Thursday 25 July 2013

#CBR5 Book 104. "Fatale, vol 1: Death Chases Me" by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Page count: 144 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Nicholas Lash meets a stunning young woman at his godfather's funeral. Soon there are black clad gunmen after him, and the beautiful woman rescues him and drags him along on a high speed car chase. There is clearly more to her than meets the eye.

Josephine, the beautiful woman, is seemingly ageless, and in flashback we are told how she first met Dominic Raines, Nicholas' godfather, back in the 1940s and more about her mysterious and dangerous past. Every man who meets Jo seems to fall completely under her spell. Why doesn't she age? What was her connection to Raines, and why have sinister gunmen chased her through the ages?

The comic starts as a noir, but clearly has Lovecraftian influences, in a story involving dark forces, sinister rituals, corrupt cops, starry-eyed reporters, car chases, gun fights, murder, mystery and mayhem. The story is brilliantly told by Ed Brubaker, and wonderfully and very appropriately illustrated by Sean Phillips. Jo is a true femme fatale, and unwittingly brings despair and destruction to any man who falls under her spell. This first trade collects the first five issues, and while the story continues in the next volume, it can be read as a satisfying story in and of itself. Of all the comics I bought during my Chicago vacation, this is the one I'm so far the most certain that I will continue reading. Brubaker writes amazing mystery and suspense, and I can't wait to see how the story develops further.

With this, I complete my double Cannonball, 3 months earlier than I managed it last year. I'm still unsure if I want to attempt the monumental triple Cannonball, only ever completed by one participant, as far as I recall. Still, with four weeks left of my summer vacation, and several long plane journeys ahead of me, I'm not going to rule it out.

#CBR5 Book 103. "Morning Glories, vol 1: For a Better Future" by Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma

Page count: 144 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Six teenagers, all born on the same day, all just turned sixteen, arrive at the prestigious Morning Glory Academy. The school really isn't what it seems on the surface, though, and the kids soon discover that the academy is a bit like the Hotel California - you can't really leave once you've checked in. When they try to call their parents, said parents act as if they don't remember them. Detention is potentially lethal, and you pretty much want to do your best not to be sent to the nurse's office.

This first trade contains the first six issues in the series, and introduces us to six different teenagers - Casey, Hunter, Ike, Jun, Zoe and Jade. Casey quickly realises that the staff at the academy are not messing around, and tries her very best to withstand their various attempts to control and dominate her and her fellow newbies. Very little becomes clear in these issues, apart from the fact that Morning Glory Academy is not a place you want your kids, and that there's some seriously nefarious shit going on behind the scenes there. There's a murderous ghost, and creepy cult stuff in the basements, the school seems to have its own psych ward, and of course the faculty from hell. Because all of this is basically set-up, it's not really clear what the purpose of the school is, and what they're actually training the students they're keeping trapped there to become.

In the comic book store where I got this, it was basically described as Lost meets a posh boarding school. The description isn't a bad one. Of course, I didn't make it past the first season of the TV show, and while I really like some of the characters in this comic, I'm also not entirely sure I'm convinced by the tone and the many questions being set up. I wish there could have been at least one member of the faculty who wasn't a complete psycho, and that the only sympathetic adults we are shown in the entire series were the kids' parents (who are all out of the picture after issue 1). This may be too twisty and convoluted for me. I shall investigate online reviews of later issues and see if I want to continue with the series.

#CBR5 Book 102. "Global Frequency" by Warren Ellis and assorted artists

Page count: 288 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Global Frequency is an international, independent organisation founded by the mysterious and secretive Miranda Zero. It's made up from 1001 agents all over the world and deals with occurrences and situations too big, strange or dangerous to be handled by conventional means, such as eco-terrorism, mass hysteria, or secret government cyborgs out of control. The agents range from law enforcement representatives, both active and retired, professors, scientists, tech savvy teenagers, intelligence operatives and just generally experts in some field or other. Every single member can be called on in a crisis, connected in a world wide nexus, controlled by the enigmatic Aleph, who sits at the centre of the organisation and co-ordinates everything.

This series was originally published from 2002-2004, and I was sorry to discover that there are only the ten issues collected in this one volume. Each issue is a stand-alone story, featuring a few of the various agents of Global Frequency. The only recurring characters in each story are Miranda Zero and Aleph, and I'm assuming Zero must do constant recruiting, as being an agent for the organisation frequently seems to be very dangerous, and quite a few of the agents don't survive their various missions. Each issue is illustrated by a different artist, which adds to the separateness of the stories. Not all the stories were as entertaining, and in certain cases, I didn't really like the art much (the more I read of graphic media, the more it's becoming clear that it doesn't matter how good the writing is, if I don't like the art).

Global Frequency is an action packed and exciting mini series. Ennis can be an extremely capable writer when he sets his mind to it. I liked the episodic feel of the various issues, but was sorry to see that we don't find out more about Aleph, Miranda Zero and the bigger purposes for the organisation. I would really have liked to keep reading the series, with a "new crisis each issue", and the occasional development on the founding and background of the group. Sadly, that is not to be, so I guess I should be grateful that I liked more of the ten issues in the collection than not.

#CBR5 Book 101. "The Manhattan Projects. Vol 1: Science. Bad." by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra

Page count: 144 pages
Rating: 2 stars

What if all the scientists working on the Manhattan project during the 1930s and 40s were actually super scientists, many of them with special abilities as well as their super genius? What if the Einstein of our world was actually replaced by a more sinister version from another dimension? What if Oppenheimer was actually so brilliant because he killed and ate people to acquire their knowledge and abilities, carrying with him their personalities, constantly warring within him?

This comic pre-supposes that the atomic bomb was only a tiny and fairly insignificant side project for these scientists, and that inter-dimensional portals, worm holes, space exploration, telepathy and the like were much more in their purview. Creating an artificial intelligence and using the body of the dead Franklin D. Roosevelt to channel it. That sort of thing.

This first volume of The Manhattan Projects was part of a haul to a local comics shop I visited while here in Chicago, wanting to find some new and interesting things to read this summer. While I'm sure this is selling well, it really wasn't my sort of thing. The art is interesting, and a bit more unusual than what I'm used to. The colour palette of red, white and blue is used a lot. While I have a history degree, the 20th Century is way later than the period I'm mostly interested in, and science was never really a thing that fascinated me all that much. A bit too much of the stories in these first five issues were concerned with really quite unpleasant violence, bordering on horror. I'm all for trying new things, but this is not a comic I will continue buying.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

#CBR5 Book 100. "The Chocolate Rose" by Laura Florand

Page count: 253 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Jolie Manon's father was one of the very top chefs of France, before his restaurant lost it's third Michelin star, and he had a stroke. Now Jolie is trying to coax him back into greatness, with a cookbook featuring several of his most famous recipes, although her father is cranky and despondent and refuses to be seen in public. Of course, she can't tell her father that they're being sued, by his former employee, now a star chef in his own right. Jolie needs to go to the Côte d'Azur to negotiate some sort of compromise. She's worried that news of the lawsuit is going to make her father have a relapse.

Gabriel Delange has a three star restaurant in Provence, but still can't believe that his old nemesis, Pierre Manon, has the gall to publish a cook book where at least a third of the recipes were invented by Gabriel, while he worked himself nearly to death to secure Manon the coveted third star, sacrificing his health and losing his girlfriend. Gabriel is furious to realise that Manon won't even face him personally, but sends his youngest daughter to negotiate. He's shocked to realise that his old nemesis had a stroke, but still can't forgive him. He knows that if he forces the issue, the old man may get sicker. Maybe he can blackmail the beautiful daughter into making a deal on her father's behalf?

