Monday 26 October 2015

#CBR7 Book 114: "The Man in the Brown Suit" by Agatha Christie

Page count: 288 pages
Audio book length: 7hrs 59 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Anne Beddingfeld's father is a famous archaeologist and anthropologist. He dies, leaving Anne mostly penniless, but hungry for adventure. She kindly rejects the proposal of the village doctor and accepts her father's solicitor's invitation to stay with him and his wife for a time in London. Shortly after her arrival in the capital, she is witness to an accidental death. A man in a large overcoat reeking of mothballs falls onto the tracks of the train station, and a tall, bearded man claiming to be a doctor examines the body. The bearded man in the brown suit loses a scrap of paper, which also reeks of mothballs. Could he have been searching the dead body? The paper reads "17 122 Kilmorden Castle" - what could it mean?

The newspapers discover a connection with the dead man on the train tracks and a young woman murdered in the house of Sir Eustace Pedler. Not only that, but the man in the brown suit who Anne witnessed is the main suspect for the woman's murder. Then Anne discovers that the Kilmorden Castle is a cruise ship, sailing to South Africa. A first class ticket costs exactly the amount of money she was left after her father's debts were paid off, and Anne sees this as a clear sign that adventure is calling. With cheek and audacity, she gets the owner of the main newspaper hunting for "The Man in the Brown Suit" to agree to hire her on as a freelance reporter if she tracks down more information connected with the crime.

On the ship, the adventurous, but nearly penniless Anne befriends society beauty Susanne Blair and earns the admiration of both Sir Eustace Pedler, on his way to South Africa on a task for the Foreign Office and Colonel Race, a tall and striking gentleman rumoured to be working for the Secret Service. Among the travellers are also the suspiciously untanned Reverend Chichester, who claims to have been working in the depths of Borneo for years; Guy Pagett, Sir Eustace's secretary and Harry Raybourn, a mysterious young man who stumbles into Anne's cabin one night, having been stabbed by unknown assailants in the hallway. Sir Eustace claims the handsome young man is his other secretary, but Anne deduces that he is none other than the infamous "Man in the Brown Suit". After her brief evening encounter with him, she's convinced he didn't kill the woman in England, and becomes determined to clear his name.

The Man in the Brown Suit, along with They Came to Baghdad and Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (the first Christie I ever read), is probably my favourite Agatha Christie book, a fact my BFF Lydia knew very well. So trying to cheer me up when I was unable to read physical books while concussed, she sent me this as an audio book, bundled (really rather strangely) with the eighth Miss Marple mystery, 4:50 from Paddington. I hadn't realised, until I looked it up on Wikipedia to remind myself of the name of some of the secondary characters, that this was only Ms. Christie's fourth novel, which makes it even more of an impressive achievement. Apart from some very clunky info-dumping in the prologue, when two criminal henchmen sit around discussing the many nefarious acts of their employer, the shadowy "Colonel", in a way that no people ever would talk about a person they worked for, this book is a fun thrill-ride from start to finish.

There is Anne, the self-proclaimed adventuress, who loves "The Perils of Pamela" and wants to fall in love with someone strong, silent and dashing. Full of pluck and determination, she throws caution to the wind and travels to South Africa in search of a murderer, with barely a penny in her pocket, just convinced that it'll all work itself out somehow. Some might find her callous disregard for practicalities annoying, but I find her delightful and she's not wrong, things keep turning out in her favour, even if she keeps ending up in near-death situations.

This story has murder; stolen diamonds: abductions; dastardly henchmen; a cunning underworld kingpin; a dashing, wronged and emotionally vulnerable love interest and more. I like any Christie with a romantic subplot and my only gripe with the book is that Emilia Fox, who mostly does an excellent job with narrating, gave Harry Raybourn, our haunted love interest, a voice so dark and gravelly that it mostly reminded me of Christian Bale doing Batman-growling. See, Christian Bale's normal voice - lovely, luscious and sexy as heck. Christian Bale's Batman-growling - just not hot. Which is a shame, cause Harry Raybourn should be passionate and appealing. It didn't detract too much from my enjoyment, but means I can't rate the narration of the audiobook as highly as I'd like.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 113: "Nimona" by Noelle Stevenson

Page count: 272 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Because I have a lot of reviews to catch up on, thanks to my clumsiness which caused my brain to get rattled and shook up, I'm once again resorting to plot summary via Goodreads:

Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: to prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren't the heroes everyone thinks they are.

But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realises that Nimona's powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he's willing to admit. 

Unlike a lot of other talented reviewers who have already written about this comic, I haven't read this as a web comic, or read Lumberjanes, the other comic that Noelle Stevenson co-writes and illustrates. My only real association with her was the lovely cover illustration and fan art she did for Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl. So many people raved enthusiastically about this comic, though, and I finally decided to treat myself to it during the October 2015 Read-a-thon, when I was mostly forced to resort to audiobooks due to my concussion. I was able to read graphic novels in small doses at a time, though.

Nimona is set in a fantasy kingdom where both Lord Ballister Blackheart and Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin grew up at the Institute. After Lord Blackheart lost his arm in a joust against Sir Goldenloin, he pretty naturally fell into the role of scientific-minded arch-villain and nemesis to his former friend. He's really not looking for a sidekick, but the persistent Nimona won't really take no for an answer, and it's hard to deny that her shapeshifting abilities come in handy in his attempts to uncover the Institute's unethical practices. That she easily loses control of a situation and frequently acts without thinking, causing much more damage than planned is a complication, though.

