Thursday 31 December 2015

#CBR7 Book 156: "The Rogue Not Taken" by Sarah MacLean

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lady Sophie Talbot is the youngest daughter of a coal miner who it's rumoured won his Earldom in a card game with the Prince Regent. Sophie was quite happy growing up in a little village in Cumbria, dreaming of marrying the baker's boy and one day running her own bookshop. Moving to London and becoming part of the ton was never her dream, and unlike her sisters, who seem to clamber to outdo each other with regards to being seen and being scandalous, she'd rather stay in the background and read. While she hates that the gossip papers have dubbed them all "the soiled S's" (all their names start with S) and the way they speculate about how her eldest sister landed a duke, she's also fiercely loyal to her family and when she finds her ducal brother-in-law in a compromising situation with a woman most certainly not her pregnant sister, she loses her temper and shoves him in a fish pond. In front of everyone in polite society. Lady Sophie, the quiet one, just caused the biggest scandal of the season.

Wanting to get away as quickly as possible, she tries to persuade the scoundrelly Marquess of Eversley, popularly known as "King" to let her ride along in his carriage back to the city. She believes she may be able to blackmail him, as she caught him climbing out a window and holds his boot hostage, but he just abandons it and her, rushing away. Desperate to be gone, Sophie instead bribes his footman into giving her his livery and stows away on his carriage, only to realise far too late that it's not going back to London, it's going north. Eversley has recieved news that his father may be at death's door and cannot resist a final chance to tell his father he is never getting married and fathering heirs.

Strangely, despite being in ill-fitting livery, barely anyone but King actually recognises that Sophie isn't a boy, despite the fact that she's still wearing silk slippers (the footman's boots didn't fit). He's convinced she's trying to snare herself a husband by being caught in a compromising position with him, but she denies this vehemently and does her best to get far away from him as quickly as possible. Using undeniable cleverness to best Eversley, she manages to get coach fare north, she's decided to go back to her home village of Mossband to realise her dreams, never to return to the capital. But the coach is stopped by highwaymen, Sophie throws herself in front of a pistol shot to rescue a young urchin, and despite telling himself repeatedly that he wants nothing to do with Sophie Talbot, King has to go searching for a doctor so he's not left with a dead earl's daughter on his hands.

Sophie and King (the reveal of his real name is excellent) pretty much loathe each other at first sight. He believes her to be a title-hunting social climber, she thinks he embodies all the things she hates most about the aristocracy. He can seduce soon to be married women and escape half-dressed out a window without anyone raising so much as an eyebrow while she was publically shunned for trying to defend her sister's honour. He's rich, handsome, arrogant and keeps saying exactly the wrong thing, sometimes directly insulting Sophie, but much of the time doing so without even meaning to. They both keep trying to remind themselves how annoying they find the other person, as they are clearly extremely attracted to one another.

In many ways, this book reminded me of A Week to Be Wicked, probably my favourite Tessa Dare novels, and one of my favourite romances ever. There's a road trip element, there is a lot of spirited banter, the couple have sizzling chemistry and they keep having mishap after mishap, while stuck on the road together. Both the heroes are uncomfortable travelling in small, dark, enclosed coaches. Both the heroines are highly intelligent, bookish, overlooked by everone and clearly super awesome. This book has daddy issues, gunshot wounds, occasional plot moppets (who were mostly sweet rather than annoying), assumed names, a pretend engagement, some pretty sexy times in both a carriage and a hedge maze, allusions to Greek mythology and hero, who while incredibly skilled at putting his foot in his mouth, eventually fully acknowledges what a first class idiot he's been and grovels very satisfyingly. He's not wrong about Sophie being far too good for him, but he shows signs of improvement towards the end and he's certainly not selfish in the bedroom department, which is an definite plus in a romance hero.

At least until I re-read One Good Earl Deserves a Lover, this is among my favourite Sarah Macleans and Sophie is certainly one of my favourite heroines. I do have niggles about the plot (King could have been slightly less insulting all the time, the conflict with his father could have been very easily solved if they actually just had a CONVERSATION), but they are not enough to ruin the happy glow of such a fun romance. After the most recent Milan was a let-down, I'm glad that I got to end the year on such a high note, making this the book that completed my triple Cannonball.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 155: "Girl Genius, vol 1: Agatha Heterodyne and the Beetleburg Clank" by Phil & Kaja Foglio

Page count: 96 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Agatha Clay (although I'm going to assume that this is an assumed name, since she has another one in the TITLE of the book) is one of those diligent students, who no matter how much she wants to suceed just can't seem to. She's almost constantly late, she can't really seem to make her inventions work and she's a laughing stock at the Transylvania Polygnostic University. To make matters work, during a weird electrical incident in town, she's robbed and her precious locket, with the only pictures she has of her parents is stolen. A locket pretty much anyone in authority over her is appalled is missing.

When the clearly powerful Baron Wulfenbach arrives at the University to inspect their progress, it turns out the headmaster, Beetle, may have been conducting unlicenced experiments and there's somewhat of a change in power. Agatha is expelled from the university and explains everything about her bad day to her guardians, who announce that they need to pack everything and leave town as soon as possible when they hear the news that Wulfenbach is in town, and Agatha's lost her locket. Her uncle, who left to go adventuring and has been gone for eleven years was very clear on the fact that she should never take it off. Likely because it acts as some sort of dampener of Agatha's inherent "spark", which only the greatest of scientists seem to have. Wulfenbach's son and heir suspect she may be more than she appears.

Girl Genius is a Steampunk YA adventure series, that can be read online, but a few years back, I picked up the first volume mainly on the strong recommendation of Patrick Rothfuss. I then put it on my shelf and promptly forgot about it, but needed a twelfth comic to complete my last reading challenge this year, and it seemed like a good time to finally read it. It's difficult to ascertain much about the characters from the short volume I just read, but I'm sure it can't hurt for young women to have a scientifically minded young heroine to cheer for, even if she does seem to have been given clumsiness and tardiness as her chief characteristics so far. I'm not entirly sure yet whether Wulfenbach is an antagonist or potential ally and I suppose his son could be a love interest of some sort. At least he seems clever, which is a good quality to aim for in a partner.

As the first volume barely starts the story, with some of the plot and action being quite confusing, it wasn't exactly the best reading experience I've had this year, but the comic has potential and I like that I can make up my mind about whether I like more or not by reading it for free online, and then buy the volumes afterwards if I decide I want to support the authors. At least I got another book knocked off my already scarily big TBR shelf.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 154: "Sex Criminals, vol 1: One Weird Trick" by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Page count: 128 pages
Rating: 4 stars

What did I just read? This comic certainly is completely different from anything I've experienced before. So the first time Suzie masturbates and orgasms, it literally makes time freeze. She's not sure if it's like that for everyone and having no one to ask, and limited resources to figure things out, she's a bit lost. Then she meets Jon at a party and is surprised to discover that it's exactly the same for him. They've always believed themselves to be alone, and now, when they've found each other, they become a bit addicted to exploring the range of their "powers".

The library where Suzie works is being closed down by the bank and Jon suggests that they use their unusual ability to stop time and rob banks. Just small amounts every time, slowly getting enough to save the library. Suzie's reluctant at first, but sadness and desperation to save her beloved library makes her change her mind. Only, Suzie and Jon aren't the only ones with unusual power, their activities have been noticed and there are people close on their tail.

While the book starts on a quite depressing beat, with Suzie explaining how her father was killed and her childhood wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs, most of the comic is actually very funny. Filthy and NSFW and probably not for kids, but laugh out loud funny and creative, with a rather unique concept and very likable characters. Volume 1 collects the first five issues, where we are introduced to Suzie and Jon and learn how they both came to discover their strange superpowers. Being a huge fan and frequenter of libraries and a passionate book lover, I can't really fault Jon's plan of robbing banks to prevent the closure of one. And his job at the bank does indeed seem pretty sucky, even if I don't exactly agree with some of his coping strategies.

Issue 5 ends at a pretty dramatic point and I'm very eager to get the next volume and see what happens next. My husband and everyone else who's recommended this comic were absolutely correct. Matt Fraction's writing is hilarious and Chip Zdarsky's art fits perfectly. I will be reading more of this in the coming year.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 153: "Daredevil: Born Again" by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli

Page count: 176 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Like so many others, I was a huge fan of the first season of the Netflix series Daredevil. I decided that the time had come to look at some source material. 

