Monday 28 January 2013

#CBR5 Book 10. "The Snow Queen" by Mercedes Lackey

Page count: 408 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Alexia lives in a snow castle in the far North and is one of many Godmothers, magically gifted individuals tasked with making sure that stories have happy outcomes rather than end tragically. The force known as Tradition will try to twist events into legendary stories, just as often as not with unhappy endings, and if no one keeps an eye out and intercedes and manipulates gently, a lot more individuals will end up in horrible messes than with happily ever afters.

Popularly known as The Snow Queen, Alexia is a Godmother especially skilled in mirror magic, and also seems to be the one in charge of "Be careful what you wish for". She has a reputation for being cold as the ice she lives among, emotionless and heartless. Only her fellow Godmothers know that this is just an act. She specialises in taking talented, selfish and arrogant young men, who Tradition, if left to run its course uninterrupted, could turn wicked and evil, away to her castle. There they're given everything they might want except company and hopefully, after weeks in icy solitude, come to discover that what they'd much rather have is the love of the pretty young girl they usually took completely for granted before Alexia showed up and swept them away in her ice sled. While the young men are taught humility and kindness, the young lady is sent on a rescue quest, where the Godmother can put enough obstacles in her path that the girl builds self-confidence and learns to fend for herself, ensuring that she won't let her arrogant beloved treat her as a doormat once they are reunited.

While acting out yet another variation of the above drama, Alexia discovers that someone else in the North is claiming to be the Snow Queen, and has left death and destruction in her wake, and seems to be kidnapping young men. Eager to clear her name quickly, lest Tradition turn any number of Heroes and Champions onto her doorstep eager to kill her and avenge the crimes of this other woman, Alexia needs to leave her remote palace and take a much more active part in proceedings than she's used to.

In alternating chapters, the book follows Alexia, but also two women determined to track down the false Snow Queen and rescue a young man. Annouka and Kaari, mother and fiancee to the last victim of the impostor, have magics of their own, and are not content to accept that he is lost to them. They set out on a quest to rescue the young man, and eventually meet up with Alexia, joining forces to achieve their goals.

This is the fourth in Lackey's 500 Kingdoms series, where she takes elements of various fairy tales, folk tales and various myths and re-imagines them into new and entertaining stories. The books are stand alone, and can be read out of order, but the story device of the Tradition and the Godmothers  is very well set up in the first book of the series, The Fairy Godmother, so anyone confused by aspects of this one, or interested in starting at the beginning, would do well to pick that one up. Enjoyable as this and several of the others I've read are, I don't think any of them are quite as much fun as that one.

Saturday 26 January 2013

#CBR5 Book 9. "Ever After" by Kim Harrison

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

SPOILER WARNING! This is book 11 in a series, and as such, not the best place to start reading Ms. Harrison's books. This review may contain spoilers for earlier books in the series, so if you're new to this author, skip this review, and go start at the beginning with Dead Witch Walking. You can come back and read this review once you've worked your way through books 1-10. It'll still be here.

Just as Rachel Morgan thinks that she's finally starting to get a semblance of stability in her life again, something comes along to turn everything on its head again. As various human and witch authorities stop trying to hound, trap and/or kill her due to her unique genetic abilities, Rachel finds herself on trial in the Ever After, the demon realm parallel to our own. The Ever After is rapidly shrinking, and the majority of the demons feel it's all Rachel's fault. She has only a few days to prove that it's a setup by the psychotic and extremely powerful Ku' Sox (who kills people and eats their souls for fun), who's tampered with the rift where the realm appears to be leaking, and on top of everything, he's kidnapped Rachel's goddaughter Lucy and her friend Ceri. Ku' Sox claims that the rift will close automatically once Rachel is killed, but Rachel knows that with the destruction of the Ever After, no one would have the power to control him.

So Rachel needs to stop Lucy's father (her former nemesis Trent Kalamack) from doing something incredibly rash to try to rescue his daughter, fix the leaking ley line, clear her name by proving that Ku' Sox set her up, rescue Lucy and Ceri, and try to figure out what the heck seems to be going on with between her and Trent, all in four days. If she fails, she will be killed, the Ever After will dissolve, all non-human and elven magic will stop working and Ku' Sox will become unstoppable. With her demon teacher Al out of commission and Trent unable to interfere because his daughter being held hostage, she's going to have to sort things out on her own, with only an adolescent gargoyle and a pixie to help.

