Tuesday 28 February 2017

#CBR9 Book 16: "Pretty Face" by Lucy Parker

Page count: 264 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

In her follow-up to one of my favourite books of last year (Act Like It), Lucy Parker returns to the London theatre world, this time introducing us to acclaimed director Luc Savage, who has spent a considerable amount of his time and huge amounts of money restoring a theatre his family has a generations long connection to. He's planning to celebrate the reopening of the theatre with a prestigious play called 1553, featuring character studies of Mary I, Elizabeth I and poor doomed Jane Grey. Unfortunately, his first choice for Mary I was his girlfriend of eight years, industry darling Margo Roy, but they recently broke up after realising they'd both been prioritising their careers for years, rather than each other. To make matters worse, Margo went off and almost instantly married an Italian opera singer, going off on an extended honey moon, leaving Luc with no choice but to hire a hypochondriac melodramatic diva instead. Then his first choice for Elizabeth I goes and breaks both her ankles, and he's forced to recast her too.

His casting agent and one of the theatre's top investors are leaning on him to give TV bombshell Lily Lamprey a chance to audition. She's constantly in the tabloids and hiring her would certainly ensure a boost in ticket sales for the theatre. Blond, curvaceous, with a porn starlet voice, Ms. Lamprey has been the resident serial adulteress vixen on costume drama/soap opera Knightsbridge for the last four years, cursing the fact that she let herself get tied into a long-running contract and playing into everyone's expectations for much longer than she wanted to. Her looks and her breathy sex kitten voice has made her the victim of casual sexism her entire career and while she's willing to kill for a chance to prove her acting chops on the London stage, she's none too optimistic about her chances, having been told about Luc's preconceived notions of her from an intern who happened to be serving tea while the arrogant Mr Savage was considering Lily's audition tape. Nevertheless, though she believes it to be a long shot, she's not going to waste the opportunity and ends up impressing Luc despite himself. He believes that with training, careful direction and some serious voice coaching, there is a spark to Lily's acting that could turn into something truly special.

It quickly becomes obvious that there is a strong attraction between Luc and Lily, which both of them resists as with the close working relationship, it could spell disaster for both the play and their reputations. Luc's parents are still absolutely besotted with one another, while his older brother recently divorced a nineteen-year-old. The press is constantly inventing fictitious rebound romances for him after Margo's leap into matrimony right after breaking up with him. They'd love to be able to blame the whole split on him. Lily, on the other hand has a number of reasons, both personal and professional as to why she doesn't want to fall for her director.

Herself the result of an adulterous affair between her middle-aged politician father and a highly ambitious singer, Lily has been a favoured victim of the tabloid press for most of her life. With a mother known to use both her looks and sex appeal to further her career in a series of short-lived romantic relationships, Lily certainly doesn't want to be an apple from the same tree. She has three rules for herself 1) No significantly older men (she's 26, Luc's around 40), 2) No one in a committed relationship or just out of one (Luc's famously on the rebound after years with the same woman) and 3) No one she works with or for. So in effect, Luc is the triple threat of her deal breakers.

Despite all this and the professional distance they try to affect, it's quite clear to everyone in the production that Luc is rather besotted with Lily, and she's not unaffected by him. That the new editor of tabloid paper London Celebrity has some sort of personal vendetta against Luc doesn't help (the editor's grandfather apparently lost a fortune to Luc's grandfather - a rather shady sort), absolutely everything that can be scrutinised about the rehearsals and production is being portrayed in the very worst light. When Luc is called to the hospital because one of his family members is urgently admitted, Lily doesn't even hesitate, but drops everything to go comfort him. After that, what has been rather obvious to all their colleagues becomes gossip fodder for everyone.

While I suspect I will still turn to Act Like It when I want a witty and comforting re-read, I'm not entirely sure that Pretty Face doesn't in fact have the edge, and is an even better book. In the former book, there is a very annoying ongoing subplot involving Lainie's worthless toad of an ex-boyfriend and the ending goes a bit off the rails with the melodrama. It may be frothier and sparkier, but in some ways, I liked the serious undertones of this one a lot too. There are a number of reasons why Luc and Lily shouldn't date, starting with the power dynamic brought on by the age difference and him being her boss. There's Lily's desire to prove to the world that she's a talented actress and that unlike her mother, she doesn't advance her career through sexual favours.

Luc has always been incredibly focused on the theatre and his career, which is why he and Margo grew apart and realised they just didn't love each other even half as much as they loved their work. Lily has, throughout her life, been reminded that pretty much everyone she cares about has put something else ahead of her. She can't really visit her father's home when her stepmother is there, as she is always a visible and painful reminder of her father's adultery. Both her father and her mother seem to only have time for her when business deals or tour engagements don't interfere. Even Lily's best friend and roommate, Trix, more or less completely abandoned her for a while, when she was dating a controlling and emotionally abusive guy. So getting involved with a driven, career-minded man (who also ticks all the other deal-breaker boxes she has) seems like it might spell disaster for Lily emotionally, not just for her future in the industry.

While it's got a more serious undertone, and the last third deals with Lily going through a serious loss and needing time to find herself and get her emotions sorted out, this book is also extremely funny throughout and kept making me laugh loudly and highlight lines on my e-reader so I'd remember them later. The banter is excellent, not just between Luc and Lily. There are a lot of genuinely supportive relationships, with cast members, family and friends. I especially liked that Margo turned out not to be a jealous harpy, but rather quite an understanding and supportive friend to Lily. Fellow Cannonballer and romance fan Ellepkay mentioned in her review how good it is to read about adults, behaving like proper grown-ups throughout, and I absolutely agree with her. I was also delighted by the cameo by Richard and Lainey from Act Like It, as it's nice to see them after their own HEA.

