Thursday 28 February 2013

#CBR5 Book 21. "The Diamond Age" by Neal Stephenson

Page count: 499 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Some time in the future, when nano technology means you can assemble pretty much anything you want in matter compilers, and there aren't really separate nations any more, so much as various tribes, determined by allegiance rather than race, there lives a little girl called Nell. Her mother is a servant, her father was a  low-life thug who died when she was still a baby. Nell grows up in a slum area of futuristic Shanghai, with only a few stuffed toys and her older brother Harv for comfort as they try to ignore the poor treatment from the ever changing selection of dead beat boyfriends their mother drags home.

One day Harv brings Nell a present - an electronic device shaped like a book. The Young Ladies' Illustrated Primer isn't just any book, but a piece of near unique technology created for the granddaughter of one of the world's most powerful men. The engineer who devised it made an illegal copy for his own daughter, wanting only the brightest and most promising future for her. However, on the way home from his illicit mission of copying the Primer, he's mugged, and as none of the other little hoodlums want what they think looks like junk, Harv gives it to his sister. As Nell discovers, the book addresses itself to her directly, and starts relating exciting stories about Princess Nell and her four special friends, named exactly the same as her beloved toys.

As the years go by, tiny Nell learns all manner of useful things from the Primer. She learns to read, think for herself, defend herself from playground bullies and a wide range of problem solving abilities. She doesn't know that the engineer who created the Primer is ensnared in a complicated web of intrigue because his involvement with the criminal underworld to have it copied for his daughter, or that the actress hired to do the voice work for the marvellous interactive device is getting more and more attached to her, without ever having met her.

I was given this book as a birthday present in 2009, and actually did attempt to start it then. The first third of the book is written in such a convoluted and contrived sci-fi gibberish language, however, that I couldn't make it past the first 30 pages last time. Because diamond is one of the monthly key words for February though, and because I'm doing the Mount TBR reading challenge, which this certainly qualifies for, and thirdly, because the friend who gave it to me thinks it's awesome, I stubbornly persevered through the aforementioned first third, resorting to skimming the worst excesses of techno babble. Once most of the info dumping to get the setting established and the characters to where Stephenson clearly wanted them to be, was over and done with, parts of the story actually started to interest me.

Nell is an awesome character, and I generally very much enjoyed the parts of the story that concerned her and her development into a remarkable, fierce and accomplished young lady, in part thanks to the Primer's guidance. Unfortunately, a lot of the book concerns Hackworth, the engineer who made the Primer, or other characters, which I cared nothing about. I found myself skimming a lot of this book, especially when it got a bit to techno gibberishy again. It's a book that's highly rated on Goodreads, and I'm sure that if I cared about advanced sci-fi world building and clever reinterpretations of technology, I would have liked this a lot more.

The more I try of the genre, though, the more I discover, that with a very few exceptions (usually ones that aren't very hard SF, or even very indistinguishable from fantasy), I don't actually enjoy science fiction. If this was written in a more accessible language, again, I'd probably have enjoyed it more. As it is, I'm giving it 3 rather than 2 stars because Nell was so great. Sorry Bjørnar.

#CBR 5 Book 20. "Ut å stjæle hester (Out Stealing Horses)" by Per Petterson

Page count: 246 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

I work as a secondary school teacher, teaching Norwegian teenagers English and Norwegian. Because I don't actually have any formal training as a Norwegian teacher, I'm also studying it part-time, which last semester meant studying grammar at a much more advanced level than I'd ever previously done, and this semester involves language history and reading a representative selection of contemporary Norwegian fiction. I'm ashamed to say that fond as I am of reading, the last time I finished a Norwegian novel was in 2010, when I read Victoria by Knut Hamsun with the tenth-graders. I read pretty exclusively in English, and this semester will be my chance to read more in my mother tongue.

Trond is an elderly man, clearly just past his pension age, who's moved out into the middle of the woods in the Norwegian country side. He clearly enjoys solitude, and spends his days walking his dog,  fixing up little things around the rustic cabin where he lives. A chance meeting with his closest neighbor, another solitary elderly man,  sets him reminiscing about his past, mostly returning to the summer of 1948, when he was 15 and his life changed forever.

