Sunday 27 April 2014

Spring Readathon 2014: End of Event

1) Which hour was the most daunting for you?
Without a doubt, hour 8 and some of hour 9, but not due to anything reading related. For pretty much that full hour, my six-month-old nephew screamed more or less non-stop because of teething pain, and refused to go back to sleep. It started out annoying, moved into upsetting and proceeded to scary, as he just got more and more distraught. Luckily, I got him sleep about 20 minutes into hour 9 and he slept peacefully until the end of my babysitting gig.

2) Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year?
I'll be naming specific titles further down. Graphic novels are great. They allow you to read a lot, in not that much time. I was also very grateful that I had an audio book on my phone for when I was travelling home from babysitting.

3) Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year?
No, not really. I think it's run very well indeed, and I like the new website design.

4) What do you think worked really well in this year's Read-a-thon?
As I was babysitting for most of it, I didn't really have time to check the website or do any challenges or focus on anything but actually getting reading done when I finally had some time to spare. I'm glad I at least got a few hour of reading in, it makes me glad I didn't decide to skip altogether. I'm also deeply grateful for Andi's reading stats spreadsheet, which made it so much easier to keep track of my reading, even though I occasionally only had five minutes in an hour to read. I've downloaded it and stored it, and will be using it for every Readathon from now on.

5) How many books did you read?
Three and two thirds.

6) What were the names of the books you read?
Two thirds of The Sandalwood Princess by Loretta Chase
Boxers by Gene Luen Yang
Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Locke and Key, vol 1: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

7) Which book did you enjoy the most?
Not sure I could pick, they all turned out to be good.

8) Which did you enjoy the least?
Again, I actually really enjoyed all of them.

9) How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you take next time?
I fully intend to participate again in October, and will be a reader. Hopefully I'll be able to clear the whole 24 hours for reading then.

Total time spent reading: 5 hours and 15 minutes
Pages read in total: 847
Books completed: Three and two thirds

Spring Readathon 2014: Sadly, very little reading so far

So I signed up, even thought I knew I was going to babysit four kids for the entire afternoon and evening, a six-month-old baby, a five-year-old, a nine-year-old and an eleven-year-old. I'd hoped to get some reading done while the younger ones were asleep. Alas, while my baby nephew was pretty much a delight for most of the day, he was less fun when it was time to actually go to sleep. It took me the best end of an hour to get him to sleep in the first place, and then, because the poor dear is teething, he refused to stay asleep for much of the night. Hence there hasn't exactly been a lot of quality reading time.

Still, at the end of hour 11, I had managed to read 177 pages, 24 of which were from a fairy tale collection as a bedtime story for my five-year-old nephew. The other 153 were the about 2/3 that I had left of The Sandalwood Princess by Loretta Chase, the only book I've been able to complete so far. Normally, I stay up until the wee hours of the morning, and have to go to sleep around hour 17-18. Completely worn out by my babysitting job, I'm going to retire to bed now, and see how much I get read tomorrow before the cut-off time of 2pm.

I have several trade paperbacks of comic books lined up, for quick and easy reading:
Wonder Woman, vol 2: Guts by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang
Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon by Matt Fraction and David Aja
Locke and Key, vol 1. Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Chew, vol 2: International Flavour and vol 3: Just Desserts by John Layman
Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Saturday 26 April 2014

#CBR6 Book 38: "Side Jobs" by Jim Butcher

Page count: 430 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is a collection of short stories featuring Harry Dresden, and Jim Butcher introduces each one, explaining which collection it was first included in, or what purpose it was written for. I wouldn't advise anyone who hasn't read up to, and finished, at least book 12, Changes, as the last novella in the book takes place immediately after the events in that book, and it contains several spoilers.

This month's monthly motif is Short and Sweet, to read short story collection or anthologies. Which fit pretty much perfectly for me as I'd been thinking about reading the various Dresden Files short stories, but wanted to make sure I didn't get spoiled by anything in them. Having ascertained that the last story is set right after Changes, I felt safe to dive in. I'm going to summarise each of the stories briefly, with my opinion of it, then give my general thoughts on the collection as a whole.

A Restoration of Faith - a prequel to The Dresden Files of sorts, set before the first book in the series. Harry is still working to gain his PI licence, and has been hired to locate a runaway teenager. In the process, he runs into a vicious bridge troll, displays some of his ability to charm children and meets a young officer of the Chicago PD named Karrin Murphy, who discovers that there are more things out there going bump in the night than she had ever suspected.

It was fun to see Harry Dresden before he became "himself" so to speak. I'm not sure when it was written, but I suspect it was after Butcher had been writing the series for a few years, as Harry the tone is a lot more similar to the later books of the series than the first three (exactly the three I'm the least fond of).

Vignette - very short little story where Harry is pondering his Yellow pages ad and talking to Bob the skull. He muses on who he is, what he does and what he's actually trying to achieve as a wizard with a listing in the phone book.

A cute, but ultimately rather throw-away story.

