Tuesday 31 January 2012

CBR4 Book 10: "The Rose Garden" by Susanna Kearsley

Page count: 478 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars
Date begun: January 25th, 2012
Date finished: January 30th, 2012

When Eva's film star sister Katrina dies, she leaves her PR job in California and goes to Cornwall, where they used to spend their happy childhood summers, to scatter the ashes. Emotionally vulnerable and grieving, she stays with old family friends in the house she remembers so well, and tries to make up for the room and board she's receiving by helping her friends, siblings Mark and Susan, to keep from losing their property. The house has beautiful rose gardens adjoining it, and while they used to have lots of visitors, interest has waned. Susan wants to open a tea room to bring in more tourists, and Eva agrees to help use her PR skills to assist her.

While staying in Cornwall, Eva at first thinks she's hallucinating from grief, as she hears strange voices in the house that no one else can hear. She sees an unfamiliar man, even talks to him a few times, and it's only when she finds herself in her bedroom, wearing his silk robe, that she is forced to admit that she's not going crazy, she just seems to be able to slip back in time to the 18th Century on occasion, and interact with the inhabitants of the house then. While sometimes days can pass on her visits to the past, no time seems to pass in the present while she's gone. Soon Eva is falling in love with Daniel Butler, a Cornish smuggler loosely involved in the Jacobite rebellion, who died centuries before she was born. How can she help her friends in the present, when she's pining for the past, and how can she possibly sustain a viable relationship with a man when she keeps popping back to her own present?

Susanna Kearsley's last book, The Winter Sea, was also a combination of contemporary and historical fiction, woven together. In that book, both the narratives were gripping and kept me turning the pages. The Rose Garden, unfortunately, was much better when Eva was in the past. Her interactions with Daniel, his brother Jack and their friend and fellow smuggler Fergal (who pretends Eva is his sister to explain her sudden presence) were so much more interesting and compelling than her present day endeavours to get to grips with the loss of her sister, and helping the Hallett siblings get their business in order. I kept wanting her to spend less time focusing on the present and go back to the past. To be fair, Eva keeps wanting to return to the past too, so perhaps this is just a clever ploy of Kearsley's, to emphasise how much more awesome Eva's life is there, but I doubt it. Still, a perfectly enjoyable read, and the historical bits are excellent.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

CBR4 Book 9: "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)" by Mindy Kaling

Page count: 240 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: January 23rd, 2012
Date finished: January 24th, 2012

I have never watched a single episode of the American version of The Office (I know, what cave have I been living in?), but after reading Mindy Kaling's very funny autobiography, I'm absolutely going to mainline as many seasons as I can find.

Last year, I read Tina Fey's Bossypants, and it was as many other people have also agree, absolutely hilarious. Through CBRIII and IV, and on other review sites on the interwebs, I saw mention of Mindy Kaling's book, and while not as funny as Fey's book (possibly made funnier by me loving Mean Girls and 30 Rock), it still made me burst out laughing (to the point where I got weird looks on public transport) about once a page. It's a delightful and very quick read. To quote Kaling herself: "This book will take you two days to read. Did you even see the cover? It's mostly pink. If you're reading this book every night for months, something is not right."

Kaling makes humorous observations about her childhood, living in New York, Hollywood (her list of movie piches especially cracked me up), life, romance anddating, her own appearance and the media's perception of her. She even includes a selection of photos from her Blackberry and instructions for her own funeral. It's not in any way a profound or soul searching book, it's written to entertain, and suceeds brilliantly. I suspect that if you read and enjoyed Bossypants, you'll like this too. If you don't find that sort of biography funny (what's wrong with you?), you should probably give it a miss.

CBR4 Book 8: "Trouble at the Wedding" by Laura Lee Guhrke

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 2 stars
Date begun: January 22nd, 2012
Date finished: January 23rd, 2012

Miss Annabell Wheaton and her family used to be poor white trash, until her no good scoundrel of a father discovered a bunch of gold mines, conveniently died, and left them to his daughter. Annabell thought this would mean they never had to worry about anything ever again, but obviously her New Money is no good, and while they no longer live in a shack barely making ends meet, neither she nor her family are well recieved in American high society. Annabel's solution: find an empoverished English nobleman whom she doesn't hate to give her a position in society, so she (and her younger sister) will no longer be shunned and sniffed at at polite gatherings.