Having felt the absence of his father keenly during World War II, when said father would disappear for months on end on secret missions for the Resistance, Trond is grateful and pleased that his father wants to spend the summer alone with him in a little croft not far from the Swedish border. An early morning, his friend Jon shows up suggesting that they "steal" horses, and the day that begins with trying to ride the horses of the local landowner, ending in a rather uncomfortable incident where Jon crushes a bird's nest and destroys all the eggs. Trond only finds out the truth behind his friend's strange state of mind that evening, in the first of several losses that summer.

Considering at least a quarter of the book depicts an old man pottering about chopping firewood and doing mundane tasks around the house, it's a surprisingly engaging book that kept me turning the pages. It deals with grief, loss, abandonment and betrayal, but also friendship and strong father and child relationships. First published in 2003, it's won a whole slew of Norwegian and international literary awards, and like a lot of Norwegian novels I just never seem to get round to reading, it's been on my TBR list for years and years. I'm glad I finally had the impetus to actually read it.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

#CBR5 Book 19. "The Way to a Duke's Heart" by Caroline Linden

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Charles de Lacey had a massive falling out with his father, the Duke of Durham, because when he was 22, Charlie wanted to marry a penniless girl of unsuitable family, and his father made sure the marriage never happened. Now Charlie's father is dead, and he discovers that the late duke also had a youthful indiscretion, but that said impulsive marriage may cost Charles his title as duke, and make him and his younger brothers illegitimate. While his two brothers initially started trying to sort out the whole scandal, one through legal means and the other by tracking down the blackmailer, they've both gone and fallen madly in love with their new wives, demanding that Charlie himself save the ducal title, his estates and their fortunes.

Having tried desperately to be the best ducal heir ever until their falling out about his ill-advised romance, Charlie was all the more determined to be the biggest disappointment possible afterwards. Known throughout England as a rake, a scoundrel and seducer of women and generally good for nothing, Charlie is rather shocked when his brothers demand he take matters into his own hands. He starts in Bath, where his brother Gerard discovered the name of the man who posted the letters. At the hotel where he's staying, he runs into a haughty young widow, who unlike pretty much every other woman he's ever met, has absolutely no time for him, and seems to regard him as a nuisance rather than God's gift. As she seems to be doing business with the potential blackmailer, he wonders if she's an accomplice in the plot against the de Laceys, and even follows her and her elderly companion in order to ascertain the truth.

Mrs. Tessa Neville has learned the hard way that charming and good-looking gentlemen are not to be trusted, she's been burned before, and has sworn off men entirely. She's also learned that most men are either disbelieving of or completely put off by her intelligence and business sense. Managing her brother's estate and advising him on financial matters is a very rewarding life for her, she doesn't need gorgeous and notorious noblemen swooping in and charming the wits out of her companion. Once she spends more time with the Earl of Gresham (as the title isn't legally his yet, Charlie doesn't call himself a duke), she discovers that he's not just a handsome face, and that he seems to have a lot of time for her cleverness and forthright opinions.

The previous two de Lacey brothers both fell in love very quickly indeed, but both seemed to at least spend a little bit of time getting to know their significant others. Tessa goes from pretty much loathing and mistrusting Charlie, to being head over heels in love with him. The flaws in his character are actually really well explained in this book, as is her wariness towards men and romance, but she still changes her opinion of him pretty much overnight, and that seemed a little bit too sudden for me. Seriously, they spend less than a week in a muddy little village, while she's investigating a canal scheme her brother wants to invest in, and Charlie desperately tries to find anything else in the world to do rather than go through boring old ledgers to investigate his father's clandestine first marriage.

I see why Charlie fell for Tessa, but her opinion goes from "get away from me" to "please get me out of these wet clothes and ravish me" (because she does indeed turn up on his doorstep, at night, in the pouring rain) in about 2 days. It seemed like a pretty boring village, but at least her companion entertained herself with lurid novels, she didn't just throw herself at the first handsome guy who showed her the least bit of interest.

Still, despite the extremely sudden change from dislike or at least indifference to mad, passionate love on Tessa's part, I really enjoyed this book too. The final revelation of what actually motivated the blackmail and caused the "Durham Dilemma" was nicely done, and having to sort out his own troubles led to impressive personal growth in Charlie. I suspect I may have to go back and check out Caroline Linden's back catalogue, to see if her previous novels are as entertaining as these.