In what could easily become season three of the series, Karen Page, Matt Murdock's former legal secretary and ex-girlfriend is down on her luck in Mexico. After a failed porn career, she's now a heroin junkie and she sells Matt's secret identity as Daredevil for her next fix. The name falls into criminal mastermind Kingpin's hands and over the course of six months, he sets out to completely destroy Murdock's life. His rent and utility bills turn out not to have been paid for months, his girlfriend Glori breaks up with him because he never has time for her anymore, he's accused of criminal misconduct and faces a grand jury trial. While the diligent efforts of his best friend Foggy keep him out of prison, he loses the right to practise law. As more and more things go horribly wrong, the more Matt's paranoia plays up and his mind slowly unravels. When Glori moves in with Foggy after her apartment's been trashed (Matt doesn't know that part), he's convinced even his best friend and his girl are against him. Only when his home is blown up, does he figure out that Kingpin's behind everything. All this - the first issue, guys.

Matt vows revenge, but is in a pretty bad state. He tries to kill Kingpin and fails miserably. He ends up in the East River, left for dead, framed for even more crimes he didn't commit. Matt, however, is tough and doesn't die. There is no corpse found, and Kingpin starts to worry. Afraid for her life because she's now hunted by Kingpin's assassins and feeling dreadful about betraying Matt, Karen laboriously makes her way back to New York City. Foggy and Glori grow closer, worried about the whereabouts, sanity and safety of Matt. Reporter Ben Urich works to clear Murdock's name and is nearly scared silent by the terrible reach of the Kingpin. Once again, the crime lord overplays his hand and loses control of the situation.

There is so much plot and action packed into the seven issues collected in Born Again, so much darkness, grimness, violence and pain. Frank Miller returned for a guest run in the middle of the standard Daredevil run, took all the toys out of the metaphorical toy box and didn't so much put them back where they were when he started, as blow up the entire box and leave the toys scattered and broken all over the place. I don't envy whomever was left to follow his limited guest run. It's not exactly easy comfort reading, but it's undeniably very good and there's no wonder this is one of the definitive Daredevil stories. Frank Miller was a heck of a writer before he went completely cray cray. I really wish his frequent misogyny hadn't reared its ugly head with the treatment of Karen Page. Not really surprised, because I've read Miller comics before, but I wish the character hadn't been degraded to the degree she is. Matt's current squeeze, who dumps him at the start of the story seems to move on to Foggy real quick as well, which I'm sure Miller just feels is illustrative of the fickleness of women.

Published in the late 1980s, the art by David Mazzucchelli (who also worked with Miller on the seminal Batman: Year One), isn't entirely to my taste and the colouring especially is quite dated. Having fallen so completely for Charlie Cox' portrayal of Matt Murdock in the Netflix series, I just couldn't reconcile myself with Matt being ginger here.

I'd love to see some of this play out in the TV show's later seasons (although there would have to be some changes, considering choices they've already made). The action packed climax would be especially interesting and opens for the intriguing possibility of cross-over with the cinematic universe that would be spectacular. Alas, I doubt that bit'll ever happen.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 152: "Longbourn" by Jo Baker

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Quick question - can you give me the name of a single servant in Pride and Prejudice? Despite having read the book multiple times and having just finished the audio version of the book, I certainly couldn't do it. Jo Baker has taken the classic novel and imagined what the lives of the invisible people behind the scenes, so to speak. The very essential people who wash the mud out of Lizzie's petticoats after she's been walking the countryside, who help the Bennett sisters do their hair, make the beds, empty the chamber pots, sweep the floors, cook the food, tend the horses, open the doors, run errands no matter the state of the weather, carry messages back and forth and make life so much easier for the main cast of Pride and Prejudice.

There's the housekeeper, Mrs. Hill; her husband, the butler; the maids Sarah and Mary (who because the middle daughter of the family is also a Mary is forever called Polly instead). There's also the mysterious and newly hired footman, James. Their lives' work is to make things as comfortable and effortless for the family they serve, but they have hopes and dreams and pasts of their own. Sarah, orphaned at an early age and taken into the household after a stay in the poor house, especially dreams of travelling and seeing the country, not content to be a servant her entire life. She's suspicious of James, the ruffian who showed up from nowhere and was suddenly hired on as a footman. All the other servants seem to adore him, and Mrs. Hill dotes on him, but Sarah's sure he's lying about his past and is determined to figure out what he's hiding. Both James and Mrs. Hill are concerned when Sarah seems to form an attachment with one of Mr. Bingley's handsome and exotically dark-skinned footmen.

The servants, like everyone else, hope the elder Bennett sisters will make good matches, and worry when Lizzie spurns Mr. Collins, who after all will be their new master at some point in the future. They all think it would have been easier if he married a Bennett daughter, but can see he should have set his sights on Miss Mary, who was a much more suitable match for him.

While the Bennett women and all their acquaintances seem charmed by the dashing Mr. Wickham, the servants are not so easily fooled by his looks and easy charm. They recognise a predator when they see one and when he shows a very worrying interest in little Polly, James forgets all his hard-earned instincts to keep his head down and steps in to protect her. Wickham shows just how dangerous he can be and causes great upheaval in the household. Both Sarah and Mrs. Hill are shattered by the aftermath.

The book is divided into three parts, and the third part is the one that's the most removed from the main plot of the source novel. In this part we discover more of Mrs. Hill's past, her connection to James the footman and why he wished to keep his past hidden from everyone. It offered a perspective on the Regency period you certainly don't see in the romance novels, not just because it concerns the lives of the working classes, but because it's easy to forget when reading about balls and dresses and courting that the Napoleonic wars were also raging at the time. While so many romances are populated by officers back AFTER the Napoleonic wars, with varying degrees of PTSD, they rarely show any of the realities of the actual fighting, and certainly not what it would have been like for the foot soldiers. Longbourn, however, doesn't shy away from such unpleasantness.

This book is a very interesting take on what I think of as "literary fan fiction". I really liked the different interpretations of the already known characters from the beloved novel, as well as a fascinating look at all those servants who get completely forgotten about, but were oh so necessary for the wheels of society to turn. At first, I was worried I'd find the book boring, but I pretty much raced through it, just as invested in the lower born protagonists that I was reading about Lizzie and her sisters finding love.

I'm not entirely sure I liked some of the choices Baker made in the book, however, and wish that Mrs. Hill's past could have been handled differently. I did like that Baker continued the story past the pages of the original, with glimpses of Lizzie's life as Mrs. Darcy and showed what life might be like for a maid at Pemberley. I can't really fault Sarah for the choices she eventually made, although I doubt I would have chosen the same if I were in her situation. There have been several very favourable Cannonball reviews of this in the past, I'm glad I finally got round to reading it.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 151: "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen

Page count: 334 pages
Audio book length: 11 hrs 35 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Is there anyone, from barely discovered tribes in the South American rainforests, to nomadic tribes on the Mongolian steppes, who doesn't actually know the gist of the plot of this book? Just in case there are any people who have lived in a barren cave their entire life, I will attempt to summarise it the major plot beats.

Jane and Lizzie are the two eldest, prettiest and most sensible of the five Bennett sisters. Their mother is a silly and easily upset woman who wants nothing more than to see her daughters happily married. Their father would seem to mainly want to be left alone with his books (a household full of women, I can symphatize). There's also the stuffy Mary, and the boy-crazy youngest sisters, Kitty and Lydia. A rich and handsome young gentleman, Mr Bingley, moves to the area, and Mrs. Bennett is determined that he will fall in love with one of her girls. After he meets Jane, that seems very likely to happen, but after some promising encounters, the majority of the Bennett family make a dreadful spectacle of themselves at a ball and before anyone is even cured of their hangover, Bingley's two spiteful and snobbish sisters and haughty and supercilious friend, Mr. Darcy have convinced him that he imagined Jane's affection and persuaded him to return to London. Lizzie's none too surprised as she pretty much loathed Darcy at first sight.

