Sunday 30 July 2017

#CBR9 Book 69: "An Ember in the Ashes" by Sabaa Tahir

Page coun: 464 pages
Audio book length:
Rating: 3.5 stars

Spoiler warning! Some spoilers for the early parts of the book in this review (although some of it is already spoiled in the book's blurb). 

We're back to me reviewing books I read a month ago, so Goodreads will have to help me out here:

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those that do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear. 

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire's impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They've seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia's brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire's greatest military academy.

There Laia meets Elias, the school's finest soldier - and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he's being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realise that their destinies are intertwined - and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself. 

I read a lot of YA fantasy (and the occasional sci-fi) and after a while, the tropes start to feel a bit repetitive and a lot of the stories feel rather samey. This book reminded me somewhat of Marie Rutkoski's The Winners trilogy, Pierce Brown's Red Rising trilogy, with some elements from Mary E. Pearson's The Remnant Chronicles (which reminds me, I have yet to track down and read the final book in that series). You've got the brutal empire, modelled on ancient Rome. You have some sort of oppressed underclass, possibly enslaved. You've got the various neighbouring peoples, who have different and seemingly barbarian customs. Not all the evil ruling class are necessarily evil (where would be the fun in that) and most of the oppressed underclasses are too afraid to mount any sort of rebellion, because they'd surely be defeated and soundly crushed. Yet of course there are rebels, because in such a situation, there will always be people who try to fight.

Laia is quite happy keeping her head down and not making a fuss, until soldiers come to their house one night, ready to arrest her brother for treason. They brutally cut down her grandparents and seize her brother, while Laia, terrified runs away. She's deeply ashamed of herself and rather than considering that she would most likely be dead too (probably after the various soldiers had their way with her), she is determined to redeem herself by getting her brother out of prison. Laia's parents were legendary rebels, who were betrayed by someone close to them and captured by the Empire, along with Laia's eldest sister. Her mother was especially ruthless in her fight against the oppressing Empire, known as the Lioness. Laia feels about as far from her mother as its possible to be.

She nonetheless manages to track down the rebels (partially through blind luck) and negotiates a deal with them. She will pose as a slave and work for the Commander of Blackcliff military academy, where they train the most elite soldiers of the Empire. As the Commander is known to be heartless, vicious and prone to maiming or disfiguring her slaves, if they survive for very long in her service at all, it's a very dangerous mission. Laia's terrified, but feels she must do anything and everything to ensure the rebels get her brother out of prison.

At Blackcliff, she discovers that all the rumours about the Commander are true, and that the cold and cruel woman doesn't seem to have affection for anyone, not even her own son, Elias Veturius. He is seemingly the most promising soldier of the current graduating class, but no one, not even his best friend, Helene Aquilla, knows that he's planning on running away after the graduation ceremony, determined to reject the Empire and all its teachings.. Running away would be considered treasonous, and if he's caught, he would be executed.

Before he gets a chance to escape, Elias is approached by one of the Augurs, ancient, immortal, pretty much omniscient beings that tell him that if he stays at Blackcliff and takes part in the upcoming trials, he will finally have a true chance at freedom and of changing the course of the Empire forever. Apparently the Augurs have seen that he is a key figure in the future, no matter what the outcome is, and if he runs away, he will ruin everything.

So Elias stays at Blackcliff after graduation, and is selected to take part in the trials to select the new Emperor - along with his best friend Helene, along with two of the more brutal aspirants of their year. Because he stays, he also meets and starts interacting with Laia, his mother's new slave. They have a strange connection, but she's a slave and he's part of the Empire that enslaved her, so what future could they possibly have?

This book has garnered a lot of praise, and been nominated for a ton of literary YA awards. I'd heard a lot about it, but must admit I wasn't really all that engrossed for the first half of the book or so. Laia is just so timid, naive and scared all the time. While that's perfectly natural, it isn't always that much fun to read about. Elias is full of self-loathing and resents being taken from the tribespeople he spent his early childhood with to be a favoured and wealthy son of the Empire and taken to Blackcliff to train. It does sound like the training of the elite soldiers is pretty awful, but he's still in a position of privilege and control and came across as rather spoiled and whiny.

As is so very common in YA nowadays, there are also romantic undertones, in the form of two love triangles. Yup, Laia is drawn to Elias, as well as one of the brave and plucky rebels. Elias finds himself attracted to both Laia and his best friend Helene, who is also one of his rivals in the trials for Emperor. There's a whole load of meaningful glances, but a whole load of near-misses, where nothing much of anything happens. While the characters think about kissing, or about attractive attributes of their love interest, there is very little actual action going on. That got frustrating after a while, too.

Another thing that got to me, that was just depressing, was the constant thread of misogyny and threat of rape towards any female character in the story. It's heavily implied that the reason the Commander hates Elias so much is because he is the product of rape (this is not confirmed, but I would not be surprised if it's revealed in a later book). For some reason, they allow one woman into Blackcliff every so often, and despite the fact that their Commander is a woman, and Helene seems to be one of the best soldiers in her graduating class, there is an absolutely horrible attitude towards women, and even Helene keeps being threatened with sexual assault. It's not just the slaves that are vulnerable.

By the last third of the book, Laia has grown more of a backbone and starts getting actually interesting to read about. Elias ends up in a rather precarious position, and I appreciated the timid and oppressed girl having to rescue the big bad soldier and ending up in a position of power over him. The change in the status quo and the set-up for the next book is interesting enough that I will probably keep reading, even though this took me a while to get into.