Christian Du Quesne has been the Duke of Scarborough for about three months, since his brother died. Unfortunately for Christian and his younger sister, who both married weathly Americans to try to save the family fortunes, the previous Dukes were excellent at gambling and living irresponsibly, and less good at taking care of the Dukedom's extensive properties. His marriage ended badly, when the innocent young woman he married for her huge dowry killed herself, while Christian was off on the Continent spending her money. He's determined never to marry again, happy to let the title pass to his cousin. He is, however, pretty much broke, and needs money fast. So when Annabel's uncle promises him half a million dollars if he can talk her out of marrying the fortune hunting Earl of Rumsford in a week, what's an empoverished nobleman to do?

Trouble at the Wedding is Guhrke's third Abandoned at the Altar novel, and probably the one that fits least into the mold. For one thing, no one is abandoned or jilted anywhere, Christian just creates a huge scene at Annabel's wedding. It was a quick read, but not really that compelling, and lacked the wit and passion of some of Guhrke's previous novels. Neither the hero or heroine were really all that interesting, nor was their journey towards their HEA that compelling. I do like that Guhrke writes historical novels from other eras than Regency England, though, and hope that her next novel is back on form, as I've previously enjoyed many of her books a whole lot.

Monday 23 January 2012

CBR4 Book 7: "Shades of Milk and Honey" by Mary Robinette Kowal

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 3 stars
Date begun: January 20th, 2012
Date finished: January 21st, 2012

Miss Jane Ellsworth is in danger of becoming an unwanted spinster. She is clever and witty and very skilled in the art of glamour (a sort of magic weave used to enhance everything from people, furnishings to music and art), which is everything a gentlewoman should be. But she's also very plain, and suffers in comparison to her lovely and vivacious younger sister Melody, who in turn, is upset that she possesses no skill at glamour.

Melody is the sister with multiple suitors, while Jane is convinced she'll be overlooked forever. Neither sister has too generous a dowry, so it's important for both to make good matches. Jane hopes that maybe her accomplishments with glamour will convince some gentleman to overlook her plain features, and worries about her sister's impulsiveness and carelessness. When Jane discovers that her young friend and sister seem to have been courted duped by the same callous fortune hunter, she taxes her skills to the utmost to save them and their reputations.

Shades of Milk and Honey seems to have been marketed with "What if Jane Austen wrote fantasy". This is a fairly apt description, and Robinette Kowal attempts to write in the style of Austen, down to period spelling like surprize and shew. Unfortunately, to anyone with a more than passing familiarity to Austen's novels, it's very obvious that the book is mostly a composite of various Austen plots, with a little dash of magic inserted, and a dramatic ending tacked on. As a huge Austen fan, not to mention a reader of all kinds of fantasy, this book should've been right up my alley. Yet exactly because it was trying so hard to be an Austen homage, instead of doing its own thing, it suffered in comparison. Regency fantasy can work really well, in Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer's Sorcery and Cecilia trilogy, for instance, but it works because they're not trying to be Jane Austen, they're just setting their books in the same time period.

Sunday 22 January 2012

CBR4 Book 6: "How the Marquess Was Won" by Julie Anne Long

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars
Date begun: January 17th, 2012
Date finished: January 18th, 2012

Miss Phoebe Vale works as a school teacher at a school for recalcitrant girls. She entertains herself by reading the society gossip in the broadsheets, and dreams of going to Africa. When she agrees to spend a few days as a paid companion to a former pupil, Miss Lisbeth Redmond, she has no idea that her life is going to take a turn for the unexpected.

Julian Spenser, the Marquess Dryden, is known in the scandal sheets as Lord Ice. Most of his adult life he's spent rebuilding his family's reputation and fortunes after his father did his best to squander them. By making a match with Lisbeth Redmond, he would be able to restore the last piece of land his father lost, as part of her generous dowry. Yet he can't get Miss Vale out of his mind. While she may be physically more unremarkable than her friend, her intelligence and wit, not to mention the fact that she seems to be the only person who attempts to see him as a man, not just as Lord Ice.