Jolie remembers Gabriel as a skinny and constantly overworked young man from her father's kitchen. She's not prepared for the burly, muscular and very loud man she encounters, and she certainly hadn't expected to be completely incapacitated by her attraction to him. When he promises that he will drop the lawsuit if she works on a cookbook with him, spending three days a week working in close proximity with him, she has no choice but to agree. She wants to make a name for herself as a food writer, and working with one of the star chefs of France certainly can't hurt. Of course, she remembers all too vividly how her parents' marriage fell apart, and her mother's dire warnings that she never get involved with a chef. Besides, what chance would she have with a man who considers her father his greatest enemy?

I adore Florand's romances, which seem very calculated to appeal to women on a number of levels. You have the tall, handsome, temperamental supremely confident and very capable heroes, all involved in some form of food preparation, be it chocolate, pastries or gourmet food. They're set in France, in supremely romantic locations, with lavish descriptions both of the surroundings and the many delectable things that the heroes create with their magical food preparation skills, and that they woo the heroines with. In this, Florand has also written a modern twist on a classic fairytale. There's the sick old man, the youngest and most loyal of three daughters. There's a stolen rose (in this case a famous dessert created by Gabriel, which Manon takes credit for and agrees to have on the cover of the cook book) and there is the daughter agreeing to spend time with a loud, beastly individual to protect her father's health. As variations of Beauty and the Beast go, this was a very creative and incredibly fun one.

I loved how Gabriel was both wonderfully arrogant and supremely confident both in his attractiveness and his skills as a chef, yet was so vulnerable because of his terrible luck in previous relationships and his desperate yearning for a stable, long-term relationship with a wife and kids. While Jolie has seen her parents' marriage dissolve because of her father's single-minded focus on his work, and is deeply aware of her mother's warnings, she's also clearly fascinated with the work of top chefs, and loves spending time in busy kitchens. She understands what drives Gabriel, and as she feels a need to be alone a lot, his demanding work schedule is not actually a major obstacle. Like Florand's previous novels, this was a delight to read. I can't wait for her next one.

#CBR5 Book 99. "About Last Night" by Ruthie Knox

Page count: 230 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Cath Talarico is a Chicago girl trying to make a new life for herself in London She has made several big mistakes in her life, but for the past two years, she's been working her ass of, being New Cath, who stays out of trouble, never does anything wild and crazy, and works diligently on an exhibition at the V&A, hoping to earn herself an assistant curatorship, despite the fact that she has no formal qualifications. Her life is so predictable that she can tell tell exactly which of the many commuters she shares a train with every morning, will show up at what time.

After a disastrous blind date (that Cath only agreed to in the hopes of securing a particular item for the upcoming exhibition), wakes up in a strange flat, and vaguely remembers being taken home by the man she only thinks of as City - one of her fellow commuters, always impeccably dressed in a three piece suit, who clearly works in the financial district, probably as a banker. She remembers enough that she knows she wasn't taken advantage of in any way, and is touched when she discovers he's left a new toothbrush and a clean towel out for her. When she's freshened up, she discovers that City, who is indeed a banker, in reality called Nev Chamberlain (yes, after the Prime Minister), also paints, and may not be the elitist rich guy she imagined him.

Nev works in the family's bank, but is absolutely miserable doing so. His older brother presents him with an ultimatum from their autocratic mother. Nev will get a lucrative promotion in the bank, but only if he agrees to get married to some suitable young lady. His family are frankly appalled that he's moved away from their sphere of influence, and is trying to express himself through paintings. He's just as attracted to Cath as she is to him, and soon they're conducting a passionate love affair, even though Cath refuses to tell him where she lives, or what she does for a living, and staunchly refuses to let him take her on any real dates. She has four tattoos on her back, as permanent reminders of the past mistakes she has made, but guards her secrets and will only occasionally let something significant about herself slip.

It's quite clear that Nev and Cath are complete opposites, and with Cath's previous experiences, she is very wary of new commitment. She's an artist with a dark and troubled past, and more trust issues than you can count. Nev is from a rich and privileged background, and pretty much hates his life, but is too unsure of his own abilities as an artist to break out of the life his family's expectations has made for him. Can the two of them ever actually make it work?

About Last Night was one of this year's RITA finalists for contemporary romance. I'd seen it favourably reviewed in a few places, but when a friend mentioned that knitting played a central part in the plot that I became really curious about reading it. It's a quick and very enjoyable read. The sexy parts are very steamy indeed, but that wouldn't have mattered if I didn't believe the chemistry between the characters, and their developing relationship. It's obvious from how different the characters are that their backgrounds and emotional baggage are going to lead to some form of conflict, but I was especially impressed with how that conflict both played out, and was resolved. Cath is an understandably damaged and cautious heroine. Nev is a great hero. He makes mistakes, but works hard to make up for them as well. There is absolutely a fair bit of angst in this book, but unsurprisingly, what with this being a romance, it all works out well in the end, in a satisfying and fairly realistic way, considering the genre. Well recommended.

#CBR5 Book 98. "Lick" by Kylie Scott

Page count: 286 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Evelyn "Ev" Thomas went to Vegas with her best friend to celebrate her 21st birthday spectacularly, and maybe get laid. She wakes up on a bathroom floor, monstrously hung over, in the presence of a very attractive, half-naked man with tattoos, and a diamond the size of a small ice berg on her finger. The courteous half-naked stranger is less than happy when Ev admits to having blocked out the previous night completely. She doesn't remember who he is, and she certainly doesn't remember getting married. Her new husband storms out in anger, claiming his lawyers will contact her.

Ev discovers that her new husband's name is David, because on her drunken night out, she apparently had it tattooed on her butt. She wants to just quietly forget that anything every happened, hopefully keeping her drunken mistake from her parents. When a horde of paparazzi meet her as she arrives back home in Portland, asking her all sorts of intrusive questions about what her new marriage will mean for the future of Stage Dive, Ev realises that anonymity is no longer an option. Her friend Lauren is both shocked and delighted that Ev's new husband is David Ferris, guitarist and song writer for the biggest rock band out there at the moment (and Lauren's favourite band). Ev is determined to just get the marriage annulled, and agrees to be flown to LA to get the papers signed when David sends a bunch of body guards to pick her up at her parents' house.

When she arrives in LA, there's a huge celebrity party at the mansion where the band are staying. David pretty much completely ignores her, dumps her in a huge bedroom, all alone. He then gets furious when he finds her later in the evening, talking to his brother (who Ev doesn't recognise), who is skeevily trying to make a pass at his new sister-in-law. The day after, a team of lawyers try to bully Ev into signing annulment papers, but she's so appalled when it's clear that she's seen as some opportunistic gold digger that she storms off, being rescued by the drummer of the band, who seems to be the only nice guy there. Her cranky husband eventually shows up and apologises for being a complete tool, and after Ev actually spends some more time with her new husband, she discovers why she may have agreed to marry him on a spur of the moment.

