Monday 24 November 2014

#CBR6 Book 131: "The Hero and the Crown" by Robin McKinley

Page count: 225 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! This was granted to me by Open Road Integrated Media through NetGalley in return for a fair and unbiased review.

Aerin is the lonely, ostracised daughter of the ruler of Damar. She has pale skin and fiery red hair amongst a people who are bronzed with dark hair. She cannot even remember who first told her the story, but she has known for as long as she can remember that her mother was a commoner witch-woman who came from the North, who ensorcelled the king into marrying her, swearing she would bear him an heir. When she bore a daughter, she died of despair. While most of the common folk and the servants love her for her gentle, generous and unspoiled manner and the fact that she has taken upon herself to rid the countryside of the small, yet fierce dragons who threaten livestock and snatch the occasional baby to eat. The higher born, especially most of her royal cousins are deeply scornful of her, calling her names, mocking her and never letting her forget her half-blood status.

The one exception is Tor, the heir to the throne, one of her cousins. Since she was young, he has been kind to her, and he has taught her to ride, to use a sword and other soldierly arts. As she comes of age, it becomes very obvious to everyone in Damar that Tor is in love with the witch-woman's daughter. That she has managed to combine herbs to make a fire-proof ointment to help her hunt dragons or successfully trained the king's old, injured war horse back to health is turned into sinister and negative things rather than admirable and impressive ones.

There is more discord spreading in Damar, and the common belief is that all the problems would be solved if the ancient crown, lost some generations ago, was found. Even after Aerin is nearly killed, becoming severely damaged when single-handedly killing Maur, one of the enormous, ancient dragons, the popular opinion of the court is against her. While recovering, she has dreams about a mysterious man, who claims she needs to find him, so he can aid her further in saving Damar, and when she's at her absolute lowest, convinced everyone will be better off without her, she goes off to find him. Can Luthe, this stranger from her dreams, heal her and train her into facing her greatest fears? If she fails, it means the destruction of Damar and all the people she loves.

In late September, I started reading Robin McKinley's most recent book, Shadows, which I didn't even make it a third through before I had to abandon it. It was written in some made up teen speak and the characters and story was so unengaging that I just didn't have the patience to finish it. Now, considering the literary quality of some of the books I HAVE managed to read this year, this says a lot. So when I was offered one of her classic works through Netgalley, the prequel to possibly my favourite of her books The Blue Sword, which I will be re-reading as soon as I can dig out my paperback (as it sadly doesn't exist in e-book format yet), it seemed like a very good way of getting the figurative bad taste out of my mouth.

While Aerin has a pretty sucky childhood, growing up with only the older Tor or her maid as her closest friends, she seems to grow more confident, or at least less self-conscious and bothered about what others think of her and the possible motives of her long dead mother. She's brave, kind and persistent, with a gift for scientific thought that allows her, after years of trial and error, to recreate a long believed to be mythical ointment that is immune to dragon fire. Her patience and perseverance wins her the loyalty of her father's injured and anti-social war horse, who through the training that Aerin slowly coaxes him to do, eventually becomes almost his old self again.

Her father and Tor clearly love her, and it is made clear that many people in rural Damar see her as a hero. Yet Aerin cannot get over the constant digs and misgivings from those around her, and their malicious gossip is also what lets her fall under the spell of the evil dragon Maur, whose powers don't diminish even though he has been killed. Some enterprising people drag his skull back to the capital, and the dragon's malevolence, combined with the horrible burns (her ointment doesn't work against the fire of ancient dragons) and injuries she sustained, nearly kills her.

This is a great book, generally aimed for a middle grade to younger adult audience, I think. Aerin is a wonderful role model for young women. She's an outcast, but works to overcome her many challenges. She rarely masters something on the first try, all Mary Sue like, but practises and trains, using her perseverance and inner strength to succeed. She is loyal and brave, risking her life time and time again at thankless tasks, only to have most of those who should have been her strongest allies undermine her and gossip about her perceived evil intentions. While I didn't love it as much as some other McKinley books, I'm so glad I got a chance to read this, especially after Shadows turned out to be such a disappointment. Turns out that McKinley's early career is a lot more to my taste than her recent literary efforts.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 23 November 2014

#CBR6 Book 130: "Yes, Please" by Amy Poehler

Page count: 288 pages
Audio book length: 7 hrs 31 mins
Rating: 5 stars

As far as I can tell, I'm the fifth Cannonballer so far to read and review Amy Poehler's new book Yes, Please. I'm a huge fan of Parks and Recreation and the episode where Ann and Chris leave nearly destroyed me, because Ann and Leslie's friendship in many ways reminds me so much of that between me and my best friend Lydia (who unfortunately lives across the Atlantic in New York City). I've liked Amy Poehler in Mean Girls and on  SNL, and I love her various hosting gigs with her friend Tina Fey, whose celebrity autobiography I read way back in 2011. I think Bossypants is funnier in terms of laugh out loud moments and hysterical anecdotes, but Yes, Please affected me more and seemed more honest somehow.

In a book that's part autobiography, part advice book, and in terms of the audio book that I got, part  humorous banter with celebrity guests (supposedly recorded in the audio booth Amy built herself, the book has audio cameos from Kathleen Turner, Patrick Stewart, Carol Burnett and Amy's parents, plus one whole chapter is read by Seth Meyers), Amy Poehler covers a lot of different things. The book is divided into three parts: Say whatever you want, Do whatever you like and Be whoever you are, which I think illustrates quite nicely what Amy Poehler wants for the lives of pretty much everyone, certainly herself. She's not afraid to be honest about the less admirable qualities about her personality here, and claims that despite what her public persona has led people to believe, she's really not all that nice, and she thinks that it's important that people, and especially women, are allowed to not always be quiet, polite and pleasant. The final chapter of the audio book is recorded live at a theatre, complete with the audience reacting enthusiastically to her reading.

While not all of the chapters were as funny, I still appreciated hearing all her various opinions, and as I said, of the various funny celebrity autobiographies I've read, this is probably the one that felt like it was the most relevant to me. I may not have laughed out loud as much while listening to this book, but I still think about parts of it now and come back to it, even weeks after I finished it. Amy Poehler is a brilliant woman, she has strong opinions and she's a staunch feminist without any of this becoming the focus of the book. She seems to be a devoted and hard-working mother, a loyal friend and a really fun woman to hang out with. I respect her greatly and wish she could be my friend.

Now, while there is no way I have the time and energy to complete a full triple of 156 this year, it feels good that this book is my 130th, which marks my two and a half Cannonball. Having reached this milestone also means that I will be posting  less frequently. I need to recharge a bit for next year. So with the exception of books so excellent I think the world needs to know about them, or the books I need to review to complete my various reading challenges, I will probably not be posting. This means that there may be another tend or so reviews, but unlikely more than that. Thanks for reading my reviews, commenting and cheering me on in 2014. Bring on CBR7.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 129: "Blue Lily, Lily Blue" by Maggie Stiefvater

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Blue Sargent's mother is missing, and it's quite clear that time passes differently where she's gone. This loss affects Blue deeply, although she has Mr. Grey around and her Raven Boys to take her mind off things. Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam and even Noah are still trying to find Glendover, looking in caves all over the area. They are told repeatedly that there are three Sleepers under the ground, and it is imperative that one of them not be woken. They now have the aid of Gansey's elderly British professor friend, Mr. Malory, who seems to find being in "the Colonies" fascinating.

Malory is not the only new arrival in Henrietta. Colin Greenmantle, Mr. Grey's former employer and a very dangerous man, is in town, keeping himself busy plotting revenge and destruction, while also teaching the Aglionby boys Latin. His wife Piper may seem vapid and distracted at first, but it becomes clear after a while why the two were drawn to each other. Ronan is determined to get Greenmantle somehow, and enlists the aid of Adam, whose affinity with Cabeswater is getting stronger, allowing him a wholly new perspective. Adam needs all the distractions he can get, he's about to face his father in court, and he's making very sure that none of his friends find out about it.

