Monday 27 May 2019

#CBR11 Book 23: "The Austen Playbook" by Lucy Parker

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Disclaimer! I got an ARC from NetGalley. This has in no way influenced my review.  I had already pre-ordered my copy of the book months ago, long before the ARCs became available. Also, because I am terribly late in reviewing it, the book is available on sale from the e-book vendor of your choice. It's excellent, you should totally spend your monies on it!

But what is the book about, Malin? You cannot expect people to fork out their hard-earned cash without knowing anything of the story. So here goes...

Frederica "Freddy" Carlton has been a critical darling on the London stage for more than a decade, having started out as a child star. She started out doing a lot of comedic work and musicals, but now her father, also her manager, wants her to focus on more dramatic and "serious" acting, following in the footsteps of her acclaimed grandmother, who was famous not just for her dramatic roles, but for later in her career writing one of the seminal dramas of the 20th Century. To say Freddy feels the family legacy weighing heavily on her shoulders is putting it lightly.

James "Griff" Ford-Griffin is the only rational and pragmatic member of a family of dreamers. When he's not on television as a theatre historian, he writes insightful and scathing reviews in one of the big London papers. His parents keep spending money they don't have hand over fist, his brother is well-meaning but rather ineffectual when it comes to actually helping out in any real way, while Griff is trying to keep the family estate afloat though any means possible.

Freddy and Griff first run into one another in a pub in London, after Freddy and her TV presenter sister has overheard Griff taking apart Freddy's most recent theatre performance in very unflattering terms. Even though his judgement of her acting is rather brutal, Freddy is also deeply impressed with how Griff seems to be the only one to see what she really wants to do with her career and how these new serious parts are sapping her spirit.

They meet again about a year later, when Freddy arrives along with a large cast of high profile TV and theatre actors to take part in "The Austen Playbook", a one night televised stage performance of a popular "Choose your own adventure" computer game, starring Jane Austen's many popular characters in a drawing room mystery. The TV viewers will have the chance to vote at various points of the performance on what direction they want the play to continue, meaning all the actors will have to learn a truly staggering amount of lines and plot variants. The location for this special TV event? Griff's family estate, which sports its own private theatre (built by his love struck grandfather for Freddy's actress/playwright grandmother, when they had a torrid affair back in the day). Griff and his brother have been promised a share in the profits and desperately hope that the event is a hit, or it's pretty much bye bye family mansion.

Freddy is bubbly, cheerful and optimistic. Griff is icy, sarcastic and tends to see the worst in any situation. They are polar opposites, but both became aware of the sizzling chemistry between them that first time they met in the pub, and staying in close confines on Griff's family estate means they soon find the opportunity to act on their mutual attraction. Complicating matters further is the fact that Griff is developing a film about Henrietta Carlton, Freddy's famous grandmother (and her affair with his grandfather), while Freddy's father is trying to stop him from getting the film financed. Freddy's manager dad is also deeply displeased about her choice to do something quite as frivolous as playing Lydia Bennett in a crowd-pleasing TV event, when she should be focusing all her energies on getting cast as the lead in "The Velvet Room", her grandmother's famous play.

History would have it that Henrietta wrote the play while staying on the Ford-Griffin's estate, but there are details to the story that don't entirely add up. In between trying to learn lines from a script the size of a phone book and trying to avoid the malicious attention of one of her fellow actresses, Freddy tags along with Griff to discover more about their grandparents' love affair and uncover secrets that have been buried for several generations. Secrets that involve both their families and could have huge ramifications if exposed.

The romance between Freddy and Griff develops quickly (they also address this IN the story), but they had met and formed an attraction before they are suddenly thrust into close proximity, and Parker really does make it work. The main couple are not the only great characters here. The supporting cast, especially Griff's brother Charlie and Freddy's sister (who will obviously be the heroine of Parker's next romance) are also excellent.

Neither Freddy, nor Griff, have easy relationships with their parents. Freddy's father is a former actor, who when injured on stage (rescuing a young Freddy from falling props) wrote a best-selling biography about his mother and is now an acclaimed theatre writer, as well as her demanding manager. Unfortunately, they have very different ideas of which direction Freddy's career should be taking, and what sort of parts would suit her best. Freddy feels obliged to follow the family legacy and take the dramatic roles her father expects of her, but dreams of starring in a big fantasy musical production, doing light hearted work and making audiences happy instead. Griff's parents are impractical dreamers, who spend outrageous amounts of money on materials and supplies for their extremely elaborate doll houses and miniature landscapes. They have absolutely no concerns about the family being nearly bankrupt and Griff having to mortgage his London flat to try to pay off some of the family debts.