Judging a book by its cover: This is a pretty bleak and depressing cover, but then both Laia and Elias have pretty bleak lives. There's a very big concrete wall, with hints of buildings in the background. Since both protagonists live their lives in some form of captivity, it seems appropriate, but I still don't think it's a very appealing or inviting cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 27 July 2017

#CBR9 Book 68: "Places No One Knows" by Brenna Yovanoff

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

To everyone who knows her, Waverly Camdenmar appears to be pretty much perfect. She is intelligent, successful, one of the most popular girls in school (thanks to her Machiavellian scheming on behalf of her best friend, whom she's pretty sure she doesn't even like anymore). Said best friend keeps referring to her as a robot or android, but thanks to her, Waverly fits in. No one knows that nearly every night, Waverly battles insomnia and runs until her feet bleed. She also fears she may be a sociopath.

Marshall Holt is one of the school's notorious stoners. His home life is pretty terrible, he knows that he is very likely to fail all his classes (not for lack of aptitude, he just doesn't particularly care) and he drinks himself into oblivion, gets stoned or does harder drugs, just to make the world recede for a while. He's had a crush on ice queen Waverly Camdenmar for more than a year, but is pretty sure she doesn't even know he exists. Then one night, he's pretty sure he sees her in his bedroom, but he writes that off as a hallucination. She also comes and holds his hand when he's tripping badly on acid under a patio table at one of his brother's parties. Is his intense lifestyle starting to take its toll, or is something strange happening?

One night, sick of insomnia, Waverly reads about a relaxation technique and tries it to fall asleep. She dreams herself into Marshall's bedroom, and the next night to his brother's party. She has no idea what is happening, but every time she tries the relaxation ritual, she ends up wherever Marshall currently is, and he seems to be the only one that can see her. While they barely acknowledge each other's existence in the daytime at school, at night, they start to have private, intimate and in-depth conversations. An actual relationship between them would be entirely impossible, or would it?

Maggie Stiefvater, fellow YA author and one of Brenna Yovanoff's best friends, describes this book as "a dream wrapped in razor wire or razor wire wrapped in a dream". That's a very good description. This book is hard to read in parts, mainly because Waverly is such a difficult protagonist. She really does seem like she's covered in razor wire much of the time, and has such a hard time letting people close. It seems likely that she's very highly functioning on the autism spectrum and she may or may not in fact be a sociopath. She's always been very smart, but different from children and later teens her own age. She loves horror movies, and has little action figures of all the famous horror movie villains. She's a perfectionist and she pushes herself physically until she may have injured herself irreparably. She used to play chess when she was younger, but as someone observes later in this book, by the time she got to high school she has moved on to bigger, actual human pieces. She makes sure that Maribeth, her best friend (who is really a piece of work), is the undisputed queen bee of the school, but she doesn't really like her or any of the things they spend their days doing.

Marshall, our other protagonist is a total sweetheart, but he's pretty successfully running his life into the ground towards the start of the book. With a very turbulent home life and no real support from anyone, he knows he's unlikely to be able to go to college after high school and so he doesn't even try to pass his classes. Much of his days and nights are spent in a haze of intoxication and it's only when he realises that the night time visits from Waverly are somehow real and she starts to really question him and his motives, that he starts to consider changing the destructive path he's chosen to fling himself down.

While some people may say this is a fantasy novel, I don't really think it is. Yes, it has one very strange supernatural element (which we are never given any explanation for), but it's really just a macguffin to get Waverly and Marshall, so different on the surface, to spend more time together, so they can get to know the other's real self. The personas they inhabit in high school are very different from the people they can be when there's just the two of them, in Waverly's strange maybe-dreams. As they grow closer, though, and it becomes clear that they may become more than friends, that's when things get really complicated.

After all, Waverly has worked very hard to appear flawless and perfect and have impeccable social standing at school. She cannot openly associate herself with Marshall, who while he stops doing drugs and starts turning his life around, still has an undeniable loser reputation. While Waverly doesn't even like Maribeth anymore and has started to realise just how much she's being used, years of knowing she's different makes her fear being an outcast all the more. Getting to know the enigmatic and colourful Autumn helps her to see that her life could be different, but Waverly struggles for the longest time to break out of the patterns she's been used to.

I'm not sure this book is for everyone. Yovanoff does write in a slightly mannered way that I think could annoy some people. Waverly really is a spiky and very difficult to like heroine, but you get a very clear idea of how and why she's turned out the way she has. Marshall is an absolute darling and I wanted only good things for him. Autumn is also a delight, and Maribeth was a pretty good antagonist, if not quite up to the levels of Regina George or the Heathers. If you want a complex and interesting YA book, full of high school intrigue, with a slight supernatural element and some romance, on the other hand, this may be a good book for you. I know I'm going to be checking out more of Ms. Yovanoff's writing in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: I really don't like this cover much, it's so incredibly generic and has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the book. The pastel pink and peach colour scheme (seems to be labelling this a GIRL book, which it most certainly is not), the teens apparently falling. The nonsensical tagline "Follow me and disappear". I have no idea what the cover designer/publisher meant by that. I would never in a million years have picked this book up based on the cover, and I would have lost out on a really interesting reading experience. I hope for Ms. Yovanoff's sake that this book gets re-issued with a better, more appropriate cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 16 July 2017

#CBR9 Book 67: "Heartstone" by Elle Katharine White

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Ever wondered what a fantasy version of Pride and Prejudice would be like if the countryside was full of dangerous supernatural creatures like direwolves, gryphons, lamias and banshees? Where the most respected and revered members of society weren't just idle nobles, but devoted themselves from youth to training hard and hunting down these dangerous monsters?