In Pretty Face, Lucy Parker shows that last year's novel, one of the most popular on the CBR in 2016, wasn't just a one-off. She's a very good and consistent writer, who's rocketed onto my pre-order list. I am eagerly awaiting her next release and more books from the London theatre world.

Judging a book by its cover: As Luc is described in the book as a 1950s Gregory Peck, I'm not entirely sure that the male cover model does him justice. The female model seems to fit pretty well with Lily's description, though, and I love the affectionate and sweet feel of the embrace on the cover. It makes me smile, just like this book did. I can't really ask for more than that.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Thursday 23 February 2017

#CBR9 Book 15: "The Devourers" by Indra Das

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 3 stars

I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting when I picked up this book. It certainly wasn't whatever The Devourers ended up being. I'm still not entirely sure what I actually read. Let me try to provide a plot summary.

While out for an evening in Kolkata, India, lonely college professor Alok runs into a mysterious and handsome stranger who claims to be a half-werewolf. He weaves a tale that utterly beguiles Alok and the professor becomes obsessed with both seeing the nameless stranger again, and hearing the end of his tale. He agrees to transcribe a series of notebooks for the stranger, all so he can meet him again occasionally.

The first notebook tells the story of three shapeshifters from somewhere in Europe. They all seem to have come from different places, one from the far north, one from a distant France and one from Greece. These three predators travel together as a pack, hunting and feasting on the flesh of men, women and children as they move across the globe. They end up in 17th Century Mughal India, where Fenrir, the one from the north, becomes obsessed with a young prostitute, causing an irrevocable rift between him and his travelling companions.

The second set of documents that Alok is set to transcribe appears to be the story of Cyrah, the young Muslim woman who is raped by Fenrir, a creature determined to reproduce, which his shapeshifting kind is normally unable to do. Cyrah is disgusted by him and unwilling to bear the child, but nonetheless wants to confront the creature who forced her, and have a reckoning. She allies herself with Gevaudan, Fenrir's former companion, and together they develop an uneasy truce as they try to track Fenrir through India.

Alok is further ensorcelled by the tales he transcribes, correctly deducing that they narrate the origins of his mysterious stranger's parents. He is both repulsed and fascinated by the tale, trying to disprove what he's reading as fiction, even as he becomes convinced that the nameless stranger is telling the truth about the dark creatures who lurk on the outskirts of human society.

There are several shapeshifting myths explored in the pages of this novel. There are the werewolves and other shapeshifter beliefs of Europe, and the rakshasas of India. It is a book that in parts absolutely disgusted me, as there is far too much graphic description of people being murdered, torn apart and eaten. There seems to be an inordinate amount of attention paid to all kinds of bodily excretions, be it piss, shit, blood or semen. Some sections of the book were incredibly slow and rather boring to me, whilst in other sections, the story flew by and I completely lost track of time.

One of the things that disgusted me was Fenrir's arrogance, his casual rape of Cyrah and his conviction that he somehow loved her, and could make her love him in return. His determination to reproduce, and force her to carry his child to term, without any care for her wishes or bodily autonomy. Generally, with the exception of Gevaudan, who becomes a bit more sympathetic as the story goes on, probably because he tries to restrain himself from straight up murdering innocents while he travels with Cyrah, the shapeshifters are all utterly awful. I really wanted to give up on the book several times, but decided to keep reading to the end, no matter what, since this was the book I voted for in the upcoming CBR book club, and I was damned if I was going to DNF a book of a mere 300 pages when I stuck with The Count of Monte Cristo till the end.

There are some interesting themes explored in this book, like the nature of gender identity and the ability to change shapes at will. It's clearly implied that some of the shapeshifters have been female, but they seem to have been harder to accept by the others. All the shapeshifters, be they werewolves or rakshasas, seem to have strange, semi-incestuous sexual relationships, where the ones that nurture the young also are the ones that intitiate them into sexual rites. This was yet another aspect that didn't entirely sit right with me.

I liked the bits about Cyrah and Gevaudan and the friendship that developed between them. Most of the other parts, I had to force myself to finish. I'm rating the book 3 stars, because it's clear that it is doing something different and unusual, and I suspect the book just isn't for me. Like The Lobster, which I saw last year, a movie that is pretty much universally hailed as brilliant and super funny, and which I still haven't been able to make up my mind about, but that I'm pretty sure I didn't, in fact, like (I just cannot get over what they did to the dog), even though parts of it made me howl with laughter.

In yet another example of how small the world really is now that we are connected via the internet, I'm pretty much certain that this book was written by the brother of someone my husband and I befriended years ago on a Hellblazer fan forum. When I added the book to my Goodreads TBR list last year, said person liked my status. I didn't really think much of it, as this sort of thing happens all the time. But they share the same surname, and some Facebook snooping later has convinced me that yes, my internet acquaintance Abhimanyu, who I've discussed many nerdy things with online for years, and whom I've chatted with in the pub on one of our visits to New York, is indeed the brother of the author of this book. It just makes me even more sad that I didn't like it more. I'm really sorry, Abhi, that your brother's book didn't work for me. I didn't hate it, but I certainly have no wish to ever re-read it. There were way too many gross parts (and the whole rape thing) for me to ever want to do that.

Judging a book by its cover: While I'm deeply conflicted about the contents of this book, I absolutely love the cover. What I can only assume is Cyrah, the unwilling victim at the centre of the tale, with the scroll telling her story, the leaves, thorns, berries and flower, not to mention the bone-like branches make the book look wonderfully mysterious and inviting. The cover was one of the things that drew me to the book and I still find it striking, even though I'm coming down on the dislike of the actual book in the end.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR9 Book 14: "A Duke to Remember" by Kelly Bowen

Page count: 368 pages
Audio book length: 11hrs 50 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Miss Elise DeVries is a sometime stage actress, sometime scandal fixer, working as one of the chief agents in the company of Chagarre and Associates, an exclusive firm working clandestinely for the upper classes. They can fix or bury pretty much any scandal there is, provided a high enough payment is offered. Elise is a master of disguise, used to wearing a multitude of faces, nearly always playing a part. Only with her fellow associates, Miss Ivory Moore, also known as the Duchess (and the actual Duchess of Aldridge after the events of Duke of My Heart) and her brother Alexander Lavoie, a successful gambling house owner, former spy and rumoured assassin, can she let her guard down and relax. Growing up in a Canadian colony, Elise learned many of her now useful skills as a tracker and riflewoman for the army, having followed her older brothers to war when their home was destroyed. She's a formidable lady, and always gets the job done, no matter the difficulty level.

