Sunday 24 August 2014

#CBR6 Book 88: "Natural Born Charmer" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Dean Robillard seemingly has it all. He's one of the top quarterbacks of the NFL, a profitable modelling contract for men's underwear, good looks, scores of admirers, good friends - yet something is missing. He's driving cross country to the ranch he bought on a whim, when he spots an angry young woman in a beaver costume on the side of the road. Curious and entertained, he gives her a ride, and quickly discovers that Blue Bailey has quite the temper on her. She's also got barely a dollar to her name, having had her bank and savings account cleared out only days earlier. Since she keeps him from being bored, he allows her to stay in the car with him.

When they arrive at Dean's ranch, Blue discovers that she's not the only one with complex family issues. Her mother travels the world righting wrongs and demonstrating against corrupt governments, and how can you hate a woman for clearing out all the money you have saved in the world when she took it to ransom kidnapped orphan girls in Columbia? How can you resent a mother who seems to have time for all manner of other oppressed, but let her daughter go from foster home to foster home until she never allows herself to get attached to anyone? Dean, on the other hand, has a mother who used to be a famous groupie, and an absentee rock star father. He's not interested in contact with either of them, so when he discovers that his remorseful mother is the one who's been pretending to be his new housekeeper, and has lovingly been restoring his new ranch, and his newly motherless half-sister runs away and shows up on his front porch, he's none too happy. He presents Blue as his new fiancee to his estranged family, but Blue doesn't want to play along. She's built nearly impenetrable walls around her heart, and isn't about to be seduced by a gorgeous playboy with a charming demeanour.

While there was quite a lot that I wasn't all that fond of in the early Chicago Stars books, I found Match Me If You Can (where Dean Robillard plays an important supporting role) and this to be rather delightful, probably because they are the ones that reminded me most of the best contemporary romances by Jennifer Crusie. The protagonists have some commitment issues that get in the way of them settling down right away, but it's rarely anything too traumatising. There's a colourful gallery of supporting characters who keep doing zany things, which helps with the screwball feel of the plots. Both Blue and Dean have very understandable trust issues and it would be extremely unrealistic for them to rush into a committed relationship. That the tone of the book is mostly frothy and entertaining rather than dark and depressing is what makes it such an enjoyable read.

If you're new to Susan Elizabeth Phillips, I would, having now read all of her Chicago Stars books, recommend that you stick to the later ones in the series, and most important of all, that you stay FAR away from book 5: This Heart of Mine

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

#CBR6 Book 87: "Magic Breaks" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 5 stars

WARNING! This review will contain spoilers for some stuff in the earlier Kate Daniels books because it's pretty much impossible to write a review for the SEVENTH book in a series without revealing any of what's gone before. If you've not read this series before, this book is not where you want to start (even though the authors kindly included a handy guide to all the major players in the book and a very concise and informative guide to the fictional universe this series is set in). The series has been building for a long time, and you will not get the emotional payoff to truly enjoy this book if this is your first foray into the Kate Daniels world. Go off and read Magic Bites and Magic Burns (as the first book is a bit rough, and it often takes two books to really hook people). This review will be here when you've caught up with the series.

Kate Daniels knows that despite her attempts to keep her true identity hidden, despite training rigorously since she was a child, honing herself into a deadly weapon, she, and those she loves, are in imminent danger and the encounter she has been dreading for most of her life is rapidly approaching. She still has nightmares about the events that took place at the end of Magic Rises, reliving her inability to prevent the death of a close friend. She hungers for vengeance but also knows that she needs to try to keep her friends and family in the Atlanta Shapeshifter Pack as safe and out of harm's way when her legendary and probably immortal father comes for her. She's struggling to keep her business running, dealing with a number of petty leadership squabbles among the various factions of the Pack, trying to figure out a way to plan her wedding to Curran, the Beast Lord and leader of the Pack without insulting anyone or ruffling anyone's feathers, whilst all she really wants to do is run away to be alone with Curran. Wishing isn't going to make it so, however.

Curran is called away to deal with a trade dispute and takes some of the strongest alphas among the shape shifters with him. Kate only has to hold the fort alone for a few days, which is of course why the enemies of the Pack wait until they are separated to strike. During what was supposed to be a fairly routine meeting, Kate is presented with a dead body and has twenty-four hours to round up the killer, or she will have a supernatural war on her hands. Her opponent is stronger, more experienced than her and utterly ruthless and will stop at nothing to gain the upper hand. Can Kate outsmart him and prevent everything she holds dear from being destroyed?

I love Ilona Andrews, the married couple who write the Kate Daniels books. I own most of their books in both paperback and e-book copies and would happily buy their shopping lists if they decided to publish them. Based on everything else they'd written, such a collection would still include action, humour and be vastly entertaining. This is the first of their books to be published in hardback, meaning that the e-book was also more expensive than before. It was worth every penny. If you're a fan of the series, but can't afford to buy the book, run to your nearest library and reserve yourself a copy. It starts out fairly slow, but by chapter three, the action really kicks off, seizes you by the throat and doesn't really let go until you've finished the book.

As I mentioned above, before the story even starts, there is a very helpful little guide to all the major characters, reminding you of who they are and what their significance is in the wider narrative. Probably bored with introducing the various important aspects of the world building in a slightly different way for the seventh time, the authors also let Barabas, the were-mongoose lawyer who acts as Kate's chief advisor and sometime babysitter explain all the pertinent things a reader needs to know about the fantasy universe in which these books are set. It's a very clever device, and helps long time readers who don't obsessively re-read the series in between each new book remember where the story so far has taken them.

