Sunday 31 December 2017

#CBR9 Books 129-130: "Locke & Key, vol 4: Keys to the Kingdom and vol 5: Clockworks" by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

Total page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

SPOILER WARNING! This review may contain some spoilers for the plots of the two volumes in question. 

In volume 4, Keys to the Kingdom, the three Locke siblings are still fighting against the Dark Lady, whose inhabiting the body of the person they think is their friend Zach. He's posing as Kinsey's affectionate boyfriend and Tyler's loyal friend, trying to get one of the siblings to reveal where the crucial and powerful Omega key is hidden. Over the course of this volume, the Locke children seem to be attacked more and more frequently and only towards the end of the volume do they realise where the true threat lies, but by that point, it may be too late.

In volume 5, Clockworks, we go back in time, first to 1775, when the first keys were created and get some insight into the dangers that lurk inside the portal that the Dark Lady wants opened. Kinsey and Tyler also find a way to go back and see exactly what happened to their father and his friends in 1988. Both of them are far too preoccupied to discover that Bode isn't acting entirely like his normal self.

I would have read a lot more strategically earlier in December if I'd remembered just how dense and compact the writing in each of the volumes of Locke & Key are. I certainly wouldn't have saved my final graphic novels to the same day I have review deadlines, as the books took WAY longer than I anticipated to read. I also keep forgetting just how utterly creepy these books are and how much they affect me. My plan was to read the final three, but after getting through these two, I needed to take a break before I dive into the final and concluding volume, which I'm sure is going to out-gruesome the previous five.

Over the years I have been reading this comic, I've really come to get attached to the characters in it. I really rarely read horror because I get so emotionally attached and the suspense and the gore just gets too much for me. As the stakes get higher and things get more serious, these stories within these books just get creepier and creepier. It doesn't help that Gabriel Rodriguez' art leaves so little to the imagination. I am very much enjoying them, but two volumes was all I had the stomach for this time.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 128: "The Wicked + The Divine, vol 1: The Faust Act" by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

Page count: 144 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Every ninety years, twelve gods incarnate as humans. They appear as rock stars and are loved and hated in equal measure. In two years, they are all dead. The lesson they need to learn is: just because you're immortal, doesn't mean you're going to live forever.

In the first volume of The Wicked + The Divine we are introduced to Laura, a seventeen-year-old from London who is utterly devoted to the various recently incarnated gods, who appear as rock stars of various genres all over the city. After she passes out at one of Amaterasu's concerts, she is introduced to "Luci", the current incarnation of Lucifer and taken backstage to spend more time with some of the gods. Just as countless people adore the new godlings, there are those who hate them too. When armed gunmen open fire on the people in the room, Luci gets carried away, snaps her fingers and has their heads explode. During her trial, where she's adamant that they can't prove an actual link between her fingers and the dead bodies, the judge is spectacularly killed in the same way, and Luci finds herself in prison.

Laura is convinced that for all that she is scary and seems a bit unhinged, Luci didn't actually kill the judge. Someone is trying to frame her, and she wants to do whatever she can to help. She is sent to look for the mysterious Ananke, and comes into contact with even more of the twelve deities as a result. There is clearly more here than Laura understands and she knows she's neglecting her schoolwork and future by throwing herself wholeheartedly into the quest to free Luci, but she can't seem to help herself.

I didn't know a lot about this comic before I started reading it, and having finished the first five issues, collected in The Faust Act, I'm not entirely sure I know all that much more. As the description says, twelve gods get incarnated every ninety years. It's not always the same gods, but Ananke seems to be part of the group no matter what. In 2014, at least, they all appear as famous rock stars, utterly adored by their fans. Most people seem deeply sceptical to their claims of actually being divine, and it seems that Luci breaks a lot of unspoken rules when she openly shows off some of her dangerous and unpredictable powers. This has consequences as the issues go on.

As this is only the first trade, it does the job of introducing us to a large cast of characters. There's Laura, who's our entry-point into the comic, and a whole bunch of the different gods. Why are they reincarnated into the bodies of young, beautiful people? Why do they only live for two years? Who is setting up Luci for a murder charge? All of these questions will clearly be answered down the line.

I am very intrigued by the premise of this comic, and will absolutely be reading more of it. The fact that my husband "knows" both the writer and artist from an internet forum from many years ago is an added bonus. It's always good to support friends.

Judging a book by its cover: Jamie McKelvie's art is so gorgeous throughout this comic, and the monthly covers for the various issues feature beautiful facial portraits of the various deities. So it was a bit of a disappointment to me when the trade had this cover which is so simple, even though it is rather evocative.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 127: "Roomies" by Christina Lauren

Page count: 368 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 35 mins
Rating: 3 stars

Holland Bakker is trying to be a writer, but two years after graduating from college, still doesn't really feel like she has anything to write about. The apartment she lives in is in part paid for by her wealthy uncles, and even her job, as a stagehand/photographer at the Broadway theatre where her uncle is the musical director is thanks to him. She's feeling adrift and like a bit of a scrounger, and desperately wishes she could find some purpose. For more than six months, she's been going several blocks out of her way to and from work, just so she can see the handsome busker at the 50th Street Station. One night, after a few too many drinks, she actually stops and tells him how much she loves his music. Shortly after, she is the victim of an attempted mugging, and ends up unconscious on the subway tracks. When she comes to, the paramedics suspect she tried to kill herself, and say they came thanks to an anonymous tip. Holland is confused as to why her mystery crush didn't identify himself, but has more to worry about as she's taken to the hospital.

Holland's uncle Robert is the creator of a wildly successful Broadway show, but as the original star is leaving and about to be replaced by another prestigious star, the lead violinist quits in a huff, and his music is integral to the show. The show could be doomed, unless they find a replacement musician. Holland suggests Calvin, the mystery busker, and takes her uncle to see him playing at the station. It turns out that Calvin trained at Julliard, and would be delighted to audition. Once he's actually offered a job, however, he's forced to confess that he's in the country illegally, his student visa having run out four years ago. That's also the reason he didn't actually give his name to the police or paramedics when he called 911 after Holland's mugging. He doesn't want to get deported.

One of the theatre employees jokes that Calvin could easily be hired and get a green card if Holland were to marry him - she's had a crush on him for months, after all? While everyone brushes it off as insanity, Holland sees an opportunity to finally pay her beloved uncle back for all the things he's done for her over the years. She's already deeply infatuated in the busker and adores his music. After thinking it over for a few days, she asks Calvin (who she's been calling "Jack" in her head until she learned his real name) to come to lunch and suggests the mad plan to him. Since working on Broadway is Calvin's dream, it doesn't actually take all that long to persuade him to agree to the marriage of convenience.

After mooning over him from afar for more than six months, Holland now has to share an apartment with her crush. It doesn't take long before Calvin is a runaway success on Broadway. Her uncle Robert is happy, Calvin is living his dream and Holland is feeling more adrift than ever. Even as she's growing closer to Calvin and they start acting on their mutual attraction, she's not entirely sure if he's starting to genuinely return her feelings (not that she's fully honest about how strongly she feels for him) or if he's just playing her until he can get his green card.

I've seen Roomies included on more than one "Best of the Year" romance lists recently, most notably the Entertainment Weekly one and it made me curious to read the book, as I thought the premise seemed a bit forced. Having greatly enjoyed their previous novel Dating You/Hating You earlier this year, I assumed from its inclusion on EW's list that this book was going to be even better. It's not.

My disappointment in the book may stem from the fact that its inclusion on more than one Top Ten Romances of the Year list made me heighten my expectations. By all means, this is not a bad book, but it's not even in the top 4 Christina Lauren novels I've read. The premise of the whole book, as I said, felt too forced. An actual marriage of convenience story is more difficult to pull off in a contemporary story than a historical novel (where this trope is pretty common, but strangers could more often marry in those days for any number of reasons). Yes, you have the "I'll pose as your fake girlfriend/boyfriend/fiancee for reasons" situation, but the couple rarely actually complete the legally binding ceremony before living together and falling in love.

As well as the complication that Holland isn't honest about the fact that she's been more or less stalking Calvin from afar for more than six months before she ever spoke to him, there's a whole bunch of other drama that gets thrown into the mix to make their relationship more difficult. Holland was not a particularly engaging heroine - she seemed a bit too whiny and ungrateful, considering the hugely privileged situation she was actually in - very few people have found their "calling" at 25, and at least she lives in a cushy apartment and has a job, even if this is thanks to generous relatives.

