Sunday 28 February 2016

#CBR8 Books 26 and 27: "Beautiful Bastard" and Beautiful Bitch" by Christina Lauren

Total page count: 480 pages
Beautiful Bastard: 2.5 stars
Beautiful Bitch: 3.5 stars
Combined rating: 3 stars

Chloe Mills only has a few months left of studying for her MBA, working as an intern for perfectionist business prodigy Bennett Ryan. She gets along famously with his father, the founder of the company and his older brother, but she pretty much detests her boss and he seems to delight in finding fault with everything she does and says, demanding almost impossible things from her. But behind their seemingly mutual loathing, there is also explosive attraction as they start hate-f*cking in the board room in between yelling furiously at each other.

Neither can stop thinking of the other, and even though they can't seem to say a civil thing to one another, they keep tearing each other's clothes off every chance they get. Should Chloe really be risking her career by having a love affair with her boss? Can their angry hook-ups develop into anything more or will their furious passion burn itself out eventually?

Having just finished the final book in Christina Lauren's Wild Seasons series, which I thought got better with each successive book in the series, I decided to check out the book that started their romance writing career. I am very glad this wasn't my first experience with their writing, because it didn't really work well for me. In her review for the entire Beautiful series so far, Mrs. Julien mentions that the border between romance and erotica is a flimsy one. I would probably classify at least the first of these books as straight up erotica, as there is a whole load of smexy times from (to me at least) surprisingly early on (especially as I was given absolutely NO indication that the characters did anything but hate each other before they're suddenly getting it on on a conference table and against a window). For the first two thirds of the book, there is barely any character development, just a lot of sex (and the wanton destruction of a lot of ludicrously expensive, but flimsy undergarments) and neither character seems like they are in control of the situation - as with most Christina Lauren books, the hero and heroine has alternate POV chapters throughout the book.

Their relationship seemed badly dysfunctional, not to mention highly inappropriate, considering Bennett is Chloe's boss, who should not be making the moves on his intern, no matter how attractive she is. There was rather a lot of tell, don't show, about how physically attractive Bennett is or how everyone in the Ryan family loves Chloe and can't understand why Bennett is so mean to her all the time, but really not very much character development. The couple keep calling each other absolutely horrible names and seem to get off on it (a lot and frequently), but never calm down and speak civilly until they go to a conference towards the last third of the book, where suddenly their emotions seem to have engaged (not sure when in between the name calling and angry sex that happened) and they want to make a go of it. Of course Bennett does something unbelievably douchy that makes Chloe cut all ties for a while, but after a few months apart, they are reconciled.

Because I love it to pieces and it so excellently and expertly analyses the rather common romance trope of the alphahole, I wanted to take the opportunity to link to the article written by my favourite author team (sorry Christina Lauren) Ilona Andrews. Bennett Ryan is an alphahole of the first order:
- He is extremely good at his job and excels in everything he does.
- He has a terrible temper and such exacting standards that he is feared by pretty much all the interns of the company and when Chloe goes away, can't keep an assistant for more than a day or two.
- He loves his family, but is otherwise known to have had a string of female conquests with no apparent need to settle down before he suddenly initiates a sexual relationship with Chloe.
- There is a distinct lack in status between Bennett and Chloe: he is her boss, she is his intern. They can at a future point be equals, but are not at present.

While Bennett may seem to have all the power, from the very beginning, Chloe gives as good as she gets, and frequently has the emotional upper hand. Because we get to see whole chapters from Bennett's POV, it's clear that he's never really been in love before and is deeply confused (and therefore angered) by his new and baffling emotions and keeps saying and doing the wrong thing and then patching over it with more smexy times. 

Beautiful Bitch is a novella set about a year after Chloe and Bennett made up and the couple barely have time to see each other anymore because of their busy schedules (although they still seem to manage to have some hanky panky in Bennett's office now and then) and they are about to start a new office in New York and have a million things to deal with. Bennett decides they need a vacation and they are set to go to France, but they are separated by flight delays for several days and re-assess their thoughts about their feelings for one another and the future of their relationship while they have some time apart.

While this story had a lot of *insert funky bass-line here* and the protagonists still seem to use personal insults in lieu of endearments (to each their own), there was a lot frank communication and actual character development. In fact, in flash back, the readers are shown what happened after the grand gesture reconciliation bit, where the two actually speak about their emotions clearly for the first time (why couldn't this have been in the first book in the first place?) and while I still found both of the characters rather exhausting and a bit abrasive, I at least believed that there was more to their relationship than being very cut-throat and driven in business and quite aggressive  in the bedroom. The authors almost made me believe the couple might have a future together after all.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 27 February 2016

#CBR8 Book 25: "Wicked Sexy Liar" and "Not-Joe's Not-So-Short Story" by Christina Lauren

Page count: 439 pages
Wicked Sexy Liar: 5 stars
Not Joe's Not-So-Short Story: 3 stars

First of all, I have to once again thank the wonderful Mrs. Julien for getting me the Target special edition paperback of this book and sending it to me with a veritable feast of Junior Mints, just so I could get to read Not-Joe's story, which wasn't included in the e-book version of the book. The Junior Mints were a lovely bonus, and I now have to be very strong and not gorge myself on all of them in one weekend.

London has a graphic design degree, but as she has her own place in San Diego and a flatmate she adores, she doesn't feel a pressing urge to be throwing herself into a competitive job market. She's quite happy surfing by day and bar tending by night, doing the occasional job to slowly build her portfolio. Having been burned more than once by cheaters, she's very wary about dating anyone at all, although seeing all her current friends disgustingly happy in couples, the loneliness is starting to smart and she can't help but feel like a seventh wheel. So when she meets the gorgeous and charming Luke at the bar where she works, she knows she shouldn't go home with him, but does anyway. Determined to keep things casual between them, she doesn't really expect to see him again.

Luke loved deeply and long, but broke up with his girlfriend Mia four years ago. Since then, he's been looking for the opposite of commitment and has become a bit of a player. Hooking up with London (whose name he mishears when they are introduced and as a result he calls her Logan for the entirety of their first night together) wasn't supposed to be anything more than a bit of fun, but he quickly realises that he wants to see this woman again and he doesn't really like how correct she is in her surface assessment of him as unreliable, a bit douchey and prone to one night stands. Unfortunately, he can't deny that he has a lot of dumb bro friends, that his phone is full of random women's numbers and that on a given day he gets a ridiculous number of propositions. He has played the field rather epically since his break-up with his first love and now he needs to figure out how to change his ways and convince the woman he wants to become deeply committed to that he's worth her trust, time and affection.

His job is not made easier once London puts two and two together and discovers that he is her friend Mia's ex. Not having many close friendships, London is terrified of ruining the ones she has with Mia, Harlow and Lola and will certainly not continue seeing Luke if either of them has a problem with it, no matter how short of breath she gets when she sees him or her heart beats faster around him. Luke has his work cut out for him, but thrives on challenges and is determined to win the fair London, even if it takes a while.

I was a lot more excited about the prospect of finally discovering slacker philosopher Not-Joe's real name than about the prospect of London and Luke's romance. As it turns out, his bonus story is more of an extended epilogue to the four other romances than a romance in its own right, but it does bring about closure for a few of the characters and takes the whole series full circle in a satisfying way. Having read it, I never need to think of it again, but I'm still glad I got the bonus story as well as the main book.

Having low to no expectations can turn out very well indeed. I agree with Mrs. Julien that this is clearly the best of the Wild Seasons series, and probably the only book in the series that I don't have a single thing to quibble about. I loved Luke and London, separately and apart. I loved seeing the previous couples as supporting characters and meeting new supporting players who were important to London and Luke. Her boss, Fred, is great. The car fund jar where she gets a dollar every time someone refers to her dimples (and it happens a lot) was a great touch. Luke's sister Margot was amazing and I adored their very close and honest relationship and how they didn't let the other one get away with anything. The entirety of Luke's family were great and his grandma had me howling with laughter.

Having now finished this entire series, I really will have no choice but to start reading Christina Lauren's other books, because their brand of sexy, light-hearted romance is incredibly moreish and I can't wait to see what they write next.  I'm very glad that I was wrong about this book and it gave me several hours of laughs, happy sighs and contented reading pleasure.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 24: "Anne of Green Gables" by L.M. Montgomery

Page count: 320 pages
Audio book length: 7 hrs 24 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert are a middle-aged brother and sister who live together and manage the farm of Green Gables on Prince Edward Island in Canada. They intend to take in a small orphan boy to be of help to them on the farm, but due to a mix-up, little eleven-year-old Anne Shirley is sent to them instead. Matthew, who is extremely shy, especially around women, nonetheless warms to the loquacious and imaginative child and after hearing a bit about the hardships the orphan girl has suffered before she arrived with the Cuthberts, Marilla doesn't have the heart to send her away either. She makes Matthew promise that he won't "stick his oar in" when it comes to the raising of the girl and sets about trying to teach the impulsive, talkative, rather flightly girl to be a useful and well-behaved little person.

