Sunday 22 February 2015

#CBR7 Book 23 : "American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot" by Craig Ferguson

Page count: 290 pages
Audio book length: 7 hrs 24 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Before I bought and listened to this audio book, which came to my attention thanks to fellow Cannonballer Narfna's enthusiastic review, this is what I knew about Craig Ferguson:

1. Until very recently, he hosted the Late, Late Show, where he always seemed to be genuinely interested in the guests in the few clips that I've seen.
2. He really likes Doctor Who
3. He used to be in a band with Peter Capaldi, who is currently playing Doctor Who.
4. He's voiced a number of Scottish characters in animated movies that I've seen.

So I learned a lot about Mr. Ferguson while listening to this audio book, narrated by the man himself. He manages to recount stories that could be just tragic and depressing with wit and humour, without in any way hiding that for much of his life, he did not have an easy time of it. Growing up in a working class suburb to Glasgow in Scotland in the 60s and 70s seems pretty grim, although it's quite clear that Ferguson's parents had a much harder time of it. Apparently Ferguson's dad didn't own shoes until he was eleven. Still, as a teacher, listening to stories about how five-year-olds were belted for no obvious reason horrified me. I don't actually think I could be a teacher in an education system that allowed corporal punishment.

From early on in his life, Ferguson wanted to live in America, and he explains why in the book, while also talking about his very destructive alcoholism, his drug use, dropping out of school at sixteen to join the punk scene. While the stories he tells are funny, and alcoholism apparently saved his life (a friend distracted him with a pint of sherry on a Christmas morning when he had decided to commit suicide), Ferguson doesn't hesitate to be honest about what a destructive force it was, either. As the daughter of a recovering alcoholic, and an uncle who died before he was sixty partially because he didn't stop drinking, I have no illusions about alcholism being in any way glamorous or easy. I admire Ferguson for being so honest about his alcohol and substance abuse, as well as his process of becoming and remaining sober.

I hadn't realised that Ferguson wrote a novel, or that he wrote several screen plays, as well as being an actor and a stand-up comedian. He is very honest about the ups and downs of his career, and I wonder if he's made himself unpopular in certain industry circles by being quite so up front about his experiences especially in the film he wrote and directed, that the studio apparently ruined completely.

I finished this book in less than 24 hours, which I think may be a new record for an audio book. I had a lot of errands to run during the day, and this audio book kept me company. It also provided entertainment while I was working my way slowly and painstakingly through the complicated pattern part of the jumper I am knitting. Earlier in the week, I could easily knit while watching TV and even in the cinema, but now, that the pattern requires different colours of wool and careful attention, I can't watch or read anything while knitting. I'm so glad I had this book to keep me company. I've read a number of celebrity autobiographies now, but this is by far the most honest, open and as a result, interesting one I've come across. I'm so glad I got this audio book. Thanks again, Narfna!

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR7 Book 22: "Moon Over Soho" by Ben Aaronovitch

Page count: 396 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 1 min
Rating: 4 stars

This is the second book in the books about DC Peter Grant and as such, this review may contain certain spoilers for book one, Rivers of London. That's the book you want to start with.

Something is killing jazz musicians in Soho. A promising jazz saxophonist, Cyrus Wilkinson, drops dead of an apparent heart attack after playing a gig. Doctor Walid suspects that something supernatural may have caused it and DC Grant can hear "Body and Soul" playing when he examines the body. Some investigation shows that Cyrus is not the first musician this has happened to. Cases go back a long way, something mysterious seems to be feeding off them, possibly a type of "jazz vampire". While Peter doesn't exactly trust Simone, Cyrus' girlfriend, he does need her help and keeps being drawn to her, even though he knows it's not a good idea to get involved with someone connected to a case.

There is also a deadly female stalking the streets, leaving men bleeding to death with their genitals chomped off. Inspector Nightingale is unable to help out as much as he could wish, and Leslie May is recovering at her parents' house, reluctant to even see Peter, hiding her face every time he comes to visit. They communicate by text, and she helps him with research, but Peter is worried that their friendship is in danger of being as ruined as Leslie's face if they don't figure something out. As the various investigations progress, there are signs that they may be connected in some way. There is also someone sinister behind all of it. Is Inspector Thomas Nightingale really the only wizard left in England, or could there be someone else trained in magic, and using it for their own personal gain?

Peter's apprenticeship as a wizard continues, and he's getting more proficient in some of the basic forms. His inquisitive nature and his research abilities allow him to progress faster than Nightingale expects, but he still has a long way to go. Peter is on his own for much of the book, with both his inspector and Leslie May out of commission due to the events towards the end of the first book. Nightingale keeps trying to get involved, only to over-exert himself and get ordered back on bed rest by Doctor Walid. Leslie is staying with her parents while waiting for reconstructive surgery. Her injuries upset Peter, but he's also confident that he did whatever he could to save her, and while the damage to her face is bad, she's still alive and refuses to be pitied. She assists him as best she can from a distance, but prefers not to meet face to face unless it's absolutely necessary. I really liked the way her situation was handled in the book. While there is magic in this world, there is no easy fix-it button to restore Leslie's face to the way it was. The revelation at the end, revealing what she's been working on while recovering, makes me very curious to see where things go in the rest of the series.

These books also show how much of police work takes time, looking through old records, countless hours spent reading reports, interviewing suspects, doing tedious legwork. It was nice to see a bit more of Peter's parents, and I really liked the idea of "jazz vampires", supernatural creatures that feed on artistic and musical ability, rather than blood. There is clearly a lot of set up here for later books, and while the central mystery is solved by the end, there are a number of unanswered questions and much to deal with in the books to come. The narration continues to be excellent, and I've already got the third book downloaded on the Audible app on my phone.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 21 February 2015

#CBR7 Book 21: "Shadow and Bone" by Leigh Bardugo

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 3 stars

In a fantasy world heavily inspired by Russian folklore elements (which is also reflected in the gorgeous cover design of the books), Alina and Mal are orphans raised on the estate of a benevolent Duke. Growing up, they are inseparable, when they grow up, they (like most others) join the First Army, Alina as a mapmaker, Mal as a tracker. Alina is skinny, pale and insignificant, watching Mal mostly from afar. He's grown up handsome, charming, popular and makes female conquests wherever he goes. Occasionally he'll remember his old friend and come visit her in the camp.

The population of Ravka can be divided into the Grisha, the magically adept, and normal people. The Grisha can possess different power, some creative and some destructive, carefully advertised to the world by the colour of the clothes they wear. None is more powerful than the mysterious and sinister Darkling, the King's right hand, and the only one allowed to wear black. The once prosperous nation has been divided in two by a large, barren area of constant darkness, known as the Fold, or Unsea, the result of a botched spell by one of the former Darklings. Nothing grows there, due to the lack of light. Unfortunately, you can't get from one side of Ravka to the other without crossing it, using sand skiffs powered by wind. Frequently travellers are attacked by the terrifying flying monsters that roam the Fold, entering the Fold is never without peril.  When the part of the army that Alina is with is crossing, there is suddenly an attack, and one of her mapmaker friends is carried off by the flying monsters. Mal is about to get attacked and Alina reacts instinctively. Before she knows what she is doing, she has covered the area in bright light, driving the monsters off and saving everyone. She passes out from the exertion.

When she wakes up, back in camp, Alina is told that she is in fact Grisha, and has a unique magical power. She is a Sun Summoner, and the Darkling has been waiting for her for a very long time. Thanks to her power, the ability to summon and control light, Ravka can possibly finally reclaim the Fold, win the wars with their surrounding countries and regain their prosperity.  Of course, Alina has no idea how to control her power, and can only ever summon the light when either hurt or touching someone who can amplify her power. Told that her unique power make her a target for enemy assassins, she is speedily taken to the capital to undergo training. On the way, she sees the fearsome powers that the Darkling can wield.