While it is always lovely to spend time in the world of Blue and her Raven Boys, this book, number 3 in The Raven Cycle is so clearly a bridging book. Unlike in books 1 and 2, where we were introduced to all the characters and a lot of dramatic things happened, most of the story is in a holding pattern here, slowly moving the pieces into place for the final act, which I'm hoping will be spectacular.

Colin Greenmantle is a chilling new potential villain, and all the ominous messages about the third sleeper promise more complications in the final book, which is out at some as of yet not confirmed point in the second half of next year. In The Raven Boys, Blue saw Gansey on the Corpse Road, and with each season passing, they are getting closer to his doom. In this book, the other boys discover that the women of 300 Fox Way have a book where they write down the names of everyone who will die in the coming year, and Adam is clever enough to figure out that Blue is so secretive about the book because one of their names is in it. She finally has someone to share her secret with, not that it makes the situation any easier.

Blue and Gansey are growing closer, but trying to hide it from the others, especially to avoid hurting Adam. Ronan and Adam conspire to remove the threat of Colin Greenmantle behind Gansey's back, as they know they're not going to be able to play by the rules, and their best friend would be deeply uncomfortable.

I love these books, but this is clearly the least engrossing in the series so far. I understand that not every book can have the intriguing setup of The Raven Boys or the thrilling revelations of The Dream Thieves, but it would have been nice if there was a little bit more development. Some pretty thrilling stuff happens in the last few chapters, but mostly this is just the literary equivalent of hanging out with friends you like.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 126-128: "The Disillusionists trilogy" by Carolyn Crane

Total page count: 1139 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Once again, I'm going to make things easier for myself, by using a blurb:

Justine knows she's going to die. Any second now.

Justine Jones has a secret. A hardcore hypochondriac, she's convinced a blood vessel is about to burst in her brain. Then, out of the blue, a startlingly handsome man named Packard peers into Justine's soul and invites her to join his private crime-fighting team. It's a once-in-a-lifetime. With a little of Packard's hands-on training, Justine can weaponize her neurosis, turning it outward on Midcity's worst criminals, and finally get the freedom from the fear she's always craved. End of problem.

Or is it? In Midcity, a dashing chief of police is fighting a unique breed of outlaw with more than human powers. And while Justine's first missions, one against a nymphomaniac husband-killer, are thrilling successes, there is more to Packard than meets the eye. Soon, while battling her attraction to two very different men, Justine is plunging deeper into the world of wizardry, eroticism and cosmic secrets. With Packard's help, Justine has freed herself from madness - only to discover a reality more frightening than anyone's worst fears.

November's main pick for Vaginal Fantasy is a bit of a slow starter, and I found myself actually wishing for a bit more exposition in order to establish the world in which these books take place. The concept of the trilogy is so clever, though, and I was very quickly hooked, to the point where I couldn't stop after the first book (which is quite frequently the case with the VF books), but read the whole series in less than a week. 

The books are set in Midcity, an urban fantasy city that reminds me a lot of Chicago. There are some people with special powers, known as highcaps, who can do everything from move objects with their minds, manipulate matter, invade people's dreams or psychologically manipulate their victims. There are some who suggest that the highcaps are just an urban legend, but as more and more people are dying from bricks flying out of nowhere, it seems very likely that highcaps exist and are very dangerous. Midcity is in the midst of a crime wave, and handsome new police chief Otto Sanchez seems to be the only one willing to try to make a change.

Justine is not a highcap, she's a neurotic young woman whose mother died of a particular kind of aneurysm, called a vein star, and Justine is convinced this is what's going to kill her too. She gets panic attacks at the most inconvenient moments and has spent a small fortune going to doctors and the emergency room when she's convinced she's near death. It's putting serious strain on her relationship with her boyfriend, who just wants her to get over her irrational fears. So when she meets the mysterious Packard while at a Mongolian restaurant and he claims that unless she accepts his help, her fear is leading her on a rapid path into crippling insanity. He says he can teach her to channel her fears into other people, using it as a weapon to destabilise them. Justine scoffs at this idea, but can't quite put the idea out of her mind. She returns to the restaurant, and Packard introduces her to some of the other Disillusionists who work for him. He has a secret, private group of vigilantes, who use their powers to psychologically bring criminals towards rock bottom, forcing them to change their ways and minds. They can channel rage, ennui, addiction, gambling problems and the like and Packard thinks Justine could be an invaluable asset because of her health fears.

Once the Disillusionists "zing" their worst impulses into their victims, they themselves are free of them for up to a month and feel great as a result. However, according to Packard, they can't just go around channelling their fears or rage or cravings into anyone, or the psychic backlash could kill them. Packard is a highcap with unique psychological insight into everyone he meets and this allows him to see exactly how they can be broken down, or whether they can. He alone also seems immune to the "zings" of the various Disillusionists, allowing them to channel even when there isn't a suitable criminal that needs taking down. This allows him to show Justine just how good it can feel when she gets rid of her crazy health fears. She agrees to help him, as she is loving the normal life she is suddenly able to enjoy with her boyfriend, free of anxiety and stress, but she is only intending to do it short term, not comfortable with the moral implications of psychologically attacking people, even criminals.

Then she discovers that Packard is quite ruthless in achieving his goals. One of the other Disillusionists is surprised when Justine claims she's only part of their little team for a short while. It seems that once they start "zinging" others, their brain chemistry is gradually altered and if they suddenly stop, they're going to be overwhelmed by the very negative impulses they have gotten used to channelling and will end up in a vegetative state. Packard didn't tell Justine because he, very correctly, knew she'd never agree to join up if she knew. He isn't just destabilising criminals from the kindness of his heart, he makes a lot of money from people these criminals wronged, and his ultimate endgame is revenge against the individual who trapped him in the very restaurant Justine first met him. For more than eight years, Packard has been unable to leave the place. He's also unable to change the decor, or the menu and if things get destroyed, they're back the way they were before the very next day. Justine, who during her training has grown more and more attracted to Packard, is appalled and swears that she will figure out a way to be free of his manipulative control. She and the other Disillusionists can't really help themselves from trying to figure out exactly who trapped their boss, and how they can work together to free him.

In the second book, Double Cross, Justine and the other Disillusionists are working to rehabilitate a number of criminals that Packard's nemesis had kept locked away in various locations in the city, just like he had Packard. A trio of men nicknamed the Dorks (because former Chief of Police, now Mayor, Otto Sanchez, has forbidden the media from glorifying criminals with cool monikers, and all criminals written about in the media now have randomly selected humiliating names instead) are targeting highcaps, and mysteriously seem to be completely immune to all their powers, while able to identify them from normal humans. As both the men Justine feels drawn to are highcaps and thus in danger of being the next victim, she is feeling stressed and affected, even though she's able to channel her fears away. If Packard is killed by the Dorks, Justine and her dysfunctional friends will all eventually become drooling wrecks, so they work together to discover the true identies of the killers.

In the third book, Head Rush, Justine should be blissfully happy. She's finally free of Packard's control and doesn't have to channel her crippling fear into others to stay sane. She's attending nursing school (not just posing as a fake nurse like when she was a Disillusionist), she's engaged to the man of her dreams and the big hero of Midcity, planning the wedding of the year. Her best friends are going to be attending her at the wedding, so why is she plagued by constant headaches, vague nightmares, anxiety and an unsettling distrust for her beloved fiancee?

Midcity is under martial law, with a strict curfew being enforced because sleep-walking cannibals are roaming the streets at night. There are more dangerous criminals around than ever before, but Mayor Otto Sanchez is staunchly promising that things will change very soon. Thanks to the help of her reclusive, paranoid father and a few of her very loyal friends, Justine is able to unravel the mysteries surrounding her and figure out who her heart really belongs to.