Anne strives to be good, but at least initially, fails more often than not. She has a unique knack for getting into scrapes. She's deeply self-conscious about her pale skin, her freckles and her long red hair. She loses her temper with Marilla's best friend Mrs. Lynde, when that woman has the nerve to call her an "ugly skinny thing" and she breaks her slate over handsome schoolmate Gilberth Blythe's head when he makes the mistake of pulling one of her braids and calling her "Carrots" to try to get her attention (the poor boy is clearly infatuated with her). While she apologises to Mrs. Lynde and forgives her, she does no such thing with Gilbert and proceeds to consider him an enemy for five long years before finally making up. 

Anne comes up with imaginative names for all the geographic features in Avonlea, wanting things to be as romantic as possible. She learns to deal with her red hair and her plain dresses by imagining herself to have raven tresses and puffed sleeves, like the other little girls. She makes a life-long friend in neighbour Diana Barry, but is forbidden to play or speak with her for a long while when she accidentally gets Diana drunk on cordial wine (thinking it was raspberry preserve). She bakes a cake for the minister's wife flavoured with liniment rather than vanilla when she has a cold and dyes her hair a hideous shade of green, having been tricked into buying hair dye by a travelling peddler.

This first book, the audio book of which I got in an Audible sale last November, covers the first five years of Anne's time with Marilla and Matthew and was one of my favourite books growing up. I have actually lost count of how many times I read the books about lovely and impetuous Anne Shirley, first in Norwegian and later in English. I was delighted, but not actually all that surprised to discover that the book still holds up and is just as wonderful and eventful as I remembered. I had not remembered that the first book covered such a space of time, and unfortunately I had also managed to repress (most likely) the very sad events towards the end of the book. Not going to lie, I sobbed loudly while finishing the book on the sofa last night and can't imagine anyone not being moved by the grief that touches Anne's life after she's graduated school.

I hope to one day have a girl of my own that I can share this lovely book with. If I don't, I certainly hope that one of my two nieces appreciates it (they will if they know what's good for them). I really want to visit Prince Edward Island (like I loved visiting one of the many Laura Ingalls Wilder museums when I was in the US a few years ago) some time and really bask in the surroundings of one of my most beloved fictional characters.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 26 February 2016

#CBR8 Book 23: "Shadows of Self" by Brandon Sanderson

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Readers should probably have read The Alloy of Law before beginning this book. It sets up these characters and the world and time they inhabit really well. I shall try to refrain from spoiling said book too much, but if you haven't read it, that's where you want to start. Well, to be really accurate, you should probably start with Mistborn: the Final Empire, the first book in the trilogy that establishes the whole of this world, but that's more for those who want a really comprehensive understanding.

Since the events of The Alloy of Law, Lord Waxillium "Wax" Ladrian is now established as the leader of House Ladrian and has managed to sort out their finances. He is continuing to track down criminals with the aid of his trusty and irreverent sidekick Wayne, who can impersonate pretty much anyone with a little bit of time to listen to their accents and the right hat. The actual law-enforcement officers in the city aren't always too happy with the way Wax tends to track down law-breakers and especially with the wanton destruction often left in its wake. Marasi, who has given up a career in law to become the assistant to one of the superintendents. Her new position forces her to consider her friends in a new light.

There is trouble brewing in the city, with a lot of workers congregating in the streets. There are food shortages due to floods, there are talks or strikes and protests. Then the governor's brother is showily murdered in a gathering of several known criminals and accusations of corruption are levelled at him and the governor. A prominent priest is publicly murdered, seemingly by a rival religious leader and soon the religious groups in the city are also turning on each other. When Wax, Wayne and Marasi discover who is behind all the seemingly unrelated incidents, they are unsure of how to deal with it at first. Taking down a near-immortal supernatural creature isn't going to be easy.

I am clearly going to have to at least wiki the plots of the original Mistborn-trilogy before I read any further in this series, because it is quite clear that while these books are set several hundreds of years after the first trilogy (a concept which is just delightful in itself - same societal structures, same magic systems, same laws of physics, but set centuries apart), there are still obvious connections and I think I'm going to understand what is going on a little bit more, if I can recall the general outline of the books I read way back in 2009. Creatures and possibly even individuals from those books are starting to make appearances and I am honestly somewhat confused as to what is going on.

Wax, Wayne, Marasi and Steris all continue to delight me in different ways, even though Wax can seem unnecessarily grumpy on occasion. While she is more of a minor supporting character, I really love Steris, Marasi's half-sister and Wax' fiancee. She knows she isn't a very exciting personality and that hers and Wax' marriage will be an alliance based on furthering the interests of both houses, with no actual love involved, but she pragmatically organises every social encounter with the precision of a general, down to witty remarks she can regurgitate to make small-talk or useful gossip that can be used to embarrass or dismiss bothersome hangers on. She's like a self-aware, and thus much more delightful, Mr. Collins.

The reason I recommend not reading this book until after The Alloy of Law is because quite a lot of Wax' past in the Roughs comes back to haunt him in this book. His antagonistic relationship with his evil uncle, his continued grief over his lover Lessie and the reasons he chose to rejoin polite society in the first place are all established in that book. It's also where we meet all the prominent characters for the first time and while you can understand the main points of the story in this book without the backstory, it will be a much better read if you've got the necessary background.

While I liked this book, I don't love it as much as my book twin Narfna did. I do get where she's coming from about thinking this book is going to be a pretty straightforward Wax, Wayne and Marasi catch some criminals and restore justice and order to the society they live in, and it becomes something very different, involving ancient, powerful shapeshifting creatures trying to incite rebellion, but I may just have felt frustrated at my lack of remembering the events of the original trilogy, that keep being referenced more and more. If I do some catching up online before reading the next one, I will hopefully get more immersed in the next book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 23 February 2016

#CBR8 Book 22: "Romancing Mister Bridgerton - with 2nd Epilogue" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Miss Penelope Featherington has been in love with Colin Bridgerton for almost half her life. Ever since her bonnet blew off in the park and hit him in the face, causing him to be thrown from his horse, yet reacting to the whole incident with a shrug and a laugh. After years of being dressed in ghastly, unsuitable colours and outfits by her ambitious mama, Penelope has survived a number of seasons without a single marriage proposal and is firmly on the shelf. Her best friend, Eloise, Colin's younger sister shares the same fate, although not for lack of proposals. Penelope is quite glad to no longer be an eager wallflower desperately hoping someone will notice her and dance with her. Now she can chaperone her younger sister Felicity instead. Colin is off travelling the world and barely ever home, and she's almost convinced herself that she might be over him.

Then he decides to stay put in London for a season, mostly to please his mother. At a ball where more than the usual amount of guests complain that everything is so dreadfully dull, the aged and meddlesome Lady Danbury decides to cause a stir by offering a challenge to London society. She will give a thousand pounds to whomever unmasks the infamous gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, who has now been writing for over a decade without her (or his) identity being uncovered. Suddenly everyone is peering suspiciously at one another, and Colin suspects that he may know who is behind the sharp and insightful words of the gossip reporter. Used to Penelope being a constant presence on the sidelines of his life because of her close friendship with his sister, he's suddenly seeing her in a new light. He notices how clever and observant she is, unnoticed by people in general. Surely she might help him uncover the truth behind Lady Whistledown.

While An Offer from a Gentleman is my favourite Bridgerton novel, Penelope Featherington is hands down my favourite heroine of the whole series (with Hyacinth Bridgerton a close second - more on that when I get to her book). Probably because Penelope is the one who I most closely identify with. She's been a frequently occurring supporting character in most of the other books, certainly mentioned in the Lady Whistledown sections more than once. Brought out into society while she still had her baby fat, dressed in shades of red, yellow and orange that made her look sallow and awful, often with frilly dresses that made her look enormous, Penelope is used to being either an object of mockery at worst or mostly ignored in general. As Eloise Bridgerton's best friend, she always had the support of the family and could probably be guaranteed at least a dance if any of the eligible brothers were available at a ball, but being danced with out of pity isn't all that fun in the long run. Especially when the person doing the pity dancing is the very nice and charming man that you're madly in love with.  

