Friday 27 September 2013

#CBR5 Book 121. "Drums of Autumn" by Diana Gabaldon

Page count: 1070 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the fourth book in the epic Outlander series, and I really wouldn't recommend it as a starting point (as things won't make a whole load of sense if you begin reading there). Obviously, this review may also contain spoilers both for earlier books in the series, as well as this one, so skip it if you want to avoid such things.

James Fraser and his time traveller wife Claire, have rescued their nephew Ian Murray from the kidnappers who took him to the Caribbean and are now in America, ready to start a new life away from the Scottish highlands. After a period accepting the hospitality of Jamie's aunt Jocasta, Jamie accepts a land grant from the governor of North Carolina, which he agrees to settle and find tenants for. Having had most of their fortune (a cache of precious gems), being robbed by river pirates, they're unable to ship Ian back to his family, but Ian's quite happy living in the woods of America, befriending the natives and settling the land with his uncle. Jamie finally gets to meet his daughter, when Brianna, having discovered in an old historical document that the Frasers are going to die in a fire in 1776, goes back in time to Scotland and takes a ship to America to find them and warn them. She is followed by historian Roger MacKenzie Wakefield, who wants to marry her.

Of course there is all manner of intrigue and complication - river pirates who rob and rape, murders, hernias, bear attacks, a surprise visit from Lord John Grey (one of my favourite supporting characters in the series) and his stepson, an epidemic of measles, inconvenient pregnancies, a paternity mystery, people being beaten to a pulp and sold to Indians, quests to get said individuals back from the Indians, and so forth.

As I mentioned in my review for Outlander, the first book in the series, these books have been a part of my life for a long time. The first time I read this book was fifteen years ago, and I still regard most of the characters very fondly. Re-reading this time, I discovered that I have a whole load less patience with Roger and Brianna than I used to, and especially the sections that involved them before they travel back to 1760s America bored me a lot more than they once did. These are big books, and the everyday Frontiers life stuff is balanced with some pretty crazy sauce melodrama. Unfortunately, the later books in the series contains a lot more less than thrilling filler, and I'm psyching myself up to read the really rambling ones that follow. Need to finish my re-read before the release of the new one in March next year.

#CBR5 Book 120. "Raw Blue" by Kirsty Eagar

Page count: 274 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Carly works the evening shift as a cook at a small cafe, so she can spend her days surfing. She's estranged from her family, and dropped out of university, and keeps herself mostly to herself. The thing she can't tell her family is that surfing is the only thing that makes sense to her anymore, and that helps her not to dwell on the incident after her high school graduation two years ago, when she got drunk, separated from her friends, and woke up in a strange apartment having been raped by three strangers. Carly doesn't want to be a victim, and telling people about rape, always makes them pity and see you in a different light - so she doesn't talk about it, and she allows no one to get close.

While Carly may want to stay isolated, there are people around her who want to get closer. Hannah, a Dutch woman estranged from her husband,lives upstairs from her (but has to keep using her shower because her plumbing is bad) and tries to take Carly salsa dancing and makes her breakfast. Danny, a persistent kid she meets while surfing has synesthesia and won't leave her alone, even when the colour he sees her as is occasionally unpleasant. He keeps wanting to hang out and discuss surfing movies, and persuades Carly to get him a part time job at the cafe. Lastly, there is Ryan, who stands out from some of the crowd of macho surfer dudes. He doesn't hide the fact that he's just out of jail, and that he'd like a chance to get to know Carly better. He wants to turn his life around into something better, and if Carly will let him, he wants her to be a part of that life. The question is if Carly is ready to let him in?

My friend Erica read this some time ago and rated it very highly indeed. She gave me a copy, but it's been lingering on my TBR shelf until blue was one of the monthly keywords for this month. Must admit, I didn't love it as much as she, or quite a few book reviewers out there on the internet did, possibly because I had such a hard time engaging properly with the book. I felt really bad for Carly, and really hoped that she'd get over her assault, but I didn't really like her all that much, and her very narrow goals in life (work in cafe, surf) were not something that resonated with me. While I felt bad about it, I occasionally found myself thinking that maybe Hannah, Danny and Ryan should just let her sulk in peace, she was clearly not going to reciprocate the kindnesses and patience they kept showing her. I also have absolutely no idea if the surfing terms used in the books are accurate, but am going to assume so, as it's such a central part of the narrative.

I've seen the book classified as young adult and new adult. As Carly is nineteen and Ryan is twenty-six, and there is some description of sex (while nothing particularly graphic or explicit), I think it would fit better in the new adult category. I'm not particularly bothered by such labels, myself, but figured it might be worth noting that the romance in this book is not of the "fade to black" variety, even though it's aimed at younger readers.

#CBR5 Book 119. "Death Masks" by Jim Butcher

Page count: 374 pages
Audio book length: 11 hrs 21 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is the fifth book in The Dresden Files, the books about professional wizard Harry Dresden. This review may therefore contain some spoilers for books that came earlier in the series and also for this one, and you may want to skip it until you've read the books up to this point.

