Sunday 29 April 2018

#CBR10 Book 38: "Hurts to Love You" by Alisha Rai

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

This is the third book in a trilogy, and it's probably best to have read at least Hate to Want You first, to fully get the most out of the story. The central romance works on its own, but there are a lot of stuff in this book that works best if you've read at least the first book in the series.

Evangeline "Eve" Chandler has quietly suffered her father's verbal abuse for much of her life, and only recently started standing up for herself and choosing to do her own thing. She's quit her job working for the family's charitable foundation and has been secretly working as a driver for a ride share company, while doing research and planning to possibly start her own business. Struggling massively with self esteem issues, she's nervous about telling her beloved older brother about the idea, as he'd prefer it if she start working in the family company with him. Another secret she's been keeping, for much longer, is her years-long crush on Gabe Hunter, the tattoo artist who's her brother's best friend. She knows Gabe still sees her as a kid, but hopes that her brother's wedding may be a chance for her to show him that she's all grown up.

Gabriel "Gabe" Hunter grew up with the Kane family's children, since his adopted mother was their housekeeper. Then the Kanes and the Chandlers had a massive falling out (see my review of book one) and as Gabe was friends with Paul Kane, he didn't really feel he could have anything to do with the Chandlers anymore. Now Livvie Kane and Nick Chandler have buried the hatchet and are getting married. Both Gabe and Eve are in the wedding party, and end up spending quite a bit of time alone together in the week leading up to the ceremony. While Gabe has been trying not to notice, it's obvious to him that little Eve is a full-grown woman now, and she's not afraid to show her interest in him. It's not just the age difference between them or that she's a rich heiress and he's the housekeeper's son that could be problematic for a possible relationship. Gabe has secrets he's been keeping for most of his life, secrets that could impact both the Kane and the Chandler family and this wedding is certainly not the time he'd want those to come out.

OK, so first of all, it was super weird to be reading a romance with a hero called Gabriel when I now have an almost three month old baby with that same name. Thankfully, no one ever calls the hero anything but "Gabe", a nickname I will personally cut anyone who tries to attach to my child, so it could have been weirder. Secondly, while I really liked the first two books in this series (I know they didn't necessarily work for others amongst the CBR romance readers), this book failed to entirely work for me. I wasn't really convinced by the central romance, and towards the end, the big melodramatic family secrets that have been lurking in the background throughout the series were all revealed and overshadowed Eve and Gabe's story even further.

Nick and Eve's dad is quite clearly a class-A d*ck and I didn't care the slightest for the motivations behind his actions - there is no excuse for how he treated his children or Mrs Kane after the death of her husband and the way he kept the family feud going. He keeps trying to control his children, to the point where he comes to the rehearsal dinner and tries to get his son to break up with his fiancee - not cool.

This whole series has been a little bit too soap opera-y to my tastes, but it did put Alisha Rai on my radar, and since I'm not exactly great about reading diversely, that's not a bad thing. I will absolutely be looking into both her back catalogue, and for any new releases she has coming in the future.

Judging a book by its cover: Whomever is responsible for the cover art for this series has seriously been knocking it out of the park. On all three books, they've managed to find cover models who actually not only look more or less like the people described in the book, but they've dressed them in outfits that said people are likely to wear (or even described as wearing). While I didn't picture Eve's dress exactly like this, it's still a heck of a cover. Too bad about the man bun - can't stand those.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 37: "The Suffragette Scandal" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 260 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 54 mins
Rating: 5 stars, because that's the highest I can rate.

This is a re-read. My original review can be found here.

If you do read my original write-up of this book, you will see just how full of superlatives I was for this book. It is very rare that I just can't concentrate on other books before I've read a book at least twice, just to get it out of my system a little bit. This is one of the few books I can remember that happening with. There are very few books out there that are just perfection to me - I can usually think of at least one or two things that could have been improved or that annoyed me in some way. Not so with The Suffragette Scandal. It delighted me from the first page until the last. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me sigh with satisfaction. Some people might think it could have done with more *insert funky bass line here*. Like many of Milan's romances, it's lighter on the smexy times than a lot of historical romances. I don't think the story suffers for it.

There are a lot of books published every year, and as someone who reads so much romance, there was always the chance that someone had written and published something that surpassed this in the four years since I first read it. Having just re-read it, I can't think of any book that just worked for me on so many levels. I was both surprised and pleased to discover that this book completely and utterly held up to the pedestal I'd put it on in my memory. It doesn't just have two very satisfying slow-burn romances, it has a wonderful heroine, who even in the face of absolutely impossible and staggering odds refuses to be stopped or discouraged. Edward starts out cynical and disillusioned, but finds new purpose in his life because of the dogged optimism and determination of Free.

Most of the things I can say about this book are already in my original review. Even four years later, it absolutely holds up. I adore this book and think it's the best thing Courtney Milan has ever written.

Judging a book by its cover: I really like the deep blue of the dress, and I think it's one of the better results of the photo-shopped and edited wedding dresses.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 36: "The Countess Conspiracy" by Courtney Milan

Page count:
Audio book length: 10 hrs 49 mins
Rating: 5 stars

This is a re-read, my original review of this book can be found here. The book can be read on its own, but works better if you've read at least The Heiress Effect

The final book in a trilogy is always supposed to be about the most complicated of the characters, right? As it turns out, this wasn't actually the final book in the series, as the novella Ms Milan intended for Free Marshall turned into a fourth novel, but this is nevertheless the book and the characters she planned the whole series around. She always intended to write about the brilliant lady scientist, having her male best friend pass her work off as his, because it was inappropriate and unacceptable for her to present it herself (and she was unlikely to get it published in the first place). Still, when it was revealed at the end of The Heiress Effect that Violet was in fact the scandalous scientist, and that Sebastian was becoming more and more depressed having to present her research, it was a jaw-dropping revelation (I didn't really know about all the lady scientists over the years this literally happened to).

