The Duchess War (CBR6 #37)

I’m writing this review without actually finishing the book. I know, it’s unorthodox, but stick with me here. Thanks to the lovely reviews of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series I have decided to make these books my summer/fall romance reads. Based solely on the reviews I purchased all of the available books and novellas for my Nook and have been sliding these books in amongst my other reading. The Duchess War is the first full novel, second story, in the series and I am in love with it.

There’s a lot to love about these books. Courtney Milan’s style is infectious, her word choice is crisp, her grasp of humor, and how to deploy it, are top notch. Then there are the characters. I love a well written, complex, but not unknowable character. I love them. I think it’s why time and again I am drawn back into the land of Romance novels. The stories are often dictated by known tropes, but the really good ones have some of the richest characterizations you’ll find in fewer than 300 pages. And then there’s the lovely times where your expectations of tropes are turned on their head and you have what makes a truly wonderful story.

In the case of The Duchess War the trope that is turned upside down is that our male lead, Robert, portrays many of the uncertainties one would expect from the female lead. Not that Minnie doesn’t have her own tale of woe, she does. She’s had to change her name to escape a disastrous past that is beyond the simple ‘ruined woman’ trope. But it’s Robert who is afraid of love, afraid of wanting it, and afraid of having it taken away.  And that primal fear in him, placed there by battling parents who treated him like a chess piece and not a son, is what truly moves the course of the novel, not the will they or won’t they, and certainly not the question of whether Minnie’s true identity will be revealed, and if it is, how much of her life will be ruined.

And let’s not forget to mention that it’s steamy, wonderfully steamy without being time period inappropriate. And we have not one but two historical protagonists masturbating in the same book. I may be reading the wrong things, but I have never come across that before, and I was pleasantly surprised by it. And when our leads get together, that ain’t bad either. Through that in with socially aware protagonists worried about people’s rights and some lovely supporting characters who are going to be a hoot along the way (looking at you, Sebastian) and this is a thoroughly well rounded novel.

I promise not to post this review until I have actually read those last chapters. But, I can happily recommend this book to you without knowing how we get to the ending, or what the ending looks like. This book is that well written.

King of Thorns (CBR6 #36)

Back when I reviewed Prince of Thorns I had two complaints that kept my rating at a 3 instead of a 4. Those were:

  1. World-Building. If my roommate hadn’t told me about the fact that this was supposed to be in our distant future and that we’re the builders I wouldn’t have had a clue. I love Mark Lawrence’s style, but much of this novel may well have been taking place in a setting bubble for as much as I grasped from the page.

  2. Bad guy out of nowhere with 10% more book to read. We learn a LOT about what/who has been motivating Jorg in the tail end of the book (and then go on a glorious rampage) but it came out of left field, to me. I had to put the book down and walk away to make sense of what I had just read, and then go back in a day later.

I am happy to report that I had no such problem with King of Thorns. There are many more easter eggs of information waiting for the reader to give a hint at how people in the Broken Empire are making use of what remains of the Builders, and also what baffles them. There is also no new Big Bad, but that means that we are able to build on the understanding of who the baddies are to understand the battle ahead of Jorg, both for his very survival and for his ultimate goal of being the emperor.

King of Thorns utilizes the same then and now narrative device that Prince did. While it is not flawlessly executed (we stay in the past too long sometimes for my particular taste) it does serve to give us a road story as well as a battle story all in the same novel, happening simultaneously for the reader. It also works to illuminate various details slowly, making the reading as much a discovery as ‘living’ it would be for the secondary characters waiting for Jorg to tell them what’s next.

In the present, Jorg is a man with many (literal) demons and a lack of memory. Some memories have been taken from him and put into a box for safety, others he has taken out himself, hiding them from his would be assailant. Mark Lawrence takes this plot contrivance and wrings from it a great amount of tension.

Read this book, if only to hand out with Jorg some more. He’s worth it.