Elle Katharine White clearly wondered the same thing, and before you think this is just another quick cash-grab like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where the original story has pretty much been kept word for word, with some zombies and sword fighting thrown in for good measure - it's not. Ms White has reimagined the story and made changes here and there, but to anyone who knows the source material, there isn't going to be any massive surprises. Part of the fun of reading this book was instead to see how she had changed, reimagined or tweaked the story.

The Bennet family are the Bentaines here. Their youngest daughter was tragically killed by gryphons, so they are very grateful when the local landowner has managed to collect enough money to hire a band of Riders to vanquish the local threat. One of the Riders is even a dragonrider, from the legendary Daired family. Second eldest Bentaine, Eliza, is surprised when the arrogant man offers to train her, she isn't interested in killing things, she wants to become a healer. Her older sister seems to really hit it off with one of the other Riders, though, and their mother is absolutely delighted at the prospect of a good match for one of her brood.

I very much liked some of the dragons who made up the supporting cast, and the intricate rules that apparently govern the proper customs between dragons and their riders. Most of the characters' general characteristics will be very familiar to anyone who's read the Austen novel (or seen any of the adaptations). I liked the changes made to Mr. Collins and Catherine de Bourgh, especially, though and not everything plays out the way you might expect.

I was always going to be predisposed to like a novel that's literally "Pride and Prejudice with dragons", but there was always a chance that the premise fell absolutely flat and was boring or bad. I'm happy to say that this isn't the case at all. This is Ms. White's debut novel, and I will be looking out for more of her books in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: Parts of this cover obviously appeal to me a LOT - come on, it's a great big dragon in flight, apparently coming in for a landing. Not sure why the tail is so long it has to be coiled twice (this does not really fit with the descriptions of dragons in the book) and I'm really not happy with the outfit of the woman in the lower foreground of the picture. It seems to me that she is wearing nothing but a corset and petticoats, while in the middle of a field, something no lady in this story would do.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 66: "Someone to Watch Over Me" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Spoiler warning! This review will contain minor spoilers for the plot of the book. They will be clearly marked, though, so the rest of the review should be ok.

Grant Morgan is one of the most famous and sought after of London's Bow Street Runners. He's made a substantial fortune solving crimes for the wealthy, but is starting to find his life a bit boring. When he's called to the banks of the Thames to identify what appears to be a strangled woman, he is first of all surprised to discover that she is still breathing, and secondly, by her identity. The half-dead woman is Vivien Duvall, London's most desirable courtesan.

Once she wakes up and is examined by a doctor, it becomes clear that she has entirely lost her memory. She doesn't know how notorious she is or who may have tried to kill her. Grant decides to keep her at his house, both to make sure she is adequately protected, but also because he is plotting revenge against Vivien. A few months back, he rejected her sexual advances in public and she proceeded to spread a number of rumours about Grant. Now that she is entirely dependent on him for protection, he sees an opportunity to possibly seduce her and get back at her.

As they investigate which of Vivian's many lovers might have had cause to murder her, he pretends that he was her most recent patron. However, Vivian seems to be absolutely appalled by all the things she discovers about her life and claims to have no wish to return to a life as a courtesan. For all that Grant was angry and resentful towards Vivian in the beginning, the more time he spends with the timid, soft-spoken woman in his care, the more he grows properly attached to her. He doesn't really want revenge anymore, he just wants to protect her.

This is one of Lisa Kleypas' relatively early works, and it does not compare that well to some of her real classics, written later. My main problem with the book is that Grant really isn't that great a guy. Initially, he has absolutely no problem with taking advantage of a woman left in his care, just because he feels slighted by some malicious gossip she spread about him. Vivian has no memory of her former life or her actions, yet he seems to think that because she made her living as a courtesan, one he very pointedly rejected not that long ago, it's now totally fine for him to seduce her, by making her think he's one of her clients and making her feel obligated to him.

From the very beginning of his investigation, it's quite clear to Grant that Vivian appears to more or less have had a personality transplant along with the amnesia following her near-strangulation, drowning and head injury. The Vivian Duvall known in Regency society is self-confident to a fault, effortlessly sexy, quite the exhibitionist and arrogant in the extreme. Her former lovers claim she hated quiet pursuits and reading and was willing to do absolutely anything in bed. The woman in his care is timid, shy, seemingly very innocent and absolutely adores reading. While she doesn't remember anything about her past, she has intimate knowledge about a number of Grant's favourite literary works. She's unfailingly polite to everyone and seems uncomfortable being waited on by servants.

SPOILERS AHEAD! It's almost as if she's a completely different person - and in case you hadn't seen the surprise twist coming - she is! It turns out Vivian has a twin sister from the countryside, who came to London to look for her, and was mistaken for her by the man sent to kill her. When is this mistaken identity discovered? When Grant is in the process of deflowering the inexperienced and sheltered virgin, taking absolutely no care because he believes the woman he's sharing a bed with to be a courtesan with many years of experience behind her. He does not, to my mind, apologise or grovel enough in the aftermath.

There's a fairly heavy undertone of slut shaming throughout this novel. Grant basically hates himself for feeling drawn to the woman he believes to be Vivian, because she's slept with so many men. As soon as he discovers the woman he's attracted to is in fact her virginal sister, who has lived a quiet life in the country, teaching children and taking care of her elderly father, it's perfectly ok, because she's pure and all that is good and she is clearly seen as much more worthy of love and a long-term relationship than a possibly repentant Vivian would be.