I always have to brace myself to re-read this book, because Violet breaks my heart like none other. Due to the way she's been brought up, she's so very closed off from the people around her and while she's absolutely brilliant, a genius in her field, she's so absolutely clueless about friendship and emotions and can't recognise friendship and affection when it's very much being offered up to her. Her marriage, which may have started out ok, did not end well and her husband's growing resentment and eventual callous disregard certainly didn't help with her self esteem issues. Violet loves her sister, but their relationship is also a tricky one - with Violet having to face her sister's ridiculous fecundity, while Violet herself is a childless widow, who never managed to produce the heir her husband so desperately wanted, making her a failure as both a wife and a Victorian woman.

In addition, the scientific achievements that Violet has worked on for years, her real "babies" so to speak, are seen as so inappropriate and scandalous. When she tried to have her first paper published under her own name, no one would even read it, and only once Sebastian signed his name to it did anyone deem to take notice. When he presents her findings in lectures, the crowd is half made up of interested fellow scientists, but just as much outraged citizens who are appalled and disgusted and want to protest Sebastian's audacity.

Over the course of the book, Sebastian and Violet discover that they are not the only ones who have taken to deception and chosen to present a woman's work as that of a man. Ms Milan very specifically addresses the issue in her afterword - history is full of women who have been overlooked and forgotten, because it wasn't appropriate for them to speak their minds. So many scientific discoveries are credited to men, when women were the minds behind them.

Where a lot of authors are quite happy just to write a satisfying historical romance, Ms Milan wants her books to be about more than just the HEA. What is so impressive is that she manages to cover serious issues without ever seeming heavy-handed and preachy. The Countess Conspiracy is a lovely romance - Violet and Sebastian have known each other since they were children, and Sebastian has loved her for more than half his life. He's just waiting for Violet to realise she's worth loving. And even when Violet can't believe herself worthy of love or affection, she is Sebastian's staunchest defender and champion. Their relationship is deeply satisfying, and you learn things along the way as well.

Judging a book by its cover: Another edited wedding dress, this one in purple. Violet is described as wearing a lot of purple, and on re-reading this time, I wondered if it's actually a way to signalise her mourning for all the pregnancies that never went anywhere. Purple was after all a colour of half-mourning in Victorian times.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 21 April 2018

#CBR10 Book 35: "Half-Off Ragnarok" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is book 3 in a series. If you want to start at the beginning, check out Discount Armageddon.

From Goodreads: When Alex Price agreed to go to Ohio to oversee a basilisk breeding program and assist in the recovery of his psychic cousin, he didn't expect people to start dropping dead. But bodies are cropping up at the zoo where he works, and his girlfriend - Shelby Tanner, an Australian zoologist with a fondness for big cats - is starting to get suspicious. 

Worse yet, the bodies have all been turned partially to stone... The third book in the InCryptid series takes us to a new location and a new member of the family, as Alex tries to balance life, work, and the strong desire not to become a piece of garden statuary. Old friends and new are on the scene, and danger lurks around every corner. 

Of course, so do the talking mice.

While Verity and Dominic are off on a road trip, moving all of Verity's stuff (and her little colony of mice) from New York, the readers are introduced to her older brother, Alexander Price. While Verity wanted to become a ballroom dancer, Alex has always embraced the family legacy and currently works in the reptile house at a zoo in Ohio. His assistant is a gorgon who keeps the snakes on her head hidden under a beehive wig. Most days, they have to figure out how to sneak a young girl into the enclosure with the giant cobra without anyone noticing, as the girl and the cobra are both wadjets, and engaged to be married. They need time to get to know one another properly.

Alex is staying with his grandparents, trying to help them tend to his cousin Sarah, who's rather far from her old self after massively taxing her abilities helping Verity escape the Covenant in New York. With his various cryptozoological research and his duties to his unusual family, Alex keeps having to come up with excuses to his girlfriend, who keeps getting more and more irritated, and then the first body shows up. Shortly after, Shelby comes over to his grandparents' house for the evening, and after meeting Sarah, it's clear that she knows more about the supernatural than Alex ever suspected.

I really liked the first two books in the InCryptid series, but this one was a slow starter for me. I couldn't care less about Alex and his boring research into tiny feathered frogs or whatever they were. Only after it becomes obvious that Shelby may know a lot about cats, but she's not really shocked by Alex' other extracurricular activities either. It takes her a while to get used to the fact that both his grandmother and cousin are from a species of psychic, telepathic and normally very self-serving and sociopathic creatures, who not only aren't as evil as the rest of their species, but in fact deeply loved by the Prices. She has an easier time getting used to Alex' grandfather, who is a revenant.

Together they investigate the deaths (because the death toll keeps rising) and it becomes clear that whoever is responsible is also trying to kill Alex and possibly Shelby as well. I learned a lot about what various creatures could wholly or partially petrify a person, and how. While neither Alex or Shelby appealed to me as much as Verity and Dominic, it was cool to meet their grandparents and se how Sarah was doing, and once they are able to be honest with one another, it's clear that Alex and Shelby are pretty much perfect for one another.

The next book is also about Alex and Shelby - set in Australia! - but as I'm not as excited about that right now, I'm going to take a bit of a break from the series and read some other things before I continue with the series.

Judging a book by its cover: While there's nothing particularly bad about this cover, my mental images of Alex and Shelby look nothing like the people on this cover. It's otherwise a perfectly ok cover, which gives a better impression of what you might expect from the story than the one for Discount Armageddon. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 20 April 2018

#CBR10 Book 34: "The Heiress Effect" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 280 pages
Audio book length: 11 hrs 56 mins
Rating: 4 stars

This is my first re-read of this book (as it was my least favourite of The Brothers Sinister series). My original review can be found here.

When I first read this book, I had very high expectations, because I always do when reading a Courtney Milan novel. They are more often than not little masterpieces, that utterly transport me away and make me feel all the feels. Oliver Marshall is a good supporting character in The Duchess War, but disappointed me as a hero in his own story. He does eventually see the complete error of his ways, and how his life has crushed his confidence so much that he's willing to give up on true happiness and a truly spectacular and original woman, and he does grovel prettily when he gets to that point - but even after everything, I was still left with the feeling that Jane, our unusual heroine, could do better. You don't want to finish a romance wanting the heroine to end up with someone else.