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky (CBR6 #35)

I was granted an ARC of this book via NetGalley in return for a fair and honest review. This book is currently available at your local bookseller.

It took me a long time to get through How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky. Way too long. My ARC copy actually expired before I was able to finish. I never really sunk into this novel. I like it, but I don’t love it. There were just too many things which didn’t align for me to fall in love, like I fell in love with Shine Shine Shine. Let’s see if I can’t figure out why.

As I progressed through the novel I used the status updates on Goodreads to keep track of what I was feeling as I went. About 70 pages in the group of characters finally started to come together and stopped being disparate things. My thought at the time: “I’m wondering how Netzer will bring all the pieces together.” And the problem was that the way they were brought together wasn’t captivating. Ms. Netzer’s approach to novels is to take a familiar trope (boy meets girl) and inject it with a smidge of the fantastical (a turf war between astronomy and astrology and parents engineering soul mates). But the pieces never truly reconciled.

That didn’t stop me from appreciating the characters. By the time I reach page 263 my notes tell me: “now I’m loving these characters and angry at the wasted 50 pages”. The wasted 50 pages I’m think I’m referring to are pages 15-65 or so. In those pages our two protagonists, George and Irene have yet to meet. They are each living independent lives, but most importantly they are living with great big crazy circumstances. And it felt at the time like the novel did just spinning its wheels, attempting to set up the not-real Toledo of the title and the characters inhabit it instead of just progressing with the story. At times throughout the book the reading felt like walking through wet cement. There were demi gods, lucid dreams, crystal balls and black holes. At a certain point it just got to be too much, and robbed the narrative of necessary time.

I had concerns on page 308 (about 90% through the book): “I’m now worried about Netzer landing this one… it’s in too many different types…” This book is many types of books tightly wrapped in less than 350 pages. Each of the genres gets shortchanged. And it’s a shame, because this book could have been 4 or 5 stars. It’s got the bones of one of the most original stories I have read in quite some time. Since the love that George and Irene share was designed and engineered by their mothers even before they were born, as the story unfolds philosophical questions come up. Such as, is it possible to influence people’s actions before they even take them by putting certain things in place before hand? In the case of George and Irene their mothers seem to have taken great pains to encourage them to like the same things, do the same activities all while ensuring they grow up apart, while at the same time hoping that one day they meet and fall in love. This is certainly the basis for a very interesting book, but somehow it How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky just never lived up to its potential.

But that isn’t to say that Lydia Netzer’s writing style is anything less than beautiful. For example:

“It’s more like every electron in every atom in the universe paused, breathed in deeply, assessed the situation, and then reversed its course, spinning backward, or the other way, which was the right way all along. And afterward, the universe was exactly the same, but infinitely more right.”

Ms. Netzer has also shared with us one of the best quotes I have ever read about the writing and revising process. Her friend Susannah Breslin told her (and Ms. Netzer shared with us in her Author’s note) “If one of your kids had pooped all over the floor, would you stand there complaining about it? No, you would roll up your sleeves and clean it up. So clean it up.” I wish that in cleaning up the drafts of this novel that it had been fleshed out more and that Netzer had chosen a different/better wrap up for George and the demi-gods. And that secondary characters hadn’t fallen off the page in the final 100 pages. I so wanted it to be a 4 or 5 star novel.

Yours to Keep (CBR6 #34)

Yours to Keep is a classic “strangers make a deal to pretend they’re in love and then fall in love in actuality” type romance novel. These are pretty common really because it places the protagonists together for extended periods of time and forces intimacy. And it works well in this novel by Shannon Stacey.