This is the third time I read this, and on previous occasions, I used to think Colin was a bit too glib. For much of the decade Lady Whistledown has been writing her hugely popular and talked about gossip column, Colin has been off travelling. He tends to get restless and has trouble setting down roots. Unlike his two older brothers, who are both married with families of their own, who both have their sets of responsibilities - Anthony the viscountcy and Benedict his art - Colin doesn't really have much of anything, except the journals of his travels. He's well-liked and popular wherever he goes, and doesn't really have anything at all to complain about, yet feels a niggling sense of dissatisfaction and has no idea what to do to change things. Penelope accidentally reads a couple of pages of his most recent travel journal and is amazed at how well he captures the feeling of being on a beach in Cyprus. She encourages him to get the published, but Colin is worried that no one would be interested in them. Previously, I thought Colin was a bit spoiled but he does acknowledge that his problems are negligible at best, he nonetheless can't help feeling rootless and discontented.

He discovers that while she may appear to people in general as an overlooked wallflower, Penelope has achieved a lot more than it may appear and most people completely underestimate her cleverness, wit and observational skill. He himself only saw her as Eloise's mousy and shy friend, dancing with her whenever his mother pestered him to do so. Now he begins seeing her as a genuine friend, and the more time they spend together, the more he starts noticing what no other man apparently has, that she's really quite remarkably attractive in a quiet way. Being allowed to choose her own dresses now that her mother has given up ever getting her married off, she can dress herself in blues and greens that actually flatter her figure and complexion rather than make her look chubby and sallow.

I've always liked this book, but found myself enjoying it a lot more this time around and have subsequently rated it a full star higher, because while Benedict and Sophie's book is still my favourite, this is not far behind in terms of enjoyment. Because of some of the revelations over the course of the plot, I think readers may enjoy parts of it more if they've read at least one or two of the earlier books in the series, but I might be wrong. I always read the series in order, so I honestly don't know if this makes up a good starting point.

The bonus second epilogue is, rather unusually, set not all that long after the main story. In fact, I think it may be set before the ACTUAL epilogue in the book and involves Colin's and Penelope's presence at Eloise's sudden wedding. Without wanting to spoil too much of Eloise's book - she disappears without a trace towards the end of this book, and by the time she is located by her frantic family, she must get married to save her reputation. Penelope, as her best friend, is her matron of honour.

As I publish this, you can still get the book on sale for $1.99 at most major e-book retailer. I suspect the offer is limited (the other ones have been on sale for about a week or so), so rush out and get it while you can. It's well worth a read.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 21: "An Offer from a Gentleman - with 2nd Epilogue" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Sophie Beckett is the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Penwood, but until he marries, her life isn't all too difficult. Her father never acknowledges her as anything but his ward, but sees to it that she has a proper education and that she never lacks for anything but actual parental affection. Then he gets married and Sophie's new stepmother Araminta can't stand the constant reminder of her husband's weakness. Her eldest daughter is awful to Sophie and the youngest is too scared of her mother and sister to protest about their mistreatment much. When the Earl of Penwood dies, Sophie isn't told about the dowry her father provided her with, and is forced to become an unpaid maid of all work to her stepmother and stepsisters.

Then, one magical evening, the Bridgertons are hosting a masked ball and after having seen her step-family off, the servants surprise Sophie with a dress, mask and shoes they've borrowed from Araminta's closet. Sophie gets to go to the ball, if only for a few hours. She catches the attention of the eldest unmarried Bridgerton son, Benedict, and they share some banter, a dance and one kiss before Sophie has to rush off to be home before her stepmother and -sisters discover her audacity. Unfortunately, Sophie leaves a glove behind, and with the help of his mother, Benedict manages to deduce that the mystery woman he became infatuated with had some connection to the Penwood family. He visits Araminta, but doesn't recognise any of her daughters. His visit clues Araminta into the fact that Sophie was at the ball, and she sends Sophie packing with nothing but her hard-earned savings from before her father died to her name.

Two years later, Sophie runs into the man of her dreams, Benedict Bridgerton once more. He is attending a party hosted by the son of the family Sophie works for. With his parents away, the son believes he can finally sexually assault his parents' pretty maid, but luckily Benedict interrupt him and his friends before they can actually do more than grope Sophie. She is at first startled to see him, then shocked and disappointed that he doesn't know her. The only thing that's kept her going for the last two years are the happy memories she has from that evening, and while she realises that now she is thinner, more gaunt, has shorter hair and isn't wearing a pretty dress or an elegant mask, she was still hoping that he would instantly recognise her. She doesn't realise that Benedict has been dreaming of her and thinking about that evening all the time as well, refusing his mother's entreaties to settle down as he can't get the thought of the beguiling mystery woman out of his head.

Benedict refuses to leave Sophie to fend for herself and offers her lodgings until they can go to London, where he can help her find a position. When he is struck down with a fever, Sophie nurses him back to health until his housekeeper and her husband return, to take care of both of them. While Benedict doesn't exactly recognise her, he feels more comfortable with Sophie than he can remember doing since he danced with his mystery woman. He's very attracted to her, and wants her to be his mistress. Sophie has sworn never to make her mother's mistake and settle for being some man's mistress. She's also had a miserable enough life that she would never risk bearing an illegitimate child of her own. Though she returns the attraction, she rebuffs Benedict and asks him to respect her wishes. He takes her to London, to work for his mother. Violet Bridgerton, however, as well as Benedict's younger unmarried sisters clearly recognise the feelings between the couple and do their very best to meddle and matchmake.

An Offer from a Gentleman is Julia Quinn's Cinderella retelling and it is absolutely delightful. Of all the Bridgerton books, this one is my absolute favourite. Benedict is a wonderful hero, who literally comes to the rescue of victim of circumstance Sophie more than once, yet while she needs saving every so often, she is so strong and resilient and stands up for herself so admirably throughout the book. All the Bridgerton siblings resemble each other, and on a first look, the only thing that distinguishes Benedict from his other brother is that he's the tallest. Most people don't see him, they see just a Bridgerton, or "number two". They know that he's wealthy, handsome and sought after, but they don't know what drives him or what he's looking for in life. Not really all that comfortable in the city, he thrives in the countryside, and loves to draw and paint. He's never told anyone, not even any of his siblings, but Sophie discovers his sketches and is awestruck.

Even during their very first meeting, she correctly identifies him from the many reports she's read in the Lady Whistledown gossip papers. Benedict is surprised she's going by written accounts and hasn't actually ever met any of the Bridgertons. The fact that Sophie sees him for himself and takes him as an individual, yet also immediately takes to his family and is loved and accepted by them. He doesn't really want Sophie to have to work as a maid, but she refuses to become a kept woman, no matter how strongly she feels about him and how sizzling the attraction is between them. This frustrates him immensely, and he keeps pressing his suit. Sophie has the occasional lapse, because it's hard to resist when a devastatingly handsome man you are in love with sets out to seduce you. She still sticks to her principles and does her best to explain to Benedict why she can't give in entirely, all the while trying to keep her real identity secret from him.

The fact of her illegitimacy has been hanging over Sophie her entire life. She had a friendless, fairly loveless childhood with only the affection of servants. Initially hopeful when her father got married, she quickly realised that having a stepmother and stepsisters was only going to make things worse, and once her father died, her life became one of drudgery and verbal abuse. Thrown out with barely a stitch to her name, she was forced to make a living without any references and has been lucky enough to escape sexual assault or rape during her years of servitude. The closest she comes is the near-rape that Benedict saves her from. He can't understand why she'd choose to stay a maid when she could live a life of luxury as his mistress, wanting for absolutely nothing. Sophie isn't particularly surprised that he doesn't offer her marriage - she has no illusions that a maid could marry an eligible gentleman of the ton. Having to live as his mistress and eventually seeing him marry someone else would break her heart, like it most likely did her mother's and she can't ever sentence a child to the same fate she suffered, not even when Benedict swears he would do right by any children they might have.

Having lived a life of luxury and privilege, Benedict really can't understand the position Sophie is in. He gets angry every time she rebuffs him, not able to contemplate formalising their relationship because of their class difference. It's quite clear that the Dowager Viscountess, his mother, isn't too bothered by Sophie's apparent inferiority, and from Sophie's bearing, education and speech suspects that the young woman is much more than she appears to be presenting herself as. Violet and Benedict's younger sisters do what they can to throw the couple in each other's way as much as possible and Violet is one of the people who come to the rescue towards the end when Sophie's stepmother has discovered she's back in London and is determined to make her life miserable once more.

Even with Benedict's bullheadedness and determination to make Sophie his mistress, he never once forces himself on Sophie, just tries to persuade her. It takes him time, and a conversation with his mother to realise that he needs to go about things differently. He's a very convincing Prince Charming to Sophie's Cinderella and Araminta and her eldest daughter are truly despicable villains who make Sophie's life a misery. The younger daughter, Posy, has grown a stronger backbone in the years since Sophie was forced to leave their home, and finally stands up to her mother and comes to Sophie's defence in the end.

The second epilogue for this book mostly concerns her, actually and how she finally finds a suitor worthy of her. Sophie and Benedict are happily married in the countryside and Benedict is pursuing his art career. Posy comes to visit and they set her up with an eligible young man, to very successful results. As is the case with all the second epilogues, the story is throwaway and doesn't really add much to the general story, but it is nice to see yet another happy ending.