Kim Harrison has said that there will be 13 books in The Hollows series, and it's clear that she's starting to move the story lines towards the conclusion of the series, slowly but surely giving the readers some indication of where the various characters are going to end up. She's not quite tied up all the loose ends yet, and this book shows that she still has surprises up her sleeve to keep loyal readers on their toes, but it's nice to know that things are building towards a finale, and a hopeful happy ending for Rachel and her friends.

Rachel has come such a long way from the beginning of the series, and she's constantly discovering that things are never as black and white as she once thought they were. In this book, she has to face some incredibly dangerous and tense situations, mostly completely unaided by any of her many friends and allies. Fans of Algaliarept, her sarcastic demon teacher, will be happy to hear that he's a lot more prominent in this story than in the last few, and as I've been a huge fan of Trent, even when he was a loathsome antagonist in some of the earlier books, it's so refreshing to see the relationship between him and Rachel changing into one of tentative understanding and trust.

If you've read and enjoyed the previous ten books in this series, this one will provide action and tension and a couple of shocking and really very unexpected losses. I stayed up until the early hours of the morning to finish it, and actually cheered at parts of the very dramatic final quarter of the book. I'm very excited about the direction Harrison seems to be taking the series in, and hope that it's not just some clever double bluff.

Friday 25 January 2013

#CBR5 Book 8: "Cinderella's Secret Diary: Lost" by Ron Vitale

Page count: 197 pages
Rating: 2 stars

We all know the story of Cinderella, right? Stepmother, evil step-sisters, forced to work as a lowly servant, Fairy Godmother, magical shoes and dress, meets the Prince at the ball, falls in insta-love, loses shoe, Prince finds her again thanks to magical shoe only fitting her of all the girls in all the land, and then they live happily ever after. Like that...or possibly not.

What if some years into their marriage, the Prince is more interested in hunting, carousing, flirting with other ladies and sowing his wild oats? The Queen, his mother is unhappy about the lack of heirs being conceived  and while Cinderella (actually name Sophia) is a princess, she is constantly lonely and frequently reminded of her lowly background. She dreams of re-kindling that first spark of love with her husband, and also wants to go to Paris and see the world.

This book is set in the 1700s, around the time of Napoleon's rise to power. Cinderella writes almost daily in her diary, pouring out her woes and hoping that her Fairy Godmother will return and make her life a better place again. The Queen agrees to send her and her companion Clarissa to France, to see a witch who might help Cinderella conceive an heir, and they stay in a chateau outside Paris with Josephine (yup, that one, Napoleon's wife). There's a handsome young nobleman named Henri who catches both the ladies' eye, and talk of magic and witchcraft and a Silver Fox who is also King of the Faeries, and mysteries surrounding the death of Cinderella's mother.

When I read the synopsis for the book, this seemed to be right up my alley. I'm a huge fan of most things even vaguely fairy tale related, and love a good reinterpretation of fairy tales and myths. A sequel of sorts to Cinderella grounding it in actual history? Sounds cool. Unfortunately, I thought the first half of the book was a tedious drag, and the second half (once the identity of the Fairy Godmother's been revealed) was a confusing mess. I see what the author was trying to do, and I suspect he's trying to empower Cinderella to make her own choices and show how strong and independent she is. Unfortunately, I think she mostly came across as a sad-sack whiner, painfully naive and downright stupid a lot of the time. She kept refusing to heed the warnings of those around her, she made countless incredibly foolish decisions and as the whole book is written in first person diary entries from her POV, you don't really get a handle of any of the other characters in any great depth.

I thought her initial actions in France were foolish in the extreme, and while she shows some courage and bravery in choosing a harder path once she's forced to make certain choices, I still didn't like her all that much, as she kept blundering into new and dangerous situations due to her complete lack of common sense and thought to the consequences of her actions. The only reason I'm giving this two stars is because some of the ideas in this book were good, and could probably have turned out ok, I just really didn't like the execution of them much. I spent far more time being bored or frustrated when reading this book than impressed and liking it, which is a shame, because the premise was very intriguing.

Disclaimer! I was given a free copy of this book in return for reviewing it. Thanks to Ron Vitale, but based on this, I'm not sure I'll be trying any more of your books. 

