Sunday 27 March 2016

#CBR8 Book 33: "Kindred Spirits" by Rainbow Rowell

Page count: 96 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Elena is a huge Star Wars fan, but was too young to camp out in a queue when the prequels were released. She nontheless lives and breathes for the sci fi films and has heard all about her father's experiences with camping out in his day, so when the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, is about to open, she decides that now she'll finally have the chance to experience the same sense of geekery, fandom and community that she's heard and read so much about. However, when she shows up four days before the premiere, the epic line she was imagining consists of only two people, one of whom will barely speak to her.

Elena's mother keeps trying to convince her to come home, Troy (the first guy in line) tries his best to motivate the other two with his many stories of previous camping out experiences and Gabe, well, he gradually seems to thaw a bit and during their long wait together, Elena discovers that he might not have been too friendly to her in the beginning.

This tiny book was released for World Book Day and all the proceeds from it go to charity. Huge and devoted fan that I am, I will take even a tiny sliver of a Rainbow Rowell book over nothing at all, and while I blazed through this and desperately want to find out more from these characters, the story still contained all the things that make Rowell's writing so great. There's a lot of humour and such well observed characters, interacting with each other in ways that just seem to speak directly to me. I laughed out loud several times while reading this, stopping to quote some of my favourite bits at my husband and towards the end I actually had to put the book down for a bit because I was so delighted with the way things turned out. Because it's so short, you only get brief sketches of the characters rather than fully fledged people you want to hug and talk to and hang out with, but there is still so much to admire here.

I loved Elena and Gabe and Troy (who I read somewhere is one of Lincoln's buddies from Attachments!) and their experiences being stalwart fans in an age when you really don't need to camp outside for days or weeks, because you can just buy your tickets in advance and you can usually interact with fans of all ages, creeds and obsessions on every kind of social media imaginable. The seeming futility of camping outside a cinema is discussed in the story, but I still admire the three hardcore members of "the line" for sticking to their principles, even though I would never ever do the same.

Personally, I am a big fan of booking in advance, and as all the cinemas in Oslo have assigned seating, you don't even need to camp in line to get a good spot. That's not to say people don't still do it here. I think people slept outside (in temperatures well below zero Celsius) for over a week once the tickets for The Force Awakens became available. Not to actually get into the cinema, but to be the first to buy tickets and to see it at the 10am screening in the biggest THX cinema in Northern Europe. Of course, because the film was the most popular thing being released in December, it was showing on something like 20 screens all over Oslo, and the husband and I saw it in the afternoon the same day (the 16th, which was opening day here, way before most of the world got a chance to see it) without me having to do anything but log onto the cinema's website a couple of days before. So yeah, in this book, when Elena finally gets to see the film she's gone through quite the hardship to enjoy, I couldn't help but remember that were she real, I would still have gotten to see the film before her. Not going to lie, it felt strangely good.

While I have never experienced any fandom that would make me willing to sleep outside on the ground for even a few hours, let alone days, I nonetheless loved this little story. The only thing that keeps it from being a perfect five stars is how short it is, and that I didn't get to know Elena and Gabe better and see them interact outside the queue. It would be awesome if they show up at some point in later Rowell books. A fan can hope.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 32: "When He Was Wicked" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 390 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Francesca Bridgerton marries John Stirling, the Earl of Kilmartin and they share a blissful two years together, until he suddenly dies in his sleep. To make matters worse, she's in the early stages of pregnancy and loses the baby shortly after. For support, she desperately wants to turn to Michael Stirling, John's cousin and best friend, but he's so overwhelmed that he can't really be there for her. Because Francesca miscarries, Michael is suddenly the heir to the Kilmartin title, a fate he never wanted. To make matters worse, he's madly in love with Francesca, and has been since he met her shortly before her wedding to John, but Michael now begins to fear he somehow brought about his cousin's untimely demise with his dreams of having Francesca for his own.

Unable to deal with his mix of grief and infatuation, Michael ships off to India for a few years, while the Stirling women, Francesca, John's mother and Michael's mother, take care of the Kilmartin estate. When he returns some years later, he discovers that Francesca is on the look-out for a new husband. She wants a child desperately and the only way to manage that is to remarry. Michael himself also needs to find a wife and begin fathering heirs to secure the title, but the only wife he wants is Francesca, who looks only sees him as her dead husband's best friend. Can he really stand by and watch her marry another man, losing her forever?