Elise's current job involves the Dowager Duchess of Ashland committed to Bedlam by her unscrupulous nephew Francis Ellery, the distraught Lady Abigail, who has hired Elise to get her mother out, not to mention the missing Duke of Ashland, Lady Abigail's older brother Noah. According to Francis, Noah Ellery is long dead, but the reason the Dowager Duchess is being treated in the madhouse and drugged up to the eyeballs is because she keeps saying that her beloved son is still alive. Closer questioning shows that Lady Abigail believes this to be the case as well. She hasn't seen her brother since he was sent away at the age of ten, and there was clearly something wrong with the boy, who Francis claims was wrong in the head, and even Lady Abigail admits never spoke. When Lady Abigail caused a minor scandal by choosing to move to Darby to marry a smith, she received a letter from her brother with a beautiful broach. She knows that the smith who made it was most likely a man named John Barr, who works in Nottingham. Elise has to go off to question him, trying to locate traces of the missing duke from there.

As it turns out, her search is over before it's nearly begun. On her way into Nottingham, Elise spies a child in the river, and throws herself into the water to rescue the boy. She is hauled up on the banks of the river by a very handsome man calling himself Noah Lawson, and the child belongs to none other than Noah's best friend, the smith John Barr. Both John and his wife Sarah are beside themselves with gratitude and Noah, though it goes against all his normal instincts, invites the brave and oddly trouser-clad lady to stay with him on his farm, as the Barr family don't really have the space to entertain visitors. It's pretty much lust at first sight between Noah and Elise, not exactly lessened by the fact that Elise is plastered head to toe in form-fitting boy's attire when they meet. Noah, on the other hand, offers her his dry shirt, so she gets a proper eyeful of his muscular chest.

Elise knows she needs to tell Noah the truth about who she is and why she's there, but holds off for just long enough for things to get really complicated between them. Their palpable chemistry soon lead to kissing, and Elise probably deserves credit for not hiding her true purpose in Nottingham longer, just so she can get into Noah's pants. She has correctly deduced that Noah isn't at all simple or mentally deficient as people told her, but it's also obvious that when he gets upset, he muddles his words and that there's some dark secrets in his past as to how he ended up incognito in Nottingham. Once she learns the truth of what the former Duke did to his "idiot" son, she is appalled, and understands his reluctance to return to London, but the quickest way to help Lady Abigail and get the Dowager Duchess out of Bedlam is if the rightful Duke of Ashland returns to take up his responsibilities. She needs to persuade Noah to get over his very understandable grievances and return with her to London. A sometime informant of Chagarre and Associates, the shady King, a underworld crime boss and illegal art dealer, told Elise that Francis Ellery, just to make sure his cousin was well and truly dead, hired assassins to make sure the rightful duke never shows up in the capital.

Noah is intrigued by this beautiful woman who dresses like a man when travelling and insists she can outshoot any man. She is clearly extremely brave and selfless, having risked her life in a wild river to save a stranger's child. He is hurt when he learns of her initial deception and cannot bear the thought of returning to London. With the exception of his younger sister, no one treated him well. Because of his difficulty with speech, he was kept isolated from everyone else, until the night when he was taken away for good for "treatment". His torment ended with him living rough on the streets of London for years, learning to fight anything and anyone who threatened him and his friend Joshua. He confesses to Elise that he is most likely wanted for murder and that he couldn't possibly leave his farm, his friends and his safe, comfortable life to become a duke.

When the assassins come sneaking, he understands that Elise is right, however. He needs to deal with his cousin Francis, or he will never have any peace. Elise, on the other hand, discovers that Noah doesn't necessarily need a bodyguard and that his years on the street really did teach him survival skills to rival her own. By this point, the main complication to Noah Lawson reappearing in London as Noah Ellery, Duke of Ashland, is that Elise and Noah have fallen pretty hard for each other, and a Duke who has been missing for twenty years needs to be above reproach in all matters. He certainly can't marry an actress of unknown provenance, no matter how good her mastery of languages or disguises.

I first discovered Kelly Bowen last year, when I bought Duke of My Heart in an e-book sale, after hearing many complimentary things about her both by romance readers on the Cannonball Read, and on other romance review sites. As with that book, this features an unorthodox and extremely capable heroine, paired with an intelligent and brave hero, who is nonetheless not even vaguely unsettled or threatened, despite being bested in various ways by the woman. The heroines have previous sexual experience and there is absolutely no mention of or recrimination for her past choices. The couples seem to fall in lust pretty much at first sight and develop into love rather quickly, but as I myself pretty much felt infatuated with Elise when reading about her, I can't really fault Noah for quickly cottoning onto what a good thing he had found and refusing to let go.

The hero and heroine are very likable in this book, and their sexual chemistry is scorching. They keep trying to keep away from each other, with little success and it's very satisfying when they finally do give into their mutual attraction and "insert funky bass line here".

Both Elise's dedication to her mission, and Noah's reluctance to return to London are deeply understandable. Both characters feel drawn to the other, probably partially because they have been keeping secrets and playing a role for so long, whilst with each other, they find that they inadvertently let their guards down and show the other exactly who they truly are. Elise, who has been enjoying her work with Chagarre and Associates for years, now can't get Noah out of her mind and finds her previous wheeling and dealing, covering up scandals for high society tedious and hypocritical.