Nimona's origins and background are unknown and she doesn't take kindly to any attempts to dig into her backstory. It's clear that there are reasons for her impulse control issues and why she has a hard time trusting or forming lasting connections with people.

Both the art and the story is delightful, and I blazed through the whole volume in less than an hour. The only thing keeping me from giving it a full five stars is that I wanted a bit more closure towards the end, which I felt was unsatifyingly open-ended. I can highly recommend it, though, and will look for other things written by Ms. Stevenson in the future.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 112: "Joyland" by Stephen King

Page count: 288 pages
Rating: 4 stars

21-year-old college student Devin Jones gets a summer job at old-fashioned carnival and amusement park Joyland, trying to mend his broken heart, after his girlfriend left him for another. Working at Joyland, he's taught the ways of the experienced carnies, discovers his knack for entertaining children while "wearing the fur" of park mascot Howie the Hound, lays the foundation of some life-long friendships and discovers the legend of the genuinely haunted House of Horror, where a young woman in a blue dress and an alice band had her throat slit by a man she thought loved her. He also meets Mike, a seriously ill little boy with unusual abilites and Annie, Mike's sad and serious mother.

I honestly didn't know what to expect from Joyland and went into the book knowing little to nothing about the plot (which is exactly what Narfna, my book twin on the internet recommended). In my early teens I would almost compulsively take out Stephen King books from the library, reading them even though I didn't particularly like the way the horror novels affected me (I've only read Misery the one time, but it's still burned in my memory - and yes, I would have been all over the Misery books, they sound wonderfully cracktastic). At university, I read the first four books of King's Dark Tower saga, and was lucky enough to read the final books in the series only a few years later, unlike some, who waited decades for it to finish. While I was mostly disappointed with the final three, there is no denying that King is a great story teller.

This book is mostly a mystery with a hint of suspense. It's not a horror novel, but there are some supernatural elements. Mostly, it's a little slice of the early 1970s, a coming of age novel, depicting a summer in an inexperienced and heart-broken young man. It's also a quick read, which I would have blazed through if my brain hadn't been severely rattled by my untimely concussion, leaving me unable to read anything on paper or screen for about two weeks without getting a splitting headache and eventually blurred vision. The pulpy cover is lovely, and fits the story remarkably well.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 111: "American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition" by Neil Gaiman

Page count: 656 pages
Audio book length: 19hrs 39 mins (Full cast edition)
Rating: 4 stars

Shadow is serving time in prison, patiently keeping his head down and counting the days until his release. He longs to get home to Laura, his travel agent wife and passes the time learning coin tricks and dreaming of what they will do together once he's out of jail.

Only a few days before he's due to be released, Shadow is told that Laura was killed in a car accident, along with Shadow's best friend Robbie, whom Laura was apparently having an affair with. As Robbie was supposed to give Shadow a job once he got out, there is suddenly no longer anything for Shadow to return home to. All his dreams for the future are shattered in one fell swoop. Hence, when he meets the mysterious and enigmatic Mr. Wednesday on the way to Laura's funeral and is offered a job, there is nothing to keep him from accepting.

The job as Mr. Wednesday's driver, body guard and general helper is quite a lot different from what Shadow was expecting. Travelling across America, they meet up with a large group of strange and eccentric individuals. There is a storm brewing, a reckoning to be had. There is going to be a war, between the gods of the old worlds and the gods of the new America. They all need attention and belief to thrive and Mr. Wednesday is rounding up as much support as he can for the old gods. What is Shadow's role in all of it? Why won't Laura's ghost leave him alone? What will happen when the storm finally breaks?

American Gods was first released in 2000, and I own the hardback of the original edition, which I read way back when it was new. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the book, a deluxe edition with ten thousand extra words (an author's preferred version) was released, initially in a very limited print run, and later given wide release. I kept thinking I wanted to re-read the book, but with so many shiny books out there, I just never got round to it.

Then it was announced that Starz had the development rights and that Bryan Fuller, visionary show runner of great shows like Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies and most recently, the stunning and incomparable Hannibal is set to turn it into a series, and my motivation for re-visiting the book increased. I got the Full Cast edition of the audiobook on Audible some time before I clumsily fell on my way home from work and concussed myself, but stuck with nothing to do but listen to things and knit, I got through the last two thirds of the audio in about a day.

In this book, Englishman Neil Gaiman explores America, the country of immigrants, and what has made the country it is today. In between the main story of Shadow and Mr. Wednesday and their road trips to recruit more old and nearly forgotten deities around the country, there are little "Coming to America" chapters, highlighting the many different and diverse groups of people who came to the continent, from the very first nomads who crossed the land bridge in the north of Alaska, to the Norsemen, the slaves, the immigrants in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, all bringing the beliefs of their former homelands with them.

It's a sprawling book, with great scope and ambition. While Mr. Wednesday is a secretive character who keeps his cards extremely close to his chest, Shadow himself is quite a cipher. As the book progresses, we discover more about why he was in prison, and what in his past may have brought him to the attention of Mr. Wednesday in the first place. It's been so long since I read the book that I didn't remember many of the finer details of the plot at all, and certainly not the major revelations in the climax of the book. So while this was a re-read, it was more like discovering the book again. I still think Mr. Gaiman is at his best when he writes shorter fiction, be it the single issues of his magnificent graphic novel Sandman, his short stories or his books for children. American Gods is probably still his most impressive novel for grown-ups, though, and I'm very much looking forward to what it's going to look like on screen.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 25 October 2015

#CBR7 Book 110: "Rock Redemption" by Nalini Singh

Page count: 349 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is the third book in the Rock Kiss series, but it can easily be read without any previous knowledge of the other books or characters.