I noticed my friend Erica reading this, and as she rated it very highly, I decided to give it a try. It's a lot more fun than the rather contrived set up suggests. Slowly but surely, Ev remembers more about her drunken night in Vegas. When spending more time with rock god David Ferris, she discovers that he doesn't just make her weak at the knees, but is actually a very nice, if quite emotionally damaged guy. Ev has just turned 21, has only had (bad) sex with one other person, and has never really had a significant relationship before. David is five years older, but is also a rock star with a fairly messed up family and relationship history. He clearly has a lot of trust and abandonment issues, which isn't going to make him the easiest of partners.

For a while I was worried that the book was going to be some sort of annoying insta-love thing, but all the characters in the book feel very real, with a number of convincing flaws. Marrying a complete stranger, no matter how hot, in Vegas, isn't going to be super easy. David has a number of issues that complicate things, and after about a week of married mostly bliss, said complications are big enough that Ev is unable to cope. The way the story is resolved is nicely done, and I enjoyed the heck out of the book.

It helps that Ev, who narrates the book, is a fairly snarky and engaging heroine. She feels awful that she can't remember what David clearly does about their first night together, and once he stops being a jealous, insecure douche who taunts her with groupies, they are able to really talk and start getting to actually know each other. She's willing to cut him a lot of slack, but also has enough backbone to not let herself be taken advantage of, which is nice to see in a young female character. David is rather melodramatic, and I personally would have trouble being with a guy who was quite as possessive and quick to jealousy. The supporting cast are mostly good, and it's obvious that each of the three other members in the band are going to get their own romances in due course. Based on this book, I'll probably check out the next ones in the series too.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

#CBR5 Book 97. "Summer Knight" by Jim Butcher

Page count: 371 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Harry Dresden is a wreck. He spends all of his energy trying to save his ex-girlfriend Susan from the vampiric curse that's pretty sure to claim her, and as a result, he may lose his office, his apartment and what few friends he has left. Mab, the Winter Queen of Faerie wants him to figure out who killed the Summer Knight, and most importantly, prove that she isn't the murderer. Harry tries to refuse her offer, but there are more complications thrown his way.

The White Council of wizards arrive in Chicago, and most of them want to gift wrap Harry and deliver them to the vampires, hoping this will make the vampires stop waging war. The only way Harry can keep them from basically stripping him of his wizard status and giving him up to become a vampire chew toy, is by accepting Mab's offer. If he doesn't figure out who killed the Summer Knight and stole his power, the Summer and the Winter Queens go to war against each other at Midsummer Eve, and that will have catastrophic results for the entire world. He should probably clean himself up a bit.

I've mentioned this on my blog before, but it bears repeating I don't know why I can read countless paranormal fantasy series with female protagonists (I haven't done a count in a while, but I'm pretty sure the various ongoing series I follow still number two figures) and find them fascinating, yet I have trouble engaging with male protagonists. The previous three Harry Dresden novels didn't really grab me, this is the first one where I didn't force myself to finish the book out of stubbornness, and frankly, if Harry hadn't snapped out of his moping over Susan, this would have been another chore to read.

Luckily, because of all the crap he gets dropped in his lap, Harry is forced to snap out of it. He seems to do really well when faced with near impossible odds, and it's not like he has a lot of support. The White Council are clearly mostly filled with douchebags, and it's not difficult to take Harry's side against them. I'm also a sucker for bad faeries, and as Harry still owes the Winter Queen two tasks before being free of her influence at the end of this book, it's clear that the faerie stuff is going to come back in later books too.

As far as I can tell from other reviews on the internet, this is the book where the Harry Dresden books really start becoming worthwhile. I really like some of the supporting characters, like Karrin Murphy and Billy the werewolf. If Harry actually stops moping so much and more of the future books involve faeries, I will probably keep reading. But not just yet. I have more lady-oriented paranormals to get through first.

#CBR5 Book 96. "Beauty and the Spy" by Julie Anne Long

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

When Susannah Makepeace's kind, but distant father dies, leaving behind him nothing but debt, Susannah's engagement to a young gentleman is broken, and she has to move in with a distant cousin in the little village of Barnstable. She's barely arrived before she runs into the notorious Viscount Whitelaw, diving naked into a pond mere feet away from where she is sketching.

Kit Whitelaw is a spy, but his somewhat scandalous personal life of late has forced his father to present him with a choice. Spend a month on the family's country estate putting together a natural science folio, with sketches of flora and fauna, or find himself on the next ship to Egypt. Kit would much rather figure out why his friend James Makepeace died under mysterious circumstances, so it's a happy coincidence, when he realizes that Makepeace's daughter is in Barnstable. The girl keeps having near fatal accidents, and it's clear that someone wants her out of the way. But why?

I'm a huge fan of Julie Anne Long's Pennyroyal Green books. This is one of her earlier novels, published in 2008. It's the first in a series of three, featuring the three daughters of a politician who is murdered in the very first chapter of this novel. His mistress flees to the Continent, as she is being framed for his murder, and the politician's friend, James Makepeace, takes it upon himself to find homes for his friends' daughters, so they are safe from the unscrupulous man who killed their father. Susannah is the youngest of the three daughters, and grows up never realising that Makepeace isn't her real dad.

It's obvious that Long has developed a lot as a writer since she wrote this book. It's in no way a bad book, but I found the villain in particular rather tedious, and it would have been a more enjoyable book if it hadn't been made obvious from the start that the man suspected of all these dastardly deeds was actually guilty. I also found the many botched attempts to off Susannah a bit samey after a while, and it took me a while to actually grow sympathetic to her. She starts the book as rather spoiled and whiny, but luckily realises how lucky she has been, and that while the man who raised her both physically and emotionally distant to her for much of her life, she still grew up in luxury, with a stunning wardrobe, a nice house and servants. She never had to light her own fire, or cook her own meals, or go without meat because the household accounts were meagre.

While this book is called Beauty and the Spy, there was sadly very little actual spy stuff in it. It's more of a mystery, where the reader knows full well who the villain is, and the hapless couple have to figure it out, while slowly falling in love along the way. We keep being told what a great spy Kit is, but most of the book is him sulking because he's not allowed to have a mistress in London, and trying to figure out a way to keep his father from banishing him to Egypt. In between saving Susannah's life and trying to prove who killed her adopted (and biological) dad.

A perfectly good holiday read, but not in any way up to the standards of Long's later books.

#CBR5 Book 95. "How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You" by The Oatmeal

Page count: 136 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Everyone who's ever owned a cat, or who knows someone who owns a cat, knows that cats are, deep down, pure evil. They're beautiful animals, but they are selfish, cruel and, if it weren't for the fact that you are the one providing their food, they would totally kill you in a heartbeat.

Matthew Inman is the creator of The Oatmeal, a wonderful website with web comics/blog updates. In this book, he collects a number of his most popular comics about the joys and challenges of cat ownership, which reads as both hilarious and deeply recognisable to anyone who's shared their home with one or more cats.

As I am not a regular reader of the web comic, many of these strips and stories were new to me. If you read the Oatmeal as a devoted fan, then it's probably quite disappointing to get the same comics you've already read, reprinted in a book with just a minimal amount of additional new stuff. If you've not read a lot of The Oatmeal before though, and especially if you love (or fear) cats, this is a very good and really very funny introduction to Inman's work.