END SPOILERS. This is definitely one of the weaker Kleypas historicals I've read. Grant being fairly dislikable all the way through is one factor. I really didn't think he deserved any sort of happy ending, and any changes he went through seemed superficial at best. The heroine is also very passive and mainly defers entirely to the will of the men around her, she seems to have little to no agency of her own. That got boring pretty fast. It was also very obvious to me from about the second scene he appeared in who the attempted murderer was, and surprising to me that super-detective Grant didn't clue in on the fact earlier in the story. To be fair, he was too busy hate-lusting over the woman in his care. Unless you're a Kleypas completist, this one is skippable.

Judging a book by its cover: I am very fond of the colour teal, but there may be an overabundance of it on this cover. This book is set in Regency era England, and I'm pretty sure that whatever the cover model is wearing doesn't count as period appropriate night wear, especially considering what is described as part of the story. I also pity whatever servant is left to iron out the creases in the silk after the skirts have been crumpled so carelessly as we see here.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 6 July 2017

#CBR9 Book 65: "From Duke till Dawn" by Eva Leigh

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Alexander Lewis, the Duke of Greyland has just been jilted by his intended. She eloped with a cavalry officer, but Alex is mainly annoyed that he's going to have to start looking for a new bride. His best friends, the Earl of Langdon and the wealthy Mr. Ellingsworth refuse to let him stay at home and brood and insist on taking him to a new and fashionable gambling club that is rumoured to only stay open for a month. They claim he'll find ample things to distract him there. He reluctantly comes along and to his surprise, sees the woman he's been trying to locate, and unsuccessfully forget, for the last two years. While recuperating in Cheltenham, he'd seen the lovely and impoverished widow at his hotel. After several weeks of acquaintance, the gentile Mrs Blair confessed her troubles to him and he gave her five hundred pounds. They spent one very memorable night together, and afterwards, the widow was gone without a trace.

Cassandra Blake is a con woman. She has successfully used her poor, down on her luck, but very proud widow scam on countless men, but only with Alex did she give into the mutual attraction and actually sleep with one of her victims. Having grown up on the streets after her father died in debtor's prison, Cassandra began by picking pockets until an older man found and mentored her into the beautiful swindler she has become. Now they are working together for one last big score, running a gambling den for one month, planning to make enough money to finally retire. Cassandra is sick of running cons, she wants out of the swindling business. When the Duke of Greyland unexpectedly shows up at the club, Cassandra is able to convince him that the widow Blair was forced to take the job as a hostess, as her money has run out.

When Cassandra suddenly finds herself on the receiving end of a swindle, after her mentor takes all the club's profits and absconds, she has no choice but to seek out Alex for help, even as she knows he'll despise her once he learns the truth about her. Discovering that the woman he had pretty much fallen in love with is nothing but a sham, Alex is heart-broken and furious, but he also understands that Cassandra's life might be in danger if she can't recover the money her partner stole. There were several rather shady investors in the scheme and they do not take kindly to their profits being nicked. Alex promises to help Cassandra, on the condition that she never leave his sight until their mission is done. Of course, spending time in close proximity means he finally gets to see and get to know the real Cassandra, and she is even more enticing than the widow Blair ever was.

I really liked Eva Leigh's first trilogy set in the Regency era, with unorthodox heroines that didn't exactly fit with society's views for what was right and proper for ladies. In her new trilogy, of which this is the first, Leigh has researched the seedier side of London, exploring the criminal underworld from various angles. There are the con artists and swindlers, to which Cassandra belongs, there's an underground sex club that I suspect will feature more prominently in a future book, as one of the Duke's two best friends is unhappily infatuated with the proprietress.

Alexander Lewis has always done what is right and was brought up to do his duty. His parents, as was common for the nobility, were not particularly affectionate, but he wants to do the right thing and find a young woman from a suitable family to bear his children. He doesn't expect any romantic attachment to his wife, especially as he has never been able to forget the enigmatic and beautiful Mrs. Blair. While they only spent one night together, he's spent a lot of time and resources trying to find her (which is of course impossible, since she wasn't an actual person).

He discovers Cassandra's deception when he returns to the club, ready to propose, having been convinced by one of his friends that a man of his standing will easily be able to whether the scandal of marrying a widow of uncertain origins. He overhears her talking to her business partner and realises she's a fraud. Heartbroken and disgusted, he's furious with her, but still can't make himself turn her away when she turns up, desperate and broke in his drawing room shortly after. Soon the proper and thoroughly honourable Duke finds himself visiting locations he barely knew existed, conversing (and beating up) all manner of questionable individuals.

Spending time in close proximity to Cassandra for several days and during many exciting adventures through the London underworld, Alex discovers how sheltered and privileged a life he has actually lived. While he's appalled at the way Cassandra and many others make their living, he begins to understand that a lot don't have a lot of other options. While searching London for her former mentor, Alex also discovers that Cassandra did not, in fact, prostitute herself for the money she conned out of her victims. She would normally hint and promise all manner of things, but run off as soon as she had the money. She made a very notable exception in Alex' case, and has both regretted and cherished the memory ever since.

Cassandra, meanwhile, was ready to give up her "wicked ways" even before she got a taste of her own medicine and discovered how awful it feels to be swindled and betrayed. She just needed enough money to retire quietly to the countryside in peace, and faces quite the crisis of conscience when she has to face Alex, a man she hasn't been able to forget for two years, and own up to all the bad things she's done in her life. She's unapologetic about some of the things she's had to do to survive, but she does regret hurting and lying to so many people. She's a resilient woman, convinced (quite rightly so, considering their huge difference in status) that Alex is miles out of her league. She knows she'll never see him again once she recovers all the stolen money, but decides to make the best of the time they have together.