This is the first Pennyroyal Green novel that doesn't actually feature the romance of a Redmond or an Eversea. It's perfectly enjoyable, but suffers in comparison to the previous two Long novels, I Kissed and Earl and What I Did for a Duke, which were both excellent. Phoebe is a very admirable heroine, but Julian is just a bit dull, especially in comparison to the heroes in the books I just mentioned. I was by no means bored, but I hope the next novel is about a proper family member, and also more in the vein of her best ones.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

CBR4 Book 5: "Lothaire" by Kresley Cole

Page count: 506 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: January 15th, 2012
Date finished: January 16th, 2012

This is the 12th book in Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series, and hence will make very little sense to anyone who hasn't read the earlier books in the series. While each book centers around a new couple, by now the paranormal soap opera that is these books has become so complicated, that it won't make a lot of sense or be half as much fun to read, unless you have the requisite back story. So go check out one of the earliest books, like A Hunger Like No Other or No Rest for the Wicked instead.

Lothaire, the titular "hero" of this book is known as the Enemy of Old to creatures of the paranormal Lore in the Immortals After Dark, and has been an antagonist to several of the previous heroes and heroines in the series. Feared and hated by pretty much every faction of the Lore, due to his ruthlessness and the huge amounts of bargains he's struck through the millennia. As one of the oldest vampires alive, all that drives him is his quest for revenge. Before she died, he promised his mother he would become king over the two main vampire factions, and avenge her. He finally has the means within his grasp.

Elizabeth Pierce finds herself on death row after a demonic goddess possessed her and made her commit brutal murders. Lothaire springs her from prison as she is about to be executed, as he needs the aid of the vampire deity inside her to fulfill his plans. While he finds Elizabeth's form pleasing, he needs the brutal goddess to take up permanent residence inside her, and that means that she has very little time left to live.  At first she fears the vicious vampire, but she finds herself fascinated and drawn to him, and as she is only 24, Ellie doesn't really want to die. She'll have to use the only thing available to her, her looks and sensuality, to try to sway Lothaire into sparing her.

Lothaire has a lot of Old School romance tropes, and I can see that a lot of people might be bothered by how quickly Elizabeth falls for Lothaire, who is a ruthless killer and borderline insane. Having spent five years on death row, she is then trapped in a luxurious apartment, being taunted and belittled by him for her background, lack of refinement and general weakness as a puny human, constantly compared to the murderous deity that possesses her and falling short. Lothaire can't harm her, as he needs her body as a vessel for Soroya (the disembodied vamp goddess), but he threatens the lives of her mother, brother and extended family, and is generally an autocratic, condescending asshole. Yet she finds him deeply fascinating and devastatingly sexually attractive, snuggling up to him one minute and screaming "I hate you!" the next.

Still, as always, I found this installment by Kresley Cole incredibly entertaining, and had no trouble suspending my disbelief and just going along for the ride. The fated mates always work out in the end, no matter how impossible the journey to the HEA seems. She writes highly enjoyable banter, steamy sex scenes and it's fun that she's now working her way through some of the darker, more dislikable characters in her extended universe. Wonder what will be next?

Monday 16 January 2012

CBR4 Book 4: "The Nine Tailors" by Dorothy L. Sayers

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars
Date begun: January 7th, 2012
Date finished: January 15th, 2012

In my early teens, I read a LOT of Agatha Christie novels. All the ones I could find in translation at my local library, in fact, and once I became more proficient in English, quite a few more of them in English. I've probably read at least 90% of all the novels Dame Agatha wrote. I've heard about the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries over the years, but never had the opportunity to read one before now.

Lord Peter Wimsey is on his way to friends on New Year's Eve when he accidentally drives his car into a ditch, due to the excessive amounts of snow. He and his manservant are taken in by the kindly rector of the nearby village. Due to an influenza, one of the locals due to help out with a special bellringing feat is incapacitated, and his lordship earns the respect and gratitude of his host by helping out with the New Year's peal. The rector is called away as Lady Thorpe is dying, and Lord Peter hears the story of the priceless emerald necklace that was stolen when Sir Charles Thorpe married his lady. The emeralds were stolen before the First World War, but both the thieves were imprisoned, and neither would admit where the loot was.