#CBR5 Book 18. "Blame It on Bath" by Caroline Linden

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Gerard de Lacey may be declared illegitimate because of a clandestine marriage his father, the recently deceased Duke of Durham, entered into in his youth, before he married Gerard's mother. A year before his death, the Duke started receiving letters blackmailing him. Now the London gossips won't stop talking about the "Durham Dilemma", his brother Edward is busy trying to prove their legitimacy through legal means, and his older brother Charlie, the heir, is mainly staying far away from the whole business. Gerard thinks the best way of solving the situation is tracking down the blackmailer. He also plans on finding himself a rich wife as soon as possible, so that he can secure his future, even if the scandal is not resolved in the de Lacey brothers' favour.

The blackmail letters were posted from Bath, so Gerard resolves to go there. Before he even leaves London, he may have solved the issue of securing a rich bride. Lady Katherine Howe, a recently widowed lady, approaches him at an inn, offering him marriage and her enormous fortune of nearly one hundred thousand pounds. She needs a husband in a hurry, or she'll have to marry her dead husband's unpleasant nephew. She knows Gerard needs money, in case the courts declare him and his brothers bastards. What she doesn't tell Gerard is that she grew up not far from the ducal seat in Sussex, and has nurtured an unrequited infatuation for him for over a decade.

So Gerard suddenly finds himself very much married, to a complete stranger. It doesn't take him long to see that the combination of Katherine's beautiful, drama-queen mother, and her much older, stern and overbearing former husband have had a massive impact on her self-esteem, confidence and general demeanour  She seems desperate to please him, and is extremely surprised every time he wants to spend any time talking to her or you know, have marital relations with her. She's even more surprised to find out that sex can be fun and enjoyable. Of course, he also needs to learn that actually sharing his thoughts and feelings with his wife is good, she won't just be distracted with more smexy times every time difficult topics come up.

I mentioned that I liked the fact that the heroine in the last book in the series, One Night in London, was a widow with a happy former marriage, who seemed to have a very positive attitude to romance, sex and relationships in general. Well, here we get the opposite. Poor Lady Katherine has been told that she's plain and dull and unattractive since she was little, and her mother has made sure she got everyone's attention at all times by making sure her daughter dressed in frumpy, unflattering clothing. Then she was married off to a much older man, who mistreated her and had several affairs.

So it's no surprise that she built her infatuation of the gallant young Gerard de Lacey up as something wondrous, and decided to go after him when he was finally in a position that he was unlikely to accept her offer of marriage. He really does a very good job being patient and understanding and encouraging, insisting that she buy colourful and pretty dresses and not cower all the damn time. I can't really fault him for being so thoughtless that when he finally gets a lead in the blackmailing case, he goes off for weeks without sending her word, because it's established that he's rather impulsive and rarely thinks things through carefully.

I still enjoyed this book a lot, if maybe not quite as much as the first book in the series. Next up - the resolution of the whole blackmailing scandal, and the eldest brother Charlie's book.

Monday 18 February 2013

#CBR5 Book 17. "One Night in London" by Caroline Linden

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

First of all, I have no idea what the heck is going on with the cover of this one. God knows what she's actually doing, my husband has several theories, but all of them pretty much qualify in the NSFW category, so we'll just leave it at that. Covers like these make me so very happy that I have an e-reader, because while I'm really not at all ashamed to admit that I enjoy romance novels, and read a lot of them, this is just not a cover I would want to display while on public transport on my way to work and back every day.

Lord Edward de Lacey is second of the Duke of Durham's three sons. On the Duke's deathbed, he confesses to Edward, and his youngest son, Gerard (the heir to the title is a wastrel and a rake who apparently had a massive falling out with his dad, and doesn't show up in time for the passing of his father) that he has a rather inconvenient secret he's been keeping. In his youth, before he became a Duke, he married a woman in secret, and never really made sure the marriage was dissolved or checked whether said woman was dead before he married his sons' mother. He's been receiving threatening notes that suggest someone knows about this, and the three young lords will need to figure out what actually happened, or their entire inheritance is at stake.

