Monday 16 July 2018

#CBR10 Book 55: "Wilde in Love" by Eloisa James

Page count: 416 pages
Rating: 2.5 stars

Lord Alaric Wilde is the third son of the Duke of Lindow (although the eldest died in a tragic accident a few years back). He's been travelling the world for years, having adventures and while he was gone, the books about his travels have become hugely popular, particularly because of a wildly successful play, portraying him as a tragic romantic hero. Alaric is rather taken aback by his overwhelming fame when he returns home.

At a house party at his father's, there are masses of young ladies who want to meet the tragic hero of Wilde in Love (where Lord Wilde's missionary daughter love interest is eaten by missionaries), but Alaric finds himself drawn to the only woman who is completely unimpressed by him (natch!). She's never read a single one of his books, although she has listened to her best friend rave about her crush for Alaric for several years. Miss Willa Ffynch was one of the most popular young ladies of the season and has turned down countless proposals. She's a very private person and wants nothing to do with a man whose face appears on posters and exploits are written about in the newspapers. Nevertheless, she can't help but be charmed by the charismatic explorer.

When a rather unhinged young lady appears at the duke's residence, claiming to be the author of Wilde in Love, not to mention Lord Alaric's one true love, Willa is persuaded to pose as Alaric's fiancee until the madwoman can be convinced that Alaric has never had, and never will have any feeling for her. Will pretending to be Alaric's intended convince Willa that he's really the man for her?

I usually find Eloisa James' novels at least vaguely entertaining, but this book was a total slog. I pretty much just finished it out of stubbornness. I just really didn't care about the protagonists at all and their romance developed far too quickly. Alaric pretty much falls for Willa at first sight, and they barely spend a week together before she, despite her reservations has fallen for him. There's all manner of strange plot points - he gives her a baby skunk as a gift (because random peddlers in late 18th Century England totally had baby skunks in their wagons), there's his deranged, super religious stalker who they have to deal with.

As the first book in a series, it's also pretty heavily setting up sequels. There's Alaric's older brother North, who because their eldest brother died is the heir to the dukedom. Throughout the book, it's clear that his intended, Diana, has no wish to marry him and only agreed because her mother pressured her into it. She runs away in the end, but is confronted by him in one of the final chapters (just as he's about to go to America to fight in the Revolutionary War - there's NO WAY a duke's heir would have been allowed to join the armed forces and go off to the Colonies to fight a war). I know their book is the next one, and based on their interactions in this book, I'm really not particularly bothered to find out how they eventually find their happy ending.

A couple whose book I may check out, even if I found this book tremendously underwhelming (it wasn't even so bad it's good, just completely meh) is Willa's best friend, Lady Lavinia, who spends most of this book sniping at Alaric's best friend, a super wealthy businessman. I am a sucker for a good enemies to lovers story, and have hopes that it may be more to my tastes than this rather forgettable tale. It's out at the end of July, and if that's a dud too, I think Eloisa James is off my "to read" list. I don't know why so many of my old go-to authors are letting me down at the moment. It makes me sad. At least I got this one on sale, it certainly was not worth full price.

Judging a book by its cover: Points to the cover designer for including a scene that is actually in the book, where Lord Alaric ends up in a pond (for reasons I don't actually remember anymore). Also, way to tap into that Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in a wet clingy shirt vibe. Points deducted for using a cover model who looks uncannily like a younger version of Rob Brydon, who while frequently very funny, isn't really anyone's idea of a romance hero, as far as I know.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 15 July 2018

#CBR10 Book 54: "Iron and Magic" by Ilona Andrews

Page count: 396 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

While this is technically the first book in a new series, which can be read on its own, this book fits into the larger framework of the Kate Daniels universe (where this book is book 9.5 out of 10). So there's quite a bit of back story you're missing out on if you've not read the other books first. While the first book is rough, the series as a whole is my favourite paranormal/urban fantasy series, probably ever, so if you like the genre and haven't checked them out yet, do yourself a favour and get caught up before you read this book.

Plot summary stolen from Goodreads:
Hugh d’Ambray, Preceptor of the Iron Dogs, Warlord of the Builder of Towers, served only one man. Now his immortal, nearly omnipotent master has cast him aside. Hugh is a shadow of the warrior he was, but when he learns that the Iron Dogs, soldiers who would follow him anywhere, are being hunted down and murdered, he must make a choice: to fade away or to be the leader he was born to be. Hugh knows he must carve a new place for himself and his people, but they have no money, no shelter, and no food, and the necromancers are coming. Fast. 

Elara Harper is a creature who should not exist. Her enemies call her Abomination; her people call her White Lady. Tasked with their protection, she's trapped between the magical heavyweights about to collide and plunge the state of Kentucky into a war that humans have no power to stop. Desperate to shield her people and their simple way of life, she would accept help from the devil himself—and Hugh d’Ambray might qualify. 