My re-read of this has done nothing but confirm that this is a lovely book. If you haven't read it, you are in for a treat. Some of Ms. Quinn's more recent books have been hit and miss, but this is her writing at its finest.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 20: "Golden Son" by Pierce Brown

Page count: 464 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

This review may contain some spoilers for the first book in the series, Red Rising and some spoilers for this book. You probably shouldn't read this review unless you're caught up with the series. Go read the book instead.

This book kicks off two years after Darrow won the war games rather spectacularly by taking on the corrupt Praetors and staging a show unlike anything previously seen. He appears to be well on his way to winning more glory for himself and his patron, Nero au Augustus, when things start going horribly wrong once more. For a while, it looks like Darrow is going to be abandoned by his powerful patron and no longer be of use to the rebellion and the Sons of Ares, but a power play at the right time launches his star once more. Of course, Darrow's rapid rise comes at the cost of more battle and bloodshed, as a civil war kicks off, with Darrow at the centre. He learns that he may have some allies, even among the Golds, and more about what Ares is planning. What he might have done well to remember is that the higher he rises, the further he also has to fall.

I really don't want to spend too long talking about the plot of the book, because I think it's better if you go in not knowing a lot. If you are reading this review before you've actually finished the book, go away. I knew absolutely nothing about the plot when I read it and it made each new twist and revelation more exciting. While there are sections of this book that also lag, the pace is pretty frenetic and I felt rather exhausted at times keeping up with the story. Darrow has come a long way, but keeps being surprised that the system isn't as fair as it's purported and that even in Gold society, the paths to power are often rigged in favour of the strongest. And who is strongest can turn on a dime. He occasionally puts his trust in the wrong people or not enough trust in people he should have kept close. Because he's come such a long way, it's sometimes difficult to remember that he's only twenty years old, and twenty-year-olds are not exactly known for their patient natures.

There are some truly cinematic battle sequences in this book, either in space, involving massive starships or duels between individuals. Because I'm not all that into the science fiction aspect of these books, I tend to skim over all techno babble that seems inevitable in books like this, but I am fascinated by the way this futuristic society has actually engineered the various castes for specific tasks, such as spacecraft navigation and control. The way the Golds have created themselves as gods in the mythology of the Obsidians was also intriguing to me, and I loved Ragnar, one of the new supporting characters. Sadly, in the two years since he left the Academy, Darrow has become separated from his two strongest allies, Mustang and Sevro and I wished for more "screen time" for both of them. Both are great characters and it would be nice to have the story focused not so entirely on Darrow. There are some really cool things revealed about Sevro's origins, however, which I hope to see explored further in the final book.

This books ends on a major downbeat for Darrow and I can see why a lot of people were unhappy with it. Having heard that, I purposefully waited to read these until the final book, Morning Star, was about to be released. Since that is now out, I can read the conclusion of the story without waiting. I am going to have to take a short break, though, as these books are so relentless in their storytelling that I need to recover in between each book. Golden Son manages to keep the story moving, expanding the scope and the world-building, it's not just a bridging book with nothing much happening before you get to the exciting conclusion. I just hope that the ending can live up to the promise of the first two books in the series.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 22 February 2016

#CBR8 Book 19: "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger

Page count: 277 pages
Rating: 1 star

This review will contain spoilers, so if you want to avoid knowing all the details of the sparse and meaningless plot, maybe skip the first couple of paragraphs. 

Holden Caulfield is a self-important, spoiled and worthless little shit. At the start of the book, he is cooling his heels at the fourth boarding school he's been expelled from because he just can't be bothered to even try to apply himself (having failed four out of five subjects completely), and generally bitching about how phony his room mate, dorm mates and teachers are. Holden, ever heard of the pot calling the kettle black? You are that pot. Not content to waste his the money his parents spent on tuition, he also manages to lose all the fencing equipment belonging to the school before he's expelled. because apparently reading a subway map and keeping track of bags of equipment at the same time overloads the fragile little mind of special disenfranchised snowflake Holden.

Having spent a while internally bitching about some of his school friends and being jealous of their luck with the ladies, he picks a fight with his room mate and decides to leave school early, before his parents are alerted to his most recent failure. His grandmother is apparently overly generous, so he has cash to spare and goes by train to New York, where he books himself into a rather sleazy hotel. Here he proceeds to ruminate about girls he's known but never managed to hook up with (probably because they can tell a mile away that Holden is an emo narcissist with an inflated sense of his own self-worth and no apparent sense of humour) and gets beaten up by a pimp after paying a prostitute NOT to have sex with him. He also goes out drinking and hemorrhaging money all over the place. After a couple of days, when he's nearly broke, he goes home to see his little sister. Then he visits an old teacher who seems to have escaped Holden's go to judgement of being too phony, but said teacher may or may not make a pass at him, so Holden flees into the night. He then has some sort of mental breakdown and ends up in an institution, from whence he tells the entire story of the book.

As is hopefully clear from my rating of this book, I absolutely loathed this so-called piece of classic literature. I don't think I've ever seen a better example of the fact that it's not always the worthy texts that survive to become classics. I honestly have no idea how this book is lauded as a great novel or why it speaks to people even today. Holden is absolutely insufferable. He's a whiny, snivelling, spoiled and clueless little brat, who seems to think he is better than everyone around him, adults as well as kids his own age. The only hardship he's ever experienced is the death of his younger brother, apart from that, he's lived a life of ease and privilege and is determined to throw everything he is given away, because growing up is just so, you know, boring.

Not only is Holden absolutely insufferable, and very high on my list of fictional characters I want to knee in the groin and punch in the face (Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights is probably still number one, closely followed by Cathy from that same book). He doesn't appear to undergo any sort of significant development over the course of the book. He starts out a horrible waste of oxygen, and ends the book the same way. The only nice thing I can find to say about him is that he loves his little sister Phoebe, who is about as great a character as Holden is awful.

I seriously, for real, do not understand what is supposed to be so great about this book. What purpose does it serve? Nothing of consequence happens. Holden is atrocious and likes to ramble on about nothing, thinking back to previous events in his life that are also fairly insignificant and amounted to very little. Like so many other teens, he feels alienated from his surroundings and doesn't fit in. Not that he does a thing to change that or to find some sort of purpose. All he does is complain and sulk, and I wanted to slap him so hard his teeth rattled. My colleagues in the English department have decided that all the higher level kids are to read this book when we're embarking on our current topic of Classics, and I just desperately hope that it reads better to teenagers than it did to me. As several of my colleagues seemed rather appalled at my vehement hate for the book, it can be their job to defend its worthiness on the curriculum. None have so far been able to explain in a satisfying way to me why this book deserves to still be read in schools or by anyone, anywhere. Sorry, Mr Salinger, your book is bad and if you weren't dead, you should feel bad. The only upside for me as a teacher that I can think of is that the kids reading the book won't be able to find a movie adaptation they can watch to cheat and thus escape the reading.

I can now tick this book off the list of "books to read before you die". I found it even more pointless and hard going than The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina (though at least, like Gatsby, it's a blessedly short book, not a massive brick like Anna), but don't loathe it with every fiber of my being like I do Wuthering Heights and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Although with all those books, I at least see what they bring to literature. This book - nothing. I'm pretty sure it's going to be the lowest rated book I read this year, so at least I got that out of the way early.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 18: "The Viscount Who Loved Me - with 2nd Epilogue" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 358 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Anthony Bridgerton is the eldest of eight siblings, the youngest of whom never even got to meet their father. Anthony idolised his father, Edmund, who he thought was everything a man could ever aspire to become, as a nobleman, husband or father. When Edmund Bridgerton died suddenly from a bee sting when Anthony was 18, he became convinced that like his father, he would die at the same age (38). Having spent most of his twenties taking care of the family's finances and trying to support his mother and be a good role model for his brood of younger siblings, Anthony has nonetheless developed quite the reputation as a rake. Now nearing his thirties, he's very aware of his responsibilities as a viscount and wants to get married and father heirs to continue the title. However, having seen the great love his parents shared, and how his father's death almost crushed his mother with grief, Anthony doesn't want to marry a woman whom he will love passionately, as then dying at a relatively young age will hurt her too much.

Having made the decision to marry, he asks his brothers who the most promising young debutante on the marriage mart is, and makes up his mind that she'll probably do as well as any other. There's only one obstacle. The lovely Miss Edwina Sheffield has declared that she'll not marry anyone who doesn't have the approval of her older half-sister Kate, and Miss Katharine Sheffield doesn't like feel that the rakish Viscount will be a suitable match for her sister at all. Taller, plainer and four years older than her sister, Kate is used to being compared unfavourably with her sister and knows gentlemen only dance with her and talk to her to get closer to Edwina. She and Anthony absolutely infuriate each other, although the viscount only becomes more determined to win Edwina's hand when her meddlesome sister is so against the match. He thrives on a challenge, after all. Now if he could only stop picturing Kate every time he closes his eyes, wooing her sister would be a lot easier.