Francesca is the one of the Bridgerton siblings that features the least in the series. She shows up briefly in An Offer from a Gentleman and is occasionally thought of by one of her other siblings, but she's the sibling the readers know the least about when she finally gets her own book. Julia Quinn herself admits that she needed Francesca to be widowed to do something different, because otherwise, When He Was Wicked would have been her third book in a row with a spinster heroine in her late twenties. So yes, this book explores the possibility of finding love again, once the person you may have believed was the love of your life dies.

The book has the hero loving the heroine from afar for years and years, and silently pining for her without ever admitting his feelings. It has a heroine who bravely picks herself after losing her beloved husband and unborn child, managing her cousin-in-law's estate capably and protecting his interests, without really confiding the depths of her grief and loneliness to her in-laws or large, supportive family. Until this book was released on sale for the big online Bridgerton re-read, it was the ONLY book in the series I didn't already own, because I remembered it as the most underwhelming of the eight books. When I re-read Romancing Mister Bridgerton this time around, I discovered that I liked it a lot more than I had previously, and I really wanted to see if I had been too harsh on this book because I was misremembering it.

Sadly, that is not the case. Francesca and Michael, while by no means reprehensible characters, just do very little for me. Francesca is so reserved and while the readers are told she has a sly wit, I just didn't see any evidence of this. I just never felt as if I engaged with her as a character at all, and while I didn't hate her or anything, nor did I really care what happened to her, beyond sympathy that she was widowed so young and had to process a miscarriage while already grieving for her husband. The Francesca of some years later, who is ready to re-enter the marriage market just didn't interest me much. Then, once Michael is finally persuaded (partly through not-so-subtle suggestions from Francesca's brother Colin) to propose to her, Francesca keeps refusing to give him a clear answer, stringing him along in a way that frustrated me and made me start to actually dislike her.

Michael is a deeply honourable hero, even with his reputation as a rake. Of course, the reason he slept with all those other women was just to drive the image of Francesca out of his mind, since when he met her and fell in love, she was just about to marry his cousin and best friend. Does it make it better that the hero has been massively promiscuous in the past if he was secretly picturing the woman he couldn't have when he slept with them (it's mentioned that he tends to go for women who resemble Francesca)? He never breathes a word to his cousin or Francesca and hides his feelings expertly, even after John dies. When it becomes too difficult for him to veil his emotions, he removes himself to a country on the opposite side of the world, in the hopes that he may get over her. Even when she's been widowed for years, and both his and her family seem to think that it would be a very prudent and suitable match if he were to propose to her, he hesitates. Then he finally does get up the nerve to propose (without ever confessing his love) and when she rejects him, he tries to use all his finely honed rake skills to seduce her into saying yes instead.

I had remembered this book as Francesca and Michael having a lot of meaningless sex and that pretty much sums up the latter half of the book. The first half is all grief, unhappiness and unhappy infatuation. Mostly, Julia Quinn's books are witty and diverting little stories with a great cast of supporting characters and a lot of good banter. In this book, very few of the other Bridgerton family members appear and for the second half of the book, Francesca and Michael are off by themselves in Scotland. Given the choice between good banter and a lot of unresolved sexual tension and a whole lot of smexytimes without real emotional connection between the characters, I will take the first EVERY time. Compared to a lot of other historical romances, this isn't by any means a bad book, but even on a re-read, I think this is one of Quinn's weaker efforts, simply because I can't emotionally connect with the story or care for either of the protagonists. I don't regret paying $1.99 for it, but unless you are absolutely dead set on completing the series, I would recommend that new readers skip this.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 31: "Morning Star" by Pierce Brown

Page count: 544 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This is the THIRD and final book of the trilogy and it's going to be impossible for me to review this without referring at least a little to stuff that happened in the previous two books. Hence, this is not a review you want to check out until you are well and truly caught up. Interested in the series? Go forth and start at the beginning, with Red Rising.

So readers will remember that when we last left Darrow at the end of Golden Son, he was not in a particularly good place. The shit, as they say, had hit the fan big time. The beginning of this book finds him at his lowest point yet, helpless and imprisoned by the Jackal, tortured in isolation, unsure of the fates of the rest of the Rising, with his mind slowly unravelling. It wouldn't be a very good ending to the series if Darrow was locked up the whole time, though, and I hope I'm not spoiling too much when I say he gets rescued (and what a rescue it is!).

Having been a deep cover agent for the rebellion for years, Darrow's cover is spectacularly blown. The Reaper and his allies no longer work in the shadows. It's time to launch all out war, but to take on the might of the Jackal, Octavia du Lune and the rest of the oppressive Golds in society, they are going to need some formidable soldiers, a whole lot of guile, cunning, sneakiness and a bloodydamn ton of luck.