This is the seventh book in the series, and under their original contract, it was supposed to have been the final book about Kate Daniels. It's the book that entire series has built towards, where Kate and Roland finally face off against each other and everything is in the balance. Even so, the focus is taken off a lot of the regular supporting cast in the books. Curran is away for more than half of the book, his second in command Jim is busy trying to root out the traitor in the Pack, Andrea is busy learning to be an alpha for the Bouda clan and Julie is sent far away for safety reasons. This allows the authors to feature and expand the roles of other, previously minor characters, such as Barabas and Robert (one of the alphas of Clan Rat). Desandra, the European werewolf who gave birth to twins in the previous book and who returned to the States with Kate and Curran is given an important part in the narrative and she's delightful. I'm not sure why, but she reminded me of a more socially adept Helena from Orphan Black. I can't wait to see where they take the character from here. Not all of the regular sidekicks are missing though, Derek and Ascanio are still right by Kate's side, and their friendly rivalry and quips made me laugh out loud repeatedly.

Kate has come such a long way from the beginning of the series, when she kept herself isolated from everyone and everything, only caring about her next paycheck and how she could improve her abilities until she faced Roland. Now she has a strong and devoted partner in Curran, an adopted daughter, a loyal best friend and a wealth of friends and supporters, all of whom she feels protective of and who can be used against her. Hugh d'Ambray, Roland's sociopathic right-hand man is in Atlanta and he doesn't care if he has to kill every shapeshifter there is to get to Kate. He seems to have an unhealthy obsession with her and will use every underhanded trick in the book to get her to submit to him.

While I may not be happy with Curran's actions in the last book (which I still think were flimsily explained), his and Kate's relationship is stronger than ever and when Kate faces the biggest challenges of her life, she never doubts that he will come to her aid as soon as he can. Their devotion and love towards one another made me squee, and the genuine friendship and loyalty that Kate has managed to develop with so many people in Atlanta truly shows how much she has changed. No longer letting herself be dictated by the training and warnings of her long-dead mentor, Kate has forged a new path for herself, surrounded by friends and family, but as a result, also has so much more to lose.

This book really is a rollicking roller-coaster of a ride. I giggled, I gasped, I bit my knuckles in tense situations, I sighed wistfully, I grimaced (some stuff really is rather gory), I cheered, I swooned, I cried and I cackled with laughter. In many ways, this book reminded me of Changes, where Jim Butcher suddenly takes all the things he's established in his fantasy world and turns everything on its head for his main character and the readers. It was much the same here. A lot of what the story has been building towards comes to a conclusion, but it may not play out exactly as you'd expect. It is absolutely not the final book for Kate, Curran and the others, but the playing field is a very different one at the end of this book than when it began. If you've read and enjoyed the previous six books (seven if you count Andrea's book, which I do) in the series, I cannot imagine that you won't find this a satisfying and electrifying read. It's certainly my new favourite. Excellently done.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 11 August 2014

#CBR6 Book 86: "Match Me If You Can" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Annabelle has taken over her dead grandmother's matchmaking service, and is determined that this is the business she will actually manage to make successful. Her mother wants her to become an accountant (her successful older brother could get her a job in his firm), but Annabelle is having none of it. Of course, making a living as a successful matchmaker is difficult when most of her current clients are her grandmother's old clients, mainly pensioners, who insist on getting the same prices as they did twenty years ago. If Annabelle could just get Heath Champion, Chicago's most sought-after bachelor as her client, and actually find him the woman of his dreams, she's convinced that her business will be a success.

Heath Champion, sports agent extraordinaire, popularly nicknamed "The Python" in business circles, is indeed ready to find himself a wife. Because he is busy wheeling and dealing and hand holding top athletes all over the country, he's already hired Portia Powers from the top matchmaking firm in Chicago to find him promising candidates. So when a flustered redhead in a wrinkly yellow suit shows up at his office, late for her appointment, to try to convince him to use her services instead, he's inclined to tell her to get lost. She is the close friend of his top client's wife, though, and amuses him with her tenacity. He agrees to let Annabelle set him up for one date, and if he likes the woman, he'll sign with her agency too.

Portia and Annabelle become rivals in trying to find Heath's perfect woman. Their job is made more difficult in that Heath usually only sets aside twenty minutes for each candidate, and after a few meetings, insists that Annabelle sit in on all the meetings to make conversation flow more smoothly. Portia is furious that a badly dressed, flighty amateur seems to be moving in on her turf, and to make matters worse, Heath's menacing thug of a driver is trying to blackmail her into dating him.

I'm not spoiling it for anyone when it's obvious from early on that Annabelle is Heath's perfect match and he just needs to put down his mobile phone and get out of the office for long enough to realise it. With an utterly miserable childhood, I'm not surprised that he wants a stable and idyllic family life for his future (isn't this the case for at least half of all heroes in Romancelandia, be they historical or contemporary)? He goes about finding his dream woman in a very cavalier way, though, and as Annabelle is the only woman he spends any time with for more than about twenty minutes to an hour for most of the book, I'm not surprised she's the one he falls for.

To be fair, Annabelle is awesome, and I can absolutely see why she'd want to make her own way rather than settle into her family's expectations for her. She's clearly kind and sees the best potential in people, and still hurting from her broken engagement - because her fiancee didn't tell her until fairly late in the game that he actually wanted to become a woman. That's going to make you wary about new dating experiences. She finds Heath exasperating, but is one of the few people who dares tell him to his face that he's being horrible, and tackles every challenge her failing matchmaking business throws at her with a sense of humour and a determination to succeed.