Something Borrowed - originally included in the wedding-themed supernatural fantasy anthology My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding, this story involves complications during the wedding of Billy and Georgia, Harry's werewolf friends. Harry discovers that the Fae Winter Court handmaiden Jenny Greenteeth has kidnapped the bride and is masquerading as her, intending to kill both Billy and Georgia. Harry and Murphy have to locate the bride and stop the ceremony before Billy kisses his false bride.

I always like it when Harry and Murphy work closely together, because they make a good team. I also really like the presence of the werewolves, even though I found the book with their introduction to be less than thrilling. Once Butcher started fleshing out the supporting cast of the books and extending the world of Dresden's Chicago, the series got increasingly more enjoyable. It was nice to see them included as supporting characters in this story.

It's My Birthday, Too - originally included in the anthology Many Bloody Returns, which seems to collect birthday stories involving vampires, this story is set on Valentine's Day, which also happens to be Thomas Raith's birthday. Harry and his apprentice Molly travel to a mall on the outskirts of town to give Thomas his birthday present. Of course there is trouble, involving Black Court vampires bent on revenge.

I love Thomas, and think he is a very important part of Harry's life. It's not like Harry has a lot of family, and so what little kin he has becomes all the more significant. Here we see Harry once again trying to fight evil without innocent civilians getting hurt, or discovering too much of the supernatural world.

Heorot - first included in the anthology My Big Fat Supernatural Honeymoon, which, you guessed it is supposed to feature honeymoons of some sort, this story finds Harry's bartender friend Mac asking him to help locate a young bride, who's disappeared mere hours after her wedding. Also gone is a cask of mead. Harry initially wonders if the young lady just got cold feet and ran away, but Ms. Gard, Johnny Marcone's formidable security expert, informs him that a big nasty with ties to Norse mythology has abducted the woman and stolen the mead, and that she needs to be rescued promptly, or very bad things will happen to more than just the kidnapping victim.

Anyone who wasn't already sure that Ms. Gard was something quite out of the ordinary, here finds out just how old she may in fact be and who she really works for. I always liked Ms. Gard and very much enjoyed her and Harry fighting monsters together.

Day Off - originally from Blood Lite, a supernatural anthology with light-hearted and humorous stories, this shows us Harry Dresden on one of his rare days off, when he just wants to relax and prepare for a date. Of course, things rarely go smoothly for Harry at the best of times, and all manner of calamities occur, to the amusement of the reader.

This story has a guest appearance by Molly again, and some of the werewolves. It was nice to see that Butcher can occasionally do funny as well as snarky or dark.

Backup - this story is told from Thomas Raith's point of view, and shows how the vampire watches Harry's back, even when our wizard isn't even aware that he needs watching. Thomas is clearly part of some sort of supernatural secret organisation so secret that barely its own members know the identity of others in the group. He discovers that Harry, thinking he's helping a distraught mother rescue her son, is in fact being set up by a dark power intent on performing a dark and dangerous ritual. Thomas needs to make sure the boy is safe, the villainess is stopped and that Harry never even suspects the truth about what is going on.

It was great to get more insight into Thomas' character, and even more fun to see how one of the major supporting characters of the series views our hero. I tend to find that when authors of first person-focused series shifts the POV to supporting characters, like Ilona Andrews has done a couple of times, it's always enjoyable and fleshes out the universe of the series even more.

The Warrior - first appearing in Mean Streets, an anthology featuring supernatural P.Is (of which Harry obviously is one), this story shows us how Harry's good friend (and father of his apprentice Molly) Michael Carpenter is doing after the events of Small Favour. Someone is targeting Harry and the Carpenters, and it seems the reason is that they want to get their hands on the two holy swords Harry has for safe-keeping.

Michael has always been a steadying presence in The Dresden Files and is a genuinely good man. Harry has always seen himself as a lot more morally ambiguous, definitely defined more as within the shades of grey than a straight up good guy. Here he sees that he can have a steadying influence on his old friend occasionally too, and that there are more ways to serve the forces of good than he might have suspected.

Last Call - first appearing in Strange Brew, this story finds Mac, Harry's stoic bartender friend having been viciously beaten in his own bar, a place that's supposed to be neutral territory in all matters supernatural. Harry and Murphy investigate, aided by Molly, and discover that there is some form of wicked enchantment on Mac's micro-brewed beer.

Probably one of the stories in this collection that I least enjoyed, this was still fun and featured my two favourite women in the Dresden Files, Murphy and Molly.

Love Hurts - originally written for the anthology Songs of Love and Death, this short story has Harry and Murphy investigating a string of deaths, all involving couples, dead within the last few weeks. They discover that the common link between the victims is a fun fair outside of Chicago, and that the couples all died because of a malevolent love spell. Can Harry and Murphy avoid the love spell themselves?

The relationship between Harry and Karrin Murphy is a complicated one. There is clearly a spark of attraction between them, that tantalising will they-won't they?, but they don't want to mess up their friendship and professional working relationship. It's bitter-sweet to see a glimpse of what might be if they didn't hold back.