I liked the underlying mystery of what exactly happened the summer that Henrietta Carlton wrote "The Velvet Room" and how Griff and Freddy's investigation uncovers new truths about previously believed facts. I absolutely loved the whole concept of "The Austen Playbook", taking Austen's many characters and pitting them against each other in a country house murder mystery, with the audience being allowed to decide what happens next. I would be glued to my television if this existed for real. I liked the rivalry between Freddy's sister and her handsome talk show nemesis (who is clearly going to be the hero in the next book - the enemies to lovers factor is going to be off the charts). I didn't particularly like the bitchy actress making life difficult for everyone during the production, but I don't think we're supposed to. It was nice to see a cameo from Leo from Making Up, with a brief mention of his girlfriend and baby! While they're only mentioned in passing, there was enough detail about the fantasy book series being adapted into the musical Freddy wants to star in that I found yet another fictional book series I would probably become completely hooked on. Seriously, there are so many things I could mention that worked for me, and I can't think of a single thing I disliked.

I feel like I should personally apologise to Lucy Parker. I got this book as an ARC in the middle of March and devoured it in less than 24 hours. I've been in and out of reading slumps this year, and this book certainly pulled me out of one. I'm a huge fan of all of her previous books, but was pretty sure this was her best one so far. About a month later, I re-read the book, which confirmed to me that yes, it is my favourite of all her four books and my initial belief that it was a 5-star book entirely held up. This book was an utter delight to read. I think every single aspect of the story works for me. However, the whole point of ARCs is for the readers to get their reviews out in a timely fashion, to generate advance buzz and hopefully help the author sell more copies of their books. The Austen Playbook has been out for more than a month now, and I'm only now getting round to writing about it. So dear Ms. Parker, if you're reading this, please forgive me. Your book is amazing and I loved it both times I read it. I'm already looking forward to Sabrina's book. If I am granted an ARC of that one, I promise to try to get the review out in a timely fashion. No matter what happens, I will pre-order it the second links become available. Your writing is a gift.

Judging a book by its cover: Much as I love the book, I am not really a fan of the cover. While the female cover model looks a lot like Freddy is described in the book, the strange pose with her legs and feet in the foreground gives her strange proportions. The male cover model, on the other hand, is a complete disaster. Griff is described as a short-haired Lucius Malfoy, with imperious features and platinum blond hair. He also always seems immaculately dressed, normally in tailored suits. The cover model looks to have a bad bleach job and wears and old t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He looks like he's come straight from the gym - not at all like Griff is described throughout the novel. It makes me sad, because a romance this great, deserves a much better cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Saturday 25 May 2019

#CBR11 Book 22: "The Wicked King" by Holly Black

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! You really don't want to start this book without having read the first book in the series, The Cruel Prince. It's also pretty much impossible for me to review this book without spoiling parts of the first book, so if you're not caught up, skip this review until you are. Seriously, even the book summary from Goodreads is pretty revealing. Look away now or suffer the consequences.

You must be strong enough to strike and strike and strike again without tiring.
The first lesson is to make yourself strong.

After the jaw-dropping revelation that Oak is the heir to Faerie, Jude must keep her younger brother safe. To do so, she has bound the wicked king, Cardan, to her, and made herself the power behind the throne. Navigating the constantly shifting political alliances of Faerie would be difficult enough if Cardan were easy to control. But he does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her even as his fascination with her remains undiminished.

When it becomes all too clear that someone close to Jude means to betray her, threatening her own life and the lives of everyone she loves, Jude must uncover the traitor and fight her own complicated feelings for Cardan to maintain control as a mortal in a Faerie world.

Welcome back to another instalment of Malin tries her best to review something she read literally months ago. Luckily for me, Holly Black's writing is vivid enough to stick in my memory. By now, I will read anything Ms. Black writes and this dark, twisted, complicated series is just getting better and better.

Our Jude is learning that she should probably have been careful what she wished for. Having outsmarted not only her ruthless foster father (the man who also murdered her parents, then raised her and her twin as his own), the faerie general, but all the other power hungry fey, Jude is the Court Seneschal and King Cardan's right hand woman. In fact, unbeknownst to anybody but the two of them, he's unable to refuse any of her direct commands and she's pretty much having to rule Faerie, all the while trying to fend of real and imagined threats to the crown and her own position.