Normally, in Christina Lauren's books, the supporting cast of characters is excellent. Both the hero and heroine tend to have excellent and loyal friends, as well as family. Here, yes, Holland has amazing gay uncles and her brother seems pretty cool, but her so-called best friend is a jealous harpy who treats Holland, her own boyfriend (who she refuses to call anything but fuck-buddy) and others dreadfully and keeps hitting on Calvin in front of Holland and it made me literally uncomfortable to read several of the scenes she was in. I couldn't really get fully invested in the main romance, and the comforting friendships that were supposed to help flesh out the book were also missing.

This book is going nowhere near any "Top 10 of 2017" list for me, and frankly, because I got my expectations built up and then smashed, it's more likely to end up closer to my bottom of the year list. There are so many great other novels by Christina Lauren out there - and Dating You/Hating You (which I've also seen on even more Best of 2017 lists, thankfully) is much more worthy of your time.

Judging a book by its cover: Well, if you were in any doubt of which city this novel was set in, the Manhattan skyline should tip you off. I'm wondering if Christina Lauren's publisher wants to market them to a more varied crowd than the regular romance readers, since if you overlook the wedding rings in the title font, there isn't a lot to this cover that screams "romance". While I'm not super excited by their previous covers, I think this is just rather dull.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 126: "Miracle on 5th Avenue" by Sarah Morgan

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Perpetual optimist Eva Jordan loves the Christmas holidays, but this year, still mourning her beloved grandmother who passed last year, it's getting more difficult for her to summon up her holiday cheer. Now that her two best friends and business partners are both in happy relationships, Eva's goal for the Christmas season is meeting someone she might find happiness with too. But first she has a job to do. One of her elderly clients has hired her to decorate her grandson's luxurious penthouse apartment while he's away at a writing retreat. Eva's job is to make it cheerful for Christmas and fill his fridge and freezer with delicious meals, so all is ready for him when he returns.

Bestselling crime writer Lucas Blade has a crippling writer's block, and he's promised his publisher that his new book will be done by Christmas Eve. He's told his entire family that he's away on a writing retreat in Vermont, so they'll leave him alone. The time coming up to Christmas is always particularly hard on Lucas, since he lost his wife in an accident three years ago. When he tackles what he believes to be an intruder, he's surprised to see that she's in fact a petite and curvy blonde, who seems as frightened to find him in the apartment as he is shocked to see anyone arrive. He quickly figures out that his grandmother is meddling and tries to persuade Eva to leave, but she's adamant that she will carry out the job she's been hired for. While Lucas is initially annoyed, he finds that Eva, contrary to his fears, is not a distraction to his writing, but that her presence in fact inspires him to write for the first time in months.

Once Eva completes his grandmother's commission and leaves, Lucas discovers that he's entirely unable to write without her in the apartment. He hires her for the weeks up until Christmas and even promises to take her to a swanky society ball, so she has a chance to possibly meet her Prince Charming. By the time the ball comes around, however, Lucas isn't so sure he wants to watch Eva flirt with someone else.

This is the third book in the From Manhattan with Love series, and there are two full-length books and a novella preceding it. I started with book 3 because it fit into this month's keyword challenge, and because it was set around Christmas and I felt like reading something fluffy while ignoring my father and brothers bickering and the pain in my inconveniently broken rib. It's clear that the previous two books deals with Paige and Frankie, Eva's best friends and the two women she runs a business with. Their business, Urban Genie, seems to be some sort of events planning firm, where they arrange everything from elaborate proposals, birthday parties, weddings, help people get dog walkers and more.

Eva's friendship with Lucas' grandmother was clearly established in one of the earlier books, and it seems as if Lucas himself has been mentioned more than once, with several people being huge fans of his gruesome and chilling crime thrillers. While it was clear that I was missing some references from earlier books, all the information I really needed to appreciate the story was available and all it did was make me even more eager to go back and read the earlier books now, so I have the full story of the three friends and their romantic adventures.

Eva and Lucas are set up as pretty much diametrically opposite. Eva is eternally optimistic, tries to see the good in everything and everyone, likes to read romance novels, is a vegetarian and is kind and gracious to absolutely everyone. Lucas is a pessimist and a recluse, deeply cynical and sceptical about the motives of everyone around him (not just because he writes truly spine-chilling crime thrillers about ruthless serial killers). The death of his wife was clearly an incredible blow to him and he's not over the loss of her yet. He's the one who tells Eva that it's ok to grieve and be sad, even nearly a year after losing her grandmother. Having always been taught that it's better to be sunshine than a rain cloud, Eva has not really been letting herself grieve as deeply as she needs to and has been afraid of burdening her friends with her occasionally gloomy thoughts. Since Lucas is a stranger, she finds it more easy to open up to him.

Another way in which the two are different is that Lucas grew up supported and surrounded by a big family, while Eva's mother died at birth and her grandmother raised her. She's always been pretty much alone, except for her grandmother, so when she died, Eva lost the only real family ties she had left. Now she's trying to honour her gran's memory as best she can.

There is insta-attraction between Lucas and Eva (they are trapped together in his apartment for several days together because a snow storm starts raging shortly after Eva arrives, and it's not safe for her to leave), but the book takes place in a bit more than a month in the run-up to Christmas. While that isn't the longest time to get to know someone, they do spend a lot of time together, since Lucas basically hires Eva to be his live-in housekeeper once he discovers that he can't write his new novel without her around. He has a lot of issues to work through after the death of his wife, especially since even before she died, their relationship wasn't exactly the most calm and harmonious. Eva is so incredibly different from his former wife and to begin with, he's not sure how to handle all his new emotions.

This was a quick, satisfying and fun holiday read, and I am very happy that I have the earlier books in the series already, so I can go back and see how Eva's friends found their HEAs too.

Judging a book by its cover: While the cover is cute enough, I really don't like the colour combinations much. The red and the almost turquoise sky seems to clash badly to me. Still, with the Manhattan skyline, it's clear that the book is set in New York. I think it should possibly have had some more Christmassy details, since the book is set over that holiday, after all.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 125: "Not Now, Not Ever" by Lily Anderson

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From Goodreads:

Elliot Gabaroche is very clear on what she isn't going to do this summer. 

1. She isn't going to stay home in Sacramento, where she'd have to sit through her stepmother's sixth community theater production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
2. She isn't going to mock trial camp at UCLA.
3. And she certainly isn't going to to the Air Force summer program at her mom's base in Colorado Springs. As cool as it would be to live-action-role-play Ender's Game, Ellie's seen three generations of her family go through USAF boot camp up close, and she knows it's much less Luke/Yoda/"Feel the Force" and much more one hundred push-ups on three days of no sleep. And that just isn't appealing, no matter how many Xenomorphs from Alien
she'd be able to defeat afterwards.

What she is going to do is pack up her determination, her favorite Octavia Butler novels, and her Jordans, and run away to summer camp. Specifically, a cut-throat academic-decathlon-like competition for a full scholarship to Rayevich College - the only college with a Science Fiction Literature program, and her dream school. She's also going to start over as Ever Lawrence: a new name for her new beginning. She's even excited to spend her summer with the other nerds and weirdos in the competition, like her socially-awkward roommate with neon-yellow hair, and a boy who seriously writes on a typewriter and is way cuter than is comfortable or acceptable.

The only problem with her excellent plan to secretly win the scholarship and a ticket to her future: her golden-child, super-genius cousin Isaiah has had the same idea, and has shown up at Rayevich smugly ready to steal her dreams and expose her as a fraud in the process. 

This summer's going to be great. 

Last year, I read the rather excellent The Only Thing Worse Than Me is You, a modernised YA take on Much Ado About Nothing, set in a prep school for especially gifted students. So when I discovered that Lily Anderson had written a companion novel, with very gifted students competing with each other at a summer camp, as a modern YA retelling of sorts of the Oscar Wilde play The Importance of Being Earnest, I knew I was going to have to read it. Now while I absolutely adore the Shakespeare play, honesty forces me to admit that I haven't actually ever read the Wilde play (nor even seen a movie version - shameful, I'm sure). I did read a summary, and while the previous book was fairly loosely based on the Shakespeare, this book is an even more loosely inspired retelling.