Hugh needs a base, Elara needs soldiers. Both are infamous for betraying their allies, so how can they create a believable alliance to meet the challenge of their enemies? 

As the prophet says: “It is better to marry than to burn.” 

Hugh and Elara may do both.

This book was never meant to exist. Hugh D'Ambray, the male protagonist of this book (can't really bring myself to call him a hero yet, he's very much not one) started out as one of the main antagonists in Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series. His forces killed off a beloved supporting character. He was the main henchman for the series' ultimate villain and did his job really very well indeed. On April 1st, 2015, the authors posted a fake cover and blurb, suggesting that they were writing a book about Hugh. It was meant to be a joke, but the response from their fans was overwhelming. As the authors explain here three years later (when the book was well and truly completed), they got enough requests for the book and thought about it long enough that they realised they could actually make the book a reality.

Hugh really is not a nice man, but Ilona Andrews are absolutely amazing writers and I had absolute faith that if they decided to publish a book about him, he would be worthy of their efforts (the authors, while they put their characters through a lot of pain and misery, are big believers in ultimate happy endings). They were never going to spend time and effort writing a book and waste money self-publishing it if it wasn't going to sell, and be an entertaining story. The fact that apparently Hugh will feature in not just ONE book of his own, but a trilogy, was a delightful surprise.

I really wasn't sure what to expect, but I've said before that if Ilona Andrews decide to publish their shopping lists, I am going to buy them (probably in multiple formats) - so whether they made it believable that any woman would actually marry Hugh (and most likely fall for him over the course of the story) was really rather secondary to me. What was refreshing is that they don't in any way retcon what has gone before in the Kate Daniels books. Hugh was a villain. He did really bad things, all on the orders of Roland, his master and the Godlike figure that gave him power and a reason to live. Of course, all those books are told from the POV of Kate Daniels - we only see one side of things. In this book, Hugh openly reflects on and tells his new allies about his past, and we get to see his side of things. He's still not a good guy, by any means, but a much more believable anti-hero. When we begin the book, Roland - the magical powerhouse that Hugh has spent pretty much his entire life serving, has cast him out and to him, it feels like his God forsook him and there is just a horrible gaping void where his purpose used to be. Hugh pretty much wants to drink himself to death, but what remains of his loyal lieutenants won't let him. They want him to save what is left of their forces and start fighting back.

There aren't a lot of places where a small ragtag army of highly trained fighters and their disgraced commander can find shelter, and Hugh isn't exactly thrilled when he finds out he will have to marry a stranger with unknown magical powers to secure it. Of course, his potential bride, Elara Harper doesn't exactly think he's the catch of the century either. In this book, we don't find out a whole lot about Elara or the reason her people were driven away from the others they used to live with (or why they were willing to use some serious dark magic to summon some horrible beasties to wreak havoc on her wedding day), but she's clearly extremely powerful, and needs to fight to remain in control of her powers.

One of the reasons I didn't feel I could give this book a full five stars is because the authors wouldn't give a few more hints about Elara and her powers, but I guess all will be revealed in the books to come. As always, this book has a great cast of characters - with a diverse cast of supporting players as well as some pretty sinister threats facing our protagonists, not all of them sent by Roland. While making Hugh an main character in his own right and giving him a worthy foil in Elara, the authors set up a lot of stuff to be dealt with in the books to come.

I'm very glad that this April Fool's joke became a reality, and that when the main Kate Daniels series is wrapped up at the end of August, there will still be two more books about Hugh and Elara to look forward to. Thank the benevolent authorlords.

Judging a book by its cover: Ilona Andrews have had a LOT of really very ugly covers throughout their career. As this book is self-published, they financed the photo shoot and cover design of this book themselves. It's still pretty cheesy, but in all honesty, most paranormal/urban fantasy covers are. The guy portraying Hugh looks tough and broody, the lady portraying Elara looks mysterious and bad-ass, there's a castle in the background - it gives you a pretty good impression of what the contents of the book is going to be. I don't love the cover, but in the long history of Andrews' book covers, this is SO much better than most of them.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 53: "Eliza and Her Monsters" by Francesca Zappia

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 5 stars

I was going to start this review the way I normally do, with a few paragraphs trying to sum up the story of the book. But having written nearly two whole paragraphs, I went back and deleted them, because I don't really want to say too much about the plot of the book. I didn't know a whole lot going into the book, and I think my reading experience was better for it.

Very short summary: Eliza Mirk is a teenager soon to graduate high school. Hardly anyone knows that she is the beloved creator of wildly popular web comic Monstrous Sea, which has millions of fans. One day, a new kid transfers to her school, and she discovers he is a fan of her work. They become friends, and Eliza struggles with keeping her true identity from him.

