Sunday 26 March 2017

#CBR9 Book 28: "Captives of the Night" by Loretta Chase

Page count: 352 pages
Audio book length: 13hrs 8mins
Rating: 5 stars

Leila Beaumont is a beautiful and very talented portrait artist, as celebrated throughout Europe as her husband, Francis, is becoming reviled. While Leila is aware of Francis adultery, his tendency to drink and take drugs to excess, she is unaware that he also ran a brothel in Paris and tended to make money through the blackmail of prominent members of society. While she hasn't allowed him in her bed for years, Leila is nonetheless grateful to Francis for rescuing her when she was orphaned in Venice ten years ago, after her traitor father ran afoul of some people he betrayed. While Francis later seduced her, he also married her and made sure she got training with the best artists, allowing her to have the career she now thrives in. Their marriage is not a peaceful one, however, which is why Leila is the prime suspect when Francis turns up dead.

Even Alexandre Delavenne, the Comte D'Esmond, initially believes that Leila murdered her husband. He first met and was enchanted with the beautiful artist in Paris, but while Francis normally cared little for all the men fawning over his wife, knowing that his constant digs at her and his own behaviour had pretty much put Leila off men entirely, he was extremely jealous about D'Esmond's attentions towards her. That this was because he himself also fancied the man, and was firmly rebuffed is not something Leila was aware of. She just knows that the very beautiful man made her uneasy in Paris and now again in London, when the world seems ready to call her a murderess. D'Esmond works for the Home Office, however, and orchestrates a beautiful show of an inquest, where there is left no doubt to anyone that Francis Beaumont died of an accidental overdose.

Once the public's mind has been set at ease about Beaumont's death, D'Esmond's superiors at the Home Office nonetheless want to figure out who actually killed him, and set D'Esmond to investigate the crime. This means he and Leila have to spend a lot of time together, reluctantly fighting their growing attraction towards one another. D'Esmond may have been working for the Home Office as an agent for the last ten years, but there are dark deeds in his past, and he realises that some of them affected Leila indirectly. Even as he wants to seduce her and win her love, he is terrified that the intelligent and dangerously perceptive woman will figure out the secrets of his past, and how he may have been the person to set her on the path to her disastrous marriage to Francis in the first place.

This book, while one of my all-time favourites, is probably not for everyone. There is too much of a mystery element to the story and the romance is probably the most angst-filled of all of Chase's books. The Comte D'Esmond is actually the villain in Chase's earlier novel, The Lion's Daughter, where as a ruthless Albanian prince, he not only tries to usurp his cousin, the Pasha, but becomes obsessed with the daughter of an English nobleman and chases her and the man she loves across Europe, intent on stealing her back. Ismal Delvina, as he was then, is stopped and nearly dies and takes up a career with the Home Office to atone for his sins, but he was not a nice individual and in his wild chase across Europe, he also stopped in Venice to demand money from Leila's father, who shortly afterwards ended up drowned in a canal. While he never saw Leila in person, he knew her father, Bridgeburton, had a child, and commanded his henchmen to drug her while they were doing business. Leila woke up groggy and disorientated in the carriage of Francis Beaumont, who claimed he had rescued her from burglars, breaking the news of her father's death to her.

While Leila is completely unaware of this, once it's revealed to Ismal/D'Esmond that she is Bridgeburton's daughter, he is painfully conscious of the fact that his former actions led to her being in the clutches of Francis Beaumont, an innocent and sheltered girl, who was easily seduced by him and later shackled in marriage to him for the next decade. For all that she's not had a great marriage and is aware of many of her husband's flaws, Leila refuses to see herself as a victim and is grateful to her husband for making her the artist she now is. It takes her a long time to realise just how insidious and toxic his influence over her has been, and how many insecurities and hang-ups she harbours, all placed there carefully by her husband, to ensure that while she may not be allowing him into her bed, she certainly wasn't going to sleep with and experience pleasure with anyone else either. Leila is so strong and smart, yet so wounded and vulnerable and the process she has to go through in this book is rather painful to read about in parts.

Ismal/D'Esmond has long since gotten over the woman he chased across Europe, who has been happily married for the last decade. Leila is probably the first woman to fascinate him as much, yet he is painfully aware at all times that the secrets he harbours will hurt her when they come to light. That she is frighteningly perceptive and sees things in him that others don't appear to doesn't help. He is in love with her long before he's able to finally break through the layers of conditioning that make her think sex is something rather repellent and allowed access into her bed. He knows that when she finds out the truth (and he has no illusions that she won't eventually figure things out), she will be deeply hurt and possibly ask him to leave her forever.

Seriously, this is a really angsty book with very complex and wounded people. Once Ismal/D'Esmond finally manages to seduce Leila, we're about 70% into the book (although they seem to make up for lost time once they get started), so for much of the book there is just a fairly complicated and somewhat tiresome murder investigation (even the protagonists admit that this mystery is tedious), with the couple learing more about one another as they question and investigate others. Francis Beaumont is an absolutely odious individual, so there are MANY people with a will and motive to murder him. He was a master manipulator, and it takes Leila a long time to realise and deal with the ways he messed her up.

Anyone looking for a light-hearted and amusing romp, would be much better off checking out Mr. Impossible or The Last Hellion, or reading something in Tessa Dare's Spindle Cove or Castles Ever After series. This is not an easy or comfortable book, but the romance feels so much more earned at the end because of it. It should also be pointed out, for those readers who are sick of "pregnancy epilogues" - Leila is barren and can't have children, and there is a frank and very touching discussion about adoption in the later half of the book.

A final note - I listened to this in audio book this time around, and as with the other Loretta Chase historicals, it's narrated by the excellent Kate Reading. She is especially good at accents and the way she changes the voice and accent of D'Esmond/Ismal once he reveals his background and true identity to Leila is really well done.

Judging a book by its cover: My paperback cover of this has a blond dude with stubble looking out from behind a curtain. I refuse to believe it's supposed to be Ismal/D'Esmond, but refuse to acknowledge this, as he's described several times in the book as the most beautiful man anyone has ever seen, and the slightly scruffy surfer dude on the cover clearly doesn't fit that. The audio book cover is this underwear-clad red-head, where I always get more distracted by the beautiful blue brocade wallpaper than the woman. Not sure if that was entirely the effect the cover designers were looking for.

Crossposted by Cannonball Read

Saturday 25 March 2017

#CBR9 Book 27: "Every Which Way But Dead" by Kim Harrison

Page count: 501 pages
Audio book length: 16 hrs
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is book three in a series. This review will contain spoilers for previous books in the series, so if you mind that sort of thing, skip this, and start at the beginning, with Dead Witch Walking.

Never one to live a quiet life, Rachel Morgan, independent witch for hire is in trouble. She successfully took down the master vampire who was summoning demons to murder leyline witches and lived to tell the tale. She had to bargain with a demon in order to do so, and he now wants to make her his familiar. She tricks Algaliarept, however, accidentally freeing his former familiar, a beautiful elf from the dark ages in the process. While he was unable to compel her to become his new enslaved familiar, he's even more pissed off than before, and Rachel is in danger every time she taps a leyline.

Her boyfriend Nick has been distant and wary of her, ever since she had to tap a line through him (she accidentally made him her familiar in the previous book) to save her life. He leaves town suddenly without saying goodbye and while Rachel wants to deny it, it's clear to her and everyone around her that he's broken up with her and does not intend to return. To make matters worse, her business partner Jenks, the tiny pixy whose massive family are living with Rachel and Ivy, discovers that they knew the secret behind Trent Kalamack's identity from him, and he quits the firm and moves out.

Ivy's ex-boyfriend, Kisten Phelps, takes advantage of Rachel's vulnerability after Nick leaves to make his move. Like Ivy, Rachel's roommate and business partner, Kisten is a living vamp and while he knows Ivy is interested in Rachel, he also knows the witch professes to be straight. Once Rachel agrees to go on a date with him only if he can spend less than forty dollars total for the evening, he gratefully accepts the challenge. As Rachel only seems to enjoy hanging out with dangerous people, the date involves people trying to kill Kisten and a deadly curse being aimed at Rachel.

Lee Saladan, the casino boat owner who tried to kill both of them is making a power play in Cincinnati now that Piscary is in prison. He's also interfering with Trent Kalamack's business, and the influential and wealthy businessman comes to Rachel with an offer of employment. As his normal bodyguard, Quen, is susceptible to vampires, he won't be able to fully protect Trent when he meets with Saladan. While Quen still believes Rachel will require a lot more training, not to mention control, to be a really good security operative, he knows that she has long experience with fighting vampire pheromones and has recommended her for the job instead. While Rachel still strongly dislikes Trent, she learned more about him while clearing him of murder in the last book, and he does pay such ridiculous amounts that she can't really refuse. Trent also holds secrets about her father, who worked with Trent's dad in the past, and helping him offers her a chance to discover more of her past.