Harry has a number of difficulties facing him - his ex-girlfriend Susan (who Harry's been moping over since she left him a few books ago) is back in town, getting ready to pack up her stuff to move to South America, and Harry is worried she may have found a new guy. A powerful Red Court vampire is also in town, challenging Harry to a duel, to settle once and for all the bad blood (pun intended) and warfare between the wizards and the Red Court once and for all. If Harry refuses to duel, the vampire will hunt down and kill anyone Harry cares for or has worked with, so he's not really got much choice in the matter. Thirdly, a priest wants to hire Harry to look for the stolen Shroud of Turin, and it seems like there are demonic entities who'd like nothing better than to find the artifact first, so they can unleash a devastating plague on humanity.

I keep trying to get into the Harry Dresden books, because so many people out there on the internet rave about them, and I feel that I should read something with a male protagonist, just to balance things out a bit. My fellow Goodreader and Cannonballer Ashley/Narfna has made it a lot further through the series than I have, and mentioned in one of her reviews that she listens to and really enjoys the audio books, which happen to be read by James Marsters, an actor I know and love from Buffy the Vampire SlayerAngel and his recurring guest spot on Torchwood. Since I have a whole ton of extra Audible credits, I figured I'd see if I liked the books better in audio, and downloaded this one. Marsters really does an excellent job with the narration, and maybe it's just that Susan is actually back, so Harry isn't constantly moping about her, and she's less annoying than I remember her from the earlier book she was in (don't ask me which one, I honestly don't remember), but I liked Death Masks more than previous Dresden File books.

Marsden manages to make Dresden seem more charming than annoying, and as I said, while I was initially worried about Susan's reappearance, she kicks quite a lot of ass in this book, and promptly goes off to do her own thing at the end of the book, so she gets a pass for now. I have certain misgivings about a particular scene between her and Harry in this book, which is one of the reasons this book gets 3.5 stars instead of a full 4, but if that's because I'm used to reading relationships written by female urban fantasy writers, or whether this is a a bit of a misogynist, I'm honestly not sure. Don't want to go into spoilery details, but you'll know the scene when you get to it, it involves enchanted rope.

I'm also not sure if Harry's constant underestimating women, who pretty much immediately turn on him and double cross him, is supposed to be endearing or annoying. Suffice to say, it happens more than once in this book. There's also a lot of cool stuff, like a pretty creepy demon cult who I'm sure we've not seen the last of, some really bad vampires, Harry's friend Michael Carpenter and his fellow Knights of the Cross, Susan kicking ass, the return of Thomas Raith (one of the White Court vampires who feed off psychic energy, and who's always fun) and the introduction of the Archive, an adorable little girl who's had the sum of all human knowledge passed down to her through her maternal line (Harry nicknames her "Ivy").

I'm warming to Harry as a character, and as I don't have enough Audible credits to get the rest of the books in the series as audio books, I may alternate between reading and listening to the rest of them. I'm slowly getting hooked, and since I'm now no longer actively hating the series, I suspect I'll get through the rest slowly but surely.

Sunday 22 September 2013

#CBR5 Book 118. "Where She Went" by Gayle Forman

Page count: 274 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the sequel to If I Stay, and both this book and this review unavoidably contain spoilers about the ending. So if you want to avoid spoilers, or haven't read the first book in the series yet, skip this review.

Three years ago Adam Wilde's girlfriend Mia was in a car accident and lost her entire family. She nearly died as well. While she was in a coma, Adam pleaded with her to wake up, and said he'd even live with her leaving him, if she would just stay alive. Mia woke up from the coma, left Oregon for New York and is now a lauded prodigy having graduated Julliard early.

After dropping out of college and caring about nothing for quite some time after their breakup, Adam then poured all his emotions about the loss of Mia (and her family) into song lyrics, and his band went from being Indie darlings played at college radio stations to a platinum selling sensation touring stadiums world wide. Now dating a talented actress/producer, Adam lives in LA and is constant tabloid fodder. He barely speaks to the other members of the band, copes with the stress of fame with pills and alcohol and has a reputation as a real bad boy. When he's spending one night alone in New York, before heading off to London for another tour, Adam meets Mia again for the first time since they broke up. She's about to go on tour as well, starting in Japan. She invites him to come along as she says goodbye to all her favourite New York haunts.

So to get the big SPOILER for the end of If I Stay out of the way. Mia lives, but despite Adam's obvious love for her, she doesn't stay with him. She goes off to New York, without even giving him proper closure - she just stops talking to him, and doesn't return home for Christmas. If I Stay was entirely from Mia's POV, Where She Went is entirely from Adam's. Most of the chapters start with excerpts from the lyrics Adam wrote after he dug himself out of the worst depression after the breakup (as I - to the husband's great sorrow - am not all that into music as anything but background noise, I can't speak for the quality or lack thereof of said song lyrics). With "Collateral Damage", Adam's lamely named band "Shooting Star" became mega rock stars, and it's quite clear that Adam hasn't really enjoyed the rise to fame and stardom.

He's clearly unhappy in his relationship with his movie star girlfriend, who despite all that he tries to tell himself has 'rebound girl' written all over her perfect face. Because the press decided that "Shooting Star" really only were a backup band for Adam, who as song writer, lead singer and lead guitarist might be seen as doing all the heavy lifting, his band barely speak to him anymore. They usually stay at separate hotels during their tours. Adam has trouble sleeping, and goes through life on a cocktail of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. He's never gotten over Mia, and seeing her again makes him a big ol' mess.