Wednesday 23 January 2013

#CBR5 Book 7. "Warbreaker" by Brandon Sanderson

Page count: 676 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Brandon Sanderson is an author I first discovered when he got the job completing The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. Having long ago given up on Robert Jordan (seriously, book seven pretty much turned any love I had for that series into ashes), I wasn't really bothered at first, but the internet kept saying such wonderful things about Sanderson's own writing, and I decided to try his Mistborn trilogy (reviewed all the way back in 2009 - use the search function if you're interested). While I have absolutely no interest in his fan fic completion of Jordan's books (it's fan fiction even if it's based on Jordan's notes and authorised by his estate, don't try to convince me of anything else), I have become a huge fan of his other booksThe fact that he writes entertaining books, frequently stand alone (always a plus, but oh so rare, when reading fantasy) and is terrifyingly prolific has endeared him greatly to me. He was also super sweet and unfailingly patient and polite at the signing where I met him, making me a huge fan of his. Warbreaker is one of his stand alone novels, and it's not exactly made me like him less.

In the country of Hallandren, those who die in glory are Returned and worshipped as gods in the colourful palaces of the capital city. In the neighbouring mountain kingdom of Idris, the people believe the worship of these Returned is heretical, that the people of Hallandren are decadent and frivolous, and it is considered virtuous to live as spartan and simple a life as possible. The priesthood of Hallandren consider the people of Idris breakaway rebels, as historically speaking, both countries were one. The threat of war is looming, and hoping to save his people, the King of Idris signed a treaty that when his eldest daughter, Vivenna, reached the age of 22, a princess of Idris would be sent to Hallandren to marry the God King and sire him an heir, thus reuniting the royal lines of the two ancient kingdoms.

Vivenna embodies all that is seen as ideal in Idris. She is calm, reserved, courteous, proper and has known since she was a child that she is to be sent as a sacrifice to marry the God King and hopefully save her kingdom from war. So when her father decides to send her youngest sister, Siri, to Hallandren instead, everyone is shocked. With her brother being groomed as the next king, Vivenna having trained to become the Hallandren queen, and the third princess having become a monk (as is traditional) to serve the people, Siri has always been the redundant one, who was allowed to run free, who chafed at the teachings of her tutors and who rebelled against everything. Now she is facing a future she is wholly unprepared for. With Siri being sent away to marry the God King, suddenly Vivenna is the redundant and useless one. She resolves to be rebellious for the first time in her life, and follows her sister to Hallandren, determined to rescue her from being married to what must be a terrifying monster.

In Hallandren, Lightbringer the Bold is one of the many Returned gods, worshipped by the people, living a pampered existence in the capital. Like all other Returned, he doesn't age, he will never get sick, he is worshipped by the populace - and he is terribly bored. Constantly questioning the established tenets of Hallandren religion, Lightbringer baffles and frustrates many of his fellow gods with his flippant and irreverent attitude. He tries to avoid getting involved in politics, but when some of his fellow gods claim that the presence of a new queen makes a war inevitable, he feels he has no choice but to get involved.

There is also Vasher, a mysterious and very powerful man with a sentient (and very funny) sword. His motives and ultimate goals are unclear, but he is clearly older than he seems, and very invested in stopping a war between the two countries from breaking out.

While somewhat uneven in its pacing, Warbreaker is a very entertaining novel. One of the very impressive things about Sanderson is his wealth of imagination, and his ability to create such diverse and different fantasy worlds. In his various novels he creates complex and fascinating societies and magic systems, multi-faceted characters and while his writing certainly has some flaws, his books are always worth checking out just for the scope of the creativity on display. In this book, there are the two ancient nations on the brink of war, originally united, but separated after a devastating war in the past, that also caused an apparent religious schism. Idris and Hallandren are vastly different, with religion being only one aspect of the difference.

The narrative switches between the point of view of the four protagonists, which is a device used by a lot of writes, probably most famously George R. R. Martin. It makes the action move forward faster, but also means that occasionally you want to skip ahead to follow your "favourites". To begin with, my favourite was probably Lightbringer, but by the end, it was probably a tie between Vasher and Vivenna (who totally starts out being the most dislikable of the four).

Vivenna sees Hallandren as vulgar and decadent, and is deeply sceptical and prejudiced. She had prepared herself for the great sacrifice that she was going to make for her country and people, and when that is taken away from her, she convinces herself that she must save her sister, when in reality she's really just looking for a new purpose and identity for herself. Everything she's been brought up for has been taken away from her, and she's completely adrift and doesn't deal well with it. Vivenna starts out as really rather insufferable, pious and narrow-minded when she first arrives in Hallandren. She's probably the character who experiences the most over the course of the book, though, and grows and develops most satisfyingly.