While awed by the opulence of her new lodgings in the Palace, Alina is fairly miserable. Most children get raised to Grisha early, taken away from their families to be trained and educated for their future positions serving Ravka. Alina has to learn huge amounts of history and magical theory, as well as undergo physical training. Then there are her magic lessons, where she's completely unable to summon a spark of light without someone with amplifying powers touching her. Having been declared the future saviour of the nation, she feels the pressure to succeed constantly. She makes one friend, Genya, who works for the Queen, able to cosmetically enhance anyone she touches. She shares gossip with Alina and steers her through the worst of the court's intrigue.

After a bit of an emotional breakdown, Alina finally manages to figure out what has been blocking her power and she can start training in earnest. The Darkling is delighted and intends to have a special and powerful amplifier fashioned for her. They just need to locate an elusive and possibly legendary herd of magical deer first, so the horns of the stag can be used. When she's actually able to improve her control in earnest, her trainer, the ancient Baghra strangely starts getting more agitated, not less. She warns Alina that she needs to get away, that the Darkling has dangerous plans and if he succeeds in getting the amplifier for Alina, she'll be under his control forever. So Alina flees the capital, determined to find the stag herself.

The Grisha series has been raved about online for years, and I was waiting for it to be concluded before I started reading. I must admit, the first book showed a promising world, but the characterisation is mainly very simplistic. Alina is nervous, skinny, insecure and spends most of the book pining for Mal. She's also rather naive and completely unprepared for the intrigue at court, never having learned to hide her emotions. Mal is handsome, charming, apparently an amazing tracker and completely oblivious the crush Alina is nursing on him. I'm sorry if you consider this a spoiler, but the character IS called the Darkling. If you are surprised by his sudden but inevitable betrayal, you have clearly not read a lot of books. He's pale and dark-haired, handsome and mysterious. He uses his seductive wiles to turn our heroine's head and blind her to his true motives. That's it, those are pretty much the sum total of their characters traits. There is quite a lot of tell, don't show here and it made me sad, because I wanted to like the book.

The world-building is interesting, with the great big Shadow Fold as a cursed blight in the middle of the kingdom. Again, for anyone who has even a basic grounding in Russian history, it'll come as no surprise that the King and Queen and the aristocracy live in oblivious luxury and opulence while forcing the people to fight their wars for them. The magic of the Grisha is presented as more as a way of manipulating the natural sciences, than varieties of super power, and I liked the ranks and classifications.

As I said, I've heard a lot of good about this trilogy online, enough to make me curious enough to keep reading. I've heard that the series takes a pretty dark turn, and that Alina develops into a more likable characters (she's really quite a helpless drip in this). I'm also hoping that further books will give me some kind of evidence at why I should care one jot about whether Mal lives or dies, he seemed like an insufferable dudebro to me. I'm not very fond of love triangles at the best of times, when the two rivals are an oblivious prettyboy and a sinister magician who embodies a lot of the Old School romance hero tropes, it makes me roll my eyes. Alina needs to woman up, stop mooning about the guys in her life and take control. So yeah, that's my hope for the sequels.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 20: "Once Upon a Rose" by Laura Florand

Page count: 300 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Layla "Belle Woods" Dubois has just won a Grammy for her Indie rock album, but is fleeing to the French countryside in a desperate hope that she will find some inspiration, or there won't be a second album any time soon. She's "accidentally" drowned her phone in a fountain and is hoping to stay away from press attention and the demands of her producers for long enough that she can write some new songs and rediscover her love of playing. Visiting the house she's inherited in Provence seems like the perfect plan.

Matthieu Rosier is one of five very competitive male cousins, and the appointed heir of their grandfather. While his other cousins have been able to go off into the world on adventures, Matt has stayed in the Rosier valley his entire life, devoting his life to taking care of its inhabitants and the precious roses that grow throughout, providing essences to the perfume industry. The valley is HIS, just as he considers his life a gift to the valley, occasionally envious of his other cousins, but all the same, content with his lot in life. So when he discovers that his great-aunt has gifted the house he has spent several months modernising and a part of the land of the valley to some petite American, he is not happy. His grandfather, one of the brave Resistance heroes of France, wants him to consider Layla as the enemy, doing everything in his power to drive her away and reclaim the family land.

Of course, when Layla and Matt first meet, neither know of the coming enmity. It's Matt's 30th birthday party and he's more than a little drunk. As Layla arrives, helplessly lost without her phone to provide GPS, he is instantly smitten and decides to introduce her to all his cousins as his girlfriend, just to make sure none of them lay claim to her first. At one point he actually bodily picks her up and carries her through the room. Layla is surprised, but quite charmed by his flirtatious behaviour. She eventually manages to get across to some of the more sober wedding guests that her car has broken down and she is lost, and is given a place to stay for the night. Of course, the next morning, the reason for her presence in the valley is revealed, and everything changes.

Laura Florand has a formula, and it's a wonderful one. Large, attractive Frenchmen falling in love with diminutive partially American women. In the Amour et Chocolat series, the men are usually emotionally vulnerable, yet professionally arrogant, brilliant masters in their fields. Here, the hero is not a chocolatier or a chef, but a rose farmer. Matt has tended to the roses on his family's land since he was a teenager. He's a handyman, able to fix engines, old plumbing, crumbling garden walls, you name it. He projects a gruff and growly exterior to hide that he's a complete softie inside. Having brawled with, teased and been teased by his cousins since they were young, he has learned not to show weakness. While he sometimes wonders what it would be like to go off and see the world like many of his other very attractive cousins (most of whom are clearly going to be heroes in upcoming books), he's also completely committed to his duty of making the valley and its roses thrive. His territorial grandfather has refused to split the land up, dividing it between the cousins, and Matt has come to think of himself as the embodiment of the valley. It hurts him deeply when he discovers that his beloved great-aunt has given away part of it to a stranger.

Layla, while absolutely loving the Rosier valley and just as smitten with its caretaker as he is with her, initially stubbornly refuses to even contemplate giving in to Matt's demands about returning the land. Yet as she observes his interaction with the workers during the rose harvest, his cousins, his elderly relatives and gets to know how caring, sensitive and considerate he is beneath his growly exterior, and how important a part the valley plays in his life, she's no longer certain she can keep the property. She discovers the reasons why she was given the land by Matt's great-aunt and gets some desperately needed time to relax and recharge, beginning to have new ideas for songs as she takes part in the rose harvest and quiet village life.

While Matt is probably too deeply rooted in his valley, needing to consider and accept the possibility of change, Layla has always been a nomad, never happy to settle too long in one place. She's been happily travelling the world, making a living from her music at various festivals the world over, long before she achieved fame with her album. She loves to play, but has come to hate the way touring and performing has exposed her and her feelings to the world. Her music and creativity has completely dried up. She hasn't allowed herself any time to rest and recuperate, and the little valley in France provides a safe haven, where she can remain anonymous and free.

Matt's many cousins are hilarious, and such a fun supporting cast. While the sequel bait was pretty obvious, I didn't mind, and I just hope that they are all as entertaining in future books as they are as secondary characters here. There is always a lovely sense of place and community in Florand's books, and here we get the French countryside and tiny villages instead of the bustling city life of Paris in her previous books. I liked how the cousins were competitive, but also deeply protective of one another. Matt's previous relationship was with a self-centred supermodel, who used him shamelessly and ended disastrously. When they discover that Layla is also famous, they are worried she will break his heart all over again. Layla, a genuinely decent person, understands their protective instinct and doesn't get offended.

In many of Florand's books, there is a strong fairytale feel, and this book is no different. There is the big gruff hero, constantly compared to a bear, the enchantingly beautiful valley full of roses, and a tiny curly-haired heroine who keeps being compared to Goldilocks. With less of the angst of some of Florand's earlier books, this is a thoroughly diverting piece of fluffy escapism. I shall have to go in search of the novella collection that features the story of how Matt's cousin Raoul and his girlfriend Allegra met, and am eagerly awaiting the sequels where Matt's three single cousins eventually find their matches.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 19: "Odinsbarn" (Odin's Child) by Siri Pettersen

Page count: 621 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Walking from the pub during a dark and cold winter night, the solitary Thorrald finds a baby abandoned in the snow. Unwrapping her to see if he can find signs of who left her there, he discovers that the child has no tail and is therefore one of the feared abominations from another world, believed to spread the Rot and worse things. Unable to leave her to die, he instead uses his daggers to give her scars, making it look as if wolves tore her tail off.

