Monday 18 November 2013

#CBR5 Book 138. "Private Arrangements" by Sherry Thomas

Page count: 351 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lord and Lady Tremaine have the ideal marriage, according to society. Having lived apart, on separate continents, for the the last decade since their wedding, they are nonetheless all that is elegant and courteous in relation to each other. Until Lady Tremaine shocks everyone, not least her own husband, by asking for a divorce, so she can marry someone else.

Philippa "Gigi" Rowland was the wealthy only child of an industrialist, with a deeply ambitious mother determined that her only daughter end up a duchess. When Gigi's noble, yet penniless fiancee (a duke) dies two weeks before the wedding, all their dreams seem crushed, as the duke's handsome cousin, now a marquess (his father inherits the dukedom) is promised to another. Gigi still refuses give up on Camden Saybrook, manipulating and scheming to get him to marry her. Her plots are revealed the day after their wedding, and Cameron, who'd been a very happy bridegroom, leaves her in disgust.

Mostly the couple live entirely separate lives, their paths crossing only very occasionally. Mrs. Rowland, Gigi's mother, has never been happy about the couple's estrangement and has been sending letters to Camden in America with frequent updates about his wife's whereabouts and goings on. Both have clearly had lovers in the last decade, so it's extra shocking that Gigi petitions for divorce on the grounds of Cameron's infidelity. Cameron returns to London to confront his wife, and realises that he's not ready to let her go. He declares that he will only agree to the divorce once Gigi provides him with an heir. Gigi, while initially appalled, agrees, but keeps the truth of their arrangement from her fiancee, the young Lord Frederick.

Private Arrangements is Thomas' first novel and it was a huge success. I'm not surprised, as she does a lot of things that are unusual for romances, not least tell the story in a non-linear fashion, with half the book taking place in the present, where Gigi and Camden can barely stand to be in the same room as each other, and the other showing us the way they met and fell in love, as well as the complicated plot Gigi set in motion to snag herself a noble husband. It's quite obvious that while they may not like each other all that much, they are still attracted to each other. It also wouldn't be a romance if Gigi actually got granted her divorce and ended up with the oh so nice, but not very exciting Lord Frederick.

Gigi and Camden are also not instantly likable characters. You understand Camden's fury with her, but it also becomes clear that before he left her for good, he gave as good as he got to make Gigi suffer for her scheming. They make each other suffer horribly, and should probably both have been more forgiving and open to communication. Still, because they're so wounded and stubborn and clearly loved each other once, it becomes all the more compelling to see how they'll work through their differences and end up happy together. I'd forgotten just how painful some of the book is, though, and how vicious the couple are to each other. If you're looking for a fun and light read, this is not the romance for you. It's a stunning debut, though.

Sunday 17 November 2013

#CBR5 Book 137. "The Luckiest Lady in London" by Sherry Thomas

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Felix Rivendale, the Marquess of Wrenworth is known in society as "the Ideal Gentleman". He is handsome, wealthy, charming, generous and famous for his lavish hospitality. Men want to be him, or at least his good friend, and it goes without saying that he's the most eligible bachelor on the market. He's clearly not a virgin, but there is not a whiff of scandal surrounding him, either. Few, if any, suspect that his cheerful and impeccable demeanour is a clearly constructed facade. Having been used as a pawn in the emotional warfare his parents conducted against each other, he's become deeply distrustful of strong emotions, and a master at manipulating those around them so subtly that they believe his suggestions are their own.

Miss Louisa Cantwell is the daughter of a country baron and and one of five sisters, none of whom are likely to snag the wealthy husband needed to secure the family's fortunes. She is neither particularly financially or physically desirable as a bride, but is also fully aware of it, and has worked tirelessly for the last eight years to plan her perfect season. Using every trick in the book, including bust improvers to make it look as if nature gave her a generous bosom, she's determined to find a husband by the end of the season, preferably not one who's too disagreeable. She's found two likely candidates, and uses every chance she gets to cultivate them and their relatives. She wouldn't dream of setting her sights on Lord Wrenworth, and is rather appalled with herself when they finally meet and she's both overwhelmed with lust for him, while at the same time convinced that he's a scoundrel, who can see right through all her. She's wondering why no one else suspects that he's not entirely as he seems.