Any fan of historical fantasy should give Sanderson a try. If you don't like the Mistborn books, where the first one is by far the best, there's always Elantris or this, or his new series (rumoured to be a ten book epic) starting with The Way of Kings.

Friday 18 January 2013

#CBR5 Book 6. "Crown of Embers" by Rae Carson

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

This book is the second book in the Fire and Thorns trilogy. While this review is unlikely to contain big spoilers for the previous book in the series, this book really doesn't work well on its own, and it would be better if you started at the beginning with The Girl of Fire and Thorns.

Now the widowed queen of a constantly besieged country, Elisa is doing her best to be a better ruler than her weak and cowardly former husband, but as she's still only seventeen, and not exactly experienced as a ruler, she's not having an easy job of it. The only people she can trust implicitly are her closest servants and Hector, the head of her Royal guard.

The power hungry sorcerer priests from the neighbouring country are demanding that she surrender herself to them as a willing sacrifice, or they will continue to threaten and attack her people. The political situation in her country is fraught and vulnerable with external threats and internal strife. Her Royal Council are demanding that she find a husband as quickly as possible, to prevent a possible Civil War. Too bad that the only man she really likes is Hector, who is sworn to guard her with his own life, and her older sister (the Crown Princess of another neighbouring country) is approaching for a possible marriage alliance.

After being attacked and nearly killed in her own palace, it's clear that the sorcerer priests are not Elisa's only worry. She needs to learn to control the power of the God-stone in her belly, and try to decipher the many prophecies to discover what great destiny lies in store for her. She discovers that she needs to go on a dangerous quest to the southern islands of her realm, where a great power will allegedly be available for the Chosen One who can survive the challenges of getting there.

Can she fool her Royal Council for long enough to get away, dodge the assassins out to kill her, postpone making any decisions about marriage treaties for herself or Hector, and succeed in finding the legendary zafira, which will give her power enough to take on an army of sorcerers?

The Elisa of this book is a year older, rather a lot more experienced in guerrilla warfare and somewhat wiser. She is still woefully ill-equipped to rule an entire country, especially one as politically unstable as the one she has found herself the Queen of. There are all manner of people trying to kill her, some of them are even courtiers at her own Court, possibly even members of her Royal Council, plotting to usurp her. She desperately wants to do a good job, but her self-doubt and insecurities cause her to keep making little mistakes that escalate into minor disasters.

She is forced to admit that she's in love with the head of her Royal Guard, despite the fact that an alliance between them would be political suicide. She needs to gain strength and consolidate her power, and has no choice but to set off on a dangerous journey with mostly her few loyal retainers as company. The situation Elisa is in is pretty depressing, all the way through the book, but she manages surprisingly well, all things considered. Her close friendship with her maid Mara is lovely, and the supporting cast are still very good and interestingly morally complex.

Elisa continues to be a character I enjoy reading about, and she learns a lot over the course of this book. The book ends on rather a dramatic cliffhanger, and I can't wait to see what's in store for her and her friends in the (hopefully) final book of this series.

Saturday 12 January 2013

#CBR5 Book 5. "Firelight" by Kristen Callihan

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Miranda Ellis has the power to start fires, but when she was ten years old, she wasn't very good at controlling it, and accidentally set her father's warehouse on fire, causing him to lose most of his money. He's never really forgiven her, and forces her to pick pockets and steal to supplement the family income. It also means that he has no scruples about promising her hand in marriage to an enraged nobleman whose cargo he stole while he was a thriving businessman.

Lord Benjamin Archer is an unbelievably wealthy, but cursed man, forever changed in a botched supernatural accident. Formerly a member of an elite gentleman's club, he's been travelling the world for decades looking for a cure for his malady. He never appears outside without gloves and a mask, and there are any number of terrifying rumours about him. Having first set eyes on Miranda after rescuing her from an attack in an alley, he becomes instantly drawn to her, and spares her father's life and forgives his debt if he agrees to the match. When his spies reveal that Miranda is forced to steal to survive, he returns to London to claim her as his bride, assuring himself that she is better off with him than with her careless father.