Unlike The Duke and I, which I never re-read until this year, I've read The Viscount Who Loved Me several times, because I love Anthony and Kate's story. I like the way they absolutely can't stand each other to begin with, and with every encounter grow more and more attracted to each other, while constantly saying the wrong thing and infuriating each other. The "I hate you, I hate you, I can't stop thinking about your hair" trope can be incredibly frustrating if done badly, but it can also be a delight, and Julia Quinn manages it marvellously in this book. Anthony and Kate are well matched in absolutely every respect. They are both fiercely loyal to their families and both feel more comfortable in the countryside than in the city.

Anthony's absolute conviction that he'll never survive to see his 39th birthday, which he realises is irrational and daren't confide in anyone about is mirrored in Kate's all-consuming terror of thunderstorms and lightning, which she's suffered from since she was a child, but hides from her step-mother and sister, because she doesn't want them to worry. They both have some serious issues they need to work through before they can truly get their happy ending, Anthony just takes a bit longer about it. It'll also not come as any surprise to anyone who's read a single narrative before what is actually at the root of Kate's night terrors, but I don't think it was meant to be a grand revelation and doesn't in any way ruin the book for me that the obvious explanation was also the correct one.

As Anthony is trying to woo Kate's younger sister, most of the early romance is really the two protagonists bickering or trying to out-manoeuvre each other in delightful ways. There is a very fun game of Pall Mall (which from the context appears to be an early (and very aggressively played) version of croquet, which is taken up again in the 2nd epilogue, set 15 years later. All the Bridgertons are fiendishly competitive and everyone wants the black mallet, the "mallet of death". Unsportsmanlike behaviour seems to be encouraged and it's clear even before Anthony's fear of bees leads him to compromise Kate (in a way that had me howling with laughter the first time I read the book), that she is a perfect fit in the family in a way the quiet Edwina could never be.

Anthony and Kate's book is among my favourites of the many Bridgerton books. If only Anthony hadn't taken quite so long to actually confide in his wife and come to his senses, it would be a near-perfect book to me. As Quinn was one of the first romance authors I read when I re-discovered how awesome the romance genre could be, it's good to see that some of the books I read and loved early on, still stand up when re-reading. Highly recommended, and currently available at a reduced price, because of Quinn's online re-read in anticipation of her new book in March.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 17: "Red Rising" by Pierce Brown

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Just up front, there will be some minor plot spoilers in this review, but most of it is also revealed in the official synopsis of the book from the publisher. Any details of the plot I give, only cover the first third or so of the book. Still, if you prefer to go in completely cold, and have managed to stay ignorant of the premise of a book published several years ago, you may want to skip this review and just take my word for it that it's very good. Brutal and not really your run of the mill YA dystopian, but very good indeed.

 Ok, if you're still reading, I'm assuming your fine with knowing the bare bones of the plot. Darrow works deep under the surface of Mars, mining for precious minerals. He is a Red, one of the pioneers and hard workers sent to Mars, told that their work efforts are crucial to aid in the terraforming of Mars and other planets for those left behind on Earth. Working conditions are extremely tough, hardly anyone lives to a ripe old age. Food is scarce, unless you live in the town that always seems to manage the highest quotas every month. Darrow's father was publicly executed after he encouraged some other workers to do a pacifist protest against working conditions, so he and the rest of his family have been careful to be model workers. Now Darrow's young wife Eo has started voicing dissent against the system and Darrow is worried.

When they are caught trespassing in a restricted area, both are sentenced to public flogging, to be broadcast on the video feed all around Mars. The ArchGovernor of Mars, the most powerful man on the planet, just so happens to be visiting as the sentence is to be carried out. Darrow takes his punishment stoically, then is shocked to realise that Eo is going to sacrifice herself to prove a point. Singing one of the songs of rebellion as she is being whipped, Eo is hanged and her death broadcast across the planet. Her last words are to "Break the chains!" Darrow is absolutely crushed and breaks the law by fetching down her dead body from the gallows and burying it somewhere hidden. He too is sentenced to hang, but wakes up after his execution, not dead at all. A resistance group tells him that Eo has become a martyr to their cause and they need Darrow to help them fight.

He discovers that he and everyone he knows has been fed a clever lie and that Eo's theories that they are slaves are absolutely correct. Mars was terraformed centuries ago, as were the other planets in the solar system. Above-ground there are huge and impressive cities where the Golds, the highest and most powerful caste, rule society. Dancer, a lieutenant of the resistance leader Ares, needs Darrow to agree to an audacious plan. They will turn him into a Gold and make him infiltrate the highest levels of society, helping to bring it down from within. Of course, it's not like they can just slap a wig and some contacts on him and send him off. Over the centuries, the various castes, from the lowest Reds to the very highest Golds, have been genetically engineered to become different species. People can't even breed across the castes without illegal surgery. Darrow has to go through an absolutely gruelling ordeal, having his body surgically transformed in a series of very dangerous operations. Then he has to pass the entrance exam to the Academy, where the Gold send their brightest and best children to be trained.

Of course Darrow survives his transformation, and of course he passes the exam to the Academy with unparallelled results. Once he's accepted, he comes to discover that the Golds don't coddle their children and the very first test he faces is a brutal one indeed. Having no choice but to do his very best or let down the entire rebellion, Darrow does what he must, although it breaks his heart to do so. While he is full of righteous anger against the Golds, he also hasn't been trained from birth to be as ruthless as them. Once he passes the first bloody test, he finds himself in a real-life strategy scenario along with the other candidates from House Mars who passed the first test. There are twelve houses, and the name of the game is to conquer the playing field. Each house has different resources and fortifications and only those most organised and clever will win.

I have seen Red Rising described as The Hunger Games meets A Game of Thrones. I can absolutely see why. There are teenagers fighting in a large arena, quite possibly to the death, and their actions are broadcast out to the world, because the better you do at the Academy, the better a career you are likely to have in the future. If you survive the year, of course. Red Rising is dystopia turned up to eleven. Pierce Brown has clearly been influenced by a lot of other writers, but compared to the stuff Darrow has to go through in just the first half of this book, Katniss pretty much has a walk in the park. The world building is much more complex, the societal structures that are keeping our underdogs down are oh so much more devious.

Society is divided into colours, with the Golds at the top, who rule all. Below them are the Silvers, who provide the finance and the innovation. There are the Whites, who are priests and priestesses and the Coppers who provide bureaucracy. The middle castes are all genetically engineered to be the best at what they do, be it science, programming, medical care, piloting starships or providing security. Darrow and his family are the absolute lowest of the low. They are low-Reds, born under ground, living their whole lives without ever seeing the surface. Fed the lie that their lives may be hard and mostly thankless, but they are providing a valuable and vital service to enable the terraforming of the galaxy, not really given the chance to question whether things may be different.

This book is classified as Young Adult, but I can only imagine that the reason for that is that Darrow is sixteen when the book begins. There are some pretty advanced concepts presented in this book and a lot of references that readers should be familiar with to fully appreciate the scope of the story. There is also some quite frightful brutality in the book, much more so than in other dystopian series I can think of. It's here that the comparisons with Game of Thrones are obvious. I have seen the series criticised for its treatment of female characters and the accusation that Eo is fridged early on to set the plot in motion. I do see how that could be problematic to some, but personally, this never struck me as an issue. Clearly something huge had to happen to motivate Darrow to join the rebellion. Eo didn't get too much characterisation before she's killed off, but she purposefully chose to sing the song that had her sentenced to execution. She was a woman with agency and not just pointlessly killed to make the male protagonist feel sad. To me, the fridging of a female character is when she, though no fault of her own, usually just because she is the wife/girlfriend of the hero, is killed pointlessly. That isn't what happened here. Eo chose to become a martyr.

I have also seen some accuse Darrow of being a Gary Stu, which is just preposterous. While he is absolutely a Chosen One, who thanks to various factors in his upbringing has made him stronger, smarter and more resilient than most other Reds, exactly the reason he's chosen by the Sons of Ares for such a deep cover mission, he has a ton of flaws and frequently makes some pretty decisive mistakes. Obviously, he learns from each mistake and becomes more skilled and adapts his strategies as he goes on, but if he didn't, he would just be an idiot. Still, even as he keeps getting better at the game he's forced to play at the Academy, he puts his trust in the wrong people and keeps acting a bit too impulsively to ever really be called perfect. His flaws are part of what make him interesting.