This is another very action-packed book, where Harrison starts to reveal some of the deeper connections between the characters. As someone who never liked Nick, Rachel's human boyfriend, even the first time I read the series (I hate him SO much more with all that I know about him now), it was never particularly sad for me that he leaves Rachel high and dry in this book. I do think she rebounds very quickly with Kisten, but as I much prefer the charming and sexy living vampire and his patience and understanding of Rachel (even when she frankly makes some dumb decisions), I can totally live with this. With Kisten introduced as a viable romantic interest for Rachel, it turns the already complicated with Ivy into a strange love triangle, though, and I could have done without that.

This book first introduces Ceridwen, or Ceri, Al's more than thousand-year-old elf familiar, who is released when Al makes Rachel his new familiar. She's managed to persuade the demon while still retaining her soul, but keeping her soul also leaves her with her free will and she's able to refuse coming into the Ever After (the place the demons live) with him. Suffice to say, the demon is not pleased by her trickery and tries more than once to sieze her and drag her back with him. Having been Al's familiar for a millennia, Ceri is extremely skilled in magic and deeply grateful to Rachel for freeing her and having her soul returned to her. She goes to stay with Rachel and Ivy's neighbour across the road, and tries to tutor Rachel in magic so she can withstand Al's unpredictable assaults.

Over the course of this book, once Rachel has risked her own life to keep Trent alive, once Lee Saladan proves especially ruthless and treacherous, Rachel discovers more about her past and her father's work with Trent's dad. She finds out why the enzymes of her blood allows her to apparently kindle demon magic, a trait shared only with one other (the aforementioned Saladan), thanks to genetic tinkering done to keep her alive as a child. Her discovery comes in useful when she's fighting for her life towards the end of the book, having to make some difficult choices in order to save her own hide from demons.

Rachel also discovers that she works rather well with Trent, a realisation she's not at all comfortable with. She has a rather uncomfortable run-in with his fiancee, a high-born and influential elf from the East Coast who is as rude and unpleasant as she is clearly rich and beautiful. Discovering that Trent is clearly going to enter into a marriage of convenience with a woman he can barely stand for the sake of furthering elven genes, Rachel feels uncomfortable about hiding Ceri's existence from Trent, but she also doesn't want her new friend to end up in one of Trent's labs, being experimented on, so keeps her mouth shut.

My love for this book has dimmed a little, as once again, it's quite clear that Rachel is less than gracious when it comes to women she dislikes. She has a lot of very derogatory terms for both Candace, the vamp assisting Saladan and Ellasbeth, Trent's fiancee. While both women aren't exactly friendly, calling them "bitches" and/or "whores" is just unnecessary and unpleasant. The very action-packed plot is also a bit all over the place, with Harrison cramming in just so many different storylines over the course of the book that it all gets a bit much. It's still a good book, but not as great as I once thought it was. Sadly, the next book up is probably my least favourite in the entire series.

Judging a book by its cover: The covers for these books make them seem a lot more sex-focused than they actually are. While there is one sex scene in the second one, and a pretty steamy one in this book, for most of the books, anything of that sort happens off page, so to speak. Of course, based on the way Rachel's dress sense is described, she'd bee perfectly likely to wear a supershort skirt and thigh-high leather boots. Not sure about the stiletto heels, though, she needs things she can run in (she gets chased a lot).

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 24 March 2017

#CBR9 Book 26: "The Good, the Bad and the Undead" by Kim Harrison

Page count: 468 pages
Audio book length: 14 hrs 23 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is book 2 in a series. You'd be better off starting with Dead Witch Walking.

Rachel Morgan has successfully paid off the IS death threat and is in her third month of working as an independent runner. She still doesn't have a car, however, and hates relying on public transport or rides from friends to get around. She's also struggling to pay her bills from month to month, so when a werewolf pack refuses to pay her for snatching their pet fish back from another clan, she's in a bit of a bind. The FIB, the human-led, non-supernatural police force approach her for help on a new and potentially dangerous case.

There is a serial killer stalking Cincinnati, targeting layline witches. It seems the deaths occur around the full moon of every month. The FIB suspect one of the layline witches who teach at the University, and want Rachel to take one of her classes, to be able to more closely observe the woman. Rachel is deeply unhappy with the idea, as she's been flunked by this woman once before. She deeply distrusts layline magic in general and believes herself to have no aptitude for it. But as her paycheck from the FIB relies on her going back to school, she reluctantly agrees. Rachel, however, has an alternate suspect in the murders. She believes Trent Kalamack is behind the deaths, and works hard to find a connection between him and the victims, so they can get a search warrant for his compound.

Kalamack, however, professes his innocence and claims he is being framed by someone very powerful. He even offers to pay Rachel to clear his name. Speaking to him, she figures out that the demon attacks that she and Trent both survived a few months ago are connected to the case, and that they were in fact supposed to be the killer's first victims. Much as she dislikes and distrusts Trent, even Rachel doesn't believe he'd have himself nearly killed by a demon to prove his innocence. She needs to go looking for the murderer somewhere else, but is an individual powerful enough to summon an demon to kill for them someone she wants to go chasing after?

Having dealt with the heavy lifting in terms of set-up with regards to characterisation and world-building in the first book, Harrison is free to expand further here and get her protagonist into deeper trouble than before. She starts the book with Rachel and Jenks in the middle of a mission that ends rather tensely and the action doesn't really slow down for long over the course of the book.

While Rachel is brave and loyal, she's also stubborn, impulsive and frequently acts before she thinks. I don't know if I really noticed before how hostile and downright insulting she can be to other members of her gender (Ivy the notable exception). I know I did notice on this re-read, and the way she will frequently refer in derogatory terms to other women she dislikes bothered me. She's also rather rigid in her moral code in these early books, so very afraid to veer off the path of the righteous white witch, a little bit quick to judge most other people who have made more questionable choices in their life. She has a long way to go, that's for certain.

Her relationship with Ivy continues to be fraught with some tension, as it's quite clear that her vampire roommate is both physically attracted to her and wants Rachel's blood. Rachel is still very firm about a) being straight and b) terrified at the idea of being fed from, especially after her savage attack in the previous book. Nick, Rachel's human boyfriend is wary of the relationship and keeps trying to persuade her to move in with him instead. It's not his discomfort with Rachel's living situation which causes the biggest rift between them, however. Unfortunately, after Rachel makes a mistake during one of her layline classes, their relationship changes from happy to rather fraught due to the added strains Rachel's cock-up engenders.

I mentioned in my first review that Trent and Algaliarept, the demon who initially appears trying to murder Rachel, are among my favourite characters in the whole series. This book has prominent appearances by both and while I get why Rachel is so extremely determined to put Trent behind bars, I was very happy that she instead indirectly ends up clearing his name to the FIB instead. This is also the book where Rachel finally figures out the deep dark mystery of whether Trent is an Inderlander or not. Is he just a human who uses magic to seem more mysterious, or is he some sort of supernatural? I remember being rather delighted with the reveal the first time I read the book, and the scene where she deduces her way to the right answer is still an excellent one. While she tells Ivy, they both decide to keep their discovery a secret from their pixy partner, Jenks, a mistake which will come back to haunt them later.

While only the second book in the series, this is a really good installment and as I mentioned previously, there is a lot of action. Rachel has a knack for getting herself into some pretty uncomfortable and dangerous situations and the final show-down at the end of this one is a memorable one. I'm very glad that I didn't feel the need to adjust my previous rating of this book in any way.

Judging a book by its cover: While I really do like this series a LOT, the book covers are not the reason. While this one is better than the one on Dead Witch Walking, it's not exactly great, with the cover model in a dress shorter and skimpier than even Rachel would wear (especially when doin
g layline magic, which she hates). The pentagram and the lit candle hint at some of the magic done in the book, but the outfit and super awkward pose of the model's legs still annoy me.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday 15 March 2017

#CBR9 Book 25: "Dead Witch Walking" by Kim Harrison

Page count: 416 pages
Audio book length: 13 hrs 14 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Rachel Morgan is an earth witch (which means she uses wooden charms activated with drops of her own blood to do magic, as opposed to layline witches who draw their power from laylines) and works for the IS (Inderland Security), a police force consisting of supernaturals like witches, living vampires, werewolves, fairies and pixies. They police the supernatural crimes, while the FIB (Federal Inderland Bureau) is its mundane, human counterpart. For the last year, Rachel has had a run of truly awful assignments and what seems like very bad luck on top of things.

She's sick and tired of being jerked around and after being sent to reclaim a leprechaun for tax fraud, she decides that enough is enough. She's going to quit the IS and go into business for herself. For the leprechaun's three wishes, she makes it seem as if she had the wrong paperwork, so the little barmaid can go free, and Rachel can use her first wish to make sure she doesn't get caught. However, she promises her other two wishes to another IS runner, Ivy Tamwood, and Jenks, her pixy backup, to make sure they don't report her.