#CBR5 Books 93-94: "Charley Davidson book 4 and 5" by Darynda Jones

Total page count: 659 pages
Rating: Fourth Grave Beneath My Feet - 4 stars
Fifth Grave Past the Light - 4.5 stars

At the beginning of Fourth Grave Beneath My Feet, a few months have passed since the end of book three, and Charley isn't doing all that well. She's not really left her apartment, which is now stuffed full of boxes full of random useless stuff she's purchased from late night shopping channels. Her best friend/next door neighbour/overqualified personal assistant Cookie has cancelled all her credit cards, and insists on ganging up on her, along with her uncle Bob, and her sister Gemma. They claim that she's suffering a mild case of PTSD (they're right) and they insist that she leave the apartment, and start getting her life back in order. When a desperate young woman shows up on her doorstep claiming someone is trying to kill her, but everyone around her just thinks she's insane, Charley decides that enough is enough, and promises to help. She's decides that the best way out of her financial difficulties is serving Reyes with a hefty bill, since she technically performed the job he hired her to do. Now she just has to find him.

In Fifth Grave Past the Light, Cookie and Charley discover that they have a new neighbour, and it's the drop dead gorgeous Reyes Farrow himself. Charley is hoping to prove to her uncle Bob that Reyes is not the arsonist who's been burning down old buildings all over Albuquerque, but it does seem suspicious that all the same buildings are ones that Reyes at some point lived in, growing up. She's made peace with her father, whose bar, previously mostly a cop hangout, is now a super popular lunching spot for women of all ages. Charley's apartment is slowly filling up with young dead women, all of them blond and killed gruesomely, clearly by the same serial killer. Despite Charley's Reaper powers, she's unable to get any of them to communicate with her, they're too traumatised, even after death. When it seems like Charley's sister Gemma may be the serial killer's next intended victim, it becomes crucial that she discover the killer's identity as soon as possible.

As I said in my previous review, the Charley Davidson books are excellent holiday reads. With each new book, the series becomes more enjoyable. There is great character development and growth in each book, and by now, the regular cast of characters have, as is the case in most series I read and greatly enjoy, become like friends that I just like spending time with on the page. During book five, which was released just a few weeks ago, I was finally also utterly sold on Reyes as a love interest and romantic hero, and my previous reservations have been completely blown out of the water. His story arc over the five books has been very well handled, I'm still convinced that Darynda Jones wanted her readers to be wary of him at first. Over the course of the series, it becomes quite clear that despite everything, Charley is clearly the more powerful in their relationship dynamic, and that Reyes has a lot more to lose if their relationship doesn't work out. I'm now just incredibly frustrated that I've caught up, and will have to wait another year to read more about Charley, Reyes, Cookie, Amber, Garrett and uncle Bob.

#CBR5 Book 92. "The Heiress Effect" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 315 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is the second full novel in the series of The Brothers Sinister. While the book works as a stand alone, it probably works even better if you've at least read The Governess Affair (a novella about the hero's parents).

Jane Fairfield is loud, and rude and dresses atrociously. She is also an heiress with one hundred thousand pounds, desperately trying to scare off any and all who might offer for her. She is also the product of her mother's affair, and her younger sister's uncle (and legal guardian) won't let her forget it for a second. He wants her married off as soon as possible, but Jane can't leave her sister, who has an unspecified medical condition (probably a mild form of epilepsy) which means said uncle keeps inviting a long line of unscrupulous medical "experts" to try all manner of horrors in the name of science, trying to cure her. She needs to scare away men, not befriend them.

Oliver Marshall is the illegitimate son of the former Duke of Clairmont, and half-brother of the current one (the hero in The Duchess War). He wants to go into politics, representing the common people and due to his background has to do absolutely everything right. He needs powerful allies, and can't set a foot wrong. While he seethes inside to have to curry favour from the same spoiled nobles who tormented him at Eton and Cambridge, he doesn't have a choice if he wants to win his seat in the House of Commons. Befriending the biggest social disgrace of Cambridge society certainly is not going to do his future career any good.

Courtney Milan is an excellent writer. I really do think that she is the best historical romance writer out there at the moment. Hence, it's not surprising that my expectations for every new book she writes keep getting higher and higher. As I said to Mrs. Julien prior to the release of this book, I think there should be a national holiday every time Milan releases a new book. That way, readers can savour her books properly, without having to feel guilty about completely ignoring or postponing any work they may be scheduled to do.

Unfortunately, this book was a disappointment. It was bound to happen, no one can strike gold that many times in a row. I was left at the end of this book, feeling that Jane, the heroine, could have done better. That's not really the feeling I want to be left with when finishing a romance from my favourite writer. Oliver was just a complete dud as a romance hero. He was fine as a supporting character in his brother's book. I was looking forward to reading about him in this book. He's a good brother to Robert, the Duke of Clairmont, and to his sisters who we learn more about in this book. He's a great friend to Sebastian (the hero in Milan's next novel, The Countess Conspiracy). He's just a coward, having been conditioned into shutting up and suffering all sorts of callous treatment all through his years at school with richer, more privileged men.

He observes things from the sidelines, and never really speaks up for himself or others. True, he refuses to actually join in with the mocking and condemnation of Jane, and he doesn't humiliate her as he is asked to do in return for political favour, but he never stands up for her or defends her either. He misguidedly attempts to rescue his sister, a bluestocking and supporter of women's suffrage, from a demonstration, but she doesn't need help and he's yet again left observing, and inactive. It doesn't help that Oliver is described as tall, auburn haired, with spectacles, very similar to another romance hero I read about this year - Cross in Sarah Maclean's One Good Earl Deserves A Lover. I know it's unfair to compare the two based on appearance, but I unconsciously did, several times, and Oliver came up wanting every single time. He does realise how awesome Jane is in the end, and how lucky he is to have her, grovelling very appropriately. It still didn't convince me.

There are lots of things I did like in the book, though. Jane is a great character, although there are inconsistencies in the way she is portrayed throughout the book as well. The various female relationships in the book, friendships and familial ones, are all wonderful. Jane and her sister, Jane and her two friends (especially after Jane can finally be honest with them about her scheme), Oliver's sister Free and her fraught relationship with their spinster aunt - all great.

This is the first Milan novel to have a secondary romance in a very long time. I can see why she wanted to attempt this, I'm still not sure it wouldn't have been better for Jane's sister to have her own romance play out in a novella. Milan writes amazing novellas. There is also some set-up for the next novel in the series, featuring the third "Brother Sinister", Sebastian Malheur, a scandalous scientist and his childhood friend, Violet, a widowed countess. Current romance tradition when it comes to series is that the most complex and messed up characters get saved for last, and if the tiny snippet from the next novel, included at the end of this one, is anything to go by, we are in for a doozy. It contained such an amazing reveal that I'm still reeling. I desperately want it to be December, so I can get my hands on it. I would still recommend Courtney Milan to anyone interested in romance, but I'd suggest they stay clear of The Heiress Effect until they've read most of her other ones.

#CBR5 Book 91. "Wonder Woman: Blood" by Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang and Tony Akins

Page count: 160 pages
Rating: 4 stars

After DC pressed the big cosmic reset button AGAIN, quite a lot of their superhero titles no longer exist, and others have pretty much been rebooted from scratch. Generally uninterested in these "new" interpretations, I've been avoiding DC (the first new issue of Catwoman were especially atrocious, really beyond awful), but my husband picked up Azzarello's reboot of Wonder Woman and strongly recommended I give it a chance. I always liked the character, but figured that when even Gail Simone (whose Birds of Prey and Secret Six comics I loved) couldn't really get her right, it was unlikely that anyone would. I was wrong, though. Azzarello's take is fresh, and interesting, and Wonder Woman herself is as awesome as she should be.