Obviously, when I started this re-read, my expectations were no longer so high, and I just remembered this as the weakest of the books in the series. It's why I've never re-read this one, which is certainly not the case with all the other books, all of which I love. This is still the weakest book of the lot, but as always, when ranking several things, something needs to come last, and this is not a bad book, it just ended up being something very different from what I was expecting the first time around and that made me cranky when rating and reviewing it, I think.

All the things I mentioned as good things still stand. All the various female relationships in the book are great. The subplot with Free and Oliver's elderly, reclusive aunt affected me so much more this time around. I genuinely cried at her fate, and got so emotional, imagining the very lonely life she must have had and how little her family really knew about her and understood her. I still love the secondary romance, with Jane's sister Emily, and Anjan. I especially liked how he got the prejudiced uncle won over and permission to marry Emily.

I'm very glad I listened to this again and gave it a new chance. I've upgraded my rating from 3.5 stars to a full 4, and will try to judge Oliver less harshly in future.

Judging a book by its cover: I don't think any cover could really do justice to any of Jane's truly eye-gouging dresses, and the frock worn by the lady on this cover seems far too elegant and not ostentatious enough for anything in Jane's wardrobe. The green dress she wears in one memorable sequence is described as rather a lot more vivid as well, I pictured the shade almost iridescent, like the green of an insect's wing.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 33: "The Duchess War" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 270 pages
Audio book length: 11 hrs 3 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Wilhelmina Pursling has a deep dark secret, and a scandal in her past. Her real name is Minerva Lane, and the reason she's assumed a new name, and tries to stay as quiet, unassuming and unnoticed as possible, is because it would be disastrous if the truth came out.

Robert Blaisdell, the Duke of Clairmont, not only notices Minnie, he's fascinated by her. The son of the rather dastardly duke in The Governess Affair, Robert hates being compared to his father in any way (not easy when the physical resemblance is very strong) and has devoted his life to righting the wrongs of the former duke. He hates his elevated position of privilege, and would like nothing more than to abolish the peerage entirely.

When Minnie is accused of writing handbills that incite workers towards riots and strikes, she realizes that her carefully constructed existence is being threatened. She needs to prove that Robert is the true author, while he's determined to charm her into silence, and possibly a dalliance while he's in town. The more time he spends in her company, however, the more smitten he is with her.

Milan's heroes are always Protectors. Strong and powerful men who are determined to take care of and protect those around them, but Milan's heroes always have wretched pasts as well. Robert is no exception. He's rich, handsome and powerful and spent a dreadful childhood feeling rejected by both his parents. His father was a tyrant, who exploited people for monetary gain or his own pleasure. Robert is determined to be his exact opposite, if he can. He's sensitive, clever and deeply lonely, and the scene where he tells Minnie about a "funny childhood memory" is absolutely heartbreaking.

Milan's heroines tend to be strong, independent and very smart. Minnie is probably the cleverest one yet. She's fully aware that most people will underestimate her, and uses it to her advantage. One of the few niggles I have about the story is the fact that in the beginning of the novel, Robert is so impressed and aware of Minnie's brains, but when it comes to sorting things out towards the end of the book, he seems to completely forget that she's clearly more brilliant than him and goes behind her back instead of of including her in the planning.

However, even with this minor annoyance, I would still rate this as one of Milan's best books, and it's not for nothing that she's my favourite historical romance author writing today (her contemporaries aren't bad either).

Judging a book by its cover: One of the many photo-shopped "lady in a wedding dress" covers that Ms Milan tends to use for her self-published romances, I nonetheless really love the deep red cover of the dress on this one. I don't really think the title of the book is very appropriate. Minnie and the dowager duchess (Robert's mother) are never at war, and none of the two duchesses ever wage war on anyone else either.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 19 April 2018

#CBR10 Book 32: "Opal" by Maggie Stiefvater

Page count: 38 pages
Rating: 3 stars

This is a short story set after the events of The Raven King, the fourth and final novel in The Raven Cycle.There will be spoilers for some of the plot in those books, so if you want to remain entirely unspoiled and haven't yet read these excellent books, come back after you've caught up.

Told in a somewhat disjointed and sometimes confusing way by Opal, the little dream creature created by Ronan, the readers get to see some of what is happening in the lives of Ronan and Adam after the events of The Raven King. As Opal is not really from our world, her perspective on things is not exactly that of a human. Yet readers will get some idea of how Ronan and Adam are doing and how their lives are proceeding. There are cameos and/or mentions of other familiar characters, as well as possible hints of what is to come (Stiefvater has confirmed that she's writing a new trilogy about Ronan).

Now I don't want to complain about bonus content from an author, but I absolutely adore Ronan and Adam, and while it was lovely to "see" them again, I would probably have liked this a lot more if it was told through the POV of a human narrator, rather than a rather flighty dream creature. It wasn't exactly what I was expecting - so others might like it a lot more than me.

Judging a book by its cover: A pretty simple cover, in shades of blue, with a feather and the layline symbol found in the other Raven Cycle covers. Nothing remarkable, but then this is a small bonus story, not a full novel.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 31: "The Governess Affair" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 152 pages
Audio book length: 3 hrs 50 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Serena Barton was a governess until she was fired without references. She wants the duke who is responsible to fork out suitable compensation and intends to sit on a park bench immediately outside his house until she is given her due. If that takes days or even weeks, she's nevertheless determined to persevere.

The duke of Clermont doesn't want to deal with Ms Barton, as he is currently trying to figure out a way to get his duchess back. Without his wealthy wife happy, the irresponsible duke has no income and she's really not going to be happy if she finds a scorned woman sitting outside their town house. So the duke sends his right hand man, former boxer Hugo Marshall, known in society as the Wolf of Clermont, to deal with the vexing female on his doorstep. She needs to be got rid of, and quickly at that.