This book is clearly set some time after TOTWTMIS, with the protagonists of that now college-age, with some of them helping out as advisors at the summer camp. Because Elliot/Ever is terrible with remembering names, she gives pretty much everyone, especially the counsellors, nicknames, so they're "Perfect Nerd Girl" and "Lumberjack Beard", even having read the previous book, it took me a while to place familiar characters. Brandon, one of the supporting characters from that book, is the mysterious young man who carries around and works mainly on a typewriter (it has a fairly logical explanation, he's not just a hipster). He's one of the members on Ever's decathlon team, and as the weeks pass, it's clear that there's a lot of chemistry between them.

Isaiah, Ever's cousin, has promised mutually assured destruction if she lets anyone know that they are not in fact twins (he's technically too young to compete, and has lied about his age to get in - and told one of the counselors that they were brother and sister before Ever could intervene) or if anyone in their families finds out where they are. To begin with, some of the other campers are worried that Ever and Isaiah are going to go easy on each other because they're related, but Ever soon proves that she is utterly ruthless and willing to crush her "twin", should the need arise. Having her obnoxious relative close by isn't the only problem facing Ever, though. As the camp progresses, it's clear that someone is stealing important items from the campers, and trying to sabotage the competition. Things get increasingly more tense as the weeks pass and the frustration among the various competitors starts building.

As in the previous book (which you in no way need to read to enjoy this, but possibly should check out just because it really is such a fun read), there's tons of nerd references throughout the book. As science fiction is Ever's passion, there were a lot more references to that here, and as I myself am not as big a fan of the genre (certainly not in book form - I keep trying), I think more possibly went over my head, but it in no way took away from my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

I liked the various friendships that built as well as the romance between Ever and Brandon. Leigh, Ever's strange and wonderfully oddly behaved roommate is a delight and the camp seems a pretty awesome place to spend the summer (even if I'm not vaguely smart enough to qualify). While I think I liked last year's book a tiny bit better, this was still a very fast and fun read, and I will be waiting eagerly for whatever Lily Anderson writes next.

Judging a book by its cover: Not exactly the most exciting of covers, but they've managed to find a girl with pretty big hair (Ever is tall and her impressively large hair is mentioned several times in the book) and a guy who looks adorably scruffy enough to be Brandon. Not entirely sure I like the big font they've used, but the yellow background is very cheerful.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 124: "Jessica Jones: Alias, vol 1" by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos

Page count: 216 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From the blurb:

Meet Jessica Jones. Once upon a time, she was a costumed superhero...but not a very good one. Her powers were unremarkable compared to the costumed icons that populate the Marvel Universe. In a city of Marvels, Jessica Jones never found her niche.

Now a chain-smoking, self-destructive alcoholic with a mean inferiority complex, Jones is the owner and sole employee of Alias Investigations - a small, private-investigative firm specialising in superhuman cases. When she uncovers the potentially explosive secret of one hero's true identity, Jessica's life immediately becomes expendable. But her wit, charm and intelligence may just help her survive another day. 

Back when this comic came out in 2001, it was called Alias. I can only assume that the new title, adding Jessica's name, was done after the premiere and success of the Netflix series from 2015 (was it really that long ago already?), to allow new readers to more easily find their way to the comic. Ironically, of course, the show had to be called Jessica Jones as there was already an action show starring a female character out there called Alias. This book was a Christmas present from my husband last year, because of all of the Marvel TV shows with their many cool characters, Jessica Jones is probably my favourite, and he wanted me to be able to read the comics the show was based on.

For those who have watched the show, the character we meet in the pages of this book will be very familiar, even if the two cases she works on over the course of the nine issues collected here are different. Jessica is a loner, she's bitter, sarcastic, self-destructive and mean. She doesn't particularly enjoy her job, but needs to pay the bills somehow. She smokes, drinks too much and swears a lot. While she has a very suspicious nature, she is still fooled by a crying woman coming to her for help. It turns out that the case she's hired for, locating a missing woman, is in fact a ploy to potentially unmask a very famous superhero (and get him implicated in a murder case). The whole plot seems to be set in motion to discredit the current president. Jessica is none too pleased about being used, but refuses to provide a proper alibi for herself by releasing the tape she has proving her whereabouts when the missing woman she was hired to locate turned up dead (but which will also reveal the hero in question's identity).

For Jessica's second case over the course of the book, a distraught woman shows up at Jessica's office trying to locate her husband, Rick Jones, who she claims is somehow related to Jessica (this is news to our heroine) and a former superhero sidekick who may now be in terrible danger. While she's unsure of how wise it is to get involved, Jessica nevertheless takes the case.

While I really enjoyed and read through all nine issues of this book very quickly, I especially miss some of the supporting characters from the Netflix show in this book. There is no Trish here, Malcolm is basically an over-eager fan who pops up in Jessica's office occasionally and asks to be allowed to be her assistant, and Luke Cage only makes a brief (but rather memorable appearance).

I know that a lot of things only borrow loosely from their source material, and I suspect that much of what ended up on the TV show will happen later in the comics. In 2018, I clearly need to get further trades of Alias to see where the stories become more similar.

Judging a book by its cover: Since I watched the Netflix series first, in my head, Jessica Jones looks like Krysten Ritter. But you know, I guess the original artist gets to decide what she looks like to the creators. Can't really argue with it. It's not the most thrilling of covers. I'm not sure it would make me pick up the book unless I was already interested.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 123: "For Your Arms Only" by Caroline Linden

Page count: 388 pages
Rating: 2 stars

Alexander Hayes fought bravely during the Napoleonic war and achieved the rank of Major. During the battle of Waterloo, he was gravely injured and nearly died. When he, some weeks later, managed to get back to rejoin his fellow soldiers, he discovered that not only had one of his childhood friends died during the battle, but that he was being accused of treason. In absolute disgrace, he lets his family continue to believe that he died, and goes to work as a spy for England, in the hopes of eventually being able to clear his name.

Now, five years later, he is sent to locate a soldier whose gone missing from his former home town. He needs to come clean to his family about having been alive all these years, without being able to tell them the truth about where he's been or why he never contacted them. He also discovers that the soldier's youngest daughter, Miss Cressida Turner, is deeply distrustful of strangers, and just as likely to shoot him as aid him in his search. Once Cressida realises just in what dire straits her missing father left her, her widowed sister and aged grandmother in, she has no choice but to join forces with the mysterious possible traitor, as her family will be destitute and homeless if her father is not located soon.

A View to a Kiss, the first book in this trilogy, was a fairly slow and rather uneventful book, despite having a spy as a main character and several others as part of the supporting cast. As it had the rather unusual premise of a noblewoman falling for a commoner, I gave it the benefit of the doubt and rated it higher than I possibly should have. It does, however, mean that I'm not so generous with my rating of this second book, starring Alex Hayes/Alec Brandon, one of the supporting spies of book one, as this one is if possible even less exciting than the first one, and here there is no creative turning on its head of common tropes.

Our hero is worried about returning to his home town, and the only one who seems truly happy to see him is his mother, who doesn't seem to care why her youngest son is alive but hasn't been in contact for five long years. One of the reasons Alex is told by his superiors that he should return home (in addition to the mission) is that his older brother passed away a while back, so he is now the heir to the estate. His younger sister Julia is deeply hurt (very understandably so) and his cousin, who believed himself to be the heir and who has dutifully taken care of everything since his brother's death, must be some kind of saint, as he doesn't protest even a little bit to have his believed inheritance suddenly snatched away. For a while, I believed he may turn out to be part of whatever villainous plot had made Papa Turner disappear (because there was going to be some sort of plot, right?), but SPOILER - he turns out to be totally legit and just goes back to being a nice person somewhere else.

So the plot of this novel, such as it is, involves Alex trying to locate Turner the elder (I do not remember what military rank he was, and I don't care enough to look it up). The first time he runs into Cressida is when he's snooping in the Turner family's stables, and Cressida shows up and pulls a gun on him. She thinks he's handsome and is impressed that he doesn't seem even vaguely intimidated by her (he's a trained soldier, lady, he fought in the war. A slip of a girl with a gun isn't actually much of a threat to him). Her father has been missing for almost two months, and what little money the womenfolk he left behind had, is rapidly running out. While it seems to be pretty common practise for Papa Turner to go off for weeks or the occasional month, he always returns, flush with cash and expects his mother and two daughters to be pleased. He's never been gone two months without word before, and Cressida is getting worried.