The main couple are wonderful, I very much enjoyed the supporting cast, especially Ivory and her "pirate captain" duke when they appear in the narrative. There is excellent banter, a plausible obstacle to the couple's happiness. The only weak link is the villain, frankly, who's not really all that terrifying and might be dealt with a little bit too easily. I was excited to check out more of Ms. Bowen's writing after the last book of hers I read, now I doubt I can restrain myself from tracking down her entire back catalogue and reading it as soon as possible. I really hope she can keep up the excellent promise she shows in the Season for Scandal books so far.

One final note, I listened to this as an audiobook, and with the exception of Elise's brother Alexander, who had a raspy voice to the point of Christian Bale Batman-ing, Ashford McNab does an excellent job with the narration. As is often the case with audiobooks I'm really enjoying, towards the end of the book, it was no longer enough to just listen while I ran errands or did chores around the house, I sat on the sofa clutching my phone, apologising to the husband for being so anti-social. I rarely finish audiobooks within 24 hours, but with this, I couldn't not.

Judging a book by its cover: Kelly Bowen writes wonderful historical romance, but she's either cursed with a bad design team, or like Courtney Milan, she self-publishes, and just picks random stock images to adorn the covers of her books. This book is set in the Regency era. The dress on the cover is certainly not in any way appropriate for this time period, nor does it fit the description of anything Elise wears in the book. The plain pink background also clashes badly with the blue of the dress, making the whole thing rather upsetting to my eye.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR9 Book 13: "Norse Mythology" by Neil Gaiman

Page count: 304 pages
Audio book length: 6hrs 29 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

When it was announced that Neil Gaiman was doing a book of Norse myths, I was, not to put to fine a point on it, giddy with excitement. I've always been a mythology fangirl. I love the Greek and Roman myths, the Egyptians, but as I am Scandinavian, the Norse myths are obviously among the ones I grew up reading, even as a young child. I had several books of the Danish comic book Valhalla, so I knew several of the stories before I even knew they were the ancient myths of my people.

In the introduction to this book, Neil Gaiman says that his first encounter with the Norse gods were through the works of Jack Kirby in the Marvel universe. Mr. Gaiman has of course featured several members of the Norse pantheon in several of his own works, like the epic Sandman series or his very popular American Gods. He also says that the Norse myths are probably the ones that we know the least about and where many of the stories have gotten lost, as no one felt they were worth keeping alive. I appreciate him commenting on the fact that the goddesses of Norse mythology have gotten the shortest shrift of all. There are not all that many stories that survive about the Norse gods at all, and history being what it is, clearly no one felt that the goddesses were all that important (except of course that everyone seems to want to marry Freya - she is clearly the greatest prize to be won).

I got the audio book, because Neil Gaiman's a wonderful narrator whose voice I find incredibly soothing. Having him tell me the myths of my people, vaguely fictionalised to work better as stories was lovely, and I kept forcing myself to stop between stories, as I didn't want the book to end. While I was familiar with a lot of these tales from my childhood and mythology obsessed teenage years, there were also stories I hadn't heard or read before. The one where Loki steals the hair of the Lady Sif, Thor's wife, and has to figure out a clever way to replace it, ending up with the Norse gods getting possession of their greatest treasures, while Loki nearly loses his head in the bargain was a new one. As was the one about Kvasir and the mead of poetry.

Loki, Thor and Odin feature the most prominently in these stories. Loki is the trickster who pretty much always causes, but generally also sorts out all the various incidents that befall the gods. It's strange how he is accepted as one of them, but also constantly stands apart, the literal father of their eventual downfall. I enjoyed these stories a lot, but really do wish the women had been a bit more prominent. By making a faithful retelling, Gaiman couldn't give the ladies a bigger role than they already have, but especially the treatment of Loki's poor wife towards the end of the stories (after he's done something so nefarious that even the gods can't stand by and let him have his way anymore) is heartless in the extreme, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. So I can't give a full five stars.

For anyone who already likes Gaiman's writing, or is interested in learning more about the Norse pantheon, this is a must have book. It's not exactly very long, because there aren't all that many stories. I had a wonderful time listening to this book and will no doubt revisit this book many times over the years, to remind myself of the myths of my people.

Judging a book by its cover: It's not exactly a very fancy cover, as these things go, but it doesn't really need to be either. A dark, possibly slightly star-spangled background, with Thor's legendary hammer, Mjoenir, at the centre. I especially enjoy the shorter handle now that I've heard the story of how the hammer came to be made in the first place. Neil Gaiman doesn't need a fancy cover on his book of Norse myths. Either it's going to be something you get, no matter what the cover design, or it's probably going to be a book you pass by, no matter what exciting things they put on the cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 12: "The Bear and the Nightingale" by Katherine Arden

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Disclaimer! I recieved an ARC copy of this through NetGalley. That has in no way influenced my review.

Pyotr Vladimirovich is a boyar, the lord of northerly and remote Lesnaya Zemlya in medieval Russia. A part of the world where the winters are long and harsh and isolate the populace, it's no wonder that the cold, dark nights are spent telling fairy stories, like those of Morozko or Lord Karachun, the Frost demon himself - who sometimes rewards those who are brave and pure of heart with treasures beyond their wildest dreams, while he punishes the greedy and claims their lives. Pyotr has three sons and a daughter, when his beloved wife, Marina, believed by some to be a witch's daughter, announces that she is having another child, a second daughter, who will inherit her grandmother's gifts. Both Pyotr and Dunya, Marina's old nurse (and now that of her children) are worried and don't think Marina is strong enough to carry another child to term, but she does, and dies shortly after.