Gerard, the soldier, and apparently also the hot-headed one, goes off to try to track down the blackmailer. Charles, the rakish older one appears completely unbothered by the fact that he may not be a Duke after all, but fairly destitute with a scandal attached to the family name. Edward, who was always the calm and sensible one, who's been running the family estates and business for years, decides that the best way to solve things is to hire a clever solicitor, and prove their claims in court. If the Courts award Charles the title, no later proof of illegitimacy will be able to strip them of their inheritance.

Lady Francesca Gordon is a young widow who needs to hire a solicitor to gain custody over her niece. When her sister, and later brother-in-law died in short succession, no will was written to grant her legal custody over the girl. Francesca is convinced that the girl's stepmother is taking advantage of the girl's inheritance to support herself, her useless artist brother and the twins she bore shortly after the death of Lady Gordon's brother-in-law. Most of the men she talks to, refuses to take the case. She has finally succeeded in convincing one, when he rushes off and drops her like a hot potato, because Edward de Lacey wants to hire him instead. Francesca is furious, and shows up on Lord Edward's doorstep to tell him exactly what she thinks of his underhanded tactics. He's rather baffled by her impertinence, and makes her realise that he had no idea he had "stolen" her solicitor away from her.

Because Edward foolishly confessed the truth about his father's indiscretions to his fiancee, he in short order finds himself with a dissolved betrothal and the gossip rags speculating wildly about the "Durham Dilemma". Francesca approaches him with a deal - she will help him get a retraction printed, if he'll agree to help her find an attorney to take her case, and win her niece back. Edward wants the gossip killed as quickly as possible, and the meddlesome Lady Gordon out of his hair as well, so he agrees. Of course, once he spends more time in her company, he discovers that her case to locate and win custody of her niece is an easy one, and he grows more and more attracted to her every time they meet.

This book had the refreshing change of a heroine who is not a blushing innocent, but rather a widow. And not a widow with a miserable first marriage either, but a kindly husband who she misses greatly. She's actually the more aggressive of the two in the relationship, initiating the first kiss and generally doing her fair share of heavy lifting when it came to the seducing. That doesn't happen too often. It also meant that you don't have to have some sort of tedious variation on the inevitable deflowering scene, but instead two people who have both had sex before, and know that they enjoy it.

I liked that the couple genuinely seemed to like spending time with each other, and after the initial misunderstanding and slightly wrongful first impressions they had of each other, they discovered that they worked very well together in trying to locate Francesca's missing niece. The attraction between them is rather sudden, but the actual development of the relationship is given more time, and unlike in some romances, both characters also reflect on how suddenly they seem to be falling for each other.

Caroline Linden is a new author to me, but I'd seen her favourably reviewed in a few places, and Mrs. Julien read this entire trilogy last year, which suggested that it couldn't be all bad. This book sets up the main arc of the trilogy, each featuring one of the de Lacey sons, and I'm assuming that the complications surrounding the impending scandal and the blackmail and securing of the Ducal title will not be sorted out until the final book - set to feature Charlie, the dissolute rake one. As I enjoyed this one rather a lot, and have already bought all three books, I will proceed with reading about the youngest, hot-head brother next.

Saturday 16 February 2013

#CBR5 Books 15-16. "The Assassin prequels" and "Throne of Glass" by Sarah J. Maas

Total page count: 773

Prequel novella 1: The Assassin and the Pirate Lord - 3 stars
Prequel novella 2: The Assassin and the Desert - 4 stars
Prequel novella 3: The Assassin and the Underworld - 3.5 stars
Prequel novella 4: The Assassin and the Empire - 3.5 stars
The actual novel: Throne of Glass - 3.5 stars

WARNING! It's actually impossible to review the book without some of the stuff in the prequel novellas being spoiled - hence if you want to go in completely blank as to what's going to happen in these stories, you may want to read the review after you've read the various stories.

Celeana Sardothien is the world's most notorious assassin at the tender age of 18. She's also been a slave in the salt mines of Endovier for a year, after being captured by the ruthless king of Adarlan. The prequel novellas give the back story of how Celeana was found orphaned at the age of 8 and trained as the heir to the King of the Assassins in Rifthold, how she realised that her best interests were no longer in being a member of his guild and went on to buy her freedom and that of her fellow assassin Sam, and how she was set up and betrayed, losing her freedom, while Sam lost his life.

