Sunday 15 March 2015

#CBR7 Book 31: "The Winner's Curse" by Marie Rutkoski

Page count: 369 pages
Rating: 4 stars

WARNING! There are some spoilers for the plot of this book in the review, so if you prefer to go into a book knowing nothing about it, you may want to skip this. 

Kestrel is the only daughter of Valorian general Trajan. They live in the province of Herran, formerly a bustling independent nation, invaded, conquered, enslaved and now occupied on orders from the Valorian emperor. The surviving Herrani are slaves, bought and sold at the mercy of the Valorians. As a Valorian woman, Kestrel has two choices in life, she can join the army (which her father very much wants her to do, not for her fighting skills, which are frankly unremarkable, but for her clever mind and affinity for strategy) or marriage. She is uncomfortable with the imperialistic nature of her people, but doesn't exactly do a lot to voice her discontent either. In fact, though uncomfortable with the enslavement of the Herrani, she ends up buying a Herrani slave at an auction for an enormous sum, and comes to regret it in more ways than one.

Arin is a former Herrani noble, sold into General Trajan's household as a blacksmith. He correctly senses that Kestrel can be manipulated and soon gains a lot of freedom to move around the estate, and occasionally even to visit the city centre. Arin's presence at the auction wasn't a coincidence, and he is working in secret with many other Herrani to overthrow their Valorian oppressors. He never expected to grow so close to a Valorian, but the more time he spends in Kestrel's presence, the more their attraction grows. What is going to happen when his fight for freedom upsets her entire world?

"The Winner's Curse" of the title of this book refers to the fact that the winner of an auction having in many ways lost, because whoever places the winning bid, has paid more than what all the other bidders have decided the item is worth. In the case of Kestrel in this book, the bidding escalates incredibly quickly, and she ends up paying a scandalous amount for Arin. That she later comes to regret her purchase in all sorts of other ways, is also part of her curse.

This was a book that I heard about fairly early in 2014, but pretty much discounted because of the silly cover. As the year progressed, the book got very favourable reviews on a number of sites I follow, and it also appeared on several Best of 2014 lists. So when I found it on sale at the end of the year, I bought it, and as I've been granted an ARC of the second book in the series, I figured it was time to finally see what all the fuss was about.

On Goodreads, I've seen several reviews very unhappy with the way the issue of slavery was dealt with in this book. The Valorians are basically the Romans here, greedily expanding their empire, not really because they are threatened by their surrounding countries, but because of greed and a wish to subjugate all those they consider weaker and thus inferior to them. A strategic, military nation, they basically invaded the peninsula of Herran through trickery and considered the Herrani weak because they surrendered quickly, letting themselves be enslaved, rather than trying to fight back. Now Valorians occupy the area, living in Herrani mansions, buying and selling the Herrani as slaves. No one seems to question the rightness of this, not even Kestrel, who is seen as controversial in society because she used a favour from her father on her sixteenth birthday to free the Herrani woman who acted as her nurse.

I can see why some people are uncomfortable, but I also severely doubt that the majority of Romans, Greeks, 17th and 18th Century Americans or Europeans for that matter, who all enslaved and traded in other humans actually considered the atrocity of what they were doing. So it's unfair to expect a protagonist written into such a society to be super progressive and against the very fabric of the society she's a product of. Kestrel has been raised believing that the Valorians are superior. She's always been surrounded by slaves. Only when she actually comes into contact with and spends time with Arin, who gives her some perspective on what it's like to be on the other side of such a transaction, does she start to gradually change her views.

I really liked the book, for all that some of the serious issues are dealt with in a very YA way. There is not a lot of time spent giving back story to the Valorian invasion or exactly what atrocities were perpetrated. While it's clear that Arin has experienced some very horrible things in his past, that's not really explored either. It is very understandable that the Valorian occupation has led the formerly very peaceful Herrani towards revolt and while Kestrel is quite appalled at some of the actions of the rebels, it was hard to fault them for wanting to take their country and freedom back.

Kestrel is an engaging heroine, portrayed somewhat out of touch with the rest of her peers. She loves and respects her father, but is deeply reluctant to choose either of the options available to her as a Valorian woman. Only seventeen, she has long realised that she's not a fighter, and as she disapproves of the Valorian tendency to invade and conquer their surrounding lands, the idea of becoming a strategician and officer isn't appealing to her either. Nor is she particularly taken with the idea of marrying, even though her best friend Tess would be all too happy to see her form an alliance with her brother Ronan. What Kestrel really longs to do, is devote herself to music, a past time seen as frivolous and strange to the other Valorians. Music, literature and art are apparently things that the Herrani excelled at, now they have to perform for their new masters. One of the things that initially gets her involved in the bidding war for Arin, is that the auctioneer claims that he's an accomplished singer. Because of the high importance placed on personal honour in ancient Roman (and therefore here in Valorian society), obeying one's parents and always saving face is imperative. Hence, while Kestrel may in her heart of hearts be uncomfortable with much of the way her society is run, she's one young woman, and protesting and causing scenes would likely just result in her being married off to some older man who was expected to control her.