Because she has absolutely no illusions about securing Wrenworth's affections, Louisa proceeds to be completely honest with him about her attraction. Felix finds it both intriguing and novel that this young woman clearly isn't taken in by "the Ideal Gentleman", and seems to actually dislike him, yet also confesses to erotic dreams about him. Since she sees what no one else sees, he can be shockingly forthright with her, and proposes to make her his mistress. Louisa somewhat reluctantly dismisses him, knowing full well that as a nobleman's lover she will never have the security she craves. Of course, not one to take no for an answer, Felix goes about eliminating her potential suitors, hoping that if she has no marriage prospects, she'll relent by the end of the season. Once he realises she's rather marry a butcher than become his mistress, he has to reevaluate his plans, and makes her his wife instead.

Louisa is a sensible and pragmatic young lady. She's considered all her other sisters, one is a recluse, one appears to be a lesbian, one is an epileptic and the last is "of completely the wrong temperament for the wooing of gentlemen". Their family are not exactly poor, their mother has a pension as long as she lives, but once she dies, the sisters are entirely on their own. She's deeply ambivalent about her feelings for Felix. On the one hand, she's infatuated with him and clearly desires him, on the other, she doesn't trust him for a second, and is uncertain about his motives for actually marrying her, rather than just holding out until she said yes to becoming his mistress. She has no illusions about the marriages of the upper classes, but figures that as long as she's enthusiastic and open for most things in the marriage bed, she might prevent her husband from straying, but she has no expectations of his love.

Felix is scared by the passionate desire he feels for his new wife. In his experience, love makes you weak and vulnerable and he tries to keep himself away from her as much as possible after their wedding night. He can't bear to hurt her for too long though, and soon her continued distrust starts to upset him. He knows that he manipulated her into marriage, and becomes terrified that he will lose her, or that his own marriage will become like that of his parents. "The Ideal Gentleman", who had no time for love needs to win the trust, love and devotion of his own wife.

Sherry Thomas' romances don't work for everyone. While a lot of the genre is frothy, light and diverting, perfect for cheering you up and giving you a much needed escape from your everyday cares, Thomas tends to focus on emotionally messed up protagonists who are often deeply unhappy, with themselves and each other, before they work through their angsty difficulties and start moving towards a happier future. The narratives of her books are frequently non-linear, moving back and forth between the past and the present. The Luckiest Lady in London is about intelligent, distrustful people who end up married to each other, gradually falling in love. There are no flashbacks, the story is chronological, with Felix' unhappy childhood revealed in the prologue.

Thomas has admitted that this novel is inspired by Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels, which is so popular it's been number one on All About Romance's Top 100 Romances for at least the last 13 years (in 1998, the first poll listed, it was in shared fifth place). In it, the Marquess of Dain have parents in an unhappy marriage, his mother abandons him and his father is emotionally cold, so he tries his best to be as provoking as possible. He decides to become the most shocking and provoking hellion around, until formidable spinster Jessica (in my top five heroines ever) comes along and changes his life. Wrenworth (who actually appears or is mentioned in every single preceding Thomas romance, so this is sort of a prequel to them) has the same miserable childhood. His mother was pressured into marrying his father, who adored her. She loved another, and tortured Felix' father by strongly implying that his son was illegitimate. She doted on Felix, but only when someone could see it, otherwise both his parents had no time or affection for him. Learning quickly to distrust love, and managing without it, Felix decides to go in a different direction from Dain. He becomes "the Ideal Gentleman", universally irreproachable, adored by everyone. While Dain thrives on the shock and disgust of the ton, Wrenworth needs their adulation, while pretending to scorn it.

It's obvious that Felix becomes a victim of his own success. He clearly wishes that someone see through his perfectly crafted persona, and call him on his machinations, but until Louisa comes along, no one does. The fact that she not only sees the person he's trying to hide, but seems to like him, even when he's a scoundrel. His parents' loveless marriage convinced him that he was better without love, but when his own marriage is in danger of becoming as cold and barren, he realises he has to change before it's too late.