Vasilisa Petrovna, commonly known as Vasya, grows up to be an unruly and impetuous child. When she is six, she gets lost in the woods she normally knows as well as the back of her hand, and under an unfamiliar oak tree, she finds a sinister, one-eyed man sleeping. She wakes him by accident, and discovers that half his face is badly scarred. The man tries to get her to come to him, but just as she is about to step closer to him, she is interrupted by the arrival of younger man on a beautiful white horse. He has piercing blue eyes and wears a long fur cloak. He puts the older man, Medved, to sleep with a word and tries to talk to Vasya, but she is scared and runs away and is eventually found by search parties in the woods. As she grows older, she more or less forgets about the whole incident.

The episode makes it clear to Pyotr and his family that Vasya needs a new mother and that Dunya and Olga (Vasya's older sister) are not enough to raise her into a properly well-behaved young lady. Pyotr needs to marry again and travels with his two oldest sons to Moscow to find a new wife, and hopefully a prospective bridegroom for Olga, as well. The current grand prince there is Ivan, Marina's half-brother, so Pyotr has hopes of a decent match both for himself and his daughter. While he is there, his middle son, Sasha, meets a holy man and states his desire to join a monastery, not exactly something the northern lord looks favourably upon.

They are also approached by a handsome, dark-haired stranger while in the marketplace. A cranky, hungover Kolya (the eldest brother) challenges the man, but is easily bested by the deadly man, who nevertheless promises to spare the young hot-head's life, if Pyotr will only bring a gift back for his youngest daughter. The stranger gives him a beautiful blue jewel on a delicate chain, making Pyotr swear that Vasya will keep it close always, as it will protect her. If he doesn't give her the necklace, the stranger promises to come for Kolya, taking his life.

While in Moscow, Grand Prince Ivan promises Pyotr a very favourable marriage between his nephew and Olga, and also offers his eldest daughter from his first marriage to Pyotr as a young bride. Pyotr is wondering what in the world is wrong with the woman, to make her father want her exiled in the northern wastes, but can't really refuse such a handsome offer. As it turns out, Anna Ivanovna is a recluse, who believes herself to be mad. She sees demons everywhere, except in church, and therefore wants to join a convent. She's not at all happy when her father announces that she is to wed a much older boyar and move to the north.

When Pyotr returns, he gives the strange necklace to Dunya the nurse, for safe-keeping. She doesn't think a wild young girl like Vasya should wear something so fine, but is haunted by vivid dreams after she hides it away. A dark stranger visits her and threatens both her and the family. Dunya promises that she will give the girl the necklace when she gets older, and the stranger eventually agrees, leaving the old woman's dreams in peace.

Anna Ivanovna is completely miserable in the north, seeing even more demons than before. She doesn't realise that the creatures she sees as demonic are the same ones her stepdaughter Vasilisa considers her secret friends. They are the various nature spirits who protect the house, yard, stables, fields and homes in the village. Some of the ones of the streams and forests are more malevolent than others, but all care for young Vasya and she makes sure they are given appropriate gifts of food and drink to be kept happy.

When the old priest dies and the young, handsome and very ambitious Father Konstantin arrives from Moscow, Anna finally believes she has found a proper ally. Together the zealous and hysterical woman and the charismatic priest persuade the villagers to abandon their old superstitious practises. No more offerings to the various nature spirits are allowed, only church services and devotion. Only Vasya, who speaks to them (but has learned to hide it from everyone, especially her stepmother) sees the negative effects. She tries valiantly to sneak the spirits offering in secret, but they are clearly weakening.

Anna is a bitter, unhappy woman and cannot fail to notice what a striking and confident young woman her stepdaughter is becoming. Maybe not beautiful, but arresting nonetheless, and she sees how fascinated Konstantin the priest is with her, even though he's supposed to be a man of God. Anna convinces Pyotr that the girl needs to be either married off or sent to a convent, before Vasya's wild ways shame the family.

Dunya refuses to give her young charge the necklace, even as she grows older, worried about the origin of the amulet. She rightly suspects that the dark stranger is none other than Morozko, the Frost demon himself and that the talisman will bring Vasya under his influence. Only when she is dying does she persuade Vasya to take the necklace, but is it already too late?

Has the frantic and jealous Anna's efforts, along with the priest's, weakened the various defences of the village and forest too much? Has the abandonment of the old ways allowed dark forces to take control in the area? Crops are failing, the winters are longer and the summers far too warm. There are wild beasts roaming the woods and uncontrollable forest fires threaten. Can Vasya save her home and her family before the dead rise and destruction reigns?

If my plot summary is a bit TL, DR just trust me that this is a slow-burning, but very worthwhile exploration of Russian folklore, a fantasy set in 13th Century Russia (before the country was even called that). While Vasilisa is the true protagonist, for the first third or so, she barely even exists, as the book takes its time to tell the story of how her parents met, how her family live before she is born, and how her father grieves her mother's passing, having insisted on giving birth to this apparently gifted child. While Vasya is a brave, loyal and independent heroine, this is a world where women are completely subservient to men and she can't exactly be a blazing feminist icon in a time where women either got married and had children (until they died in childbirth, probably) or joined a convent, shutting themselves away to pray for their extended family, governed by religion.

Growing up motherless and unruly, Vasya is generally given much more freedom than most women, and though she chafes under the discipline from her new stepmother, she's still allowed to roam freely in the woods, like the free spirit she is. It's only when her father invites a young man from a neighbouring village as a suitable match for her that he sees how different his daughter is from other proper, demure young ladies. She shocks everyone with how outspoken she is, and once she humiliates the potential groom by being a far superior rider than him, there really is no other option for Vasya than a convent. Telling her family that nope, she can't join a holy sisterhood, because she has to save the village from evil, isn't really going to work. Luckily, Vasya has the help of her youngest brother Alyosha, who tries to help her as best he can.