Aftermath - this story was written for this collection, and does, as I mentioned above, take place very shortly after the last pages of book 12. It's another story which gives us a new POV, this time from Karrin Murphy, possibly Harry's best friend in the world. She's trying to figure out what happened to him after they last saw each other, but her attention is divided when Billy Borden, comes to her and explains that his wife Georgia has disappeared, and that she's seven months pregnant. It's clear that dark powers are trying to establish a foothold in Chicago, and they are collecting supernatural creatures for nefarious purposes. Murphy has no magical powers, just her police and martial arts training. When working with Billy to save Georgia, it becomes all the more obvious to her how outclassed she is against supernatural threats without the magical aid of Harry Dresden.

I don't want to say too much about this story, as it's the most spoilery of the bunch, but even when it was sometimes painful to see the insides of her head (because of the context of the story), it was great to see the world through Murphy's eyes. I especially liked her translations from "Martian", the language all men speak and which she understands so well after a lifetime of working with them.

Frequently, I don't get as much out of short stories when they're collected in various themed anthologies. I much prefer reading them like this, where they help expand and give new insight into a fictional universe I'm already familiar with and enjoy. With very few exceptions, these stories were all good and added to my enjoyment of The Dresden Files. I think I'm ready to read the next proper novel now. After all, the new book is out at the end of May.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 25 April 2014

#CBR6 Book 37: "Dreams of Gods and Monsters" by Laini Taylor

Page count: 624 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is the third and concluding volume in a trilogy. I'm not sure I can actually review it without spoiling some of the previous books, so if you haven't read them, skip this for now. Do check out the previous two books, though, as they are YA fantasy at its best. Book 1, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is reviewed here, and book 2, Days of Blood and Starlight is here. I can also heartily recommend the companion novella Night of Cake and Puppets for those who have read the first two books, but possibly not discovered this delightful interlude giving us the first date of Zuzanna and her Violin Boy.

"Once upon a time, an angel and a devil pressed their hands to their hearts and started the apocalypse."

The last book, which was surprisingly dark and grim all the way through, considering how whimsical, mysterious and quite light the first book was. It certainly ended in a pretty dark and foreboding place, and the beginning of book three doesn't exactly promise puppies, kittens, sweetness and rainbows. Karou and Akiva have proposed an alliance between the remaining chimaera and the Misbegotten seraphs against Jael and his Dominion, and now they need to get both sides, enemies for millennia, to agree and accept. The fate of humanity and probably both their races is at stake. How can such an alliance be achieved, without bloodshed on either side? Even if they do succeed in forging a tentative detente, they are badly outnumbered against Jael's forces.

On Earth, the world is in uproar upon the arrival of angels. How is Eliza, a young grad student, plagued by horrible nightmares, connected with the visitors? Is it all an elaborate hoax? Who are the angels and what do they want? Why does their spokesman have such a strangely disfigured shadow?

Karou and Akiva are not aware that there are other challenges facing them as well. There is a mysterious and deadly young seraph queen hunting for Akiva, and the sky itself is starting to bruise. Will they ever live to see the fulfilment of their long ago dream, and is there any hope that with the fragile stalemate they are attempting to forge, they might also find a way to forgive each other?

I had massive expectations for this book, not helped in the slightest by Jen K's Cannonball review of the book. It was originally due for publication in 2013, but I'm glad the publishers gave Laini Taylor more time to complete the book, as concluding her trilogy was a monumental task. I'm so glad and relieved to say that it surpassed even my hopes. The book starts in a dark place, with the characters facing nearly impossible odds. Taylor alternates the story between Earth, our beloved protagonists in Eretz and other places in Eretz where its clear that seriously bad things are afoot. What in the world is powerful enough to bruise the sky? The sense of doom is so overpowering. I kept reading while nearly holding my breath, putting the book down every so often and reading something else, because if I didn't keep reading, bad things couldn't happen to the characters I loved. Of course, I wasn't able to stay away for long, reading on desperate to see what would happen next, and what incredible twists and turns Taylor would take the story in next.

There are new characters introduced here, and while it can seem frustrating to read about them at first, all the pieces fall into place in the end, in a beautiful jigsaw puzzle. The readers are finally allowed to discover how the portals between worlds occurred in the first place, and it makes the whole trilogy if possible even more tragic and poignant. I'm in awe of Taylor's writing, how she manages to keep the reader on edge, balancing the light and the dark, the funny with the sad, interspersing the heavy sense of doom with glimpses of hope and promises of redemption. There are no simple answers here. The characters feel real, with feelings, motivations and emotions. I cared deeply for them, and can't wait to go back and re-read the trilogy as a whole, seeing Taylor's ambitious fantasy vision played out in full.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 36: "The Unwritten, vol 8: Orpheus in the Underworld" by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

Page count: 176 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This trade paperback of The Unwritten collects issues 42-49 of the comic. It's been going for years now and is really quite heavily arc-based, so I wouldn't start with this one. It's a great comic, especially for anyone who loves books and reading. Start at the beginning with Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity.