While parts of this novel has some of the trademark Thomas angst and upheaval, it's a lot more fun and light-hearted than her previous books. There's some amazing banter between Felix and Louisa, and he's such an awful, unapologetic schemer that you can't help but like him, even as you can't wait to see him brought to his knees. It's also incredibly refreshing to have a heroine, though a properly brought up virgin when she marries, is unashamed of her desires and curiosity about sex, even before she marries. All of these things make this my new favourite of her novels (AND I rate it higher than Lord of Scoundrels - gasp!)

#CBR5 Book 136. "Written in Red" by Anne Bishop

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 5 stars

I try not to resort to book blurbs to summarise the books for my reviews, but sometimes, they're bloody hard to do without some help. Hence:

No one creates realms like New York Times bestselling author Anne Bishop. Now in a thrilling new fantasy series, enter a world inhabited by the Others, unearthly entities - vampires and shape-shifters among them - who rule the Earth and whose prey are humans.

As a "cassandra sangue", or blood prophet, Meg Corbyn can see the future when her skin is cut - a gift that feels more like a curse. Meg's Controller keeps her enslaved so he can have full access to her visions. But when she escapes, the only safe place Meg can hide is at the Lakeside Courtyard - a business district operated by the Others.

Shape-shifter Simon Wolfgard is reluctant to hire the stranger who inquires about the Human Liason job. First, he senses that she is keeping a secret, and second, she doesn't smell like human prey. Yet a stronger instinct propels him to give Meg the job. And when he learns the truth about Meg and that she's wanted by the government, he'll have to decide if she's worth the fight between the humans and Others that will surely follow.

I hadn't actually read the blurb when I started the book, and was therefore extremely pleasantly surprised by the world building presented in the introduction. The Others, or the terra indigine are the original inhabitants of Earth. They are vampires, and shape-shifters of all manner of varieties. There are elemental spirits, and ancient terrifying things that go bump in the night. The humans originated in this world's version of Europe, and as they started exploring new parts of the world, discovering that there were a lot of things out there with teeth and claws who would considered them prey. In Thaisia, this world's version of America, the humans eventually managed to settle enough people to make safer settlements. The humans are clever and inventive, but the Others control all the natural resources they need to make their new inventions work. In the more heavily populated human areas, there is usually an uneasy truce between the Others and the humans. In every large city, there has to be an Others-controlled Courtyard, where the Others operate the businesses and keep an eye on the humans, making sure they don't get any ideas above themselves.

The Lakeside Courtyard, where Simon Wolfgard (guess what he turns into) is the leader, is probably the most progressive of all of Thaisia's Others-controlled areas. The Others in the Lakeside Courtyard even have human employees and generally seem pretty tolerant, but if the local humans forget themselves and trespass, they are still ruthlessly eaten. Meg comes stumbling into the Courtyard in the middle of a fierce snowstorm, nearly frozen to death. Just the fact that she's poorly dressed for the elements and seems so unafraid of the Others, intrigues Simon and the other terra indigine of Lakeside. They always have to have a Human Liaison, who does just what it sounds like, liaises between the Others and their peculiar and often a bit hostile ways, and the humans who deliver post, services and goods to the Courtyard. Meg, knowing that no expense will be spared to recapture her, is relieved to be in an area where human laws don't apply, and big, fierce shape-shifters and bloodsuckers will eat anyone who tries to trespass.

Meg is wary among the Others, but a lot more terrified of being taken back to the compound where she was held captive. She and her fellow blood prophets (always female, it seems) are locked up and every aspect of their lives are controlled. They're told when and what to eat, how much to exercise. As long as they co-operate, they are pampered, but they can also be brutally punished for disobedience. Every inch of their skin is a valuable commodity, as every cut yields an absolutely true prophecy, which can be triggered by a specific focus. Hence the Controllers sell the predictions, and the girls are discarded when they no longer have skin left to cut. The girls are taught about the outside world through pictures and films, and occasionally given misinformation as well, to test their prophetic abilities. It's clear that Meg vaguely remembers a time before she was taken to the compound, and given a number rather than her name, so it's clear that girls suspected of her "gift" may just be seized when their prophetic abilities manifest. Because the girls are driven to cut themselves to get the prophecies out, no matter what, and sometimes they end up hurting themselves if not controlled, the government has decreed that all cassandra sangues are to live under the "benevolent ownership" of state-approved Controllers. They have no legal rights of their own, and are as such, slaves to their masters.