Noah St. John is the guitarist in world famous rock band Schoolboy Choir. Due to some really dark shit in his past, he's incredibly messed up and has tremendous difficulties trusting or connecting to people. He doesn't really feel comfortable around anyone but the other guys in the band, who he's known since he was a kid in school with them. One notable exception is Katherine "Kit" Devigny, a struggling to make it actress the band met when they were all starting out. The other guys in the band pretty much adopted Kit as a sister, but the chemistry between Kit and Noah was always too volatile for friendship to blossom easily. Yet they become true friends, moving towards something more, a change Noah can't handle. He makes sure that Kit walks in on him in bed with a random groupie, completely shattering her trust or any affection she felt for him.

Haunted almost nightly by nightmares, one-night-stands and meaningless hook-ups seem to be the only thing that drains him enough to sleep peacefully for a few hours. It has rightly earned Noah a reputation as a notorious womaniser. His only other escape is the music, but now the band in between tours and albums, and the ghosts of the past constantly threaten to destroy what little peace he manages to summon.

It's been years since he destroyed Kit's good opinion of him, and she's no longer a struggling soap actress, but an Oscar-nominated and very sought after star. Photographed together at a big media event, the gossip journalists assume that Kit and Noah are finally a couple, and the positive press is extremely beneficial for Kit's career. She needs all the good media cover she can get in order to secure an audition for a sought-after film, and Noah agrees to play her adoring boyfriend to help her. He desperately wants to make amends for his previous actions, but is also terrified that Kit, the woman he adores, will discover his darkest secrets, convinced it will drive her away forever.

Nalini Singh's Rock Kiss series has been quite hit and miss for me. The first one, Rock Addiction, where the vocalist fell head over heels for a the half-sister of the band's publicist after a one-night-stand, was merely ok. I liked the second one, which was more of a long novella, Rock Courtship, where the band's drummer after a long and patient campaign wins the heart of the band's publicist, a whole lot more. The heroine in book 1, Molly's best friend, Charlotte, gets her own book in Rock Hard, (which really is only very tenuously connected to the rock stars or their love interests) where there is a subplot involving stalking, something that's also an important subplot in this book. While on the surface Kit seems rich and successful, most of her money was sunk into a new house with very secure grounds and a security detail after her stalker broke into her previous home. She can make ends meet, but needs a couple of big contracts to make sure she actually has enough money to keep paying for her house and her bodyguards.

I find a good friends to lovers plot very satisfying in romance, and I find reconciliation stories can also be very effective. Singh sort of combines the two tropes in this book. Kit and Noah were incredibly close, until Noah got spooked and did his very best to drive Kit away. Because she's such an important person in the lives of his band mates, though, it's not like they can avoid seeing each other, and Kit is constantly reminded of the calculated cruelty with which Noah chose to show her "his true self".

Noah is the modern equivalent of one of those rakes who are so dissolute and jaded that it's hard to see how they'll ever make for a satisfying romantic lead. Of course, the reason for his wild behaviour is found in his dark past, and while I had my suspicions of what he was so terrified of Kit discovering, it was actually in some ways worse than I had expected, and I can see why he was so incredibly messed up. When the truth comes out, Noah's warped world-view and his huge trust issues make it very hard for him to believe Kit could still care for him, let alone want to be with him.

Kit has been a supporting character in more than one of the previous books, and her fraught relationship with Noah has been simmering in the background. The daughter of a supermodel and a tennis pro, she deliberately chose to act under an assumed name, to make sure she made her way in the business through her own achievements, rather than coasting on nepotism. The child of parents who loved each other so much they barely noticed others, she frequently felt alone and it's clear that the three other guys in Schoolboy Choir are the brothers she wishes she'd had growing up. Having had difficulty forming other female friendships, Kit now has a few really good girlfriends she can count on and who help keep her stable and grounded. I suspect the "behind the scenes" stuff about acting and the pressures put on young actresses is probably very carefully researched by Singh. The way Kit has to manouver to secure herself new parts certainly felt very believable.

I don't do trigger warnings, but readers should know that there is a lot of pain and darkness in Noah's past, and there are reasons why he tries to find oblivion in meaningless sex, keeping nearly everyone, including most of his band mates, oblivious to his true suffering. If I hadn't liked Kit as a heroine as much as I did, this book would probably just have been 3 stars. It's not my favourite of the series, but a much better read than the first one. All signs suggest that the next book in the series will be about Abe, the fourth and final band member, whose ex-wife features prominently in a subplot in the final half of this book. It seems very likely that there may be another reconciliation story coming up.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 109: "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex" by Mary Roach

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

I don't read a whole lot of non-fiction. What little I do read is usually in the celebrity biography genre. But for my Eclectic Reader Challenge, I needed to read something qualifying as Micro history. I didn't even know what that was, but the internet was very helpful in clearing up my confusion. Goodreads even has a lot of useful suggestions of what I could read. As Bonk had a fairly high average rating, and was very highly rated by several of my like-minded book friends, not to mention that I was curious about the subject matter was handled.