Fifteen years later, Hirka, as he has named the girl, is worried because she, like all other fifteen-year-olds in the country, is about to go to the capital to complete the Rite, a coming of age ceremony where a person's future course in life is determined, mainly based on how much magical ability and connection to the natural forces that person has. Hirka has no such abilities. She's a dud. Not only is she seen as a bit of a freak because her father is the eccentric herbalist and wise-man, living in a possibly haunted hut at the edge of town, but her outspokenness, bright red hair and lack of tail makes her stand out. No one but her father knows that she has absolutely no connection to the Earth, no ability to summon up the mystical forces around her. Her father is determined that they must pack up and leave the little village, seeking refuge in Ravnhov, the one province where the inhabitants ignore the precepts of the capital and no longer send their teens to the Rite. When Hirka expresses reluctance to leave the only life she's ever known, her father tells her the truth - she's a human, an Odin's child, one of the fabled creatures from another world, an abomination and a terror. Her mother didn't die in childbirth and she was never attacked by wolves as a child, having her tail severed. She is devastated, but determined to find a way to complete the Rite.

Hirka goes to one of her only friends, Rime, for help, unaware that he is in fact struggling with difficulties of his own. Orphaned at the age of six, Rime is from one of the most prominent ruling families in the country, and his grandmother Ilume is one of the most influential members of the Council. While in theory, the twelve seats on the Council are to be open to anyone at the Rite with enough magical ability, in practise the positions are kept within the same twelve families. At his own Rite ceremony, Rime showed immense promise, more magically adept than anyone his age. Completely going against all his grandmother's expectations, Rime swears himself to the Kolkagga, the secretive, faceless order of assassins employed by the Council, who forswear property and family, fearless in their missions because they consider themselves already dead.

Hirka is unaware that Rime has been training with the order for the last few years since his own Rite ceremony, and is only back home to escort his disapproving grandmother, who is moving permanently to the capital. Having always been an outsider as well, because of his status, Rime greatly values his friendship with Hirka because she never treated him with the fear and/or deference common in everyone else. He's astonished when she tells him she has no way of sensing the powers of the earth, but working together, they discover that Hirka can channel Rime's powers as long as they are touching, even amplifying them.

Neither is aware of the sinister machinations of Urd, the most recent member elected to the Council. He wins his place after careful lobbying and manipulation of the other members after his father's death and is working to incite a war between the rebellious province of Ravnhov and the rest of the country. His reasons for doing so remain unclear at first, but there are clear connections between his schemes and the events that led to Hirka being found in the snow fifteen years ago.

Hirka knows that if it is discovered that she is an Odin's child and a human, she will most likely be hunted down and killed. She should seek refuge among the people of Ravnhov and stay far away from the Rite ceremony and the capital. Even before discovering her true heritage, she knew that she and Rime were from vastly different spheres, socially and financially, yet when he returns after years away, she can't help but notice how their childhood friendship has evolved into something more. She knows that she needs to help him stop the war that is brewing, even if it means her secrets being uncovered and her life becoming forfeit.

This is the first fantasy novel I have ever read in Norwegian. I know, it's my native language, I work as a Norwegian teacher, it's frankly shameful that I haven't read more of the huge amounts of great literature produced by my own countrymen and women every year. In my (not very good, but I offer it nonetheless) defence, when I started reading fantasy, in my teens, there was no one really writing decent fantasy in Norwegian, and the early translations of the books I was discovering were generally dreadful. So I became a complete book snob, determined only ever to read fantasy in the original language (English) and haven't really been paying much attention to what has been produced in my own country for the past two decades.

It was actually a really strange experience to read this book. For the first fifty pages or so, I was having to get used to reading about an epic fantasy world with a distinct and genre-specific vocabulary in Norwegian. I'm well versed in fantasy terms in English, in Norwegian, it's a different story. Writing this review has proved a bit of a challenge, as this book as of yet isn't translated into English (I hope for the sakes of all my non-Scandinavian readers that it is, so you can read it too), so I have no reference to help me with a lot of the sometimes unusual Norwegian terms. While I work as a language teacher and teach English as a foreign language to teenagers, I am by no means a translator, and have tried to muddle through as best I can to convey the plot, even though I'm writing in a different language than the book is in originally.

This is a fantasy aimed at young adults, and it's been nominated for several awards. It won the Fable Award in 2014 and was recently ranked 9th in a poll of the best YA fiction of all time by one of the national newspapers. It's the first book in a trilogy, and I've already placed myself on the waiting list for the sequel at my local library.

There is so much to like about this book. The world building is creative, set in a world with clear Old Norse influences, yet clearly different to our own. All the inhabitants have tails and inherent magical abilities. The name of the trilogy translates as The Raven Circles, referencing the magical stone circles that can be found in various locations around the world. Ravens are messenger birds and holy animals, the physical manifestation of the god everyone worships, the Seer. Odin is a foreign and alien god, believed to have stolen his ravens from this world. Humans are seen as something scary and terrible, spreading something known as the Rot and believed to be in league with the Blind Ones, terrifying monsters who bring death and destruction. Of course, no one has ever actually seen a human before Hirka arrives, through some mystical ceremony we learn very little about.

There are a number of provinces, only one of which is not firmly under the control of the capital and the ruling Council. There are legends about how the Council was formed, long ago, by twelve warriors who fought a threat from the Blind Ones. There used to be independent kings ruling the various regions, and Ravnhov is the only province where they still want to go back to the old ways. There is a possible civil war about to start, incited by the ambitious Urd for reasons known only to him.

The story is told as if the reader is familiar with the world and its traditions, avoiding info dumping altogether. The geography, history, political and religious traditions of the world is all revealed gradually, as the story progresses. After the intriguing prologue, where Thorrald finds the baby in the snow, the first part of the plot may be a bit slow, but it sets the scene and establishes many of the important characters in a good way. I was certainly hooked early on.

Hirka is a great character, brave, loyal and self-sacrificing, without ever becoming a Mary Sue. You sense how lonely her childhood has been, with her only real friends being Rime, who is as close to a prince as you can get in a society which has abolished kings, and Vetle, the half-witted son of the village's Raven Keeper. She desperately wants to fit in, and her entire world shatters when she discovers her entire life has been a lie. She has been trained in herbalism and the healing arts by Thorrald, the only father she's ever known and uses her gifts to help people, even when she could be risking her own safety. She is clever and quick-witted, but not any stronger or faster than any other girl her age. She finds herself having to flee for her life more than once, but refuses to stay in hiding when she discovers that her friends might be in danger or that there are wrongs to be righted.

Rime, her childhood friend and potential love interest, could learn from her example (and does over the course of the story). Pampered and raised in luxury by his grandmother after his parents were killed during a trip, in an avalanche he miraculously survived, he has always felt his family's expectations of him as a heavy burden. He has no desire to follow his grandmother and take one of the most prominent seats on the ruling Council. By becoming a member of the Kolkagga, he gives up the riches of his family name, the political power and the influence to become one of many faceless assassins, the dark hand of the Council, one of a vast brotherhood of equals. Of course, he is also escaping the responsibilities of future rule and as the book progresses, it is quite clear that the political situation in the land is growing increasingly more corrupt and there is need of good people to step in and effect change in how the country is ruled. By becoming Kolkagga, Rime is unable to influence politics in a more advantageous direction.

I very much enjoyed the story, and can't wait to see what happens next. I did, however, wish that the magical abilities that everyone was supposed to possess could have been a bit more clearly explained. I also thought some of the events towards the exciting climax of the book happened very quickly and in some cases, rather too conveniently. Not everything was explained to my satisfaction, shall we say.  There is the beginning of a romance in the book, which frankly I would have loved more of, but it is a YA book, and the protagonists are fifteen and eighteen, so I suppose I will just have to hope it develops further in the books to come. I was happy to discover the first book was featured in the annual February book sales, so have already bought my own copy, saving me from having to rely on the library if I want to re-read.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 20 February 2015

#CBR7 Book 18: "Rivers of London" by Ben Aaronovitch

Page count: 400 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 56 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Peter Grant is a probationary officer with the London Metropolitan Police when he, one night takes a witness statement from an individual who just happens to be a ghost. Unusual as this is, it saves Peter from a life of tedium in the Case Progression Unit (basically doing other cops' paperwork for them) and to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, who just happens to be a wizard. Peter becomes the first wizard's apprentice in England for more than 50 years, but Harry Potter this is not.