"The Meg" as she is called by the inhabitants of the Lakeside Courtyard is a fascinating character. She could easily have been seen as a Mary Sue, because every new thing she sets out to do, she seems to manage admirably almost immediately, and pretty much everyone seems to love her within minutes of meeting her. Yet it's also clear that the blood prophets aren't entirely like normal humans. They're not entirely Other, but there is a reason that Meg doesn't smell like prey to the shape-shifters, and that her "sweet blood" is deemed off limits to the vampires. In addition, because Meg knows that she needs to stay in the Others' good graces, so she's not eaten, or worse, left to fend for herself against the Controllers' men who are looking for her, she tries her best to be open-minded, polite, efficient and agreeable. Because she has so little practical experience in the real world, she frequently struggles with fairly mundane tasks, and the various species of Others find her very amusing to watch. She's also not been brought up with the prejudices towards Others that most humans have. While she forces herself to be cheerful and useful around the Courtyard, she's clearly both afraid and annoyed by Simon, and the fact that the two of the grate so much on each other is clearly a sign that in future books they are meant to be. There's a little bit of romantic tension in the book, but anyone looking for paranormal romance or lots of kissing and shape-shifter/vampire smexy times, will be very disappointed.

I already mentioned that the world building does something completely new to me in paranormal/urban fantasy. The idea that the supernatural creatures are not the minorities that have to hide their true selves from most humans, or "come out" as part of the story, but are in fact the dominant species, cause let's face it, they are bigger, faster and stronger and humans are just clever meat to them, is awesome. It's such a nice twist on what you normally find, and had me intrigued from the very first page. That the various supernatural inhabitants in the Lakeside Courtyard are all well developed, with a number of interesting and complex characters in the community making the story not just about Meg and Simon. There's just as much diversity among the human characters. Some are selfish and prejudiced and anti-Others, and some are determined to make sure they leave in harmony with them, avoiding pissing them off to the point where they just exterminate the human settlements.

I've complained before that with a lot of the genre, you have to read a couple of books before the world is fully established, you really get a feel for the characters, and the stories really get going. This is not the case here. Bishop skilfully hooks you into her world, she makes you care deeply about her characters, and she introduces enough complications and plot momentum that you are never bored. I kept expecting the book to lose me, it couldn't possibly be quite so perfect all the way through, but this really is a great start to a new series. I couldn't really find niggles. The main plot of the book is also tied up, so it can be read as a stand alone, but there is a lot of tension set up between the humans and the Others that will clearly become important later in the series. I'm also glad I waited this long to read the book, as it means the next one is out in March 2014, making the wait for the next one less painful. If you like paranormals, but are a bit bored with the sameyness of the genre - do yourself a favour - read this book.

Saturday 16 November 2013

#CBR5 Book 135. "North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell

Page count: 544 pages
Audio book length: 18hrs 18 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Young Margaret Hale's life is turned on its head when her father, a parson from the South of England, renounces his position because he experiences a crisis of faith. He moves his anxious wife and dutiful daughter to the factory town of Milton Northern, where he's going to work as a tutor. The town, a bustling result of the Industrial Revolution, is full of cotton mills, soot and smoke, a stark contrast to the pastoral idyll of the Southern English countryside. With the loss of Mr. Hale's living, the family is in severely reduced financial circumstances, (not helped by the fact that they keep sending money to Margaret's brother who is wanted for mutiny in England, and as a result living in exile in Spain) and can't really afford more than a modest lifestyle. Margaret bravely adapts fairly quickly, but her mother never feels happy or comfortable in Milton and her health gradually deteriorates.

In Milton, the main social interaction the Hales have is with Mr. John Thornton, a mill owner who leases from Mr. Hale's best friend, Mr. Bell (Margaret's godfather). Thornton's father drove his family into debt and further caused scandal when he committed suicide. Thornton had to quit school, and take a position as a shop clerk to support his sister and widowed mother. Putting aside most of what he earned, he slowly and quietly worked to repay all his father's debts and became a respected and formidable man in Milton. His mother is a proud and arrogant woman who loves her son fiercely, constantly worried some fortune-hunting young miss will get her claws into him.