After some joint snooping, Cressida and Alex manage to find Papa Turner's journal, which is written in code. Cressida, it seems, has always had a knack for decrypting things and sets about trying to decode the journal, in the hopes that they will find her father that way. I wish I can say they go on lots of exciting search missions, but nope, that is not the case. There's mainly a whole lot of nothing happening for much of the book.

There's a secondary romance subplot involving Cressida's widowed sister and one of their loyal family retainers, who has apparently loved her faithfully since before she got married to the scumbag she is now widowed from. There's their grandmother, who is clearly going senile, and only sees the good in her clearly disreputable son (who does NOT seem like he was a very good father), convinced he will show up any second now. Alex' sister Julia keeps being surly because he won't tell her anything of importance, and she's worried he did in fact commit treason all those years ago.

After three quarters of a book of really nothing much happening at all, there is suddenly a big, over the top action-packed finale, when they discover the truth behind Papa Turner's disappearance (which coincidentally, and very conveniently) turns out to be related to Alex' being accused of treason after Waterloo. Suddenly there's nefarious villains, and people being manhandled and threatened and there's danger and destruction and in a book which has pretty much been people pottering about the country side asking questions, or trying to figure out a code in a book, it seems very sudden and badly out of place.

I still have the final volume in this series left to read (curse those e-book sales), but considering how dull this book turned out to be, I'm not exactly going to be rushing to finish it.

Judging a book by its cover: If I recall correctly, the hero of this novel has short blond hair, not some dark and flowy mullet. The heroine is described as much younger than the lady on this cover, with nearly black, straight hair and she seems to dress fairly primly. So I'm assuming the publishing department just found a generic historical romance cover and called it a day, not really bothering with any kind of accuracy.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 27 December 2017

#CBR9 Book 122: "A Kiss for Midwinter" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 121 pages
Audio book length: 4 hrs 14 mins
Rating: 5 stars

When Lydia Charingford was fifteen, she was seduced and ruined by an older man. She got pregnant, and it was only through the quick wits of her friend Minnie and the support of her family that not everyone in polite society found out about it. Lydia lost the baby, and tries very hard not to dwell on that part of her past. When Dr Jonas Grantham (the junior doctor present when she was being examined and her shame was exposed to her parents) returns to Leicester, there is suddenly someone else around who knows of her dark past, and his condescending and sarcastic demeanor makes Lydia convinced he is constantly judging her.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Jonas doesn't even recognize Lydia again when they meet upon his return, and he's classified her as the eleventh prettiest girl in town. He wants to find a wife quickly, for mostly pragmatic reasons, and has made a list of suitable women. After a conversation with Lydia, where he is reminded of the episode so long ago, he's unable to put her out of his mind, and becomes more and more infatuated with her as time goes by.

Jonas disagreed strongly with the medical advice Lydia and her parents were given so long ago, but didn't speak up because he was afraid of risking his future career. He's always regretted it, and is determined to devote his life to saving people. His father is losing his wits to dementia, and Jonas realizes that he can't pine for Lydia forever. He understands the reasons for her antipathy towards him, but needs a chance to change her mind. He proposes a wager, where Lydia has to accompany him on three visits to the poorest areas of Leicester. If he wins, he gets a kiss. If she wins, he'll never speak to her again.

This novella is a sequel of sorts to The Duchess War and feature a couple of characters introduced in that book. It can be read completely independently of that story, though. Lydia is the best friend of Minnie, the heroine of The Duchess War and in this novella she finally gets her happy ending.

Jonas falls into the line of great and unusual Milan heroes. He's an educated, yet rather socially awkward man, with clear obsessive compulsive tendencies. He doesn't mince words, is almost too honest for his own good, he's sarcastic, he has an appallingly dark sense of humor (I thought he was hilarious, myself), and he's prone to dark moods. Despite being a good and hard working doctor, he struggles to find a solution with regards to his father, who's bedridden in a house full of scrap metal that he hoards obsessively.

Lydia is, on the surface at least, almost annoyingly cheerful. She finds the positive in any situation and treats nearly everyone around her with unfailing kindness. Jonas is the exception, and she comes to realize that it's because around him, she can't repress the events of her past. She's forced to think about a dark and depressing time in her life, and whether he is to blame for her experience or not, she can't help but hold him partially responsible. Being led astray and betrayed at such a young age, she also learned to equate lust and desire with something very bad, and the attraction she feels towards Dr Grantham deeply disconcerts her.

For once, the heroine is the more wounded of the couple, but her understandable issues are dealt with so well. The pacing of the novella is absolutely perfect, and some scenes literally made me short of breath. This is an almost painfully romantic story, and 2017 is the fourth time I read it (this time listening to it in audio, read by the very talented Rosalyn Landor) in the run-up to Christmas, confirming to myself once again why it's remains one of my very favourite romances of all time. I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who likes good romance.

Judging a book by its cover: With her Brothers Sinister series, Courtney Milan began to self-publish and as such, is personally responsible for her romance covers. She revealed on her blog at one point that she tends to lock for stock images of brides wearing more or less period-appropriate wedding dresses, and mocks up the covers from that. This is an especially egregious example, with the cover model simpering and framing her face in a way I cannot possibly imagine Lydia Charingford ever having done. I hate the frilly lace gloves and the bright white dress seems a strange choice, considering Lydia's past in the story.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 121: "Wrong to Need You" by Alisha Rai

Page count: 373 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Sadia Ahmed has been a widow for over a year. She works days in the little cafe originally founded by her late husband's family, and at night tends bar and enjoys regaling customers with the history behind the exotic cocktails she concocts. She is determined to provide the best possible life for her little boy, Kareem, and will not let anyone see just how much she's struggling to keep her head above water. Having disappointed her parents by dropping out of med school and eloping, she cannot admit to anyone that when Paul, her husband died, they were thinking about getting a divorce, that there are debts on the cafe that she's struggling with paying and that part of the reason she enjoys bar tending so much is because it gives her the opportunity to meet men and women she can hook up with, no strings attached, as she's so desperately lonely.

Jackson Kane has been travelling the world for the past ten years, after he was accused of a crime he didn't commit and felt abandoned by his family. Lured back to his home town after his sister pretty much emotionally blackmailed him, he's still reluctant to reconnect to his past, but he just can't stay away from Sadia, the woman he's always loved, long before she married his brother. When it becomes obvious that she's in desperate need of a cook in her café and generally someone to just help out, he fights the instinct to leave town again, even with a lot of the locals still viewing him with suspicion. Sadia offers him a place to stay above her garage, and he can't resist the temptation to be close to her. Deeply ashamed that he never answered any of her e-mails in his decade away, he now wants a chance to connect with his nephew. He doesn't dare hope that Sadia could ever return his feelings - she's his brother's widow, for heaven's sake!

I read my first Alisha Rai book in October, telling the story of Livvy Kane and Nicholas Chandler. That book also introduced Sadia and Jackson, as well as outlined the complex family dynamics between the Kanes and the Chandlers. For the first half of the book, Sadia, who was Livvy's best friend before she became her sister-in-law spends a lot of time telling people she doesn't have any idea where her friend has disappeared off to with her reunited lover. When Jackson suddenly reappears in her world, Sadia misses Livvy a lot, needing to talk to her to work through her feelings.

Sadia and Jackson were clearly also best friends for a very long time, with Sadia never realising that Jackson felt more for her than mere friendship. He never said a word when she got together with his brother during their senior year of high school and he never told her or his sister the truth about why he willingly let himself get arrested after the Kane/Chandler flagship grocery store burned down, shortly after Mr Kane died in a car crash with Mrs Chandler. Instead he left town, and despite Sadia sending him countless e-mails, never responded. Not when her child was born, not when she told him his brother died. Naturally, Sadia is deeply hurt by his actions, and Jackson is justifiably ashamed.

Sadia is used to picking up random strangers in the bar where she works part-time and satisfying her physical needs without any long-term consequences. She notices and lusts over Jackson for several days before she discovers who he really is, and is shocked by her reaction to him. Because she was married to his brother, and is still struggling both with survivors guilt because Paul died and because their marriage was coming apart when she lost him, she's very conflicted about her new feelings. Interestingly, once Sadia and Jackson actually act on their attraction for one another, none of their family members seem surprised or upset by the development.