A few months later, Lord Peter receives a letter from the rector, announcing that Sir Charles Thorpe has also passed away, and when he was to be buried, an unidentified corpse was found in Lady Thorpe's grave. The corpse had been badly disfigured, with the hands chopped off, and the rector asks for Lord Peter's help in figuring out the identity of the dead man, as well as who killed the stranger. Working with the local police, Lord Peter is slowly able to piece together who the disfigured corpse is, and how he came to end up in Lady Thorpe's grave, but the identity of the murderer is not revealed until the very end of the book.

I suspect hearing about Dorothy L. Sayers' books for so many years, and especially that The Nine Tailors was her best novel, I had my expectations set too high. I did like the unusual mystery, and the final reveal, but much of the book irritated and bored me. There was a lot of waffle about the damming of the fens, and Lord Peter talking to random rustics about fairly inconsequential things (yes, I know some of them became important later, but in no way that felt necessary) and all the stuff about bell ringing was completely uninteresting to me. The various villagers were very well depicted, and I especially liked young Hilary Thorpe, who was very clever, but if this is actually Sayers' best novel, I'm not going to be in a hurry to check out any of her other ones. A bit of a disappointment, this.

Sunday 8 January 2012

CBR4 Book 3: "Bloodlines" by Richelle Mead

Page count: 432 pages
Date begun: January 6th, 2012
Rating: 3.5 stars
Date finished: January 7th, 2012

Bloodlines is the first novel in Richelle Mead's spinoff, featuring some of the minor characters from her previous Vampire Academy series. It's obviously meant to work as a new starting point into the paranormal fantasy world Mead's created, but I suspect it works better if you've read some of the other Vampire Academy books as well.

Sydney Sage is an alchemist, part of a secret organisation which has worked to hide the existence of vampires, both Moroi (living "nice" vampires) and Strigoi (undead evil vampires), from humans. She's been rigorously trained for her duties since she was a child by her very strict father, and alchemists in general fear and try to avoid vampires as much as possible Due to events that transpired in the final two Vampire Academy books, Sydney's seen as someone who fraternizes with the Moroi vampires, and has forgotten her place. Yet when the only sister of the ruling vampire Queen is in danger of being assassinated, Sydney seems to be the best alchemist to help keep her safe and in hiding, as she's familiar with the girl, and young enough that she won't seem out of place in high school.

Sydney's happy to get a chance to work again, but horrified by the thought of having to share a room with and pose as the older sister of a vampire, albeit a Moroi one. However, if she refuses the mission, she'll be cast aside and replaced by her younger sister, who will have to work with an alchemist Sydney knows is a creep, so she agrees to go to high school in Palm Springs, and share a dorm room with a living vampire, helping to keep the girl safe. Already having learned that the Moroi vampires and their half-human servants/bodyguards are not so bad, Sydney becomes more and more open minded as her mission progresses.

At the school, she quickly makes a lot of friends, and discovers that while she excels academically, having been home schooled, she's got a lot to learn when it comes to social interaction. She also discovers that someone is giving the rich high schoolers performance enhancing tattoos, very similar to those of the protective tattoos given to the alchemists. Whoever's doing them is clearly doing something illegal, and Sydney tries to figure out where the tattoo parlor gets its supplies, while trying to fend off her hostile and scheming supervisor and organizing the lives of her vampire charges.

There's a lot of potential in Bloodlines, but compared to even the weaker Vampire Academy books, it falls a bit short. This is partially because Sidney is not as engaging a protagonist as Rose Hathaway was. While there is some action and mystery in this book, it's also not as exciting and fast paced as some of Mead's previous novels, and the story drags in places. The main reason I enjoyed this book was the return of Jill and Adrian from the Vampire Academy books, who were always interesting there, and get more to do in this book. I'm also curious to see where Mead is taking her spin off, she doesn't seem able to entirely distance herself from the characters of her previous series, and I hope that she's able to make this work on its own, otherwise I think the books will suffer more in comparison.