The set-up is as follows: Sean Kowalski arrives home from Afghanistan, his army service over, and within hours he’s recruited by Emma Shaw to be her fake fiancé. In order to give her grandmother peace of mind now that she’s moved to Florida, Emma lies about having a boyfriend (and subsequent fiancé) and having just heard her best friend discussing her cousin Sean, she drops his name and continues to do so for 18 months, crafting network of lies in the meantime. Now, with her grandmother’s upcoming visit only days away, she convinces Sean to fulfill the lies she’s told. He doesn’t like the deception, but being rudderless and freshly back in the States he could use the landscaping job Emma’s offering while he decides what to do with his civilian life. And, despite his attraction to Emma, there’s no chance he’ll fall for a woman with deep roots in a town he’s not planning to call home and she’s not interested in settling down with anyone either. This, of course, means in Romance Novel Land ™ that they will fall in love in 200 pages or less.

You know going in what to expect and that doesn’t lessen the enjoyment any. This is also the third book in the Kowalski Family series which means that characters we’ve grown fond of in previous books are back and more characters within the family are fleshed out. I think my favorite of the Kowalski books so far was Undeniably Yours the second book in the series which I read at the beginning of the year, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some fun things to be had in this book as well. And really, it’s a close second. Perhaps my favorite device to move the story along was the post it notes that Sean would leave on the bathroom mirror for Emma to fill her in about things. They become integral to the story and highly amusing as well.

The other thing I truly appreciate about Ms. Stacey’s writing style, aside from her adroit use of humor, is that her characters exist in a world that is very real. I know above I joked about Romance Novel Land ™ but these characters go to the grocery store, have families, obligations, jobs, bills, headaches, bad days, family vacations, and ride four wheelers. This is much more rooted in real life than many romance novels I’ve read.

If you’re looking for an easy read these books are a good choice. I’m going to read the fourth book at some point, as it focuses on Sean’s older brother Mitch. But since it moves the action from New Hampshire to Maine, I’m sure I’m going to miss the characters I’ve come to appreciate.

Code Name Verity (CBR6 #33)

I decided to finally read Code Name Verity when it was announced as the first Go Fug Yourself book club selection. It seemed like a perfectly lovely excuse to pick up a book I’d been meaning to for ages. I’m glad I did, because the book really got under my skin, and as a historian I was ridiculously pleased with Elizabeth Wein’s research and the selected bibliography she supplied at the end of the book which included a museum exhibit! *insert museum professional happy dance*

There isn’t much of the plot I feel comfortable sharing, since there’s a fair bit of discovery that goes on during the course of the book. From Goodreads: Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun. When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution. As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity reveals her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

I’ll admit that the first 50 or so pages of the book dragged on and on and on for me. Verity’s voice is not solidified early on, and that may be Ms. Wein’s intent given what Verity has just endured, but between that problem and the overload of technical information it was slow going initially. But, as Verity finds her footing in the writing the story really takes off, particularly as she begins recounting the genesis of her friendship with Maddie.

Perhaps what I love best about this book, and what earned it four stars, is that Code Name Verity is at its core the story of two best friends. I mean, sure, it’s also a war story, a spy story, a bit of a mystery, but it’s really the story of what female friendship is. And that was lovely. I’ll admit that I was surprised to see this book marked as YA, but since its theoretically a coming of age tale I suppose that works fine, but it shouldn’t stop you from picking the book up and reading it if you haven’t already.

The Governess Affair (CBR6 #32)

 

 

After I finished reading Me Before You I was an emotional wreck. My roommate has taken to calling it the book that broke me, as in “Oh, did you write your review of the book that broke you?” Finally, yes. But in the meantime between reading the book and writing the review I needed something else to read, something to clear my poor brain space and think some happy thoughts.

So, I grabbed my Nook and started reading Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair, the prequel novella to her Brothers Sinister series that has been getting all the raves around the Cannonball Read. I had promised myself I would get through my pile of library to read books before I started these, but I needed something light and enjoyable and my library pile didn’t really look up to the task (Code Name Verity is up next).  The Governess Affair is certainly enjoyable. I loved the two main characters and got a little sad that in the next book I would be reading about the next generation, and not these two.