While the complicated romance as well as long-nurtured family rivalry was front and centre in Hate to Want You, the strongest theme in this book is probably family bonds. One of five sisters, the daughter of successful immigrants who were both doctors, Sadia very much let her parents down when she eloped with her high school sweetheart and refused to take the path her family expected of her. Now both her elder sisters are successful doctors as well, married to other doctors, while her younger twin sisters are making their way through medical school. After the birth of her son, Sadia reconciled with her family, but it's clear that they never accepted Paul, her husband, or that he really wanted to interact with her side of the family. Now her sisters take turns babysitting her son while she works to keep the café afloat and providing Kareem with the best possible life, even as she's struggling. She doesn't tell anyone in her family about her loneliness, her financial troubles, the truth about her crumbling marriage before she was widowed - because she already feels like the black sheep of the family and why give them more ammunition to be disappointed in her?

Jackson also has a lot of complicated issues to work through with his mother. Clearly always introverted and uncomfortable in social settings, despite his size and build that might suggest otherwise, Jackson felt betrayed by both his mother and brother Paul after he was arrested for the shop fire, despite being completely innocent. He was promised that they would do everything to get him out quickly, yet spent weeks in prison. Having convinced himself that opening himself up to loving people will only lead to intense hurt, he's closed himself off from nearly everyone, never settling long in one place, barely even communicating with his twin, Livvie. Having been taught to cook by one of his grandfathers, he's trained himself into a top-level chef and now runs pop-up restaurants to great acclaim all over the world with his business partner, all the while keeping his own identity secret. Even back in his home town, it takes him a long time to go see his mother, because he's worried how both he and she will react to the reunion.

Both Jackson and Sadia need to work through their trust issues with one another, but much more importantly, with their families. Jackson is none too pleased that Livvie and Nicholas are back together, because he saw how deeply Nicholas hurt Livvy back in the day, and while Jackson barely allows himself to love anyone, it's clear he can't help but love his twin. While Jackson and Sadia's gradual change from long-time friends to lovers is a nice one, the bits that had me in tears were the scenes where Sadia finally breaks down and shows her vulnerability to her sisters, only to see just how much they love her and support her and don't at all see her as the family disappointment or failure.

The third book in this series is out in March next year (featuring Nicholas' younger sister and an old family friend) and I am already waiting for it with bated breath. Having read these two books, I can see why Alisha Rai is such a celebrated contemporary romance novelist. Both books in the Forbidden Hearts series are among the best in the genre I've read this year.

Judging a book by its cover: Very much in the same style as Hate to Want You, this cover features cover models that look pretty much like the descriptions of the protagonists. You are left in no doubt that this book will feature a diverse, non-Caucasian couple and while I don't think this cover is as sexy as that on the previous book, it's still a pretty great one.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Books 119-120: "The Unwritten, vol 10: War Stories" and "The Unwritten, vol 11: Apocalypse" by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

Total page count: 304
Rating: 4 stars

Tom Taylor is trying to find his way back to his friends, moving through a number of children's stories. Even when he's reunited with his storyteller father, Wilson Taylor, who by writing a popular fantasy series where the main character shared Tom's name, pretty much gave him the abilities to move through all manner of works of fiction, and his friends, the world is in chaos, as the Leviathan, the source of all the stories in the world, is gravely wounded. The boundaries between stories are thin and unreliable and it's difficult to tell what is real and what is fiction anymore.

Tom and his little band of supporters need to find a way to heal the Leviathan, but it seems as if all the wicked forces in the world are working to stop them, controlled by Pullman, the eternal adversary. To complicate matters further, there's the mysterious puppet-mistress, Madame Rausch, who seems to have her own agenda, separate from both Pullman and the Wilsons. In the end, it all comes down to one final quest and if Tom succeeds, he can save both our own reality and restore the balance to the worlds of fiction. If he's thwarted, thing could go very bad indeed.

War Stories and Apocalypse collects issues 1-12 of the miniseries The Unwritten:Apocalypse, which is both the final installments of the entire run of the comic, yet somehow also seems made to stand on its own. Throughout the graphic novel series, author Mike Carey and artist Peter Gross has collaborated closely, exploring the importance of storytelling and the nature of stories. What is reality? What is fiction? Is our world just a story told by someone else? What is it about humanity that we keep coming back to the same themes and motifs in storytelling through the ages? Are there ancient archetypes built into our DNA?

It's been about ten days since I finished vol 11: Apocalypse and I wish I could give you a clear and concise opinion, but I'm honestly not sure I got all the things that Carey and Gross were trying to tell me. I'm not sure I'm literate and clever enough to parse all the various levels of the storytelling that was coming across. I have studied literature at university level (but unlike my husband, who is naturally analytical and pretty much picks apart anything he watches, reads or listens to just for fun, I generally prefer to just consume my entertainment on more of a surface level). It's clear that in these 12 issues, Carey and Gross are saying goodbye to their characters, tying up loose ends and providing an ending. There's a lot of clever stuff in here, but again, I'm not sure I understood it all. Even after having recently seen Mike Carey talk about the ending at a sci-fi/fantasy convention, which made things somewhat more clear, I'm not entirely certain if I get all the nuances here.

Maybe, in time, if I go back and read the whole series closer together, this will make more sense to me. I am tempted to just make my husband finally read the final issues and make him tell me what he thinks. I frequently do better when I can bounce ideas off someone else.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 26 December 2017

#CBR9 Book 118: "You're the Earl That I Want" by Kelly Bowen

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Heath Hextall has made his fortune in trade, but has inherited an earldom after a distant relative died, and now feels that it's his duty to to find a nice, well-bred and quietly competent woman to be his wife, to help him keep his life and household orderly. He asks his good friend, the Duke of Worth to help him find a suitable candidate.

Lady Josephine "Joss" Somerhall, the Duke of Worth's younger sister, is back from an extended stay abroad and while she can't really fault his choice, but is rather taken aback that Hextall is looking for a wife. She's loved Heath since she was a little girl, trailing after him and her brother, but as she's never intending to marry, and is also the exact opposite of what Heath is looking for in a wife, she will need to continue to keep her feelings hidden.

When the two are unexpectedly pulled into a mystery involving armed mercenaries, a dying Bow Street Runner, a file of encrypted documents and a possible plot by Napoleon-sympathisers to get the deposed emperor back in power, their close proximity to one another makes it very difficult for them to ignore their strong and mutual attraction.

I first discovered Kelly Bowen last year, when I read Duke of My Heart, and earlier this year I read the rest of her Season for Scandal books. I was very impressed with all three books, but this one was a let-down compared to them, possibly because the romance seemed almost secondary to the rather over the top mystery, which culminates in a truly elaborate plot, involving a huge number of people and among other things, involves blowing up a ship. Nor did I really feel I got a good impression on who the protagonists really were and it seems like Ms Bowen seemed to think that since they'd known each other since they were young, she didn't need to spend a lot of page time on establishing their romantic relationship as adults. They're wildly attracted to one another, and clearly very comfortable in each other's company, having known each other for so long. Yet Joss doesn't want to get married, because her parents' marriage was miserable and she doesn't want to be tied down. Hextall is conflicted about lusting over his best friend's sister, and feels guilty towards the woman he's nominally wooing (this part of the plot was resolved in almost too tidy a fashion - wouldn't want to think badly of our hero, after all).

It's established that even as a child, Joss was unusually precocious for a young girl and very interested in things not necessarily considered feminine. While I love a well-read heroine, there is a limit to just how much experience you can get through book learning (there didn't seem to be a thing they came across that Joss hadn't "read in a book"), and it seems like she'd been able to travel and explore the world a lot more than a young, single woman of noble birth should have been able to in early 19th Century. Even though she's clearly lived a life that would be considered rather scandalous, she's welcomed with open arms in society - and I'm not sure that would be the case, even for the sister of a wealthy duke.

If you asked me to characterise Hextall, my only mental image is "business man". It's been little over two weeks since I finished the book, and without going back and skimming parts, I don't really remember much about him, except that he's dutiful and conscientious, clearly in love with Joss long before he's able to admit it to himself and he really wants to do well by his family? Something like that. He owns a lot of ships, but has never allowed himself to travel with any of them.