Shortly after their wedding, Archer is accused of the grisly murder of one of his former friends and club members. Miranda is convinced that her husband is innocent (having connected the mysterious hooded stranger who rescued her all those years ago with the masked man who insisted on marrying her), but he refuses to share the details of his past and his disfigurement, and mostly keeps far away from her. As her attraction to her husband grows, Miranda becomes determined to clear his name, and discover the truth about his curse, once and for all.

Things I liked:
- Miranda is not a blushing virgin when she gets married, and Archer doesn't explode in a fit of jealous rage when he discovers this fact
- Miranda has a cool power, and is generally a fairy engaging heroine
- Lord Archer's curse turns out to be a lot more complicated and cooler than I thought at first
- Archer is not as overbearing and dominant and douchy alpha male as a lot of romance heroes

Things I thought could have been expanded on:
- Some of the world building felt a bit rushed, and there was a little bit too much of the secret club shenanigans that wasn't clearly explained, even after the reveal of what the curse actually was
- There was a little bit too much tell, and not enough show in this book
- If Miranda is going to use her alleged mastery with a sword at the climax of the book, you might want to spend a bit more time setting up her abilities than one brief practise session with her childhood friend at the beginning, and a mention in passing of said abilities later in the book
- I would have liked the book to give me a bit more substance to the romance between Archer and Miranda. I can get behind insta-attraction, some people are just super hot. But near-instant everlasting love is harder for me to accept, especially when I've not been given anything to suggest why these two people love each other. Want to have sex, sure, but building a marriage lasting a lifetime. No.

I did still mostly like the book, and hopefully Callihan's writing will become more polished with time. The next two books in the series are about Miranda's older sisters, both introduced in this book, and I was definitely intrigued enough by this book to want to check those out.

Thursday 10 January 2013

Additional Reading Challenges

So it's obvious to anyone who visits this blog that I read a lot. This is my fourth year participating in the       Cannonball Read, I do the 24-hour Readathons, I took part in the R.I.P read last autumn. I like reading challenges. Thanks to one of my main Cannonball rivals, Jen K (seriously, she reads so much, and so fast, I don't think I'll be first to 52 this year, to put it that way), whose blog I follow, I discovered three very interesting looking ones, that I've now signed up for.

The Mount TBR Reading Challenge is basically doing what I'd set out to do anyway - trying to reduce my To Be Read list a little bit. The rule is that you can only read books bought before 2013, and there are a number of different levels to the challenge, from 12 to 150+. As I'd promised myself I was going to read at least two books a month from my ever growing TBR pile, I've signed up for the Mt. Blanc challenge, which is at least 24 books over the course of the year. It's ok to upgrade, but not to downgrade. It wouldn't be a challenge if you didn't have to work a bit for it. It would be fun if I could manage more, I'd certainly feel less guilty about all the books I buy.

The Monthly Key Word Challenge  gives you a list of ten key words every month, and the challenge is trying to read at least one book with that word in the title (or closely related words) that month. The key words for January are winter, snow, silver, white, cold, shiver, smoke, fire, freeze and breath. I've already made a list of potential titles I can read, and at least three of them are on my TBR shelf. It's a win win situation, really.

The third challenge should be a doozy, considering how much historical romance I read in any given year. I've signed up for the Medieval, which is 15 books, but considering I've already read one book this year which qualifies as historical (although what exact time period it's set in is not entirely clear), I may well upgrade to Ancient History, which is 25+ books, as the year progresses.

Now, the real challenge will be trying to combine all three. Reading historical fiction books with the monthly key word in the title which is also on my TBR shelf. I'm pretty sure I can do it for at least one month, but it'll be fun to see if I can manage more.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

#CBR5 Book 4. "In Bed with a Highlander" by Maya Banks

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 1 star

I was going to start this review by presenting some facts about how big a sub-genre of historical romance the Highlander romance is, but it turned out that it wasn't easily found by just briefly searching Google, and this book isn't worth the effort to actually spend a lot of time researching the odd quirks of romance literature. Suffice to say, there are a whole bunch of sub-genres to historical romance.

There's Regency - which is when Jane Austen wrote her books, this is a huge sub-genre. Victorian, Medieval, Pirate, Western, American Civil War - usually the hero and heroine are on opposite sides, oh noes, how will they ever make their romance work? Then there is Highlander. There's a bafflingly huge number of romances with covers featuring half-naked men wearing kilts and/or tartans. Just look up and over to the left, to the cover of this book. Tartan, all over the place, despite the fact that the hero never wears any (probably because a huge amount of these books are pretty much Medieval romance set in the Scottish Highlands, when tartans were NOT what Scotsmen wore, I don't care what Braveheart made you believe).