Hugo Marshall is the son of a coal miner and intends to become very rich. Working for the duke is only a step on the way, but he does need to make sure the dissolute nobleman stays solvent, as if the duke doesn't have money, Hugo won't get any either. He therefore needs to deal with the "employment dispute" that Clermont has dropped in his lap - but quickly comes to find that Ms. Barton isn't easily intimidated. Come rain or shine, she shows up on her bench and while she initially refuses to tell Mr Marshall anything about why she wants compensation from the duke, as the days pass, he comes to understand more and more, and it becomes increasingly more difficult for him to stay loyal to his employer.

The Governess Affair is pretty much a perfect little novella that sets up Courtney Milan's series The Brothers Sinister. Serena and Hugo appear briefly in some of the later books, but only as supporting characters. This is the story of how they meet and fall in love, over a short enough period of time that in the hands of someone less skilled, it could be implausible. Yet, Ms Milan, ever a master of her genre makes it work, possibly because Serena and Hugo are both so desperately in need of someone to love, for someone who can take care of them and be taken care of in return.

For all that Serena has suffered a horrible indignity, she refuses to be crushed and beaten down by it. Her older sister Frederica has a pessimistic outlook, not only on Serena's situation and unlikely chance of a happy, satisfying future, but on everything, really. Frederica suffers from anxiety and gets worked up even at the thought of having to leave her comfortable rooms. Taking on the patriarchy in the way Serena does it, in her own quiet way, is entirely beyond her. Serena doesn't want great wealth, she just wants enough to buy herself a tiny farm, where she can grow lavender and other flowers that she can scent soaps with. Having lost her position as a governess, as well as her reputation, that dream is lost to her if she cannot get compensation from the Duke of Clermont.

Hugo Marshall ran away from home as a teenager, having decided after three days in a mine that he was having none of that. Having boxed as a prizefighter for a while, he eventually became Clermont's man of business, working very hard to turn the man's fortunes around, for a slight share in the profits. A wife and children don't fit anywhere into his plans for wealth and success, but once he meets Serena, who despite her petite size is so composed and formidable, he soon begins to question all his former plans.

This is a lovely, very romantic story - which in it's final section introduces three of the heroes for the novels to come, while they were still youths at Eton. As an added bonus, the novella is often offered for free at various e-book retailers, so if it's not available free of charge now, keep your eyes open - it probably will be again soon.

Judging a book by its cover: While Serena does wear a yellow dress for her wedding, I think the one pictured on this cover is rather more extravagant that anything she would be able to afford. I like that the cover model has her hair streaming down her shoulders, though, as there is a lovely scene involving the removal of hairpins in the story.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 30: "Midnight Blue-Light Special" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the second book in the series. There may be some mild spoilers for the first book, Discount Armageddon, in this review.

Set a few months after the events in the previous book, Verity Price is still trying to make it as a ballroom dancer, while also trying to study all manner of supernatural beings, all while keeping humanity in general from finding out about them. After her former boss' niece took over the club where she worked as a waitress, turning it into more of a burlesque than a strip club, Verity also gets to dance more. Then Dominic de Luca, her sort-of boyfriend shows up and pretty much asks her to pack up and leave town as soon as possible. The Covenant of St. George are sending three representatives to the city to ascertain whether they should start a purge, and they will realise that Dominic has been lying to them. If they discover that his previously rigid views on cryptids has been swayed by a member of the renegade Price family (who they would hunt down and eradicate if they knew any were still alive), they will be ruthless.

Despite Dominic's dire warnings, Verity isn't about to jump ship and leave all the various cryptids she knows in the lurch. Instead she does what she can to warn all of them to lay low, and sets up a sort of safe house for several of the ones who can't easily pass for human. She's worried about Dominic and about where his true loyalties lie. Can he - will he - give up on a lifetime of training and the people who raised him to help her? All of this becomes secondary when an agent of the Covenant manages to capture Verity - now the issue becomes whether her years of training is good enough to withstand the torture and questioning from the Covenant and whether she can escape before they break her and make her reveal the truth about her family and her cryptid friends.

The tone of this book is quite a lot darker than in Discount Armageddon, which despite the somewhat tense final act was more of an adventure romp. Verity gives some background on the Covenant of St. George in the first book, as well as info on her family's history with the group. However, as the only member we meet is Dominic, who is relatively quickly swayed by Verity's arguments about cryptids not all being monsters, we don't really get the full picture of what the organisation's members are like and how single minded they can be.

As it turns out, one of the Covenant agents sent to New York is from the branch of the family that defected a few generations ago, and she is out for vengeance for the loss of status her family suffered since then. When she gets her hands on Verity, she's not exactly gentle. Verity, in turn, has her physical and mental strength tested to its fullest, trying to outsmart the Covenant and escape before they can torture her into revealing everything she knows.

While Verity is captured, some of the chapters are narrated by Verity's cousin by adoption, Sarah, who's not human, but a cryptid known colloquially as a cuckoo. They are telepathic, extremely intelligent and usually completely sociopathic. Sarah is only different because she was raised to have a conscience. Normally studying higher mathematics in New York, she is determined to help out when Verity is captured, no matter how scared she is, although her task is made more difficult since she can't telepathically reach Verity. Getting further insight into Sarah was good, and I also liked the added presence of some of Verity's co-workers/allies, especially Istas the waheela (an Inuit shapeshifter who really likes to rend and tear things).

The next two books in the series are about Verity's older brother, Alex. While sometimes a series can work with different narrators (Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld springs to mind), I'm slightly torn about this too, as I wanted more about Verity and Dominic before giving up on them.

Judging a book by its cover: This cover isn't exactly exciting, but it's not as actively off-putting as the one for book 1 either. It's nice to see both Verity and Sarah on the cover, as Sarah plays a really important part in the second half of the book. And at least both of them are dressed normally, instead of showing ridiculous amounts of skin.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 15 April 2018

#CBR10 Book 29: "Discount Armageddon" by Seanan McGuire

Page count: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From Goodreads, because I'm really far behind on my reviews, and it's a good summary of the book:

Ghoulies. Ghosties. Long-legged beasties. Things that go bump in the night...the Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity - and humanity from them. Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she'd rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and is spending a year in Manhattan while she pursues her career in professional ballroom dance. Sounds pretty simple, right?