Product warning from book three: This book contains high-speed rollerblade chases, a mysterious green dashboard ornament, a father of the bride in full hazmat gear and a delicious kebab. 

I read a lot of urban/paranormal fantasy, and finding something a bit different from your kickass heroine with a sword/crossbow/magical powers/shapeshifting/shiny daggers is very refreshing. Justine is a wreck, a self-absorbed, neurotic hypochondriac who constantly lies to herself about what she really wants from her life. She's not stupid, but certainly no genius. She's not exactly a coward, but she's certainly no action heroine. She's stubborn, quick to anger, quite often petty and very easily persuaded. Yet she's a loyal friend, she's not afraid to speak her mind and she quite naturally just wants a normal life and a reliable guy who loves her.

Neither of the two men that she falls for in this trilogy are exactly stable, reliable, trustworthy sort of people. They are childhood friends and long time enemies, sometimes working together, but more often to destroy one another. They are dangerous, ruthless, powerful and extremely manipulative. One of the things I liked about the series is how many times the status quo is completely turned on its head. You think you know what's going on, and then there is a surprise twist, and another, and a third, until you're really not sure who you should be rooting for. Who is the hero and who is the villain? Is it ok to completely destabilise and rewrite people's psyche to turn them from a life of crime? Is it ok to keep people under house arrest without any verdict or trial to protect the majority of the populace? Just how far can one person go to impose their unique idea of justice and order? While I'm really not a huge fan of love triangles, this one was very central to the plot of the series and the fact that the reader, as well as Justine, honestly doesn't entirely know who to trust, or who she should choose, makes for interesting reading.

I liked that all the various Disillusionists were severely screwed up individuals who would have been crazy or worse if they hadn't joined up with Packard and learned how to channel away the worst of their impulses into others. They all make for an interesting supporting cast of characters, although some are given a lot more prominence than others. I loved the idea that someone crippled by drug or alcohol addiction, or chronic gambling problems, or debilitating anxiety and hypochondria could transfer this to someone else, and use it as a weapon. It's such a very unusual idea and one of the reasons I really just dropped everything else to read these books. While by no means flawless, the books were different and extremely entertaining. I suspect I will be checking out what else Carolyn Crane has written, and I hope her other works are as fun as these books.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 22 November 2014

#CBR6 Book 125: "The Outsiders" by Susan E. Hinton

Page count: 190 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Ponyboy Curtis is an orphan. He lives with his two older brothers, Darry, who works construction and Sodapop, who dropped out of school to work in a garage to help support the family. Ponyboy and his friends are Greasers, kids with leather jackets and long, grease-slicked hair from working class backgrounds, often with a lot of trouble at home. Quite a few of the Greasers are part of gangs and having a criminal record isn't all that uncommon.

Ponyboy would much rather be a Greaser with no parents than a Soc, however. The rich, privileged society kids with their expensive cars and their letterman jackets, whose favourite pasttime is teaming up to beat up Greasers. Ponyboy is the baby of the gang, and clearly the one with enough smarts and academic prospects to have a chance of getting a good college scholarship and making something promising with his life. Darry had to give up on his college dreams when their parents died, and Sodapop would much rather work on cars than go to school.

While the clashes between the Socs and the Greasers can get pretty rough, they tend to be broken up before anyone can get badly hurt. One fateful evening, when Ponyboy and the badly traumatised Johnny Cade are attacked by a gang of drunken Socs who get particularly threatening, everything goes to hell. Ponyboy and Johnny go on the run, hiding out from the cops in a countryside church. When there's an unexpected fire, the boys get a chance to show that hoodlums from the wrong side of the tracks can make a real difference.

The Outsiders was one of my favourite books as a young teen. I can't entirely remember how old I first read this book, but I can vividly remember my reaction to it. I stayed up way later than was sensible, considering it was a school night to finish it, and I cried so hard that I couldn't see the pages anymore. Big, racking sobs and full on ugly crying. I remember being amazed that the author was only fifteen when she started writing the book. Is it a literary masterpiece? No, probably not, it's a fairly simplistic story but it's a compelling novel written by a teenager, in the voice of another teenager and having re-read it for the first time in about fifteen years, in English for the first time, I was still really strongly emotionally affected by it.

Unfortunately, I no longer remember exactly what I thought about the social situation of the various Greasers described in this book, nor what I felt about Ponyboy's strained relationship with his oldest brother. Now, as an adult, I probably see a lot of the relationships in this book from a very different perspective. I still cried a lot at certain sections of the book, but I suspect I cried the hardest at other parts than when I was a young teen. I can't objectively judge the quality of this book, because it's such a powerful piece of nostalgia for me, and will always be an emotional reading experience for me. My husband has never read the book, nor watched the film (which I'd love to rewatch now, having not seen it for about as long as since I last read the book), and I plan to read this out loud to him, as he, early in our relationship, read me The Hobbit and The Wind in the Willows.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 124: "Burn for Me" by Ilona Andrews

Rating: 4.5 stars
Page count: 384 pages

In a world where magic exists and is passed down through generations, the most influential families in society are called Houses, and tend to breed selectively to create the most powerful magic users, known as Primes. Nevada Baylor is a struggling P.I in Houston, trying to make ends meet. Nevada's powers (which she keeps secret to avoid being exploited by one of the ruthless Houses) allow her to sense any time someone is lying. It comes in handy in her line of business, but isn't exactly going to make her a magical superstar, like Adam Pierce, the man she has been forced to locate.

A Prime pyrokinetic, Adam Pierce grew up in a life of luxury, before he decided to turn his back on his family, start a motorcycle club and becoming a radical. His fire can melt solid steel and he's the main suspect in a series of arsons, the last at a bank where a police officer got killed. The House that owns the Baylor family's mortgage needs someone to go on what is likely to be a suicide mission. Nevada could refuse, but it would mean not only losing the family business, but the warehouse, where they all live. Desperate, but resourceful, Nevada is able to do what a lot of others haven't. She tracks down Pierce and manages to peak his curiosity. She hopes this will keep her alive long enough for her to figure out a way to get him arrested.

Then she is drugged and abducted by Connor "Mad" Rogan, the head of House Rogan and a Prime Telekinetic, one of the most powerful magic users in the world.  Formerly employed by the US Army and involved in decisive victories against the war of Mexico, he now has nicknames like the Hurricane and the Butcher of Mexico. Having agreed to help his cousin track down her son, who is implicated in the latest arson with Pierce, he has ascertained that Nevada is the easiest way to get to the man. She doesn't take well to being kidnapped, threatened and questioned, and doesn't hesitate to tell Rogan (who terrifies her as he tends to do most people) exactly how unhappy she is about his heavy-handed ways. He proposes that they join forces to catch the pyrokinetic, and Nevada reluctantly agrees, even though she suspects Rogan may turn to be more dangerous to her than Pierce, in the end.

This is the first book in Ilona Andrews' new paranormal series, Hidden Legacy. While there is a clear attraction between Nevada and Rogan and lots of the amazing banter that Andrews does so excellently, nothing is resolved in this book, the first in a trilogy. Because Avon usually focuses on romance, a lot of readers seem to be disappointed by the lack of romantic resolution in this book. A regular reader of their blog, I was expecting a setup book and that is what this is. Andrews writes the slow burn very well, as evidenced by their Kate Daniels series, where it also takes multiple books for the central romance to really develop.

Being a huge fan of ALL of their books (I don't care if they start publishing their shopping lists, I will pay money for them, frequently more than once), I was very excited about this release, and it didn't disappoint. I suspect I may even rate it a full five stars on a repeat read (which I plan to do in December). So much of what the Andrews team does so well can be found here. Fascinating world building, with the idea that much of the population possess magical powers to some extent, in lots of interesting variations. Great characters, both the protagonists and the antagonist - Andrews is fond of a charming anti-hero to pit against the main characters. Action, humour, romance, banter, suspense and entertainment.