This book is a bit slow to start, before Darrow discovers the truth about the society he lives in and is introduced to the resistance plot the Sons of Ares has devised. It also lags a bit in the middle, during the war games at the Academy. Some sections there were a bit of a slog to get through. Mostly, this is rather relentless action and momentum and I am deeply impressed with the scope and world-building. I felt somewhat exhausted at times, reading the book, which is why I've chosen to read fluffy romance between each of the books in the series. I need a palate cleanser before I dive into the dark and brutal world of the Red Rising universe once more.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 16: "The Duke and I - with 2nd Epilogue" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 437 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Miss Daphne Bridgerton is one of the oversized Bridgerton brood (there are eight of them in total). She is the eldest daughter and her mother despairs that she isn't really attracting promising suitors. Not that it's all that easy with three overprotective elder brothers who can scare off anyone but the staunchest at heart, or the fact that most male members of the ton regard her as a very good sport, but certainly not an exciting marriage prospect. So when she runs into her brother Anthony's friend Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings, recently back from the continent, with the reputation of quite the rake, they strike up a deal. He wants the marriage-minded mamas to stop thrusting their eligible young daughters into his path, and she wants to appear more attractive to society in general. If she's courted by a duke, more men will take notice and she's likely to find a suitable mate.

Simon, due to complicated childhood issues and a desire to thwart his now dead father, is determined never to marry or sire children. Daphne wants nothing more than to get married and be a mother. Their courtship is supposed to be for show only, and Simon keeps telling himself that compromising his best friend's sister would be a terrible idea. When they are nonetheless caught in a rather heated embrace by the overprotective Anthony, it seems as if Simon might choose death by duel rather than actually marry Daphne. She manages to change his mind, reconciling herself to a life without children. When she discovers the reasons behind his reluctance to marry her and father children, Daphne becomes determined to change his mind once more. She doesn't want to give up her dreams of motherhood and knows Simon would make a wonderful father.

In my memory, The Duke and I was the book that made me re-discover romance as a genre. Avon had the book available to read in its entirety on their website and I read it over the course of one day. This was before e-books were a big thing, nowadays, they just would have released the book for free for a limited time. Looking in my big nerdy notebook where I obsessively note down everything I've read since 2007, however, it's Loretta Chase's Mr. Impossible that holds that honour. The Duke and I was the fifth of recommened romances I read in 2008, but while it wasn't the very first, it certainly spurred my love of romances a lot, because it introduced me to the Bridgertons, one of the greatest families I can think of from any genre.

There are the eight children, four sons and four daughters, of Violet and Edmund Bridgerton, named alphabetically from Anthony, the eldest, to Hyacinth, the youngest, who wasn't even born when her father died. His widow, Violet, the Dowager Viscountess, has it as her life's mission to marry off her numerous offspring, but she's also not so desperate that she doesn't want them to find someone to love, as she loved their father. The family feels authentic, with brothers and sisters teasing and tormenting each other. The brothers are protective of their sisters' reputations, the sisters are determined to make sure their brothers are constantly exasperated, but also end up with pleasant wives, no matter their social background. As well as a large, loving and incredibly likable family at the centre, because while this book has Daphne as a heroine, you had best get used to her siblings as supporting characters, The Duke and I also introduces Lady Whistledown, gossip columnist extraordinaire, whose witty and observant reports from society gatherings form the introduction to each chapter. As the series goes on, the mystery of whom Lady Whistledown is becomes greater and I for one can say, I had no idea and was delighted when it was revealed.

My big book of books has also revealed to me, that while I have re-read several of the other Bridgerton books more than once, this is the first time I've re-visited The Duke and I since May 2008. Julia Quinn is currently doing a big online re-read of the entire series, with each of the books on sale in e-book for a week or two, and other famous romance writers sharing their stories of how the Bridgertons have made their lives richer. I decided that it was the perfect time to pick up all the books once more. Having now re-read this, I can see why I loved it so much when I first read it, but also never really saw the need to re-read it.

While Simon and Daphne's story is a sweet one, the introduction of the family take up quite a bit of page space, and compared to later books in the series, some of the angst and plot contrivances in this book make it less fun than some of her siblings' romances. I am not a huge fan of the way Simon deals with his unresolved resentment issues towards his father, and I'm even less ok now than I was in 2008 with the way Daphne eventually gets around the fact that Simon doesn't want children. Both of the characters are wrong in their way and treat their significant other poorly as a result. I still really like the book, but it's fallen somewhat in my general estimation.

A few years after Ms. Quinn finished the series, she wrote a number of second epilogues for the various books, and each one of these are now included with the main novel for the first time. You can also get all of the second epilogues and a novella about the Bridgerton matriarch, Violet, in a collection called The Bridgertons: Happily Ever After. In the second epilogue for this book, it becomes clear that after having had four children in short succession nearly twenty years ago, Daphne finds herself with child once more, to the amusement and shock of her entire family. I don't really think the story adds anything of necessity to the already existing book, but don't mind its existence, either. If you already own the book in some respect, you do not need to buy a new copy for the extra epilogue. If you haven't ever had the joy of reading a Bridgerton novel, this book is a very good start.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 21 February 2016

#CBR8 Book 15: "The Bollywood Bride" by Sonali Dev

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 2.5 stars

Ria Parkar is a celebrated Bollywood star, frequently playing the innocent ingenue who ends up the bride. Professionally she's intensely private, revealing very little about herself. When a paparazzi gets an incriminating photo of her looking deranged and as if she's about to jump off a ledge (she was retrieving her phone), Ria is worried that all her deep dark secrets will be uncovered. Her cousin, who she was raised along-side, is getting married in Chicago, and she's dreading her return there, she can't disappoint him. Chicago is where she has the happiest memories of her childhood, but it's also means facing Vikram, her childhood friend, who also became her first lover and the man whose heart she completely crushed when she went into the Bollywood movie business.

Of course Vikram hasn't gotten over Ria, but generally does his best to prove to her and everyone how unconcerned he is by her presence, flaunting his new, young girlfriend as much as possible. As far as he knows, Ria callously discarded their love and sold her soul to become a star, ignoring the summers they'd spent together since she was a child and their future hopes of happiness. Ria has never been able to tell him about the reasons she was raised by her aunt and uncle and why she had to find a way to make a lot of money really fast after her father died. He has no idea of the role his ambitious mother played in driving Ria away and now keeps lashing out to her, without Ria having the energy to fight back. It's quite clear that they both have intense feelings for one another and it's only a matter of time before they reignite the old passion they shared.

The Bollywood Bride won the poll to select the first Cannonball Book Club book of the year. It wasn't the one I voted for, but it was a book by an author I'd heard a lot of positive things about. Sonali Dev's A Bollywood Affair was raved about on a number of romance review sites that I followed after its release in 2014 and I bought it when it became available for sale, but as per usual, it's now lingering unread on my TBR shelf. Still, the stand alone follow up seemed like a good place to start. I like discovering new authors and try to branch out in my romance reading every so often. Indian culture and Bollywood are not areas I know much about. My one experience of inter-cultural romance of that kind pretty much comes from Bend It Like Beckham. I want readers of this review to know I was excited to start this book. I really did try to keep an open mind.

The book was really hard going in the first half. I didn't warm to Ria much as a character and I was frankly completely appalled by Vikram's behaviour when we finally met him. The supporting cast, Ria's aunt and uncle, her cousin, his fiancee, Vikram's girlfriend and the big, boisterous extended family that surrounded them were fine. There was just a little bit too much of the "woe is me" to Ria and far too much of the epic douche-canoe with latent anger issues about Vikram. The truth about why Ria was raised by her aunt and uncle in Chicago when she didn't attend a series of boarding schools in India during term time, and why she was unable to speak for a full year in her childhood, is gradually revealed, and has a lot of the Gothic horror feel to it. I don't really want to spoil what it is, but it's also the reason why Ria had to come up with a way to earn money fast once her father died, and unlike what Vikram thinks, it was not really a very fun or glamorous way to get into show business. Let's just say that the things Ria had to do to get her first starring role in Bollywood may be triggering to some readers.

Vikram grew up with Ria and her cousin (whose name I cannot be bothered to look up). In fact, he's whatshisface's cousin on the other side of the family. His friendship is what finally broke Ria out of the trauma she was suffering as a child and made her start speaking again, and as they grew older, their friendship became heady and intoxicating first love. Vikram's parents are incredibly successful and famous and he's on track to becoming a doctor. Then Ria's dad dies, she goes to his funeral, discovers all of the horrible skeletons in the family closet and Vikram's mum makes it abundantly clear that Ria isn't going to drag her precious family legacy down by thinking she has a future with Vikram. Not that Ria tells Vikram any of this. Nope, she believes that the deep dark family secrets make her into a ticking time bomb and that she'll just ruin Vikram's life sooner or later. She therefore makes him believe that she's over him and even watches as he's beaten up by studio thugs.