As a mystery/adventure book, this wasn't so bad, but I really didn't think it delivered in the romance department, and there was a little bit too much in the "tell, don't show" in the description of Joss and how progressive and unusual she is as a heroine. If this had been my first Kelly Bowen book, I would not have been as quick to rush out and try more of her books. I certainly hope this book isn't indicative of the rest of the Lords of Worth series, of which I still have two books and a novella to read (because once I finished the last Season for Scandal book, I made sure to buy everything in her back catalogue) - all set previous to this book. It would be sad if her first series is so much weaker in plotting and characterisation than her second.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm pretty sure that an evening gown for an unmarried lady in the Regency era would be quite so low cut and daring in the back, even for a daring and unorthodox lady like Lady Josephine. If the cover model was really supposed to look like her, though, they should have made the artist give her short hair, not long tresses swept up in an updo.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 25 December 2017

#CBR9 Book 117: "Winterblaze" by Kristen Callihan

Page count: 436 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Throughout her marriage, Poppy Lane has been lying to her beloved husband. Until very recently, he believed her to be the owner of a bookstore, when in fact she wasn't just a member of, but the head of, a secret paranormal organisation known as the Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals. Poppy's entire life is working to ensure the existence of various supernatural beings remains unknown to mere mortals, and she had just been sworn into the Society on the day when she first met Winston Lane and quickly fell for him, even knowing he was a normal mortal man and could never be told the truth about her, her family or the underworld she protects.

After Winston Lane, a dedicated London police detective, discovered the existence of the supernatural after he was brutally savaged and left for dead by a werewolf, he also realised that his wife had been lying to him all these years and he refused to speak to her during his recovery. Now they've been estranged for months, but Poppy is sent a warning that an ancient demon, who she had dealings with in the past, has resurfaced and intends to get his revenge on her by targeting her husband. Whether Winston wants to speak to her or not, Poppy is not about to see him become prey for a demon and he'll just have to put up with her presence in the name of protection. Of course, while Winston has come to realise that his wife isn't the sedate bookshop proprietress he believed her to be, he's also not about to let her risk her life to protect him, especially when it turns out that the demon may be targeting him not just because of an ancient enmity with Poppy, but because of events in his own past that he's been made to forget.

While I really enjoy Kristen Callihan's contemporary New Adult novels, her paranormal historical books are a lot more hit and miss for me. I read the second book in the series, Moonglow, last summer and have only a vague recollection of what transpired in the book, except it involved werewolves, some sort of power struggle, and Poppy's middle sister discovering her own elemental powers. I have absolutely no memory of Winston (obviously a supporting character in that book) being attacked or discovering his wife's deception and choosing to leave her. You're given all the background you need in this book anyway.

Some of this book is told in flashback, with chapters outlining how Winston and Poppy first met, how he tried to woo her and was initially rejected (not because Poppy didn't love him, but because she was reluctant to tie herself to a man she'd have to lie to every day of their life together) and once his forgotten connection to the demon is revealed, how he made an ill-considered bargain to attain his heart's desire. The rest is a desperate race to outwit the demon, while the estranged couple have to work through their differences, or they'll pay a terrible price.

This book is fairly highly rated on Goodreads, but I never really cared for Poppy or Winston, nor any of the supporting characters (two of whom are clearly being set up as protagonists in the next book). Hence whether they outwitted an evil demon and emerged victorious, saving their marriage at the same time, or whether they all perished was all of a muchness to me. This is now the third in the Darkest London series I've read (it fit into my A to Z Reading Challenge) and I think I need to acknowledge that while Ms Callihan's contemporaries (at least the ones involving athletes, not so much the ones about rock stars) are great, her historical fantasy ones just aren't for me. The world building is really interesting, but I can't seem to care about any of the characters.

Judging a book by its cover: Well, it's quite obviously a romance cover, with at least the lady in a partial state of undress and the couple locked in a passionate embrace (or possibly grappling aggressively, it's a bit hard to tell). While they've given the man blond hair and the lady long red tresses, the cover models don't fit with my mental image of Winston and Poppy at all. Nice touch with the ice surrounding the lady's flowing skirts, though, since Poppy has elemental powers over water and ice.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 116: "A Queen from the North" by Erin McRae and Racheline Maltese

Page count: 301 pages
Rating: 4 stars

In a slightly alternate timeline, where the Wars of the Roses never ended in England, the enmity between the Houses of York and Lancaster is still present. Lady Amelia Brockett, only daughter of the Earl of Kirkham, born and raised proudly in Yorkshire is not having the best Christmas. Dumped by her boyfriend of two years and rejected by the graduate school she was hoping for, her mother especially seems to see her as the disappointment of the family. Her life takes a surprising and dramatic turn when her eldest brother takes her for a post-Christmas trip to the races, where she meets the long-widowed Prince of Wales, a former school friend of her brother's.

Having lost his wife in a skiing accident more than a decade ago, Prince Arthur's closest heir is his sister and her two daughters, neither of whom are interested in ever taking the throne. His eldest niece, George, insists that it is time he look for a new wife, and it just so happens that there aren't a whole lot of suitable young ladies of noble birth on the short list. Amelia is offered the chance of being the first Queen from the North in centuries, uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster in a royal marriage. Since becoming a widower, Prince Arthur has developed quite the reputation as a playboy, and he's nearly twice Amelia's age, but he's undoubtedly still fit and very handsome and by marrying him, Amelia would have a unique chance to improve the position of Northern England, a region that has long been neglected and overlooked.

She wants time to get to know the heir to the throne better, but as soon as the press gets wind of their possible romance, she finds herself constantly besieged and followed by paparazzi and the newspapers are full of stories digging into her past. While she's always been raised to behave in a certain way, wanting to be a good representative of her region, the etiquette involved in dating the Prince of Wales is on a whole new level, and potentially becoming a princess means having to memorise binders full of information. Luckily, Amelia has support from her loyal best friend/room mate, her sister-in-law and a very friendly receptionist at Buckingham Palace, who refers to himself as her "royalty customer service representative". While she's honestly not sure what the enigmatic Princess George, Arthur's niece, really thinks of her, the other members of the Royal family seem welcoming enough. Not everyone in England is enthusiastic at the thought of the potential match and there could be serious political ramifications from the match. Is Amelia ready for all this?

This is one of those e-books I got in a sale a while back and then didn't think all that much about, until it popped up on a list of recommended royal romances after the announced engagement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. I'm not by any means a Royalist, nor do I fiercely believe that the monarchy should be abolished and we should just have a republic. In Norway, the royals are pretty down to earth, as such things go. Our Crown Prince married a single mother. His older sister runs corporate seminars about talking to angels (I'm absolutely not making this up, google it). From what I've read, Meghan Markle is way too awesome and interesting a person to basically become a glorified coat hanger who waves and smiles in public and pops out a baby once every so often, not actually allowed to express her honest opinion about anything (which seems to be all Duchess Kate does), but I'm also sure that she's weighed the advantages and disadvantages before accepting her new position, and I guess that if you truly love someone, you marry them even if it involves huge sacrifice.

What I liked about this book is that there is no whirlwind romance, but rather a very practical business arrangement that develops into something more. The unusual setting, that the book is set in an alternate timeline, where the Wars of the Roses were never properly resolved, and there are hints that the Crown Prince's niece and heir (who is also genderqueer - a very surprising and cool revelation) has supernatural powers (she considers herself the Court Witch) also added to its appeal. In a lot of aspects, this reads like a pretty normal British-set contemporary romance, but it's the small and subtle differences that made it a more fun read.

Obviously, with this being a romance, Amelia (who is called "Meels" by friends and family, possibly the worst nickname I've come across in a book in a long time) and Arthur do eventually fall in love. With the exception of the first chapter and a bit of the epilogue, however, the whole book is told from Amelia's point of view and because Arthur is very reserved, it takes her most of the book to realise that he loves her too, but there's been a number of external circumstances that make it difficult for him to reveal his true feelings. This also isn't a book that's heavy on the *insert funky bass line here*, with all sorts of things getting in the way every time the couple consider actually kicking the intimacy levels up a notch.

It seems as if this book is the first in a series, and I enjoyed the writing enough that I will happily check out more books by the Ms. McRae and Maltese.