I really wasn't sure what to expect, as I mentioned, this is pretty much my first foray into micro history, but Ms. Roach is a very entertaining writer and covers the topic from a number of angles. She writes about famous researchers like Kinsey, Masters and Johnson who worked diligently during the 20th Century, but also goes back earlier, looking at the way sex was viewed historically and how the research of it developed. She's clearly travelled all over the world for her answers, interviewing pig farmers in Denmark, doctors in Asia and on occasion, she even volunteers herself (and on one occasion) as a research subject.

Some chapters were absolutely more fascinating than others. I must also confess that my reading of this book was interrupted by the release of Carry On, and having to read the last third of this book with one heck of a book hangover after a book about gay wizards probably meant that I was no longer really in the right frame of mind for scientific facts about sex and sexual research, no matter how entertainingly it was written. I may try to re-read the book at a later date, when I can give my full attention to it.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 108: "Carry On" by Rainbow Rowell

Page count: 529 pages
Audio book length: 13 hrs 42 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Oh, Carry On, how do I even begin to do you justice? I'll just have to muddle through and hope for the best.

Simon Snow is an orphan, forced to spend his summers in various group homes around Britain. The rest of the school year he spends at the Watford School of Magicks, where he's just returned for his very final year (but not before having to behead a goblin trying to kill him on the way there). Simon Snow is the Chosen One of wizardkind, but most of the time, he can't even perform basic spells. He's so full of magic and barely restrained anger that when he really lets go, things explode or catch fire. Sometimes both at once. He didn't ask to be the Chosen One, destined to save all of magic from the ever-growing threat of the Insidious Humdrum, a mysterious force wearing the face of his eleven-year-old self. He knows that he's unlikely to survive their final encounter.

His best friend, Penelope Bunce, is one of the best witches at the school and she does what she can to help Simon in every way. She worries about him when they are separated for the summer, and she tries to avoid thinking about what is likely to happen after they finish school. What she most wants to do is take Simon somewhere and get a little flat, far away from magical intrigue and his inevitable showdown with the Humdrum. Not that she fancies him in any way, a fact she wishes Simon's girlfriend would understand - she just wants to take care of him, like any loyal friend would.

Simon's girlfriend is Agatha Wellbelove, the prettiest, most graceful girl at Watford. She and Simon have been going out for the past three years, and Simon always spends Christmas with her family. She doesn't really particularly like magic, and would happily go to a normal school with her normal friends, and she certainly doesn't relish the fact that she risks being collateral damage every time the Humdrum sends something horrible to endanger Simon. And then there is Baz, Simon's darkly handsome and mysterious roommate (and sometimes nemesis), who intrigues her so. Not that her parents would be happy if she dumped the Chosen One for a Tory vampire.

Simon's mentor and the headmaster at Watford, the Mage, is barely present at the school, always off somewhere looking for new magical artifacts or texts to fight the constant dangers, but when he does return, he suggests Simon may want to leave Watford, and hide away somewhere. But Simon can't do that. Everything he knows and loves is there, and if he leaves, he won't be able to keep an eye on Baz, who for mysterious reasons hasn't returned for the fall term. Just before Simon and Penelope were magically whisked away by the Humdrum at the end of last term, Simon saw Baz and Agatha holding hands in the woods. Now Baz, the pompous and devious git, hasn't even returned to Watford. Simon is convinced he's plotting against himself and the Mage, and can't seem to eat or sleep properly, combing the grounds looking for him. What sort of nemesis just leaves?

Like a lot of others, I suspect I found the Simon Snow parts of Fangirl (both the "official" Gemma T. Leslie sections, and Cath's fan fiction) the least interesting part of the book, and when I listened to the audio book during my convalescence from concussion, I frequently skipped them. Yet I was intrigued when Rainbow Rowell, one of my favourite authors, said that she couldn't get Simon and Baz out of her head, and was writing a book about them. Not her fictional author Gemma T. Leslie's version, or her fictional fan Cath's extended fan fiction, but in a very meta way, a kind of fan fiction of her own previous creations.

I tried to avoid too many interviews, as I didn't want to get spoiled, but since I've loved every single thing she'd previously written, Rainbow Rowell writing YA fantasy was going to have to be pretty awful for me not to enjoy it. It turns out I was so eager for the book, I completely failed to realise that I pre-ordered the book TWICE - once on Amazon and once on Kobobooks. Because I am getting older, I can't actually stay up until the early hours of the morning reading, and then going to work to teach the young, so I wasn't able to finish the book until the day after I got it. Once I did, I had the biggest book hangover, though. I had fairly high expectations for the book, and it surpassed every single one.

To anyone who has ever read a Harry Potter book (or not lived in an isolated cave for the past few decades, because really, who hasn't heard of the Harry Potter universe?), the influence here is very obvious. Rainbow Rowell has said that she loves Chosen One stories, and wanted to explore what it meant to BE chosen in her own book. Of course any such individual in their right mind wouldn't exactly love that their ultimate fate is probably to fight and die to save the greater good. Simon tries very hard not to think too much of his time after Watford, as he is very unlikely to survive to see it.