Nevada is the main breadwinner for her family, living with her widowed mother (a former army sniper), her grandmother (who seems to have magic that allows her to be a super mechanic), her two teenage sisters and two male cousins (one of whom is a computer genius who helps her in the P.I. business). One of the things I love about Andrews' books is how well they write families. Kate starts out a hard-edged loner in Magic Bites, but finds an extended family in the Pack and her ward. Family is hugely important in all of the four Edge books and locating her lost family is one of the things driving Dina in Clean Sweep. Families who bicker and fight and may be at each others' throats, but who will unite against a common enemy and protect each other to the death. Nevada is clever, inventive and brave, but she's not exceptional at her job. She's not a total hardass like Kate or Cerise in Bayou Moon; if Nevada is in a life threatening situation, her first instinct is to run to save herself, not face the danger head on. She works hard, and without her, her family won't be able to pay the bills. Forced into an impossible situation, of taking on a suicide mission or have her entire family tossed out into the streets, Nevada does the only thing she can. But she's not happy about it, and dreams of the day when she can tell Montgomery House, the ones pulling her strings, to get lost. Over the course of the story, it's quite obvious that there is more to Nevada's powers than she's been told, and her mother and grandmother, while clearly having kept things from her, seem unaware of the true extent of Nevada's abilities.

As well as great and complex heroines, there tend to be good heroes in the Andrews' books. Mad Rogan is no exception, although it's clear that there's going to have to be a hell of a character arc over the next two books for Rogan to be a worthy match for Nevada. He's genuinely scary and can do terrifying things with his powers. He's insanely wealthy and not used to people saying no to him. He is quick to anger and kills without remorse. He finds Nevada very attractive and can't understand why she refuses to submit to his attempts at seduction. While his public persona is that of an uncaring, ruthless man, it's quite clear that there is a lot more depth to Rogan. With the exception of the epilogue, the entire story is told from Nevada's point of view and she doesn't see all that we, the readers see. While he is wealthy and Nevada finds him extremely sexy, she's fully aware that he is extremely dangerous and that a no-name nobody like her has no future with the head of House Rogan, the most powerful and influential of all the magical families.

Sadly, there is no release date for the next book in the series and now I have to wait impatiently for both more Kate books and more Hidden Legacy. I can't wait to see how the story will develop and suspect that while this is great, the sequels will be spectacular.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 123: "Horns" by Joe Hill

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Pretty much exactly a year after his girlfriend Merrin Williams was found raped and murdered, Ignatius "Ig" Perrish wakes up after getting blackout drunk and discovers horns spouting from his forehead. He's not entirely sure they're not a hallucination at first, but when he discovers how people behave around him due to the horns, he realises that they are sadly all too real. Turns out the horns make everyone around him spill their deepest, darkest secrets. They confess to their most shameful wishes and desires and they bluntly tell Ig to his face what they actually think of him. Pretty much everyone in town is convinced that he murdered Merrin, and that it was only through the wealth and position of his parents that he got off without a trial. Ig faces harsh truths from the local priest, his new girlfriend, his grandmother and his parents.

The terrible compulsion from the horns allows Ig to not only stop deluding himself of what his life has become, but he eventually discovers who raped and murdered Merrin. He is determined to get revenge any way he can, and wants to use his demonic new powers to get it. But what if the murderer is the only one seemingly immune to Ig's new "gift"?

As well as the story of Ig, his horns and his quest for revenge, the book shows much of Merrin and Ig's relationship together, from before their first meeting until the bitter argument they had on the fateful night that Merrin was abused and killed. The many players in this revenge drama are introduced, all part of Ig's life from an early age. We see him meet Merrin and fall in love with her. We see him with his brother and his friends. The book cuts between the present and the past throughout, alternating from the horror of Ig's current situation with the privileged upbringing and past he had.

I normally don't read a whole lot of horror. I suspect that this year I have read more of the genre than in several of the past years combined. Because I really liked what I've read of Joe Hill's Locke and Key so far, and having discovered that this book was being adapted into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe (say what you want, but the boy has been in a LOT of different things since he finished the last Harry Potter movie. He seems determined not to risk being typecast), I was intrigued, and when in need of some entertainment while on vacation in New York, I picked this up. Normally I hate movie tie-in covers, but the original cover was boring and ugly, and the non-mass market paperback was more than twice as expensive. There are limits to how much money I'm willing to spend on my light holiday reads.

Looking on Goodreads, I see that several other Cannonballers really loved this book. It's been very highly rated twice so far this year on the group blog. Unfortunately, it wasn't really my sort of thing. I think the way the book alternated between the mundane, almost boring at times and the gruesome was distracting and I kept wanting to reach into the book and slap some sense into Ig, because to me, it was obvious who the real killer was even before this is revealed. I also thought the book got more and more surreal towards the end, and am not thrilled with how the dramatic climax played out. I did like the slow reveal of some stuff (being extremely vague here so as not to spoil for anyone), and Merrin's last letter to Ig was very touching.

The film seems to have gotten more negative than positive reviews, with Vivian on Pajiba really hating it. As I thought the trailer made it look as if it really could go either way, I doubt I will be watching it. I also suspect that I will be donating the paperback to my school library.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 21 November 2014

#CBR6 Book 122: "The Lady Most Willing: A Novel in Three Parts" by Julia Quinn, Eloisa James and Connie Brockway

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Taran Ferguson has decided that if left to their own devices, his two nephews are never going to get their act together and find suitable brides. So just before Christmas, he takes matters into his own hands, rallies his faithful retainers, rides over to the neighbouring estate where there is a house party at present and kidnaps the three likeliest young women. Only because it's dark and things got rather confusing, they end up with four ladies and one really rather pissed off Duke, who happened to be sleeping in the carriage the drunken Scotsmen stole to transport the kidnapping victims in.

Ferguson's nephews, the Earl of Easton (poetically named Byron) and the Comte de Rocheforte (Robin), who also happens to be Ferguson's heir, are both appalled. There is nothing they can do about returning the ladies, as a terrible snowstorm has ensured that everyone will have to stay put in the ice cold, drafty castle for at least three days until the road has cleared again. So we have a Laird, a Duke, an Earl and a Comte and very conveniently, there are also four young women. Lady Cecily Tarleton is the wealthy and beautiful daughter of the neighbouring estate and Ferguson seems very determined that one of his nephews chose her as a bride, as she comes with a generous dowry and has substantial social standing. She is, however, English. There are also the local heiresses, Fiona and Marilla Chisholm, the former pretty much doomed to become a spinster after her reputation was ruined when her erstwhile fiancee died, falling from her bedroom window (that Fiona had not invited him in the first place, let alone allowed him to touch her inappropriately in any way seems to be irrelevant to the local gossips). She's resigned to her fate by now and has determined to take her money and travel to exotic places. Her younger sister Marilla is terribly spoiled and a shameless flirt, revelling in the opportunity to find herself a titled match due to their sudden abduction. Miss Catriona Burns is the daughter of the local squire, swept up by accident. She knows that she has neither the dowry or the social status appropriate to make any sort of match with the men of the party, so she won't have to make an effort to impress anyone either.

Over the course of the next few days when the couples are trapped, unsurprisingly there are four convenient matches made. Normally, I would be very uncomfortable with the abduction, the forced matchmaking, the not one, not two, but four cases of insta-love that a story like this requires and the huge amounts of disbelief I would need to suspend to fully accept the developments in this story. Julia Quinn, Eloisa James and Connie Brockway (who is the only author of the trio whose books I have never read before) are excellent writers, however and because it's such a frothy, silly book that pretty much dares you to scoff at it, it sweeps you off your feet and charms you instead.