Mr. Hale tutors Mr. Thornton, and they develop a close friendship. Margaret initially has difficulties relating to him, however. Thornton thinks Margaret is very beautiful, but aloof, distant and too caught up in her sheltered and genteel way of thinking, while she thinks Thornton is cold, arrogant, coarse and too hard on his workers. Before Margaret moved with her parents to Milton, she lived with her wealthy aunt in London for ten years, until her cousin Edith married an army captain and moved to Corfu. In the north, she has very few friends. Mrs. Thornton is dismissive of the Hales, and Miss Hale is spoiled, self-centred, vain and not in any way interested in the prim and serious Miss Hale. The only friends Margaret makes are of a lower class than her, Mr. Higgins and his consumptive daughter Bessie, and they become more of a charity project for her than confidantes and support to her.

I was surprised at how useless both of Margaret's parents are. Her father upends his family's entire life because of a point of principle, but once they arrive in Milton and it turns out that their new life is going to be difficult and not at all what he'd planned, he withdraws into his studies and teaching, leaving poor Margaret to deal with the complicated practicalities of managing the household with their meagre finances, the inability to secure extra help in the house, her mother's depression and deteriorating health and the worry about Frederick. She sees the deep love between her parents, and because of that, she won't accept a marriage proposal from a man she doesn't love. Shortly after leaving her aunt's house in London, she rejects the proposal of Mr. Lennox, her cousin Edith's brother-in-law, as she cannot see him as anything but a friend. So when Mr. Thornton is persuaded by his mother and sister that Margaret must be infatuated with him, he proposes, and is vehemently rejected. By the time Margaret is ready to reconsider his advances, a number of coincidences and complications has made Thornton believe that she loves another and is lost to him.

I discovered the BBC adaptation of North and South, with the darkly handsome Richard Armitage (currently most famous as the broodingest exiled dwarf king evah in The Hobbit) and the lovely Daniela Denby-Ashe a few years ago, but it's taken me until now to actually read the novel. I got the audio book narrated by the excellent Juliet Stevenson, who varies between crisp arch tones for the southern characters and wonderful northern accents. I was surprised at how nuanced the book is, for a Victorian novel, both Margaret and Thornton's feelings are very clearly depicted. I really hadn't expected so much insight into the emotions of both main characters. Gaskell's novel is typical of the time, showing a lot of social responsibility, with the social developments after the Industrial Revolution, the clashes between the factory owners and the workers, the hardship of a strike and so forth, but it doesn't feel like it's sermonising and lecturing the reader. I will absolutely be reading more Gaskell in future.

#CBR5 Book 134. "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" by Sarra Manning

Page count: 560 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Neve is in her mid-twenties and awkward around new people, especially men. She works as an archivist and seeks refuge in classical literature. Over the course of the last three years, she's kept up an old-fashioned pen and paper correspondence with William, one of her professors from Oxford, whose currently lecturing in California. During the same three years, she's also lost more than half her body weight (from a UK size 32/US size 30/European size 62 to a smallish UK size 16/US size 14/EU size 44) through a strenuous and rigid exercise and diet regime. William is due back in little over three months, at which point Neve is determined to be a size 12. She's sure that once William sees her again, he will love her as much as she has always loved him, and everything in her life will finally be perfect.

Her little sister Celia is not convinced that Neve is doing the right thing, pining for William and rejecting all other men. She encourages Neve to get some dating experience, saying that she doesn't want to be completely innocent when William finally returns. The only man she warns Neve away from entirely, is Mx, one of the assistant editors at the fashion and lifestyle magazine where Celia works, claiming that he's a bit of a man whore and will only break Neve's heart. As Max has a young blonde draped over each arm and throws an ice cube at her accidentally the first time they meet, Neve is pretty sure she'll be able to resist his "charm", yet ends up taking him home at the end of the night, desperate to get some of that precious experience with someone who seems to have lots of it. Their first night together is absolutely dreadful, and it's clearly better if she and Max never speak again.