While Adam occasionally comes across as a giant emo whiner, who should thank his lucky stars for the awesome friends he has and the insane success he's been lucky enough to experience, the story never fails to make the reader sympathetic to him as well. While they weren't his actual biological family, Mia's parents and brother dying in that car accident affected him greatly as well. Staying by her side as she recovered, trying to be supportive, and then having her just dump him without any explanation - it's no wonder the boy is gutted. It's also not surprising that like so many other young people suddenly thrust into super stardom, Adam doesn't always handle it as well as he should.

Mia and Adam exploring New York together at night reminded me of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and for all that the book deals with heart break, it's also very romantic. It's clear that Adam and Mia, despite their various unfortunate decisions, are meant to be together. This is another YA book that in the hands of a lesser writer could have been trite and cliched, but instead was engaging and sweet.

#CBR5 Book 117. "If I Stay" by Gayle Forman

Page count: 262 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Mia has everything a girl could want. Loving, supportive parents, a little brother who's more funny and clever than annoying, a likely admission to Julliard, and a romantic and talented boyfriend. Then her family are in a car accident, and her parents are killed instantly. Mia watches herself and her brother being transported to the hospital, and spends the next twenty four hours out of her own body, watching her relatives, friends of the family, her boyfriend Adam and her best friend Kim as they huddle in the hospital waiting room for news about her.

With her body being kept alive by machines while she's in a coma, Mia suddenly only has one thing left - she has to decide whether she's going to choose to live, and go on without her immediate family, or whether she should let go. Is there enough left for her to make staying worth it?

If I Stay is not a long book, and has fairly short chapters, alternating between Mia's present, where she observes her grieving friends and relatives waiting to see whether she wakes up from her coma or not, and her past, giving us a full picture of the life she had before, and what she lost when her family died in the car crash. Her father, the former rock band member turned high school teacher. Her mum, a former Punk chick. Her younger brother, that she helped deliver when he was born. We see how the daughter of rock enthusiasts started playing the cello and eventually excelled at it. How she and her best friend Kim started out as enemies and became inseparable. How Adam, who plays guitar in a promising Indie rock band, took her to a Yo Yo Ma concert for their first date, and how their relationship blossomed despite their seeming to come from different worlds.

Not feeling like she entirely fits is one of the things that makes Mia question whether she should stay alive. A classical musician surrounded by parents and family friends who preferred rock, with a boyfriend whose band is on the verge of launching their career. From her recollections about her life, it's clear she frequently felt a bit like a fish out of water. Insecurities are natural for teenage girls to have, even when most of their loved ones have completely different frames of reference to them.

A lot of themes are explored in the book, chiefly obviously loss and grief. I found it an engaging and moving read, and am not at all surprised to discover that it is being adapted into a movie, with Chloe Grace Moretz starring as Mia. Hopefully the film captures the sadness and emotion of the book, and doesn't just turn into a maudlin melodrama.

Friday 13 September 2013

#CBR5 Book 116. "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown" by Holly Black

Page count: 440 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Tana wakes up after a high school party to find that while she was passed out in the bathtub, the other party-goers in the house were brutally slaughtered by vampires. As she's dealing with the shock and trying to find her things (you don't want to escape a house of carnage in your bare feet if you don't have to), she discovers that there are survivors - her douchy ex-boyfriend Aidan, and a dark haired boy she's never seen before. Both are tied up in a back bedroom where the windows have been covered, most likely left as a snack for later. When trying to untie Aidan, he lunges for her, and Tana has to face the fact that Aidan is turning Cold.

In this world, there were always vampires, but they were few and kept themselves hidden. Until one day, a single individual decided to just feed a little off his victims instead of killing them, starting an epidemic that soon spread world wide. When bitten, but not killed, by a vampire, the victim turns Cold. They start to hunger for human blood, and once they drink it, they transform fully into vampires. If they manage to lock themselves away and avoid the temptation to drink the blood for 88 days, they're cured of the infection, but barely anyone ever has the strength to manage it. As a result, to stop the spread of vampirism, there are walled off cities around America, where vampires and the ones who are turning Cold are confined. In the Coldtowns there are celebrity vampires, and live streams of their glamorous parties and all over America there are people who worship and dream of becoming just like them.

Tana knows that vampires may be beautiful, but also that they are deadly and that those infected by them are overcome by an obsession for blood, to the point where they don't care who they have to hurt to get it. When she was ten, her mother was infected. Tana's father locked her in the basement, determined to keep her isolated until she was cured, but little Tana was unable to resist her mother's desperate pleas and reassurances that she wouldn't hurt anyone. She was tricked into opening the door, and as a result, has physical and deep emotional scars to show for it. She doesn't want to abandon Aidan or the mysterious other boy, and risks her own life to get them both to the nearest Coldtown. There is also the possibility that Tana herself is infected, and to keep her best friend, her sister and her father safe, she needs to leave them behind to an uncertain fate.