Meanwhile Lizzie upsets her mother by refusing the proposal of the family's distant cousin, Mr Collins, who will one day inherit their house. He marries her spinster friend Charlotte Lucas instead. After some months of getting used to her friend choosing security and a home of her own at the price of being married to someone quite ridiculous, Lizzie comes to accept her friend's choice and goes to visit her at her new home. Here she runs into Mr. Darcy again and over the course of her six week long visit, she sees him quite a few times. She likes his cousin quite a bit, but is shocked speechless when Mr. Darcy proposes marriage towards the end of her stay there. He confesses that he does so against his better judgement and that he thinks her family are beneath him, but he loves her enough to overlook their difference in station. Lizzie, having recently discovered the truth behind his spiriting away Bingley and breaking Jane's heart, as well as believing Darcy financially ruined a childhood friend, wastes no time telling the man exactly how appalled she is and tells him to stuff his proposal. He's offended, but writes her a comprehensive letter explaining his side of the story with regards to the accusations she flings at him, and once Lizzie calms down sufficiently, she starts to wonder if she's owes the man an apology.

Six months later, when travelling in Derbyshire with her aunt and uncle, Lizzie meets Mr. Darcy again, here at his magnificent estate, Pemberley. He's like a changed man, amiable, generous to a fault, complimentary and insisting he wants to introduce Lizzie and her relatives to his younger sister. Having had time to think and consider everything she learned in the letter carefully, Lizzie's heart is already more receptive towards Darcy when a terrible scandal is revealed, involving the youngest Bennett sister. Any happiness with the proper and respectable Darcy seems sure to be doomed - just as Lizzie was considering telling him her feelings had changed.

I've read Pride and Prejudice countless times, first in Norwegian, later in English. I fondly remember waiting eagerly along with my mother for every new episode of the 1995 mini series, that for a very long time type cast Colin Firth as the romantic lead in all sorts of things, as he was the perfect Mr. Darcy. When I don't have time to watch the six hour mini series, the 2005 movie version starring Kiera Knightley and Matthew McFadyen will do nicely as well. I adored the modernised YouTube version made around the book's 200th anniversary, and the spin off book resulting from it. I still return to the original every few years though and each time I rediscover little bits that I'd forgotten in Ms. Austen's brilliant romance, which as well as having several satisfying happy endings, is a very clever social satire, using the eternally unmarried parson's daughter's observations of the people around her and the situations of ladies very much in her social sphere. While Austen has written many memorable book, this was the first of hers I read and it remains my absolute favourite.

The new Audible audio version, narrated by Rosamund Pike, who played Jane in the 2005 movie version, is excellent. Ms. Pike has a lovely voice and manages to differentiate between the huge cast of characters with pretty distinctive voices for everyone, mostly to great success. It was a perfectly soothing and comforting listen in the hustle and bustle of the pre-Chistmas weeks. All the characters are so familiar to me, and having the book to listen to while running errands and trying to finish the last of the shopping made several stressful tasks go easier. If you've never allowed yourself the pleasure of reading Pride and Prejudice, you should consider the audio version for an extra treat. If you already know and love the book, get the audio, as I can't imagine a version that could be better.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 27 December 2015

#CBR7 Book 150: "The Princess and the Pony" by Kate Beaton

Page count: 40 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Princess Pinecone wants to be a warrior and get cool trophies or weapons, but instead she tends to get big fuzzy sweaters. For her birthday this year, what she wants the more than anything is a horse. A big, brave, strong horse. A warrior horse, fit for the warrior princess that she is. Her parents really do try, but instead, she gets a pony. A little round, yellow pony who likes to eat pretty much everything and fart a lot.

Princess Pinecone valiantly tries to train her pony and make it suitable for warfare. When the next big battle comes around, she's pretty sure they'll at least be able to make a decent effort. Pinecone and her pony wait patiently as the other warriors rage, but for quite a while they're completely unnoticed. Then everything changes and Princess Pinecone and the pony alter the course of the entire battle.

The fat little pony has been a recurring character in Kate Beaton's comics for years, showing up in both historical and more contemporary strips. I was delighted to discover that not only is the pony now co-star of its very own book, but that you can buy your very own Fat Pony Plush. It appears to be currently out of stock, but I am seriously considering buying myself one with some of the Christmas money I got.

This is a very sweet and funny children's book with Ms. Beaton's trademark illustrations in colour. It's not a very long book and probably aimed at quite young children. I can already think of several parents I want to gift this to, so they can read it to their kids. I actually think that it could have been a tiny bit longer and had a bit more substance and plot. You don't need to underestimate the patience of even a very young audience. Alas, it was not to be. I hope Ms. Beaton will instead write a whole series with the continuing adventures of Princess Pinecone and her fat little pony.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 26 December 2015

#CBR7 Book 149: "The Game Plan" by Kristen Callihan

Page count: 323 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Once again I want to thank the lovely Mrs. Julien, whose generous gift of an Amazon voucher made it possible for me to buy this book. 

NFL player Ethan "Dex" Dexter is known to his friends and team mates as "the Wise One". He's quiet, observant, focused on his career and not really concerned with dating, or really all that bothered about the fact that he's still a virgin at 24. The only woman he's interested in is the bubbly and vivacious Fiona Mackenzie, sister-in-law to his best friend, who's been very vocal in the past about how she doesn't do long distance relationships or has any interest in athletes. Yet when they both find themselves visiting Grey and Ivy at the same time, he can't help himself. Alone in a club one night, desperate for her to really see him, he dares her to touch his beard, and suddenly they can barely keep their hands, or lips, off each other.

Fiona grew up with a father who started as a professional athlete and then became a sports agent. He travelled a lot in his work and slept around a whole lot while doing it. Her parents' marriage broke up as a result. She's also known as the family flake, who can never really settle down for long with anything, always changing her mind or focus. Having recently secured what she believed would be her dream job in a design firm in New York, she wants to prove to both herself and her family that she can stick with something. She's struggling with a co-worker who keeps copying her designs and trying to steal her thunder, but with her sister just having had a baby, she's allowed herself a short vacation in San Francisco. She's none to pleased to see Dex, her brother-in-law's best friend, show up in the club she's at, "baby sitting", but is surprised how affected she is by his presence.

Dex is a veritable mountain of muscle, with long hair, a thick beard and tattoos all over his arms. He's nothing like the guys Fiona tends to go for, but with his quiet intensity focused entirely on her, she can't look away. When he dares her to touch his beard, she can't help but move in to kiss him and discovers that the silent giant she barely even noticed in the past is absolutely crazy about her. He lives in New Orleans, she lives in New York. She's just starting her promising design career, he's a top player in the NFL. A long distance relationship is their only option if they want more than a brief fling, and after just a few days together in San Francisco, it's obvious to both that that's not a satisfying option.

I've really liked the first two of Kristen Callihan's Game On books, a New Adult series starting when the characters were still in college. This book takes place a few years after the first two, with the characters older and a bit more settled, but still starting out in life. For the most part, I think Callihan's writing and plotting has improved with each book, but my absolute favourite is probably still The Friend Zone, which worked for me on every level. Seeing the couple from that be supporting characters struggling to get used to a new baby was fun and I loved their reactions to Dex' baby whispering techniques.

Dex, for all that he is nothing like the men I tend to find attractive in real life (I go more for the tall, pale and gangly - like Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston, or my husband). I don't really like tattoos or piercings, I think man buns are ridiculous and big, burly lugs just don't really appeal that much to me. He may still be my favourite Callihan hero so far, though. Though he's lusted after Fiona for years, he's never really let on and he's never once crossed into creepy stalker territory, keeping his interest firmly in the fantasy realm. Being a popular athlete, there's no lack of women who throw themselves his way, but Ethan, who remembers being chubby growing up and completely ignored by girl and later women until he became famous, isn't interested in just some shallow hook up. The one time he got drunk and gave into peer pressure, things didn't go well and he's decided that if he can't have Fiona, he doesn't want anyone. During their previous encounters, she hasn't really shown any interest in him, but when they meet again in San Francisco, after a brief moment where she has trouble placing him, the chemistry between them is palpable. Hence he dares to hope that maybe his feelings might become requited and he makes his move.

I liked that with Fiona being very outgoing, impulsive, loquacious and forward, while Ethan was normally the quiet, retiring, contemplative and restrained, they complimented each other nicely. Fi becomes calmer and more grounded around Ethan and he becomes more talkative and takes control in his interactions with her. He understands her fears and her misgivings and tries to give her the space and time to make her own decisions. Even when it's about to break his heart, he's not about to counteract her agency. Luckily, while Fiona is terrified to abandon her current job, she's not too proud to admit when she's wrong about her initial decision about long distance relationships. When she returns to New York, convinced that there can be no future for her and Dex, she's called him to tell him her change of heart before her plane even takes off.