Meet Serena Barton, the titular governess who finds herself put out from her job after a run-in with the Duke of Clermont. She decides to take her revenge by quietly sitting in front of his residence until her demands are met… the problem being that it falls to the Duke’s man of business, one Mr. Hugo Marshall, to see that she is on her way so that the Duke can win back his bride, her fotune, and Mr. Marshall’s wages to boot.

It’s a pretty common historical romance set up, but the difference between this Milan work and some other ones I’ve read in the past is the depth to which the characters are developed. I feel like I say it time and again as I review books that the best books I read feature the most well drawn characters. With only 100 digital pages Milan manages to craft three dimensional characters who exist in a world you are easily able to understand. And she manages to have them be beautifully self-aware, but not clichéd.

My only real complaint about this book is that *semi spoiler but not really* there is a off page rape which occurs. I was hoping for a light read, as I mentioned, and that kept this from being light for all the obvious reasons. But, the turnaround is one of the most sexy while also sweet scenes later in the book  as Hugo shows just how safe he is, and the antithesis of the Duke he works for. Otherwise I would have liked a longer book to spend more time with these characters.

Go fall in love with Serena and Hugo while they fall in love with each other. It’s worth your time.

Me Before You (CBR6 #31)

I put Me Before You on my to-read list after reading ModernLove’s review back in February. The emotional response she had to the book elevated it from a maybe read to a definitely read (the book was already on my radar given Jen K’s, Malin’s, and HelloKatieO’s reviews from CBR5).

Here is what I wrote on Goodreads immediately following completing the novel: “This fucking book. Christ, I can’t even find the words right now. It’s poignant, and heart-rending, and should come with tissues.” I usually write spoiler free reviews, but I just don’t know how to talk about this book without spoiling the shit out of it. I’ve been trying for nearly a week to figure it out, so instead I’m going to stop beating myself up about it and just write about what I read and how it made me feel and what it made me think. For those of you avoiding spoilers here’s where I suggest you leave. Know that Jojo Moyes crafted two beautifully well rounded protagonists who affect the courses of each other’s lives in big ways, and perhaps more importantly in small ways. Read it.

Ok, here we go into the spoiling (and inspecting some things about me):

Me Before You is the story of Louisa Clark the unexpected caregiver of Will Traynor, suicidal quadriplegic and the ways their relationship change them. When Lou takes the job, she doesn’t know that Will is suicidal, and that he has already attempted suicide once, and was very nearly successful. Through the course of the book Lou learns about taking care of Will and then when she decides she cannot sit on the sidelines and let Will wait out the six months he has given his family, she launches on her mission to make Will see what there is to live for in his new life.

I found that Ms. Moyes handled the difficult issues of severe disability and the moral grey areas around assisted suicide with aplomb. She doesn’t judge one way or the other in her authorial voice and by having Lou go online to a variety of message boards and forums for those with disabilities and their caregivers Ms. Moyes is able to present both sides without landing on one or the other as the “right” answer. There are characters in the book that make it clear that it is possible to live with severe disabilities and find that they have things left to live for. It is also clear in other characters that there are those who find themselves unable to readjust their expectations in life. Will is of the second category.

I was able to relate to Will’s experience quite easily and that, to me, says a great deal about the quality of Ms. Moyes writing. By chronicling the typical day to day pains and struggles, mostly from Nathan Will’s nurse telling Lou what life is like for Will, I was able to sink into Will’s mental state. We all have something about us that makes us different, or other, and being able to tap into what that feels like, and then ramp it up I could immediately understand Will’s reticence to do the things Lou suggests as part of her master plan. And on the grander scale, I believe in a person’s right to choose assisted suicide given intractable suffering which cannot be alleviated. This is certainly the case Will finds himself in. This book made me think about what holding that belief really means. For much of the book I was wishing, like Lou, that Will would change his mind. That he would see what Lou valued as being worth living for (by the end of the book a life with her) and decide to alter his plans.

“You still don’t get it, Clark, do you?” I could hear the smile in his voice. “It’s not your choice.”