I love Holly Black's books about faeries. Now she's written an amazing book about vampires. It's the closest thing to an anti-Twilight I've read since Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In). Not that sparkly vampires, or the spoofing thereof is in any way done in this book. This book made me think of Robin McKinley's Sunshine (one of my favourite vampire books of all time), Anne Rice's early Vampire Chronicles and Lie to Me, that absolutely awesome episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 2 where a bunch of vampire groupies dress up in velvet and capes and want to join the "children of the night". Yet it also does its own thing completely.

The story of Tana, Aidan and Gavriel (the mysterious third survivor) is told in short, action-packed chapters that often end on a cliffhanger. Every other chapter fills in the back story, about Tana's past, before and after her mother was turned, about Pearl - her little sister, Pauline - her best friend (they have such a great friendship), her messed up relationship with Aidan, and how she came to be the person we meet in the first chapter. There are also the occasional chapter where the POV changes to Pearl, who has to deal with Tana disappearing, and some that give the back story on Gavriel. These chapters are the reason I'm deducting half a star, as Tana is such a great character that I didn't want any other focus to the book but her, and everything that took away from my time with her, be it in the very tense, dangerous and scary present, or her mostly grim and character building past, made me annoyed.

There is no love triangle in this book, although as is almost always the case in a good vampire story, there is a minor romantic subplot. Vampires have always been sexy and erotic, and while the vampires in this story are all decidedly scary and blood sucking monsters, it's not surprising that Tana, with her dark past and complex survivors' guilt would be attracted to someone openly monstrous. She clearly has a history of bad boys, Aidan really has very few redeeming features, and the fact that Tana risks her own life more than once to get him to a Coldtown is one of the reasons why she's such a great heroine.

I always find it so much harder to write about books I love than ones I feel perfectly indifferent about. The world building in the story, with the Coldtowns, and the vampire reality shows, and the groupie cultures that have sprung forth due to social media are all fascinating, as is the idea that by great strength of will, and basically going "cold turkey", you can cure yourself of the infection. While I adored Tana and want to be her best friend (even though she already has one), the other characters in the story are also great, and multi-faceted, and even though some of them are clearly TSTL when it comes to their romanticised delusions about vampires, you still feel bad for them when they have their eyes opened brutally.

There is a creeping tension throughout the book, from the first chapter and all the way through the story. This is a proper horror story, with a lot of grisly details, and quite a lot of death along the way. At least one of the characters is a merciless and quite mad vampire, but you can't help but like him anyway, and I was completely swept up in the romance between him and Tana. I've read a lot of vampire books before now, and it was great to catch the subtle references that Black has clearly put in. While this is a YA book about a teenage girl and some vampires, don't let the publishing trends of the last few years put you off. This has a very capable, smart, brave and resourceful heroine, who doesn't wait around for anyone to save her. Tana rescues others, as well as herself. For anyone who enjoyed McKinley's Sunshine, this should be a MUST READ book. I think I might even like this better, as Sunshine has always cried out for a sequel, whilst this works beautifully as a stand alone novel with a very promising end. If you ever enjoyed a vampire story, give this book a chance.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

#CBR5 Book 115. "Flowers from the Storm" by Laura Kinsale

Page count: 560 pages
Rating: 5 stars

This is considered one of the great examples of romance literature, and it's been in the top 10 of the top 100 romance novels polls on All About Romance since 2000 (in 1998, it was rated 15th). When romance reviewers are asked to name their favourite books, it keeps being mentioned, and raved about, and I just never seemed to find the time to read it. Written in 1992, it's considered one of the works that really changed the genre (away from the frequently No means Yes rapey/forced consent romances into closer to what it is today). It's also a wonderful book to give to someone who claims romance is just trashy escapism for frustrated, sex-starved housewives. This is about as far from 50 Shades of Grey as you can get.

So what is it about then, you ask? Christian Langland, the Duke of Jervaulx is a dissolute rake if ever there was one, but he's also a mathematical genius, which is why Quaker spinster Archemedea Timms comes into contact with him. Her father, another mathematician, is blind, and Maddy (a necessary nickname if ever I heard one) writes out all his notes and takes them to the duke, and in turn reads all the duke's notes to her father. Then they hear that the duke's been killed in a duel, after an aggrieved husband called Jervaulx out. Maddy discovers this isn't true when she arrives at her cousin's posh mental asylum in the countryside, and finds Jervaulx locked up, senseless and in chains. She quickly realises what no one else has been willing to consider, that he's not mad but maddened, and that he's clearly in his right mind, just furious at being unable to communicate with those around him. A modern reader can see that Jervaulx has suffered a stroke, but it's not at all surprising that the duke's relatives would want him locked up and declared insane, so they could take over the running of his estates.

Maddy, despite being deeply uncomfortable with the Jervaulx's position and his dissolute lifestyle, believes herself to have received a calling from God, to help him. She stubbornly convinces her cousin (who for all the horrors of the asylum really is quite progressive, for the time) to let her tend him, and surprisingly rapidly, the duke is calm and compliant and even able to leave his cell on occasion. They grow increasingly closer the more time they spend together, with Jervaulx coming to depend on Maddy entirely. He has no way of communicating the amount of abuse he suffers from the other minders at the asylum, and realises that he can't risk them feeling threatened. He finally recovers enough that they deem him ready for his competency hearing, and take him to London, where most of his family still believe him completely addled. Only his battleaxe of an aunt believes him to be on the way to recovery, but she's worried about the reputation of the family, and wants Jervaulx to marry to secure the title. If he won't agree to matrimony, she'll have him shipped back to the asylum. Jervaulx has no intention of marrying anyone save Maddy, his rescuing angel, but her religious beliefs make such a union completely impossible.