Tommy Taylor discovers that Lizzie is not lost, she's just trapped in the Underworld, and he resolves to find her and rescue her. He finds a way in through an Aboriginal folk legend told in the Australian Outback, but doesn't exactly arrive directly in Hades, because when does anything run entirely smoothly for Tommy and his friends? He has to travel through a desolate wasteland, nearly getting eaten, being offered sexual favours in return for food by destitute and starving Austen heroines, accompanied by the unicorn. When he finally arrives in the Underworld, he can no longer remember why he's there. Meanwhile, Didge is trying to solve a crime involving a series of grisly deaths that appear to have been caused by zombies, assisted by a not too enthusiastic Richie.  There's a troubled young boy whose notebook may hold clues, but he's too terrified to talk to them.

Every time I review this, I find myself at a loss to capture why it's such a good comic, and why people should try it and find out for themselves. I'm actually going to borrow from my previous review, apologies for laziness, but I have a very big backlog of books left to review. "The Unwritten is a difficult series to describe, and I don't feel entirely up to the task of explaining just how wonderful and interesting and special a reading experience it is. Mike Carey writes about the nature of storytelling, and identity, and how stories shape the world and the things we believe in. Peter Gross' art is also a thing of beauty, and he manages to illustrate the issues in so many different styles, depending on what the story demands. If you love novels, and stories, and the art of storytelling, you should really do yourself a favour and check this series out."

The volumes tend to end on cliff-hangers, and in this case, the end heralds a cross-over with another big fantasy series, Fables, which I read the first ten trades of and rather enjoyed. I've unfortunately not heard great things about the cross-over online so far, and it fills me with trepidation. I hope the rumours are exaggerated, because The Unwritten has been extremely strong throughout so far, and I'd hate for it to go downhill because of an audience-pleasing publicity stunt.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 35: "Saga, volume 3" by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Page count: 144 pages
Rating: 5 stars

This trade paperback volume of Saga collects issues 13-18. It's an ongoing series, and you really should be starting at the beginning. It's also the best comic book/graphic novel series I've read in probably a decade, so if you haven't read it, run to your nearest comics shop and come back when you've caught up. Also, it goes without saying that there may be spoilers here for earlier in the series.

Marko's mother has decided to join her son and his new family on their quest to find D. Oswald Heist. Meanwhile, a pair of tabloid journalists are trying to get to figure out exactly what is the story with Marko and Alana. Could two enemy combatants actually have deserted, got married and had a child? There are, however, forces who aren't all that excited about the story being published and want them to stop. The Will, Cat, Gwendolyn and the slave girl they rescued are stuck on an idyllic alien planet while waiting for their spaceship to be repaired. Gwen is impatient to catch up to their targets, but the Will seems quite content to stay on the new planet. He doesn't seem to realise that he's seeing impossible things and that listening to the wrong influences could put them all in terrible danger.

I gave the last two trade paperbacks 4.5 stars, but who am I kidding? This is absolutely solid gold entertainment and I'm not going to hold back any longer. The story has everything. Humour, action, romance, adventure, danger, a talking cat who can tell if you're lying, a ghostly babysitters, a very snarky narrator constantly teasing things yet to come. These six issues of Saga made me laugh out loud, bite my nails with tension, swear loudly, nearly cry more than once, sigh happily and squee at least once. The dialogue is snappy, the characters are great, the art is absolutely gorgeous and some of the concepts and ideas presented just blow my mind away. I keep badgering all my friends to read it, and have bought the first volumes as gifts for several, in the hopes of getting them hooked. I'm really not joking when I say that everyone should be reading this.

With this book, I have also completed my first reading challenge of the year, Meet the Protagonist.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 24 April 2014

#CBR6 Book 34: "Fool Me Twice" by Meredith Duran

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Disclaimer! I was granted an ARC of this from Pocket Books through NetGalley in return for a fair and honest review. I should also add that by the time I was granted the ARC, I'd already bought the book in pre-order, because with one horrible exception, she writes awesome books, and is on my automatic pre-order list.

Once again, the cover image has little to nothing to do with the contents of the book, although the cover model is at least a redhead, like the heroine. I don't think she wears a bright orange dress and frolics around on the grass at any point, though, and the dress is not even a little bit period appropriate. It does have a nice bright colour that catches the eye, which I suppose is what the marketing department was going for.

But what is the book about, I hear you ask? Olivia Johnston is on her third assumed identity, having stolen a series of letters from her former employer, now Lady Elizabeth de Grey (see That Scandalous Summer. She's now trying to infiltrate the household of the Duke of Marwick, her former employer's new brother-in-law in order to get further incriminating evidence to help her blackmail Baron Bertram, the man who's made her live in fear for years. Bertram was one of the duchess of Marwick's former lovers, and Olivia has heard Marwick kept detailed dossiers on all his political and personal rivals. Hoping to get a post as a housemaid, she has an impressive reference from her friend Amanda, who recently became a Viscountess through an advantageous marriage. Yet the duke's household is in such disarray that the desperate and distraught butler convinces Olivia to take the post as housekeeper instead. Olivia is elated, thinking this will make it all the easier to search through the duke's papers for blackmail material. Her optimism doesn't last long.