Of course there needs to be some conflict, and the long distance isn't enough. One of the reasons Fiona doesn't want to be involved with an athlete is that she's not happy with media attention, and when Ethan's cell phone is stolen and photos of an intimate nature are leaked, their relationship hits a crisis point. My main problem with this story line is that I refuse to believe that any public person with naughty photos or videos on their phone doesn't at least have a simple code lock on it. It's even mentioned a couple of times early in the story that he needs to sort that out. From the hacking scandals in recent years, I suspect a determined person would still be able to access the memory eventually, but it wouldn't be right out there to the taking for any unscrupulous person.

The "virgin hunt" that's launched in the media to prove that Dex has lost his virginity and the subsequent leaking of the photos was not my favourite way to drive a wedge between a couple, but for the most part, this romance is in parts funny, sweet, very sexy and it was nice to see the previous couples in the series as supporting characters. I haven't been able to discover whether there are going to be more books in the series, or if this is the concluding volume. Either way, I am determined that I will read more of her Victorian paranormals next.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Books 147-148: "Wonder Woman: Guts" and "Wonder Woman: Iron" by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang

Page count: 144 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Wonder Woman's friend Zola is pregnant with a child of Zeus, and has been taken by Hades into the Underworld. Diana is determined to do whatever it takes to get her back, and since Hades is none too pleased about the way Wonder Woman and her friends tricked her and Poseidon, she may have to pay a heavy and lasting price in order to secure her friend's safety. She enlists the help of the divine smith, Hephaestus, for suitable arms and in the process discovers yet another family secret. While Diana tries to escape the bonds of matrimony with the ruler of Hell, there is another power struggle for the throne of Olympus. Apollo wants his father's throne and has his sister Artemis to help him. Hera is convinced that Zeus will return to protect what is his, but may be in for a nasty surprise.

Page count: 176 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Time passes differently in the Underworld, and by the time Diana makes it to Zola, she's already nearly full term in her pregnancy. Almost immediately after birth, Diana and Zola experience a terrible betrayal, as the baby is stolen away. To locate the child, it's clear that Diana will need the aid of several of her demigod siblings. Zeus' continued disappearance and the shift in power on Olympus means the reawakenings of old forces and the birth of Zola's child could have an impact on more than our world. Orion, one of the New Gods arrives to help her in her search for the baby, but clearly has his own agenda, and it's unclear whether he wants to help or harm the child. In Wonder Woman: Iron we also get a look at Diana's early years. The god of war, Ares, wants to train her into a perfect warrior, but gives her up in disgust when she eventually refuses to finish off an opponent after a battle, showing mercy instead.

I must confess, that as I read these on the same day, the plots do blend together a bit in my mind, and I'm not entirely sure what happened in each of the trade volumes. Common for both, however, is an action-packed plot full of adventure, twists and turns. Things are very rarely as they appear on a first glance or sometimes even on a second. Everyone is ready to scheme and double cross everyone else. Cliff Chiang is an excellent artist and mostly I really like his style, in both the action scenes and the more quiet moments. One exception is his depiction of Hades, as a petulant child with a sort of melty candle head. It really doesn't work for me. It's a minor niggle, however.

A bigger niggle is the introduction of Orion in the third volume. While my husband is a huge fan of Jack Kirby's New Gods and pretty much every iteration of them, I find them incredibly annoying and the only time I've not pretty much hated all of them is when Gail Simone had Big Barda in some guest appearances in Birds of Prey. So the prospect of more of them turning up in later issues is not a happy one for me. I really liked every single issue of Guts, but in Iron, there are several story lines being introduced (not just the Orion thing) that I'm not too keen on. Azzarello's portrayal of Wonder Woman, and his general take on the gods and demigods of Greek mythology is so creative and fun that I'll keep reading for at least a while longer.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 146: "Ms Marvel, vol 1: No Normal" by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

Page count: 120 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Kamala Khan is a pretty ordinary geeky teenager from Jersey City, until she's suddenly given the extraordinary powers of the superhero Ms. Marvel. She's both excited and confused. Can a Muslim girl even be a superhero? She certainly feels that the outfit could be a bit less revealing. How is she going to combine the responsibilities of fighting crime, rescuing people and righting wrongs if she also has to worry about obeying her parents and keeping cerfew?

Before she's even entirely aware what she's doing, she uses her powers to save a class mate. The press catches wind of it, and soon everyone is wondering about the identity of the new Ms. Marvel. After trying to rescue her friend Bruno from a botched convenience store robbery, he discovers her new secret identity and promises to help her in any way he can. There's some hints about a sinister new villain, but as this trade only collects the first five volumes, it's mainly an origin story.

I really liked Kamala and while I've seen a lot of people claim that all the other characters are stereotypes, I'm not sure I agree. I would assume that since G. Willow Wilson herself is a Muslim, she's a bit more sensitive to the cultural stereotypes than some other authors might be. I work with teenagers from many religions, and thought most of the teen characters rang true. Stereotypes are built on generalities, but a lot of girls of Pakistani descent DO have protective parents. Their brothers are traditionally allowed a lot more freedom and it can be a tricky thing to have a foot in two cultures.

The comic is fun, but not perfect. I'm still not entirely sure how or why Kamala actually got her superpowers, that bit was a bit vague. I am assuming that the supporting cast will be fleshed out as necessary in future issues and that readers will also discover the motivations of the villain. I don't know a whole lot about the Marvel comics universe, having only really watched the films, but am unsure if this is the comic that will really make me more familiar with the whole of it. I supect it will mainly focus on Kamala's adventures in Jersey City. The series certainly seems more diverse in its representation than a lot of comics, and is clearly aimed more at a middle grade to YA audience. It's still refreshing to see a comic about a young woman that doesn't play up the physical aspect or overly sexualise her. I liked the writing and the art, and will be looking for the next volume soon.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 25 December 2015

#CBR7 Book 145: "Season for Surrender" by Theresa Romain

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

After Miss Louisa Oliver broke her betrothal to Viscount Matheson, her step-sister and former intended was subjected to quite a scandal, due to the gossipping ways of Matheson's friend, the dissolute Alexander Edgware, Lord Xavier. Matheson and Louisa's step-sister got married, and the scandal passed, but Xavier isn't really a favourite in the Oliver or Matheson family circles any more. So when Louisa, with her formidable aunt as chaperone,  receives an invitation to his house party, rumoured to be quite a raucous event, she's puzzled, but intrigued and accepts. Having accepted her likely fate as a spinster, she'd nonetheless like to experience a thrill or two, and what better way to practise flirting or stealing a kiss or two than at Xavier's wild party?

Lord Xavier was orphaned at an early age and has had the wealth and freedom to do as he pleased since for as long as he can remember. Drinking, gambling, debauchery and wagering, he's done it all, but it's starting to lose some of its charm. Yet he's known to never turn down a wager, so when his malicious cousin bets him that he can't make a proper lady of good family attend his house party, no matter how shocking, and stay the full two weeks, he accepts. He had never expected his cousin to pick the bookish Miss Oliver, whose reputation he's sure his cousin intends to tarnish. He needs to make sure that nothing too shocking occurs to scare Miss Oliver away, while guarding her virtue without being too obvious about it.

Early on in the visit, Louisa overhears Xavier and his cousin speaking about the wager and realises how much is at stake about her presence there. She decides to teach both the men a lesson and pushes herself out of her comfort zone, engaging in the festivities with an enthusiasm that surprises everyone. Xavier tries to keep her from harm by distracting her with his large and comprehensive library, but finds what he most wants to do is spend as much time as possible with her there. Louisa discovers that if you're going to improve your flirting and kissing, there's no one better to practise on than a rake in want of reforming.

My biggest problem with the first book in this series was that there just wasn't enough plot to fill a full novel. At least in this story, I didn't have to feel that, but there are still slow patches. The book starts a little before the house party with the wager, but the chief portion of the story is at Xavier's country estate, with a largeish cast of characters, among them Xavier's cousin, Miss Jane Tindall, whose mother is nominally the hostess of the gathering, but seems to spend most of her time drunk or asleep. Jane appears to be the heroine of the next book in the series.