There are so many clever references here, some calling back to Fangirl, but also a whole host of other YA literature, most obviously Twilight. Simon spent his entire fifth year trying to prove that Baz was a vampire, and his confrontation scene with his roommate had me laughing out loud. The ever-present YA love triangle is also present, but dealt with very deftly and the romantic tension in this book was the main reason I was so frustrated I couldn't actually stay awake long enough - I wanted to get to the kissing! It was all extremely worth it, though. I don't want to reveal how many times I may have re-read the chapters where the kissing first happens, but I read a lot of romance, and YA fiction rarely takes my breath away. It was pretty swoon-worthy, and my inner 14-year-old squeed.

If you've ever enjoyed any sort of book or film or TV show, where the Chosen One constantly ends up endangering his friends and/or family, is struggling with the fate of the world and the safety of humanity on his or her shoulders, where there is a love/hate-relationship between the protagonist and the love interest, you should read this book. I was practically glowing with happiness when I completed the book, and once the doctor decreed that I wasn't allowed to do anything more taxing with my brain than listen to audiobooks, I promptly got this (a book I'd already paid for twice, mind you), just so I could experience it again. Euan Morton does a good job with all the different accents and voices, but sounds a bit too old for all the teenage characters. Since I always listen to books on x1.25 or even x1.50, that wasn't a problem for me, and I can very much recommend it as a great listen.

It's always much harder to not just gush incoherently when reviewing a book you really love. This book completely blew me away, and will without a shadow of a doubt be high on my top 10 of 2015. If this is Rainbow Rowell's first attempt at fantasy, I can't imagine what she could do if she decided to play in the genre again some time.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR7 Book 107: "Forever Your Earl" by Eva Leigh

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Daniel Balfour, Earl of Ashford, marches into the offices of the Hawk's Eye, demanding to speak to the owner. He is surprised when he discovers that E. Hawke is not a man, as he was expecting, but a comely young woman named Eleanor. She owns, edits and is the head writer of the gossip paper, and the nighttime pursuits of the Earl of Ashford is one of the most popular topics the paper covers. Daniel proposes to take Eleanor along with him while he goes about his scandalous and rakish adventures, giving her paper exclusive access. Eleanor is suspicious to his motives, but can't look a gift horse such as this in the mouth, and agrees to the bargain.

Ashford proposes the deal as a diversion. His best friend, traumatised after his return from the Napoleonic wars, has gone missing without a trace and his family are frantically looking for him. Were the press to discover the disappearance, the reputation of not only Ashford's friend, but his younger sister, would be ruined irreparably. He hopes that by feeding the scandal papers with news about is own dissolute nocturnal exploits, no one will look too closely at what he does during the day. 

Of course, Ashford had not expected that the journalist following him around would be a beautiful woman, and even in men's clothing, she's extremely distracting. His attraction to her isn't solely based on the physical, either. Discovering that she single-handedly bought the newspaper, aided only by funding and loans from friends, not supported by any male relatives and that she runs it without assistance from anyone fills him with admiration and respect. Eleanor rebuffs his advances, however, knowing full well that any dalliance between a commoner and a peer of the realm never has any realistic future, and can only result in heartache for her in the end.

Eva Leigh is the pen name of Zoë Archer, who is known for her entertaining paranormal/Steampunk historical romances. Her new series, the Wicked Quills of London, is straight up Regency historicals, hence the new name. I've read a few of Ms. Archer's book before, but was especially impressed with this book, because of the constant acknowledgement in the story that Ashford and Eleanor are from completely different worlds. Their social classes are miles apart. Daniel is an earl and Eleanor isn't even the daughter of a gentleman or a rich merchant. She was raised among theatre people and has made her own way in the world.

Ashford's godfather, who is very eager for his godson to settle down and start producing heirs, is appalled when he discovers that Daniel has begun an assignation with a perfectly common woman. There are examples given of other "love matches" crossing the class difference where the couple are now shunned by everyone in polite society. The more time Ashford spends with Eleanor, and sees what she's achieved, the more guilty he feels about the dissolute and indolent life he has been leading and decides he wants change. It doesn't take him that long to discover that he wants Eleanor as his wife, no matter what the rest of his peers think of such a decision.

It was also refreshing that the book shows that the aftermath of soldiers returning from the war was not always easy. Regency Romancelandia is full of noble heroes just returned from the war (probably far more than actually fought in the war in reality) , and while some may have a dashing scar or two, most romances don't want to deal with a hero with seriously crippling PTSD. As his father's only heir, Daniel wanted to join the army, but was prevented because of his responsibilities to his title and the estates, but his friend, a second son valiantly fought, and returned, not changed so much physically, as mentally. Neither Daniel nor his family realised the extent to his significant trauma before he "fell in with a bad crowd" and disappeared completely. Ashford feels that he should have seen and helped his friend and now can't rest until he has found him and restored him to the safety of his family, before the scandal rags catch wind of the story.

Eleanor is a nicely pragmatic heroine, whose parents weren't exactly the most reliable, but with the support network of friends and found family has managed just fine. She's not a virgin and while she's not in any way lived promiscuously, she enjoys sex and hasn't only had lousy previous experiences. Daniel, in the true fashion of romance heroes, isn't actually as rakish as his reputation makes him seem, and mostly treats women with kindness and respect. Based on his physical description in the book, I mentally cast him as Henry (Oh my God, He's so Good-Looking) Cavill, possibly because I read the book right after having seen The Man from U.N.C.L.E in the cinema. It certainly didn't detract from his appeal.