While Alex keeps wanting to hate Cassandra, he sees almost instantly that no matter how angry he is, he's still incredibly attracted to her. The more he discovers about her past and the life she's been forced to live, the quicker his anger fades. The couple keep fighting their attraction, but this is a romance, of course it doesn't take too long before they give into their feelings.

I liked the unusual setting and the conflict keeping the protagonists apart. There is a fair bit of appropriate action and some very good banter, and I'm very much looking forward to what Ms. Leigh has in store for Alex' friends (who were pretty heavily set up as future heroes) in the next few books in the series.

Judging a book by its cover: Eva Leigh tends to have pretty decent covers, and the dresses the cover models wear always actually appear in the story at some point (I'm not entirely sure how the authors manage it, but I always like it when it happens). I do, however, have several gripes with this cover, the first being the oft mentioned - her gown is unlaced, where are her undergarments? Secondly, why is she sitting at such an uncomfortable angle, backwards on the sofa? Thirdly, how many yards of fabric were needed to make those never-ending skirts - the dress certainly isn't Regency appropriate. Sigh.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 64: "Walk on Earth a Stranger" by Rae Carson

Page count: 464 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Leah "Lee" Westfall lives on a small farm in Georgia, trying to make ends meet with her parents. The only reason they're really managing to survive at all, is Lee's unusual ability, she can sense gold. It calls to her and is the reason her father is known in town as "Lucky". No one but her parents know about her gift, or so Lee believed. Then she comes home from town one day to discover both of her parents shot (her mother is still just barely alive, and warns Leah to be careful with her last breaths) and the sack of gold dust they had hidden under the floor boards missing.

Her neighbour, sixteen-year-old, half Native Jefferson McCauley is planning on heading west to California, as the news that gold has been found there has just been announced. He wants Lee to come with him, but she's reluctant to leave her family's farm. Then her uncle Hiram shows up, now her legal guardian, and with her gold sense, Lee can tell he's been near a lot of gold dust lately. She's suddenly all too certain who's behind her parents' murder, and once her uncle starts dropping hints, she begins to fear that her father may have told him about Lee's abilities. She regrets not going away with Jefferson, but enlists the help of a friendly shopkeeper in town, cuts her hair, dresses in men's clothing and runs away while her uncle is distracted.

Lee needs to make her way west and try to find Jefferson again, all the while staying out of her uncle's clutches. She quickly discovers that life on the road is dangerous and meets several set-backs before she manages to get a place on a caravan going towards California. Can she keep her real identity hidden with so many people around? Will anyone discover her special gold sense? Will the caravan actually survive the hard and challenging journey across the country to the gold fields of California?

I don't know exactly what I was expecting from this book, but it certainly wasn't a gritty, depressing version of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books crossed with Oregon Trail. There are SO many horrible things that happen to these people, guys. If this hadn't been the start of a trilogy, I would have seriously suspected they would all just be killed in various gruesome ways over the course of the story. Rae Carson's first trilogy, Girl of Fire and Thorns, did NOT prepare me for the level of hardship throughout this book.

With the fairly shocking beginning for poor Leah and the continuing, probably impeccably researched story, full of all sorts of misery, I can't say the book was enjoyable and it made it very difficult for me to get attached to any of the characters, as I never knew who was going to kick the figurative bucket next. I suppose I should be happy that Ms Carson didn't simplify or sugar coat what was probably a very dangerous and arduous trek for a lot of people, so desperate to get to find gold that they would risk everything, including their own lives and those of their families in search of prosperity.

Set in the late 19th Century, there were obviously a lot of less than enlightened attitudes with regards to women, "confirmed bachelors", Native Americans and persons of colour in this story. Lee has to hide her identity for much of the story, and mainly seems to be able to do it quite well for a long time. This was clearly also a time when injuries and illness were a lot more dangerous, which is partly what makes the story so harrowing. While struggling to reach the west, the band of travellers keeps getting reduced, but the ones who make it are a very tightly knit group, and I'm an absolute sucker for found family stories.

One advantage to waiting so long to read this book, is that I won't have too long to wait until the third book in the trilogy is released later this year. I'm hoping that with the difficult journey completed, the next books may be more entertaining and uplifting.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm not entirely sure what I think about this cover. I think the giant gold letters proclaiming the title are unnecessarily large. I think the cover image should have been given more prominence, instead it almost becomes an afterthought. I'm also not entirely happy with the way Leah's "gold sense" has been visually portrayed, but I guess it's hard to get across what is basically just a mental thing.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Wednesday 5 July 2017

#CBR9 Book 63: "Dating You/Hating You" by Christina Lauren

Page count: 368 pages
Audio book length: 9hrs 39 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Carter Aaron and Evelyn "Evie" Abbey (nicknamed Evil by Carter shortly after their first meeting due to her nefarious and wicked laugh) meet at an early Halloween party. They seem to be the only single people in a sea of couples, and both drift towards a corner of the room away from the "marrieds", discovering that they coincidentally both came in Harry Potter costumes. Hitting it off instantly, their enthusiasm towards one another wanes a bit when they find out they are both celebrity agents, working for rival agencies in LA. Dating people within the business is never a good idea, so they agree to just be friends. The chemistry between them is undeniable, and their mutual friends certainly try to push them towards each other. Since neither can stop thinking of the other, they go on one very good date, which ends in a fairly steamy encounter in Evie's bedroom.

Before they can decide what to do next, the company Evie works for buys up Carter's in a takeover, and suddenly they are working on the same team. Not only that, Brad Kingman, the sexist dinosaur who runs the team thinks it would be an excellent idea to pit them against each other - making them compete for a permanent position on the team. The person who loses might get reassigned to the company's New York office, or lose their job altogether.