Louisa is really quite happy with the idea of staying unmarried, but at the same time she's been organising the library at her new brother-in-law's house and several months of watching the newly-weds be sickeningly happy could make anyone feel a bit down, even someone who hadn't originally been engaged to the groom. Feeling very much the third wheel, she's quite relieved to be invited to a house party, even if the host is the duplicitous Lord Xavier. It doesn't take her long into her visit to discover that he wasn't quite as dastardly as to besmirch her step-sister's reputation to one and all, but he did confide in someone he shouldn't. Used to being in the background, quietly observing everyone else, Louisa is quite the study of human nature, and is amused to discover that much of Lord Xavier's behaviour is merely a clever veneer, applied to fool those around him that he's as carefree, rakish and dissolute as his reputation claims. She becomes determined to make him reveal the person he really is, and is willing to use any means necessary.

Lord Xavier does indeed do very little without planning and forethought. He has a series of numbered expressions that he pulls out at the appropriate occasions and having been quite bored by his lifestyle for a while, he's nonetheless careful to cultivate the appearance of being the consummate rake, because he can't yet imagine what sort of a person he could be instead. A victim of his reputation, he believes it would be impossible to change now. He's very aware of how easily Miss Oliver could be ruined by mere hints at impropriety, yet cannot keep himself away from her. Initially, he tells himself it's too keep her safe, but the more time they spend together, the more obviously the attraction between them grows. He still thinks she's far too good for him, and even tries to send her away to protect her, not that it does a lot of good in the long run.

Theresa Romain remains an author who is perfectly decent, but who as of yet has not truly wowed me. I really did like this book, but I doubt that I'll particularly remember the details of the story in a month or so. Still, I keep seeing her books highly recommended, and can't seem to stop buying them in e-book sales, so I will continue to see if there is an exceptional book in her yet.

Crossposted to Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 23 December 2015

#CBR7 Books 144: "Magic Stars" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 64 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is a novella in the Kate Daniels universe. I would recommend that you read at least a few of the books in that series before reading this, although it would probably work relatively well on its own merits. This review may, however, contain spoilers for some of the later books in the series, so if you haven't read up to and including Magic Breaks and preferably Magic Shifts as well, proceed at your own risk. I must also add that I was granted an ARC of this novella, but did not have time to read it before it was on general release, when I also bought myself a copy. This review is in no way biased by having been given the ARC.

Derek Gaunt is a lone wolf, literally. He no longer belongs to any pack and is loyal to only a very few people. Among those are the former Beast Lord of Atlanta, Curran Lennart. So when the entire family of a weapon's smith frequented often by Curran and his Consort, Kate Daniels, is found brutally murdered and their house searched, Derek is asked to track down the killers and discover why the dirty deed was done. He prefers to work alone, and he certainly doesn't want Julie, Curran and Kate's adopted daughter, to tag along on his mission.

Yet when the two discover that the family were killed because of a highly magical artifact in their possession, one of three in fact, that the individual who sent the killers wants enough to murder again, Derek realises that he cannot continue without Julie. Able to detect all kinds of magic with her bare eyes, Julie is the only one who will be able to track the other two parts of the artifact, and lead them to the mastermind who ordered the killings in the first place. What was supposed to be a fairly simple assignment turns very dangerous and deadly far too quick and both Derek and Julie will be lucky if they make it out alive. I was surprised at how violent this story was. Possibly the shorter length of the story compressed the action sequences and made it seem more violent than the regular books.

Derek and Julie have long been fan favourites among the supporting cast in the Kate Daniels books. Initially Kate's somewhat reluctant sidekick and quite the pretty boy, Derek was nearly killed and left badly scarred after having molten silver (highly dangerous to shapeshifters) poured over his face, when trying to rescue a girl he'd fallen for. Julie was a street kid who lost her mother and got tangled up in some nasty magical business. Taken in and later adopted by Kate, she is now irrevocably bound to her by blood, after Kate was forced to purify Julie's blood with her own to save her life. After Kate in a showdown with her father laid magical claim to Atlanta, Julie has now appointed herself Kate's Herald. She is taking magic lessons from the manipulative and cunning Roland, to the great dismay of Derek, who is sure that the ancient magical powerhouse is using Julie for his own ends. Julie, on the other hand, claims they're going to need all the weapons and intel they can get against Roland, and if she can gather intelligence and maybe learn something of his weak spots while improving her magical abilities, so much the better.

In early books in the series, there were hints of both hero worship and infatuation by Julie for Derek. Their relationship in later books is often closer to exasperated cousins or even siblings, and the were-hyena Ascanio, as well as a handsome dragon creature of some sort that Julie goes to school with are also competing for Julie's affection. It was a lot of fun to see them working together as a team in this novella, and I wouldn't mind seeing them team up to fight monsters and saving each other's lives again some time.

According to Amazon, this is the first in a series called Grey Wolf, and I hope the sales and popularity is such that Ilona Andrews chooses to continue writing these spin-offs, if only as occasional interludes. As the normal Kate books are seen entirely from Kate's POV, it's always fun when the writers give us insight into other characters like this, and lets us see Kate and Curran in particular through the eyes of other characters in the series. As well as this novella, there's a whole book from Kate's best friend Andrea's POV, at least one short story about Julie and some novellas about Jim and Dali, the current Beast Lord and Lady. I know they have a lot of writing commitments, with the new Kate book, the Innkeeper Chronicles and their Hidden Legacy series, but hope that as a palate cleanser now and then, they may choose to give us more Grey Wolf stories.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 143: "Season for Temptation" by Theresa Romain

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 3 stars

James, Viscount Matheson has newly come into the title and wishes to marry a suitable young lady as quickly as possible, seeing as his sister, now widowed, was embroiled in a terrible scandal due to her philandering husband and a very public scene with a mistress before he died. Matheson's mother wishes him to restore the family reputation. So he is very pleased when he meets the quiet and pleasant Miss Louisa Oliver in the library at a society ball. Proposing to her after but a short acquaintance, he goes to see her family and is then introduced to Louisa's vivacious and lively step-sister, Julia Herington. After just a short time, James begins to fear he may have proposed too soon.

Miss Louisa Oliver hated being out in society and felt that she really couldn't turn down the proposal of a Viscount, even though she's honestly not sure she's ready for marriage yet, if ever. All she really wants to do is stay at home with her family, reading and organising the library. Julia is overjoyed that her sister has made such a good match, and even more so once she actually meets James. She knows that her sister hates attention and scrutiny, but believes that James' wit and enthusiasm may bring Louisa out of her shell a bit more. She hopes she may one day meet a man as nice and agreeable as he.

Louisa manages to persuade James to postpone the wedding until Julia has had her season, and the two sisters go to London accompanied by a fearsome widowed aunt as chaperone. Of course James and Julia pine hopelessly for one another, all the while hiding their true feelings from Louisa, whom they both care very much for, each other and the world in general. Louisa, for her part, keeps having misgivings about getting married, getting more and more determined to break off the engagement the longer she has to spend in society. Will James be able to finally declare his love for the right sister?

This book was far too long for what was really a very simple plot. I'm pretty sure it could have been covered in a novella. Honourable and kind peer of the realm contracts betrothal with one sister, falls madly in love with the other. She returns his feelings, the first sister doesn't really mind, as she doesn't love him and didn't really want to get married after all. His mother, who is a meddlesome shrew, try to complicate matters to separate them, is not successful.

There's quite a lot of time spent in libraries, which I don't exactly mind, because Louisa loves books and the organising of them, which I can thoroughly respect. She is shy, socially awkward, yet perfectly behaved. She knows that she may never make a match as good as a viscount, so can't really refuse a proposal, even though she feels nothing more than a general regard for Matheson. She's pretty much the polar opposite of her step-sister who is impulsive, exuberant, frequently speaks before she thinks and seems unable to be still for a second. The major complication here are that James and Julia are too honourable to do anything to hurt Louisa or act on their attraction towards each other (although they both tell themselves that they're just imagining the kind attentions of the other because of their infatuation).

One thing the book cannot be criticised for is the romance progressing too quickly. Several months, if not nearly a year passes over the course of the book. There are tours of James' estate, that he's modernising. At one point, Julia turns her ankle and is convalescent for six weeks. Then there's her season, which seems to be well under way. The problem is just that nothing much interesting happens. Louisa tries to solicit James help in finding a respectable suitor for Julia. He seethes with jealousy and tries to sabotage the search while on the surface being forced to play along.