Kinsale is considered a master of her craft, and I can see why in this book. At nearly 600 pages, it's quite a bit longer than a standard romance nowadays, and the relationship between Jervaulx and Maddy is slowly established, as their romance seems impossible. Jervaulx is all that is dissolute, sinful and decadent, and Maddy is a devout Quaker, who spurns creaturely comforts and worldly titles, calling everyone 'Friend' and even refusing to curtsy to the King of England himself. She fights her attraction to Jervaulx from the start, yet deeply respects his intelligence and kindness to her father, and is the only one who fights for him in the asylum. Yet this isn't the story of a selfless woman who through love and self sacrifice heals a broken man. While Jervaulx is initially terrified when Maddy is away from him, and seems incapable of managing without her, he gradually, with the additional help of loyal friends and servants, manages to rehabilitate himself. It doesn't hurt that most people regard him with so much awe and deference because of his title that they don't notice that he leaves out a few words here and there.

I love that Kinsale shows us both protagonists' POVs, and even the broken snippets of dialogue that are the only thing Jervaulx is capable of understanding as he recovers from his stroke. His rate of recovery is clearly shown in the amount of conversation he's able to follow. We also see firsthand Maddy's inner turmoil, and at no point are her devout religious beliefs judged by the author. There are no quick fixes in this book, there are no easy solutions. The harrowing conditions in even a very progressive and forward thinking asylum for the wealthy are terrifying, and I shared Jervaux's terror that he be sent back there, understanding why he might resort to less than honourable methods to win Maddy's hand in order to get his normal life back. While there is a lot of angst and anguish over the course of this book, it was also a deeply satisfying read, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who thinks romance can't be real literature. I now understand why it's prized so highly among romance readers, and will absolutely be seeking out more Kinsale to read.

Sunday 8 September 2013

#CBR5 Book 114. "Chimes at Midnight" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the seventh book about October Daye and as such, not the best place to start the series. If you like a paranormal series focused more on mysteries and adventure than on romance (not that there isn't romance too, once you get a few books in), then this is a good one. Go check out Rosemary and Rue if you haven't already. Also, as this is the seventh book, spoilers for previous books may occur.

As the only changeling (half human, half fey) knight in existence, October "Toby" Daye concerns herself with a lot of quests and issues that others don't bother with. Changelings are dying all over San Francisco from their addiction to goblin fruit. A fruit that's only pleasant and harmless to full-blood faeries, the goblin fruit is extremely addictive to changelings and humans, and the addiction gets so strong that they die from eating nothing else. Toby wants it off the streets and goes to the Queen of the Mists to have the problem dealt with, only to discover that the Queen is the one peddling the fruit, as she sees nothing wrong with changelings and humans dying. She also banishes Toby for her insubordination, giving her three days to remove herself from the kingdom.

Having started out a loner, with no recourse but to dive into danger by herself, Toby now has a squire and a boyfriend and a growing band of allies who can help her in situations such as these. When they discover that the Queen's claim to the throne isn't in fact valid, and that the children to the last King are still alive, but in hiding, Toby and her friends realise that they're going to have to stage a full scale rebellion. They just need to keep Toby alive long enough to succeed.

One of the features of these books is that Toby is normally in near to almost certain mortal danger at least twice over the course of each book. When I'd read nearly half of this book and nothing more serious than a banishment was causing her difficulties, I was starting to wonder what was going on. I needn't have worried, Toby is hit with a doozy of a challenge, which in many ways is made more complicated because of her unusual and unpredictable magic.

While a lot of the previous books focus on a mystery that Toby (who works as a private investigator when she's not a fairy knight) has to solve, or a quest she has to complete (usually involving missing children), this one is all about the removal of one false Queen to restore the rightful heir to the throne. As someone who tends to love a good gallery of supporting characters, I'm so glad that Toby now no longer has to solve her problems by herself. She's got a devoted and just achingly romantic boyfriend, she's got Quentin, her squire (who's parentage is finally revealed in this book, and I'm so happy that I called it at least three books ago!) and Raj, the Prince of Cats - her two teenage sidekicks. There's Luidaeg, the Sea Witch, and May, Toby's indestructible fetch (a death omen who now lives with her). Her liege lord, Duke Sylvester, only really makes a brief appearance in the book, but we get to explore exciting new locations, such as the Library of Stars (I want one!)

I now look back with envy to the days when I hadn't caught up with this series, and didn't have to wait impatiently for a whole year to read what comes next. The October Daye books, like Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels books and Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson books are now books that I not only pre-order, but clear my entire schedule to have time to read. I don't want anything taking my attention away from the books. Now, having devoured the book in one day, I just have to settle in for the long wait for book 8. Sigh.