Fellow Cannonballer NTE reviewed this back in September, which is what made me remember that I bought it in an e-book sale way back when and had it buried in my Calibre library. Her review (I'm going to be terribly gender stereotyping here and assume that a reader of romance is a woman) made me dig it back out and I read it. It was a very quick read and I pretty much blazed through it. Naturally, because there are eight protagonists of a sort and they all have to fall madly in love with each other while snowed in at a freezing castle in the Scottish Highlands (it may actually be the Lowlands too, but that doesn't sound as fun, somehow), there isn't all that much time for a lot of character development. Each person tends to have one or two defining character traits and they don't muck around for long before falling into each other's arms. I did like how often it was pointed out that Ferguson's castle really was dreadfully drafty, difficult to heat, generally very shabby and not actually equipped to comfortably house so many unexpected guests in the style to which they are generally accustomed. That aspect of the book was very well done. Having enjoyed this book as much as I did, I was delighted to discover that this is actually the second collaboration from the three authors. I think I'm going to have to go seek out The Lady Most Likely as well.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 20 November 2014

#CBR6 Book 121: "The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Get Pregnant" by Dan Savage

Page count: 246 pages
Audio book length: 7hrs 33 mins
Rating: 4 stars

I've been reading Dan Savage's Savage Love for years and years now, and when I'm in the mood for Podcasts (which I have to admit, I rarely am, I just can't seem to get into them, it puzzles me greatly), I often listen to his Savage Lovecast. He's generally quite open about himself, his life and his experiences, so I already knew that he was married and that they had an adopted child. My BFF Lydia recommended this audio book to me when I visited her in the States in early October, and as my husband and I are trying to get me pregnant, I figured it could be pretty topical.

In this book, Dan relates what happened when he and his then boyfriend (now husband, as far as I'm aware) decided to adopt a child together, at a time and a place where gay adoption was not always a popular choice. They used an organisation which arranged open adoptions, which means that the adoptive parents and the birth mother keep in contact after the adoption and agree on a schedule in which the birth mother can visit her child, should she choose to do so. Dan and Terry were the first gay men to successfully adopt through the agency they used.

The book is divided into three parts, chronicling the couple's decision process, the application stage, the waiting period where they were wondering if they'd ever get picked, followed by the period in which they got to know the birth mother of their child, a street punk (a girl who is voluntarily homeless) from Portland..Due to her history of drinking and recreational drug experimentation before she realised she was pregnant, there were possibilities for complications with the baby, and Dan and Terry had to consider carefully whether they wanted to adopt this young woman's child.

Dan manages to be very honest and personal, without the reader feeling as if they now know everything about him and his family. He deals with serious issues, but intersperses it with humorous anecdotes. Savage wrote the book in 1999, and as I knew full well from reading his columns and listening to his podcasts that he has a kid, there was never any element of suspense or surprise as to whether he and Terry would be successful in their adoption. It was a very interesting book, well narrated by Savage himself. I must admit that hearing him talking about several of the straight couples they met when trying to adopt, who had mostly all tried to go through all manner of fertility treatments before settling on adoption, made me a bit more worried about my own future, considering I'm already experiencing difficulties with conceiving. As adoption is a very slow, time consuming, not to mention extremely costly process in Norway, it is sadly unlikely to ever be an option for my husband and I. So I'm just going to have to hope that we have luck either the natural way or somewhat assisted by science.

Based on this book, I would absolutely be interested in checking out more of Savage's written work. He is just as charming and interesting when narrating his own audio book as he is on his podcast (and he generally speaks more slowly).

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

#CBR6 Book 120: "The Season" by Sarah Maclean

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 2.5 stars

Lady Alexandra Stafford is the only daughter of some nobleman or other (I can't be bothered to go back and check what her exact rank is). She has several tall and attractive brothers who delight in teasing her and generally try their best not to have to accompany her to society events during her first Season. She also has two best friends, Ella and Vivi. They were fairly interchangeable. All three are opinionated, bookish, not really all that interested in marriage and have known each other most of their lives.

Alexandra, annoyingly called Alex a lot of the book, has a mother determined to match make her and her brothers. They need good matches, but especially Alexandra, who finds dress fittings, balls and dinner parties dreary. When her brothers' best friend Gavin, who came into the title of Earl of Blackmoor when his father died suddenly, is convinced that there is foul play afoot and starts investigating his death, Alexandra and her friends insist on helping out. Alexandra also discovers that Gavin looks mighty fine in formal wear, and maybe balls aren't quite so dull if she can dance with him. How has she never noticed how attractive he is? Could it be that she's not as opposed to romantic love and marriage as she thought?

I love Sarah Maclean. I rate most of her historical romances very highly and am waiting with bated breath for the release of the final book in her Rules for Scoundrels series at the end of November. This young adult Regency romance was her first book and the only one I had yet to read. I'm sorry to say that I found it almost painfully dull in places. I'm amazed that only a year after she published The Season, which has uninteresting or plain non-existent characterisation, an incredibly predictable plot, heavy-handed exposition and a deeply uninspiring romance, there was Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, the first volume in the Ralston trilogy, a book which seems as if it was written by a completely different person.

I can only assume that Maclean actually wrote The Season years before her other romances and spent some time honing her craft. I now consider her one of my very favourite historical romance writers and have re-read several of her books multiple times. This is not a book I will be re-reading. Frankly, it's a book I will try my very best to forget. I really wish I hadn't decided to be such a completist now. Still, having read this, her later romances are even more remarkable achievements. If this is what she started with, then I'm even more impressed with the skill she writes now.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 119: "Locke & Key, vol 2: Head Games" by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

Page count: 160 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This review may contain spoilers for the first volume in the series, so if you want to remain unspoiled, you may want to proceed carefully.

Following a shocking death that dredges up memories of their father's murder, Kinsey and Taylor are thrown into choppy emotional waters, and turn to their new friend, Zach Wells, little suspecting Zach's dark secret. Meanwhile, six-year-old Bode Locke tries to puzzle out the secret of the head key, and uncle Duncan is jarred into the past by a disturbingly familiar face. Open your mind - the head games are just getting started. 

Having finally settled at their new school, the eldest Locke kids are shaken when Mr. Ridgeway, the elderly drama teacher is found dead in his home. Mr. Ridgeway used to teach their father and uncle as well, and the kids have no idea that he was murdered by their new friend Zach, who needed to make sure Mr. Ridgeway didn't reveal that he was once a close friend of the Locke brothers when they were young. Also known as Dodge, the malevolent creature who was trapped down a well on the Keyhouse estate for decades, Zack now has the Anywhere key, that lets him travel in space, and open any door. He spends as much time as possible with the Locke kids, trying to find the elusive Omega key.

After the harrowing events when they first arrived in Lovecraft, Bode Locke is playing around with the new mysterious key he found. He discovers that with it you can open up the top of your head and access all your memories. You can easily remove your fears, literally, or memorise whole books by just inserting them into your head. Zack Wells is especially interested in the key. After all, if you can unlock people's heads and remove or rearrange their thoughts, there's no need to resort to murder to hide your tracks.

The plot continues to build in volume 2 of Joe Hill's effectively chilling horror comic. There are some amazing concepts explored with the various keys, and occasionally it would be very convenient to have a Head key to access your every thought and emotion. I love Gabriel Rodriguez' very expressive art, and as I have heard that the comic just keeps getting better, I suspect I will read it till the end, even if I find it creepy and unpleasant at times.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR6 Book 118: "Codename: Knockout. The Devil You Say" by Robert Rodi

Page count: 160 pages
Rating: 3 stars

After she and her gay BFF Go Go Fiasco are attacked by ninjas, Angela St. James discovers that her mother, the head of super secret spy agency G.O.O.D (Global Organization for the Obliteration of Dastardliness) has been keeping secret from her. Her father, who she believed was killed when she was little, is very much alive and is in fact the head of E.V.I.L (Extralegal Vendors of Iniquity and Licentiousness). Now both her parents are interested in recruiting her and Angela has to make a choice.