Unfortunately, although Rachel's boss tells her to her face that he's been trying to make her quit for the best end of a year, she's still under a death threat until she can pay off what remains of her contract. The IS seriously try to discourage people from defecting from their ranks. She is further surprised when Ivy, an incredibly talented and experienced IS runner, announces that she's going to buy her way out of her own contract and offers to go into business with Rachel instead. She claims to already have an office space they can share, which turns out to be an old converted church, where Ivy is currently living.

Because news travels fast, and everyone in supernatural Cincinnati knows Rachel is under the IS death threat, she's already been evicted from her apartment and all her possessions have been cursed. Until she gets them doused in salt water, they could kill her. So when Ivy claims Rachel can rent the extra bedroom, she doesn't really have any other choice. Nevertheless, she has reservations, as Ivy is a living vampire (she has the vampire virus in her system from birth which gives her quicker reflexes, enhanced senses, but she can choose whether to drink blood or not - although most do, but she won't be forced to stay out of the sun and subsist on only blood until she dies and becomes a full vampire). Ivy reassures her that she's not drunk blood for three years, and that Rachel will be safe in the church.

Until Rachel's able to find enough money to pay off the threat against her, she's in danger every time she sets foot outside her door. She decides that the way to make the money is by proving that the city's golden son, wealthy, charming, handsome and somewhat mysterious councilman Trent Kalamack has a double life as a large scale manufacturer and dealer in illegal bio-engineered drugs. When she tries to question him, she's shocked to find that he wants to hire her to work for him, offering a very lucrative salary, which would certainly make sure she was safe from the IS forever. She flatly refuses his offer and tries to sneak into his estate to find evidence while transformed into a mink. Trent is a very resourceful man, however, and Rachel ends up caught and put into a cage in his office. Even after she manages to escape and turn herself human again (after Trent took her to fight in the city's rat fights), she can't really act on the things she discovered about the ruthless businessman unless she gets proof.

To complicate matters further, it seems that the IS may not be the only ones who want Rachel dead. While working on a way to prove that Trent's a crook, Rachel is attacked by a demon, sent to kill her and only barely survives, after being forced to make a deal with it. Being an independent contractor turns out to be much more dangerous than Rachel ever imagined.

Looking back, I think Kim Harrison's books about Rachel Morgan and the Hollows was the first paranormal fantasy series I got into, way back in 2005, long before I started my meticulous logs recording everything I read and re-read. Even in 2007, I had no access to LibraryThing or Goodreads and just wrote everything down in a dedicated notebook (which I still keep, as backup. No chance of me losing my book records if the apocalypse hits and the internet fails). Hence I don't know exactly when I first read my now rather well-worn paperback copy of Dead Witch Walking, but I bought it in March 2005, so chances are it was shortly after that. All the other paranormal authors and series I now enjoy came later, probably at least in part because I liked these books so much. Patricia Briggs, Seanan McGuire, Jim Butcher, Nalini Singh, Meljean Brook, Anne Bishop and my beloved Ilona Andrews - all years after my first encounters with Rachel, Ivy, Jenks and Trent.

One of the things that hooked me into this world is the world-building. An alternate universe, where there are paranormal races living alongside humans, generally without conflicts or incident. Until the disastrous event in the 1960s, where a virus was spread through a genetically modified tomato, and a quarter of the world's humans died in a very short space of time, all the various supernatural creatures - witches, weres, vampires, elves, pixies, fairies, gargoyles, trolls (you get the picture) existed alongside humanity, but had to keep their otherness hidden. The humanoid ones were able to blend in pretty well, and some could even have children with humans, but the more unusual creatures had to stay out of sight and neared extinction when the Turn, as it became known, occurred. While the humans were in the majority, it was unsafe for the supernaturals (or Inderlanders) to come forward, but when so many died, the power balance was shifted and fronted by a very charismatic vampire politician, Rynn Cormel, they publicly announced their existence. Since the Turn, most humans completely shun tomatoes and tomato-based products, while Inderlanders happily still consume them.

While Rachel is a witch, she's never really needed to practise her arts all that much before she quit the IS. With the death threat hanging over her, she needs to craft her own spells, as anything she gets from a magic shop may be marked with a curse targeted to her. The IS actually has teams of magic users on retainer out looking for her, and can legally assassinate her if she doesn't pay off her contract. Rachel, who is normally both rather impulsive and headstrong, needs to learn to become more cautious and think before she acts. Because Ivy is from a very powerful and prominent family, Rachel is considered under her protection while they live together. She's fair game whenever she leaves the church, however. If she accepted Kalamack's job offer, she could end her predicament in a second, but she's convinced he is crooked (even before she witnesses the extent of it while trapped as a mink in his office) and unwilling to sell out her principles.

Before quitting the IS, Rachel partnered with Ivy for a while, but they didn't really know each other well, Suddenly finding themselves not only business partners, but roommates, requires adjustment from both sides. As Rachel discovers, while living vamps can choose whether they drink blood or not, voluntarily abstaining for three years has put Ivy rather on edge, and there are a number of behavioural patterns and unconscious signals Rachel needs to alter, to lessen the chance that Ivy loses control. By offering Jenks, a pixie, an equal share in their business and full access to the church garden, they secure the full gratitude and loyalty of the little winged warrior, who provides perfect backup and surveillance aid for them when they are out on missions. While all three have really been loners before (although Jenks has a wife and a massive family - pixies have a LOT of children), the three establish both a solid working relationship and develop a firm friendship.

The readers are also introduced to two of the more antagonistic characters in the series in this book. Trent Kalamack may be one of the most eligible bachelors in the country, a wealthy, charming and very powerful councilman, but strangely, no one knows if he's witch or human and even Jenks, with his uncanny sense of smell, can't determine it. As Rachel discovers, to her dismay, he has unparallelled security at his compound and is quite ruthless to protect his secrets. Trent is willing to pay generously to make sure he has the best working for him, and has watched Rachel's career with interest. If she won't come to work for him willingly, perhaps he can make her suffer long enough while trapped as a mink that she gives in and submits. I can promise that in the early books, even when he seems quite villainous, he has a lot of good reasons for acting the way he does, and his redemption arc over the course of the series is one of my favourite things about them.

In addition to Trent, there is the demon sent to kill Rachel, who remains nameless in his first appearances here. Able to shapeshift seemingly at will, he appears to his victims as one of their worst fears, usually killing them in horrible, yet creative ways. Demons have to be summoned by someone and controlled, however, and there is someone pulling his strings. Suffice to say, the demon becomes an important secondary character throughout the series, and while he too is utterly villainous and really very scary to begin with (leaving Rachel bleeding to death from a gushing neck wound), he too develops a lot throughout the series.

While, in my experience, a lot of paranormal series can take a while to really draw the reader in (for instance, the first Kate Daniels book by Ilona Andrews is not great, I had to struggle through the first THREE Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher, and even then, the series doesn't get really decent until book 5), Kim Harrison has a really strong introduction to her universe and her characters. While there are absolutely some books that are less enjoyable than others, and Rachel occasionally annoys the crap out of me (I will address this in later reviews), I can see why I was so instantly engaged and why this was my first proper introduction to paranormal/urban fantasy.

Since the series is now not only complete, but even has a prequel, there is no reason not to give it a chance if you're looking for something new in the paranormal genre.

Judging a book by its cover: I must admit, that fond as I am of Kim Harrison's books, the covers are NOT the draw here. It's quite clear to me which scene this is supposed to represent, but at no point is Rachel wearing only a small red bra, showing that much exposed skin on her upper body. The leather pants and the handcuffs with charms are a very nice detail, as is her no-nonsense stance and telltale red hair. But the glorified bikini top annoys me, and always has done.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 12 March 2017

#CBR9 Book 24: "The Last Hellion" by Loretta Chase

Page count: 384 pages
Audio book length: 12hrs 59 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Another re-read of one of my all-time favourites, once again narrated by the excellent Kate Reading.

Vere Mallory becomes the Duke of Ainswood after pretty much every other male in his family line dies, including several family members he cared deeply for, and he's quite happy to drink and debauch himself into an early grave so the accursed title can't take anyone else, thank you very much. An endless existence of carousing gets tedious after a while, though, and once he crosses paths with Miss Lydia Grenville, the formidable investigative female journalist doing her best to inspire reform in London's poorer areas, ending up quite humiliated after their first encounter, he finds something new to keep him occupied and challenged.

Miss Lydia Grenville was trying to rescue a confused young woman from being abducted by one of London's most notorious madams when the giant nobleman got it into his head to interfere, and while she managed to outwit him and leave him as a laughing stock, she can't seem to get Vere Mallory and his impressive physique out of her mind. When he starts taking an interest in her career, showing up everywhere she goes, she concludes he's decided to make a conquest of her. While Lydia is a confirmed spinster and hasn't really had the time or interest in men before, the dissolute Duke of Ainswood appeals to her like no other. While she wishes she could remain unaffected, she's just as attracted to him as he is to her. How can she make sure he forgets her and takes his interest elsewhere?

Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels still features on most "Must Read Romance" lists you can find on the internet. While that is a perfectly fine book, I find the hero frustratingly dumb for much of the book, and much prefer this one, which is loosely connected with it. Vere Mallory is one of Dain Ballister's best friends (and drunkenly confuses the heroine Jessica for a harlot in a memorable scene). Bertie Trent, a secondary character in this book is heroine Jessica Trent's bumbling brother, yet surprisingly finds happiness in this one, in a very satisfying secondary plotline. I think Vere is a much better hero than Dain. He starts out a bit arrogant and full of himself, but like all the best heroes, knows well enough when he is facing off against someone far superior to himself and that such a woman is not to be feared or avoided, but rather claimed, cherished, encouraged and honoured.

That Lydia Grenville shares her name with my BFF and the sister of my heart doesn't hurt, but I challenge anyone not to love Miss Grenville and her tireless quest to improve the straits of those worse off with her critical journalism. That she's also secretly the author of the wildly popular romantic adventure story "The Rose of Thebes" is just a bonus (and I would kill to get my hands on a full version of that - wonder if Loretta Chase could be persuaded to write it). The illegitimate daughter of a Ballister cousin (so a gently reared noblewoman) and a rather unsuccessful actor, Lydia was raised by eccentric relatives after her mother died early, her father ended up in debtor's prison and her younger sister died in the same prison. At 28, she's pretty much accepted that she's going to be a spinster and even if she does give into her lust for the Duke of Ainswood, it's not like she'd ever be a suitable match for him.

This book is so much fun and the two very stubborn and headstrong protagonists facing off against one another is delightful. While this is my fifth re-read of the book, I'd forgotten Vere's wonderful habit of referring to Lydia in his mind with new nicknames every time they encounter one another. "Attila the Hun" or "Ivan the Terrible" Grenville are probably my favourites. Vere's rather unorthodox courting of Lydia is resolved about halfway through, when the book changes pace and the couple have to work together to locate Vere's young cousins, who have run away from home to come see him in London, and fall into the clutches of the very same madam Lydia has been working to take down.

While I freely admit that this book is probably not going to be a favourite for everyone, it's still a very good example of Loretta Chase's excellent plotting, banter and skill. I find something new to love in it every time I revisit it, and highly recommend it as a classic of the genre.

Judging a book by its cover: The audio book cover for this seems hilariously inappropriate, because with the exception of the cover model having long blond hair, the simpering, contemplative pose with the pretty dress and the flowers is pretty much the opposite of everything Miss Lydia Grenville embodies. Dressed in severe and sensible black for much of the novel, Lydia is fierce, stubborn, no-nonsense and a far cry from he demure and insipid lady on this cover. The pastels and wind-blown look of the heroine on the paperback cover I have aren't exactly fitting either.

Crossposted by Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 23: "A Study in Charlotte" by Brittany Cavallaro

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

English teenage boy James "Jamie" (although he really would prefer it if you didn't call him that, even if NO ONE seems to listen to him) Watson has been given a scholarship to a preppy boarding school in Connecticut, not far away from where his father lives with his new family. He's rather excited about the chance to meet another of the students there, though, the already famous Charlotte Holmes. James and Charlotte's great-great-great-grandfathers were one of the most famous pairings in history, after all, and even though their families don't exactly keep in touch much after all these years, James has always imagined what adventures he might have with Charlotte if he ever got a chance to meet her.

What he had not imagined was becoming a number one murder suspect right along with her, however. When a fellow student turns up dead in his dorm room, about two weeks after James beat said student up for saying some really unpleasant things about Charlotte, in a murder clearly inspired by some of Watson's great-great-great-grandfather's stories, being the new kid in school becomes about a million times worse than it normally is. While the prickly, troubled and volatile Charlotte previously showed no interest in making friends, she now enlists James in her quest to clear their names. The murderer has a powerful grudge against Charlotte Holmes, it seems, and appears quite happy to continue trying to ruin her life, and James Watson's along with her, if he keeps insisting that he wants to be her friend.

This book appeared on a lot of "Best of 2016 YA lists" and is one in a long line of current adaptations where authors/screen writers are reimagining the stories of Sherlock Holmes in new ways or taking inspiration from them to do their own thing. Off the top of my head, in addition to the Guy Richie Sherlock Holmes movies, the BBC Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, Elementary with Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, there is also Colleen Gleason's Steampunk YA series, Stoker and Holmes, Ellie Marney's Every series (which I just finished) and Sherry Thomas' gender-bent historicals, Lady Sherlock. So it isn't like Britanny Cavallaro is doing something entirely new or wholly original, but rather taking advantage of an already popular trend.

Her take is a fun one, but I must admit, for a book called A Study in Charlotte, I felt like the character I got to know the best of the two was James, and Charlotte, for all that she's not exactly had an easy life of it, remained a cipher for much of the book and a fairly dislikable one at that. Obviously, being a Holmes, she's frankly supposed to be prickly, unpredictable, volatile and somewhat socially inept. And within a fictional framework where it's quite clear that the Holmes family for generations have expected nothing but brilliance and deductive reasoning from their children, it's no surprise that she's high-maintenance.

As Holmes are wont to do, she self-medicates with a number of substances. It's suggested that she may have an eating disorder and based on what is revealed, she has good reason to want the murder victim dead, as he harassed her for months and worse. I also know that it's important that female characters are allowed to be just as complex and dislikable as male ones, that there is this understanding that girl and women need to be agreeable and pleasant. So I respect Charlotte's right to be prickly, and Cavallaro's right to write her as such. I just think James deserves a better friend. For all that she claims to care for him, and has difficulties showing her emotions, I think she treats him abominably for much of the book and didn't really see why he kept wanting them to be friends.

James/Jamie is a great character. Smart (if nowhere near as brilliant as Charlotte), loyal, steadfast and quite brave, all the things a good Watson should be. He defends Charlotte's honour even before he really knows her, and due to the family legacy, he's always felt as if they belonged together as a team. He just accepts so much poor treatment from her without question and seems to feel guilty every time he asks her for things that it's perfectly ok to expect of friends. That makes me sad, because he really does seem like a pretty great guy, and grows a lot as a person and friend throughout the book.

The mystery in the book is an intricate one, and the villain is really very unpleasant. The lengths they are willing to go to completely ruin Charlotte's life (with Watson as bonus collateral damage) are quite staggering and if this is merely the first book in a planned trilogy, you've got to wonder what the author has planned for the rest of the series, considering these things frequently escalate with each book.

While I didn't really like Charlotte much in this book, she seems to be opening up to the idea of friendship and I liked James and the whole premise of generations of Holmes and Watsons being connected somehow and will probably read the next book in the series as well. I don't think there needs to be anything romantic between the two, though (my favourite thing about Elementary is that there is not even a hint of romantic/sexual tension between Sherlock and Joan), but it seems you can't get YA without a romantic subplot nowadays, so I suppose I shall have to accept it, since the author chose to introduce it.

Judging a book by its cover: While I wish it had a slightly different colour scheme (I think the orangey red and the turquoise is a bit garish), I really do like the cover for this book, with the stylised depictions of the characters, various locations and the continued focus on ivy leaves in all the various scenes. It's certainly a lot better than a lot of YA covers, and the girl with the magnifying glass and the handbag with a snake should clue the reader into the fact that this is a mystery, even if the cheesy tagline about Holmes and Watson hadn't already done it.

 Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 22: "The Turn: The Hollows Begins with Death" by Kim Harrison

Page count: 448 pages
Audio book length: 16 hrs 20 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! I found it impossible to review this book without revealing plot details that would probably be considered spoilery, so if you like to start a book without knowing much, probably skip this review. Also, this book is a PREQUEL, best read after you finish the full thirteen book series by Kim Harrison.

In a world where humans are the dominant species, they are fully unaware that there are a number of supernatural races living among them, trying to stay firmly under the radar, doing their very best to always blend in. Witches, vampires, elves and werewolves may look and act human, but have their own genetic makeup and customs and are always worried that the humans will discover and turn on them. In addition to the species who can pass for human, there are a number of smaller groups, like fairies, pixies, gargoyles and trolls, who have to stay completely out of sight and whose numbers are rapidly dwindling because of increased urbanisation and increased pollution. Calling themselves Inderlanders, the supernatural species often have scientific and technological advances far beyond those of the humans, but can't publicly reveal them for fear of being outed.