While there are scenes from Arin's point of view, so much more time is spent with Kestrel, and he remains a bit of a mystery. He is clearly an important figure in the Herrani rebellion, and it is made clear over the course of the novel that he came from a high ranking family, and lost his family when the Valorians invaded. While he wants to hate Kestrel among with the other Valorians, there is an undeniable attraction from the start, and it grows the more time they spend together. He plays on her guilt and discomfort to get free passage on the estate, and is frequently the slave that accompanies her to her society events, able to observe, spy, plot and strategise. Like Kestrel, Arin is very intelligent and they both thrive on strategy games. While Kestrel's wits are usually used in gambling for coins in entertaining party games, the stakes for Arin and his accomplices are so much higher.

While the book was slow to build, I very much enjoyed the more action packed and dramatic second half. There is a delicious melodrama and star-crossed lovers aspect to Kestrel and Arin's romance, with their happily ever after seeming pretty impossible. Even more so with the developments in the last quarter of the book, which left me impatiently waiting for the second book in the series, which I luckily have available to me. I hope that the second book doesn't end on as much as a cliff-hanger, as the third book isn't out until 2016.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 30: "Cracked" by Eliza Crewe

Page count: 327 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! I got this book from NetGalley in return for a fair and objective review. 

Andromeda "Meda" Melange isn't a very nice person. Frankly, she eats people, well, their souls anyway. She tries to limit herself to the souls of bad people, usually killers whose victims' ghosts have a tendency to show up and pester Meda until she does something to avenge them. Meda has always believed herself to be unique and invincible (she's faster and stronger than mere humans, and her skin has a metallic quality to it - plus there's the ability to see ghosts and eat souls), so she has a very rude awakening when she's faced with three sinister black-clad dudes, who are not only like her, they're faster and stronger and want her dead. Lucky for Meda, a handsome young man shows up to dispatch them before they succeed.

Chi is a Crusader in training, called from birth to hunt and destroy demons. Meda pretty quickly figures out that the black-suited men were full demons, while she appears to be a halfling. Pretending to be a weak and confused victim, Meda latches on to Chi as a source of useful information about her true nature, and more importantly, how she can protect herself against demons and crusaders alike. As well as hunting demons, crusaders protect especially important humans, known as Beacons, and because Chi is wonderfully naive and trusting, he assumes Meda must be a Beacon - why else would those demons have been trying to kill her? His friend Jo, who followed him to the asylum where he meets Meda, is a lot more sceptical (with good reason) and doesn't think bringing Meda with them to the crusader headquarters is a good plan. She eventually reluctantly agrees, and they decide to pass Meda off as Jo's estranged cousin, who committed the massive betrayal of turning away from the crusader mission and as such has been shunned for years. No one really remember much about her, except that she was a bad girl. Meda trying to pretend to be a sweet, innocent girl trying to be bad is hilarious.

As Meda gets to know Chi and Jo better, while refusing to admit to herself that she actually enjoys having something resembling friends for the first time ever, she also discovers just how much kept from her. She needs to learn quickly, as now that the demons know who she is, they're not going to stop until they've tracked her down. She may pretend that she doesn't care what happens to the stupidly heroic Chi, the snarky and hostile Jo or the hero-worshipping kid Uriel, but she's not going to allow them to risk their lives when her demon relatives come knocking.

Whether you like this book or not, is probably strongly dependent on how you feel about the protagonist, Miss Meda herself. If you find her annoying and insufferable, the book is not going to work for you, as she has a very strong and sarcastic narrative voice. I thought she was fun as the hell that clearly spawned her, not that it stopped me from cheering a bit when she was taken down a peg and learned that she wasn't as special a soul-eating snowflake as she believed herself to be.

The whole book read as something that could exist in the same universe as Supernatural, with the crusaders being a different kind of hunter to the Winchesters. Given hereditary powers, they are trained until their late teens, when they go through a magical ceremony and come into their full abilities. Jo's cousin Emma apparently rejected the sacred calling and crusader gift, and as such disappointed everyone around her. Usually paired on their missions to hunt demons and protect beacons, there's also a lot of orphaned crusader children, as their parents frequently bite it in their fight against evil. I love that the crusaders ride motorcycles and live in trailer parks, basically masquerading as biker gangs.

The characters are a lot of fun. Meda may eat souls, but she really isn't as evil or heart-less as she'd like to believe herself, she just has never really been allowed to socialise a lot with kids her own age. Her mother, aware of her true nature, kept her sheltered and they moved around a lot. Hearing her dead mother's voice in her head as sort of conscience, Meda really tries to stave the terrible Hunger she feels for human souls by only eating those of murderers and abusers. She can see, but not talk to ghosts. If they touch her, however, she's able to get an impression of what they experienced in life, which can help her track down those that harmed them. She's prepared to kill to protect herself, but it doesn't take her much time among the crusaders to grow fond of her new friends.