It would be, if it weren't for the talking mice, the telepathic mathematicians, the asbestos supermodels, and the trained monster-hunter sent by the Price family's old enemies, the Covenant of St. George. When a Price girl meets a Covenant boy, high stakes, high heels, and a lot of collateral damage are almost guaranteed. To complicate matters further, local cryptids are disappearing, strange lizard-men are appearing in the sewers, and someone's spreading rumours about a dragon sleeping underneath the city...

After it took me a few books to really get into it, I have been a huge fan of Seanan McGuire's October Daye series for many years. I was aware that she had written other paranormal fantasy books as well, but somehow never really felt the need to check them out (partially because of the dreadful outfit that the woman on the cover - who I now know is supposed to be Verity - is wearing). Also, I think I skimmed a blurb for this years ago and must have noticed the ballroom dancing more than the monster hunting. I was missing out. Only after my former Cannonball rival, now good online friend Jen K mentioned having blazed through the first three books in this series in about two days and really enjoying them (she's now read the entire series to date) was my interest peaked enough and checking my LibraryThing, I had in fact bought the first book on sale a while back (this is frequently the case - since I started reading and buying e-books, I own way more books than I can easily keep track of, hence the need for a digital archive). Since I have a baby, I can't really read three books in two days, but I did finish this one in about 24 hours.

I suspect fans of Supernatural would love these books. The first book is absolutely more light-hearted than the October Daye books, and Verity is a slightly more cheerful heroine. While ending up in danger, she's also not quite as near-death-prone as dear Toby. Verity is subletting an apartment from a Sasquatch and working part-time as a waitress in a strip joint run by a bogeyman. When not waitressing or trying to make it professionally as a ballroom dancer, she free runs across the rooftops of New York and tries to keep the cryptid (a nicer term than monster) population safe from humans and vice versa. Three generations ago, her family left the secret organisation known as the Covenant of St. George, a bunch of indiscriminate monster hunters (their motto seems to be: if it isn't human, it should probably be eradicated) because of a difference in ideology. Now they are on the Covenant's most wanted list, so Verity needs to keep her real identity secret. Her family believe that as long as cryptids are not a danger to their local eco system, they should be allowed to live and let live. This doesn't mean that Verity isn't trained in a range of combat styles and can use bladed weapons and firearms extremely well to protect herself and to take out cryptid threats.

While out on patrol one evening, she ends up in in a snare, discovering that the Covenant of St. George has sent a representative, Dominic de Luca, to the city to check whether the city needs a purge or not. The Covenant is bad news for cryptids and for members of the Price family, but after some negotiation, Verity and Dominic agree on an uneasy truce. Single, female cryptids keep disappearing, however, and initially, Verity suspects the Covenant agent of killing them, while Dominic thinks Verity has been warning them, so they've fled town. Once they realise that neither is to blame, but some kind of third party, they agree to work together to find out who's actually to blame.

It's obvious to anyone who's ever read a single romantic narrative that Verity and Dominic, especially because they start out as bitter enemies, at least on paper, are probably going to end up falling for one another. Dominic is initially rather stuffy and has pretty much been raised by a cult whose told him that anything not human is evil, so it takes him a little while to loosen up, but the longer he and Verity work together, the more he comes around to her way of thinking (there is also historical precedent for that - one of Verity's ancestors also ended up with the Covenant agent sent to bring her down).

Now that I've finally started these books, I'm both sad that it took me so long, and glad, because now there are seven books in the series so far (as well as a lot of novellas and short stories, McGuire is always big on fleshing out her world-building with bonus short fiction) and lots for me to read before I have to wait for new releases. It's always fun to find a new paranormal/urban fantasy series to binge-read and these are going to keep me busy for a while to come.

Judging a book by its cover: Oh, this cover. An athletic blonde in a minuscule parody of a schoolgirl's outfit. In pink. Now that I've read the book, I know that it's a very appropriate cover, and portrays Verity pretty perfectly. The awful outfit is what she's forced to wear while waitressing at the strip club and having her sit on a rooftop with a gun, a sword strapped to her back, is also perfectly within the realms of what she does in her spare time. But I am not going to lie, as I mentioned in the review above, I totally judged this book and avoided it for years, despite really liking the October Daye series, simply because I thought the cover was so awful.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 28: "Walk of Shame" by Lauren Layne

Page count: 256 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Georgiana "Georgie" Watkins is a wealthy heiress and socialite It-girl who usually comes home from her nights out around 5am, always making sure to bring donuts for the building staff before she retires to bed. While living a life of leisure and partying at night and planning charity fundraisers by day used to be diverting enough, Georgie is getting restless and bored, and starting to consider taking her dad up on one of his many job offers. Contrary to what some people think, it's not like she's stupid or incapable of working.

The "some people" Georgie is mainly thinking of is one of the other residents in her building, divorce attorney Andrew Mulroney. He's known as the "King of Divorce", the go to guy for all the biggest celebrity divorces and he gets up early each morning to hit the gym before going to work. As he leaves the building around 5am, he usually runs into Georgie and they trade barbs. Working divorces, Andrew really doesn't have much time for or belief in long term relationships, and he certainly wouldn't consider one with the spoiled socialite who taunts him every morning. Nevertheless, there is clear chemistry between them, and after a particularly aggravating verbal sparring session, Andrew kisses Georgie - and their kiss is caught on camera by the paparazzi. The gossip pages start speculating about them being a couple - but that could never really happen, could it?

 The Hating Game was my favourite book of 2016. Oh, how I love that book. I'm also a member of the Sally Thorne fan group on Facebook, where occasionally other people who love her book ask for recommendations of other romances. This was mentioned by several people, so when I found it in an e-book sale a while back, I made sure to snap it up. While I can see why it was recommended to fans of The Hating Game - there are absolute similarities - an enemies to lovers plot, nursing back to health (each of the protagonists actually take turns nursing the other, as one falls ill, then the other), a lot of verbal sparring, to me, this book didn't have nearly the same charm, and there was possibly too much time spent with Georgie and Andrew meeting in the lobby in the mornings without any other interactions building the tension, only for the book to finish far too quickly once their relationship was starting to actually develop. It felt a bit too fast for me.