Anyways, you want to hear what this book is about, do you, not hear me rant about the historical inaccuracies of romance novel covers? Mairin Stuart is the illegitimate daughter of the former Scottish king and niece of the current one. She's been hiding in a convent for years and years because she doesn't want unscrupulous Scottish men marrying her for her huge dowry and possible political influence. Then she gets kidnapped by one such unscrupulous Scottish Laird, who beats the snot out of her when she refuses his proposal, and because she's sheltering a charming plot moppet she rescued while being taken from the convent to his stronghold. She's helped to escape by some of his servants (no good explanation given as to why) and takes the child with her.

He's the runaway (and conveniently motherless) son of another Laird, who fortuitously for Mairin is the sworn enemy of her kidnapper. He's happy that she rescued his son, and once he discovers her true identity (which thanks to her dear old Dad, who branded the royal seal into her thigh as a baby (!) is easily verifiable), he decides that the best way to save her from evil kidnapper Laird is to marry her himself, which would of course mean that he could strengthen his impoverished, but oh so noble clan with her generous dowry.

Being a woman in Medieval Scotland, Mairin basically has the choice between marrying her abusive kidnapper, or the overbearing lummox whose castle she ended up in because she happened to save a wretched child from being beaten for horse thievery. Having spied on Ewan (widowed single dad Laird) and his brothers swimming naked in a nearby Loch, and being kissed a couple of times (Ewan thinks that kissing her is a good way to shut her up when she's trying to have her say, he's charming like that), she clearly decides that better the devil you know, and all that.

There's a bunch of complications where Mairin keeps being nearly killed in attempt on Ewan's life, and then another complicated plot by Evil Kidnapper Laird to claim he married her first, so he can claim her dowry for his own. Mairin keeps being wilful and trying to do her own thing, and gets yelled at a lot by Ewan. They have a lot of sexy times in between the shouting at each other and Mairin's near death encounters.

Everyone in the book has pretty much one character trait. Mairin is spirited. Ewan is brawny and protective (these go together). His two interchangeable brothers who are heroes in the rest of the McCabe-trilogy are very loyal. I don't even remember their names, and I finished the book about half an hour ago. Evil Kidnapper Laird is evil. Plot moppet is an 8-or 9-year-old boy, who despite his age keeps sneaking in to sleep in Mairin's bed, both before and after her marriage to his father. I found this creepy and inappropriate, but I'm pretty sure the author was aiming for adorable and charming.

I read this book because it's the alt read in January's Vaginal Fantasy Hangout, and I re-read the main pick, Outlander, just last year. It became clear quite quickly that the book was dreadful, but I decided to see if it got interesting or the characters actually developed as the book progressed. No suck luck. I'm pretty sure this will be a top pick for my 2013 Worst of the Year List, so there is that.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

#CBR5 Book 3. "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien

Page count: 285 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the first time I read The Hobbit myself. Many years ago, while the husband was still my boyfriend, he discovered that while I had read The Lord of the Rings several times, and in more than one language (Norwegian, then English), I had never actually read The Hobbit. I was never a huge fan of the long preface that explained about hobbits in LOTR, and frankly am one of the many people who think the first stretch of book, where they walk and walk and nearly get eaten by a tree and then walk some more (before Aragorn shows up, frankly) is dreadfully boring, and I didn't really see why I'd want to read a kid's book all about hobbits. More fool me, right?

Having already spent several pleasant weeks reading The Wind in the Willows to me, the now husband decided to read me The Hobbit. At the time, I was living in Edinburgh and he was still at University in St. Andrews, so we didn't see each other more than every other weekend or so. It meant that the reading took quite some time, but was totally worth it. Read out loud a chapter or two at time every time we saw each other, I totally fell in love with the story of the book (even though it features NO women whatsoever - seriously Tolkien, I still hate you for your lack of female characters).

Do I really need to summarise the plot, what with the movie being in the cinemas and all right now (don't get me started on why they needed to make a nearly 3 hour movie to adapt 94 pages of book, by the way, it'll get ugly). Here you go, one paragraph:

Bilbo Baggins is a staid little hobbit living a life of relative comfort who gets whisked away on an action-packed and frequently dangerous adventure with a band of mostly merry dwarfs, on a quest to reclaim their ancient home and treasure from a big and evil (but totally super cool) dragon. Along the way Bilbo finds a ring that will become really significant later in Middle Earth history, and discovers that he is braver and cleverer than many people thought.