Chi is almost too heroic for his own good. Constantly sneaking out to hunt demons, even though he hasn't graduated into his full powers, he figuratively shines with goodness and noble purpose. He's be insufferable if he wasn't also a fairly clueless teenage boy, completely oblivious to his former best friend's feelings towards him. Said best friend is Jo, who's mostly spikes and snark, having been injured while in training and now faces the prospect of never becoming a full crusader because of her damaged leg. She projects constant hostility, as dislike and contempt from the teenage crusaders in training is preferable to her than pity. Much more level-headed than Chi, she's rightfully very suspicious of Meda, although it becomes clear that some of that is jealousy at another girl's closeness with the friend who she loves, but feels that she has to drive away. While Jo and Chi might have been a natural pairing and future couple before Jo's injury, now her leg makes her a liability and she needs to make him look elsewhere for a prospective partner. The third of Meda's new crusader friends is Uriel, a boy who clearly worships Chi and tries to emulate him in every way. Uri is the one who gives Meda proper insight into the current and former relationship of the other two teens she's growing close to.

I'm ashamed to say I was granted this NetGalley copy ages and ages ago, and completely forgot about it until my friend Erica recently read and loved the book. The second book in the series was published last year and the third part comes out in August, unless the internet is lying to me. This is YA paranormal fantasy with a slightly darker twist and while there might appear to be tiresome love triangle for about a chapter or so, that's really more of a bluff, which I'm very thankful for.  I liked the world building, the premise for the series and the teenage characters, so this is a series I will follow to the end. I liked the book so much I promptly bought my own copy (the author appears to self publish) and I will be getting the other two books in the series as well.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 29: "Vision in Silver" by Anne Bishop

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is book three in The Others series, which is one of my absolute favourite paranormal fantasy series at the moment. While you are given enough information to start with this one, you'll get the most enjoyment if you start at the beginning, with the excellent Written in Red. There will also be minor spoilers for the earlier books in the series here, so if you don't like that sort of thing, skip the review until you're caught up.

In a world where humans are in a minority, and frequently considered legitimate prey by the supernatural races who control the land, tensions are mounting. Many of the cassandra sangue, the female blood prophets who see visions when their skin is cut, have been rescued and the Others have placed "the sweet blood" as they call them, under their protection. Most of the women and girls have lived their entire lives in monitored captivity, however, and a lot of them can't handle their new-found freedom, causing mental breakdowns or even suicides.  It falls to Meg Corbyn, the woman who first managed to escape and has been making a life for herself with the Others of the Lakeside Courtyard to provide guidance. Aided by her human friends, she attempts to write down what she's learned is important for her to feel safe and comfortable.

The Humans First and Last movement is growing, and it's becoming clear that a lot of the humans who are on friendly terms with the shapeshifters and other creatures in Lakeside are experiencing discrimination and prejudice. "Wolf lovers" might find themselves losing their jobs or even homes.  Simon Wolfgard and the other prominent Others in the Courtyard have to consider what to do to aid these humans who have so important to their Meg and shown themselves to be useful and friendly, not just prey. The news reports speak of food shortages all over Thaisia (think North America), which none of the Others can understand, and the strained relationship between humans and Others is getting worse in many places on the continent. Possible insight into the cause of the food shortages comes with the arrival of Officer Montgomery's daughter, alone on a train, with a blood-stained teddy bear, containing a small fortune in gem stones. Her mother, Montgomery's ex, was dating one of the most outspoken HFL spokesmen, and it's clear something has triggered her sending their daughter unaccompanied across the country to her father.

I don't know how many books Anne Bishop is planning in this series, but she's fleshing out the world building and the tense political situation with every book. Meg and Simon also grow closer with each book, while neither is able to acknowledge to themselves or the other what most of those around them already know, that they're essential to each other's well being. Three books in, and when these two finally give in to their feelings, I'll probably explode. Of course, there are major obstacles in their path, most prominent the fact that blood prophets feel compelled to cut themselves to get their visions out, and at maximum, a cassandra sangue has a thousand cuts before she dies. There are already hundreds of cuts on Meg's body, and in this book she experiences just how distressed she can make those around her when she's driven to cut thoughtlessly. Meg, just as the other in her found family of humans and paranormal creatures, has a lot of adapting and growing to do.

We meet a few new characters in this book. There's a young blood prophet sheltering with some wolves, who slowly, thanks to Meg's advice, learns to be comfortable in her new home, and seems to be able to show her visions through drawings, without having to cut herself. As she settles in and starts to get used to her new life, she eventually also chooses a new name for herself. There's Montgomery's daughter, Lizzy, who gives the various animal-shifters in the Lakeside Courtyard more experience with "human pups".

This book felt like a more quiet book than the second, Murder of Crows, because so much of what is happening is simmering off screen. Because so many of the humans living in the bigger cities of Thaisia are unaware of the terrifying forces lurking out in the forests and mountains, not realising that the vampires and shapeshifters living in the Courtyards are the most progressive and open-minded, actually willing to interact with humans. The growing discontent, fermented by the HFL movement is putting the humans in very real danger, and this book, it's made clear that there are some very formidable elementals out there, controlling each of the great lakes and even the ocean itself. Train and ship travel is only safe for humans as long as their iron-clad agreements with the Others are kept. Once they start bending and breaking the rules set down, there are dire consequences, and it's clear that there are older, more powerful beings in the wild of the country who wouldn't hesitate to wipe all the humans off the continent if they prove to be an inconvenience. So shit is about to hit the fan, and it's going to be very interesting to see where Bishop takes the series next.