The reason that Marwick's household is in such disorder is that Alastair de Grey, the duke, has holed himself up in his private rooms, nursing dangerous thoughts of vengeance against the men who cuckolded him with his now dead wife. He knows that if he leaves the house, he will murder each of the men who slept with and conspired towards his own political downfall with his faithless wife. In the months since she was found dead in a hotel room from a suspected opium overdose, the duke has become more and more distanced from his former life, driving away all who previously cared for him, including his brother (again see the previous book). Most of his servants have left, and the only retainers left have little to no work ethic and flirt, gossip and generally do as they please around the house. Marwick doesn't care, he just wants to drink himself into oblivion and forget.

Olivia discovers that in order to search the house without anyone catching her, she needs to whip the staff into shape. After having no luck finding any incriminating evidence elsewhere in the house, she concludes that the papers must be in the duke's private quarters, where no one is allowed to enter. When she first attempts to lure the duke out for a spell, he throws a bottle at her, but she refuses to be cowed. He then proceeds to try to fire her, as well as intimidate her physically. Olivia stands her ground, and because she's come to admire the man Marwick once was through all the correspondence and notes of his she's already searched, she can't help but try to provoke him out of his hardened shell of grief and rage.

One of the things Duran does better than most romance writers out there, is character development. Her characters are never one-sided and simple, there are always flaws and depth and complexity and usually quite a lot of angst. With Alastair de Grey, she's possibly created her most unpleasant character yet. In That Scandalous Summer, he was pretty much straight up the villain, doing everything he could to prevent his brother and Elizabeth from being able to marry. He starts out pretty villainous here, as well. Olivia gets the job as his new housekeeper because the last one quite when the duke threw a shoe at her. His valet has abandoned his duties and mainly tries to canoodle with the maids. The butler seems to be drowning his sorrows. He is none too pleased at the interfering young woman who keeps intruding in his chambers, and not only refuses to accept that he's fired her, but shows no respect for his station and constantly argues with him.

Marwick's a deeply unlikely romantic hero, yet Duran makes us sympathise with him, as he was clearly so deeply devastated by his wife's betrayal. He loved her and thought she'd be his perfect mate, and she didn't just cheat on him with multiple men, but revealed insider secrets to his political rivals, undermining his career. His rage and wish for vengeance is natural, and from both the previous book and his former reputation in this book, we are allowed to see what a great and influential man he was before his collapse. Now he's cruel, cold and callous, but the true culprit here is clearly the dead duchess. It's not just his heart that's broken, it's his confidence and belief in his abilities.

Having heard a lot of negative things about the duke while posing as Mather, Elizabeth's secretary, Olivia has very qualms about stealing Marwick's late wife's letters to find blackmail material on Bertram. Yet when she actually spends time in his home, reading his journals and personal correspondence, appreciating his former achievements and good works, she is shocked to see the degree of desolation he appears to have succumbed to. Even when he tries to intimidate her and drive her away, she can't help trying to draw him out of his hopelessness. She's both appalled by and attracted to him. I'm sure it doesn't hurt that even as a crazy recluse he's described as being handsome as Lucifer.

As Olivia starts having a positive effect on the household and the duke himself, the fact that she's in his house under false pretences, attempting to make him trust her and make him better so he'll leave his private rooms in order for her to search them and steal from him is obviously a major conflict here. Olivia is driven by desperation of her own though. Seven years ago, when she first arrived in London, Bertram's man left her for dead in a ditch, and now he's on her trail again. She's fighting for her life and her own safety, and she's willing to fight dirty to protect herself, whether it's lying, stealing or resorting to blackmail. So our heroine isn't exactly pure as the driven snow either.

When I first finished the book, I rated it 4.5 stars, but since I finished it several weeks ago, I keep thinking about it and coming back to nuances of the story in my mind, and I can't really find any actual flaws in the story. Duran takes such an unpleasant and dark hero and a morally ambiguous and troubled heroine and gives them not only time to properly get to know each other, building a believable, if rocky and complicated romance. I loved Olivia gradually making the duke better, almost despite her own instincts. The passion between them is scorching, even when it's rather uncomfortable in the beginning. I liked that as the story progressed, Bertram turns out not to be a cardboard cutout villain either, despite Olivia's impression of him. I already can't wait to reread this book, and after careful consideration, it's now my favourite of Duran's books. I'm eagerly anticipating her next book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 14 April 2014

#CBR6 Book 33: "Play" by Kylie Scott

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Anne Rollins is having a really bad time of it. Her roommate ran off, owing Anne more than two months' of back rent, taking quite a bit of the furniture with her. She needs money, and fast, or she won't be able to keep her little sister in college. She reluctantly accompanies her next door neighbour Lauren to a party at Lauren's best friend's, who just happens to be recently married to David Ferris, the guitarist in world famous rock band Stage Dive (see the previous book in the series, Lick).

Anne feels out of place at the party, surrounded mostly by strangers, and her teenage idols, so tries to find privacy on the balcony. There she has an argument with her boss/best friend about how she shouldn't have let herself have been taken advantage of. The conversation is overheard by the object of all her teenage fantasies, Malcolm Ericson himself, the drummer for Stage Dive. Mal claims Anne is a doormat and needs to learn to set boundaries for herself. As their conversation progresses, Anne shows that she can hold her own and catches the eye of most people at the party when she loudly tells Mal to mind his own business.