While the book felt excruciatingly slow at first and I wasn't entirely sure if it deserved all the rave reviews I've seen for it online, once Vasya grows a bit older and takes centre stage, the story becomes a lot more engrossing. Because we get to see her back in Moscow, before she is unwillingly married off to the older Pyotr, Anna really isn't your traditional evil fairytale stepmother. She's clearly a woman who had completely different hopes and dreams and whose religious upbringing makes her stand in complete opposition to everything her stepdaughter believes and has learned to trust growing up.

The contrast between the old faith, the belief in various spirits of the home and hearth and the new, as comprised in Christianity, is interesting. Neither Anna, nor Konstantin are bad people, as such, but their wishes and beliefs allow an older, more ancient evil to creep back into the area, taking advantage of their zealotry to weaken the natural defences that was there.

The internet tells me that this is the first of three books featuring the plucky Vasya, and probably some of her siblings too. I especially enjoyed the last third of this book and the romantic possibilities that are alluded to. Always a huge fan of fairy tales, I am very much looking forward to reading more about Vasilisa and the dark stranger who had placed her under his protection. So if you like a good dark fairy tale, this is well worth checking out. Just be patient and stick with it through the first third. It is worth it in the end.

Judging a book by its cover: This book has two different covers, and I absolutely love one of them, while find myself baffled by the other (which I also don't like at all). I've chosen to comment on the one I do like, with a motif I think fits perfectly for the second half of the book, with the dark forest, night skies, winter woods, spooky mist and the lonely, but warm-looking cottage in the woods, with a lone female silhouette walking towards the warmth and the light. The image fits perfectly with the action of the last quarter of the book and has a suitable fairy-tale feel.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday 22 February 2017

#CBR9 Book 11: "Archangel's Heart" by Nalini Singh

Page count: 396 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is book 9 in a series. It's really not the place to start. If you want to join in at the beginning, start with Angels' Blood.

Two years have passed since the last book in the series, and Elena is slowly growing stronger, even though she's virtually a baby in angel terms. The Cascade seems to be on hold, and all the archangels are trying to investigate what exactly is going on in China in the murderous Lijuan's territory. Has she gone to ground, into (hopefully) centuries long sleep? Her generals claim she's still very much in power, but the amount of uncontrolled vampire activity in her lands seems to suggest otherwise.

Raphael and the other archangels are summoned to Morocco, to the legendary compound of Lumia, where an ancient and independent order of angels called the Luminata rule. When such a summons comes, no archangel can refuse. As his consort, Elena naturally comes as well, and they also bring the still emotionally vulnerable Aodhan with them as security. While the Cadre of archangels meet to discuss what to do about Lijuan and her territory, Elena and Aodhan investigate Lumia, and come to the conclusion that something is seriously wrong there. Strangely, it may have something to do with Elena's past, and truths she never suspected about her family.

I've been reading this series for a long time now. Unlike some fans, who seem to adore the Raphael and Elena-focused books, I tend to much prefer the ones that focus on other couples. Raphael and Elena have already found their HEA and while it's nice to check in with them and see that they're still incredibly devoted to one another, this book especially felt a bit insubstantial. It's a bridging book while Singh gets around to figuring out what's going to happen with the upcoming Cascade and its repercussions.

If you're looking for some sort of analysis of character development or the like, look elsewhere. There really isn't much. Raphael is still very protective. Elena is fierce. They adore each other. Everyone is still worried about Aodhan, without actually revealing what sort of horrors he lived through that traumatised him so. Oh yeah, and he of all the freakishly beautiful angels he is especially stunning, since he looks like he's covered in crushed diamonds (I'm pretty sure that would be more distracting to look at than pretty, but what do I know?) Raphael's mother has a voice that can spellbind mortals and angels if she feels like it. Hannah the angel consort is nice, Michaela is still a total beyotch. No one knows if she's been pregnant or not. 

Possibly because this book felt more filler than some others, I was once again struck by how incredibly, inhumanly attractive absolutely everyone in this world is. With so many freakishly attractive supernaturals existing around them, ordinary humans must have to wear extra strength sunglasses just to not be blinded by the gorgeousness of every angel, vampire or other supernatural creature they see. Seriously, no one appears to be ugly in this world, at least not appearance-wise. I'd love it for Singh to write a book about a plain-looking or slightly chubby supernatural soon. But no, it appears it's going to be the snake guy and the traumatised vampire attack victim.

Judging a book by its cover: As all of these books that feature Raphael and Elena, the cover has an illustration of Elena, with her distinctive multi-coloured wings, her long pale hair and her arsenal of weapons. This time, she's wearing a sparkly formal gown and looking murderous (which considering her discoveries in the book is not all that surprising. There's certainly no doubt to anyone seeing this cover that it's an urban/paranormal fantasy novel.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR9 Book 10: "Faithful Place" by Tana French

Page count: 449 pages
Audio book length: 14hrs 8 mins
Rating: 4 stars

A spring evening in 1985, nineteen-year-old Frank Mackie is waiting impatiently outside for his girlfriend Rosie Daly, as they plan to elope and move to London, making a new life for themselves away from the hard life of the Dublin working poor. When she doesn't show, Frank goes looking for her in the abandoned house a few door down, and finds a note that suggests she's gone off without him. As Frank's father is a violent drunk, his mother is neurotic and shrewish and his siblings aren't exactly anything to write home about, Frank's not really surprised, but he is heart-broken. He leaves Faithful Place, intending never to return.

Twenty-two years later, Frank gets a hysterical phone call from his youngest sister. They've found a suitcase behind the fireplace in that same derelict house where Frank found Rosie's note, and signs suggest that Rosie didn't in fact leave to go off to London to make a life for herself by her lonesome. Frank, now a detective on the Dublin Undercover squad, has to return home, even though every instinct tells him it's a bad idea. Soon he is back in the middle of his highly dysfunctional family's drama, determined to do right by Rosie Daly, whether the investigating murder detectives want him around or not.