I love this fantasy world, I love the characters. It makes me happy to spend time with them while I'm immersed in the book. I love that the book examines what humanity actually is and should be - and whether the shifters and vampires who will frequently eat humans may not be the most monstrous of the individuals in Thaisia. More is revealed about how the blood prophets were exploited, and it seems entirely just and fair to me that the perpetrators of such abuse are hunted down and eaten. I've said this in my reviews of the previous two books, but if you like paranormal fantasy, you really should do yourself a favour and read these. They're such great books. Sadly, I will have to wait a year for the next one.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 9 March 2015

#CBR7 Book 28: "Rock Hard" by Nalini Singh

Page count: 351 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! I was granted an ARC from NetGalley in return for a fair and objective review. The book will be on general release 10/03/15.

Charlotte Baird is anxious and painfully shy due to some unresolved trauma involving her first, very unfortunately chosen boyfriend. When the company she works for hires a new CEO, known for his ruthless efficiency, to come clean up the mess left by corruption and mismanagement, she and pretty much everyone else is terrified they might lose their jobs. Yet Gabriel Bishop, popularly known as the T-Rex, doesn't fire the mousy Ms. Baird, he promotes her, quickly realising that she's been fulfilling most of the duties already, with the former CEO's secretary taking all the credit. Charlotte is gobsmacked and nervous, not to mention quite uncomfortable, as she's been desperately trying to hide herself away, physically and emotionally since her traumatic past experience and Gabriel Bishop is a deeply perceptive man who will not be ignored. 

Observant and efficient as he is, Gabriel Bishop, a former champion rugby star turned sought-after company fixer, cannot help but notice that Ms. Baird is an attractive woman, if prone to wear ill-fitting and shapeless outfits. During their first encounters, she's clearly scared stiff, but she's also a consummate professional, determined to do the best job she can, even if she's nervous. He keeps trying to provoke a rise from her and is delighted when the timid mouse starts snapping back. He knows that he's her boss and hitting on her would be deeply inappropriate, especially since she clearly suffered something in the past that still affects her deeply, yet he notices that she finds him attractive in return, and cannot help himself from fantasising about her constantly. He thrives on challenges and on fixing that which is broken. Ms. Charlotte Baird might be his biggest challenge yet, because patience and gentleness are not Gabriel's strongest qualities and that's what he's going to need a lot of to win her over.

This is the second full novel in Nalini Singh's Rock Kiss series, with Rock Addiction being the first and the follow-up, Rock Courtship, being an extended novella. I really didn't like that the couple in the first book hooked up after seeing each other across the room at a party, and then apparently found everlasting love after about a month together. It had some good sex scenes, but frustrated me more than it amused me. As the title suggests, courtship was a much more important part of the sequel novella, where the tension between the couple is built up convincingly over months of acquaintance. Charlotte, the heroine in Rock Hard is a supporting character in Rock Addiction, being the best friend of Molly, the heroine in that book. Some scenes from that book are actually repeated here, from Charlotte's point of view. The thing I liked the most in Rock Addiction was probably the female friendships, between Molly and Charlie and Molly and her sister Thea. They were caring, supporting and cheered each other on. Most of Molly's cameo appearances in this book is in phone calls, but she remains an important corner stone in Charlotte's life.

Charlotte is a strong and capable woman who went through hell because she was vulnerable, inexperienced and insecure and gave her trust and heart to the wrong person when she was younger. He turned out to be a complete psychopath and she is scarred physically and emotionally because of him. She also finds it very difficult to be around men, unless they are completely non-threatening. At the start of the novel, she's been in a pretty much platonic dating relationship with a shy geek called Ernest, because he is never going to demand anything physical from her. The only other male friend she has is the young mail room clerk at the office, who seems like a human puppy dog. Enter her new boss, who is extremely physically imposing, has a magnetic personality and oozes masculinity. He works hard and he plays hard. Forced to give up his promising rugby career after a knee injury, he is now a shrewd and successful businessman instead. He gets hired to come in and save foundering companies and thrives the more difficult a prospect he is faced with.

As in historicals where the aristocrat falls in love with the governess or housekeeper or some other woman in his service, the boss and the secretary could be an uncomfortable proposition, as the boss has so much power over his employee. It's made very clear from their very first meeting (when Charlotte thinks Gabriel is a burglar and throws a stapler at his head), however, that she finds him as attractive as he does her, and that it's her troubled history more than the inappropriateness of the workplace relationship that holds her back from flirting with him. As the months pass, with them working long hours, closely together, Gabriel tries to make Charlotte jealous by making her book dinner dates and send roses to scores of women. She in turn tries to sabotage his dates by finding dreadful restaurants and sending poor quality flowers. They grow closer and a trust builds up, but Charlotte is still very vulnerable.