I subsequently had my ass handed to me by a work of fiction, as Will continually reminds Lou that perhaps the most difficult thing for him now that he is in the chair is that everyone decides for him, instead of letting him decide for himself. And I as the reader was also trying to decide for him. I thought I knew best. This led me to think about all of the times that I had actively wished against something for those in my life because it didn’t match what I wanted, or had planned. The boyfriend I didn’t want to move away to grad school, the friend who I didn’t want searching for a new job because I needed her with me, not considering what is really best for her.

This all made me feel like a shitty individual, I’m not going to lie to you. But that’s why I rated this book five stars. The very good modern fiction makes you examine things about your life and your self. Oh, and its brillantly, sarcastically funny. I just can’t seem to find a quote that encapsulates the hilarious way in which Lou and Will speak to each other.

Moving on from thinking about the ethical gray areas of assisted suicide, Ms. Moyes’ use of descriptive language is some of the best I’ve read in a long time. To illustrate here’s Lou describing her first encounter with a live classical music performance, which she is only attending so Will attends as well It is perhaps the best description of what music can do, and it’s hidden in this book and caught me completely by surprise.

“They began to tune up, and suddenly the auditorium was filled with a single sound – the most alive, three-dimensional thing I had ever heard. It made the hairs on my skin stand up, my breath catch in my throat….I felt the music like a physical thing; it didn’t just sit in my ears, it flowed through me, around me, made my senses vibrate. It made my skin prickle and my palms dampen…It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard.”

There is a love story here, and it’s to the book’s benefit that the most important narrative throughline isn’t the romantic feelings that develop between Louisa and Will as the novel progresses. The real meat of the story is the blossoming that Lou does once she overcomes her initial fears about working with Will as we find him at the beginning of the story and she begins to find some common ground with him and eventually their relationship develops. The way Will gently pushes and guides Lou into being a more active and engaged person is the ultimate love story, not the life together Lou offers Will while they are on Mauritius. It’s another thing that I can relate to easily, knowing that in theory I am living a small life and it’s within my power to start living a larger one, I only have to choose.

“Push yourself. Don’t Settle. Just live well. Just LIVE.”

There is also the story of the love that Will and Lou have for each other. And that is what makes the final act of this book so agonizing. At the end of the six months Lou confesses her love to Will, but it isn’t enough to change his mind. Part of me wants to quote the entire portion of the book which takes place in Switzerland, because it is so heartbreakingly beautiful, but everyone deserves to read it for themselves, so instead a look at what their love means to each other.

“I know this isn’t a conventional love story. I know there are all sorts of reasons I shouldn’t even be saying what I am. But I love you. I do. I knew it when I left Patrick. And I think you might even love me a little bit.”

“Shhh. Just listen. You, of all people. Listen to what Im saying. This…tonight…is the most wonderful thing you could have done for me. What you have told me, what you have done in bringing me here…knowing that, somehow, from that complete arse, I was at the start of this, you managed to salvage something to love is astonishing to me. But…I need it to end here. No more chair. No more pneumonia. No more burning limbs. No more pain and tiredness and waking up every morning already wishing it was over. When we get back, I am still going to go to Switzerland. And if you do love me, Clark, as you say you do, the thing that would make me happier than anything is if you would come with me. So I’m asking you – if you feel the things you say you feel – then do it. Be with me. Give me the end I’m hoping for.”

While I was reading the book I kept coming back to the title, and wondering who the Me was and who the You was. By the end, I came to the decision that the Me was Lou and the You was Will, and not just because she survives him, but because of the enormous change he made in her life. As she describes it:

“All I can say is that you make me… you make me into someone I couldn’t even imagine. You make me happy, even when you’re awful. I would rather be with you – even the you that you seem to think is diminished – than with anyone else in the world.”

And because of how he describes it:

“I am conscious that knowing me has caused you pain, and grief, and I hope that one day when you are less angry with me and less upset you will see not just that I could only have done the thing that I did, but also that this will help you live a really good life, a better life, than if you hadn’t met me.”

Go read this book.