Still worried how she's going to pay her rent, not to mention her sister's next tuition fees, Anne is surprised to discover a new sofa in her living room when she returns from work the next day. Mal claims he's been kicked out of David's, and needs a place to stay. He also really needs an image change fast and a nice, sensible, steady girlfriend would do wonders to calm his bad boy, rock star playboy reputation. He's already paid Anne's rent and promises that they will keep things completely platonic in private, as long as she agrees to play his girlfriend in public. Not one to say no to the half-naked rock god she's idolised for much of her life, Anne agrees, even though she's not sure how she's going to be able to keep feelings out of the deal.

In Lick, the protagonists woke up surprisingly married after a drunken night in Vegas, and had to figure out if they actually had a future together. In Play, there is very little time for the couple to get to know each other before they're suddenly thrust into a relationship together. Always extremely impulsive, Mal doesn't really consider that Anne might find it strange that a man she just met at a party the night before wants to move into her tiny apartment. They talked, they danced, they had a good time. Mal knows he's irresistible to women and can tell that Anne likes him. He also sees that she's in need of help, and lets herself be taken advantage of far too easily. Because of Scott's skillful writing, there is nothing creepy or inappropriate about Mal's impulsiveness and enthusiasm. He doesn't come off as threatening or condescending, just energetic and a bit oblivious.

Anne really does need someone who takes care of her. Mal is right that she lets herself be taken advantage of too easily. She's also had to be the one who cares for other, after her father left the family when she was a young teenager, and her mother flaked out completely. Dropping out of high school to make sure her mother didn't commit suicide, Anne has pretty much had to raise her younger sister and works hard to give her sister the college education Anne herself could never have. She puts up with her boss/best friend Reece friend zoning her completely, only really having time for her when one of his many dates have fallen through. Reece, of course, suddenly discovers that Anne is quite the catch once she has a rock star suitor and tries, unsuccessfully, to put the moves on her. Luckily, there is no real love triangle here, as Anne really is incredibly sensible, and more or less instantly sees that any feelings she may have nurtured for Reece fade completely compared to what Mal makes her feel.

I was impressed at how convincing and enjoyable Kylie Scott made a romance between two people who got married after a drunken night together, and once again, even though it shouldn't really work, the growing romance between two people who agree to pretend to be in love is very well done. The preposterous nature of the situation is even commented on in the book, which is one of the reasons why you're willing to suspend your disbelief. Mal and Anne are great characters, and the book is very funny. Mal is pretty much a super bouncy dog trapped in the body of a smoking hot drummer. Anne needs someone to make her laugh and take life less seriously, as well as someone who puts her first. Mal needs someone who grounds him and makes him think things through before he acts. It's a quick and easy read, and I'm already looking forward to the third book in the series, featuring the lead singer of Stage Dive and his personal assistant (who's also introduced in this book). I suspect the fourth and final book may be the romance between the bass player and Anne's little sister, as there were definitely sparks every time they met in this book. Either way, I'm in for the duration now.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 13 April 2014

#CBR6 Book 32: "Ghost Story" by Jim Butcher

Page count: 608 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book 13 in The Dresden Files, and as such, NOT the place to start reading the series. It's also completely impossible for me to review this book without some spoilers of the previous book and some of the things that happen in this one. If you haven't read the book yet, GO AWAY! Go read something else and come back when you've caught up. 

This is the first book in the series since book 4 that I actually read, and didn't listen to in audio book, because James Marsters doesn't narrate the audio. I love the audio books, but they take me a lot longer to get through. I read this book in about two days. It felt strange, but by now, I can sort of hear Marsters reading in my head, so all the characters sounded the right way.

Harry Dresden is dead, having been shot and fallen into the cold water of Lake Michigan at the end of the previous book. He ends up in some sort of strange afterlife, populated by a lot of old law enforcement types and is given the option to solve his own murder, or bad things will happen to one of the three people he holds dearest. Harry the ghost discovers that while he doesn't remember six months passing, that's how long he's been gone. The events in Mexico created a world wide power vacuum and a lot of very bad people have crawled out of the woodwork trying to establish themselves in the wake of Harry's demise. In Chicago, scary heavies called the Fomors are trying to get a foothold and it's affecting both the living and the dead inhabitants.

As Harry is a ghost, he seeks out Mortimer Lindquist, an ectomancer, who can both see and communicate with ghosts. Mortimer's house is under siege from aggressive spirits and only after Harry helps a former ancestor of Lindquist's to defend it, does Lindquist agree to aid him in contacting his friends. It turns out that Murphy, along with a number of Harry's old friends, such as the werewolves in Will Borden's pack and Waldo Butters, are now doing their best to keep all manner of supernatural nasties, who previously stayed away thanks to Harry's reputation, from invading the city. Only after Harry's old apprentice, Molly Carpenter, who now appears to be living on the streets as a mentally unstable magic vigilante, shows up and uses her wizard's sight to confirm Harry's identity, do the group begin to believe that he's actually there. Since Harry's body was never found, it's clear that both Molly and Murphy had hoped he wasn't really dead, and both women are visibly distressed by the ide of Harry as a ghost.