One of the things that really frustrated me, but which is luckily addressed in the latter third of the book, is why Charlotte isn't in therapy to work through her issues. When the topic is finally brought up, it is explained why she's not seeing a therapist to get over her ordeal and steps are taken to get her to a good place emotionally.

While I still think Rock Courtship is my favourite, there is a lot of fun banter in this one, and the supporting cast, especially Gabriel's family is a good one. I don't think Nalini Singh is ever going to be one of my favourite contemporary romance authors (I prefer her paranormals), I don't regret spending time with Charlie-mouse and her T-Rex in this one.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

#CBR7 Book 27: "An Abundance of Katherines" by John Green

Page count: 227 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Colin Singleton is a child prodigy, convinced that as he ages, he becomes less remarkable with each passing day. While able to converse in eleven different languages and capable of memorising the majority of everything he reads (for hours every day), he's not really able to adapt the reading into anything new - like a true genius would be able to. He desperately wants to make some sort of significant contribution to the world, even more so after he's crushed when dumped by his girlfriend on the day of their high school graduation.

Not that he should be unused to being dumped. While Colin is fairly actively unpopular in school, he has nonetheless dated (however briefly) and been dumped by eighteen different girls called Katherine. Katherine 19, his most recent girlfriend, is in fact also Katherine 1, who asked him to be her boyfriend when they were children, and then promptly broke up with him not long after. Since they'd been going out for nearly a year by the time she dumped him again as a teenager (by far his longest relationship), I don't think Colin should complain. He's devastated, causing his only friend, Hassan, to decide they need to go on a summer road trip to make Colin happy again. The fact that Hassan is willing to take time out of his busy life slacking off, watching Judge Judy, is clearly a great sacrifice on his part.

The boys end up in the little town of Gutshot, Tennessee, where apparently the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is buried (his body having been bought and brought over in the 1930s). They meet Lindsey Lee Wells (as well has her boyfriend, the Other Colin and his friends) and are hired by her mother, who owns and runs the local factory (where they make tampon strings!) to compile an oral history of Gutshot. She'll pay them 500 dollars a week as well as room and board. Colin is determined that his great contribution to the world will be The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, which will successfully predict the future and outcome of any romantic relationship, a mathematical formula worked out based on his history with Katherines 1 through 19. He's also convinced that if he can just get the theorem to work, he'll be able to persuade Katherine 19 to take him back. Colin may have an IQ of over 200, but he's really not very good at figuring out human nature.

Having decided that I needed to read ALL the John Green YA novels after completing Will Grayson, Will Grayson, I decided to start with the one that had the lowest Goodreads rating. I kept waiting for this book to stop exasperating me and entertain me in the way the other John Green books I'd read did. In the end, there was more I liked than disliked, but I'm glad this is a book I borrowed from the library rather than own myself.

What I liked:
- Hassan (except for that unfortunate brief while when he decided he wanted to refer to himself as Daddy constantly). Colin's best (and only) friend. A chubby Muslim who occasionally attempts to convert Colin to Islam, Hassan appears to have no major life goals, except slack off and watch Judge Judy all day. He has made it his mission to notify Colin every time he gets carried away with spouting trivia, so that his friend can at least attempt to fit in with his teenage peers. He's also quite unamused with Colin's hang-up on Katherines and wants to help his buddy move on, perhaps meet and like a girl NOT named Katherine.

- Lindsey Lee Wells. Lindsey was fun, and her bad taste in boyfriends withstanding (spoiler - the Other Colin, the most popular guy in school isn't all that nice). She, like the majority of the inhabitants in Gutshot, seems to have no real desire to ever leave the town, despite her mother's dreams for her to go off to college. She's incredibly well-liked by pretty much everyone in town, but has many of the self-esteem issues that seem to plague so many teenage girls.

One of the criticisms I've read of John Green is that he always writes Manic Pixie Dream Girls in his books. Based on the books I've read so far, that seems deeply unfair. Neither Jane in Will Grayson, Will Grayson, nor Lindsey in this seemed very MPDG. I think the only character I can think that applies, to a certain extent, is Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Stars, who can be said to have quite a bit of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy about him. But I digress, back to my list:

- The footnotes. Yup, this book has a number of footnotes. Sometimes they are there to give a translation of the Arabic, French or German occasionally spoken by the characters, but most of the time, they seem to just be there to interject things cleverly into the story.

What I didn't like:
- The constant flash backs to Colin's dating history, such as it was. First of all, I don't consider spending less than an hour with a girl who then decides that she doesn't care about you dating or being dumped, but Colin clearly does. He wallows far too much in the memories of the many Katherines, especially Katherine 19, who seems to have broken his heart. I get that he needs to find "the missing piece of himself", but the umpteenth time it's mentioned, I lose interest

- The constant reminders that Hassan is in fact overweight and that Colin has a Jew-fro. I don't think Colin's hair is EVER referred to as just hair - it's always his Jew-fro. I just ran a search for the term and was surprised when it only seems to occur eight times in the whole book. It feels like a LOT more!