There were a lot of thing that reminded me of Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl in this book, except Eliza isn't actually writing fan fiction, but creating her own unique and extremely popular web comic. Nevertheless, the explorations of creativity and fandom, the pressure to perform, the anxiety about not being good enough, what it's like to truly love and identify with something - be it a book series, a web comic (or it could be movies or a TV show) are themes that run through both books.

Cath and Eliza are both introverted and have difficulties making real life connections in the world around them. They both find it easier to interact with people online, something I myself can absolutely identify with. They are both incredibly creative, and feel the pressure to deliver good content to their fans. Eliza has parents who are a lot more reliable than Cath, but they don't really understand their daughter much at all. They find it much easier to relate to her boisterous younger brothers (who I found annoying at first, but who ended up making me cry happy tears because of how awesome they turned out to be towards the end of the book).

Because of the similarities with Fangirl, I was probably a lot harder on Wallace than I should have been. Because Levi is such an awesomely supportive and great guy, I wanted Wallace to be exactly the same, despite the fact that unlike Levi, who is a very laid back and comfortable in his own skin college kid, Wallace is still in high school and has some serious trauma in his past. He also has some pretty heavy parental expectations to live up to, and Eliza keeps a secret of major proportions from him. The fact that he acts like an idiot for a while, instead of just being there for Eliza is frankly much more realistic, it just took me a while to come to terms with this.

As well as writing a really lovely book, which made me feel a vast array of emotions while reading it, Francesca Zappia also illustrates the story, so you can see what Eliza's artwork looks like. In some places, you get the novelisation of her story, which becomes more significant as the story progresses. As is more often than not the case for me with fiction within fiction, I desperately wanted to be able to read the entirety of Monstrous Sea, as well as the book series that Eliza loved as a kid (although it would probably gut me that it was never completed - as it does its fans within this story).

This was such a wonderful book and I am going to have to what else the author has written, so I can get my claws into that too.

Judging a book by its cover: I like that the cover artist has kept the dark-haired girl blurred out for the most part, so the reader is free to imagine their own image of Eliza. Her hands, which she uses to create her art, are in the foreground, holding little animated versions of what I'm assuming is supposed to be Wallace and Eliza. I only question why the girl's hands are paint-stained, as Eliza clearly uses digital tools to ink her drawings. I guess paint-stained hands are a good short hand for artist.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 7 July 2018

#CBR10 Book 52: "The Kiss Quotient" by Helen Hoang

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Stella Lane loves mathematics and equations and is extremely good at her job, which involves creating algorithms to predict customer purchases, It makes her highly valued by her employer and she makes more money than she has any idea what to do with. Stella has Asperger's, which means she's on the Autism Spectrum, and has not had a lot of success when dating in the past. She believes this is her fault (it's not, she's clearly dated some total loser creeps). So when her mother declares that she would like grandchildren, Stella tries to methodically figure out how to get better. How does one practise dating? Hire a tutor, of course.

Stella engages the services of escort Michael Phan. Half Vietnamese, half Swedish, Michael works as an escort every Friday night to help pay for his mother's medical bills (a side of his life he keeps completely secret from his family). He has a rule that he never sees the same woman more than once, but Stella isn't like most of his other clients and he is intrigued by her offer to teach her how to succeed in a romantic relationship, even though he's a little taken aback by her lesson plans (complete with boxes to tick once she's completed an objective).

Soon, what began as a business arrangement becomes something more emotional, but both Stella and Michael have baggage that make it difficult for them to fully commit to the other. Can they move past the negative experiences of their pasts to find a future together?

I've seen The Kiss Quotient mentioned on a lot of romance review blogs, both on "Can't wait to read" lists and generally very favourably reviewed. It's rare enough that romance feature South Asian characters, or feature a positive portrayal of sex work, but neuro-atypical characters are even fewer and far between. Way back in 2011, I read Jennifer Ashley's The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, which features a hero who is Autistic, and I seem to recall that was a pretty big deal at the time. That book didn't work for me at all, for a number of reasons, but since this one came so highly recommended and I wanted to cannonball on something hopefully good, I picked this up.

Earlier this week, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books featured a guest review from a woman who is also Autistic and absolutely loved this book, because she recognised so much of her own life in it. In her afterword, the author explains that it was while doing research for this book that she discovered that she herself in fact had Asperger's, and that it can manifest very differently in men and women. Because so much of the research and literature is about men, it can be more difficult for women to be diagnosed. Hence Ms Hoang was a grown woman when she realised that she was neuro-atypical and that there was a good reason for all her little "oddities".