The secondary romance between Portia and Bodie (who's not really just Heath's driver, but his best friend) is also fun and Portia has to change her snobbish perception a lot, not to mention change her own priorities to make things work out in the end. It's due to her own romantic journey that Portia in the end figures out exactly how to get Heath the woman he most needs in his life, and helps him to grow truly worthy of the lovely Annabelle. Cause yeah, Heath is quite a lot of a d*ck for a lot of the book, and while he has good looks and wealth going for him, he also has a deplorable personality and is a workaholic. It takes him a long time to come up to prove that he's worthy of her, but he gets there in the end.

This book would also have been more enjoyable if I hadn't read and loathed This Heart of Mine. The Tuckers and the Calebows are frequently appearing and important supporting characters in this one, as Molly and Annabelle went to college together and Heath is trying to move heaven and earth to get into Phoebe Calebow's good graces, after screwing up a business deal with her years ago. It's hard to fully enjoy a book when you hate several supporting characters. If you haven't read other books in the series, though, and you like a romance with some quality banter, this is not a bad one to pick up.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 85: "This Heart of Mine" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Page count: 420 pages
Rating: 1 star

Warning! This review will contain spoilers for the book, because it's impossible for me to convey all my vitriol without going into plot specifics. 

Molly Sommerville (who we first met as a frankly horrid teenager in It Had to Be You) is now all grown up and making a living as a children's book author, writing illustrated books about Daphne the Bunny, a rabbit who appears to wear designer clothes and going on adventures based on events in Molly's own life. While Molly inherited a multi-million dollar fortune from her horrible father, the former owner of the Chicago Stars, she gave it all away to a charitable foundation some years back (this is the only likable thing she does in the WHOLE book). Every few years, Molly appears to feel bored and acts out in crazy ways. She tends to change her hair drastically before each such crazy act.

Molly has had an unrequited crush on Kevin Tucker, the star quarterback of the Chicago Stars, for years. He lives a life of dating foreign fashion models and doing extreme sports and barely knows she exists. There's a badger in Molly's twee little books based on him. Then one weekend, Kevin and Molly find themselves in the same house in the country, and Molly seems to think that it would be a good idea to get undressed and get into bed with man she's been in love with, while he's asleep. He, thinking he is dreaming, has sex with her, and wakes up, appalled that his boss' younger sister is naked in bed with him, and took advantage of him. Molly has the audacity to be disappointed that the sleep sex she initiated wasn't great. Kevin points out that she basically RAPED him, and they go their separate ways.

Of course Molly gets pregnant, and when Phoebe, her overprotective sister, and Dan, her brother-in-law discover it, they don't rest until they've figured out who the baby daddy is. Now, Kevin is worried he'll be seen as a victim (and also doesn't want to piss off his boss), so says nothing about the RAPE. Molly, because she's a terrible human being, refuses to come clean about her horrible nocturnal sexual assault, and the two are forced to marry. Molly miscarries shortly thereafter, because I guess karma's a bitch. I want to stress here, to any reader of my reviews who may be offended, that I would never wish a miscarriage on any woman in real life, but Molly is a fictional character, and a reprehensible one at that. I wanted nothing but bad things for her. Losing the baby she gained from RAPE only seems like cosmic justice.

When Kevin discovers that his shotgun wedding bride is languishing away, all depressed because she lost their baby, he takes her along to the holiday cabins his parents owned, because he thinks it'll do her good to get away and he needs to sell the place. Having spent every single summer there as a child, surrounded by middle aged people, Kevin has no fond memories of the holiday camp, and can't wait to unload it on someone else. Molly, however, decides that the place looks like the real life version of her children's book universe, and does everything in her power to make Kevin see how "exciting" it is there, mainly by getting herself into dangerous situations, so he has to rescue her.

Even having been warned by Mrs. Julien's review that this was a terrible book, I forced myself to keep reading it, hoping against all hope that maybe Molly would show some sort of redemptive qualities. But no, she's awful all the way through. I felt really bad, because Kevin is such a good guy, and I loved him as a supporting character in Nobody's Baby But Mine. He deserved so much better than an emotionally manipulative, spoiled shrew of a wife. When she climbed into bed with him, I was uncomfortable. By the time she has the nerve to express disappointment that the sex she had with a SLEEPING man who she took advantage of wasn't as great as she'd hoped, I wanted to throw my e-reader across the room in disgust. I didn't really like Molly in her first appearance in the series, but here I outright hated her.

Not only did I hate Molly, but because Phoebe and Dan from It Had to Be You are supporting characters in this, and behave absolutely atrociously to Kevin all the way through, I now retroactively dislike their book a lot more too. The end of book, when Phoebe basically forces Kevin to choose between his career or staying married to the woman who sexually assaulted him and that the Calebows forced him to marry, in order to orchestrate some sort of elaborate grand gesture had me swearing loudly. Which reminds me, another reason this book pissed me off. Instead of swearing, Molly says "Slytherin" every time she's upset. Of her many deplorable qualities, it was probably one of the least bad, but it was still incredibly annoying.