While being a powerless human on the outskirts of court life, Jude is now forced to wrangle the spiteful and unwilling king, his council and figure out how to keep the kingdom safe until her younger brother Oak is old enough to rule in his own right. Her foster father isn't speaking to her anymore, she detests the man her sister is marrying, despite all their animosity in public, she finds herself ever more attracted to King Cardan, with the terrifying possibility that he may return the attraction. There is more than one faction threatening war, most notably the Undersea kingdoms, who are not happy with the way things are being run under Jude's "administration".

The first book started slow and spent a lot of time on build up. This book throws you straight into the action, starting about six months after Jude's audacious coup at the end of the last one. I had very few expectations as to where the story would take me, but still ended up surprised on more than one occasion. While Cardan was pretty much awful all the way through The Cruel Prince, Jude (and the readers) spend a lot more time alone with him in this book and we come to understand more about his lonely upbringing at the Court and the factors that may have made him the man he's become. Despite myself, I cannot help but be won over by the strange chemistry between them, and hope against hope that there is some sort of happy ending for Jude and her twisted faerie prince.

I also very rarely do mental casting when I read, but throughout the book, the only one I could picture as "playing" Cardan was Hale Appleman from The Magicians. Both in looks and demeanour, he just screamed Cardan to me, and as he's probably one of the most interesting characters on the show, the mental casting didn't hurt my further enjoyment of the book in the slightest. Do I have any mental casting for anyone else in the story? Nope.

Holly Black really likes to put her protagonists through the wringer, but it's almost ridiculous the horrible things she has Jude suffer both in the first book and this one. For those of you who don't like cliffhanger endings, you may want to wait until November, when the final book in the trilogy comes out, because once again, the ending of this book is a doozy. I cannot wait to see where the story goes next.

Judging a book by its cover: On the previous cover, the crown is up a tree, here it is sinking down into the blue water, with sinister shadows lurking at the bottom. The title of the book is also almost submerged. It's a striking cover that fits well with the story inside, but I don't want to say too much about it because it would ruin some of the surprises.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 13 May 2019

#CBR11 Book 21: "King of Scars" by Leigh Bardugo

Page count: 527 pages
Audio book length: 16 hrs 13 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! While this is the start of a new series, it does follow on directly from Leigh Bardugo's Grisha trilogy and her Six of Crows duology. While you will understand the plot fine if you haven't read the previous books, you WILL be spoiled for events in both series. Spoilers may also appear in this review. Proceed at your own risk.

From Goodreads, because I finished the audiobook two months ago (sigh):
Nikolai Lantsov has always had a gift for the impossible. No one knows what he endured in his country’s bloody civil war—and he intends to keep it that way. Now, as enemies gather at his weakened borders, the young king must find a way to refill Ravka’s coffers, forge new alliances, and stop a rising threat to the once-great Grisha Army.

Yet with every day a dark magic within him grows stronger, threatening to destroy all he has built. With the help of a young monk and a legendary Grisha Squaller, Nikolai will journey to the places in Ravka where the deepest magic survives to vanquish the terrible legacy inside him. He will risk everything to save his country and himself. But some secrets aren’t meant to stay buried—and some wounds aren’t meant to heal.

Nikolai Lantsov is the young and struggling King of Ravka, a country still reeling from the effects of its brutal civil war. It's clear that Ravka will need powerful allies to help rebuild the country and to protect it from possible invasion by other neighbouring countries, and the best way to do that would be for Nikolai to marry. However, kept secret from everyone but Nikolai's most trusted advisors is the fact that since the end of the war, he's been possessed by a darkness, that is now more and more often manifesting as a fierce and savage creature. It's only a matter of time before the creature kills someone when it takes over and roams the countryside. Nikolai is determined to get rid of the possession and searches Ravka for a cure, accompanied only by his magically gifted general, the cynical Zoya Nazyalensky and a young monk who believes the Darkling is now a saint, whose miracles are appearing all over Ravka.

In another plot strand, we follow Nina Zenik, mourning the death of her beloved Mathias, on a deep cover mission for the king, trying to locate and rescue Grisha in the hostile Fjerda. She literally needs to lay her beloved to rest, while serving her king and homeland, and come to terms with the new abilities she appears to be developing.