Now, ten years later, she's still carrying the burdens of her family secrets and having to pretend that she's super happy and successful and completely unaffected by seeing Vikram again, even when their first encounter back in Chicago is her walking in on him making out with his girlfriend. They keep having really awkward scenes together until Vikram finally dumps his poor girlfriend and decides to pitch woo at Ria again. He no longer cares why she dumped him way back when, he just wants to be with her. Ria still has those secrets, though, and leaves Chicago the second the wedding is over. Then the scandalous photos of her possibly being suicidal are released, all her dirty secrets are uncovered and her career as she knows it is probably over.

I honestly don't know if it's the fact that I am from a Western, middle class background with little knowledge of Indian culture that made it so difficult for me to get into this book. At first, I thought Ria might be a bit of a whiner about her family issues, but as the true extent of the horrors she and other family members suffered, I got that things were actually pretty bad and she was probably right to be a bit fragile and anxious. Yet I don't understand why she couldn't get more professional help regarding said issues and why she couldn't be more honest, at least with those closest to her. I get that there may be a stigma attached in other cultures, but I'm not saying she should be open to the press, just that a couple of conversations with Vikram probably could have solved a whole load of problems.

So while I didn't really like Ria at first, I sort of warmed to her eventually, even as I kept wanting to facepalm at all the stupid decisions she made in order to protect Vikram from her toxic self. So dumb, so unproductive. Vikram really didn't work for me as a hero, and his stupid nickname Viky made me grimace every time it was used. While we kept being told in Ria's POV what a great guy he was, nothing in his POV sections actually showed us that he was. In fact, he seemed like a bitter, manipulative d-bag with far too many anger issues, and I'm honestly not sure why Ria should be so sorry he was the one that got away. There's also the fact that he does a complete 180 about halfway through the book, deciding to let bygones be bygones, dumping his current girlfriend and just wanting to make everything ok with Ria. In the last third of the book, he's suddenly super sensitive and supportive, nothing at all like the angry, verbally vicious jerk we meet at the start. It was a bit exhausting.

The bits of the story involving Ria's cousin's wedding and where the supporting cast took centre stage were really good and interesting. If this romance had been about Ria's cousin and his wife, I suspect I might have loved it. But no, it was all angsty and conflicty between two characters I didn't particularly like or believe in as a couple. The solution to Ria's not wanting to have children felt painfully obvious to me and again, once they actually speak honestly with one another, so much is resolved in one damn conversation. If they'd just talked things through, so much of the stupid melodrama would have been avoided. Now I'm sadly less excited about picking up Ms. Dev's first book, but since I own it, I guess I'll get round to it eventually. I'm going to be really interested in discussing this in March with the rest of the Cannonballers. I originally rated this 3.5 stars, then quickly decided it was probably more a 3 star book. Looking at some of the other romances I've rated 3 stars though, this is actually more a 2.5 star book. I'm very sorry, Ms. Dev, it may be just that the culture I grew up in is too different from that portrayed in your book, and that I therefore don't get it, but at the same time, I can't help but think that any cultural issues that needed a clear understanding should have been more carefully fleshed out for your readers.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 14: "Modern Romance" by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg

Page count: 277 pages
Audio book length: 6 hrs 14 mins
Rating: 4 stars

My experience with Aziz Ansari prior to getting this audiobook was as follows. Playing exuberant, outgoing and quite exasperating pop culture and fashion obsessive Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, then more recently in Master of None as struggling New York actor Dev, who while quite different from Tom, frequently exasperated me nonetheless with his constant whining and inability to accept how good he had it, being really very privileged even as a minority actor. As a result, I wasn't really all that interested in Modern Romance, believing it to be yet another celebrity autobiography for a comedian I wasn't all that sure I liked that much or wanted to find out more about. After some very favourable reviews by fellow Cannonballers, I realised that this wasn't actually the book I believed it to be and wondered if I should give it a try. It was the recommendation of my book twin and kindred spirit Narfna, which really changed my mind (as it so often it nowadays) and made me rush to Audible to get my own copy.

Modern Romance, while it also contains a lot of humour and some insight into Aziz Ansari's own life is actually more of a sociological study into the ways in which our ideas of romance, courtship, dating, relationships and marriage has changed in the last couple of generations. The material in this book is based on a fairly large study, conducted in different countries all over the world, conducted in 2013-2014. To get a wide sampling of answers, Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg asked focus groups in the USA, Japan, France and Argentina a lot of questions relating to dating, relationships, sex and communication. They chose Japan, France and Argentina to really get a feel for different cultures. Ansari himself explains in the introduction that this book mainly concerns cis-gendered, heterosexual middle-class experiences and that the study by no means is comprehensive, so a lot of the material presented won't delve too deeply. It's still a very interesting look on the way in which relationships and dating have changed in the last 100 years or so, especially after the explosion of social media.

Several of the reviewers recommended the audio book, which is narrated by Ansari himself. Mostly he does a really good job and unlike the two comedy characters I've seen him play, he stays professional and presents the material in an entertaining and easy to comprehend way. Every so often, he will make fun of the reader for being too lazy to actually read a book, choosing to have it read to them instead. As someone who was incapable of reading anything printed for more than three weeks this past autumn due to a concussion, I felt that was needlessly simplistic. I'm sure it can feel annoying to those who turn to audio books due to reduced sight or actual blindness as well. There are any number of reasons why someone might choose an audio book instead reading it themselves. I'm sure Ansari knows this and just chose an easy target for some jokes, but that bit really didn't work for me.

I loved hearing the interviews with the pensioners that Ansari and Klinenberg talked to about how they met their significant others, and what advice they gave their own children and grandchildren. The sections on Japan, France and Argentina were also absolutely fascinating and as someone who hasn't actually dated all that much (got together with the first man I fell in love with when he was 19 and I was 21, lived together for years, then got married, which we still are), some of the mechanics of modern dating was interesting too, if confirming to me that I'm quite happy that I'm not having to do any of it myself anymore. I'm really glad I changed my mind and gave the book a try. It's one of the few books I've listened to all the way through in less than a day, because I wanted to keep going and hear what came next (it helps that it's not super long, either). So I now join the ranks of people recommending this book and have a new-found admiration and respect for Ansari.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 17 February 2016

#CBR8 Book 13: "My American Duchess" by Eloisa James

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars

American Miss Merry Pelford has infamously broken two betrothals already and her aunt and uncle have taken her to England, where her reputation is slightly less well-known. She's convinced she's finally found the man for her when dashing and handsome Lord Cedric Allardyce proposes to her, while quoting poetry. No longer will gossip about her fickle and flighty heart be all that she hears whispered when she enters a room.

Cedric's twin, the Duke of Trent, shows up to the ball where he's heard rumour that his brother will propose, wanting to stop his brother from using the diamond ring traditionally meant for the Duchess. He can't find his brother, but runs into a refreshingly plain-spoken and forthright young lady on the balcony, feeling such a strong attraction that he's beginning to consider taking a wife himself. Then, to the surprise of absolutely no reader ever, he discovers that the beguiling young lady is to be his sister-in-law. The relationship between the brothers is already tense, with Cedric generally jealous of Trent because he had the title, wealth and property, due to being lucky enough to be born first. Trent is worried because Cedric has inherited their father's drinking problem and doesn't want him to act rashly. While his brother resents him, Trent does love Cedric and much as he yearns for Merry, he can't steal his brother's intended away from him.

Merry is determined to keep her word and marry Cedric, even though she feels a strong attraction to Trent and comes to discover that Cedric isn't exactly the man she believed him to be initially. He seems to think she needs to change the way she dresses, moves, speaks and acts to be a truly suitable wife to him and gets a bit weary of always being told to improve herself. She also believed that the brother of a duke would have no need of her generous dowry, but comes to discover that Cedric is quite the spendthrift, with debts all over town that he's all too happy to have her rich uncle pay. Although she thinks Trent is exaggerating when he warns her to keep an eye on Cedric's alcohol intake, after all, he doesn't slur when he speaks or stagger when he walks, in time Merry sees the truth. While she comes to see that marrying Cedric would be a huge mistake, she won't allow herself to even contemplate Trent as a prospect. What man would marry a woman who's thrown over three fiancees, including his own brother?

While Eloisa James' writing can be a bit hit and miss for me, I do tend to really enjoy her writing. While I didn't entirely warm to her previous novel, Four Nights with the Duke (even though the heroine was a romance novelist - it should have been better!), this was a lot of fun. Apparently, Ms. James had intended for the story to just be a novella, but the story kept expanding and she needed to do it justice with a full novel. As such, this book is not really connected to any of her other ones in the Desperate Duchesses series, or the ones where she retells fairy tales.