After a year of grueling work in the mines, Celeana is given an offer she cannot refuse. The King is holding a competition to find a new Champion, and Crown Prince Dorian, in an attempt to piss off his dear old dad, picks the most famous assassin in the country. If Celeana beats the other 21 candidates and wins, she will receive a full pardon, serve as King's Champion for four years, and then be completely free, to do as she wishes. Chaol Westfall, the Captain of the Guards, and Dorian's best friend, thinks it's all a terrible idea, but has no choice but to go along with it. It's also his job to oversee her training.

So Celeana, even though she hates and fears the King greatly, agrees - as the option is being whipped and starved and slowly wasting away while slaving in the salt mines. If she fails to win, she'll be sent back to the mines. As the contest progresses, she starts making real friends for the first time in her life. Now she just needs to survive long enough to win the competition.

The ridiculous tagline on the cover of the book claims that Celeana has a heart of ice - she totally doesn't. Having seen her homeland conquered by the same King who sentenced her to seven lifetimes of slavery in the mines, and having her parents brutally murdered (I have theories as to who said parents were, although I suspect the author is saving that for later in the trilogy), then being raised by a merciless assassin to kill for money isn't exactly something that creates a trusting, hopeful and affectionate individual. The one person she learned to trust in the Assassin's Guild was killed before her arrest, and other attempts at forming friendships while training as a hired killer did not end well.

In the prequel novellas, Celeana starts out as quite dislikable, she's arrogant, prickly, condescending and vain. In the year that passes in the prequels, she develops and changes quite a lot, in part due to the training she receives in the desert, but mostly due to the influence of Sam Corland, her fellow assassin. She learns about friendship and trust and becomes more selfless and caring. Of course, not everyone is fond of her new-found sense of independence and benevolence, which is exactly what leads to her being betrayed, arrested and ending up in the salt mines. The Celeana of the book has had a long year to learn that she's not invincible and that it doesn't matter how skilled an assassin you are when chained and starved and enslaved. She knows how precious freedom is, which makes her all the more determined never to return to the mines.

The book features somewhat of a love triangle, with Dorian, the charming Crown Prince and Chaol Westfell, his best friend being the rivals for her affections. Maas does a good job establishing the female characters in the book, there's both a noblewoman who hates Celeana and wants to snare the Prince, and a foreign Princess at the court on a sort of diplomatic mission, who becomes Celeana's friend. Even the female attendant who takes care of Celeana is pretty well depicted. I wish the personalities of the two men were as clearly established.

Dorian comes across as rather spoiled and indolent, actually, drawn to Celeana mostly because she's new to him and different, and not one of the many noblewomen he's probably already flirted with and/or seduced. Because his father's plans for conquering and enslaving most of the established world are so cruel, it's no surprise that he seems reasonable because he's not really supportive of this, and ineffectually tries to stand up to the King occasionally. He's young, and talks to his mother about wanting to marry for love. There's quite a bit of talk about how horrible his younger brother is, but I still wish Maas had given us more concrete proof as to why we should root for him. The fact that he early on keeps teasing Chaol about his attachment to Celeana, but then swoops in and makes a move himself, also makes him come across as rather douchy.

The Captain of the Guards, Chaol, fares a bit better, but mostly because he gets more page time, so to speak. He's the one who trains her every day, and is slowly convinced that while she's trained in pretty much every deadly art, she's not actually a crazed killer out to assassinate the King, the Prince or other members of the court. Clearly a lot more reserved than his friend, he keeps being embarrassed when people question his growing feelings for the assassin, and once his friend the Prince makes a move, he loyally retreats. I get the impression that Maas is intending for him to be the winner of the two suitors, but this is the first book, and if the tropes of YA have taught me anything, nothing will be properly settled until the third and final volume.

I liked the prequels, and the book quite a lot. There's some very cool world building, and the author writes good, strong and diverse female characters. The main thing that annoyed me with the book is that there was an underlying mystery running parallel to the competition plot, where various contestants are brutally murdered and eviscerated, with their organs being eaten. I thought this was completely unnecessary, and would have liked the story better without it. Still, the next book is out on my birthday, and I'm interested in seeing what happens next.