Most of the book was perfectly inoffensive, but it also didn't grab my interest all that much. If I hadn't been determined that I was going to finish it by the end of February, it would have taken me a lot longer to read than two days, despite the fact that it's not all that long. It had some cute bits, but the supporting cast and some of the nerdy trivia I learned over the course of reading it was better than the general story.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 2 March 2015

#CBR7 Book 26: "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" by David Levithan and John Green

Page count: 308 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Disclaimer! I was given a copy of this through NetGalley in return for a fair and unbiased review. Honesty compels me to admit that I already owned the book when I requested it, I figured being given a copy would motivate me into reading it and reviewing it more quickly.

This book tells the story of two teenage boys, both named Will Grayson. They have alternating points-of-view chapters, one written by John Green, one by David Levithan. I shall call John Green's teenager Will 1.0 and David Levithan's teenager Will 2.0. Otherwise it'll just get real confusing.

Will 1.0 is your average, not very popular teenager. His best friend, the physically enormous, but ironically nicknamed "Tiny" Cooper, has nearly a thousand Facebook friends and is the centre of attention wherever he goes. He's also extremely gay, falls in love with someone new approximately twice a week and is so secure in his identity that he wants the school to fund a musical he's written about his own life. He also intends to choreograph, direct, stage-manage and in general do everything of importance connected to the musical, initially named "Tiny Dancer". Will 1.0 pretty much has two rules. 1) Try not to care to much about anything. 2) Keep your mouth shut. His apathetic attitude to the world is completely at odds with that of Tiny, who feels passionate about most things. Tiny is trying to set Will 1.0 up with Jane, the only other straight member of their schools gay-straight alliance. Will 1.0 likes Jane, but is also very taken with the idea of just having an unrequited crush on her, as that seems easier and a lot less likely to lead to heart ache.

Will 2.0 had a hard time winning me over, because his chapters were written entirely in lower case. as in he didn't use any capitals at all. everything is written like this, even the names of other characters, like his one and only friend maura, and it drove me UP THE WALL. See how useful capitals can be? Will 2.0 is a loner, who lives alone with his mother and appears to be quite heavily medicated for depression. It's never specified exactly what manner of mental instability, but as the book goes on, he's clearly not one of these, easily cured, just a bit down individuals. Will 2.0 has been chatting online with this guy, Isaac, for about a year, and hasn't admitted to anyone, least of all Maura, who seems extremely eager that he share all his deep inner pain with her, that he's gay. One day, Isaac suggests that the two meet up, and this is what leads to the two Will Graysons actually meeting in person.

Due to reasons I don't want to spoil, Isaac never turns up, but Will 2.0 meets Will 1.0 and they are both amazed and a bit baffled that they share a name. As Will 2.0 is quite upset after learning the truth about Isaac, Will 1.0 introduces him to Tiny, and soon Will 2.0 is not only openly gay at school, but has a larger than life boyfriend, who is very busy trying to get everything ready for the opening of his musical. Tiny's relationship with Will 2.0 makes him realise that his master work can't just be the Tiny Cooper story, it has to have a message. It needs to be mean something. He starts rewriting it, turning it into "Hold Me Closer" and in the process of being in love and making his musical happen, seems to forget all about his best friend, who's going through some emotional turmoil of his own.

The first quarter to a third or so of the book, before the two Will Graysons meet, was a bit slow, and I was unsure what everyone online was so enthusiastic about. The convoluted circumstances leading to the two meeting, and the immediate aftermath is when the book sunk its hooks into me, and after that, I had trouble putting the book down. Initially, Will 1.0 seemed the most likable and approachable of the two, but as the book goes on, Will 2.0 won me over more and more. They are both teenage boys, of course, prone to being self-centred, making all manner of dumb choices, not really great at expressing themselves and altogether quite exasperating at times. Sometimes I wanted to shake them, and sometimes I wanted to hug them. I very much appreciate the honest way in which Will 2.0's mental problems was handled. There's a lot of darkness in his life, and it was good to see that to an extent, he just needed to "snap out of it" a bit, he wasn't going to be magically cured by the power of love.

Tiny Cooper is a force of nature and I kept seeing Damian from Mean Girls in my mind's eye in every scene he was in. Unlike Damien, Tiny isn't at all "almost too gay to function", he's just gay enough. Openly gay since primary school, Tiny and Will 1.0's friendship is a long and loyal one and while at first, Tiny seemed as if he could be quite exhausting, being best friends with someone as non-committal and apathetic as Will 1.0 must also not be the easiest. Tiny wants what is best for everyone, and his match-making efforts to get Jane and Will 1.0 together are adorable. I desperately want this to be made into a movie, just so I can see the glory that is "Hold Me Closer" actually staged and performed. It's clearly the best high school musical ever featured in a YA book.