Evie has worked for the company for six years, with an almost perfect record. She has one major flop in her past, that Kingman still loves holding against her, but she is older, more experienced and deeply resents being forced to compete with Carter, a new hire with years less experience than her. Carter, meanwhile, moved from New York to LA specifically to be an agent and has uprooted his entire life for the job. He's determined to prove himself and get the position. Evie and Carter might find each other cute, funny and incredibly sexy, but nothing kills potential romance faster than that other person you like suddenly being the one who might steal your job away from you.

If Evie and Carter hadn't both been driven professionals who pretty much lives for their jobs, so similar in many regards, the conflict wouldn't really be an issue. If they didn't both want the permanent position so badly, even as they resent Kingman for forcing them to compete, one of them could have just quit and gone on to do something else, and then they could date in their spare time. That's not what happens here.

What is possibly somewhat unusual in what on the surface seems like a funny, sexy friends to enemies, enemies to lovers work place comedy is the very strong feminist themes that run throughout the book. Evie and her female colleagues in the business face blatant sexism at every turn, and this is made very obvious throughout the book. Brad Kingman is a chauvinist pig and the women who work for him just have to learn to ignore his comments and treatment of them if they want to keep their jobs. The women have to work so much harder than their male counterparts, because they are scrutinised so much more. They have to be pleasant, outgoing, attractive (but not too obviously attracting male attention) and it's quite obvious that most of their male colleagues don't even notice what they're going through, because their realities are entirely different.

It takes Carter a while to realise just what a douchebag Kingman really is, and how much more difficult the whole competition aspect is for Evie. To his credit, while it takes him a while to clue in, once he does, he really does try to stand up for her and other women on their team.

This book really is very funny in places, especially when it comes to the practical jokes that Evie and Carter start playing on each other to get the upper hand during their competition. They never do anything too malicious to the other, so it's possible to enjoy their rivalry without it ever getting uncomfortable. Even when they are at their most competitive, they also very strongly have to fight their natural chemistry and mutual attraction. They never really hate or even dislike the other person, just the situation they are both in, so this isn't really a true "enemies to lovers" story.

When I first read about this book, it immediately brought to mind my favourite book of last year, The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. What I did not know is that Christina Lauren, the writing duo who wrote this one, are actually friends with Thorne (I love it when authors I like are friends in real life, it makes me so happy) and put off reading her book until they'd finished their own book, worried that their workplace romantic comedy would be influenced by hers. As they said, in the interview I read, they needn't have worried, the books are very different, but both very entertaining reads.

As well as admiring the authors for dealing with sexism in the workplace without it ever becoming an issue that takes away from the central romance or ruins the fun of the book, I really liked how fully fleshed out the protagonists were and how well we get to know them and their friends. Evie has several good female friends and Carter has a staunch supporter in his best friend since grade school, Michael Christopher, as well as his wife Steph, who used to work with Evie. It's at their Halloween party the couple have their first meeting and it's nice to see how they manage to support both sides of the couple, even when they are bitter rivals, without messing up their own relationship and secretly hoping that they'll get together in the end, so the couples can double date. Even Carter's spoiled and rather annoying little brother Jonah, a celebrity photographer who can do no wrong in the eyes of their parents was a nice touch, as it's not like everyone has wonderful and supportive family around them all the time.

If there's a villain in this story, it's Brad Kingman, who I sadly suspect isn't actually unrealistically sexist or horrible as bosses go. The final quarter of the book, when Evie and some of her friends discover a way to finally take him down and it all goes a bit action movie for a while, felt a bit out of place. I think Carter's dawning realisation and decisions to get himself out of the problems he was in was a better solution, but it was nothing that took away my enjoyment of the book too much.

A final note, I got the Audible version of this, narrated by Shana Thibodeaux and Deacon Lee. They both do a very good job and I can highly recommend the audio.

Judging a book by its cover: Christina Lauren don't really go in flashy or overdone covers, and this fits with their simple and clean aesthetic. While the background is a stark white and the people (probably meant to be Evie and Carter, although I pictured Evie as more petite and Carter with glasses) are in black and white, the colourful font in pink, yellow and orange still brighten the cover up nicely and make it rather inviting, in my opinion. So much better than a lot of the overdone romance covers nowadays.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 62: "Mr and Mr Smith" by HelenKay Dimon

Page count: 210 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

From Goodreads:
Fisher Braun knows how to keep a secret. As a covert paramilitary operative, his job - and his life - depends on it. He's at the top of his game, ready for action and always in control. No enemy has ever brought him to his knees, but one lover has: Zachary Allen, the man currently sharing his bed. The perfect package of brains and brawn, Zach is someone worth coming home to, and Fisher hates keeping him in the dark about what he does. But the lies keep Zach safe. Until the day Fisher loses everything...

Zachary Allen is no innocent civilian. Although he plays a tech geek, in reality he's deep undercover for the CIA. In a horrible twist of face, the criminal enterprise he's infiltrated has set its sights on the man whose touch drives him wild. Zach would do anything for Fisher - except blow his own cover. Now, in order to save him, Zach must betray him first. And he needs Fisher to trust him with all his heart if they want to make it out alive. 