Saturday 7 January 2012

CBR4 Book 2: "Ship Breaker" by Paolo Bacigalupi

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: January 4th, 2012
Date finished: January 6th, 2012

So I saw this book mentioned in rave reviews all over the internets in the last year, and as I enjoy young adult quite a bit, I figured it might be worth checking out. I have to agree with what a lot of people are saying - young adult novels have certainly changed since I was a teenager. The plots tended to feature your teen pregnancies, and eating disorders, and homosexuality, and drug abuse, and AIDS and stuff. There were no sparkly vampires, or morally ambiguous fairies, or werewolves, or apprentice witches of the Discworld, or magical wizards schools, or Greek or Egyptian demi-gods, or criminal masterminds, and certainly no post apocalyptic future where most things have gone completely to hell, like in The Hunger Games or this one. Seriously, young adults today don't know they're born, they have so much good stuff to choose from.

Nailer works as a ship breaker, crawling through the tiny spaces of beached, rusting hulks, trying to scrounge enough copper wire to make the daily quota, so he and his work crew can eat for another day. His mum is dead, his dad is a calculating, deadly drug fiend who rarely has a good word for him. He's fiercely loyal to his work crew, and fears the day when he grows too big to work stripping copper, as he may not be big and strong enough to get work on a crew stripping heavy things like iron. He watches the sleek, clean, elegant clipper ships that sail by, and hopes that some day he'll find enough oil or gold to buy himself out of his dismal existence, but has very little hope of anything ever changing for him.

A few days after nearly drowning in a room filled with oil, a terrible storm hits the beach where Nailer and the other ship breakers live in shacks. When out with his crew mate Pima (whose mother is the only adult who seems to really care for him), he finds a stranded clipper ship, blown onto the beach by the storm. Inside the ship, they find enough luxuries to buy their freedom and set them up for the rest of their lives, but they also find a beautiful and clearly very rich girl, in the rubble. When trying to strip her jewelry from her, they discover that she's still alive, and have to decide whether the kill her, and keep their new found riches for themselves, or save her.

Due to his recent near death experience, Nailer can't bring himself to let Pima kill the girl humanely. They decide to rescue the girl, who assures them that her father will reward them handsomely for her return. But Nailer's psychotic father and his crew of equally dangerous low-lifes have also discovered the wreck, and want to sell her to the rival band who want to take over her father's business. Can Nailer go against the only family he has left, and abandon everything he's ever known, to risk his life and possibly his future for a disdainful stranger?

Bacigalupi paints an all too convincing picture of our future in Ship Breaker. The ice caps have melted, the sea levels have risen. Pollution and reliance on fossil fuels have made much of the world uninhabitable. The gap between the haves and the have nots has become almost insurmountable, with most people scavenging whatever they can find, including blood and organs, to sell to the wealthy corporations. Terrible hurricanes ravage the coasts of what used to be America, and many of the big cities are under water.

Nailer's life is awful, and you can't fault him for dreaming about something better. He lives in a harsh reality, where you are loyal to your blood-sworn crew, and betrayal is punished swiftly and brutally. Without a crew at your back, you are nothing. Every character is beautifully fleshed out, with very little effort, and the world building is excellent. The descriptions Bacigalupi uses are stark, sparing and very effective. There's quite a lot of violence and brutality, and the action rarely slows down for long.

I wanted to love the book, but something I can't quite put my finger on, held me back. Maybe it's just the sci-fi aspect. For some reason, I have a lot less time for science fiction than fantasy. I just can't seem to like it as much. This was a very good book, but maybe all the glowing reviews had raised my expectations up too high. Still, it's well worth a read, and people without a strange aversion to fantasy might enjoy it even more than I.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

CBR4 Book1: "Trial by Desire" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars
Date begun: January 2nd, 2012
Date finished: January 3rd, 2012

This is book is a sequel of sorts to Milan's debut novel Proof by Seduction, but can be read without any prior knowledge to events in the last book.