Once the book sank its figurative hooks in me, I didn't really want to put it down. I read it during every free second of the day and cursed the pile of correction work I had to complete before I could finish it. It made me laugh, it made me genuinely feel for the characters and I wish that I had a friend like Tiny Cooper, gay or straight, in my life to make it a better place. This is my second encounter with John Green's writing (after he slayed me with The Fault in Our Stars). Reading Will Grayson, Will Grayson has made me decide that I need to read all his other YA books too. I've never read anything by David Levithan before, but as long as he actually doesn't make it a habit to never use capitalisation in his other books, I will absolutely be checking out more of his books now too.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 25: "Dragon Bound" by Thea Harrison

Page count: 323 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Dragos Cuelebre is probably the oldest Wyr-kind (shape-shifter) in existence. He's certainly the only dragon. Around since the dawn of time, he is now one of the richest and mot powerful individuals on the planet. He's also very bored, having just gone through the motions for decades. All that changes when someone has the audacity to steal something from his believed to be impossible to locate hoard, again supposed to be protected by impenetrable wards. He becomes obsessed with the idea of tracking down and catching the thief and discovering how the theft was possible in the first place.

Pia Giovanni, half wyr, half human, is blackmailed by her weaselly ex-boyfriend to steal an item from Dragos' hoard. The only reason her ex has anything to blackmail her with, is because while they were still together, Pia foolishly trusted him with some secrets about herself and her abilities that her mother had made her promise always to keep quiet about. She knows that stealing from Cuelebre is tantamount to suicide, but she also realises that if the people making her scum of an ex blackmail her don't get what they want, she's likely to end up dead even faster. She forces her ex to agree to a magical binding, so that he can never speak about her to anyone again, before handing over the item she stole. Then she tries to flee as far as possible, before the dragon gets her. Because her mother was extremely protective and very paranoid, she has stashes of fake identities and ready cash all over the city, however, when the creature that hunts you has both powerful magic and unlimited resources at his command, it's limited how far you can run.

Dragos is intrigued by Pia, especially because even when she's terrified of him eating her, she stands her ground and argues with him. So used to blind loyalty and/or fear, he finds her amusing (also attractive, natch, this IS a paranormal romance). He's also very curious as to what her wyr-form might be, as her scent doesn't match up with any he can remember encountering in his extremely long life. He quickly realises that Pia was being used by his arch-enemy, King Urien of the Dark Fey, and resolves to keep her under his protection so Urien isn't able to use her again. Lots of action and drama takes place before the two figure out that they're each other's perfect mate.

This book was brought to my attention by fellow Cannonballer Katie's enthusiastic review. Long time readers of my reviews will know that I enjoy the occasional, bat-shit crazy-plotted paranormal romance, like the ones written by Kresley Cole. Unfortunately, in her recent books, Ms. Cole appears to have gone completely off the reservation, and the books aren't really fun anymore, just dumb. So I most definitely had an opening in my reading list for something similarly amusing, and based on the first book of Thea Harrison's Elder Races, these will fit the bill nicely.

As I think the unofficial rule book for paranormal romance writers specifies, all the dude in this book are large, muscular and very hot. Dragos is obviously the alphaest of all the alpha males, nearly seven feet tall, golden-eyed, gorgeous, wealthy and powerful. He's the boss of all the other wyr-kind dudes who are clearly going to be heroes of their own books down the line. All of the dudes who work for Dragos seem to like Pia more or less instantly, especially after she proves that even if she's tiny compared to them, she's not afraid to speak her mind and she can wipe the floor with them thanks in part to her unique wyr-abilities and a lifetime of martial arts training. I think what I love most about this book is that Thea Harrison is clearly aware of how ridiculous some of the stuff she's writing is, she's in on the joke, and that's what makes it all work. Dragos also has a harpy working for him, she seems to inexplicably hate Pia, possibly because his PR-rep, a tiny fairy who's the only surviving heir to Urien's throne decides she's going to be BFF with Pia the second after they first meet. Heavens forfend Pia make more than one female friend.

As well as a rollercoaster ride of a plot, there's a fair amount of rather epic sex. While not quite in the realm of the Thunder Sex (tm) that can be found in several of Ms. Cole's books, there is still quite a lot of bow chica-wow-wow going on here. Dragos and Pia seem to think that the best place to initiate their more intimate relationship is while fleeing from hostile goblins, which I can't see is the most arousing of settings, but what do I know? I am neither a millennia-old dragon or Pia's own unique brand of wyr-kind.

I really liked Pia as a character. She knows she's doing something monumentally stupid by stealing from Dragos, but doesn't really have a choice. She tries to protect herself as best she can afterwards, and refuses to be cowed or intimidated, even when facing down a literal dragon. If she's going to die, she may as well give him a piece of her mind first. The reason she ended up blackmailed is because she let her guard down in a brief moment of foolish vulnerability. Pia has clearly had a fairly lonely life, especially after her mother died. Always taught to hide her true identity, to never make lasting connections, never make friends or reveal anything about herself. She wants love and a place to belong and she also feels deeply inadequate about the wyr-side of her identity, having never been able to shift when she was younger. I honestly don't know if it was supposed to be difficult to figure out what animal Pia's wyr-self was - I think I may just have read too many paranormals and myths, because to me it was pretty blatantly obvious from early on.