A young woman shows up in Wonder Woman's bedroom, sent by Hermes. She needs protection against the supernatural assassins sent by Hera, as she carries one of Zeus' children. Wonder Woman refuses to let the girl be killed, and takes her to be protected among the Amazons, even though she herself has always been an outcast there. While on Themiscyra, Hera's sinister daughter Strife shows up, trying to cause, well...strife. Diana discovers the secret to her own origin, she was not sculpted in clay by her mother, as she always believed. The truth of her parentage is going to change everything for Wonder Woman and the other Amazons.

Diana, Princess of the Amazons, kicks all kinds of ass in these first 6 issues of the reboot. The art is great, well done without ever becoming gratuitous (which is sadly often the case in superhero comics about female characters). There's a several page scene in the first issue, where Wonder Woman is clearly naked in her bedroom, getting dressed after the unexpected arrival of Zeus' most recent baby mama, yet there are no pointless tits and ass shots and it's never played for titillation. There have apparently also been criticism that Diana is very violent in this, rather than an emissary for peace, as she's often been in the past. But Diana is an Amazon, and possibly the only superhero in the DC Universe who can rival Superman and Batman for awesomeness. She's a supernatural warrior, and it seems strange to me to complain about a story where she's allowed to act as the warrior woman she is. Highly recommended, I'm looking forward to reading more from this creative team.

Sunday 21 July 2013

#CBR5 Book 90. "Batman Incorporated" by Grant Morrison and various artists

Page count: 256 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Following on from the events of Batman R.I.PFinal CrisisBatman and Robin and The Return of Bruce Wayne, this trade paperback collects a lot of stories setting up the new and international Batman Incorporated. Bruce Wayne has gone public as the financier of Batman. He wants to make sure that anywhere there is crime, there will be a Batman, or someone closely linked to him. Batman and his associates travel the globe to recruit new members for their organisation, while fighting the emerging crime syndicate known as Leviathan.

Unfortunately, much of this collection is just setup, quite a few of the stories are really confusing, and if All-Star Superman is Morrison at his best, some of these issues show Morrison at his most annoying and bewildering. I enjoyed some of the stories a lot, such as Batman and Catwoman fighting Lord Death Man in Japan (there's a giant squid in an apartment building!) and the new Batgirl, Stephanie Brown infiltrating a posh girls' boarding school where the girls are taught some pretty unorthodox things. But then there are stories like the Internet 3.0 story, which is just so awful that I barely have words. The final reveal of who is actually behind Leviathan was really nice, though, and sets up an intriguing cliff hanger for later issues.

There's a lot of interesting ideas in this - the idea that every country or even large city should have their own Batman or affiliated superhero fighting crime is a fun one. If Morrison wasn't so fond of stories with flashbacks, and convoluted plot twists, and characters with similar names that I get confused by. He also writes a version of Catwoman that irritates me deeply, having her make strange cat noises all the damn time. Not cool, Grant. Not cool.

#CBR5 Book 89. "Absolute All-Star Superman" by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 5 stars

I'm going to start with a confession. I didn't use to like Superman much. I thought he was a goody two-shoes, a bit wet, and just not as interesting as Batman, or as cool as Wonder Woman, the other two big superheroes of the DC Universe. My husband always told me I was wrong, and while I like the 1978 film with Christopher Reeve, I was just never convinced that he was worth my while. Grant Morrison changed my mind about that. In his twelve issue mini-series, which did rather better than Frank Millar's spectacular train-wreck All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (for one thing, it got completed), Morrison tells an utterly compelling story, showing why Superman is one of the ultimate superheroes, and why, while he might not be as cool and gritty as Bruce Wayne, Kal El is a much more admirable character.

Warning! There will be certain spoilers for the new film Man of Steel in this review. If you haven't seen it (do yourself a favour, and just don't - it's NOT a Superman story, and it's a long, boring and just really rather depressing film), you may want to avoid this review. You can go read All-Star Superman instead. It's amazing and captures exactly who Superman is and why he is so great.

While Man of Steel spends almost a quarter of the new film waffling around on Krypton, with flying monsters, and council members in Time Lord robes and Russell Crowe being grim, Grant Morrison sums up Superman's origin story on ONE page, with four panels. Because you're a native tribesman in the Amazon jungle, you've probably heard of Superman, and you KNOW how he came to be on Earth. His planet, Krypton was doomed - his parents sent him to Earth, where he was adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent. That part of his story is not what makes him remarkable and heroic.

In the twelve issues of the comic, Superman is poisoned by solar radiation, thanks to a diabolical plot by Lex Luthor. He has less than a year left to live, but decides to keep this information from the general public. In the year he has left, Superman performs eleven near-impossible labors, before he leaves Earth to complete the twelfth and final one, to rebuild the sun from the inside out, saving humanity yet again.

Morrison doesn't just write a great Superman. Jimmy Olsen is given a much meatier role here than just Superman's slightly dumb sidekick (the issue devoted to him is great), and it's not difficult to see why Lois Lane is both a star reporter and the love of Superman's life. In the second issue, she is given superpowers for 24 hours as a birthday present from Superman, and it's a thing of beauty. While my husband loves every single issue, I'm not quite as fond of the Bizarro storyline, or the one with the Kryptonian villains I can take or leave, as well. But then there's the issue that deals with Superman's relationship with his adopted father, Jonathan Kent, which makes me cry every time, and the simply spectacular issue 10, which may be my favourite issue of a comic book ever written. Yes, better even than anything by Neil Gaiman or Mike Carey or Gail Simone or Alan Moore.

The various issues are gorgeously illustrated by Morrison's many time collaborator, Frank Quitely. The art is really wonderfully showcased in the over-sized Absolute hardcover edition, making the many subtle details that Quitely puts in his art, and which you often don't notice until the second, or third, or even fourth time you read through the issues. The Absolute Edition also has a number of extra features which make the reading experience even more rewarding, such as Grant Morrison's notes on the various characters, and his thoughts on each of them.

Basically, if you're already a Superman fan, you HAVE to read this comic, if you haven't already. If you're not, and you've always told yourself that he's too lame and goody goody and he's just not all that interesting, you should let Grant Morrison try to change your mind. If you can read these twelve issues, and still not see that Superman is awesome, then I cannot help you, my friend. But at least you've read something truly remarkable.

#CBR5 Book 88. "Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil" by Jeff Smith

Page count: 240 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Orphan Billy Batson lives in an abandoned building, when his life is changed completely. An ancient wizard grants him the ancient powers of seven legendary heroes and gods, and whenever Billy utters the magic word: "Shazam!" he turns into Captain Marvel (never named as such in the comic due to licensing restrictions), an adult superhero. Yet Billy went wandering to places he shouldn't, and now there is an invasion of giant alien monsters, and scary talking animals calling themselves the Monster Society of Evil.

Can Billy Batson, his little sister Mary and their friend, the talking tiger Tawky Tawny prove that the sinister Doctor Sivana is in league with the Monster Society of Evil and up to no good? Can they remove the alien threat before the mysterious Mister Mind and the gigantic alien vessels destroy all human life on Earth?

Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil is a comic miniseries written and illustrated by Jeff Smith, probably most famous for Bone. It's a reboot of the whole Captain Marvel story, retelling Billy Batson's origin story. The art is typical for Smith, and very suitable for a comic clearly aimed at a fairly young audience. The dialogue is witty and rather clever though, so it's not in any way any less enjoyable a comic to read for adults. At only four issues, collected in a beautiful collection, this is an entertaining and fast read. Well worth checking out, if you like your superhero adventures more lighthearted and fun than dark and gritty.

Saturday 20 July 2013

#CBR5 Books 86-87. "Saga vol 1 and 2" by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Total page count: 288 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars for both volumes (I still think there is even better to come)

Marko and Alana are star-crossed lovers from either side of a huge and long-running intergalactic war. Marko is a prisoner, and Alana is his prison guard, when they fall in love, go on the run, and have a baby (who narrates several of the issues). Now both their peoples want them hunted down and killed, but at least one side wants the child alive.

I love pretty much every single character in this, and the series has pretty much anything you could possibly want - sexy main characters, witty banter, action, violence, wise cracking ghost girls, bounty hunters, evil armless spider-bodied assassin ladies, robot people, a sidekick cat that can tell (and will ruthlessly reveal) if people are lying.

I gave the first volume to my husband for Christmas, but never really got round to reading it myself. I'm still deeply upset with what Vaughan did with my favourite character at the end of Y: the Last Man, and so I was a bit reluctant to commit myself to a new series by him. My husband got the second volume when that came out, and insisted that I get over my misgivings and just read the comic already. I'm so glad he convinced me, because I blazed through all 12 issues collected in the first two volumes in no time at all, laughing loudly several times. That's not to say that there is only humour or action in this, it manages to cover a number of issues incredibly well, such as the fact that the main couple are both ex-soldiers who have done a lot of things they regret, and are wanting to create a new life, away from a war they disagree with. The writing is excellent, it's full of incredibly quotable lines, the art by Fiona Staples is gorgeous, she does both quiet scenes and action set-pieces brilliantly.

Saga is without a doubt my new favourite comic, to the point where I'm wondering if we should start collecting it in monthly issues, so I don't have to have the interminable wait for the next paperback of collected issues. I just desperately hope that Vaughan's difficulties with ending his series in a satisfactory way doesn't strike again, or he's going straight back to the top of my mental hate list (where the top spot is currently held by Steven Moffat). Seriously, this is an amazing comic. Why aren't you reading it yet?

#CBR5 Books 84-85. "The Unwritten vol 6 and 7" by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

Total page count: 384 pages

Rating: Vol 6: Tommy Taylor and the War of Words - 4 stars
Vol 7: The Wound - 4.5 stars

This review covers volume 6 and 7 of The Unwritten, which collects issues 31-41 of the comic book. If you haven't read any of the previous volumes, this is really not the place to start, although you should totally read it, because it's awesome. This review will probably unavoidably contain spoilers for earlier volumes, so if you want to avoid them, skip this review for now.

In Tommy Taylor and the War of Words, things are coming to a head between Tommy and the mysterious Cabal that's been hounding him him and killing pretty much everyone he loves. Lizzie and Richie are still by his side, but they are worried that Tommy is using too much of his newly discovered powers without proper control. In alternating chapters, we see Tom taking the battle to them, ignoring the warnings of his closest friends, and we learn more about the Cabal and the sinister and deadly Mr. Pullman, and his true agenda. Tommy's battle is fraught with danger, and not without personal cost.

In The Wound, a year has passed since the dramatic events in Oxford at the end of the last volume, which finished off several of the story lines set up over the first 30 issues of the comic, and much of this volume centres around a new character, Australian police detective Didge Patterson. She's investigating a series of mysterious disappearances, believed to be linked to the rapidly growing cult The Church of Tommy. Tommy himself is on his way to Australia, as part of his world-wide lecture tour. Meanwhile, Richie has become world famous in his own right, having written a best-selling book. He's parted ways with Tommy and is trying to track down and get some answers from the ancient puppet mistress Frau Rasch.

The Unwritten is a difficult series to describe, and I don't entirely feel up to the task of explaining just how wonderful and interesting and special reading experience it is. Mike Carey writes about the nature of storytelling, and identity, and how stories shape the world and the things we believe in. Peter Gross' art is also a thing of beauty, and he manages to illustrate the issues in so many different styles, depending on what the story demands. If you love novels, and stories, and the art of storytelling, you should really do yourself a favour and check this series out. You should, however, start with volume 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity.

Friday 19 July 2013

#CBR5 Books 75-83. "The Little House series, books 1-9" by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Total page count: 2680 pages

Ratings: Little House in the Big Woods - 4 stars
Little House on the Prairie - 4 stars
Farmer Boy - 2 stars
On the Banks of Plum Creek - 4 stars
By the Shores of Silver Lake - 4 stars
The Long Winter - 4 stars
Little Town on the Prairie - 4 stars
Those Happy Golden Years - 4 stars
The First Four Years - 2.5 stars

So during the second week of my summer vacation, I got a really nasty cold and sore throat. What better reading material while sick than Laura Ingalls Wilder's comforting stories about her childhood in 19th Century Frontier America? I was of the impression that I'd several of these as a girl, as it turned out, I had only ever read Little House in the Big Woods. I have, however, seen most of the TV shows, as that was always in constant re-runs in the afternoon on Norwegian telly.

Ingalls Wilder's Little House books are a fictionalised account of her early life, up to and including her first four years of marriage to Almanzo Wilder. While most of the things she writes about is based on true events, quite a bit of the chronology of the locations the Ingalls family lived and the things that happened to them has been switched around in the books, mainly so the stories would flow better. Laura also doesn't write about everything that happened to the family. She very significantly never mentions her younger brother, who died while very young, or the period when the family lived in Burr Oak, where her sister Grace was born.

The books follow the fictional Laura's life from she is five and living in Wisconsin in "the Big Woods". The family later move to Kansas and build a house on the prairie, but are forced to move when it's clear that their land is on an area granted to the local Native Americans. They move on to Minnesota, and live in a dugout "on the banks of Plum creek" and some years later, after a bout of scarlet fever that leaves Laura's older sister, Mary, blind, the family move to South Dakota to stake a claim on a homestead, which eventually becomes the Ingalls family's permanent home. It's in De Smet, South Dakota that Laura earns her teaching certificate. She becomes a teacher at the age of fifteen to help pay for Mary's tuition to blind college. She also makes many friends, and meets Almanzo Wilder, the man that she goes on to marry.

Almanzo's childhood is written about in Farmer Boy, and it seems while I have infinite patience and find it soothing and wonderful to read about the Ingalls girl and their wonderful Pa and Ma, I found Almanzo's childhood fairly tedious and boring to read about. Ingalls spends a lot of time writing about the nature of chores, and food preparation and the ins and outs of managing on a farm in the mid to late 19th Century. Quite a lot of that got a bit repetitive in Farmer Boy, and Almanzo as a child just bored me. All he wanted to do was not go to school, and have a horse. Luckily, the character is much more awesome when he grows up, risking his life to ride through blizzards to save starving townspeople, and patiently wooing Laura over several years. I don't know why I found his book so much more tedious, I'm probably just very sexist.