The next book in the series is being released at the end of October, featuring Maggie, Eleanor's best friend, who is a playwright at a theatre, and Ashford's friend, the much more dissolute Viscount Marwood. I suspect there is heartbreak and disappointment in Maggie's past, based on her dire warnings toward Eleanor in her dealings with Ashford in this book. I'm looking forward to seeing how her romance unfolds.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 106: "Darlah - 172 timer på månen" (172 hours on the Moon) by Johan Harstad

Page count: 376 pages
Rating: 3 stars

NASA announces a historic lottery to help fund their new lunar expedition. Teens of between the ages 14 to 18 can sign up, and three lucky someones will be selected to train with the astronauts and come along on for a trip to the Moon. There is already a moon base they can stay at, DARLAH 2, established in the early 1970s for research and observation, but never actually used, for reasons the higher ups with the right security clearance would prefer not to answer. The same goes for questions about what the fate of DARLAH 1 was. There is an old, senile man in a quiet nursing home, who used to be a maintenence worker at Area 51. He sees the news broadcasts about the lottery and the upcoming lunar expedition and something inside him is screaming in terror. No one must return to the Moon, the lunar expedition is a terrible idea! Unfortunately, his illness is far enough advanced that he can't actually voice his thoughts and fears to anyone, and explain why another mission to the Moon may be disastrous.

The three teens who are selected are Mia from Norway, who plays in an all-girl post punk rock band, mainly acts stroppy towards her well-meaning parents. The only one she seems patient and nice to is her mentally disabled younger brother. She doesn't actually want to join the lottery, and is incredibly upset when she discovers that her parents signed her up. When it turns out that she's been picked out of the millions who signed up, her band mates are the ones to persuade her to finally go.

Antoine from Paris signs up for the lottery after his girlfriend dumps him and he wants to be anywhere else. He's very interested in historical planes, and develops worrying stalkerish tendencies where he goes up to the Eiffel Tower to use the binoculars there to spy into his ex-girlfriend's bedroom window. By the time the kids have completed their NASA training, he and Mia seem to have fallen for each other.

Japanese Midori doesn't feel like she fits in with most of her peers, and spends most of her free time making costumes, hanging out with other social outcasts in the Harajuku area of Tokyo. Her biggest dream is to leave Japan, like her older sister who moved to London. When she's picked for the lottery, she hopes to be able to persuade her parents to let her stay in the US after the lunar mission.

All three teens experience mysterious and ominous events before the arrive for their training with NASA. Antoine sees a plane apparently crashing into the ocean; Midori and her parents can't seem to find the correct gate at the airport and a ghostly voice in a rest room tells Midori not to leave Japan; Mia meets a strange homeless man in Central Park with strange writing on the back on his hoodie.

Darlah, or 172 Hours on the Moon was awarded several literary prizes in 2008, when it was first published and in 2014 it was voted the best Norwegian young adult of all time by a panel of teenage readers and book journalists. The book certainly seems to appeal to a lot of the teens I teach, especially the girls (because sadly, most of the teenage boys in our school don't read unless they're forced to). One of the girls in my current class said it "made me look at reading in a completely new way" and I couldn't really refuse to read the book after an endorsement like that.

What I liked:
- The actual premise of the book
- Midori seemed like a perfectly nice character
- The NASA astronauts were cool
- Mia's family were nice (the other two teen's parents may as well not have existed for all the time the book spends on them)
- The slowly increasing tension and growing feeling of unease in the book
- The clever ways in which the book plays with genre conventions. There are a lot of fun pop culture references. 

What I disliked:
- The book has a very slow start. Far too much time is spent with the teenagers before the results of the lottery are revealed, mostly dwelling on details that have nothing to do with events that become relevant later. The book would have been more engaging if it got to the point faster.
- Mia really isn't a very likable character. She appears like a spoiled, ungrateful brat and I didn't really see why her friends wanted to spend time with her or why her parents didn't just tell her to snap out of her sulk. The slow beginning of the book just emphasises these negative qualities.
- Antoine's stalker tendencies. This is another way in which the lengthy unneccessary exposition at the beginning was more detrimental than beneficial. If so much time hadn't been spent on showing Antoine and Mia as dislikable, I would have been more engaged with their budding relationship later in the book as well.
- The horror aspect of the book. I had not realised that this book was both a sci-fi AND a horror novel. The horror was very well done, but I'm a big ol' wuss and it just made me uncomfortable.

I don't want to reveal too much more about the book, because that would spoil the story and it's best to go into the book without knowing too much. I can absolutely see why this is extremely appealing to young readers, but for someone who is as easily creeped out as I am, this is just not for me.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 18 October 2015

#Readathon October 2015: End of event

Another Read-a-thon completed, this one somewhat hampered by the fact that reading actual books, either in paper or e-book form, or spending too much time on a screen gives me a raging headache. Concussions suck, people. Thankfully, over the last few months, I've not really been buying a lot of audio books, instead hoarding my credits like nuggets of gold. That's come in handy now. I'm also more than halfway through the hooded scarf I'm knitting, because I need something to do with my hands when I'm listening.

End of event survey?