Unlike a lot of people on the internet, I was never a huge fan of the Grisha trilogy. It was perfectly fine, but I never liked Alina much and found a lot of the plot difficult to engage with. The Darkling was an interesting villain, though, and Nikolai was clearly an outstanding supporting character, pretty much stealing every scene he was in. I know Zoya was also a supporting character in the books, but remember less of her role. I don't think it's necessary to recall the books in great detail, you get what you need from the characterisation here. Nina, of course, was introduced in the wonderful Six of Crows, an excellent heist narrative that I loved so much (and felt so different in tone that I almost wondered if someone else had written it). There are mentions of characters from that series in Nina's recollections - and those books are incredibly worth your time - I heartily recommend the audio books, which are great and narrated by a varied and very talented cast. Lauren Fortgang, who narrates this book, was one of the people involved, and here she narrates a large cast of characters of both genders, with a variety of different accents just so well.

The plot takes a while to get going in this book, mainly because there's quite some time spent just letting the reader get familiar with who the characters are and what challenges they are facing. The chapters alternate between Nikolai, Zoya and Nina's POVs. Most of the time, Nikolai and Zoya are together, but it's still interesting to see the story from their different perspectives. Nina, obviously, is in a completely different location, doing her own thing. When the stage is set, so to speak, and the story really does start to kick off, the book covers quite a lot of scope, while also setting up a lot of interesting drama for the next book. According to Bardugo, this is planned as another duology, so she needs to tie everything up in the next book. I will be very interested in seeing how she manages it.

I'm not sure when the next book in the series will be out, but after the cliffhanger this one ended on, I will be impatiently counting the days until I get to read the end of the story.

Judging a book by it's cover: Made to look like a gilded woodcut, I have come to like the cover more the longer I look at it. There are just so many intricate little details included, hinting at beats of the story without spoiling anything for an unsuspecting reader. The two-headed eagle is Ravka's national emblem, and the slashes across the centre of the shield could suggest either Nikolai's physical or emotional scars.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday 12 May 2019

#CBR11 Book 17-20: "Captain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight", "Captain Marvel:Down", "Avengers Assemble: The Enemy Within" and "Avengers Assemble: Infinity" by Kelly Sue DeConnick and assorted artists

Total page count: 544 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Back in the summer of 2016, I read what I believed to be the first trade in a run about Captain Marvel, but that turned out to be incorrect and Marvel had just been stupid in how they were rebranding and renumbering their comics. As I came to discover, the reason there was so little back story given about Carol Danvers, her powers and her role in the Avengers, is because despite being entitled Vol 1: Higher, Further, Faster, More, it was by no means the start of Kelly Sue DeConnick's run.

Rather let down by the experience, I put Captain Marvel on the back burner and decided to read other things instead. Then she became the first female superhero to get her own standalone film in the MCU, and it felt like I should probably give her another chance. I always prefer to read the source material before seeing a movie (although honesty forces me to admit that when it comes to the MCU, Captain Marvel is more the exception than the rule. My husband has nagged me for years to read Ed Brubaker's run on Captain America (which forms the basis for much of The Winter Soldier and some of Civil War and that's still firmly on the TBR list). Anyway, I had some of the comics and sat down to read them the weekend before I was going to the cinema to see Captain Marvel. As is sadly the norm for these reviews now, that was more than two months ago now, so my recollection of the various stories is a bit fuzzy.

Hence this review is going to to be light on the various plots of the books and focus more on my reactions to the stories (as far as I can remember them now). All this vagueness makes for thrilling reading, I know. Sorry. I should also mention that if you haven't read these comics before seeing the film, there are some spoilers regarding the motivations of some characters. Nothing major, because the film does its own thing, with mostly the costume and Carol's name taken from the comics, but still - I was able to predict some things that could be considered spoilery.

In In Pursuit of Flight, Carol Danvers actually ends up travelling back in time when trying to set a new flight record, and helps a group of female fighters battle a sinister enemy during World War II. In Down, she reunites with the previous Captain Marvel, Monica Rambeau, and they work together to fight an alien threat coming from the ocean depths. There was also a Captain Marvel/Avengers Assemble cross over focusing on Carol's past, which gave insight into how she got her powers in the first place (in flashbacks), in the actual story, she's having seizures every time she tries to fly and horrible headaches. There is an old enemy of hers staging attacks all over New York and she needs the help of the Avengers to stop the various enemies and figure out what is going on. There was also more of a big space cross over thing, which was less interesting, probably because I suspect it would have helped to read more of the surrounding issues, and they weren't included in the trade.