Some malevolent supernatural force is possessing individuals all over London, causing riots, unrest and death. The victims of the possession end up dead with their faces collapsed. There appears to be no clear connection between the crimes and the victims, but Peter and his fellow Detective Constable Leslie May investigate as best they can. Peter is also learning what it means to be a wizard - mainly a lot of tedious Latin study, reading history of magic text books and hours and hours of repetitive practise to do the most basic of spells. He does get to live in some very swanky digs with all his meals cooked by the silent and mysterious Molly and once he gets broadband and cable TV installed in parts of the house, things are looking pretty promising. Occasionally he even gets to drive Nightingale's flashy Jaguar.

As well as learning the basics of magic and trying to solve the strange and violent murders, Peter needs to help Nightingale negotiate a truce between Old Father Themes and Mama Themes, who are in disagreement as to who has control of the river and the city of London. The conflict needs to be resolved before their children come to blows.

I got my Audible account when I was advised that Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden books were a lot more enjoyable when narrated by James Marsters. Last year, I finally got caught up, and suddenly no longer had a monthly book to spend a credit on. As Audible only allows you to hoard six measly credits, I keep having to find new audio books to spend my credits on. This is not helped by the fact that I have discovered myself to be very picky when it comes to who narrates the books. If I don't like the narrator's voice, the quality of the book doesn't matter. I won't enjoy the book. Happily, Audible allows me to sample the books before I buy. But I've been looking for a new series to spend my credits on, and I think I may have found it. My previous experience with Ben Aaronovitch is as a script writer on classic Doctor Who. While I'm not a huge fan of Sylvester McCoy's Doctor (the Doctor of my husband's childhood), I am rather fond of both Remembrance of the Daleks (the Special Weapon's Dalek!) and Battlefield (I'm a sucker for Ancelyn and Bambera's burgeoning romance).

Having listened to the sample on Audible, I really liked the narration from Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. IMDB tells me he's got 31 acting credits to his name, but I've never seen him in anything, nor had I heard of him before. He has a wonderful voice, though, and narrates the various characters in the book brilliantly, mastering the various regional accents and tones without any difficulty. He really made all the characters come alive and while I don't doubt I would have liked the book fine if I read it myself, the audio book experience was great. I will absolutely be picking up more of these books on Audible and can recommend them to anyone else who wants entertaining paranormal/urban fantasy, differing a bit from a lot of the books out there simply by being set in London, not somewhere in the US.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 17: "Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell" by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! I was given an ARC of this through NetGalley in return for a fair and unbiased review.

Readers should be aware that this is the second book of Veronica Mars mysteries. Readers should probably watch the movie (it's on Netflix) and read the first book before reading this. If you're not caught up, there will be spoilers in the review below.

Veronica Mars is hired by the insurance agents for the Neptune Grand, to prove that one of the hotel's staff members didn't assault a young woman and leave her for dead. The investigation is complicated by the fact that the crime happened several months earlier (around the same time Veronica was busy trying to locate kidnapped girls in The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line), the victim claims not to remember the events clearly and refuses to reveal who she was at the hotel to meet the night of the attack, the hotel refuses to share their reservations list and the accused attacker has been deported to Mexico. Never one to back down from a challenge, Veronica nonetheless throws herself into the case with her customary determination.

While Veronica is being recruited by high profile clients, Keith Mars and Cliff McCormack are trying to hit the Neptune Sheriff's Department where it hurts by helping Eli "Weevil" Navarro with a lawsuit. As Sheriff Lamb is busy trying to get himself re-elected, and there's a promising new candidate running against him, so the victory isn't automatic, the case building against the department could be very damaging.

On the home front, Veronica is trying to get used to living with Logan, who is home on shore leave. While she's firm in her decision that she wants to be a P.I., not a lawyer, she's having more trouble accepting that the US Air Force seems to be where Logan has really found his calling. He's taking Arabic lessons and all signs point to him wanting to go back on active duty, a prospect that scares hell out of Veronica.

If I can't have more Veronica on my TV, I'm really happy that the Kickstarter funds helped get these books created. The characters feel just as real as they were on the show, and Neptune is as authentic a location on the page as it was on my screen. I've seen several reviews complain that while the previous book barely had any Logan, this book was very light on Wallace. That complaint is a fair one, but as Wallace pretty much stole every scene he actually did get to be in, I still felt he played an important part and as always provided Veronica with much needed support in her mystery solving.

With Veronica and Logan's relationship being so passionate and stormy, and frequently quite toxic in TV show, it's both strange and wonderful to see that both characters have matured and grown up and now finally seem ready for a stable life together. I very much enjoyed the scenes of their domesticity, and while I can sympathise with Veronica's fears and worries about Logan going back on active duty in the Gulf, the book very clearly explains why being an Air Force pilot isn't just some adrenaline kick or game for Logan, but something that saved him when he was spiralling out of control. It's a vocation and something that gives his life meaning and purpose, just as Veronica's detective work is a vital part of who she is.

I really liked that the mystery takes Veronica several months to solve and the book clearly showed that it requires a lot of leg work, frustrating investigation, countless dead ends, patience and determination to solve a case like this. As always, spending time with the established cast from the show is great. The new sheriff's candidate, with her ties to Keith's past was also an intriguing additon to the cast. I really hope we get many more books about everyone's favourite tiny blonde P.I.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 19 February 2015

#CBR7 Book 16: "Written in My Own Heart's Blood" by Diana Gabaldon

Page count: 1008 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Hey everyone, guess who finally got caught up with this series? My epic re-read is done and I can now join the ever-increasing (I'm just taking for granted that more people will be reading the books as the TV show makes them curious and/or desperate for more Jamie and Claire) ranks of people languishing in wait for the next book.


While this is the shortest book Gabaldon has written in about two decades, there is still a LOT of story here. As always, the book is split into multiple sections. In some, we follow Jamie and Claire and all their family members, friends, acquaintances and antagonists in the late 18th Century, where the American War of Independence is in full swing. Other parts focus on Jamie and Claire's daughter Brianna, who has more than enough to deal with in terms of her own challenges in the late 20th Century. Such as the fact that her husband, Roger MacKenzie Wakefield and one of his ancestors is off in the middle of the 18th Century, looking for Jem, their son, who they believed an unscrupulous neighbour kidnapped and took through the standing stones in search of the gold treasure Jamie Fraser hid in a previous book. Except Brianna fairly quickly locates the boy, but has to worry about the crazy dude and his accomplices who will stop at nothing to find the gold, and the certainty that Roger will not return from the past until he's found his son, a task that will prove utterly impossible.

Claire's joy that Jamie isn't dead after all is quickly turned to worry when Jamie promptly abducts her current husband, Lord John Grey, to use as a hostage to avoid being captured by the British troops in Philadelphia. After Lord John foolishly, but oh so honourably, confesses to having had carnal knowledge of Claire when they were both drunk and grief-stricken, Jamie proceeds to beat the snot out of his former best friend, then leaves him to fend for himself against a bunch of rebel soldiers. Badly done, Jamie! I was not best pleased at this. While worrying about both her husbands, and her step-son, Lord William Ellesmere, who just discovered his true parentage when coming face to face with Jamie Fraser, in the process of abducting William's adopted father, Claire also makes the acquaintance of Lord John's older brother, the Duke of Pardloe, newly arrived in the Colonies and looking for the various members his family (his son is recovering from surgery and his daughter wants to marry a Quaker). Trying to keep him distracted from looking for his brother or nephew proves easier than expected once he is incapacitated by a powerful asthma attack, which Claire, aided by Jamie's sister Jenny, helps him recover from. Much of the first half of the book is taken up with the Frasers and the Greys and their extended families being separated, and reuniting in various fashions while fighting in the Revolutionary war. I am amazed at the many near-death encounters the various members of the Fraser clan can survive.