The only reason this book is getting a full one star is because I liked the secondary romance between Kevin's birth mother and a famous artist. I wish poor Kevin had sold the holiday cottages (having always hated camping I was firmly on his side about his super boring childhood summers), drowned Molly and run off with someone worthy of him. At least now Lisa Kleypas no longer needs to worry about being responsible for the worst romance I've read this year. I cannot imagine anything I'll read this year that I'll hate more than this book. I honestly don't know if Susan Elizabeth Phillips was trying to do some form of clever reversal of the "heroine falls in love with her rapist" trope that so frequently occurred in Old School romances. If that was her intention, she failed. Badly. Do yourself a favour and avoid this book like the plague.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 84: "Dream A Little Dream" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Rachel Stone's car breaks down on the edges of Salvation, North Carolina, the one place on the planet where the most people hate her. Rachel's former husband, the Reverend Snopes was a hugely popular tele-evangelist who conned people all over the country out of their life savings, making Rachel his scape goat when he got caught. He died in a plane crash fleeing the country, but Rachel knows there are five million still left unaccounted for, and as she currently has about eleven dollars to her name and a five-year-old to support, she was hoping to sneak back into town to search their old house for any clues to where the money might be hidden.

Gabe Bonner is a broken man. His wife and little boy were killed by a drunk driver some years back, and he wasn't living in Salvation when the Snopes lived there. Hence he doesn't know who Rachel is at first. He has no sympathy when her car breaks down next to the drive in he's trying to restore, though, and wants her off his property. Her boy, Edward, is tiny, sickly and cowardly, but still a painful reminder of the child Gabe lost. Rachel is stubborn, feisty and far too skinny, yet Gabe finds his body responding to her for the first time since his wife died. All the more reason that he wants the Stones to go far away. Instead, he finds himself persuaded to hire Rachel to help him with the restoration work, and puts her up in his dead grandmother's house.

Rachel doesn't really care that most of the townsfolk hate her guts. She understands why they feel so betrayed, and that nothing she can say or do is going to change their minds. She was young and impressionable when she met the Reverend Snopes, and couldn't believe her luck when he selected her as his wife. Once married, she quickly lost her illusions and her faith when she discovered what he was really like. Because of Edward, her little boy, she couldn't leave him, worried that she'd lose in a custody battle. Now she's a cynical and pragmatic woman, willing to do anything to keep her boy safe and well-fed, even if she has to steal and cheat.

Deeply depressed after losing his wife and kid, Gabe has given up his career as a vet, but returned to his home town of Salvation to be closer to his remaining family. Everyone treats him with kid gloves, only Rachel bothers to call him on his anti-social behaviour. She understands his grief and depression, but refuses to let him destroy himself with pity and self loathing. Both wounded, Rachel and Gabe are drawn to each other and try to fight their attraction. It's quite clear to Rachel that Gabe still mourns his family deeply, and he seems to be the only one who doesn't like her little boy. What future could she have, in a town that hates her, with a man still stuck in the past?

As premises go, I actually thought Dream a Little Dream had the best premise of all the books in the Chicago Stars series. It's also one of the few books that doesn't directly in some way involve football players. Gabe is the brother of Cal Bonner (from Nobody's Baby But Mine). He's got tons of emotional baggage, just like Rachel. Even when he knows he's being unreasonable, he can't stop himself from comparing little Edward (who keeps insisting that people call him Chip) with his dead son, and the sickly, anxious child keeps falling short in his estimation. He sleeps with a gun under his pillow, sometimes deeply tempted to end it all. He's restoring the drive in mainly to have something to do, but until Rachel comes along, it's quite clear that he's only going through the motions.

I really liked Rachel, who never wanted the flashy lifestyle that being Mrs. Snopes brought. She hated being dressed up, displayed and forced to watch her husband's scams, but couldn't leave for fear of losing her beloved child. She doesn't want the missing money for herself, but to secure a future for Edward, and has nearly starved herself sick by the time she gets to Salvation in order to make sure he has enough to eat. She suffers the insults, abuse and even death threats from the venomous townsfolk, but also makes a friend in Kristy, the church secretary.

Kristy is one half of the book's secondary romance. Cal and Gabe's youngest brother, the angelic-looking Reverend Ethan Bonner is Kristy's boss, and she's loved him since she was a teenager, while he barely notices that she exists, even as she organises pretty much all aspects of his personal and professional life. Her friendship with Rachel gives her increased confidence, she decides to get a make-over and quits her job. When the meek and pliable Kristy suddenly starts wearing short skirts and flirting with some of the other guys in town, Ethan starts to see her in a completely different light, and realises that perhaps the happiness he's been looking for has been under his nose all along.

Partially because both protagonists were so damaged and had so much to work through, this book really worked for me. There is also a rather silly subplot involving Rachel possibly having faith healing abilities, but I didn't think it was focused on in any great deal and the main story here are two people slowly getting over their dark pasts and finding happiness with one another. Edward is a cool kid, happily not even vaguely plot-moppety and it upset me that Gabe took so long to treat him nicely. In tone, this is absolutely the darkest of the Chicago Stars books, but its' probably also one of the reasons I liked it so much.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 9 August 2014

#CBR6 Book 83: "Nobody's Baby But Mine" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Professor Jane Darlington has a genius level IQ, is a master physicist and desperately wants a baby. However, Jane's super smarts made her feel like a freak growing up, and she doesn't want any child of hers to experience the same thing. Plus she's currently single, and not really looking for a relationship. She does need to find herself a baby daddy, though, and preferably one who's a bit stupid, in the hopes that this will produce her a child with a thoroughly average intelligence.