Stella believes herself to be cold and unlovable. Because of her previous bad dating experiences, she thinks kissing is "like a shark getting its teeth cleaned by a pilot fish". She's not a virgin, but has never had an enjoyable sexual experience. So it should come as no surprise that one session, even with a considerate and very seasoned escort, is not going to make her comfortable with intimacy. She's very wary of being pitied and doesn't want special allowances made for her, so she's adamant that Michael not find out about her diagnosis. Even as their relationship progresses, Stella believes that all their stumbling blocks are because of her, because she doesn't know about Michael's emotional baggage.

Michael's father is not a nice guy. He was clearly a serial womaniser, but Michael's mother kept forgiving him the cheating, until one day he stole all their savings and ran off. Then Michael's mother got cancer and if Michael hadn't stepped up, his family would have lost their home and dry cleaning business. No one in his family knows that his mother didn't have insurance, and that Michael has been working as an escort every Friday for the last three years to pay for her treatment. After he got a particularly obsessive client who started stalking him, he introduced the "one night" only rule, which he goes back on once he meets Stella and is intrigued by her proposal. Michael is the only man in a large family of women. Because he is handsome and charming like his father, he believes that he too is only one bad judgement away from becoming a user and a manipulator. Once his relationship with Stella develops, he believes himself completely unworthy of her, not just because of his escort job, but because she's tons smarter than him, from a wealthy background, is much more highly educated and makes a ton of money. He's not threatened by this in the slightest, in fact, he's super impressed by her, but can't possibly see a future for her with someone as unworthy as him.

Michael's low self esteem and worries about turning out like his dad are in fact much more detrimental to their relationship than Stella's sometimes strange behaviour and insecurities about her condition. While I very much enjoyed the book, the time it took him to understand just how good he and Stella could be together and how totally NOT his dad he was, made me annoyed. I also wish Stella's co-worker, who clearly doesn't even notice her until she's dating someone else had been less of a creep, but these stories do tend to need a villain, right?

Fun fact, as I don't watch K-dramas at all, I had to google Daniel Henney (apparently Michael looks a lot like him). As a mental image for the hero, it certainly worked well. If you want to read an enjoyable romance with a kind of gender-swapped Pretty Woman storyline, featuring a neuro-atypical South Asian heroine working in STEM, this is the book for you. I'm already looking forward to Ms Hoang's next book, which will feature Michael's Autistic cousin.

Judging a book by its cover: I like this cover, with the teal background colour. While I don't necessarily like people kissing on my book covers, it works for me here because the characters are drawn, not in a photograph. They're also stylised enough that the depictions in no way ruin my mental image of what the characters in the book look like. Not sure I like the yellow font for the name of the book, but that's a minor niggle.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR10 Book 51: "All Systems Red" by Martha Wells

Page count: 144 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

From Goodreads:
In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn't a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied 'droid - a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as "Murderbot". Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is. 

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it's up to the scientists and Murderbot to get to the truth. 

Recently, I read Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, which won the 2016 Nebula award for best novella. I was rather underwhelmed by that story. All Systems Red just won the Nebula for best novella for 2018, and I thought that was a much more deserving winner - and a much more engaging and well-written story besides.

I think a lot of introverted and nerdy readers on the internet can identify with Murderbot, who has hacked its own governor module and spends all of its downtime (and any other spare moments it can get away with it) consuming the countless hours of entertainment media it has sneakily downloaded. As it points out in the very first lines of the novella, it could have become a mass murdering killing machine after hacking its governor module, but with all that media to consume, who has the time? Murderbot finds social interaction deeply awkward and absolutely hates small talk and especially talking about feelings of any kind, which makes the fact that several of the scientists keep trying to engage it in conversation and treating it as an important member of the crew, not just a mindless droid (it's not mindless, of course, but it also would rather be left alone). Muderbot loves its armour and hates having to be without it, which becomes a bit of an issue as the story goes on - its duty is to protect the scientists and unexpectedly, what was supposed to be a pretty routine research mission turns out to be really rather dangerous.

The first instalment of The Murderbot Diaries is an excellent example of why I keep trying science fiction, a genre that is more often than not miss than hit for me. It's not that I hate all sci-fi stories, it's just that the ones that I really like and that manage to really engage me emotionally are few and far between. Since Murderbot clearly is some sort of spiritual cousin to Marvin the Paranoid Android (I first read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in my early teens) and also has many of the same anxious reactions to socialising as I frequently do, not to mention wants nothing but to be left alone and consume mindless entertainment, I (like so many other readers) couldn't help but love it.

The second novella in this series is out now, but I'm not allowing myself to read it until I'm fully and completely caught up on my backlog. Happily, while it's taking a while, I am slowly but surely churning out reviews and should be able to read about Murderbot's next adventure soon.

Judging a book by its cover: This cover shows Murderbot, in its armour that it finds so comforting, front and centre. The background is suitably ominous, considering the contents of the story. I like that the art is done in such a way that this almost looks like black and white, except it's not.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.