Georgie also comes across as a bit too spoiled in the beginning, and even with her self-deprecating narration, I had some trouble connecting with her, even though she's clearly nice to the "staff". As someone who has never had the luxury to do pretty much nothing but party planning all day and actual partying all night, I struggled to have sympathy with her existential woes - get a job already! If she didn't need the money, she could work for a non-profit or something, just to have something worthwhile to do with her days. Still, I warmed to her within a few chapters, but I can see how it could be a deal-breaker for some readers.

Most of the chapters are narrated from Georgie's first-person POV. Then, in a stylistic choice that also grated on me a bit, there are some chapters from Andrew's POV, but they're in the third person. Not sure why Ms. Layne chose to do it this way. It seemed odd to me, and took me out of the story momentarily every time I hit an "Andrew" chapter.

Finally, the the big complication that splits the couple up for a while was very obvious from early on, and shows that Georgie really needs to understand that confidentiality in a major New York law firm means you can't tell anyone anything specific about your (or the company's business) without breaking said confidentiality. No matter how butt hurt your very recent girlfriend might be because you're keeping things from her. As a teacher, I'm not allowed to speak to anyone outside my school about my work or students without being vague and leaving out names and specifics - because that would be a breach of confidentiality. Yet another example of how Georgie probably should get some real-life work experience. Family and relationships don't supersede everything else. That's just not how a work-life balance works in reality.

This was a cute enough book and a quick read, and I absolutely want to check out more of Ms. Laynes's romances. But it was nowhere near as good or satisfying a read as The Hating Game. 

Judging a book by its cover: I don't know if Lauren Layne self-publishes some or all of her novels, but based on this cover, I can only assume this was self-published. If a publishing house actually paid someone to badly photoshop two stock photos of people who really look very little like the protagonists of the story (the male model is especially bad - Andrew doesn't have a beard and is supposed to be ginger), they really should ask for their money back. I actually avoided this book for a long time, exactly because I thought the cover looked so bad.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 14 April 2018

#CBR10 Book 27: "Unraveled" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 258 pages
Rating: 5 stars

This is a re-read, and my original review for this book can be found here.

As with the other Milans I've been revisiting, I wanted to listen to this in audio, but discovered, to my dismay that it wasn't narrated by Polly Lee, who did the first two books in The Turner series, but Nicole Quinn, whose voice just did NOT work for me. I tried to warm to her throughout the first chapter, but gave up and returned the audio.

Unraveled is my favourite book in this trilogy and still, so many years after I first read it (end of 2011) on of my favourite romance novels period. It's quite common in romance to save the last book in a series for the most conflicted and complicated of the characters introduced earlier in the series. This is certainly the case here. Smite Turner is scarred both physically and emotionally from the terrible things his overly religious (and quite quite mad) mother put him through growing up. All three Turner brothers are affected by the death of their sister Hope, but I'd forgotten that it was revealed in this book that she was Smite's twin - so he would likely feel the loss even more acutely.

In addition to the emotional scars he has from his mother's mistreatment and months living homeless on the streets, taking care of his younger brother, Smite is clearly neuro-atypical in some way. He has an eidetic memory and can recall everything he's ever seen or heard, making it all the harder for him to actually process and move beyond the traumas of his past. It seems being with Miranda makes him less acutely aware of them and makes them easier to bear, without their relationship being some sort of miraculous and implausible cure. One of the things I love so much about this book is that Smite is a very damaged individual and he's not magically fixed by the love of a good woman, he just finds it easier to cope when he's not all alone anymore.

As I said in my original review, this book can be read as a stand-alone, but being the third book in a trilogy, there are also scenes tying up story lines introduced earlier in the series and emotional punchlines that absolutely work better if you know the characters involved. All three books are excellent romances, so it shouldn't be a hardship for anyone to read them all.

I was very happy to see that Smite and Miranda Darling still made my heart happy, even if I'm disappointed that the audiobook didn't work for me.

Judging a book by its cover: Poor, partially decapitated cover model. While I'm grateful that we don't see the entire face of the woman who's supposed to portray Miranda (telltale red hair), so the reader can keep their own mental image of what she looks like, the "lopping the top of the person's head" off approach to covers isn't great either. Of all the dresses used for the books in the trilogy, I think this is the one I like the most, though, both in design and colour. So pretty.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 26: "Unclaimed" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 432 pages
Audio book length: 11hrs 15mins
Rating: 4 stars

This is my first re-read of this book. My original review can be found here.

With the other two books in The Turners series, I have re-read the books more than once over the years. I read Unclaimed back in 2011 and haven't revisited it since. Until now.

While I would still rank it as the weakest of the three books in the trilogy, that is only really because one of the books has to come in third place. In my memory, Mark and Jessica's story wasn't as engrossing and emotionally satisfying as that of Ash and Margaret or Smite and his Miranda Darling (review of re-read to come). On this re-read I found it a lot more rewarding, possibly because last time I read the book, I blazed through it during a Read-a-thon, while this time, I spent several days over it, listening to it in audio.

One of the nice things about this story is the reversed experience dynamic in the couple. So often you have the virginal or fairly sexually inexperienced heroine matching with the jaded and sexually prolific rake. Here, the hero is the virgin and the heroine the sexually experienced one, although at the start of the story, she's gone through a trauma bad enough that she can't even stomach being touched, let alone feel any sort of desire. Jessica has been so lonely for so long and it's a gradual process for her to even warm up to Sir Mark, the man she's been sent to seduce. Of course she eventually finds her mojo again and thanks to Mark and his unorthodox family, begins to believe that there could be a larger group of people who care for her.

I don't really want to spoil the book for anyone, so I'll not disclose exactly what sort of trauma Jessica is struggling to get over. All I will say is that on re-reading the book, the section where she reveals the truth to Mark had me in tears, my heart breaking for her, feeling her grief and loss of agency so much more strongly this time around, when I doubt I thought too much about it last time. Generally, Jessica as a heroine resonated so much more with me on this re-read than the first time I read the book.

I have long said that Courtney Milan is possibly the best historical romance writer out there, and this book is another example of why she's so very good. I'm very glad that I revisited this book and discovered that I liked it better than I remembered.