Elves are among the most vulnerable of the Inderlanders, with their numbers small, as they have incredible difficulties conceiving children, who often need a lot of very expensive genetic tinkering to live to adulthood and have children of their own. Among the elves, most of them are tall, blond and pale-eyed, with the dark elves, with their dark hair and eyes considered somewhat inferior. Felicia Eloytrisk "Trisk" Cambry is one such dark elf, and she's worked hard to become the best of her class at bio-engineering, despite the fact that most dark elves are encouraged to stay in the background, in security type jobs. Her fiercest rival is Trenton "Kal" Kalamack, a spoiled, arrogant and entitled man whose family was once rich and very influential, but are now left with Kal as their only scion, having spent most of their fortune to even have him. He's determined to make his once great name powerful again, and doesn't really care who he screws over to do it.

It's not like the 1960s was a hugely progressive and supportive time for women to begin with, and as a woman, dark elf and daughter of a minor house, Trisk has her work cut out for her. At their graduation work fair, she and Kal get into a big argument and cause a massive scene, ruining any chance either of them has of the best jobs. Kal has tormented Trisk for most of their lives, being a shallow and thoughtless bully and once Trisk's best friend, Quen, accepted a job as security for the Kalamack family, she didn't really have the restraint to hold back her contempt for the man. After the job fair, Trisk is approached by one of the elven leaders and asked if she would consider taking a job with a human lab, to act as a spy for the Inderlanders, making sure that the humans don't make genetic advances that could be harmful to the supernatural races. She's initially reluctant, but needs to make money somehow, so has no choice but to accept.

Three years later, Trisk has thrived in her job, engineering a new strain of drought-resistant tomato which should help eliminate hunger in the third world. In addition, she's been working to make sure that her human colleague Daniel's new tactical virus won't in any way affect any of the Inderland species when it's finally let out of a lab. The virus is meant to give people fever, sickness and a rash for 24 to 48 hours, before they get better again and recover. It's meant to help armed forces neutralise hostile populations for long enough that soldiers can move in and take over an area. Trisk has made very sure that no matter how it actually works in practise, it won't touch Inderlanders. The ruling council of Inderlanders are still not entirely convinced Trisk has managed to make the virus entirely safe (she is a mere woman, after all), so they send as a consultant to double check her work. He's still angry because he lost a chance to work at NASA after the graduation fair, and plans to either outright steal or sabotage Trisk's work, making sure her reputation is utterly ruined. If he can seduce her and break her heart while he's at it, that will just be a bonus.

Long story short, because of pettiness and jealousy, once Kal discovers how good a geneticist Trisk actually is and that her work is flawless, he instead sets about sabotaging her, by forging a link between the tactical virus and her T4 Angel tomato. Unfortunately, something in the drought-resistant tomato makes the virus very potent and within 24 hours, humans are dying everywhere. Living vampires, who possess the vampire virus, but are not yet dead, are getting sick, but not dying. Once Trisk and Daniel realise what has happened, but not yet how, they go on the run, fully aware that they are going to be blamed for the disaster. Trisk needs to make it to the elven council, and they need a way to notify everyone not to eat tomatoes or anything tomato based, as it seems the virus spreads more rapidly than they could have imagined and is completely fatal to humans who catch it. Trisk is pretty convinced she knows exactly who is behind the plague, but also knows that unless she can find proof, it will be her word against Kal's.

This prequel to Kim Harrison's thirteen book paranormal fantasy series goes back and shows the reader how the deadly virus that took out a quarter of the world's humans started (and it turns out it was all because of Trent's dad). This book is really best read after finishing the rest of the books in The Hollows, because it assumes you already know how Harrison's paranormal universe works. In the early books of her series, she explains how all her various supernatural species interact and how, after The Turn (as the plague event came to be known), humans were no longer the dominant species and the Inderlanders could come forward without fear of being hunted and eradicated. In fact, since they were immune to the virus, they were the ones that were able to keep some semblance of order and lend aid to the dying humans. Significantly, in Harrison's alternate paranormal universe, no one ever made it to the Moon and genetic engineering was made illegal after the Turn.

As a long-time reader, it was fun to see a young and dashing Quen, as well as catch a brief glimpse of heroine Rachel's dad. There are several appearances by one of my favourite characters in the series, the wily and charming demon Algaliarept, but the main focus here are Trent's parents. I don't know if Harrison is planning more prequels, but based on what she shows in this book, that man cannot have had a good childhood as his mother and father were bitter enemies and well, his dad twisted his mother's work to cause a world-spanning plague. Oh, and his family's chief of security clearly fancied his mum. That's not going to make for a tranquil and harmonious home life. No wonder the man is morally dubious in the early books of the main series.

Trisk is a really cool character, who works so hard to prove herself. I want to tell you that she gets a happy ending, but unless there are more prequels to come, I really don't think anyone can say that where she ends up at the end of this book is a place where she'll thrive. This was a fun book to read, but it nearly got an even lower rating, because I hated Kal so very much. Even having read the book, i can't believe Trisk let her be fooled by him for even a second and certainly not to let her guard down for long enough to get knocked up. While there are hints in the original series that Trent's dad wasn't exactly nice, there is nothing to suggest he was this noxious and inexcusable a character. I want more prequels, where he suffers a LOT and Trisk gets all the good things she deserves.

Since Kim Harrison finished The Hollows, I've been pondering a full re-read, to see how the characters and story develops over the thirteen books. This book was an excellent way to get me into the head space I need, and I suspect I'll now have even more affection for Trent (a character I always loved, even when he was a worthy nemesis of Rachel), because compared to his dad, he's a saint.

Judging a book by its cover: Kim Harrison has said on her blog that this might be her favourite cover of all of her books, and it really is atmospheric and lovely. While the cover model (what you see of her cropped face) looks nothing like I imagine Trisk (I'm pretty sure her hair is described as darker, as well), the sparse colour scheme of red white and black is eye-catching, with the billowing red dress (not really period appropriate for the 1960s) evoking thoughts of blood, the woman cradling the tomato tenderly, even as it's turned deathly black and putrid contamination is swirling from it, staining both the letters and the dress. In a different setting, the snow and trees in the background might bring thoughts to peace and serenity, but here also bring to mind loneliness and underscores how alone Trisk really is.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 7 March 2017

#CBR9 Book 21: "Every Move" by Ellie Marney

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is the third book in a trilogy, and as such, it will be impossible for me to write this review without at least minor spoilers for the earlier books in the series. Start at the beginning with book 1, Every Breath and come back here when you've caught up.

It's been a few months since Rachel Watts and James Mycroft came back from their trip to England, but Rachel is still having nightmares nearly every night because of her kidnapping and torture. Her mother doesn't even know the full details of what happened, but is barely speaking to Rachel after she impulsively went off to England after Mycroft with no warning. Rachel's not really spending a lot of time with Mycroft either, as he's hot on the trail of his own personal Moriarty, the enigmatic and sinister Mr. Wild. Rachel is deeply uncomfortable with the whole thing and while Mycroft wants to unmask Mr. Wild before he has a chance to hurt Rachel or Mycroft any further, his continued investigation is just making Rachel feel more unsafe and terrified.

Rachel and her brother Mike spend a little time back at their old, now abandoned farm and Mike's best friend Harris returns to Melbourne with them. He can't help but notice Rachel's PTSD and offers to help her with some self defence. Initially, Rachel gets a panic attack the minute he touches her, but the lessons gradually make her feel more confident and help get her anxiety and fear under control. While Mycroft is away with his aunt, investigating another lead into the identity of Mr. Wild, the body of a dead teenager bearing a striking resemblance to him shows up and both Rachel and the local police suspect someone is trying to send a very creepy message. When another dead teen, this time a girl looking uncannily like Rachel shows up, even Mycroft seems to realise just how much danger they are facing. Mr. Wild claims Mycroft has something he wants, and he's proven himself willing to stop at nothing to get it. Can Rachel and Mycroft unmask him and bring him to justice before it's too late?

In book 2, Every Word, Rachel and Mycroft grew closer and their relationship developed, both physically and emotionally. They faced down some very scary people together and Mycroft started opening up about his feelings about his parents' death and his grief. Yet at the beginning of this book, it's like they've taken a huge step back and are drifting apart, because Rachel is stubbornly trying to deal with her panic attacks, nightmares and anxiety without asking anyone for help and Mycroft has buried himself in the quest to find the man who killed his parents and who was also the employer of the men who kidnapped Rachel in Oxford and put both teens through a hell of an ordeal. Having discovered that his father was working for the secret service, most likely investigating a mole, Mycroft can't let the matter rest, no matter how much danger he may be putting himself, and Rachel in. The search for Mr. Wild is driving a wedge between the couple and it made for some miserable reading.

While Rachel is completely on the outs with her mother, unable to tell her everything about what happened on her England-trip, her brother Mike and her dad know the truth and try to help her as best they can. Rachel's friends are also doing their best to make her feel better, but it's Harris, Mike's best friend, who she hasn't seen in years who has the most success with reaching through to her. Pushing her past her initial fear of being touched and teaching her self defence, he finally provides the one thing that lets her sleep through the night again. Of course, while Rachel isn't really romantically interested in anyone but Mycroft, it's quite clear that Harris provides one third of a potential love triangle and this aspect of the book just annoyed me. Why couldn't he just have been a supportive guy friend, who saw that someone he'd known for a long time was struggling, and wanting to help her without any ulterior motive? It seems that opposite gender characters in YA must have a romantic interest in one another, whether that serves the plot or not.