When it's been a while since I've read one of her books, I keep forgetting how very funny Gabaldon can be. I frequently laugh out loud when reading the books, as well as occasionally curse the characters for their poor decisions or roll my eyes at the preposterous situations they find themselves in. Unlike in several of the previous books, I didn't think there were huge sections where nothing much at all happened, most of the plot strands felt purposeful and drove the story and the characterisation onward. The exception to this, to a certain extent, was Roger's jump back to the past. While I understand why Gabaldon probably found them fun to write, these chapters with all the mention of time travel back and forth and all over the place, all got a bit too wibbily wobbly timey wimey for my tastes. While it gave the readers a chance to see certain familiar characters from earlier in the series again and in a slightly new light, I was mainly just bored and wanting to get back to other characters in other times when reading these bits.

If you've made it through the previous seven books in the series, I don't entirely see why you wouldn't read this as well. I agree with most of the other reviews I've read of this book that it's probably the best since Voyager. It's got its fair share of historical cameos (George Washington. Benedict Arnold. Benjamin Franklin, you get the gist). There are weddings, funerals, babies being born, people dying, people being taken prisoner, people escaping, Claire performing some truly grisly medical procedures, time travel, battles and wonderful quiet family moments. We reconnect with the characters we already know and get to know several new ones. Whatever you do, do not choose this as their first Gabaldon book. If you want to experience these massive books and get to know its huge cast of fasciating characters, start at the beginning with Outlander.

With this book, I also complete my first reading challenge of the year - complete at least four different series, in the Finish the Series Reading Challenge

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 8 February 2015

#CBR7 Book 15: "The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 385 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Sir Richard Kenworthy has less than a month to find a bride, and secure her hand in marriage. She can't really be an heiress or a diamond of the first water, because it's really quite imperative that she accept his proposal, no matter what. When he spots Miss Iris Smythe-Smith suffering behind her cello at her family's infamous annual musicale, he is intrigued. Very blond and pale-skinned, she should be unremarkable, but she's clearly good at playing her instrument, which can't be said for her other female relatives. He forces his friend Winston Bevelstoke to introduce him and becomes quite smitten, which wasn't really part of the plan.

Iris is surprised and not a little suspicious when Sir Richard seems so very taken with her. She's used to being overlooked and underestimated and spends most of her time out in society quietly observing others, quite content to rest among the chaperones and the wallflowers. Sir Richard flirts with her, he calls with flowers and insists on taking her for walks. He gives every impression of falling for her, but Iris can't help but wonder why his courtship seems so rushed. When he proposes after only a week's acquaintance, and compromises her with a kiss shortly after, she doesn't really have a choice but to accept him, but it's clear that he is hiding something and she's worried about discovering what it is.

Richard feels deeply guilty about forcing Iris into marriage, especially as after only a week, he has discovered that she is a much better wife than he could ever have dreamed of snaring with his whirlwind courtship. She's witty, clever, caring and loyal and clearly very forbearing of her family member's flaws and foibles, something he desperately hopes will mean that she might eventually forgive him, once she discovers the secrets that forced his hand in marrying her.

This is the fourth and final book in the Smythe-Smith quartet. It's by no means required that you've read any of the other books, although several previous Julia Quinn characters pop up for cameos or are mentioned, and your enjoyment might be increased if you know more about the extended romance universe in which Quinn sets her books. While I love most of her Bridgerton novels and her two latter Bevelstoke novels in particular (I also adore the running gag of the schlocky Gothic Sarah Gorely novels in her later books), her plots have seemed a bit on the overly melodramatic side in these last four books, and in The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy, I think it got almost too much for my disbelief to willingly suspend itself.

While I had my suspicions about some of the things Richard was hiding back on his estate in Yorkshire, I doubt that many would be expecting the full extent of his plans, because that was some soap opera level intrigue right there. There is a lot of the witty banter and light escapism that Quinn is so good at, but when the plot gets as ridiculous as this one did at times, it does spoil my enjoyment somewhat.

Iris was a lovely heroine, though and it's always nice to see romance protagonist who isn't stunningly gorgeous (although there is happily a lot more diversity in the shape and appearance of heroines nowadays). She's learned to be happy with being a wallflower and loves her large and boisterous family, for all their flaws. She's clever and quietly wry, and very much wants to be a good wife and sister-in-law, as well as a capable lady of her own estate. She's flattered by Richard's attentions, but because he's probably the first man to ever really notice her, she is suspicious and with good reason. She's deeply upset when she discovers why their courtship was so sudden, even more so because while Richard was underhanded and deceitful, they also find common ground and make a connection and when the truth comes out, Iris is worried that the affection she believed her husband felt for her is a lie as well. Since she is well on her way to falling in love with him, she feels doubly betrayed.

It's thanks to Iris' calm and quiet competence that the melodramatic plot doesn't spiral completely out of control, though, as once she gets over the initial hurt, she sets about to sort things out. It helps that Richard in no way is a bad man, and the secrets that he's concealing are not of his own doing. He's desperately trying to do the right thing in a difficult situation, but goes about it in a staggeringly foolish way. Unlike in Lady Windermere's Lover, which I read last month, where I thought the hero's actions were pretty much unforgivable and the heroine should have run off with her husband's best friend, I didn't think Richard was undeserving of Iris. The romance part of the plot was sweet and satisfying. I just wished the major complication of the plot hadn't been quite so overblown. I still enjoy Julia Quinn's books, but she may be slipping off my auto-buy list if this trend continues.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 14: "First Frost" by Sarah Addison Allen

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! St. Martin's Press gave me an ARC of this through NetGalley in return for a fair and honest review.

Ten years have passed since the events of Garden Spells. Claire Waverly has put her catering business on hold and branched out with boiled candy. The lemon verbena can soothe any throat or heartache, the rose candies can make you recall lost love and the lavender makes you calm and happy. After a feature article in a high-profile magazine made demand for her candy explode, Claire has had to hire in external help, as well as purchasing ready-made essences as the production needs far more than she can make from her own garden. While she used to love cooking and baking for her family, now she serves them take out, and she barely has time for her husband and daughter. Always uncertain about how deserving she was of the Waverley legacy, she keeps searching for answers in her grandmother's old journals and trying to figure out how she's going to manage her future. 

Her sister Sidney is happily married and running her own salon, wildly popular, because a haircut from Sidney Waverley is not only extremely flattering, but seems to bring luck and success. Yet Sidney is longing for a baby, a son for her husband Henry, who can help him run the farm, like he used to help his now dead grandfather. She puts up with the extreme unreliability of the newly hired receptionist Violet because with Violet in the salon, she more often than not tends to bring her toddler, Charlie, and if Sidney can't have a child of her own, at least she can spoil this scatter-brained young woman's when she has opportunity.

Sidney's daughter Bey, now in high school, has always known exactly where things belong. She could go into a completely new house and help put away dishes or bed linens, which tends to scare people as often as it impresses them. She knows, with every fibre of her being, that she belongs right there in Bascom, North Carolina, in the Waverley house, and that Josh Matteson, youngest son of her mother's high school sweetheart belongs with her. She foolishly wrote him a note to this effect some months ago, which has made her the laughing stock of her school, but she knows that if she patiently waits, he will realise the truth soon enough. While she waits, she helps her aunt Claire make sweets and hopes her mother will stop nagging her about the identity of the boy she likes.

It's October, and the Waverley women, as well as their men, are awaiting the first frost of the season, when the peculiar apple tree in the back garden will blossom. The weeks before this event always leads to some kind of craziness, and this year there is a mysterious stranger in town, with ties to Claire and Sidney's mother and stories to tell that could change all their lives forever.

I re-read Garden Spells for the first time in four years before I read this book, to remind myself of the story of the Waverley sisters. I don't doubt that you could read First Frost without having read the former, but as it's probably my favourite of all of Sarah Addison Allen's excellent and magical books, I'm not entirely sure why you'd want to. This book will be so much more satisfying if you have the back story of the characters, and it's a lovely book. So if you haven't already, go read it first. This book can wait until you're done.