Upon re-reading, I discovered some things I had completely forgotten. Bilbo is cooler than I remembered, and Smaug is pretty awesomely evil. I had no recollection of what a greedy and selfish douche Thorin was though. Seriously, dude, mountain full of gold and you won't share a tiny bit with the people whose village was destroyed and who helped you actually secure your treasure. For shame. Also, most of the dwarfs really are nothing more than a string of names, with no characterisation whatsoever. They're just an interchangeable band of dudes with beards, and pretty useless the lot of them. When they're not being rescued by Gandalf, it's Bilbo who has to save the day. These things took away a bit of my enjoyment. It's still a cool story though, made all the better because not all the walking is described in as much detail as in LOTR. 

Saturday 5 January 2013

#CBR5 Book 2. "Jane" by April Lindner

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 3 stars

What if Jane Eyre was a young college girl forced to drop out after her parents' death, and take a position as a nanny to make ends meet, and save up enough money to finish her degree? What if Mr. Rochester was a world famous rock star with a tempestuous past working towards a comeback?

Spoiler warning! If you haven't read Jane Eyre, a novel that is more than 160 years old by now, this review will contain some spoilers, and you should probably skip it. However, you should also go find a copy of Jane Eyre and read it, because it's great.

Still here? Ok, then. Jane Moore is an art student at Sarah Lawrence, but can't afford to pay tuition after her parents die, leaving her almost destitute. She takes a position as a nanny at Thornfield Park, taking care of rock legend Nico Rathburn's daughter from an ill-advised and brief relationship with a French starlet.

Nico Rathburn seems demanding, gruff and arrogant at first, but is clearly pleased with Jane's efforts to take care of and nurture his daughter. Working towards the release of his new album and a subsequent world tour, Rathburn isn't even around that much at first. As he spends more time at Thornfield Park, however, Jane can't help but grow closer to him, even as he seems to be wooing the glamorous celebrity photographer Bianca Ingram to be his new wife. And what are all the strange noises coming from the restricted area on the third floor? Why is no one allowed up there? What exactly is Nico hiding from the world?

April Lindner is a professor of English at a University in Philadelphia, and says that Jane Eyre is her favourite novel, that she teaches at any opportunity given to her. So it's not a surprise that this is a very faithful adaptation of the classic novel. While there's not as much time spent dwelling on Jane's absolutely awful childhood, the modern take on Jane still had a pretty rotten upbringing, with self-centred parents more concerned about her older siblings. She's an art student, shy, introverted, plain (not as obsessed with her appearance as the original, God I want to shake that girl for all her whining about how unremarkable-looking she is).

Mr. Rochester has become Nicholas Rathburn, former bad boy rocker with all manner of womanising, alcohol and drug abuse and partying in his past. Now clean and sober, he's launching his comeback album and planning a massive tour with his band. Blanch Ingram is instead a sexy fashion photographer, and the mad wife in the attic is his deeply unstable, schizophrenic first wife who he refuses to have institutionalised.

Lindner clearly knows the novel so well that I'm pretty sure that if I could be bothered to go to the shelf and find my copy of Jane Eyre, I would find that the plot for each chapter is pretty much faithfully recreated, just updated to a modern setting. It's actually very well done, and I won't deny having been engaged by the story and swept along by the drama on occasion. I read the book in two days, so it's not like it was boring or a lot of hard work. I'm just not entirely sure why the adaptation needed to be made. Still, there were no zombies or ninjas or sea monsters or vampires, it's just a very accurate modern take on the novel for a young adult audience (although those faint of heart should know that there are some smexy times, if not very graphic - get ready to clutch your pearls). As someone who's very ready for that fad to be over now, I guess I should be grateful. I will also confess to being curious about the author's next novel, which is a modern take on Wuthering Heights. Maybe she can make me hate that book a bit less by modernising it?

Friday 4 January 2013

#CBR5 Book 1. "The Rook" by Daniel O'Malley

Page count: 512 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

This book appeared on a lot of various book bloggers' Best of 2012 lists (including more than one Cannonballer's), and I totally see why. It's the first book in a long time that I was reluctant to put down and stop reading, even for short periods, and that I stayed awake until stupid o'clock in the morning to finish reading.