There appears to be seven books out in the Elder Races series so far, as well as several novellas. Goodreads tells me book 8 is out in May. As I'm liking the world-building and the various supernatural creatures (shapeshifters, sorry, Wyrkind. Faeries both dark and light, witches, vampires and the like), I suspect I will have lots of fun catching up throughout the year.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 1 March 2015

#CBR7 Book 24 : "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Arthur Leander, ageing movie-star, dies of a heart attack on stage at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. On stage is eight-year-old Kristen Raymonde, witnessing the death of a man who had been nothing but kind to her. Jeevan Chaudhary, former paparazzo photographer and entertainment journalist, now an EMT in training, jumps up on stage and tries to save Arthur's life with CPR. Later that evening, travelling home in the snow, he receives a phone call from a friend, working in the ER. There is a flu spreading, terrifyingly quickly, most likely turning into an epidemic. Warned by his doctor friend, Jeevan buys up all the supplies he can, barricading himself with his wheelchair-bound brother to wait out the disease.

The flu turns into a pandemic, killing indiscriminately, all over the world. Fifteen years later, Kristen Raymonde is the lead actress in the Travelling Symphony, a small acting and orchestra troupe travelling through the scattered settlements in the Great Lakes region of North America. The group performs Shakespeare plays and classical music for the survivors they come across. Written on the head Caravan, and tattooed on Kristen's arm are the words "Because survival is insufficient". Among Kristen's most precious possessions are two issues of a comic book, Station Eleven, which Arthur Leander gave her shortly before he died. She's also become somewhat obsessed with his life, collecting every article, gossip column and newspaper story in a scrap book, whenever she comes across a new one in old papers and magazines. Wherever they travel, she looks for more issues of the comic, and asks new people if they've ever heard of it.

When they come to the little settlement of St. Deborah on the Water, where they two years previous left Kristen's pregnant best friend and her husband, they discover that the place has changed drastically and that their friends, along with many others, are no longer there. The graveyard is full of grave markers for those who dared to leave, and the town is controlled by a Prophet, quoting the Bible and claiming he has the answers about why the flu struck in the first place.

After the first section, which focuses on the night when Arthur died and the flu broke out, the book alternates between "Year Fifteen", where we follow Kristen, her friends in the Travelling Symphony and their encounters with the Prophet, and the past, showing us episodes of Arthur Leander's life, how he met his first wife Miranda, whose artistic life's work was writing and illustrating Station Eleven, his second wife, Elizabeth, who bore him a son, his long friendship with his lawyer, Clark Thompson. Arthur Leander is the focal point, most of the prominent characters we meet in the story are in some way or other connected to him.

Station Eleven is a science fiction novel of sorts, as well as a dystopian novel set in a post-apocalyptic near future. In many ways, the small community of people travelling together, occasionally coming across scattered settlements, reminded me of The Walking Dead. My friend, when I talked to her about it, said that it sounded a bit like the story in the game The Last of Us and a bit like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. With regards to The Walking Dead, I've never read the comics, but I watched nearly three and a half seasons before it just got too bleak and depressing for me. Reading the blurb for The Road and watching the trailer for the film convinced me that there was no way in hell I was ever going to subject myself to reading and/or watching that. I didn't really think that I wanted to read Station Eleven either, worried about the post-apocalyptic thing, but with after several Cannonballers whose opinions I trust reading and loving it, I added it to my TBR list. Then it was announced as the first book in the CBR book club and I no longer had any choice but to read it. Once I decided to read it for myself, I stopped reading reviews, not wanting to be spoiled.

Even having read some very positive reviews, I didn't really know what to expect from the book. It's been a week since I finished it, and I am still having trouble putting into words how it affected me and what I liked so much about it. It took me about three days just to decide what rating to give the book, as there are things I wasn't super thrilled with, either. Yet it's been in my thoughts every day since I finished it, not just because I had this review hanging over me. At first, I was pretty sure that while it was a well-written and very intriguing book, I was unlikely to ever want to re-read it. Now I'm pretty sure that nothing could be further from the truth. I think I'm going to have to re-read it, having taken the full journey with the characters, just to discover new and wonderful things in the story.

There isn't really a protagonist in this book, but the sections I liked the most, were the ones that focused on either Kristen, or Arthur's first wife, Miranda. As is so often the case, with fictional works within fiction, I desperately wanted to read Station Eleven, not to mention see the artwork, that is so lovingly described several places in the book. I'm sure it comes as no surprise to anyone, considering it's also the title of the novel, that the comic book comes to act as a sort of metaphor for the world in which the surviving characters live. I also really liked reading how the people at the airport survived and formed their own little settlement. The bits I liked the least were all the ones concerning the Prophet. He creeped me out a lot (as I'm sure he was supposed to) and while it was eventually revealed who he was, I didn't really care.

I loved that while this book is about a tiny percentage of humanity surviving a pandemic, the focus isn't on the chaotic years directly following the catastrophic event. After fifteen years, there are new settlements. The survivors make new connections, form new bonds and there is always room for art, beauty, human kindness and compassion. While there is still the occasional violent event, this isn't a bleak, depressing book. The book ends on a note of hope and optimism, for which I was very grateful. I suspect that this is going to end up being one of my favourite books of the year, unless I am tremendously lucky with the rest of my reading choices.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.