#CBR5 Book 113. "The Broken Kingdoms" by N.K. Jemisin

Page count: 417 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the second book in the Inheritance trilogy, and while the book can be read independently (I read the first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms nearly a year and a half before I read this one, which was fine, once I'd re-familiarised myself with the plot on Wikipedia), you'll probably get a more cohesive and generally better reading experience if you read them in sequence (without waiting 18 months between them).

In the city of Shadow, beneath the World Tree that sprang into existence ten years ago, blind Oree Shoth makes her living as an artist. She does appear to be able to see magic of all kinds, though, and her strange second sight helps her paint. Oree lives with a mysterious, taciturn stranger who she rescued from a waste bin some months back. She doesn't think he's a godling (one of the many minor gods that have started appearing in the city since the World Tree grew), because he only glows at dawn. He's clearly not all human, either, as he keeps killing himself and coming back to life.

When godlings start turning up dead, Oree and her strange house guest, along with Oree's former lover, a godling called Madden, find themselves abducted and held prisoner by a secret religious organisation. They want to keep her friends hostage, to get Oree to cooperate with them. They need her help to kill one of the major gods, the Shadow Lord himself.

This book is set ten years after the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and the major characters in that book only turn up briefly in this book, mainly as cameos. So it's absolutely possibly to read the second book without knowing what happened in the first, but I found it added another dimension to know the reasons for the major changes this fantasy world has gone through in the last decade. As in the first book, the narrative is told in first person, this time from Oree's POV. Because it's a personal narrative, it jumps a bit back and forth, as personally recounted stories often do. This, of course, enables Jemisin to put in all sorts of foreshadowing and teases for the readers.

Those who have read the first book in the series, will not be that surprised at the identity of Oree's strange lodger, and I really like what Jemisin's done with this character and that she's built a fantasy universe where it's possible to explore the sorts of things she does. Jemisin is very highly acclaimed out there on the internet, and while I liked the book, I'm still waiting to be blown away by her writing, the way so many others out there seem to have been. Last year, as part of my now annual support of WorldbuildersPatrick Rothfuss' charity fundraiser, I got the Literary Pinup Calendar, drawn by Lee Moyer. Very fittingly, September's image is of Oree. It's one of my favourite images in the calendar. I really wish I could love the book as much as I love this picture, but so far, after two books, for all that I see that her writing is great, there's just this little part of me that stays detached when I read Jemisin's books. That's not to say this isn't very good fantasy, quite unlike anything else I've found out there. Maybe the next book of hers is the one where I finally get properly hooked?

#CBR5 Book 112. "Breadcrumbs" by Anne Ursu

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Hazel and Jack are best friends and live just down the street from one another. Until recently, they didn't go to the same school, but after Hazel's dad moved away, she had to change schools and now she's in the classroom across the hall from Jack. Hazel doesn't really fit in at school. None of the other kids were adopted from India and look completely different from their mum and dad. She only really feels like she completely belongs when she's with Jack, and when he's off playing with the other boys, she feels desperately alone.

Of course, there are worse things than your dad leaving your mum and you to manage by yourselves or your friend occasionally playing with others. Your mum could still be there, listless and uncaring, empty-seeming and no longer noticing much of anything, like Jack's mum. Maybe that's why he changes completely one day - becoming mean and distant the day after he had an accident in the school yard, when something seemed to pierce him in the eye? Suddenly he just wants to play with the boys, and ignores Hazel completely. Then he disappears. His parents say he's off taking care of his elderly aunt Bernice, but Hazel's known Jack her entire life - he doesn't have an aunt Bernice. One of the other boys mentions having seen Jack going into the woods, with a tall, icily beautiful, fur-clad woman, like the White Witch of Narnia. But witches aren't real, are they? Hazel knows that she needs to rescue her best friend, even if it means going off into terrible danger.

Breadcrumbs is a wonderful book, which retells the fairy tale The Snow Queen in a wholly original way. While it's meant for middle grade readers, it doesn't underestimate its target audience and deals with bullying, alienation, depression, divorce, the need to belong, the perilous fragility of adolescent friendships and the myriad challenges of growing up. Hazel loves to read, and constantly thinks of things in reference to other children's and YA books (to the point where it almost got a bit tedious, unfortunately). There are nods to fairy tales, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L'Engle and Neil Gaiman to name but a few.

Having gone to a non-standard school before her parents' divorce, Hazel finds it nearly impossible to adapt to the rigid structures and rules of her new school, where she also struggles to interpret the social codes of her peers, and keeps failing. Something as simple as having a backpack when everyone else has a shoulder bag can make you the odd one out, which can be devastating when you're already a different ethnic makeup to everyone around you.

Hazel has a caring, if struggling mother, and does her best to be a well-behaved and obedient child. She doesn't understand why all the grown ups want her to make friends who aren't Jack, at least until he changes overnight and abandons her. She's a brave and resourceful girl, who knows that going after your best friend when he's possibly been spirited away by an evil witch isn't going to be easy. She faces a number of challenges and dangers on her quest, and despite being told repeatedly that the White Witch never takes anyone who doesn't want to go with her, she refuses to give up on her friend. She doesn't want to stop being his friend, no matter what others, or even he himself, tell her. Through all her reading, she's learnt that sometimes the Knight is the one who needs rescuing, even though he may not realise it himself.