Through some truly convoluted and complicated means, Jane sets her sights on Calvin "Cal" Bonner, the Chicago Stars quarterback, and manages to get herself pregnant. Cal, who's really very clever, wasn't planning on settling down, and normally doesn't date anyone over the age of twenty-two, is furious when he discovers that some brainy spinster is having his baby. No child of his, unwanted or not, is going to be born out of wedlock. So he forces Jane to marry him and takes her with him to his home town, so the press won't realise the that the playboy quarterback and the physics genius aren't actually madly in love. Since he's planning to divorce her after the baby is born, he doesn't want his family getting attached to her, and orders her to act horrible to them.

Seriously, the premise for this book is absolutely bonkers. The way in which Jane gets her first (and second) date with Cal and manages to get herself pregnant requires serious suspense of disbelief. Then there's the forced marriage, and Cal's desperate refusal to acknowledge that he's growing older and his career is nearing its end, so he dates women about half his age and refuses to even consider what he'll do once he retires from football. The argument they have when Jane discovers that Cal actually graduated top of his class in biology from a prestigious college and isn't just some hick jock, while Cal has discovered that Jane is a shocking 34 years old (when he believed her to be 28), is hilarious. Generally, the two have a lot of very amusing squabbles.

Jane is deeply uncomfortable with having to be rude to everyone in town, and Cal's family in particular. Cal drove me up the wall with his stupid refusal to grow up. His jealousy of Kevin, the younger quarterback who's hoping to take his place, was lots of fun. The secondary romance in this book is that of Cal's parents, who have grown apart (his mum even moves back home to her mother for a time) and need to reconnect. Cal's grandmother is awesome and realises the truth of Jane and Cal's feelings for one another long before they do.

I can see why this book is so popular among romance readers. It is eighteenth on the All About Romance Top 100 list, the absolutely highest ranked of all of Susan E. Phillips' books. The premise for the book is absolutely ridiculous, but once you get past the convoluted way in which the couple are thrown together, watching them bicker and gradually fall in love with each other was tons of fun. Some might find the extended Bonner family annoying, I generally liked them, which increased my enjoyment of the book.

#CBR6 Book 82: "Finding Colin Firth" by Mia March

Page count: 385 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Veronica Russo lives in Boothbay Harbour in Maine. She's a waitress at the local diner and also makes insanely delicious pies, that are very popular among the people in town. She even has pie-making classes. When she was sixteen, she got pregnant and had to give her baby up for adoption. She still feels as if some of the people she grew up with judge her for this, but is trying to get on with her life. She can't help but think about the baby girl she gave up, though, and hopes that some day the child may contact her.

Bea Crane is baby she gave up, but had no idea that she was adopted until a few weeks ago. A year after the death of her (adoptive) mother, she gets a letter that explains the truth about her origins. Bea is stunned. Recently graduated from college, and not all that happy with her life, she decides to take a chance, go to Boothbay Harbour and meet her biological mother.

Gemma Hendricks returns to Boothbay Harbour to visit old friends and to desperately try to decide what she wants to do with her future. She's an unemployed journalist, who's just discovered she is pregnant. While she's been happy living in New York City, her husband hates it and wants them to move to the little town where his parents ad siblings live. When she tells him about the baby, he's going to have even more ammunition for his plan to move them away from the city. While in Boothbay, she gets a temporary job writing a feature article about the young mother's home in town, where young girls who find themselves pregnant can find a safe haven until their babies are delivered.

All three women are united in their love of Colin Firth (because what woman in her right mind doesn't love the man and his varied film career), who coincidentally is coming to the town to film a movie. Veronica gets a job as an extra on the film set. Bea gets a date with one of the executive producers and Gemma hopes to be able to write a scoop about the film and perhaps get her career kick-started again.

Finding Colin Firth is not the best book to read when you're on a diet, trying to give up sugar and simple carbs. There are a LOT of descriptions of pies in it, because Veronica makes delectable and very popular ones. It probably also helps if you have at least a vague fondness for the actor Colin Firth and the many films he's done in his career, and over the course of the book, the main and supporting characters watch, think about or discuss a huge amount of the films he's been in. Strangely, the book didn't really make me want to watch anything with Colin Firth in it, but rather made me want to re-watch Waitress, the very sweet and underrated film with Keri Russell as a pie making diner waitress.

It's a nice, but not exactly mind-blowing book. All the characters seem nice, and I don't think I'd mind spending time with them if they were real. The book obviously deals with family, motherhood, identity, regret, doubts and insecurities. Boothbay seems like a pretty nice place to live, very picturesque. There are some romantic elements present in the book, but the most important relationships in the book are between women. I really wish I could allow myself to make and eat pies, but that would very much ruin my diet.

Friday 1 August 2014

#CBR6 Book 81: "Greywalker" by Kat Richardson

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 3 stars

After private investigator Harper Blaine wakes up in the hospital after apparently being legally dead for two minutes, she thinks she must be having hallucinations. Her world seems to get blurry, with grey mist, strange creatures and scary monsters more and more frequently. She is told to consult a university professor and his wife, who tell her that she's a Greywalker now. There is a nebulous dimension close to ours, between the human world and the after life, and those like Harper, who have been near death but returned, can access it.

Harper is really none too happy about her new powers and just wants things to go back to normal. She takes on a case to locate a missing college kid, as well as promising to track down a missing heirloom for a mysterious foreigner. As she keeps investigating her new cases, it becomes more and more obvious that she's going to need to control her entrances and exits to the Grey if she wants to survive to get paid.