Frank Mackie was a supporting character in the previous book in this series, The Likeness, and not necessarily a likable one at that. As with the other books in the Dublin Murder Squad series, this book can be read entirely independently and stand alone from the others, and frankly, only tangentially actually involves the Dublin Murder Squad detectives, because Frank is clearly ignoring them to conduct his own investigation into the decades old murder of his ex-girlfriend.

Tana French's murder mysteries are heavy on the psychological component and in this, the story is just as much about Frank reconciling his past and possible future with his very messed up family, as it is about solving the (after a while) two murders that are at the centre of this book. The middle child in a family of five siblings, Frank is the one who "got away", cutting off contact entirely that night he left to elope with Rosie. Even when he believed she'd abandoned her and their joint plans, he still left his home and family, putting himself through the police academy and wanting to be well rid of his entire dysfunctional clan.

The only family member Frank has had any contact with is his younger sister Jackie. He loves his nine-year-old daughter more than anything, and has tried to shield her from any mention of his past. It's also clear that Frank isn't entirely over his ex-wife, although as the book progresses, it's hinted that the reason their marriage fell apart may not just have been due to Frank's workaholic tendencies (this seems to be a common marriage complaint for the spouses of fictional cops), but also because he never entirely got over Rosie, always hoping that she'd reappear in his life from wherever he disappeared to.

The glimpses we get of Frank's adolescence and home life growing up is bleak as hell, and you can't really blame him for not wanting anything to do with his family, especially his father. The story of what happened to Rosie, as it's unravelled, is rather heart-breaking, although I was pretty sure I'd figured out the identity of her killer about halfway through the book.

I like these mysteries, but always think they drag a bit in parts. All three books I've read now seem to take a very roundabout route to get to the point. In these absolutely exhausting times, where I get depressed just from reading newspaper headlines, I'm not entirely sure I can stomach gritty, psychological crime dramas. I suspect I will get round to reading more of Ms. French's books, but not when in the emotional head space I am right now.

Judging a book by its cover: My audiobook came with the newer cover for this book, which I much prefer to the original one (the cracked, peeling paint of a derelict house, with the title and author's name seemingly painted on the wall). The little, abandoned suitcase and the open, empty road, suggesting the possibilities of travel and all sorts of unspoken potential. Which considering the contents of this story just twists the knife around that little bit more.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 2 February 2017

#CBR9 Book 9: "Of Dreams and Rust" by Sarah Fine

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book two in a duology and it will be absolutely impossible for me to review this book without giving away some spoilers for book one, Of Metal and Wishes. Neither book stands well on its own, and they are clearly meant to be read as a whole. If you like going into books completely unspoiled, skip this review until you've finished book one.

It's been a year since the dramatic events that brought down the entire slaughterhouse where Wen and her father worked. Bo, formerly the Ghost of Gochan One, has now made his home underneath the machine factory of Gochan Two, where he also steals parts for his various inventions. Wen frequently spends much of her early mornings with him, tending to his scars and keeping him company. She's worried about this new obsession of making himself a mechanical suit, encasing even his healthy body parts in metal armour. She's also can't put Melik out of her mind. She knows he and his brother returned to their own people. There is a Noor rebellion raging, they're no longer content to be oppressed by the Itanyan empire. The factory where Wen works has just received a new, massive order for new war machines, and she realises they are to be used to crush the Noor once and for all.

Leaving behind her father and everything she's ever known, Wen sneaks out of the factory compound and boards a train toward the border region where the battles have been raging. She needs to try to find Melik and warn him about the upcoming escalation from the Itanyai. Safely away from her former home, she discovers that with the exception of one carriage of civilians, the whole train is full of soldiers disguised as factory workers. The counter-attack on the Noor is clearly happening even sooner than she expected.

When Wen and Melik are finally reunited, there isn't much resemblance to the thoughtful and courteous young man Wen befriended and started falling for a year ago. Guerilla warfare has changed Melik and he appears cold, callous and ruthless now. Cursing her naivety and foolish infatuation, Wen questions the wisdom of her actions, especially after she finds herself a captive of the Noor who believe her to be an Itanyai spy. They want to take her to their commander, to be questioned, possibly tortured and killed. Was Wen entirely wrong about Melik? Has war so changed him that he will choose his loyalty to the Noor rebellion over his feelings for Wen?

While the first book was a slightly flawed, but nonetheless interesting retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, complete with love triangle and Steampunk elements. In the second part, things get a lot more serious, and few of the things that bothered me about the first book are troubling here. Bo, Wen and Melik's characters and personalities are developed very well over the course of the book and the romance that is in its early tentative stages in the first book has more of a chance to blossom here, despite the dramatic situation the characters find themselves in.

Even after Wen discovers that even a war-hardened Melik hasn't completely lost his humanity and compassion, and that he has in fact been thinking of her just as much as she's thought of him, the road of their love doesn't run entirely smooth. Their two peoples have vastly different cultural norms and traditions. The Itanayi are a very reserved and private people, taught that emotional outbursts of any kind are vulgar and inappropriate. They value decorum, and their society is heavily patriarchal. Expressing their emotions in actions or words is difficult for them. The Noor, on the other hand, are very tactile and openly emotional. They are very openly affectionate, and do not hesitate to show anger or grief. They happily express how they feel, and allow their women a much more equal position in their society. So even if there wasn't a war raging around them, with the powerful war machines of the Itanyan empire about to arrive to crush the Noor villages once and for all (no matter what the collateral damage to poorer, rural Itanyai residents in the area), Wen and Melik would have to work to sort out their true feelings for each other.

While Of Metal and Wishes had a lot of unfortunate rape culture and frankly a surprisingly large cast of dislikable supporting characters, the emotional resonance of this book would not be as great if I hadn't read that one first. Wen becomes a proper heroine in her own right, rather than mostly a damsel in distress. Melik is fighting for the liberty and future of his own people, while struggling not to give into the temptation of mindless violence against those who have oppressed them for so long. The odds are certainly not in the Noor's favour, and the costs of the near-impossible victory are likely to be very high indeed.