When Lindquist is abducted, Harry has to add rescuing the ectomancer to his current quest of solving his own murder. He's also very concerned about Molly, whose magical ability has increased spectacularly in the months since his death. It turns out that an old enemy of Harry's is behind Lindquist's kidnapping, and if Harry can't figure out a way to stop this individual, the consequences will be dire for all of Chicago.

It wasn't like this book was ever going to be able to compete with Changes in terms of action and plot development, but it's still pretty significant in terms of giving us a more comprehensive picture of Harry's inner life. Harry spends a LOT of this book thinking about his past, and especially about his actions in the last book. We find out more about his early years, training with Justin DeMorne and the events that led Harry to the point where he is now.

Unfortunately, I think the first third of the book was really rather dull, and dragged way too much. Harry faffing around in the "afterlife waiting room" and Lindquist's house got boring real fast, and it was only when we got to see what Murphy and the others had been up to that I started getting really interested in the story. I would also have been quite happy never seeing the villain of the piece again, I never really cared for the character and didn't think that part of the book was particularly interesting.

I loved seeing the development of the supporting cast of the books, though, even if Harry's death clearly hit all of them incredibly hard. They've clearly refused to be broken, however, and have organised a very impressive supernatural resistance force in his absence. Molly, especially, has come a long way and I'll be interested in seeing how she continues to develop in books to come. Harry does indeed solve his own murder in the end, and I found both the culprit and the motive very interesting. In the end, I don't think I'm spoiling all that much by saying that Harry will not be a ghost for the rest of the series. His new role and title is going to mean some massive adjustments to the wizard. I suspect "mystery of the week" story lines are a thing of the past.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 31: "Changes" by Jim Butcher

Page count: 546 pages
Audio book length: 15 hrs, 28 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book 12 in The Dresden Files and pretty much every single thing that happens in this book plays on stuff that's been introduced in earlier books. There is NO way for me to review this book without spoiling events from earlier books, and frankly, parts of this one. This book is full of surprises, so if you haven't read the book yet, please skip the review. I would also recommend that you avoid all other reviews, and even the blurb on the back of the book until after you've read it. 

So this is the book where Jim Butcher clearly decides that Harry's life, despite the many dangerous situations he's experienced and the challenges he's faced, was far too harmonious and cushy and decides to turn everything not only upside down, but really shake things up entirely. By the end of the book, there are few things I can think of that haven't been drastically changed in some or several ways.

So it turns out Harry is a father. Susan Rodriguez, his half-vampire ex-girlfriend (who first appeared in book 2, Fool Moon) got pregnant after their last encounter (in book 5, Death Masks). She's kept the existence of their daughter's identity from him, and only contacts him when the girl has been abducted from her foster family by Red Court vampires. Susan and her sidekick Martin show up on his doorstep, and while Harry is deeply hurt and shocked by her news, he is eventually forced to admit that neither he nor Susan have lives where they can raise a little girl. Maggie (named for Harry's mother) has been taken by Duchess Arianna Ortega, who wants revenge on Harry for killing her husband. As Harry and Susan frantically search for their child, they discover that the Red Court vampires, who are allegedly proposing a peace treaty with the White Council of wizards, are in fact planning to use Maggie in a powerful ritual, which will kill anyone of Harry's bloodline.

Over the course of the book, Harry not only has to come to terms with the idea of fatherhood and the knowledge that he may not be able to rescue his little girl in time, but his office is blown up by Red Court vampires (turns out they owned the whole building and has been charging him unreasonably high monthly rent) and his apartment building burns down. Luckily, he'd stashed away most of his magical artifacts in the Nevernever before the FBI came to raid the apartment, but apart from that, he's left with only the leather duster on his back. He's left literally beaten and broken and is forced to reconsider everything he'd previously been willing to do, in order to get the chance to rescue his only child.

With Butcher literally tearing down Dresden's entire life around him, it's so satisfying to see that Harry has friends and family who are willing to risk everything along with him. This is a book that starts with a bang and just keeps on getting more and more extreme. Every time I thought things couldn't get darker, Butcher turned up the dial. This book goes all the way up to 11. I kept being surprised at the twists and turns it took, and the final act reminded me a lot of the final episode of Torchwood: Children of Earth in terms of emotional punch and the way it wrung me out. I must admit that I had, sadly, had the very end of the book spoiled for me  (don't actually read the back covers of future books in the series before you read them, they spoil a LOT), but after all the other stuff that happens in the book, I doubt I would have been surprised either way. In a book where so many other transformative events happen to Harry Dresden, the ending of the book was really rather inevitable. This book, more than any of the previous ones, made me realise why everyone raves so much about The Dresden Files. I suspect there is very little that can happen in future books that would keep me from following this series until the final book now. Brilliantly done, Mr. Butcher.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 30: "The Glass Casket" by McCormick Templeman

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Rowan Rose lives in the little village of Nag's End with her father. Like her father, an experienced scholar, Rowan enjoys assisting him with translations and is proud of her achievements. Five soldiers ride through the village on their way up the mountain, and some days later, are found horribly killed by the men of the village. In a journal left by one of the soldiers are the words: "It's starting.". The elders of Nag's End declare the deaths the result of an animal attack, but not everyone is convinced. Among them is Rowan's best friend, the innkeeper's son Tom. He's clearly affected by the dead men, and reluctant to tell her about what they found. He's also clearly smitten with the new girl in the village, the distractingly beautiful Fiona Eira, who Rowan's father has forbidden her to ever speak to. Rowan is sad to see her best friend drifting away from her, but also wants nothing more than for him to be happy.