As a big fan of Modesty Blaise (both the books and the comics), this sounded like a fun read. My husband borrowed it from a friend and figured I'd think it was amusing. It does have a lot of things I find entertaining. Sexy super spies, gadgets, ridiculous rival organizations, exotic locations, dangerous missions, outrageous names and funny banter - this comic has it all. Angela St. James is a gorgeous bombshell and to explain why there has never been interested in her best friend and sidekick Go Go Fiasco, what better way than to make him gay? While living her jetset life, Angela discovers that everything she has believed about her parents is a lie, and now they both want her to become a valued agent of THEIR organization. I don't want to reveal which of the two groups she picks, not that it's a massive spoiler.

This trade paperback collects the first six issues of Codename: Knockout and it was a nice quick, if somewhat forgettable read. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem as if DC have collected the next issues of the comic, which makes me sad. I wouldn't mind reading the rest of the series, the writing is fun enough and the many different artists who portray Angela, Go Go and the other glamorous spies do a good job. Having to track down the rest of the series in individual issues is too much effort, however, so until it gets collected, I doubt I'll get to read any more.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

#CBR6 Book 117: "Jackaby" by William Ritter

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

 From the Goodreads synopsis, because it's been a month since I read it, and the blurb is part of what drew me in:

Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R.F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary - including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby's assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer on the loose. The police are convinced it's an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it's a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police - with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane - deny. 

Doctor Who meets Sherlock in William Ritter's debut novel which features a detective of the paranormal as seen through the eyes of his adventurous and intelligent assissant in a tale brimming with cheeky humour and a dose of the macabre. 

I can absolutely see why the publishers decided to mention both Doctor Who and Sherlock in an attempt to draw readers to this book, which I first saw mentioned by The Book Smugglers. The gorgeous cover and the interesting blurb made me curious, and I saved the book to read during October's 24-hour Readathon. I'm glad I did. I'm assuming the Doctor Who comparisons come from the fact that we see the story through the eyes of a clever young woman, like so many of the Doctor's companions through the years. Jackaby himself is clearly at least partly modelled on Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock, both in looks and mannerisms. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective is even name checked early in the book. Yet there is a supernatural twist to this Victorian mystery, involving a number of creatures from Gaelic mythology. There are ghosts, a man turned into a duck, a werewolf and some fairly gruesome murders.

Abigail Rook is a delightful narrator. Having run away from her family's expectations to join an archaeological dig (and finding it rather dull), she ends up on a ship to America. Trying to find a job, so she doesn't have to return home, she meets the eccentric and mysterious Jackaby, who's looking for a new assistant. He's not at all sure she is suited for the position, but after accompanying him to a crime scene and impressing him with her quick thinking and admirable common sense, a nice balance to his own off-beat thinking, he agrees to keep her on for a trial basis.

Having been granted room and board, Abigail discovers that Jackaby's landlady appears to be the ghost of the woman who once owned the house, one of his former assistants is now a duck who lives by a pond on the third floor and there are more things between heaven and earth than was dreamt of in her philosophy. As it becomes obvious that they're dealing with a dangerous serial killer, Ms. Rook grows closer to Charlie Cane, probably the only police detective in New Fiddleham who will give Jackaby the time of day.

I figured out the identity of the murderer fairly early on in the story, but it didn't detract from my enjoyment in the slightest, as the main thrust of the story doesn't really seem to be unmasking the killer, but just watching Abigail and Jackaby's partnership develop. I loved that there isn't even a hint of romance between the two of them, although there are romantic possibilities elsewhere in the story. I loved the faerie elements and the various supernatural entities that make up part of Jackaby's world. While Abigail can see some of them, she is in some ways the Scully to his Mulder, and there is nothing wrong with that. The story had a very nice build towards a very tense and dramatic conclusion, the world building is creative, the characters are lots of fun to spend time with. As this is Ritter's debut novel, I have no idea if he is planning any more books about the characters, but the ending is open enough that there are promising possibilities. I will happily spend more time with Ms. Abigail Rook and her strange boss.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read,

Monday 17 November 2014

#CBR6 Book 116: "X Marks the Scot" by Victoria Roberts

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 2 stars

It will come as no surprise to anyone who actually bothers to read my blog, or check out my Cannonball progress, that I read a LOT. So much so that, fingers crossed, while I severely doubt I will be able to complete the triple Cannonball this year (it nearly killed all my joy of reading last year), if I actually manage to complete my current backlog of reviews and keep going, I will at least have completed more than two and a half the requirement, which isn't shabby, by any means.

Because just competitively reading and blogging and collecting money for cancer charities as a nice bonus somehow wasn't enough, last year, inspired by one of my chief CBR competitors, Jen K (who sadly has not updated her blog since July), I started finding reading challenges. All sorts of reading challenges, to force myself to vary my reading material a bit and occasionally force me out of my comfort zone. One of the challenges I'm doing this year is Alphabet Soup, where you try to read one book starting with each letter of the alphabet (you're allowed to remove articles like a, an and the from the start of the book) and for Q, X and Z the word with the challenge letter can actually be anywhere in the title. But where's the fun in that? So this year, I decided to try to see if I could find books that ACTUALLY started with all the letters of the alphabet. No convenient shortcuts (we'll see what happens with Q and Z, the only two letters I now have left this year).

This long preamble is all to justify why I would ever have voluntarily read X Marks the Scot. The title is dumb enough that I might have been tempted, but the cover, with a bronzed, oiled Highlander * didn't exactly fill me with confidence. I read a lot of romance, though, and so when the universe saw fit to provide me with one starting with X (there are not a whole lot of books out there in ANY genre with titles starting with X), I pretty much had to give it a go.

* Seriously, have ANY of the cover designers for these things ever been to Scotland? Especially the Scottish Highlands - it is not a place to run around shirtless, and you would have to work pretty hard to get a tan. I used to live in Scotland, and I rarely in my six years there had to worry about getting sun burned.

So what is this glorious piece of fortuitous fiction about, you ask? Apparently the second book in the series awesomely titled Bad Boys of the Highlands, because OF COURSE it is, this book concerns the romance of Declan MacGregor and Lady Liadain Campbell. They clearly originally met in the first book, where there appears to have been some sort of kidnapping plot orchestrated by Liadain's evil half-brother (now executed for his crimes), where Liadain selflessly risked her life to save women and children from the MacGregor clan and at some point there was a rescue operation where Declan's dagger ended up against Liadain's throat. Don't you just love those 17th Century meet cutes? Now Liadain is a ward of King James (VI of Scotland, I of England) and the Campbell lands are her very tempting dowry. Declan keeps hanging around the court, allegedly to keep an eye on Liadain, and it's clear that they find each other very attractive even though they're clans were mortal enemies. Not that this stops Declan from sowing his wild oats all over the place and showing off his wicked archery skills. This bad boy of the Highlands has no plans of settling down.

Liadain was the healer of her family (because of course she was) and as she plies her healing trades, malicious tongues start whispering about witchcraft. Declan is worried about this and asks her to be more circumspect. Conveniently to the plot, Liadain's ex, one of the king's trusted advisers show up, and because he's also worried that Liadain may be accused of witchcraft, he cunningly orchestrates an archery competition where the Campbell lands are the prize. Of course Declan wins it. But oh noes! There's a catch. The only way to get the lands is by marrying the lady whose dowry it is. You don't really refuse to marry one of the king's wards, especially when it's extremely beneficial to you and your family and so Declan and Liadain are stuck with each other until death do them part.

