimed is the second book in the series of the Turner brothers, the first brother's story was told in Unveiled. While this book can be read completely independently, there is back story about the hero, Mark in the previous book, and his story has more resonance if you start the series at the beginning.

Sir Mark Turner was knighted by Queen Victoria because of the book he wrote encouraging chastity. He is London's most sought after bachelor, and followed by misty eyed young maidens and eager reporters everywhere he goes. Sick of the attention, and the impression everyone has of him, Mark seeks refuge in the village where he grew up.

Jessica Farleigh is a courtesan, and desperately wants enough money to free herself from ever having to charm another patron. When a former lover offers to pay her to tarnish Sir Mark's reputation, she's happy to oblige, but she's on a strict time limit. What she thought was going to be simple, as all the men she's ever encountered were huge hypocrites, turns out to be quite the challenge. Sir Mark doesn't just preach chastity for gentlemen, he believes his own teachings. Yet he is instantly smitten with Jessica, believing her to be a widow fallen on hard times, and enjoys how vastly different from the prim, young virgins who normally get paraded in front of him.

While a virgin, and believing a man should control his desires, Mark doesn't deny the attraction he feels towards Jessica. He freely admits that he lusts for her, he just doesn't intend to act on any of the desires he feels. He's a good and honest and principled man and a very interesting hero in a romance. Jessica starts out detesting Mark, who seems to have everything handed to him on a platter, yet as she gets to know him, she realizes the reasons for his principles, and having to seduce him and discredit him in order to gain her own freedom and happiness gets harder and harder.

While not quite as engrossing as Unveiled, Unclaimed is still a very enjoyable read, and I like that Milan takes the time to really flesh out her characters. They're not just stock characters, they are complex and multi-faceted and all her characters TALK to each other. So many romances are hampered by situations that seem easily resolved if the main characters just communicated more, and that's never the case here. Milan's next book is about the third Turner brother, intriguingly named Smite, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

CBR3 Book 84: "Snuff" by Terry Pratchett (Read-a-thon 2011)

Publisher: Harper
Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars
Date begun: October 22nd, 2011
Date finished: October 22nd, 2011

Sam Vimes has been dragged away from the job he loves as the Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch by his well-meaning wife, Lady Sybil, who feels he should get some air and familiarise himself with the estates they own. It doesn't take long before Vimes discovers a dead body and that all manner of foul play and injustice can take place in the idyllic country side, just as much as in the city. Determined to find the killer and set right those things that are wrong, he also needs to see if he can get his hands on a decent bacon sandwich, and possibly find some elephant dung for his precocious son to examine.

While always enjoyable, some Discworld novels are better than others. This is not one of Pratchett's best, and while he takes familiar characters out of their normal haunts, so that they can discover new things about themselves and others, too much of the plot of Snuff felt like a retread of previous novels in the series. In this book we learn that goblins are people too, Sam Jr is obsessed with poo because he is a small boy, and we are Vimes is and always will be a driven police man, and strongly dislikes being a Duke. His manservant is all sorts of awesome, too. Glad he got more to do in this one. Sadly, Pratchett has Alzheimer's, and while I hope he still has excellent and brilliant and original books in him, I'm not sure how many more he is capable of creating.

Sunday 30 October 2011

CBR3 Book 83: "Chime" by Franny Billingsley (Read-a-thon 2011)

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 5 stars
Date begun: October 22nd, 2011
Date finished: October 22nd, 2011

This is the first book I read during this year's Read-a-thon, and I first heard about it and discovered Franny Billingsley's books through Raych, a fellow Cannonballer (whose reviews and blog I now follow slavishly).

Briony Larkin has a big secret. Briony is a witch. It's her fault that her stepmother died three months ago, and it's her fault that her twin sister Rose isn't quite right. Briony can see and talk to the Old Ones (spirits in the swamp around the village), and she mustn't let anyone know that she's a witch, or the town council will try her and hang her. She must above all, remember to hate herself, and not let anyone close, and she must always take extra good care of Rose, or her secret may be revealed.

Staying aloof and lonely proves more difficult when Elric Claybourne, and his father, a city engineer come to town. Elric has been thrown out of university, and will stay in the house of Briony's father. He's charming and handsome and oh so friendly, and doesn't seem to understand that Briony can't and doesn't want to have any friends. Rose has a terrible cough, and Boggy Mun (the leader of the Old Ones) say that she could die from the swamp cough, like so many of the town's children before her, unless Briony manages to successfully stop Mr Claybourne and the other engineers from draining the swamp and building a train line through it. How can she explain to the town council what the Boggy Mun has said, without revealing her secrets and risking her life?

Chime is the second Franny Billingsley book I've read this month, and I'm so glad I discovered her. The cover of the book is awful, and makes it look like some sort of turn of the century Gossip Girl rip off, which it so isn't! Like The Folk Keeper, Chime has a strong yet lonely heroine, who needs to learn to accept help and friendship from others to discover how awesome she is, and that she deserves happiness, joy and affection. While with a slight supernatural twist, Chime is mostly a historical novel, where the heroine has to go discover her true worth, and is rewarded with love as well. The budding relationship between Briony and Elric is very sweet, but I especially loved the depiction of Briony's relationship with her twin sister (who clearly has Asperger's syndrome), and both her deep affection for her and need to protect her and wanting her troublesome sibling to just drop dead. This is a wonderful book, who everyone should read, and I plan to buy any other book by Billingsley immediately upon release.