This was July's main selection in the Vaginal Fantasy book club, and as I'm always fond of a good new paranormal series to sink my teeth into, I figured this was a good opportunity to try one of Kat Richardson's books. Unlike Spider's Bite, which I only barely felt I could rate 2 stars, I found a lot of potential in this book. I liked the sort of film noir feel to the book, with Harper being a P.I and doggedly insisting on endangering herself with solving cases, even after nearly dying. I liked that she doesn't just immediately take the news of the supernatural world and her new abilities in her stride, happily and almost instantly adjusting to the new status quo, which seems to be the case with some protagonists.

Unlike most of the Vaginal Fantasy picks, this book isn't very focused on romance or smexy times at all. There is some romance, but Harper is unattached at the end of the book and no obvious candidate for her long term affections appears to show up over the course of the book. There are some interesting supporting characters and I liked that she has a ferret (even though in my real life experience, they are smelly, badly behaved little beasts with very sharp teeth). That's the sort of detail that adds to the world building.

I wish the Grey had been explored and explained more in the book, but as we are getting everything from Harper's POV, and the people who are trying to teach her how to control her new powers can't directly access the Grey, I suppose it's not surprising that we can't get a massive info dump. I liked the various supernatural creatures, although it was painfully obvious to me what had happened to the college kid Harper is hired to track down long before she picks up on his trail. Although I'm not sure Richardson intended it to be some sort of great surprise either.

While there were bits of the book that got a bit confusing and vague, and I thought the final confrontation was a bit confusing, I think this series has promise, and with Kim Harrison's The Hollows series concluding in September, I am in need of new paranormal fantasy to entertain me. I will absolutely be reading more of these.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 80: "The Kiss of Deception" by Mary E. Pearson

Page count. 496 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

I finished this book nearly two weeks ago, and will therefore use the summary from Goodreads to explain the plot. Getting old and senile here, peeps.

In a society steeped in tradition, Princess Lia's life follows a preordained course. As First Daughter, she is expected to have the revered gift of sight - but she doesn't - and she knows her parents are perpetrating a sham when they arrange her marriage to secure an alliance with a neighbouring kingdom - to a prince she has never met. 

On the morning of the wedding, Lia flees to a distant village. She settles into a new life, hopeful when two mysterious and handsome strangers arrive - and unaware that one is the jilted prince and the other an assassin sent to kill her. Deception abounds, and Lia finds herself on the brink of unlocking perilous secrets - even as she finds herself falling in love. 

This is the first book in what the publishers are calling "a timeless new trilogy". There is a lot to like in the book, and also quite a few things that had me rolling my eyes or sighing with exasperation. The world building is interesting. It appears to be a sort of late medievalish world, but there are hints that all this came about after some sort of cataclysm, so it could well be that the sequels will reveal that this civilisation is actually post-apocalyptic and that the feudalistic type world they have now came about after modern technology collapsed on us somehow. There are three major countries involved in conflict, Lia is the princess and only daughter in Morrighan. She has several brothers, but because traditionally the first daughter of the royal family are believed to have visions, she is the one who is unable to live life as she chooses. As the king of the neighbouring country, Dalbreck,  is old, she's convinced she's being wed to a middle-aged man. She sent a missive asking him to meet before their wedding day, but received no reply. There are also, apparently, the barbarians of Venda and a number of travelling nomads who seem to be a version of gypsies, complete with caravans.

Refusing to be a political pawn and marrying a stranger, she and her best friend and handmaiden Pauline steal a couple of horses and run away on her wedding day. She also steals the hereditary, jewel-encrusted wedding cloak the women in her family have worn for generations, plus some ancient texts she's planning on translating. Girl isn't actually all that nice. Pauline and Lia run to a coastal village, where the princess quite happily settles down as a barmaid. She refuses to spend much time contemplating the diplomatic repercussions of her actions. Shortly after they have settled in the village, two handsome young men show up. The dark and brooding Rafe and the blond and burly Kaden.

The reader knows that one of the young men is a Vendan assassin sent to kill Lia to start a war, whilst the other is the Dalbreckian prince that Lia jilted. Most of the chapters are from Lia's point of view, but some are given to "the prince" and some to "the assassin". Later Rafe and Kaden get POV chapters, but it's only in the final third of the book that the readers, and Lia, discover which of them is the assassin, and I don't think it's much of a spoiler to reveal that the series' protagonist does NOT get murdered two thirds into the first book of the trilogy. Game of Thrones, this ain't. Lia doesn't realise that the prince came looking for her, and that he follows her once she is abducted by the assassin. Only at the very end does she understand that one of the dashing young men from the tavern is in fact her betrothed.

I like the potential in this series. Each chapter starts with excerpts from one of the ancient texts that Lia has in her possession, hinting at the history of the kingdoms and a prophecy, which Lia is obviously at the centre of. I would have loved more backstory on the various kingdoms, especially Dalbreck and Venda, but suspect that might be revealed in future installments. I really liked the narrative device with the two men, without knowing which was which. The uncertainty of their identities builds the tension nicely.

The first third of the book is rather slow, and Lia is frankly behaving like a spoiled brat in much of it. I get that she's none to happy about being married off to a stranger, but she's lived a life of luxury and wealth, and doesn't have the right to decide that she'd rather be a commoner in a tavern just because Mummy and Daddy didn't show her enough affection or let her meet her fiancee before the wedding.  Not when said decision can create international strife and possibly start a war. However, she's clearly also led a very sheltered life, and matures quite a bit over the course of the book, coming to realise all too clearly what difficulties her actions may have caused.