I read the comics, not knowing all that much about Carol Danvers, and then shortly afterwards watched the film. I've now seen the movie twice, and I really like Carol as a character, both in these comics and in the film. I think it's absolutely abysmal that it took the MCU twenty one films to make one focusing on a woman, but this review is not really the place to go into that. Because it's been two months since I read the comics, it's difficult for me to separate my view of comics Carol with movie Carol. Suffice to say, having now read a lot more of Kelly Sue DeConnick's early run on the title, I should probably go re-read Higher, Further, Faster, More, since I suspect it'll make a lot more sense.

Judging a book by its cover: As this review covers a number of Captain Marvel trade collections, let's just skip over this part. The covers are cool, some using art reminiscent of the golden and silver age of comics. Carol's new Captain Marvel costume looks awesome, so much better than her old "bathing suit" one.

Tuesday 7 May 2019

#CBR11 Book 16: "The Hollow of Fear" by Sherry Thomas

Page count: 336 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs, 51 mins
Rating: 4 stars

Spoiler warning! This is book 3 in an ongoing series. For those who prefer to go into a series completely unspoiled, this review will probably reveal details about the earlier books in the series. The story will also make a lot more sense if you start at the beginning, with A Study in Scarlet Women

From Goodreads:
Under the cover of “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes puts her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. Aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, Charlotte draws those in need to her and makes it her business to know what other people don’t.

Moriarty’s shadow looms large. First, Charlotte’s half brother disappears. Then, Lady Ingram, the estranged wife of Charlotte’s close friend Lord Ingram, turns up dead on his estate. And all signs point to Lord Ingram as the murderer.

With Scotland Yard closing in, Charlotte goes under disguise to seek out the truth. But uncovering the truth could mean getting too close to Lord Ingram—and a number of malevolent forces…

In the two previous books, Charlotte has appeared calm, logical, unflappable and unemotional. In this book, all evidence suggests that her best friend, Lord Ingram, has murdered his estranged wife and disposed of her in the ice house of his country estate and rather than investigating matters that merely provide an intellectual challenge, the stakes are deeply personal for Charlotte and the stakes have never been higher. While Charlotte is convinced that Lord Ingram is blameless, the evidence really is rather damning, and she and her associates will have to work ceaselessly to prove his innocence to the police and society at large.

Complicating matters is the fact that the dead body of Lady Ingram was found during a house party, when Lord Ingram's estate was full of guests (one of them being Charlotte's sister Livia). While Charlotte has previously posed as Sherlock Holmes' sister in previous investigations, she now dons the disguise of yet another fictional man, Sherringford Holmes, an indolent dandy and brother to the legendary Sherlock. This allows her to question guests and investigate more closely, without having to worry about Charlotte Holmes' already fraught reputation.

While the case could have disastrous results for Lord Ingram if Charlotte cannot clear his name, the investigation also forces him and Charlotte into much closer proximity than usual, and the attraction between them (always palpable, but never acted upon because of Ingram's marriage) becomes impossible to ignore. While he has become widowed by terrible circumstance, Lord Ingram and Charlotte suddenly face no impediments, should they decide to act on the simmering passion between them.

As with the previous books, this mystery takes a number of unexpected twists and turns. With each book, it also becomes obvious that Charlotte is a lot less of an unfeeling automaton than society perceives her, she just experiences emotions differently from a lot of others, and she is deeply private. Her best friend (and the man she quite probably loves) is accused of murder, and if she cannot clear his name, he may face the gallows, leaving his children orphaned. Even with the aid of her many friends and associates, she needs to work harder than ever before.

With this book, I am also caught up with the series, and now have to count the months impatiently until the next book is released. Sherry Thomas' newsletter suggests that the fourth book will be more light hearted in tone, featuring an art heist, among other things (it sounds awesome!), and I await the release with bated breath.

Judging a book by its cover: I absolutely love the various shades of blue and the feeling of cold and slight menace it somehow evokes in me. I'm not entirely sure why our cloaked lady with her back to us is walking through a snowy landscape, this book does not take place in the winter at all. It would be nice if the publishers could take things like that into account when selecting cover images.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.