This is the first book I've ever read by HelenKay Dimon, so I can't tell you if it's a typical book for her, or some new and exciting direction she's taking her fiction in. A quick glance at Goodreads shows me that she has written quite a lot of books that all seem to be romantic suspense, some with a m/f and others with m/m focus. In this series, Tough Love, we are introduced to a team of CIA agents, who have clearly worked together for many missions on various paramilitary missions all over the globe. They're a tight-knit and experienced unit, who clearly know each other very well, but Fisher has been hiding the fact that he's gay, and has had a boyfriend hidden away in an apartment for the las few months, from the rest of the group. He's been lying to his boyfriend, claiming to be an engineer, making up excuses every time he gets shipped off to do something insanely dangerous to keep the world safe.

Now his boyfriend appears to have been kidnapped, and Fisher is absolutely frantic. He believes his boyfriend Zach to be a nerdy computer technician and has always feared that his life of spying and covert ops will endanger Zach in some way. Finding him snatched from their home pretty much confirms this. Fisher's partner, Nathan, is rather amused at Fisher's admission that he's gay, as it seems to have been blatantly obvious to the entire team that Fisher had no interest in the ladies. He's more curious as to why Fisher's been lying both about where he's been living for the last three months, and whom he's been living with. He insists on coming with Fisher to confront the kidnappers, who turn out to be a pretty nasty bunch of individuals, and while captive with that organisation, they discover that Zach isn't so much a kidnapping victim as someone who's job it was to hit on Fisher and insinuate himself into his life so he could spy on him for the group.

Fisher is absolutely gutted, and it takes both Fisher and Nathan a long time to believe that Zach is telling the truth about being an undercover CIA agent tasked to infiltrate these high-level kidnappers. Even after Zach's identity has been verified both by the Fisher and Zach's respective supervisors, Fisher feels incredibly betrayed. He believed Zach to be an innocent civilian, and now can't trust anything they had together. Having already dealt with his fair share of betrayal and rejection when he came out to his family, Fisher has always kept himself slightly apart from others, not really daring to trust. Although he's not ready to admit it to himself, he's clearly fallen pretty hard for Zach (everyone else around him can see it) and now he doesn't know what to do with himself.

When helping Fisher and Nathan escape, Zach knows that he most likely broke his cover, but the ruthless organisation he's been infiltrating still needs to be stopped, and he has to return to them, even if it means risking his own life. While Fisher is furious with him, and claims he doesn't care what happens to Zach, he's clearly in denial and needs to be convinced that his superiors, and Zach, know what they're doing.

We are thrown straight into the action in this book, and it very rarely lets up at any point. I suppose in a book of just two hundred pages, you don't really have a lot of pages to spend on slowly building exposition, but it felt a bit jarring occasionally to have everything revealed in little flashbacks while the main story was going ahead at full tilt. I didn't really feel like I was able to get invested in Fisher and Zach's relationship before it was in danger of crumbling. Even with the tight plotting and low page count, Dimon manages to spend some time introducing sequel-bait, a German secret agent also working undercover with the kidnappers and the youngest, apparently less-criminally inclined than his siblings brother of the criminal enterprise. In many ways, their pairing seemed more interesting to me, so Ms. Dimon's tactics clearly worked, I'm very likely to track down the next book in the series as well.

All in all, I would have preferred a few more quiet scenes and a bit more exposition, where I felt like I really got to know Fisher and Zach and therefore could care more about their relationship. I also found at least one of the sex scenes in the book somewhat implausible, considering both the anger and trust issues on either side and the time constraints with regards to the guys' mission, but what do I know? It seemed like at least one of the scenes was in there so the readers got enough smexy times, without it really feeling organic to the plot.

This hasn't exactly been my favourite read of the season, but I am a fan of action movies, and they're not always very big on character development either. So since this is a big budget action movie in romance form, I guess I can't be too picky. Several of Fisher's team members provide excellent comic relief as supporting characters, and as I said, I am very intrigued by the pairing set up for the sequel, so this will clearly not be the last HelenKay Dimon book I read. If you like romantic suspense, and don't really want anything too time-consuming to read, I suspect this will do you nicely.

Judging a book by its cover: I really don't think much of this cover, where they've clearly just found some random male models and posed them casually. These men don't in any way look like convincing secret agents or former soldiers. They just look like they're fighting constipation or pondering how to turn left. While they're not both exactly doing Blue Steel, there are some heavy Zoolander vibes here.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 61: "The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Shortly after the death of her father, Miss Cecilia Harcourt gets a letter informing her that her brother, Thomas Harcourt has been injured during battle i the American colonies. Her odious cousin keeps coming around hinting strongly at how beneficial it would be for Cecilia to marry him, so instead she buries the family silver in the garden and sets off over the Atlantic to find her brother and nurse him back to health. Unfortunately, no one seems to be willing to speak to her and her brother appears to be missing. Instead she finds his best friend, Captain Edward Rokesby, who's unconscious in the hospital and clearly also needs her aid. In order to be allowed to tend to him, Cecilia lies and claims to be his wife. She knows the charade will be up as soon as Rokesby wakes up, but at least she can give him the tenderest of care until then.

When Edward wakes up, he's surprised to find the woman he identifies as his best friend Thomas' sister Cecilia by his bedside. He's even more confused when she appears to be his wife, but the doctors confirm that the blow he took to the head when out on some very secretive mission appears to have caused him to forget the last six months of his memory. As Edward had frequently sent messages to Cecilia in Thomas' letters to her, and she had started sending little greetings for him, he's not entirely surprised that he's married to her, having already half fallen in love with her through he correspondence, he just can't remember when or how the marriage took place.

Cecilia feels dreadful about her lies, but discovers that the army officials are much more likely to assist her in her search for her brother if she is Captain Rokesby's wife, not just Miss Harcourt, sister of a missing officer. So even though it pains her to deceive a clearly very honest and upstanding gentleman, she keeps up the lie that she married Edward and promises herself that as soon as they locate Thomas, she will tell him the truth and set him free, even if he's unlikely to ever want to see her again afterwards.