There is a love triangle, which was one of the things that made me roll my eyes. I wish this trope would stop being a necessity in almost all YA fantasy.  The fact that I didn't actually know whether it was the prince or the assassin she was falling in love with, helped. Both Rafe and Kaden are interesting and rather complex characters and the fact that you don't know which is the more morally compromised one until more than halfway through, is cool. The second part of the book, especially the last third, was a lot more action-packed and fast-paced and this is where I really got sucked into the world. I will absolutely be checking out the next book in the series, and hope it's an even stronger installment than the first.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 79: "Heaven, Texas" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

The ridiculously named Bobby Tom Denton was Chicago Stars' famous quarterback until he sustained a career ending knee injury. Now he's unsure of what he's going to do with his life, and deeply frustrated about it. When the tenacious and bossy Gracie Snow turns up on his doorstep and announces she's going to escort him to his hometown Telarosa (formerly Heaven) in Texas to start shooting the action movie he agreed to star in. Gracie's spent most of her life living a sheltered existence, working in a retirement home, and is now determined to make her new job as a production assistant a success. If she can't get Denton to Texas on time, she'll be fired.

More used to leggy, promiscuous models than prim, mousy virgins, Bobby Tom is fascinated with Gracie, but not really all that interested in following her orders. When he finally does arrive on the film set, more than half a day late, he discovers that his selfishness has dire consequences for Gracie, however. She's fired, and devastated. He demands they hire her back, as his personal assistant, agreeing to pay her salary. As Gracie has already shown that she refuses to take any kind of charity from Denton, and is appalled by how many people who seem to be blithely taking advantage of him and sponging off him, the producer agrees to pretend she is still paid by the film studio.

It seems like every single person in Telarosa and the surrounding area has some eligible woman they want to introduce to the former quarterback, now future action star. Bobby Tom is sick of all the attention and declares that Gracie is his fiancee. To make this a convincing charade, he also gets his widowed mother to give her a makeover. Of course, as soon as she starts dressing her age, applying some makeup and has a decent haircut, Bobby Tom Denton is not the only man in Telarosa to notice Gracie Snow. What is he going to do if she decides that she has enough of him bossing her around, and takes off with someone else?

Mrs. Julien skipped this book because she just couldn't deal with a hero named Bobby Tom. I agree that the name is truly ridiculous, but the book is pretty much a funny romp. As seems to be the case in a lot of Phillips' books, there is also a secondary plot running through the book, involving an older couple, in this case Denton's widowed mother and the richest man in town, who is hated by nearly everyone and keeps threatening to shut down his tech company, which would be the final nail in Telarosa's coffin. He's been in love with her since they were both in high school, but never thought he could have her, and proceeds to blackmail her into dating him, in a manner that I frankly found quite despicable, but he is also filled with very believable remorse afterwards, and grew on me as a character.

Bobby Tom is quite ridiculous and I frankly don't understand why Gracie put up with him for so long before putting her dainty foot down and telling him what's what. He's used to being an adored playboy and having had his career drastically cut short, never took the time to consider what he wanted to do once football was no longer an option. Emotionally immature but sexually experienced, he seems to think that giving Gracie a makeover and seducing her is doing her a great favour, never really stopping to take in how much she's improved his life since he met her. While he's self-centred, he's also nothing but courteous, kind and far too generous with everyone around him, even when they are taking advantage of him both financially and emotionally. He doesn't seem to think that he should ever say no to anyone, and cannot for the life of him understand why Gracie won't take the expensive gifts he wants to give her, or insists on paying rent to stay in the spare room above his garage.

Gracie is awesome and my favourite part of the whole book. She's the reason I'm giving the book 4 rather than 3.5 stars. Having devoted herself to helping others in her mother's care home until said mother retired to Florida, she is finally trying to create a new life and identity for herself. Used to surrounding herself with pensioners, she's a bit overwhelmed when she starts making friends her own age and really blossoms when she starts settling in Telarosa. She sees Bobby Tom for who he is, both his good and bad qualities, and hates that everyone around him seems to take him and his tremendous wealth for granted. Since Bobby Tom barely has anything for her to do as his assistant, she makes herself indispensable on the film set, doing everything from running the catering truck to babysitting, as required. She's determined not to let Denton see how head over heels in love with him she is, knowing that they are from such vastly different worlds that she doesn't have a chance of him loving her back.

With the exception of the beginning of Denton's mother's romance, which was a bit creepy, and a minor subplot involving an old girlfriend of Bobby Tom's and the jealous town sheriff, her fiancee, which just didn't work for me at all, this was a very fun, and quite often silly romp. I can see why it's still on the Top 100 list over at All About Romance. Plus, I can now say that I've read a romance where the hero was called Bobby Tom. Never thought that was going to happen.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 78: "Spider's Bite" by Jennifer Estep

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 2 stars

Gin Blanco is an assassin. She goes under the name The Spider. Her weapon of choice is knives and she's very good at her job, something she will rarely shut up about, even in times when people are trying to kill her. Gin lives in a world where there are a number of elementals, controlling fire, ice, earth, air, water, stone, even electricity and the like. Gin is a stone elemental and can also control ice. If you forget, she'll remind you every third chapter or so.

Gin is hired to take out a business man at the opera, but is double-crossed. Someone tries to kill her, and they succeed in killing her handler, Fletcher Lane, who raised her and trained her to be an assassin after her family was killed. She manages to rescue his son, Finn, before they manage to torture him to death too. Together with Donovan Caine, the only honest cop in the city, Gin and Finn (see, it rhymes) try to get to the bottom of who hired Gin and killed Fletcher.