Judging a book by its cover: Sometimes a self-published book means the cover will be awful, here I think they've done a pretty good job. There are the red and white roses that play a fairly significant symbolic part in the book, Big Ben (so you can tell at least part of the novel is set in London), ominous black birds (I'm assuming they're meant to be the ravens in the Tower) and a giant floating lady head, with a fancy updo, diamond jewelry and some sort of elegant evening gown - I'm assuming it's meant to be Amelia. Apart from the fact that the stone wall with the roses in the foreground reminds me of a war memorial, it's a perfectly decent cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 23 December 2017

#CBR9 Books 115: "The Unwritten, vol 9: The Unwritten Fables" by Mike Carey, Bill Willingham, Peter Gross and Mark Buckingham

Page count: 144 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Tommy Taylor has been separated from his friends and is desperately trying to find a way back to them. He also needs to stop the ancient adversary, Pullman, from killing the legendary Leviathan once and for all, but is waylaid on his journey when the various witches and magical personages of Fabletown attempt to summon the greatest mage the worlds have ever seen, in order to stop the menace threatening their own realms. Tommy is pretty sure he's not the person they're looking for, but it's clear that the remaining (and rapidly decreasing) citizens of Fabletown need all the help they can get, and he's not really in any position to refuse.

Many years ago, I was given the first volume of Fables as a Christmas present by my husband. I read and enjoyed the comic for several years, but eventually got fed up with it not seeming to go anywhere interesting (and Bill Willingham's statements that he didn't really have an end in sight anywhere soon). According to my records, Fables, vol 10: The Good Prince was the last one I read, back in 2008, after having skipped vol 9 altogether (not sure why, but I bet it's because I'd heard negative things about it). I didn't really start reading The Unwritten until 2010, so when discovering that volume 9 of that comic was going to be a crossover with Fables and furthermore that said crossover was disappointing to a lot of long time readers of The Unwritten, I pretty much just stopped reading the comic.

I just checked - it took me 3 years and 8 months between reading The Unwritten, vol 8: Orpheus in the Underworld (early August 2014) until I finally picked up and read The Unwritten Fables (late November 2017). If I hadn't recently seen author Mike Carey at a small fantasy and sci-fi convention in Oslo, talking about the final parts of his series, in addition to the fact that I have a LOT of comic books/graphic novels to get through by the end of December if I want to complete my Graphic novel reading challenge, I may just have let the final three volumes languish unread on the shelves.

Now, since it was so long since I last read about Tommy Taylor, and his friends Lizzie and Richie and all of the others, I didn't feel quite the same annoyance of being taken out of their world and being thrust into the Fables universe, where things have clearly moved on a LOT since I last read that series. A malevolent creature calling himself Mister Dark has brainwashed and married Snow White and is raising her many children, while they keep Bigby Wolf locked up in a dungeon and are systematically trying to wipe out all the remaining Fable characters, with rather a high success rate.

Summoning a great magician is their last hope, and let's just say most of them are not happy when Tommy Taylor shows up instead of some legendary saviour. Meta fiction is always an important part of the Unwritten comics, and there's quite a bit of discussion about what's real and what's fiction and whether our real world, where Tommy originates, is just another work of fiction (which in terms of The Unwritten being a narrative created by Mike Carey and Peter Gross is indeed true), but mostly the six issues collected in this trade are just rather grim and seem to have been an excuse for Bill Willingham (the creator of Fables) to kill off a lot of beloved characters without any serious long-term consequences.

I also much prefer Peter Gross' art style to that of Mark Buckingham, and it was strange to see Buckingham draw Carey's characters. I can absolutely see why this is the lowest-rated of all the volumes in The Unwritten, and don't regret having waited so long to read it. I'm sure it was a lot of fun for the writers and artists to collaborate on a project, but in the end it seemed rather meaningless and more gimmicky than anything else.

Judging a book by its cover: Peter Gross tends to draw really cool covers, and on this one, we get Tommy blowing a golden horn (this is a rather significant story point). The New York cityscape going up in flames suggests the danger to "our" world posed by the happenings in the Fables world, but of all the various covers for this comic, this is not all that remarkable.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 114: "A Duke in Shining Armor" by Loretta Chase

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Hugh Ancaster, seventh Duke of Ripley, is well-known in society (or possibly rather infamous) as one of the three dis-graces. He has returned from an extended trip to the continent just in time for his fellow dis-graces stag do. His best friend, the angel-faced Duke of Ashmont, has managed to find a bride and one from a respectable and upstanding family at that. Lady Olympia Hightower, only daughter of the Earl of Gonerby, is the lucky lady. Although she seems to be having second thoughts, as Hugh finds her about to climb out the window just moments before the ceremony. Having accepted the duties of best man, Ripley can't very well let the bride run off.

Lady Olympia Hightower should be deliriously happy. After seven seasons, during which she's been dubbed "Most Boring" and not received a single suitable marriage proposal, she is about to become a duchess. The fact that her absent-minded father is bad with money will no longer be a problem, and her many brothers will be more than amply provided for. Her future husband is wealthy, handsome and can be very charming (when he's not in his cups). Of course, he's a rake of the highest order, and Olympia isn't exactly expecting him to stay faithful, but she'll be a duchess and her wedding day should be a joyous one. Instead she's getting drunk on stolen brandy in the library and contemplating eloping. Alone.

Not only is she caught in the act by the groom's best friend, the infuriating Duke of Ripley, but he insists on following her, and trying to persuade her to return to the ceremony. Olympia is determined to go to her aunt's house in Twickenham, and persuades Ripley to take her there. It's become obvious to Ripley that Ashmont could probably benefit from properly wooing his bride a bit more before they actually tie the knot, so he reluctantly agrees to accompany Olympia, knowing that them disappearing together for a few hours will just be written off as one of the many pranks the dis-graces have played on each other and others throughout the years. What is supposed to be a simple journey of a few hours, turns complicated rather fast and Ripley is in for a much more time-consuming and complicated task than he ever suspected when he agreed to stand up for his best friend.

Dukes Prefer Blondes was one of my favourite romances last year, and I revisited it in audio book earlier this year. While some of Loretta Chase's Dressmakers series was so-so, she seems to be firmly back on form again now (possibly because she's taking a bit more time between each book). It's not been a super strong year for romances in general, I think, but this book is likely to end up of my romance top 10 and I was very entertained by it.

One of the remarkable things that Ms. Chase does in this book is make a story that takes place over less than a week not feel like the couple descend into insta-love. It's very correctly highlighted early in the book that Olympia has only had a few encounters with Ashmont before agreeing to be his wife, and that this really is perfectly normal in the higher levels of society. Husbands and wives of the upper classes didn't really need to know one another well, or even like each other much for a match to be a prosperous one. So while Olympia and Ripley only spend a few days together, those days really are packed with incident, and allow them to see the other in any number of stressful and unusual situations, probably getting a much clearer picture of each other's characters than any couple who have danced together at a few balls or chatted politely during a few drawing room encounters. It's also made clear that through the years Olympia has been out in society, she has certainly noticed and been attracted to Ripley (although never daring to dream she'd ever have a chance to even speak to him) and he has seen her and thought about her every so often, but clearly never felt that as a notorious rake he could ever speak to such a paragon of virtue.

Being tall, bespectacled and passionately interested in books and library organisation, Olympia won my heart even before she drunkenly tried to escape her own wedding in one of the first chapters. She's shocked to realise that Ripley isn't just being polite when she goes on about her love of ancient books and new ways to organise a library and amused that he's speaks to her as he would one of his male friends, rather than constantly consider her delicate sensibilities.

One of the flaws of the book is that we get a much clearer picture of who Olympia is than Hugh/Ripley. Apparently his father had some sort of mental episode while Hugh was still young and treated both his children and servants appallingly. Ripley's sister (who only appears briefly) is married to the third of the dis-graces, the Duke of Blackwood, and appears to be estranged from him. From what I can gather from Ms. Chase's blog, their book will be the third in the series, while Ashwood who (SPOILER) does not end up marrying Olympia, is the hero of the next book. Ripley is clearly a very loyal friend, even though it seems obvious from his nearly year-long holiday away from his cronies that he was growing a bit sick of their excessive and scandalous lifestyle. Much of the book he is agonising because he is falling for Olympia, but refuses to even contemplate betraying the trust of his friend. I wish Ms. Chase had included more back story on him, because while I feel I got to know Olympia well (and want to be besties with her), Ripley remained more of a cipher.