Which may be sooner than they may have thought, as this book also happens to take place right around the time of the Gunpowder Plot, yup that one, with Guy Fawkes and "Remember, remember, the fifth of November". Oh yes. A number of noblemen plotting to assassinate King James, and for reasons that never became clear to me, although I think they may have involved gaining control of the Campbell lands, Declan is implicated as one of the chief conspirators (despite the fact that being very publicly back on route to his new estate in the Scottish Highlands should have been ample alibi for anyone). It's very dumb.

Suffice to say, this is not a great book. If it hadn't been such a perfect fit for my reading challenge, combined with the fact that I'm really rather stubborn and a book has to be either exceptionally awful or very long for me to abandon it, I probably wouldn't have finished it. I am quite certain that I'm not going to go out of my way to seek out any other books by Victoria Roberts. I am certainly not going to bother reading the other two books in the series. If you're curious, it's not an awful book, by any means, and I did get a kick of the way the Gunpowder plot was shoe-horned to add drama to the story. There is, however, so much GOOD romance out there. Why would you read sub-par stuff. Unless you too are doing an A to Z challenge. In that case, you're welcome - here is the book you need for X.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 9 November 2014

#CBR6 Book 115: "Anna Dressed in Blood" by Kendare Blake

Page count: 387 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This review contains minor spoilers for the book. Nothing big, but if you like to approach a book completely blank, you may want to skip this. 

Like his father before him, Cas Lowood travels around the country and lays restless and malevolent ghosts to rest. He and his Wiccan mother rarely stay in one place for too long, and Cas makes very sure not to get too attached to any of the locals, as he's just going to pack up and leave as soon as he's done hunting and killing the local ghost legend. With every ghost he lays to rest, Cas becomes more experienced. He hasn't told his mother (who would naturally freak out), but his ultimate goal is to track dow the spirit that murdered his father.

Now Cas is going to Thunder Bay in Ontario, to kill the murderous spirit the locals call Anna Dressed in Blood. Brutally murdered while on her way to a school dance in 1958, Anna Korlov haunts the boarding house where she used to live, wearing the blood soaked dress she died in. She has killed countless people, yet the locals always seem to find a rational explanation for why the dead people went missing. In Thunder Bay, Cas as per usual tries to stay detached and aloof, but before he can even get properly settled in, it seems he has made both new friends and jealous enemies. Carmel, the most popular girl in school (the best person to tell him all the pertinent gossip) turns out not just to be a bitchy queen bee, but actually very nice. Thomas, a geeky telepath with a witch grandfather insists on helping Cas, even when he strenuously denies needing any.

Of course, Mike, Carmel's jock ex-boyfriend is less enthusiastic about the new guy getting cozy with his girl and he and his friends trick Cas out to the haunted house where Anna is supposed to stay. The jocks want to lock Cas in the abandoned house as a joke, but their actions have terrible consequences. Cas survives, Mike is less fortunate. Why would Anna Dressed in Blood, who's supposedly killed more than seventeen teenagers, not to mention a slew of vagrants and homeless people, suddenly spare Cas' life? He can't understand it, and determines to get to the bottom of Anna's tragic death and the possible causes for her cursed afterlife.

My fellow Cannonballer scotsa1000 reviewed this about a month ago, and wasn't all that impressed. One of the criticisms was the bad-mouthing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I will agree, is a serious mark in Cas' disfavour. I was pleased to see that there are only two instances in the whole book where he thinks or says mean things with regards to my beloved Buffy and her Scoobies, and considering Cas is clearly a young Sammy Winchester clone who just happens to have a supportive mother with an awesome cat instead of a mostly absentee, highly irresponsible father or a brother he has the most destructive, co-dependent love-hate relationship ever, Cas should have been so lucky to be a Scoobie. There are absolutely elements of both Supernatural and Buffy in this, and I refuse to believe that Kendare Blake isn't perfectly aware of it.

I liked the book and found it very entertaining. It was an effective little horror story, and in parts really surprisingly gory. I keep being astonished at how much graphic violence there is in YA literature nowadays. I guess the tweens and teens of today are made of hardier stock than I was, because the things I read as a teenager did not have people being brutally ripped in half for trespassing. I liked Cas' mother, who seemed like sensible, if sometimes a little bit too accepting of her son's dangerous hobby. I liked the various teen characters and that both Carmel, Thomas and the jock dudes who give Cas the stink eye have more facets than just prom queen, geek and popular guy. Cas wants so badly to stay a detached loner, but he clearly also desperately needs friends his own age. It's good for you, dude. Look at how the Winchester brothers turned out, you don't want to go down that sad, lonesome road.

What I didn't like, was the romantic storyline that felt just tacked onto the story. I honestly have no idea where the attraction between Anna and Cas came from and it seemed forced and detracted from the story rather than add to it. I don't see why just feeling sympathy with Anna couldn't have spurred Cas to help her. This book ends on a cliff hanger, and I suspect I will read the sequel at some point, if nothing else to see how Cas, Carmel and Thomas turn out. As far as I'm aware, there aren't going to be more than two books in the series, and that's unusual enough for YA these days. I should probably support an author who knows not to drag things out unnecessarily.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 114: "The Wicked Wallflower" by Maya Rodale

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

One evening, when Lady Emma Avery, popularly known in the ton as "London's Least Likely to Misbehave" is getting drunk with her two best friends (who are also wallflowers who will be meeting their intended husbands in later books). While she isn't noticed by most of polite society, Emma does have a young man whom she dreams of a future with, but after three years, he's still not shown any signs of proposing to her. Her friends joke about how she might get more attention if she announced her betrothal to the most eligible bachelor in town, the Duke of Ashbrooke, and even pen a fake announcement.

Emma is appalled when she realises the fake announcement has been printed and everyone suddenly thinks she's snagged the Duke of Ashbrooke without anyone even noticing. Ashbrooke himself is rather amused to find he's engaged to a woman he's never met, but considering his business ventures are currently suffering because of his reputation as a rake and a libertine, being romantically linked with one of the most proper and respectable misses in London can only count in his favour. He also has an eccentric old aunt who every year forces all her relatives to compete in a series of random and unpredictable trials at her country seat. The winner becomes the heir to her fantabulous fortune for until the next trials are completed. Ashbrooke has never won, but very much needs the money to finance his new inventions and believes that bringing Lady Emma along may improve his chances. He therefore convinces Emma to agree to pose as his fiancee, promising to split the fortune with her if they win this year's trials. As Emma doesn't really have any dowry to speak of, and believes that may be why her reluctant suitor is still undeclared, the promise of a massive fortune (as well as the chance to spend some time with the ridiculously attractive Ashbrooke) gets her to agree.

Ashbrooke is used to any woman falling for him within minutes and turns on all of his considerable charm to win Emma over. She keeps her beloved Benedict firmly in her mind and while she's melting on the inside, refuses to show Ashbrooke how he affects her. Naturally this just makes him more determined to seduce her. As they are forced to fake their infatuation, spend copious amounts of time together and even write fake love letters to one another to support the story of their secret whirlwind love affair, Emma's feelings for Ashbrooke grow stronger, while she's also worried that the minute she succumbs to him, he'll get bored and dump her.

What I like about the book is the portrayal of female friendships. Emma and her friends have a realistic relationship, and I also actually liked Emma's Mean Girl nemesis. You rarely see women in romance actually getting together and getting drunk, or even spending all that much time together except as rivals for the same guy. Sadly, most of the book is focused on Emma and Blake and the many zany things they have to do to amuse his cranky old aunt, but I appreciated their presence in the beginning of the book. I liked Blake's relationship with his aunt and how they would say really mean things to each other to mask their true emotions. Blake was orphaned at an early age and his aunt was one of the few people who gave him emotional support without coddling him. While there was absolutely a slightly mercenary aspect to him competing for her money, the reader is never in doubt that he loves her, and part of the reason he even travels to the competition is to spend more time with his ailing aunt.