This is a little gem of a book, beautifully illustrated. Well worth a read, I'm very glad I found it.

Monday 2 September 2013

Yet another reading challenge - R.I.P VIII

Last year, I discovered the R.I.P reading challenge, hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings, now in its eight year. It runs from September 1st to October 31st, and participants sign up to read a set number of books in or at least adjacent to these genres:

  • mystery
  • suspense
  • thriller
  • dark fantasy
  • gothic 
  • horror
  • supernatural 
As I also discovered last year, this isn't too huge a challenge for me, as those genres fit at least a third of everything I read, maybe more. I took part last year, and intend to do so again. Because I have a whole load of other reading challenges to complete as well, and I tend not to like things unless they demand a bit of me, I intend to go for the three main reading levels:

Read four books that fit the genre criteria.

Read two books that fit the genre criteria.

Read one book that fits the genre criteria. 
That means a total of seven books in any of these genres in the next two months. If I can make them fit with my Bingo card challenge, or my Key Word Challenge, or my Mount TBR challenge, or the Historical Fiction challenge - so much the better.

In addition, which I also set out to do last year, but failed completely (because I was having far too much fun reading), I will also try to do the TV/movie part of the challenge:

Watch television or movies that fit the criteria, and blog about them too. As the husband and I have been marathon watching Supernatural lately, and I'm now almost two seasons behind on The Vampire Diaries, I should be able to sort something out. 

Now I'm off to do the thing I enjoy almost more than the actual reading itself - making a list of potential books for the challenge!

#CBR5 Book 111. "Wallbanger" by Alice Clayton

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Caroline has many things to be happy about. She's got good friends, a devoted cat, a job she enjoys, a very nice Kitchen Aid mixer and a beautiful new San Francisco apartment. What is missing from her life, and has been missing for over six months, since a particularly disastrous date, is the big O. To make matters worse, the main flaw in her otherwise lovely apartment seems to be that the walls between her bedroom and that of the one next door, are very thin. And her neighbour has a very active, frequent and loud sex life with at least three different women (all of whom Caroline gives snarky nicknames). She keeps losing sleep, and one night, in a fit of frustration, pounds on the wallbanger's door (forgetting that she's clad only in a skimpy nightie) and demands he keep it down. Simon, as the wallbanger is actually called, answers the door wrapped only in a sheet, and seems very amused by the whole situation.

Caroline and Simon start out fairly antagonistic to one another, but when his two closest friends start going out with Caroline's two besties, they are naturally thrown together more often than not. They start out with a tentative truce, which turns into friendship, which eventually seems to blossom into something more. Will Clive the cat ever be united with his one true love, the woman who mieows through Caroline's walls intermittently?Will Caroline ever recover her lost O? Will Simon be able to give up his little harem of women and settle for just one woman?

This is a book that popped up in my recommendations on Amazon, and Goodreads, and which I completely discounted because of both the title and cover, which didn't really appeal to me at all. Only after reading rave reviews of it on a number of romance review sites that I follow and trust, did I decide to give it a chance, and I'm so glad that I did. It's a funny and frothy contemporary romance very much in the style of Jennifer Crusie at her best. The confident and very uncomplicated heroine who loves baking seemed taken straight out of one of her books. She's happy with her life, her friends and her job. I did get a little tired of just how much she obsessed about her missing O (really, this is a very central feature in the first third of the book), but in her position, I'd probably be pretty frantic, myself.

Simon is a great hero. He's not ashamed of his sex drive, or his multiple partners, all of whom are aware that he's not seeing them exclusively, and all of whom are vastly different women, in personality and body type. He travels the world in his job as a photographer, and clearly isn't happy with the idea of being tied down to one person or one place for too long. The secondary cast of friends and employers is also very well done, creating a very believable support network for both characters. The romance between Simon and Caroline isn't instantaneous, and even after they admit their attraction towards one another, without obstacles. It felt like a fairly realistic way for a relationship to develop, and I just wish that the climax, so to speak, of all the tension in their romance hadn't played out quite the way it did.


I'm by no means I very obsessively clean person, but the mess the two make out of Caroline's kitchen, had me cringing and took me completely out of the book. I don't think smexy times and food should mix, and I certainly couldn't be passionately seduced if there was flour and honey and other sticky substances all over myself, my partner and my kitchen. *shudder*


Caroline's somewhat long-winded whining about her missing O in the first part of the novel, and the somewhat messy romantic reconciliation of the couple aside, I really did enjoy this book immensely, and would recommend it to anyone who'd like a fun and quick read. It also made me want to learn to make zucchini bread (which Caroline bakes more than once) and re-visit Spain (where parts of the novel take place). None of those are bad things, though. Highly recommended, especially for Crusie fans.

Sunday 1 September 2013

#CBR5 Book 110. "Assassins in Love" by Kris DeLake

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

In an exciting sci-fi future, on an interstellar cruise ship, rogue assassin Rikki (I seriously can't remember her surname, it's not important) is trying to dump a body. While assassination is legal if you have a license and a contract, Rikki's not a member of the Assassin's Guild, and generally feels that she doesn't need anyone controlling her or regulating how she does things. A very attractive man helps her get rid of the body, and then escape the security guards on the ship. One thing leads to another, and the next morning, Rikki discovers that the hot guy, Misha, is the one who actually hired her to perform the hit - trying to observe her technique. He's the licensed assassin who's recently been blamed for most of her hits in the region, and he wants her to either join the Assassin's Guild and start observing the set guidelines, or he's planning to stop her.