Judging a book by its cover: This, like all of Milan's books, has been reissued with Milan's own covers (she self-publishes all her books now), but my book still has the cover from the publisher. I think the cover designer could have done a better job finding a shot where the cover models looked like they were actually enjoying being in each other's company. The female model looks more like she's about to fall asleep than as if she's in the throes of desire. I like that she's wearing yellow, which is the colour of at least one of Jessica's dresses in the book. I also find the giant ring on the male model's hand funny - Jessica's tasked with getting Sir Mark's ring as proof that she's seduced him. I very much doubt his signet ring would be that gaudy and ostentatious.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 12 April 2018

#CBR10 Book 25: "The Day of the Duchess" by Sarah Maclean

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 2.5 stars

Three years ago, Seraphina "Sera" Bevingstoke, Duchess of Haven, miscarried her daughter (seriously this is NOT a spoiler, it happens in like the second or third chapter) and was persuaded by the Dowager Duchess of Haven that maybe it was best if she just disappeared. With financial help from her antagonistic mother-in-law, Sera flees her disaster of a marriage and goes to America, where she finds a business partner and something she enjoys doing enough to dull the pain in her heart. But to fully be the person she needs to become, she requires a divorce. So she walks into the House of Lords and demands one.

Malcolm Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven, has been searching the globe for his lost wife for the past three years. He certainly wasn't expecting her to just wander into Parliament and petition them for a divorce. He has absolutely no intention of granting Sera one, he still loves her and wants a chance to make amends for the utter disaster he turned their marriage into before she left. He claims he will let Sera have her divorce if she spends the summer with him, helping him find her successor. He was not expecting Sera to bring her four opinionated sisters with her.

The start of their marriage was an utter travesty - can Malcolm convince Sera that he truly does love her and is able to make her happy for the rest of their lives together?

I mostly really liked the books in Sarah Maclean's Love by Numbers and The Rules of Scoundrels and considered her an auto-buy author at one point. Sadly, with her newest trilogy of romances, Scandal & Scoundrel, I was initially quite entertained by the first book in the series, but the more I thought about it afterwards, the more problems I found with it. The second book was perfectly ok (but I know barely remember any details about it) and then there is this - a book I have kept putting off for more than six months after its publication, because I sure as heck wasn't going to read it while I was pregnant. I considered not reading it at all, but was also curious about it, as Sarah Maclean has been very open about how she had to rewrite most of it after the 2016 Presidential election results. In addition, I've also read everything else Ms. Maclean has written, including her really not very good at all YA romance The Season, so the completist in me really felt I had to read this eventually. Regretfully, it did not do much to entertain me.

Malcolm and Sera are pretty much love at first sight. He's a sought-after duke, whose parents had an unhappy marriage because his mother pretty much trapped his father and she's the eldest daughter of a man who won his earldom in a card game and a ruthlessly ambitious woman determined to make great matches for all of her daughters. Because of this, when Sera's mother persuades her that the only way to make sure their flirting ends in marriage is by entrapment as well, Malcolm's tentative romantic feelings towards Sera turns to hate, as he feels betrayed and hurt. They have to get married, but he has no wish to see her and they are separated for months.

The next time they see each other is when Sera's younger sister pushes Malcolm into an ornamental pond after she and Sera find him breaking his marriage vows with another woman (he claims this was a horrible moment of weakness, wanting to hurt and forget her). By now, it's obvious that Sera is pregnant. Tragically, she miscarries their daughter and is told by the doctor that she is barren. Malcolm's mother, who never wanted her son married to a vulgar social climber anyways is on hand to persuade Sera to leave for good.

Sera flees to America, where she befriends the owner of a tavern. She's always enjoyed singing and starts rebuilding her life as a singer. Now, three years later, the two of them own a series of taverns in the US and Sera has bought one in Covent Garden. But while she's still the Duchess of Haven she can't really own anything in her own right. She needs a divorce so she can become the owner of the tavern in truth.

Malcolm is full of regret for the many stupid and vicious things he said and did to hurt his wife and has had three years to really wallow in guilt. Because of the charade he has devised to make his wife love him again, he's stuck in the countryside with four eligible ladies and their families, all hoping to make a promising match, no matter how unorthodox the matchmaking is. Sera brings all four of her headstrong and scandalous sisters along as a buffer and has no intention of being seduced back, even if she's still strongly attracted to her husband.

The main problem with this book is that I didn't care at all about Sera or Malcolm. As the mother of a two month old boy, I naturally felt awful reading about Sera's miscarriage (which was why I also avoided this book while still pregnant), but I was wholly indifferent to their inevitable happy ending. Early on in their relationship, stupid decisions were made on both sides. Even with the extensive rewrite that Maclean did, Malcolm isn't exactly a prince of a man. He treats Sera dreadfully during the first few months of their marriage (not that they spend much time together - but flaunting his infidelity in public sort of does a lot of damage in a short space of time) and it's no wonder that she doesn't believe that he loves her or wants to spend the rest of his life with her. Especially since they both believe she is barren (SPOILER - of course she isn't. By the epilogue, it turns out that not only can she have children, they have a whole bunch). Barrenness isn't exactly an attractive trait in a duchess.

Malcolm takes most of the book to actually listen to Sera and start to respect her wishes. I will say that the grand gesture he makes towards the end of the book was good enough that I knocked my rating of this book up from 2 to 2.5 stars, but even then, the best thing about this book was one of the supporting characters, who is going to be the heroine in Maclean's upcoming Wicked and the Wallflower. I just hope desperately that Maclean's writing improves with that series, because this one ended on a total dud.

Judging a book by its cover: Another romance cover where the cover model is wearing nothing but a dress, mostly undone down the back. No chemise, corset or any type of undergarment, and the skirt appears to have yards and yards of fabric. I don't particularly like those covers at the best of times, but here it also appears as if one of the model's arms are on backward. I honestly don't entirely understand how the anatomy of this woman works. It gives me a headache.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Tuesday 10 April 2018

#CBR10 Book 24: "A Treacherous Curse" by Deanna Raybourn

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book three in a series, and as such, this review may spoil details from the two earlier books. If you want to start at the beginning, A Curious Beginning is the first book.