The characters are perfectly pleasant, the story (if it were shorter) is diverting. It just dragged on. Romain is a good writer and uses chapter titles very amusingly. I was still waiting for the end to be in sight and for them to just "get on with it!" I'd heard many good things about this series on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Dear Author, but based on the first book, I hope the sequels are snappier and have more plot or I'm not going to be able to get through them.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

#CBR7 Book 142: "Lord Dashwood Missed Out" by Tessa Dare

Page count: 144 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

First of all, I want to thank the ever lovely Mrs. Julien, who kindly sent me an Amazon gift card during my continued convalescence. Part of that gift card financed this story.

This novella follows four full novels and a novella, which while they're not strictly necessary to get the full impact of the story, are well worth reading. Start with A Week to Be Wicked, it's amazing!

Miss Elinora "Nora" Browning grew up next to and was taught lessons along with George Travers, Lord Dashwood. She was in love with him for years, until he humiliated her during her season and went off to explore the world without a word of farewell. Utterly dejected and heart-broken, Nora comforted herself with sherry and wrote down all her feelings in the missive Lord Ashwood Missed Out - note the clever way of disguising the identity of the cad who disappointed her, there. Speaking on behalf of all overlooked young women, encouraging them to love themselves instead and not rely on any men, her letter became published as a pamphlet and became a huge bestseller. In the little coastal town of Spindle Cove, a safe haven and retreat for all manner of unorthodox ladies and spinsters, Miss Browning is a sought-after speaker and she's on her way there when a gathering snow storm delays her. The only carriage available to her contains none other than her old neighbour, Lord Dashwood.

Having traveled the world on several expeditions, now a renowned cartographer, George is back to settle down and get married. He discovers that in his absence, Miss Browning's pamphlet has pretty much maligned his good name, and Lord Dashwood would very much like to have a word with her about that. When their carriage is overturned in the storm, and the two are stuck alone in a tiny cabin, he challenges her to show him exactly it was she claims he missed out on. Hijinks, and activities of an unclothed variety ensue, despite the no doubt freezing temperatures.

Meanwhile, in Spindle Cove, the ladies waiting for Miss Browning are worried because she hasn't shown up, and all the heroes of Ms Dare's previous Spindle Cove novels ride off to find the authoress (after making sure they leave their wives more than satisfied).

I was very much looking forward to Tessa Dare's return to Spindle Cove, and she's written at least one absolutely delightful novella in the past, so I had high hopes for this book. Sadly, in a story that isn't all that long, far too much focus is placed on the inhabitants of Spindle Cove loyal readers already know, like Bramwell and Susanna from A Night to Surrender; Colin and Minerva from A Week to Be Wicked; Thorne and Kate from A Lady at Midnight and Griff and his duchess, Pauline, from Any Duchess Will Do. It's Pauline's lending library that Nora is scheduled to visit and there is added complication because Griff, the Duke of Halford was supposed to bring sherry to the signing, and has completely forgotten to procure any. So when he has a chance to get back into his lady's good graces and possibly locate some sherry at the same time, he drags his male friends along with him to locate the missing Miss Browning. It's not that I didn't like seeing glimpses of the happy lives these characters have made for themselves, but since this novella clearly, in part, was to set up youngest Highwood sister Charlotte's future romance, we could have had a bit more focus on her, and less on past characters.

Because the action cuts between the snowbound adventures of Nora and Dash, as he's known to his friends and the Spindle Cove gang, the central romance kept getting interrupted just as it started getting interesting. I would have liked a bit more back story and motivation for both Nora and George and I live in a (normally, if not yet this year) icy and snowy country. There is just no way that icy winds and blizzard-like snow storms doesn't kill ardour right quick. Having an extended kissing and embrace sequence, while locked half-naked out of doors in icy wind - nope. Then getting all amorous in what is most likely a drafty old shepard's hut?
I can suspend my disbelief pretty far for you, Ms. Dare, see the Regency cos-players, but that's a step too far. You broke all the disbelief I have. You made me bring in Godzilla to help me make my point.

I did like both Nora and Dash as characters and can understand the motivations of both in as much as they were explained within the story. I thought the proposal scene was adorable and the grand gesture in question made me rather mushy (I blame hormones), but because I liked the main couple of this story so much, I wanted more time with them, and less with the previously established couples. I would say 4 stars for the bits with Nora and Dash, 3 stars for the bits with the old Spindle Cove characters, making it a 3.5 in total. I hope that Charlotte's book, when that finally arrives some time early in 2016 is more satisfying overall.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 141: "Once Upon a Marquess" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 372 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Lady Judith Worth lost everything when her father and eldest brother, Anthony, was convicted on treason. Her father committed suicide in prison, her brother was sentenced to deportation to Australia. Due to complications during the journey, Anthony never arrived at his destination, and is presumed dead. Since losing their wealth and their privileges, Judith has been the sole breadwinner for two of her younger half-siblings; the spoiled, socially challenged and extremely cat obsessed Theresa and her youngest brother Benedict, who she's finally saved up enough money to send to Eton.

Judith has been supporting her family using her skills with clockwork design and through careful saving and scrimping has set aside money for the dowry of both her sisters. Her other sister, Camilla, was taken in by an "uncle", a friend of their father's, who offered to take all the Worth children, except Theresa. At such an ultimatum, all but Camilla refused his "kindness" and as a result, Camilla has been estranged from her family for years and years. Now Judith is worried that the solicitor handling the money may have embezzled it, and she needs help. She has no one to turn to but Christian Trent, the Marquess of Ashford. Her brother's former best friend, the man she once thought she would marry, until he became the man who provided the evidence that condemned her father and brother. She's fairly certain he'll send a trusted servant, and is none to pleased when he eagerly turns up on her door step in person, on the same day her brother comes back from his first term at Eton, clearly badly beaten, swearing never to return.

Christian Trent still loves Judith. He's never been able to forget her, and he's haunted constantly by nightmares about what his actions did to his best friend. While Judith is staunchly loyal to her brother, refusing to believe he could ever have done what he was accused of, Christian instead fears that his guilt was all but certain. Christian acted according to his conscience, but believed Anthony would serve seven years in Australia, and be able to return to his family. Instead he most likely died during the journey. He knows Judith can't possibly forgive him, because he can't really forgive himself, but if there is anything in his power he can do to help her or her siblings, he has to offer it. He and Judith make a deal. If he manages to assist her in making sure her sisters' dowries have been paid to their accounts, he will get to borrow Anthony's journals. Reading them might help him to figure out the reasons Anthony may have acted as he did.

It'll come as no surprise to anyone familiar with romance, that once they start spending time together again, Judith and Christian, despite Judith's anger and bitterness, grow closer once more. Their attraction to each other is built on a mutual understanding of each other's oddness, a shared sense of (very peculiar) humour and a deep abiding affection for the same people. Christian spent most of his school holidays with the Worths and grew to love Judith over several years, never really acting on his feelings out of respect for Anthony. He proposed to Judith at her father's funeral, but she could barely stand to see him and soundly rejected him. No woman has ever compared to her in his memory, and the more time Judith spends in his company, the more her feelings for him reemerge.

This is Courtney Milan's first historical romance in a year and a half, and while she published a contemporary New Adult novel in January, the deadline for Once Upon a Marquess kept being pushed further and further ahead. As the first book of the projected seven-volume (although some will be novellas) Worth saga, this book has a lot of things to set up. Apparently Ms. Milan had a completely different plot in mind initially, but couldn't make it work, had to throw it all out and start over nearly from scratch. I suspect that is why this book is one of her weaker efforts. There is simply too many story lines fighting for attention. Judith is a great heroine - loyal, hard-working, independent and capable. Christian is really not the villain of the story, no matter how much Judith might wish he was. He's clearly suffering from tendencies of what we know know to be OCD, deals with awkward social situations with an often inappropriate and quite strange sense of humour and is plagued by nightmares his mother wants to dim by feeding him laudanum. Their romance should have been the main event here, but it gets a bit lost in all the other plot threads.

There is the treason plot, and Anthony's possible death or disappearance. Judith and Christian discover that there is a mysterious guardian having sworn the solicitor to secrecy about the welfare of her younger siblings. I don't want to spoil anything, but I suspect anyone who's read more than about three books in their entire life can figure out where that thread is going.