A young woman stands in a park in the rain, surrounded by fallen bodies of people wearing latex gloves. She's beaten and battered, with no memory of who she is. In her jacket pocket, she finds two numbered envelopes. "Dear you, the body you are wearing used to be mine." starts the first letter. The writer of the letters is Myfanwy Thomas, a woman with unusual powers, highly placed in a top secret supernatural government agency known as The Chequy. New Myfanwy is given the option to create a new identity for herself, take a large amount of money and disappear completely. She can also, should she choose to do so, take the written instructions that the mysterious letter writer gives her, and continue being Rook Thomas.

Myfanwy is one of two Rooks, outranked by only six people in the Chequy. The organisation has operated in Britain for centuries, working to keep the country and much of the rest of the world, safe from supernatural threats. In the letter, Myfanwy is warned that some other member of the Court (a Lord, a Lady, two Bishops, two Chevaliers and one other Rook) is behind the plot to steel her memory and kill her. New Myfanwy has to try to assume the many and complex duties of Thomas (as Myfanwy comes to think of her), and try to figure out who is conspiring against her, to prevent it from happening again.

As her job involves overseeing the workings of a highly complex government agency, her closest counterpart happens to be not one, but four distinct and different bodies (three men, one woman) governed by one mind, our heroine's task is a daunting one. Thanks to the wealth of written instructions, however, Myfanwy seems to manage to cover up her memory loss quite well, although several people around her seem to be surprised by the more assertive and outspoken role she's taking.

The book has a brilliant way of delivering exposition, as at the beginning of the story, Myfanwy is as blankly ignorant as the reader. Every single aspect of her life has to be explained, and is slowly revealed throughout the story whenever there is the most need for it. Through the many letters, and the comprehensive file old Myfanwy leaves for herself, we discover the history of the Chequy (and of their American equivalent, the Croatoan), their inner workings, get the biographies of all the court members and those people Myfanwy works with most closely.

Myfanwy discovers that while her closest colleagues can spread their consciousness and independently control four bodies, manipulate and reshape metal any way they want, invade people's dreams and control them and all sorts of awesome things, the old her mainly rose through the ranks based on the terrible potential of her "superpower" and her meticulous administrative abilities. While Rook Thomas could take control over other people and make them do whatever she wanted  or cause all sorts of damage with a mere touch (make them shoot or stab themselves, blind them, deafen them or make them lose all control of their bodily functions), she was apparently very reluctant to use these powers for the good of the Chequy. Old Myfanwy was, to all intents and purposes, just the perfect and never tiring civil servant, freeing the other members of the Court up to deal with the more exciting aspects of stopping supernatural threats.

New Myfanwy has no such scruples about her fascinating abilities, and also discovers that she necessarily need to be touching the person in question, just be in close proximity to them. Wisely, with someone in the Court plotting against her, she keeps this knowledge secret. As well as doing her best to cover up her amnesia and maintaining her every day duties, while trying to figure out which of the members of the Chequy Court had her memory erased and tried to have her killed, Myfanwy's new life is further complicated by the return of a centuries old Belgian menace that requires the Chequy and the Croatoan to join forces.

This book grabbed me from the very first page, and wouldn't really let go. While there is a lot of action, and actually a fair bit of gory and unpleasant bits, there are also quieter bits which are nonetheless fascinating because Daniel O'Malley's done such a great job not just with Myfanwy as a character, but with the entire supporting cast, from the multi-bodied Gestalt down to the lowly foot soldiers of the organisation (like Lil' Pawn Alan) and the world building in general. I loved the idea of the Chequy and the supernatural threats to the world in general, which is riffing on Torchwood, the X-men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the X-Files and a whole bunch of other fantasy and sci-fi ideas, while still doing something entirely new and very fresh with it. A tremendously fun and suspenseful read, that keeps you entertained and interested all the way through, The Rook was a great way to start my reading year.

Tuesday 1 January 2013

New Year, new Cannonball Read

Another year, another reading challenge. If any of my blog readers would like to join in the fun, and read and review books for themselves, there is still time to sign up for Cannonball Read V.

As you can see from the counter on the right hand side, I've reset it to show 52 books, as that is my initial goal. My Goodreads goal for the year is for 104 books, because it would be awesome if I managed to complete another double Cannonball.

Happy New Reading Year to you all - and thanks to all those of you who read my blog!