Sunday 10 February 2013

#CBR5 Book 14. "The Dust of 100 Dogs" by A.S. King

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 3 stars

In the late 17th Century, successful teenage pirate Emer Morrissey has finally been reunited with her long lost love, and is about to leave the pirate life behind forever with two chests full of incredible treasures, when she is slain on a beach, and cursed with the dust of a hundred dogs. Over the next three hundred years, she lives through the lives of one hundred dogs, before coming back as a human, with all her memories of the one hundred and one lifetimes intact.

Remembering everything from Emer's childhood in Cromwell-ravaged Ireland, through her centuries as different dogs, means that Saffron Adams knows a lot more than normal children. Her Vietnam-vet father and alcoholic mother seems to think that Saffron's brains is going to be their ticket out of mediocrity. Little do they realize that Saffron is just waiting for the day she turns eighteen, when she can escape them, go to Jamaica and dig up her hidden treasure.

The Dust of 100 Dogs is an unusual book, with a different narrative structure. The story switches between Saffron's life in 1970s and 80s America, Emer's life in 17th Century Ireland, France and as a successful pirate in the Caribbean, with little interludes into her many different lives as dogs. To begin with, Saffron may seem a bit surly and unpleasant, but the more the reader gets insight into her home life, the more understandable it is that she hates her life, and can't wait to get away. Her parents keep talking about all the great things her smarts are going to bring to the family, but make absolutely no effort to better themselves or their situation. Things go downhill fast once her younger brother becomes a junkie.

Emer's life is not an easy one. Her village is mostly obliterated by Cromwell's forces on her sixth birthday (some party!) and she is taken in by her violent uncle, who sells her to rich Frenchman when she turns fourteen. Not really wanting to be a fat merchant's plaything, Emer runs away, determined to get back to Ireland and the boy she left behind. She doesn't realise that her love has set off in search of her, but ended up on a ship destined for Barbados. After living on the streets of Paris, Emer board a ship for Tortuga, and various circumstances lead to her becoming a pirate.

I liked the historical parts of the book a lot more than the more contemporary ones, mainly because Saffron's life was pretty boring, and she herself was mostly in a holding pattern waiting to go off and have adventures. Emer/Saffron was a cool protagonist, I appreciate what the author did with the structure, and I really like the cover. Think this one is going in the give away pile, as I doubt I'll want to reread it, though, and I have precious little space on my shelves anymore.

Friday 8 February 2013

#CBR5 Book 13. "Survivor in Death" by J.D. Robb

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is book 20 in the In Death series, and while the books can be read in no particular order, and as stand alone mysteries, I suspect you'd have more fun if you started with some of the earlier books, or at the beginning with Naked in Death.

9-year-old Nixie Swisher sneaks down into the kitchen to grab a forbidden midnight snack, and in so doing, is the only survivor after two masked men slit the throats of everyone else in the house. The housekeeper, her parents, her brother and her friend who's visiting for a sleepover are all coldly and efficiently assassinated. Lt. Eve Dallas and her partner Delia Peabody take charge of the case, and to make sure the girl is safe, Eve goes over the heads of child protective services and brings the child home with her.

There is no apparent motive for the killings. The security in the house was expertly disabled, and the murderers were in and out of the house in less than ten minutes, suggesting military training of some sort. Once the killers discover that they left someone alive, they're determined to finish the job. Eve's decision to house the child witness in Roarke's impregnable mansion keeps her safe, but spending time with the traumatised child brings to the surface painful memories from her own past and her own early experiences with death.

This month (February) is In Death month on Vaginal Fantasy Hangout. Having read the first books more than once, I decided to just read new ones in the series, and when looking through the list, realised that I'd skipped this one entirely. Not that it matters that much once you get this far into the series, as all the major supporting characters are pretty much established, and you can jump in at any point without being too confused.

It's always fun seeing Eve out of her comfort zone, and having a young girl around is certainly one of those occasions. Luckily, trusted manservant Summerset (and the thorn in Eve's side) and a host of police officers are around to entertain the girl while Roarke tries to to find out who can take care of her once the case is solved, and Eve and Peabody work diligently to crack the case and find out who's behind the vicious murders.

While all the books are formulaic to a certain extent, and if you've read a few of these, you're pretty sure what you're going to get in each book, some of them are more entertaining than others. Letting the reader see what Nixie sees at the beginning of the book, and making us sympathetic with the child is a nice touch, and the grief that Nixie has to face, and the growth it brings on in Eve  made this book one of the more enjoyable in the series for me so far.