While Brown really is a very kill-happy sort of an author, a lot of your favourite characters are still around, to love (and hate). Sevro and his Howlers were never going to give up on Darrow, no matter that the Jackal made it look like he had been publicly executed for treason. Mustang has an army of her own and Ragnar agrees to take Darrow to his people, to recruit the fierce warrior women of his barbarian tribe to the cause. Brown may have been criticised for his treatment of female characters in the previous books, but I really believe it's exaggerated, especially in this book. Darrow's single POV narration sadly means we don't get to see what goes on in the minds of Mustang, Victra, Orion (who is now a pirate queen), plus great new additions to the cast, Holiday and Sefi the Quiet (Ragnar's sister), but they are integral parts of the story. Add to that that some of the prime antagonists are powerful and formidable women, the Sovereign Octavia du Lune, her knights Aja and Moira, Lilath the Bonerider, the Jackal's terrifying second in command, even Antonia, Victra's duplicitous sister, and you frankly have a more impressive cast of women populating this book than male characters.

With each book, Brown has expanded the reach of the story and escalated the tension and action accordingly. In book 1, the focus was Darrow's first year at the Academy and him successfully infiltrating Gold society as the Sons of Ares' mole. Book 2 had him rising in the ranks, becoming a trusted lieutenant to the most powerful man on Mars, who coincidentally also killed his wife. He becomes a skilled commander of men and learns the further arts of manipulation, politics and intrigue. It also, sadly, has him discovered, unmasked and looking to crash and burn spectacularly, with the end of the book looking dire indeed for our hero. For those of you who read the books a while back, the author helpfully includes a brief synopsis of each of the previous books at the beginning of this one, plus a list of the major characters you need to keep track of, which even I, who read all three books with only a few weeks between each one, was incredibly grateful for.

Good narrative demands that the heroes face adversity and defeat before rising to triumph at the end. In this, the final book in the trilogy, all that Darrow and the Sons of Ares have worked for are coming to pass, but they are of course facing nearly impossible odds. In the first book, I thought the story lagged a bit in the middle of the whole live action Hunger Games on a massive scale section. In the second book, the battles were among my least favourite bits. In this book, naturally, there are quite a few epic space battles, described in excruciatingly detailed ways, with all the technology and different classes of war ships related to the reader. I don't know if it's because I'm a woman, or because I honestly don't care even a little bit about the finer details of technical specs, but these bits got boring fast for me.

I loved Darrow being reunited with Sevro and the other rebels and seeing how they were working to rally their troops. I liked some of their missions, when they didn't get too far into troupe movements and giant spaceships firing on one another. I loved seeing Ragnar's home and the culture he came from. The action is pretty relentless throughout and the reader rarely gets a chance to catch his or her breath before there's something new and audacious being attempted by the characters. The final third of the book especially had me literally shouting, out loud in my living room, at the plot developments, to the bemusement of my husband and the startled cats. It may be that when I go back and re-read, I am able to pick holes and criticise more, but I was completely emotionally engaged and rather exhausted when I finally got to the end (after a certain point, there was NO WAY I was going to put the book down until I got to the final page).

It was impossible for me not to compare this book with Winter, the final book in Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles as I was reading. Both are dystopian sci-fi stories, where a band of ragtag rebels fight against an oppressive power ruling from the Moon. Sadly, Winter was a hot mess of a book, where instead of some characters not being allowed enough page time (like here), the huge cast of characters all had to have their significant moments and I just didn't believe in the way they eventually succeeded. Their rebellion also seemed to succeed without any cost, far too painlessly to ever be believable. Here the battles have actual costs to those involved, there are serious consequences and there are no simple answers given. Darrow, Mustang and their allies know that it's going to be nearly impossible to change the political system that has been in place for centuries. Changing the way that not only those in power, but those who have been enslaved, think, is a staggering task. The odds of them failing are high. Winning the war doesn't mean that their battles are over. It means that they have new challenges ahead of them.

This book is by no means perfect, but it is a very good (and to me, at least) satisfying ending to what has been a very impressive science fiction trilogy. I refuse to call these books Young Adult, I honestly think that a lot of the themes explored are too serious and sophisticated for most young readers to fully comprehend and entirely appreciate. There are so many references to classic literature and history here, which I don't think a lot of teenage readers will grasp.Then there's the graphic depictions of violence and oppression - nope, these are books that should be read by a mature audience. That's not to say that there aren't highly sophisticated, intelligent and mature teens out there, but they'll find these books anyway, because they don't need a YA label to discover new things to read.