I must admit, I was a bit worried when I heard this was a sequel. The first book ended on such a hopeful and happy note, and sequels rarely involve only sunshine and puppies for the characters. The blurb suggested that all was not right with the Waverley women who I'd come to love, and I was deeply concerned that this book was going to mess things up badly. Of course, I shouldn't have been. While both sisters are less than happy at the start of First Frost, and there are events in the book that could spell further misery and disaster, the strong relationship that has formed between the two women, not to mention the support of their families and friends is powerful enough that no external threat can faze them for long. Sarah Addison Allen, for all that she tackles dark themes in her books on occasion, is ultimately about the happy ending, and I'm sorry if you feel that I'm spoiling when I say by the end of this book I had a goofy grin on my face.

As well as showing us what has happened with the Waverley sisters and their families in the ten years since the last book, First Frost also sheds further light on their grandmother Mary and their unfortunate mother Lorelei. This book will be a very satisfying read for anyone who has enjoyed Sarah Addison Allen's previous books. She's a writer whose characters I want to be friends with and she writes places I wish were real, so I could visit or even live in them.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 3 February 2015

#CBR7 Book 13: "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" by Ann Brashares

Page count: 303 pages
Rating: 4 stars

 Four fifteen-year-old girls, life-long best friends, are about to spend their first summer apart. On the night before three of them go away, they discover a pair of second-hand jeans that Carmen, the original owner, was planning on getting rid of. They discover that despite their varying heights and body types, the jeans look awesome and super flattering on all four of them, and decide to use the jeans as a device to keep in contact throughout the summer. They make a pact that they need to make the jeans count for something, and have to send them on within one week of receiving them from the previous girl in line. Over the course of eight weeks, the girls will have all had the pants twice.

Beautiful, but very shy Lena is going with her younger sister to visit their grandparents in Greece for the first time. She's annoyed to discover that her grandmother is trying to set her up with Kostos, a very handsome young man from the village, and determines to avoid him just because her grandmother is so adamant that they are perfect for each other. She just wants to work on her painting and brood about being so far away from her friends. After a big misunderstanding, the Kostos' grandparents and her own have a massive falling out, and she spends much of the summer trying to work up the courage to tell everyone the truth and sort everything out again.

Carmen, whose mother is from Costa Rica, is spending the summer with her dad, who she's only had sporadic contact with since her parents got divorced years earlier. She's imagined a relaxed and carefree summer, where she will help her dad shop for bedlinens and kitchen items for his no-doubt sparse bachelor pad, while they eat take-out and discuss movies. Instead she discovers that her father is living with his new fiancee, who has two teenagers of her own, and that they are planning to get married by the end of the summer. Carmen is crushed that her father didn't so much as give her a hint at what to expect, and feels terribly out of place with her new step-family, where everyone is tall and blond and seem more like her father's biological kids than she is. Carmen deals very badly with her new situation and keeps acting more and more like a spoiled brat, until the disastrous visit culminates with her breaking a window and hopping on a bus back to her mother.

Bridget is spending the summer at a soccer camp in Baja, Mexico, where she makes a lot of new friends while still desperately missing her old ones. She falls in love with one of the assistant coaches, and despite extremely strict rules about the players and coaches fraternising in any way, throws herself into an attempt to win his affection. She also has to come to terms with the fact that the coaches won't always let her be the stand-out player on the field, frequently disappointed that the coaches order her to play in positions that limit her abilities.

Finally, Libby isn't going anywhere, facing the prospect of working a retail job at Wallman's pharmacy, jealous of her friends who are off experiencing things. She decides to make a documentary basically showing the sad existence of people around her, but the film making and her summer takes an unexpected turn when she unwittingly befriends twelve-year-old Bailey, who's sick with leukaemia, but refuses to let Libby treat her with any kind of pity. Bailey keeps meeting her at Wallman's after work and insists on helping her with the documentary. Also, since she has had to face up to the possibility of dying, she's a lot less self-pitying and annoying than Libby and her friends.

To begin with, I rolled my eyes a lot when reading this. All four of the girls really are such quintessential teenagers, with their narcissism and their complete lack of perspective, so focused on their own wants and feelings, with very little though for anyone else or the world in general. I work with teenage girls every day, they felt very real, but not necessarily in the most likable of ways. Each of the girls has her own issues and worries though, which tempers the annoyance I felt for them. Lena has always been judged by her looks, and no one really sees past her stunning beauty. Carmen refuses to admit how much her parents' divorce actually affected her. Bridget still mourns the loss of her mother, and is prone to the same depression that led her mother to eventually kill herself. Libby barely ever sees her dad because he's working all the time, while her mother is constantly busy raising her tiny and demanding siblings. Reading this book made me so intensely glad I never have to be a teenager again.

My favourite character was totally Bailey, the snarky twelve-year-old who because of her horrible illness has become wise beyond her years. Thanks to her, Libby is forced to snap out of her own self-pity and grow up a bit, and the wisdom she slowly gains slowly trickles on to her three other friends as well. Also, annoying as I found the four protagonists on occasion, they are teenagers, and teenagers are awful. It would have been more unrealistic if they were all great all the time. Their friendships were also a thing of beauty. Most of the time, there are too many Mean Girls in YA fiction. Here none of the girl is the bitchy friend, they're just all supportive and there for each other. For much of the book, I was pretty sure this was a three star read, but towards the last third of the book, especially after it made me cry, I had to upgrade it. Once a book makes me cry actual tears, it deserves a four star rating. I have not watched the movie, and suspect I don't want to. Just looking up the casting afterwards to remind myself of who Hollywood felt were good facsimiles of the protagonists convinced me that the movie is probably not for me. I'm also not sure I have a burning need to read the many sequels (where I'm assuming the jeans must get pretty threadbare), but I don't at all regret buying this book in an e-book sale.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 12: "Girl, Interrupted" by Susanna Kaysen

Page count: 192 pages
Rating: 4 stars

When Susanna Kaysen was 18, she went to see a new psychiatrist for a conversation after what appears to have been a suicide attempt. She swallowed a large amount of sleeping pills, then regretted her decision and wandered out into the street to get help. The psychiatrist claimed to have spoken to and evaluated Ms. Kaysen for more than three hours, Ms. Kaysen herself claims the meeting was barely half an hour. The end result was nonetheless that she ended up committed to McLean Hospital, a mental institution, for nearly 18 months, diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

The book doesn't follow a chronological narrative, but rather jumps around, in a series of vignettes and recollections from Ms. Kaysen's time in the mental institution and her thoughts about her own diagnose, treatment and the treatment of mental illness in the 1960s in general. She describes the ward where she stayed, the various girls who were in the institution with her, several of the doctors and nurses and a lot of the day to day life in the hospital. It is clear from some of what Ms. Kaysen relates that she was a troubled and conflicted young woman, she among other things had an affair with her English teacher, but whether she was so mentally ill that she needed to be institutionalised is unclear. From Ms. Kaysen's in-depth explorations of what actually lies behind the justification for "borderline personality disorder", quite a lot of young people just starting out in life fit into that profile and most do not end up heavily medicated and monitored in a mental hospital. Whether a confused and somewhat depressed young woman's situation was made a lot worse by incarcerating her and surrounding her with actually mentally ill women is also one of the questions the reader is left with.