I had a lot of guy friends growing up, and never fell in love with any of them. I'm pretty convinced that none of them ever harboured a crush on me either, unless they hid that infatuation REALLY well over the years. How is it that platonic friendships between opposite gender teens is such an impossibility? Why do they always end up together, or even worse, in some sort of contrived love triangle? I am a huge fan of romance, but don't think it needs to be an element in everything I read, especially YA books, where a lot of people are still maturing, physically and emotionally, and are unlikely to necessarily be looking for romantic entanglements at all.

While the first two books were quite fast-paced and entertaining, this book dragged in places. There's the first third, where Rachel is understandably traumatised after the events in the last book and trying to find back to herself. There's the new and unnecessary love triangle with Harris, her brother's best friend. There's the physical and emotional distance between Rachel and Mycroft. Then the build-up, where the teens come to terms with how they are going to confront Mr. Wild takes too long. While I was very emotionally connected to the characters (I love Rachel and Mycroft, separately and together), I was a bit impatient with the story and the bit with the murdered look-alike teens veered a bit close to moustache-twirling melodrama from the villain.

The final confrontation is still very tense and my heart was certainly racing, but the book took its sweet time getting there. I must admit, these teens get into some pretty serious scrapes and it's a wonder to me that they can walk at all with the amount of horrible injuries they sustain. Nearly mauled by lions, tortured and interrogated by ruthless kidnappers, chased by a sociopathic murderer through an abandoned quarry - there really is quite the variety of dangerous near-death experiences here.

All in all, I can absolutely recommend this trilogy of YA-mysteries, where Mycroft is clearly modelled rather closely on Bendedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Rachel is a very engaging and likable heroine, the couple work well as friends who turn into something more and the action in each of the books is certainly a lot more elaborate than I seem to remember from the Nancy Drew books I read growing up. The conclusion wraps up nicely, but is still the weakest of the three books structurally.

Judging a book by its cover: Another rather generic YA cover, with the cover models portraying Mycroft and Rachel looking attractive and loving. I very much doubt I'd pick up the third book if I saw this displayed in a bookstore. The publishers could have done something a bit more fun.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR9 Book 20: "Every Word" by Ellie Marney

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the second book in a trilogy. While readers could start with this one, I would recommend that they start at the beginning with book 1, Every Breath. There may be mild spoilers for the first book in the series in this review, so if you want to go in completely cold, skip this until you're caught up. 

Rachel Watts has pretty severely grounded after the events that led to both her and her new boyfriend (also her neighbour from two doors' down the street) James Mycroft ending up in a near death situation, having caught the attention of some rather ruthless people while investigating the death of a homeless man. They hardly get any time to themselves, which doesn't exactly decrease the unresolved sexual tension between them. Their developing relationship may be over before it's really had a chance to properly begin, however, when Mycroft suddenly travels to London, leaving Rachel only a short text message, nothing else.

Having lost his parents in a horrific car jacking seven years ago, Mycroft, who despite still being a teenager, is something of a wunderkind of forensic science, has been obsessed with finding out more about their murder. Having been in the car at the time his parents died, he's scarred both physically and emotionally and the reason he persuades his supervisor, Dr. Walsh, to allow him to go along as a consultant to London is that the death in question bears a striking resemblance to the car jacking where his parents were killed. A rare Shakespearean Folio has been stolen from the Bodleian library in Oxford. Now one of the librarians who worked there has been killed in another car jacking, his car driven off the road. Mycroft is convinced the case is linked to that of his parents', not that he's going to tell Dr. Walsh that.

Rachel, however, is fully aware of what Mycroft is doing, and worried about his mental state, she impulsively spends most of her savings on a return ticket to London to follow him. Alicia, her brother's girlfriend, is spending the next three months travelling in Europe, so her first time on a plane ever won't have to be a lonely experience. When she and Alicia track down Mycroft, he's both shocked and dismayed to see her, but can't really make her return to Australia when she followed him halfway across the globe.

Together with Dr Walsh, the teens are able to visit the accident site, and you don't have to be an investigative genius to see that the story that the victim's alleged girlfriend is telling about the accident doesn't match up with the actual evidence on the scene. While the car jacking victim had an alibi when the Shakespeare Folio was stolen, both Rachel and Mycroft suspect that he was involved somehow, and that is why he was driven off the road and shot at. When Rachel takes it upon herself to visit the dead man's work place in Oxford, claiming to be his niece, she finds clues that suggest their theory is correct, but before she can tell anyone about it, she's abducted and wakes up in a remote warehouse. Some very threatening people want to know what she knows about the case, and whether she knows anything about the extremely valuable Folio's location. They're clearly the people responsible for the murder, and everything suggests that if she doesn't come up with something clever, she will be their next victim.

I really rather enjoyed the first book in the series, where we first get introduced to the likable Rachel and her somewhat abrasive, but brilliant neighbour Mycroft, who over the course of their first murder investigation fall in love. If I was fond of them in the first book, my affection and worry for them only grew the further I got into the story of this one. As the two were friends before they became a couple, Rachel is willing to travel the very long distance to England to be with James, even if he's so unhappy to see her there that he breaks up with her. She's honestly not sure how he'll react, but also knows that the whole situation with his parents' death is so fraught for him, and he's so incredibly obsessed with solving their murder that he may put himself at serious risk. She wants to be there for him as emotional support, whether it means losing him as a boyfriend or not.

As Mycroft is clearly teetering on the edge of a breakdown by the time Rachel shows up on the doorstep of his hostel, it's clearly a good idea that she threw caution to the wind and hopped on the first available plane from Melbourne. Chain-smoking and soothing his jangled nerves with far too much alcohol, Mycroft is not entirely reliable, and his supervisor, Dr. Walsh, very much appreciates Rachel's assistance in keeping his mind on the task at hand. As it becomes more and more obvious that the car jacking case involving the Bodleian librarian is indeed most likely linked to that of Mycroft's parents, seven years ago, he just becomes more and more sharpened on his goal. Rachel is frustrated that he refuses to share any of his thoughts and feelings about their actual deaths, though, believing it may help him get some piece of mind, no matter what the outcome of the current investigation.

I'm not sure what I was expecting from this book, other than Rachel and Mycroft exploring London a bit. I was not expecting the really very creepy and suspenseful turn the book took as Rachel is kidnapped from the Bodleian, by people who believe her to be the dead man's niece. They have already killed to get the missing Shakespeare Folio and are clearly willing to resort to both threats and outright torture to figure out what she knows about the case. Alone, desperate and scared out of her wits, Rachel is in a very bad place and is torn between agreeing to let the kidnappers notify Mycroft, to get him to reveal information that could lead to her release or stay quiet to protect him. There were some really rather unpleasant scenes in the latter half of the book, not exactly for the faint of heart.

As this is the second book in a trilogy, I'm sure the reader will not be surprised when I reveal that neither Rachel nor Mycroft die, though they both go through some real unpleasantness and it's touch and go there for a while (just as in the end of the first book). They also figure out not only who is responsible for the theft of the Folio, but eventually where it's located, as well as getting much further in clearing up the details surrounding Mycroft's parents' murder. That some of their discoveries possibly put them in even more danger than before, even as they return to Melbourne was probably not what they were expecting.

This was absolutely my favourite book in the trilogy. I raced through the latter half, too worried to find out what happened to be able to put the book down. This book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, so I was glad to have the third book at hand, so I could move onto the resolution as soon as possible.

Judging a book by its cover: I don't exactly think the covers for these books are amazing, but there is a teenage boy and a girl who look vaguely like the description of Rachel and Mycroft, and just so it's immediately obvious to the reader that the action in this book takes place in London, there is Big Ben in the background. The cover is a bit generic, but I've seen a lot worse on YA books.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Monday 6 March 2017

#CBR9 Book 19: "Mr Impossible" by Loretta Chase

Page count: 320 pages
Audio book length: 11hrs 48 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Rupert Carsington is the fourth son of the Earl of Hargate and has been sent to Egypt to get out of the way of all the calamities he's been able to get tangled in at home in England and on the continent. He finds himself locked up in a dungeon jail after seeing a bunch of soldiers beat up a beggar in the street and deciding to defend the man, beating up a horde of soldiers as a result. His bail is paid by Mrs Daphne Pembroke, a widow searching for her missing brother.

Daphne Pembroke may still be wearing widow's weeds, but she doesn't really mourn her elderly and close-minded husband. He did leave her an absolute fortune, which now allows her to pursue her passion for ancient languages, trying to decrypt the hieroglyphs. After the judgement and disapproval of her late husband, Daphne has learned to hide her intellectual pursuits. Everyone believes her brother Miles is the renowned linguist, while she's just his assistant and secretary. Now he's missing without a trace and the expensive papyrus he gave her, that she's been busy decoding, has been stolen from their house. The British consul is pretty sure Miles is just drunk in a bar somewhere, wants her to go away, and sees his chance to get rid of the troublesome Mr. Carsington at the same time.