I'd heard a lot of good things about the Elemental Assassin series by Jennifer Estep. Most of the books have a higher than 4.0 rating on Goodreads. I like paranormal fantasy, I like assassins, I like unusual female protagonists. This book started out intriguingly, with Gin having had herself committed to an asylum to take out a dodgy psychiatrist, but went downhill so fast. When the book is narrated in first person, and you find said narrator hella annoying, it's going to be difficult to get into the book.

There's some promising world building, but because I was so annoyed with the "tell, don't show" narration, and the frequent repetition (really, most pertinent points are mentioned again and again - Gin's tragic backstory, her choice of weapons, her "no kids or pets" policy, her attraction to Donovan Caine and all the smexy things she'd like to do to him if she got the chance, but oh, he hates her because she murdered his corrupt partner). None of the characters appeared to have much depth or were all that interesting to me, again probably because Estep keeps telling me about them instead of showing through their actions why I should care about them.

I bought this on sale a while back, and am glad I didn't pay full price. Unless people can convince me that the other books get a LOT better (I know a lot of paranormal fantasy series have rough starts, and take a while to get going), this is not going to be a series I continue with.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 77: "It Had to Be You" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Phoebe Sommerville is a bundle of daddy issues and sexual hangups, masquerading as a drop-dead gorgeous blonde bombshell. Clever, sensitive and oh so very vulnerable, Phoebe learned long ago that the best way to keep men at a distance and getting her own way is by pretending to be a sexy airhead. Estranged from her horrible father since she was 18, having done as much as she could to shock him, Phoebe is shocked to realise that even after his death, he is trying to manipulate her. His will stipulates that she has inherited his successful NFL team, the Chicago Stars, and has to stay in Chicago and run it until some big pre-Super Bowl championship (I know NOTHING about American football. Football to me, a Norwegian, is soccer. I finished this book more than two weeks ago and can't be bothered to go back and find the relevant name). If the Chicago Stars win this championship, she will keep the team (and rob her douche-wad cousin out of the inheritance he was sure he was going to get). If they lose, she will at least get enough money to start the gallery she's always dreamed of owning. To add to her complications, Phoebe also becomes the guardian of Molly, her fifteen year younger sister, who hates her because she believes their father loved only the eldest, and was the sort of stand-up guy to really leave his daughters with crushed self esteem.

Phoebe decides that dear old dad, the team and the terms of the will can screw it. She tries to befriend her sister, with little success. Dan Calebow, former star quarterback and the new coach for the Chicago Stars is not going to let some bimbo keep his team from achieving their chance at victory, though. His extreme masculinity is everything that Phoebe finds most attractive, but also terrifying. She agrees to do her share in the running of the team, but forces Dan to keep on the geeky Ron McDermitt as general manager. As they start working together to get the Stars to their championship, Dan starts to realise that Phoebe is not the ditz she appears. Having a wealth of insecurities and hangups of his own, due to women not treating him right, Dan now wants to find the perfect little homemaker who can bear his children. It very much complicates things when he keep his thoughts or hands off Phoebe.

It Had to Be You is the first of seven books in Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Chicago Stars' series. As Phillips has no fewer than eight books on All About Romance's Top 100 Romances (last compiled a few months ago),  and seven of those books are this series, I pretty much had to see what all the fuss was about, and I believe in starting at the beginning. This book was written in 1994, and it's quite clear that contemporary romance (and romance in general) has come a long way since this book was written. Even so, it's clearly beloved by many, as it's 19 on the top 100 list. I found a number of things problematic with the book, though.

I really couldn't stand Phoebe's father (which is probably as it should be). I also hate when rape is used as a character-building plot device. One of the things that caused Phoebe to run away, was that she was raped when she was seventeen, and her father refused to believe her. This led to her ending up in Paris and getting even more disillusioned about sex as she tried to get over her shame, before discovering that she could dress and act provocatively, but constantly reject the men around her, thus keeping herself safe. Her best friend is gay. Her scandalous and elderly artist lover was gay, although few know that.

Dan's ex-wife is a congresswoman who's bossy and into all sorts of kinky stuff and never wanted kids. Even after their divorce, they keep meeting for random hook-ups, because Dan can't really say no to her. He had an abusive father and a weak-willed mother and is determined to give his own kids the love, stability and idyllic home life he himself never achieved. He believes he's found the perfect candidate to be his baby mama, a timid, quiet nursery school teacher, who he obviously wouldn't dream of even touching inappropriately before marriage. He's convinced Phoebe doesn't have a maternal bone in her body, never getting close enough to her to realise that a stable, harmonious family life is what she has dreamed of her entire life. He has no problems using her to get rid of his pent-up sexual tension, but is surprised at how innocent and inexperienced she seems in the bedroom.

Molly, Phoebe's younger sister, is a brat. I didn't like her much, but again, douchy daddy did a number on her, so her trust issues are probably justified. Unfortunately, she's not really fleshed out much as a character and barely rises above annoying plot moppet level. Some of the other supporting characters are delightful, though. I loved Ron, the geeky general manager, who Dan is forced to realise does a really good job even though he's not a jock, and Viktor, Phoebe's gay BFF.

In my experience, current contemporary romances don't have quite as much unnecessary drama as this book does. There are some truly preposterous obstacles in the way of Dan and Phoebe's HEA, both external and emotional. The final act of the book is, as my partner in romance reviewing, Mrs. Julien points out, ridonkulous. I rolled my eyes more than a little bit. I suspect I would have liked the book a whole lot more if I'd read it when it came out.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.