I had only ever seen the film version of this, with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. I saw it many years ago, and can remember not being all that impressed with it. When I saw the book was on sale in e-book recently, I recalled various Cannonball reviews over the years speaking positively about it, and decided to give it a try. Especially as it fit into several of my reading challenges this month, like the Monthly Key Word (girl) and the Monthly Motif one (which was Books turned into Movies for January). It's a quick read. I actually read more than half of it on my Kindle app on my way to and from visiting a friend a bit outside Oslo. I finished the whole thing in less than four hours. The Hollywood film was mainly a showcase for Angelina Jolie's acting than an interesting exploration of mental illness and society's willingness to remove things that make it uncomfortable from sight. I would recommend anyone who has just dismissed the book because of a negative impression of the film (like I had) give the book a try. It's good, really.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 11: "Owl and the Japanese Circus" by Kirsti Charish

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Alix "Owl" Hiboux is an archaeology grad student who was screwed over by her professors and turned to a life of art theft to support herself. After a job gone wrong, she ended up on some French vampires' hit list and has been hiding out in a Winnebago in the desert, playing online roleplaying games in her downtime. She's sworn off any kind of supernatural job ever again, but can't really refuse when a helicopter comes to pick her up to take her to Mr. Kurosawa, owner of the Japanese Circus Casino in Las Vegas. Owl is shocked to discover that Mr. Kurosawa is in fact a Japanese dragon, and refusing to work for him will probably result in him eating her. He arranges for the vampires to stop hunting Owl in return for her locating an ancient treasure for him.

As refusal will mean either that the vampires hunting her will track her down, or the dragon actually eating her, Owl reluctantly agrees. She finds the egg Mr. Kurosawa wants fairly easily, but is told that the real treasure the dragon wanted was the contents of the egg, a magic scroll, now missing. Owl's job just got a lot trickier. She enlists the help of her best friend, Nadya, a Russian hospitality waitress living in Tokyo and discovers, while fleeing for her life in a Balinese temple, that Rynn, the handsome bartender she's been flirting with on and off used to be a very skilled mercenary, and has been hired by Kurosawa's right hand man to keep her out of too much danger. Of course, Owl seems to be a danger magnet, constantly ending up in life-threatening scrapes.

As Owl and her two friends try to track the scroll, they have to contend with vampires, an ancient Balinese naga (part snake, part beautiful woman), near-impossible decryption, traps, double-crosses, vengeance spirits and more. Owl's supernatural detection is truly abominable, proven by the fact that most of the people she surrounds herself with turn out to be some kind of supernatural creature. She would probably be dead several times over if it wasn't for the assistance of Captain, her vampire-hating Mau cat, whose claws and teeth seem to be venomous to vampires.

This is the first book in a new series. I hadn't heard of Kristi Charish before, but the book was highlighted in January releases by Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and come on, it's an art thief chased by vampires working for a dragon. For $1.99, I pretty much had to buy it, not matter how it turned out. The series and the characters show promise, but for all that there is a lot to like, there is also a lot that didn't entirely work for me.

What I liked:
- The unusual set-up. I love the fact that in this supernatural universe, shape-shifting dragons are totally a thing, and have no problem believing that they would be fearsome and successful business owners.
- The variety of supernatural creatures in the story. Over the course of the book, Owl, for all that she is rubbish at spotting them initially, comes into contact with a slew of supernatural creatures. There are Japanese spirits, luck demons, nymphs, nagas, incubi, vampires, even elves. Somewhat different from the shapeshifter/vampire fare of a lot of urban fantasy.
- The socially awkward aspect to our heroine. Owl is actually a bit of a disaster socially speaking. She has a tendency to mouth off every time she feels vaguely threatened, which often leads her into more dangerous situations than she started out in. She also spends most of her spare time playing computer games, engaging in witty banter with her online players, at least one of whom becomes an important secondary character in the book.

What I didn't like so much:
- The socially awkward aspect of our heroine. Unfortunately, while it's initially amusing that Owl isn't all that great with people, it also became exasperating that she kept getting into worse and worse scrapes because she would recklessly and blindly rush into situations that were clearly hella dangerous or even obvious traps, or mouth off to the people threatening her.
- The number of dangerous situations Owl escapes more or less unharmed. This book is a bit of a roller coaster of danger and escaping it. Considering she is just a normal, frankly surprisingly clueless human (it's made a joke out of, but seriously, after that many situations where your opponents turn out to be supernatural, it's just common sense to start researching them and their weaknesses), Owl survives a LOT of bad shit relatively unharmed. She's constantly rescued by someone, be it Rynn, Captain the vampire slayer or even her friend Nadya. Even when she is injured, she seems to heal unfeasibly quickly.
- The pacing. Considering I, on occasion, read 400 page paranormal fantasy books in one sitting, or at most, a day and a half, the fact that it took me 6 days to get through this book should speak for itself. There was only a niggling sense of duty that made me pick it up to keep reading when I put it down. I did have a heavy workload while reading the book, but in the past, with books that are more engrossing, I tend to neglect said work, at least until I've finished the compelling book.

The book has promise and as long as Owl keeps growing and evolving as a character, I will give the series a few more chances. A lot of paranormal series take two to three books to really get good, and I can think of more than one heroine who needed to grow smarter and less reckless to really become a likable protagonist. I am a sucker for dragons, and any book series who have them as part of the paranormal big bads is going make me take notice. I have problems with your first book, Ms. Charish, but will be keeping an eye out for the sequel, hoping that the writing improves as the series progresses.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 10: "Trade Me" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 291 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Disclaimer! I was given an ARC of this through NetGalley in return for a fair and unbiased review. Of course, it being a Courtney Milan book, I had also already pre-ordered it, because I will buy anything she writes, even if said thing is a scientific treatise on spiders and cockroaches (the things that creep my out the most). If Ms. Milan ever reads this - please don't ever write a book like that. I will buy it, but I might not like it much. 

 Xingjuan "Tina" Chen is a mature student desperately struggling to make ends meet. Her goal is to become a doctor, so she'll make enough money that she and her family never need worry about paying the bills ever again. As it is, finding enough money to pay her own, and her parents' bills seems to be pretty much all Tina can think about. When she's not studying, she's working multiple jobs so she can send every spare penny home. Her father is unemployed and her mother is a cake decorator, proud every time a cake she makes turns up on "that website". She spends most of her spare time and whatever money she can find (including much of what Tina sends them) helping Chinese immigrants stay in the country and filing for citizenship. She's also a champion when it comes to emotional blackmail. Tina loves her mother dearly and admires her dedication on behalf of her community, but also feels exhausted constantly counting every penny in order to make sure her sister gets her medication and her parents' electricity isn't cut off.

So on the day when her ultra privileged classmate Blake Reynolds, trust fund billionaire and heir to Cyclone Technology (think Apple) first splashes her prized cashmere sweater with mud driving past in his sports car, and then tries to defend her in a class discussion about poverty, she pretty much loses it. She claims he wouldn't last two weeks living her life, let alone two months. Blake may not have known an hour of poverty in his life, but his cushy existence involves hard work and he feels crippled by the weight of expectation from his brilliant father. Having lived his life partly in the spotlight since he was a child, being the star of Cyclone's advertising, Blake is expected to take over the company. After his father's best friend and business partner died of a heart attack shortly before the launch of Cyclone's last big invention, his father, the legendary Adam Reynolds has just worked harder. He keeps hinting that he's ready for Blake to take over, though, and his son wouldn't dream of ever disappointing Adam. Even if it means keeping quit about the doubts and insecurities he's feeling.

So when Tina suggests trading lives, Blake is intrigued. While Tina may not think so, Blake has been admiring her from afar for a long time. He is also looking for a way to distract himself from the latest Cyclone launch and the serious conversation he's going to have to have with his father. He speaks to his financial advisors, and proposes that he and Tina actually swap places until the end of the semester. Tina will make enough money to put herself through college, and Blake will work and support her family while she works on the new Cyclone launch. Of course, to get access to the new Cyclone technology prototype, she has to sign a stack of non-disclosure agreements about as tall as herself and pretend to be Blake's girlfriend, convincing enough that Adam not hesitate to let her play with their expensive yet to be released toys.

Tina is adamant that the relationship be only pretend, and that she and Blake have no future together. Blake isn't going to push anything, allowing Tina her space, but the more time he spends with her, the more smitten he is. Yet while they're growing closer, and more attracted to each other, Blake isn't ready to share his secrets and fears with Tina either.

Anyone who has read my blog for any space of time, knows that Courtney Milan is one of my favourite authors. I consider her the best historical romance author writing at the moment and await each new release from her with bated breath. It was still a surprise when she revealed that she was taking a bit of a break from historicals to focus on contemporary romance, and New Adult at that. My experience with NA is that it tends to feature studious, often innocent and dissatisfied college women who fall for tattooed bad boys with dark pasts. There haven't really been all that many books slotted into the genre that impressed me. Of course Milan's book was one of the exceptions.