Neve is put off the idea of casual sex after that first attempt with Max, but wants a "pancake relationship" to get some practical experience before William returns. Her theory is that the first pancake always turns out messed up and gets discarded, it's the practise run for the real pancakes. She goes on a series of absolutely awful first dates, and suddenly Max doesn't seem so bad after all. He finds the idea of a non-sexual relationship with a woman, where Neve can get experience with kissing, dating, and even sleeping with a man strangely intriguing. He knows he has the reputation of a cad, a shallow social butterfly and an inconsequential ladies' man, and to him, a temporarily permanent non-sexual relationship represents something new, an exciting challenge, so he agrees to be her "pancake" boyfriend.

Neve and Max have three months to practise before Neve hopefully reaches her goal weight and is ready for her HEA with the scholarly and intellectual William. Despite Celia and Neve's personal trainer's misgivings, the relationship, after a few initial hiccoughs goes pretty well. Max brings Neve out of her reclusive existence and shows her that social events can be fun if you're with the right people, and Neve gives Max a much needed grounding and stability. Yet the day when William returns is rapidly approaching. Is he actually the man she's destined to be happy with, or is Neve overlooking someone a lot closer to home?

A good contemporary romance novel is basically a romantic comedy in book form. There is a certain predictability and inevitable outcome in a story like this, but it's the journey, not the destination that is what makes it so enjoyable. I'm not going to say that the ending doesn't matter, because we all know that would be a lie. But the build up in a romance, the gradually developing relationship, that is what is really important for the HEA to feel truly earned and satisfying. From the setup of this book, with the bookish, innocent young woman pining for another man, and the introduction of the charming and worldly playboy, with their agreement to help each other test-drive a relationship so to speak - it's not really going to end with Neve going off into the sunset with William. The fun of the story is how two such opposite personalities as Neve and Max can realise how perfectly they compliment each other, and support and nurture the other, finally realising that they can't live without the other.

Neve has huge self esteem issues. She was always a big girl, and her weight ballooned as she was bullied all through school. She achieves something truly remarkable by losing so much weight, reshaping herself entirely and taking control of her life (some might say that her control tendencies go a bit far with regards to her diet), but she still has tremendous trouble accepting the praise and acknowledgement she gets for this from other. Even though she's come so far, only her end result matters. Until she is a size 12, she cannot relax, cannot settle down and she certainly won't be able to find true happiness. Everything up until that point is practise, meant to be left behind and discarded. She's quite blind to her own achievements, and rather judgemental. She believes all of Celia's gossip about Max and his irresponsibility and fickleness. There's a fair amount of slut shaming towards Max, even though he's never anything but completely honest about who he is and the way he lives.

It quickly becomes clear, that for all of Neve's body image issues, Max is the more emotionally vulnerable of the two. His lack of experience with long term girlfriends may be because he doesn't think anyone would actually want to commit to a permanent relationship with him. Both his parents are dead, his mother left him with a number of emotional issues, and the closest thing he has to a family are those of the footballer's fiancee whose chick lit novels he ghost-writes. For all her complaints about her parents and siblings, Neve has a close network of supportive family members and close family friends who have always been there for her. Max is drawn to that, as much as to Neve herself. While she initially is quite dismissive of him and his lifestyle, he doesn't judge her. Instead he tries to bring her out of her shyness and awkwardness, daring her to try new things. He admires her intelligence, drive and cleverness, and despairs at her blind belief that she's still fat and unattractive. While he hopes she'll change her mind about the no sex-rule, he never tries to pressure her and gives her the time and space to come to terms with her own desires.

I found Neve very easy to relate to, yet also wanted to shake her vigorously several times. Max is clearly a great guy, your modern day rake. He's got a good career, he's gorgeous, he's adopted a neurotic shelter dog and most of all, he's fun! William is half a world away, his letters to her show that he's unlikely to feel as strongly about her as she does for him (it's not like she ever confessed to her crush on him), and while I knew that she and Max would end up together in the end, I was not looking forward to the obligatory third act conflict before they sort everything out and settle down for good. While it's quite a long book, I didn't mind. I enjoyed spending time with the characters and liked the supporting cast of Neve's family and co-workers, and the gradual friendship developing between her and Max, which evolves into something romantic as their "pancake relationship" progresses. I discovered this book when looking for books for my A to Z reading challenge, and had such a good time reading it. Neve's weight loss battle has also helped me force myself to the gym a bit more often in the weeks since I finished it, as well, so added bonus there.