Lady Kathleen "Kate" Carhart had barely been married to her husband for three months when he left her to go to China to prove to the world he can be responsible. In his absence, she managed as best she could, fending off unwanted attention from louts wanting to seduce her, and secretly spiriting away abused wives from their cruel husbands. She's just managed to save another, when her husband returns unexpectedly. Can she trust him with her secrets? Surely she can't count on his support, when the last wife she "stole" is married to one of his oldest friends?

Ned Carhart suffers from bouts of depression, and went to China in part to figure out a way to control himself. When he returns, he believes that he can finally avoid the worst lows, but he is determined that no one learn of his terrible weakness, least of all his extremely capable wife. He's also faced with the arrival of his old friend, who wants his help in locating his wife and newborn heir. Ned needs to figure out why his wife is acting so strangely, and how he can win her trust, and possibly even her heart, all the while hiding his depression from her.

Things I liked: Kate is a great heroine. She's brave, independent, intelligent and caring. Unsatisfied with her pampered existence as a duke's daughter, she wanted to help others, and has been aiding abused women since she was sixteen. She hasn't been able to tell anyone about it, as in the male dominated society she lives in, she's be unlikely to get any support. She marries a man she barely knows, and he abandons her before she has a chance to really get to know him. Yet she's determined to make her marriage work, even when her husband does things that make little to no sense to her. She's calmly stands up to threats from her friend's abusive husband, and even takes a beating rather than reveal the location of the woman she spirited away.

Courtney Milan clearly likes her heroes to be a bit damaged. A romance hero with depression is an unusual thing. I like her trying to do something different.

What I didn't like:
Ned is pretty much a prize idiot. I get why he was so determined to gain control over himself and try to tackle his depression all by his lonesome. But it's a moronic thing to do. Kate keeps reaching out to him, making romantic and seductive gestures, and he mostly pushes her away. He keeps telling her that he wants her to trust him and lean on him, but refuses to actually tell her how he really feels or what he fears, and for much of the book I just really wanted to slap him silly. I myself have suffered depression, and I'm married to a man who struggles with depression much worse than what Ned is described as having, and this made much of the book difficult to really enjoy for me. A romance pretty much fails when you feel the heroine could do better and should pick someone else.

Despite that, Milan is a very capable writer, and the overall plot of the book and the heroine is enough that I don't regret reading it. It's no Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever, so it's got that going for it.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

End of year review 2011 - start of Cannonball IV

New year, new Cannonball Challenge. As reading and blogging 106 books became more of an ardous chore than something I actually enjoyed doing, I will start out by reading and blogging 52 this year. Depending on when I finish that accomplishment, I will then set a new goal for the rest of the year.

Due mostly to a very heavy workload, and more demands from my job than in previous years, 2011 was the year when I got less reading done than since I started keeping track of such things a few years ago.

In total I read 133 books.
I read 111 new books, I read 7 graphic novels/comics collections, and I reread only 15 books. This is a lot more than most people manage, but a lot less than I myself managed only the year before.

My goal for 2012 is therefore to try to limit the degree to which work seems to take over my life, so that I have more time to read, blog, socialize and otherwise do enjoyable things. Reading makes me happy, too much work makes me miserable - hence, it seems sensible to up the amount of the former, and manage my time better so I get less stressed by the latter.

I also attempted to make a Top 10 list of the best books I read in 2011, but it turned into a Top 13 list, as I had too many favourites. In alphabetical order, going by author, here are the reads of 2011 that I enjoyed the most:

The Peach Keeper - Sarah Addison Allen
Fate's Edge - Ilona Andrews
Chime - Franny Billingsley
The Black Hawk - Joanna Bourne
Heart of Steel - Meljean Brook
A Lady's Lesson in Scandal - Meredith Duran
What I Did for A Duke - Julie Anne Long
Unraveled - Courtney Milan
The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern
The Wise Man's Fear - Patrick Rothfuss
Attachments - Rainbow Rowell
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society - Mary Ann Shaffer/Annie Barrows
Daughter of Smoke and Bone - Laini Taylor

All the books were reviewed here on my blog in the past year, so if you're interested in reading a more detailed explanation of why I liked them, use the search function.