The third Worth sister, Camilla, has also disappeared. It turns out that her "uncle" was in no way fit to deal with a moody and distressed teenager and had her shipped off to family friends, who again sent her off and so on. To Judith's great dismay, the reason she's never heard back from any of the letters she sent to her sister is because Camilla never got them. Her cowardly "uncle" just felt it was too awkward to confess what he'd done and hoped no one would ever come looking.

Benedict Worth, the youngest son, has been mercilessly harassed, beaten and bullied at school. No matter how much Judith wants him to return, so he can have the education he's entitled to by birth, he refuses. Their family's treason charge has made him a target and he isn't going to be subjected to years of torture at a school he never particularly wanted to attend in the first place.

There is the friendship between Judith and Daisy, one of her neighbours, who make their hardships easier by making up elaborate stories about the elaborate dishes they are planning to make, the high born guests they're planning to entertain and the luxurious fabrics they dream of dressing themselves in. They never really talk about the things that bother them, keeping things light and frivolous, until Judith's recent difficulties actually make Daisy concerned enough to start demanding details. As a result, their friendship becomes even closer. Daisy is the heroine of the next story in the series, a novella scheduled to come out some time in January.

Lastly, there's the biggest problem (to me) in the book - Theresa, the insufferable sister. Like Christian, there is clearly something neurologically atypical about her, and even as a child, she was deemed odd enough that their "uncle" refused to take her in. She really does seem to exist in a world of her own, completely oblivious to all the sacrifices Judith has to make to keep them all housed, clothed and fed, and the hard work she has to do to make money. The only thing she seems interested in, is dragging in more stray cats for the already financially challenged household to support. She's rude, neglectful of her chores, refuses to listen to simple instructions and there doesn't seem to be a single rule she won't gladly and wilfully break. I'm assuming she may be the heroine of some future book, but it's been a long time since I came across a character I so heartily wanted to slap into next week and she's going to need to do some serious growing up to be redeemed as a half-decent supporting character, let alone a protagonist. She was simply odious.

Because there were so many things that had to be covered, and I suspect the whole plot of this book was by necessity a hastily assembled plan B when the first story just didn't work out, Christian and Judith's romance suffered as a result. A sub-par Courtney Milan book, especially after such a long wait, is still cause for celebration. I nonetheless hope that some of the teething problems are now past, and that Daisy's novella, not to mention, Camilla's book, which seem to be the next in line are both stronger and more swoon-worthy than this. And if it were to be revealed, in Camilla's book, that Theresa died from some sort of painful disease before that book even started, so they've already buried her, I will not be upset in the slightest.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 21 December 2015

#CBR7 Book 140: "Diary of an Accidental Wallflower" by Jennifer McQuiston

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lady Clare Westmore is pretty certain that she's well on her way of securing the affection of Mr. Charles Alban, the next Duke of Harrington. Every sign seems to suggest that with just a bit more time with him, he will propose marriage by the end of the season. When she manages to sprain her ankle violently, she still insists on going to the evening's ball, as passing up a chance to dance with Mr. Alban is unthinkable. However, the pain is such that she can barely stand, and she ends up in the corner with the wallflowers, shocked to discover that her so- called best friend dances and flirts with the duke's heir instead. She's rather rude to the young man who approaches her, assuring her that he is a physician, wanting to treat her injured leg. Dr Daniel Merial nonetheless manages to persuade her that he can help her, so Clare limps to the library in search of her mother, who's there as her chaperone. She receives her second shock of the evening when she finds her mother in the arms of a young man.

Mortified, Clare mainly allows Dr. Merial to examine her ankle, hoping that his doctor-patient confidentiality will prevent him from gossipping about her mother to anyone. She's extremely upset when he concludes that she will need to stay at home, resting her ankle for the next six weeks. That will completely ruin her chances with Mr. Alban! One of the most popular girls of the season is suddenly taken completely out of the running, and with the time she's left to spend at home, Clare is also forced to consider the many things that are clearly disastrously wrong in her parents' marriage.

While she's actually a very intelligent and well-informed young lady, Clare has created the perfect image for society of a carefree, slightly flighty beauty, perfectly behaved, dressed and with friends who have all the right connections. She despairs of the wild manners of her young brother and unconventional and spirited sister, who is due to debut in society soon. Once she's home bound, her siblings admit that they strongly dislike the persona she's created and she is forced to acknowledge the duplicity and fickleness of her so-called society friends.

Dr Daniel Merial came to London to perfect a device to administer anaesthesia, and when he's not working in the hospital or attending the dying Lady Austerly, he works on experiments at night, trying to make it work. He is in desperate need of other rich clients as his pay at the hospital isn't enough to fund his invention. So he's quite glad to be asked back to treat the cranky Miss Westmore, as he really does need the money. The more time they spend together, the harder it becomes for him to keep a professional distance. That her younger siblings both adore him as well and are eager for him to visit, makes it even harder for him to stay away.

The longer Clare is away from the cut-throat world of the season, the more confused she becomes about what she really wants. Mr. Alban comes to visit her, but they have none of the chemistry that sizzles between her and Dr. Merial. Yet Clare is the daughter of a viscount and though Daniel is a very promising young physician, whose invention, if he manages to complete it, could make him substantial amounts of money, there is no denying that there is a big social divide between them. As Clare discovers more of her parents' marital troubles, she understands that there are several secrets being kept, that if they were to be revealed, could mean complete social ruin for not only herself, but her siblings. Securing a marriage with a future duke could be the best solution to all their problems.

This is the first book I've ever read by Jennifer McQuiston, and I really liked her take on a high born heroine and commoner hero. Daniel Merial is a great hero, and he's determined to revolutionise medicine not out of desire to make himself wealthy, but to save as many lives as possible. He's an idealist, but also realises the necessity to make enough money to make ends meet. Although Lady Austerly pays well, he's also genuinely concerned about her, considering her a friend and he despairs at her continuing insistence on throwing social events, even at the risk of her already ailing health. He initially tries to keep a professional distance from Clare, but when she keeps going on about her wishes of a future match with Mr. Alban, he gets irrationally jealous and realises his feelings for her.

It's not actually all that common that marital problems are addressed in romance, even among secondary characters. I therefore felt that the growing rift and distress suffered by Clare's parents was an interesting addition to an already slightly unusual book. Add to that her younger siblings, who were both socially unprepared for their future duties, without getting too annoyingly quirky (although the tomboy sister occasionally comes close), who make a fun and believable supporting cast. Clare is a good heroine, initially blinded as to what she needs to make her truly happy by what she has been raised to believe she should aim for.

I got this book in an e-book sale after seeing it recommended on some romance blog or other. I will absolutely be seeking out more of her books.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 20 December 2015

#CBR7 Book 139: "What a Wallflower Wants" by Maya Rodale

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Miss Prudence Merriweather Payton has been dubbed "London's Least Likely to Be Caught in a Compromising Position" and after four seasons, she may be the only woman to go unmarried for so long after graduation her finishing school. No one, not even the loving aunt who raised her or her two best friends, knows that Prudence was raped at a ball early in her first season and has made very sure she's never alone with a man or considered marriage material. After all, her entire worth on the marriage market has been forcibly stripped from her. Yet now, with the upcoming anniversary ball of her finishing school, where even her two former wallflower friends have found happy marriages, she can't bear to be the only graduate left unmarried.

Taking matters into her own hands, Prudence travels to Bath and arranges a marriage of convenience to a gentleman who she knows will never expect or demand conjugal rights, as he's rather more interested in his best friend. However, on the way to his estate, where they are to be married by special licence, their stagecoach is attacked by a highwayman, and her intended pushes her out of the carriage to distract their attacker. She manages to escape, no thanks to her fiancee, without attracting the robber's attention and is left to make her way to civilisation alone.

Trudging through uncomfortable heat at first and later pouring rain, Prudence vows never to trust another man again. When she's offered a ride by a dashing and handsome man who introduces himself as John Roark, Viscount Castleton, she refuses even though she's cold, wet and tired. They nevertheless meet again at the country inn where she seeks refuge. As the torrential downpour continues for days on end, the two are trapped, along with a number of other guests, until the weather settles down. John and Prudence spend quite a lot of time in each other's company, and it doesn't take long for John to realise that someone badly hurt Prudence at some point in the past.