Sunday 10 November 2013

#CBR5 Book 133. "The Sum of All Kisses" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Having drunkenly challenged his friend Daniel Smythe-Smith to a duel after a round of cards, Hugh Prentice ends up shot in the leg, and crippled for life. He's lucky enough to recover enough that he can walk, but has to use a cane, and will never be able-bodied again. After several years of Daniel Smythe-Smith being on the run from assassins hired by Hugh's father, Hugh has had more than enough of the whole business and tells his father that if anything untoward happens to Daniel, Hugh will kill himself. As his father seems to count on Hugh to marry and provide an heir, he calls off his hired killers, and Daniel can return safely to England, which he does and promptly falls in love with his sisters' governess, in A Night Like This.

Daniel and Hugh forgive each other, but Hugh has never been able to forgive himself. The only person who hates Hugh more than he does himself, is probably Lady Sarah Pleinsworth, who feels that he destroyed not only Daniel's life with the disastrous duel, but ruined her chances at an advantageous marriage. Sarah was supposed to have her debut along with Daniel's sister, Lady Honoria, when Daniel had to flee the country. The scandal meant they had to wait, and Sarah is convinced that one of the fourteen eligible gentlemen who proposed to someone else during that season could now have been her husband. So when Lady Honoria is getting married to Marcus Holroyd (see Just Like Heaven), and Sarah is asked to not only sit next to Hugh, but take special care of him, and make him feel like a welcome guest during the wedding festivities, she's not exactly thrilled.

Hugh thinks Sarah is a melodramatic harpy, and has never forgotten that the first time they met, Sarah unleashed a torrent of vitriolic ranting at him for all the damage she felt he had done to Daniel, Honoria, herself and her younger sisters. He has no choice but to attend Lady Honoria's wedding to show how well things are patched up with the Smythe-Smiths, but he wishes he could spend more time with the younger Pleinsworth sisters rather than Lady Sarah. Despite the personal feelings of Sarah and Hugh, though, it soon seems like several members of the Pleinsworth and Smythe-Smith families are determined to throw the two together as much as possible, and when Sarah injures her ankle and is temporarily just as crippled as Hugh, they discover that their initial dislike for each other may be turning into something else.

This is the third novel in the Smythe-Smith quartet (I suspect the fourth and final book in the series will be about Iris, another lady of marriageable age), and so far the one I've liked the most. Because of Hugh and Sarah's initial antipathy towards each other, they have some truly snarky banter, and it's fun to see a couple turning gradually from dislike to attraction. Hugh is a much more troubled hero than Marcus Holroyd or Daniel Smythe-Smith, never able to forget his foolishly impulsive challenge, and living with the painful (both physical and emotional) after-effects every day. He didn't hesitate to threaten his father with his own death if Daniel couldn't return home safely, as he really feels that his life is worth more to his loathsome father than it is to himself. All he has is his brilliant mind, he can no longer dance, or hunt, or properly woo a lady, so he's quite convinced he's going to die alone and unloved.

Sarah may seem shallow, overly dramatic and obsessed with finding a husband, but as long as she is unmarried, she's forced to participate in the annual Smythe-Smith musicales, being humiliated when she and her tone-deaf cousins are forced to perform for friends and family. When she's actually forced to spend some time with Hugh, she realises that long term, the duel had more disastrous results for him than for any of the Smythe-Smiths or their cousins, and starts softening towards him.

My main complaint with this novel was the complications caused by Hugh's father, who is a moustache-twirling maniac villain of the worst order, with no clear motivations other than being evil and erratic and wanting to control his sons' lives. I wish something else had been used as the issue that needed resolving before the couple's happy ending, but the first three quarters of the book, with the cameo appearances of the previous two books couples, and a number of fun supporting characters, like the younger Pleinsworth sisters, were strong and fun enough that I can rate this four stars.