Sunday 3 February 2013

#CBR5 Book 12. That Scandalous Summer by Meredith Duran

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

First off, I have no idea what's up with the cover. It has very little to do with the actual contents of the book. I seem to recall the heroine being described as wearing a lemon yellow dress at one point, but the dress on the cover is both historically inaccurate (I'm sure Mrs. Julien would back me up on this) and completely different from any outfit worn by anyone in this book. Sometimes the ridiculous cover tropes really get to me.

Now having got that off my chest, on to the synopsis! Lord Michael de Grey owes everything to his brother, the Duke of Marwick, who pretty much raised him after their parents' bitter and very public divorce. He defied the expectations of society and went to University to become a successful doctor. When the Duke hatches an insane scheme for why Michael needs to marry and provide an heir for the title, he refuses to give into his brother's threats. He retreats into hiding in a small village in Cornwall instead. Determined to stay hidden until his brother gives up his demands, Michael plans to stay away from all women, so his brother can't force him into marriage. For three months, he's able to live in peace and quiet, until the notorious and charming society beauty Mrs. Elizabeth Chudderey passes out drunk in his rose bushes. A very merry widow indeed, if the gossip is to be believed, Elizabeth has taken to drowning her sorrows when things don't go her way. And when her suitor unceremoniously dumps her after he finds out that she's not as rich as he believed, she drinks even more than is wise, and ends up on Michael's doorstep.

Elizabeth is not as vapid and shallow as the society papers would have people believe, and spends a large amount of money taking care of her estates, and those who live and work on them. She funds schools for several young men in the village, and knows that she'll need to marry soon, and to someone wealthy, to support the running of the estate and all her dependents. A summer flirtation with a handsome, but penniless country doctor is certainly not what she needs.

Meredith Duran's last romance, At Your Pleasure, was one of the most disappointing books I read last year, and it was even more of a crushing letdown because I've pretty much loved all of her previous romances. To have a writer I've come to trust to write excellent, if often rather angsty romance novels deliver a book I could barely bring myself to finish was disheartening. So it was a huge relief when the novella that preceded this book, Your Wicked Heart, was a good one, and That Scandalous Summer has restored my faith in Duran and her writing, for now.

Michael is a bit of a rake, and certainly has a reputation as a ladies' man, especially after an unfortunate incident in his past where he was spotted leaving the house of a prominent society widow. He's also a dedicated doctor, though, and deeply scarred by first his parents' disastrous marriage, and then his brother's. At the beginning of the novel, he truly seems to believe that marriage is the fastest way to kill love, or even affection, and he has no intention of shackling himself to a woman and saving the title because his brother's decided to become a celibate recluse.

Elizabeth's parents had a passionately loving marriage, while she herself married a wealthy man for security and lived to regret it. When his investments turned out to be unwise, and she ended up a lot less wealthy after his death, she was further shown the unreliability of men by her faithless suitor. After her mother's death, she's clearly developed a bit of a drinking problem, using alcohol to numb herself in a number of situations. Yet she rarely feels the need to drink around Michael, and because she believes him to be the complete opposite of what she's looking for in a man (poor, untitled, working for a living), she's able to show him a side that she's never able to reveal to her set of wastrel society friends.

For those who have read some of Duran's earlier books, there is an appearance of James and Lydia from Bound By Your Touch and there's also mention of some other characters from earlier books. There's also clearly setup for future novels in this book, I'm assuming Michael's rather unsympathetic older brother Alistair (the Duke) is going to feature in one of them. Elizabeth also has a rather mysterious acting secretary who disappears suddenly at the end of this book (who also appears briefly in the prequel novella), so I assume she's going to get a book at some point. I'm happy to say, that based on this book, I will again be pre-ordering Duran's books in the future.

Friday 1 February 2013

#CBR5 Book 11. "One Good Earl Deserves a Lover" by Sarah Maclean

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Yes, I know. The title is ridiculous. There seems to be a trend in current historical romance, in particular the ones published by Avon, to have silly, punny titles. I mentioned it to my husband, who coined an absolute gem of a "so bad it's good" title, and I'm hereby claiming it as my own, as it appears no one has yet to write a novel entitled Earls Just Want to Have Fun. That one's mine, bitches. When I finally tire of teaching and decide to become the first Norwegian famous for Regency romance novels, that shall be my debut novel.