Roark is on his way to London with a grand business proposition which will secure not only his own future, but that of his mother and sister. He has secrets he cannot divulge and certainly isn't looking for or able to support a wife in his current situation. Yet he gets more and more smitten with the wary Miss Merriweather (she doesn't give him her full name) and when her dark past shows up unexpectedly at the inn, and she nearly suffers a repeat performance of her former attack, he doesn't even think before jumping in to defend her and pummelling her attacker.

After John beats up her rapist, saving Prudence from another nightmare scenario, she breaks down and finally tells someone about the (to her) deeply shameful secret about what happened years ago, and he comforts her, confessing that his sister once suffered the same fate as her. He is therefore fully aware of how scared and distrustful of men she must be. Even knowing that she may be scared, he proposes that they travel to London together, leaving the inn in case her attacker returns. They pose as man and wife on the road, and John's gentle treatment, understanding and patience gives Prudence hope that she may in time be able to trust another man again and possibly not recoil at being touched. But John's past is about to catch up with him too, and what will happen when Prudence discovers the secrets he's been hiding and the reasons he's in such a hurry to make it to London?

This romance deals with the aftermath of rape, and it doesn't in any way gloss over what happened to Prudence. The scene where she is attacked is graphically described, in a horrible inversion of the usual love scenes in such a book and there is no doubt that something terrible and irrevocable is done to a helpless young woman, whose life is never the same afterwards. Even now, rape is a horrible crime, but in a time when a woman's chief commodity was her virtue and she was seen as tainted goods and worthless if she lost it, rape took away any chance a woman had to make a good marriage. Prudence spends four years carefully making herself as unattractive and unobtrusive as possible, happily embracing her wallflower role, simply so she won't ever have to confess the truth about her tragic fate. When she meets a kind man who not only treats her gently but understands her pain, that is just as attractive to her as his physical beauty. Having kept her secret for so long, she's desperate to confide in someone.

John, absolutely furious about the trauma she's been through, not only beats her attacker within an inch of his life and drives him and his friend out of the inn, but insists on being allowed to show Prudence how to defend herself, as it's not fair that she go through life seeing herself only as a victim. She needs to reclaim her self worth, and his self defence lessons and the way he refuses to see her or treat her as ruined is a great help in making her start to blossom again.

The third and final of Maya Rodale's Bad Boys and Wallflowers, even with some rather melodramatic turns in the last third of the book and some pretty huge coincidences furthering the plot, this is by far the best in the series. Prudence is a lovely heroine, so strong and admirable for refusing to let her ordeal break her. John is a sensitive and understanding hero, who because of his unusual background is able to accept Prue's disgrace in a way most men in her peer group would not. I'm also not entirely sure if the ways in which the villain gets his comeuppance is historically accurate, but it felt very satisfying.

I read romances as a means of entertainment and escapism. In historical romances, I like being diverted by historical locations, pretty dresses, fancy titles and couples finding love, often across societal boundaries that are somewhat anachronistic. This book made me cry, more than once, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't just because I was pumped full of fertility hormones. Reading about a young woman having her entire future stolen from her in a savage attack is upsetting, and as Rodale points out in the afterword, many women of the past were driven to depression or suicide by such events. While other aspects of the book weren't perfect, I thought the main issue of the story and the love story between Prudence and John was very effective. Well worth checking out, as long as you're not sensitive about the darker side of the plot.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

#CBR7 Book 138: "Wallflower Gone Wild" by Maya Rodale

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Lady Olivia Archer is unmarried after four seasons on the marriage market, known as "London's Least Likely to Cause a Scandal". Everywhere she goes, her mother forces her to recount her ladylike accomplishments, such as embroidery, playing the piano, painting water colours and other deathly dull things. Olivia isn't surprised people have taken to calling her "Prissy Missy" and that at one memorable garden party, a gentleman jumped into a hedge rather than speak to her (or her mother).

One of her best friends, Lady Emma, another former wallflower, recently married a duke after a series of unusual events and is now determined to match her two besties with suitable men.  Before she has time to introduce them to anyone, however, Olivia meets a handsome stranger at a ball and has a moment of true chemistry with him after their eyes meet across the room. The morning after, she is told her parents have accepted the proposal of Sir Phinneas Cole for her hand in marriage. A genius and reclusive inventor, Phin is in London to work on completing a machine with Lady Emma's husband. He wants a pretty, quiet and polite wife to help him manage his vast Yorkshire estate. He is also popularly known as "the Mad Baron".

Some years ago, all the newspapers ran stories about the tragic fire in his lab and how his first wife died under mysterious circumstances. While in finishing school, all three wallflowers read the scandalous accounts of how "the Mad Baron" stole his brother's fiancee and later likely murdered her. Because he lives in Yorkshire and never goes into society, Phin was of the naive belief that the rumours had died down. He was very wrong. It's clear that the woman he wants to marry is both afraid of him and behaving very strangely.

Olivia has concocted a plan with her friends to make Phin break off the engagement. If he wants a proper and ladylike bride, then Olivia must be everything but. She's been brought up knowing all the rules that mustn't be broken and has never stepped a toe out of line before. This has brought her nothing but scorn, ugly nicknames and now a very unwanted, possibly murderous fiancee. She starts behaving as scandalously as she can - wearing excessive amounts of makeup, getting drunk in public, dancing with rakes and scoundrels and generally trying to cause scenes (she's not very good at it).

Phin (who of course is the handsome man she met that magical night) is puzzled by the erratic behaviour of Lady Olivia. He can't deny the attraction he felt for her that first night, and even at her worst, Olivia can't come close to causing the sort of scandals his first wife inspired. The more outrageously Olivia acts, the more determined he is to go through with the marriage.

While Olivia doesn't know that Phin isn't a crazy murderer, the readers are of course privy to his POV and fully aware that he's not as dangerous as the rumours would have it. A big old science nerd, he's actually quite dreadfully clueless around women, and tries to take courtship advice from his more wordly (but moronic) friend, with the results that Olivia isn't just afraid of him, but thinks he's a dolt as well. The only thing their relationship has going for it is that first brief meeting when their glances caught across a crowded room and they shared a brief moment, until some of the catty ladies of the ton came to interrupt before anything significant could happen. The undeniable chemistry between them then is what makes Phin determined to win Olivia, and makes her unsure of whether he can be as bad as his reputation suggests.

Brought up to do only what is right and proper for a young lady, Olivia has never been given the opportunity to actually decide what she likes or wants from life, and her attempts at acting out go rather badly, because there is a reason she and her friends are dubbed "London's Least Likely". In one last-ditch attempt to rebel, Olivia goes to a masquerade, where she is rescued from a near-assault by none other than her (obviously masked) fiancee. Overwhelmed by everything that's happened since she became engaged against her will, she breaks down in his arms, and speaks honestly of her hopes and fears. Phin, to his credit, realises how dumb he has been and determines to treat his bride better, encouraging her to forge her own way and make her own choices once they are married.

He does not, however, tell her the truth behind the lurid gossip surrounding his first wife's death for quite some time, creating one of those frustrating misunderstandings that seems to be so common in romance. Of course things improve immensely between the couple once the full story is out, just in time for Olivia to injure herself badly, making Phin realise his feelings for her now that he might suddenly lose her.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe with this book. In addition to the "let's act all mad-cap and crazy to put off my fiancee" section that goes on a bit too long, this book has one of the most unbelievable deflowering scenes I've ever come across. Now, I may be extra critical, reading this book shortly after I myself fell on the ice and broke my left wrist quite badly. Nonetheless, I'm literally painfully aware of how much this hurts, and how sore and unwieldy a broken limb is, for up to a week after the injury. Even with the benefit of modern painkillers, I really didn't want to use my left arm for much of anything. Olivia breaks her ankle in an accident, yet seems perfectly able to consummate her marriage only a day or two afterwards. I don't care what superhuman erotic abilities "the Mad Baron" possesses, there is NO way that she would happily be spreading her legs and engaging in carnal acts so shortly after breaking a limb. As far as I'm aware, the most common painkiller in the Regency era would have been laudanum. Olivia would therefore either be more or less passed out in a morphine haze or in absolute agony if someone tried to move make her "open her legs".

Now, if you don't have the painful real life experience of breaking a limb fresh in your mind, this might not be a deal breaker for you. This book had a lot of potential, and I liked it better than the first book in the series, but there still wasn't anything out of the ordinary to make me consider Maya Rodale as an essential romance writer whose books I'll be looking out for or pre-ordering.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.