#CBR5 Book 132. "Blood Rites" by Jim Butcher

Page count: 439 pages
Audio book length: 13 hrs and 11 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Harry Dresden, Chicago's only consulting wizard, is asked by his White Court vampire friend, and sometime ally, Thomas Raith to help a movie producer who seems to be the target of a death curse. As Thomas has aided Harry in the past, and even saved his life, Harry can't really refuse, but he demands payment both from the client and Thomas, in the form of information about why the vampire has been helping him, sometimes even at the risk of Thomas' own life. But how will Harry react to the truths that Thomas is so reluctant to share?

It turns out that the movie Harry is supposed to act as supernatural security on, and pretend to be an production assistant on, is a porn flick, which everyone of his acquaintances seems to find hilarious. The job quickly turns a lot more dangerous than Harry had expected, with the vicious death curse striking twice a day, affecting anyone close to Genosa, the director. It quickly becomes apparent that Thomas and the rest of the Raith family are more closely connected to the imperilled movie production that Thomas let on, and because Harry's life never seems to be complete unless multiple parties are trying to kill him, the powerful and vengeful Black Court vampire Mavra is determined to end him, one way or another.

One of the central themes in Blood Rites is family - the stress, grief and conflict having one can cause, and the void that not being part of one causes. Karrin Murphy happily agrees to come vampire hunting with Harry, especially if they can schedule it to the Saturday when the Murphy clan are having their annual barbecue in Chicago. She knows her younger sister is bringing her new fiancee, and feels that her mother is constantly disappointed in her, so would rather avoid going than having to face her family. During his work on the movie set, Harry is introduced to two of Thomas' sisters, with the younger, Inari, seemingly completely unaware that her entire family are White Court vampires. All the various family conflicts makes Harry all too aware that he is entirely alone in the world, with no living kin at all.

I'm really glad I stuck with the series now, and thanks again to the amazing Narfna/Ashley for suggesting I try the audio books. James Marsters is a really good narrator, and after the revelations and developments in this book, I'm probably hooked for good. Harry has really grown on me as a character, I was really glad to get more Thomas (yet another urban fantasy character with a messed up family life) and after seeing a little of what's going on in Murphy's immediate family, I'm not sure Harry should be so upset that he doesn't have a lot of close relatives. I'm trying to pace myself a bit with these (I have a limited number of Audible credits, after all), but I suspect I will average a book a month until I'm caught up, and Butcher will be added to the list of authors I hope will write and publish books faster.

Friday 1 November 2013

#CBR5 Book 131. "Thee Parts Dead" by Max Gladstone

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Tara is a newly hired first year associate with the firm of Kelethres, Albrecht and Ao, and on her very first assignment, she needs to help resurrect a god. Kos, the fire god of Alt Coulumb, has mysteriously died (he may have been murdered) and if he cannot be brought back within the month, the power he supplied to the city will shut down, and there will be chaos.

Abelard is the cleric who was on duty when Kos died, and he is naturally having a bit of a crisis of faith, which he handles by chain-smoking incessantly. He is asked to aid Elayne Kevarian (Tara's boss) and Tara with the case, which also seems to involve a murdered judge, supposedly exiled gargoyles, and the re-appearance of Tara's old mentor, who's also responsible for her being expelled from the Hidden Schools before graduating. There are mysterious things afoot in Alt Coulumb - but who has the most to benefit from the death of Kos? How far are they willing to go to stop him being resurrected and restored to power?

This is not an easy book to classify. It's alternate reality urban fantasy, meets mystery meets steampunk. There are magical systems, and different religious beliefs. There's the necromantic Craft, and the strange legal battles that take place before a case can be settled. The necromancers seem to be part lawyers, part magic wielders. We discover the rules and customs of the world gradually, and the information is sometimes portioned out sparingly, not giving the reader the full story until a long way into the book.

The characters are distinctive, and complex, and not always admirable or likable, but they're never not interesting. I loved the world building and the rules for the use of magic. That gods are powered by the belief of their worshippers is nothing new, but that a god can be the source of power for an entire city is a cool and unusual idea. I liked Tara's ambition, I loved Elayne's cool ruthlessness, and I liked Abelard's genuine faith and devotion. Max Gladstone is a very entertaining writer, and having recently discovered that this is not a stand alone book, and that the next book in the series is out now, I will absolutely be reading more of his work.