This is just the first section of the book. Rikki uses underhanded methods to discover Misha's real identity, and flashes back to her childhood, when his mother, also a licensed assassin, killed Rikki's father. She becomes convinced that he's trying to kill her, as well, and drugs him so she can escape the cruise ship. He chases after her, still determined to make her join the Guild or stop being an assassin, and there's a plot to kill the head of the Assassin's Guild and various back and forth of now they trust each other, now they don't.

August 2013's theme for Vaginal Fantasy Hangout (the online book club run by Felicia Day and three of her friends) was space assassins. Having nearly burned myself out reading in July, I figured light-hearted romance was just the thing the doctor ordered. So despite my misgivings, having considered both the spectacularly awful cover (even in a genre which features a lot of bad cover art) and the dumb title, picked, I'm assuming from some sort of generic name generator. Kris DeLake is a pseudonym for Kristine Kathryn Rausch, who writes a lot of fantasy and sci fi. Goodreads also tells me that she writes straight romance under another pseudonym.

The book is not bad, but certainly not great either. Rikki and Misha spend a LOT of time in bed with each other for people who don't trust each other. There's also extremely little assassining (this is a totally valid verb that I just made up) being done, and quite a lot more exploring joint (if repressed, in Rikki's case) back story. Like the ladies on Vaginal Fantasy Hangout, I liked Misha as a character a lot more than Rikki, who just never really grew on me. He's probably the reason the book gets 3.5 stars rather than just 3. This is by no means the worst book I've read as a result of the book club, but certainly not the best either, and I don't think I'll be bothered with any more in the series.

#CBR5 Book 109. "Jellicoe Road" by Melina Marchetta

Page count: 437 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Taylor Markham is seventeen, and has lived at the boarding school by Jellicoe Road since she was abandoned by her mother when she was eleven. She's just reluctantly accepted the post as leader for her house (boarding school dorm - think Harry Potter), which means caring for the well-being of the younger girls in the house, as well as masterminding the territory war between the town kids, the boarding school kids and the group of cadets who camp near the town for a number of weeks each year.

Hannah, the only grown-up that Taylor is really close to, just disappears one day, leaving behind the house she's been slowly restoring over the years, and an unfinished manuscript, which tells the story of four teenagers who met on Jellicoe Road more than twenty years ago. No one wants to tell Taylor where she's gone. Then she discovers that the leader for this year's cadets is none other than Jonah Griggs, the boy who helped her run away years ago, but who also betrayed her by getting them found. Hannah's disappearance and Jonah's reappearance in Taylor's life sparks a series of events that will finally lead to her discovering why she was abandoned by her mother, what really happened to her father, and what may be in store for her in the future.

I'm not doing a very good job of summarising this book, which started out very confusing (you see everything from Taylor's rather surly POV, and you're just plunged immediately into the action of what seems like the story of a very confusing and intricate way of playing 'Capture the Flag'. Taylor doesn't come across as very likable, and I was a bit confused as to how she had any friends at all. Still, the book has garnered a slew of awards, and came very highly rated on a number of review sites that I trust, so I kept reading, which is good, because it was SO worth it. Trusting her readers' intelligence, and ability to pay attention, Marchetta portions out new information sparingly with each chapter, making you grasp more and more of the big picture, and changing your opinions about the characters involved as the story progresses.

Another thing that was initially confusing in the book is the sections about the four other characters, who at first seem to have nothing to do with Taylor at all, but which you come to realise are extracts from Hannah's manuscript. This isn't spoilery, by the way, it's revealed fairly early on in the book, and I figured mentioning it here may help other readers accept it as an important supplement to the main story. It does become apparent why we're being allowed to read along with Taylor, and just take my word that you'll miss out on important stuff if you skip the sections in cursive.

This book made me laugh, and cry, and desperately want to hug several of the characters. If I were a teenager still, I'd want Taylor to be one of my friends, and as an adult, I want to embrace her and help her resolve her many understandable and conflicting emotions, not to mention her trust issues, fear of letting anyone get close to her, and her fear of abandonment. Then there's Jonah, the mysterious and brooding boy from her past, who killed his own father. Suffice to say, neither Taylor nor Jonah have any reason to particularly trust or rely on adults, and the running away incident in their past means there is a deep well of tension between them when they meet again. While the chief focus of the plot is Taylor trying to discover where Hannah went, and what actually happened with her parents, there is also a strong romantic subplot, which for all that this is a YA novel, took my breath away.

I've been putting this review off, trying desperately to get across why EVERYONE should read this book, and what a wonderful reading experience it turned out to be. Once I got through the first rather confusing chapters (which are still excellently written, just very sparing on helpful exposition), I was completely engrossed and I resented having to put the book down for things like sleep and doing my job. I read during the breaks between lessons, and every chance I got. I love this book, I quite possibly love every single significant character in it. I'll be very surprised if this book doesn't end up in my top 3 of the year.