Merry is an American heiress in London before inter-marriage between British aristocrats and Americans really became common. This book is set in the Georgian era, pre-Regency, not all that long after American gained its independence. Merry's mother was English, but she's not overly impressed with titles or aristocrats, holding to the democratic ideals of her homeland that men should earn their respect and position in society through deeds and action rather than by being born into privilege. She's far more outspoken and impulsive than the English debutantes and doesn't understand why wearing bright colours or drinking wine or speaking honestly to gentlemen is seen as so shocking and inappropriate. In keeping with making it painfully obvious that she's ill-suited for one brother, but perfect for the other - Cedric thinks she needs to be given a total make-over, while Trent finds her refreshingly different and wants her exactly the way she is.

Of course Merry and Trent end up together, through quite a complicated set of events. Due to issues surrounding his upbringing and his relationship to his parents, Trent is one of those heroes who believes that actually loving his wife is a bad thing. He enjoys her company and greatly desires her, but believes romantic love is fleeting and uses Merry's previous three engagements as proof that only a companionate union can be truly successful. So Trent's road towards the realisation that he truly loves his wife takes a while and things get a bit melodramatic in the last third of the book. Overall, though, I really enjoyed the book and can recommend it to anyone wanting a light read with some melodrama.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 15 February 2016

#CBR8 Book 12: "Kill Me Softly" by Sarah Cross

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Mirabelle has been raised by her extremely overprotective guardians, knowing that her parents died in a fire on the night of her christening. She desperately wants answers about her parents and her background, but her two guardians are none too forthcoming, and so Mira feels she has no choice but to run away. To make sure that the women who raised her don't immediately track her to Beau Rivage, the place where she was born, she spends the six months before her 16th birthday creating a fictional boyfriend with whom she's been corresponding, so they'll believe she's run away with him.

She seems clever, does Mira, until she arrives in Beau Rivage and loses all critical faculites upon meeting handsome Felix Valentine, who runs a hotel and offers to let her stay there free of charge, out of the goodness of his apparent heart. Of course, his younger brother Blue does whatever he can to get Mira out of the family hotel, warning her away from Felix and offering to pay for her to stay pretty much anywhere else. While Mira finds the younger Valentine brother obnoxious and rude, her infatuation with his older brother is pretty much instantaneous. When Felix isn't around, she questions her strong feelings, but the minute he shows up again, she forgets anything but how handsome and charming he is. Of course, Mira doesn't have much of a plan, she just wants to search cemeteries until she can find where her parents were buried. Felix offers to help her, Blue keeps trying to get her to leave the hotel.

Mira's guardians haven't really told her much about the place where she was born, and Mira discovers that Beau Rivage is not your average little sea side town. Blue has a very strange group of friends, all of whom keep mentioning "curses". The singer in Blue's band keeps coughing up flowers and actual gem stones, his puppy dog of a friend Freddie keeps being followed by birds and tiny woodland creatures, the girl Ivy is deathly pale, complains about her stepmother and occasionally speaks to the mirror, who speaks back. It seems a lot of fairy tales come true in sinister ways in this town, and the strange birthmark on her lower back marks Mira as another fairy cursed teenager. She's a magical sleeper, probably due to cut or prick her finger and sleep in an enchanted sleep until her prince rescues her with a kiss. Said prince seems destined to be Freddie, not that she has any time for him, what with making googly eyes at Felix and trading sarcastic, but flirty barbs with Blue. Will Blue find her parents' grave? Will she even make it to her sixteenth birthday before her curse comes true? Will she discover why Blue is so eager to get her away from Felix, and what exactly Felix is hiding in that hotel room he's asked her to stay out of?

Kill Me Softly is yet another book I bought in an e-book sale at some point, because the cover was pretty and the book was recommended on some review site or other. I do like the modern fairy tale twists, complete with some really rather dark edges, such as actual death and disfigurement being the side effect of some of the curses. I liked some of the contemporary updates to the various fairy tale figures, and the sinister atmosphere permeating Beau Rivage.

I didn't like just how incredibly naive and TSTL Mira is for a lot of the book. Yes, I get that Felix' presence actually cast an enchantement over her, but every time she's away from him she starts questioning herself, and it's one thing to believe Blue is just trying to warn her away because of some sort of twisted sibling rivalry. When pretty much every single other person she meets in Beau Rivage suggests that Felix is bad news and that she should stay away from him, perhaps she should be a bit more wary. Besides, a 21-year-old who will happily offer a 15-year-old free accommodation, seemingly no strings attached, that should set off "stranger danger" alarm bells, little girl. What you absolutely don't want to do is suggest that you move into his private suite instead - that's just asking to be sexually propositioned. Have some self respect.

Because Mira was quite so unbelievably bad at taking care of herself, the things that were actually enjoyable got overshadowed. I don't think I was surprised by a single one of the plot developments either, and not just because I've read more than my fair share of fairy tales over the years. I suspect most people could see the big plot beats a mile away. I can see on Goodreads that there is a companion novel to this one, dealing with Snow White Ivy and the gardener who's doomed to cut out her heart when her step-mother finally snaps, but I'm not interested enough to seek it out. There is a lot of potential here, but it sadly doesn't play out.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 13 February 2016

#CBR8 Book 11: "To All the Boys I've Loved Before" by Jenny Han

Page count: 288 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Lara Jean Song is the middle of the three Song sisters and the quieter and most retiring of them. She tends to internalise her feelings rather than voicing them. Because of this, she has a hat box where she puts letters she's written to all the boys she's ever had a crush on. She pours out her thoughts and feelings and then hides the letters away. One of the boys she once had a crush on is Peter Kavinsky, one of the coolest guys in school. The other is Josh, the boy next door, who was a big part of the Song girls' lives even before he started dating the eldest, Margot, who Lara Jean idolises. Not wanting to be a bad sister, she's never said anything about her infatuation, even though she liked Josh long before he first asked her sister out.

In addition, after their mother died, Margot pretty much took on the mother role in the household. The girls' father is a doctor who loves his daughters and does his best by them, but he's a doctor and works a lot. Now Margot's moving to Scotland to go to university (in St. Andrews - where I spent four years at Uni myself!) and Lara Jean is worried about having to take over a lot of her responsibilities. Then Margot breaks up with Josh (because their late mother warned her against going away to college with prior romantic entanglements holding her back), and Lara Jean doesn't know what to think or do. She's worried not just about Josh, but about what their dad and little sister Kitty will think about it. Also, while she's in no way over her impossible crush on Josh, she can't imagine him and Margot not getting back together eventually.

Then, one horrible day, Lara Jean realises that her letters have been sent out, as both Peter Kavinsky and Josh confront her with a lot of questions. She discovers that her hat box is gone and her distracted father may in fact have given it away to a charity shop. Letters that Lara Jean had no intention of ever letting anyone read are in the hands of boys she has to face every day, and Josh especially is confused and wants answers. In a move to convince Josh that she no longer has any romantic feelings towards him (she's still convinced he'll get back together with her sister), she makes a deal with Peter to pretend to be dating each other. Peter just broke up with the Queen Bee in school, Genevieve, and wants to make it clear to her that he's not exactly pining to get back together. So now Lara Jean is confused about whether the attentions from Peter are genuine or just an act, and torn between wanting to make Josh jealous and keeping him away from her, not wanting to betray her sister with her continued interest.

There's a lot in this book that I should like, but somehow the sum of the parts just really added up to a big bowl of meh. Lara Jean is a sweet girl, but frighteningly inexperienced and sheltered for a 16-year-old. She seems scared of everything, from driving a car to going grocery shopping. I've seen several people criticise her voice, saying she sounds much younger than she is, and I can't really blame them. In many ways, I suspect I was very similar to Lara Jean when I was a teen. I had zero experience with boys or social situations, I lived mainly for my books and TV-shows and I wouldn't have known how to interact with a handsome boy if my life depended on it. It's just that I wouldn't have wanted to read a book about my teenage self, either. It would be pretty dull.

I really like that Margot was going to Uni in St. Andrews, not Oxford, Cambridge, London, Edinburgh or even Glasgow. The mention of Raisin Weekend made me cheer, but it's not enough to raise my rating of this book a whole half star, as I first thought. My favourite character was probably Kitty, Lara Jean's little sister, who is a lot more worldly and interesting than her sister. I never entirely got what was so great about Josh or why Lara Jean would even want a guy who picked her sister over her. Peter seemed pretty decent, but he and Lara Jean should have been better at communicating and initially, at least, he's clearly a bit too hung up on his bitchy ex.

There is a sequel to this book, which ends in a pretty open ended way, but I'm honestly not sure I'm all that bothered about reading more about Lara Jean. If the second book was about Kitty, it would be a different story, but more of Lara Jean's emotional back and forths, insecurities and teenage angst - no thank you. She develops a bit throughout this story, but not enough for me to actually spend more time reading about her.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.