This is the second "hero with amnesia" romance I've read in the last few months. I thought Meredith Duran's A Lady's Code of Misconduct worked a lot better, and both the protagonists of that book were more morally complex and interesting. Julia Quinn doesn't really write about bad people. All of her characters tend to be upstanding and thoroughly decent, and apart from the lie at the centre of their relationship, there really is NO conflict between Cecilia and Edward. They're pretty much already madly in love with each other from the letters they've been exchanging and while Cecilia keeps being terribly upset about her lies, and her belief that Edward is really in love with Billie Bridgerton, his neighbour back home (who married his brother in the previous book in the series), so she's stolen him from some other woman, it's quite clear from all of Edward's thoughts that whether he remembers marrying her or not, he's absolutely crazy about Cecilia.

As well as the relationship built on a lie plot, there is Cecilia's missing brother to locate, and Edward trying to remember exactly what happened in the six months he's now forgotten. None of this was terribly interesting to me. While the setting, of Revolutionary War America is more unusual in a historical romance, I didn't really feel as if Quinn really utilised it as much as she could have. It was nevertheless a nice change from the English countryside or London drawing rooms that most of these books are set in.

It's been a long time since Quinn really knocked my socks off with one of her romances. This is perfectly pleasant, but all in all, rather forgettable. I'll still keep getting her books on sale, but she's completely off my auto-buy list for the time being.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm really not an expert on late 18th Century women's fashion, but I'm pretty sure that this is not a period appropriate dress for the American War of Independence/Revolutionary War period. It looks more like a generic "historical" dress, with no clear time period in mind. Why there's an ocean and rolling cliffs in the background is also puzzling to me, as the whole book takes place in a British-occupied New York, there's no picturesque countryside in the book at all. They have at least found a cover model who's blond, like the heroine, and her putting her finger to her lips, indicating a secret is really rather cute.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR9 Book 60: "Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies" by Hadley Freeman

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3 stars

It's been about a month since I finished this, and I've long since had to return my copy to the library, so Goodreads is going to have to help me here:

From Vogue contributor and Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, a personalized guide to eighties movies that describes why they changed movie-making forever - featuring exclusive interviews with the producers, directors, writers and stars of the best cult classics.

In Life Moves Pretty Fast, Hadley puts her obsessive movie geekery to good use, detailing the decade's key players, genres, and tropes. She looks back on a cinematic world in which bankers are invariably evil, where children are always wiser than adults, where science is embraced with an intense enthusiasm, and the future viewed with giddy excitement. And, she considers how the changes between movies then and movies today say so much about society's changing expectations of women, young people, and art - and explains why Pretty in Pink should be put on school syllabuses immediately.

From how John Hughes described Molly Ringwald, to how the friendship between Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi influenced the evolution of comedy, and how Eddie Murphy made America believe that race could be transcended, this is a "highly personal, witty love letter to eighties movies, but also an intellectually vigorous, well-researched take on the changing times of the film industry." (The Guardian)

This was the most recent book club entry in the Cannonball Book Club, where the theme was movie related non-fiction. It wasn't the book I voted for, but book clubs are all about expanding ones horizons and reading things you wouldn't necessarily pick yourself, so I downloaded it from the library and started reading. Sadly, on the day of the actual book club discussion, I was feeling unwell, and not really able to take part as much as I would have liked. Of course, now it's been over a month since I finished the book, and while I kept thinking I should take notes to remember my opinions, that didn't really happen. So this review is going to be rather rambling, as I try to articulate what I thought and felt while reading it.

The first essay, about Dirty Dancing and sexuality on film, especially that of women, was really fascinating to me. While I straight up disagree with Freeman on a lot of points she makes in the book, it was really interesting to read about this movie (a film I only saw when I was closer to twenty than in my teens, and therefore never really saw the swoon-worthiness of the film, unlike many of my contemporaries). Having read Freeman's essay, I'd like to rewatch the movie, looking at its portrayal of female agency and the like. Freeman makes several points in the book in various essays about how "women's movies" don't really get made anymore, and I sadly think she's right. Unless movies can appeal to a wide range of demographics, they are unlikely to be greenlit now.

Like Freeman, I grew up in the eighties and nineties, but I didn't consume movies the way she clearly did. While I love watching movies and agree with her on the greatness of so many films, I was almost first and foremost a reader, and would therefore rarely obsessively watch the same movies again and again. As I mentioned above, she makes a lot of good points, but I never really felt that "Lessons we learned from eighties movies" was really what this book was about. If the book had been called "one film geek's opinions on eighties movies", it would have been a much more accurate title, but I suspect she'd have had a harder time getting the book published.

Because I didn't take notes, I can't really remember which bits of the book annoyed me the most. This isn't the best of reviews, so many other, more eloquent Cannonballers have reviewed the book already over on the group blog. I'm not regretting that I read the book, and it made me very eager to go seek out some of the eighties classics I've never seen, but unlike some pop culture non-fiction I've read, I'm unlikely to ever revisit this one.

Judging a book by its cover: My main gripe with the cover is the subtitle: The lessons we learned from eighties movies, because I really don't think Freeman manages to fully commit to her "thesis statement" so to speak. In so many cases, she just talks, very subjectively, about what she thinks of these movies, without there being any obvious "lessons learned" at all. The cover design, evoking old VHS tapes and their many colourful covers is a nice touch, though. Having grown up in the 1980s, just like Freeman, the cover was a good little piece of nostalgia.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.