Soon it's obvious that whatever killed the soldiers in the mountain was not a wild animal, and the death toll in the village keeps going up. Rowan keeps having vivid nightmares that seem connected with the lurking horror spreading in the village. Tom is acting more and more strangely and together with his brother Jude, Rowan tries to investigate the cause.

The Glass Casket contains influences from a number of fairy tales, and much of it feels like it could have been written by the Brothers Grimm. The atmosphere of the distant little village in the mountains of some central European Medieaval kingdom is superstitious and oppressive and it's clear that unorthodox thinking and progressive ideas are not particularly welcomed. Strangers are distrusted, as evidenced by the arrival of Fiona Eira and her step-parents. Decisions that go against the wishes of the elders are practically unheard of. A woman has little to no independence once she is married, she is her husband's helpmeet and aids him and his family. This is one of the reasons Rowan doesn't really want to get married, she loves her translation work and dreams of travelling to the capital, where her father once lived.

Rowan has known Tom all her life, and while she knows his mother would be delighted if they were to marry, she loves him only as a friend. His older brother Jude has always unnerved her. She is slow to accept his help, but once tragedy strikes in the village, Tom gets more and more distant. He seems to stay out in the woods all night and Rowan begins to fear that he is somehow connected with the tragic deaths that have struck the village. Her father has always kept himself and his daughter apart from a lot of the traditional beliefs of the other villagers, and as the increasingly more terrible events unfold, Rowan begins to discover that there are reasons for this.

This is not a perfect book, by any means, but it is a very creepy, at times surprisingly gory young adult book book. I thought the loyalty and affection between Tom and Rowan was great and I appreciated how Rowan wanted to break out of the more traditional feminine roles of her society, but not in a way that felt anachronistic or wrong for the time period the book is set in. There are so many different things that unnerved me about this book and I have to admit to staying up far too late into the night just to finish it. The various twists that are introduced towards the end of the book didn't all work that well, in my opinion, but on the whole this was a very satisfying and scary read that I suspect a lot of teen readers will adore.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 12 April 2014

#CBR6 Book 29: "The Masque of the Black Tulip" by Lauren Willig

Page count: 464 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the second book in The Pink Carnation series, with events following on pretty much directly from the end of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. If you want to avoid spoilers for the first book, you should probably skip this review for now.

Eloise Kelly has discovered the secret identity of the elusive British spy known as the Pink Carnation, but wants to discover more about the gentleman spies of the Napoleonic era. She goes with Colin Selwick to his country house, to search through the library archives there, and discovers new information about the unmasking of the deadly and dangerous French spy, the Black Tulip.

Lady Henrietta Selwick has grown up knowing that her brother was the dashing Purple Gentian and has always wanted to get involved with the war effort against Napoleon, to the strident objections of her entire family. Now, keeping up a correspondence with the Pink Carnation in France, she sees her chance to help capture the Black Tulip, rumoured to be coming to London. Miles Dorrington, her brother's best friend, who she's known all her life, has also been tasked by the War Office to try to uncover the identity of the French agent. To track the suspected spy, he has to frequent the various ballrooms of London, which he finds rather tedious. He did, however, also promise his best friend that he'd watch out for Henrietta and scare unsuitable gentlemen away from her.

Miles and Henrietta decipher secret messages, follow suspicious suspects, attend balls and do their best to uncover the true identity of the French assassin, while fighting their feelings for the other. Neither is entirely sure how they ended up madly in love with a person they've known for most of their lives. Of course, neither realises that they're both in terrible danger, as they are on the list of people the Black Tulip has come to London to investigate, due to their closeness to the Purple Gentian.

While the framing device of Eloise, the American grad student researching all the various British spies for her doctoral thesis was enjoyable enough in the first book, it grated a bit more in this book, especially as Lauren Willig tends to switch back to the present day and Eloise's not really all that interesting life every time something really tense and exciting happens in the historical narrative. Eloise finds herself quite attracted to Colin, and after being dragged to a party at a clearly deeply jealous neighbour's, starts to wonder if he may be returning her feelings, at least to a certain extent. Her insecure internal narrative is so much less exciting than the friends developing into lovers and trying their best to keep up with the other spies in the series back in 1803. In future books, if the trend continues, I suspect I'll want to shake Eloise quite frequently, and be annoyed when I have to read about her rather than the Pink Carnation and the other 19th Century spies and their associates. Still, a fun and enjoyable story. I can see why the books have such a following.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.