Sunday, 26 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted by Cannonball Read

Saturday, 25 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday, 24 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Sunday, 12 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted by Cannonball Read.

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

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.