I could have done with more political intrigue and fewer tech-heavy space battles, but I really liked this book and while all the books left me feeling exhausted after reading them (I seriously needed a break after each one), I will heartily recommend the books to a lot of my friends. Well done, Mr. Brown, I'm eager to see what you come up with next.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 26 March 2016

#CBR8 Book 30: "Beautiful Player" by Christina Lauren

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Hanna Bergstrom is a science nerd of the highest order, quite content to eschew most human interaction and just potter about in her lab. Her older brother is worried about her and makes her promise that she's not just going to devote herself to work. He wants her to go out, meet new people, socialise a bit. He suggests she give his best friend, Will Sumner, venture capitalist and fellow scientist. Hanna doubts that her brother would suggest that she call Will if he knew she's had a crush on him since she was barely a teen, but she's also curious and can't resist the temptation to see Will again.

Will is surprised to see that Ziggy (as her family calls her), the girl he first met when she was twelve and he was nineteen has blossomed into quite an intriguing young woman. Quite happy with his carefree ways (he has two different women he engages in very no strings attached sex with weekly), he's amused by Hanna's brother's suggestion that he take her under his wings and help her get out more. He nonetheless agrees to meet her for jogging in the park now and then and his friends Sara and Chloe are delighted to take her shopping and give her a makeover. He does his very best not to lust after his friend's little sister, but the more time they spend together, the more difficult it gets. Hanna seems immune to his charms and even jokes about his playboy tendencies. She expects him to help her with advice for how to flirt with and ask out other guys, when all Will really wants to do is take her to bed himself.

As my esteemed partner in romance reviewing, Mrs. Julien, has already pointed out in her review of this book, Beautiful Player is a modern twist on the historical trope of the rake and the wallflower. While Bennett of Beautiful Bastard is an alphahole of the highest order, Will is quite a good guy. He's rich, successful, handsome and charming and never misleads any of the many women he's romancing about his motives or expects anything long term. Of course, having pretty much every business deal he engages in turn to gold and every woman he meets fall gratefully into his bed, he's quite bored with his charmed existence. He's looking for something new, something different, and while it takes him a while to recognise it, he's just as ready to settle down as his friends (in the earlier books).

Hanna is a great heroine, if somewhat inexperienced in various kinds of social interaction. The great thing is that she knows this and she understands that her brother is just looking out for her when he wants her to escape the lab and meet people and go out on a few dates. She's seen Will's effect on women since she was prepubescent (he once hooked up with her older sister in the garden shed) and is completely aware of what sort of a man he is. Her almost rude honesty when speaking to him leaves him flummoxed and once he realises that she feels the best way to learn what she's wondering about sex is to have it with someone who excels it (namely him), he's briefly resistant (worried about how her family, all of whom he loves as his own) but can't help himself.

This is the first of the Beautiful books that I mostly enjoyed without any misgivings. I liked both halves of the couple and could still have done without some of the faffing about in the last third of the book (this seems to be my common complaint with Christina Lauren's books - great fun, can't quite stick the run-up to landing, so to speak). I liked the previous books' characters showing up as supporting characters more than I liked them in their own books, to be honest. Now I just need to decide if I'm going to keep going with these books or quit while I'm ahead.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday 25 March 2016

#CBR8 Book 29: "To Sir Phillip, with Love" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Eloise Bridgerton has reached the age of 28 and while she has received six different marriage proposals, she was quite happy with the idea of ending up a spinster. That was, of course, when she believed her best friend, Penelope Featherington, was going to be there, spinstering alongside her. Then Penelope ends up marrying the man of her dreams, Eloise's brother Colin, and suddenly spinsterhood isn't looking quite so rosy. On impulse, Eloise decides to run off to the countryside to visit Sir Phillip Crane, the widower of her distant cousin. Having been corresponding in the years since her cousin's death, Sir Phillip suddenly proposed in his most recent letter, and with the rest of her family distracted by Colin and Penelope's recent union, Eloise decides that she wants to meet Sir Phillip in person, to see if they suit.

Sir Phillip never really loved his first wife, who was severely depressed (although that diagnosis would not have been available at the time). She was originally his brother's fiancee, but after his older brother died during the Napoleonic wars, Sir Phillip inherited the title and ended up taking his intended bride as well. One sunny day, she attempted to drown herself in the nearby lake, rescued at the last minute by Phillip. Nonetheless, she died of a fever a few days later, and not entirely sure how to handle her passing, or what to do with his already lively twin children, Phillip made some bad choices and retreated into his greenhouses, taking care of his plants rather than deal with the harsh realities of widowhood.