1) Which hour was most daunting for you?
Probably hour 6, when it became very clear that my head was having none of this reading business, and it became obvious that it was going to have to be an audio book sort of a Read-a-thon

2) Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged next year?
Carry On - Rainbow Rowell
Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell
Nimona - Noelle Stevenson
Rat Queens, vol 1: Sass and Sorcery - Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch

3) What worked well and what could be improved?
I think it was all good. I liked the various mini-challenges and the activity on Twitter. I don't really see what could be better than what we've got already.

4) How many books did you read?
I completed five books, but two of them I was already most of the way through by the time Read-a-thon started.

5) What were the names of the books you read?
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, audio book narrated by Euan Morton
Joyland by Stephen King
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, audio book narrated by Rebecca Lowman and Maxwell Caulfield
Rat Queens, vol 1: Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch

6) Which book did you enjoy most?
Possibly Rat Queens, volume 1 of the books I wasn't actually re-reading/listening to in audio book form. It was delightfully violent, foul-mouthed, action-packed and funny.

7) Which book did you enjoy least?
 There wasn't any book I didn't enjoy, I would rate all the books four stars or higher, but if I had to put one last, it would be Joyland by Stephen King, which I mainly read to fulfill a reading challenge.

8) How likely are you to participate in Read-a-thon again?
I will absolutely be doing Read-a-thon again in April, as long as my schedule allows it. Hopefully, I won't have a head injury that causes me pain while I read.

Pages read in total: 981
Hours read in total: approximately 11,5
Books completed: 5 (see above) 

#Readathon October 2015: Time for bed

Going into hour 15, I've decided to go to sleep for a while, with every intention of getting up in time to read for a few more hours tomorrow. The concussion is absolutely still in play, sadly, meaning that I'll most likely be audio-booking the rest of the Readathon, as I have been doing for the last six hours. I've also got a lot of knitting done, a big plus in the audiobook column.

Fangirl is one of my favourite books, and it's really fun comparing the various Simon Snow chapters having just read Carry On twice.

Pages read so far: 714
Currently reading/listening to: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Books completed: 3

Saturday 17 October 2015

#Readathon October 2015: The Ugly Cover Pitch mini challenge

Hour the sixth and I've been reading for a total of 2,6 hours, according to my awesome spreadsheet. I've found another fun mini challenge, hosted over on Shaina Reads, called The Ugly Cover pitch. Shaina asks that one pick a really good book with a really bad cover, and explain what greatness can be discovered if only the eyesore of a cover is overlooked. I knew immediately what series of books I wanted to pick, as pretty much all the covers in this great Steampunk fantasy romance series are atrocious. But it's always best to start at the beginning - here with Kiss of Steel. 

While the cover may lead the unsuspecting to assume that the book is about som sort of burlesque stripper stage magician, making her plucky way through the misty streets of London, followed around by a dandy in an anachronistically modern haircut, that's not really the case at all. They've put a cog next to the title, because it is Steampunk, after all. I had this book recommended to me both through Amazon and Goodreads, and I waited so long to pick it up. Even when I did give it a try, I wasn't expecting much.

Far from the adventures of a scantily clad Victorian Zatanna cosplayer, this is the story of a brave young gentlewoman, whose inventor father died, leaving her to care for her two younger siblings. Because I've now spent the best end of twenty minutes of this hour not reading, I'm going to cheat slightly and use my previous review to complete the pitch.

Pages read so far: 387
Currently reading: Need to figure out what I want to read next.
Books completed:

#Readathon: Diversity Shelfie mini-challenge

Since my concussion is still making it harder for me to read a lot, I'm taking part in more mini-challenges instead. This one is called Diversity Shelfie, hosted over on An Unconventional Librarian. The point of the challenge is to take a photo of yourself with a book featuring diversity and explain why you love the book. I picked Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, because it features a range of diverse characters, including both gay and straight teens. It also depicts depression and mental illness in one of the better ways I've seen it dealt with in YA fiction, and last but not least, it features Tiny Cooper, one of the most delightful fictional characters I've met in years. I wanted to take a shelfie with Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, but I "only" own that in e-book and audio so far, and hence, can't photograph myself with it.

Pages read so far: 155
Currently reading: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Books finished: 2 (but I was almost finished with both before the Readathon began)
Carry On - Rainbow Rowell (audio book, narrated by Euan Morton)
Joyland - Stephen King

#Readathon October 2015: Cover Escape Mini-challenge

Over on the Unabridged Chick's blog there is a mini-challenge that I really liked the look of - cover escape. To find a book on my shelves with a cover I'd like to escape into. The minute I read the description, I knew which book to choose. I haven't actually read the book yet, it's one of the many on my oh so comprehensive TBR list, but it has such an inviting cover, and especially now that it's getting colder and darker here in Norway - I want to go to there.

I think the picture is meant to be southern Italy somewhere. It looks warm and inviting and I'd love to visit and swim in the beautiful, blue sea.

Pages read: 61
Currently reading: Joyland by Stephen King
Books completed: 1 - Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (I only had the last 50 pages left)

#Readathon October 2015: Opening meme

1) What fine part are you reading from today?
Oslo, Norway

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?
I haven't actually entirely decided what I'm going to try to read, as I'm still not sure how much reading I'll be able to do.

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?
I've made the same ham, cheese and scallion muffins that I always make for Read-a-thon.

4) Tell us a little about yourself!
I'm a teacher. I love reading. I review books to collect money for a cancer charity. Check out our group blog on Cannonball Read.