Lady Philippa "Pippa" Marbury is decidedly odd by society's standards, and has known it her entire life. She's more interested in horticulture, anatomy, physics and mathematics than gossip, fashion, balls and fancy dresses. She wears spectacles. In two weeks, she's about to marry in a lavish double ceremony with her vibrant younger sister, to a man who's perfectly nice, and more importantly, is the only one who ever thought to propose to her. As Pippa has always believed in doing thorough research and that this is the way to prepare for everything, she is in need of a research partner who can help her figure out the more puzzling aspect of married life.

She's decided that the perfect man to help her with this research is the book-keeper of her new brother-in-law's exclusive gaming hell (see A Rogue by Any Other Name). Tall, reclusive, handsome and known only as Cross, she feels he'll be able to teach her about ruination and the many mysteries of romance without any emotion getting in the way. Pippa doesn't realise that Cross' reputation as a ladies' man is extremely exaggerated, and that Cross has stayed far away from women for a very long time, plagued by his guilty conscience and desperate to atone for actions in his past. He knows nothing good can come of their interactions, and as Pippa is soon to become a Countess, it's imperative that she not be touched by so much as a whisper of scandal. Gallivanting around notorious casino, propositioning complete strangers will lead nowhere good, yet she's unlike any woman he's ever met, and convincing himself that he's keeping her out of worse trouble, he agrees to her insane plan. On the condition that all his lessons are purely theoretical, and they never touch...

As a big ol' stinking nerd, I instantly get charmed when book dedications seem aimed directly at me. Last year, Tessa Dare dedicated her A Week to Be Wicked (awesome book, by the way) to "all the girls who walk and read at the same time." Sarah Maclean dedicates this book to "girls who wear glasses". It's not like she actually wrote the book for me, but it works nonetheless. Besides, it's incredibly refreshing and rather unusual to see a romance heroine who needs glasses all the time, and can't just take them off whenever it suits the plot because they're more of a shorthand to signify bluestocking.

Pippa is a huge nerd. She's one of five sisters, and has never really felt at home among them, or in society. She's an odd one, and is never allowed to forget it. She's inquisitive and pragmatic and fiercely intelligent, but completely clueless when it comes to most social interaction. She accepted the proposal of Lord Castleton because he's a kind, if a bit simpleminded man, and because it's quite clear her mother wouldn't allow her to remain a spinster. She's honestly puzzled by her sisters' ability to feel and express strong emotions, but wants to be the best wife and mother possible, and is therefore desperate to discover what her wifely duties will actually consist of. Her younger, vibrant and extremely outgoing sister's hints about kissing with tongues and fooling around in dark corners make her mystify her, and since none of her sisters are willing to clarify, she feels Cross will be the perfect man to assist her in what she genuinely considers research.

Cross is a former rake, who is now tortured and brooding and lives his life grimly punishing himself for former misdeeds. Smarter than most people he's ever met, he has the ability to count cards, balance books, calculate odds and strategise brilliantly. He's also ginger, not something you see in romantic heroes outside of Highlander (or Irish set) romances. He tries so valiantly to push Pippa away, but she keep coming back, and with every encounter, he becomes more smitten with her. Her unusual behaviour and intelligence are the things that appeal to him the most, which is also not a very common trope in romance. Due to Cross' vow of celibacy, there's more unresolved sexual tension than actual smexy scenes, but all the buildup makes the pay-off all the more satisfying.

There's a subplot in the novel with a rival casino owner who's blackmailing Cross, which further causes him to agonise over his past and brood and generally act emotionally like a Goth teenager, but Pippa's extreme awesomeness and refusal to be diverted from her goal more than makes up for it. I also love that unlike in my beloved Courtney Milan's The Duchess War, where the heroine is also extremely smart, the resolution of the plot is actually due to Pippa's cunning and determination, and it's not seemingly forgotten about in the last third of the book. There's also further appearances of the other owners of the gaming hell, who are both clearly going to feature as heroes in future books. Based on the first two books in this series, I've now upgraded Maclean to auto-buy.