It's clear to Rupert that Mrs. Pembroke is very clever and much more likely to keep him around if he pretends to be nothing but a dumb lug who she can order around. From her reactions to coming home to find her house burgled, and the way she speaks about languages and Egyptology, he can clearly see that she's a scholar in her own right and that the papyrus that was stolen is hers, not her brother's. He agrees with her that it's more likely that something bad has happened to Miles, and it's probably best if they find him sooner rather than later. They travel down the Nile in a river boat, trying to locate him, while sinister individuals follow them and try to do away with one or both. Travelling in close quarters also makes it clear that they have great chemistry and mutual attraction. 

Mr. Impossible is the very first romance I read back in 2008, when I was re-discovering romance as a genre, having not really read any of it since I was a teenager (when I would buy it translated into Norwegian in these cheep paperbacks with lurid covers). It's still one of my favourite historicals, one of the many with a very clever heroine and the strong and handsome man who falls for her while accompanying and protecting her. Rupert, while his entire family seems to find him an impulsive idiot, is actually much smarter than he seems, he's just also very fond of brawling and drinking and tends to get himself into scrapes by hitting first and thinking later. Daphne got married when really young and spent pretty much her entire marriage being criticised and negged by her elderly husband, who was jealous that she was smarter and more adept at languages than him. Rupert and Daphne compliment each other beautifully and much of the story is a fun adventure romp, as well as a slow-burning romance. Revisiting it in audio after several years was a treat. The only thing I didn't like was the way Kate Reading voiced Rupert, but she's very good with all the various other accents.

This book is technically part of the Carsington series, but works perfectly fine as a stand-alone. It's by far my favourite of the four books, that all centre around one of the sons of the Earl of Hargate. It's a really fun book and a great romance and if I were to make a list of my all-time classics, as Mrs. Julien has done on her blog, this would absolutely have a spot on it. 

Judging a book by its cover: My somewhat tattered paperback copy of this has a bright fuschia cover and a headless dude in a partially undone ruffled shirt which always made me feel as if I should cover the book up with a bag to not attract pointed looks on public transport. I'm not sure if the audio book cover is better or worse, but at least has the benefit that few people would see it on your listening device. As a lot of romance covers features naked male flesh and a lot of muscle tone, I suppose the cover designers should be applauded from showing a toned back, rather than the traditional glistening chest and six-pack abs.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday 5 March 2017

#CBR9 Book 18: "Devil in Spring" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Audio book length: 10 hrs 5 mins

Lady Pandora Ravenel, one of the late Earl of Trenear's twin daughters is suffering through her first season. Normally she spends her times at balls sitting with the wallflowers, having invented some convoluted excuse for her inability to dance that evening. When a newly married friend of hers asks for her help to retrieve a lost earring, Pandora braves her fear of the dark to go out to the deserted pavilion, searching for the earring and getting herself soundly stuck in an elaborate piece of furniture for her troubles. The dashing and handsome and very unmarried Lord Gabriel St. Vincent comes along to help her, but once he's got her untangled from the settee, Pandora's dress and coiffure is rather worse for wear and they are caught in what appears to be a very compromising position.

Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent, is the son and heir of the Duke and Duchess of Kingston (Kleypas fan favourites Sebastian and Evie from Devil in Winter) and has been raised to do the right thing, even though he had no intention of marrying any time soon and has skilfully evaded both fortune hunting young misses and match-making mamas for years. He goes to Devon Ravenel, the current Earl of Trenear to ask for Pandora's hand in marriage. Devon is Pandora's cousin, having become her guardian and inheriting the title when Pandora's elder brother Theo was thrown from a spirited horse. At Pandora's fervent protests, he assures her that she won't have to marry Lord St. Vincent unless she is absolutely certain that is what she wants, no matter what scandal might result from her remaining unmarried. Pandora is worried what her refusal and the possible ensuing gossip will do to the marriage chances of her twin Cassandra, who seems to enjoy the flirting, gossiping, dancing and elaborate dresses of her first season, while agreeing with her sister that society's rules and expectations are very silly. Devon claims they've managed before, and will again.

Having heard of the situation their heir has gotten himself into, Sebastian's parents suggest inviting all the Ravenels to their country estate for a week, so Gabriel and Pandora can spend some time together away from society's wagging tongues and prying eyes, while the families get to know each other better. While initially, Gabriel is rather taken aback by Pandora's odd manners and forthright and impulsive way of speaking her mind at all times, grows more intrigued and attracted to her with every passing encounter. He wonders at her strenuous conviction against ever marrying, and soon wants nothing more but to persuade her to become his wife.

Pandora's family life before her cousin inherited the title was dysfunctional, to say the least. Her parents don't seem to have had a very happy marriage, with frequent arguments and extra-marital affairs on both sides. Neither of them had any time for their three daughters, lavishing all the attention on their son, Theo, who was spoiled, arrogant, had a terrible temper and a drinking problem. Their eldest daughter, Lady Helen, was shy and reclusive and didn't really mind growing up on a remote country estate. The ladies Pandora and Cassandra were left to their own devices, able to do whatever they wanted, running more or less wild throughout their childhood and adolescence. Pandora is neuro-atypical, struggling with possible ADHD. She's terrified of the dark and has poor hearing and occasional tinnitus in one ear after her father threw her into a wall once he caught her eavesdropping. She now has some examples of happy love matches, with her cousin Devin having married her widowed sister-in-law Kathleen after Theo's death. They are utterly devoted to one another, as are Lady Helen and her husband, the Welsh industrialist and department store tycoon Rhys Winterborne.

Pandora's chief objections to marriage, however, come from the fact that she wants to be an entrepreneur, inventing and developing board games. She already has a patent on one, which she needs to put into production. Mr. Winterborne has promised to sell it in his stores. If she gets married, she can no longer negotiate business deals or sign contracts. She will no longer be considered a legal entity in her own right and any profits she makes from her inventions will automatically go to her husband. She doesn't think any man is worth giving up all that, but after a week with Gabriel pitching woo at her, she's starting to wonder if she isn't going to have to find some sort of compromise.

Long story short, Pandora and Gabriel end up married. I'm sure you're all shocked at this development. Gabriel insists on Pandora taking a body guard around with her when she does business, but otherwise seems very happy to let her develop her board games. Only when Pandora becomes witness to something that puts her life in danger, does it become difficult for him to keep his promises about letting her run her own company.

Lisa Kleypas returned to historical romances after many years of writing only contemporaries with the first book in the Ravenel series, Cold-Hearted Rake. This is the third in the series about the various Ravenel family members. I'm assuming Cassandra, Devin's younger brother West and Ethan, the mysterious Bow Street Runner from this book with the distinctive Ravenel eyes who claims he totally absolutely isn't in any way related to them, but who is obviously some sort of illegitimate relative of theirs are going to have their own romances in future books. While the previous two books in the series were perfectly fine, this is the first book in the series I've really enjoyed and thought was comparable to some of Kleypas' earlier really good historicals.

My fellow connoisseur of romance on the web, and much bigger Kleypas fan than I, Mrs. Julien, highlighted the way Gabriel infantilizes Pandora a lot in her review. I have to be honest, while I was very unhappy about one scene, where there was frankly some Old School "No, really you'll like it" pressuring from Gabriel towards the very bookishly smart, but actually very inexperienced, innocent and rather reluctant Pandora, I didn't really notice his rather patronizing behaviour until Mrs. J pointed it out. My main complaint with him is how quickly he goes from thinking Pandora is a bit crazy and out of control, to appearing to view everything she does as quirky, whimsical and cute. As his parents are a beloved romance couple in their own right, he was never going to have a horrible childhood or parental issues to make him interesting. Frankly, Gabriel was so perfect I found him rather dull. It's hinted that he has a dark sexual side, but at no point in the book did his proclivities seem shocking or unusual.

I really liked the feminist angle of Pandora's very real objections to marriage. With the support of her family, she could easily have made a name and career for herself in her own right, and even after Gabriel consults his solicitors to find a way for Pandora to marry him and still run her own business, it's clear that no matter how accepting the husband, there were no loopholes for this. Widows had the right to run their own companies, but not married women. Married women didn't really exist legally, they were just a part of a unit, where the husband had all the rights and power. Gabriel's older sister, Phoebe, is amused at his confusion when Pandora has explained her stance to him, and tries to help him get a much-needed reality check before he continue his courtship.