5) If you've participated in the last Read-a-thon, what's one thing you'll do different today?
Since I got a concussion on Monday, I may not be able to do as much reading as I'd like. I'm feeling a lot better and am going to try to do reading, in large font, on my e-reader, and maybe some graphic novels, but this may be a mostly audio book Read-a-thon for me.

Sunday 4 October 2015

#CBR7 Book 105: "Of Silk and Steam" by Bec McMaster

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the fifth and final book in the London Steampunk series. There will be minor spoilers for previous books in the series, and it's really not the best place to start. If you're interested, start at the beginning with Kiss of Steel.

The precarious power balance in the capital is becoming untenable. Human Queen Alexandra is more of a powerless puppet to her powerful and erratic blueblood (vampire) husband, the Prince Consort, than ever before. Even the ruling council of the Echelon (the nobility) have little control over his more and more unpredictable decisions. The common people, normal humans and mechs (humans who have had limbs replaced with mechanical prosthetics after accidents) are being pressed harder than ever before, with more extreme blood taxes and the situation is reaching a breaking point.

A number of people are working quietly to fortify Whitechapel, controlled by Sir Henry Rachinger, better known as Blade or the Devil of Whitechapel. Since his wife, Honoria, published the scientific findings of her dead father, leading to a vaccine against the blueblood virus, the Prince Consort's power over the Echelon has slipped further. The heads of the city's police force, the humanist party, Blade, his wervulfen sister- and brother-in law, as well as the heir to the Duke of Caine, Leo Barrons are all working together to fortify the walls of Whitechapel and get enough ammunition to incite a proper rebellion.

Unbeknownst to them, Lady Aramina or Mina, Duchess of Cassavian and one of the few blueblood women in London society, has been working diligently for nearly a decade, funding the humanists. The queen is her best friend and she hates seeing how the Prince Consort abuses and manipulates her. On the surface, she's all coldly correct, supportive of the Prince Consort's rule, even willing to help him physically reprimand his wife. Behind closed doors, she works tirelessly to keep the queen's spirits up, spending as much of her private funds as she can to arm the humanists. She has no idea that there are others working towards the same goal, including the man she considers her enemy.

Mina believes that the Duke of Caine killed her father and has sworn revenge against him and his son. She doesn't know that Leo isn't actually the duke's son, that he has three half-siblings, including Honoria, Blade's wife. While she wants to hate him, Leo on the other hand, is fascinated by Mina and wants to crack through her icy veneer to unleash the fiery, passionate woman he believes she is hiding. Unfortunately, when the Prince Consort gets access to the truth of Leo's parentage, through a duplicitous investigator Mina hired, he is forced to go into hiding. Believing Mina to be the one who betrayed him, he takes her hostage, dragging her into Whitechapel, the only place he can hide. When he runs, the Prince Consort declares he will burn the area to the ground. The plans for rebellion need to be put into action.

While I thought the first two books in the series were a bit slow, the last three were extremely entertaining and it was especially refreshing to see that the cold and frankly quite snooty-seeming Duchess of Cassavian not only had hidden depths, but was a full-fledged badass. On his deathbed, her father defied tradition and infected her with the craving virus and she was forced to kill any pretender to her title in order to protect herself. Having lost her older brother before the Duke died from mysterious causes, with her mother becoming catatonic with grief, Mina has lived a very lonely and dangerous life. She can't openly support and champion her only friend, having to work behind the scenes to remove the tyrannical Prince Consort. Because society believes that women are too weak and emotional to handle the craving virus, she has to work twice as hard as the Echelon males to stay in control of her bloodlust and urges, to prove them all wrong. She's had lovers, but is afraid to let herself go completely and therefore feels both tempted and frustrated by Leo's advances and refusal to give up courting her.

Leo is also very lonely, having been raised in an almost militaristic fashion by the Duke of Caine, who was treated the same way by his father. Having realised early on that he was illegitimate, Leo still feels guilty about refusing to help his half-siblings when they were in need, resulting in Honoria's bargain with Blade, which in turn led to her marriage. Leo became infected with the craving virus because of a botched experiment of his biological father, and as revenge doctored the vaccine Sir Artemus Todd was planning on taking, not realising that he also meant to give it to his son Charlie, Leo's half brother. Charlie became a rogue blueblood, and Leo has never been able to forgive himself for causing this. Even after his half-siblings have forgiven him and try to include him as much as they can, they can't openly show their connection. Once the Prince Consort discovers the truth for himself, and orders Leo executed, his sister and brother-in-law are the only ones he can turn to for help.

Mina is appalled that the man she paid to investigate Leo also reported to the Prince Consort. Being held prisoner by Leo and Blade in Whitechapel when the city is about to erupt in civil war is disastrous for her, though, as she needs to make sure the queen is safe. This leads to her trying her best to escape, while Leo keeps chasing her down, becoming more and more aware how important she is to him.

The romance in this was excellent and I was impressed with how well McMaster united all the various pieces that she's introduced in the previous books. With every book, she's introduced one more thread, bringing them all together here. Discovering that Mina was the financial source behind the humanists was a delightful surprise, and when she finally allows herself to give into her attraction to Leo, things get pretty smoking hot. With some Steampunk series, that element gets unnecessarily gimmicky, not so here. The world-building and character development has been excellent throughout, and it's always good to see a series that ends on a high note instead of fizzling out. I highly recommend McMaster's books to anyone who likes paranormal historicals and look forward to what she's going to write next.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.