Milan's heroines are always awesome and deeply feminist role models living in a time when women had to fight to be seen or heard. Tina is a contemporary woman, but just as marginalised as many of her historical sisters in that she's an immigrant struggling to make ends meet. Seriously, Tina is dirt poor. There is a wonderful scene where Tina explains to Blake, who has a monthly allowance of 15 000 dollars just how long she can survive on a bag of rice and why it's necessary for her to do so. She can't afford to have her favourite sweater dry cleaned if her sister is to get her medication. The luxury she allows herself when she finally has Blake's income is mangoes. Nothing big, frivolous or flashy. Just fresh, ripe fruit.

Blake could have been unbearable. He's a young, charming billionaire, for God's sake. But Milan writes wonderful characters and Blake has real issues to handle, not just the fact that his father has used a public version of their relationship to advertise Cyclone since Blake was a small child. It's obvious early on that Blake has something big he's hiding from those close to him, and it's revealed every so gradually as the story progresses. I can't recall any other romances I've read where the hero deals with the same difficulties as Blake and it was an interesting take, just as I've come to expect from Ms. Milan.

In a lot of historical romances, the parents are either dead or awful. They aren't generally a feature in contemporary romances either, and if they are, the hero and heroine often have a strained relationship with them. Tina and Blake both struggle with the expectations their parents place on them, but there is never any doubt that Adam Reynolds or the Chens deeply love their children and want only good things for them. It was very refreshing to see such realistic and functional family relationships. Tina's family's good-natured teasing over Tina's obvious denials that she and Blake are a couple were great. Tina taking absolutely no crap from Adam (helped by the fact that when they meet, she's just pretending to date his son). So many good moments.

Then there is Maria, Tina's best friend, who is going to be the heroine of the next book in the Cyclone series. Maria and Tina met in college, where they were both the odd duck's out. The reasons why Maria didn't quite fit in with the rest of the girls and why she's had a lot of family drama is gradually and subtly revealed and I'm deeply impressed with the direction Milan is going. She keeps being a trail-blazer, and I was actually sorry to discover that I will have to wait until sometime late in 2015 for Maria's book, because I'm now super eager to find out more about her.

The only thing that kept this book from a full five stars is the ending, which was a bit too rushed and veered a bit too far into farcical melo-drama for me. I'm not going to deny that I laughed out loud during parts of it, but since the rest of the book was so plausibly done with such good pacing, the end just fell flat. Readers should also be aware that the book has more of a HFN (Happy for Now) ending than a HEA (Happily Ever After) and that Tina and Blake will get a second book later in the series. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 2 February 2015

#CBR7 Book 9: "The Darkest Part of the Forest" by Holly Black

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

In the little town of Fairfold, people know that faeries are real. You need to be careful and not call too much attention to yourself, like the tourists frequently do, or the faeries may play dangerous or even deadly pranks on you. One of the things that lures tourists to Fairfold is the glass coffin, deep in the woods. In it, there is a horned boy, sleeping eternally. He is a thing of otherworldy beauty with the tips of his ears sharp as knives. He's been sleeping there for generations, undisturbed by gawkers, tourists, partying teenagers or those desperate to try to break the coffin. Bad things tend to happen to those who try to break the coffin by force.

Ben and Hazel's parents are artists, and their mother was one of the Fairfold residents who may have called a bit too much attention to herself. Having gifted a faerie woman with a painting, her eldest child, Ben, was gifted, or possibly cursed, with the ability to play faerie music. Whether he wanted to or not, he would be compelled to play, and so well that he could enchant others with it. Hazel, still in the womb, was granted no such favours, and being the perfectly normal child in a family of distracted and dedicated artists can be a curse all on its own.

Seeing early how dangerous the faeries could be, Hazel took it upon herself to fight the worst of them, appointing herself a knight, with her brother the enchanted bard who assists her. Though only children, Ben and Hazel risked their lives to avenge tourists and Fairfold residents alike, until Ben was given a scholarship to a prestigious music academy and the family had to move away for a few years. When they weren't playing at being heroes, the two would spend hours around the glass coffin, spinning tales about the enchanted prince who slept there, telling him all their heart's desires.

Now they are both in high school, barely speaking, despite the closeness they once shared. Hazel wakes up one morning, having dragged mud and glass splinters through her bedroom window. The coffin in the wood is empty and the sleeping boy has disappeared. There is danger lurking in the dark of the forest. Can Ben and Hazel unite once more to fight it?

The sibling relationships depicted in this story felt very real to me, and there are several that are important. Hazel and Ben are close in age and due to the frequent forgetfulness and neglect of their artistic parents, they have to rely on and take care of each other, because they can't rely on their parents to always do so. Great love and sacrifice caused the rift, lack of communication and wall of lies that is between them at the start of the book and Black slowly reveals how their erstwhile closeness ended up in near estrangement. Both infatuated with the "enchanted prince" in the forest, they are shaken when he suddenly wakes up. The object of their fantasies has suddenly become a real person, who they have to relate to in a completely different way.

There are the brothers Carter and Jack, similar enough to be twins, yet only Carter is actually human. Jack is Carter's changeling, who Carter's mother insisted on keeping after she tricked his faerie mother into giving her own baby back. They look very similar, but as they get older, it's quite clear that Jack isn't like his brother or their high school friends. He has another family as well, and while he loves his human family, he is torn between two worlds. Jack is Ben's best friend, but has secretly loved Hazel for as long as he can remember. Restless, flirty Hazel who kisses all the boys, and never seems to wants anything permanent with anyone. But the evening before the sleeping boy is awoken, she kisses Jack. Could he finally convince her to actually notice him?

Finally, there is Severin, the awoken prince and his sister Sorrow, whose sibling relationship forms an important core to the dangers facing Fairfold. Tragic events led to Severin being imprisoned in the glass coffin, whilst his sister became completely consumed by her own grief. Now their father wants his children back under his control, and he isn't afraid to use underhanded methods to achieve it.

This book is also great in terms of diversity. While Jack may be a faerie who fits into the European/Celtic mythology, he is the changeling of an American child, and as such is as dark-skinned and dark-haired as the rest of his human family. Ben is openly gay and his love for Severin is both inspiring and heart-breaking at times.

Hazel is not always easy to like, but no one can fault her for being extremely brave. Sometimes to the point of insanity. She's a girl with many secrets, even from herself, it becomes obvious fairly soon. Hazel lives a double life so complex that even she's not completely aware of all the aspects of it. Having grown up in the gifted Ben's shadow, she's so determined to make something of herself, even if it means risking her life fighting dangerous faeries. She loves her brother and would do anything for him, but also believes herself to be the reason he no longer practises music and won't speak to her anymore.

Ben adores his brave little sister and forced himself to fight along side her when she appointed herself a knight. He was terrified that she would get hurt and was so relieved when he got a scholarship that could take their family away from Fairfield, where Hazel kept risking herself to protect others. But his musical abilities are both terrible and beautiful and the things he can make music do scares him, to the point where he chose to break his own hand in order to give up the music. Now he knows Hazel is keeping important things from him, not just the reason she's suddenly acting so strange around Jack. Could she really be the one who woke the sleeping prince in the forest? And if so, will the enchanted prince prefer her to Ben?

Holly Black's The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, a wonderful vampire story, was one of my favourite books of 2013. If there weren't so many other shiny books constantly grabbing my attention, I would re-read it right now. Holly Black first came to my attention with her Modern Faerie Tales, where she also wrote extremely engaging YA paranormal/urban fantasy featuring faeries of the not so friendly persuasion. So when I first heard about this book, back in the middle of 2013, I was very excited. It didn't disappoint. It didn't grab hold of me, making me unable to think about anything else until I finished the book, which was the case with The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, but it did entertain and intrigue me and it once again reminds me that I still haven't completed her Curse Workers series, which can help pass the time until her next, hopefully awesome book, is out.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.