Having not read the excellent Devil in Winter since 2012 (it really is time for a re-read), I'm a bit hazy on all the plot details, but suspect Ms. Kleypas had the dramatic events of the second half of the book lead to Pandora's life being threatened as a way to mirror Gabriel's parents' book, where Evie needs to nurse Sebastian back to health. Pandora's brush with death also lets Kleypas show off female surgeon Garrett Gibson's advanced medical skills (if I'm not mistaken she's going to be the heroine in the future book where Ethan totes-not a Ravenel is the hero). The whole plot, with shadowy conspiracies, near-death experiences and possible corruption in the government is clearly setting up for later books, but it felt a bit out of place in a novel about an inventive and impulsive society original and the rake she marries.

I listened to part of this book in audio, with Mary Jane Wells narrating excellently. I got impatient to get to the end, however, so read about half in e-book format. The audio is highly recommended, though and I may get future books narrated by Ms. Wells if the option presents itself. This is my favourite of the current Ravenel series, if not up to some of Ms. Kleypas' more classic novels. I still don't regret paying for the book and will be looking forward to new books in the series.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm honestly not sure whether the marketing people at Avon ever really read Ms. Kleypas' books, because with the exception of the hair colour of the cover models, all three book covers for her Ravenel series have been pretty anachronistic and wrong for the contents. This cover looks more like it should feature in some sort of contemporary wedding fashion spread, with a gown that in no way looks appropriate for the late Victorian era. I kind of like the dreamy, seemingly fairy lit trees in the background, but the whole feel is completely wrong for a spirited and stubborn heroine like Pandora. If thise were a contemporary, the picture would be a lot more appropriate.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

#CBR9 Book 17: "Between the Devil and the Duke" by Kelly Bowen

Page count: 353 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Lady Angelique Archer is desperate for money and needs to make sure that no one in polite society is aware of it. Lucky for her, she is mathematical genius who can do huge amounts of sums in her head and count cards from more than one deck at a time. She's been using her brilliant mind to win substantial amounts of money at vingt-et-un-table in the gaming club of Alexander Lavoie, doing her very best to stay unnoticed to everyone. She needs the money because her father died last year, in a robbery gone wrong. After his death, Angelique and her brother, the new Marquess of Sutton, discovered that their father had been selling off most of the land and estates, with none of the family solicitors aware of where the money from the sales had gone. After they sold off pretty much everything but basic furniture from their town house, even letting all the servants go, Angelique is still struggling to pay the bills and keep her younger twin brothers at their posh boarding school, as is befitting the sons of a marquess. The new Marquess doesn't seem to realise the extent to their money woes, and keeps making very stupid decisions.

While Angelique may have believed herself to be subtle and unnoticed, Alexander Lavoie has been paying close attentions to her comings and goings to his club, especially with the amount of money she's been winning. A man with contacts all over London, it is unusual for him to not have the slightest clue as to her identity, and when a drunken nobleman takes offence at Angelique's spectacular success at the gaming table one evening, Alexander finally has a chance to speak to the mystery lady. He knows she has two gowns she alternates, he knows she lives within walking distance of his club, he suspects that she is very clever and he is dying to discover who she really is and what she needs the money for. After discovering what a genius she is with numbers (she's able to find several clerical errors in his accounting by just looking at a page in his ledger), he offers her a job. He offers to pay her very handsomely to run his vingt-et-un-table for him, using both her beauty and brains to fleece the patrons of their money night after night, making him an even bigger fortune than he already has. He's instantly smitten with her, possibly more for her intelligence than her looks, but has a strict policy about not romancing his staff, so tells himself that if she accepts his job offer, she is off limits.

Angelique is very attracted to Lavoie, and very flattered by his offer, but knows that the daughter (and now sister of) a Marquess cannot work in a gaming establishment, even if her identity was hidden behind a mask. Should the truth come out, her reputation would be ruined. There are also countless rumours about Lavoie - that he's a spy, possibly an assassin and certainly that he's a unrepentant rake. However, when the idiot Marquess steals all her winnings from the club to go buy himself a new coat, the same money that was meant to pay for their brothers' tuition at Harrow, she sees no other option but to accept the job offer. Angelique had just one season out in Society, before her mother took ill and died. Her mother made her wear fashionable dresses that nonetheless were dreadful for Angelique's voluptuous figure and her intelligence and shyness was off-putting to most people. She was given the nickname of the Marble Maiden. When Alexander looks at her or talks to her, Angelique can forget her horrid nickname and she likes the way his obvious attraction makes her feel. Ever sensible, she does recognise how foolish a romantic entanglement between them would be, but is very tempted to act on their mutual pants feelings nonetheless.

When Angelique's younger brother, the selfish and clueless Marquess of Sutton, finds himself caught literally red-handed over the corpse of a blood-drenched maid servant, having apparently broken into a nobleman's house to steal some jewelry, Angelique is distraught. She seeks out the offices of upper class fixer firm Chagarre and Associates, who are rumoured to be able to cover up any scandal, no matter how bad - if the price is right. After speaking to owner, Miss Ivory Moore, Angelique discovers that Alexander, who had already offered her any help she might need, is in fact a part-owner of the company. She accepts how out of her depths she is and agrees to take his assistance.

Working together, Angelique and Alexander discover that the young Marquess most likely was indeed framed, but that this conspiracy is part of some larger, more sinister plot against the Archer family. Alexander suspects that the lingering illness that killed Angelique's mother, as well as the robbery where her father was killed may be linked and that it may all be tied up in the missing family fortune. Will they be able to clear her brother's name? Can the daughter of a marquess and a gambling club owner/spy/possible assassin ever really make a future together?

Much as I liked this book, I take issue with the title, which is just really misleading. The hero isn't really all that devilish, and the only duke in question appears in literally one scene, and plays a very tangential part in the plot. I can only assume that because the other two titles in the series have featured the word "Duke" this one had to as well. I am so glad that I've discovered the books of Kelly Bowen and very much enjoyed both of the previous books in the series, where we meet Alexander Lavoie's associates, the enigmatic Miss Ivory Moore, now the Duchess of Aldridge, and his sister Elise DeVries, now the Duchess of Ashland. In both of the previous books, the heroines have been incredibly resourceful and capable in a number of fields and very accomplished investigators, who have lived colourful lives. Angelique has lived a more sheltered life, and has been made to feel embarrassed about her brilliant mathematical abilities. The high-born daughter of a nobleman shouldn't be interested in such intellectual pursuits. She may not have as varied a skill-set as the previous two women, but she's brave, and stubborn and determined to figure out a way to save her family, even as her brother seems to be blithely and ignorantly sabotaging her at every turn.

Before her mother took ill, and her season took a turn for the worse, there were rumours that Angelique might in fact be matched with Viscount Seaton, heir to a Duke (I honestly can't be bothered to look up his name). Yet none of this came to be, and when her brother is accused of murder, neither of his so-called closest friends, the Viscount Seaton or Baron Burleigh offer any sort of help, but rather try to distance themselves from the scandal. She realises that she can't really help her brother on her own, and even though it's inappropriate, she accepts Alexander's aid, because she's desperate and he makes her feel both appreciated, wanted and safe.

As with the heroes in the previous two books, Alexander is just as attracted to the formidable abilities and intelligence of the heroine as he is by her beauty. It's obvious from very early on that he's completely gaga for Angelique, and everyone know it, but he doesn't even care if the world knows it. He finds her gorgeous and her brilliance and unusual abilities fascinate him. While he's experienced with women, he has never emotionally connected with any of them, but feels wildly protective of Angelique from the beginning. It made for a nice change that the hero was the more emotionally open one here, accepting his infatuation of Angelique early on in the book, but still trying his best not to take advantage of his position as her employer or the one trying to clear her brother's name. He always allows her to take the lead in any romantic encounter, respecting her boundaries and reservations.

Sadly, because I found Angelique's brother, the idiot Marquess (again, can't be bothered to look up his actual name) to be insufferably stupid, I didn't really care if he got hanged for a murder he didn't commit. The whole thing with the plot against the Archer family and the reasons for it felt needlessly melodramatic and silly to me, and distracted me from the very nice central romance of Angelique and Alexander. The resolution of it felt a bit forced, so as to make it more acceptable for Angelique to be with a man like Alex. So while I loved their initial meeting and pretty much every scene with just the two of them, the mystery of why and how someone wanted to ruin the Archers made this my least favourite.

I still have every intention of reading more Kelly Bowen, though, and have bought all of her previous novels, trusting that on the basis of this trilogy, I will very much enjoy her earlier books too. If I keep being impressed, she's pretty much guaranteed a spot on my Auto-Buy list with her next romance. 

Judging a book by its cover:  I've already commented on how dumb the title of the book is. The entire Season for Scandal series has had bad covers. I still think I dislike the one for A Duke to Remember the most. This has a garish combination of bright yellow background and a lurid purple gown bedecking the cover model. She has blond hair like Lady Angelique, but the dress looks nothing like a Regency gown and at no point in the story does Angelique ever wear bright purple. Normally a colour I really like, it really doesn't work with the coloured backdrop at all.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read