CBR3 Book 82: "Queen of Kings" by Maria Dahvana Headley

Publisher: Bantam
Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 2 stars
Date begun: October 17th, 2011
Date finished: October 21st, 2011

What if Cleopatra didn't die after Mark Anthony was defeated? What if she made a deal with a powerful goddess instead, and became an immortal, blood-sucking creature (who can shape shift into a giant serpent or a lion at will) determined on wreaking her vengeance on Emperor Augustus and the Roman Empire instead? Sounds like it should be a pretty fun book, doesn't it? Well, I'm sorry to say, Queen of Kings is not a lot of fun. It's an interesting idea, and Maria Dahvana Headley has obviously done a lot of historical research, but the book she's written is surprisingly dull, considering its subject matter, and I have absolutely no interest in reading any more in what promises to be a series, with the immortal Cleopatra as protagonist.

As I said, the premise is intriguing - when Mark Anthony's troops in Egypt are defeated, and he receives a message (sent by Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus of Rome) that Cleopatra is dead, he kills himself. Cleopatra, determined that Egypt will not be defeated, uses a dodgy translation of an ancient spell to summon Sekhmet, the lion-headed godess of cheerful things like slaughter, pestilence and chaos. In an attempt to save Mark Anthony and her beloved Egypt, she makes a pact with the goddess, but loses her soul and becomes a blood drinking monster, forced to do Sekhmet's bidding. Octavian/Augustus, who is both attracted to and despises Cleopatra, soon realizes what she has become, and turns into a paranoid lunatic to escape her vengeance. He takes her children with him to Rome, and hires witches and powerful spell casters to try to battle her.

The book is told from multiple points of view, from Cleopatra to Mark Anthony to Augustus to a whole bunch of other people, and sometimes switches around so fast that it gets confusing. I picked up the book because of the premise and the cover quote by Neil Gaiman (after all, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, also recommended by him, is all kinds of awesome), but finished it mainly out of stubborness and the hopes that it might get good as the story progressed. Really, she's a vengeful vampire who can shape shift, how do you make that boring? Tastes may differ, some people on Amazon at least seem to have really liked this book. I found it dreary, and would recommend others to stay away from this book. There's so much better paranormal fantasy out there.

CBR3 Book 81:"Cold Fire" by Kate Elliott

Publisher: Orbit
Page count: 528 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: October 10th, 2011
Date finished: October 16th, 2011

This book is the second in a series, set in a really intricate and complex world. I would therefore in no way recommend you start with this one, and if you haven't read the first book in the series, Cold Magic, skip this review entirely to avoid both spoilers and confusion.

In a very long blog post at the start of the year, I tried to outline as much about the world in Kate Elliott's Spiritwalker trilogy, and the plot of the first book in the series, without spoiling too much of the main events.

This is the sequel, and the first chapter actually recounts the events of the final chapter of Cold Magic, something I've seen other reviews complaining about. Myself, having not read the previous book since January, I was quite grateful to be reintroduced to the world and the characters without having to pick up and reread the whole previous book.

Catherine "Cat" Bell Barahal and her cousin Beatrice "Bee" Hassa Barahal are on the run from powerful mages and all sorts of people who want to get their hands on them. Bee has prophetic dreams, that can both provide useful information to a number of ambitious factions, including that of the deposed general Camjiata (a bit like Napoleon), but also marks her out as a target for the Wild Hunt, where creatures from the Spirit World hunt down and kill people in the normal world. Cat seems to have escaped her arranged marriage, just as she's discovered that she has the potential of maybe loving her haughty but brilliant husband, has the ability to walk as easily in the Spirit world as in the normal one, and needs to discover the identity of her real father. When she does, she sort of wishes she hadn't. He places a binding on her, so she can't tell anyone who he is or what he's asked her to do, and then sends her to find a powerful magic user, or he's going to kill Bee when the Wild Hunt next rides.

The previous book was set in an alternate reality version of Europe, Cold Fire explores more of the world map, and most of the action takes place either in the Spirit World, where Cat discovers more about her heritage, or in an alternate version of the Caribbean, where the powerful cold mages of Europe have no dominion, and there are zombie like victims of the salt plague, and equally dangerous, ambitious and powerful fire mages hold sway. Cat meets her husband Andevai again in the most unlikely of locations, and slowly, while trying to figure out a way of saving her cousin and outwitting her supernatural father, comes to know and understand him better. Much more of the various political factions of the world are explored, but not that much happens in this book. The action is slow to start, there is a lot of putting pieces into play, but I suspect Elliott is mainly establishing plot points to be finished off in the last volume of the trilogy. Because I'm interested in Cat, Bee and Vai as characters, I will read the next one, but I hope it has more plot, and less "look at this shiny world I built with all it's similarities, yet differences to the real historical world".