As the inimitable Mrs. Julien has already pointed out, this book passes the time agreeably enough, but doesn't have many of the qualities that make the story memorable or really great. It's not a bad book, but I read it about a month ago now, and I'm struggling to remember all the details. While I'm less bothered about anachronistic details than my partner in romance reviewing is, there was nothing here that made me want to run out and track down more books in the series. Of course, before reading this, I actually bought the sequel in an e-book sale, so Rodale is guaranteed at least one more review from me, but she's going to have to raise the stakes if she wants to graduate to my auto-buy list.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 8 November 2014

#CBR6 Book 113: "Kiss of Steel" by Bec McMaster

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 4 stars

In an alternate history Victorian London with Steampunk gadgets, werewolves, a ruling nobility known as the Echelon, where the men are all enhanced with vampire blood, Miss Honoria Todd (who certainly doesn't in any way dress or appear anything like the burlesque streetwalker on the cover of the book) has been forced to move to the Rookeries of Whitechapel after the death of her father. She is working as an elocution coach under an assumed name to support her younger sister (who also takes in mending) and ailing brother, and they are all hiding from the rich, powerful and very dangerous former protector of her father's, who wants Honoria for a number of nefarious purposes. They are barely making ends meet, and when Honoria's brother takes a turn for the worse and Honoria loses her job, she has no choice but to turn to Blade, the master of the Rookeries, for help.

Normally only the members of the Echelon and their chosen servants are allowed the blue blood that gives enhanced abilities, speed, strength and an extended lifespan, but Blade survived the experiments of a nobleman and escaped into the Rookeries, where he and his men rule with an iron fist, challenging the authority of the ruling lords. He desperately wants revenge on the corrupt duke ruined his life and when he discovers that Honoria and her siblings are hiding from the same man, he extends his protection to the little Todd family. Doesn't hurt that he's instantly drawn to the prim, yet fiery Honoria, determined to make her his.

It shouldn't surprise me that books with absolutely prepostrous covers in the paranormal fantasy/romance genre can contain entertaining and well-written stories. I've seen Bec McMaster's book mentioned on a number of "If you like books by X, you'll probably enjoy..." lists, but always avoided it because of the horrible cover. In October, it was the alt book in Vaginal Fantasy Hangout and I decided to finally give it a chance. I'm glad that I did. The world building is clever and I like both the alternate history Steampunk twist and the variation on vampires and werewolves here. Apparently all the men of Echelon, the ruling families of England, are given the blood of vampires when they turn sixteen, to give them enhanced abilities and skills. They have thralls - servants, retainers, even highly cherished mistresses that they drink blood from (and who frequently get a sexual thrill from donating the blood) and are carefully monitored at all times to make sure they don't turn all the way into out of control crazed vampires.

Honoria's father was a doctor and a scientist, apparently working on a cure for the vampirism, but died before he had a chance to perfect it. The duke who was his patron wasn't above medical experiments, which early on resulted in Blade getting turned and in his initial blood craze killing his own sister. So he's pretty motivated for revenge. Honoria and her siblings were also given the "vaccine", but her brother seems to have reacted badly to it, and is slowly turning into a vampire, something Honoria is trying desperately to prevent. She is terrified of Blade, but even more scared of the duke hunting them and realises that she had to get help somewhere, even if it means surrendering as a blood thrall to the master of the Rookeries.

The characters are all interesting, and it's quite clear that McMaster is setting up a number of story lines for later books. I liked both Honoria and Blade and their romance builds gradually, even though they're attracted to one another from the start. I also liked Blade's werewolf lieutenant (who is the hero of the second book) and some of the more sympathetic Echelon lords portrayed in the book. I was especially taken with the one ruling lady who was turned by her father in general violation of the wishes of polite society, and some poking about online reveals that she's the heroine of the fifth and final book in the series. Having now tried the books, I will most likely read the full set and I really must try to remember that a dreadful paranormal romance cover doesn't always reflect the quality of the contents inside.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR6 Book 112: "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley

Page count: 269 pages
Audio book length: 8 hrs 35 min
Rating: 3 stars

I refuse to spoilertag anything in this review, because people, this book is nearly 200 years old. You've had ample time to read this book, if anything in my review spoils it for you, on your own head be it. 

 Captain Robert Walton writes letters to his sister Margaret, recounting his journey to the North Pole in a quest for scientific fame. He writes of the strange and charismatic man they rescue in the wilderness, a Victor Frankenstein. Through Walton's letters, we also get Frankenstein's tale of terrible hubris, as well as the story within the story of the creature Frankenstein in his arrogance created and abandoned to ultimately wreak havoc.

The son of a rich and loving parents, Victor Frankenstein is able to pursue his dreams as a student of science and natural philosophy. He goes to Ingolstadt in Germany and becomes obsessed with the idea of reanimating dead matter. He labours for years with his theories and eventually creates a disfigured giant cobbled together of all sort of scavenged corpses and manages to infuse the creature with life. He's so horrified by its yellow skin and ghastly visage that he runs away from the flat where he conducted his experiments and promptly has a nervous breakdown.

Being a scientific genius doesn't go so well for Victor Frankenstein. The creature he created and then ran away from is a sentient being, not all too pleased that its creator made it into such a terrifying monster. The creature longs for companionship and friendship, but has been met with only shrieks of terror and rejection whereever it goes. Victor meets the creature again, after becoming convinced it murdered his younger brother and allowed an innocent woman to hang for the crime (he's not wrong). The monster has taught himself to speak and reason and rails at his creator for basically giving him life he never asked for and then abanoning him to a life of loneliness and despair. He demands that Victor make him a companion, as he, like all living creatures is entitled to a mate and happiness.

Victor goes off into the wilds of Scotland to create a bride for the monster, but is so plagued by guilt because of the actions of his first creation that he cannot go through with it. He destroys the female he was making, causing the creature to appear and swear his vengeance. Suffice to say, things don't go well for Frankenstein, or most of his extended family and he eventually ends up nearly frozen to death in the Arctic telling his story to an explorer.

Frankenstein was not what I expected, mainly because most of my impressions come from pop culture references and my knowledge of movies (none of which I've actually seen). I was pretty sure there wasn't going to be a a mob with pitchforks trying to kill anyone, or a hunchbacked servant with a lisp or Victor Frankenstein triumphantly exclaiming: "It's alive!" but I wasn't expecting to feel so much sympathy with the creature, who really is dealt a very shitty hand. It goes on quite the murderous rampage throughout the book, which isn't exactly a nice thing to do, but I feel that Victor bears at least half, if not more of the blame, as he is the one who imbued a freakish patchwork of corpseparts with life and then ran away, forcing the creature to fend for itself. If you're an awful and neglectful parent, you don't get to turn around and be upset when your child turns out less than stellar in the morals department.

While I didn't exactly love the book, it was very interesting to me, and I am in awe of young Mary Shelley who started the book when she was 18. On a dare. Really, that girl was wicked talented. Her Frankenstein is so much more of a lasting classic than the poetry of her then much more famous husband and still inspires people today. One of the reasons I wanted to read the book was so that I could finally start watching Frankenstein, M.D, from the creators of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved. I love getting my classics retold in YouTube video form, it seems. I wasn't expecting such a sophisticated book. The story within a story within a story narrative, the philosophical and moral quandries that are discussed throughout the the book, the genuine horror of the situation - girl is a genius. The book is frequently described as the first science fiction novel, and it's certainly a very good creaping horror story. Having read up on her on Wikipedia before writing this review, I also had no idea just how awesome a lady Mary Shelley seems to have been, and how scandalous her relationship with Percy Shelley actually was.

I will leave you with this webcomic by the extremely talented Kate Beaton:

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.