As well as the promise of future books featuring the Duke of Ashmont (who will no doubt be forced to mature and reconsider his life choices somewhat after the events of this book) and the Duke of Blackwood (who needs to reunite with his wife), there are hints of some sort of back story between Ripley's now widowed aunt and Ashwood's uncle, who is the main person responsible for him ever securing the hand of Lady Olympia. I hope that over the course of the next few books, we find out what went on in their mutual past and get to see if they can find some sort of happy future together too.

TL,DR: This book is fun and romantic and I highly recommend it.

Judging a book by its cover: So it seem like a new trend in romance covers isn't to do the traditional drawn covers, but just featuring a photograph, in this case of a bride running through the grounds of a stately home. Of course, the wedding dress looks way too contemporary to be anything Lady Olympia wears over the course of the book (and Loretta Chase can really be trusted to have researched her character's garments down to the last stitch), the woman in the picture is not wearing a ridiculous headdress, plus she appears to be running TOWARDS a big house, not AWAY from one. I appreciate the efforts here, people, but a little more could have gone a long way.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 113: "A View to a Kiss" by Caroline Linden

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Lady Mariah Dunmore is the daughter of a highly regarded diplomat, and has lived most of her life abroad with her very understanding mother and father. They would like her to find a nice man to marry, but seem perfectly fine with her taking her time and as they have such a good marriage themselves, no problem with her wanting to marry for love. Sadly, Mariah finds all the gentlemen of the London season rather tedious and uninspiring, until she meets a mysterious man in the shadows on the balcony at her parents' ball, who charms her with his boldness and conversation. To her intense frustration, according to her mother (and the extensive guest list), there was no one called "Harry" among the evening's guests.

This is because Harry Sinclair was attending the ball in disguise, working as a spy for the home office. Wearing the guise of the elderly and cranky Lord Worth, his job is to keep an eye on Lady Mariah's father, as the Home Office suspect someone may want to harm him in some way. In the daytime, Harry poses as the lowly secretary for yet another high ranking nobleman involved in politics, mostly transcribing long letters about gardening and horticulture. He's snuck out on the balcony for a break when he comes across Lady Mariah, and although he knows she is far beyond him in every way, can't help but strike up a flirtation with her. While Harry's mother appear to be well-born (but was disowned by her family when she eloped with his father), his father is a retired actor who runs a playhouse. Harry hopes he can make enough connections spying for the Home Office to eventually establish himself in politics, so he can help the many poor and destitute of England.

While they are deeply ill-suited, Harry can't seem to stay away from places where Mariah will be, and soon starts climbing up the trellis outside her bedroom window for midnight meetings with her in her bedroom. He keeps being very secretive about his identity and background, but makes it very clear to her (although not why) that the reason they have to meet all clandestine-like is because her parents would never approve of him. Can the high-born lady and the commoner ever find happiness together, or will Harry be shot for trespassing with Lord Dunmore discovers him in his daughter's bedroom?

For a book purportedly about spies, this book is really very slow and not all that much of an exciting nature happens. There is a brief action sequence in the last third of the book, but I really must admit I had been hoping for a bit more suspense than this book provided. If the hero wasn't a commoner, trying to win the hand of a woman way above his station (which you just don't see very often - a duke can marry a serving maid, or a dressmaker, or even a lowly seamstress, but wealthy ladies don't just marry nobodies), this would be a very solid 3-star book. It may still be, but I really did appreciate a romantic couple a bit outside the norm, even if most of their romance developed because the hero broke into her bedroom - which is probably a bit objectionable in itself (although Lady Mariah does seem pleased as punch about it, and he never takes any liberties that she's not offering up with enthusiasm).

Come to think of it, the lives of low-level spies are probably not all that exciting, and surveillance is probably both tedious and time-consuming. I wasn't necessarily expecting this to be the romance equivalent of a James Bond movie, but there could have been a bit more action and drama. I read romance for escapism - let me get carried away for a bit.

Caroline Linden has written some pretty good romances, this is one of her earlier efforts, and I'm not super excited. Since I have paid money for the entire trilogy, I suspect I'll get round to reading them eventually, but it makes me sad that this is not as entertaining as some of her later books.

Judging a book by its cover: I don't have a whole lot to say about this cover, because it's neither very exciting, nor particularly objectionable. A handsome dude and a lady who are at least partially (but possibly wholly) naked are about to kiss. This is a romance, you should probably expect that sort of thing to be happening. At least by choosing this approach, there is no chance of the outfits being deeply wrong for the period in question.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 112: "The Bridegroom Wore Plaid" by Grace Burrowes

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Ian MacGregor isn't even officially the Earl of Balfour yet, that title technically belongs to his older brother, who went off to the Colonies and is presumed dead. It's been nearly seven years and everyone certainly believes Ian to be the head of the MacGregor clan. While they're not penniless, they don't have a whole lot of money to keep the estates going, so Ian is looking for a rich bride to support himself, his two younger brothers, his widowed sister and his niece, not to mention the countless servants and tenants they have.

Luckily, Queen Victoria's love of the Scottish Highlands and her summer visits to Balmoral have made Scotland very fashionable, and the wealthy Baron Altsax really wants his daughter to marry someone with a title, even if it's a Scottish one. The baron shows up with his two daughters, his son, a widowed sister-in-law and a penniless cousin (the latter two along as chaperones).

It soon becomes apparent that the baron is arrogant, uncouth and pompous, while his widowed son Matthew seems to be suffering from PTSD after being a soldier. He certainly doesn't live up to his father's ideals of masculinity, but does seem to enjoy the company of Ian's sister, Mary Frances. Eugenia (frustratingly called "Genie" for most of the book - is that period appropriate), the eldest daughter, and Ian's intended, seems incredibly unhappy with the whole arrangement and while she will happily speak to other members of the family, seems to recoil every time she's asked to get to know Ian better. Her younger sister Hester is cheerful and friendly to everyone, but clearly far too young to be an adequate substitute bride for Ian, who with each new encounter gets more smitten with cousin Augusta (given the horrible nickname "Gussie" by her entire family). Of course, Augusta is penniless and wouldn't in any way be able to help save the MacGregor fortunes and estates, so a match with her would be both unsuitable and impossible. Finally, there's the wealthy widowed aunt Julia, who initially seems rather sad, but finds the company of the youngest MacGregor brother to cheer her spirits rather a lot.

This romance is pretty much standard length, but Grace Burrowes manages to cram four romances into the story (Ian and Augusta, Matthew and Mary Frances, Eugenia with the middle brother and aunt Julia with the youngest), as well as a rather heavy-handed subplot where someone is trying to do away with Augusta through nefarious means. It's not even left a mystery who the villain is for very long, and you don't need to have read a lot of books to figure out why there may be a motive for murdering the seemingly penniless and inconsequential spinster cousin. As such the "woe is me, I can't marry you because you have no money" didn't really work so well. There is also a cameo from Prince Albert, because if you make your hero's estate neighbour Balmoral, you should probably get at least one royal appearance over the course of the book, right?

This is not a bad book, although Grace Burrowes doesn't seem to realise that there is no such thing as the second son holding a courtesy title in Scotland, so Ian, and later his younger brother, would not, in fact have had a title of their own. The eldest son would be the Earl of Balfour, the others would be Misters, that's it. There also seemed to be quite a lot of anachronistic language (and I hated the nicknames of both Eugenia and Augusta), but my biggest problem was the rather big (and initially rather interchangeable) cast of characters and the fact that none of the romances really got enough time to develop, as Burrowes was determined to have four HEAs rather than just one. I would have especially liked to see more of Matthew and Mary Frances' romance, which is probably given the least time of all four. Both widowed, with a lot of emotional baggage, it could have made for a very interesting book in its own right. Alas, it was not to be.

I'm not going to complain too hard about a book that I apparently got for free (or so my LibraryThing records tell me), but based on this book, I'm also not going to rush out and try other romances by Grace Burrowes right away. There are so many better writers out there whose books I could be spending my time with.

Judging a book by its cover: This book does have a lot for the reader to take in. A brawnyy dude dressed in nothing but a kilt, a lady in an excessively lacy gown. Pastels AND tartan. The tartan border and the kilt are especially important, because you may not have understood that the book is set in Scotland, featuring a Scottish hero, if you just read the title. So the publisher has done the reader a solid right there.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.