The First Four Years was found in manuscript form after Rose Wilder Lane, the Wilders' daughter, passed away. It's a much shorter, and rougher book than the other eight, and was clearly published because the other books were so insanely popular. In it, the reader gets to share the incredible struggle Laura and Almanzo (suddenly called Manly throughout) went through during their first four years of marriage. It's really quite a depressing read. I don't want to spoil anything, but things go from bad, to worse, to pretty bloody disastrous. I can see why it wasn't published until much later.

Having read the entire series in about a week (I read three in one day when I had trouble sleeping), I am so very sorry that I didn't get to read these books as a girl. Ingalls Wilder does a wonderful job of depicting what must have been a really rather difficult life as something charming and adventurous. The family were uprooted so many times, and suffered so many hardships, yet the tone of the books are hopeful, cheery and just the right amount of educational. Ingalls Wilder adapts her writing style to fit the age of the Laura she's writing about. A five-year-old would have no great trouble reading Little House in the Big Woods, and as Laura ages, the writing style of the books becomes more complex and advanced, with Laura and her sisters in later books looking back on their childhood and reflecting and musing on all they've been through. They're still wonderful books to read as an adult, but I suspect they would have been magical when I was a child, and I would have treasured them alongside my Anne of Green Gables books.

Thursday 18 July 2013

#CBR5 Books 73-74: "The Umbrella Academy, Vol 1 and 2" by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba

Total page count: 384 pages
Rating: Vol 1: Apocalypse Suite - 4 stars
Vol 2: Dallas - 4.5 stars

In the first volume we are introduced to The Umbrella Academy, a group of seven children (out of forty-seven children, born world-wide to women who'd previously not shown any signs of pregnancy), adopted by Sir Reginald Hargreaves, an eccentric millionaire inventor. The mother they ever know is a live dressmaker's dummy, and they are partially raised by a talking chimpanzee scientist called Professor Pogo. When they are ten, the children fight an erratic and escaping Eiffel Tower, later they disband and go their separate ways. Only when Sir Reginald dies, do they meet again - everyone except the seventh sibling, Viola, who was always told she was the only ordinary one in the group. Now an organisation with sinister intent contact her, revealing that she may be the most powerful one of the seven siblings.

In the second volume, some time has passed since the dramatic events in the first volume's conclusion. All the various members of the Umbrella Academy are experiencing challenges on various fronts, and are unprepared when further catastrophic events threaten, and they need to work together again. There are plots, and evil assassins, and number 5 has to use his time travelling abilities to go back in time to 1963, to prevent himself from preventing the assassination of JFK.

My husband gave me volume 1: Apocalypse Suite years and years ago for Christmas. I read through it really quickly, and upon rereading it, I discovered that I pretty much only remembered the opening bit with the runaway Eiffel Tower in any way clearly, and the rest was pretty much a delightful surprise. Also, despite having had volume 2 on my shelf for more than a year, I hadn't really got round to reading that either.

The art, by Gabriel Ba, is wonderful. It reminds me a lot of Mike Mignola's Hellboy, and that is in no way a bad thing. The storytelling is also incredibly original, strange and exciting. While I care not one jot for the music of My Chemical Romance, Gerard Way has an immense creativity, and as superhero comics go, these are more in the style of Nextwave than Superman. I preferred volume 2 to the first one, mainly because the various characters are established by this point, and the second volumes allows Way and Ba to further explore their personalities and expand on them. Both volumes are only six issues long, so they're excellent quick and entertaining reads. Perfect for the summer holidays.

#CBR5 Book 72. "Rose Under Fire" by Elizabeth Wein

Page count. 480 pages
Rating: 5 stars

This book is a companion novel to Elisabeth Wein's Code Name Verity. You don't need to have read that book to understand this one, but you should anyway, because it's one of the best books I've read in years. And you like good books, don't you?

Rose Justice is a young American woman, working for the ATA in Britain during World War II. She made friends among the other ATA pilots, she's dating a young soldier, and she writes poetry in her spare time. Her job is to taxi planes to various locations, and is on an out of the ordinary mission to France, when her plane is captured by the Germans, and she is sent to Ravensbrück, the women's concentration camp during the autumn of 1944. As very little news of the camps was actually released during the war, and what little came out was usually so horrifying that people didn't think it could be true, Rose has no idea what she's in for.

As she doesn't speak German, Rose has trouble communicating with the guards or other prisoners. As she was captured in France, she is labelled a French prisoner, even though she's American. Her clothes are taken from her, her hair is savagely shorn off her head. The treatment of the prisoners is dreadful. She's taken to work in the Siemens factory, where the prisoners get better food, and the barracks are not so crowded, but when she realises that the items she's set to make are missile components, she refuses to do any work. She's brutally beaten as punishment, and sent to a different part of the camp once she recovers enough to work. There she meets the group known as the rabbits, young women who've had horrifying and brutal medical experiments performed on them, and who have terrible scars and deformities because of it. Many of the prisoners are former students, and they love Rose's poetry. By reciting poetry she knows from her school days, or creating her own, Rose helps keep her own and the other women's spirits up.

I don't want to go into too much detail about what happens in the book, because anyone vaguely familiar with the sort of treatment prisoners of concentration camps received, will already have an idea, and anyone who doesn't know about these things, needs to read this book asap. To anyone worried, I can say that much of the book is Rose's journal entries AFTER she's back in Paris having escaped from the camp at the end of the war, so while the book is heartbreaking and serious and harrowing, I can reveal that Rose survives her terrible ordeal. Much of the story is her trying to actually process the things that happened to her. The first quarter or so of the book is her life in the UK before she's captured, and the last quarter is set later, during the Nüremberg trials, when Rose has to decide whether she is strong enough to face her tormentors and testify during the post-War tribunals about what she went through.

As was the case with Code Name Verity, this book has beautiful, touching and utterly believable depictions of female friendship. This is an even more difficult book to read, because while the former book was about two women during the war, one a pilot, the other a spy captured by the Gestapo, this book is about a group of women trying to survive against all odds in a German concentration camp. As Wein says in her afterword, while Rose Justice and several of the other women she writes about in the camp are fictional, everything she writes about the treatment of the prisoners, the unbelievable and sickening medical experiments performed on the rabbits, and the situation in Ravensbrück during the final months of the war is all true. She writes the book to educate, inform and pass on the knowledge. While it's one of the worst books I can imagine to read on a plane (as I foolishly did, literally choking back tears and trying desperately to not sob uncontrollably several times during the story), it's a wonderfully written book. It's an important book. It's without a doubt going to show up on my best of the year list.

Disclaimer! I was granted an ARC of this from the Disney Book Group through NetGalley. This has in no way influenced my review.The book is released in the US on September 10th. However, the book is already out in the UK, where I bought my own copy.

#CBR5 Books 69-71 . "Charley Davidson books 1-3" by Darynda Jones

Total page count: 986 pages
Ratings: First Grave on the Right - 3 stars
Second Grave on the Left - 3.5 stars
Third Grave Dead Ahead - 4 stars

Charley Davidson is a private investigator in Albaquerque. She's also the Grim Reaper. She can speak every language in the world, she pretty much remembers every thing that's happened in her life, from the moment she was born, and dead people pass through her as a portal to the next world. Because she constantly sees dead people, she's been able to help her father (now a former cop) and uncle (still a cop) solve crimes since she was a little girl. It's much easier to solve a murder if the dead person can tell you who did the deed. Her office is above her father's bar, and her best friend and next door neighbour is her extremely over qualified secretary. Charley loves coffee, slogans with cheesy sayings on them (most chapters begin with said cheesy lines), and has a dreadful relationship with her stepmother.