I liked the unusual location of this fantasy duology, but can absolutely understand while a lot of other reviewers have wished that the Asian influences were more pronounced and obvious. As it is, it all becomes a bit tokenistic. While the beginning had it's problems, the duology as a whole is a very satisfying and emotional read. I was absolutely teary-eyed for parts of Of Dreams and Rust.

Judging a book by its cover: It looks like they've changed cover models from Of Metal and Wishes, but I can't imagine from the cover image that this isn't supposed to be Wen. She wears the distinctive red outfit with the wide sash at a particularly significant scene in the book, but I wish they'd arranged the cover model's hair to fit the scene as well. Also, the robes are supposed to be quite a bit too big for Wen, but I guess they didn't want things to look slouchy on the cover of the book.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR9 Book 8: "Of Metal and Wishes" by Sarah Fine

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Wen, a young woman, whose family were clearly of a higher social status before her mother got sick and died, now works as a doctor's apprentice for her father. Wen and her father are Itanyai. They both live in a large factory complex, Gochan One, treating to the workers of a large slaughterhouse. In the same larger compound, there is a factory producing textiles and one making advanced war machines, to further the military might of their country. Most of the workers at the factory know that the bosses charge them heavily for uniforms, lodgings and clothes, but they have no choice but to keep working, if they want to make money.

No one's as heavily indentured as the new seasonal workers, who are Noor. While the Itanyai are clearly described as more traditionally Asian, with almond skin, dark hair and eyes, the Noor seemed a lot more Caucasian, probably more Slavic of origin. The Noor are believed to be a savage and brutish people, who have tried to rebell against their Ita overlords, and been subdued every time. Many of the regular workers are unhappy about the arrival of the Noor, believing they will bring bad luck to the slaughterhouse.

One of the beliefs among the workers is that there is a ghost haunting the premises. Someone has carved out an altar, where superstitious workers leave their most treasured possessions to wish for favours. Wen scoffs at this, and goaded by some of the other women, challenges the ghost to prove his existence. Shortly after one of the Noor workers, who had humiliated Wen in the cafeteria by tripping her and trying to look up her skirt, is badly injured on the factory floor. Wen is terrified that she indirectly caused the injury and wows to befriend and help the Noor boy. She sells some of her beautifully embroidered dresses to pay for his care, and later risks her own health to help her father nurse the Noor workers through a flu epidemic, which seems to hit the foreign workers harder than the natives. She grows especially close with Melik, who's one of only two Noor workers who speak her language and the de facto leader of the foreign work crew.

Having had terrible proof that the Ghost does in fact exist, Wen can't help but be curious and starts to investigate. She discovers that a young Itanyai worker died on the factory floor several years before, and that her father was the one to pronounce him dead. She starts to suspect that her father knows more than he's letting on, and as she continues to snoop, discovers that the Ghost seems very interested in her as well. Once she discovers the truth of his identity, she needs to acknowledge that he seems to have a peculiar attachment to her, and is willing to do pretty much anything to protect her, whether she wants him to or not.

This book is like an alternate universe retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, set in a sort of Steampunk version of Asia. It's an interesting book, and I liked the twists on a familiar story, as well as the explorations of prejudice, imperialism, misogyny and racism, but the world-building is distinctly vague and some of the characterisations leave a lot to be desired. Wen is clearly quite stubborn and an open-minded and good person. She seems to be a very dutiful daughter, but possibly due to the subservient position of women in Itanyai society, she's quite passive. She and her father seem to be the only ones who don't pretty much demonise the Noor and are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

There's not just rampant sexism everywhere in this story, pretty much every guy who isn't Wen's father, Melik or the Ghost seems to see it as their natural right to ogle, grope and generally sexually harass Wen. Her boss is clearly a sexual predator, with a history of abusing women, but also other guys seem to see any woman who doesn't conform to the strict purity standards of the society as completely fair game. It's also implied that Wen is bringing this unwanted attention on herself, because she tends to wear the beautifully fitted and embroidered dresses her mother made her, rather than the shapeless brown sacks that the other women at the Gochan One complex wear. This is problematic, and made for an uncomfortable read.

The Ghost is clearly more than a bit unhinged, and has an unhealthy obsession towards Wen, willing to seriously injure or even arrange deadly accidents towards anyone who he feels mistreats her. I was both fascinated and extremely creeped out by the various defensive measures he's set up in the cellars of the slaughterhouse to keep his lair secret. Melik is almost unbelievably sensitive and chivalrous compared to all the other dudes in the story (Wen's dad excepted, he's great, if underused). He never pressures Wen about anything she isn't ready for, which may explain why she appears to fall for him so incredibly quickly.

I really wish that there had been a bit more complexity and nuance to the supporting cast in this book. Everyone working at the factory hate the Noor and while Wen have a few women who initially seem to be friendly towards her, they are quick to judge her and abandon her when things start getting complicated. It seems strange that no one apart from Wen and her father are even the slightest bit progressive and open-minded.

All in all, I liked the book, but didn't love it. It did interesting things with the source material and while neither of the main characters were all that complex, they are at least entertaining tropes to read about. For the faint of heart, there is some gore in this book, what with being set in a slaughterhouse and some really gruesome accidents/attacks take place later in the book. It's also important to note that while the general plot of the story is finished off, the book ends on a cliffhanger. This is part one of two, and would be very unsatisfying to read on its own.

Judging a book by its cover: I like the strange dream-like quality of this cover, with the model's features very hazy because of the thin sheeting she's looking through. The dress is reminiscent of several that Wen wears over the course of the book, and I also like how it reminds me of an old-fashioned nurse's outfit, since that is pretty much the role Wen plays in the book. It's a good, if not exactly striking cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read