Now, several years later, his twins are absolute monsters, running wild without any supervision and none of the local ladies are likely to want the job of being their mother. Having never seen Eloise, knowing only that she's a spinster with a lot of time to write letters on her hands, he suggests that they might suit and is absolutely baffled when a lovely, auburn-haired woman turns up on his doorstep one afternoon, sans chaperone. Phillip, never the most suave and eloquent of men, has no idea what to do with the enchanting creature who claims to be Eloise Bridgerton. His children, on the other hand, suspect that she's there to marry their father and use all their most nefarious tricks to try to drive her away for good.

To Sir Phillip, with Love is one of the lesser Bridgerton romances, but it's a good read, all in all. Eloise is a prominent supporting character is a lot of the earlier novels and her character is pretty well established as head-strong, inquisitive, intelligent and talkative. Sir Phillip, on the other hand, is shy and a bit awkward, a scientist who prefers to keep to himself. The couple know somewhat of each other, having corresponded for years, but there are still big surprises in store for both. Having never met, both Phillip and Eloise built images in their minds of the other person, and having to reconcile their ideals with reality isn't the easiest of things. Especially when there are two near-feral plot moppets running around trying their best to cause Eloise bodily harm. Add to the fact that Eloise leaves London without telling anyone of her whereabouts and you have quite a lot of hijinks that can ensue. One of my favourite thing about the various Bridgerton novels is the large supporting cast of siblings and in-laws, and the four belligerent Bridgerton brothers eventually show up, intent on protecting their sister's honour in a delightful scene.

I remembered this book as more gloomy and depressing than it actually is. I also recalled Oliver and Amanda, Phillip's neglected children as more angsty and melodramatic, but my memory must have been playing tricks on me. There is literally doom and gloom in that Phillip's first wife is driven to attempt suicide and the consequences of having a spouse or parent with debilitating depression is dealt with quite well, I thought. I'm not happy about the way Phillip allowed his children to run wild in the years after their mother's death, but in fairness, he knows that what he's done is bad and is trying his very best to finally make up for it by marrying someone who will make them a good mother.

To readers new to Julia Quinn, I would recommend they start with An Offer from a Gentleman or Romancing Mister Bridgerton, which are both absolutely excellent and delightful romances. This is more for those who wish to complete the series. Not bad at all, but certainly not one of the greats.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR8 Book 28: "Beautiful Stranger" by Christina Lauren

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Sara Dillon, Chloe Mills' best friend, dumps her cheating fiancee and relocates to New York when her BFF and her Beautiful Bastard of a boyfriend open a new set of offices there. Out celebrating Chloe's engagement, Sara meets a tall, sexy stranger in a nightclub and ends up hooking up with him, without even exchanging names. Turns out her sexy f*ck buddy is an old friend of Bennet's, Max Stella, and he can't get the alluring lady from the nightclub out of his mind. While Sara is actively avoiding a new relationship, she can't deny her strong attraction to Max and with every new meeting, she discovers new things about herself and what she gets off on (hint - it's mainly mild forms of exhibitionism, the thrill of nearly getting caught).

While Max has a past as a playboy of note, he's tantalised by Sara, especially her initial plan that they see each other just once a week, and then only for sex. He wants to take their relationship to the next level much quicker than her, but once he realises why she's so wary about long-term commitment, he's content to wait for her to return his feelings.

In this second book in the Beautiful series, you can already see Christina Lauren getting more skilled at writing, and including more to the story than just people yelling at each other or tearing each other's clothes off. I found the first book sadly lacking in most of the plot and character development, and Bennett and Chloe's hook-up MO didn't really thrill me all that much. There is more back story given to both Sara and Max in this book, and the reader is given an explanation as to why Sara might want to let herself go and have a purely physical relationship for a while, having been with the same man (who treated her badly) for far too long and finally breaking free.

Max is the contemporary romance version of a rake who's ready to be redeemed and he's all about respecting his lady love's wants and wishes. Even though he's emotionally at a place where he's ready to settle down, he's ready to wait until Sara returns his feelings. Of course, towards the end of the book, there is a big misunderstanding and some added complications thrown in the way of our lovers. It's one of my least favourite plot tropes (along with "I must push the people I love away from me to protect them!") and it is pretty much just a frustrating way for the authors to pad out the story for a bit until the couple can move on to their HEA.

In conclusion - Beautiful Stranger is better than the first book in the series (and the novella following it), but still not up to the quality of either of the four books in the Wild Seasons series, where I would suggest readers begin if they're interested in the work of Christina Lauren.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.