As the first book begins, she's been having super sexy dream encounters with a mystery guy. Who sort of reminds her of the scary dark presence that's been shadowing her on and off since the day she was born, and who's even saved her life on occasion. As Charley's dream encounters continue, she starts getting tiny hints as to who her shadowy seducer may be, and she tries to discover his true identity while also trying to solve the murder of three lawyers.

In the second book, Cookie, Charley's secretary and best friend drags her out of bed in the middle of the night because a close friend of hers has disappeared, and sent a text asking Cookie and Charley to help. As they start investigating, it turns out that several people Mimi (the missing woman) went to high school with, have started turning up dead recently. Reyes Farrow, Charley's mysterious life-long protector, has abandoned his corporeal body and is determined to let it die. He's not at all impressed when Charley is determined to track said body down to save it, as he claims the dangerous entities that have control over it, are trying to trap her, and want nothing more than to see her dead.

In the third book, Charley is doing everything in her power to stay awake. Every time she falls asleep, Reyes is there, accusing and upset because of what she did at the end of book 2. Hence, Charley pretty much mainlines caffeine and does her best to never sleep. She's trying to solve a missing person's case, prove that an arrogant doctor is a ruthless murderer, and the less sleep she has, the crazier and more unpredictable things become. Reyes also wants her to prove that Earl Walker, the man he was sent to prison for killing, is still alive, so he can clear his name.

I bought the first of these books while on holiday last year in the US, because the description on the back intrigued me. I didn't really get round to checking it, or the other books out until this summer, until Reyes Farrow, Charley's very sexy, very bad boy love interest ended up beating two paranormal heroes I very much love in Vampire Bookclub's Alpha Showdown. Naturally I became curious as to what sort of an amazing character he was, if he could beat Curran Lennart (from Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series) and Adam Hauptman (from Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thomson series). As it happens, I still think these two characters are more awesome than Reyes, but who am I to argue with a random internet poll?

I was entertained by the first book, but as seems to be the case with a lot of paranormal/urban fantasy series out there at the moment, it wasn't really until the second and third book that I got really into the series, and was sure that I wanted to keep reading about these characters. I decided to blog all three books in one review, because I read the books so closely together, that I'm honestly not entirely sure if I remember what happened, and what was revealed about Charley, her growing Reaper powers, Reyes and his complicated story, in each of the three books. I've tried really hard not to spoil too much about Charley and her abilities, or much at all about Reyes, because part of the joy of these books is for the reader to discover these things gradually.

I liked that while she's not had an easy life, Charley is a very positive and cheerful person. She's tough, and capable and doesn't take herself too seriously. She has a great relationship with her dad, who now runs a bar, and her uncle, who she still helps solve murder cases. Her antagonistic relationship with her stepmother is perfectly understandable when you find out how Denise treated the strange little girl who claimed she could see and talk to dead people. The supporting cast of the books are great. Charley's friendship with Cookie is wonderful, and her banter with Garrett Swopes, the handsome skip tracer who's slowly coming round to the fact that Charley has powers out of the ordinary, is lots of fun too.

I like that there isn't any sort of forced love triangle being set up in these books. I'm still very ambivalent about Charley's feelings for and continued relationship with Reyes, because while he is smoking hot, I'm not kidding about him being a bad boy to the Nth power. It's quite clear from the way their relationship keeps developing and is depicted, and the amounts of people warning Charley away from Reyes (including, at times, Reyes himself) that the readers aren't supposed to be entirely ok about their romantic future.

There is a lot of humour in the books, while Jones doesn't skimp on the action, danger or smexy times. As paranormal fantasy goes, the series is doing something a bit different from just more vampires, werewolves, fairies, shapeshifters or what have you. The world building and character gallery is well done, and now that I've completed the first three, I'm well hooked. I can't wait to read the next two in this ongoing series.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

#CBR5 Book 68. "It Happened One Midnight" by Julie Anne Long

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Jonathan Redmond is the youngest of the Redmond sons. His eldest brother is missing, off doing God knows what (but rumours suggest it may be piracy). His brother Miles is a famous explorer, disowned by their father because he married someone the powerful Isaiah Redmond didn't approve of. Miles wants to be an investor, and would like his father's help to invest in a printing business specialising prints. His father coldly dismisses his ideas, and reveals that he sees his son as little more than a pretty face and an irresponsible rake. He claims Jonathan needs to settle down with a wife in the next six months, or he's going to cut off his allowance.

Jonathan doesn't really feel that his rakish reputation is deserved. Young eligible women keep throwing themselves at him, because of his looks, family name and connections. They keep misinterpreting things he says while dancing with them as promises, and suffer broken hearts when he doesn't court them. Determined to prove his father wrong, Jonathan needs to find fellow investors elsewhere. He finds an unlikely one in Thomasina de Ballesteros, a beautiful young woman driving the young men of London to distraction. Her mother was a famous courtesan, and now she charms gentlemen at exclusive salons. No one knows that in the evenings, she risks her life rescuing children from ruthless employers and finding them new and better homes. In return for supplying Jonathan with funds to start up the coloured printing business, Tommy (yes, I hate the nickname, but got used to it as the book went on) ropes Jonathan into helping her on a couple of rescue missions.

While both acknowledging the other person's attractiveness, neither Jonathan nor Tommy are initially in any way romantically interested in the other. Tommy is fending off young gentlemen by the dozens, not really wanting to become some man's mistress, and Jonathan needs to find himself a high-born and suitable wife, or risk being ostracised and cut off by his father, just like his brother Miles. As they spend more time together, of course their friendship develops into more. It wouldn't be a historical romance otherwise.

Gripes I had with this book: I hate the shade of green of (presumably) Tommy's dress on the cover. It's a virulent, toxic green. I'm glad I own the book as an e-copy, so I don't have to actually look at it.

- I don't like that the heroine is, in effect, called Tommy. I think male nicknames for female characters are dumb. It annoyed me less the further into the book I got, though, I think my brain just started substituting it with Tammy, or something.

Things I really enjoyed: Pretty much everything else. When Julie Anne Long isn't on form, she still writes a pretty decent romance. In this case, she wrote a tremendously entertaining and very good one. It may have helped that I had very low expectations to the book, as Jonathan has been such a non-entity in previous books, even as a supporting character. Hence I underestimated him, just like his father, and most of the world, clearly does in this book. Jonathan is not just handsome, he's brave, and loyal, and incredibly smart, and clearly a very shrewd investor and businessman. He sets out to prove his father wrong, and succeeds brilliantly.

Tommy was an interesting character too. While her quest to rescue disadvantaged servant children may seem a bit futile (after all, if they got one child from the work house and tricked them into years of horrible servitude or factory work, won't they just get another one when the first kid is taken away?), it's still better than doing nothing, and the fact that she's frequently risking her life to get them out shows a bravery that not many romance heroines possess. She also desperately wants to connect with her father, a man she's only heard about from her mother's stories.

I liked that Jonathan and Tommy became genuine friends first, before their feelings developed into romantic love. I liked Jonathan's relationship with his sister, Violet, and his determination to make a name and fortune for himself, not just to live off the funds from his family. While What I Did for a Duke is still my favourite of Long's novels, this may well be my second favourite. Well worth a read.