Veronica Speedwell and her colleague and sometime partner in crime-solving, Stoker (Revelstoke Templeton-Vane) are alerted to the fact that Stoker may well come under public scrutiny in a criminal case. John de Morgan, Stoker's former best friend and one time expedition partner, the man who ended up marrying Stoker's ex-wife after a very public scandal, has disappeared without a trace, along with a very valuable jewelled crown from an Egyptian tomb. Having worked as photographer on Sir Leicester Tiverton's recent and very archaeological expedition, de Morgan and his wife left abruptly and are believed to have stolen the artifact, but according to the police, the morning after the de Morgan's arrival in Dover, John de Morgan was gone, the room his wife claimed he had stayed in seems never to have existed and Mrs. de Morgan (formerly Mrs. Templeton-Vane) was left in a hysterical state, refusing to speak to investigators any longer.

To clear Stoker of any suspicion in the public's eyes, Veronica and Stoker need to locate John de Morgan, which means questioning all the other members of the Tiverton expedition, as well as anyone else who may have wanted to sabotage their work somehow. It means Stoker has to face his ex-wife Caroline again, as well as his less than amicable former parents-in-law. There is rumoured to be a curse hanging over the Tiverton expedition, which both of our intrepid investigators naturally ignore - but it's difficult to explain why and how the god Anubis himself keeps appearing on the streets of London.

In the second book in this series, the readers discovered more about Stoker's background with regards to his family life and his relationship with his brothers. In this book, we finally get the truth of what happened on the ill-fated expedition to South America, which left Stoker both physically and emotionally scarred, as well as publicly disgraced and later divorced upon his return to England. Veronica is both extremely curious and yet trying to stay respectful of Stoker, believing him to still have romantic feelings towards Caroline, the woman who left him for his best friend. As always, Veronica is fiercely protective of her friend, especially when facing off against his scornful former in-laws.

While these are very enjoyable stories, I must admit the mystery aspects are not the most riveting parts of the books. In both books two and three, I have been pretty certain of the identity of the villain before the truth is revealed, but even so, it's always fun to find out the full story of the how and why, the who-dunnit is rather secondary, really. Besides, the main reason I am now eagerly devouring these books is because I am totally hooked on Veronica and Stoker and every tiny way their relationship changes a little bit more from a close and mutually supportive friendship into something more romantic. There are further developments over the course of this book, and I am absolutely along for wherever the series takes them now. With most of both Veronica and Stoker's murky pasts explored, I'd be interested to see where Ms. Raybourn takes the story going forward.

Judging a book by its cover: As I said in my review for the last book in the series, I really do like the look of these covers, but I wish there were some more distinctive details on each, connected to the mystery within the cover. As this book is all about Egyptology and a suspected curse, it would have been nice to have something hinting at that - some hieroglyphics, a sarcophagus or some depiction of jewelry. Alas, there is none.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 5 April 2018

#CBR10 Book 23: "A Perilous Undertaking" by Deanna Raybourn

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This is the second book in the series, and the review will contain certain spoilers for the first book, A Curious Beginning. Therefore, if you're not all caught up and don't want the ending of that book and Veronica's background spoiled for you, skip this review until you're caught up.

Veronica Speedwell and her partner in mischief, Stoker (full name Revelstoke Templeton-Vane) were all set to go on an exciting expedition to the South Pacific when their employer, Lord Rosemorran, fell over his giant tortoise and broke his leg. Veronica's aunt, the Princess Louise, asks for help to clear the name of an acquaintance who has been convicted of murdering his pregnant mistress. Despite Stoker's misgivings, Veronica agrees to take the case, wanting to prove herself to her snooty relatives.

The case takes Veronica and Stoker to a rather unusual artists' colony, and the list of suspects keeps growing, at points involving the Princess Louise herself, as well as Stoker's estranged older brother, Lord Tempelton-Vane. Veronica has run-ins with all of Stoker's brothers over the course of the book and finds out more about why he really doesn't want anything to do with them. As in the first book, investigating leads both Veronica and Stoker into peril, and they both end up near death before they figure out the true murderer and are able to clear an innocent man's name.

I'm currently writing my book reviews either when my ever more awake and demanding infant is asleep (not often or long enough to my tastes) or in the brief moments when my husband is able to distract him with guitar playing, so the baby doesn't remember that what he really wants is to hang out on my lap, either being fed or just indulged. So I'm going to have to try to be more brief, so I can actually get some reviews finished at all.

While the first book introduced Veronica and Stoker, this is when I was really sold on the series. Veronica, while still independent and very sure of herself, is a lot less in your face about it. Her friendship with Stoker is pretty much what makes the story so good, there's absolutely mutual attraction and chemistry between them, but it takes second place to their more platonic feelings for one another (also, Stoker has a LOT of baggage). While Stoker is refusing to let Veronica investigate on her own, it's not because of any sexist belief that she can't handle herself, but rather that he doesn't want his friend to expose herself to danger without anyone covering her back. He even ends up volunteering to pose mostly naked for a sculpture so they have an excuse to keep going back to the artists' colony, leaving Veronica to snoop and question people by herself.

I'm still not overfond of the revelations about Veronica's family background, but it's pretty incidental to the bigger story. Stoker, who was pretty much a cranky, broody cipher in the first book is given more backstory here and we discover more about why he no longer has contact with his family and in fact goes out of his way to avoid them.

I don't know how many books Deanna Raybourn has planned for the series, but I'm firmly hooked now, and can't wait to see where their adventures take Veronica and Stoker next.

Judging a book by its cover: I really like these covers, even if they don't necessarily directly have anything to do with the plot of the novel. Having what looks like woodcuts as the covers of historical mysteries is a nice touch. They've given the lady silhouette a butterfly net, which is appropriate, but the moon, the fence and the swirling maple leaves don't really have anything to do with the story - and I highly doubt Veronica would be out hunting butterflies by moonlight. She doesn't really seem like a moth person.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.